Democracy has become a keyword in international debates about politics in various parts of the world. Lack of democracy is widely viewed as the root of the issues that plague some societies. Inherent in the concept of democracy is the certainty that people should be allowed to participate in making decisions about how they are governed (this being the base idea of democracy) because they have certain fundamental rights and freedoms and a society is democratic to the extent that these concepts reinforces each other. Another way of looking at it is in terms of freedom: freedom from a coercive state and freedom to exercise certain rights. In practice, democracy is more complex than in its theory.
Immediate definitional difficulties arise about concepts such as “people”, “decision-making” and “governance.” Is “people” synonymous with the majority? Moreover, how can particular “wills” arising from segmented population conflate with the “general will?” On the means side, what rights supersede all others? All societies that describe themselves as “democratic” have at one time or another had to struggle with these questions. In any event, the rights held by citizens impose limits on what the government can do or take away.
For democracy to function representatives need to make critical value trade-offs for citizens. But how can citizens send messages on how they would like their values to drive policies when the issues are so complex that very few citizens (and not too many politicians either) really understand enough of what might happen and at what probabilities to know how to make decisions that do optimize the value signals from citizens.
The ultimate in irrationality is to make a decision that doesn’t even advance your values because the situation is so complex that the decision makers or the public can’t see clear connections between specific policies and their potential outcomes (as one who works on the global warming problem I see this conundrum all the time).
The capacity to be literate about scientific and political establishments and their disparate methods of approaching problems is a good start, but such literacy is not widespread and the complexity of most issues sees public and decision-makers alike disconnected from core questions. Educational establishments often call for more content in curriculum to redress this issue, but I think more understanding of context of scientific debate and political and media epistemologies will go further to build the needed literacy.
Complex systems theory is usually used to study things like the immune system, global climate, ecosystems, transportation or communications systems. But with global politics becoming more unpredictable (highlighted by the UK’s vote for Brexit and the presidential elections of Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil) it is being used to examine the stability of democracies. This field is studied by international, interdisciplinary teams including mathematicians, economists, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and political scientists.
The history has been oriented around empires and, since the seventeenth century, around the idea of nation-states. What the central powers had to manage was originally circumscribed in general to the scale of their territorial jurisdiction with the exception of long-distance trade and, of course, international relations. The sovereignty of the State was exercised over a large number of functions of society (legal, economic, social, even religious regulations). But the twentieth century can be seen as that of the explosion of regional and global ‘external effects’, that is to say the consequences of local actions beyond national jurisdictions. The environment is an example of one of the fields where this phenomenon has developed the most. The accelerated colonization of the planet by human societies because of population pressure is leading to the disappearance of the forest, and the scarcity of water supplies on scales beyond the nations. The industrial revolution and the massive use of coal and oil in some countries of the northern hemisphere have induced a greenhouse effect that affects the entire planet. Pollutions such as those of certain propellants emitted in a limited number of countries have begun to destroy the planet’s ozone layer, at the risk, in the event of extreme evolution, to threaten life there. Free access to live fish stocks in the seas and oceans results in a decrease in the overall common resource. The extension of the transport of persons and goods increases the epidemiological risks here again on a planetary scale … In the same way, for the health of the economy and the companies, the external effects of the global extension of the market mechanisms are equally recognizable. The consequences in terms of inequality and impoverishment are now largely global phenomena. Monetary, banking and economic crises are now having a very rapid impact on the world stage.
There is therefore a global stage that is increasingly binding on the states, calling for decisions on their part. But to reach the stage of decision-making, States want to analyze and understand phenomena that go beyond the scope of their traditional interventions, to identify the causes, to evaluate their consequences, to measure them, to propose solutions, and to discuss the whole in a negotiation. This is a slow and still unstable process! The issue of the ozone layer and that of the future of the climate were among the first emblematic fields of these global and vital issues. Other long-standing issues are facing resistance, such as the protection of endangered species such as whales. But, faced with the generalization of the great planetary issues, the international decision processes evolve.
During the twentieth century, the nations of the world have felt the imperative need to organize themselves, to avoid the return of wars but also to structure monetary, banking and commercial interactions. This coordination took the form first of the League of Nations (in 1920), then of the United Nations (from 1945). Over time, it gave birth to a complex apparatus: a general assembly, a general secretariat, a security council, an international court of justice, specialized agencies, an economic and social council, regional and specific committees, councils, commissions, groups of experts, international institutions (FAO, UNESCO, ILO, among others), economic institutions and programs (World Bank, IMF), special funds, research institutes and universities, etc.
In this set, through each of its organs, each country has theoretically equal power, according to the principle a country, a voice.
But this democratic equality of voting power contradicts the very great inequalities of economic, military and diplomatic power between countries. As a result, the coordination between major countries (G7, then G8, then G20) has emerged, so that global governance can be done more pragmatically between the dominant countries on the international scene and with lower transaction costs. In this set, through each of its organs, each country has in theory an equal power, according to the principle of a country, a voice.
This mode of regulation is considered to some to bypass the democratic principles of United Nations system. But it is not designed to be the only international mechanism. Because the world is no longer organized according to inter-nation space, therefore inter-state. There are also spaces that are directly ‘globalized’, tending to ignore borders: the space of companies and the market, the space of civil societies, the information space (in particular the Internet), the space of culture.
We speak of a ‘global’ space for which it is the terrestrial globe that is seen as the main scale of interaction. Admittedly, in this global space, states retain a regulatory role, but it is increasingly limited in relation to the growing volume of private initiatives that are being taken all the time around the planet. The relations between the sphere of inter- nation and the global sphere are therefore in full evolution. And they are more and more complex. In the same way that, within a country, the relations of governance become more complex and evolve, between the state institutions and the interventions of the sphere of the civil society, at the level of the world also are organized progressively and equally complex relations between international institutions and global actors. The complexification of governance is accompanied by a diversification of actors. The question we are asking here is whether or not this new stakeholder participation is in the direction of more democracy on an international and global scale.