Compelling visions of how political institutions can be effective and democratic in handling globalization problems is one of our most important predicaments. Political institutions always were deficient in that they were hardly fully effective and democratic. During the prime of liberal democracies, their problem-solving capacity was limited, and the process of making decisions approached democratic ideals at best. Yet the current predicament goes deeper. We lack a compelling vision of ideal political institutions for handling global problems such as climate change. In order to develop this argument, first two criteria for a compelling vision of ideal political institutions are identified. In a second step it is argued that the two currently most crucial institutional visions do not provide convincing accounts for fulfilling these criteria. The paper concludes by suggesting that these weaknesses of both sides of the debate contribute to polarization, thus making the predicament worse.
The list of humanity’s urgent problems is long, and it seems to get even longer every year. At the time of writing this piece, the forest fires in California make utterly clear how urgent the problem of climate change is. COVID-19 takes off and shows us all how important and challenging it is to prevent or control global pandemics. The video-sharing service TikTok exemplifies the need to establish public controls for digital giants and, simultaneously, to prevent trade wars. Many other problems, such as global poverty, migration, or the diffusion of highly destructive technologies, are currently less in focus, but they are as critical as the ones mentioned here. A special issue about such key or primary problems of world society and humanity could become a very long one.
Political scientists are mainly concerned about institutions—about political institutions, to be more precise. Political institutions are all of those that involve some element of collective decision-making on public issues and problems (Easton 1965; Hay 2007). Being a political scientist, I do not want to add to the long list of primary challenges to humanity, but wish to instead shift the perspective by asking about the appropriateness of political institutions in providing satisfactory responses to these challenges. This shift away from primary challenges brings us to second- and third-order challenges.
Second-order challenges point to institutional deficits that hinder the prevention or the successful handling of urgent first-order problems. For instance, if a company does not have a research and development unit, it is hardly prepared to handle the otherwise relatively easy problem of adjusting its products to new developments. Yet one may go even one step further. As long as the decision makers in the company understand the problem, they may change it to be better prepared to survive in a changing market. However, a successful change requires the knowledge of what a successful company with a vital research and development unit looks like. This observation leads us to third-order problems: the lack of a vision of an appropriate institution. Without such a vision, the company, in our example, is lost. Similarly, if a doctor has no idea what constitutes a healthy person—for instance, regarding blood pressure—it is difficult for them to tackle high blood pressure. While second-order problems point to cases of institutional defects, third-order questions point to situations in which actors lack an idea of what the problem-solving institution should look like.
The third-order problem that I want to identify is the lack of compelling visions of how political institutions can be effective and democratic in handling globalization problems such as climate change, COVID-19, or the regulation of financial markets. The emphasis here is on “compelling visions.” Political institutions always were deficient in that they were hardly fully effective or democratic. Even if we knew a perfect collective solution to a problem, the political process most often produces outcomes that deviate from the optimum in terms of effectiveness. For a policy to succeed in a democracy, it requires compromises that often reduce effectiveness. At the same time, even in the heyday of liberal democracy in the Western world, Robert Dahl (1971) used the term “polyarchy” to describe real-world democracies to highlight the distance to the democratic ideal. Political institutions, therefore, never have matched ideal theory. During the prime of liberal democracies, their problem-solving capacity was limited, and the process of making decisions approached democratic ideals at best. Yet the current predicament goes deeper. We lack a compelling vision of ideal political institutions for handling global problems such as climate change.
In order to develop this argument, I start by setting two criteria for a compelling vision of ideal political institutions. I then argue that the two currently most crucial institutional visions do not provide convincing accounts. I conclude by suggesting that these weaknesses on both sides of the debate contribute to polarization, thus making the predicament worse.
Political institutions need to be effective in terms of their problem-solving capacity, and their decisions need to be normatively justifiable. In political science jargon, this means that they need to be effective and legitimate. Both effectiveness and democratic justifiability depend on a social prerequisite: the congruence of social and political spaces (Held 1995). Congruence can be considered as a precondition for both effectiveness and legitimacy. The congruence principle is first based on the normative idea that those who are affected by political decisions must also be involved. Both Robert Dahl (1989) and Jürgen Habermas (1996) view the right of participation of those affected as the core of democracy. According to them, one of the nation-state’s historical achievements was to translate the abstract principle of being affected into the concrete principle of membership in a territorially determined community. Second, congruence is necessary for effectiveness. If decisions affect only part of those whose behavior causes the problem, policies face an issue of effectiveness. The social space in need of regulation thus should not be smaller than the relevant political space. As long as social transactions and interactions took place within nation-state borders (Deutsch 1969), the nation-state represented a potentially effective framework within which the democratic principle could be institutionalized.
However, this connection between the nation-state and the democratic principle is dissolving with globalization and digitalization. As a result of these two megatrends, social spaces get deterritorialized. To the extent that the economic and social space for action extends beyond nation-state borders and even takes place independently of space in a virtual environment, a problem arises. The subject of legitimate and effective decision disintegrates or even dissolves. The effective and democratically legitimate regulation of societies thus depends on the congruence of social and political space. If economic and cultural spaces of transaction push out of the political boundaries of the nation-state, the institutional dominance of territorially limited nation-states becomes normatively deficient. The divergence of spaces must then be responded to by either a deterritorialization of politics or a reterritorialization of society. To put it in more general terms, “[t]he more the complexity of society and the problems to be regulated politically increases, the less it seems possible to hold fast to the demanding idea of democracy, according to which the addressees of law should also be its authors” (Habermas 2013, 67).
The problem unfolds for both criteria: effectiveness and legitimacy. Today’s world is so closely networked that, in view of the state of globalization and digitalization, many transnational problems can be effectively addressed only beyond the nation-state. The problem is also evident in terms of legitimacy. In a denationalized world, many decisions at the national level give rise to externalities and thus affect people regardless of whether they are involved in the state’s procedures through membership. At least in areas in which transactions and their effects are largely globalized—such as financial markets and climate change—national decisions blatantly violate the principle of being affected (e.g., every person who is affected by the climate policies of China, the United States, and the European Union). The same is true for national decisions affecting the functioning of global financial markets. Against this background, it seems necessary to develop new visions and blueprints for ideal political institutions; that is, for political institutions that can at least potentially be effective and legitimate. What is needed are either powerful global institutions that can provide for the global collective goods, or a rescaling of the problems so that the nation-state can become the major site of politics again.
Against the backdrop of deterritorialization, the debate between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism is the most relevant in searching for normative visions that fulfill the two criteria in times of globalization and digitalization (see Merkel and Zürn 2019 for the following).
Communitarianism, like cosmopolitanism, is a noble political philosophy in the first place. According to the communitarian conviction, a strong democracy cannot be realized in large, heterogeneous, and territorially open spaces but is rather linked to the concrete social lives of people within a community. Such delimitation is especially necessary for the acceptance of majority decisions by minorities. The political sphere is currently dominated by an adaptation of communitarianism that places the nation and the nation-state as the bearer of popular sovereignty at the center, while sharply limiting the group that belongs to the people. This is the program of the authoritarian populists. They can be regarded as nationalist descendants of communitarian philosophy. They won their electoral successes because of their struggle against European integration, against globalization, against multiculturalism, and against migration, especially from Muslim countries. They claim that only a more homogeneous society with sufficient interpersonal trust and national identity can develop into a community based on solidarity. In such a community, it is then necessary to implement the will of the majority.
In most cases, the unconditional endorsement of majority decisions is illiberal, but it is also antipluralistic and antiprocedural (Schäfer and Zürn 2021). It does not only override majority decisions on minority and individual basic rights, but it also denounces established procedures for determining the will of the majority. All those who are critical of the “silent majority” are condemned as members of an alienated and selfish elite, which is also accused of controlling the media and public opinion. Established procedures for deliberation and consensus building are used by the “corrupt elites” as a means of political paternalism. The antidote would then be the wisdom of the leaders of new parties and movements. In extreme cases, those who know what the “average person” wants will be freed from the usual standards of political decency, as Donald Trump, with his impressively stable support, has shown in large segments of the US population despite his indecency.
This illiberal and antipluralist version is by no means the only relevant political manifestation of communitarian theories. Although communitarians refer to the concrete context of concrete communities, they do not necessarily have to be illiberal. They can also take the form of a strong grassroots democracy, as in Benjamin Barber’s (1994) work, or of a liberal-communitarian republicanism, as in Charles Taylor’s (1992) work, which combines the idea of a “right to rights” with a communitarian obligation to the common good. Calhoun (2002) complements Taylor by criticizing cosmopolitanism for underestimating the capacity of national identities and borders to promote solidarity and democracy. Taylor (1992) and Calhoun (2002) thus point to a way to reconcile liberalism and communitarianism while avoiding two pitfalls: reactionary traditionalism and chauvinist nationalism, on the one hand, and deregulating global capitalism, on the other.
However, all variants of the communitarian theory of democracy have a common weakness. Their defense of the procedures and institutions of the democratic nation-state is based primarily on local and national communities rather than on the principle of being affected in a globalized and deterritorialized world. To the extent that the decisions of democratic nation-states in times of political and social denationalization increasingly affect people outside their borders and that their effectiveness depends on decisions made elsewhere, democratic procedures within nation-states and democratic principles are no longer identical for two reasons: Citizens are, to a certain extent, dominated by political decisions over which they have little influence. Moreover, democracy presupposes the concept of effective decision-making—that is, the idea that political decisions are means by which collectives can control themselves. Yet the effectiveness of national regulations tends to decline in a time of globalization and digitalization.
This connection may also explain why the illiberal and antipluralist version of communitarian thought became so successful. When social and political spaces diverge, there seem to be only two possible reactions. One of them is a cosmopolitan response; the other is to close borders, reduce heterogeneity within society, and cultivate a strong nationalism. In a globalized and deeply pluralistic world, the nationalistic defense of predetermined communities seems to lead, to some extent, necessarily to antiliberal, antiprocedural, and antipluralist thinking—as is already the case in contemporary Hungary or Poland. The interplay between the rejection of supranational competence beyond the nation-state, on the one hand, and closed borders (for goods, capital, and people) and the general preference for majority decisions over minority and individual fundamental rights, on the other, is not accidental. There seems to be a kind of elective affinity. Therefore, it is not surprising that authoritarian populist parties are the most visible manifestation of communitarianism that we can currently observe in Western democracies (including Eastern Europe and many emerging countries) and their party systems.
This elective affinity between cosmopolitanism and authoritarian populism brings cosmopolitanism into play. Cosmopolitanism contrasts a global vision with nationalist political forces. Cosmopolitans are always subject to the suspicion of utopia. The core idea of cosmopolitan democracy is the democratization of international institutions. According to Archibugi, this involves the “globalization of democracy and simultaneously the democratization of globalization” (2004, 438). Cosmopolitans demand the transfer of sovereign rights to international organizations and supranational regimes if they do not even represent the vision of a democratic world government, a world parliament, or a global civil society (Archibugi 2008; Caney 2005). They plead for transfers of competence to the United Nations and the European Union. They opt for free trade agreements and the International Monetary Fund, for world climate conferences and a fiscal union in the eurozone, and for strong human rights regimes at the global level and institutions that make global redistribution possible. All of this requires the parallel democratization of these institutions.
Irrespective of the strength of the normative appearance of cosmopolitan theories of democracy, their weaknesses lie in their implementation. The concretization of their general principles into specific procedures and institutions is underdeveloped. Two objections are particularly relevant: First, while it is true that many social, economic, and political decisions have a cross-border impact, it is also true that they are not always easy to understand. But the definition of a threshold value with respect to the extent of externalities that is necessary to create the right to have a say in the decision-making process appears mostly arbitrary (threshold question). Secondly, even if an agreement were reached on the necessary international institutions, it would appear extremely difficult to organize appropriate democratic processes at the global level (feasibility question).
To begin with the threshold question, human action and political decisions regularly generate externalities. This means that decisions of individuals always influence other individuals, just as the decisions of a collective affect other collectives. Given this complexity, it is difficult to say who is affected by which decisions in a specific environment. It is a comparatively clear case that the inhabitants of Pacific island states, who lose their homes as a result of the climate policies of the major industrialized countries, should have had a say in climate policy—looking at it from a normative perspective. But how much affectedness is needed to have a say in the many gray areas of more or less interdependence? If, for example, the Chinese government decides to invest in computer technology, this decision could have an impact on jobs in India or in Silicon Valley. However, such externalities cannot automatically justify a right of co-decision on China’s economic policy.
This circumstance raises the question of which institutions can decide what and on what basis, who is affected by a national decision, and who is part of a cross-border community of affected persons. Should the other countries have the same voting weight in decision-making as the country deciding for the first instance? Which institutions should decide, and according to which procedures? These are unresolved normative and procedural problems that show that the “principle of affectedness” cannot easily be translated into concrete procedures for politics in world society.
Added to this is the problem of feasibility. If one takes the principle of being affected in its extreme variant seriously, one would have to conclude that the rest of the world must always be given a say in the decisions made by the United States, since that country’s decisions have far-reaching effects on the entire world. This demand may be justifiable in normative terms, but it is politically meaningless, since the only truly global power, the United States, is the country that most strongly opposes the transfer of sovereign rights across national borders—at least at present. Similarly, other major powers such as China or Russia are not prepared to curtail their sovereignty. One can even say ceteris paribus that the more powerful a country is, the less it wants to cede its sovereign rights to international or supranational organizations (Zürn 2018, chapter 3).
Cosmopolitans are aware of these implementation problems. They therefore focus on the establishment and democratization of joint international decisions on global problems. However, here, too, democratic implementation problems arise. The larger and more complex political spaces are, the less they can be governed democratically. Processes that promote democracy—such as the equal participation of citizens, the transparency and predictability of political decisions, the control of the legislative branch, or the vertical and horizontal interlocking of power—can only be implemented far less convincingly beyond the nation-state.
The cosmopolitan answer to the feasibility problem is twofold: First, it is argued that the arguments for a size limit on democracy cannot be empirically proven. Thus, Koenig-Archibugi (2012) questions the necessary preconditions for democracy and concludes that, apart from the existence of formal political structures, there are no necessary preconditions in the strict sense of the term. He thus rejects all the theses on the impossibility of global democracy and argues that political communities are constructed and change over time. Furthermore, the idea of national affiliation itself did not develop until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is asked whether the feasibility of this idea might not increase over time if the current trends of communicative and economic deterritorialization continue. Will this not lead to more accommodating developments? According to this, neither individual attitudes nor patterns of political mobilization correspond to the model of the nation-state any longer (Zürn 2016).
Regardless of this debate, cosmopolitans tend to underestimate the tension between the argument in favor of global political action and the social preconditions for majority decisions. They stress the liberal elements of democratic self-determination, in particular the need to protect individual rights, the rule of law, and the power of the better argument. In doing so, they seem to forget that majority decisions are at the core of democratic processes and that minority rights make no sense without majority decisions. They also partly overlook the fact that, in international institutions, the executive often enjoys priority over the legislative, thus undermining the principle of separation of powers. Thus, they seem to adhere to an understanding of democracy that devalues the role of elections, parties, and parliaments and that emphasizes the position of nonmajoritarian institutions. This implicit understanding of democracy confirms the tendency for liberal globalists to be biased in favor of the elitists. It is the fear of this cosmopolitanism that has enabled the rise of authoritarian populists and the call for majorities. Authoritarian populism, in turn, endangers the liberal foundations of and the democratic process in political systems. As a result, both concepts appear to be deficient in shaping democracy. This lack of compelling visions is the dilemma of democracy in the age of deterritorialization.
In terms of political visions, we seem to live in a world characterized by a cleavage between communitarian and cosmopolitan political forces—both of these visions about effective and legitimate political institutions in a deterritorialized world society display significant weaknesses. We miss an institutional ideal that puts us in a good position to tackle all the fundamental problems of world society discussed in this global issue. Moreover, this lack of visions does not translate into a prevalence of humility, pragmatism, and moderation. On the contrary, the weakness of the other side seems to lead to radicalization on both sides—that is, to increasing polarization. This makes the search for appropriate governance in a deterritorialized world additionally demanding. To the extent that effectiveness and legitimacy depend on and reinforce each other, we seem to live in a downward spiral. The new cleavage seems to undermine the legitimacy of policies by both cosmopolitan and communitarian institutions. This predicament in world society does not bode well for the management of first-order problems. We need to develop new visions of an ideal institutional setup of collective decision-making in world society.
What could such a vision look like? The option of renationalizing societies to the extent that externalities are significantly reduced seems to be structurally impossible. A thought experiment could help here: Even if it were possible to go back to the 1970s in terms of international political regulation, the degree of economic interdependence with new markets would still be enormous—far above the level of the 1970s. The development of technology would still have an incredible role in increasing externalities. Climate change would remain a global problem; so would the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. It would still be necessary to regulate financial markets and digital companies. Last but not least, knowledge about the hanging together of the world would even have increased. Uncontrollably, we would know more about global interconnectedness and externalities, which alone makes it additionally challenging to think about a nationally confined future. We live in a world society that cannot be moved back to independent national societies by political decisions.
The alternative of democratizing international institutions is enormously difficult, lengthy, and full of national resistance, but it is not structurally impossible (Koenig-Archibugi 2012). The first step would make it necessary to open decision-making in international institutions for public debates. The advocates of international institutions must leave the political defensive and advocate a cosmopolitan worldview openly, offensively, and proactively. The widespread tendency to agree on sensible regulations at the international level and then present them at home as having no alternative may be the simplest strategy in the short term. In the long term, however, it is harmful because it prevents genuine social debates and a public, open-ended debate on world politics. Representation thrives on justification and democracy on open competition of ideas. Ultimately, there can be no halved cosmopolitanism that shifts decision-making to the global level and curbs democratic debate within the national framework. If international institutions are to be part of public debates, a second step becomes possible: a discussion of a democratic vision of international institutions. There is no blueprint of democratic international institutions, and global experts cannot impose such a vision. It requires the participation of both communitarians and cosmopolitans to develop it.
The author declares no competing interests.
Prof. Dr. Michael Zürn is director of the research unit Global Governance at WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Professor of International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2019 he has been the co-spokesperson of the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS), funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). His work focuses on the emergence and functioning of inter- and supranational institutions and organizations and their impact on the global political order. He is a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and, since 2014, a member of the Academia Europaea and numerous editorial and advisory boards. From 2004 to 2010, he served as founding dean of the Hertie School of Governance. Previously, he was Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Bremen for ten years and director of the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies.