The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy

July 9, 2009

On a clear night, it is nice to look up and imagine that all the stars form a unified celestial community. They do, of course, in a sense. But they are much farther away from each other (and us) than we may think. It's that distance that makes their unity possible, but also unlikely. Likewise, in a globalising world that gets smaller with every technological innovation, the idea of a world community that can fashion some degree of shared purpose seems compelling. But it is an enormous planet and the obstacles to common institutions and values make the notion far-fetched.

However improbable the idea of a "global commonwealth of citizens", for Daniele Archibugi it is nevertheless a reasonable one. He isn't recommending a single, global state. Cosmopolitan democracy is less about government on a world scale than a series of interweaving channels of accountability that criss-cross at a number of levels, from the local, national and international to the global, to enhance popular legitimacy and stamp democratic values wherever power is wielded.

Archibugi envisages a complex, uneven world of different kinds of institutions - nation states, international organisations, non-governmental organisations and democratic assemblies - all contributing in various ways to the commonwealth. Not all these institutions will be wholly democratic (why rule out tyrannical states if they can be exposed to democratic values?) and all should have their own, autonomous spheres of competence. Imperfect and complicated it may be. But, this way, we may avoid a world dominated by sovereign states pursuing narrow interests at the cost of wider purposes.

Democracy, argues the author, is clearly the best arrangement for reducing organised violence, for ensuring some degree of popular control over those in power, and for guaranteeing formal equality among subjects. These are not democracy's only virtues, of course, but as a minimal definition they are sufficient for imagining greater accountability between citizens and the many institutions that now act for them. The focus here, as may be expected, is the United Nations, which Archibugi calls "pivotal" to his vision. Sufficiently reformed - by enhancing the powers of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, and by incorporating a world parliament with citizens' representatives from across the globe - the UN could become the centrepiece of a global democratic architecture that protects and extends human rights and that resists states' readiness to go to war regardless of their citizens' views.

So is Archibugi merely star-gazing? Perhaps not. He offers a continuing project based on flexible principles open to variation, not a rigid formula. Nor does he ignore the critics who see little more than unrealistic "liberal idealism" in this vision. Indeed, he readily admits the tremendous difficulties of reforming the UN or reducing the influence of states on global affairs. But while the case for cosmopolitan democracy is reasonable, if challenging, surely the onus of the argument falls on making it desirable? Democracy has to inspire our imaginations as well as our intellects. Alas, Archibugi fails to ignite much passion for his project. Too much a dry review of the literature, the book is unlikely to encourage us to reach for the stars.

The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy

By Daniele Archibugi. Princeton University Press. 320pp, £20.95. ISBN 9780691134901. Published 9 October 2008

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