Nominal Democracy: Prospects for Global Governance (Professor Keohane at the LSE)

Last night, I went to the LSE, got lost in their baffling campus, and packed into the lecture theatre to hear Professor Robert Keohane lecture. Not going to lie, I marked the date in my calendar because I vaguely recognised the name from a first-year assigned reading or something similar. Having checked Google Scholar, I was right. Professor Keohane is one of the leading figures in neoliberal institutionalism, although I can’t find him in my reading lists. Anyway, eminent IR bloke, certainly.

I was wary of the subject – last year, our Spanish university inflicted what felt like an eight-year (40 minute) lecture on us from this guy natter on about his pet version of this idea. Again, I was wrong – it was a very interesting, coherent talk – I’ll update this sentence with a link to the podcast if you’d rather listen to it, but I’d like to try and summarise it for you, partly just to commit it to memory a bit better than usual.

To start with, Keohane characterised global governance as a perfect example of what Stephen Krasner calls “organised hypocrisy” – the sort of enduring institutional norm that leaders have to pay lip-service to while ignoring. The global system is ‘nominally democratic’ – its dominant players are constitutional democracies (possibly less and less so, I thought), and the institutions of global governance have democratic forms and principles. This does not, however, translate into genuine democracy, with leaders held accountable by transparent systems, etc.

Keohane said this was problematic, as a more democratic global governance system would be desirable, but understandable. He brought up two cases that illustrate the “trade-offs and dilemmas” that democratic politics require – one was fairly obvious: the failure of global governance to handle climate change, the most truly global problem we face. He highlighted the fact that democracies such as Canada and Japan have withdrawn from Kyoto, and that Obama has had to resort to sketch executive maneuvres to take action against emissions as indicators that democracy isn’t a panacea.

His other case was more interesting – that of Yasin al-Qadi. This Saudi citizen was put on a UN Security Council sanctions list because of US allegations he funded and sponsored terrorism. This decision was taken largely in secret, and al-Qadi found his assets and bank accounts frozen without any real idea why. He took his case to the European Court of Justice in 2008, and won an overturning of the sanctions against him by European governments. The problem was that the UN Security Council, acting under Chapter VII, is the highest authority in the international system – there is no external body that can hold it to account. In response, the Security Council appointed an ombudsman for appealing its decisions, a tiny step towards due process. The concern here is that there is a trade-off between effective global action and democracy – it’s probably for the best that the UN Security Council is able to co-ordinate action against sponsors of terrorism, but that comes at the cost of any sort of rule of law.

Keohane, without being pessimistic, says it isn’t likely that democratic global governance will emerge over the next few decades. He identified three main reasons – “the interest-public goods gap, the emotional gap, and the infrastructure gap”.

Briefly, they are as follows:

– the interest-public goods gap is the basic problem of collective action – even where public goods is in people’s long-term interest, they may prefer to act in their short-term interest, reluctant to make the sacrifice. The main strategy used by governments to elicit this sacrifice, mobilising against a demonised ‘other’, is not available to global governance because there’s no-one else.

– the emotional gap is an issue that applies at the global level as well as at the European level. Global governance projects are technocratic, bureaucratic, rational affairs, unlikely to provoke great emotional response (aside from Dave getting all shirty over having to pay his bills). Keohane cited how moving renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner could be to US citizens (and it wasn’t even too eye-rolly). There is no equivalent force for attachment to international bodies.

– the infrastructure gap, finally, refers to the absence of legal institutions and organised civil society, all of which are necessary, but not sufficient conditions of a global democracy. Where international bodies have taken actions, it has been like a power-grab, because there are no bodies with the strength and reach to hold them to account

Concluding, Keohane commented that though the trite remark that global problems require global solutions is true, in politics, demand does not equal supply. He pointed to the developing international legal system as an encouraging step towards filling the infrastructure gap. He pointed to the need for effective leadership to mobilise efforts towards global democracy which…? Still, he repeated that he didn’t expect to live to see anything more than steps towards more democratic global governance, and that was probably OK.

I left before the Q&A because who needs to hear a million self-important students ask a titan of the field what he thinks of their pet opinion.

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