Published on Mar 30, 2017

By Jonathan W. Kuyper, and John S. Dryzek

Should democracy go global? If so, what should it look like? If not, what should we do instead to help solve global problems that afflict people across the globe in different ways?

In late 2014, Robert Keohane – the eminent Professor of International Affairs at Princeton University – delivered a lecture at the London School of Economics. The title of the talk was “Nominal Democracy? Prospects for Democratic Global Governance”, and it was printed in the International Journal of Constitutional Law. This piece sparked a debate in that journal between John Dryzek (University of Canberra, and member of the Earth System Governance Scientific Steering Committee) together with Jonathan Kuyper (Stockholm University and Earth System Governance Research Fellows) and Robert Keohane.

In his initial article, Keohane makes a series of claims against the likelihood of global democracy emerging in the near term. He argues that without the right legal, institutional, and civil society preconditions, democracy is doomed to be ‘nominal’: a hollow version of itself. Moreover obtaining some form of global democracy might be problematic because it would engender a series of trade-offs. Most notably for members of the Earth System Governance network, Keohane argues that democratizing global governance will undermine efforts at mitigating climate change.

While Dryzek and Kuyper accept that global democracy is not a short term endeavor, they disagree with much else Keohane avers. Most importantly, they reject Keohane’s view of what constitutes ‘democracy’. For Keohane, democracy is best (only?) understood as a set of electoral, representative institutions: parliaments, executives, judiciaries, and so on. The preconditions which he suggest are necessary for democracy are those necessary for electoral democratization at the national level. Moreover the trade-offs he implies are also those with electoral democracy. For instance, he argues that liberal democracies such as the US refused to join the Kyoto Protocol while others such as Canada (that did sign) shirked their commitments. This is because democracies do not take consideration of diffuse interests, solve free rider problems, value future generations, and encourage short time horizons.

Keohane is absolutely right that electoral democracy can deepen these pathologies. But the point made by Dryzek and Kuyper is that this view of democracy is too limited to be of utility. Instead of understanding democracy in electoral terms and then bemoaning that it cannot be transplanted at the global level, it is much more productive to view democracy in deliberative terms. Seen in this light, democracy is understood as the inclusive give-and-take of reasons in which better arguments determine collective decisions, policies, and laws.

This deliberative view of democracy is not just prominent in political theory, but increasingly in the world of political practice. And it provides powerful retorts to Keohane’s arguments. First the deliberative model is eminently scalable to the global level, and islands of deliberative democracy already exist in both formal and informal global institutions. Second nation-states that are more deliberative are much better in mitigating climate change and living up to their adaptation and finance commitments. Finally inclusive deliberation encourages participants to take consideration of diffuse interests, future generations, and marginalized groups. This other-regardingness is a property of deliberation that helps overcome the free-rider problems of which Keohane is acutely aware.

Ultimately in Keohane’s final rejoinder, he disagrees with our assessment preferring to revert back to viewing global electoral democracy as an impossibility. But this just leaves Keohane, on one hand, and Dryzek and Kuyper on the other, speaking past one-another. All authors agree that electoral democracy cannot and should not go global: but we disagree over whether that is the only vehicle of democratization. Seen through a deliberative lens, global democracy is both more plausible and more effective at solving governance problems. It is from this perspective that future efforts should build.

Read the debate here in International Journal of Constitutional Law.