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An emerging world politics

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Who rules the world and how?

It is not a modest question. Views about the different answers have preoccupied many a contributor to openDemocracy.net.

Does transnational capitalism and the world market dominate globalisation, or does America? Should we look to a networked world, beyond traditional institutions, to provide the framework for greater equality and fairness, or to the United Nations?

To take just two contrasting answers, published by us this year:

  • From the Globalisation Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, Tom Nairn in ‘America versus Globalisation’ has argued that nations and nationalism remain crucial in determining world politics and are the proper forum for democracy

  • From Oxford, England, George Monbiot has called for a directly elected global government to by-pass what he sees as the sclerotic, reactionary nation-state institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the UN (see his debate with Todd Gitlin and his contribution in our Cancún forum).
In this edition of openDemocracy.net the argument moves to a new level in our major interview with Mary Robinson.

Her approach is not theoretical. An activist who also knows the ropes, having been both president of Ireland and a UN commissioner, she also retains a direct and unpompous interest in immediate human issues. Now she has established a new organisation, the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, which seeks to put her experience into practice.

In effect, her answer if not to my opening question then to how the world ought to be ruled, is that there are three broad levels to politics: citizens, nation-states, and international alliances and agreements. Globalisation has neither dissolved the importance of any one level nor made another dominant. Instead, it is profoundly altering the relationships between all three. The importance of national governments in determining what happens remains, but the traditional framework – in which they once exercised unique sovereignty over their own internal affairs – is being transformed.

Mary Robinson argues that the global covenants on human rights which she discusses in our interview, establish principles for how nation-states should govern themselves internally. This creates new opportunities for citizens to hold their governments to account, legitimated by global norms.

A virtuous rather than vicious circle of democratic influence becomes possible in which national governments can and, she argues, must be held to account. They should be obliged to deliver on fundamental rights by citizens organising both within their national body politic and through international cooperation and exchange. This will then reinforce the development of best practices and the further enhancement of basic rights.

If this happens, globalisation will empower and expand local forms of politics, as governments find they have to account ‘downwards’ for their behaviour with respect to priorities and norms established at a world level.

This process increases rather than diminishes the obligations and role of national states while citizens’ power over governments becomes more democratic rather than less – as the expectations of what it should mean to be a citizen is ‘globalised’.

A wonderful example of the furies and confusions of this new politics is unfolding right now at the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) being held, as I write, in Geneva. For the first time non-governmental organisations claiming to represent civil society are participating in a formative international gathering of governments alongside heads of states. The aim is to drive forward the potential gains of modern communications to everyone across the world.

openDemocracy’s own Solana Larsen writes about WSIS in this edition. She describes the cross-currents and outlines the five great issues now at play at the summit.

Also, media editor Bill Thompson will post a daily blog from the spot.

WSIS provides further evidence for the Mary Robinson argument. Issues of basic human rights are bursting out of their legal box and coming alive in ways that link to how people live and work and who should be involved in deciding how the world is governed.


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