David Held’s missing links

David Mepham
9 June 2004

David Held’s essay on openDemocracy, “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers” is a timely, trenchant and wide-ranging analysis of the existing global order. It provides a particularly powerful critique of “Washington-led neo-liberalism and unilateralism” and the extent to which the policies of George W. Bush are damaging the prospects for global security, justice and ecological sustainability.

But Held does far more than this. He frames the debate about justice, legitimacy and governance in a broader philosophical and historical context. His is a persuasive defence of universal human rights, a staunch rejection of narrow nationalism and a strong reaffirmation of the values that motivated the founders of the post-second world war settlement.

David Mepham is responding to David Held’s essay, “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers” (May 2004)

The political challenge that Held poses for today’s progressives is also the right one: to develop national and global systems of governance better able to manage our more interdependent world to secure greater social justice, stability, sustainable development and human rights. And he makes a series of strong policy recommendations for doing just that.

National, transnational, global

But despite its ambition and scale, there are three significant gaps in David Held’s overall argument.

First, in respect of economic issues – and in his explanation of global poverty and inequality – Held focuses much more attention on reforms to global rather than national governance. It is absolutely the case that unfair global trade rules, tied aid or inappropriate conditionality set by the international financial institutions are damaging to the development prospects of poorer countries. But the destructive policies pursued by some developing country governments are also a key part of the explanation for their economic marginalisation and poverty. The current plight of Zimbabwe, for example, is very largely a consequence of the grotesque mismanagement of its economy by the Robert Mugabe dictatorship.

As the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) has itself acknowledged, more effective development progress in Africa requires Africans themselves to take more responsibility for their own development strategies, and reform their governance systems to encourage increased economic activity, investment, trade and growth.

A similar point could be made about the economic conditions in many countries of the Middle East. The influential 2002 UN Arab Development Report, written by a group of distinguished Arab scholars, said that “deeply rooted shortcomings in institutional structures”, lack of access to education and weak observance of human rights, especially for women, are a central cause of poverty, inequality and unemployment in the region.

None of this is to suggest that global governance doesn’t matter; there is indeed a justified critique of World Bank/IMF/WTO policy and of the Washington economic consensus, one that David Held makes very well. But alongside this, we need a deeper analysis of structures of governance within some developing countries, the extent to which these may hinder rather than advance the interests of poor people living there, and the relationship between external powers and local interests and dynamics.

The second gap in his argument relates to global economic issues, where Held has surprisingly little to say about the role of transnational corporations (TNCs). TNCs are a central driving force behind global economic integration through their production, trade and investment activities. Managed well, these investment flows can bring large development benefits, including to poorer countries. Managed badly, however, inward investment can distort local economies and contribute to human rights violations.

So far, the main way in which companies have addressed these issues has been in the context of their strategies for corporate social responsibility (CSR) – a series of voluntary initiatives to enhance the social impact of corporate policies, on issues like labour standards, corruption and the environment. But while CSR has brought some benefits, it also has very serious limitations, not least because it is voluntary and there are few penalties for non-compliance.

Many of the most difficult issues surrounding the transnational corporate sector occur in poor countries with weak systems of governance. It is in these circumstances – where local governments are either unable or unwilling properly to regulate the international private sector – that the case for cross-border corporate accountability is at its strongest.

In the longer-term, we need a transnational legal and governance framework that applies to companies as well as to governments. In the short-term, developed countries should be urged to use the mechanisms already at their disposal to better hold TNCs to account.

The OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises are a good example of how this could be done. These contain a mechanism (reporting through national contact points) that allows governments to take action against companies that fall below agreed human rights standards. In October 2002, a UN expert panel on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in its report to the UN Security Council, named over fifty OECD companies as being in breach of the guidelines. However, not a single OECD national or company has faced any penalty or legal action against them as a consequence of their actions in the DRC. The same is true on corruption: no successful prosecutions for bribery offences abroad have been brought under the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials of 1997.

The diverse sources of conflict

The third gap in David Held’s argument relates to those roots of conflict that lie beyond Washington’s direct responsibility. He provides a strong critique of what he calls the “New Washington Security Agenda”, and he is right to criticise the misconceived US-led war with Iraq and the dangers posed by Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive military action. He is also correct in saying that Bush’s policy shows scant regard for international law and that other countries will use and abuse the precedent of unilateral action.

But as with economics, so with security, Held appears to overstate the degree to which the manifold security crises of today’s world can be explained by reference to United States policy. US policy – under this and previous administrations – has often exacerbated conflicts, through financial and diplomatic support or arms sales to authoritarian governments or rebel groups. This was particularly true during the cold war, when both the US and the Soviet Union supported a large number of despotic regimes and proxy armies in various parts of the world. This continues today, although now under the banner of the “war on terror”. For example, despite its appalling human rights record, Saudi Arabia is a major recipient of US and UK military equipment.

But if the US and other developed countries often make conflicts worse, sometimes very significantly so, their role can also be exaggerated. Not all of the problems of conflict and instability in today’s world can be laid at their door. While in the 1990s, the US and the UK supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan – an immoral and foolish policy – the rise of al-Qaida and Islamic extremism cannot be explained merely by reference to this support, or even to US double standards in the Middle East. Developments within the Islamic world and in the Middle East are arguably more important in understanding the rise of this complex phenomenon.

As a general rule, most of today’s wars and armed conflicts are taking place in the developing world, within rather than between countries. These often have complex local and regional causes and dynamics. External powers can be significant players, but neighbouring countries are often more so.

Many of these conflicts are rooted in extreme poverty, failures of development and weak governance. The World Bank has described such countries as low-income countries under stress (Licus); the UK government now talks of them as countries at risk of instability (Cri). The appropriate policy response towards such countries fits closely with what Held calls the “broad security agenda” – long-term engagement, a commitment to help build institutions and support development, and a serious attempt to tackle the underlying causes of conflict and terrorism and not merely their symptoms.

openDemocracy’s attempt to understand the sources of global violence includes Fred Halliday’s essays “Terrorism in historical perspective” (April 2004) and “America and Arabia after Saddam” (May 2004)

In the Middle East, this should mean a much more even-handed approach to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, helping to reduce the attraction of extremist parties and movements. In Africa and other parts of the developing world, it should mean working with countries to help them build strong and accountable political institutions, in which poor people in particular have a bigger voice. And it should mean identifying those developed country policies – unfair trade rules, tied aid, arms exports – that are damaging to the development prospects of poor countries, and changing them (ippr is currently running a research project on this issue, looking at G8 policy towards Africa).

In exceptional circumstances, a broad security agenda should also include a preparedness to use military force in self-defence or to prevent massive human rights violations. Held refers to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Iciss), whose December 2001 report The Responsibility to Protect is a first-class piece of work and the most serious attempt yet to define a set of criteria for intervening in other countries on human rights grounds. Building support for the ideas contained in the report should be a real priority over the next few years.

openDemocracy interviews Mary Robinson, founder of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, about expanding the scope of human rights; see “Making ‘global’ and ‘ethical’ rhyme” (December 2003)

Progressives have sometimes been guilty of downplaying the importance of hard power in protecting democracy and human rights from those forces that have little or no commitment to either. After the Rwandan genocide such a stance is no longer tenable. But at the same time, progressives need to wrest back the initiative on security policy from the neo-conservatives. We cannot tackle conflict, instability and terrorism without a more determined effort to tackle poverty and inequality and the denial of human rights, democracy and justice. David Held’s essay provides an excellent theoretical framework and a radical but practical agenda for doing so.

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