A covenant to make global governance work

Anne-Marie Slaughter Thomas N Hale
21 December 2005

With his usual talent for broad thinking and synthesis, David Held has sketched a compelling vision of a cosmopolitan global order. While not moving significantly beyond his previous work – and that of other scholars like John Ruggie - Held’s openDemocracy essay “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers” (May 2004) and his book Global Covenant: the social democratic alternative to the Washington consensus (Polity, 2004) forcefully present the contemporary challenges of global governance. More importantly, they outline the kind of law-based, just, and equitable global order needed to resolve these challenges democratically – a “global covenant” that institutes the principles of social democracy across the globe.

Unlike some other contributors, we do not dispute the desirability of Held’s vision. If others have found bogeymen lurking in the essay, we suspect it is largely because the level of abstraction at which Held is writing allows them to read their own fears into his work.

Nonetheless, for those concerned with actual policy, abstraction is itself problematic. Held does offer a number of specific policy recommendations in the essay, all of which he develops further in Global Covenant. However, the more concrete and politically feasible of his recommendations seem insufficient to institute his far-reaching vision, while the larger proposals tend to be underspecified or politically unrealistic.

This lack of workable policy options is not a flaw of Held’s essay per se, but rather, as Maria Livanos Cattaui has pointed out, a shortcoming of global governance scholarship in general. The field, led by thinkers like Held, has made enormous progress toward conceptualising the challenges of contemporary globalisation. Unfortunately, it has devoted fewer efforts toward designing specific, innovative, and realistic governance techniques that use these conceptual advances to improve peoples’ lives.

This article forms part of a major debate sparked by David Held’s essay on openDemocracy, “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers”. The essay and the debate are also published in book form by Polity under the title Debating Globalization

A full list of articles in the openDemocracy debate:

David Held, “Globalisation: the dangers and the answers” (May 2004)

David Mepham, “David Held’s missing links” (June 2004)

Martin Wolf, “The case for optimism: a response to David Held” (June 2004)

Meghnad Desai, “Social Democracy as world panacea? A comment on David Held” (July 2005)

Grahame Thompson, “The limits to globalisation: questions for Held and Wolf” (July 2005)

Roger Scruton, “Delusions of internationalism: David Held’s flawed perspective” (July 2004)

Maria Livanos Cattaui, “The test of practice: global progress in a world of sovereignty” (July 2004)

John Elkington, “Globalisation’s reality check” (September 2004)

Patrick Bond, “Top down or bottom up? A reply to David Held” (September 2004)

David Held, “What are the dangers and the answers? Clashes over globalisation” (October 2004)

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This abundance of vision and shortage of action plans is not limited to academia. In 2000 the G20, a network of finance ministers representing both developed and developing countries, endorsed the “Montreal consensus” as an alternative to the neo-liberal “Washington consensus”. The Montreal consensus affirmed economic globalisation as a powerful engine of growth while also recognising the need to complement liberalisation with social programmes. At the Millennium Summit that same year all the members of the United Nations committed themselves to a series of Millennium Development Goals: setting concrete targets for efforts to combat poverty, disease, hunger, and other ills.

A year later the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, charged by United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan with rethinking humanitarian intervention in the wake of both Rwanda and Kosovo, issued its report The Responsibility to Protect, charging all UN members with a duty to protect their own citizens and empowering the UN as a whole to intervene, under carefully specified conditions, if a member state committed grave and systematic human-rights abuses against its own citizens.

Between theory and practice

The above examples suggest that significant agreement already exists in some of the areas Held advances in his article, but also highlight how distant such ideas remain from implementation. Conceptualisation, consensus, covenants, goals, and principles are important first steps, but the challenge before cosmopolitan thinkers and policymakers now is to find the policies and techniques that will make these visions real enough to actually help solve global problems.

Such policies must be innovative. Even if we could replicate domestic institutions at the international level, they would likely prove inadequate for the complexities of global governance.

Such policies must also be politically realistic. While cosmopolitans often emphasise what could be, their commitment to the world’s very real and very current problems compels them to also consider what can be.

But how to be innovative and realistic about proposals to strengthen social justice in the world following an American election in November 2004 that has produced a government that rejects social democracy at home, much less abroad? Held explicitly defines his global covenant not only in contraposition to the Washington consensus but also to the “Washington security agenda” (pre-emptive war and hard-headed unilateralism). He clearly does not expect much comfort from the Bush administration.

But a Bush administration we have, and will have for three more years. And fulminating against Washington, both for Europeans and for American liberals, is not going to help. The United States is a cause of some of the problems Held identifies, and it need not be part of the solution. It is certainly possible for Europe itself, or Europe in coalition with other countries around the world, to move some way toward achieving Held’s vision without the US. But Held would certainly admit that the people in the world whom he seeks most to help – the hungry, the sick, the illiterate – will benefit far more from a pragmatic transatlantic effort rather than three more years of fruitless sniping.

More generally, if we continue to define the challenges of global governance as a struggle between progressive, cosmopolitan forces and conservative, nationalist ones, then cosmopolitanism will lose. This is a key conceptual point with a number of very practical implications. And it is a point that must be made and heard in terms of substance as well as style.

Much of the post-election soul-searching among Democrats in the US has focused on the need to put aside feelings of intellectual superiority and moral disdain for the Bush administration and its base. The self-satisfaction such sentiments provide is not worth the political damage they can cause. The same message needs to be heard and heeded by progressives across the Atlantic and indeed around the world.

At the level of style, one helpful response would be the professionalisation of interstate relations, particularly the transatlantic relationship. Too many European politicians have scored political points at home through Bush-bashing, and the American president and his party have too frequently pandered to American anti-Europeanism. This rhetoric diminishes the ability of European countries and the US to work together and thus does a disservice to the European and American publics, not to mention the many other countries that benefit from transatlantic coordination. Both sides should abandon theatrics and focus on identifying the areas of agreement that can move policy forward.

Between cosmopolitanism and nationalism

At the much more fundamental level of substance, cosmopolitans like David Held should recognise nationalism as a serious force in the US and elsewhere and accept that it is unlikely to dissipate in the near future. George W Bush was re-elected in part because the American public thought he was more patriotic than his opponent. Though large swathes of Europe seem increasingly post-national – as do many members of the elite and the intelligentsia in the US and around the world – the vast majority of the world continues to attach great importance to national identities. Even in Europe, the genius of the EU has been precisely to foster greater integration without destroying the distinct national identities and cultures of European states, identities now expressed on the soccer field rather than the fields of battle.

Instead of presenting cosmopolitanism and nationalism as an age-old dichotomy, one that all too often equates in the public mind with left and right, cosmopolitans must seek instead to harness nationalism in the service of cosmopolitan ideals – ideals that are themselves often embedded in national creeds. Bush’s rallying-cry before vast audiences during the 2004 American election was “freedom is on the march.” His listeners, particularly among evangelical Christians, did not hear this as a cover for the cynical expansion of American empire, as many European critics would have it, but rather as a sincere effort to extend freedom to Iraqis as their human birthright. They may be misguided, even tragically deluded. But their vision fuses national and cosmopolitan ideals.

A very concrete way of dissolving the cosmopolitan/nationalist divide would be promote trans-governmental networks, a global governance mechanism comprised of national government officials who perform similar functions in a variety of states. These networks are increasingly important in areas like financial regulation, environmental protection, jurisprudence, and counterterrorism. While global in reach, trans-governmental networks are fundamentally connected to national governments and thus elide some of the legitimacy concerns and functional limitations that often face international organizations. At the same time, they should not be seen as an alternative to these more traditional organizations, but as a complement to them.

For example, Canada’s prime minister Paul Martin is pushing to create an equivalent of the G20 grouping of finance ministries at political leaders’ level (an “L20”). The current G20 includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, as well as representatives of the World Bank and the IMF. Martin’s version of the L20 would bring together the presidents and prime ministers of these countries, possibly including a few other countries depending on the issue at hand, as well as a senior representative from the United Nations.

The Chinese and the French have been favourable toward this idea. Because it is more representative of the world’s people, the group is far more likely to advance the goals embedded in Held’s global covenant than the G8 or the current UN Security Council. If the Security Council were to be suitably reformed, the need for the L20 might disappear; alternatively, it could continue to serve a vital link between the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions. In any event, it is an institutional structure serving a cosmopolitan agenda that nevertheless recognizes and embraces the power and perspectives of different nation states.

Finally, cosmopolitans must equally deconstruct what often seems to be an implicit dichotomy between cosmopolitanism and religion. Here the United States provides an interesting laboratory for the world. Can the David Helds of the world find a way to talk about their goals in a way that relates to the almost 60 million people who voted for George W Bush? We suspect that there are actually a surprising number of issues on which David Held and the average Bush voter can agree. The problem is that they talk past each other.

The initial problem here is again stylistic – to find a language that connects cosmopolitan goals to Christian values. The shift also requires cosmopolitans to invoke Americans’ longstanding belief in the basic institutions of self-government and liberty, the secular creed that many Americans hold just as dear as their religious beliefs. As Anatol Lieven has written on openDemocracy, Americans’ faith in God and their faith in the institutions of democracy often intertwine, a mix cosmopolitans must take into account. Moreover, from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr, religious values are often cosmopolitan values. Similarly, cosmopolitanism can be seen as a kind of global evangelism, a universal call to a better world.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. Among her books is A New World Order (Princeton University Press, 2004)

Also by Anne-Marie Slaughter and Thomas N Hale in openDemocracy:

“Hardt & Negri’s Multitude: the best of both worlds” (May 2005)

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s exchange of letters with renowned Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, “China’s past, America’s future?” was published in July 2005

Thomas N Hale is special assistant to the dean at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

Also by Thomas N Hale in openDemocracy:

“Globalising freedom” (March 2005)

We suggest a set of “moral responsibilities” that are likely to resonate with Bush voters and encourage progress on global issues. Both Christian morality and civic virtue enjoin citizens, especially the powerful, to uphold the rights and freedoms of others. They impose a duty to help the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged, and they insist on responsible stewardship of God’s creation. They require good people to have a decent respect and tolerance for the opinions of others. They teach that pride – jingoism included – is a sin, and that humility is a virtue. It was not without reason that during his first presidential campaign George W Bush wooed his conservative base by speaking of a “humbler” American foreign policy.

Lest our prescriptions be read as an effort to frame a global cosmopolitan debate only in terms of American politics and demographics, it is worth remembering Dave Belden’s point about the increasing numbers of evangelicals in the developing world. As American gays learned to their sorrow in 2003 following the installation of a gay Episcopal bishop, the leading opponents of such a step were Anglican bishops and their congregations from Africa. It seems that what plays in the American south may play just as well in the global south.

These shifts in attitude and language, coupled with governance techniques that incorporate nation-states, may help to close the gap between the “Washington world” and Held’s vision of cosmopolitan social democracy. Many important issues are unlikely to yield consensus – causes such as the International Criminal Court, efforts to fund global governance projects through international taxation, and global environmental treaties. But for other issues of concern to cosmopolitans – the Aids pandemic, responsible humanitarian intervention, alleviation of global poverty—progress seems at least within the realm of possibility.

The issue of human trafficking offers a positive example. Put on the US government’s agenda by an uncommon coalition of feminists, human-rights groups, and evangelical Christians – and at the personal insistence of President Bush – modern-day slavery reminds us of a previous era of globalisation in which deeply religious people in Britain and the United States spearheaded the movement to end the African slave trade. Just as 19th century abolitionists were inspired by the cosmopolitan values of Victorian liberalism, so too are contemporary Christians eager to right what they see as one of the world’s greatest evils. If progressives could create more of these unlikely coalitions around the issues that matter most, they might bring the world a little closer to Held’s cosmopolitan vision.

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