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Cosmopolitan Democracy: Paths and Agents

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2011

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One of the recurrent criticisms of the project of cosmopolitan democracy has been that it has not examined the political, economic and social agents that might have an interest in pursuing this programme. This criticism is addressed directly in this article. It shows that there are a variety of paths that, in their own right, could lead to more democratic global governance, and that there are a diversity of political, economic and social agents that have an interest in the pursuit of these. Cosmopolitan democracy is an open-ended project that aims to increase the accountability, transparency and legitimacy of global governance, and the battery of agents and initiatives outlined highlight the direction and politics required to make it possible.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2011

When, at the end of the cold war and at the beginning of a new wave of democratization, we suggested the idea of a cosmopolitan democracy, we were aware that we were pouring old wine into new bottles.Footnote 1 The attempt to make world politics more transparent, more accountable, more participatory, and more respectful of the rule of law had pioneers spanning from Immanuel Kant to Richard Falk. Still, the idea that “democracy” as a concept and a practice could and should be applied beyond nation-states was somehow innovative.

If we read the international relations textbooks prior to 1989 we may be surprised to note that many of them do not even contain the word “democracy.” When the word appears, it is generally in reference to the internal political regime of states, and certainly not in relation to the possibility of reordering world politics according to democratic rules. Even international organizations were seen mostly as purely intergovernmental bodies, and the prospect of making them more democratic was not contemplated. The European Union, the first international organization composed exclusively of democratic regimes and with some germs of democratic norms in its modus operandi, was mainly discussed in relation to the limits it imposed on the sovereign decision-making of its member countries rather than in terms of its ability to deal publicly with transnational issues. The state of the art was not very different in the realm of democratic theory. Most of the textbooks dedicated to democracy (including the first edition of a work by one of usFootnote 2) did not contain any reference to the problem of democracy beyond borders. Many of these textbooks addressed in detail how decision-making within town halls, counties, and central governments could foster or hamper democracy, but democratic theory ended at state borders: it had nothing yet to say beyond this level of analysis. This was also driven by historical conditions dominated by the cold war, which made it impracticable to try to make the international system more democratic.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, scholars and policy-makers have begun to rethink democracy in the face of global changes and, as a consequence, the state of democratic theory today is substantially different: International Relations and democratic theory both take for granted that “democracy beyond borders” is an issue to be discussed. Most of the recent international relations handbooks devote at least a chapter to the question of democracy within international organizations and of the impact of globalization on national democracies. The same applies to handbooks on democracy, which often devote the last chapter to the challenge of expanding democratic values to the international system. Of course, not everybody is convinced that cosmopolitan democracy is needed or desirable. We define cosmopolitan democracy as an attempt to generate democratic governance at a variety of levels, including the global level. This entails providing citizens with the opportunity to participate in world politics parallel to and independently from the governments of their own states. Our own understanding of cosmopolitan democracy is that such a transformation of global politics could also generate progressive alternations in domestic policies. In particular, we assume that if global politics becomes more accountable and representative, this may also have an important effect on domestic politics, allowing each political community to further consolidate its own political institutions. As we will discuss later, this is why we prefer to talk about cosmopolitan, rather than global, democracy. While the democratization of global governance is certainly one of the main objectives of cosmopolitan democracy, it is not the only one. The term “cosmopolitan democracy” thus aims to incorporate changes not just at the global level but also at the local, national, and regional levels, each of them aimed at increasing nonviolence, political equality, and popular control.

Opponents of cosmopolitan democracy are probably more numerous than supporters. Robert Dahl, Ralf Dahrendorf, David Miller, Philippe Schmitter, and many others have declared, more or less politely, that the idea of applying the concept of democracy beyond the state is premature, naïve, or simply wrong and dangerous. Other scholars, including Allen Buchanan, Robert Keohane, and Andrew Moravcsik, have argued that it is sufficient that the international system reaches greater levels of pluralism, legitimacy, and accountability, but that none of these core concepts require that we trouble with the concept of democracy. For example, Buchanan and his colleagues do not think that the direct participation of individuals in world politics through a directly elected world parliament is needed or desirable. Their position is that in order to tame world politics it is sufficient to make international organizations more accountable, require governments to obey the rule of law, and increase the number of democratic countries worldwide. Still others, including Jürgen Habermas, Richard Falk, Ulrich Beck, Mary Kaldor, Andrew Linklater, John Dryzek, Tony McGrew, Jan Aart Scholte, and Saskia Sassen, have contributed to the development of the cosmopolitan democracy literature from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Moreover, many young scholars have been attracted to the idea of cosmopolitan democracy, and they increasingly provide fresh ideas and sophisticated analytical tools.

The aims of the cosmopolitan democracy project have never been limited to academic discourse. On the contrary, the ambition was also to provide the intellectual arguments to achieve elements of transformation in the real world. It should be recognized that, while the academic discourse has been unexpectedly successful, the efforts to obtain a democratic transformation of world politics have achieved very modest results so far. In fact, most of the proposals put on the table over the last two decades have not been implemented—a fact that is not entirely surprising, given how long it takes to change and reshape institutions. A change in the rhetoric, at least, is perceivable: since the beginning of the 1990s leading officials of international organizations have explicitly endorsed the idea of further democratizing world politics,Footnote 3 and statesmen are less likely to justify their actions on the ground of national interests only. As a consequence, international organizations are now keener to be accountable not only to diplomatic circles but also to public opinion at large.

It is difficult to foresee if such openness to public opinion can lead to substantial transformation or merely superficial change. But it is possible to identify some long-term trends that make a progressive shift toward more democratic global governance possible. The number of actors that must be consulted in the process of decision-making has also considerably increased, showing that pluralism in international relations has steadily grown.Footnote 4 There is also a significant change in accountability practices, or what John Keane calls “monitory democracy,” with a significant portion of the assessments of democratic regimes now carried out outside the political community. International organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe; independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Amnesty International and Freedom House; and transnational associations, such as trade unions and business organizations, all regularly monitor the transparency, corruption level, and human rights regime of individual countries. Thanks to these developments, world politics has become more accountable, more transparent, more representative, and more respectful of human rights. In our view, these various developments suggest that more far-reaching transformations of power politics are possible in the direction of what we have labeled “cosmopolitan democracy.”

In this article we address an issue that has not yet been satisfactorily discussed in our previous work: who are the agents that might promote cosmopolitan democracy? While we have elsewhere illustrated the reasons that justify the need for a cosmopolitan democracy,Footnote 5 and others have discussed its possibility,Footnote 6 we have not yet examined at length the social, economic, and political processes that may lead some agents to support the political innovations suggested by the model.

The necessity and the possibility of transforming global governance has become a core political issue. Many ideas have been debated by diplomats and activists, governmental authorities and nongovernmental organizations, businessmen and scholars—at the United Nations, the G8 and G20 summits, the World Economic Forum, and the World Social Forum. Some suggest reforms to current international organizations and others argue for the creation of new ones. Some stress the role of social movements, others the need to give more space to selected groups of stakeholders. There are campaigns that insist on the crucial importance of legal institutions, while other groups suggest giving the business sector a more prominent role in managing global issues.Footnote 7 Not all these proposals move in a direction of democratic global governance, and even less so in the direction of the cosmopolitan democracy model, but many of them include elements that incorporate key democratic values, such as accountability, representativeness, transparency, and participation. We consider these proposals alongside those that are more strictly associated with the cosmopolitan democracy model, and assess what contribution they can make to a new democratic conception of global politics.

Since there has been a large number of adjectives used to qualify democracy (such as monitory, post-national, international, transnational, global, and others), it may be worth clarifying the meaning we attribute to the term cosmopolitan democracy.Footnote 8 Each of these terms usually refers to a specific political domain, though not necessarily exclusive of other domains. An attempt to provide a definition of the various terms and their connection to cosmopolitan democracy is provided in Table 1, below.

Table 1 Types of democracy and their connections with cosmopolitan democracy

1. John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009).

2. Jürgen Habermas, The Postnational Constellation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001); and Alberta Sbragia, “La democrazia post-nazionale: una sfida per la scienza politica?” Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica 34, no. 1 (2004), pp. 43–68.

3. See Inter-Parliamentary Union, Universal Declaration of Democracy (Cairo: IPU, 1997); Robert Dahl, “Can International Organizations Be Democratic? A Skeptical View,” in Ian Shapiro and Casian Hacker-Cordon, eds., Democracy's Edges (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); and Richard Youngs, International Democracy and the West: The Role of Governments, Civil Society, and Multinational Business (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

4. Dennis F. Thompson, “Democratic Theory and Global Society,” Journal of Political Philosophy 7, no. 2 (1999), pp. 111–25; James Anderson, ed., Transnational Democracy: Political Spaces and Border Crossings (London: Routledge, 2002); Anthony McGrew, “Transnational Democracy: Theories and Prospects,” in April Carter and Geoffrey Stokes, eds., Democratic Theory Today (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), pp. 267–94; Carol Gould, Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and James Bohman, Democracy across Borders (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007).

5. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Democratization (New York: United Nations, 1996); Andrew Strauss, Taking Democracy Global: Assessing the Benefits and Challenges of a Global Parliamentary Assembly (London: One World Trust, 2005); Barry Holden, ed., Global Democracy (London: Routledge, 2000); Heikki Patomaki and Teivo Teivainen, A Possible World: Democratic Transformation of Global Institutions (London: Zed Books, 2004); Joshua Cohen and Charles Sabel, “Global Democracy?” NYU Journal of International Law and Politics 57, no. 4 (2005), pp. 763–97; Raffaele Marchetti, Global Democracy (London: Routledge, 2008); and Daniele Archibugi, Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, and Raffaele Marchetti, eds., Global Democracy: Normative and Empirical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

6. John Dryzek, Deliberative Global Politics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006); and Terry Macdonald, Global Stakeholder Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

7. Daniele Archibugi and David Held, eds., Cosmopolitan Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995); David Held, Democracy and the Global Order (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996); Richard Falk, On Humane Governance (University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 1995); Mary Kaldor, New & Old Wars (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999); Antonio Franceschet, Kant and Liberal Internationalism (Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Patrick Hayden, Cosmopolitan Global Politics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); and Daniele Archibugi, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Cosmopolitan democracy is set out here to be a more inclusive term, one that comprehends the theoretical attempts and political experimentations aimed at expanding democracy beyond its traditionally state-centered domain.

If we ever manage to achieve a form of global governance that embeds some of the values and norms of democracy, it is very unlikely to happen as a result of a single grand plan. It is, on the contrary, more likely that various changes and reforms introduced at the local, national, regional, and global level will together contribute to a progressive transformation of world politics, and that each individual innovation will provide inspiration and encouragement for further changes.Footnote 9 The idea of a cosmopolitan democracy was never intended to provide a single recipe, but rather to serve as a unifying framework for a plethora of proposals and campaigns that, in different ways, aim to develop global governance in a democratic direction.

Political change, including at the global level, can be driven by economic, social, and political actors. Of course, each of these actors is likely to pursue its own agenda and may be interested in only a few of the components in the cosmopolitan democracy project. While each agent may act on narrow terms, it is also possible that, through imitation, institutional changes and innovative forms of participation will disseminate across countries and functional areas of governance. The growing number of initiatives and proposals for expanding democracy indicate that the desire to transform world politics in order to make it more transparent, accountable, and representative is widely shared. We do not consider the various proposals currently on the table as necessarily competing against each other. We tend to look at most of them as complementary attempts to move toward a world order that progressively encompasses at least some forms of democracy at the global level.

We are well aware that political transformations occur because of a combination of idealistic and materialistic motivations and that both top-down and bottom-up forces do contribute to the development or obstruction of change. There are a variety of agents—including economic, political, and social—that act in a globalizing world. As suggested by Philip Cerny, the ultimate goal of these agents is to acquire their own space in such a world.Footnote 10 Not all the actions of individual agents will, of course, consistently pursue the project of global democratization (nor was this the case when democracy was affirmed as the legitimate model of political authority within states). But their interests and also their ideology will often lead them to support and to act to obtain changes that are complementary to more progressive, participatory, accountable, and transparent world politics. In the next section we single out a few areas where movements toward cosmopolitan democracy have been debated, while the subsequent sections are devoted to identifying the agents that could promote cosmopolitan democracy both from the bottom up and from the top down.


Cosmopolitan democracy can be developed through a variety of policy and institutional changes. Some of them concern already existing institutional sites, such as states and international organizations. Others will imply new forms of political organization and will rely on the activities of new political agents. In this section we present a list of the ongoing and potential changes.

We are aware that these paths toward cosmopolitan democracy do not proceed evenly, and we do not assume that the way toward a more transparent, representative, accountable, responsive world politics will affect all the components of the system at the same time and at the same speed. For example, over the last twenty years we have seen, as we will discuss below, the rise of a new global criminal justice regime composed of a variety of ad hoc international and hybrid tribunals, and even the making of a new permanent institution—the International Criminal Court. On the one hand, these new developments are an important step toward the affirmation of the principle of individual criminal responsibility in the international as well as domestic sphere, and can be read as an additional component of the so-called monitory democracy. On the other hand, global criminal justice has been highly selective so far, and it still focuses its attention on those criminals that lack political coverage from the great powers. The emergent global criminal justice regime risks reinforcing the current distribution of world power rather than counterbalancing it, but we assume that it nonetheless represents a step in the direction of a cosmopolitan democracy.

The paths identified below can be interpreted both as transitional steps toward or constituent blocks of a cosmopolitan democracy. We would prefer to consider them transitional steps for a very simple reason: we are not in a position to deductively suggest an overall final goal. It is true that the history of democracy provides more than one indication of the forms that cosmopolitan democracy might take in the future. But we do not assume that cosmopolitan democracy will simply replicate the political systems already known. This will likely require a radical transformation of our political systems, comparable to what was experienced with the shift from the direct democracy of city-states to the representative democracy of the modern nation-state.

The Role of States in a Cosmopolitan Society

The expression “cosmopolitan state” may at first appear an oxymoron, but cosmopolitanism is a set of values and practices that can be implemented by any political institution, including the state.Footnote 11 States can be champions of cosmopolitanism, and in this context this mostly implies equal treatment of citizens and aliens and respect for minority rights within their own borders. Most states have to deal with a citizenry with diverse languages, religions, ethnicities, and ideologies. Each state has the opportunity to experiment with different forms of political participation, and with those minority rights that have been advocated by multiculturalists. Many states, especially Western ones, are also facing an increasing challenge from migration. Aliens have fewer rights than natives in most states and, with transborder flows of people on the increase, accommodation is becoming more problematic and generating mounting internal tensions. A state committed to cosmopolitanism would make an effort, where possible, to reduce disparities between citizens and noncitizens, and to offer a pathway for long-term residents to acquire the political rights enjoyed by its citizens.

International institutions can also be a positive force in inducing states to introduce more progressive standards on these issues. The UN Human Rights Council, the Council of Europe, and the European Union all have monitoring programs that critically assess respect for immigrant and minority rights within their member countries. Cosmopolitan states could also encourage their institutions, such as local governments, legislative assemblies, and the judiciary, to engage independently in global affairs. There is already a number of institutions able to link substate initiatives, including the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the International Union of Local Authorities.Footnote 12 Often these institutions are regarded by national governments as simply decorative; a cosmopolitan state, on the contrary, would allow them to use their resources more independently—for example, as an external monitor on governmental action. This can complement what governments already do when participating in traditional intergovernmental institutions.

Toward a Democratic Foreign Policy

One of the core demands of cosmopolitan democracy is to obtain a substantial change in national foreign policy priorities, especially those of the powerful liberal Western states. To be a good member of the international community, a democratic state should abide by international norms, participate in international organization activities, contribute to the provision of global public goods, and support democratization where appropriate. For example, consolidated democracies should support foreign political parties and activists willing to foster democracy in despotically ruled countries rather than those who might be more congenial to their own national interests. For too long democratic countries have passively accepted or even actively supported dictatorial regimes when this has been in their interest. A new foreign policy doctrine based on solidarity among democratic forces is now needed. This does not necessarily mean that democratic countries should create new institutions to exclude nondemocratic governments, as suggested by the proposal for a League of Democracies.Footnote 13 Such a proposal risks creating a further divide between countries, and could have the paradoxical effect of creating international cohesion among despotic countries and the isolation of democratic movements within these countries. The attempts to export democracy through coercive means have been discredited by the Iraq War, but attempts to promote democratization through incentives, transnational linkages, and cooperation are still in their infancy.Footnote 14 It is certainly not easy for states to transform their foreign policy in a manner that makes them more altruistic, but it is also true that democratic governments find it increasingly difficult to win the support of their publics if they merely advocate the national interest—as evidenced, for example, by the enormous public support for climate change mitigation.

The Reform of International Organizations

International organizations (IOs) embrace some elements of democracy: they are based on treaties and charters, their actions must not violate international law, their operations are transparent to a certain extent, and their activities and policies are to a degree accountable to their member states. Nevertheless, there is a widespread belief that in order to increase their legitimacy, IOs should not be held accountable to member states only but also to world public opinion, and not only to executives but to citizens as well.Footnote 15 Currently, many of the core ideas of democracy, such as the principle of equality among citizens, are not applied to international institutions, such as the United Nations and its agencies.Footnote 16 Most IOs started as clubs for national governments, but they progressively incorporated, often in a decorative role, larger numbers of stakeholders.Footnote 17 As a result of the participation of the business sector and NGOs, IOs have managed to expand their authority and legitimacy. Yet, while plans to reform the United Nations and other IOs in the direction of broader representation and accountability have emerged from policy debates and academic writings, they have not been implemented, and therefore the role played by NGOs continues to be marginal. Some of the proposals for reform also aim to increase the role and functions of IOs in a way that could substantially enhance their independence. IOs would then become the core institutions of a cosmopolitan democracy, rather than mere instruments of national governments. Opponents of these proposals are found not only among autocratic states but among democratic ones as well, confirming that all governments, including democratic ones, do not easily accept an encroachment on their national sovereignty.

Global Judicial Authorities

The rule of law and its enforcement is an essential component of any democratic system. Cosmopolitan democracy supports the development of a more effective global rule of law, while remaining skeptical of the enhancement of coercive supranational powers in general. Several IOs, including the European Union and the United Nations, already have complex legal norms and embryonic judicial power, although their enforcement capacity is very limited. Currently, governments suffer few penalties if they violate international norms and jurisdictions; but if these norms were to be legitimized not just by intergovernmental bodies but also by world citizens (as discussed below), it would become more costly for governments to violate them since they would risk damage to their reputations internally and internationally. There are at least three aspects of global judicial authority that should be taken into account: (1) the emerging global criminal justice system, (2) the need to strengthen legal solutions to interstate controversies, (3) and the need to provide adequate transnational administrative rules for both the public and the business sectors.

1. Criminal justice

The creation of several ad hoc international courts and, above all, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has raised expectations for holding egregious criminals, including politicians, accountable for their actions, and developments in this area have arguably created a new branch of international law.Footnote 18 Indeed, the ICC is the most significant institutional innovation introduced in the post–cold war era. Though a step in the right direction, much could still be done to make the Court fully operative and to induce all countries to accept its jurisdiction. But it is already possible to assess its first few years of activity.Footnote 19 To date, the ICC has mostly acted on suspected African culprits, and on insurgents fighting against, and denounced by, incumbent governments (the case opened against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is a significant exception). In the Libyan case, by the time the ICC indicted Muammar Qaddafi and his closest collaborators, NATO's military intervention against the regime was already under way. All investigations undertaken are well documented, but the range of the cases the ICC has taken on remains highly selective. If the current pattern continues, there is a danger that the ICC will be perceived as an instrument of incumbent governments against rebels and as part of a legacy of Western colonial dominance.

Those who hoped that the ICC could also be an instrument used in defense of the weaker against the most powerful have so far been disappointed; for example, nobody has been held responsible by the ICC for the war crimes committed by occupation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Consequently, the Court needs to balance its attention to include cases in which the crimes are committed by Westerners. (The fact that the Kampala Review Conference on the Rome Statute of the ICC has established that aggression—a crime that could seriously concern Western statesmen—will be under its jurisdiction after 2017, and yet that the prosecutor can intervene only with the consent of both the aggressed and aggressing parties, shows that we are still far away from an impartial global criminal justice system.Footnote 20) The operations of the ICC could therefore be complemented and reinforced by other bottom-up initiatives, such as opinion tribunals, which, though possibly selective and politically motivated, are less influenced by diplomatic negotiations and could call attention to cases that have been overlooked by both publics and official criminal courts.Footnote 21

2. Lawful conflict resolutions

Interest in the ICC has somewhat overshadowed an equally important problem—namely, the need to address interstate controversies through legal instruments. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the body within the UN system tasked with addressing these controversies, is highly underused. This is mostly because it can be activated only when both parties in a dispute are willing to accept its jurisdiction. Unfortunately, this happens very rarely, and too often the ICJ is activated for relatively insignificant controversies. If one reads the sentences and opinions provided by the ICJ in order to get a sense of major interstate conflicts during the last sixty years, one would have a very distorted view of recent world history. The Vietnam War, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Iraq War, the recurrent war crimes committed by states, the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and many other key international controversies have not received any attention from the ICJ for the very simple reason that states were not willing to submit core cases to its judgment. A major expansion of the global rule of law would require empowering the ICJ with compulsory jurisdiction, making it not just a sort of “referee” among two states but a proper tribunal.Footnote 22 This is a change that each state can implement individually; and, in fact, sixty-six states have already voluntarily accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ.Footnote 23 This does not necessarily imply that the ICJ would have the power to enforce its own judgments. But even in the absence of enforcement, a ruling in which the UN judicial authority clearly declares which states have violated international law would have an important impact on international relations.

3. International administrative courts

One of the most notable trends in international law is the development of judicial or semi-judicial authorities for administrative purposes and the business sector. Rather than using national courts, both public and private players prefer to activate elements of lex mercatoria (the global framework of commercial law) and to use special courts set up for the purpose of hearing such cases. This new network of judicial institutions is in fact replicating, at the global level, the functions of the state: namely, arbitrating in cases of controversy.Footnote 24 At the same time, these legal developments show that there are ways to address conflicts and obtain their resolution without using coercive power of last resort. Nonviolent sanctions (such as those authorized by the World Trade Organization for trade retaliation) are one alternative.

Citizen Participation in Global Politics

Cosmopolitan democracy advocates giving citizens political representation in assemblies parallel to and independent from those of their national political institutions. There is a wealth of proposals aimed at creating such representative bodies, but the most straightforward way to achieve the goal of broad representation would be to create a world parliamentary assembly similar in composition to the European Parliament. Such an institution would be the natural and most effective way to allow global citizens to deliberate on common issues.Footnote 25 While some proposals aim to create a directly elected body, others suggest empowering the nongovernmental organizations that are already recognized and participate in UN activities.Footnote 26 Whichever form it takes, such an organ is unlikely to have effective powers (at least in the short and medium term). Nevertheless, even if it were simply a deliberative forum reflecting global public opinion, it could play an important role in identifying and addressing policies of global concern. This assembly would not necessarily be involved in every aspect of global political life, but it could concentrate on the most relevant and pressing issues—for example, those with a high impact on global life (such as the environment) or those with huge political significance (such as major violations of human rights). On some occasions, the world parliamentary assembly could provide suggestions about the most appropriate constituency to address issues that cut across borders. Such a new institution would complement the UN General Assembly and could work in close connection with it. It could provide political representation in global affairs to individuals and groups that are so far deprived of it: ethnic or political minorities within states, stateless groups, immigrants, refugees, and, more important, peoples who still live under authoritarian regimes.Footnote 27 Its usefulness will not just be for groups at the margins of political representation; individuals living in consolidated democracies would also have the advantage of engaging with a new level of governance and representation.Footnote 28

Political Communities Without Boundaries

Deliberative communities are not necessarily based on a territorially contiguous space. Increasingly, there are areas in which political problems are nonterritorial or involve stakeholders in very different capacities.Footnote 29 Professional associations, ethnic communities, or groups of citizens linked by common diseases or by strong economic interactions may be willing to address the problems that affect them directly through democratic procedures. The capacity to address these challenges is strongly limited by the current representation of interests in world politics, whereby most foreign affairs issues are addressed by national governments. While many of these specific groups have neither an interest in nor the capacity to claim sovereignty over a given territory, they may nevertheless find it necessary to have a political space that is recognized by states and international organizations.Footnote 30 The number of transnational actors that are in charge of specific domains is increasing, as is the number of administrative bodies involving both public and business members. Transnational movements for social justice, such as, for example, fair trade initiatives, have already experimented with many ways to link players across borders.Footnote 31

Recognizing the importance of nonterritorially bounded political communities composed of individuals with common interests raises a crucial question for political theory: who are the legitimate stakeholders? For good or bad, the current international system provides a straightforward answer: it is the state that decides who the citizens are and how to represent their interests on the international scene. In cases of other forms of political representation, it will be much more difficult to decide who has the authority to identify the stakeholders. For example, who are the stakeholders of the oil industrial complex? We can name the shareholders of the oil companies, the employees of the industry, the consumers of the industrial products, and the citizens of oil-producing countries, among many others. All of them are legitimate stakeholders, and even if there is an attempt to differentiate among primary and secondary stakeholders,Footnote 32 it is still an open question what relative weight each should have in the political process. In some cases stakeholders themselves will find a given system of representation congenial to their interests, but in more controversial cases it is likely that they will need to rely on an external assignment of competences and electoral weights. A world parliamentary assembly may be the instrument that could minimize political exclusion, providing political representation to all citizens. As mentioned above, in cases of contrasting claims, it may also suggest the appropriate political communities for deliberation and decision-making on specific functional issues. (For example, is whale hunting just a national problem or should it be addressed by a larger number of stakeholders? Are users sufficiently represented in the governance of the Internet? If the existing governing devices are inappropriate, who should be called to deliberate and decide?)


We have briefly discussed a number of areas and institutions that we believe could make world politics more democratic. It is now important to ask: which political and social agents might have an interest in obtaining these changes? And, related to this, which political and social agents are likely to mobilize to achieve these changes? Political change occurs when there are interests at stake and agents willing to mobilize. Of course, it should not be expected that there is a perfect overlap between the interests of groups in political change and the willingness of these same groups to mobilize to achieve change. In assessing the social and political agents of cosmopolitan democracy, we will take into account their resources, the channels they have available to access and shape world politics, and the motivation they may have in acting in selected domains.Footnote 33

The Dispossessed

The first group of agents with an interest in minimizing exclusion in world politics and gaining greater access to decision-making are the dispossessed, those who Frantz Fanon labeled the “wretched of the earth.”Footnote 34 These people are concentrated in underdeveloped countries, have very low living standards, and are more vulnerable to environmental, economic, and political crises. A significant part of this group has also experienced major political instabilities associated with failed states. This group has also been called “the bottom billion,” but perhaps its number is even higher.Footnote 35 The dispossessed rely heavily on the support provided by international agencies and donors. The structural weakness of this group does not allow it to be heard directly in world politics, to reach world markets, or even to participate actively in domestic politics. If the voice of the dispossessed is heard at all in global forums it is because of desperate actions, humanitarian catastrophes, or because other players, such as international relief agencies, NGOs, and civil society groups, report their needs and opinions.Footnote 36 The dispossessed even rely on Western celebrities as their spokespersons.Footnote 37

In principle, this is the group of people that would benefit most from a cosmopolitan democracy. Within states the dispossessed obtained substantial advantages when they achieved the franchise; and empowering them with political rights in world institutions could be an important step in improving their bargaining power vis-à-vis other social groups. Although politically, economically, and socially weak, the dispossessed are the largest social group that could benefit from cosmopolitan democracy, and eventually they may be a crucial pressure group for change.


Migration flows motivated by economic opportunities are generating major changes in affluent countries, and most migrants move to countries that are not only wealthier but also have democratic regimes. Authorized immigrants are seldom guaranteed the same economic, social, and, above all, political rights as the citizens of the host countries, while unauthorized immigrants can have no rights at all. Immigrants have on occasion engaged in forms of civil disobedience, such as the Great American Boycott on May 1, 2006, in the United StatesFootnote 38 or the Sans-Papiers movement in France and other European countries.Footnote 39 Immigrants are not isolated, and they have often been supported by civil society groups, European trade unions, and other organizations, creating a social and political coalition supporting their rights.Footnote 40 The immediate target of these protesters is the government of the host countries, but these protests go far beyond national boundaries and are linked to a general claim about freedom of movement.Footnote 41

Most democratic states are also monitored by IOs that assess their human rights regimes, including the treatment of aliens. Individual EU member states, for example, have often been reproached by the EU and the Council of Europe for unfair treatment of immigrants. Immigrants have a clear interest in making states and international organizations operate in line with cosmopolitan norms, since this would ensure that aliens have similar rights to citizens and freedom of movement. They also have some bargaining power since advanced countries depend on their labor.

Cosmopolitan Groups

There are some groups that are already sociologically “cosmopolitan.” Some rock stars, football players, and actors have not only become global icons but already live in conditions that make national boundaries irrelevant to them. While these icons are the most visible “cosmopolitans,” they are certainly not alone: the cosmopolitan group also includes a variety of intellectuals, businessmen, public officers, and social activists. Both as a group and as individuals, these people have often attracted the hostility of nationalistic and totalitarian leaderships.Footnote 42 It is not easy to identify the size of this cosmopolitan group and even more difficult to measure the extent to which it simply comprises privileged elites. It is, however, possible to distinguish between two relevant analytical factors: that is, between having a personal cosmopolitan lifestyle and holding cosmopolitan values. The cosmopolitan democracy project needs more support from the latter than from the former.

The available empirical evidence shows that as many as 15 percent of the world's inhabitants perceive their principal identity as post-national (either regional or cosmopolitan), compared with 38 percent who privilege their national identity and 47 percent their local identity.Footnote 43 Moreover, identification with “the global” increases among young people and those with a higher educational level, suggesting that in the near future cosmopolitan identity might become considerably more important. It could be argued that it is the privileged elites who hold these cosmopolitan values, but this assumption is disproved by other empirical evidence, which, on the contrary, indicates that the share of cosmopolitan values is spread evenly between elites and the population at large.Footnote 44 The existence of cosmopolitan values does not, of course, necessarily translate into political mobilization, but if and when it does, it could resonate with a considerable proportion of the world population.

It is often stated that cosmopolitanism is a Western project supported by privileged elites. It is true that, so far, the agenda of the democratization of global governance has predominantly been written in the West and by Western advocates. A major attempt to gauge the international public's understanding of, and requirements for, global democracy is the ongoing project of Building Global Democracy, directed by Jan Aart Scholte at the University of Warwick.Footnote 45 The results of this project, along with a variety of other rapidly developing initiatives, will allow scholars and policy-makers to identify the most significant differences between a Western and non-Western vision of cosmopolitan democracy and, if need be, reconceptualize the aims of the project.

Global Stakeholders and Global Civil Society

Political mobilization in favor of a more progressive world politics rests on two important and often overlapping groups: global stakeholders and global civil society. Global stakeholders include sectors of governance, networks, and social movements, as well as other groups with specific sectoral interests. These groupings do not necessarily overlap with established political communities or receive a mandate from states, but they are very active and have considerable mobilizing and lobbying capacity that they can direct at both national authorities and international institutions. Often these global stakeholders are better informed, technically more competent, and certainly more motivated to pursue their agenda than their national or international counterparts.Footnote 46 As might be expected, in many areas stakeholders have managed to secure key decision-making positions and can even act as suppliers of global governance without an explicit delegation: crucial stakeholders may be active in financial services as much as in health care, air-traffic control, and education. Some of them may pursue an agenda aimed at facilitating secure business transactions and others at providing health care, education, and other global public goods.

Stakeholders aiming to produce and distribute global public goods are dispersed and less organized than stakeholders motivated by specific and concentrated aims. The latter often have more lobbying capacity and availability of resources than the former, and manage to get their agenda discussed in traditional intergovernmental forums more than the former. Stakeholders aiming at producing global public goods frequently have no voice in official settings and have to rely on their political mobilizing capacity to make their case public. In addition, the participation of these global stakeholders has to balance different factors: the more inclusive they are, the more difficult it can be to ensure transparency and accountability, never mind direct participation, effective deliberation, and representation.Footnote 47

Mary Kaldor and her collaborators have described and mapped another important player that overlaps with stakeholders: global civil society, which they define as “the existence of a social sphere above and beyond national, regional, or local societies.”Footnote 48 Global civil society is often the most vocal supporter of progressive changes in world politics, including the democratization of global governance and IO reform.Footnote 49 Nongovernmental organizations and other players have become increasingly important in setting the agenda of global politics, and often also in delivering public goods in areas of crisis. Global civil society is, according to Kaldor and her colleagues, also transforming the canons of international politics, frequently providing more effective solutions to local problems than national governments or even international organizations, and acting as a powerful counterweight to traditional power politics. The “politics from below” pursued by global civil society often pushes for a different organization of interests at the various levels of policy—local, national, and global.

Global Political Parties

Political parties continue to be mostly national in scope and it is hardly surprising that they have been at the fringe of global studies.Footnote 50 But it is increasingly difficult for political parties to limit themselves to domestic agendas and domestic publics when political processes increasingly have a global dimension. So far, the tension between the national orientation of political parties and the global scope of politics has largely remained unsolved. Even when political parties have a transnational affiliation, as is the case of the Socialist International, the Centrist Democrat International, and the Liberal International, the loyalty of the members is low and political priorities are largely dictated by national interests rather than by the international parties' ideology. The area where international political parties appear to be more effective is in addressing the functions of international organizations. The Socialist International, for example, has already published a wide-ranging document on UN reform, and has urged fellow party members in national governments to support the proposals actively.Footnote 51

Global politics is transforming political parties and it is often reshaping their agendas.Footnote 52 Traditional national parties have increasingly to deal with global issues, while new focus-based political parties, such as the Greens, are more likely to develop stringent transnational programs, perhaps because they are oriented predominantly toward a single issue. Transnational social movements, such as those associated with the World Social Forum, are somehow starting to resemble nascent global parties since they have a common political platform, coordinate their political actions, and enjoy permanent international secretariats.Footnote 53 And there are also growing platforms for regional political parties. Within the European Union, parties have enhanced their international coordination, and this is associated with the powers and functions of the EU as well as with the existence of the only directly elected international assembly: the European Parliament. In fact, in the European Parliament national parties are organized within European groups. This is far from reflecting a genuine Westminster-style majority and opposition, but it still provides a sense that, certainly at the European level, there are different political options that are not just the expression of national interests but can correspond to broader values. The European example indicates that institutions do shape the ways in which interests are organized.

Trade Unions and Labor Movements

The labor movement is seriously challenged by economic globalization. It built its political power at the national level when, in alliance with left-wing political parties, it managed to guarantee labor rights, labor standards, and the welfare protection of the lower and middle classes. Ideologically, however, the labor movement always had an internationalist standpoint, as shown by its mobilization against many wars and many instances of colonialism. One of the most important challenges for the movement in the twenty-first century is to help guarantee adequate standards of living and economic and social rights to the working classes in a global economy dominated by multinational corporations and high mobility of capital.Footnote 54 The labor movement's mandate to defend wages and jobs at the national level is now in tension with notions of the transnational solidarity of the working class. This tension is reflected in the ambivalent attitude of various labor groups toward trade liberalization and migration. Many trade unions have been actively involved in defending the labor rights of immigrants, but some of them have been hostile to uncontrolled trade liberalization and inflows of labor when these threaten to reduce employment and wage levels.

How could the labor movement face the much better-equipped transnational business sector? The differences in labor costs and labor rights at the world are still so high that it is difficult to create an effective alliance linking labor interests in countries as different as Sweden and China, or the United States and India. One attempt has been to standardize and upgrade labor standards through the International Labour Organization and to prevent unfair trade practices through the World Trade Organization. Expanding labor rights to include social and economic rights, and ultimately political rights, in global forums might allow the movement to become a powerful agent in democratizing global governance.

Multinational Corporations

Multinational corporations (MNCs) are formidable players and drivers of the global economy. A few hundred MNCs account for a very large share of gross world product, employment, trade, and technology. To secure materials, to organize their production, and to reach markets, MNCs need to overcome institutional barriers, including barriers to trade, capital movements, and migration. MNCs are also very efficient in lobbying to protect their interests, and they have shown their capacity to shape global governance in line with their interests, much as they have done in shaping the policies of individual national governments.

Some scholars believe that MNCs will always act against the democratization of global governance since they can satisfy their agenda with lobbying or functional networking, rather than with transparent and accountable policy-making.Footnote 55 This is certainly part of the story. But not all MNCs' interests are convergent, and often their agendas also need effective and accountable global governance, notably in some core areas, such as telecommunications, transportation, standards-setting, crime prevention, and law enforcement. In the area of business law and property rights, the lack of appropriate transnational jurisdiction often makes transactions less certain and more risky. In such cases, MNCs push for transnational legislation and law enforcement. They are also making increased use of international arbitration and public or semipublic judicial powers. While it cannot be expected that MNCs will develop an interest in promoting cosmopolitan democracy, they may pursue a limited agenda of strengthening global governance in core areas of their interest, mostly in the area of regulation and administrative law.Footnote 56


The two previous sections have presented two lists, neither of which pretends to be comprehensive. The first is a list of actions that can be taken to advance cosmopolitan democracy. The second is a list of the political and social agents that may have an interest in or an ideological motivation to introduce greater transparency, accountability, and participation in global governance. Of course, the various players do not necessarily have an ultimate and coherent agenda for pursuing the democratization of global governance; their agency is often dominated by mixed motives. Table 2, below, displays the agents and paths that might pursue cosmopolitan democracy. We have tried to link each agent with specific changes and advocacy areas. We do not underestimate the strength of the opposition to changes in global governance. Many players do not have an interest in increasing accountability, transparency, and participation, and inertial forces often tend to prevail. But the table suggests that the vision of a cosmopolitan democracy has roots in current economic, social, and political processes, and that the cosmopolitan project has social and political anchors.

Table 2 Paths and agents of cosmopolitan democracy

This exploration of possible paths and agents has also provided the opportunity to qualify the nature of the cosmopolitan democracy project: it aims to analyze current transformations, to identify the areas where institutional innovations are needed and possible, to foster linkages between issues and actors, and to understand what the main political players require. Yet it has not presented (nor could it present) a fixed final set of goals, since we are convinced that history will continue to surprise even the most optimistic thinker. And the world will continue to adjust routinely to the evolution of politics. It is perhaps this suppleness that is the very essence of democratic thought and practice.

We are well aware that interests concerning an expansion of democracy at the global level are highly fragmented and in many cases contradictory. Nevertheless, the interests against more democratic forms of global governance are also fragmented and contradictory. The traditional sites of power controlled by national governments find it more and more difficult to provide satisfactory answers to emerging global problems, and this is creating mounting dissatisfaction with traditional political arrangements, and prompting a search for new departures from them. We also believe that ideological motivations should not be underestimated. In the twenty-first century, democracy has become the sole legitimate form of exercising power. Developed in the Western world, democracy is increasingly appealing to peoples in the South, as popular mobilizations in countries as diverse as Egypt and Myanmar indicate. It will be difficult for Western countries to continue to advocate democracy as the only legitimate type of domestic political regime if they are not at the same time willing to ensure that global issues meet some democratic norms and values.

To what extent can the actions and the players in the table be labeled “top-down” or “bottom-up”? The very idea of democracy rests on a bottom-up struggle to make political power accountable. But this bottom-up process is not necessarily fostered only by bottom-up pressures. We know that those in the English, American, French, and Russian revolutions fought in the hope of empowering a variety of diverse social groups, many of which had their own interests and certainly did not correspond to a simple model of emancipating the masses. But, as we saw with the end of the cold war, political change also occurs through more spontaneous means; and even lighter ties among individuals, associations, and unofficial political movements may generate a snowball effect of unpredictable consequences. The end of the cold war and the reunification of Europe provide a powerful example that the unpredictable might occur again.Footnote 57



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28 The Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly has even prospected the electoral systems and the number of deputies of such a world parliament. See See also Iglesias, Fernando, Globalizar la democracia: Por un Parlamento Mundial (Buenos Aires: Manantial, 2006)Google Scholar.

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37 Paradigmatic cases are George Clooney as a campaigner for Darfur and Angelina Jolie as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

38 On May 1, 2006, immigrants in the United States boycotted businesses, shops, and schools to show how important their presence was to the American economy and society.

39 The Sans-Papiers (“without documents”) movement started in France in April 2007 when a group of undocumented immigrants occupied the Church Saint Paul in Massy, claiming their right to be regularized.

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49 Scholte, “Civil Society and Democracy in Global Governance.”

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53 See Heikki Patomaki and Teivo Teivainen, “Researching Global Political Parties,” in Sehm-Patomaki and Ulvila, eds., Global Political Parties.

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Figure 0

Table 1 Types of democracy and their connections with cosmopolitan democracy

Figure 1

Table 2 Paths and agents of cosmopolitan democracy