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Democratism: Towards an explanatory approach to international politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2018

Hans Agné*
Associate Professor, Political Science, Stockholm University
*Correspondence to: Hans Agné, Department of Political Science, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. Author’s email:


International politics has often been viewed as a brutal place where might trumps right and where, as a consequence, questions of democracy are irrelevant to ask. In the last decades, however, scholars and political leaders have increasingly suggested that elements of democracy exist in governance beyond individual states. If this is so, how does democracy beyond the state shape international politics? This article suggests conceptual preliminaries for theorising consequences of democracy beyond the state in general and their implications for problems of peace and conflict in particular. The purpose is twofold: first, to begin reconstructing existing normative democratic theory into an explanatory perspective sensitive to international politics; second, to indicate how this new perspective is able to explain empirical observations pertaining to conflict and cooperation among states; international institutions; foreign policies; human rights protection; and the violence of transnational terrorist networks.

Research Article
© British International Studies Association 2018 

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1 Conceptualisations of democracy beyond the state include those offered by, for example, Held, David, Democracy and the Global Order (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 1995)Google Scholar; Gould, Carol, Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Multitude (New York: Penguin Books, 2005); Bohman, James, Democracy Across Borders (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007)Google Scholar; Dryzek, John S. and Niemeyer, Simon, ‘Discursive representation’, American Political Science Review, 102:4 (2008), pp. 481493 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Macdonald, Terry, Global Stakeholder Democracy: Power and Representation Beyond Liberal States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Archibugi, Daniele, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Empirical observations thereof are suggested, for example, by Zweifel, Thomas D., International Organizations and Democracy (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 2006)Google Scholar; Smith, Jackie, Social Movements for Global Democracy (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Steffek, Jens, Kissling, Claudia, and Nanz, Patrizia, Civil Society Participation in European and Global Governance: A Cure for the Democratic Deficit? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scholte, Jan Aart (ed.), Building Global Democracy? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Levi, Lucio, Finizio, Giovanni, and Vallinoto, Nicola (eds), The Democratization of International Institutions (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014)Google Scholar; Kuyper, Jonathan W., ‘Systemic representation: Democracy, deliberation, and non-electoral representatives’, American Political Science Review, 110:2 (2016), pp. 308324 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A related literature addresses the discint topic of how international politics affects democracy in domestic politics; see, for example, Kaiser, Karl, ‘Transnational relations as a threat to the democratic process’, International Organization, 25:3 (1971), pp. 706720 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Agné, Hans, Democracy Reconsidered: The Prospects of its Theory and Practice During Internationalisation – Britain, France, Sweden and the EU (Stockholm, Department of Political Science, 2004)Google Scholar; Keohane, Robert, Macedo, Stephen, and Moravcsik, Andrew, ‘Democracy-enhancing multilateralism’, International Organization, 63:1 (2009), pp. 130 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Some authors discuss consequences of DBS for normative purposes without developing causal explanations or testable hypotheses, for example, Bohman, Democracy Across Borders. Hayley Stevenson moves the disucssion further in ‘The wisdom of the many in global governance: an epistemic-democratic defence of diversity and inclusion’, International Studies Quarterly, 60:3 (2016), pp. 400–12, but remains occupied with normative implications rather explanations of empirical matters. Some of my own earlier work has addressed the effects of DBS but in too narrow terms – for example, ‘Does global democracy matter? Hypotheses on famine and war’, in Christer Jönsson and Jonas Tallberg (eds), Transnational Actors in Global Governance: Patterns, Explanations, and Implications (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 177–96; ‘Accountability’s effect: Reaction speed and legitimacy in global governance’, Global Governance, 22:4 (2016), pp. 575–94; and ‘Does stakeholder involvement foster democratic legitimacy in international organizations? An empirical assessment of a normative theory’, Review of International Organizations, 10:4 (2015), pp. 465–88, with Lisa Maria Dellmuth and Jonas Tallberg.

3 Please see fn. 1.

4 See, for example, Crouch, Colin Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 2004)Google Scholar.

5 See, for example, Held, Democracy and the Global Order.

6 See, for example, Waltz, Kenneth N., Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979)Google Scholar; Keohane, Robert O., After Hegemony (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lake, David A., Hierarchy in International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. Headly Bull gives brief attention to the comsopolitan idea of a world order constituted by human individuals, but as a description of politics he dismisses it; see The Anarchical Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), pp. 81–2.

7 See, for example, Russett, Bruce M., Grasping the Democratic Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Mansfield, Edward D., Milner, Helen V., and Peter Rosendorff, B., ‘Why democracies cooperate more: Electoral control and international trade agreements’, International Organization, 56:3 (2002), pp. 477513 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pevehouse, Jon and Russett, Bruce, ‘Democratic international governmental organizations promote peace’, International Organization, 60:4 (2006), pp. 9691000 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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15 Sen, Amartya, ‘Democracy as a universal value’, Journal of Democracy, 10:3 (1999), pp. 317 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Ibid.

17 Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace.

18 Walt, Stephen M., ‘International relations: One world, many theories’, Foreign Policy, 110 (1998), pp. 2946 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Snyder, Jack, ‘One world, rival theories’, Foreign Policy, 145 (2004), pp. 5362 Google Scholar.

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21 While the difference between positive and normative theory is not clear-cut, upholding the very distinction is necessary for researchers not to impose their own values on their subjects of research.

22 Näsström, Sofia, ‘What globalization overshadows’, Political Theory, 31:6 (2003), pp. 808834 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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27 For the importance of resource distribution for DBS, see Dingwerth, Klaus, ‘Global democracy and the democratic minimum: Why a procedural account alone is insufficient’, European Journal of International Relations, 20:4 (2014), pp. 11241147 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 For the importance of globally representative public debates for DBS, see Dryzek and Niemeyer, ‘Discursive representation’ and later sections.

29 For the importance of self-organised cross-border activism for DBS, see Aart Scholte (ed.), Building Global Democracy.

30 See, for example, Zweifel, International Organizations and Democracy.

31 See, for example, Macdonald, Global Stakeholder Democracy.

32 See, for example, Held, Democracy and the Global Order.

33 See, for example, Bull, The Anarchical Society; Waltz, Theory of International Politics; Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics.

34 Dahl, Robert, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

35 Ross, Alf, Why Democracy? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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37 Lake, Hierarchy in International Relations.

38 Wiener, Antje, Lang, Anthony F., Tully, James, Miguel Poiares, Maduro, and Kumm, Mattias, ‘Global constitutionalism: Human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, Global Constitutionalism, 1:1 (2011), pp. 115 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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40 See conceptions of democracy as different as those suggested in Macdonald, Global Stakeholder Democracy; Wolin, Sheldon, ‘Fugitive democracy’, Constellations, 1:1 (1994), pp. 1125 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bohman, Democracy Across Borders; Abensour, Miguel, Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Movement (Cambridge: Polity, 2011)Google Scholar.

41 Goodin, ‘Enfranchising all affected interests, and its alternatives’, p. 50.

42 Fraser, Nancy, Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 6465 Google Scholar.

43 Bohman, Democracy Across Borders, p. 12.

44 Linz, Juan J. and Stephan, Alfred, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 27 Google Scholar; Collier, David and Levitsky, Steven, ‘Democracy with adjectives: Conceptual innovation in comparative research’, World Politics, 49:3 (1997), pp. 430451 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The condition of possibility for democracy assumed in these literatures is that a political order, including political borders, exists already.

45 See, for example, Kalyvas, Andreas, Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 See, for example, Weale, Albert, Democracy (2nd edn, Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 18 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Beetham, David, Democracy and Human Rights (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992)Google Scholar, ch. 1.

47 Thucydides, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, ed. Jeremy Mynott (Cambridge Books Online), p. 111, available at: {} accessed 18 November 2016; Dahl, Democracy and its Critics, pp. 1, 17.

48 Abizadeh, Arash, ‘On the demos and its kin: Nationalism, democracy, and the boundary problem’, American Political Science Review, 106:4 (2012), pp. 867882 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Agné, Hans, ‘Why democracy must be global: Self-founding and foreign intervention’, International Theory, 2:3 (2010), pp. 381409 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 All normative democratic theorists will not be equally persuaded by the usefulness of the selected definition of democracy, but see in particular Tännsjö, Torbjörn, Global Democracy: the Case for a World Government (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Stevenson, ‘The wisdom of the many in global governance’.

51 May, Kenneth O., ‘A set of independent, necessary, and sufficient conditions for simple majority decisions’, in Brian Barry and Russel Hardin (eds) Rational Man and Irrational Society? An Introduction and Sourcebook (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1982 [orig. pub. 1952]), pp. 299–301Google Scholar.

52 The logic of this argument is reversed in comparison with the more common theory that stipulates political equality as a normative principle before generating rule by the largest group as an implication in the domain of decision-making (for example, Beetham, Democracy and Human Rights, ch. 1).

53 For qualifications with no implications for this argument, see Saunders, Ben, ‘Democracy, political equality, and majority rule’, Ethics, 121:1 (2010), pp. 148177 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Beetham, Democracy and Human Rights.

55 Again, the logic of the argument is reversed in comparison with the more common conception that rule by the largest group (in some form) is an implication of political freedom or autonomy, for example, in Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Regh (Cambridge: Polity, 1992).

56 Walt, ‘International relations’; Snyder, ‘One world, rival theories’.

57 Ibid.

58 For the moment, power may be defined in broad relational terms as the ability to achieve outcomes.

59 The difference in political power between individuals in the big states in Spaces 1 and 3 can be interpreted as generated by varying access among individuals to transnational resources, such as prestige or investment opportunities. The fact that the big states are equally powerful in all spaces, despite difference in the sum total of the powers held by their citizen, can be interpreted as individuals having powers not accessible for their territorial states. The fact that in Space 3 one state is more powerful than the other two without consequences for the international power of the individuals constitutive of the weaker states implies that the big state in this case does not or cannot act as an empire in relation to the individuals of the other states. That is, the superior international power of the biggest state in Space 3 is limited to political outcomes that have no necessary implication for the political power of individuals. Empirical examples of this concept may be contested but suggestively include powers to shape rules on trade, diplomacy, and international law.

60 Some approximation to a democratic international structure could be observed in the global civil society campaign, which was in fact important for the establishment of the ICC. See Glasius, Marlies, Expertise in the Cause of Justice: Global Civil Society Influence on the Statute for an International Criminal Court (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

61 Schabas, William A., An Introduction to the International Criminal Court (4th edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 2534 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 See, for example, Mearsheimer, John, ‘The gathering storm: China’s challenge to US power in Asia’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3:4 (2010), pp. 381396 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 Tammen, Ronald L. and Kugler, Jacek, ‘Power transition and China–US conflicts’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 1:1 (2006), pp. 3555 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 For a more detailed discussion, see Buzan, Barry, ‘China in international society: is “peaceful rise” possible?’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3:1 (2010), pp. 2325 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 This familiar argument applies no less to transnational groups than it does, for example, to individual fishermen who self-regulate their use of a natural resource. On the latter, see Elinor Ostrom, ‘A behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action: Presidential address, American Political Science Association, 1997’, American Political Science Review, 92:1 (1998), pp. 1–22.

66 Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders; True, Jacqui and Mintrom, Michael, ‘Transnational networks and policy diffusion: the case of gender mainstreaming’, International Studies Quarterly, 45:1 (2001), pp. 2757 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 The thesis of a more assertive Chinese foreign policy is debunked by Johnston, Iain Alastair, ‘Is China a status quo power?’, International Security, 27:4 (2003), pp. 556 CrossRefGoogle Scholar and again by Jerdén, Björn, ‘The assertive China narrative: Why it is wrong and how so many still bought into it’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 7:1 (2014), pp. 4788 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. While these analyses stop before the Xi Jinping regime (2013), the expectation that the rise will intensify international conflict had been around for two decades at that point in time already; see Kristof, Nicholas D., ‘The rise of China’, Foreign Affairs, 72:5 (1993), pp. 5974 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the pacifying effects of Chinese embeddedness in regional and global governance, see Kent, Ann, ‘China’s international socialization: the role of international organizations’, Global Governance, 8:3 (2002), pp. 343364 Google Scholar; Ikenberry, John, ‘The rise of China and the future of the West: Can the liberal system survive?’, Foreign Affairs, 87:1 (2008), pp. 2337 Google Scholar.

68 Herz, John H., Political Realism and Political Idealism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)Google Scholar.

69 See, for example, Held, Democracy and the Global Order.

70 See, for example, Dingwerth, ‘Global democracy and the democratic minimum’.

71 See, for example, Steffek, Kissling, and Nanz, Civil Society Participation in European and Global Governance.

72 Arcbibugi, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens.

73 By specifying its general concept of structure, research guided by democratism may subsume arguments about the power-distribution in widely different institutions, for example, a formal parliament on the one hand and informal communication systems on the other, and compare their different effects.

74 Keck and Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders, pp. 18–20, 116–17.

75 Cooley, Alexander and Ron, James, ‘The NGO scramble: Organizational insecurity and the political economy of transnational action’, International Security, 27:1 (2002), pp. 539 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 I do not use the near-synonymous and more common term ‘actors’ in this context in order to emphasise the logical possibility that interactions across borders may reflect the intentions or interests of a single broadly inclusive political subject.

77 See, for example, Deborah D. Avant, ‘Pragmatic networks and transnational governance of private military and seecurity services’, International Studies Quarterly, published online (18 February 2016), available at: {DOI:}.

78 Regardless of whether constructivism refers to shared ideas and values or – as in more recent extensions of the theory – to norm contestation (cf. Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, International Organization, 52:4 (1998), pp. 887917 CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Krook, Mona Lena and True, Jacqui, ‘Rethinking the life cycles of international norms: The United Nations and the global promotion of gender equality’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:1 (2012), pp. 103127)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 See, for example, Risse, ‘“Let’s argue!”’; Mitzen, ‘Reading Habermas in anarchy’, but not Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics.

80 Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics.

81 Stuart Mill, John, Considerations on Representative Government (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991 [orig. pub. 1861])Google Scholar.

82 Karl Marx, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, in Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume I (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969 [orig. pub. 1848]), pp. 98–137, available at: {}.

83 List, Christian and Goodin, Robert, ‘Epistemic democracy: Generalizing the Condorcet jury theorem’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 9:3 (2001), pp. 277306 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Estlund, David, Democratic Authority (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Stevenson, ‘The wisdom of the many in global governance’.

84 Näsström, Sofia, ‘The legitimacy of the people’, Political Theory, 35:5 (2007), pp. 624658 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

85 Hardt and Negri, Multitude.

86 Macdonald, Global Stakeholder Democracy.

87 Bohman, Democracy Across Borders.

88 Smith, Roger, ‘The principle of constituted interests and the obligation to include’, Ethics & Global Politics, 1:3 (2008), pp. 139153 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 List, Christian and Koenig-Archibugi, Mathias, ‘Can there be a global demos? An agency-based approach’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 38:1 (2010), pp. 76110 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

90 Other noted political subjects in the literature such as ‘transnational advocacy networks’, ‘global civil society’, and ‘world public opinion’ may but need not instantiate democracy as specified in Figures 1 and 2.

91 For a helpful news article, see David J. Lunch, ‘Trump’s unpredictability on foreign policy keeps world guessing: Disregard for diplomatic protocol by incoming president makes him difficult to read’, Financial Times (19 January 2017).

93 See Mueller, John, The Remnants of War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Goldstein, Joshua S., Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (New York: Dutton, 2011)Google Scholar; Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes (London: Allen Lane, 2011)Google Scholar.

94 For this and other arguments, see Mueller, The Remnants of War and the Human Security Report 2009/2010; Goldstein, The War against War.

95 Tonnesson, Stein, Explaining the East Asian Peace: A Research Story (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017)Google Scholar.

98 Archibugi, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens, ch. 6.

99 Held, David, McGrew, Anthony, Goldblatt, David, and Perraton, Johathan, Global Transformations: Politics, Economics, and Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000)Google Scholar, ch. 1.

100 Mill, Considerations on Representative Government.

101 The Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organisation: Information Brochure November 2014, available at: {} accessed 22 September 2017.

102 Cf. Fearon, James D., ‘Rationalist explanations for war’, International Organization, 49:3 (1995), pp. 379414 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

104 Goldstein, Winning the War on War.

103 Ibid., p. 16, using data from PRIO (the Peace Research Institute of Oslo).

105 Walgrave, Stefaan and Rucht, Dieter, ‘Introduction’, in Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht (eds), The World Says No to War: Demonstrations against the War on Iraq (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), pp. xiiixxvi CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

106 ‘Anti-Vietnam War demonstration held: the learning network’, New York Times (15 November 2011; 15 November 1969), available at: {}.

107 But couldn’t the lower conflict level in the Iraq war be explained more conventionally by the greater power preponderance of the US in that case (for example, Geller, Daniel S., ‘Power differentials and war in rival dyads’, International Studies Quarterly, 37:2 (1993), pp. 173193)CrossRefGoogle Scholar? To some extent, but not entirely. What a power preponderance theory does not explain is the seemingly stronger preference of the US to end the war in Iraq. The US did not reach its aim neither in Iraq (to create a liberal democracy and to eliminate sources of terrorism in the region), nor in Vietnam (to hinder the establishment of a communist regime in the country). It did, however, pretend to have reached a victory much more quickly in Iraq (on 1 May 2003, forty days after launching the attack). Hence, democratism, in contrast to power preponderance theory, is interesting by potentially explaining two seemingly interdependent matters: conflict levels (as indicated by casualties) and perceived war costs (as indicated by early declarations of victory and readiness to pull out despite not having accomplished the aims of war).

108 Pettersson, Therése and Wallensteen, Peter, ‘Armed conflicts, 1946–2014’, Journal of Peace Research, 52:4 (2015), pp. 536550 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 Held, David, Global Covenant: the Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), pp. xixv Google Scholar; Habermas, Jürgen, The Divided West (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), pp. 180205 Google Scholar.

92 As published in the Human Security Report 2009/2010: The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Original Data Source: UCDP/PRIO, available at: {}.

96 As published in the Human Security Report 2009/2010. Data Sources: PRIO; UCDP/HSRP Dataset; UN World Population Prospects.

97 Data retrieved from Pieter Willets, ‘The Growth in the Number of NGOs in Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations’ (2015), available at: {}.

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