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Home Opinion Toward cosmopolitan social democracy

Toward cosmopolitan social democracy

David Held - 01 September 2002

The contemporary phase of global change is transforming the very foundations of world order by reconstituting traditional forms of sovereign statehood, political community and international governance. But these processes are neither inevitable nor by any means fully secure. Globalization involves a shift away from a purely state-centric politics to a new and more complex form of multi-layered global politics. This is the basis on and through which political authority and mechanisms of regulation are being articulated and rearticulated.
As a result, the contemporary world order is best understood as a highly complex, interconnected and contested order in which the interstate system is increasingly embedded within an evolving system of multi-layered regional and global governance.  There are multiple, overlapping political processes at work at the present historical conjuncture.  At the beginning of the 21st century there are strong reasons for believing that the traditional international order of states, in E H Carr’s words, “cannot be restored, and a drastic change of outlook is unavoidable”.  Such changes of outlook are clearly delineated in the contest between the principal variants or cleavages in the politics of globalization.  The extreme ends of the political spectrum are deeply problematic.  Whereas neoliberalism simply perpetuates existing economic and political systems and offers no real solutions to the problems of market failure, the radical position appears wildly optimistic about the potential for localism to resolve, or engage with, the governance agenda generated by the forces of globalization.  How can such a politics cope with the challenges posed by overlapping communities of fate?

Alternatively,  the project of cosmopolitan social democracy can be conceived as a basis for uniting around the promotion of the impartial administration of law at the international level; greater transparency, accountability and democracy in global governance; a deeper commitment to social justice in the pursuit of a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources and human security; the protection and reinvention of community at diverse levels (from the local to the global); and the regulation of the global economy through the public management of global financial and trade flows, the provision of global public goods, and the engagement of leading stakeholders in corporate governance.  This common ground in global politics contains clear possibilities of dialogue and accommodation between different segments of the ‘globalization/anti-globalization’ political spectrum, although this is clearly contested by opinion at either end of the spectrum.  The following table summarizes what a project of cosmopolitan social democracy may look like.  It does not present an all or nothing choice, but rather lays down a direction of change with clear points of orientation, in the short and long term.

The common ground represented by cosmopolitan social democracy provides a basis for a little more optimism that global social justice is not simply a utopian goal.  Moreover, it can be conceived as establishing the necessary ethical and institutional foundations for a progressive shift in the direction of a more cosmopolitan world order.  In a world of overlapping communities and power systems, global issues are inescapable elements of the agenda of all polities.  The principal political question of our times is how these issues are best addressed or governed, and how global public goods can best be provided.  Cosmopolitan social democracy provides a framework for further thought and political action on these questions, in a domain of overlapping ideas which unites a broad body of progressive opinion.

The political space for the development of these ideas has to be made, and is being made, by the activities of all those forces that are engaged in the pursuit of the rule of law at all levels of governance; greater coordination and accountability of the leading forces of globalization; the opening up of Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) to key stakeholders and participants; greater equity in the distribution of the world’s resources; the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms; sustainable development across generations; and peaceful dispute settlement in leading geopolitical conflicts.  This is not a political project that starts from nowhere.  It is, in fact, deeply rooted in the political world shaped and formed after the Holocaust and the Second World War.  Moreover, it can be built on many of the achievements of multi-lateralism (from the founding of the UN system to the development of the EU), international law (from the human rights regime to the establishment of the International Criminal Court) and multi-layered governance (from the development of local government in cities and subnational regions to the dense web of international policy-making forums).

The story of our increasingly global order is not a singular one.  Globalization is not, and has never been, a one-dimensional phenomenon.  While there has been a massive expansion of global markets which has altered the political terrain, increasing exit options for capital of all kinds and increasing the relative power of corporate interests, the story of globalization is far from simply economic.[1]  Since 1945 there has been a significant entrenchment of cosmopolitan values concerning the equal dignity and worth of all human beings in international rules and regulations; the reconnection of international law and morality, as sovereignty is no longer merely cast as effective power but increasingly as legitimate authority defined in terms of the maintenance of human rights and democratic values; the establishment of complex governance systems, regional and global; and the growing recognition that the public good - whether conceived as financial stability, environmental protection, or global egalitarianism - requires coordinated multilateral action if it is to be achieved in the long term.[2]  These developments need to be and can be built upon.

A coalition of political groupings could emerge to push these achievements further, comprising European countries with strong liberal and social democratic traditions; liberal groups in the US polity which support multi-lateralism and the rule of law in international affairs; developing countries struggling for freer and fairer trade rules in the world economic order; non-governmental organizations, from Amnesty International to Oxfam, campaigning for a more just, democratic and equitable world order; transnational social movements contesting the nature and form of contemporary globalization; and those economic forces that desire a more stable and managed global economic order.

Europe could have a special role in advancing the cause of cosmopolitan social democracy.  As the home of both social democracy and a historic experiment in governance beyond the state, Europe has direct experience in considering the appropriate designs for more effective and accountable suprastate governance.  It offers novel ways of thinking about governance beyond the state which encourage a (relatively)more democratic - as opposed to more neoliberal - vision of global governance.  Moreover, Europe is in a strategic position (with strong links west and east, north and south) to build global constituencies for reform of the architecture and functioning of global governance.  Through interregional dialogues, it has the potential to mobilize new cross-regional coalitions as a countervailing influence to those constituencies that oppose reform, including unilateralist forces in the US.  Of course, this is not to suggest that the EU should broker a crude anti-US coalition of transnational and international forces.

On the contrary, it is crucial to recognize the complexity of US domestic politics and the existence of progressive social, political and economic forces seeking to advance a rather different kind of world order from that championed by the Republican right of the political spectrum.[3]  Despite its unilateralist inclinations, it is worth recalling that public opinion in the US (especially the younger generation) has been quite consistently in favour of the UN and multi-lateralism, and slightly more so than European publics.  Any European political strategy to promote a broad-based coalition for a new global covenant must seek to enlist the support of these progressive forces within the US polity, while it must resist within its own camp the siren voices now calling with renewed energy for the exclusive re-emergence of national identities, ethnic purity and protectionism. 

Although some of the interests of those groupings which might coalesce around a movement for cosmopolitan social democracy would inevitably diverge on a wide range of issues, there is potentially an important overlapping sphere of concern among them for the strengthening of multi-lateralism, building new institutions for providing global public goods, regulating global markets, deepening accountability, protecting the environment and ameliorating urgently social injustices that kill thousands of men, women and children daily.  Of course, how far they can unite around these concerns - and can overcome fierce opposition from well-entrenched geopolitical and geo-economic interests - remains to be seen.  The stakes are very high, but so too are the potential gains for human security and development if the aspirations for global democracy and social justice can be realized.

David Held is Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science at the LSE, and Anthony McGrew is Professor of International Relations at Southampton University.  This article is drawn from the conclusion to  Globalization / Anti-Globalizationis published by Polity.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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