A Global Peoples Parliament

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 21st, 2007

On May 18th on this page Robert Justin Lipkin blogged about our ideas for a global parliament and invited us to discuss the topic in a guest blog of our own. We are pleased to accept his invitation.

In some ways a discussion of global democracy seems a topic ill-suited to the pages of a blog by its name dedicated to contested issues in America. Yet, because of the tremendous effect that the world’s sole remaining super-power, or hyper power as the French like to say, has on the rest of the world, even if American democracy was to become absolutely perfected, there would still be something profoundly undemocratic about a situation where representatives of less than five percent of the world’s people determine what amounts to global policy on issues ranging from Iraq to global warming. Unless we take a completely tribalist view, therefore, a discussion of democracy in America ultimately raises larger questions of democracy in the world.

The undemocratic character of the international system is only most starkly demonstrated by the role of the sole remaining superpower. In truth, it results from the very structure of a global system based on state sovereignty instead of democracy. In such a system adherence to democratic principles such as one person/one vote, open public discussion, and rule of law are replaced by political, economic, and military coercion where the most powerful states–niceties aside–get to call the shots. We live in a world order that resembles more the loose coordination that is associated with rival criminal “families” than the lawmaking procedures of democratic political communities.

Cut off from global decision-making, people with very different politics from very different places have in common that they are angry. In February 2003 they took to the streets by the millions in a futile attempt to prevent the Iraq war. Since the Seattle demonstrations of 1999 the anti-globalization movement has consistently mounted popular opposition to meetings of the IMF, World Bank and WTO. And tragically, the most alienated and extreme have embarked on a campaign of nihilistic violence that has unleashed a process of perpetual war since the dramatic attacks of September 11th.

These conditions cannot be changed overnight, but it is crucial that we begin now to construct a more democratic institutional structure. The core institution around which democracies everywhere are built is a parliament. In the age of globalization the international system should no longer be an exception. A global parliament is politically feasible now if we proceed in incremental stages. Because leading states especially are unlikely to give up their current role overnight, the parliament could start primarily as an advisory body. This is how its regional prototype, the European Union’s increasingly powerful European Parliament began. Also, it need’nt have a full complement of members to start. A directly elected body with universal aspirations comprised of only 20 to 30 founding state members would make a significant impression. What has become the European Union of 27 countries began with only six states and grew over time. This is not to say that such growth would proceed without challenge. Perhaps most significantly democratic forces would have to exercise great vigilance to protect the parliament from the dangers of cooption and manipulation. Once the Global Parliament began to increase its influence and size, its formal legal powers, as well as its relationship with the United Nations, would have to be developed. One possibility is for the Global Parliament and the UN General Assembly to be constituted as a strengthened United Nations bicameral legislative system.

Even in its earliest days, however, the Parliament could begin to help reduce global tensions. While the Parliament may not yet have binding powers, it would be the only international body capable of speaking directly on behalf of the people of the world. Its resolutions would be influential, and citizen groups representing different interests and perspectives would be likely to compete for its support. The Parliament could become a much needed global venue where the world’s interests could meet directly to argue positions, negotiate, and to the extent possible reach common ground.

Interest groups would likely become invested in the processes of a parliament that was open to their participation. If the experience of democracies the world over is indicative, even in defeat most would remain committed to pursuing their cause peacefully within the parliamentary structure. Eventually, it is to be hoped that extremists such as Osama bin Laden might come to be as marginalized internationally as Timothy McVeigh and his ilk are within the United States.

And, in a global parliament there would be no unified states to counter, contain or attack other states. Rather as occurs in other multinational parliaments–such as India, Belgium or the European Parliament–delegates would often break national ranks to vote along lines of beliefs and diverse interests. Thus, fluid transnational parliamentary coalitions might begin to supplant conflict, including armed conflict among states. To the extent that such parliamentary processes began gradually to displace state power politics, a genuine lessening of global tensions could result. Ever since the horrific events of September 11th 2001 the world has taken a marked turn toward militarism in foreign relations. The immediate result has been to make the world a far more dangerous place, and the long term prospects for a world organized by force of state power are not favorable. At best, we can hope for new forms of the recurrent global conflicts that resulted in over 200 million deaths in the 20th century. In contrast, democracy, however imperfect, has provided the best cooperative basis upon which to establish a decent social life in societies the world over. Global society should no longer be denied the benefits of democracy. It is time to introduce world elections that are open to the world’s people.


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