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Democratizing global governance
A letter from Athens


March 15, 2006

From March 9th to 11th, 2006, some 200 scholars, diplomats, and corporate executives assembled in Athens to inaugurate the New School of Athens. By sponsoring dialogue on world affairs, the New School is reviving the old school founded by Socrates and Plato. This initiative is different from the World Economic Forum held annually at Davos, Switzerland. The latter invites only the high and mighty. The New School of Athens goes beyond that. It aims at establishing a tripartite dialogue among the state, market, and civil society forces.

The theme of the conference was Beyond the Millennium Declaration: Embracing Democracy and Good Governance. Four group discussions focused on democracy, security, corporations, and global institutions. 

The U. S. unilateralist policies in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that no single power alone can manage the complex problems of a complex world. Issues such as nuclear proliferation, global warming, terrorism, and security involve all nations. By refusing to go through it, the United States depreciated the UN as an instrument of collective security. But globalization has demonstrated a yawning gap between national policies and global institutions.  The current situation is not dissimilar to the 1930s when extremist nationalism undermined the League of Nations. Global institutions capable of managing global problems are conspicuous by their absence.

The New School’s initiative was therefore timely. But how to create global management and governance is a puzzle yet to be solved. Since Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, in 1815, we have had some form of imperial global governance. During the 19th century, Britain dominated global affairs by its command of the high seas. According to the New American Century, the neo-conservatives in Washington hope to replace Britain. But this is the 21st century, not 19th. In the 19th century, millions of sleepy colonial subjects were subdued in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

World War I and II in the 20th century can be considered as a squabble among the old against the new colonial powers. In the meantime, the peoples of the colonies had awakened to their rights of self-determination. Imperial global governance can no longer work effectively. The neo-conservatives in the United States have tried to revive the regime to no avail.

The world needs a global governance regime that is more democratic. How can we solve this puzzle? Some reformers have proposed a global parliament. If internet could be made globally available, a case for a one person-one vote regime would be plausible.  But that is not currently the case. Only about 6 percent of the world population have access to the internet.

An alterative would to focus on the major global players. States, transnational corporations, and civil society organizations are the obvious candidates. Other players may include transnational media corporations, regional organizations, municipalities, and indigenous peoples. Each player can have an assembly of its own to coordinate its global interests and policies. But a Global Parliament is needed that is composed of the representative of each group in order to negotiate global policies for the consideration of national states and legislatures.

This scheme would not replace the current governance regimes at the local, national and regional levels. It would simply add another missing layer at the global level to check and balance the other layers. The United Nations and its specialized agencies also can continue to operate. In fact, the General Assembly and Security Council can continue to represent the views of the 191 member-state. As it was constituted in San Francisco in 1945, the United Nations represents the states, not the peoples of the world.

Some global players have already attained their representative bodies. Non-governmental agencies, for instance, are represented by the Federation of Non-governmental Organizations in Geneva. Regional organizations are represented by a variety of agencies such as the European Union, ASEAN, and NAFTA. 

If this scheme makes general sense, there would have to be much negotiation before it can be realized. But putting the problem on the shelf is tantamount to waiting for a global tragedy to happen before we act. Do we really need a World War III to go beyond the League and the United Nations?

Majid Tehranian is Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Honolulu, Hawaii.  He is the author of Bridging a Gulf: Peace in West Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2003).

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Majid Tehranian


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