Democracy in an Era of Globalization

in
December 2018

At its core, democracy is a means of resolving disagreements and, it is hoped, coming to a decision. It intends to guide us from a place of division to one of alignment. Reality may be less utopian, but ideally there is acceptance of the outcome, if not only because there is trust in the process. There are other means to coming to a decision, but democracy boasts it is broadly based: it considers the will of the people; it strives to marshal and then rationalise diverse opinions.

The emergence of the nation state helped to define the domain of a political system, the scope of a democracy, a unit bound together by trade, institutions, regulations, taxes, etc. The national borders established the physical space, and the people included. Borders segregated internal from external; those regions controlled and managed locally from those controlled and managed by someone else beyond the boundaries. It followed that any nation state would resist meddling in its internal affaires by another nation state. The recognition of such practices found its way into the United Nations Charter as the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state.

Since the end of World War 2, the United States has been the protagonist in the creation of a more globally integrated world order. But now it seems to be abandoning its role, backing off the stage, leaving its allies and partners in this enterprise in the lurch; holding the bag, as it were. Does the United States have the right to do so?

Trump views these decisions as being in the national interest; they are national decisions, internal to the United States, not subject to the approval of others in the international community. However, many disagree. It raises the question what constitutes an internal decision? Has globalization made us so highly connected that few decisions are truly local in nature; do most leak impact beyond national borders? Has our journey carried us to some liminal place, beyond the nation-state, but not yet at a global state? By failing to recognise or consider the impacts of decisions that ripple beyond national borders people in the international community are being excluded from participation. It is in this way that the process is undemocratic. The dictum of the American Revolution, no taxation without representation, might be re-envisaged as a call to recognise the trans-national impact of local decisions and the path forward.

The civil war in Syria, which by definition is internal, has led to the migration of millions of people putting severe stress on many of its neighbours and beyond. The impact is by no means contained within the national boundaries of Syria. The choice of president made by the American people has had impact on the world order. The choices being made by that American President have destabilized national relationships, alliances, trade, and most recently the stock market. These are all local decisions with global impact. They affect not only other nations, but individuals in those other nations.

The framework to support the current global vision integrates trade, institutions, regulations, companies and people. It has resulted in the emergence of economic units, transnational trading blocks — the EU, NAFTA, Trans Pacific, CETA — that co-existent with the political units defined by national boundaries. The question is can they co-exist and if so, how? How do we deal with the tensions between the objectives of the trading block and the nation? How do we rationalise national and global interests? Those actions that a nation might take, that were in past considered internal, that are no longer, that impact the trading block. Can national decisions be questioned by the trading block? Is it acceptable that any one nation within a trading block can make unquestioned decisions that affect the other members; that impact the peoples beyond physical national boundaries?

The challenge with moving our focus from a national to a global context is complicated by our tendency to develop a national identity; localised systems of shared practices, beliefs, that strongly influence each citizen’s identity. This cultural connection is not easily broken. It takes time. It takes time to overcome the perception of loss of a [national] culture, loss of identity. It takes time to develop and adopt the emergent culture. The change progresses along a path where with each step we must evaluate whether balance among the competing objectives is being maintained.

The resistance we see in many places around the world suggests we might be moving too fast, but it shouldn’t be interpreted to infer we are on the wrong path. In its current form, this process of globalization has been going on for over 70 years. One might look back further to colonialization, and preceding that the periods of exploration, all motivated by trade. Trade, as a practice, is something that has been going on since the dawn of time, by all peoples. So if this is a process that has been going on for millennia, why is there resistance now? It might simply be we have reached a point where we need to reflect and adjust to come back into balance. In the past rebalancing was accomplished by war. The purpose of the current form of globalization was to put in place the framework to allow for negotiated solutions.

Trump is more a signal of imbalance than a cause. The character of this marker might be reflective of the level of frustration felt by those resisting. They have not been heard. The democratic process has failed them.


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