UK / Europe — 08 August 2005

In a more interconnected world the challenges to nation-state authority represent new opportunities for humanity. If we accept we require new models of governance in the global age then what alternatives are available to us? Hassan Choudhury critically evaluates one such model, the Cosmopolitan notion of a Global Civil Society

Up until the end of the Cold War it was true to say the nation-state was unchallenged as the primary actor in international affairs. Ever since the boundaries of political activity extended from town level to the borders of the ‘nation’ in the 18th Century the nation-state stood as the dominant body politic. The Cold War itself was testament to this and stood as a high watermark in the sovereignty of the nation-state but we now live in the late-modern, global age and the ‘realist’ view, where the nation is pre-eminent, is being challenged directly by the processes of globalisation.

Some academics, such as Susan Strange and Kenichi Ohmae believe the processes of globalisation may herald the demise of the nation-state. On the opposite side of the spectrum from the ‘hyperglobalists’ are the globalisation ‘sceptics’ such as Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson. They argue globalising processes have been ongoing for sometime so the globalisation spoken of since the Cold War is nothing particularly new. Other sceptics feel that nation-states may even have been strengthened (cf. Weiss, 1997). Between these two extremes are the globalisation ‘transformationalists’ like James N. Rosenau and Saskia Sassen who recognise we have reached historically unparalleled levels of ‘interconnectedness’ but feel the future is more uncertain and deem the sovereignty of nation-states is being reconstituted rather than simplistically enhanced or diminished (cf. Held et. al, 1998).

For most of the 20th Century international relations theory was dominated by concerns that centred on the state as the primary, if not sole, unit of interest in global affairs. This state-led, focus stemmed from the long-standing orthodoxy of realist theory with its antecedents in the works of Sun Tzu, Niccoló Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. The underlying principal of realism, and its successor neorealism (cf. Waltz, 1979), was an intergovernmentalism distinct from supra- or trans-nationalism where states sought to preserve sovereignty, pursue their own interests and compete with other nation-states in an international, interstate global sphere marked more by tension and conflict than by concord and amity. For realists a clear distinction existed between the ordered hierarchical domestic spheres within each state and the unitary anarchic international sphere (without a truly global authority) external to them.

Those that contend nation-state sovereignty has been unduly affected in the global age are busying themselves looking for alternative political models to realism. Cosmopolitan (lit. world citizen) theorists including David Held, Richard Falk and Ken Booth take an approach harking back to the liberal tradition of John Locke and others with the individual as sovereign (rather than the state).

They believe a role still exists for nation-states but want to wrest the final say in decision-making away from them contending the sovereignty of nation-states has been affected to the point where they experience a ‘governance gap’ – where nations are no longer exclusive masters of matters within their circumscribed borders and where decisions made in one state affect those outside the polity who have no say in the matter. For cosmopolitans the solutions to the ‘governance gap’ are new rights based upon democracy extended to a global level.

The clamour for new cosmopolitan forms of political activity, institutions and norms that transcend the narrow confines of nation-states has continued apace and has led to the rise of civilian actors in international affairs via a transnational nongovernmental network. This network, a civil society writ large on the world stage, is also known as the global civil society.

The plan is to act on the basis that nations are no longer fully sovereign and that the actions of a global civil society would be legitimated via the universal rights of global citizens as opposed to the redundant orthodoxy of state-centred realist concerns.

The global revolutionary movement

The challenge to nation-state sovereignty is a stark reality in the global age but where does that leave us? Jessica T. Mathews has noted a power shift and wrote:

“National governments are not simply losing autonomy in a globalizing economy. They are sharing powers – including political, social, and security roles – with businesses, with international organizations, and with a multitude of citizen groups, known as nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] (Mathews, 2003, p.204)”.

Non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) are commonplace and their numbers worldwide run into tens of thousands. Environmental pressure groups like Greenpeace, aid organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, organisations promoting corporate social responsibility like The Copenhagen Centre and human rights groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch all occupy this new international political space that cuts across borders.

The crystallisation of the interstate framework around the post-war UN Charter is being confronted by activists from across the planet who proclaim a global citizenship, believe that ‘another world is possible’ and call for political action on a level unconstrained by territorial limits. George Monbiot stated his position clearly:

“We must become the Chartists and the suffragettes of the 21st century. They understood that to change the world you must propose as well as oppose. They democratised the nation; now we must seek to democratise the world. Our task is not to overthrow globalisation, but to capture it, and to use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution” (2003).

Their efforts since the end of the Cold War can be traced from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994 to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to The International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1997 to the WTO Battle of Seattle in 1999 to over 150,000 participating in the World Social Forum of Porto Allegre in 2002 and so on to the Gleneagles G8 of 2005 and those who want to ‘Make Poverty History’. The global revolutionary movement has most definitely arrived.

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