The paradox of undemocratic liberalism

by Babak Moussavi

Antoine Cerisier and Joe Markus have recently written about how international organisations, in particular the Bretton Woods institutions, have a murky form of governance that often leads to dishonest deliberation and decision-making based on ideological commitment rather than an evidence-based approach. Free trade is a case in point: it is treated by the IMF, World Bank and WTO as a global public good that must be delivered to everyone, regardless of their situation.

It is not too difficult to understand why these bastions of global governance push for free trade. For free trade is a central tenet of economic liberalism, and international institutions were designed to spread liberal values. While economic institutions promote free trade, other international organisations, particularly branches of the UN, try to promote other liberal values such as gender equality, rights for refugees, protection of children, universal primary education, and other aspects of human rights or socio-economic rights. For most liberal issues, there will be an international organisation devoted to it. Indeed, nowadays, as Mark Malloch-Brown argued in The Unfinished Global Revolution, many problems require global solutions, and it is up to international organisations to deliver these global public goods.

But while liberal values encompass a range of issues designed to promote freedom, autonomy, development and progress, there is one quintessential liberal value that has been left out. This is democracy. International organisations may preach a variety of liberal values, but they do not practice perhaps the most important one of all.

This seems like a glaring paradox. Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore were the first to allude to it (to my knowledge) in their book Rules for the World, which argues that international organisations are neglected features in the study of International Relations, and that these bodies have grown into autonomous actors, through a mixture of bureaucratisation, specialisation, technocratic expertise, and mission creep. The authors argue in their conclusion that this has produced a novel phenomenon of “undemocratic liberalism”, where these actors are attempting to spread liberal norms but are not subject to democratic oversight. While they may seem benign for now, democracy is a safeguard that should neither be neglected, nor taken for granted.

If we accept that there is a paradox here, then what can be done about it? Presumably, if we agree with the ends that international organisations seek to bring about, by spreading liberal norms of behaviour and promoting things such as education and development (which are less contentious than free trade), we would not want them to be charged with hypocrisy by failing to comply with the main – if not, only – liberal form of governance. So, perhaps the solution is to ‘democratise’ international organisations themselves? (Let us assume, for the sake of argument here that we can agree on how this might be done in general in international organisations.) Would this solve the paradox of undemocratic liberalism?

It might. But it might also generate another paradox. For international organisations are, in theory, meant to represent and be governed by nation states, of which not all are democratic. So who can advocate a democratic form of governance for such a body, when not all of its members hold that value themselves? The non-democratic countries can hardly call for these organisations’ democratisation without seemingly incurring a glaring and embarrassing contradiction with regards to their own form of governance. And the democratic countries may leave themselves open to the charge of ‘imposing’ their value on a global institution, when not everyone holds this value.

Without wishing to overcomplicate matters by delving further into the paradox, I suggest there is a way of escaping it. This is that democracy is emerging as a globally accepted norm, which confers legitimacy on governments and governance. This is not a new idea, and has been a feature of academic discussion since the early 90s. We seem to be witnessing confirmation of it in the Arab Spring, and in the protests against increasing autocracy in Russia. Moreover, even the most dictatorial regimes often seek to use the term ‘democratic’ in their official titles in order to display a sense of legitimacy: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), or the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany) being some of the most egregious examples.

If this contention is accepted, and democracy is seen as a growing international norm, then we perhaps escape the second paradox, as the call for democratisation of international organisations is the only way of ensuring that their decisions retain legitimacy.

But the first paradox – of undemocratic liberalism – remains unresolved. For a call to democracy will not do; reforms must actually be enacted. If international organisations are designed to spread liberal norms, they cannot afford to wilfully ignore democracy.

  1. Can you point to a single Western nation state that doesn’t subscribe to what you rightly regard as “the central tenets of economic liberalism”? Aren’t the nation states generally lined up with the international institutions?

    • Hi Roger, apologies for the delayed reply. I think I see what you’re getting at.

      Not all western states follow the exact same economic model, although they are all capitalist. Most only pay lip service to global free trade, and protect their industries, and intervene in the market, in some way. Obama was criticised for acting against the unfettered functioning of the market, by bailing out the car industry, in order to save jobs. France treats Danone as a company of strategic national importance, when the economically liberal approach suggests it should be left to its own devices, ensuring it remains competitive, in order to survive.

      IOs by contrast, don’t have national electorates to worry about, and so don’t need to worry about the impact of free trade and globalisation on their reelection (and, therefore, job) prospects. They are therefore able to pursue these “central tenets” more vigorously and consistently (for good or ill).

      Western nation-states and IOs are therefore not always aligned in their policies. One demonstration of their different agendas could be seen in the existence and scale of ‘tied’ contributions to IO funding. The UNHCR receives most of its funding directly from nation-states, but many of these tie their aid to be used in areas that those states consider to be of national importance – which in turn is very inefficient, as funds cannot be allocated to where they would be most useful, or where they are most needed. This suggests that nation-states’ vested interests often clash with the pursuit of those liberal ideals that IOs were designed to aim for.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My point lies in your agreed statement “although they are all capitalist.” I think that statement needs more interrogation. I take it to mean that in extremis the free market trumps other considerations of ‘national interest’ because the roots of the Western nation state, at least in its modern and postmodern manifestations, lie in the capitalist system. As I understand it, the present and future prosperity of the nation state is the collateral and ultimate security for the capitalist system. So while the free market can in various ways be constrained or conditioned to give capitalism a more human face, it is necessary to the system at a deep structural level. Hence my point that in the end the Western nation state as well as the IOs are only secondarily democratic at best. I develop these issues in some detail in my
        recent book “Church, Gospel, & Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West” (Wipf and Stock, 2011)

  2. Thanks for the reply Roger. I think it is quite a jump to suggest that because the roots of the modern nation-state lie in the capitalist system, the free market trumps other considerations of national interest – could you explain how you come to this idea? And from this sentence, “So while the free market can in various ways be constrained or conditioned to give capitalism a more human face, it is necessary to the system at a deep structural level” are you suggesting that democracy and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible?

    Forgive me if I have misunderstood. I shall have to read your book.

    • I’m basically suggesting that liberal western representative democracy and free market capitalism have the same ideological genealogy. I see this as being rooted in the mistaken assumption that the multiplication of sovereign power is the means to peace. The conjunction of capitalism and the western nation state to this end, is in my view, failing at last. When a ideologically based system fails, those most dependent on it fight to preserve it the most strongly. Hence the push for both democracy and free trade. I see the only real hope as a new and just basis for both democracy and trade.

      • Would you like to write an article for us on this? It sounds quite novel and you could explain further why you think capitalism and democracy have the same genealogy, and what might serve as a “new and just basis for both democracy and trade”.

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