Multi-Level Governance Beyond the Nation State

The End of Legitimate Democratic Politics?

Parthenon in Athens
Multi-Level Governance Beyond the Nation State : The End of Legitimate Democratic Politics? - Astrid Harnisch

The Impact of Globalization and Individualization on the Global Environment

Today, democracy is being constantly challenged by the processes of glo­balization and individualization. Due to a changing global environment, nation states increasingly transfer elements of their sovereignty to transnational and international levels. Although the consequences remain unknown, the concept of democracy changes and the legitimacy of political decisions at the global level is put into question. Global decision-making procedures are increasingly influenced by non-state actors, civil societies and businesses alike, and often lack transparency, participation and efficiency. After analyzing the democratic potential of the concept of 'global public policy' based on a 'triangulate diplo­macy' and the challenge of inclusion, this paper provides a framework of repre­sentative multi-level governance including the international, transnational, national and local levels. Within this framework, the concept of democracy changes and can no longer be associated with its original idea or with the ideal model of direct democracy. Instead, it is based on the principle of subsidiarity and a balance between participation, efficiency and transparency at the differ­ent governance levels. However, concepts alone cannot close the gap of in­creasing poverty rates around the world and inequality particularly between developing and developed countries. Therefore legitimate global politics are going to be limited in the next decades and the only way to establish a global civil society is… to first close these inequality gaps.

The term globalization has become a buzzword nowadays, but it still lacks precise and complete definition.1 Broadly defined, it refers to a wide range of continuous political, economic, social and cultural processes related to differ­ent levels of interaction across territorially defined boundaries. Anthony Giddens already in 1990 described globalization as "the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happen­ings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa. This is a dialectical process because such happenings may move in an observe direction from the very distanced relations that shape them. Local transformation is as much a part of globalization as the lateral extension of social connections across time and space."2 It is obvious that globalization is not merely an expla­nation for quantitative changes such as increasing international trade, capital flows or foreign direct investment. Qualitative aspects of globalization processes, including an increasing individualization within societies and emerging gover­nance gaps, requiring new forms of regulation and governance from the inter­national to the local level, are the subject of ongoing discussions.3 We can therefore argue that globalization refers to heterogeneous processes and devel­opments involving different strategies and forms of cooperation. Many scholars have pointed out that globalization and international agreements lack efficiency, transparency and broad participatory mechanisms.4 Clark expresses his view in radical terms, claiming that "just as globalization has led to the death of the national economy, it now entails the death of national forms of democracy, except in so far as the latter are restructured as part of a global system."5

While some observers argue that the nation-state is becoming an institu­tion of the past, this paper states that globalization requires new forms of governance and a representative framework in which the nation-state and gov­ernmental actors (governments and intergovernmental bodies) remain consti­tutive elements. Governance is changing and non-state actors are becoming increasingly important, because no single actor, public or private, has the knowl­edge, resources and capacity to solve problems unilaterally. In this context governance is understood as an interactive process between all relevant stake­holders. 6 According to UNDP, governance is identified as "the set of values, policies and institutions by which a society manages its economic, political and social affairs through interactions among the government, civil society and private sector. It is the way a society makes and implements decisions - achieving mutual understanding, agreement and action."7 The question of whether forms of global governance are democratically legitimized has been asked by many different scholars. This paper aims to give a constructive contribution to the ongoing debate of the impact of globalization and individualization on the con­cept of democracy. In doing so, I will look at the changing global environment and the transformation of democracy. I will then analyze the global public policy concept and its implications for democracy at the international level. To answer the key question of whether the development of global politics implies the end of legitimate democratic politics, I will outline a representative multi­level system of governance that takes into account horizontal and vertical in­teractions at the international, transnational, national and local levels.

Governance and Democracy

As Diamond points out, "never in human history have so many indepen­dent countries been demanding or installing or practicing democratic gover­nance. Never in history has awareness of popular struggles for democracy spread so rapidly and widely across national borders."8 Just a century ago - more than 350 years after the national state entered into the field - New Zealand was the only state to give both men and women the universal, equal and free right to vote. Around the year 2000 about 114 out of 191 states introduced demo­cratic elections, meaning that almost 60 percent of the world's population are able to elect their own governments.9 Nonetheless, problems of democratic transition and consolidation are widespread. Free and equal elections are the most important element for democratic transition and the key in building the basis for democratic consolidation. But they are only the beginning of a demo­cratic state. Linz and Stepan argue that "democracy is a form of governance of a state. Thus, no modern polity can become democratically consolidated un­less it is first a state."10 Studying the transformations of democracy around the world, they identify five interconnected and mutually reinforcing conditions that must exist for a consolidated democracy and a functioning state to be able to ensure a balance of participation, efficacy and transparency in governance decisions. These elements are:

  • a free and lively civil society, a relatively autonomous and valued political society,
  • a rule of law to ensure legal guarantees for citizens' freedoms and inde­pendent associational life,
  • a state bureaucracy that is usable by the new democratic government,
  • and an institutionalized economic society.11

Although these elements are associated with democratic systems in the tradi­tional nation state, it is crucial to keep them in mind when thinking about democracy beyond national borders and possibilities for legitimate global demo­cratic governance.

Transformations of Democracy

The term democracy goes back to ancient Greece and implies two con­cepts: 'demos - the people' and 'kratia - power and rule' or, as Abraham Lin­coln phrased it, "government of the people, by the people, for the people."12 Democracy is not a static concept, and it has developed different forms de­pending on the context, society and people involved.13 This paper focuses on the third great transformation of democracy in the age of globalization.14 How­ever, to understand recent developments it is crucial to outline briefly the first two phases: The first transformation changed the non-democratic city-state into the early democratic city-state during the first half of the fifth century B.C. The second transformation is known as the development from the city-state to the national-state on the basis of the Westphalian system. "Democracy came to be understood not as assembly democracy in the city-state, but as representa­tive democracy in the national-state. As a consequence of that transformation in scale and form, a set of political institutions and practices, which taken as a whole were unknown to the theory and practice of democracy up to that time, came into existence."15

The third transformation of democracy was indicated by increasing inter­dependence and globalization processes, particularly after the end of the Cold War, and it continues until now. Dahl argues that "just as earlier city-states lost much of their political, economic, social, and cultural autonomy when they were absorbed into larger national states, so in our time the development of transnational systems reduces the political, economic, social and cultural au­tonomy of national states."16 Dahl is strongly in favor of sound democratic institutions, which would provide democratic control over transnational deci­sion makers. Stronger democratic institutions could also help to provide a healthy democratic political life and while freedom and control might be lost on one side, they could be gained on others. The consequences and outcomes of the third transformation remain unknown and are the subject of continuous debates around the world. Those dialogues, however, take place mostly in de­veloped countries and therefore often ignore the interests and cultures of de­veloping states in Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, although we can identify these three "great transformations" ac­cording to Dahl, there are also smaller transformation processes, transition phases and the development of a wide range of different governance forms under the header of democracy.

  • First, the Westphalian world order and the nation-state have not always been characterized by legitimized democratic politics.
  • Second, democratic institutions (if they already exist in a country) and societies are not static and develop over time. Current transformations within nation-states as well as developing democratic institutions in new democracies are challenging the ongoing debate.
  • Third, one must keep in mind the different forms and aspects of democ­racy, which could become part of a global governance system.

The question remains whether the people around the world are ready to estab­lish a possible system of global governance based on democratic principles.17

"Governing without Government" or "Governing without Governance"?

In current debates, two questions have been asked about the consequences of globalization: Does globalization mean or imply "Governing without govern­ment?", or even "governing without gouernance?"18 Does the current situation indicate that world affairs and world politics are managed and governed with­out government(s) or even without governance? This leads as well to the ques­tion of the establishment of a world government, which Kant already in the 18th century considered as not desirable and hardly practical.19 In recent debates few scholars judge the idea of a world government as a realistic possibility; one exception is Dani Rodrik. Focusing on international economic integration, he argues that "if we had a perfectly integrated world economy, national jurisdic­tions would not interfere with market mechanisms. Transaction costs and tax differentials would be insignificant and convergence in commodity prices and factor returns would be almost complete. To reach this stage, we have to insti­tutionalize federalism in a global scale to align jurisdictions with the market and remove the 'border' effects" (comparable to the United States today or the European Union in the future). He further states that "under a model of global federalism, at least the parts that matter economically, would be organized along the lines of the US system. National governments would partly transfer their power to supranational legislative, executive, and judicial authorities and a world government would take care of a world market."20 However, Rodrik concludes that this scenario, including the election of international politicians, is rather unrealistic in a short-term perspective when one takes into account ongoing financial and political crises such as the one in Argentina. Within the next 120 years though, he would place his bet on the emergence of a global federal system.21

Analyzing political and social aspects in addition to economic integration, most scholars are critical about the effectiveness and feasibility of a world government: Although nation-states have begun to transfer elements of their sovereignty to other levels, they do not want to give up their formal sovereignty as such. The process of European integration is one example illustrating the difficulties involved in integrating a limited number of players. It has often been stated that a 'democratic deficit' exists regarding the legitimacy of deci­sions and the decision-making processes in Brussels. This does not suggest that European institutions are not legitimized per se. It implies that their legiti­macy is seen as insufficient, which obviously is difficult to measure and de­pends on the expectations and the understanding of the governance system by its members.22 In addition, questions of national interest, which are related to state sovereignty, cannot be ignored.

The transformations mentioned imply changes for the concept of state ­sovereignty. MacLean finds, for example, that "globalization has constructed new non-territorial and non-sovereign forms of governance, while simultaneously confirming the sovereign state, transformed from its original historical form as the defining, territorially located site of central and legitimate government, to a new form of local and regional 'subsidiary' government."23. This statement im­plies two things: First, states as such will still play a crucial role in world politics, and second - according to the principle of subsidiarity - states will transfer elements of sovereignty and decision-making competences to both the local and transnational levels. The concept of subsidiarity states that responsi­bilities and tasks should only be transferred from a 'lower' to a 'higher' level of governance, if the 'lower' level is not able to provide adequate solutions. In the case of the European Union the responsibilities are outlined in different trea­ties and were part of different reforms.24

Rethinking Governance in a Global Context

Since a democratically elected legitimate world government does not seem to be a feasible near-term answer to globalization, a responsive system of multi­level governance seems to be a far more realistic perspective. This implies that there is no traditional model of democracy, which can be easily applied to all levels of governance at the same time. The diversity among countries, their citizens and political systems, as well as the differing understandings of the concepts of democracy, power, economic development and cultural as well as religious backgrounds, require flexible and appropriate approaches. Before char­acterizing a multi-level governance system, I will outline possible mechanisms for global governance and the concept of global public policy analyzing criti­cally its democratic potential.

Global Governance and Global Public Policy

The concept of global public policy (GPP) has become one model for inter­national cooperation.25 Based on the idea of a "triangulate diplomacy" - which includes networks consisting of governments and international organizations, civil society actors, and the private sector - this concept might present one option to fill governance gaps at the global level and create a forum for an emerging global civil society. However, the question of the legitimacy of non-state actors has not been adequately, addressed, and many scholars are skep­tical about the democratic and legitimate potential of those actors. Networks arid their capacity to tackle problems effectively are reoccurring issues. The terms network, coalition or partnership refer to interactive processes and dif­ferent formal and informal structures of cooperation. Similar to globalization, these terms are often used inconsistently. Networks are seen as innovative institutional arrangement and sometimes a panacea for problem solution.26 Global public policy networks can be based on advocacy coalitions and inter­governmental processes; alternatively they are interpreted as 'part of interna­tional regimes (such as the International Ozone Regime among others).

In addition to the inclusion of divergent actors, implementation processes and links to the local level are particularly important for an effective model of global public policy. Reinicke ( argue that GPP networks are a potentially useful tool to increase the effectiveness of global governance through the inclu­sion of relevant stakeholders. Building on the fact that globalization increases political and economic liberalization and technological changes, they identify two governance gaps in global affairs that undermine the legitimacy of existing governance mechanisms within states and the multilateral system: an 'opera­tional' gap and a 'participatory' gap.

The operational gap arises from the fact that a growing number of public­ policy issues can no longer be effectively addressed in existing institutional frameworks, whether at the national or intergovernmental level. Environmen­tal issues, such as the impacts of increasing forest degradation and climate change, are primary examples. It is obvious that national or regional approaches alone cannot solve these problems or deal with the consequences. It is not only necessary to link different issues, but also to come to, solutions among different countries, particularly between developed and developing states.

The participatory gap is directly related to the operational gap: "As states and international organizations lose their credibility and legitimacy, (...) an acute participatory gap emerges in international governance. Private entities, business and civil society, many of which have successfully reorganized them­selves on the transnational level, now operate in a governance vacuum."27 Glo­bal public policy networks aim to close these governance gaps and to create legitimacy by performing the following six functions:28

1. Contribute to establishing a global policy agenda, and offer mecha­nisms for developing a truly global public discourse in which to debate this agenda.

2. Facilitate processes for negotiating and setting global standards.

3. Help develop and disseminate knowledge that is crucial to address­ing transnational challenges.

4. Help create and deepen markets.

5. Provide innovative mechanisms for implementing global agree­ments.

6. Address the participatory gap by creating inclusive processes that build trust and social capital in the global public space by furthering transnational and trans-sectoral discourse and interaction.

Theoretically, local participation brings legitimacy to the process, particu­larly in issue areas where global networks may be viewed as interventionist or as a source of interference in internal affairs. It may also assure the inclusion of local interests and needs, and strengthen transparency. However, as we can see in case studies on GPP networks, they often remain incomplete and only partly successful due to the following:

1. Global networks and arrangements in most areas and sectors are characterized by a confrontation between developed and developing coun­tries (see among others the example of environmental negotiations in this paper).

2. Most international arrangements lack effective implementation and enforcement procedures and therefore remain incomplete.

3. Although networks may include various actors from different gov­ernance levels, decisions are always based on the idea of representation. The direct inclusion of all relevant stakeholders is not only unrealistic but also not necessary, as it will be pointed out again later. Therefore I argue that the idea of networks dealing with global governance issues can con­tribute to an international multi-level system, but it does not necessarily ensure efficacy, transparency or participation.

4. Closely linked to the third point, GPP networks foster the emer­gence of self-appointed elites mainly from the western developed part of the world.

Rethinking Democracy and the Question of Inclusion

The difficulty of inclusion is often a key factor in the debate on global governance. The global public policy approach aims at including actors, pri­vate and governmental alike from various parts of the world. However, as the example of the World Summit in Rio and subsequent negotiations show us, important agreements can be reached (Agenda 21 is one example) through negotiation processes that lack transparency and in which it is not possible for all actors to participate.29

Similar to Rodrik, but focusing on societies rather than only economic develop­ments, Iris Marion Young proposes a global system of regulatory regimes to which the local level and regions relate in a federated system.30 In interna­tional relations theory, according to Krasner, regimes are defined as "implicit or explicit norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actor's expectations converge in a given area of international relations. Principles are beliefs of fact, causation, and rectitude. Norms are standards of behavior de­fined in terms of rights and obligations. Rules are specific rrescriptions for action. Decision-making procedures are prevailing practices for making and implementing collective choice."31 This definition provides the basic ideas for Young's regulatory regimes, which lay down rules regarding a vital set of issues that call for global cooperation. She mentions the following seven regimes, each having a distinct functional jurisdiction, with some need for overlapping responsibility and coordination:

  • Peace and Security; Environment; Trade and Finance; Foreign Direct Investment and Capital Utilization; Communications and Transporta­tion; Human Rights including Labor Standards and Welfare Rights; Citi­zenship and Migration.

The most important elements in the federal system are local government units. They are autonomous in the sense that their members construct their own institutions of governance as they choose, within limits of global regula­tion. The global level of governance can therefore be characterized as rather "thin" in the sense that it only lays down general principles regarding the sorts of issues mentioned above. Local institutions "thicken" them into adminis­trable programs and rules by interpreting and applying them according to their own procedures, priorities, and cultural understandings. "Self-determination understood as non-domination, means a presumption of non-interference for autonomous units that are embedded in institutionalized relationships that protect them from dominative threats."32 Global regulatory regimes should aim to minimize domination of both individuals and self-determining local units and actors. Furthermore, regulatory institutions should protect both individu­als and groups from the domination of powerful private economic actors.

A vision of global governance with local self-determination ought to in­clude democratic values and paramount institutions. Young criticizes existing transnational institutions and firms as rather undemocratic. She emphasizes the importance of UN reforms that should ensure democratic values beyond national borders.33 Although this model establishes some linkages between the different levels, it remains unclear how they will be implemented. Crucial for the following analysis is the importance of the local level, which gives room to different cultures, traditions and stages of development, in addition to the glo­bal public policy approach. Taking this into account, the following section will outline a design for an international system of multi-level governance based on the key idea of representation.

The Representative International Mnlti-Level System of Governance

Relating the international multi-level system of governance to the concept of legitimacy, the framework faces the following challenge: "To be stable, de­mocracy [and governance mechanism] must be deemed legitimate by the people. . . . This legitimacy requires a profound moral commitment and emotional alle­giance, but these develop only over time, and partly as a result of effective performance. Democracy will not be valued by the people unless it deals effec­tively with social and economic problems and achieves a modicum of order and justice."34 To reach this ideal form over the long term, a world civil society would have to be established, which is questionable given the fragmentation and inequality existing in world politics today.35 Keeping this in mind, the figure below visualizes simply the relationships among international, transnational, national and local levels and horizontal and vertical interac­tions between the actors involved.

According to the principle of subsidiarity, decision must be made at the 'adequate' governance level and implemented effectively. Whereas every citizen would theoretically have the opportunity to become actively involved in deci­sion-making process at all governance levels, the level where a broad participa­tion and inclusion can best be ensured is the local level. This leads to the following effect: the more indirect the level of governance, the more indirect is the level of representation. As Kleger ( analyzes with regard to the Euro­pean Union, legitimacy can be direct or indirect depending on the governance level.36 Although members of international institutions may' not be officially elected, they can be considered as indirectly legitimate if they are delegated by elected representatives within a country. Democracy can be understood as purely representative, but due to the complexity with a changing grade in representa­tion.37 Supplementary analysis, research and case studies are needed to fur­ther develop these assumptions.

Looking at the different models and possibilities for democratic theory beyond national borders, none of these approaches seem ready for implemen­tation today. There is not 'one theory of global democracy' that can be applied and it is unclear when and whether there will be one.38 It rather seems that all the different approaches have very essential and useful elements, all of which we must keep in mind when modeling the complex international multi-level system on the basis of subsidiarity. In the long term, a balance of power sys­tem could be based on agreements on the needs and responsibilities of each level. The challenge remains for "Western well-established democracies," "South­ern democracies under construction" as well as other countries to create. a common international system that builds trust as a basis for legitimacy and democracy.

The performance of the local Agenda 21 is one example of the implementa­tion of global agreements and shows the dynamic and shortcomings at na­tional and local levels. This does not mean that every citizen participates ac­tively in politics, but the mechanisms have to ensure that every citizen has the right and possibility to participate as she or he wants to. However, this process indicates both the importance of diversity and the need for an adoption of global agreements to specific local needs.

Political Fragmentation vs. Political Integration

Most of the ideas outlined above are still almost exclusively based on con­ceptual work. With political fragmentation, increasing inequality and growing poverty, one must be very optimistic to believe that a global governance frame­work can function in the future.39 So far, the main players in the global gover­nance architecture are the G7 countries, political scientists from the United States or Europe and of course the business community (overall dominated by white men). Looking at newer democracies in Latin America, for example, we can hardly speak of a "democratic culture," one of the preconditions to achieving legitimacy. As mentioned above, the multi-level governance system only has a chance "to be considered as legitimate" by the world's population and a chance of survival, if it allows a wide range of diversity and gives room to different cultures and religions - as long as those are not questioning the sys­tem itself, as, for example, international terrorism does. This would allow indigenous groups and women in the Andean region to be part of the same sys­tem as the businesswomen in New York City on Wall Street.

The current discussions about a European constitution and the introduc­tion of the Euro are challenging and show first possibilities of democracy be­yond national borders. But the historical development of European countries and the economic, political, social and cultural integration of the European Union cannot be transferred easily to global governance. However, we will be able to learn from these processes (although a world currency is hardly desir­able) and move towards greater political and institutional integration in dis­cussing some form of 'world constitution' (such as the Declaration of Human Rights) some day in the future. A lack of adequate governance mechanisms leads to a decreasing legitimization of world politics. Future challenges will continue to bridge the gap between political fragmentation on one side and integration on the other, and may increase the level of democracy and legiti­mization of world politics from the inside, in a possible framework of global governance. According to the terminology of consolidated democracies men­tioned in the introduction, the relevant aspects of this framework may be a free and lively civil society, a relatively autonomous and valued political system, an institutionalized economic society, rule of law, and an effectively functioning bureaucracy.

Astrid Harnisch is currently an M.A. candidate in International Relations at The Johns Hopkins University - SAIS Bologna Center. After graduating from the Potsdam University in Germany with a degree in Political Science, she worked for the German Agency for Technical Cooperation in Ecuador and Dominican Republic on projects relating to decentralization and local governance.