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March 01st 2012 print

John O’Sullivan

Global Governance v Democratic Sovereignty


John Fonte, Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others? (Encounter Books, 2011), 449 pages, US$25.95.


For some years John Fonte has enjoyed an odd and slightly enviable reputation. He is the scholarly defender of democratic sovereignty most likely to be invited to debate the matter by and with his opponents in the academic school of global governance. This is partly explained by the fact that, as the reader of this book will discover, Dr Fonte is a courteous, well-informed, logical, and above all honest debater. That also happens to be true of his better antagonists, such as Peter Spiro, on the global governance side. For reasons we shall soon encounter, however, it is not true of all of them.

The second explanation of Dr Fonte’s reputation is that he is one among very few scholarly defenders of sovereigntist ideas. In the academy, the media, the law, the foreign policy establishment, the corporate world, the wider political elite, and—almost inevitably—the bureaucracies that serve international institutions and non-governmental organisations, the ideology of global governance is the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy. Those scholars who adopt a hostile attitude—or even a sceptical one—to its doctrines are in a distinct minority. And because academic tenure and research funding follow intellectual orthodoxy, they even resemble an endangered species in the academy.

This disparity of scholarship has thus had a remarkably rapid and thorough impact on institutional innovation, diplomacy and political debate. Although global governance in its current form is a relatively new idea—dating roughly from the end of the Cold War—it is increasingly the basis of government decisions, bilateral agreements, and international treaties such as the Kyoto protocols or the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. There has been little organised and systematic opposition to its advance comparable to, for instance, the resistance of the Western liberal democracies to Soviet communism after 1947. Accordingly, books, op-eds, law journal articles, proceedings of international conferences, and think-tank reports advocating different aspects of global governance appear almost daily in the print and electronic media.

There are countless blasts but almost no counterblasts. Sovereignty or Submission is the first major counterblast from the sovereigntist side of the debate. It is a late but welcome exception.

It is also an example of a disturbingly familiar paradox: the lone voice speaking out on behalf of multitudes. As Dr Fonte illustrates again and again (and as opinion polls repeatedly confirm), the concept of democratic national sovereignty and the nexus of ideas and institutions built upon it reflect the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of citizens in the United States and other advanced democracies. Americans, Australians, Brits, Italians, and the citizens of other free nations imagine they are self-governing peoples who settle domestic political issues—such as the limits of free speech or an adequate level of welfare provision—by democratic debate and majority voting. Despite occasional grumbling about politics and politicians, they like it that way. All the evidence suggests that they would oppose any open attempt to replace their democracies with another political system.

“Global governance” is another political system or regime. It seeks to take ultimate political power (sovereignty) from democratic parliaments and congresses accountable to national electorates in sovereign states and vest it in courts, bureaucratic agencies, NGOs and transnational bodies that are accountable only to themselves or to other transnational bodies. In the international system that prevails under our existing system, legitimacy flows upwards from the voters in elections through sovereign governments via treaties to international institutions that enjoy specified and limited powers agreed in advance. Under global governance, however, legitimacy flows from post-national elites in transnational institutions via open-ended treaties downwards to post-sovereign governments enjoying powers regulated by transnational bureaucrats and lawyers to—finally—the voters.

Advocates of this second system argue that the voters enjoy more real power as a result of “pooling” (that is, surrendering) their sovereignty to trans-national bodies carrying greater clout in international affairs. But they are curiously unable to describe how the voters can actually use this greater power. How can they, for instance, amend an international law? Or vote the European Commission out of office? Or appeal against a decision of the International Criminal Court? Or influence the diplomatic campaigns of the European Union such as its attempt to outlaw capital punishment? The voters can do none of these things—and fewer of the things they used to be able to do—because they lack the ultimate democratic sanction: they cannot throw the (transnational) rascals out. It is not the voters but the elites running the courts, the NGOs and the transnational bodies who exercise this augmented sovereign power in a wilderness of committees. In short, global governance is yet another attempt (the third major one since 1917 by my counting) to sell elite rule in democratic disguise—in this case, very light disguise.

Or, to put it metaphorically: a bachelor is a sovereign power; a married man enjoys the benefits of pooled sovereignty. That’s a hard sell—especially to married men. So it’s hardly surprising that the attempt to impose it on liberal democracies has been a decidedly covert one. 

Here’s how it’s done. Global governance begins as the ideology of small but influential transnational elites operating just outside the spotlight of national politics. Its voice is loud in academic seminars but muffled to the point of being dumb in national political debates and in the non-specialist media. Its academic, legal, corporate and political supporters spread their ideas in the obscurity of learned journals, international conferences and legal judgments. When these notions have sufficiently permeated the domestic bureaucracies of governments, then politicians and bureaucrats travel to pleasant foreign cities to negotiate treaties and covenants that reflect the new orthodoxy. On rare occasions—as when Hillary Clinton led the US delegation to the Beijing conference on women’s rights—these treaties are openly arrived at and fiercely debated at home. That slows the process down. So, most of the time, they take place in smokeless rooms in Geneva between faceless diplomats watched only by the lobbyists of left-wing NGOs and self-interested multinational corporations.

When they finally emerge from the long process of multilateral negotiation, moreover, these global treaties have only begun their careers. They have irreproachable titles signalling noble aspirations such as protecting women or opposing genocide. But they are subject to extravagant re-interpretation by international courts, national courts, and even—under the rubric of the new customary international law—conferences of law professors claiming transnational legislative force for their law review articles. Even un-amended, these treaties contain provisions that go well beyond a commonsense interpretation of their headline aims. They incorporate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that transfer authority over the issues covered from national governments to UN agencies and other transnational bodies. And they intrude into the most domestic of domestic policies—an intrusion often sought or welcomed by the courts, the bureaucracies, NGOs, and other local bodies anxious to reverse a policy on which they suffered a defeat in the nation’s democratic debate. Indeed, a major impetus behind global governance is the desire of elites to insulate themselves against the possibility of such defeat.

Much of this takes place in the political twilight inhabited by NGOs, lobbyists and pressure groups. The wider national public often learns of it only at the point that a UN monitoring body arrives to argue that the treaty requires changes in the law, welfare or the national constitution.

A few examples chosen at random from many such in Dr Fonte’s book:

1. The UN committee monitoring the UN Covenant on Eliminating Racial Discrimination told the USA in 2001 to overturn the First Amendment of the USA Constitution—the one that protects free speech—because it was an obstacle to outlawing what the committee regarded as hate speech. (US diplomats negotiating a treaty routinely insist on laying down “reservations” when they suspect that some of its provisions might be incompatible with the Constitution. This greatly irks the UN and other global bodies.)

2. In 1997 UN monitors of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women complained that “only 30 per cent of Slovenia’s children were in day care centres”. Too many children were being raised at home by their parents because the elected Slovenian government was providing government benefits to stay-at-home mothers. In the monitors’ view, this reinforced old stereotypes and deprived children of the educational and social opportunities of the day care centres.

3. The UN committee monitoring the Convention for Civil and Political Rights complained to Australia in 2000 about its detention of illegal immigrants. It also chastised the United States for the “increased level of militarisation on the south-west border with Mexico”. And, finally, the committee was troubled by the American federal system itself because “the states of the union retain extensive jurisdiction over … criminal and family law”, which “may lead to a somewhat unsatisfactory application of the Covenant throughout the country”.

Such intrusions into the domestic politics of sovereign liberal democracies are catnip to the tabloid press. Once it emerges that a country like Canada has agreed to submit its welfare budget for approval by a UN treaty rapporteur who is also the diplomatic representative of a notorious dictatorship, this becomes an instant political scandal. The public reacts along the lines of “What the hell is going on here?” Advocates of global governance respond with variations on “Nothing to see here, folks; move along please. Just a small earthquake in theory; not many disenfranchised.” A brief controversy ensues until the next “shock horror” story edges it out of the headlines.

But such stories cannot keep appearing in the mass media without arousing popular concern. The soft soap of global governance eventually fails to soothe. After a long period in which a revolution has been occurring either unnoticed or with general mild approval, those attached to the status quo—in this case, liberal democratic governance—notice that this new revolution is incompatible with their sovereign rights and established institutions. And a genuine debate bursts forth, often passionately. 

When serious and sustained debate does eventually break out, early opponents of such revolutions are often disdained by their natural allies. In his 1968 introduction to Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, Conor Cruise O’Brien points out that his students almost always assumed that Burke was writing during and after the Terror. In reality some of his most passionate philippics were written several years beforehand. Most well-informed Englishmen, including Burke’s closest political friends, thought that his early hostility to the French Revolution was excessive and unbalanced. They imagined that France was imitating their own constitutional liberalism. They did not see the radical implications of the Revolution’s ideology and therefore they missed the bloody and anarchic direction in which it was heading. Burke’s predictions of the Terror were prescient because his analysis of the Revolution’s early liberalism was profound. Only when his predictions were confirmed by events, however, were conservative and liberal Englishmen converted to his scepticism. Is something similar about to happen to the quiet revolution of global governance?

Until quite recently Dr Fonte and other democratic sovereigntists—an unlovely term coined to describe supporters of liberal democracy at home and sovereign statehood abroad—have been in the same position as the early Burke. They have found it hard to persuade their fellow citizens that there is anything to worry about. That is partly because global governance needs a deal of explaining. Like Marxism it presents itself as the fulfilment of liberalism, democracy and internationalism rather than as their negation. It lacks the appalling frankness of Marxism, Nazism and jihadism—their willingness to state without blinking that their rule will brook no fundamental opposition. Instead, it uses many of the same terms—human rights, peace, international law—as democrats and internationalists to describe its aims. These clouds of ink deceive and pacify many.

But Dr Fonte is a pioneer in the trade of de-mystifying ideologies. He was the first anthropologist to classify and analyse the early primitive “transnational progressives”. He is accordingly well-equipped to extract the real meaning from global governance’s later sophisticated euphemisms. (The first half of his book, indeed, is a Cook’s tour of political theory over the past four hundred years—and as such a highly readable introduction to political ideas outside its main context.) So he has little difficulty in demonstrating that to “pool sovereignty” is to lose it since the pooling creates a new sovereign authority above and over the nations who did the pooling. In the next breath he shows that to sign a treaty with clearly defined obligations to other nations (even major obligations such as Article Five’s declaration of war under NATO) is to exercise sovereignty; to sign a treaty with a post-national entity obliging you to do whatever it demands, however, is to surrender sovereignty. The former treaty is a case of internationalism; the latter one of transnationalism. Transnationalism, far from being a kind of super-charged internationalism, is in fact hostile to it. Internationalism rests on co-operation between sovereign nation-states which transnationalism first imprisons and then gradually eliminates in a euthanasia of regulations. Of the two structures, significantly, only internationalism is compatible with democracy in national domestic politics. Transnationalism boasts unwisely of its “irreversible” nature whereas democracy is a system of second thoughts in every election.

Again and again Dr Fonte traces where the logic of these ideas leads—and invariably it is to a massive, remote, undemocratic, regulatory Leviathan.

But why tap the thermometer when you can see the weather—especially if you have just been struck by lightning? Theory need no longer be our only guide. In Europe global governance advocates have already established an institution that embodies and illustrates some of their fondest beliefs, namely the European Union. It provides us with a trailer of what a system of global governance would look like in practice, as Walter Russell Mead points out: 

Think of the European Union blown up to a global scale; in the Global Union nations would have their own governments and their own laws, but an increasingly dense framework of commonly agreed-upon laws and norms, and an increasingly complex and effective web of global institutions would supplement and in many cases replace the authority of national governments. 

And that’s putting it mildly. The current crisis of the euro demonstrates two additional and glaring dangers in such a structure: the first is that unwise and unpopular policies tend to be adopted in the absence of democratic accountability; the second is that even when they have manifestly failed, such policies tend to continue unchanged in the absence of democratic accountability. Further, the long-running failure of the Common Agricultural Policy—which ruins the export prospects of small Third World farmers in order to sustain high food prices for European consumers at a cost equal to 40 per cent of the EU’s entire budget—shows that such folly can be maintained more or less indefinitely (or until the entire structure runs out of cash and thereby collapses). Elites are far more unwilling to give up their fantasies than are practical-minded ordinary voters (in part because the elites do not have to suffer the negative aspects of utopia). The triumph of global governance would therefore risk repeating the unpopular failures of the EU on a world scale and at Brobdignagian expense. 

Global governance is not, fortunately, an inevitable destiny for Americans or anyone else—though its advocates, like those of Marxism, like to present it as such. It is one possible future among several. In the second half of his book, Dr Fonte examines the likely geopolitical choices available to political man in a world where history has ended in Francis Fukuyama’s sense. He sees four ideological contenders for the title of dominant global governing philosophy.

The first is that of internationalism resting on co-operation between sovereign democratic nation-states. That is the system which still provides the United States with its regime and which, until very recently, was the prevailing constitutional doctrine of Western Europe. It received a marked fillip, indeed, when the nations of Central and Eastern Europe threw off communism and joined “the West”. They thought they were joining a structure built along liberal democratic lines, but they found themselves instead in a halfway house to global governance. Like the British, though for a slightly different reason, they are uncomfortable in such a structure; it reminds them (in more relaxed moments) of the Hapsburg empire and (in moods of bitter despair) of the Soviet empire. If liberal democratic internationalism—“Philadelphian sovereignty” in Fonte-esque language—emerges finally as the hegemonic ideology of international affairs, then most European states will presumably abandon their flirtation with post-nationalism and post-democracy and recover some of their democratic authority from Brussels.

Also, in these circumstances, there would be a tendency throughout the world for states throwing off authoritarian systems of government to model themselves along liberal democratic lines. Such states, of course, like all democracies, would increasingly reflect the nature of their own societies especially as concerns religion. Thus, we should expect states emerging from the “Arab Spring”, if they develop along democratic lines, to look more like Turkey than like America. That should neither surprise nor discomfit supporters of democratic sovereignty; rather it should confirm their commitment. As Dr Fonte points out, America and France are two democratic nations committed to the division of church and state, yet they have opposite views on “banning the burka” because their traditions of secularism are subtly different. A democratic world would be far from uniform, but its diversities would be the result of popular choice rather than of centralised ideological-cum-legal prescription.

Two other rising competitors for ideological dominance worldwide are jihadism and sovereign authoritarianism—the respective ideologies of Al Qaeda (and others) and China (and others). When Fukuyama wrote about the end of history, he meant not that history in the sense of wars, royal successions, election victories and similar “events” would come to a halt, but that no plausible alternatives would emerge to challenge Western democracy as the dominant ideology of governing. Neither of these doctrines seems likely to refute his thesis. Both can cause a great deal of damage in the world—through terrorism, military competition and general trouble-making; neither looks able to gain sufficient acquiescence, let alone support, from others to allow it to shape international relations and global institutions in its own image. Jihadism proposes a world theocracy that would be deeply unacceptable to the 80 per cent of the world population that is non-Muslim—and hardly less so to most of the remaining Muslim 20 per cent. Sovereign authoritarianism, even when most materially successful as in China, has a legitimacy problem such that Chinese spokesmen justify their system as offering the practical benefits of democracy in other ways. Neither inspires outside a narrow ambit drawn mainly from co-religionists or the authoritarian ruling class. Both live under a delayed death sentence—Al Qaeda literally, sovereign authoritarianism metaphorically. If these are the main challenges to Western democracy, then Fukuyama is right to maintain that they are implausible.

What Fukuyama did not sufficiently foresee, as Dr Fonte points out, was that a plausible challenge to Western liberal democracy might come from within the West itself—indeed, from within Western liberal democracy itself. Like Marxism, however, global governance is just such a challenge. It emerges from the leading social classes in Western society. It affects to solve the global problems that—allegedly—democratic sovereign states cannot solve through international co-operation (or as the phrase has it, “on their own”). It presents itself as the fulfilment of democracy—a deeper and truer democracy than the discredited partisan bickering of political parties. Yet it subverts democratic accountability and the consent of the governed at every turn, and it seeks to transfer ever-increasing powers from democratic institutions to global bodies and NGOs that reflect elite opinions and priorities. A kind of sublime post-democratic ecstasy was surely reached in the conception of GONGOs—NGOs created and financed by transnational bodies to urge that they take more powers from government in order to implement the reforms that voters and governments have “failed to take” (that is, voted against).         

The intellectual quadrille danced by these four competitors for diplomatic hegemony is complicated. Day to day, the doctrines of global governance are a useful tool for jihadist sympathisers and authoritarian governments as they embark on, for instance, “lawfare” to hobble US efforts to fight terrorism and to restrain America generally. But rising nation-states, whether democratic or undemocratic—such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia—are unlikely to accept that their foreign and domestic policies should be determined, or even vetoed, by a UN agency on the basis of some imaginative interpretation of a treaty signed by a party now in opposition. The slow-motion train-wreck of the Kyoto process—an allegedly irresistible force that met a genuinely immovable object in the form of Sino-Indian opposition—is probably the first of many such reverses for the advocates of global governance. As the sovereign powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America complete their rise into the international community, global governance will look increasingly provincial—a last effort by a fading postmodern Europe to extend its power in the guise of transnationalism, a form of neo-colonialism waged by lawyers rather than soldiers and administrators.

So it is unlikely that the forces of global governance will succeed in establishing some form of global authority or their version of a “global rule of law”. On the other hand, these forces, assisted by the material interests of transnational pragmatists in multinational corporations might attain considerable influence, even a critical mass, over opinion-makers and statesmen in Western democracies (including the USA). This influence might even become the conventional wisdom of elite opinion, achieving what the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci called “ideological hegemony”. It has already gone a long way in that direction.

If that were to continue—if the mind of the democrat were to be captured by the arguments of the globalist—then the result could well be not the triumph of global governance but the suicide of liberal democracy, regarding both domestic self-government and self-defence against terrorists and sovereign but undemocratic states. Thus the global governance project, although unable to achieve success on its own terms, would essentially disable and disarm the democratic state. Fukuyama’s scepticism notwithstanding, if liberal democracy drinks deep from the cup of global governance it will poison itself.

Such a suicide of liberal democracy would likely happen gradually over a long period. In Chapter Six, Dr Fonte analyses the slow-motion suicide of the liberal democratic nation-states of Western Europe, as they transform themselves into subordinate states within the supranational legal regime of the European Union. That still continues. Among the chief facilitators of this “suicide”, moreover, are the national judges of the various European nations. In the construction of a global legal regime, judges at the highest levels within nation-states would also play a crucial role.

Some serious comfort is to be found therefore in the growing resistance within Europe to the not-quite-completed project of undemocratic European governance. Voters and taxpayers are rebelling, both in the polling booths and in the streets, against structures of unaccountable power that deliver currency crises, high unemployment and massive policy failures. If global governance remains controversial and contested in its heartland—and it does at several levels—then there is every reason to believe that it can be halted and reversed more generally.

The forces of scepticism everywhere, moreover, enjoy one potentially decisive advantage: global governance is the ideology that dare not speak its name. It has to deny on television the doctrines that it boasts about in the seminar. It has to conceal its achievements such as the Common Agricultural Policy. It has to engage in verbal tricks to justify its rules and institutions as liberal and democratic when in fact they are their opposites. In general global governance has to lie and dissemble incessantly.

That was fine when no one was paying attention. Global governance could apparently survive anything but discussion. With the publication of this book, however, that qualification no longer applies. Dr Fonte has ensured that there will finally be a full national and international debate on the sovereignty issue. He has removed the veils of euphemism and legal circumlocution that surrounded it. He has given us an intellectual armoury to defend our constitutional liberal democracies against internal subversion or external attack.

He has done everything that can be done by a political writer. His readers must now do the rest.

John O’Sullivan is the author of the international best-seller The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister. He was a special adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and has been editor of the National Interest, National Review and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This article is a revised version of the foreword he wrote for John Fonte’s book.