Democracy in Danger

Lucio Levi

The future of humankind is facing several life-threatening challenges: pandemics, atomic weapons, climate change, the rise of nationalism and the return of war. The political institutions, whose task is  governing the economic and social processes and making determinant decisions for the future generations of citizens, have lost the capacity to cope with these threats.

The main contradiction of our time is between the dynamics of market and civil society (that develop the tendency to become global) and the resistance opposed by the states (that remain national). We are living in a new era of scientific and technological revolution, which has triggered off the globalization process. It is a process that escapes states control, limits their ability to act and dents the essential character of their structure and functions. Globalization is unifying the world on the structural plane, while politics - still dominated by the idea of nation - keeps it divided on the  superstructural plane, that is the framework where political decisions are made. While globalisation is dragging all people in the same direction, national ideology divides them and maintains the unequal distribution of wealth and power between the peoples and prevents a rational government of the world.

The balance of power between states and markets has been overturned. Economy has gained the upper hand over politics and finance over real economy. The erosion of state sovereignty brings about the decline of democracy. The decisions on which the future of humankind depends shift outside of national borders. Citizens feel that they have lost control of their destiny because the most important decisions are taken at the international level while democratic institutions stop at state borders. There ensues a crisis of consent towards the political institutions and of the legitimacy of public powers. Consequently, owing to the decline of the state, private interests connected to the market prevail and bring about the decline of collective values on which political coexistence is founded. Where there are democratic institutions (at the national level), second rate decisions are taken. Where the most important decisions are taken (at the international level), there are no democratic institutions. Therefore, democracy risks to become an empty shell. If democracy does not want to resign itself to being subject to the power of global markets and non-state actors, it should globalize itself.

Politics, faced with the test of regulating globalization, show a confrontation between two alternative projects. The federalist one proposes to globalize power and democracy, the nationalist one pursues the return to nation-states. Therefore, the operational framework of the dividing line drawn at Ventotene between reactionary and progressive forces, i.e. between nationalism and federalism, has become the world.

On the one hand, there are the old nation-states that are an obsolete form of political organisation.

Especially in Europe, they are experiencing that only regional unification can give the chance to reach goals that cannot be achieved by the individual states. At the same time, the national level of government can be used to embank ethnic nationalism and secessionist movements that are active in almost all the states. Moreover, local self-government is the third pillar - beside the national and the macroregional ones - of the new features which political institutions are assuming in order to ensure community participation. On the other hand, there are the macroregional states that have become protagonists in world politics. They are the building blocks of the emerging new global order, i.e. the successors of the leaders of the Cold War – the US and Russia –, the new protagonists in world politics and global economy, like China, India and Brazil, and regional organisations such as the EU, the most advanced unification experiment in the world, which is supposed to evolve towards a federal arrangement. All these new actors in international politics, except the EU, still belong to the Westphalian world and are opposed to the recognition of any supranational authority. They are proud of their own identity and independence. While eager to assert their influence in the world, they are nevertheless involved in regional integration processes – the US in NAFTA, Russia in the Eurasian Economic Community, Brazil in Mercosur, India in SAARC, China in the economic agreement with ASEAN, South Africa in the African Union.

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The EU can pave the way to the assertion of democracy in the world. Being the largest global economy, larger than the US and China, and the first world's trade power, it has a vital interest in keeping the world market open and strengthening the institutions that further this aim. This is the reason that has driven the EU, against the resistance of the United States, to promote the formation of the WTO, which springs from the need to apply new rules to global competition and to enforce them universally.

A full-fledged European federal union will be able to profoundly influence trends in world politics, in the first place by conditioning US foreign policy. More generally, it can eventually play a pivotal role between East and West, and North and South, because it has a vital interest, unlike the United States, in developing positive relations of cooperation with the neighbouring areas of the ex-communist world, the Mediterranean and Africa. At the same time, it is necessary to strengthen the international institutions (OSCE, Cotonou Convention and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership) binding Europe to its neighbouring continents.

The EU is the laboratory of a new form of statehood based on the extension of the principles of the rule of law and democracy at the international level, i.e. constitutionalizing and democratizing  international relations. The EU is the world region whose institutional evolution is closest to a federal stage and the European Parliament is the first elected supranational Parliament in history. Therefore, it can play the role of model and motor of the democratization process of the UN. A step on the way of the UN democratization is a UN Parliamentary Assembly.  At the same time, the transformation of the Security Council into the Council of the great regions of the world would enable all the UN member states to be represented in the Security Council through their respective regional organizations.

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Trump’s coming to power has inaugurated a new cycle in domestic and world politics inspired by nationalism, which has spread, like an infectious disease, worldwide. Liberal-democracies are  under attack from populist parties mainly on the right, but also on the left. The authoritarian leaders,  often elected democratically, profit from the pandemics to exacerbate liberticide measures. The undemocratic model, championed by Putin and Xi-jinping, who have moved to extend their hold on power beyond their term, is gaining ground. In Hungary, Orban has assumed emergency powers to rule by decree for an indefinite time, Rwandan President Kagame is deploying security forces and soldiers across the country to enforce nationwide lockdown, Bolivia has postponed elections, in Israel, Netanyahu used the pandemic to get his corruption trial postponed, Turkey, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Venezuela have imprisoned opposition activists, journalists, magistrates and all those who dared to criticize the government, owing to his negationist attitude towards coronavirus, Brazilian President Bolsonaro has been denounced at the ICC for crimes against humanity and genocide.

After having given the decisive push to the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations and played, during the postwar period, the role of backbone of the global order, the US, under Trump, has chosen “America first” as the formula that summarizes his political agenda. Domestically, Trump has rejected Islamic migrants, covered white supremacists and police brutality, resorted to racial appeals and made the border wall with Mexico the symbol of a closed society. His primary commitment in foreign policy has been oriented toward the dismantlement of the international institutions and agreements that promote multilateralism and international cooperation. He announced that the US withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreements, the World Health Organization and has blocked the WTO from appointing new members to a crucial panel that hears appeals in trade disputes. In conclusion, Trump’s policy has dug a deep division both in the world and in the US. With or without Trump, the US should rediscover that its future is inseparably bound to a global partnership for peace and international democracy. Democracy is in danger. Democratic forces must mobilize.                                                     

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