Planetary Democracy

Democracy, applied at the global level, could help the human species realize its potential to move towards sustainability

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 54
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute


Global governance is already a reality, as the previous articles by Harlan Cleveland and Hazel Henderson point out. Some of that governance is highly democratic, based in citizens’ organizations banding together to make their voices heard. But much of global governance remains unaccountable and out of the control of ordinary people. For example, transnational corporations make decisions that affect large numbers of people, but they have outgrown the regulatory structures designed to keep their activities in line with the public good.

What we need now are new, democratic forms of planetary governance, say leaders of the World Federalist Movement. Representing the World Federalists at the UN is Jack Yost, who has written extensively about the drawbacks of the UN’s current form and his group’s proposal for a world parliament. The World Federalists’ UN office is at 777 UN Plaza, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10017, tel. 212/599-1320.

Sarah: Why do you see the need for changes in the way decisions are made at the global level?

Jack: The planet is facing an emergency, and governments are reaching for the lowest common denominator when it comes to making decisions. The whole UN treaty-making process is in a kind of global gridlock; you either have no decisions being taken – as in the case of the arms trade, which is totally, absolutely out of control – or you have steps that are very minimal.

In the General Assembly, you need 183 countries to agree on something before you can take action. It’s not a formula for taking bold and timely action to solve problems! On the Security Council, there’s always the threat of a veto.

Sarah: How do you think this system could be improved? How would you like to see global decision making take place ?

Jack: We’ve got to vastly cut back on the bureaucracies at the national level and devolve power to the local level and to the global level. That’s going to be the big challenge. National governments are always looking out for their own interests.

The current system, based on a national security state, is like this big, fat belly sitting atop local government with a little toothpick at the top. It’s an impossible system of governance that absolutely doesn’t work.

The problem, of course, with global governance is that people imagine another big, more bloated belly on top of the one that is already there. That’s why accountability and transparency and participation of citizens is so important in whatever system of governance we build.

Sarah: What is the philosophical basis for your approach?

Jack: I think we need to start with fundamental federalist principles. Sovereignty, according to this concept, resides with the citizen. And while citizens may choose to delegate powers to higher levels of government, those holding power remain directly accountable to citizens. Moreover, decisions should be made at the lowest level of government that can effectively deal with an issue. In some cases, that will be at the global level – that’s true, for example, of global warming. We need global agendas for issues like peacekeeping, human rights, and the environment.

At the same time we need more resources at the local level so that people can implement local solutions such as recycling, harnessing renewable energy resources, and so on.

Sarah: Tell me about the World Federalists’ proposals for a parliamentary assembly. How would that work?

Jack: There would be a parliamentary assembly set up as a committee of the General Assembly, with its members coming from national parliaments. This would give an advantage to the parliamentarians, because it would give them a voice in global decision making, and it would be good for citizens because indirectly, at least, they’d be represented at the global level through their elected officials.

Eventually, there would be a global parliament of members elected directly by the people of the planet. Then we’d have true democratic decision making at the global level.

As far as the specifics, we don’t propose exactly how it would work; what powers the parliament would have would be subject to negotiations.

For now, we can start moving toward more democracy in other ways. We can start by having citizen representation in international agencies. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Atomic Energy Commission, for example, should have representatives of citizens’ groups on them. But citizens’ groups will have to put a lot of pressure on those organizations for this to happen.

Sarah: Why would a world parliament make better decisions than those now made by the UN?

Jack: The representatives wouldn’t be taking instructions from their governments, so they’d be free to vote as their conscience dictates. They could be influenced by their fellow parliamentarians and would be more likely to come together because they’d have a common interest in global and planetary issues.

A lot of the diplomats at the United Nations are very progressive, because just being around here you develop a more globally oriented point of view. But that doesn’t mean they can vote the way they think best; they have to call back to their national capital, where, often times they’ll be told, "Don’t do this; it will impinge on our national sovereignty," even when it’s a matter of ridiculously petty phrases in some document.

Also, these diplomats are not politicians; they’re not legislators. They’re not used to making decisions. But with national parliamentarians – whatever we think of the gridlock in Congress – at least things get done, eventually. Just having them here at the UN is going to create a different kind of climate.

There’s a tremendous need to link UN decisions to what’s going on in national capitals. Having a global parliamentary assembly would help the executive branches of governments because it would be easier for them to argue in support of the United Nations.

Sarah: How would you address concerns that a centralized government could exercise arbitrary and bureaucratic control over critical global matters?

Jack: The current system is what really is dangerous, because we have a system of big-brother rule. We have powerful nation-states and powerful corporations that are ruling the world in a non-democratic fashion, and they’re not accountable to anyone. You have people punching computer keyboards all over the world and making millions of dollars in the international money market. That’s big brother.

The last thing we’ll have to worry about is a global government that’s too powerful. Before nation-states will give up any of their real power, they will make sure there are checks and balances built into the system.

Sarah: What is it about our world today that makes you think that these ideas could work?

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