LONDON — Transparency and accountability are the buzzwords of the age. No gathering of policy experts or seminar on public affairs is complete without demands all round that the institutions of modern government, both national and global, especially global ones, should become more accountable and open and that “democratic deficits,” wherever they are alleged to occur, should be made good.
This was the main theme at the recent London meeting of the influential Trilateral Commission, embracing leaders from Europe, the United States and Japan, with other invitees added. The commission focused on the rising volume of claims that organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the World Trade Organization should present their deliberations to the outside world in a more responsive and democratic way.
Reflection on this trend by the commission raised a central question. What do all the demands for more democracy or accountability, when leveled at global institutions of this kind, really mean?
After all, if the motive of the critics truly is more democracy, then it has to be remembered that these global forums are lawfully set up and staffed by national governments. Elected ministers are in theory accountable to their respective electorates back home for what goes on in them and what they do. In that case, the clamor for more democracy is really a demand for better democratic structures within nation states, with livelier monitoring and explanations by sleepy national legislatures. Genuine democratic deficits surely begin, and need to be addressed, at the grass roots.
That may be a difficult task in some cases. But it is surely a better route than the alternative, which is cobbling together parallel, global-level, “elected” bodies to hold accountable global institutions that the world finds it now increasingly needs. Such bodies — supranational or world parliaments — of course immediately suffer from the same defects as the institutions they are supposed to police. They become hopelessly remote from the grass roots and the people they are meant to serve. The net effect is to weaken, rather than strengthen, the chain of democracy and accountability.
A classic example of this is the European Parliament, which is supposed to monitor the institutions of the European Union. The theory is that it solves the problem of the “democratic deficit” in the Union by keeping a watch on the activities of the European Commission in a way that national parliaments cannot. Its authority is meant to derive not from member governments, but direct from the people who elect its members.
But of course this bypassing of national legislatures severs the democratic linkage. Instead of recognizable national assemblies, watched by alert local media, examining everything done in the people’s name, and with their money, the task slips away to a body so remote that few voters know where it is, what it represents or what it does — and to which the media pay little attention. Since the European Parliament was created, popular trust and faith in EU institutions, far from growing, have steadily crumbled. This, plainly, is the wrong way forward.
But are the demands for transparency and democracy what they seem? Are they thinly disguised challenges, not just to the structure but to the mission and goals of these organizations? If so, then all the democratizing in the world will not satisfy a protest group — itself not very accountable — that wants to overthrow the entire global capitalist system which the IMF lives by.
Giving in to this kind of street pressure, as evidenced at the Seattle meeting of the WTO or at numerous international gatherings since, is not advancing democracy. It is merely appeasing the new antiliberalism and the numerous narrow, and highly undemocratic, antimarket interest groups.
Yet in other instances the demands for open doors and more transparent decisions may be more worth listening to. Responsible civic society, in the guise of a growing army of well-organized and well-informed nongovernmental organizations, is entitled to be heard.
This seems much more reasonable. There is no doubt that power has passed into the hands of civic society and its myriad groups and alliances in a remarkable way. It is prudent to let them in to have their say, and it is the best way to ensure that global institutions have their perspectives leavened by unofficial viewpoints. This is the new pluralism, inspired by such massive transnational organizations as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Medicins sans Frontieres, which have earned their place in international decision-making and should be given a place at international meetings.
So we have the beginnings of a sensible answer to the cries for more accountability and democracy in global institutions — let in the good NGOs, keep out the bad ones and ensure that at the state level true democracy and openness prevail.
Of course, all this talk of accountability and democratic deficits may seem a bit academic in Japan, where the problem is establishing a firm government, much less one that is in touch with people and capable of projecting a clear vision and strategy.
But these problems may be two sides of the same coin. National political systems that are open, argumentative and truly democratic produce governments that can explain global issues frankly to their electorates and prepare nations to carry global responsibilities in a willing and participatory way, even when it is burdensome to do so.
In other words, the answer to the democratic deficit at the global level is not to invent new global “parliaments” but to keep the grass green at its roots inside nations — the foundation stones of global order.
When a famous American politician once said that “all politics is local,” he was perhaps going too far. But certainly, even in this very globalized and interdependent world, that is where all politics — and accountability — begin.
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