Unfortunately, we’ve defined democracy as the holding of parliamentary elections ... This definition is simply wrong. Joseph Conrad ... wrote that we don’t really fight for elections or “democracy” but for openness and freedom and human rights—in whatever form they may take ... that’s the right way to look at it.
--Robert Kaplan, in a debate with Tom Friedman at www.foreignpolicy.com/issue_marapr_2002/debate.html
Ten years ago Jean-Marie Guehenno, then head of policy planning at the French Foreign Ministry, published a book ruminating on the consequences of the decline of the nation- state. Though written in a style not instantly accessible to the Anglo-Saxon mind (Actual quote: "There is no signified beyond the signifier, and that is just as well.") his essay seems to have sparked and certainly preceded a small library of end- of- state or globalization studies. Most were by economists/business consultants interested in market integration mechanisms or cultural studies professors decrying the emergence of a global Creole culture. Neither group came all that close to Guehenno's concern, which was well expressed by his original title: "La fin de la democracy". (The English translation was published under "The End of the Nation State".)
In that work the planner pointed out that the ideas that in most developed societies comprise the civic life - - democracy, liberty, freedom, citizenship, politics, unity, equality, individual rights, the social contract, the public good, representation, National Interest, the General Will, patriotism, even the right-left spectrum - - acquire their ethical content from the relationship of the citizenry to their national governments. National governments both form the stage on which these dramas of conflicting values are expressed, resolved, and publicized, and assume a leading role in those dramas. They create the civic life and bind their subjects to it. If the era of the nation- state is drawing to a close, as many think, it would seem to follow that this relationship will grow increasingly weaker. What will our lives look like if it does? Will we lose touch with ourselves as citizens? If so, can or ought we do anything about it?
The end of the nation state may seem less of a prospect now, with the American government running a war and nationalists in power all across Europe. However, one can see the spasm of nativistic roots- seeking currently running through both European and Moslem cultures as less a counter to Guehenno's vision than a confirmation of it, a wave of reaction to the feeling that the civic life is spinning out of control, becoming less orderly and just. From that perspective this may well be an especially good time to ask about the direction that citizenship is taking.
It cannot be denied that the democratic state is swimming against some powerful currents. Whatever else technology does it generates an ever- wider variety of kinds or types of products and services and therefore of work specializations (as reflected in the huge growth in the list of occupations maintained by the Dept. of Commerce). As these specializations ramify, as a society develops higher degrees of complexity and differentiation in its spectrum of interests, defining a political agenda that resonates with a geographic majority, or even with a large plurality, becomes harder. Building majorities takes more and more money (in promotion and publicity) and those that do emerge dissolve overnight. As the cost per voter goes up, so does reluctance to scare people off with talk about actual content. Civic debate retreats into the recycling of scraps of rhetoric sanctified by tradition and harmless topics (in that they are unlikely to offend any actual voters) like the politicians themselves and the process, i.e., of "character" and procedure. The price of the process spirals up; the value it delivers goes down.
This trend is only amplified by economic and cultural integration. Civic life is about compensating, comforting, or protecting persons or groups who are likely to be victimized in some fashion (parties which these days can include natural environments, cute animals, and distinguished architecture), while ignoring or even adding to the pain of those who do the victimizing, or benefit unjustly from it, or are just generally undeserving. Nations advance this sorting by declaring their own citizens as more deserving than those of other countries. But how do you favor "us" against "them" when all the "thems" have local "us's" dependent on "their" success? Exactly how does one manage the "national content" of a value chain or issue constituency that stretches through four countries?
Finally, when your sense of the stage on which civic values unfold is as large as the world, the moral stature of national governments shrinks in proportion. They become one among many, part of a noisy, somewhat silly, crowd walking about on a set that overwhelms even the largest of them. From this perspective their claim on our respect and obedience becomes, if not always problematic, then palpably weaker.
One possible response is to scale the machinery and expectations of state politics up by vesting them in some more geographically comprehensive authority, like the EC or the UN. This worked well enough in the US: as the economies of the various states integrated over the last century, the civic drama moved reasonably smoothly to Washington. Today interest in empowering global authorities seems distinctly muted. While one- worldism was cool and exciting in the 30's, when it was impossible, now, when it is all too close at hand, it is opposition to world government and its institutions that gets the idealists marching. (Guehenno dismisses the central- authority paradigm as obsolete in what he calls 'the age of networks'.) Besides, every mile of the road to world government is controlled by national bureaucracies jealous of their powers and backed by armies of citizens, on both left and right, for whom their nation state is worth defending even if it is under siege.
There is a second category of institutions in the game of filtering out the deserving: the huge numbers of non- profits found in every corner and level of every issue we might think of as civic. (Issues of merit just interfere with the missions of profit- making enterprises.) These also comfort and protect the afflicted and vulnerable, and, with their armies of lawyers, lobbyists, and media campaigners, do what they can to shift risk and financial loss onto the backs of those outside that circle.
Might it be that NPs are fated to become the new vessel for the democratic spirit, the vehicle for, in Conrad's phrase, the pursuit of "openness, freedom, and human rights"? (that would not of course mean that elections would disappear but that voting patterns would be governed by the relations of voters to their NPs. The electoral behavior today derided as 'single- issue politics' would become standard.)
Certainly NPs, unlike nations, seem wonderfully compatible with the times. They need pay no attention to borders, a strength that some boast about in their very names (Medecins Sans Frontieres, Reporters Sans Frontières). They make wonderfully effective use of networking technologies. They can be targeted and re targeted on any aspect or level of any issue, are cheap to start, run, and fold, and can address all the actors and issues that matter in a given policy solution space with a very impressive tool set, ranging from boycotts to demonstrations, petitions, software, legislation, lobbying, media campaigns, and lawsuits. NPs do not have direct control of physical force and tend to be very narrowly defined (i.e., instead of voting for a Republican or a Democrat, the NP 'citizen' might work at finding good homes for superannuated greyhounds), but if these are defects they are not obviously fatal to the civic consciousness.
Indeed, in some parts of the world the migration of the civic culture to a NP infrastructure seems to have happened already. Over the last two decades hundreds of thousands of NPs throughout the emerging nations have organized to assume major responsibilities for development, the protection of the environment, health care, education (including civic education), cultural expression, and research into appropriate technologies and sustainable economies . Many, maybe most, of these call themselves "NGOs" - - an NP subclass that is highly internationalized, usually located in the third world, typically concerned with development, humanitarian relief, environmental protection, human rights, and/or health care, and deeply integrated into a global structure of other NPs. A local clinic in the Sudan (for instance) might have vertical relationships with several international organizations with health care missions (like CARE); these in turn would be enmeshed in broader relations with dozens of similar organizations, all forming a network supporting the circulation of money, manpower, information, resources, technical improvements, influence, and training on a broad scale.
This internationalization not only opens access to resources, it presents a policy voice that is different in tone to that of the local authorities. This orthogonality often gives NGOs an apparent disinterestedness, and therefore a level of credibility, that the local representatives of the state do not possess. That credibility in turn pushes the contributions of NGOs to the civic life of their societies beyond simple service provision. NGOs foster organizational diversity, spread information on rights and liberties, offer an organizing point for reform initiatives, and present a model of democratic relations -- of free and fair internal elections, tolerance and respect for opposing viewpoints, the protection of minorities, an entitlement to institutional autonomy -- that can serve as a vision of progress for the larger community.
Emerging nation NGOs have become something like a general civic interface that mediates relations on specific issues with all the other organs of society, from businesses to media to governments. As just one measure, over the last twenty years the percentage of World Bank projects involving NGOs has gone from almost zero to more than half. "Of course, NGOs have a long history of providing welfare services to poor people in countries where governments lacked resources..." write David Hulme and Michael Edwards. "The difference is that now they are seen as the preferred channel... in deliberate substitution for the state." "Human rights NGOs [have been] the engine for virtually every advance made by the UN in the field of human rights since its founding," writes F. Gaer.
Is it possible that at least on this issue it is the emerging world that is showing the industrialized countries the latter's future? . the first chapter of our adjustment to globalization has been about buying from and selling in international companies, perhaps the second will be learning to channel our civic interests through our participation in international NPs. The speculation has the logic that the two chapters are homologous, both being stories about responding to increasing complexity with higher degrees of specialization. They look like they reflect the same world.
At the moment, though a number of civic issues (the environment, disaster relief, human rights, the Olympics) do map freely across borders, few fields of social concern are fully globalized. Americans are not close to replacing their support for the American Cancer Society, which gives less than 1% of its money to non- American researchers, with the Association for International Cancer Research, which funds cancer research strictly according to merit, wherever it is carried out, or for Common Cause with Transparency International (which fights governmental corruption around the world), or the Electronic Freedom Foundation with the Global Internet Liberty Campaign.
Perhaps in time all these transitions will take place automatically and at their own pace. Still, examination of specific cases might suggest ways of moving this process forward, assuming we might wish to. The recent history of the effort to find the right way of handling internet names and addresses is illustrative.
The internet, defined as a single interconnecting universe, in which any node can find any other, relies on three pieces of back- office housekeeping: internet addresses, which are numeric; domain names, the alphanumeric symbols ("www.microsoft.com") associated with those addresses, and the maintenance and supervision of the bases that serve these data on request to other computers.
Until the early 90's these issues had been dealt with by several Technical Standards Groups. TSGs are consensual autocracies of the skilled, quasi-academic societies in which everyone knows who knows what and where influence distributes itself more or less automatically by level of expertise. While precise and unforgiving on the inside, such groups can seem hopelessly informal, inaccessible, and mysterious to an outside observer, especially an observer with legal training. While there was never a crisis with the old system, the feeling grew that "the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet" should not rest on a bunch of techies asking people to trust them. Control over addresses seemed to translate, at least in theory, into control over who could get on the net at all. Potential vendors wished to be able to sell names to the highest bidder. Trademark holders wanted rights of first access to the names connected with their marks, no matter who bid what. Companies that had been doing business under a given name for years wanted domain names that reflected that name, whether they had registered it as a trademark or not. Freedom of expression advocates wanted to see generous protection for parody or criticism (i.e., shielding names like www.companysucks.com from suits by the target company). There was nothing like a consensus on how disputes should be resolved.
At other times an international conference might have been called to hammer out a treaty along the lines of those currently governing international telephone numbers, spectrum allocations, and satellite slots. Or the US government might have reasserted a purely national control over the net, perhaps on the ground that it had no intention of giving away an asset bought and paid for by the US taxpayer just as it was becoming valuable. Any country who didn't like it could get their own internet.
Instead the US announced its intention of helping create an international non- profit to take over these tasks. There were a number of reasons for this self-restraint. Everyone had been impressed by the success of the TSGs at steering the net through its scaling challenges to date. The administration was afraid that if either other governments or one of the UN-associated international regulatory bodies like the ITU were given any control they would try to shoehorn some vast regulatory regime into the medium, killing it off as an intercommunicating, transparent, environment. This would have been bad for ecommerce, and therefore bad for American business, which expected to dominate ecommerce. Finally, the novelty of the whole issue, in fact of the whole internet, made it hard to calculate the political risks of any given policy. How strongly would other countries have protested if the US had announced that it planned to keep permanent control of internet names and addresses? No one knew and few were eager to find out.
As it turned out the effort to organize this NP, which eventually took the name of The Internet Company for Assigned Names and Numbers, commenced several years of bitter, uninterrupted fighting amongst dozens of constituencies. This struggle is by no means resolved today. Probably the only proposition on which all the contending parties might agree is that the system of internet names and addresses has never been closer to being taken over by either the US or resigned to some ITU- like body; if that comes to pass it will be not because the case for either of those authorities has persuaded anybody but out of simple exhaustion with the fighting apparently endemic to the NP alternative.
Most of the criticism directed at ICANN and its supporting institutions has had to do with process: the nature and level of transparency, inclusiveness, accountability, and oversight, and the definition, entitlement, representation, and polling mechanisms of such constituencies as the trademark industries, profit-making industry in general, the international community, the American government, non- American governments, and what is commonly called the "Internet community". The other side of the argument has been that all these process concerns represent a misplaced desire to do cool experiments on internet governance that have nothing to do with job at hand.
At this point I have no idea who is "right" (and less interest in finding out) but this much seems clear: there was never anything like a consensus or accepted expectation on any level as to what constituted a reasonable (or unreasonable) process demand. While ICANN might have blown up anyway, this deficiency allowed each side to fetch up on the far ends of the spectrum of possibilities, making an agreement profoundly unlikely. Internet organizations are not unique in this respect. Aside from what it is required to qualify for tax- free status, which is a very different matter, there is no "normal" pattern of NP governance. When a private company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, it is expected to comply with a higher standard of reporting and its principals with higher standards of behavior (no insider trading, etc.) Maybe it is time to hold a conference or start a project that will define standards of representation, direction, and reporting for NGOs, including such issues as definitions of membership, member rights, directorships, advisory committees, and so on. These would not be required by statute, but with luck they might come to represent a standard, a norm of behavior.
We are moving into a world in which our civic identities will be
organized not around where we live but what kind of good we do, the
societies set up to establish those identities might need roots that
NPs have not had to the present date. Process standards constitute
such a root.