Democracy and multilateral cooperation

Gabriel Porcile

Can democracy coexist with an international system in which rules of multilateral cooperation restrain the space of decision of national policymakers (and hence the power of voters to define policies)? Keohane, Macedo and Moravcsik (2009, pp. 6-8, henceforth KMM) suggest that multilateral cooperation and democracy can coexist and reinforce each other. They lay down the necessary conditions for having democracy-enhancing multilateralism.

KMM do not claim that multilateral agreements always reinforce democracy; whether they are democracy-enhancing or democracy-degrading is, to a large extent, an empirical matter that must be assessed in each specific issue-area. However, KMM do provide a set of guideposts that help discuss when it is more likely that multilateral institutions will be democracy-enhancing rather than democracy-degrading. This in turn may be helpful to devise a new international governance that challenges the one that prevailed in the past three decades.

According to KMM, democracy-enhancing multilateralism should comply with three conditions. The first is to encourage policies that benefit the majority of the population as opposed to policies that favor small groups that can mobilize substantial resources to make their preferences on foreign and domestic policies prevail. The second condition is strengthening civil rights protection, especially in the case of vulnerable groups and minorities. Constitutional democracy entails that the majority cannot overrule the civil rights of minorities and groups with less political and economic power. The third condition is strengthening the deliberative capabilities of the society by opening the policy debate to a variety of actors (in particular to the civil society), making it more transparent and allowing them to contribute with structured, informed arguments to the analysis.

KMM make it clear that their focus is on the “vertical” relation between states and citizens, not on the “horizontal” relation between states. This horizontal relation is a missing dimension that is not inconsequential for international cooperation and domestic politics in a democracy. In particular, the negative political and economic impacts of the existence of a center-periphery system (recurrent external disequilibria, exchange rate crisis, financial instability, the persistence of inequality) may hamper or degrade the viability and quality of constitutional democracy. These negative impacts of international asymmetries will be felt throughout the system, not only in the periphery. Therefore, the KMM conditions for democracy-enhancing multilateralism should be expanded to include policies to reduce international asymmetries and expand the developing economies’ policy space. ECLAC (2018) has argued in favor of multilateralism based on the equality and the SGDs, UNCTAD (2016) in favor of a Global New Deal, and Rodrik (2019) in support of a “democracy-enhancing global governance” which should give to the welfare and industrial policies a crucial role.

Gabriel Porcile is the academic coordinator of the ECLAC School of Latin American Development Studies.

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