Benjamin Geer on Mon, 10 Apr 2006 15:28:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Democracy without borders?

A short essay on the possibility of democracy on an international
level, taking as its starting point an observation about the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Also available here (in several



Democracy Without Borders?

Benjamin Geer
6 April 2006

Many observers of the recent Palestinian parliamentary elections have
pointed out that the US has been caught in the trap of its own
commitment to Palestinian democracy. Having declared its support for
free and fair Palestinian elections, it now faces the annoyance of a
Hamas victory. The US government's response to the elections has been
to try to pressure Hamas into becoming the sort of party that it would
find acceptable, by insisting that Hamas disarm and recognise

Meanwhile, in Israel, the party of Ehud Olmert, the current acting
prime minister, has won the Israeli parliamentary elections. Olmert
has said he will not negotiate with Hamas, and that the priority of
the next Israeli government should be to to fix Israel's final borders

Something is clearly wrong with democracy as it is being practiced in
this conflict. The policies of the Israeli government have an
overwhelming effect on Palestinians, yet Israel's democracy doesn't
give Palestinians any say in those policies. Those of the Palestinian
Authority have a far smaller yet still significant effect on Israelis,
and Israelis likewise have no say in Palestinian democracy.

This failure is inherent in the very concept of the state: states only
allow their own citizens to vote in their elections. To take another
example, the vast majority of Iraqis were not consulted on the issue
of whether the US should invade and occupy their country. People joke
that, since the US president's power extends throughout the world, the
whole world should vote in American presidential elections. This joke
reflects an intuitive recognition that it would be fairer if people
could exercise influence over decisions to the extent that they are
affected by those decisions. I have suggested elsewhere that we call
this principle "fair influence". Non-Americans suffer from an
influence deficit with regard to American foreign policy.

Of course, existing democracies are far from implementing fair
influence even for their own citizens. For example, in the West,
parties and electoral campaigns require large sums of money, and
political platforms are thus limited to the range of options that
wealthy donors wish to support. The wealthy also control the media
that shape public opinion. Moreover, the structure of the economic
system is excluded from the sphere of issues that the electoral
process is authorised to change.[3] Even if democracy faithfully
represented the majority's interests, majority rule would still place
minorities at a disadvantage. This is not the place for a detailed
analysis of these problems. Let us assume for the moment that
democracy can be improved so that it truly implements fair influence
in domestic politics, and that a state's constitution could specify
how such a democracy would work. Could fair influence then be
practiced on an international level as well?

Max Weber defined the state as "a human community that (successfully)
claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a
given territory".[4] A state thus reflects an agreement to resolve
local conflicts peacefully within a certain political and legal
framework, leaving the state itself as the sole entity authorised to
use force in order to ensure that citizens respect that framework.
When that agreement breaks down, and the state no longer has a
monopoly of force, the result can be civil war or the rule of bandits.

Because states need weapons to enforce their constitutions internally,
they can also make war against each other, and all states must
therefore rely on armies to protect themselves. Therefore the pact
that gives the state a monopoly of force on a domestic level cannot be
reproduced on an international level. Two or more states could sign a
treaty giving each of them some influence in the other's domestic
decision-making, but the militarily strongest state would be free to
violate the treaty whenever it wished. Therefore, a real solution to
the global influence deficit may require a new kind of political
entity yet to be imagined, one that departs from Weber's definition of
the state.

In the meantime, in a world composed of states, the greater a state's
relative military strength, the greater the risk that it will dominate
other states. Thus, perhaps one way to reduce this risk is to
undermine the economic basis of the wealth that the richest countries
spend on weapons. That wealth currently depends on the exploitation of
labour and raw materials in less wealthy countries, with the
cooperation of local elites. The more a state implements the principle
of fair influence, the more it will refuse such exploitation.


   1. George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 31 January 2006.
   2. "Olmert vows to set final borders", BBC News web site, 13
February 2006, accessed 3 March 2006.
   3. Kees van der Pijl, "A Lockean Europe?", New Left Review 37,
January-February 2006, pp. 9-37.
   4. Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation" (1918), in The Vocation
Lectures: "Science as a Vocation" and "Politics as a Vocation",
Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2004.

Copyright (c) 2006 Benjamin Geer

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales License.

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