Ethics & International Affairs Volume 24.1 (Spring 2010): Book Reviews: The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy by Daniele Archibugi [Full Text]

Mar 11, 2010

The Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy, Daniele Archibugi (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 320 pp., $30 cloth.

Luis Cabrera (Reviewer)

In The Global Commonwealth of Citizens, Daniele Archibugi distills two decades of thought on the justification and possibilities for democratic rule above the state. The author is a research director at the Italian National Research Council who also teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London. His erudition and command of the salient literature are evident throughout this work, and he moves with ease through a range of debates about suprastate accountability, while engaging convincingly with numerous possible critiques of cosmopolitan democracy.

Archibugi and David Held form the core of a group of political theorists and international relations scholars who began exploring possibilities for global democracy in the heady days immediately after the end of the cold war. In Global Commonwealth, Archibugi clearly stakes out his own ground, placing less emphasis than does Held on distributive or "social" aspects of cosmopolitan democracy and more on pragmatic, incremental reforms of current international organizations. He also argues that even authoritarian states should be seen as legitimate participants in the institutions of a global democracy, with the understanding that such participation will tend to have a democratizing effect on them.

Archibugi understands cosmopolitan democracy as a middle path between some purely confederal arrangement where states are the exclusive actors and individual rights and duties are limited by state membership, and a federal world government marked by uniform global law and some transfer of sovereignty from the state to the global level. States would retain considerable authority within cosmopolitan democracy, and the competencies of any fully global governing institutions would be relatively narrow.

Archibugi offers a somewhat minimalist conception of democracy that he believes can be applied in the near term to the global system, including existing international organizations. At its heart are three guiding principles: nonviolence, popular control, and political equality. At the domestic level, nonviolence refers to peaceful succession of leadership, but also to peaceful coexistence among political parties or factions in diverse societies. Popular control refers not only to narrowly aggregative voting mechanisms but to a broader conception of public scrutiny, operating alongside institutional transparency. Political equality is understood straightforwardly as equal participation rights for individuals.

The same general principles obtain at the suprastate level, but would apply to both individuals and states. Whereas under the norms of the current global system the principle of nonviolence requires states to use force in disputes only as a last resort, reforms consistent with cosmopolitan democracy would strengthen the ability of suprastate institutions to hold individual leaders criminally responsible for interstate aggression. They also would expand compulsory jurisdiction and enhance capacities for humanitarian intervention.

To enhance popular control at the suprastate level, Archibugi supports the creation of a World Parliamentary Assembly (possibly as an organ of the UN General Assembly) with a purely advisory role, at least in the near term. For Archibugi, the recent movement toward greater inclusion of global civil society groups in areas of UN governance indicates the plausibility of creating such a body. He also advocates for the institution of a thin cosmopolitan citizenship, including universal rights and limited duties obtaining on all persons. Cosmopolitan citizenship could provide a kind of secondary legal status, complete with passports and basic income entitlements for such highly vulnerable groups as refugees.

Archibugi focuses much of his attention on possible reform of the United Nations. Indeed, among cosmopolitan democrats he may be the strongest advocate for using the global materials at hand—notably, by exploring the means of improving the operation of UN institutions (including mitigating the disparities of state power within them) and thereby allowing them to achieve what he sees as their fundamental promise of improving the global human condition. Thus, "the cosmopolitan democracy project views the UN as the pivot of the entire world judicial and political system. . . . It is not only unrealistic but also absurd to imagine that the UN can be bypassed for the purpose of establishing a new world order. Indeed, it is necessary to reclaim the UN and use it to perform the task for which it was founded" (p. 156).

Besides his call for a possibly UN-based parliamentary assembly, Archibugi outlines or surveys reform proposals for the UN Security Council, International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, and the Human Rights Council. By contrast, he gives relatively little attention to other global institutions, including those exercising significant compliance powers over their state members or clients. The World Trade Organization, for example, is mentioned only once, the International Monetary Fund twice.

Archibugi is not primarily concerned with offering systematic theoretical arguments for the principles he espouses. He mostly stipulates, rather than exhaustively demonstrates, that aspects of globalization have eroded the ability of domestic polities to practice self-rule. Further, readers seeking more foundational justifications for democratic rule, including at the global level, may want to turn elsewhere. His responses to various critiques of cosmopolitan democracy are, however, as detailed and nuanced as any in the literature.

Archibugi repeatedly emphasizes that his aim is not to write a "book of dreams"; and the work, for all its ambitions of creating a robust World Parliamentary Assembly, is remarkably distant from utopia building. It is skeptical of claims for the rapid promotion of democracy in hierarchical states, offers ideas about both short– and long–term reforms of global governance, and advises caution in assessing the uses of democratic peace theory.

In sum, The Global Commonwealth of Citizens provides not only an exhaustive treatment of the benefits and drawbacks of cosmopolitan democracy but the most detailed statement to date of how some form of cosmopolitan democracy could be realized.


Luis Cabrera is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Birmingham (UK). His work focuses on issues of global justice and citizenship, and his forthcoming book, The Practice of Global Citizenship, will be published by Cambridge University Press.

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