Global politics and institutions

Source: Encyclopedia of Earth

This article was first published in the paper series of the Great Transition Initiative, coordinated by the Tellus Institute and the Stockholm Environment Institute.


A familiar refrain in our time is that humanity is at a crossroads with respect to dealing with multiple threats to its preservation as a species: poverty, widespread violence, dangerous illnesses, environmental catastrophes, and social breakdown. While we may have only a narrow window of opportunity to overcome these crises, a well-worn set of themes have been proposed to manage them: investments and financial transfers to the South to kick-start income generation opportunities; improved technology and coordinated policies to address economic, environmental, and health concerns; and genuine international cooperation towards peace and security. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, one senses only fatigue and frustration in policy-makers’ continued attempts to apply these policies, with little to show for their efforts as existing problems worsen and new dangers appear on the horizon. The trouble seems to be that, barring a substantial reorientation in our shared understanding of human progress and solidarity, in the absence of clear visions of alternative common futures, and without clear pathways for getting there, we may be doomed to adopt fragmented and incomplete solutions to address the great challenges of the twenty-first century. On the other hand, we may yet be able to engender a substantial shift—a Great Transition—in human attitudes and behavior towards sustainability to set in motion the technical, institutional, and social changes needed to meet the multiple challenges to humanity in a timely manner.

Why “Politics” and Why “Global?”

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought defines politics as the “process whereby a group of people, whose opinions or interests are initially divergent, reach collective decisions which are generally regarded as binding on the group, and enforced as common policy.” A curious feature of this definition is its omission of the inevitable conflicts that arise during such a process. In the popular imagination, after all, politics is most closely associated with a struggle for ascendancy among groups having different priorities and power relations.

A simpler if unusual definition of politics is that it is simply an old art of navigating through tensions among multiple “I”s and the “we” to achieve collectively desired ends. The character and form this art takes may vary with the type of social organization, level of engagement, and existing distribution of power. But in all cases, political strategies are deemed successful when the interests and actions of different individuals and stakeholder groups are aligned in a practical way towards roughly common objectives.

In a formal sense, politics is most often tied to the actions of powerful groups controlling relatively large territorially bound entities. Over the past 350 years or so, in the aftermath of deadly conflicts in Europe, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) led to broad recognition that territorial powers should largely be left alone and be afforded the status of “sovereignty”, i.e., the ability to conduct their internal affairs without outside interference. On the other hand, colonialism, slavery, and imperial conquests in vast regions of the world outside Europe continually defied the spirit of Westphalia. Still, the international system that was developed during the twentieth century has tried at least nominally to respect the principle, except insofar as it has been disturbed by the Cold War, Security Council antics, and a few cases of egregious human rights violations within states that have called for urgent outside intervention.

The ensuing states are political communities that have the sole authority to use force internally through their governments, which contain the institutional elements of decision-making. The governance patterns that individual states have developed, i.e., their manner of forming governments, systems of administration, and other institutional arrangements, have varied through history and context. Moreover, the legitimacy of individual states, the least amount of public support that is required to allow groups in power to continue to govern without resorting to continual violence, has shifted over time depending on public expectations and the actions of rulers.

As the scale of human interaction becomes more global, it seems inevitable that political affinities and problems will also cross boundaries more easily. Examples here are the novel political and philosophical questions associated with growing numbers of refugees, people who are literally stripped of statehood because the governments responsible for their welfare have abandoned them to violence, poverty or natural disasters, and are therefore urgently the concern of all of humanity. Another example are the ethical linkages between members of more privileged societies and disadvantaged people elsewhere that go well beyond questions of sympathy. Finally, there are mounting environmental and health problems whose resolution requires, at minimum, international coordination of policies and programs, but perhaps calls for actions that go beyond such strategies, through the creation of global institutions of legitimate authority.

While the conventional picture of distinct societies, cultures, and publics having (relatively) self-contained ethical obligations is increasingly hard to defend, it is also difficult to imagine that people in power within existing states will simply suspend their entrenched ideas of sovereignty and allow the establishment of new global organizations and institutions.

Politics from Below and Above: the Imagined Community

An extraordinary phenomenon has emerged during the past two centuries or so. Just around the turn of the nineteenth century, a strong new wave of belief began to sweep through vast regions of Europe and North America, and then elsewhere, that the territorially and often ethnically similar community that was consolidated into a politically governed state was also a nation and, indeed, a fundamental unit of social life. Feelings of nationalism did not arise in a vacuum but were in many cases cultivated by intellectuals and local leaders who historicized the nation as an “imagined community” that was larger than the local tribe and proximate groups. Prior to that, people had their closest affinities with their local community or religion and not, barring few exceptions, with the contingent territorial boundaries constituting the state they happened to live in. But by the nineteenth century, the most powerful states of Europe and the emerging states in the Americas were also hotbeds of nationalist pride.

Three challenges to this conventional way of thinking have recently come into view and are beginning to shake the very conceptual foundations of democratic theories of territorially-bound entities. The first is what might be termed the “Dogville” effect, where erstwhile homogeneous and established nation-states are confronted with new actors with differing cultural histories and political expectations entering their social and political space. The second challenge has to do with determining the legal and political status of growing numbers of stateless people along with others seeking to enter the borders of wealthier states. The third relates to ensuring the fair and reasonable participation of all in addressing trans-boundary concerns such as SARS, climate change, war, financial instability, and deepening global poverty.

Democracy in Dogville

The first major challenge to democratic theory vis-à-vis the nation-state has emerged mainly within the metropolitan centers of Europe and North America in the form of increasing demands from ‘multicultural’ groups identifying themselves as such and as having specific needs. New claims emerge, relating to respect for distinct traditions, and cultural histories start to gain prominence, in the form, say, of Muslims seeking to take time off from work for their daily prayers, gays and lesbians seeking legal recognition for unions, and new immigrants seeking bilingual assistance for education and access to social services and jobs.

The nation-state against stateless people

While multiculturalism has itself only lately gotten on the policy agenda of nation-states, people at their borders have yet had little chance of having any political voice of significance. But this is not to say that the ethical and political problem of having to respond to stateless people can be wished away. According to the United Nations there were more than nineteen million stateless people in 2004 (characterized as refugees, asylum seekers, and “others of concern”). In the course of this century, it is expected that up to 300 million people living on small islands and coastal areas could be severely affected by sea-level rise associated with climate change, and many of them could be looking for new homes outside their countries. Nationalist sentiment, especially in well-established countries, is generally antagonist towards the idea of providing economic, political, and environmental refugees entry and citizenship rights. Meanwhile, international institutions are built to meet the specifications of nation-states rather than individuals and groups, and can only provide relief services for them, not political opportunities for self-fulfillment. Indeed, refugees are the “epitome of extraterritoriality” with no “empty spaces” to move into: they are redundant because our planet has become full in a political rather than demographic sense.

Addressing global injustice

It is not uncommon to assume that problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and violations of human rights outside one’s own country are also beyond one’s moral responsibility. For instance, there is a tendency to argue that so-called “burdened” societies are backward because of intrinsic or historical domestic reasons and that the responsibility for addressing these ought to lie with the leadership of these societies. But it is increasingly clear that such a view is untenable; one’s private actions are not immune from global consequence, global problems have local impacts, and burdened societies are not entirely responsible for their own conditions.

Can Globalism Replace Nationalism?

The forgoing discussion provides us some indication that, as an ideology, nationalism may be increasingly untenable within a globalizing world, and as an organizing framework for world politics, the Westphalian nation-state has already run into serious trouble—witness the mounting disorientation with regard to the growing power of “rogue” states, “failed” states, and stateless actors from multinational corporations to terrorists. Should this crisis in global politics give us hope for the birth of a new type of “imagined community”, one which has all of humanity as its point of reference?

Indeed, if all communities are imagined, and although we may presently be gerrymandered into living within nation-states, there is no reason why a “global community” cannot eventually emerge as a potent political idea that usurps nationalism. But for imagination to turn into a “tangible, potent, effective integrating force,” it needs to be “aided by socially produced and socially sustained institutions of collective self-identification and self-government, as it was in the case of modern nations wedded for better or worse and till death-do-them-part to modern sovereign states”. To be sure, such institutions are absent today, but that simply provides the impetus to a number of political theorists to imagine them differently.

An Imagined Global Political Community

In the late twenty-first century, a vast global transformation has taken place. The age of tyrannical regimes, violent conflict among states, and the dominance of “great powers” is no more. Politics as an activity remains, as it was understood in classical times, the graceful art of negotiating the inevitable differences between “I”s and the “we” to accomplish both proximate and long-term ends. But the units and purposes of political organization have been transformed fundamentally.

The “nation-state” is changed beyond recognition. It is now archaic to speak of “territorial integrity” as a geopolitical principle and of “nationalism” as an ideology. Instead, where they do exist, nation-states operate as an intermediate level within a multiplicity of political communities from the local to the global level:

  • Local communities, to a large extent, nourish grassroots democracy through face-to-face interaction. In size, they range from small townships to mega-cities and, in some cases, rural provinces that coincide with natural eco-regions (for example, river basins or drylands or mountains). The “we-communities” to which the corresponding polities cater tend to be organized around clusters of townships, cosmopolitan urban regions, and particular cultural and linguistic groups, including indigenous communities, who have long served as ecological stewards for their regions.
  • At the meso-scale, regional political communities of various forms have emerged, only some of which are the remnants of today’s nation-states, especially those whose historical borders coincide with natural boundaries or have relatively homogenous cultural affinities. By and large, “countries” are as quaint today as “kingdoms” were in much of the twentieth century, primarily because far freer levels of migration and novel forms of telecommunication allow unprecedented levels of access and participation in communities of different forms and at different scales. None operate as “states” in their historical sense of having “monopoly over legitimate violence.”
  • The new regional political communities, including erstwhile nation-states, operate primarily to meet the administrative demands of meso-scale concerns. Some are political entities only in a loose administrative sense; in fact, they inspire a relatively weak sense of “we”-ness within the hierarchy of entities from the local to the global level. While all are separately served by democratic institutional arrangements for handling concerns that rise up from the local level, or are referred downward from the global level, they do not engage with each other or their constituents as sovereign states, but rather as members of a global federation with mutual responsibilities and limited discretionary powers.
  • Other trans-regional political communities are becoming increasingly significant, and are often not defined by contiguous territorial boundaries. These forms of “disaggregated sovereignty” appear to have reached a more advanced stage of institutional development than in the early twenty-first century. These include ‘’Biome Stewardship Councils (BSC),’’ which derive their strength from the growing realization that forms of life associated together in the same area share certain common elements by virtue of belonging to a single habitat and should be governed accordingly. Others focus on functional collaboration and governance associated with policing activity (e.g., trafficking, money laundering) and for addressing the special concerns of indigenous communities.
  • A ‘’global polity’’ was developed under the framework of the World Constitution, which was drafted in 2032 and unanimously adopted by all the member governments in the World Union (the descendent of the United Nations), acts as the overall trustee for the planet and its inhabitants. It was developed with the technical name, Global Agreement on Integrated Activity, and was subsequently referred to universally by its acronym—GAIA. The institutional arrangements mandated by GAIA are now maintained by three organizations: a directly elected parliament with a rotating executive committee, an administrative branch, and a judiciary. GAIA is responsible for all matters of global concern, primarily human rights, ecosystems, trade, and security. Its main political instrument is the global parliament, which is composed of representatives from about 2,500 electoral districts all over the world, and a second chamber with about 300 nominated members. Membership in its political community is formed not as it is today through inter-national affiliation but through a combination of local and regional representation and direct participation by civil society organizations, global political parties, and systems of referendum around special issues. GAIA is based on human and social rights and ecological stewardship, and embodies a set of values that promote solidarity, mutual cooperation, respect for nature, and peace. Its main purpose is to create standards and guidelines of common interest.

The very framework of sovereignty has acquired a completely different meaning as a result of the strong institutions of subsidiarity, democracy, and freedom of movement across the globe. With rotating leadership especially in many regional communities and at the global level, political power has itself become substantially diffuse, minimizing the possibility that breakaway factions will even be able to exercise sustained territorial control, except in a tyrannical and therefore politically illegitimate way. Where despotic regimes of this sort begin to emerge, public appeals for rescue towards the restoration of democracy can proceed at multiple levels: the regional councils and the World Parliament, as well as various arbitration and mediation mechanisms. Where force is required, GAIA authorizes its use as a last resort, again with specific restraints to prevent over-reaction.

Local communities and provinces have adequate voice in GAIA, and advanced communications technologies ensure that the decision-making processes of the World Parliament remain attentive to local concerns, even as they fulfill the interests of the entire planet. A proportionate election system with rotating terms has ensured that the members in the Parliament do in fact fairly represent the interests of all groups and of humanity at large, and the network of institutions remains sufficiently agile to respond to corruption and political rent-seeking. The elected Members of Parliament are obliged, according to GAIA, to also act as trustees of future generations whose interests have never before been given any strong voice in democratic systems.

Political communities are formed at multiple levels: locally in some areas of the world primarily to meet the complex needs of urbanized areas; regionally to service meso-scale needs of energy and industry, among others; trans-regionally, around specialized concerns like the protection of biomes and the prevention of crime; and globally around issues of worldwide concern, including human security and the environment. They correspond to the compound affinities, identities, and types of citizenship that people form at all these different scales. People’s affiliations vary based on needs and interests around these broad groupings, among others.

The principle of subsidiarity, which was first applied in the European Union (now replaced with smaller regional councils and having a completely different character with the virtual disappearance of its member “states”), is now used as a successful tool to provide a “conceptual alternative to the comparatively empty and unhelpful idea of state sovereignty”, which had remained a bone of contention in the original EU. Each governance level is seen to have a crucial and unique role but remains supportive of the others. For issues where it is either difficult for local stakeholders to be cognizant of the global impacts of their actions or where their interests are likely turn parochial and thereby work to harm human and ecological welfare, regional or global polities play a significant role.

This multilayered system of governance thus involves a nested hierarchy of mutually supportive policies and institutions initiated at all levels. The nested relationship to democratically engaged decision-making at larger scales functions from hamlets, townships, and cities of various sizes and forms, through eco-regions and other regional organizations, to global ones, all of which remain significant sites of political activity in their own right. Both local communities as well as their larger-scale agglomerations have certain basic institutions in common: a judiciary with access to appeal, powers of enforcement by an executive and administrative organization, and an open and participatory access to decision-making. These act as checks on corruption and excessive political control by small elite networks. At local and even regional levels, each community may adopt its own form of participatory democracy: in some instances, the Greek model of representatives selected by “lot” is preferred; in others, a multi-party representative form with public financing of campaigns and term limits seems most appropriate; in still others, a “functional” form of government is chosen, with emphasis on skilled civil servants in specific roles selected through open and competitive examinations. Whatever design is adopted, and at all levels, there is full transparency in accounting and decision-making procedures, an ombudsman’s office for dispute resolution, and full recourse to the judiciary in cases of serious conflict.

Pointers of Hope

The main criticism that even a deliberately whimsical piece of writing such as the one outlined above is likely to encounter is that it is naive to expect especially the strong states to cede their sovereignty even partially to higher levels, such as a regional or global authority. Yet, ever since around the time of the Bretton Woods agreement and the UN Charter, countries have yielded to the authority of various international regimes; indeed, even to ones that have no democratic institutions of transparency, accountability, and representation. Thus, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has required all but eight countries (three that did not sign it plus five that were “grandfathered” as nuclear powers) around the world to be subject to intrusive regulations. More recently, the World Trade Organization has routinely developed rulings that even the most powerful countries in the world have been forced to comply with. The European Union, as tottering as its project seems to be at present, is yet another example of rule-making at the supra-national level, a concession that was agreed to by the member states on the understanding that it was of advantage to all to have a continent-wide regime to govern certain issues like standards for education, health, and the environment.

Moreover, national governments are themselves forming a variety of networks with each other, and sometimes with non-state organizations, recognizing the need for broad strategic cooperation on critical issues. Examples can be found in the Alliance of Small Island States and the Arctic Council, which are focused on addressing the impacts of climate change, and the G20, which is developing a concerted developing country trade strategy.

The center of gravity of business regulation has already shifted from the national to the global stage, with organizations such as the WTO, the OECD, IMF, Moody’s, and the World Bank, as well as various NGOs often playing a stronger role than national governments. Non-state players, sometimes teaming with inter-governmental organizations and aid agencies, and at other times organized as independent advocacy groups, are also seeking remedy beyond national borders to address global harms: conflict, environmental damage, health crises, human rights abuses, poverty, and so on. The focus is increasingly on the positive capacity of both the official bearers of sovereignty—primarily the dominant powers in the world today—as well as those on the outside—the emerging global coalitions of activists and NGOs.

Clearly, it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that these tendencies, broadly associated with the name “globalization”, are themselves likely to cause states to wait meekly in line to relinquish their sovereignty. Indeed, it seems there is already some evidence that globalization is simply generating a shift in the terms of reference of sovereignty and territoriality, with states adopting mercantilist strategies to consolidate their power in what Saskia Sassen has termed a “denationalization of national territory”. Yet the pressures on sovereignty are perceptibly on the rise, driven by ethical considerations and the course of economic and political history

In fact, the most promising developments towards a shift in political systems are themselves necessarily political in nature, and will be strongly influenced by the growth and globalization of new social movements, e.g., the Bolivarian movements of Latin America, Friends of the Earth, various efforts to support the International Criminal Court, the intifada, the World Social Forums, and the Zapatistas. These movements, working in conjunction with Green political parties and progressive labor and civil society organizations, may well tilt public opinion towards a new “globalism,” which becomes just as compelling as nationalism has been since it emerged a mere two centuries ago. An ideological shift away from hyper-nationalism may also be envisioned in those parts of the world where demographic shifts resulting from immigration and cultural change begin to extend cosmopolitan sentiments, which in due course become more persuasive than the smolders of xenophobia and sectarianism.

Despite the often incongruent character of their strategies, interests, sites of action, and political roles, these projects resemble one another as transnational network forms that seek to remedy global injustices in the name of a transformational politics. Whether they will cohere, continue to adhere to ethical principles that are consistent with human and ecological well-being, and ever develop the groundswell of support needed to overcome entrenched political power is not a question that we can address easily. Nor is it clear whether, in order to obtain global justice ultimately, we would have to put up with the creation of patently unjust and illegitimate global structures of power that are tolerable to the interests of the most powerful current nation-states. But there is no doubt that a new form of politics and institutional arrangements are starting to emerge.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, B. R. 1991. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London; New York: Verso. ISBN: 0860915468
  • Bauman, Z. 2004. Wasted lives: modernity and its outcasts. Oxford: Polity. ISBN: 0745631657
  • Benhabib, S. 2005. "Disaggregation of citizenship rights." Parallax 11(1):10-18.
  • Pogge, T. W. M. 2001. Global justice. Oxford, Blackwell. ISBN: 0631227121
  • North, D. C. 1981. Structure and change in economic history. New York: Norton. ISBN: 039395241X
  • Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopin, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., and Swart, R. 2002. Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. Boston, MA: Tellus Institute. ISBN: 0971241813
Rajan, Sudhir (Lead Author); Great Transition Initiative (Content Partner); Cutler J. Cleveland (Topic Editor). 2007. "Global politics and institutions." In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth November 13, 2006; Last revised January 28, 2007; Retrieved September 17, 2008]. <>


(2008). Global politics and institutions. Retrieved from


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