Rethinking Sovereignty: A Path to Cosmopolitan Democracy

Global shifts in civil liberties and political rights prompt a reevaluation of how cosmopolitan democracy can adapt and remain relevant in changing international contexts.

Karel J. Leyva
Karel J. Leyva
Cosmopolitan theory underscores the need to dismantle illegitimate power structures and establish institutions that ensure transparent and equitable governance. Photo by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

Recent decades have seen a notable shift from international to cosmopolitan governance, expanding the focus from traditional state-level norms to include a broader array of actors like international organizations, transnational corporations, NGOs, and emerging network forms.

Driven by a remarkable expansion in globally applicable governance tools and significant impacts from market forces and corporate power on national economic policies, these changes signify a move toward a more decentralized governance approach. The evolving scenario fragments state authority and blurs the lines between governmental duties and private sector influence, complicating policymaking on both national and international scales.

This transformation underscores a globalizing political landscape, increasingly defined by intricate, multi-tiered interactions that surpass national borders. Such dynamics question the effectiveness of democratic governance and the robustness required to sustain democratic values within institutions and processes.

Cosmopolitanism in contemporary political theory advocates for global politics that transcend state boundaries.

Contemporary conditions strain traditional democracies, constricting government options and diluting citizen influence, while shifting power to larger regional and global entities, potentially leading to democratic deficits. However, these conditions also foster new avenues to enhance democratic practices through expansive networks.

In response, a burgeoning academic field focusing on the prerequisites for global democracy has emerged. Researchers are investigating the legitimization of political authority beyond the nation-state and debating eligibility for participation in global rule-making. Their work explores the friction between national sovereignty and global governance and examines the role of transnational civil societies, offering a variety of normative viewpoints on realizing global democracy and its potential impact on national democratic frameworks.

The Moral Foundations of Cosmopolitan Democracy

Cosmopolitanism in contemporary political theory advocates for global politics that transcend state boundaries, highlighting the importance of universal laws and institutions. This approach is rooted in three core moral principles that challenge state-centric views and promote a global ethical and political framework recognizing each individual’s universal moral value.

First Principle: Egalitarian Individualism. This principle views individuals as the fundamental units of moral concern, challenging the notion that states or other associations determine moral worth. It emphasizes that all individuals deserve equal respect and consideration, countering the idea that moral value is limited to community membership.

Second Principle: Reciprocal Recognition. This principle asserts that the status of equal value, respect, and consideration should be universally recognized. It promotes relationships based on mutual recognition, valuing each individual’s worth.

Third Principle: Impartial Treatment. Following the ideals of equality and mutual respect, this principle requires impartial treatment of each person’s claims. Cosmopolitanism uses this as a framework to define universally applicable rules and principles, fostering inclusivity and fairness.

Despite recognition of these principles in post-World War II international efforts, David Held critiques their partial implementation in current global structures. He notes that while egalitarian individualism is acknowledged, it does not fundamentally shape social and economic policies.

Autonomy is limited by transnational dynamics, challenging the traditional view of states as fully independent.

Although the principle of universal recognition supports human rights and legal initiatives, it remains secondary in state and corporate policies. Moreover, the principle of impartial moral reasoning, justifying limits on state actions and international organizations, often plays a marginal role in institutional dynamics, particularly given the cross-border impacts of national economic and energy policies.

Cosmopolitan theory points out the need to dismantle illegitimate power structures and establish institutions that ensure transparent and equitable governance. Held identifies a paradox: the increasing transboundary nature of collective issues versus the inadequate means to address them.

Advancing these cosmopolitan principles politically requires developing “public democratic law”—a system of rights and obligations that legitimizes authority and power across governance levels. This shift necessitates rethinking sovereignty and moving beyond national governance to enhance democratic autonomy, accountability, and legitimacy in a more interconnected global context.

The Core Assumptions of Cosmopolitan Democracy

Cosmopolitan democracy theories emerged following the democratization wave post-Cold War, aiming to meld democratic progress within states with the application of democratic principles globally, based on two central assumptions.

First Assumption: De Jure Sovereignty vs. De Facto Autonomy. This assumption highlights that while states possess sovereignty in law (de jure), they lack real (de facto) autonomy due to global challenges like environmental threats, disease, migration, and international terrorism. These issues suggest that true autonomy is limited by transnational dynamics, challenging the traditional view of states as fully independent.

Second Assumption: Democratic States and Foreign Policy. This idea scrutinizes the external actions of democratic states, noting that democratic and non-democratic states often exhibit similar foreign policies. Despite intentions to promote peace and democracy, actions such as warfare reveal a disconnect between domestic democratic values and their international application.

Cosmopolitan democracy emphasizes the institutionalization of democratic principles across multiple levels of governance on a global scale.

From these assumptions, seven key hypotheses have developed, shaping the theory of cosmopolitan democracy:

  • Democracy as a Process. Democracy is not a static set of norms but an ongoing, dynamic process. This view accommodates the changing nature of rights and the fluidity of decision-making, asserting that the trajectory of democracy is not fixed.
  • State Disputes and Internal Democracy. Inter-state conflicts undermine internal state democracy. A non-peaceful international environment can stifle dissent and curtail freedoms, with the international state system impacting domestic power dynamics and sometimes suppressing democracy through the pretext of foreign threats.
  • State Democracy and Peace. While internal democracy tends to foster peace, it does not guarantee a virtuous foreign policy. Democratic institutions might prevent governments from waging unnecessary wars, yet these restraints are not always consistent with democratic foreign policies.
  • Global Democracy. Global democracy entails more than just democratization within states. It requires a wider implementation of democratic principles internationally, going beyond merely strengthening the rule of international law.
  • Globalization and State Autonomy. Globalization reduces states’ political autonomy, impacting the efficacy of democracy within states. International obligations increasingly restrict states’ political choices, raising issues about the frameworks needed for democratic deliberation on global issues across various political communities.
  • Stakeholder Communities Beyond Borders. Issues often affect communities that extend beyond national borders, necessitating inclusive and subsidiary approaches. Affected individuals should have the opportunity to influence decisions impacting them, regardless of their location.
  • Global Movements and Social Solidarity. Globalization has catalyzed new social movements focused on human rights, environmental issues, and justice, linking diverse global populations. This emerging solidarity exceeds national loyalties, promoting the development of international public spheres and NGOs dedicated to global advocacy.

These hypotheses outline the complexities and goals of cosmopolitan democracy, stressing the challenges and opportunities for more inclusive and fair global governance.

Governance Levels in Cosmopolitan Democracy

Cosmopolitan democracy extends beyond merely advocating for the institutionalization of democracy at a global scale; it emphasizes its cultivation across multiple levels of governance. This includes local, state, inter-state, regional, and global dimensions.

  • Local Level. At the local level, cosmopolitan democracy integrates global connectivity, as local networks frequently participate in international activities. Multicultural communities, often expanded by immigration, project their influence beyond national borders, connecting with intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. This integration suggests a role for local governance structures to transcend state boundaries effectively.
  • State Level. Theorists like Archibugi and Held recognize both internal and external dimensions in realizing cosmopolitan democracy at the state level. Domestically, democratic states act as testing grounds for cosmopolitan practices, encouraging varied political participation reflective of linguistic, cultural, and ethno-religious diversity. These states extend rights to traditionally marginalized groups (e.g., refugees and immigrants), adopting differentiated rights that acknowledge diverse community identities.
  • Inter-State Level. At the inter-state level, the focus is on cultivating democratic principles such as equality among states and public accountability. Despite criticisms of overlapping competencies and democratic deficits in intergovernmental organizations, cosmopolitan theorists call for improved transparency, legitimacy, and accountability, advocating for better coordination to tackle shared challenges effectively.
  • Regional Level. Regionally, cosmopolites underscore the role of regional organizations and networks in fostering stability, particularly in regions less familiar with democracy. Such entities, comprising state and local community representatives, could play crucial roles in managing conflicts, especially in ethnically diverse regions of Africa. Proposals for establishing regional parliaments and enhancing governance structures like those in the European Union aim to ensure that regional decisions are recognized as legitimate regulatory authorities.
  • Global Level. Globally, the active participation of non-governmental actors in UN summits and within agencies like the IMF and WTO highlights a shift towards a governance level that surpasses the state. This evolving structure seeks to improve transparency, oversight, and accountability in global governance.

Cosmopolitan democracy proposes redefining legitimate political authority by decoupling it from traditional territorial confines. It envisions a system where diverse political communities from local to global levels hold decision-makers accountable, enhancing freedom and equality in shaping life conditions. This multi-level approach challenges traditional notions of sovereignty and advocates for a model that fosters multi-level citizenship and a robust system to safeguard human rights, enabling inclusive participation across all governance levels.

Cosmopolitan Democracy and National Democratization

Cosmopolitan democracy involves more than transferring democratic principles to the global sphere; it also entails the prioritization of specific objectives by global institutions. Archibugi has outlined five core objectives that global institutions should prioritize, albeit not exclusively.

Proponents of global democracy aim to remedy democratic deficits not only within international organizations but also at the national level.

First Objective: Control of Force Use. Minimizing political violence both within and between states is crucial, extending the non-violence principle fundamental to democracy. This objective focuses on encouraging peaceful resolutions over military or violent responses.

Second Objective: Preservation and Promotion of Cultural Diversity. This goal involves safeguarding and enhancing cultural diversity within the global system. By promoting a diverse cultural mosaic, various identities can coexist and flourish in an interconnected world.

Third Objective: Strengthening Self-Determination. Ensuring that each community governs itself without external influence aims to boost citizen participation and protect community autonomy from foreign control.

Fourth Objective: Oversight of Internal State Affairs. While supporting self-determination, there’s a need to prevent authoritarian governance harmful to community members. Mechanisms for intervening in state affairs should focus on human rights protection and preventing domination over sub-communities.

Fifth Objective: Participatory Management of Global Issues. Enhancing political equality in global affairs, especially in managing global commons, is essential. This extends the principle of equality to the decision-making processes affecting global resources, ensuring all voices are heard.

These objectives interact significantly with national dimensions as they involve global institutions in safeguarding and enhancing democracy, both in authoritarian and established democratic contexts.

The Role of International Organizations in Promoting Democracy

Proponents of global democracy aim to remedy democratic deficits not only within international organizations but also at the national level. Archibugi and Cellini highlight that organizations influenced by non-democratic states often struggle to foster democratization, mirroring the challenges faced by national efforts within a non-democratic global framework.

Traditional strategies for promoting national democratization include military interventions to overthrow authoritarian regimes, showcasing democratic achievements as models for non-democratic states, engaging in socialization with countries in transition, and employing conditional approaches that leverage incentives or penalties to encourage democratic reforms.

However, cosmopolitan theorists advocate for a more constructive approach, emphasizing the need for international organizations to actively support democratic practices. This involves fostering closer ties with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and improving participation, transparency, and accountability. Specifically, Archibugi proposes three targeted strategies to enhance internal democratization:

  1. Stability during Transition: Ensuring that political, economic, and social transitions occur smoothly, avoiding violent disruptions or the replacement of one authoritarian regime with another.
  2. Defining Future Coexistence Rules: Leveraging the membership of international organizations to set examples for new regimes and safeguard them against destabilizing forces such as coups.
  3. Constitutional and Electoral Assistance: Providing support for the design of fair constitutions and electoral systems to ensure equitable processes and outcomes.

These initiatives underscore the cosmopolitan view that civil society should play a significant role in foreign policy decisions. By directing trade, tourism, and economic aid towards countries that uphold human rights, cosmopolitans envision citizens of democratic nations as ambassadors of democracy, fostering global solidarity with those living under oppressive regimes.

Conclusion: The Redefinition of Democratic Legitimacy and Future Directions

This analysis explores how the role of the nation-state is redefined in cosmopolitan theory, asserting that it is not the sole source of democratic legitimacy. Instead, it highlights the need for a reconfiguration of power and authority, where no single decision-making center holds ultimate sovereignty. This perspective demands that democracy support institutional legitimacy at all levels of governance, extending essential democratic values globally.

Having explored the moral foundations of cosmopolitan democracy—egalitarian individualism, reciprocal recognition, and impartial treatment—the importance of their political implementation from a cosmopolitan viewpoint has been established. Future research should explore further into these themes, considering the evolving nature of societies and the new challenges these changes pose to the cosmopolitan ideal.

This ongoing inquiry is vital, especially at a time when global shifts in civil liberties and political rights prompt a reevaluation of how cosmopolitan democracy can adapt and remain relevant in changing international contexts.

How to cite this article

Leyva, K. J. (2024, May 2). Rethinking Sovereignty: A Path to Cosmopolitan Democracy. Politics and Rights Review.
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Ph.D. in Philosophy (Université Paris Sciences et Lettres). Associate Researcher at the University of Montreal, specializing in political theory and pluralism. Editor-in-Chief of Politics and Rights Review.