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UN Reform: Is a World Parliamentary Assembly needed? An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come

The Center for UN Reform Education has issued (May 2003) a volume of essays offering a number of proposals for a global parliamentary assembly, entitled  A Reader on Second Assembly and Parliamentary Proposals. UNA-USA's executive director of policy studies, Jeffrey Laurenti, was invited to contribute an article critiquing the proposals.

"An Idea Whose Time Has Not Come"

Perhaps the most significant and, we may hope, enduring political tra-nsformation of the last quarter of the 20th century has been the spread of democratic politics worldwide. "Dictatorships of the proletariat" and dictatorships of the privileged fearful of the proletariat have alike given way to democratic regimes that allow their citizens open political debate and choice in competitive elections. Democracy still has fragile roots in many places, where disillusionment with the failure of the new political arrangements to improve living conditions is deepening, and in others it has yet to germinate. But the apparent triumph of the democratic idea has emboldened visionaries to imagine that the continuing processes of economic and social "globalization" may now warrant the introduction of elective politics at a global level to oversee international institutions and guide international policymaking.

Ardent world federalists, a small but determinedly farsighted band, sense an opportunity to make progress toward a hallowed dream of world government. Others who doubt the feasibility of the federalist enterprise nonetheless see a deepening danger of a "democratic deficit" in existing international institutions, for which the best antidote may be an infusion of oversight by democratically elected officials. Many are concerned by Washington's seeming embrace of American supremacist doctrines and a nationalist polemic celebrating a new American imperium said to be the most unchallenged since Rome's; they imagine that a global body of democratically elected officials can rein in Washington's unilateralism.

But even if fantasies of American empire must collapse of their own weight and contradictions, so imaginings of a global parliament are almost certain to founder on their own internal contradictions. Particularly treacherous are the questions of a proposed parliament's inclusivity, its authority, and its efficiency. The carefully considered proposals for realizing a global parliament advanced in the five illuminating articles in this volume, from virtual deliberations in cyberspace among members of existing national legislatures to the ideal independently elected parliamentary assembly, all struggle to square these circles. Till these questions can be more satisfactorily answered, a worldwide parliamentary assembly will remain but a theoretical possibility.

Inclusivity. The first issue on which world assembly proponents stumble is how to account for the large swath of humankind that continues to live in societies where political life is not democratically organized. The National People's Congress in China and Saddam Hussein's parliament in Iraq, to take two examples, both adopt the form of parliamentarism but are empty of the content of democratic debate and choice. Are "parliamentarians" from such house-broken political systems to be part of the world assembly--and what are the consequences for the assembly's legitimacy if they are or are not? They already sit as members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), whose 144 member parliaments also embrace such geographically representative and democratically challenged polities as Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, and Sudan. The proposals to formalize a UN consultative role for the IPU, endorsed by no less distinguished a political practitioner than UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, accept a tradeoff of some democratic legitimacy for inclusiveness.

Our paper writers, however, seem to recognize that so promiscuously inclusive a body would be fatally compromised at birth in the eyes of Western publics. A punctilious concern for linguistic accuracy impels some, therefore, to propose an "international parliamentary assembly" instead of a "global" one. Such modesty befits proposals that would bring such an assembly into being (into "force" would be an overstatement) with the participation of just 20 or even 50 states.

The millennium has brought into existence a promising vehicle for separating the democratic wheat from the authoritarian chaff -- the Community of Democracies. Constituted in 2000 in Warsaw, the Community has sought to define criteria for membership that would include as many states as possible (and give it the non-Western majority it would need for global credibility) and yet not outrage the human rights nongovernmental organizations that are its principal public constituencies. The Community's foreign ministers accepted the principle of restrictive criteria for participation at their Warsaw meeting, and its steering committee (ironically self-appointed, not democratically elected) elaborated those criteria and invited 118 governments that met the standards to participate in its second meeting in Seoul in November 2002. Inevitably, the organizers applied the criteria somewhat forgivingly in a few arguable cases, but vigilant human rights advocates like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch were largely satisfied that sham democracies were not invited back for the second meeting. Even counting the 21 gray-zone states invited to Seoul as observers, it is striking that the Community of Democracies barred as beyond the pale well over a quarter of the members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

But it is one thing to deny membership to a few small "rogue" dictatorships. It is quite another to exclude China, the vast majority of Arab countries, and two-thirds of Africa, and imagine that the resulting body can have a formal consultative or oversight role with United Nations agencies, be part of UN-sponsored negotiations on multilateral conventions (the real work of international legislating), or pass on the resolutions of UN political bodies. Restrictive membership disqualifies such an assembly from a formal role as a supplementary UN organ. (Indeed, even delegations from unquestionably democratic countries have dragged their feet on as modest a proposal as a UN Democracy Caucus, an informal grouping of Community of Democracy member states that would seek to coordinate their positions on human rights and democratization issues coming before UN bodies.) To maintain the democratic integrity of the proposed new body, the states participating in the Community of Democracies could ask the members of their national and even state assemblies to participate in electronic deliberations, or to convene once a year as an international parliamentary assembly, or even to summon voters to polls to choose delegates to a directly elected such assembly. But would this rump assembly actually do?

Authority. The central conundrum facing an imagined international parliamentary assembly is the apparent impossibility of reconciling its mandate and its appeal to prospective parliamentarians. What powers would such an institution have? If it has no authority over the activities of even the scarecrow agencies of the United Nations, why should serious politicians invest serious time in it? True, the experience of existing efforts to place a parliamentary patina over international organizations, such as the North Atlantic Assembly, suggests that members of Congress and parliaments can be drawn to short, scripted gatherings if the time and especially place are right. But it is fair to say that these meetings garner little substantive interest from the press, the public, or politicians themselves.

Many advocates of an international parliament, including some of the distinguished contributors to the present volume, make no secret of their wish to create a legislative body that would make law on a global level, bypassing the irritating blockages that individual states often place in the way of desired policy initiatives. The global parliament thus becomes another route toward a global legislature after the utter failure of proposals to convert the United Nations General Assembly into such a body under so-called "binding triad" voting schemes. There is little doubt that an elected body empowered to raise revenue and armies, chart economic policy, and enforce environmental and human rights standards would attract serious attention from the press, public, and politicians. But tellingly, none of the commentators in this collection of essays advances so ambitious a program--and with good reason. A worldwide assembly with genuine power over international decision-making and resources, and thus over national governments, would encounter strong resistance among most informed publics. In any country, the prospect that officials representing alien countries and values could gain control over vital decisions affecting "our" lives even over the unanimous opposition of "our" representatives would arouse deep concerns.

This is widely assumed to be an American objection, but in fact the resistance to coercive power in the hands of outsiders runs deep in most parts of the world. Federal polities even among kindred peoples have often broken down under the relatively trivial strains of conflicting identities--recall not only the dissolution of the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav federations, but Canada's near-death experience of Québec's intended secession. When the ethnic and cultural differences are far more profound, it becomes far harder for like-minded nationals to accept dictates from a body dominated by "aliens." Muslim populations will rebel at legislation imposed by Western liberals mandating gay-rights protections. Rabble-rousing Indian politicians will rail against the imagined control over India's economic assets that such an international assembly would give manipulative Americans, just as rabble-rousing American politicians will rail against the opportunity such an assembly would give to the rascalish representatives of India's billion impoverished people to raid Americans' pocketbooks.

The fundamental reality is that the much-invoked "international community" is yet in only a germinal stage--so new and fragile that reactionary ideologists still deny it exists at all. Exist it does, as we see in the cross-national political coalition-building among nongovernmental organizations that has prodded states into major policy initiatives. Exist it does, as we have seen in the marshalling of governments behind collective measures to pressure or coerce particularly flagrant abusers of human rights to mend their ways or get out of the way. But this emerging consciousness among informed publics of an "international community" has not yet translated into strong affective attachments. The international community is invoked as a rallying cry of altruism, not a war cry to summon people into life-or-death struggles. And it cannot withstand the stresses that a global legislative assembly would place on people's tolerance of a mandatory regime dominated by people unlike themselves.

There is, of course, the counter-factual example of the European Union, where enormous progress has felicitously been made toward a federal system. One of the most remarkable transformations of the past half-century has been the development of a sense of shared political community across Western Europe--initially nurtured by fear of Soviet intentions, then by economic self-interest, and now culminating in a growing array of federal institutions. True, Danes and Dutchmen may be wary of the Mediterranean olive belt reaching into their pockets; Germans may grumble that Italians seem too relaxed about blocking unwelcome immigrants who then rush north of the Alps. Yet all corners of the European Union see themselves as sharing enough of a common identity to transfer real governmental authority, from Schengen to Maastricht, to a European political community.

Curiously, the movement toward Europe-wide immigration, currency, economic, and now even security policies has been achieved with little impetus from the showcase parliament in Strasbourg, and voter interest and turnout in Euro-parliament elections is notoriously low. Despite their experience in building a relatively tightly knit European community, Europeans are no more ready than Americans to extend the principle of collective decision-making across continental lines. They will not allow binding international rules on migration of people to be made by political bodies where Arab, African, and South Asian representatives can outvote them. In short, an empowered global parliament is as much a non-starter for the Europeans, who have become the pace-setters leading the development of the international community during America's self-isolation by cantankerous conservatives, as it is for the United States. The North-South divide on economic and social issues is very profound and fundamental fault line, and it cannot be overcome by the waving of a parliamentary magic wand.

So once we acknowledge the reality that, as far as the eye can see, there will be no global law-making function for a proposed parliamentary assembly, what functions can it have? And who should take it seriously? Meetings of national parliamentarians under the aegis of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, proposed for the eve of the annual session of the UN General Assembly, can facilitate consciousness-raising among parliamentarians in capitals about the United Nations. And there is almost always some marginal value to be gained from such gatherings, on the assumption that every additional exposure to people of different backgrounds and perspectives broadens one's own. Secretary-General Annan apparently believes that the United Nations itself can benefit from national legislators' rehearsing the debates that their nations' delegates to the General Assembly will re-hash later in the fall--but presumably the Secretariat's interest lies above all in winning the hearts and minds of legislative appropriators so they may loosen the purse strings for contributions to UN programs.

Even for so modest a proposal as an Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly at the United Nations still depends on getting serious politicians to make time for them. The most committed politicians with a shared interest in globalist causes have indeed made time for them, through such pioneering groups as Parliamentarians for Global Action; but their very self-selection makes them unrepresentative of their parliaments. The difficulty for advocates of a world parliamentary assembly is how to reach beyond these like-minded legislators and interest the broader range of political practitioners who have little patience for "globaloney." For hortatory declarations, a parliamentarian can just as easily issue a press release as sit through lengthy debates about a text that few state authorities will ever read, much less implement. She or he certainly does not need to go the trouble and expense of waging a campaign before a disengaged electorate to win election to a powerless international parliamentary assembly.

As it is, many of the pronouncements tediously negotiated and adopted in the UN General Assembly every year regularly disappear without a trace outside the walls of UN headquarters, especially those written on Assembly agenda items that are recycled annually for years and decades on end. Even where there can be consequences in the real world, as is usually the case with treaty negotiations that will result in legal obligations on ratifying states to implement agreed provisions, it is not clear that the additional layer of an international parliamentary debate will strengthen the negotiation process.

Efficiency. Advocates of investing the energies of citizen groups and sympathetic governments in a campaign for an international parliamentary assembly have an additional burden of persuasion. They need to convince informed publics that creation of such a body would yield significantly better outcomes in building agreement on international policy than the existing system allows--particularly if the assembly is to be a directly elected body. Just as the mantra of "democracy" does not make elected judges more capable of impartially dispensing justice than appointed judges, so the skill sets needed for effective international negotiation may not be the same as those that win politicians election to legislative bodies.

Ironically, the diplomats whom nations send as their delegates to the United Nations and other international organizations are far more likely to perceive common global interests than would politicians who seek election back home by sharpening differences with their opponents. Right-wing American critics of the US State Department are on to something when they fulminate that Foreign Service officers are too sympathetic to people from different cultures and too willing to try to understand how others see issues: Diplomatic training does inculcate an internationalist culture and world-view, does encourage compromise and conflict resolution, and does favor consensus-building over polarization.

To be sure, diplomats cannot press beyond what their governments are prepared to consider, but behind the scenes they are often advocates within their governments for compromises that can reconcile national interests and preferences with broader international goals. Moreover, in contrast to most elected politicians, nearly all delegates at the headquarters of the United Nations and UN specialized agencies (remarkably, even American ones) are able to speak at least one language other than their home country's. Diplomats from developing and developed countries alike, and those at the United Nations in particular, tend to share a common international culture and values, reinforced at the UN by working in a common institution that operates by democratic parliamentary rules. Because they come from this shared liberal internationalist culture, it is no coincidence that in many smaller developing countries that are making the transition to democracy, it is former UN representatives or World Bank officials who are most often the successful candidates to break with the nation's authoritarian past.

It is hard to see what policy issues would be resolved differently if an international parliamentary assembly were in place to add, like a Greek chorus, its comment to the debates and negotiations unfolding in UN fora. Yes, one could have some American voices in such an assembly speak out for the Kyoto Protocol or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, mirroring the large minority of the US Congress that supports them (and, it should be remembered, the US diplomats who had negotiated both texts and the Clinton administration that signed them). But their presence in such an assembly would not alter the opposition of the officials in charge of US policy in the executive branch and Congress in 2003. Having American or Russian or Chinese voices in an international assembly expressing support for an international landmines ban would not change their governments' political judgment on the utility of the Ottawa convention.

Perhaps a few American globo-parliamentarians might have been willing to stand up for the international criminal court after domestic sources of opposition mobilized ferociously against it in 1998, but they would surely not have tempered the frenzy that broke out against the court in Washington circles after the Rome treaty conference. (Even previously supportive members of the US Congress quickly calculated that the political dynamic in 1998 had rendered the Rome statute such a hopeless cause that they should not waste their limited political capital on it, and they only began to emerge from their bunkers when ICC opponents overplayed their hand in the first two years of the Bush administration.) Having an elected global parliament debate international responses to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis could not possibly leave the United States any more isolated on the issue than it is in the General Assembly and Security Council today. Indeed, the pressures on US policymakers to pursue a course different from its allies and the UN community generally come precisely from elected officials in the Congress, exquisitely attuned as they are to relevant constituency opinion. Presumably the same constituency interests would guide elected globo-parliamentarians.

What democratic deficit? There is good reason to suppose that the public audience for debates on international policy is in fact quite small. Candidates for the US Congress who begin their campaigns under any illusion that they can gain traction by speaking out on international concerns quickly discover that they will be wasting their breath and their advertising dollars. It is no exaggeration to say that most of the general public is supremely disengaged in international issues. The shrinking news hole for international reporting in mainstream American media is almost certainly more a consequence than cause of this public disengagement, and surveys consistently find that Americans say they want to read or hear more about local news and less about distant international stories. The more the overseas news item deals with a "political" issue, the less likely it will generate public interest.

There are, of course, niche electorates that can be galvanized on a foreign-policy issue. These are, however, more often focused on a single regional issue relevant to the voters' ethnic identity (e.g., Armenians, Cubans, Greeks, and Jews) than on global-issue orientation. Moreover, even those who do have a more global view of international affairs might shock enthusiasts for a global parliament with their attitude toward liberal internationalist causes. There are, after all, far more retired military officers in the US electorate than people who have made their career defending human rights.

Given the general level of disengagement in "foreign" affairs, elections of representatives to a global parliamentary assembly could draw voters to the polls in numbers comparable, say, to those who turn out for American school board and fire district elections. As with school board elections, the tiny minority of citizens who care deeply about a very particular aspect of international affairs would likely turn out at disproportionately high rates. In the United States, the constituencies that provide much of the electoral muscle for internationally minded candidates of the Democratic Party--notably lower-income voters, unionized workers, and racial minorities--would almost surely abstain in massive numbers from elections to a distant global assembly. This would be true even if that assembly were a body empowered to adopt international law and impose it on states without their ratification; a high-minded international assembly would not be addressing their pressing problems.

Thus, an unanticipated consequence of "democratizing" the international policy debate by election of a global assembly might be its capture by intensely passionate niche interests in the electorate. While this might be a particular risk in the United States, given its historically outsized military and its richness in ethnic constituencies with hearts elsewhere, cross-national surveys of public opinion consistently find that the general public in most countries shows the same shallow interest in and lack of passion for international causes as do Americans. Hence the question posed above as to the "efficiency" of the proposals--would a global parliamentary scheme yield enough of an improvement to international policymaking as to be worth the costs of a new institution, the foregone campaigns for more tangible reform of the United Nations that are sidelined in favor of a misguided quest for a toothless assembly or a quixotic legislature, and the possibility of more contentiousness and paralysis in international bodies if we rely on politicians elected from narrow but passionate constituencies rather than diplomatically trained international affairs professionals (accountable to their elected officials at home, to be sure) to debate and negotiate the tough issues facing the world community.

It is appropriate to conclude by questioning, in this same pragmatic vein, the assumption that undergirds the quest for some sort of global parliament: Just how serious is the alleged "democratic deficit" in our jerrybuilt mechanisms of international governance? In the world's democratic polities, positions on international issues reflect elected leaders' judgments of where they can satisfy domestic as well as external constituencies, of the loyalty they enjoy from their base constituencies that might allow them the running room to strike deals on international issues, and the tradeoffs they must make among domestic constituencies and partner countries. There is probably more interest in the merits of international policy in national capitals--the foreign ministries, legislatures, and national press--than there is in the same countries' publics at large. When citizen groups mobilize in democratic states, the alleged democratic "deficit" on international issues can disappear.

Thus it may be far more productive to concentrate reformers' energies on opening up the closed doors of international agencies where policy has been dominated by well-connected private interests, on restructuring the relationship of the specialized agencies to a recast UN Economic and Social Council, and on revitalizing fossilized structures like the permanant core of the Security Council than on a campaign for a global parliament. The spirit of "international community" is visibly spreading and deepening, and over time may ripen into a shared sense of political community. Until it does, we do well to let the dog of a global parliament lie.

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