Habermas on the Three-Tiered Model of Global Governance Without World Government

In his essay, “A political constitution for the pluralist world society?” (in Between naturalism and religion [2008]), Habermas wants to flesh out the idea of a cosmopolitan condition in a form that remains in touch with existing realities while at the same time pointing beyond them” (p. 322). Daniele Archibuchi (“Models of international organization in perpetual peace projects” [1992] sets out three models in perpetual peace projects (pyramidal, diffused, and the cosmopolitan). Habermas’ model resides within the last category. He is committed to a multi-level system that “can make possible a global domestic politics that has hitherto been lacking, especially in the fields of global economic and environmental policies, even without a world government” (ibid.).

Our understanding of how we ought to be governing ourselves in a globalized, interdependent world beyond competing nation-states has pressed our thinking to the point where we can characterize the “new structure of a constituted cosmopolitan society” by its “three arenas and three kinds of collective actors” (ibid.). The earliest model of the nation-state recognizes only one player and “two playing fields—domestic and foreign policy or internal affairs and international relations” (ibid.).

A single actor dominates the first level, the “supranational arena” (ibid.). This means that the international community must walk a rather delicate tightrope towards creating an “institutional form in a world organization that has the ability to act in a carefully circumscribed policy field without taking on the character of a state” (ibid.). The UN will require reformation: it “must focus not only on strengthening core institutions but also on detaching them from the extensive web of special UN organizations, in particular those networked with independent international organizations” (ibid.). The communicative infrastructure of the reformed UN must tie NGO deliberative learning processes pretty tightly to circuits of communication within national parliaments (and other “representatives of a mobilized world public” (p. 323).

The building of the new cosmopolitan world order must proceed gradually. For Habermas takes considerable pains to argue that: “The world organization must be permanently buttressed by power centers organized at the state level if it is to constitute the main pillar of a legal pacifism backed up by power” (ibid.). States do not vanish; they remain “subjects of an international law transformed into a cosmopolitan human rights regime that is capable of protecting individual citizens, if necessary even against their own governments” (ibid.). Much hinges on the meaning of “capable.”

The Millennium Declaration of 2005

The Millennium Declaration of the UN in 2005 offered its “Millennium Development Goals” and these goals did not limit human rights compacts to “basic liberal and political rights”: they also included the “’empowering’ material conditions that would first enable the world’s most vulnerable populations to make use of the rights accorded to them in abstracto. The worldwide political efforts demanded by such an agenda overtax the capacities and political will of the international community” (ibid.). In fact, various interconnected transnational networks struggle to meet the material needs of the vulnerable and to “cope with the growing demand for coordination of a world society that is becoming more complex” (p. 324).

Deeply aware of this reality, Habermas observes that we must distinguish between “largely institutionalized procedures of information exchange, consultation, control, and agreement” and “political” issues that impinge on entrenched interests which are deeply rooted in the structures of national societies, such as, for example, questions of global energy and of environmental, financial, and economic policy, all of which involve issues of equitable distribution” (ibid.). A decade after this text was written, the climate change activists and spokespersons have faced off with relentless apologists for using fossil fuels to power our anguished globe. And those animals just keep on disappearing from the face of the earth. We stare at documentaries streaming before our eyes, each telling of depletion (yes, even orcas in southern BC waters or the albatross of the southern seas).

The elephant in the room is never far from our analysis

The elephant in the room is never far from our analysis. Habermas asserts that “these problems of a future world domestic policy call for regulation and positive integration, for which at present both the institutional framework and actors are lacking” (ibid.). But the “existing political networks” do not “provide a forum for legislative competences and corresponding processes of political will formation. Even if such a framework were to be established, collective actors capable of implementing such decisions would still be lacking. What I have in mind are regional or continental regimes equipped with a sufficiently representative mandate to negotiate for whole continents and to wield the necessary powers of implementation for large territories” (ibid.).

As many critics have noted, Habermas’ cosmopolitan vision requires “intermediate” arenas such as regional blocs like the EU, OAS or ASEAN. Until these blocs have stabilized “politics cannot intentionally meet the spontaneous need for regulation of a systematically, integrated, quasi-natural global economy and society” (p. 325). The transnational arena would, then, have to be “modified for the simple reason that under an effective UN security regime even the most powerful global players would be denied recourse to war as a legitimate means of resolving conflicts. The problem with that, with there are at present no visible actors at the intermediate or transnational level directs our attention to the third level, namely the lower level of the nation-states” (ibid.).

The idea (and creation of) an inclusive “community of nations” did not arise, Habermas avers, until the latter half of the twentieth-century. He reminds us, too, that many of the 192 nation-states were relatively new. In the late 1950s and 1960s in Africa excitement abounded for those once under the thumb of European nations as Ghana (1957) and Nigeria (1961) gained their independence. These same states (and many others) no longer live in the exuberant aftermath of the first stages of decolonization. In 1966 Ghana overthrew Kwame Nkrumah and civil war broke out in Nigeria (I happened to be there teaching for CUSO during this time of troubles).

Habermas comments: “The growing interdependence of the global economy and the cross-border risks of a world society are overtaxing their territorial range of operation and their chains of legitimation” (ibid.). Globalized networks have ruptured radically the “congruence between those responsible for political decision-making and those affected by political decisions” (ibid.). New forms of collective learning from historical catastrophes and drastic incongruities have not yet been embodied in crystallized new institutional forms.

Assessing the geo-political scene for regional alliances

Assessing the geo-political scene, Habermas notes that regional alliances, at present, “represent weak beginnings” (ibid.). In his perceptive article, “The pendulum of history: thirty years after the Soviet Union,” Russia in Global Affairs, No. 1, January-March 2022, Zhao Huasheng observes incisively that building a “Greater Europe,” for example, has deteriorated relations between Russia and Europe – “with NATO’s expansion, the Kosovo war, the Russia-Georgia war, the Ukraine crisis, and many other problems.” Bluntly, Habermas states: “The nation-states need to enter into closer alliances than forms of intergovernmental cooperation if they are to assume the role of collective pillars of a global domestic politics at the transnational level” (p. 326). Pillars imply durability and consistency. They are utterly necessary if the nation-states are to “acquire the scope for action of global players and confer the necessary domestic legitimacy on the outcomes of transnational political accords” (ibid.).

This is strong and tough-minded language. Can every nation in the world remember that the formation of EU political union was a response to the “self-destructive excesses of radical nationalism”? (ibid.). Deeply concerned that, as long as the “economy coincided with the nation-state” (p. 331), Habermas states, problems were “politically manageable” (ibid.). However, “new forms of corporatism have placed the channels of legitimation of the nation-state under considerable strain” (ibid). This is a common assertion, and Michael Zurn (Global governance and legitimacy problems, government and opposition (2004) unleashes his sword from its scabbard, challenging advocates of a post-national constellation to defend their position.

“The democratic decision-making within nation-states are thus losing their anchorage. They are superseded by organizations and actors who indeed are mostly accountable to their National governments one way or another, but at the same time are quite remote and inaccessible for the nationally enclosed addressees of the regulations in question. Given the extent of the intrusion of these new international institutions into the affair of national societies, the notion of “delegated and therefore controlled authority” in the principal and agent sense no longer holds” (p.273).

Confronted, Habermas counters by saying that, rather than being disillusioned, “we must detach the fading of a democratic constitution from its roots in the nation-state and revive it in the postnational guise of a constitutionalized world society” (p. 333). Still, a philosophical thought-experiment must find “empirical  support in the real world” (ibid.). Must our intellectual cathedrals remain suspended far above the doghouses here below? I think not.

Habermas indicates clearly that he realizes the extent to which “accelerated information and communication flows, worldwide movements of capital, networks of trade and production, technology transfers, mass tourism, labor migration, scientific communication flows at high speed rates through the nation-states of the world.” The global society is also “integrated through the same media of power, money, and consensus as the nation-states” (ibid.). Habermas’ counterpunch to the realist skeptics is extremely powerful: “Why should a constitution, which successfully drew upon these sources of integration at the national level by shaping them through politics and law, be doomed to failure at the supranational and transnational levels? There are no necessary socio-ontological reasons why solidarity between citizens and the regulatory capacity of the constitution should stop at national borders” (ibid.).

Habermas concludes this set of thoughts with a core idea

Habermas concludes this set of thoughts by reiterating one of his core ideas. For a start, Habermas makes the case that, in a “multi-level global system, the classical function of the state as the guarantee of security, law, and freedom would be transferred to a supranational world organization specialized in securing peace and implementing human rights worldwide” (p. 337). However, the organization wouldn’t carry the burden of solving, for instance, “extreme disparities in wealth” within our present hierarchical, or stratified, global society.

These gargantuan problems, and the promotion of intercultural discourse “differ in kind from violations of international peace and human rights” (ibid.). In his thoughtful article, “Global governance without global government? Habermas on post-national democracy,” William Scheuerman (2008) accentuates the deep resistance great powers show when faced with making changes that cause them to share resources. This is a serious roadblock to transcending nation-state sovereignty. He doesn’t think that Habermas takes this as seriously as he should.

But Armin Bogdandy (“Constitutionalization in international law” [2006]) thinks that Habermas has his feet on solid ground because the “latter principles enjoy broad legitimacy throughout the world, as proven by global moral indignation on occasions of serious infringements” (p. 239). “Transnational  negotiation systems” are the proper locus for the burden of imposed (or coercive) power and law. “They impinge,” Habermas thinks, “upon the logic of functional systems that extend across national borders and the intrinsic meaning of cultures and world religions. Politics must engage with these issues in a spirit of hermeneutic open-mindedness through the prudent balancing of interests and intelligent regulation” (p. 334). Big tasks!

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.