Great Power Political Convergence and UN Reform: Solving the Democratic Deficit

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 4, April 2019

By Anders Corr

A bronze sculpture titled “Non-Violence” by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd stands to the north of the United Nations Building in New York. It depicts the knotted barrel of a Colt Python .357 Magnum. Reuterswärd designed the sculpture following the murder of songwriter John Lennon. Credit: Vicente Montoya/Getty.

The international system operates across military, economic, and diplomatic hierarchies of states situated in competing alliances and international organizations. The major powers assert the predominance of influence in these alliances and international organizations, leading to a severe and global democratic deficit. Huge numbers of people, most notably the approximately 18% of the world’s population living in China, and 2% of the population living in Russia, have no democratically-appointed representation at the United Nations or influence in the world’s most important alliance systems.

The global democratic deficit leads to critical inefficiencies and unfair policies. States use unequal access to military, wealth, and knowledge resources to influence international organizations and alliance systems for individual state gains that lead to global inefficiencies and trade-offs where individual major power goals contradict the public good, or the national interests of other states. Perhaps the most dangerous such inefficiency is the rising risk of nuclear war, as countries like the U.S. and China compete to impose their competing visions of the future on the world.

The most militarily powerful members of alliance systems have outsized influence in the decision making of those alliance systems. States with the highest GDP use international aid and even bribery of foreign leaders to gain support, including at the international, national and subnational levels, and in international and national-level fora. The wealthiest and most powerful states are better able to promote their message through the production or purchase of media, and the marginalization of competing messages.

Smaller powers and civil society groups do use the tools at their disposal to defend their national and group interests. These include balancing against aggressive powers as a group, utilization of international law, and the promotion of international messaging and policy consistent with national and group interests. Small powers and civil society have a comparative advantage and interest in the expansion of status quo diplomatic coalitions, messaging, and international law, where there are diminishing marginal returns of influence from their low or nonexistent economic and military power. Less powerful countries and groups often seek to appear neutral in bipolar contests, but typically support one or the other power in a system of overt and covert alliances, in order to maximize the chances of a beneficial outcome for their own particular interest.

Competing State Goals and International Policy Convergence

States have shared and competing goals. As they converge on goals, they decrease the probability of conflict, which is increasingly important as the destructiveness of military technology increases, now to the point of threatening humanity and other species with extinction. Nearly all states ostensibly promote peace, stability, and economic growth, which are the foundations of international cooperation, including alliance systems and trade agreements. But while these goals are all typically in the short-term interests of powerful states, they are not always applied by powerful states in a manner consistent with the interests of smaller or less powerful states, much less those of the average global citizen.

Economic growth can cause environmental degradation that harms weaker country interests more than it does those of more powerful countries or regions that produce most of the world’s pollution. Peace must often be bought by weaker countries through acquiescing to the sometimes unreasonable or unjust demands of the more powerful countries.

Stability in international organizations, for example of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), has been acquired at the expense of changing patterns of military and economic growth that leaves the UNSC no longer a good representation of global power distribution. The community of states has outgrown the Security Council of 1945, including by the economic rise of countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Argentina. Even were these countries to be given more representation on the UNSC, other smaller countries would not be fully and equally represented. This reliance on the division of power and prestige at the end of the last major war as the basis for UNSC representation in the 21st century erodes the democratic legitimacy of the U.N. among nations that lack full representation on the UNSC, and whose large populations are ill-represented by a single representative to the U.N. General Assembly, appointed by an unelected autocrat in their own country.

Lacking democratic legitimacy, overly influenced by great powers, and largely ignoring its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. has failed in its attempt to move the world towards a just, peaceful and democratic international system. Rather, we are now in a world of competing major powers that again threaten nuclear war based on competing ideologies.

Major powers utilize these ideologies to justify and coalesce alliances meant to power their own long-term ascendancy. Some major powers privilege the idea of economic equality (communism) rather than political equality, claiming that political equality is inefficient for economic growth. Other major powers privilege political equality (democracy) over economic equality, claiming that economic equality is inefficient for economic growth. One side attempts to downplay how economic power can buy political power in its own system, making democracy imperfect. The other seeks to downplay economic inequality in its supposedly egalitarian economy. Communist states at times have less economic equality than their democratic counterparts. Democracies can and do vote themselves more economic equality through almost universal progressive taxation. Nevertheless, the major powers are able to utilize their ideological differences and knowledge production processes to effectively coalesce political power bases from which to challenge the other in destructive ways. With increasing military technological “progress”, dangerous forms of nuclear brinkmanship are increasingly used, and the probability of nuclear war increases.

Policy Recommendations

A peaceful outcome is more likely through more closely following the UN Charter Principles and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All countries should fully commit to international peace and security, international law, and collective defense against threats to the peace (1.1). While some countries continue to threaten borders and international law, this will require the collective utilization of force or the threat of force in order to maintain the status quo. Those countries that violate the status quo should not be allowed to protect themselves by use of the veto in the UNSC.

All countries should improve on equal rights and the self-determination of peoples (1.2), which does not mean non-interference when a minority people is repressed by a majority population within a single country. “Human rights and fundamental freedoms” are an integral part of the charter, and must be respected. Ethnic cleansing of all types should be resisted with greater efforts, including economic sanctions, and when required, collective defense.

Global policy convergence towards more peaceful, prosperous and egalitarian societies, both politically and economically, is required to minimize the chance of catastrophic major power conflict based on competing ideologies, and to optimally solve economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian problems (1.3). Such policy convergence has democratic legitimacy in that the world’s most popular countries are peaceful, democratic, wealthy, relatively egalitarian in terms of economics, and adhere to universal human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of 1948. These model countries include, but are not limited to, Switzerland, Canada, and Germany, which should be emulated. They are highly popular with global public opinion according to polls, and so have as close to global democratic legitimacy as might be found for any country’s system. They offer a political convergence point to nuclear-armed adversaries like the U.S., China, and Russia, should those three nations decide to compromise on their respective ideologies in order to decrease the threat of nuclear war.

Lastly, democratization of the UNSC and UN General Assembly is required in order to harmonize the actions of nations (1.4) and represent all global citizens equally. To have both equal representation, and a functional UNSC, requires empowering smaller countries with greater democratic representation on the UNSC, decreasing the power of the UNSC veto, and empowering democracies with an electoral mandate on the UNSC, over autocracies that represent only a few people in their selectorates. There can be no real harmony among nations and peoples when large portions of the world’s citizens are excluded from true representation at the most important deliberations of the international community.

Anders Corr has a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. He is the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. JPR Status: Opinion.