Our groups of global superpowers need a balancing force for democracy

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Imagine a city with a weak government and no police force. Gangs would take over and battle each other until they carved up the place for themselves if they didn’t destroy it first.

This is our global village, now more than ever.

Roaming its streets are various gangs, some called “Groups,” their membership largely self-appointed on the basis of size, strength, wealth and weapons. We have the Group of 7 (G-7) and the Group of 20 (G-20), a group of three superpowers (G-3) and another of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, not to forget NATO.

The G-7 and G-20 have the wealth, the G-3 has the power and the five permanent members of the Security Council have the authority — at least to veto the efforts of all the others. These five members of the Security Council, which include all G-3 countries, have a history of colonizing other countries. They have the five largest arsenals of nuclear weapons in the world (accounting for 97 percent of the total); and with Germany, they are the largest exporters of armaments (81 percent of the world’s total). 

This is an Insecurity Council. 

We hardly needed this latest crisis to appreciate that, as go the three superpowers, so goes the world. That includes the future of you, me and everyone we care about: Our survival is only as good as the mental health of three world leaders who clash with each other like kids in a schoolyard. Sooner or later, this madness will assure our “mutual assured destruction.” 

How to get out of this mess? Certainly not with the groups we have: They exacerbate it, if not directly, then by inflaming their rivalries with powers that do so indirectly. It is obvious, yet imperative, that we must change course immediately. Interestingly, COVID carries a message in this regard. Sufficiently alarmed, we were prepared to do the unthinkable. Who would have thought that governments would act within weeks to lock down their populations and close much of their economies? COVID made the unimaginable imperative. 

Here, then, is another hard to imagine possibility. It begins with democracy. We are not about to get planetary elections — mercifully. But we may be able to grow legitimate global government from the roots of domestic democracy, much as cities and nations have done to be able to remove leadership that is corrupt or malicious.

Each year, The Economist publishes a Global Democracy Index, compiled from measures of electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. The score for each country ranks it as a full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime, or autocratic regime. In the full democracies of the 2021 index are 21 countries, many of them small, including Uruguay and Costa Rica. The first with a population of more than 20 million is Taiwan (at number eight), and the largest is Japan (at number 17). This means that none of the world’s 10 most populous countries is ranked as a full democracy, including the most prominent “liberal democracy.” So ranked only one of the G-3, one of the five permanent Security Council members, four members of the G-7 and six members of the G-20.

If the G7 and G20 have created themselves, what’s to stop the Democracy 21 (D-21) from creating an Assembly of Democracies? Compared with the established groups, its membership (using the Global Democracy Index as a guide) would be more legitimate, its reach more global and its concern for the collective interest more credible. Many of its members are among the most progressive countries in the world, having managed to sustain a healthy balance across sectors of society, unlike the three superpowers that tilt toward public sector communism, private sector capitalism, or plural sector populism.

Should democracy weaken in these countries, the procedure for removing it would be as objective as that for including it: a factual assessment of its performance as a democracy. Indeed, this adaptability could be an assembly’s greatest strength. With widespread recognition, some political parties might campaign on a promise to get their country inducted (with the Global Democracy Index holding them to account). Democracy could become fashionable again!

Is it outrageous to believe that a D-21, comprising a bunch of “pipsqueak” countries (as a Harvard colleague once called Canada after I criticized the U.S.), can provide a different voice in the world, and so begin to reverse this madness? The situation we tolerate is outrageous. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is outrageous. A global grouping of full democracies is not. Even — and especially — now.

The established powers will hardly step aside. But, for starters, an Assembly of Democracies could be a conspicuous alternative to them all. It might even serve as a kind of peace council in-waiting. Should a nuclear confrontation become imminent, it may be the only place to turn for resolution beyond confrontation. Moreover, by getting their collective act together, these countries could challenge the superpowers as well as the divide-and-rule maneuvering of economic globalization, which now faces no countervailing power. (We recently celebrated a global agreement for a minimum tax rate of 15 percent on corporations. Is it truly considered a minimum or maximum?) Eventually, an expanded Assembly of Democracies might metamorphose into a Council of Democracies for serious global government. Imagine that.

When we recognize the obvious as outrageous, we can recognize the outrageous as obvious. 

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Canada and the author of several books about management. He is also the author of “Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Right and Center” and (rebalancingsociety.org info). 

Tags Democracy Democratic peace theory International relations theory Liberal democracy Political systems Political terminology Superpower Types of democracy

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