Democratic Deficit, the Global Trade System and 11 September

By Capling, Ann | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Democratic Deficit, the Global Trade System and 11 September


Capling, Ann, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In an era of globalisation and increasing interdependence between nations, the importance of global institutions has never been more evident. To the extent that international politics is concerned with the expression of fundamental differences in political cultures, values and economic systems, competing claims and demands, and the management of contestation on a grand scale, then the vitality of global institutions enables the political process to occur in a civilised and civilising way. (2) Whether we are speaking of institutions as formal organisations that establish, monitor and enforce rules, or simply the notion of institutions as shared sets or expectations and norms that help to influence behaviour and regularise civil interaction, governance in the global era depends on the presence of global institutions.

Participation by governments in global political institutions usually involves the shift of some authority from nation-states to international organisations. (3) This raises widespread concerns about accountability and legitimacy the "democratic deficit"--in the emerging structures of global economic governance. In response, international institutions are experimenting with a wide variety of approaches to improving transparency and accountability in their activities, including enhancing opportunities for participation by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). But improving the accountability of international organisations surely needs to begin at home. As Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson suggest, in a system of global governance, nation-states are still the "crucial agencies of representation" that can ensure that "international bodies are answerable". (4) National governments still have primary responsibility for the promotion of social cohesion within their territories, and are the only political authority with legitimacy to represent the interests of pluralistic national societies, and to commit those societies to international agreements. So, there is a powerful argument for addressing the democratic deficit at the national level as well.

In this paper, I explore the Howard Government's response to the challenges of global governance, especially with respect to Australia's participation in one of the most important--and misunderstood global political institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO). My analysis will be filtered through the prism of two events that have had a profound impact on Australia's engagement with the WTO: the S11 anti-globalisation protests in Melbourne and the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States.

S11 2000

Mass protests against the institutions of global economic governance have become pretty much a fixture of global politics. Since the late 1990s, the world has witnessed mass demonstrations at meetings of the WTO Ministers (Geneva 1998, Seattle November 1999); the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Bangkok, February 2000); the Organisation of American States (Windsor, June 2000); the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (Prague, September 2000); the Free Trade Area of the Americas (Quebec City, April 2001); the G7/8 leaders meeting (Genoa, July 2001); and the European Union leaders (Barcelona, March 2002), to name but a few. Australia's first experience of this was the protest against the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), held in Melbourne from 11 to 13 September 2000. A similar protest coincided with a meeting of the WTO Trade Ministers in Sydney on 14 November 2002. (5)

This broad-based and transnational civil society movement is deeply divided in its strategies and objectives. For some, the summit meetings of these organisations provide a venue for the mobilisation of action across a wide variety of agendas. (6) Others, however, are seeking policy transformation and reform of these institutions for global economic governance. (7) Regardless of the instrumental objectives of the protestors, these mass demonstrations are an important channel for political expression and mobilisation.

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