Democracy in Global Governance: The Promises and Pitfalls of Transnational Actors

By Bexell, Magdalena; Tallberg, Jonas et al. | Global Governance, January-March 2010 | Go to article overview

Democracy in Global Governance: The Promises and Pitfalls of Transnational Actors


Bexell, Magdalena, Tallberg, Jonas, Uhlin, Anders, Global Governance


The participation of transnational actors in global policymaking is increasingly seen as a means to democratize global governance. Drawing on alternative theories of democracy and existing empirical evidence, we assess the promises and pitfalls of this vision. We explore how the structuring and operation of international institutions, public-private partnerships, and transnational actors themselves may facilitate expanded participation and enhanced accountability in global governance. We find considerable support for an optimistic verdict on the democratizing potential of transnational actor involvement, but also identify hurdles in democratic theory and the practice of global governance that motivate a more cautious outlook. In conclusion, we call for research that explores the conditions for democracy in global governance through a combination of normative political theory and positive empirical research. KEYWORDS: global governance, democracy, transnational actors, accountability, participation.

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THE GROWTH OF GOVERNANCE BEYOND THE NATION-STATE IS ONE OF THE most distinct political developments of the past half-century. Whereas the early postwar period witnessed the establishment of a set of major international institutions, more recent developments include the emergence and spread of public-private partnerships, as well as entirely private governance arrangements. Traditionally, the rationale of global governance arrangements, and their principal source of legitimacy, has been their capacity to address problems and generate benefits for states and societies. Yet, in recent years, international institutions and other governance arrangements have increasingly been challenged on normative grounds--and have been found to suffer from democratic deficits. (1)

The purpose of this article is to address the potential role of transnational actors in the process of democratizing global governance. We use this term to denote the broad range of private actors that organize and operate across state borders, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy networks, social movements, party associations, philanthropic foundations, and transnational corporations (TNCs). (2) Of particular interest are global civil society actors, whose participation in policymaking increasingly is seen as holding the promise of a democratization of global governance. (3) Transferring models of democracy originally developed for the national context, and developing new models of democracy tailored for the international level, democracy theorists have advanced blueprints for how global governance arrangements may be reformed to integrate transnational actors and thus meet the standards of democratic decisionmaking.

In this article, we assess the promises and pitfalls of this vision, drawing on diverse strands of theoretical and empirical research. Departing from theories of representative, participatory, and deliberative democracy, we identify how the involvement of transnational actors may serve to democratize global governance, by way of expanding participation and strengthening accountability. But, in addition, we address the problems and limits of this vision--in principle and as revealed by existing evidence. We structure this analysis in three parts, each exploring a central component of global governance: the design of international institutions, the nature of public-private partnerships, and the qualities of participating transnational actors.

International institutions and public-private partnerships have been selected because they constitute two prominent institutional forms in global governance--one traditional and established, one recent and increasingly common, both frequently criticized on democratic grounds. In relation to these institutional forms, we discuss the extent to which transnational actor involvement may enhance democracy by improving accountability and participation.

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