Prospects for Transnational Citizenship and Democracy

Article excerpt

Nation-states are becoming increasingly integrated with one another. Increased integration has tended historically to be economic and commercial in nature, at least at first. But the case of the European Union suggests that once economies have become merged to a significant degree--for example, through the adoption of a shared currency--the pressure toward fuller, political integration becomes difficult to resist.

Political theorists have been divided over the question of whether we ought to welcome or deplore the prospect of transnational polities. Some claim that broadening the scope of political institutions can have positive consequences. It can, for instance, offset the kinds of problems that have flowed from the state's being made into the vehicle for the self-expression of ethnic nations. And it might also make it easier to motivate people from different national groups to recognize and institutionalize obligations of material aid to one another.

Others have found the prospect of transnational political institutions much more worrying. These critics often claim that political institutions spanning as broadly as those of, say, an integrated Europe would inevitably become bureaucratic despotisms--benevolent despotisms, perhaps, but despotisms nonetheless. Transnational polities, they maintain, threaten to undermine democracy. And while they do not claim that there is a necessary, conceptual link between democracy and the nation-state, they nonetheless feel that nation-states provide a political context that is much better suited to ensuring democracy. Transnational polities should according to this argument be resisted to the extent that they threaten democracy by undermining nation-states. For these authors the functioning of democratic institutions and the possibility of democratic citizenship require the nation-state for very strong contingent reasons.

My intention in this essay is to assess critically some of the main arguments that have been put forward by these skeptics about transnational democracy. These arguments have generally taken three forms. The first kind of argument concerns the conditions for responsible citizenship. It claims that the participation of citizens in the public sphere is more likely to be geared toward the common good if they are linked by national fellow-feeling. The second claims that the nation provides a "context of intelligibility" for debates about distributive justice that cannot be replicated in transnational polities. And the third holds that democratic institutions cannot be effectively implanted in political contexts vaster than that of the modern nation-state.

Though these claims are significantly different from one another, I will argue that they are underpinned by a common erroneous belief: that the obstacles to the establishment of transnational democratic institutions are different in kind from those that have been overcome in establishing democracies in modern nation-states. I will make the case that the obstacles that transnational political institutions would have to face do not differ in kind from those modern states have faced in the Westphalian world, and that there is therefore no reason in principle to think that the prospects for transnational citizenship and democracy are as grim as these critics have supposed. I will argue further that those who are skeptical about transnational citizenship and democracy often rely on a model of citizenship for which the modern, anonymous, mass-scale nation-state is already inappropriate.

Citizenship in the Nation-State

The first argument I wish to consider has been clearly formulated in recent work by David Miller. Miller argues that the nation-state provides the political context most conducive to effective, meaningful, and responsible citizenship. To evaluate this argument it is necessary to examine closely what the concept of citizenship means.

There can be no uncontroversial account of citizenship. …