Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Discursivity of Global Governance: Vestiges of "Democracy" in the World Trade Organization

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Discursivity of Global Governance: Vestiges of "Democracy" in the World Trade Organization

Article excerpt

Abstract

Global governance is neither democratic nor entirely undemocratic. For example, within the World Trade Organization (WTO) formally all member-states have equal power over decision making. The WTO's dispute settlement body (DSB) acts to enforce the rule of law over so-called power politics. The WTO's secretariat organizes regular meetings with civil society groups, and resources are spent on facilitating transparency, including putting a vast amount of official documentation online. However, there is large power asymmetry between WTO member-states. This article sidesteps the classic response to such dilemmas, in which debate hinges on how much or how little the institution is able to ameliorate realpolitik, and considers the role the vestiges of "democracy" play in the WTO. Drawing on the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, among others, the author argues that the discourse of democracy embodied in the WTO expresses the wider process through which the institution is legitimated as the body of global trade politics. This has implications for understanding not only how global governance is discursively formed but also whether civil society groups critiquing the WTO threaten the WTO or, by accepting the premise of its predominance in global trade politics, effectively strengthen it.

Keywords

discourse, democracy, WTO, global governance

Global governance is neither democratic nor entirely undemocratic. For example, within the World Trade Organization (WTO) formally all member-states have equal power over decision making. The WTO's DSB acts to enforce the rule of law over so-called power politics. The WTO's secretariat organizes regular meetings with civil society groups, and resources are spent on facilitating transparency, including putting a vast amount of official documentation online. However, there is large power asymmetry between WTO member-states. This article sidesteps the classic response to such dilemmas, in which debate hinges on how much or how little the institution is able to ameliorate realpolitik, and considers the role the vestiges of "democracy" play in the WTO. Drawing on the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, among others, I argue that the discourse of democracy embodied in the WTO expresses the wider process through which the institution is legitimated as the body of global trade politics. This has implications for understanding not only how global governance is discursively formed but also whether civil society groups critiquing the WTO threaten the WTO or, by accepting the premise of its predominance in global trade politics, effectively strengthen it.

Democracy has currency even where governance shifts to a level lacking its own demos. Rooted in national territories with clearly defined borders and citizenship, democracy has nevertheless managed to claim a new relevance in the world of global governance. The findings presented in this article respond to a paradox noted within the social science literature on the WTO and termed here as the democratic dilemma of the WTO. This dilemma may be summed up as a question about the extent to which the WTO is democratic, and is provoked by the dual presence of "democratic" aspects within the WTO institutional structure and "power asymmetry" (1) between the member-states. However, rather than asking the question about the extent to which the WTO democratic directly, much can be gained by asking what role apparent vestiges of "democracy" play within the discursive constitution of a global political entity such as the WTO.

Most literature on the WTO approaches its object of study as a "legal-institutional arrangement." While the WTO is indeed an "institution," I want to problematize this dominant approach in relation to questions about a series of social practices through which that "institution" is made possible. The WTO is a significant political project that far exceeds the jurisdiction of earlier attempts at "multilateral trade governance," the most cited example of which being the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). …

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