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MSc Global Politics

Politics at a crossroads

Professor David Held
Professor of Political Science
Master of University College

We are at a crossroads. One road points to the inexorable rise of authoritarianism, while another opens up a more hopeful cosmopolitan future. The path to authoritarianism can be created by the dangerous drift in the world order, and a search for decisive solutions from ‘strong man’ leaders faced with a world that is seemingly out of control and where a retreat to the familiar (and away from the Other) offers a tempting way forward.

We see such trends across many different kinds of countries, from Brexit Britain to Trump’s America, Duarte’s Philippines, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and Erdogan’s Turkey. Of course, we have been here before. The 1930s saw the rise of xenophobia and nationalism in the context of prolonged and protracted economic strife, the lingering impact of World War I, weak international institutions and a desperate search for scapegoats. The 2010s has notable parallels: the protracted fallout of the global financial crisis, ineffective regional and international institutions, and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all blame for every problem on some form of Other.

But there are alternative routes. To begin with, we have the option of recalling where the pursuit of authoritarianism leads. The routes chosen in the 1930s all led to calamity and destruction, and the rediscovery in the 1940s onwards of the dangers of simply putting up the shutters, pursuing protectionism and denying the equal dignity of each and all. The architects of the post-war era, who put in place a re-invigorated law of war and the human rights regime, set down elements of a universal constitutional order in which the principles of the equal moral standing of each and every person, and the equal rights and duties of each and all, became the bedrock of peace and stability.

Moreover, a cosmopolitan model of politics and regulation can be found in some of the most important achievements of law and institution building in the twentieth century. These developments set down a conception of rightful authority tied to human rights and democratic values which can be entrenched in wide-ranging settings. In this perspective, political power is legitimate, if and only if, it is democratic and upholds human rights. In addition, the link between territory, sovereignty and rightful authority is, in principle, broken since rightful authority can be exercised in many spheres and at many levels, local, subnational, national and supranational. Accordingly, citizenship can be envisaged, as it is already in the European Union, as equal membership in the diverse, overlapping political communities which uphold common civic and political values and standards. Citizenship, thus conceived, is not built on an exclusive membership of a single community but on a set of principles and legal arrangements which link people together in the diverse communities which significantly affect them. Accordingly, patriotism would be misunderstood if it meant, as it all too often has done, ‘my country right or wrong’. Rather, it comes to mean loyalty to the standards and values of rightful authority – to common civic and political principles, appropriately embedded.

Suitably developed, this conception of global politics envisages a multilayered and multilevel polity, from cities to global associations, bound by common framework of law, a framework of law anchored in democratic principles and human rights. The state does not wither away in this conception; rather, it becomes one element in the protection and maintenance of political authority, democracy and human rights in the dense web of global forces and processes that already shape our lives. Perhaps more importantly still, it points to a political order no longer exclusively anchored in raison d’état and hegemonic state projects but in principles of global cooperation and cosmopolitan association.

This article is an excerpt from Broken politics: from 9/11 to the present.