May 17, 2016

Rising Powers: a political and philosophical exchange

Rising Powers: a political and philosophical exchange

The rise of the so-called ‘new donors’ and increasingly successful forms of direct economic investments from former recipient-countries to the worst-off countries in the Global South poses a challenge to those efforts that try to construct a normative conception of development. Julian Culp is one of the few political philosophers who has started taking the emergence of rising powers seriously. His work investigates several dimensions of this issue, bringing together the latest developments in critical theory and contemporary debates on global justice.


Vis-à-vis the evolving nature of power relations between Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors and NON-DAC donors, traditional conceptions of development do not only look parochial, but also seem to lack explanatory and normative potential. With these ideas in mind, a generation of theorists has investigated this problem under the rubric of the so-called ‘post-development era’. Julian, do you think that this alternative conceptual apparatus may help us to think differently about the customary view on social progress at the international level?

I think that the key contribution of post-development theory is its clear articulation of a problematic contradiction of the idea of – global – economic development. Economic development of the kind that the Western countries have been able to realize since the 1950s cannot be replicated within all other countries without risking ecological disaster. Thus, post-development theory reveals that global economic development is an illusion that performs an ideological function. Wolfgang Sachs’ The Development Dictionary made this point already in the early 1990s. So post-development theory got started before the emergence of the new donors. Today it pushes us to no longer think of social progress in terms of economic growth. But from this we should not leap to the conclusion that we should give up the normative conceptualization of the idea of social progress entirely. That would be like throwing out the baby with the bath water.


So, there’s nothing new that the emergence of new donors adds to the most recent post-developmental theorizing? Is it just like the same old pair of shoes that turns out to be fashionable again?

Yes, indeed. In fact, one could even argue that the existence of new, NON-DAC donors speaks in favour of the traditional, economic conception of development. After all, the new, NON-DAC donors have been able to realize a certain degree of economic development throughout the last decades. In addition, the kind of Official Development Assistance (ODA) they are committed to is pretty similar to the kind of traditional ODA from Western countries. It has a focus on infrastructure and primary resource development that often times has considerable ecological implications. The two most significant differences seem to be a less pronounced conditionality with regard to political criteria, such as democracy or accountability, and a focus on neighbouring states. China and India’s engagement in Africa are an exception to this general pattern.

What is more, the international development assistance of NON-DAC donors denotes their agency at the international level. If that is so, then post-development scholars can no longer claim that it is solely the Western countries that impose a certain development conception on the world at large. The idea that Western-style economic development is the unavoidable destiny of all countries is just as ethnocentric as the idea that only Western countries possess agency and exercise domination.


At the normative level, development praxis centres on the idea of responsibility. Across the spectrum of all the possible accounts, this responsibility and the terms of this relation are differently categorized. But a fundamental aspect can be maintained for the sake of generalization: individuals/states that are better off should act for changing the condition of individuals/states that are worst off in a desirable manner. With the evolution of the international landscape thanks to the emergence of rising political and economic powers – like Brazil, China, India and South Africa – and the increasing number of poor people in middle-income countries, who is responsible for development? To what extent are international and supranational organizations, which have the primary purpose of promoting development, evolving in this context?

The question as to who is responsible for promoting international development – bilaterally or multilaterally – is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. But the traditional answer, according to which the wealthy governments and citizens of Western countries are the only ones who are internationally responsible, is no longer plausible.

After all, countries like Brazil, China and India are powerful enough to support poorer countries. However, these three countries also face very challenging domestic problems – economic inequality, severe poverty and low-quality educational systems, to name just the most salient ones. Therefore it is difficult to argue convincingly that these countries should assume responsibility for international development.


And, what about international and supranational organizations?

International and supranational organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union should reform their organizations in ways that are conducive to inclusive deliberation. Such deliberation is needed to determine in a fair manner as to who should assume international responsibility for what. In that way, these organizations would help the international community in becoming more self-reflexive. We need more inclusive fora for deliberation in which a wide array of political agents can discuss normative questions such as which states should be responsible for what. The point of these fora should not be, however, to decide definitively about the ascription of international responsibility. Rather, they should bring together a broad range of viewpoints. They should also signal the open-ended nature of normative questions about how to arrange global affairs.


The work of civil society organizations (CSOs) is also becoming more and more important. Global activism for climate justice, struggles for gender equality and increasing pressure against trade agreements show the fundamental role of bottom-up mobilisation.  How do you view the role of CSOs in the democratization of international political discourses?

In the domain of domestic politics, civil society organizations are fundamental elements of a lively public sphere. They mediate between the formalized political process and the citizenry at large. For example, they uncover societal concerns and oppose certain ways of implementing the law. In transnational political contexts, however, it is much more difficult for CSOs to exercise such functions. There is no shared political background culture, no common language and, often, CSOs do not find secure routes to intervene in the formal decision-making process. This is why CSOs that act transnationally must experiment with novel ways of doing politics. Activists during the Arab Spring, Indignados and Occupy used the same political symbols. Across borders, we witnessed the use of protest icons such as Guy Fawkes masks, camps, and casseroles that fuelled the flow of transnational political communication. This is the kind of transnational political experimentation that CSOs need to amplify. It is a sensible way of engaging with the distinctive challenges of transnational political action.


The responsibility of rising powers has been gaining increasing attention in social sciences and, more recently, in political philosophy. Some scholars have argued that a greater moral responsibility for contributing to certain global public goods comes together with the increase of economic and political power. Under this narrative, scholars and policy makers have asked the so-called ‘Rising South’ to assume more responsibility for the global South, at least in areas like the environment, human rights protection and free trade. In your recent work, you challenge this interpretation by saying that rising powers behave less irresponsibly in international affairs than the existing accounts suggest. You do so, by looking at a further object of international responsibility, namely, the creation of reasonably democratic international discourses. Could you elaborate on your notion of ‘international political discourses’?

By ‘international political discourses’ I mean various kinds of processes of collective opinion and will formation that involve – directly or indirectly – various kinds of political actors from different states. At the international level they include official or formally recognized political agents such as heads of states, ministers, and staff members of government and international agencies. But these discourses also carry over to and continue at the domestic level, because political representatives must at a certain point justify their position regarding international affairs vis-à-vis their national electorates. Following thinkers such as Bernhard Peters and Jürgen Habermas, such discourses must involve a sincere claim to the factual or normative validity of their claims. This means that those who put forward arguments must believe sincerely that these arguments are able to convince the audience by referring to compelling reasons.



Do you think that the constitution of ‘international political discourses’ can be seen as another international global public good? If we maintain that the question addressing what rising powers are responsible for should ultimately be decided through reasonably democratic international discourses, it seems to me that the articulation of such a favourable deliberative international environment looks like a procedural requirement (precondition) for a distribution of burdens and benefits that does not reflect the views of the most powerful nations only. Would you be sceptical with any assessment of international responsibility that does not come as a result of this structure of mutual justification? I could not agree more, but I am wondering whether this could make rising powers even less responsible for the contribution to certain kinds of global public goods, like a clean atmosphere.

Yes, I’m very sceptical of claims as to how the responsibility for providing global public goods should be allocated as long as inter- and transnational relations of justification are highly asymmetric. Under such circumstances, it is all too easy for the more powerful agents to disperse and provide arguments that favour their own position. Thus, it is unsurprising that the international policy discourse is dominated by representatives of Western countries who claim that rising powers should contribute more to precisely those global public goods – such as a clean environment or free trade – that are of special importance for their countries.


Such a discursive interaction seems to come together with a certain degree of reciprocity between rising democracies and traditional global powers. Given the fact that a basic component of the international stance of rising powers comes from their resistance to the hegemony of so-called Western powers, how do you justify the necessary reciprocity between affected members that engage in a communicative interaction?

Indeed, to get started, communication requires a mutual willingness among the interlocutors to take their arguments seriously. So you’re absolutely right that reciprocity is a basic presupposition for the kinds of political discourses that I described earlier. Of course, rising powers might not be willing to engage reciprocally with the traditional global powers, since they had to experience so much disrespect and misrecognition in the past. I can imagine well that this will actually happen. From a normative point of view, however, it is mandatory for communicative practices to be committed to the norm of reciprocity. Traditional global powers could foster such practices by apologizing and compensating for past wrongs. This would clearly help reconciliation.


Similarly, you argue that, under these lenses, international politics should be understood as a struggle for recognition as equal partners within the society of states. This analogy is very promising. In this way, you try to leave aside the dimension of mere interest in material goods and economic gains. Could you expand this conceptual category? Recognition is both a pre-condition that makes interaction possible and a result of communicative interaction, I guess. Would you differentiate the two levels? Maybe, I speculate, first rising powers demand recognition as equal partners; then, as communicative actors with distinctive claims, they struggle for the recognition of their intrinsic diversity with respect to the existing world-order.

That’s indeed a helpful way of thinking about recognition. At a basic level an agent must recognize another agent as one that has – to use Rainer Forst’s apt terminology – a basic right to justification. The recognition of that right requires agents to provide one another with an appropriate justification for the way in which they behave vis-à-vis one another. In addition, practices of communication are constituted by much more specific claims for recognition that can be of an empirical or a normative nature. These claims will often touch upon the particular, ‘ethical’ or ‘thick’ self-understandings of individuals and groups. So recognition at this level means understanding, appreciating, and tolerating the multiple ways in which individuals and groups are radically different. I contend that – mutatis mutandis – this differentiation also applies to socio-political relations at the international level: that is, at this level, state officials and other relevant political actors must recognize each other both as equal and as different.


A traditional objection to these pluralistic accounts is the idea that the multiplication of viewpoints undermines the efficacy both of international political discourses and of solutions to situations of disagreement. How would you respond to this argument? Would you endorse some sort of epistemic threshold among the decision-makers and the set of possible solutions, like the respect for human rights or sustainability?

If the terms of communicative engagement are more equitable, then that can render the achievement of a consensus or a compromise more difficult, that’s correct. However, I contend that the solutions that arise from more equitable discourses will tend to be more stable because they are more likely to be regarded as legitimate solutions. In addition, there are certain global norms such as the prohibition of genocide that might already constitute an outcome of global public reasoning. Consequently it seems superfluous to deliberate about the validity of such global norms again and again. But of course it is important that there is always sufficient room for the contestation as to how these global norms are interpreted and applied within particular cases.


So-called rising democratic powers are not in good health. Brazil, India and South Africa are all experiencing different forms of autocratic political power domestically, while growing their area of influence at the international level thanks to increasing sympathy for the desire to counter the hegemony of established powers in international affairs. Again, this tension casts attention on the action of international organizations and CSOs as fundamental vectors for keeping democratic practices inside and outside rising democratic states. Do you think that these pressures can undermine the credibility of rising democracies in the construction of an international democratic discourse?

It is certainly the case that domestic democratic deficits within rising powers have negative effects on the establishment of more democratic international arrangements. Under such circumstances it is less likely that rising powers’ representatives will adequately represent and articulate the concerns of their population. Hence, it is very unfortunate that the democratic credentials of countries like Brazil and India are currently suffering. Yet, generally speaking, the citizens of rising powers like Brazil and India are strongly committed to democratic norms. I am confident that this social ethos will render these countries more democratic in the long run.


If you had to imagine feasible institutional arrangements that would be supportive of more democratic international discourse, would you go for something like a poliarchy of increasingly general deliberative spaces? Or, would you strengthen deliberative procedure within existing international organizations? Don’t you think that, by going in this direction, the very practice of democracy in the states would be reduced to the selection of good representatives?

I believe that democracy across borders requires taking steps in both directions. That is, international organizations need to be reformed so as to render them more inclusive and deliberative. Among other things, this means that they must provide more spaces for contestation from civil society actors. As this is not enough, it is also necessary to create further transnational deliberative spaces such as those that institutions like the World Social Forum already provide. These spaces should generate communicative power: a power that challenges the ways in which international and supranational organizations go about identifying, analyzing and solving problems.


Are we ready for this?

I am afraid that we lack a sufficient amount of transnational solidarity and that therefore many of us fail to participate more meaningfully in such spaces. The so-called digital revolution might have some potential for supporting more democratic transnational arrangements. However, it also has many pitfalls. I think of the ways in which commercial and geopolitical interests structure our digital interactions. In addition, we need to radically re-think our practices of democratic education. These practices focus too narrowly on turning persons into good citizens of their particular states rather than into good citizens of the world.

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About Corrado Fumagalli

Corrado Fumagalli

Corrado Fumagalli is a postdoctoral research fellow in Comparative Political Theory at LUISS. He obtained a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan. Corrado graduated from the London School of Economics and the University of Milan with master’s degrees in Political Theory and Philosophy respectively. Corrado has held visiting positions at the Centre for the Study for Developing Societies (New Delhi), the Cluster of Excellence “Normative Orders” at the University of Frankfurt and the Political Science Department at Brown University. Meanwhile, he has been a researcher and an external consultant for EY, Feltrinelli Foundation, IOM-China and the Lokniti-Centre for Comparative Democracy. His research interests include: pluralism, multiculturalism and integration policies, political inclusion, migration policy, the right to stay, skilled migration, brain drain, return and readmission, South-South cooperation and the changing landscape of development assistance.

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