David Held, Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus

Reviewed by
Anand Bertrand Commissiong

In the wake of the 2001 attacks on the United States and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world faces two deadlocked forces. The spreading menace of worldwide terror networks represents one side of this dilemma. On the other is the mindset behind the response of the most powerful superpower in history. The reactionary logic of both means that unless some viable alternative emerges we will remain in the grip of this so-called war on terror for years, perhaps generations, to come. In this context David Held intervenes by defending cosmopolitan principles as an alternative to the stalemate. Because our contemporary world is constituted by what Held calls “overlapping communities of fate,” (p. x; 168) the solution cannot come in the form of a new bipolar conflict. The challenge then is to discredit the strategy the United States has so far pursued in its recent wars, which Held sees as the military front of the neoliberal Washington consensus that fuels the contemporary phase of globalization. At the same time, the ultimate inhumanity of terrorism as a viable form of action must also be delegitimized. It is the latter objective that poses the most significant problems for Held’s approach.

While global security concerns once again seized much of the world’s attention, understanding the legal, economic and political institutions underpinning the globalization phenomenon is critical to any analysis. The conservative Washington consensus emerged after the developmental policies of the 1960s and ‘70s failed. In the old scheme, the United Nations proclaimed that every state could “‘develop’…if only [they] would implement appropriate policies….” In so doing, all states could become “more or less equally wealthy.” (Wallerstein 123) The new globalization according to the Washington consensus maintains that open markets are key to raising all ships. Yet after two decades of this approach, the world faces deepening economic disparities as wealth increasingly concentrates in fewer and fewer hands even as the proportion of people living in extreme poverty appears on the decline. (p. 35–7) Held also sites evidence that the open market imperative may actually do more harm than good if executed too hastily. Emerging economies may actually need a period of protectionism before exposure to global free markets. Held rightly notes this should come as no surprise “since nearly all of today’s developed countries initiated their growth behind tariff barriers, and only lowered these once their economies were relatively robust.” (pp. 51–2) Furthermore, national political mechanisms that supposedly represent constituent interests are in many ways being undermined by the international and intergovernmental regulatory agencies purportedly set up to benefit all. These agencies largely escape accountability to popularly generated national will. And in many regards Held argues, the state of international law faces fundamental crises of authority and enforcement. (p. 125–32)

Much of this alarming evidence presented here has been raised by many others. (Sassen; Stiglitz) This includes Held’s own recent collaborative works. (Held and McGrew Governing Globalization; Held et al.; Held; Held and McGrew Globalization/Anti-Globalization) In this regard, Held once again provides a highly comprehensible and balanced interpretation of a great deal of complex data. What then is the alternative to the Washington consensus? What is novel in this work is that Held offers an answers to the question posed in the title of his well-known article, “Democracy: From City-State to Cosmopolitan Order?” There he suggested connections could be drawn from the dawn of democracy in the West to the modern inter-state system. In the current work, Held argues against the status-quo, and its grass-roots opposite—the radical arm of the anti-globalization movement. The neoliberal position “simply perpetuates existing economic and political systems and offers no substantial policies to deal with the problem of market failure.” On the other hand, the anti-globalization alternative Held calls “deeply naive about the potential for locally based action to resolve, or engage with, the governance agenda generated by the forces of globalization.” (p. 162)

In short, our current course will only exacerbate the already obscene inequalities while refusing to address the root causes of terror beyond a dangerously simplistic neoliberal claim that “they” hate our freedom. Held’s response to the radical anti-globalization movement is that for the foreseeable future, globalization is here to stay and any progressive strategies seeking to counter its invidious effects must involve the appropriation and transformation of existing transnational agencies so that accountability may be increased and dispersed. But this is not all. In order to increase the legitimacy and responsiveness of international law by which all of these institutions operate, international courts themselves must be fortified through the realization of cosmopolitan principles throughout the entire post-national constellation. Chief among these is the role of international law and the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

For Held, “[p]opular support against terrorism, as well as against political violence and exclusionary politics of all kinds, depends on convincing people that there is a legal, responsive and specific way of addressing their grievances.” (p. 169) Held’s prescriptions, therefore, seek to ensure that institutions will actually respond in legal, responsive and specific ways to these grievances. But this is indeed the difficulty. Because of the logic of the stalemate, neither side is willing to compromise first. For Held’s argument, both changes have to occur simultaneously. Another way of seeing the problem is to appreciate the following critical question. Is it anti-Westernism or anti-modernism that terrorists condemn? In fact, this may be what distinguishes the terrorist faction of the Palestinian movement from those who planned the September attacks and their co-conspirators in Iraq and elsewhere. Palestinian terrorism was never particularly anti-modern or anti-Western although it often expressed anti-American sentiments.

But the web of terrorist organizations that attacked the United States and that represent the most vicious aspects of the insurgency in Iraq, despite their diffuse connections, have been quite explicit in their anti-modernism. Held observes briefly in his conclusion that in the Muslim world, there seems to be an ongoing debate about how to deal with the terrorists while attempting to figure out how to encounter modernity without necessarily Westernizing. What are generally called Western values are a particular set of responses to the challenges of modernity. They are by no means uniform and this is why the disputes within Europe itself and between the United States and the more powerful states in Europe render fears of monolithic Western domination simplistic. Indeed, as Held maintains, Western Europe does offer an alternative to the Washington consensus in the particular forms of social democracy that arose there. (p. 167) But Muslim countries, like all other nation-states, have to come to terms with modernity’s political and economic forms in their own way. And they have every right to try to do so without necessarily adopting entirely western European or North American solutions. Western Europe’s experiences show that modernity poses potentially destructive challenges to traditional ways of life, but it also opens new possibilities as well. Since globalization makes isolation virtually impossible, every community will have to process globalization’s double-edged character. It is this dual aspect of the phenomenon that Held’s prescriptions do not fully appreciate. Dialogue and coalition-building are certainly important. Unfortunately, despite the recent wooing of European allies by United States administration officials, the religious hue of President Bush’s pre-modern messianism does not seem to lend itself to much of either. This current in American policy is one many beholders legitimately fear.

The challenges the authority and execution of international legal regimes face in controlling these forces illustrate further the complexities of the stalemate. As Tocqueville noted, courts in a democracy represent an un-democratic strain essential to the system’s proper functioning. The relation between natural law and democratic will, a key component of modernity, was accomplished over several hundred years partly through the compromise of political negotiation in successful national formation processes in Europe and North America. But this process in many cases also violently ruled out effectively dissolutionary elements that sought to establish smaller, autonomous units. (Tilly) Even in some Western countries these forces were not entirely pacified and still simmer. Are similar processes being repeated globally? The cosmopolitan principles Held enumerates represent a critical approach to establishing a system of reciprocity. But as Meinecke suggested, the cosmopolitan spirit of the 18th and 19th centuries could only come to rest at the national level. This was the largest form of association in which the universal, humanist values of the Enlightenment could be institutionalized. But the nation-state in this formulation is an organization that focuses political power in geographical and ideological centers. Of course, there were nay-sayers, for instance, in the American colonies, who argued an authentic, just political community could not long endure in this large, centralized form. This sentiment remains in the United States among those who oppose the ICC. Thus without the will of the United States behind it, and without American submission to its rulings, the latter will surely be no more than Hobbes’s “covenants without swords.”

The absence of an effective and legitimate enforcer of either the will of the global many or international law is the most important difference between the nation-state and the inter-state system. Held suggests Europe could develop its own rapid-reaction force as an alternative source of power to the United States. (p. 166) But distance, both physical and philosophical, also poses serious challenges to any coordinated efforts at appropriating the system of international regulatory institutions. The system is comparatively looser than the national counterparts it challenges. Held offers a multilateral vision of world order that could be instrumental in more equitably distributing any benefits that may be derived from world trade and association. This vision of dispersed, yet accountable rule is also essential in avoiding many of the violent outcomes of centralization that plagued emerging nation-states. But this vision can only be realized if some sense of world-wide solidarity, or covenant if you will, develops to take shared control of these networks. Perhaps it is the case that rapid communication and travel may serve the same function the mass communication media did in Western nation-state building. (Anderson) But if these networks are dominated by commercial interests can they be used to get the word out? Will they be yet more instruments by which Philip Bobbit’s emerging “market state” permanently cements its grip on the interstate system? (Bobbit) Held obviously holds out hope of the possibility of mitigating growing inequalities. Towards this end, his suggestions provide a valuable contribution to the task of charting a cooperative rather than coercive course.


                                            Works Referenced

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. and extended ed. New York: Verso, 1991.

Bobbit, Phillip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Held, David. Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Held, David, and Anthony G. McGrew. Globalization/Anti-Globalization. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

———. Governing Globalization: Power, Authority and Global Governance. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2002.

Held, David, et al. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Sassen, Saskia. Losing Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Spinner, Jackie, and Bassam Sebti. “Militant Declares War on Iraqi Vote.” Washington Post January 24, 2005 2005, sec. A: 1.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton, 2002.

Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital, and European States: Ad 990–1992. New York: Blackwell, 1992.

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. “Cancun: The Collapse of the Neoliberal Offensive.” Confronting Capitalism. Eds. Daniel Burton-Rose, Goerge Katsiaficas and Eddie Yuen. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2004.