Academic Altınay: Global public opinion emerges to be significant in international affairs

Hakan Altınay

November 20, 2011, Sunday/ 13:41:00

As people's global interdependence grows quickly, global public opinion is emerging as a significant force in international affairs, according to this week's guest for Monday Talk who works on the issue of global civics.

'We are witnessing the emergence of global public opinion as a significant force in international affairs. This is happening in slow motion and much of the ancient régime seems intact, so these developments are not easy to discern, but we are not far away from a world where verdicts in the court of international public opinion are as feared and respected as verdicts in the court of law.

“We are not far away from a world where verdicts in the court of international public opinion are as feared and respected as verdicts in the court of law,” has said Hakan Altınay, author of “Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World.”

But before writing a book and touring the world to spread the idea of global civics, he learned while helping a blacksmith as a young boy in İstanbul how to respect hard work and how people define what is acceptable and unacceptable in their daily lives in relation to each other.

For Monday Talk he elaborated on the idea of global civics plus talked about humanity's responsibilities toward the seventh billionth person. He was a speaker at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada where he participated in a session on the topic of sharing global responsibility.

What would you say about the idea of global civics in a nutshell?

Our global interdependence is growing fast. Some have suggested better global governance and smart institutional design would suffice. Others, me included, argue that better global governance would help, but that would not be enough. We argue that the web of interdependencies and interactions has grown too thick for us to avoid talking about our responsibilities towards each other as common residents of our planet.

We know what civics is in a nation state. We now want to imagine global civics, and to do that we need a conversation about our responsibilities towards people who happen not to be our compatriots. Global civics refers to that constellation of rights and responsibilities we will agree on after introspection and debate.

Can global civics be effective before nation-states disappear?

Yes it can. Pointing to the existence and strength of nation-states as an impediment to better global governance is popular reasoning, but not one that I share. Nation states have proven their legitimacy and resilience. People have demonstrated over and over again that they prefer to practice solidarity with others that they share a culture, history and language with. Nation states are, by and large, effective in pooling allegiance and implementing public choices. Now it so happens that the very same people who opt to live in nation states also want their nation states to be more cooperative internationally. Surveys show when given the option between “Our nation should consistently follow international law; it is wrong to violate international law, just as it is wrong to violate laws within a country” and “If our government thinks it is not in our nation's interest, it should not feel obliged to abide by international laws,” roughly 60 percent of all the people want consistent compliance with international law, and 35 percent choose national opting out. Countries that are often assumed to be unilateralist, such as China, India, and the United States, were in line with the global trend. So nation states and more cooperation globally need not be contradictory.

‘ICC to investigate and prosecute crimes of aggression'

You argue that people's interdependence has been intensified. Where do you think this development is leading to? Do you think this gives way to more open and democratic societies?

We have all seen how financial engineering in the United States determined employment and economic growth in Bursa and every other part of the world and how carbon dioxide emissions from China affects crop yields in Konya and livelihoods in Bangladesh, Vietnam and beyond. We live in a world where an epidemic in Vietnam or Mexico or a nuclear leak in Japan can determine the state of public health halfway around the world. This level of interdependence will not necessarily lead to more democracy. In fact, unless we have something like global civics, it would lead to a backlash. At the end of the day, democracy was about enhancing our control over our lives, but we now see our lives being influenced by forces outside our countries and our control. This leads to anxiety, anger and anomie.

At the time that trains, cars and planes were invented, some people argued that those innovations would lead to a more peaceful world, yet more wars occurred. Is there a difference in today's world in relation to more advances in technological innovation and wars and peace?

Since the end of World War II and the Cold War, the world has become more and more peaceful. There are new studies by Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein on why this is. I suspect that this trend will continue, and the world's aversion to armed conflict will dissuade would-be aggressors from that path. We also have an International Criminal Court (ICC), and that the ICC will in some years be able to investigate and prosecute crimes of aggression. Therefore in the future, aggressors will not enjoy the impunity that they have for so long taken for granted.

When you say “The ICC will in some years be able to investigate and prosecute crimes of aggression,” how and when do you think this is likely to happen?

Last year in Kampala, the Review Conference of the Rome Statute agreed that after 2017, the ICC will be able to investigate and prosecute crimes of aggression. The UN Security Council will be able to start the process and more importantly the ICC prosecutor will also be able to do so on her/his own. This is very significant.

‘Turkey should become party to ICC'

One powerful state, the United States, is not a state party to the governing Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. There are other powerful actors of the international system -- like Russia, China and India -- that are in the same position. Do you see their joining the statute likely? Can the ICC be effective without the participation of such countries?

You're right: China, India, Russia and the US are not party to the ICC. Incidentally, neither is Turkey. For a country that claims to have a normative foreign policy, this is no small contradiction. Turkey is also one of the very few countries that still have not associated themselves with the Copenhagen Climate Accords. However 119 countries, including all members of the European Union, are party to the ICC. If we care about advancing global justice and this institution enough, we need to make sure that not being a party to ICC is as great a stigma as continuing the practice of slavery in the 21st century.

How sustainable do you think Turkey's policy of non-involvement in the ICC is? And what are the repercussions of this position?

I think Turkey should become party to the ICC as soon as possible. This will enhance Turkey's moral authority as an emerging power with a normative policy. We have seen Brazil and South Africa adopt similar norm entrepreneurship as a part of their national identity and foreign policy. FM [Ahmet] Davutoglu has said Turkey will review its position with regards to the ICC, and I hope that review is completed soon and with a decision to join the ICC. We will need to do it, in any event, as a part of our EU accession negotiations.

You argue that the rapid proliferation of trans-border broadcasting has made people more aware of each other's grief's and joys, and you have a number of examples of that from the pain of the victims of the great Asian tsunami to the helplessness of Palestinians. What do you expect out of this development? Is it more interdependence? If yes, what do you think it will it lead to -- more democratic organization of people or the emergence of new dictatorships?

I think what we are witnessing is the emergence of global public opinion as a significant force in international affairs. This is happening in slow motion and much of the ancient régime seems intact, so these developments are not easy to discern, but we are not far away from a world where verdicts in the court of international public opinion are as feared and respected as verdicts in the court of law.

‘Norm revolution by osmosis valid for Arab Spring'

How do you reach that point? Would you give a few examples?

Those in favor of unilateralism argue passionately that all power is hard power and that super powers are dangerous nations and should not be embarrassed to be so. They have disdain for their compatriots who do not want raw power but wanted it “sautéed in high values.” But even they admit that global public opinion gets in the way of more unadulterated use of power in today's world. With the proliferation of Al Jazeera's and Daniel Ellsberg's, this will only increase in the future.

Now that the Arab Spring is in place, what would be your argument about the proliferation of ideas through the tools of communication technology?

For centuries, women's feet were bound in China in the name of sublime beauty although this would lead to severe disabilities and disfigurement. Then, the Chinese become aware that the rest of the world considered the practice barbaric and the whole tradition ended without anyone banning it legally. I believe something similar was at play in the Arab Spring. For decades, the Arab region watched the whole world pass it by, and one day one small spark was enough to bring the whole edifice down. We may not realize this but all of us define and re-define what is acceptable and unacceptable every day. And the rest of the world takes note of shifting norms. This is partly why support for gender equality has been increasing across the world. We can call this “norm revolution by osmosis.”

There have been letters written to the seven billionth living human being that tell that human being about the difficulties of the world awaiting. There is even the Seven Billionth Person Project collecting thoughts, images, questions, songs and blessings from around the world -- for the seven billionth person. This person was born on Oct. 31 this year. What are the responsibilities awaiting that person?

I think we have some responsibilities toward the seven billionth person. The parents of the seven billionth person are members of the luckiest generation in human history. They will lead longer, healthier, more capable and more peaceful lives than any other generation before. At the same time, this encouraging state of affairs has been subsidized by cheap hydrocarbons. We are emitting more CO2 than the world can sustain… We do this because energy is too cheap. Its price does not include the cost to the world and future generations. In other words, while we enjoy the best life that world has ever offered, we refuse to pay the bill and simply leave a deferred and a compounded bill to the next generation.

‘Capitalism is difficult to like, but…'

And what does it tell us about the future of capitalist states?

Capitalism is difficult to like, but we should admit that no other system has produced the material welfare and prosperity that we currently enjoy. Again let's be sure that it is not just the top one percent that enjoys this. The median human being today lives much better than Napoleon or Genghis Khan. This does not mean capitalism should be immune from criticism. The way that Wall Street was allowed to operate with 1-to-40 leverages is scandalous. So is the practice of transfer pricing where multinationals report handsome profits, but pay negligible taxes because they are allowed to move their profits around to tax-havens. But these have to do with transparency and can be -- in fact need to be -- solved within the market economy.

The Seven Billionth Person Project was founded at Yale University in the fall of 2009. It is interesting that it is happening at a university in the United States, in one of the most capitalist economic regions. Is there any significance to this?

The United States is a place where the market economy has developed in impressive ways, and the American economy has given the rest of the world much that is new and valuable as goods and services. It is also the country that had the audacity to declare that all men are equal and have inalienable rights before anyone else. It also managed to progressively realize this extraordinary goal. The debate about how to live wisely and ethically takes places in many corners of our interdependent world, and Yale University is certainly one of the leading places where these conversations are taking place. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Yale World Fellows program where we pursued these issues.

What would you like to say about the differences between the American and European approaches to global governance?

There are some in the United States who view global governance with utter suspicion, and prefer to think that the US can solve most of its problems without any multilateral arrangements. It is getting more and more difficult to believe in this paradigm, but adherents to this world view certainly still exist. The mainstream in the US prefers ad hoc global governance. They argue that each problem is unique and requires a different solution and constellation of actors. Europeans, on the other hand, expect some commensurability in our responses to various global problems. Europeans find international law liberating, while some Americans, especially on the right, find it suffocating.


‘Conversation on global civics growing'

Global civics is being debated at universities now. Are there global partnerships, networks in spreading the idea of global civics? What do you see in the future regarding development of this idea? Is grassroots involvement possible?

There is indeed a network that is planning a joint global civics course; this will be an important step forward if we can realize it. Columbia University in New York, the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi, the New Economy School in Moscow, Sabancı University in İstanbul, Sciences Po in Paris, and the University of Oxford have joined this initiative. The book itself is being translated into Chinese, Spanish and Russian. A remarkable documentary maker, Jian Yi, is turning the idea into a documentary that is based on interviews with ordinary people in eight countries. So this is a conversation that is growing.


Hakan Altınay

He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he works on questions of constituency building and normative frameworks for enhanced global cooperation and governance. In his book, “Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World,” he and others argue that the web of cross-border interactions and interdependencies have become too thick to manage without a draft global social contract. In 2009, he was a World Fellow at Yale University. He was also the founding executive director of the Open Society Institute and the Open Society Foundation in Turkey, where he is currently the chairman of the board.

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