book cover imageChi governa il mondo?
by Sabino Cassese.
Bologna: il Mulino, 2013.
Paperback, 138 pages, $21.57.
English edition: The Global Polity: Global Dimensions of Democracy and the Rule of Law.
Sevilla: Global Law Press/Editorial Derecho Global, 2012.
Etext, free.

“‘Who gave him charge over the earth? Who laid on him the whole world?’ With these rhetorical questions, in the book of Job, Elihu means to dispel all doubt about the legitimacy of God’s conduct; for God has received the task of ruling the world from no one but his very self.” So Lorenzo Casini opens the preface to Sabino Cassese’s book, Chi governa il mondo? (Who Governs the World?). The book, an updated and enlarged translation of the English-language volume, The Global Polity: Global Dimensions of Democracy and the Rule of Law, addresses from legal, political, and sociological perspectives the position that the world is not governed by any one government—nor is it desirable that it should be.

Notwithstanding the title, however, rather than answering who should govern the world, Cassese reflects on the notion of global polity (GP) and analyzes the complex institutions that, at all levels, make up the so-called “global government whence some hope for a global governance.” The book defines GP as the entire complex of national and supranational levels, governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental levels, networks of public-private hybrid organizations, businesses, and non-governmental organizations that contribute to global governance.

The book is divided into three chapters: “The global polity,” “A just global procedure?,” and “Global standards for national democracies?” The first chapter focuses on the definition of GP, its articulation, and its features. In particular, the author identifies a few characteristics that offer a rigorous definition of GP. Of the seven characteristics pointed out by the author, three in particular are worth noting. First, GP is a “governance without a government.” That is, there is no common and uniform model that governing or regulatory bodies must follow as they would if there were truly a global polity. Instead, in every sector, these different institutions balance against one another and against individual nations and their disparate interests. Global rules of governance, as expressed through these institutions, provide the framework for how they interact. A second characteristic of GP is that there is no clear hierarchy of authority, and it does not delineate a hierarchically ordered legal space. Rather, the different governing or regulatory bodies overlap and mix. A third characteristic involves the closest thing GP gets to actual global government. These world institutions have imposed (largely Western) common principles that are recognized in GP, such as respect for democratic principles and the rule of law, the right to be informed and heard, the right to defense, the obligation to state reasons, and right of access to the courts. Admittedly, within certain nation-states, these principles might be honored more in the breach.

The second chapter discusses in great detail the different levels and governing bodies’ right to participate in decision-making procedures. The range of rights to participate in GP affects both the vertical dimension as well as the horizontal dimension of authority. The right of participation within the vertical dimension of GP applies, for example, to individuals who exercise it in national governments,and applies to national governments who exercise it in global institutions. The horizontal dimension involves national governments who are able to participate in global institutions who exercise it in other global institutions, and private citizens who exercise it in global institutions. A careful analysis of the case studies describing such a wide range of “participation” in GP pushes the author to ponder the problems that such a worldwide net of governing bodies (“reggimento globale“) poses today for global governance, and to ponder as well the importance of the concept of “transnational democracy” and whether that concept can take the requirements of the rule of law seriously.

The author devotes the third and final chapter to this theme. GP reveals a paradox: the right to participation is global, the implementing authority is national, but the courts that adjudicate disputes between those national and international authorities is global again. In other words, the principles of democracy and the rule of law are globalized following a bottom-up approach, but their compliance, albeit at a domestic level, is favored by top-down approaches. From here, the question the author tries to answer, through a series of cases, can be summed up in the question of whether global standards for democracy are a threat or an upgrade to the freedom of nations or of individuals. Although there is no single model of democracy and the democratic process cannot be compared to a machine that, once started, progresses unaided, Cassese expresses some hope that external conditioning, over time, can favor the emergence of truly democratic institutions and that, in the long run, external factors may also play the same role as internal ones. In this, scholars of GP might look to some of the reflections of that oldest supranational institution, the Catholic Church. In particular, Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, outlines the possibility for the integration of principles such as subsidiarity and the common good of individual peoples with a more formalized international governance structure.  

Flavio Felice is full professor of “History of Political Thought” at the Pontifical Lateran University and President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies (Milan-Rome)