At first sight, the very choice of the title of this book may indicate that the author, Alexandru Grigorescu, was not sure about the existence of such thing. Indeed, to be or not to be democratic is not a top concern on the internal agenda of international organizations. Therefore, Grigorescu’s fresh endeavour to find an answer to such a purposeful question is ab initio a praiseworthy academic démarche.
Grigorescu goes well beyond appearances and headlines. He proceeds to a Cartesian and rigorous analysis in a manner Descartes himself would be proud of. First, he builds his case on a right choice of criteria for assessment, based on a suitable analogy with democracy within states: (i) fair representation in decision-making; (ii) fair voting; (iii) participation of representatives from civil society in decision-making and in the implementation of decisions; (iv) parliamentary oversight of the executive; and (v) public access to information.
This axis of good is well accompanied in Grigorescu’s model by a thoughtful pick of international organizations under scrutiny: the League of Nations, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization. Together they make a fine sample of diversity in mandates, institutional structures, and distribution of power.
With these powerful tools in hand the author performs a step-by-step overview of the democratic mechanisms as they exist in practice or in the constitutions of the selected intergovernmental organizations.
In other words, Grigorescu engages the reader in a demanding but rewarding effort to lighten the dark under the lamp: to what extent is democracy practiced by those who preach it? Is there any trend in the evolution of intergovernmental organizations, from the visionary experiment of the League of Nations to the supranational impulse of the European Union, passing by the tripartite configuration of decision-making in the International Labour Organization?
The method chosen by the author being quite clever, the results are not less. The algorithm works impeccably. Grigorescu leaves no initial question without response. He starts with an elaborate introduction entitled – with useful caution and inverted comas – “Democratic” Intergovernmental Organizations. Further on, each chapter dealing with the five criteria / norms listed above (chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7) takes a measure on how the democratic norms come to shape decision-making in intergovernmental organizations.
The quantitative analyses are doubled by a historical perspective on the application of norms. The author was visibly aware that the enunciation of norms and their introduction in the constitutions of intergovernmental organizations is not self-explanatory of actual practices.
To fix the settings, Grigorescu adds to his toolbox a subtle analysis of normative pressures and strategies to defuse them. This brings the reader to a picture that is closer to a heterogeneous reality, allowing interesting conclusions.
I have no intention of depriving you of the pleasure of arriving at such conclusions. Nonetheless, I cannot resist the temptation to whet your appetite. Here are some examples. Challenge them if you can!
The great amount of power controlled by the P5 in 1945 does not explain why they allowed six non-permanent members in the United Nations Security Council. Because they held a greater proportion of the world’s power than the League, the P5 could have established even more control over the United Nations Security Council than they had over the League Council. (Fair State Participation, pp. 87-88)
The multiple cases of simultaneous change in voting rules and in the European Parliament’s power within the European Economic Community and European Union could not be explained without taking into account the normative pressures and the efforts to defuse them. (Fair Voting, p.129)
… of all great powers it was the United States, a country with one of the oldest traditions of transparency, not the United Kingdom (with a long tradition of secrecy), that spearheaded such reforms in the World Bank and even in the World Trade Organisation. (Transparency, p. 176)
Lastly, the UN member-states also challenged the pro-NGO norm by emphasizing that many NGOs were not representative entities and, therefore, their presence in an intergovernmental organization was not reflective of democracy. (Participation of Nongovernmental Actors, p. 218)
The parliamentary oversight norm was very strong among members at the establishment of the Council of Europe and the European Coal and Steel Community. [….] The fact that parliamentary bodies have spread to other intergovernmental organizations in other regions of the world, once their member states became more democratic, further supports the argument that norms have played an essential part in this particular institutional development. (Transnational Parliamentary Oversight, p. 262)
From algorithm to poetry
As there is no formal prohibition of quoting poetry in reviewing political sciences’ books, let me relay for my pleasure, and hopefully yours, some of the most quoted verses of T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, section V)
Grigorescu has indeed taken the reader on a useful journey and a minute inspection of the grounds of democracy in intergovernmental organizations. At the very end of his exploration, he comes to a somewhat surprising, but yet wise and prudent retrospective conclusion: ‘… looking back over the past two centuries, as global democratic norms have become more powerful, the general direction of the messy trends in intergovernmental organizations appears to be the same one as in the domestic realm and in all other levels of human interaction’ (p. 281).
In other words, we are back to square one, democracy in member states, i.e., places where the concept and practice of intergovernmental organizations were born.
Questions in the making
I will not question this conclusion, although the author has brought so much light under the lamp and has gauged pretty clearly the ‘messy trends’. After all, we can interpret his last lines as a light prediction: he who keeps an eye on the course of democratization processes everywhere may anticipate the future of democracy in international organizations.
The author’s modesty may explain the existence of the interrogation in the title of the book. The presence of the question mark at the beginning of the study was understandable. Its persistence at the end of the research is a promise of more.
That gives me the liberty to place new question marks on what I infer may be relevant in future research:
Do we really need more democracy in intergovernmental organizations? Do we not risk defusing the power in a manner that can be detrimental to the capacity of international organizations to act swiftly and efficiently when needed?
Is the analogy with national democratic mechanisms right? Are we dealing with the same measure of representativeness and with similar leverage in the exercise of power?
Does it make sense to design a universal Parliament? To what extent do the existing assemblies of the parliamentarians across boundaries really serve measurable purposes?
Should we continue to empower and legitimize the involvement of mushrooming crowds of non-governmental organizations of all horizons and origins in decision-making in intergovernmental organizations? If so, are we making the world more orderly and governments more accountable, or are we just transforming the international agenda into a global talk-show leaving little room for action?
Grigorescu’s tome is as scientific as political sciences can be. We, the ‘practitioners’, hope to see him continue to navigate the unchartered waters of democracy, as practiced inside intergovernmental organizations, with the same compass of high precision. I trust he can go deeper and farther under the same auspicious question mark.
Review by Petru Dumitriu