Internationalizing National Politics: Lessons for International Organizations

20 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2007

See all articles by Gregory H. Fox

Gregory H. Fox

Wayne State University Law School


Much recent scholarship has critiqued the "undemocratic" nature of international organizations (IOs). Legitimate political authority, it is argued, requires a popular mandate. IOs, which exercise increasingly broad powers over a diverse set of policy objectives, derive their authority instead from the consent of their member states. Democratic theory would view this authority as suspect for multiple reasons: individuals have no role in granting consent; more powerful states have privileged positions within IOs (such as veto power on the UN Security Council), thus further diminishing the role of individuals in less powerful states; and consent is usually given in treaties, which are quite difficult to renounce via the normal mechanisms of democratic politics. Building on these critiques, some scholars have issued proposals to "democratize" IOs, either by allowing popular access to existing organizations or by creating new organizations, such as a "Peoples' Assembly," dedicated specifically to injecting popular views into international discourse.

This article asks whether the international community's prior experience with democracy promotion holds any lessons for these proposals. A wide range of norms and institutions now promotes democratic reforms within states. And democratic states are increasingly privileged in their international relations. This article argues that while this state-level experience introduced democratic principles into international law, and was therefore an essential foundation for the current debate over IOs, it nonetheless bodes ill for the IO claims. First, national democracy promotion has been directed overwhelmingly toward developing countries of the global south. Efforts to democratize IOs, however, will encounter organizations dominated by powerful developed states. Second, the normative commitment to democracy that underlies most of the efforts at state-level reform is simply not present for international organizations. This normative gap undoubtedly reflects a lack of political theory arguments explaining why popular input into IOs is necessary to their legitimacy.

Finally, the nature of the "community" to be democratized is much less clear than in the case of national politics. The constituent public of a state government is its citizens, and democratic theory provides principles of legitimacy, now arguably embedded in international law, that link policy-making to popular consent. The constituent public of an international organization, on the other hand, is its member states. The law of international institutions, both generally and the specific constitutional law of each individual organization, provides a series of mechanisms by which member states may hold the organization accountable. To argue that international organizations ought to be "accountable," therefore, begs the question, "accountable to whom?"

Suggested Citation

Fox, Gregory H., Internationalizing National Politics: Lessons for International Organizations. Widener Law Review, Forthcoming; Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 07-28. Available at SSRN:

Gregory H. Fox (Contact Author)

Wayne State University Law School ( email )

471 Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States

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