Author's Response to GTI Roundtable Global Government
An exchange on the essay Global Government Revisited

Luis Cabrera

It is a rare privilege to be involved in a dialogue like this, not least for the insights to be gained from such accomplished theorists and practitioners. It is even more of a privilege be in the position of responding to their very thoughtful engagement with my own claims for institutional alternatives beyond the nation-state. In this response essay, I will first clarify the fundamentally instrumental nature of my claims and show how that should help answer some concerns raised about possibilities for regional and global democracy. I will then discuss concerns about whether my argument takes sufficient account of global diversity and more local belongings and governance, and also whether less formalized alternative models of global coordination would be preferable. I close with thoughts on possible global citizen actions which are implied by many of the contributions to the dialogue.

The Instrumental Nature of the Core Argument

The argument I presented for deep global political integration and global democratic practices is primarily instrumental. It sees democratic political institutions as potentially important tools for promoting individual rights protections. There are two main reasons for the focus on political institutions, including the institutions of some world government, as potential guarantors of rights. These were only implied in the article, but some of the responses lead me to believe that they should be made more explicit. The first reason is that political institutions are tasked with providing complete coverage for all in their jurisdiction. In this they are unlike private contractors, or the non-governmental and global governance organizations many respondents highlighted, which may be more selective. The second is that political institutions are uniquely tasked with ensuring full compliance from all persons with duties, including those related to adequately protecting the specified rights of all in their jurisdiction. The deepening or development of regional and ultimately global institutions is advocated as a potentially important means of promoting protections of key social, political, civil, and economic rights for more persons, in a global system whose current structure tends toward a gross underfulfillment of such rights.

Participatory rights, along with rights to expression, assembly, ombuds, and judicial challenge familiar from current constitutional democracies, are also instrumentally valued. They provide mechanisms of accountability and important incentives for power holders to better consider the interests and rights of constituents, and to help ensure that political institutions actually do work to promote and protect their rights. Thus, the model is not one where, to use one commenter’s words, “a global state would reach down from its high perch to protect each human’s rights.” Rather, it is one where individuals would have some robust means of publicizing and pressing rights claims in relation to co-citizens and political leaders at all levels. In that sense, it is in accord with Joan Cocks’s view that broader institutions would not automatically practice ethical or human-centered governance. Political struggle would remain the norm, but—if broader and deeper political integration proved feasible—it would be a broader struggle which could increase the leverage of those whose interests are routinely neglected in the current global system.

Such an instrumental approach should be compatible with the highly sophisticated, state-weighted voting formula that Joseph Schwartzberg has developed for his World Parliamentary Assembly proposal and discusses in his response.1 My presumption is that a genuinely defensible ideal or end-state system would feature something much closer to one person, one vote. But near-term compromises which reflect some of the current balances of power and wealth among states might be instrumentally justifiable, if they significantly increased possibilities for oversight, accountability, and much broader input moving forward. In relation to the related concern about diluted representation in very large global constituencies, I would reinforce with Andreas Bummel the importance of subsidiarity: some more local issues are appropriately addressed through local governance, but truly global issues require global coordination and decision making. And, as in very large states—India, for example, has some 815 million eligible voters—individuals do not typically expect to exert direct policy influence on such large-scale issues, but they can join with others in efforts to influence decisions. This by no means guarantees effective or fair influence, but a model which would aim at ultimately giving all some concrete standing as global citizens should be more promising than the current one of highly exclusionary global negotiation conducted with little publicity and few channels of contestation.

Neo-imperialism, the Local, and Cosmopolitan Humility

Richard Falk has for more than fifty years provided inspiration and careful arguments for more “humane global governance.”2 In his response, he raises significant challenges concerning the diversity of beliefs in the face of claims for universal human rights:

I would be more persuaded by Cabrera’s vision of the future if he dealt with the existential challenges posed by deeply entrenched adverse beliefs, values, and structures that make his desired future seem in the end to be more dream than prospect. Yet maybe Cabrera is right to posit a hopeful vision of the future without its pull on the moral imagination losing all credibility by being dragged through the swamps of political reality.

For Falk, failing to engage with the politics of global diversity and disagreement risks making an account of institutional transformation irrelevant. I strongly agree. In fact, I see it as imperative to spend as much time as possible directly investigating the salient contexts. When, as Falk observes, I speak of unauthorized migrants as enacting a form of “global civil disobedience,” it is because migrants themselves made me aware of this possibility. For a book on global citizenship and national belonging, I spent some five years interviewing more than 260 unauthorized migrants, border agents, civilian border patrollers, and migrant rights activists in Mexico, the United States, and Europe.3 I wanted to understand as deeply as possible the conflicting moral claims and viewpoints in play—including the deeply entrenched nationalist beliefs of those US citizens who belted on pistols and spent their vacation time scouting for unauthorized migrants at the Arizona-Sonora border.

Unauthorized migrants, I concluded, challenge the exclusionary norms of a sovereign states system as few actors can. They starkly highlight ways in which especially the economic rights pledged to all in binding treaties signed by the large majority of countries remain available to relatively few. Falk notes that such migration can create deep tensions in the system, and for me that is very much the point—it can create a border-hardening backlash, but also the realization that the economic forces partly driving such migration demand more attention. The movement of persons can also, as Daniele Archibugi notes, highlight inequities in current regimes for distributing those migrants and especially refugees received in regions such as Europe.

Some skeptics suggest that human rights doctrine simply represents a form of domination exercised by powerful Western countries in the 1940s and continuing today, or worry about the impact on the self-determination of peoples—in particular indigenous peoples. These are significant issues, and my current book project is centrally concerned with how a rights-based argument for global political integration might give due regard to more local beliefs and attachments. I frame this as a search for “cosmopolitan humility.”4 For core insights, I turn to the work of B.R. Ambedkar, India’s Constitutional architect and revered symbol of Dalit (formerly “untouchables”) social struggle. Ambedkar was insistent from the earliest phase of his public career (ca. 1919–56) that Dalits’ universal “human rights” must be recognized and upheld. He inspired current efforts by the Dalit activists noted in the initial article to enlist UN human rights bodies in pressuring the Indian government on caste issues. Ambedkar’s contemporary and correspondent, W. E. B. Du Bois, fought in much the same way against racial discrimination in the United States, including approaching the newly created UN in the mid-1940s with exhaustive documentation of the repression of African Americans and a call for action.

It is by studying Ambedkar’s work, and by conducting interviews with some fifty Dalit activists and those they serve around India, that I have sought to gain a better understanding of how universal rights standards can figure in more local struggles, and how more developed global institutions could appropriately support those struggles. I have also interviewed more than two dozen government officials and others from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to better understand their claims that the Dalit activists are simply disloyal national citizens intent on “Breaking India” with the help of neo-imperialist Western forces. Similarly, I have interviewed members of the United Kingdom Independence Party about their Brexit claims for national self-determination for “indigenous Britons,” and against admitting Turks to the European Union, for reasons of “cultural fit.” In Istanbul and Brussels, I have sought to understand secular Turks’ claims against their own increasingly fundamentalist religious government, and the hopes they once had for reinforcing their own rights through closer European integration.

The model emerging is inspired directly by Ambedkar, who sought to put India’s immensely diverse cultural, linguistic, and caste-divided groups into relations of political humility: formal citizen equality within shared democratic institutions. Humility I understand (with reference to extensive recent literatures in psychology and philosophy) not as plain deference to authority or competing moral claims, but as an acknowledgment of the equal moral standing of others, an openness to input from them, and an intellectual modesty about the finality and accuracy of the moral and empirical claims one can offer, including on the final shape of rights to be enshrined in constitutions or legislation. A similar ideal of cosmopolitan political humility would seek to promote the recognition of equal standing, participation, and reciprocity across borders in the near term, while also seeking to expand institutional mechanisms of suprastate input and participation, and especially accountability to the vulnerable within states, over the longer term.

Thus, the model does not advocate the summary imposition of some fully realized set of political institutions over the entire world, were that somehow feasible. Rather, it entails a thoroughgoing commitment to intellectual modesty about principles and institutions, and an incremental and dialogic approach to global institutional integration and reform that could appropriately promote rights protections. Nothing in the approach dictates a rejection of local innovations, per the concern rightly raised by Arturo Escobar. In fact, the Latin American innovations he highlights could be important sources of insight for developing more cosmopolitan local governance—as a recent account focused on Medellín, Colombia, emphasizes.5

Alternatives to World Government

A fully integrated global political system is held up as a long-term aim, but it is a prima facie or provisional aim, consistent with the core instrumentality of the argument. If, for example, the laboratories of regional integration (European Union, African Union, Mercosur, Caribbean Community, ASEAN, etc.) somehow prove to have deep and recurring problems with stability or cohesion, or if they somehow weaken rights protections more than enhance them over time, that would be reason not to support further integration. Or, if expansive global integration, even in the powers-limited form I have advocated, ultimately threatens to harm rights much more than protect them, it should be rejected. In this sense, the incremental instrumentalism of the approach is a strength—it presumes and encourages institutional dialogue and experimentalism over a long period of time, in part because it presumes that identifying and developing a system which actually would reliably protect the rights of all persons in the world is a very long-term project.

Lucie Edwards, gives emphasis to the importance of global governance networks, including some centrally featuring non-governmental or international civil society organizations. The instrumental approach I am advocating would very likely endorse this and other approaches, such as global networks of cities, as means of strengthening individual rights protections, and as consistent with a more integrated global system. Such integration, at the regional level and gradually the global, should provide myriad opportunities for promoting the benefits the respondents highlight, including sharing local knowledge, developing insights that can be shared as global public knowledge, and multiplying cooperative connections between cities and regions. I would still, however, want to raise concerns about a global governance or networked city model as an end-state aim. This is because such frameworks do not seek to provide full rights coverage for all individuals, or to provide mechanisms by which adequate compliance with corresponding duties could be achieved. Thus, while I would see many of these proposals as noteworthy and practical contributions, I would not see them as comprehensive possible solutions to the problem of massive rights underfulfillment in the current system.

Another alternative suggested is to the global market economy, or capitalist system, presumed by my model. George Liodakis, for instance, raises concerns about the dominance of global capital. In fact, my supposition is that global capital’s voracious appetite for new and bigger markets will provide much of the motive force for driving forms of global integration. As cosmopolitan democrats such as Archibugi and David Held have long argued, global trade and related global economic integration can figure strongly in demands for political input and ultimately integration from below. I see it as continually creating pressures for more inclusive decision making, and for more political control over economic and related outcomes still very much influenced by the neoliberal economic model. Over time, trans-state efforts at expanding inclusion and input could help to develop the global consciousness that Allen White and Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen identify as crucial to advancing any global political framework. A glimpse of the shape this might take is offered in the globalized “anti-globalization” activism of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Finally, I presume that increasing integration would make it increasingly possible to address persistent global problems such as nuclear weapons proliferation. I of course agree with Andreas Bummel, Joseph Schwartzberg, and others that such problems are immediate existential threats to humanity. However, while we can point to progress in the reductions of stockpiles since the Cold War, I am cautious about claims that the weapons could be fully eliminated in the absence of some scheme of deep integration, under which every existing and potential weapons holder has some meaningful assurance of security after elimination. It’s hard to envision a near-term scenario where that is possible, but if longer-term deep integration is possible, it would seem more feasible.


A great deal more could be said, and I have profited from reading all of the responses. I will close with a brief reinforcement of the instrumental nature of the argument and its implications for near-term action. The imperative is to strengthen rights protections for individuals, and this opens a vast range of actions that could be undertaken by those seeking to act as global citizens. One way to view such action is as an attempt to help provide those protections that would be in place under global institutions which actually did seek to provide robust rights coverage for all. I discussed some representative actions in the 2010 global citizenship book, including donations targeted to effective and transparent aid organizations; domestic advocacy for more humane and liberal migration and migrant-integration regimes; admission and integration of refugees; and support for deeper and more accountable regional integration. The contributions to this dialogue have offered many more practical and indeed inspiring ideas about actions that those seeking to engage in practices of global citizenship can take.

1. Joseph Schwartzberg, Creating a World Parliamentary Assembly: An Evolutionary Journey (Berlin: Committee for a Democratic UN, 2012).
2. Richard Falk, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).
3. Luis Cabrera, The Practice of Global Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
4. Luis Cabrera, The Humble Cosmopolitan: Rights, Diversity, and Trans-State Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018).
5. Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz, “Global Justice at the Municipal Scale: The Case of Medellín, Colombia,” in Luis Cabrera, ed., Institutional Cosmopolitanism (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018).

Luis Cabrera
Luis Cabrera is Associate Professor at Griffith University and author of The Humble Cosmopolitan: Rights, Diversity, and Trans-state Democracy.

Cite as Luis Cabrera, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Global Government," Great Transition Initiative (October 2017),

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