There is scope for debate – and innumerable newspaper quizzes – about who was the most influential public figure of the year, or which the most significant event. But there can be little doubt which word won the prize for most important adjective. 2009 was the year in which “global” swept the rest of the political lexicon into obscurity. There were “global crises” and “global challenges”, the only possible resolution to which lay in “global solutions” necessitating “global agreements”. Gordon Brown actually suggested something called a “global alliance” in response to climate change. (Would this be an alliance against the Axis of Extra-Terrestrials?)
Some of this was sheer hokum: when uttered by Gordon Brown, the word “global”, as in “global economic crisis”, meant: “It’s not my fault”. To the extent that the word had intelligible meaning, it also had political ramifications that were scarcely examined by those who bandied it about with such ponderous self-importance. The mere utterance of it was assumed to sweep away any consideration of what was once assumed to be the most basic principle of modern democracy: that elected national governments are responsible to their own people – that the right to govern derives from the consent of the electorate.
The dangerous idea that the democratic accountability of national governments should simply be dispensed with in favour of “global agreements” reached after closed negotiations between world leaders never, so far as I recall, entered into the arena of public discussion. Except in the United States, where it became a very contentious talking point, the US still holding firmly to the 18th-century idea that power should lie with the will of the people.
Nor was much consideration given to the logical conclusion of all this grandiose talk of global consensus as unquestionably desirable: if there was no popular choice about approving supranational “legally binding agreements”, what would happen to dissenters who did not accept their premises (on climate change, for example) when there was no possibility of fleeing to another country in protest? Was this to be regarded as the emergence of world government? And would it have powers of policing and enforcement that would supersede the authority of elected national governments? In effect, this was the infamous “democratic deficit” of the European Union elevated on to a planetary scale. And if the EU model is anything to go by, then the agencies of global authority will involve vast tracts of power being handed to unelected officials. Forget the relatively petty irritations of Euro?bureaucracy: welcome to the era of Earth-bureaucracy, when there will be literally nowhere to run.
But, you may say, however dire the political consequences, surely there is something in this obsession with global dilemmas. Economics is now based on a world market, and if the planet really is facing some sort of man-made climate crisis, then that too is a problem that transcends national boundaries. Surely, if our problems are universal the solutions must be as well.
Well, yes and no.