Hilton and Barnett on Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism

Hilton and Barnett discuss the challenges to democracy and an agenda for democratic action in an era beset by fears of terrorism:

Isabel Hilton and Anthony Barnett are editors of the openDemocracy.net website, an attempt to create an innovative, global media space in which questions of democracy can be discussed and world events analysed. Here, they state the aims of their website and what they mean by democracy in terms of the challenges of globalisation and terrorism:

The end of the cold war in 1989 opened the way for the extension of democratic government to many countries around the world. Now, terrorism, fundamentalism and the imposition of the neo-liberal form of globalisation threaten to halt and even reverse this process. Democracy is under attack from without, and, even more insidiously, from within …

Democracy remains the foundation of human freedom, human security and even human survival in the 21st century. But if this is to continue to be true, these new challenges require a new response: to strengthen the principles and values of democracy newly relevant so that they may engage with the changes taking place across the world …

Terrorism is barbaric, immoral and indefensible. But in itself it is rarely a threat to the continued existence of a democracy unless that democracy connives in the damage. Terrorists can frighten, maim and kill our citizens. But they cannot change our political systems. That is something we do to ourselves. It is terrorism and the response to terrorism that threatens democracy … We must not inflate the capacities of the terrorist. The point of terror for a terrorist is exactly that – to terrorise: to spread fear and to panic peoples and their governments into behaviour that furthers the aims of the terrorist. The more democracies play along, the better it is for the terrorist …

Democracies must hold on to their moral advantage in the face of terror. Most people in the world, given the opportunity, prefer to live under a government of their choosing, buttressed by the rule of law, run by men and women whom they trust and who conduct themselves transparently, honestly and with integrity …

Those who pursue another agenda must therefore discredit democracy in order to win recruits. The challenge for democracies is to demonstrate that they are indeed morally based forms of government, true to their principles … Failure to keep to our democratic principles enables extremists to persuade their recruits that democracies are hypocritical, disguising a lack of principle beneath empty rhetoric.

Leaders who undermine the central attributes of their own democracies – especially its foundation, the rule of law and equal access to justice – and who conspire to permit the use of torture, extraordinary rendition, arbitrary detention, detention without trial and extra-judicial murder, are themselves acting as recruiting-sergeants for terrorist organisations …

The challenge of fundamentalism makes it all the more important to distinguish the open politics of democracy and human rights from a narrow definition of voting and a majority rule which may lead to majority tyranny.

The institutional and legal principles of democracy are universal:

* the rule of law and equal access to justice

* guarantees of human and civil rights that are upheld and independently monitored

* free and fair elections involving a genuine competition of ideas, permitting consensual, non-violent changes of government

* freedom of speech, press and media

* healthy, autonomous civil society institutions and networks, independent of the state

* accountability of authority and transparency of decisions

* entrenched property and economic rights

* social justice and basic security

* an ethos of dialogue, questioning, trust, and moral awareness

* widespread, free access to the information needed to discuss, scrutinize, make choices about and uphold all these components of a democratic society.

Behind these are the core values of democracy:

* the political equality of all citizens

* open deliberation before decision-making so that all can voice their interests and concerns

* a high degree of citizen participation in the processes of democracy, that respects and encourages the different views of others

* a pluralism of institutions and the independence of critical voices that maintain the long-term health and openness of democratic societies …

Democracy is a form of anti-fundamentalism; its wisdom and openness resist monolithic certitudes. In times of rapid and hurtful change, growing inequality and the erosion of national authority by global powers, the appeal of fundamentalist doctrines demands a steady refusal not to reply in kind. When sanctions and force have to be used, their application should be limited and their character must be one of policing not conquest. A human security approach is needed to respond to the grim realities of genocide and tyrannical repression. Violence must be a last resort, used only within a clear legal and accountable framework …

The way in which globalisation has undermined peoples’ belief in democratic self-government is familiar. This is the age of democracy, yet the democratic claim of universal equality of worth is mocked by the intensification of global inequalities …

The reach of multinational corporations; the influence of a few powerful states and of opaque international financial institutions; the weakness of the United Nations as a force for positive government; the remoteness of the governance of the European Union; the mendacity, cynicism and populism of the global media; the awesome threats of climate change – all combine to undermine the citizens’ faith in the efficacy of democratic government …

Today, there is confusion about the meaning of globalisation. Its most ardent advocates in the past two decades have tended to conflate two quite separate ideas: globalisation as the extension of communications and relationships around the world, assisted by technology; and globalisation as the ultimate victory of neo-liberal economics, a process that, its advocates argue, will diminish the importance of local politics and culture and lead to a world in which the major decisions are left to the market.

These are separate ideas. Whilst it would be foolish to argue against the first, the second is very much open to question. Much that is positive flows from global trade and development but the history and experience of globalisation suggests that, far from diminishing the importance of local politics and cultures, globalisation stimulates them. Nation-states do not disappear and local cultures react strongly to the perceived imposition of one model. The challenge for democrats is to learn to use the first model of globalisation as a tool for developing new forms of democracy and improving the ones we have.

Information technology is one aspect of globalisation that is giving citizens everywhere an unparalleled capacity to do just this: to communicate, to witness and to exchange ideas and experience. The global justice movement is as much a product of our time as the World Trade Organisation.

As Tom Nairn puts it, a ‘democratic warming’ can be felt, growing outside the established institutions and old regimes of top-down democracy.


Hilton, Isabel, and Anthony Barnett. 2005. ‘Democracy and open Democracy.’ London: open Democracy.


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