The severity and far-reaching implications of these unresolved issues suggest global civil society may indeed have reached a critical juncture. Global civil society actors can no longer avoid taking a position on violence for just causes, but if they are to assert themselves in the name of civil society they can hardly avoid contributing to the creation of institutions globally that are equivalent to those that sustain civil society within states. Global governance is then not an optional interest for civil society – its very future, globally and nationally, depends on it. Indeed, global civil society has to engage in profound self-examination, the importance of which extends beyond itself and to the international community at large. The global conditions for its own continued existence may even be those for the survival of humankind.
Michel Foucault, speaking in 1981, heralded the emergence of an ‘international citizenry’ (quoted in Keenan 1987: 22), exemplified by Amnesty International and others, which had created a new right, that of private individuals to intervene in the order of international politics and strategies, to uproot the monopoly over reality previously held by governments.
For those who view deliberation and dialogue as central to democracy, this strife is troubling. Yet it need not spell the futility of democratic practice at the global level. Indeed, this contentious international reality closely resembles the raucousness of democratic politics within nations. The diversity of values in contemporary societies, and their proponents’ passion for them, mean that staid debate signals either an issue’s triviality – or the subtle workings of hegemonic power. Instead, what cases like the global small arms and light weapons contest suggest are problems with deliberative democracy theory, both empirically and normatively. Clashes are endemic not just to gun control, but to any number of other global issues, from climate change to family planning. Democratic practice, difficult enough at the global level, must accommodate these profound divergences and the brawling tactics they spur. In turn, democratic theorists must use new tools to understand these realities and strengthen global politics in the face of profound disagreement. While some may cover their ears and wring their hands at the din, it is and always has been a hallmark of political debate. Indeed, as Chantal Mouffe (2005) argues, such conflict is the essence of the political both in domestic and in global arenas.
The initial point of such an initiative is to establish a distinct and exclusive space for global civil society within the larger confines of the United Nations. If established so as to be a conduit for grass-roots priorities in various locales around the world, its challenge to governmental and market-oriented thinking would likely be vivid and illuminating. For this reason alone, the proposal is threatening to the statist establishment and nationalist consciousness, and is currently not under serious consideration. The experience in the 1990s with global civil society activism at major UN policy conferences gave leading states an unwelcome taste of global democracy, causing a backlash that can be understood only as anti-democratic, that is, as opposed to conferring status and allowing voice to the representatives of global civil society. This backlash has a paradoxical dimension, given the vigorous engagement of these very same states in the promotion of democracy and democratic values at the national level, and their accompanying rationale about thereby promoting regional and global security communities.