Leif Lewin, 2119: The Year Global Democracy Will be Realized (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012), 324 pp.

Reviewed by Mariana S. Mendes, European University Institute

Leif Lewin’s 2119: The Year Global Democracy Will Be Realized is not, as the title might suggest, a work of political fiction. Rather, it is an attempt to bring attention to the need for a long-term perspective as opposed to short-term solutions which, out of pragmatism, dismiss what, according to the author, should be the ultimate aim: global democracy. While recognizing that it constitutes a utopian goal, Lewin emphasizes that it is “no more utopian than it was on the national level when the idea of citizens’ accountability was originally presented” (275). The reasoning behind the title is precisely that it took two hundred years to implement democracy within the nation-state following the emergence of democratic theories and, therefore, it might only take another two hundred years for a democratic world order to emerge if one takes the Treaty of Versailles as a baseline for calculations.[1]

Flags in Geneva at night

Palais des Nations, Geneva
Attribution: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Joining the cohort of scholars who have engaged with the topic of global democracy over the past two decades, Lewin distinguishes himself by mounting a fierce critique of those who defend other, more pragmatic, means of promoting greater accountability in world politics. The problem with such approaches, according to Lewin, is that they do not involve an application of the classical conception of democracy to the global level. Indeed, he clearly and consistently advocates for an allocation of the principles of political equality and electoral accountability to world politics.

In particular, Lewin takes issue with how the concept of accountability has been adapted by political scientists who, rejecting global democracy as unfeasible, focus instead on the need to prevent corruption and abuses of power in international politics through more pragmatic accountability methods. In fact, the initial impetus to write this book, as Lewin acknowledges in the preface, came as a result of Robert Keohane’s assertion that, in order to effectively improve accountability in world politics, one has to abandon the domestic analogy which supports the belief that meaningful accountability has to entangle popular elections.[2] To this, Lewin vehemently responds that to abandon the domestic analogy is to abandon the democratic tradition itself. He insists that to remove from the concept of accountability the right of people to hold the governors to account is a form of concept stretching (152).

Both practical and normative considerations underpin Lewin’s vehement support for global democracy. On the one hand, the increasing interconnectedness of nation-states and the growing number of concerns that transcend national borders renders current patterns of governance inadequate and unrepresentative. For the process of globalization to be managed peacefully and democratically, the argument goes, a new form of governance is required. On the other hand, the principle of the equal moral worth of individuals backs the principle of political equality at the global level. According to Lewin, the only way to ensure “the equal right of all to exert influence over the conditions of daily life” (166), is through electoral accountability at the global level, defined as the capacity of ordinary citizens to elect and dismiss their leaders.

Lewin’s book is roughly divided into two main parts. In the first section, he goes through what he considers to be the seven alternative/pragmatic modes that have been said to ensure accountability in world politics: “pluralistic accountability,” “output legitimacy,” “external accountability,” “regulation,” “deliberation,” “exit” and “legal accountability”. While one would initially expect the author to engage with these principles on a normative level, Lewin opts for an empirical analysis. He focuses on the various international institutions that have been guided by these principles with the ultimate aim of assessing whether they have yielded the intended results. To each principle he associates one institution assigning, for instance, the League of Nations to pluralistic accountability; the United Nations to output legitimacy; and the European Union to regulation. Lewin proceeds to describe how these institutions came about and how their guiding principles, despite being more or less successfully implemented, constitute a poor substitute for electoral accountability. To give one example, he criticizes the focus of the United Nations and political scientists alike on output legitimacy (the achievement of concrete outcomes) to the detriment of input legitimacy (making internal procedures more democratic). Since democracy is not only about “ruling for the people” but, more importantly, “ruling by the people,” an exclusive focus on output legitimacy allows no space for citizens’ participation and therefore cannot ensure accountability as he understands it.

18th session of the Human Rights Council

18th Session of the Human Rights Council
Attribution: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

There are, however, several problems with Lewin’s chosen method. First of all, the suitability of the seven pragmatic accountability methods to the particular institutions they were identified with is not as self-evident as the author assumes. If output legitimacy might have been a guiding principle at the time of the creation of the United Nations, it is hard to tell whether other principles – such as pluralistic accountability – were not as well. Secondly, by analyzing one single institutional experiment for each principle, little can be concluded in terms of its efficacy; the problems of one particular institution might be the result of a wide range of factors that go beyond their guiding principles. Thirdly, it is far from evident how research on institutions helped the author gain analytical leverage. Did he need to devote twenty pages to the United Nations in order to conclude that output legitimacy should not substitute electoral accountability? Or was it necessary to go through the history of the creation of the International Criminal Court to make the point that legal accountability is not a replacement but a prerequisite for electoral accountability?

In general, the analysis would have offered more if it had been more focused on the normative level and less on the empirical one. In other words, it would have been stronger if the author had further developed what each pragmatic principle actually is about, their flaws and strengths and how they relate or can be complemented with electoral accountability. The closest that Lewin gets to this is in the conclusion of his first part, where he associates each pragmatic accountability method with some more general values that are important to democracy – such as implementation, legitimacy, transparency, participation and the rule of law – but which are only relevant when part of a larger democratic package which includes, obviously, electoral accountability.

In the second part of this publication, Lewin critically engages with four different models for global governance—federalism, cosmopolitanism, corporatism and stakeholder democracy—demonstrating a clear preference for the first. The main reason for this preference is in line with his previous arguments as the federalist model is the only one in which global and equal suffrage is defended. Although cosmopolitan models share some features with federalist ones, the all-affected principle—the idea that the right to vote is dependent on the extent to which one is affected by a given issue—sets them apart. They are also separated by cosmopolitans’ polycentrism—based on a complex system of multilevel governance – in which the state remains the key actor. Federalists, on the other hand, in their more idealist incarnations, advocate for a global authority that is superior to other levels of government. Although Lewin does not provide the reader with any detail of how this model would look like in practice, he mentions that it would entail a reformed United Nations as a sovereign, supranational actor, but that only issues that are global in nature would be handed at a global level. As for corporatist and stakeholder models, both are criticized on the grounds that to abide by the intensity principle, which argues that the right to vote is dependent on how intensively one is engaged with an issue, is to reject the norm of equality.

Lewin concludes in a more positive tone, stating that valuable efforts have been made in several international institutions and that the present good does not need to be in conflict with the ultimate best. In other words, fighting corruption and abuses of power through more pragmatic accountability methods does not have to be in conflict with establishing global democracy in the long run. What the author takes for granted, however, is the definitive desirability of global democracy. Would most citizens of today’s world be in favor of such an arrangement? Aren’t people satisfied with how their states represent them at the international level and would they not be against a transfer of power from their national states to a global institution? In addition, isn’t there a risk that a global polity might actually turn into a global tyranny? The fact that Lewin does not make any specific proposal for what such an order would look like leaves this and many other questions unanswered, such as the role that states would perform in such a system.

Finally, a more fundamental critique has to do, quite ironically, with what I consider to be a shortsighted view of accountability. Lewin focus exclusively on the citizens’ capacity to elect and dismiss their leaders; however, and contrary to Lewin’s assertions, this does not necessarily entail that citizens would have an influence over global issues. It is enough to look at the national or European level to conclude that elections boost citizens’ influence only very marginally and that other forms of accountability, such as the ones proposed by those that Lewin define as pragmatics, should form a part of the accountability package too.


[1] Assuming that the idea of a democratic world order was present at the time of the creation of the League of Nations, which is highly debatable.

[2] Robert O. Keohane, “Accountability in World Politics,” Scandinavian Political Studies 29 (2006): 85.