Seeking Sovereignty in Europe and Iraq

Two very different efforts at "nation building" are galvanizing world attention: America's struggle to construct a viable polity in Iraq and the EU's ambitious project of making Europe into a true "Union." While many issues involved are distinct, a "democratic deficit" looms large in both undertakings. Why and what will it take to overcome it?

Sovereign regimes require a political identity. To understand this, lets reflect on a few considerations with a Rousseauian flavour. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the conflicted genius who first articulated many basic themes of modernity, from democracy through authenticity, with all their contradictory demands. He is a great thinker, whose advice is always disastrous to follow.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

The first modern, democratic revolutions transferred power from monarchs to the "nation" or the "people." But this required inventing a new kind of collective agency that could decide and act together, to which one could attribute - a la Rousseau -- a "will." This new entity requires strong cohesion, because popular sovereignty means more than simply the will of the majority.

After all, many sorts of bodies, even the loosest aggregations, can adopt majority decision-making. Suppose that during a public lecture, some people feel hot and ask that the windows be opened; others disagree. One might decide the matter by a show of hands, with the minority accepting the outcome favored by the majority as legitimate. Yet the audience might be comprised of individuals unknown to one another, without mutual concern, brought together only by the lecture.

Democratic societies, by contrast, need to be bonded more powerfully than some chance grouping. Popular sovereignty entails certain types of decision procedures--grounded ultimately on the will of the majority (restricted by respect for liberty and individual rights)--and offers a particular justification for collective decision-making. Under a regime of popular sovereignty, we are free in a way that we are not under an absolute monarch or an entrenched aristocracy.

To see why, consider such a regime from an individual's standpoint. Say that I am outvoted on some important issue. I must abide by an outcome I oppose. My will is thwarted, so why should I consider myself free? Why does it matter that it is the majority of my fellow citizens, rather than the decisions of a monarch, that is overriding my will?

Indeed, we can even imagine that a potential monarch, waiting to return to power in a coup, agrees with me on the issue in question. Wouldn't I be freer after a counter-revolution, when my will--at least on this matter--would then be put into effect?

This question is not merely theoretical. It is rarely put on behalf of individuals, but it regularly arises for sub-groups, such as national minorities, who see themselves as oppressed by majorities. Perhaps no answer can satisfy them. Whatever one says or does, they may be unable to see themselves as part of a larger sovereign people. They therefore see its rule over them as illegitimate, which is precisely the point: the logic of popular sovereignty requires an idea of collective agency based on a sense of individual belonging that is much stronger than in our lecture audience.

Of course, some extreme philosophical individualists believe that appealing to a greater collective is pure humbug, concocted to get voters to accept voluntary servitude. But without deciding this philosophical issue, we can ask: what feature of our "imagined communities" persuades people to accept that they are free under a democratic regime, even when their will is overridden on important issues?

The answer that we as individuals accept is that we are free because we rule ourselves in common, rather than being ruled by some agency that need not take account of us. Our freedom consists in having a guaranteed voice in the sovereign, in being heard and participating in making decisions.

We enjoy this freedom because of a law that enfranchises all of us, so that we enjoy this freedom together. Our freedom is realized and defended by this law, whether or not we win or lose any particular decision. This law also defines the community whose freedom it realizes and defends-a collective agency, a people, whose acting together by the law preserves their freedom.

Such is the answer, valid or not, that people accept in democratic societies. Insofar as this freedom is crucial to their identity, they identify strongly with this ongoing collective agency--the "nation" or the "people"--and hence feel a bond with their co-participants in it. Only an appeal to this kind of membership can rebut the challenge of those considering support for a monarch's or general's or provisional government's coup in the name of their freedom.

The crucial point is that regardless of who is right philosophically, it is only insofar as people accept some such appeal that the legitimacy principle underlying popular sovereignty can work to secure their consent. If identification with the community is rejected, the government will be illegitimate in the eyes of the rejecters. In short, there can be no democracy without a shared identity as participants in a common agency.

This notion--which boils down to citizenship --underscores the central challenge now posed by both the Iraqi and European projects. Simply put, are Iraqis too divided, too long oppressed, to develop anything like the sense of common identity and collective agency that popular sovereignty requires?

In some ways, much less is at stake in building a new democratic community out of the already free and prosperous European countries. But whether the "democratic deficit" on the European level be remedied also depends on whether a shared European identity can be forged out of the 25 nations that will soon make up the European Union. Both projects are audacious. Neither is guaranteed success.