The reality of global public opinion

A fact that the Duterte administration has to learn to come to terms with is that there is such a thing as global public opinion. No government, no matter how popular, can command the rest of the world to “leave us alone” — and expect to be taken seriously. World opinion today will weigh in on any vital issue affecting any country, nearly as often as the opinion of that country’s citizens.

This is not intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. It is just a reality that has come with the emergence of world society. The political administration of countries remains very much the prerogative of their respective governments.  But, the performance of that function has become a legitimate subject of observation and scrutiny by interested entities other than the nationals of any particular country.

We are not only referring to the mandate of the United Nations and its agencies, or of the work of the international mass media, which are the most eloquent purveyors of global public opinion. We are also talking here of the major players in the economic system, easily the most globalized of all the function systems of modern society.  These are the international financial institutions, investment managers, global corporations, and the various credit and investment ratings agencies that routinely monitor political and economic risks in a given country or region.

Unlike citizens that must often wait for elections to make their opinions matter, global players can act almost immediately and with equally costly consequences. They can put their money into a country’s stocks in expectation of long-term growth and stability, or withdraw capital at the first sign of political uncertainty. These entities have their own researchers and their own methods of calculating risk and opportunity based on information culled from diverse sources.  They don’t rely exclusively on what the newspapers report or what politicians and political analysts say. Least of all will they take the assurances of a sitting government at face value.

Apart from the economic system, the other institutional domain that is increasingly evolving into a global system is law.  A major driving force toward the globalization of the legal sphere is precisely the growing interconnectedness of economies.  There are special arbitration tribunals that are expressly established to settle economic disputes, even if participation in such mechanisms is voluntary.  From the actual operation of such mechanisms are drawn stable norms that increasingly govern today’s global transactions. Though not compulsory, governments and private economic entities can ignore these only at the risk of being treated as outcasts.

There is, as we know, another area in which the globalization of law has made tremendous progress.  Crimes against humanity—like genocide or the systematic extermination of minority groups or persecuted peoples—have come under increasing scrutiny by the world community in recent years.  The culmination of global efforts to bring perpetrators of such crimes to justice has been the establishment of the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal that came into effect on July 1, 2002. The Philippines is a signatory to the Rome Statutes that created the ICC, and, indeed, we can proudly claim that one of our brightest legal scholars, UP law professor Raul Pangalangan, former publisher of the Inquirer, sits as a distinguished member of that Court.

Reading the Rome Statutes, one will notice that states cannot be compelled to participate in the proceedings of the ICC. This Court is therefore very much a court of last resort.  One has to prove, when one goes to the ICC, that the relevant state is unwilling or genuinely unable to investigate and prosecute these crimes. Primary jurisdiction still resides with the judicial systems of countries.  Merely initiating an investigation is subject to exacting protocols that depend very much on state cooperation. It’s not easy.

The globalization of such institutional systems is thus very much a work in progress. It is aided in no small measure by the power of global public opinion, which—not to forget—also suffers from the same center-periphery imbalances that one finds in other function systems as the economy and the law.  To understand how global public opinion is crucial to the formation of autonomous global function systems, it may be useful to review the social uses of public opinion in general.

Public opinion serves as a society’s ultimate tool of self-observation. It is, in the words of Niklas Luhmann, a vital mechanism for “rationality-checking.”  A government can be so drunk with power that it becomes oblivious to the democratic principle of separation of powers. It may, for instance, be tempted to deploy the judiciary for purely political motives. Indeed, a presidency with “Mosaic pretensions” can so overwhelm the entire bureaucracy, the legislature, and the judicial system as to waste the society’s built-in capacity for self-observation and correction.

In such instances, it is public opinion, both local and global, that alone can induce a government to do the needed self-examination.  We need to know if we’re moving in the direction of a failed state, and, if we are, what corrective measures to undertake to avert this danger. For clearly, there is something ominously wrong with the functioning of our political system when people raise the specter of impeachment against the nation’s two highest officials—less than a year after the national elections.