“I was told that I once was the youngest professor in Germany for a time,” says Michael Zürn about his meteoric entry into the academic world. In 1993, he became professor of international and transnational relations, including peace and conflict research, at the University of Bremen – just two years after he earned his Ph.D. In his mid-thirties, he benefited from the reunification of Germany, he says with a sly smile: “The appointments in the new federal states brought an incredible amount of dynamism into play.”
Michael Zürn is still a professor; he has been teaching at the Free University of Berlin since 2004. Since then, he has also headed the Global Governance Department at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). Together with 25 colleagues, he conducts research on the question of how politics can be organized on the global stage – or rather, where it fails. “Institutionalism has taken a few blows lately,” Zürn says, for example, about the school of thought that has accompanied him since his doctoral thesis.
Cosmopolitans versus Communitarians
Because one of their basic assumptions is that governments have an interest in cooperation and establishing international institutions due to mutual dependencies. But these institutions have faced a double challenge for some years, Zürn analyzes: “On the one hand, they have too little influence, and on the other, too much.” Too little, in the sense that they are too weak to effectively regulate climate change or financial markets. “And too much, in the sense that significant parts of society reject these institutions.”
In a globalized world, where important decisions are often made in EU, NATO or IMF bodies, many people have the feeling that they no longer have a voice. Populists of all stripes and governments of some countries would exploit this feeling and demand the abolition of these organizations. “This is one of the core issues of the dispute along this new line of conflict between cosmopolitans and communitarians,” Zürn explains.
The problem of the Unanimity Rule
As a spokesperson for the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script,” the 63-year-old focuses extensively on the challenges liberal democracies have to face. And with possible solutions: Zürn believes international institutions like the EU need to become more democratic. But it is a dilemma to have to reach consensus on EU reforms with EU opponents, he says. “In the meantime, even former advocates of this system like Germany or France are realizing: it’s a problem if there’s someone who always says no.”
Yet, constitutional reform is particularly necessary at present. But Zürn can also imagine scenarios in which changes become possible: “I don’t want to rule out at all that we will end up in situations where the pressure becomes so great that even people like Orbán and Kaczyński realize: We have to build our own European defense capability.” And that capability, he says, is now really hard to imagine with the Unanimity Rule. Paul Meerkamp