Is Yuval Harari really against global democracy and global government?

Yuval Noah Harari at TEDGlobal London on June 16, 2015. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED, CC BY-NC 2.0

Introduction

In two interviews published recently on YouTube, the historian, philosopher, and bestselling author Yuval Harari has said:

“I think that you can’t have democracy, at least in the world of today, without a strong sense of nationalism.” (link)

and:

“I don’t believe in a single global government all over the world, I think it’s a bad idea. It’s not only that it won’t work, it’s really a bad idea.” (link)

Yet Democracy Without Borders advocates a world order based on global democracy and the principle of federalism, which implies global government. In particular, these goals are to be found in a new long-term theory of change. When an academic with the reputation of Yuval Harari calls one’s core goals into question, one wants to understand why. It turns out that his opposition is not clearcut.

Global democracy and a sense of connection

Considering democracy first, Harari goes on to explain what he means by “a strong sense of nationalism”:

“If you don’t feel connected, if you don’t feel you have a shared fate with the other people in your country, there is absolutely no reason in the world to accept the verdict of democratic elections.”

However, feelings of connection can exist beyond the national level. The climate crisis, the pandemic, and other global challenges are creating an increasingly strong sense of planetary connection. As surveys show, more and more people identify as world citizens and are becoming acutely aware that humanity shares a common fate on spaceship Earth. We cannot avoid making decisions that affect our common future, and the question is how best to do this. Democracy Without Borders argues for debate and decision-making in a global democracy that is seeking the common good, instead of the current system of 193 separate sovereign nations, each defending their own narrow national self-interest, negotiating lowest common denominator compromises at the UN and elsewhere.

It’s not that you first need a sense of connection and then you can tackle challenges together. It’s the other way round. Common challenges forge the sense of connection and spur the change necessary for an effective response. As humanity confronts ever more pressing global crises, the common feeling necessary to underpin common decision-making is rapidly emerging. Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future are a good example. Global democracy is being called into existence by existential threats.

This is not to say that global democracy does not face other formidable obstacles, such as an autocratic China and a kleptocratic Russia. It is merely agreeing with Harari that a feeling of connection is a prerequisite for democracy, but arguing that exclusive nationalism is not the only way to achieve this. The rapidly emerging feeling of planetary connection makes global democracy increasingly feasible. National and global democracy can co-exist, as discussed below.

Global government and federalism

On global government, Yuval Harari continues:

“The key message is not that we need to replace nation states with a global government. No, we need nation states working together on the common interest, because there is no contradiction between advancing national interests and cooperating with other countries.”

and, in the context of Covid:

“…in the United States, the failure of the Federal Government to come up with a single plan for the whole United States. Now this doesn’t mean that federalism doesn’t work and that we need to dissolve the US into 50 independent nation states. It means we need to try harder.”

Indeed, nation states should not be replaced with a global government and there are few, if any, who suggest this. Instead, an additional layer of global government needs to be created to facilitate cooperation between nation states in the common interest, based on the principle of subsidiarity. Just as the United States functions better under a federal government than it did as independent states (in the short-lived confederation from 1783 to 1789), so a world federation could more effectively tackle global challenges than 193 independent nation states. A federal global government would not replace nation states. It would work with and complement them, dealing only with global issues that are not better addressed at lower levels of governance. Harari rejects a unitary world state, in which a global government replaces nation states, but seems not to contemplate a world federation, in which a global government complements nation states.

He goes on to suggest that there is no contradiction between advancing national interests and cooperating with other countries. This is like saying there is no contradiction between advancing your own interest and cooperating with the other prisoner, in the prisoner’s dilemma. It all depends on how the game is set up. Global governance as currently structured is not designed to serve the common good, it is designed to defend the national interest of the winners of the Second World War. This is not the same thing. Three decades of ineffective (in)action on reducing carbon emissions demonstrate the urgency of reforming global governance to serve the common good.

Final remarks

This article does not attempt to trace Yuval Harari’s evolving views on global governance. For example, in an early version of his bestseller Sapiens he wrote:

“As the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all of humankind is the legitimate source of political authority, rather than the members of a particular nationality, and that safeguarding human rights and protecting the interests of the entire human species should be the guiding light of politics. If so, having close to 200 independent states is a hindrance rather than a help. Since Swedes, Indonesians and Nigerians deserve the same human rights, wouldn’t it be simpler for a single global government to safeguard them?” (From Animals into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind (2012), p. 244)

This call for a single global government to replace nation states seems to be at odds with his more recent comments. Later versions of the book have different text.

It sounds, from those recent interviews, as though Yuval Harari considers global democracy infeasible, and global government undesirable. This matters because he is an influential thinker. However, on closer listening, his opposition is not so clear. Humanity increasingly does have the feeling of connection and a shared fate necessary to underpin global democracy, and a federal global government would facilitate cooperation between nation states without threatening their existence, exactly as Harari desires.

John Vlasto
John is an Associate of Democracy Without Borders in the UK

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