On the need of a democratic global government

On 15 March 2019 students across the world joined a climate strike. One of the slogans was “Change the system, not the climate”. (source)
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This essay was originally published in the May 2019 edition of Cadmus, the journal of the World Academy of Arts and Science. 

Human civilization may not be able to survive if we do not manage to create a global government. This proposition may seem out of place at a time of rising international tensions, nuclear instability, nationalist populism and so-called identity politics which fuel a crisis of multilateralism. Yet, instead of contradicting the idea, these and many other problems are strongly rooted in the fact that no global government exists.

Human civilization may not survive

One of the key challenges of modern cultural evolution is the time lag between rapid technological development and slow political adaptation. The United Nations that represents the best governance model humanity could come up with for the management of global affairs is now frozen in time. Its underlying principle of national sovereignty goes back to 1648, a hundred years before the industrial revolution even started. Yet, today we live in the 21st century, the world population is approaching eight billion and technological development continues to accelerate. The need for global governance to catch up with the accelerating pace of change is more urgent than ever before.

Addressing environmental threats

Humanity now shares a common destiny. Whether they like it or not, all people are now linked together in a shared civilization which reaches around the entire Earth. The dangers posed by nuclear war, global pandemics, environmental devastation, biodiversity loss or climate change affect everybody. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere knows no borders.  

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere knows no borders

The first World Climate Conference was held in 1979. Carbon emissions are still on the rise (free image)

The human impact on global public goods such as the atmosphere must be regulated so that planetary limits are not transgressed and the stability of earth’s ecosystem is not jeopardized. Furthermore, the supply of important public goods like food security or the stability of the financial and economic system depends on how well global structures are working. Regulating research and development in fields such as artificial intelligence, genetics, biotechnology or autonomous weapons must be on the global agenda. Based on the collaboration of 193 nominally sovereign states, global regulation will never work well. Hence the need to move to a model of global government that transcends the boundaries of the nation-state.

Transcending the nation-state

States can freely decide whether to join or not to join an intergovernmental treaty. There is no way to determine global rules except through inter-state negotiations. The more ‘states’ participate, the more difficult it is to achieve results. As compromises must be reached, the content of treaties often merely represents the lowest common denominator of state parties. In this process, the primary purpose of governments is to pursue what they believe is in the national self-interest. There is no body that represents the interest of the world community at large. Even if a treaty is concluded and ratified, a state can withdraw again. The international order recognizes no higher authority for decision or enforcement. All in all, the international order lacks many of the hallmarks that characterize a functioning legal system, which we take for granted domestically.

There are 193 nominally sovereign states that are free to join or not to join global treaties (stock image)

Socioeconomic development and political action are no longer connected. The forces of acceleration have globalised and compel the states, in a self-reinforcing dynamic, to push forward their own erosion. Cash flows and commercial entities have no loyalty to any nation-states. Processes of product development and manufacturing are globally networked. A transnational elite has emerged consisting of the owners and top management of transnational corporations, both supported by high-level officials, politicians, scientists, and media representatives who are ready to pursue common economic interests in an environment of weak regulation and poor political processes. The concentration of wealth and global inequality has reached unprecedented levels. The gap between productivity and worker’s wages is increasing dramatically.

Cash flows have no loyalty to nation-states

We are witnessing the emergence of global social strata that are giving rise to vertical social tensions. The dividing line will no longer be between rich and poor countries but between the super-rich and the rest everywhere. The transnational elite exercises a powerful influence. They can play national governments against each other, if need be. National governments face serious limitations to resist the race to the bottom. In former times the creation of powerful nation-states was often driven top-down by the elites. Notions of a global conspiracy to set up a global government are far off the mark. Today, the elite uses the inter-state system to their benefit and actually resists the emergence of a global government that could constrain their actions.

In fiscal policy, for instance, multinational corporations and the super-rich are able to avoid paying taxes using loopholes and weaknesses in the international taxation system. Corporate taxation rates and tax revenues continue to fall. This contributes to rising inequality, higher relative taxation of the middle classes, and social tension. Paradoxically, these problems are exacerbated by the nationalist policies they fuel. In the United States, for instance, the nominal corporate tax rate was drastically reduced after the election of Donald Trump.

Efforts to combat this trend in the framework of traditional intergovernmental collaboration have proven ineffective. A Tobin Tax on currency transactions or a progressive global tax on billionaire capital will not work with a piecemeal approach. However, these taxes could provide funding for social welfare measures like a global social protection floor or a global basic income.

Current challenges and pitfalls of the system

Citizenship is connected to individual states and thus citizen rights are exclusive. The promise of the global village is only valid for the rich. In many countries, they can even buy national passports. The carbon footprint of those well off is disproportionally higher than that of the poor. At the same time, the age of Westphalian territoriality has not ended for those at the bottom. Free movement is not for them. Quite the contrary. The planet has never before seen more border fences and walls separating states. In fact, the system of nation-states helps contain populations within state borders, allows to play out workers against each other and to exploit illegal immigrants.

Paradoxically, today there are more border walls and fences separating countries than ever before (source)

Economic, cultural and social insecurity seems to be a common contributor to nationalist populism as well as illiberal and antidemocratic sentiments. As global forces become more influential, democratic institutions of the nation-state are hollowed out, and people, justifiably, lose trust in leaders’ capacity to represent their interests. Even if all the countries in the world were perfect democracies, they still wouldn’t be in a much better position to steer globalization into the right direction.

Democratic institutions of the nation-state are hollowed out

The security dilemma, according to which states are pushing each other, in a spiral dynamic, into military spending, research and armament, is inherent in the Westphalian system and strong economic interests are at play to keep it that way. Just as fossil fuel industries and their owners resist decarbonization of the economy, the military-industrial complex resists global pacification. They do not necessarily need war. Military equipment that is developed and produced at high cost does not even need to function properly. But what they do need is the mere possibility of war and a permanent feeling of insecurity. The opportunity costs are massive.

War between nuclear armed adversaries is potentially suicidal as it may lead to mutual destruction. As large-scale conventional conflict can spiral out of control, it’s not an option that can seriously be considered in the power rivalries between nuclear states. It still may happen intentionally or by accident. Even a limited nuclear war would have a devastating impact on today’s complex world system.

A world government to prevent nuclear war

After the invention and deployment of the atomic bomb, many nuclear scientists argued after the Second World War that a world government establishing a system of collective security with a monopoly on the use of force was needed in order to control nuclear technology and to prevent a nuclear Third World War.

The possibility to strike any state at any time anywhere with a nuclear bomb or conventional missiles has made traditional concepts of sovereignty anachronistic since states, even in theory, can no longer control the use of violence on their territory and potentially can be wiped out. Ensuring a world free of nuclear weapons remains a key argument in favor of a global government.

Once, the internet was expected to be a driver for democratic change and global understanding. Yes, it helped spark democratic revolutions. But it also provides the means for unprecedented state surveillance and systematic control of citizens. In Myanmar, social media was used to incite genocidal violence and it is used by authoritarian states to project their influence. China’s ‘Great Firewall’ shows what governments can do to cut their population off from free global information flows.

Moving towards political equality

The fundamental values that underpin the arguments for a global government remain as valid as ever. The idea of humanity’s unity can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy, the Hindu Upanishads, Tamil Sangam literature, Confucian teaching or the ancient Chinese concept of Tianxia. It is the realization of the equal value of every human being and that all humans need to respect and treat each other accordingly, which is at the core of cosmopolitanism and global citizenship. Morality that is exclusionary because it is only accepted as valid for a certain group is no morality at all. In a coherent ethical system that is based on equality, the same standards must be applied to everyone.

The unity of humankind is a universal ancient idea

This was already understood at the time of the French Revolution. For a short period, the French Revolution had a cosmopolitan moment. Liberty, equality and fraternity were ideas not limited to a French nation that didn’t even yet exist. It was not obvious why the sovereignty of the feudal rulers should be transferred to individual states. At the time, Anacharsis Cloots promoted the indivisible sovereignty of humanity and a universal world republic.

In 2015 a global flag was proposed “to remind the people of Earth that we share this planet, no matter of national boundaries” (source)

While a world republic would unite humanity as a whole, the constituent subjects are individual persons and the starting point is to respect and protect their human rights as global citizens. Recognizing the equal right of every human being means that all need to have an equal opportunity in shaping the political affairs that affect them all. It follows that a directly elected world parliament needs to stand at the centre of the world republic. At some point this representative body may be complemented by means of electronic direct democracy open to all world citizens.

A world parliament needs to stand at the centre of the world republic

Setting up a world republic with a global government does not mean that separate units would disappear. On the contrary, it would be a federal system of multilevel government. States represent an indispensable level of government and decision-making. Following the principle of subsidiarity, functions and powers would be dispersed vertically between the different levels of government from the local to the global and always at the lowest level possible. In some cases subcontinental or continental levels of government that lie between the national and global levels may take over responsibilities, too. In addition, states can carry out administrative responsibilities on behalf of the world federation, thus avoiding the creation of a large central bureaucracy.

While the world republic would determine the rules governing the legitimate use of force, it wouldn’t have the factual monopoly as certain military and police capabilities would be dispersed following federalist principles. In a system of global fiscal federalism, the power of taxation would also be divided across different levels. A federal world republic and a system of multilevel government would bring about a new understanding of sovereignty. No one has a right to unlimited self-determination or to the unlimited exercise of power, or indeed the capacity for either. All states, institutions, bodies and actors are in one way or another accountable to others and bound up with them. None is sovereign over the others in the classical sense, or can act or be allowed to act as if they were. Sovereignty is always limited. In this sense, the term may be continued to be used to describe core competencies of the respective levels of government.

Democratic participation and representation of citizens as well as the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances and the protection of minority rights would have to be implemented at all levels. A world republic structured along those lines would put the world’s citizens in political control and counterbalance the influence of the transnational elite. This structure will help to protect diversity, pluralism, group identities, traditions and minorities in individual states and across states.

Converting ideas into action

The creation of a world republic means a transition from today’s system of international law to world law. The global government envisaged here may be the result of a consolidation of today’s system of global governance into a coherent framework based on a world constitution as proposed in this paper. The legislative branch could be composed of a World Parliamentary Assembly elected by the world’s citizens (similar to a House of Representatives) and a General Assembly as representation of member states (similar to a Senate). On matters of global concern and based on the principle of subsidiarity, this world legislature would be empowered to adopt framework legislation that needs to be transposed into national law and global regulations with direct and immediate applicability. Today’s Security Council could be replaced by a Joint Security Committee set up by the two legislative bodies.

Pro democracy protests in Hong Kong, 2014. (source) Authoritarian regimes are the biggest obstacle

The UN’s secretariat and the administrative structure of the UN system can be transformed into a World Commission, acting as an executive branch with cabinet functions. A reformed International Court of Justice can be made responsible to oversee the World Commission, and to ensure that global legislation is in accordance with fundamental human rights and equally applied across member states. Legally it will be necessary to amend the UN Charter and numerous intergovernmental treaties. The goal may be to draft one Comprehensive Reform Treaty that would include all necessary provisions to change all treaties concerned. Proposals to convene a Charter Review conference or a global constitutional convention have existed for a long time.

We must be ready when a window of opportunity opens

Authoritarian government regimes represent the biggest obstacle as they oppose any democratic self-determination of their citizens and the advancement of democracy in the world. But it is not only them. Most governments, even if they are democracies, will only take action if they feel that it is very popular. While many people indeed recognize their identity as citizens of the world, others are turning to the myth of nationalism and reject global cooperation, let alone global government. What is more, immediate day-to-day issues divert attention from the need of solving the world’s structural problem. Finally, a democratic global legal order, with a constitution, a clear structure and division of powers, clear rules and democratic decision-making processes, is something that much of the transnational elite will consider to be adverse to their interests.

We do not know when the right moment will come. However, there have been many surprises in history that even the best experts did not foresee. That’s why we need to rally behind a bold vision for our common future on this planet and must be ready when a window of opportunity opens.

Jo Leinen is a Member of the European Parliament. Andreas Bummel is founder and Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders. This article is based on their book A World Parliament: Government and Democracy in the 21st Century.

Credit: This article was published in the May 2019 edition of Cadmus Journal, the magazine of the World Academy of Arts and Science. This version was slightly edited.

Jo Leinen
Jo Leinen was a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2019. He is an Advisor of Democracy Without Borders.
Andreas Bummel
Andreas Bummel is Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders and Coordinator of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly
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