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The dream of some sort of effective global government has been around for a very long time. Whenever a new global crisis arrives it gets revived. Whenever there is a shift in international relationships there is a call for ‘A new world order’. The dream is shared from the liberal left to the neo-liberal right.
We are currently at a dangerous moment when Great Power relationships are shifting and where many countries, large and small, from China to Hungary, see political advantage in asserting nationalist sentiment. Hungary is a danger only to itself. Great Power rivalries effect everyone. Are there any plausible models today that can reduce the evident dangers?
The existing UN model
The existing model, first discussed in 1944 in Dumbarton Oaks, is organized around the UN and based on the representation of countries.
The UN faces a long-standing criticism that is an ineffective talking shop.
The ineffectiveness of the UN is typically attributed to country representation. There are 193 members. In 1945 the UN had only 51 original members. With such a large membership, the possibility of reaching a consensus, or even a simple majority, in the General Assembly is difficult. It produces toothless resolutions and recommendations.
It is in the UN Security Council where the power to make potentially binding decisions resides. Here, decisions can be taken by 9 out of its 15 members. However, any one of its five permanent members have the individual power to block action. Given their competing national interests it is unlikely that the permanent members will want to act together. It is most unusual when they do so.
The system is not only seen to be ineffective, it is also widely seen to be undemocratic.
At one end of the scale, in the Security Council, the ability of the five permanent members to block action gives power to a few. Changes in relative power since the formation of the UN are poorly reflected in it.
At the other end of the scale, in the General Assembly, the mass of small countries, each with an individual vote, gives too much weight to countries with small populations. Around 40 UN member states have populations of less than 2 million and around 100 less than 10m.
One idealistic response to the problems attributed to country representation is to think of moving to a system of UN representation based on people. A government would be chosen based on its ability to command a majority in a directly elected representative assembly.
The practical objections are not hard to find. There is a lack of a cohesive global ‘demos’ in the sense of people wanting to participate as active global citizens, bound together by a common feeling of shared interests, values and identity. There are no global political parties to organize political affiliation. There would remain a problem of distance from the electorate. A formula for representation would have to be found that linked a popular Assembly to a current global population of around 7.5 b.
A possible halfway house between country representation and popular representation might be found in a system of regional representation. In this model the UN would bring together regions rather than countries. The regions would still represent countries but would provide a closer fit with popular interests and identities.
It is a model that was considered in early thinking about the UN and it is reflected in the UN’s five regional Commissions. Outside the UN Commissions, there are structures for regional association In Europe with the EU, in the Western Hemisphere with the OAS and in Africa with the African Union. In addition, all regions have seen a growth in regional trade groupings and regional financial institutions.
Again the practical reservations are not hard to find. UN regional Commissions seem to play worthy but marginal roles. The African Union is playing an important peacekeeping role. Generally however, other regional bodies lag well behind the EU in promoting political integration. There is also a long-standing fear that regional trade and financial organizations may act in ways that undermine global bodies and rules.
The canopy of universal principles
A different approach is to accept the current system of country representation in the UN but to try and remedy some of its defects over the long term by pressing forward with applying universal values based on the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration stands for values that are common to each and everyone. The Declaration is intended to restrain the use of naked power by governments against their citizens, and to provide a framework of values for all UN activities and interventions.
Again there are many difficulties. The principles and norms of behaviour enshrined in the Declaration can be interpreted in many different ways. Even if there were to be agreement on how to interpret them, there remains a problem of how to implement them.
The UN has not helped its own cause through its Human Rights Council whose role is to uphold the Declaration. Its members have included some of the world’s worst abusers of human rights such as China. President Trump has called attention to the institutionalised hypocrisy by withdrawing American support.
The problems in these various models were foreseen by some at the time of the founding of the UN system. The alternative model called for a strict functionalism.
The functionalist alternative was to put democratic principles and fundamental values in abeyance for some distant future. In the meantime, it accepted co-existence between different systems as its overriding norm. This model placed the focus on an institutional framework that would deliver practical solutions for the world’s practical problems. The institutions would be dominated by professionals applying expert knowledge from their own specialities, rather than by politicians and civil servants representing governments.
Problem solving was compartmentalised and segmented into the main areas of concern in the post war world - the lack of global finance, the need to meet financial emergencies, the need for a framework to manage trade, to tackle food shortages and unemployment and to combat disease.
Functionalism has spawned a massive array of international bodies. At one end, are those such as the WTO that carry out their tasks with global memberships, are based on international treaties and act mainly through treaty arrangements. At the other end, are small more technocratic bodies, with limited memberships, that operate on the basis of informal understandings. There are any number of combinations in between, ranging from large international conferences, ‘programs’ and panels, for example, addressing trade, development and the environment, to much smaller groups, for example, trying to prevent money laundering.
The difficulty of getting binding international agreements means that the Instruments for implementation have veered towards the less formal – the letter, the special recommendation, the protocol, the convention, the code, the guideline, have become the instruments of choice.
The problems with this world are far-reaching. The multiplicity of different sorts of bodies, and the range of instruments, are hard for anyone to understand. It has also become inflexible as institutions have developed their own self-serving, bureaucratic imperatives. The system, as a whole, does not reflect well the functional priorities of today’s world.
At the same time, professional standards are not uniformly observed and the politics of the membership also impairs professionalism. In a world where expertise is widely dispersed among many different actors, institutions that try to centralize expertise in global repositories are going to perform poorly.
It is a world in need of radical surgery.
Stronger common procedures
A rather different way of looking at this confusion of overlapping and underperforming institutions is to emphasise the role of procedural values. This would mean building on OECD principles for governance and best practice for regulatory agencies.
More rigorous procedures, such as the need for independent, external evaluation, can help improve the professionalism of what is done by international bodies.
At the same time, an insistence that any international agreement, formal or informal, emanating from any international group, with comprehensive membership or with limited membership, must be presented in draft to national parliaments and must be signed subject to final approval by parliaments, might build up a stronger democratic foundation.
At present, even democratic governments make full use of their executive discretion to keep public opinion at bay.
A variant of functionalism that still retains a link to the pursuit of democratic values is what can be labelled a minimalist approach. Under this approach the focus is on trying to eliminate the worst and most immediate physical threats to the world such as nuclear proliferation, together with combatting the worst human rights violations through such bodies as the ICCC.
However, even minimalism has its problems. The attempt to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons through the NSG has only been partially successful. The ICCC lacks the aura of impartiality necessary for the rule of law. There is no consensus on how to combat today’s priorities such as terrorism, or how to achieve cyber security.
A steering group: G20
When the Cold War came to an end there was a moment of optimism that the leading countries in the world, in the form of the G20, could get together to better manage global business. In a world of reduced ideological tensions, perhaps cooperation could move beyond coexistence and stand-off.
The grouping is less cumbersome than the UN but more representative than the five permanent members of the Security Council. The hope is the G20 can agree on the most important challenges arising at any time. In turn, their agreement on strategic approaches can be carried into the UN and other organisations.
The G20 has had some success, for example, in the response to the 2008 financial crisis. However, its composition lacks a principled foundation. In practice, on issues that touch on perceived vital national interests, it remains unlikely that the main players will be able to put aside their different interests and mutual distrusts. Strategic guidance is reduced to generalities.
Coalitions of the willing
There are three fundamental difficulties facing global government. First, the principles of representation; secondly, the mobilization of professionalism in a world of dispersed expertise; thirdly, the incompatibility of the idea of a global rule of law with authoritarianism, including in the largest country in the world.
In the light of so many difficulties, around both principles and practice, there has inevitably been a shift towards the use of informal, so-called ‘coalitions of the willing’. These bring together limited alliances of the like-minded in specific instances. There have been some successes, for example, in efforts to reduce piracy off the Horn of Africa by the Combined Task Force (CTF 150) supported by 25 member countries.
However, the main instances where coalitions of the willing have been brought together – for Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan & Syria - raise their own red flags.
It is also difficult to reconcile the logic of ad hoc interventions with long term continuity of purpose.
The driverless car?
In the eighteenth century the early economists turned to the example of the beehive to suggest that individual decision making might contribute to an overall social order.
In today’s world we possibly underestimate the resilience of what might be called the ‘driverless car’ model of global order.
In this model:
the major powers avoid mutual assured destruction by correctly sensing the limits to their self-assertion;
international market management increasingly rests on business to business decision making;
sub-state regulators, such as central bankers, security market regulators, competition authorities and privacy commissioners, cooperate and liaise directly from organization to organization;
High Courts pay increasing attention to the jurisprudence of other legal systems.
The extra-territorial reach of different jurisdictions corrects some of the worst abuses.
Amidst what looks like incoherence, the on-board navigation system learns by doing and by emulation. It’s coexistence plus. The autonomous vehicle stays on the road and avoids accidents.