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Global Governance and the Achievement of a Universal Civil Society

Created date

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 23:02

I SUPPOSE men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence…

But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)

As the world is marching steadily towards its global destiny, its political institutions are lagging behind, threatening to derail it from its natural path. But such is the fate of all revolutions that the institutions in place and their caretakers put their foot down on the brakes while the accelerator of change is in full throttle. In this respect, today’s revolution is no different but, like all revolutions, its uniqueness commands us to envision a blue print for a future that is unlike anything we might have encountered before.

In his insightful treatise On Perpetual Peace (1795) and in his Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1794), Immanuel Kant envisioned that the world would progress, slowly and through various convulsions, towards a homogeneous republican (i.e. democratic) unified civic society and, as a consequence, a peaceful one. While the world is not entirely democratic, unified, nor for that matter in a state of perpetual peace, the progress of both democracy and peace has in essence been astonishing [See [Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report 2013: The Decline in Global Violence..]] Even today, amidst the horrific images that come back to us from Syria or the Central African Republic, global security is reaching new heights. But what Kant and other philosophers of the Enlightenment failed to assess is the strength and resilience that the nationalist ideal – and ideology – garnered through the American and French revolutions, both of which paved the way for the modern liberal nation-state. Today, like yesterday, the national interest of individual states is far more prevalent than any sense of a “global interest” that should have emerged over the years. In essence, despite the omnipresence in contemporary discourse of that elusive “international community,’ the political leverages that govern and steer the world at large remain in the hands of individual governments and the global political unification that Kant foresaw is as far from being realized as it was in his own time. These governments, lo and behold, are not about to relinquish that power and why should we expect them to? That worthy but often helpless creation, the United Nations, is living testimony to this fact which tends to confirm what realists since Kautilya and Thucydides have firmly believed: that international politics are and will always remain a struggle for power, for ill and for good.

But, while the realist[[In fairness, the “neo-realist” school has attempted to move beyond this vision of international politics.]] credo states that the world will essentially always obey the same rules, history seems to be proving it wrong as globalization and the threat to our planet has radically changed the classical equation of international politics. Today, as each international conference shows time and time again, states and governments are incapable of responding to the challenges of the day, even less to the challenges of tomorrow. Collective problems require collective action and nation-states are not formatted to act collectively. The nation-state is no longer equipped to ensure the sustainability of humankind, nor is it able to prevent itself, other states and private actors from plundering our most precious treasure, our planet, irretrievably. But since nation-states are not about to wither away, since their withering would in any case prove somewhat problematic if not disastrous, the solution lies elsewhere. If a true system of global governance is to emerge, it is more likely to rise from the bottom – i.e. a citizen movement – than fall from the top (e.g. a reinforced “Super UN”, an omnipotent G8 or G20). And if such a system of global governance lies ahead, it will come about through a revolution of sorts rather than through the concerted actions of the great powers of this world. States working together tend to want to recreate what may once have worked for them (Vienna 1615; Versailles 1919) rather than define new geopolitical structures that might one day challenge the status quo.

Global interest varies from national interests not only in its scope—it is not an aggregation of national interests—but also in its premises. National interests are inherently based on competition, both for resources and for power, in what amounts to a form of political Darwinism where the “fittest” dominate and take advantage of the weakest. In this scheme, “Others” are conceived only in terms of whether or not they constitute a hindrance to one’s national interests.

One of the most insightful discussions of this fundamental point was provided in the middle of the twentieth century by the influential German jurist Carl Schmitt[[See Carl Schmitt, Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum, Berlin Duncker & Humbolt, 1988. This work was published initially in 1950.]], who posited that each society defines itself by its opposition to other societies. As such, politics in and of themselves are defined through the dichotomy friend/foe, with the state having historically embodied the most complete form of politics. According to Schmitt, however, the state is a transitory embodiment of politics and when it loses the monopoly of determining who is friend and who is foe, it perishes. Put differently, this means that the potential (and long-term) effects of globalization are to annihilate the very notion of friend/foe and with it politics and, ultimately, the state itself. Nonetheless, historical processes are not linear and cannot be predetermined. Schmitt’s intuition and doctrine appear all the more salient with the changes that have come about in recent years where the traditional notion of friend/foe has become increasingly complex as global interdependence has become more prevalent and, more importantly still, as global consciousness has arisen about the vulnerability of our planet and the need to address this existential threat in the only manner possible: collectively.

A fundamental problem, famously raised by Friedrich Hegel at the turn of the nineteenth century is that the answers to the perennial questions of political philosophy are conditioned by the times at which they are dispensed. In other words, Aristotle, Confucius or Al-Farabi, Machiavelli or Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau all grappled with the same problem but their answers were in great part determined by the political environment in which they lived (Hegel, true to himself, after revealing this fact, purported to transcend it.) In 2014, our problem is similar to theirs and our questions essentially the same: How can we change what is globally a failing society into a successful one?

Our answers, however, might logically differ from theirs. Today, the rapid and profound demographic and technological evolution of the world has radically altered some fundamental tenets of humankind’s makeup. The world cannot simply move forward, perhaps not even survive, with a loose system of enclosed societies competing with one another for power and wealth. The essential question of political philosophy is not just concerned with how to create a “good society” but how to create a good global society, one that is not only fair and secure but also sustainable. In philosophical and practical terms, this (giant) leap for mankind is not just a qualitative or quantitative leap. It poses problems of an altogether new order that are compounded by the fact that one cannot erase the old order and rebuild a new one from a tabula rasa.

Thus, there are two issues, one philosophical, the other practical or, in essence, political. The first concerns our vision of what the “good global society” might look like. The second deals with the process through which, with all the constraints of reality, one moves from this vision toward its practical application. In other words, how one transforms political ideas into political action and institutions. Or, in essence, how on writes a new (global) social contract.

Classical modern political theory, foremost that of Locke, posits two stages that precede the formulation of a social contract: the state of nature and the state of war. In the increasingly globalized scheme of the 19th and 20th centuries, with the old geopolitical systems faltering one after the other, the individual nation-state—whose numbers expanded exponentially to reach 200 units today—thus came to act as that individual in the pre-social state: enjoying its own freedom but unable to guarantee it or its physical security in a world that quickly became very dangerous to all. The result, true to Hobbesian logic, led in the twentieth century to a global state of war, and none of the attempts to formulate some sort of contract—be it the League of Nations Compact, the Kellogg-Briand Pact or the United Nations Charter—succeeded in containing global conflicts, as opposed to the manner by which the constitution of a nation-state might accomplish this within the territorial and juridical frontiers of an individual country.

The great powers that traditionally, through force or diplomacy, purported to hold the balance together (when they chose not to disrupt it) are no longer able to accomplish this and with time, will be even less capable of throwing their weight on the course of big events. The institutions designed in 1945 around the UN to prevent another war have shown their limits as well, chiefly because they revolve around the nation-state and more to the point, around a handful of nation-states that control the entire system. Today, despite some success, the UN is grossly underfunded and overstressed; it has no means of enforcement and ultimately rests upon the good will of the five members of the Permanent Security Council who have no intention of relinquishing their position of power.

Thus, without further ado, we come to the crux of the problem, which is that the world has come to a point in history where it must imperatively find a way to establish a global social contract that will enable it to extract itself from the perverse cycle that thrusts it from the state of nature to the state of war and back again. Without such a contract and it will either perish or irreversibly move toward decadence, decay, and a slow disintegration that will drag the weak, the powerful and the rest of the planet. The question, of course, is: how do we create a global social contract?

Thus far in history, the vast majority of revolutionary changes that have led to the creation or “rewriting” of new social contracts have come about through the swift action of social groups that, at a particular point in time and against all odds, seized the moment and, aided by chance, courage and foresight, turned a political equation up on its head and modified the course of history. In all societies, even the most closed and authoritarian ones, there exist social groups with the potential to disturb and upturn the political order. But up until now, all these “revolutionary’ social groups have been confined within the frontiers of single political entities. Even while Marx and Engels sought and expected the emergence of an organized international social force, the social and political earthquakes that shook the world in Russia, China and elsewhere were all homegrown national entities.

But while the emergence of a cosmopolitan movement seemed in retrospect to be premature in the rapidly industrializing world of the late 20th century, today’s environment seems ripe for the development of a global citizen movement. Aside from the fact that we cannot continue to shy away from our collective destiny, the world has now become much more homogeneous politically than it was even recently. The ideals of democracy are now shared by a majority of peoples and the remaining governments that contest it have an increasingly hard time slowing down its march. A political backlash seems at this point highly unlikely. Economically, interdependence and globalization are eroding the monopoly that nation-states enjoyed in almost all matters. One could even argue that the Kantian world has in fact come of age: for two centuries now, the world has been in motion, the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 both posited the basic structures for the institutionalization of democratic citizenry by rejecting the old hierarchical and authoritarian order and by constructing a new order founded on the individual, on his or her liberty and happiness.

In many ways, this liberation is what still conditions our history, each human being trying to extract himself or herself form his/her chains, those worn by his/her ancestors and those created by the very processes that were supposed to liberate him or her from these chains. The institutionalization of democracy – the political dimension of this liberation – was traditionally undertaken by two distinct organism, the state and social movements, one and the other operating sometimes together, sometimes in opposition to one another. The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the emergence of strong workers movements that were capable of arm twisting both governments and big business. But the clout of the workers unions has effectively diminished with the post-industrial economy and for various reasons, no international or transnational workers movement has ever come to life. Today and tomorrow, only a global or “cosmopolitan” citizen movement will be susceptible of generating the collective will power to create the global institutions and mechanisms that our planet and its inhabitants require. As Kant asserted more than two hundred years ago, The greatest problem for the human race to the solution of which Nature drives man, is the achievement of a universal civic society which administers law among men.[[Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, 5th Thesis, Translation by Lewis White Beck. From Immanuel Kant, “On History,” The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963.

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