In December of 2008, the FT’s columnist Gideon Rachman wrote a controversial article titled “And now for a world government”. Rachman outlined that, for the first time in his life, he thought that the formation of some sort of world government, for instance modeled on the E.U., might be plausible. Rachman based this on three observations: 1. Problems are increasingly global, from global warming to the ‘global war on terror’. 2. Innovations in transport and communication make this possible for the first time. 3. A willingness to cooperate internationally as displayed during the financial crisis and expressed by the incoming US president Obama.
At the time I agreed but while I remain hopeful, a lot has changed in the past 8 to 9 years. As it certainly seems like the ‘goal’ of a legitimate world government is more distant now than it was at the time, it’s worth analysing whether this is actually true. Let me introduce a few current themes to show where we have drifted, before returning to points 1. through 3.
Members of the new U.S. administration recently wrote that “[t]he world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” (HR McMaster and Gary Cohn, in an article published in May). The president, Donald Trump, recently pronounced the same sentiment during a speech in Warsaw: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”.
What a fantastically dark outlook from a U.S. president! This sounds very close to the thinking of his White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, namely that we’re entering a period of clashing civilisations, ultimately leading to an all out war. Thankfully, not all world leaders and their advisors have gone quite so bonkers, yet when the indispensable nation’s leadership goes mad, it leaves everyone else not just scratching their heads but fretting over such vital questions as trade and security.
As much as one would like to see the current U.S. government in a temporary state of lunacy, the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg made it abundantly clear that we’re experiencing a larger shakeup of the world’s established network of alliances and security guarantees; the same system that produced a generation of relative peace and immense prosperity. Visually dramatised through violent ‘protests’ by the extreme left – with scenes previously unimaginable for the normally quiet city of Hamburg – voters are angry at ‘their’ global elites while populist leaders are already seizing on this and others are nervously looking for new alliances amid an uncertain future.
Undoubtedly, this intensified due to Donald Trump taking the reins of government in the U.S. but underneath the surface, a storm has been brewing for a while. Listening to interviews with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and a sharp political strategist (albeit certainly not without biases…), he predicts that the international system has been undermined since the end of the Cold War by the U.S.’ hubris, having become complacent and making wrong strategic decisions such as fighting legacy wars in the Middle East and countering Russia by building out NATO, while mostly ignoring a rising China and neglecting Africa and Europe, too. The U.S. is retreating from the world scene just as new players are seriously entering the global ‘dialogue’ such as China and India but also the E.U., which may be increasingly emboldened in a sense of unity facing Brexit.
As the U.S. is radically turning inwards and has openly communicated to disengage from international projects such as combating climate change, it has left its allies scrambling to form new partnerships and alliances with these emerging players. Angela Merkel warned, somewhat dramatically, that the U.S. can no longer be relied upon as a partner for Europe. From a post-war historical perspective, this is wild stuff. If Europe can no longer see a reliable partner in the U.S. then, consequentially, what does that mean for all other NATO members and U.S. allies around the world who almost systematically under-invested in their own military capabilities because of the U.S.’ security assurances? Enter China, with a military budget only second to the U.S.’ and far outpacing its growth, and the picture becomes even more complex. Countries are forced into entering new alliances quickly or at least keeping their options open.
The world is still more global than it ever has been. In fact, it has become so global that it is starting to leave large parts of its population alienated, which I explored in my post Brexit, the Threat to European Peace and a Lack of Human Ambition and that it makes the very concept of nation states somewhat outdated. In my post on Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson I quoted Henry Kissinger: The triumph of self-determination, welcome as it is, has come at the precise moment in world history when the nation-state can no longer exist by itself. As Michael Ignatieff wrote in his recent review of Politics: Between the Extremes by Nick Clegg, the former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats:
Clegg’s brand of liberal moderation is the natural mating call of elite cosmopolitans. The problem is that there just aren’t enough cosmopolitans to win elections. Globalisation, open markets and European integration do not churn out enough winners to build stable electoral coalitions.
So, returning to Mr. Rachman’s 3 points on why in 2008 he thought a world government would become viable:
Points 1 and 2 are very much facts that have remained. Problems are still global and the world has actually been surprisingly successful recently at cooperating on tackling them. Technology has continued to pace ahead unrelentingly, providing instant communication between a treehouse in Kansas and an internet cafe in Tajikistan. The problems start to occur with his 3rd point, the willingness to cooperate internationally.
The earlier mentioned G20 meetings for instance are actually a relatively new invention, with its first leaders’ summit held in 2008 to jointly combat the effects of the financial meltdown that year. Fighting climate change, the Paris agreement is historic in a sense that every single country (U.N. members) in the entire world agreed to it with the exceptions of Nicaragua, Syria and now, tragically, the United States.
Ultimately, it will simply make efficiency sense to install a ‘world government’ that takes charge of supranational administrative tasks, such as levying a global carbon tax, overseeing the development of internet protocols, regulating shipping and other activities on international territory/ waters and maybe even regulating space launches and travel.
As there already are institutions handling some of these tasks more or less well, the question ultimately becomes a more symbolic one: Do we want to form world government? Do we want an entity called as such? Is there public support for this?
While theoretically, the reach of problems at hand overwhelmingly support the formation of a world government, recent global approaches have too often been seen as top down decision-making. This has caused an unexpected backlash from voters in the forms of Brexit, Donald Trump and torched cars in Hamburg. Sometimes rightly so, voters are concerned that major decisions, the sort affecting their personal lives, are no longer made by local city councils – people they know and elected – but over the top of their heads by a high-flying, international political and business elite in abstract positions and far-away places.
In the end, I still believe that the benefits and transparency of an elected world government handling the rapidly growing pile of international tasks to administer will prevail. Crucially, technology may play an important role in making such a body more palatable to voters by providing radical transparency and efficiency. Hoping, that Donald Trump and Brexit will prove to be singular events in only a limited wave of globalisation backlashes, there currently might be more going for a world government than many think. With an emboldened E.U., Russia and China, its foundation may, however, be laid by others than the original architect of the post-war order.