International Relations/World Government Theories

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A world government is a hypothetical entity consisting of a single or series of levels of government with authority encompassing the entire planet. No such world government has ever existed, although large empires and superpowers have attained something of that level of power; historical examples have generally been hindered by the fact that insufficient communications and travel made a world organisation of any sort, much less an entire government, unfeasible. This article will examine what proposals have been made for a world government, and which movements have advocated such a state.

Some internationalists seek the establishment of a world government as a way of establishing freedom and a benign rule of law over the world. Some (including internationalists) have concerns that a world government would need to respect the diversity of the nations or peoples it includes. Others regard a global government as a nightmarish possibility, with a malevolent world government creating an endless totalitarian state without the prospect of escape or revolution. The alternative term global political monoculture emphasizes the latter fears perceived by some to be developing via either the transnational corporations or international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund the World Trade Organization and World Bank. Similarly, the term global cosmopolitan democracy describes a world government based on respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Many modern internationalists say that current shortcomings in the international order may be redressed not by merely opposing globalization, which they see as an inevitable and even welcome process, but by counterbalancing the ills brought by over-centralization or purely economic interests (such as violation of human rights - including labor rights - and sociocultural and environmental integrity) with similarly global representative democratic institutions having supranational authority.

The idea of world government is often explored in science fiction, either as a central theme or as plot backdrop.

Multinational empires, federations and unions[edit]

Effective governance of multiple nations has been accomplished in the past either by empire, by federation, or by supranational union.

Empires with pretensions or asprirations to world dominance[edit]

  • Perhaps the empire coming closest to dominance of the then-known world was Alexander's in 323 BC, an empire which sought to fuse the disparate cultures of its rapidly conquered territories rather than impose a Macedonian template.
"When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer." (Attributed to John Milton1)
  • The Roman Empire (1st century BC to 5th century AD) ruled most of the Mediterranean rim, as well as parts of the Celtic regions of Northern Europe.
  • The Mongol Empire of the 13th century was probably the largest continuous land empire of all time, ruling about half of the world population. Most historians believe that Western Europe would also have fallen under Mongol rule had the news of Ögedei Khan's death not forced Batu Khan to suspend his campaign.
  • Ming Dynasty China had dominion over the "Middle Kingdom", which it believed all significant culture, science, and art in the world. On the verge of global naval dominance the Chinese fleet was recalled partially because the Emperor was thought to need nothing in the outside world. Jared Diamond has advanced the thesis that a government, such as China's, without meaningful external opposition will tend to technologically and socially stagnate; many modern objections to World Government are based on the long decline of Imperial China.
  • The Ottoman Empire which ended in 1922, covered the entire Arab world, to include the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe and Asia.
  • The British Empire reached its peak in early 20th century, ruling over about a quarter of Earth's population.
  • The Soviet Union ("Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" - USSR) stretched over large parts of the northern Eurasian continent from 1922 to 1991. Until 1935 it proposed a global communist government through exported revolution and military expansion.

Voluntary unions of polities in history[edit]

Countries like Switzerland and Belgium developed confederal forms of government centuries ago to bring diverse groups together to peacefully form stable and effective societies that continue to respect internal linguistic and ethnic diversity. The Netherlands established the world's first federation by creating the United Provinces in 1581 by signing of the Oath of Abjuration. The United States established the world's second federation with the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Federal Constitution of 1787, which has since been emulated by dozens of countries. In addition, the extent of the United States' influence both military and economically in affairs outside its borders has been described as an American Empire. India, the world's largest democracy, is a federation of dozens of peoples, each with its own culture and language.

More recently, the evolving and expanding European Union has attempted to unite a large group of widely diverse, formerly hostile, nations spread over a large geographical area. The EU's lead is being followed by the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the South American Community of Nations. These multinational associations are at different stages of development, but they are all growing, both in coverage and in extent of economic and political integration.

The total population currently aggregated under multi-national political governance organizations, either a full federation or an evolving regional integration process, is approximately 3 billion, about a half of humanity.

Functional international institutions[edit]

The United Nations (UN) is the primary institution coordinating human activities on a global scale. In addition to the main organs and various humanitarian programs and commissions of the UN itself, there are about 20 functional organizations affiliated with the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), such as the World Health Organization the International Labour Organization, and International Telecommunications Union (chart). Of particular interest politically are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were formed together in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, United States, 1944, to foster global monetary cooperation and to fight poverty by financially assisting states in need. The World Trade Organization (WTO) sets the rules of international trade. It already has a semi-legislative body (The General Council, reaching decisions by consensus), and a judicial body (The Dispute Settlement Body).

There is also a body of international law, encompassing international treaties, customs, and globally acceptable legal principles. With the exceptions of cases brought before the ICC and ICJ (see below), the laws are interpreted by national courts. Many violations of treaty or customary law obligations are overlooked.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) (also known as World Court) is the judiciary organ of the United Nations. It settles disputes submitted to it voluntarily by states (only), and gives advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it by other organs of th UN, such as the General Assembly or Security Council.

A recent development towards the establishment of the rule of global law is The International Criminal Court (ICC). This is the first ever permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to ensure that the gravest international crimes do not go unpunished. Of ninety-two countries who signed the treaty, forty-seven - including the United States - have not ratified it, citing various concerns about sovereignty and legal jurisdictions.

Theories of international integration[edit]

A number of scholars have theorized as to how a world government might come into being peacefully. Two general schools of thought on this are functional and regional integration. According to the functional school, world government would arise through all the nations of the world gradually establishing international bodies to deal with particular issues (trade, communications, health, etc.)—these bodies would slowly grow in power, and, having succeeded their parent states in terms of importance, finally be federated to form one world government. According to the regional school, the formation of a world government would be preceded by the formation of regional governments in different parts of the world, these regional governments later joining together to form one world government. As described above, both forms of integration are currently active and growing in scope.

Both these schools of thought see the peaceful establishment of a world government as a slow and gradual process, which will take decades, if not centuries. However, others argue that a world government could come about very quickly, through an agreement between all the nations of the world. Such a view was quite popular in the idealism of the post-World War II era (one famous proponent being Garry Davis but by the end of the 1950s had been revealed to be quite unrealistic, at least in the climate of the times. Although there is no reason theoretically why it could not happen, the practical rules of politics (especially in today's world) make the sudden establishment of such a body highly unlikely, and the gradual route holds much more promise. Many who see the establishment of a world government as desirable still hold out hope.

Of course, both possibilities can operate. Just as human society has evolved in progressively larger units of cohesion despite many setbacks—and while pushed forward rapidly at times by the results of occasional calamities and/or ingenuity and opportunity, many have proposed that this tendency toward stronger coordination, yet with decentralized control, is an inevitable path. The United States government, for example, did not come immediately into being (nor, its advocates would argue, at the expense of individuality). The states of the union were initially quite resistant to the idea of supplying any resources to the national government (if they supported one at all). However, certain events such as impending war with Great Britain drew its constituent elements closer to each other along another global trend, self-determination. Although self-determination may seem the opposite of unification, federalists (whether national or international) argue that it is actually a prerequisite to true unification (though empires have undoubtedly achieved some measure of standardization and unification). Once "liberated" to sufficiently govern their own affairs, states can associate with others in balanced relationships which allow mutual benefit. However, such a unification brought about by war as the United States experienced was not sufficient to weld its constituent elements firmly together. The Articles of Confederation deliberately created a weak federal government, dedicated to the independence of the states, without even the power to raise troops in wartime. Despite this, the loose coallition was able to defeat the greatest military power of its day. However, some in Congress were unsatisfied with this, and considered the central government too weak. They thought that it might not be able to respond efficiently to serious crises in future. Therefore, the "Founding Fathers" of the (federal) United States devised a system which prevented the national government being ineffectual without undue interference in the affairs of the states. However, the American Civil War shattered this equilibrium, with the federal government waging war against break-away states. It has been argued that this test of the system was due to its being tied in its own contradictions of "self-determination" regarding the issue of slavery, and that the Civil War strengthened the nation's unity. Much effort was also spent through educational avenues to inculcate a new sense of national unity amidst the people who had previously felt no special loyalty to those from other states.

Parallels have been drawn to the current state of weak world governance (through the United Nations and other related regional or international institutions) with the United States' Articles of Confederation. In the current system of the United Nations, many have argued that this present system gives too much weight to state sovereignty and too little to cohesive action. For example, any of 5 permanent members of the Security Council can veto any matter brought before it (not only security matters). The World Parliament (the General Assembly), it is argued, hardly represents the people, since it is not elected by the people in a separate election for international governance (and in many cases, the governments currently choosing the representatives are unelected themselves). Furthermore, the representation is not proportional in any manner to population (unlike most bicameral legislatures, including the United States House of Representatives), and their decisions are not in any way binding (besides expressing opinion). Moreover, the participating nations admitted into the United Nations General Assembly are in many cases oppressive dictatorships not accountable to their own people (perhaps parallel to the southern states of the U.S. before the Civil War not allowing black people basic economic or political freedoms such as the right to vote). The World Court, likewise, is severely limited in its powers in being able to adjudicate in matters not agreed to be brought before it by both parties, or if the parties are not states. Even those belonging to permanent member countries have argued that such sovereignty only begets anarchy in getting things accomplished (especially during the Cold War). While federalists are equally wary of the dangers of over-centralization, they argue that many aspects of the United Nations system (or a new system) should be sufficiently strengthened to allow effective action, whether dealing with security or auxiliary issues argued to be related to security.

(Besides federalism, some internationalists point to the model of a commonwealth for the future patterning of a world government which can offer another type of balance between national and international control.)

Hopes and fears[edit]

The forces of globalization have caused major changes in the type of threats and opportunities facing humanity. In many ways the world already operates as a single society, where everyone’s activities affect everyone else. Environmental damage that crosses international borders, nuclear weapons proliferation, terrorism, unchecked national militarism, international crime, cruel regimes, anarchic states and refugees are all examples of issues that cannot be fully addressed by individual national governments, or even by voluntary multilateral treaties and agreements. While some military spending contributes to prosperity, advocates of world government hope that non-military means of providing security will be more economical and free up resources that can stimulate prosperity directly and more efficiently. They hope that a worldwide democratic electorate would reassign military budgets to stimulate economic growth in poor countries, e.g., by improving education and productivity-amplifying infrastructure, and the global maintenance of the rule of law. The local populations, however, may prefer to reallocate military budgets to lowering taxes or increasing local social welfare spending instead.

Beyond the humane benefits, advocates claim such reallocation would eliminate, once and for all, inter-governmental threats, including a large-scale nuclear holocaust (World War III). At the end of the second world war, nationalists and internationalists alike found this to be a compelling motive for the formation of world government:

"Unless we establish some form of world government, it will not be possible for us to avert a World War III in the future." (Winston Churchill, 1945).
"As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. There is no salvation for civilization, or even the human race, other than the creation of a world government." (Albert Einstein, 1945 from "World Citizen Quotes")

While acknowledging that a world government may be wasteful and inefficient, proponents contend that the costs of not having such a government are far higher. Conversely, they claim that the currently fragmented and loosely coordinated system of international governance misses countless opportunities for beneficial collaboration across national boundaries. To quote H.G. Wells (The Outline of History, 1922): "There can be little question that the attainment of a federation of all humanity, together with a sufficient measure of social justice, to ensure health, education, and a rough measure of equality of opportunity to most of the children born into the world, would mean such a release and increase of human energy as to open a new phase in human history."

From the above observations, advocates of world government hope that enlightened self-interest at the national level would naturally lead to the rise of a world government, without the common external threats that led states and provinces to federate into countries in previous centuries. In the short term, however, many hurdles remain to be overcome.

National governments in positions of greater military or economic power enjoy greater freedom to pursue their agendas with lower concern for the reaction of governments of less powerful nations. Accepting the supremacy of global law requires such governments to accept additional constraints on the range of available actions they may take, and to comply with decisions of courts over which they have limited control. Even when support of a global authority is of clear benefit to the majority of citizens of a country, such support may still act against the desire of individual government members for greater personal influence. This unfortunate conflict of interests is much amplified in despotic regimes, reducing the likelihood that a democratic federal government with global jurisdiction can be established prior to the complete elimination of dictatorial governments at the national level.

There are also hurdles to expanding popular support for the idea. People in many countries feel intense loyalty to their nation-state and/or legally protected rights, resulting in reluctance to accept arrangements in which national sovereignty is compromised. In Western systems which place high value on individual autonomy, discussions of a global government sometimes invoke frightening visions of absolute collective or dictatorial control from which there is no escape. Others are concerned that proper controls over a remote world government would be difficult to implement, leading to excessive waste, corruption and abuse of power. To quote former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater: "A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away." On the other hand, some people in non-Western countries under the hegemony of their cultures and ruling oligarchies, demonize the anarchy of individuality and are suspicious of world government for fears that Western powers will unduly impose their values through control of these institutions.

Some religious teachings, such as those of the Bahá'í Faith and Unitarian Universalism, are highly supportive of a world government. At the other extreme, numerous fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. associate the idea of world government (and, indeed, powerful international organizations in general) with the Antichrist and the End Times. (See, for example, Pat Robertson's book The New World Order.)

Despite the slow progress, many advocates remain hopeful that ingenuity, education, statesmanship, and other proactive efforts would continue to advance support among nations and their leaders for a greater political and social union based on justice, consultation, and respect for state and individual rights. The desire of countries bordering the European Union to join it, in effect creating a voluntarily expanding democratic empire, demonstrates the attraction of a multi-national political and economical integration. (However, the apparent reluctance of many within the union to allow rapid expansion may be a countervailing indicator). Nations in Africa (AU), South America (SACN) and South-East Asia (ASEAN) have launched similar political integration efforts. Activist organizations, such as the World Federalist Movement, continue to promote the idea of a global federal democracy amongst national governments, and are constantly seeking to expand their membership.

The United Nations as a budding federal world government[edit]

The United Nations currently mainly serves as a forum for the world's sovereign states to debate issues and determine collective courses of action. As such, it is not set up to easily evolve into a federal world government. Its most critical deficiencies are (1) legitimacy and (2) power.

Legitimacy is lacking in that the operation of the UN is not based on widely accepted democratic principles, such as proportional representation (each government has one vote regardless of population size, or whether it truly represents that population) or equality of status (some countries have permanent seats and veto power in the security council). Some proposals for improving the UN's legitimacy involve the introduction of weighted voting, the establishment of a directly-elected parliamentary organ, or the creation of an additional body (internal or external) open only to self-styled democracies.

Power is lacking in that implementation of its decisions is entirely dependent on the goodwill of its members. It has no legal power to directly collect taxes to fund operations, maintain an army or a police force, or directly impose economical penalties on national governments refusing to comply with its decisions. Proposals for increasing the UN's power include the direct collection of taxes, for instance:

  • Taxing international monetary transactions (the "Tobin Tax")
  • Licensing the use of global commons (oceans, space)

An independent income would permit the UN to establish its own standing rapid-deployment military and police forces.

A proposal called the binding triad would make General Assembly resolutions binding if approved by a group of nations representing a majority of

  • The world's population;
  • UN financial contributions; and
  • The membership of the General Assembly.

One the most significant current hurdle to the growth in UN influence is the reluctance of the current US administration to concede autonomy, especially following the refusal of the Security Council to approve a military attack on Iraq in early 2003 and the subsequent declaration of this attack as illegal by the UN's Secretary General. Some hope that the reluctance of the US government to support further UN growth would be overcome by reform, openness and accountability in the UN, and demonstrated integrity and transparency in the administration of international law. Others believe that a refusal by other nations to collaborate with the US other than via the UN (or other rule-governed institutions) would be necessary.

More on UN reform proposals:

Attributed ideologies[edit]

Various people attribute, though not at times without caricature, the idea of a world government to, often exclusively, and often with false assumptions, ideologies (frequently extreme) such as :

Nazism[edit]

Adolf Hitler attempted to establish a "thousand year Reich" that, at the very least, would have encompassed Europe and Russia. It seems probable that had Hitler been successful in this, he would have eventually attempted to conquer the rest of the world. However, he believed that a state was at its strongest when at war, so perpetual or recurring war would probably have been something he would advocate; thus negating the possibility of a complete world government.

Neoliberalism[edit]

Neoliberals rarely advocate a world government in the classical sense of the word, and prefer instead a single world-wide economic order of free market capitalism. Their aim would be the eventual integration of all countries into this economic order, with the removal of all trade barriers and (in some cases) the removal of all regulations on capitalism. Strands of neoliberal thought influence the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are the focus of opposition from the anti-globalization movement.

Communism[edit]

The communist movement has an ideal of world government emerging from the voluntary co-operation of communist countries, presumably after capitalism has been overthrown. However, in the past, many communist states showed distrust or even outright hostility towards each other (see the Sino-Soviet split between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China).

In particular, Leon Trotsky is famous—and probably foremost among communists—in advocating a "world revolution," as opposed to the single-state visions of Stalin and Mao. His supporters have suffered alienation within the communist movement, however, due in large part to the propaganda of the Soviet Union against Trotsky. They have been making a comeback only since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Anarchism[edit]

Although anarchists advocate a world not divided by borders, which they regard as nothing but artificial boundaries, and are generally against nationalism, they do not advocate a world government as such, because government itself is an institution they believe to be morally wrong and harmful. Instead, anarchists propose a world order based on free association and mutual aid, though this may vary depending on the specific branch of anarchism in question (see the main article on anarchism for further details).

Conspiracy theory[edit]

A number of conspiracy theories postulate the existence of a mysterious global cabal that controls the world, or large portions of it, from behind the scenes. Other theories prophecise (or warn of) domination of the world by a single entity, often referred to as a "One World Government".

A large, loving family[edit]

When children are young, their basic needs (food, shelter and clothing) are provided, and it should be possible to create in time a world government that will abolish all poverty-related hardships, possibly combined with a limitation of populations to areas where there is, and will be, enough for all. It may also involve other limitations, such as a guidance of students into careers where there will be certain to be a job for them when they are ready for a job. Probably there have already been (unsuccessful?) attempts to build such a society on a small scale.

A society based on systems in a healthy human body[edit]

The human body includes many highly successful systems that together do their best to keep the body working, and even working well, such as the food processing, the garbage/rubbish expulsion, the regulation of body temperature, the defences against various bacteria and virus infections. etc. The various organs do their work reliably and without strikes, slowdowns, etc. and they work for the well-being of the whole body, not just for individual selfish aims. Possibly there have already been (unsuccessful?) attempts to build such a society on a small scale.

World government in science fiction[edit]

In both science fiction and utopian/dystopian novels, authors have made frequent use of the age-old idea of a global state and, accordingly, of world government. In tune with Immanuel Kant|Kant's vision of a world state based on the voluntary union of all countries of this planet in order to avoid colonialism and in particular any future war ("Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht", 1784; "Zum ewigen Frieden", 1795), some of these scenarios depict an egalitarian and environmentally sustainable world supervised (rather than controlled) by a benevolent (and usually democratic) world government. Others, however, describe the effects of a totalitarian regime which, after having seized power in one country, annexes the rest of the world in order to dominate and oppress all humankind. James L. Halperin's novel The Truth Machine (1996) is an example of the former while Ira Levin's This Perfect Day (1970) and the evangelical Christian Left Behind series are examples of the latter.

The Truth Machine envisages the future of humankind after the invention of a device which is much more reliable than conventional lie detectors. Mass marketed and as small and cheap as a mobile phone, the truth machine is available to everyone so that lying has become something which just does not pay any longer and, consequently, is generally considered erratic behaviour which used to occur in the past. Also, crime has become almost obsolete. As politicians are in no way exempt from being continually checked, no economy with the truth can be found in their speeches or soundbites any longer, and only those who really wish well are prepared to take office. As the only remaining superpower, the United States of America takes the lead and all the other nations readily join in to form a truly global society.

The Left Behind books are a series of novels that tell the story of the Rapture according to evangelical Christian theology. The stories center around the quick rise to power of a charismatic, populist Romanian politician named Nicholae who is eventually appointed Secretary General of the United Nations. Once in power, Nicholae advocates a series of popular proposals, such as a global currency and massive international disarmament. Eventually, all countries unite into one "Global Community." However, things quickly turn sinister, and although Nicholae remains increasingly revered (now as "Global Pontiff") he institutes increasingly totalitarian measures to unite the world, such as allowing only one legal religion, and only one global media outlet. Nicholae is eventually seen as the antichrist, and is rejected by the books' Christian protagonists. The idea that the antichrist will be the leader and chief advocate of a world government is a popular theory among believers in Christian Rapture theory.

This Perfect Day is set in a seemingly perfect global society whose genesis remains vague ("Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei led us to this perfect day" is what schoolchildren have to chant). The world is ruled by a central computer called UniComp which has been programmed to keep every single human on the surface of the earth in check. People are continually drugged by means of regular injections so that they can never realize their potential as human beings. They are told where to live, what to eat and which job to take. Everyone wears a bracelet with a scanner which tells them where they are allowed to go and what they are allowed to do. At 65, they receive a lethal injection. Even opposition against such a life by those few who happen to be resistant to the drug and who consequently wake up to a day which for them turns out to be anything but perfect is dealt with by the programmers of UniComp who, in their underground hideaway, constitute the world government.

Lunar government[edit]

Main article: Lunar Government

Perhaps the most promising prospect in the near future for a single world government may be on the moon. Administration of Lunar territories may initially follow the Antarctic model, whereby land is divided up amongst existing nations. Once a sufficient population has developed, several thousand perhaps, a path towards self-governance could be forged through either the UN or by a unilateral declaration of independence. (This would be a “world government” in the sense of unitary planetary authority but would lead to the balkanization of the solar system, and would actually create more, rather than fewer sovereign governments.)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

1 The Milton attribution for this line is a popular myth, not confirmed by any of his known work. pothos.org has located the likely origin in an essay be Plutarch:

"'Alexander cried when he heard Anaxarchus talk about the infinite number of worlds in the universe. One of Alexander's friends asked him what was the matter, and he replied: "There are so many worlds, and I have not yet conquered even one."' ("On Contentment of the Mind" in Plutach's Moralia.)

In one sense the original quote has the opposite meaning to the legendary one, but both imply that he had the future conquest of the entire world within his grasp. Had he not died at 33, perhaps he would have created the first World government.