Are we doomed to fail? Is Global Democratic Governance a chimaera?

By Keith Best

Many will have read the recent fascinating analysis of global popular opinion (not nearly enough surveys such as this are done) about global governance issues. Published in International Studies Quarterly (2022) by Farsan G Hassim (University of Oxford, UK, and Lund University, Sweden) Mathias Koenig-Archibugi (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK) and Luis Cabrera (Griffith University, Australia). It is 19 pages long and I shall not attempt to summarise it here. Among the conclusions are “that the general public in several countries prefers certain designs to others, and often the most popular option is not the one represented by the current UN. On the whole, we find public opinion to lean toward the positions of those reformers who have sought to see the UN and related global institutions moving closer to supranationalist and cosmopolitan ideals. In contrast, the positions of policymakers and commentators who advocate weaker international authority and fewer constraints on state sovereignty resonate less with aggregate public preferences. This is perhaps especially notable given that our six-country sample includes four of the most powerful countries in the world.” Their analysis reveals that reform proposals that would make the UN more authoritative and reduce global inequalities in representation are most preferred by citizens across the six survey countries (Argentina, China, India, Russia, Spain, United States) on average.

Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, maintaining the status quo of veto rights for current P5 members increases favourability of UN models among respondents in P5 countries and decreases it among respondents in non-P5 countries. The option of eliminating all veto rights decreases support for UN models among P5 respondents, while it does not significantly affect the choices of non-P5 respondents. Among those who prioritize environmental protection, but not among those who prioritize economic growth and jobs, the proposal to make UN decisions binding on a range of important security, environmental and economic matters increase the favourability of UN models. Somewhat disturbingly, it is clear that nationalism influences opinions in these matters as the authors note the potential obstacles to UN institutional reform:  when reforms involve a redistribution of power among countries, individuals in the sample tend to favour the options that increase or at least preserve the influence of their own state. While the views of respondents in Argentina and Spain may be more typical of people in most countries of the world, the four powerful states whose citizens were surveyed would be able to obstruct UN reforms even if they were endorsed by most other governments.

I am not suggesting that WFM-IGP should formulate its policies based on perceived global public opinion – especially as it is clear that this differs greatly from state to state, region to region and in the socio-cultural economic situation of the people. Moreover, public opinion is mercurial and to base policies on its perception at any one given time would be foolhardy. Nevertheless, I have long advocated that among our preferred policies we should go for the “low-hanging fruit” or those that may be easier to achieve rather than banging our heads against a brick wall for worthy objectives but for which, outside our own bubble, there is little support. We need to consider, therefore, in making policy choices where the emphasis of governments (which provide potential funding) may lie and, as in this study, where public opinion is supportive so that we pursue those objectives which may have a realistic chance of realisation.

With this wind in our sails (as our late President Sir Peter Ustinov used to remark) why is it that entitle this piece Are We Doomed To Fail? So much of world federalist thought has been based on the belief that what we espouse is self-evident. How could anyone disagree the desirability of seeking greater accountability for global institutions, further mechanisms for the voice of the people to be heard and vehicles for permanent peace and legal responsibility for abuse of human rights? Surely, these are axiomatic. Yet we need to be careful not to be blinded by our own rhetoric or to assume that our beliefs are so unchallengeable that we do not fall into complacency. Not everyone thinks like us. Apart from the obvious point of disagreement within our own communities on such issues there is the cultural divide between the East and West and North and South.  Europe (and the world) is facing a major crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. In Europe we speak of horror of a major war on our continent – yet for those in parts of Africa and Asia war and its appalling consequences has been a continuing occurrence throughout the last several decades.

These divides and a failure to appreciate or anticipate others’ geopolitical aims and objectives mean that there remains the capacity for misunderstanding highlighted recently by the UK’s National Security Adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove who gave a speech at the end of July in the United States where he said the situation was more dangerous than in the Cold War in terms of dialogue with rival countries that have nuclear capabilities. He said that with the Soviet Union the lines of communication meant that it was unlikely for the world to stumble into a nuclear war and he focused on the threat from China as being particularly worrying. He warned of the “pace and scale with which China is expanding its nuclear and conventional arsenals”, while adding that the world is entering a “dangerous new age of proliferation”. He added “During the Cold War, we benefited from a series of negotiations and dialogues that improved our understanding of Soviet doctrine and capabilities – and vice versa. This gave us both a higher level of confidence that we would not miscalculate our way into nuclear war. Today, we do not have the same foundations with others who may threaten us in the future – particularly with China.”

These issues are relevant as the Tenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty runs 1-26 August this year. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the NPT’s opening for signature, 24 May 2018, Geneva “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an essential pillar of international peace and security, and the heart of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Its unique status is based on its near universal membership, legally-binding obligations on disarmament, verifiable non-proliferation safeguards regime, and commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.”  Yet we are now a long way not just in history but in attitudes from the McCloy-Zorin accord of 1961 which set out a pathway for complete disarmament. Indeed, it established a foundation or “roadmap” for all future negotiations and international treaties with regard to nuclear and general and complete disarmament under effective international control and effectively aimed at abolishing war as an institution: it was passed unanimously by the UN General Assembly on 20 December 1961. Nevertheless, 191 states parties have joined the NPT, including the five nuclear-weapon states, making it the most widely adhered to multilateral disarmament agreement.

There is a belief in China that the USA is in terminal decline and that China will be the dominant world power before the end of the hundred years’ anniversary of the Communist Revolution. That creates a dangerous mindset. Major democracies like USA and UK have endured or are experiencing crises of democratic control with populist leaders emerging demonstrating what little checks and balances exist – the essential constraints on preventing a democracy from creeping into an autocracy. With the recent defenestration of the British Prime Minister for sound and irrefutable reasons it is disturbing that thousands of his backers are demanding that his name should be on the ballot paper for the new leader and a Government Minister has intimated that we have moved subliminally from a Parliamentary democracy (in which the Prime Minister is primus inter pares in the Cabinet and does not have the powers of a President) into a quasi-Presidential system: the contention being that at the last general election the people not only voted for a Party to form the Government but also for the leader to be the Prime Minister – an argument that if you change the leader (ie the Prime Minister) that can be done only by plebiscite (in the British system, a general election). It is, of course, constitutional nonsense but is superficially persuasive and has gained adherents.

To many of the current global security issues and abuses of human rights the Western response has often been one of paralysis, of the rabbit in the headlights. The exception has been the arming of Ukraine and the draconian sanctions (although still not yet on oil and gas) against Russia. As the winter approaches, however, and the lights go out over Germany and other parts of Europe and its economy is hogtied by consequent factory closures we must ask the inevitable question – for how long will that resolve last?  In ten years’ time will we have seen a complete withdrawal of Russian forces and the return of Ukrainian national integrity with the proof that the response really did work or will either the war be dragging on with a kind of guerrilla insurgency against the invader or, the worst case, Ukraine forced to cede territory in exchange for Europe being heated and lit?  The last will condemn us to ongoing aggression as the price is seen to be worth paying – and Taiwan as well as other peripheral European NATO nations may well be in the firing line.  Surely, we cannot dismiss so easily the recent history of Nazi territorial aggrandisement.

What is needed now and at that time in the future is international statesmanship – which does not seem to be that obvious right now. At an early stage there must be a roadmap for rapprochement with Russia under new leadership in which mutual trust can be achieved both culturally and militarily through joint operations and observation.

What of the other issues that confront our planet both environmentally and socially? At the same time as we see a merciful reduction in child and other mortality and an extended life expectancy as well as an ever-increasing global population it seems that even a pandemic with a new virus will not have the same winnowing effect as the Black Death or The Plague which in some cases accounted for the demise of half the population. Science seems ahead of the game. It seems, also, that the scourge of war is unlikely to make serious inroads into population numbers. There has been a decrease in inter-state wars but an increase in civil wars, as Steven Pinker pointed out in WFM’s policy conference on 24 October 2020; we have seen the end of WWII but not, thankfully, as yet, the beginning of WWIII (even an invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to lead to bellicose action from NATO and would be met by sanctions rather than direct military intervention). There are only a few states that see a military answer to their issues by way of seeking to annexe whole countries or parts. How is the world going to cope in governance terms, let alone the provision of food, water and essential care with this increasing population?

A further nail in the coffin of the Von Clausewitz concept of war being an extension of foreign policy by other means is that recent military intervention in other states has not had a happy history since the Second World War – America’s Vietnam, both Russia’s and America’s experience in Afghanistan and, of course, prior to these salutary lessons the failure to quell the fight for freedom in the East European states by military intervention from the Soviet Union. Pinker maintains that war is no longer a legitimate option. He referred to Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay entitled “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” which concludes that citizens of a democratic republic are less likely to support their government in a war because “this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war.” One of his three Definitive Articles that would provide not merely a cessation of hostilities but a foundation on which to build a peace has particular relevance for world federalists, namely “The law of nations shall be founded on a federation of free states.”

The pillars of democracy, trade and the international community, where present, buttress this concept. Of course, it can be said that these were present immediately prior to WWI but, as many esteemed academics have shown in their examination of the causes of the First World War there were other factors and alliances as well as the terrifying misappreciation of others’ intentions which led almost to the accident of war that none of the combatants really wanted. Maybe, as Saskia Sassen has pointed out, the liberal democratic system is reaching its limits and in some countries is in decay. The concept of transversality, of a system in one country being copied in another, will be partial: good for some but not for others.

Are we in a period of fundamental change in the way in which we manage international affairs? If so, other that with the benefit of hindsight, how do we know? How can we recognise such change until after it has happened? Sassen argues that we need a more philosophical understanding of where we are and what we need to change.  Maybe Marie Antoinette was correct when she stated that nothing is new other than that which has been forgotten.

As we seemingly retreat into a national and regional polarised world, see a regression from globalisation and multilateralism, enter a new arms race with ever more sophisticated hypersonic means of lethal delivery, see Russia before our eyes tearing up the constraints on brutal warfare which have been curtailed painstakingly over a couple of centuries in international human rights norms in the light of previous atrocities what hope can we have for the future?

The first is that history cannot be undone. Those international norms, treaty obligations and institutions still remain even if breached – the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Secondly, as mentioned, public global opinion is with us as are most states that realise that unilateralism is no longer an option – states must work in concert. Finally, there is civil society exemplified by WFM-IGP and a myriad of other organisations that will continue to spread the common-sense of disarmament, collective security and strengthening of the international order and rule of law. We may have to face a mini dark age before we emerge once again into the dawn of a new realisation but that in itself will act as an imperative and stimulus to taking forward the cause of common humanity and our planet. After all, the truth, uncomfortable though it may be, is there for all to see.