GLOBAL GOVERNANCE: ‘It may take a crisis as big as the one that originated the system to produce the reform it needs’

CIVICUS speaks with John Vlasto, Board Chair of the World Federalist Movement (WFM), about the deficits of the existing global governance system and civil society’s proposals for reform.

What are the biggest shortcomings of the existing system of global governance?

The main problem is that decisions are made in defence of the national interest rather than to serve the common good of humanity. This means we get the lowest-common denominator compromises rather than the profound changes that humanity needs.

The way decisions are currently made is absurd. Take the ongoing COP28 climate summit: it’s a circus, a clear symptom of dysfunctional global governance. We are driving the planetary ecosystem over a cliff because although it’s clearly in humanity’s best interest to reduce carbon emissions straight away, it’s in no nation’s interest to move to do so first.

Decision making is dysfunctional because of the nature of our global governance institutions. The United Nations (UN) is basically a congress of ambassadors tasked with defending each country’s national interest as perceived by their governments. The dynamic is of competition rather than collaboration, so you end up with the lowest-common denominator compromises.

How could this problem be tackled?

To tackle global challenges we need global governance. We are taking enormous risks with our planetary home – but we don’t have to. We know how to create a legitimate and accountable decision-making process that serves the common good – through carefully implemented democracy.

We could think of global governance as a well-functioning Europe – or a well-functioning USA, for that matter – extended to the global scale.

What the world is missing that Europe has is a parliament. There is a longstanding proposal for creating a parliamentary assembly at the UN. There’s a big difference between a parliament and a congress of ambassadors such as the UN General Assembly. As explained by Edmund Burke, a British philosopher and politician of the 18th century, a parliament isn’t a collection of ‘ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain’ – it is ‘a deliberative assembly… with one interest, that of the whole’.

In a federal system like the USA, Congress has two chambers, one representing the people and another representing the states. This is a model that could be followed on a global scale. For the USA it would make no sense to have only one chamber representing the states – but that’s what we currently have at the UN, with all nations, regardless of size, having one seat at the General Assembly, an organ that consequently has little real power.

As Carlos Romulo of the Philippines said after the 1945 San Francisco conference that established the UN, ‘as a spokesman for a small nation, I want to make it very plain that my nation … would be very happy indeed to trade the fiction of equality in a powerless Assembly for the reality of a vote equal to our actual position in the world in an Assembly endowed with real power’.

If it followed the federal model, the UN would still have a General Assembly representing the interests of nations. But it would also have a parliamentary assembly, representing the people, making decisions to serve the common good of humanity.

I believe that ultimately representatives to such body should be elected on the basis of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle, but I don’t believe we should do that tomorrow. Right now, the principle ‘one nation, one vote’ means a range from one vote per 1.4 billion people to one vote per 12,000. If we were to establish a world parliament tomorrow we should use degressive proportionality, as does the European Parliament, which means that although more populous nations elect more representatives than smaller nations, smaller nations are allocated more seats than they would strictly receive in proportion to their population. This is an intermediate solution between one nation one vote and one person one vote.

Is there anything else that can be done?

We need profound changes, the most profound being a UN parliamentary body, but in the meantime, there’s a whole bunch of lower-hanging fruit. In particular, WFM has two projects that I would like to mention.

One of them is MEGA – Mobilising an Earth Governance Alliance, (or ‘Make Earth Great Again’!). MEGA is a coalition of civil society organisations that will be working in cooperation with like-minded states to strengthen existing environmental governance mechanisms and institutions and establish additional ones. It will be officially launched in January 2024 and will offer a forum for environmental organisations, experts, like-minded governments, legislators, campaigners and other stakeholders to engage, share information and strategies and support advocacy for better global environmental governance. It will produce a wide range of reports, proposals and campaigns – some managed by MEGA itself, others by partner organisations. MEGA as a whole provides a comprehensive solution to the environmental crises we face, and a basis for global governance more broadly.

MEGA is promoting the implementation of the recommendations of the Climate Governance Commission’s 2023 report. To that end, we will be mobilising ‘smart coalitions’ of state and non-state actors – a proven method for the reform of global governance, the International Criminal Court and the landmines ban treaty being cases in point. Countries least responsible for climate change and suffering the greatest impact are potential leading members of such coalitions.

Another WFM project, launched in October, is LAW not War. This doesn’t seek to change the institutions of global governance, but to make better use of the ones we already have. It proposes to enhance the jurisdiction and use of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) so that international disputes can be resolved peacefully rather than through recourse to the threat or use of force.

Specifically, the objectives of the campaign are to increase the number of states accepting the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ; encourage more frequent use of the ICJ as a dispute resolution mechanism provided in international treaties; appeal to states to make use of ICJ jurisdiction through mutual agreement for specific disputes; support UN bodies to request ICJ advisory opinions on critical issues; and encourage states to adopt constitutional amendments or legislative measures to affirm the UN Charter’s prohibition of war and the obligation to resolve international disputes peacefully, including through recourse to the ICJ.

Do you think global governance would benefit from greater civil society access and participation?

The dysfunction of global governance is not fundamentally about civil society having poor access. That’s a symptom of the core dysfunction, which is about decision making and legitimacy. If there were a world parliament, by virtue of its role it would give a voice to civil society – not only to civil society but also to business, Indigenous peoples and everyone else. A system allowing greater access to more voices would be better informed, more representative and more legitimate. But the solution is not simply giving civil society more access, because what would be the point in giving civil society the most wonderful access to a broken system? But if you created a parliament, civil society access would follow.

What would it take for the reforms that you propose to materialise?

This decision making and legitimacy dysfunction goes back to the very origins of the current system when the winners of the Second World War gave themselves a veto. It may take a crisis as big as the one that originated the system to produce the profound reform it needs. As Milton Friedman noted, what’s done in a crisis depends on the plans that are lying around at the time, so part of WFM’s role is to write the plan and keep it alive in the minds of policy makers until the crisis occurs and the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Exactly what such a crisis will be is unknowable, but I don’t think we’ve had a catalyst anywhere near the scale necessary yet. It took the Second World War to produce the current system, and it could take a third to produce a new one – though of course, it might be too late for that if as a result of this crisis we have been incinerated. The big question then is whether there will be sufficient catalyst for change before we pass some catastrophic tipping point.

If one takes the view that catastrophe is inevitable, or on the other hand that everything will work out in the end, then there would be no point in advocating for better global governance. In my view it could go either way, so there remains a realistic path to a just, free and peaceful world, where humanity and nature flourish in harmony, and there is no better use of time than doing what one can to help steer humanity onto this path.

This interview was conducted by CIVICUS.