Growing Up Globally

God (if only there was
one) only knows where the story of human development is leading next.
We live in time unlike any other in history, in the sense that lightening-fast
technological acceleration guarantees just one thing for sure, that
the future will be very different from the present. Not very long
ago, you lived and died just like your grandparents had. Tomorrow,
question marks hang over everything from the continued existence of
life on the planet to the very engineering of the forms it might take.

God (if only there was
one) only knows where the story of human development is leading next.
We live in time unlike any other in history, in the sense that lightening-fast
technological acceleration guarantees just one thing for sure, that
the future will be very different from the present. Not very long
ago, you lived and died just like your grandparents had. Tomorrow,
question marks hang over everything from the continued existence of
life on the planet to the very engineering of the forms it might take.

When it comes to the
structure of our system of international politics, we are absolutely
stuck in adolescence, complete with all the pimples, difficult growth
spurts and general awkwardness that entails. The failure of the
international political system to grow along side the technologies related
to war, commerce, science, engineering and environmental impact represents
something worse than a wholesale disaster in the making. It is
a disaster that has long ago already begun to arrive.

In the era succeeding
the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Europeans transcended feudalism
as a form of international organization and adopted the so-called Westphalian
System, named for the place in what is today Germany where the peace
agreements ending that war were declared. It is a system characterized
principally by anarchy at the international level and full sovereignty
at the state level. Meaning that there is no significant governmental
structure above the level of countries, each of which retain full control
over their own policy choices. It is, with some noteworthy but
not fundamental modifications, still the structure in place on our little
planet to this day, having been globalized by European colonialism and
third world decolonization alike.

Whatever value such a
system of largely independent states once might have had, it's become
a prescription for disaster today. The reason that is the case
is no different than the reason the Articles of Confederation were disastrous
in late eighteenth century America. The former colonists, having
won the war, were busy losing the peace through their insistence on
radical decentralization of power, which inevitably led to multiple
currencies, a patchwork of trade relations, inability of the central
government to raise taxes or seriously conduct diplomacy abroad, and
tariff wars if not nearly a real one. Many of the Founders were
rightly growing embarrassed by their creation, which is why they ditched
it so fast, replacing it with the Constitution drafted in Philadelphia
in 1787.

They had run up against
a perpetual problem of political organization that more or less exists
everywhere, all the time. It is the problem of crafting polities
with appropriate degrees of vertical integration. In other words,
finding the most suitable balance in power-sharing questions between
the units and the whole. The Europeans have been dealing with
this issue for half a century at the continental level, and many states
within Europe - Britain, Belgium, Spain, etc. - for longer themselves.
South Asians and Nigerians have struggled over this question, as have
Canadians and former Yugoslavs. This will become a major problem
in Africa if the African Union grows in substance and capacity, precisely
because of that growth. The United States has been grappling with
this issue since before its founding, not least in the Civil War, which
was fought fundamentally over this point, not slavery.

The problem is reconciling
two competing simultaneous desires, for freedom and local control, on
the one hand, and on the other for the conflict prevention and broad
extension of fundamental principles that come from locating power and
policy decisions at a more universal level. In the American context,
we might think about it this way: Those of us in New York will
appreciate our autonomy so that we don't have to do things the same
way they do in Mississippi, and vice versa. On the other hand,
if we have too much of that autonomy, we retain the capacity for armed
conflict between the two states. Moreover, if we subscribe to
certain fundamental human rights principles - for instance, opposition
to slavery - we have to enact those laws at the national level.
Allowing each state to do what it wants will mean that those principles
will ultimately apply in some places only.

As mentioned above, this
very same issue shows up in a zillion contexts, but it is especially
relevant today in the burgeoning relationship between the nearly 200
countries of the world and the growing international sphere, as we transition
from the Westphalian System to something else, under the relentless
drive of globalization. At this moment, we live in a world where
interaction of all sorts has gone global, but decision-making power
remains local. We are sitting in the 21st century trying make
our way, employing an institutional framework for governance that was
literally well-suited for the 17th. The same eternal struggle
between parts and whole remains to this day, only now it is less about
New York and Mississippi versus the federal government as it is about
America and Iran versus global institutions.

But the local rule versus
universality antagonism remains just as prevalent. Do you want
to make sure there is no slavery in the world? Well, then you
can't leave it up to individual countries to decide. If you
really want that, you have to legislate it and enforce it internationally.
Do you think women everywhere should be entitled to education, employment
and political power in equal measure to men? Well, you're not
gonna get that if you allow each state to set its own policy.
And - to expand this notion fully to the level that world federalists
have dreamed about for centuries - would you like to see war ended
forever? Well, you can, but doing so requires that each country
give up possessing a military arsenal of any serious capacity, and that
the UN or some other similar institutional expression of global governance
instead maintains the overwhelming force necessary to prevent war-bent
states from acting on their intentions.

The catch, of course,
is the price of admission. To have a world government able to
tell other states what they can and cannot do means that you have to
be willing to have your state be told as well. That idea of women's
rights isn't going to go down so well in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile,
a prohibition against the death penalty or the curtailment of war-making
capacity will attract few fans in the US. But you can't have
one without the other. So far, at least, the governments of most
countries have preferred sacrificing peace and global norms of justice
on the altar of state sovereignty. This should hardly come as
a surprise, given that power is a zero-sum game in this context, and
for every bit that is held by a world body, precisely that same amount
will, by definition, have been subtracted from each national government.
In other words, you can save the tuition money you would have spent
on years of graduate school. You don't need a PhD in political
science to appreciate why the folks who stand to lose the most oppose
losing it.

Of course, nobody stands
to lose more than the most powerful of countries, which goes some way
toward explaining the abysmal, embarrassing record of the United States
when it comes to international law and world federalism. Not all
the way, though. Add in the tradition of individualism which is
so much a part of American political culture, plus a certain uniquely
American arrogance and bellicosity, and now you have a really toxic
stew of nationalism and hostility to most any form of shared international
governance that would limit our behavior.

The upshot is that no
country is more messed up than the US when it comes to the question
of international law and governance. The list of key international
treaties to which the United States is not a party is astonishing to
anyone who has spent a lifetime listening to the mythology about the
"rule of law" here. Often, these fundamental, basic documents
have been ratified by nearly every country in the world, but then there
is the US along with Somalia and North Korea as the only scofflaws from
nearly 200 countries in the world. Examples include the Kyoto
Protocol, despite the fact that no one produces near the amount of greenhouse
gases that we do, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which we
may soon be the only country in the world not to ratify, the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which
the US is the only industrialized country not to ratify, the landmine
treaty, most of the International Labor Organization Conventions, the
International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights treaty,
sometimes referred to as the "International Bill of Rights", and
the Migrant Workers Convention.

Those are just for starters,
but nevertheless that's quite a record for a country which claims
to be all about pioneering freedom and justice and human rights.
But my favorite of all is the case of the International Criminal Court.
This very new global institution was created for the purpose of holding
the Hitlers and Milosevics of this world accountable for their crimes
against humanity. Bill Clinton, in his typical fashion, reluctantly
and half-heartedly signed the Rome Statue, the ICC's founding treaty,
but then did nothing with it, including failing to push for Senate ratification.
George W. Bush, in his typical fashion, unsigned the United States from
the Rome Statute, but then proceeded to go much further. His administration
started leaning on every other country in the world, badgering them
to cut bilateral agreements exempting American citizens from coverage
by the Court.

Think about that for
a second. That represents the United States saying that we don't
want there to be a court which prosecutes people for genocide, mass
war crimes, or crimes against humanity. But if there has to be
such a court we will undermine it in every way conceivable, and we will
use coercion to make sure that we don't have to play by its rules,
and to guarantee that it can never try any American for huge crimes
that shock the world's conscience. Now everybody bow and scrape
before the world's great leader in the fight for freedom and human

Fortunately, that was
just the evil Bush administration doing what they do best, right?
Well, yeah, but only if you ignore the fact that on almost every question
that matters Barack Obama represents little other than George W. Bush's
third term. Just last month there was the US at it again, undermining
the rule of law at every possible juncture, this time under the direction
of the president with the big toothy grin, not the one with the scowling
smirk (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). An ICC review
conference was held in Kampala to consider the idea of adding aggression
to the list of crimes punishable by the Court. And there was the
US, trying to block that action, or at the very least trying to make
the UN Security Council (where the US has a veto) the only forum where
the crime of aggression can be charged. Unfortunately for regressives
everywhere, by not signing the Rome Statute, the United States lacked
a vote in Kampala. But sadly, the US was nevertheless still allowed
to be present and make its arguments. Fortunately, the rest of
the world just blew us off again and went ahead with the new law bring
aggression under its jurisdiction, and with allowing the Court to make
such charges itself instead of relying on the Security Council.

Of course, one might
stop for a moment and just ask the simple question, why would the United
States even want to oppose trying individuals for acts of aggression
that are responsible for mass death and mayhem? Hmmm, I dunno.
Could Iraq have anything to do with that? Panama? Grenada?
Vietnam? Actually the Court's jurisdiction is not retroactive,
but you get the picture. If you are in the habit of kicking the
asses of other countries whenever you feel like it, you might not like
anyone curtailing your addiction.

The ICC is living testimony
to the fact that the world is moving - slowly, to be sure - away
from the anarchy of the classic Westphalian System, and dragging the
most recalcitrant regressive reprobates (you know who we are) along
with it. It's not an easy trick, in part because there is a
real legitimacy to the idea of not universalizing all, or even most,
policy issues, but only those which absolutely must be located at a
global level, retaining the rest for national, provincial and local
polities to grapple with as they individually see fit. This is
the doctrine of subsidiarity, a key notion in the practice of federalism,
that stipulates policy decisions should always be made at the lowest
level pragmatically possible, and it's a good idea.

Thinking about even the
outside possibilities of global governance in 2010 necessarily means
envisioning a very weak mix when it comes to the powers of an international
government. That's far less than optimal from the perspective
of supporting human rights and other issues, many of which would have
be universalized at a later date. But, however disappointing the
partial development of a world government might be at this time, it
would in fact be more than helpful if one could be created purely for
purposes of dealing with the most pressing global issues of our time,
including environmental crises and war. These are global problems
which cannot be solved at the level of state governments, which these
problems and these governments been kind enough to demonstrate over
and over again.

We've already taken
some steps in this direction, as both the ICC itself and its remit against
crimes of aggression indicate. But, as never before in human history,
the race is now on between the human capacity to destroy and human maturity
to adopt mechanisms preventing such destruction.

The former is out to
a very big lead so far, while the solution of global governance has
hardly even begun to dent the consciousness of most people on the planet.

My guess is that we'll
pay dearly for that imbalance.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.