“What Happened to the Idea of World Government?”

September 28, 2009 by cgsstlouischapter

   One of the most important developments of the past year with regard to world federalism was the February 16, 2009 Presidential Address of Thomas G. Weiss to the 50th Convention of the prestigious International Studies Association in New York City.  The text of the lecture was also published in INTERNATIONAL STUDIES QUARTERLY, 53: No. 2 (June 2009), 253-271.  The text of the speech is at http://docs.google.com/gview?a=v&q=cache:gss0YvUgz6QJ:isanet.ccit.arizona.ed.
Another article by Weiss titled “Toward a Third Generation of International Institutions:  Obama’s UN Policy” appeared in THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY for July 2009 and can be downloaded at http://www.twq.com/09july/docs/09jul_Weiss.pdf.
   Here are a few short excerpts from Weiss’s speech which are of special interest to Citizens for Global Solutions and other world federalists.
 
  Will it take a calamity on the scale of World War Two to demonstrate the abject poverty of our current thinking? Is such a disaster required to catalyze a transformation of the current feeble system of what many of us now call “global governance”–the patchwork of formal and informal arrangements among states, international agencies, and public-private partnerships–into something
with at least some of the attributes of a world government?  . . . .  My purpose this evening is to trace what has happened to the idea of a world government . . . .
   When interdependence was less and actors were fewer and states could actually solve or attenuate most international problems, the idea of a world government was not far from the mainstream. Paradoxically, now when states visibly cannot address a growing number of threats from WMDs to climate change, from terrorism to the current financial crisis, world government is unimaginable. 

  Global Governance
   It is most useful to think of global governance at any moment as reflecting the capacity of the international system to provide government-like services in the absence of a world government.
   However, applying the notion of “governance” to the planet is fundamentally misleading. It captures the gamut of interdependent relations in the absence of any overarching political authority and with institutions that exert little or no effective control. Quite a distinction exists, then, between the national and international species of governance. Within a country, we have governance plus
government which, whatever its shortcomings in Mexico or the United States, usually and predictably ensures effective authority and control. At the international level, governance is the whole story. We have governance minus government, which means virtually no capacity to ensure compliance with collective decisions.

  What Happened to the Idea of World Government?
  Amazingly, it once was a staple of informed debate-and as hard as it is to believe, this tendency was especially pronounced in the United States.    Could there really once have been a sizable group of prominent Americans from every walk of life, including politicians who passed resolutions in 30 of 48 state legislatures, who supported pooling American sovereignty with that of other countries?  One now requires unknown powers of imagination to envision a Washington, DC, where the idea of world government was a staple of public policy analysis. Yet 60 years ago, a 1949 sense of Congress resolution argued for “a fundamental objective of the foreign policy of the United States to support and strengthen the United Nations and to seek its development into a world federation.”
  Led by its president Robert M. Hutchins, the University of Chicago from 1945 to 1951 sponsored a prominent group of scholars in the Committee to Frame a World Constitution.  The movement was not a fringe group of the academy. It included not only Nobel laureates and a scientific luminary like Albert Einstein but also from such visible entertainers as Ronald Reagan, E. B. White, and Oscar Hammerstein. Future Senators Alan Cranston and Harris Wofford sought to spread the message of world federalism among university students, and the Student
Federalists became the largest non-partisan political organization in the country. Other prominent individuals associated with the world government idea included, at one time or another, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Cronkite, H. G. Wells, Peter Ustinov, Supreme Court Justices William Douglas and Owen Roberts, Senator Estes Kefauver and Senator and future Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. And the list goes on.
  This all evaporated by the early 1950s, when the world government idea was hidden by the Iron Curtain, overshadowed by the Cold War, and eclipsed by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt. On the right wing, this jump-started the engines of the black helicopters that are still whirling and fostered labeling advocates for world government as communist fellow travelers; and on the left wing, the idea has encountered fears of top-down tyranny in a dystopia.
  The short answer to the question asked in the title to this lecture is: the United States became obsessed with anti-communism; Europe focused on the construction of a regional economic and political federation; the burgeoning number of post-colonial countries shifted their preoccupations toward non-alignment and Third World solidarity; and scholars got out of the business.  This ancient history now seems quaint. ISA members thinking about world government are almost extinct. From time to time an international relations theorist like Alexander Wendt suggests that “a world state is inevitable,” or Dan Deudney wishes that it were because war is so dangerous, or an international lawyer like Richard Falk calls for an irrevocable transfer of sovereignty upwards.  But the idea of world government has been banned in sober discussions and is absent from classrooms.
  Global governance certainly is not the continuation of traditional power politics. But it also certainly does not reflect an evolutionary process leading to constructing institutional structures able to provide global public goods and to address contemporary or future global threats. Scott Barrett’s insightful book, Why Cooperate?, puts it well: global governance is “organized volunteerism.”   In this regard, we have definitely gone overboard in our enthusiasm for non-state actors and  informal processes. Not to put too fine a point on it, NGOs and transnational networks, corporations and activists crossing borders will not eliminate poverty, reverse global warming, or halt murder in Darfur.
    Conclusion
  My Graduate Center colleague, the American historian David Nasaw, reminded me that the weak 13 original colonies during the American Revolution were operating under a contested and awkward Articles of Confederation, but they then sought a “more perfect union” in 1787 in Philadelphia. The world and the weak confederation of 192 UN member states require a “Philadelphia moment.” 
  We need a big international vision from the Obama administration. In nominating his confidante Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations and by restoring the post’s cabinet status, Obama not only announced that the United States has rejoined the world and is ready to re-engage with all member states, but also he acknowledged what is evident to most people on the planet who were not in the ideological bubble of the Bush administration, namely “that the global challenges we face demand global institutions that work.”
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