Adapted from a speech by Keith Best, Presented at Uniting for Peace Spring Conference, April 2019, London
We are living though an exciting period in history in terms of innovation, scientific and technological advance and an understanding of our world. And yet the dream of finding a way to live together in peace eludes us. Why has the ability to see what is happening on the far side of the planet, or being confronted with images of the disasters and wars blighting people’s lives as they unfold, not brought a greater consciousness about the way we manage ourselves, not only in our domestic and national lives but also globally?
Various peace groups and campaigns have failed to motivate collective opinion. The more people reinforce their prejudices by remaining with those with similar views, rather than being stimulated by others, the more difficult this becomes. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein describes this in his book How Change Happens as the concept of “group polarization” where deliberation moves groups, and the individuals who compose them, towards more extreme points of view.
From ancient times to the present, there have been aspirations for world government, a concept which can seem scary. There is greater sympathy for a system of global governance in which there is no potentially tyrannical single power but a structure of local and self-government and an intertwining of global institutions subject to the rule of law. Yet we are far away even from that. There are self-appointed groupings, such as the G7 and G20, but they are ad hoc, with no democratic or institutional integrity.
There is the pragmatic approach that, if it is working then do not fix it. Haphazard arrangements, if they enable the exercise of power in an acceptable manner, do not necessarily need to conform to a neat structure which satisfies academics or administrative perfectionists. I do not detect, however, widespread satisfaction with the status quo. There is need for a structured order. World order or, maybe, the preferred term of global governance must be consensual and, while the term itself implies an administering authority, it must be accountable and adaptable.
Any reference to a supranational authority arouses suspicion, especially among conspiracy theorists. We need look only at the United Kingdom to see the mythology that has been built up about the EU, amounting at its extreme to an unaccountable totalitarian European superstate.
With the rise of nationalism and populism, in which the majority feels that it has the right to tyrannize or ignore the minority, we may be living through a crisis of democracy, but it may be the practice rather than the form which is at fault.
A necessary part of the answer is a proper devolved federalist system of both political power and commensurate funding, to which there has been only a pusillanimous political response. These issues can be translated upwards not just to European but also global jurisdictions. Does anyone seriously believe that climate change or cyber security can be left to states acting individually? Global problems need global solutions.
The global conflagrations of the last century and the continuing wars around the world, as well as terrorism and religion-generated conflict might be causes of despair but consider what advances have been made, some quite recently. The extension of the franchise and improved empowerment of women, the universalisation of human rights, the Geneva Conventions, acknowledgement of our trusteeship for the planet, and the International Criminal Court.
I venture that the essential requirements for a just world order are the rule of law, justice, accountability, and democracy. Federalism encapsulates the concept of decisions being made at the lowest practicable level and reserved to a higher authority only where appropriate – it is a bottom up and not a top down democracy.
What is the desired panoply of international institutions? Those international treaties which seek to regulate behaviour that transcends national boundaries often falter through lack of enforcement mechanisms. The oldest legal institution dedicated to resolving international disputes is the Permanent Court of Arbitration, established in 1899. Territorial disputes between states can be adjudicated in the International Court of Justice, but the absence of, say, a court attached to the Refuge Convention means there is nothing other than the court of public opinion to hold a country to its obligations.
We have the International Criminal Court, although it is too proximate to its creation to evaluate, and questions remain about its internal integrity and sustainability. I believe in due course it will be seen to be one of the most profound developments in international jurisdiction. The reality is that all international agreements need oversight and accountability.
Finally, what about the voice of the global commons? The idea of a UN Parliamentary Assembly to address the democratic deficit at the UN has momentum, having been endorsed by more than 1,500 politicians from 122 countries.
With such developments we should not lose heart. We may now live in a more dangerous world, but we are also entertaining the framework in which we can meet conflict and abuse and provide a more peaceful environment in which we may yet realise Tennyson’s dream of
“Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d / In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”