An exchange on Global Government Revisited
Luis Cabrera’s call for a strong institutional cosmopolitanism to foster a rights-based world government comes at a moment of increasing world disorder. The capacity to manage, much less prevent, transnational crises is on the wane. Do existing networks of nation-states combined with a multitude of non-governmental and quasi-governmental arrangements offer a promising basis for reversing the drift toward an unruly planet?
This question loomed large during the recent annual UN General Assembly and the countless side events that surrounded it. Despair, hope, and urgency were palpable. Heads of state and thousands of delegates from UN affiliates, civil society, business, and other groups convened amidst growing instability on multiple fronts: climate disruption; threat of nuclear conflict; millions of involuntary immigrants uprooted by civil conflict; human trafficking seemingly immune to rigorous documentation, much less prevention; and the failure to care for an estimated one quarter of the world’s children suffering from malnutrition.
Notwithstanding the thematic, siloed agenda of the UN events, these concurrent crises are not discrete phenomena. Instead, they are fueled by a mix of internal strife, ecological degradation, wealth inequities, and the actions of self-serving sovereign states with little accountability to the global body politic. The inability of existing institutional arrangements to address such systemic issues was in full view.
The UN alone, of course, cannot be blamed for this current state of affairs. While the UN’s historic mandate is sweeping and its aspirations bold, its legal authority and financial resources fall woefully short of supporting an enforceable body of law and regulation. Critics point to an undemocratic, bureaucratized institution that has failed to achieve its grand aspirations in terms of peacekeeping, human rights protection, and shared prosperity, along with, since the 1970s, stewardship of the global ecological commons. But focusing on the flaws of the UN invites the larger question: Would the world be better off or worse off without it?
Cabrera’s multi-tiered, incrementalist approach toward global government may be the only plausible path forward. But its prospects are inextricably linked to the emergence of a global consciousness embraced by citizens worldwide and manifested in the collective action such as the Indian Dalits have pursued. Imagine if this group allied with Africa Rising, Buen Vivir in the Andean nations, and other kindred entities to create a movement of movements. A transnational formation of this type would bolster the prospects of a broad range of global initiatives, both governmental and non-governmental, hard law and soft law.
By creating a more expansive operating space for both the timid and the transformative, a supranational grassroots movement would challenge the status quo by provoking sorely needed discourse focused on systemic change. Absent such debate, a gradualist strategy on its own is unlikely to reverse the current drift toward breakdown that threatens the planetary future.
Allen White is Vice President and Senior Fellow at the Tellus Institute, where he directs the institute’s Program on Corporate Redesign. He co-founded the Global Reporting Initiative and Corporation 2020, and founded the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings. He has advised multilateral organizations, foundations, government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and NGOs on corporate sustainability, governance, and accountability.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.
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