Contribution to GTI Roundtable Global Government
An exchange on the essay Global Government Revisited

Andreas Bummel

It was a pleasure to read Luis Cabrera’s piece on global government.

There is nothing in it I would disagree with. Still, I would like to offer some reflections based on Cabrera’s essay.

(1) Cabrera argues that the most compelling justification for a global government is that it could promote and protect the individual rights of all persons on the planet better than today’s state-based system.

He describes the domestic bias, the fiduciary bias, and what he calls the “own-case” bias that are connected with the state-based system.

While I think that this is a convincing case, it still isn’t the first point I would make in arguing for global government (which does not make this approach less valid, to avoid any misunderstanding).

What I tend to emphasize is that the very survival of world civilization is at stake as the Westphalian state-based system is unable to provide for a system of collective security that allows for complete and comprehensive disarmament, in particular the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

As Cabrera rightfully points out, this argument was one of the first and one of the strongest in favor of global government from 1945 on. I still believe that, even today, it remains the most compelling one, given the fact that complete nuclear disarmament still seems far in the future. There are still approximately 4,000 nuclear warheads on high readiness alert, enough to destroy world civilization. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the so-called Doomsday Clock to 2 1/2 minutes to midnight earlier this year. This is the worst risk assessment since 1953.

It is true that 122 countries adopted a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons on July 7 this year. This is a good step, but in practical terms it does not make much of a difference as long as the actual nuclear powers resist disarmament.

The treaty also remains silent on the institutional architecture that would actually make this possible in terms of collective security or what entity would oversee implementation. It vaguely refers to “a competent international authority” that will need to be identified.

Certainly, this is not the UN Security Council in today’s form, considering the veto power of the P5, and the UN has no independent enforcement capability.

I often make a similar point based on the failed efforts so far to curb CO2 emissions, arguing that the state-based system is unable to provide for effective mechanisms to assure that Earth system boundaries are not breached.

(2) On the other hand, I think that the normative approach mentioned by Cabrera is very strong. And it is strong because it is true: if we are to take the assumption seriously that all human beings are morally equal, then it is a normative necessity that every human being should have an equal weight in global decision-making. This leads us to the cosmopolitan vision of a democratic world parliament that is based on the principle of "one person, one vote."

From this perspective, there is no way to justify that under the Westphalian principle of sovereignty (“one state, one vote”), 10,000 inhabitants from Tuvalu have the same weight as 1.3 billion citizens from China. This argument remains valid whether there are nuclear weapons or other global challenges or not.

(3) It is an undeniable fact that intergovernmental institutions and negotiations are having an increasing impact on everyday life.

Traditionally, they may have been dealing primarily with questions of war and peace, but that was long ago. Yet, the intergovernmental sphere is aloof from public scrutiny and democratic institutions at the national level (if such exist at all). More often than not, parliaments (let alone members from the opposition) are not involved in negotiations. The same applies to international informal horizontal network governance arrangements between government departments.

Foreign affairs and intergovernmental bodies are still defended as being in the prerogative of the executive branch of government. In most cases, parliaments will ratify whatever treaty is put before them by their government. Even if all countries were ideal democracies, the intergovernmental sphere would remain undemocratic and its impact would continue to undermine national parliaments. Parliamentary oversight at best can take place vis-à-vis a national government but not vis-à-vis the bureaucracy of institutions such as the UN.

After having advocated a UN Parliamentary Assembly for more than ten years and in view of recent populist tendencies in some countries, it has become clear to me that there is a connection between national and global democratization that is widely underappreciated. On the one hand, it will be impossible to achieve a democratic world parliament if some of the largest countries on this planet do not progress further on the path of national democratization, in particular China and Russia. On the other hand, national democracies, where they exist, will continue to be undermined by global forces if parliaments and the public remain shut out of global rule-making and decisions. A UN Parliamentary Assembly still is a good first step in my opinion. What we can stress more, however, when appropriate, is that this body may also be a tool to support national democratization, especially in countries in transition, as it would give opposition forces a voice at the UN and thus strengthen them.

In my view, a world parliament and a system of global government (that is only acceptable in a democratic form) will only be possible if all major countries in the world have developed a minimum standard of democracy. According to Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by 176 states, this means (among other things, of course) that “every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity ... to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives [and] to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot.”

(4) If we look at it from a long-term perspective, this approach is indeed rooted in real trends. The diffusion of democracy around the world over the course of the past 100 years is probably one of the most remarkable developments. The number of democracies counted by Freedom House or Polity is at a historic high. What is worrying is that in terms of political and civil rights, there is a downward trend that may signify that the current wave of democratization has come to an end. Still, emancipative values are spreading across the world if we can believe assessments of the World Values Surveys, for example.

From this point of view, recent trends towards authoritarianism may be seen as a suppressive counterreaction. But support for democracy as a form of government remains incredibly high in all world regions.

Generally, it seems like citizens are more progressive than their own governments. If we look at international polls from the last ten to fifteen years, the UN regularly enjoys higher confidence than national institutions. A majority of citizens in all countries with nuclear weapons support nuclear disarmament. In a recent survey in Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, South Africa, UK, and the United States, on average 75% agreed that they consider themselves global citizens after being told that “global citizenship is the rights, responsibilities and duties that come with being part of the world.” And in the same survey, on average 71% agreed that “a new supranational organization should be created to make enforceable global decisions to address global risks.”

The question is, how can this be reconciled with recent trends like the election of Donald Trump or Brexit? However, it should not be forgotten that in both cases there was only a very narrow majority, if a majority at all. In the case of Brexit, it was 1.9%, and in the case of Trump, there was actually a majority for Hillary Clinton in absolute terms, namely 2.7 million votes.

The task ahead is to mobilize and organize the progressive parts of the populations in a better way and to offer a clear vision of the road ahead, a key part of which is global democratization (and a world parliament). This is certainly what a global citizens movement needs to accomplish.

(5) Finally, I would like to make a general remark on the principle of subsidiarity that is often invoked in debates on European integration and, in this case, global government. According to this principle, a central authority should perform only such tasks that cannot be performed at a more local level. It is mostly used to stress a need for decentralization and the primacy of local action. This is fine, but it is only one side of the coin. On the other, it means that if action at a more local level is unable to perform a task, this task needs to be moved up to a higher level until it can be managed. In terms of genuinely global challenges that nation-states cannot deal with, subsidiarity thus demands the creation of a central authority at the global level.

Andreas Bummel
Andreas Bummel is co-founder and Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders and the co-author of A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century.

Cite as Andreas Bummel, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Global Government," Great Transition Initiative (October 2017),

As an initiative 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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