Roundtable on Global Government
Joseph E. Schwartzberg
Luis Cabrera points out, briefly and convincingly, a suite of reasons why the present Westphalian system of sovereign states is no longer suitable—if it ever was—to deal adequately with the many threats to the well-being of our planet. As a corollary to this observation, he posits the necessity for some sort of democratic global government. I concur with these judgments.
It is one thing, however, to establish the need for global government (hereafter GG) and another to demonstrate that such a vast enterprise is actually possible and to specify the essential attributes of such a government and the means by which it might be brought about. I hope that we will address these matters in some detail in the months ahead. In what follows, I will touch upon a few relevant issues.
Urgency and Its Implications
Conspicuously lacking in Professor Cabrera’s paper is a sense of urgency in respect to dealing with the multiple threats—some of them existential—to the planet: environmental catastrophes, pandemics, nuclear war, widespread violence during socioeconomic meltdowns, and others. Individually and collectively, these threats have the potential to put an end to civilized human society, even to the point of omnicide. While we cannot specify the probability of major disaster occurring in a given year and presume that it will generally be low, prudence demands that we recognize that low probability events do ultimately occur. We should prepare accordingly.
Thus, we must think simultaneously of blending feasible short-term and long-term global strategies. In the long term, I am persuaded of the desirability of a democratic, federal, multi-tiered—national, regional and global—government. But plans for such a government will be worthless if we do not maximize the likelihood of our survival as we approach that goal. Consequently, after more than half a century of promoting the long-term goal, I have redirected most of my remaining energy to the creation of a workable world.1
A workable world, as I see it, would still have most of the problems that exist in the world today, but it would have institutional legal mechanisms capable either of solving or mitigating those problems within the framework of a revivified, substantially transformed—not merely reformed —and greatly strengthened UN system. But why should we focus on the UN, given its numerous and serious shortcomings? The answer is (a) it is already there, (b) it already has most of the rudiments for world government, and (c) with bold leadership from civil society and a few enlightened nations, it can (despite assertions to the contrary), be reformed. There is no other comparable platform in existence, or even on the horizon, on which to build, and we dare not lose precious time starting from scratch with an entirely different and untested model.
A Parliamentary Assembly
One key organizational component of a GG, strongly endorsed by Cabrera, is a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA). My own preferred term for such a body, however, would be a World Parliamentary Assembly (WPA), which better conveys the impression that it was primarily intended to represent people, rather than the individual nations in which they happen to reside.
Several respondents wondered whether it would be possible to establish a WPA including non-democratic (even totalitarian) states along with the world’s democratic polities. The constitutional evolution of the USA and many other democracies should assuage such doubts. On the birth of the USA, all thirteen of its constituent states had very limited rights to the franchise, compared to what they are at present. Voting was generally limited to free, white, propertied, tax-paying males over the age of 21. In most states, women were not granted the franchise until 1919. Nevertheless, the individual states, while often far from democratic at the state level, somehow managed to function within the overarching, essentially democratic federal framework at the national level. At the global level, the division of nations into democracies and non-democracies presents a false dichotomy. No nation is entirely democratic, and none entirely autocratic. Polities exist, rather, along a democratic, non-democratic continuum. Moreover, they can shift their positions on that continuum with remarkable speed, whether by election, coup d’état, or the implementation of special conditions of their own constitutions. In India, for example, Indira Gandhi imposed dictatorial “emergency rule” in 1975 and restored democracy in 1978, but this had little effect on its functioning within the UN and other global governance bodies. National and sub-national governments are capable of functioning by different sets of rules and norms at different levels. They could do so also within the context of a global—and ideally federal—system.
Habits of democracy can and will be learned in the crucible of experience that a WPA can provide. Accordingly, rather than worrying about authoritarianism as a deterrent to parliamentary democracy, it would be more rewarding to think of a WPA as an incubator for democracy. Additionally, giving people a voice in decision-making in a WPA—in tandem with a reformed General Assembly, representing nations—will enhance the legitimacy of the decisions made. It will, in time (ten years?), also provide a needed ingredient for making certain decisions legally binding and enforceable. Initially, however, the WPA would function only in an advisory capacity. Not until it had accumulated a certain body of experience would it function in a truly legislative mode. In conformity with the principle of subsidiarity, the range of topics on which the WPA and the GA would be authorized to make binding decisions would be relatively narrow and limited to topics of indisputably global importance. But, as the competence of those two legislative chambers broadened, the range of topics within their legislative purview would be commensurately broadened.
In reading Cabrera’s essay, I was struck by the paucity of empirical evidence. But magnitudes do matter, especially in the important domain of decision-making, a subject that ought to lie at the very heart of efforts at restructuring the UN system. Who should hold power and how much?
Almost all decision-making agencies within the UN system are open to membership by any UN member nation, and they make decisions on a “one nation, one vote” system. But, given the immense disparities among UN member states in respect to population, economic capacity, military capability, and other dimensions of national power, the legal fiction of sovereign equality leads to some serious problems that fly in the face of common sense and diminish the legitimacy of many resolutions. Consider the following. In terms of population, the range extends from 1.377 billion for China (2016 data) to 9,475 for Nauru, a ratio of more than 145,000 to 1. Yet Nauru’s vote in the GA is equal to that of China. Or take the disparity in GNI between the USA’s $17.0 trillion (2015 data) and Tuvalu’s $66 million, a ratio of nearly 260,000 to 1. Finally—not that it greatly matters—the ratio of Russia’s 17.1 million square km, to Monaco’s 2 square km, is roughly 8.6 million to 1.
In every significant measure of power, the balance of membership and votes within the UN is very heavily skewed toward minor nations. In fact, the 64 least populous nations—just over one third the total membership and enough to block action on a substantive resolution in the GA—account for only 1% of the word’s total population. The 128 least populous, collectively accounting for two thirds of the membership (and theoretically enough votes to pass a substantive resolution), account for only 8% of the world’s people. No wonder that the GA has not been given the right to pass binding legislation. No wonder that its resolutions are routinely ignored by nations who deem them not to be in their interest. No wonder that the GA is widely regarded as a political sideshow and an illegitimate “talk shop.”
The solution to the one nation, one vote problem would be to implement appropriately designed systems of realistically weighted voting wherein each nation’s vote is determined by a simple mathematical formula based on two or more relevant terms. In general, the formulae would seek to strike a rough balance between the total voting power of relatively small stakeholders (nations affected by the outcomes of agency decisions) and relatively large and/or rich shareholders (nations bearing most of the financial burden of a particular agency). In the case of the GA, for example, a nation’s weighted vote, expressed as a percentage of the total vote, would be the average of three terms: P, its population as a percentage of the UN’s total; C, its contribution to the assessed UN budget (for the previous five years and paid on time) as a percentage of the UN total; and M, its percentage of the total membership (presently 1/193 or 0.512% for all members). I have calculated (and mapped) the weights for all of the world’s nations as of 2010 (then 192) and derived weights ranging from 9.936% for the USA.to 0.174% for several microstates in the western Pacific, a ratio of 57 to 1, instead of the present one-to-one parity.2
As in one or both houses of many other parliamentary bodies, including the US House of Representatives, representation in the GA would be periodically recalibrated based on changes in population and other factors, if any (e.g., GNI), deemed to be important. Rankings among nations would change accordingly. Thus, were my GA proposal in place in 2015, China’s rapid economic growth would have propelled that nation into first place. Its weight then came to 11.27% (up from 9.64% in 2010), outranking the US, which declined to 9.36%.
In my cited work, I have suggested some twenty-two weighted voting equations for existing and proposed UN agencies. The terms in these formulae, as well as coefficients indicating their relative importance, vary according to the agencies’ functions. For the FAO, for example, the terms are population (with a coefficient of 3), size of agricultural labor force (coefficient of 2), value of agricultural production (coefficient of 2), and FAO membership (coefficient of 1).3 These are, of course, nothing more than the recommendations of a single observer. As in any other political decision, the formula eventually adopted would be the outcome of hard political bargaining by the concerned nations. Hopefully most changes would increase the importance (coefficient) of the population term of the weighting equations, thereby moving toward an increasingly democratic system.
In addition to the periodic revision of voting weights, the formulae within each agency with a weighted vote would itself be subject to periodic review. If, in the collective wisdom of the concerned parties, a change were to be in order, it could be so mandated. But to prevent dysfunctional power struggles, changes should not be too easily adopted. Supermajorities, say of two-thirds or more of the total votes, might be required.
Engaging Civil Society
Commentators on Cabrera’s essay have expressed doubt that most popularly elected members of a UNPA/WPA would possess the needed knowledge base to cast informed votes on the many and diverse matters coming before them. This problem, of course, is true of any parliamentary assembly, but it would be especially severe in regard to a parliamentary body at the global level. In our increasingly technologically driven and exceedingly interdependent world order, the lack of an adequate knowledge base would also be a serious issue for the civil service of the UN Secretariat and other UN agencies. Happily, however, the expansion of technology has been accompanied by a parallel burgeoning of civil society organizations (CSOs) to study every conceivable facet of our evolving world and offer well-informed recommendations as to how to deal with matters within their respective purviews. The world has created a vast reservoir of expertise and experience.
But the explosion in the number of CSOs, now more than ten million, presents a new problem, that of entropy. It is not possible for any UN agency to consider more than a small fraction of the many thousands of pages of CSO reports that come their way. The best most can do is to read the executive summaries of the reports of large, relatively well financed organizations such as OXFAM, Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, etc., almost wholly headquartered in and financed from the global North.
The voices of the Global South, however, must also be made meaningful. So, too, should those of the less affluent CSOs of the Global North. Toward that end, I have devised a self-financing, multi-tiered system wherein CSOs willing to pay a modest membership fee and abide by a set of reasonable rules (e.g., the filing of annual activity reports) would group themselves under one or more of five “Civil Society Coordinating Councils” (CSCCs), one each for human rights, development, the environment, peace and security, and democratic governance. Each participating CSO would have a voting weight (based on several relevant factors) and each would participate in one or more interest coalitions. Coalitions under the Human Rights CSCC, for example, would undoubtedly include those for women’s rights, rights of indigenous peoples, labor rights, etc. Annual coalition meetings would integrate and prioritize the agendas of their constituent member CSOs and pass on their reports to the CSCC, which would further integrate and prioritize the agendas of the coalitions and pass them further to the relevant UN organ, in this case the Human Rights Council. The reports would be advisory, but should carry weight by virtue of their democratic origin.
The world’s niggardliness in regard to financing the UN, since its very inception, has been nothing short of scandalous. No nation is more culpable in this regard than the USA, which frequently proclaims its own “generosity” as the largest contributor to the UN system, despite insisting on keeping it on a starvation diet, thereby insuring that the UN cannot present a political challenge to America’s own global hegemony. This duplicity must and can be exposed. Doing so would enable a change from the present complicated and highly politicized system to one that is manifestly fairer and more easily understood.
Presently, the total annual assessed and voluntary contributions of the entire UN system comes to roughly $45 billion, not quite $5.00 (the price of a good hamburger) for each of the earth’s inhabitants. For that trivial sum, the UN is expected to preserve the world’s peace and take on an inordinately large set of additional functions and is roundly berated, even vilified, when it falls short of expectations.
Now, suppose that in place of the present system, all member nations, no matter how rich or poor, were assessed at the rate of 0.1% of their GNI (a small fraction of what most nations spend on defense). Then, given the world’s total GNI of $76.9 trillion (as of 2015), the assessed budget for the UN system would come to not quite $77 billion, nearly double the present total of assessments and voluntary contributions combined. Voluntary contributions might then fall off from some quarters, but more likely they would increase overall as the UN system demonstrated its capacity to deliver public goods.
the outset, the UN would lack the staff and capacity to utilize all of the sudden windfall generated by the proposed new system and would do well to put aside the unspent balance in an escrow account for the support of future peacekeeping operations.
But, as staff and capacity increased, the rate of assessment might gradually and painlessly increase from 0.1% of GNI to 0.2% and then, by degrees, even to 1.0%, eventually approaching $1 trillion, more than enough to pay for implementation of all of the recommendations put forward in this essay.
Reverting to the question of weighted voting, one should here recall that the contributions term included in most, if not all, weighted voting equations is based on payments actually paid on time, not on the amounts assessed. Thus, if the United States, or any other nation, withheld its payments as a means of blackmailing the UN to do its bidding, it would automatically pay a price in reduced voting weight. Further, the US could no longer claim, as President Trump so often does, that it is being unfairly exploited by the world community in that it would be assessed at the same low rate as the world’s poorest nations.
World government is not only necessary, but achievable. It will come when we muster the requisite will and imagination to make it a reality. Until then, we can and should strive to create a workable world. The rest will follow. To quote Seneca, “It is not because it is difficult that we are afraid to act; it is because we are afraid to act that it is difficult.”
1. How such a world might best be governed is spelled out in considerable detail in my book, Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2013).
2. Ibid., 22-25 and Appendix 1, 338–345.
3. Ibid., 158–161.