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

Richard Falk

Luis Cabrera has become the most articulate, informed, dedicated, and influential advocate of world government of our time. This latest essay grounds the case for world government not in the usual arguments associated with such global collective goods as the prevention of nuclear war, the management of anthropogenic global warming, and the regulation of transnational flows of people, products, and capital. While sympathetically attuned to such grounds for global political integration, Cabrera anchors his support for world government on the practical requirement of achieving a universal human rights regime that effectively protects everyone, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Such an outlook is an attractive fusion of cosmopolitan ideals with an insistence that humane governance is a matter of ensuring that individuals throughout the world, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, have entitlements to a decent life. In effect, global humanism is set forth as the normative infrastructure of world government.

Such a position is more original than it might appear from a quick reading of Cabrera’s essay. He places emphasis on the normative requirements of humane governance rather than advancing the more familiar arguments for world government. The most common of these takes the form of an urgent plea to protect humanity from disastrous calamity, an essentially negative argument of necessity although usually accompanied by expectations of an enhanced world order that is both more peaceful and more equitable. Cabrera also avoids, at least by and large, the tendency of world government proponents to globalize their own national political system as suitable for the world without realizing that those otherwise situated on the planet perceive such a political future as provincial or, worse, an exercise in what might be called “normative hubris” hiding a secret agenda to establish a global imperium that belies the idealistic, even utopian, bill of sale.

Despite my admiration and praise for Cabrera, I have some differences that seem worth clarifying. I would start by questioning his reliance on the image of a “separate but equal” world order system, suggesting that such a view of state-centrism is multiply misleading. To begin with, states are not separate despite their distinct borders. There is considerable overlap that arises from the nonspatial cyber realities and capabilities of the digital age, as well as the hierarchical interactions arising from economic interdependence and geopolitical ambition. The UN membership rules give plausibility to the “separate but equal” signifier, but only at first glance. A closer look at the UN suggests “separate but unequal” is a more accurate portrayal. All we need do is observe that the Security Council, where five states are given the status of permanent members with an unrestricted right of veto, is the only organ of the UN with the power to render decisions, as distinct from making recommendations. And then there are all the soft power attributes associated with differential funding, backroom influence, and the attributes of global leadership that make the UN more of a geopolitical battleground than the fulfillment of a separate but equal world order.

Cabrera relies on an essentially abstract framework that posits an image of normative aspiration based on the universal fulfillment of human rights, and then insists that only a world government can credibly achieve such a goal. Since it is needed, it is possible. It is not that Cabrera ignores the “how” question. He reminds us of the obstacles, and advises patience and incremental progress until the moment of the new dawn. In the background of such expectations is confidence in the positive moral trajectory of human experience (a conviction shared with Kant and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others), but without any attempt to persuade us that this hopeful outlook is justified by the contours of human experience. I am more inclined to see such “progress” in the domain of science, and especially technology, but even here causing at least as many problems as are solved. Surely, splitting the atom was a momentous scientific breakthrough, but when soon successfully weaponized, it became a curse for all of humanity. This could also become the case for artificial intelligence, informatics, and robotics, as well.

I perceive the present historical conjuncture somewhat differently. I believe that the human species is experiencing its first biopolitical moment, a time when it has the capacity to meet the challenges to its survival, yet seemingly lacks a sufficiently robust will to do what is necessary to survive collectively over time as a species. In this regard, climate change is the primary current exhibit supporting this assessment. The nature of the threat has been confirmed by a reliable scientific consensus. This knowledge has been enough to lead governments to act impressively, in the form of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, but still fall significantly short of what scientists overwhelmingly agree in minimally prudent to avoid risks of catastrophic harm to acceptable levels. This disappointment has been compounded by the decision of the US Government, the tarnished but still global leader, to withdraw this year from the Paris arrangements, generating a new cycle of disillusionment in its wake.

What I find most missing in Cabrera’s otherwise nuanced analysis is an adequate recognition of two sources of radical incompatibility with his envisioned and advocated future: first, the logic of capitalism that drives economic development in directions that are measured by economic growth and profits, with scant attention to ensuring humane market effects; and secondly, the ideological consensus among governing elites that “political realism,” as measured by the maximization of hard power opportunities and national interests, and not values associated with achieving human rights, should have the upper hand in policymaking circles. Without transforming both the economic and ideological premises of state-centrism, there is little chance of moving toward the world that Cabrera affirms as desirable and attainable, and even foreordained.

When discussing the efforts to give the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P, norm a potential role in promoting human rights, Cabrera does not acknowledge with specificity the obstacles posed by geopolitical manipulation as occurred in justifying the call for action in 2011 to protect the people of Libya from an expected onslaught from their dictatorial leader, Muammar Qaddafi. It was this manipulation that partly explains why Russia and China opposed any R2P undertaking for Syria despite the moral urgency of stopping the carnage.

Similarly, when discussing global migration, although Cabrera mounts sympathy for migrants with regard to their plight, even creatively calling their violations of immigration laws a form of “global civil disobedience,” he doesn’t acknowledge the other end of the process. The more affluent or free societies associate their achievements, including in relation to human rights, with a coherent social order that is polarized by the influx of migrants beyond a certain threshold, especially in contexts of security challenges that can scapegoat migrants, and even legal immigrants, as responsible for rising levels of insecurity. In this regard, although Cabrera acknowledges the global populist rise of recent years as producing a political atmosphere incompatible with what he advocates, and eventually expects, there is no consideration of the obvious linkages between this adverse global trend and migration pressures on social cohesion or terrorist fears.

I would be more persuaded by Cabrera’s vision of the future if he dealt with the existential challenges posed by deeply entrenched adverse beliefs, values, and structures that make his desired future seem in the end to be more dream than prospect. Yet maybe Cabrera is right to posit a hopeful vision of the future without its pull on the moral imagination losing all credibility by being dragged through the swamps of political reality.

Richard Falk
Richard Falk Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Fellow of the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and author of Power Shift: On the New Global Order.

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

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