Formal Global Interdependence – The Historical (and Western) Case for Global Governance

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12 December 2011

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While calls for global governance gathered momentum throughout the 20th Century, its origins are steeped in history. Today, the ISN looks to the past to develop an argument for formal global interdependence.

By Peter Faber for the ISN

Global interdependence is a phrase we’ve all been overexposed to. But as the introduction to this week’s topic reminds us, it can mean different things to different people. To many it means developing a malleable and incorruptible form of cosmopolitan citizenship, while to others it means marching inexorably towards some form of formalized global governance. This latter march, although the European Union pilot project might suggest otherwise, is not a recently developed concept. Some argue it originates with Herodotus, but its modern roots actually lie in the shape-shifting church politics of the European Middle Ages.

Constantinianism’ – The term was a pejorative anti-papal one in the late Middle Ages, but it signaled the first steps away from the Christian universalism (the Christianopolis) of earlier church fathers. As an initial half-step towards the idea of extended secular communities, Constantinianism embodied growing papal claims to secular authority and, more generally, all forms of Church involvement in the secular government of the world. Dante Alighieri further aided in the blurring of Christian and secular constructions of community in his De Monarchia. As the title suggests, it was a pro-imperial text, but its concept of society and of sovereignty transcended other religiously-tainted political visions of the time. Yes, it endorsed the need for ‘big man’ leadership in politics, but it also advocated an extended society of civil peace, order and justice where everyone should be free to seek their individual and common good. That quest would be possible, or so Dante argued, because centralized rule would not be imposed by force, but by bringing out the best in others.

So what did the above ideological ‘tilts’ bequeath subsequent advocates of far-reaching, comprehensive governance? First, the growing secularization of human problems, but not at the expense of destroying the idea of human-wide community. Second, the influential De Monarchia established what is now a wide-spread belief – i.e., that the political answers to human problems are often structural ones. In Dante’s case, the required structural reform was the installation of a universal secular monarch. Only through his presence was the perfection of the earthly city possible. Third, Dante and several other fellow travelers helped bring peace down to Earth. In their view, peace wasn’t an expression or consequence of divine agency; it actually was the consequence of human arrangements. Marsilius of Padua then added one final piece to the then-cutting edge belief that peace, justice and harmony were most possible when connected to potentially large and secular political structures. In Defensor Pacis, he elaborated further on the nature of peace. His peace, however, was an instrumental and civil one; it wasn’t defined by end states. It depended, in other words, on governmental parts that functioned smoothly and interacted properly.

Growing secularism and preferred centralization, structural solutions to socio-political problems, the continued belief in binding large human communities together, and the association of peace with efficiently operating government structures – these were the cluster of ideas bequeathed to future advocates of governmental interdependence by the late Middle Ages.

As a result of 1) the above trends and pioneers, and the ideas they preserved or promulgated, 2) Erasmus’ highly publicized writings, 3) the utopian literature that followed in his wake, and 4) the religious wars of the 17th century, we saw the subsequent rise of what James Turner Johnson has called “broadeners” in Europe – i.e., those who wanted to remove state rivalries, and the conflicts that came with them, not by withdrawing into small, self-contained utopian communities, but by trying to expand the bounds of human political society outward. Emeric Crucé’s Le Nouveau Cynée ou Discours d’Estat (1623) was an early example of this attempt. For Crucé, Europe’s future harmony and peace did indeed depend on political broadening. That is why he advocated creating a federation of states whose mechanism of choice was to resolve disputes through arbitration. Behind this political model, naturally enough, stood the idea that political differences were just surface-level phenomenon. At core, there was a common humanity we needed to both remember and promote. Maximilien de Béthune duc de Sully (Le Gand Dessein de Henri IV, 1638) and William Penn (Essay toward the Present and Future Peace of Europe, 1693) echoed Crucé. They too advocated a parliament of nations whose binding decisions would depend upon weighted voting systems. Most importantly though, all these influences then tumbled into the 18th century, where they heavily influenced what became the ‘perpetual peace’ movement in Europe. The Abbé Saint-Pierre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, believed in the possibility of transnational peace and comity through a permanent league of state powers. (Rousseau’s support for this concept was darker and more conflicted than is generally acknowledged, but he did raise the possibility of a “permanent congress” that would arbitrate problems or subject them to general judgments.)

The new advocates of interlinked corporate societies certainly quarreled over the preferred details of their transnational parliaments and federations, as Emmanuel Kant clarified in his “To Eternal Peace” (1795). When it came to the fundamentals, however, they were in lockstep agreement. The current nation-state system was nothing if not an incubator of war. The individual incubators, however, might jump on the perpetual peace bandwagon, provided they had sufficient incentives. Ah, but notice the problems the advocates of formal extended governance had now accumulated since the rise of Constantinianism.

Problem #1 – How do you get from here to there – i.e., since lost sovereignty is a precondition for entering political union, and not a consequence of it, just what are the necessary incentives needed for a nation-state to yield its sovereignty?

Problem #2 – In touting the benefits of extended community and political union, don’t our thinkers willfully ignore (or mute) the possible legitimacy of those values and interests which support a divided Westphalian system? (Yes, they do.)

Problem #3 – In touting the above benefits, don’t our advocates of extended governance conveniently misrepresent war – i.e., don’t they parrot Erasmus’ words that wars stem from the divided structure of the Westphalian order, that they are therefore politically frivolous by nature, and that they create only evil and never good? The difficulty, of course, is that in their zeal to tar political division with a broadly negative brush, the advocates of political union aren’t being honest. Yes, wars are catastrophically inefficient. Yes, they are criminally profligate in terms of lives, treasure and time lost. But does nothing good ever come from them? Well, let’s ask the millions of brutalized victims of 20th century fascism. They began World War II by confronting two virulently militaristic nations who were the multi-generational scourges of their regions. Since 1945, these past scourges have remained overwhelmingly pacifist nations, both by conviction and by political orientation. Enough said.

Problem #4 – Are human beings naturally peaceful, as Rousseau and others argue? Is the problem always related to power-related defects in the state, and is war therefore exclusively state-fed? As in the previous example, by trying to equate political division with war and political union with peace, exonerating ‘the people’ in war is intellectually dishonest. As before, the historical record contradicts this conceptual sleight of hand.

Problem #5 – Many assume that the cluster of values and beliefs we’ve been talking about here were (and are) universal and not culture bond. In truth, any attempts at formal global governance must reflect the principle of socio-political subsidiarity if it is to flourish.

And finally, Problem #6 – The hoped-for movement towards transnational political union inevitably must interpret history as the Hegelian unfolding of progress. It’s therefore a form of structurally-based eschatology. Once we reach global governance, strife (i.e., history) ends. To some, that means a beneficent and perpetual new order. To others, such an order would equal perpetual status quo’ism, with the political rot, cronyism and corruption that such an arrangement historically brings. (The European Union presently has 10,000 lobbyists. As a prototype of global governance, does this auger well for the experiment? Will the status quo-oriented influence peddlers be suitably restrained and benign in their effect, or will a system of privilege inevitably develop over time?)

The advocates and believers of centralized governance (and therefore perpetual peace) thus faced a conundrum. In their minds, the bonds of community among humankind could (and would) offset the defects of the Westphalian system and lead to an enduring peace. At the same time, they at a minimum faced the six problems identified here. What to do? As suggested at the beginning of this article, some believers gravitated towards establishing binding global values chains, but critics argued that their efforts would fail without formal structures acting as foundation posts. Yes, common geography, marriage, art, religion, and culture all helped create the ties that bind, but they all lacked the ultimate ‘oomph’ needed to create global harmony, justice and peace. For that to happen, the formalization of sub-political sources of unity had to occur, not only to highlight common interests, but also to impose sanctions on those who rejected them.

As previously discussed , an emphasis on economic interpenetration and betterment became the preferred 19th and 20th century vehicles to formalize “sub-political sources of unity.” In other words, economics led politics. Norman Angellism, with its insistence that formalized and mutual economic interdependence would inexorably lead to its political cousins, became the portal whereby mere international cooperation and trade would lead to world order. (The early European Community was nothing if not modeled after the Norman Angell approach.) And the advocates of world order arose yet again, with all the beliefs, insights and problems previously highlighted in this article still in tow.

Consider, for example, the World Order Models Project (WOMP) of the Institute of World Order, which became the World Policy Institute in 1982. Princeton Professor Richard A. Falk (A Study of Future Worlds), who was heavily involved in this landmark 1970s project, articulated its Euro-Atlantic-based controlling values as follows (other regions might have other primary values, Falk readily conceded):

  • The minimization of large-scale collective violence.
  • The maximization of social and economic well-being (through non-exploitative economic activity).
  • The realization of fundamental human rights and conditions of political justice.
  • The maintenance and rehabilitation of ecological quality.

To make these values a reality, Falk and his colleagues concluded that a higher level of governmental order was necessary. In fact, what was needed was a World Assembly in three parts – 1) an Assembly of Governments, 2) an Assembly of Peoples, and 3) an Assembly of Organizations and Associations. Below these three bodies would then come a Council of Principals, operating through its Central Coordinating Board and a Secretary General. The actual implementation of transnational planning and decision-making would finally be through four “systems,” one for each of the problem areas of world security, economics, human development, and ecological balance. The World Security System, for example, would include World Security Forces (based on a law enforcement rather than military model), a World Grievance System (based on arbitration), and a World Disarmament Service. The World System for Ecological Balance, in turn, would include a proposed World Environment Authority, which would be supplemented by an ideology-providing World Forum on Ecological Balance.

I cite the venerable WOMP analyses here (see On the Creation of a Just World Order, for example) because of its archetypal nature. Indeed, its logic is a painfully illustrative one for those who advocate formalized global governance, or so James Turner Johnson has argued. To wit, a problem exists, its causes are attributable to some part of the existing international system, a structural solution exists for the problem which is both comprehensive and permanent, and the powers that be will adopt this superior new option because it will be in their self-interest to do so, which they will recognize. There is, of course, a boatload of assumptions here, just as any and all transitional problems are ignored and there is little or no contemplation of the impact the new reality might have on the values that brought it into being in the first place. Since it is just assumed that global progress is afoot, Johnson is right to claim that a mythic appeal lies at the center of calls for formalized global governance. However, its pedigree, as we have shown, is a long and enduring one and its adherents are still well-organized and vocal. (See for example, Alexander Wendt’s “Why a World State is Inevitable.”) Whether they will triumph over alternative approaches (the “increasing lattice work” approach to international institutions or the attempt to establish truly democratic values chains as the glues of international relations) is a question for us to address later this week.

Recommended Reading

Partner Content

Global Governance for the 21st Century: A UNESCO Perspective

A Values Based Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World: An Interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter

The Global Puzzle: Order in an Age of Primacy, Power-Shifts and Interdependence

Wilson’s Radical Vision for Global Governance

Additional Reading

Roland Axtmann ‘Democracy and Globality’. Studies of Transition States and Societies, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2010

Alain de Benoist ‘A Brief History of the Idea of Progress’. The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1. Spring 2008

W. Andy Knight (Ed.) Adapting the United Nations to a Postmodern Era: Lessons Learned. Palgrave Macmillan 2001.

Klaus Mainzer ‘Challenges of Complexity in the 21st Century. An Interdisciplinary Introduction’. European Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2009.

William I Robinson ‘Theory and the Rise of Globalization Studies’. In George Ritzer, Theories of Globalization, Blackwell, 2007.

Alexander Wendt ‘Why a World State is Inevitable’. European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9(4), 2003.

Prior to becoming the Head of ISN Strategy and Operations in May 2011, Peter Faber was an Associate Professor of Security Studies at the US National War College and a part-time faculty member at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, DC. He also served in the United States Department of Defense for 30 years, both as a strategic planner and as a policy developer.


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