There is a common view that the ancient Greek city states fell to Philip and Alexander of Macedonia because they could not develop political arrangements to allow them to co-operate on a larger scale than the individual polis. The question of whether we need to organise ourselves on a larger scale is very relevant today. Do the great challenges of today, such as climate change, as well as religious and economic conflict, require us to govern ourselves globally rather than nationally and internationally?
In most parts of the world religion has resisted the forces that were expected to destroy it: industrialisation, affluence, democracy and cultural pluralism. Religious fundamentalism represents a threat to world peace. The Reformation taught Europe the unique problems of religious violence that remain true today. Firstly, deterrence is often not effective. The ardent believer is happy to embrace martyrdom for the cause. Secondly, non-believers are not merely threatened with destruction as part of a negotiation; their destruction is the object. This makes resolution via political means very difficult. Nevertheless, the assertion by some that modern day Terrorism is a war is not persuasive because wars are fought between states, not by individuals. There remains a risk that a religious fanatic could take control of a state, but this is unlikely. The views of fanatics are by definition not widely held, so any such individual would struggle to achieve the support needed to gain and maintain control over a state. There is a risk that conflicts caused by religion could escalate to global conflict between religions. Many recent and ongoing conflicts have religious roots, but they are also generally caused by conflict over land and resources. In addition, religious conflict is generally more savage between sects than between religions, which cause such conflicts to be more often inward rather than outward looking, and therefore contained to regional conflict or civil war.
Globalisation is another potential source of national and global political instability. Regardless of where we live, we are all likely to be much better off than our ancestors. However Reference Group Theory shows that we are more inclined to make comparisons against the people around us. Relative wealth is more important than absolute wealth in determining whether people are happy. Improvements in communication technology have allowed people to make the comparison on a global scale. Some have imagined that workers could unit in a global proletariat in the pursuit of Marxist revolution. However there are serious issues in trying to apply Marx’s ideas to contemporary global politics. Workers on a global scale have little in common, and national identity has always been stronger than class identity. The world is now far more complicated than Marx’s binary categories of unskilled worker against capitalist factory owner. In addition, the end goal of a Marxist revolution is to control the state, which does not exist at the global level. While there is plenty of opportunity for violent conflict, as in the case of religion it is likely to be limited to regional conflict or civil war.
A significant risk of wider conflicts comes from traditional nationalism. This can manifest in an ultranationalist government seeking to embrace co-nationals beyond its existing borders, or a nationalist movement trying to dismember a transnational state. Historic attempts by countries in the Middle East to promote Arab or Islamic nationalism in opposition to the imperialist powers has had global attention given the significance of the region in terms of oil supplies. However history post World War II has shown that nationalist aspirations are normally limited geographically by whatever the nationalists believe are their natural borders. Unsettled borders between nuclear states such as India and Pakistan as well as North and South Korea represent the most serious risk of war. Since its invention the nuclear bomb has represented one of humanities greatest existential threats. While the majority view among psychologists is that we are not doomed to fight, we are nevertheless dangerously prone to do so. We often underestimate the costs of conflict and overestimate the chances of success. Prudent politicians must counteract these weaknesses by damping down their own people’s hostility to other peoples.
There are then plenty of threats to global peace, but there are also pacifist responses to counter them. Pacifism can be considered in terms of its absolutist and consequentialist strands. Absolutists like Ghandi echoed Socrates’ belief that doing injustice is worst than suffering injustice, and acting violently is worse than suffering violence. This is easily attacked by the claim that pacifists who refuse to defend others do not prevent violence, and must share the guilt in letting them suffer. Some pacifists simply accept this consequence, and others look for methods of passive resistance that could prevent it. It should be noted that the effectiveness of non-cooperation depends on how much our enemy requires our cooperation. It was effective in the fight against British control of India, but would have done nothing to save the enemies of the Nazis from extermination. Consequentialists aim to minimise the level of violence, but this carries the challenge of balancing short term and long term casualties, and the uncertainty of calculation. To take a dramatic example, in 1946 philosopher Bertrand Russell made the pacifist case for a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the U.S. against the Soviet Union. This was based on the assumption that war between the two powers was inevitable, so it was better to have a short war before the Soviet Union gained its own nuclear weapon capability, in order to prevent World War III. With the benefit of hindsight we know this assumption was wrong. Pacifists also face the problem of deterrence, which may be necessary to prevent war against aggressors with no pacifist leanings. British politicians in the 1930s faced the question of whether rearmament would make war with Nazi Germany more or less likely. On a more practical level, it is difficult to persuade a pacifist population to pay for weapons that they don’t want to be used. Deterrence also requires considerable duplicity, and requires the pacifist to persuade their enemy that they will act irrationally. The system of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is the obvious example. The only purpose of retaliation is stop something that in the event that it would be required has already happened. The dead will not be brought back to life by the deaths of millions more. It is more rational and desirable for the pacifist to end the violence by surrendering, but this would destroy the deterrent.
The idea of World Government has appealed to many as a means to counter the threat of violence between states, starting with the Greek thinker Isocrates who argued for an umbrella government to keep the Greek city-states in order. In Immanuel Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ there emerged the modern vision of a peacekeeping league of nations. He argued that while people have the right to self-government, uncontrolled national autonomy increased the likelihood of conflict. On the other hand true World Government is impractical (large and powerful states would not surrender their national sovereignty) but also immoral, as it violates the right of peoples to self-government. John Rawls wrote on similar lines that domestically, only a constituted state is legitimate. Today’s United Nations does not interfere in a national government’s internal affairs, but will intervene to protect a member state from aggression by another state. The question of whether it should intervene to prevent immoral but nevertheless internal acts by states (such as genocide) is an ongoing debate, but for some the question exposes a flaw of the United Nations. There is often a pressure on politicians to intervene in the affairs of states that violate the human rights of their citizens. If people have a right to self-government then intervention is only permissible when asked for. This becomes difficult when some ask for assistance and other do not, and when state propaganda prevents people from acting in their own interests. Recent history suggests that effective intervention is very difficult, and when ineffective it makes things worse, leaving a breeding group for terrorism. The question of when to intervene is difficult when there is no global consensus on the subject of human rights, or on what constitutes a failed state.
There are few genuinely new challenges in politics, but Climate Change is arguably one of them. It is also the most compelling reason for more powerful international institutions than currently exist. Climate Change is likely to lead (among other things) to mass migration and scarcity of essential resources, including food and water, which all carry a high risk of causing conflict. On that basis it can be argued that the system of collective security embodied within the United Nations can make it a sufficient international institution to enable us to address Climate Change. The systems required to agree international regulations exist. What is lacking is a consensus on the equitable distribution of the burdens of effective regulation, willingness to comply with them, and in some parts of the world the capability to enforce them. The idea that a single world government can solve these issues, rather than better local government is bordering on utopian. A better goal of international institutions is to work to improve governments throughout the world by targeting ignorance and corruption.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: