Could “World Government” Be Fashionable Once More?

Could “World Government” Be Fashionable Once More?

Stranger things have happened.  The Carnegie Council’s Ethics & International Affairs, a quarterly journal with consistently thoughtful interdisciplinary material, has this essay in its summer issue by Campbell Craig on the resurgence of the idea of world government. 

Craig finds three strands in recent thinking on the question, which basically boil down to why, how and and whether.  The ”why’ will be taken for granted by most, or at least most who would be on Carnegie’s subscription list.  One might take issue with the continuing focus on the danger of nuclear annihilation as a collective action problem (reflecting more the security-studies backgrounds of today’s top political scientists — how many cut their teeth on environmental issues? — than what’s happening on the ground).  But how many of us now question the need for global responses of some description to problems of global dimension. 

The "how" is where things get more interesting.  Craig describes the intellectual split between the global governance crowd (which sees the virtue of decentralized liberal institutions and an incremental accumulation of institutional power at the international level) and those who are looking more at a world state on a national model.  

Among the latter group — the New One-Worlders — are poli sci heavyweights Alex Wendt, Daniel Deudney, and David Held (see here, here, and here).  That means it has to be taken seriously, at least among academics.  My sense is that international law specialists (myself included) are more inclined to a global governance model (with the notable exceptions of Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss). 

One explanation for this emerging disciplinary divide is that the IR folks, true to their Realist grandfathers, are still more sensitive to Great Power projection.  If you don’t have an singular and authoritative institutional channel at the top, Craig explains, powerful states will still deploy their ample resources to upset equlibria achieved in decentralized structures.  That’s a plausible explanation for the disciplinary tendency, which of course doesn’t necessarily validate the argument itself.  IL scholars, by contrast, work from the premise of sovereign equality in which power is only uncomfortably introduced as a variable.

But international legal scholars may also better understand the enormity of establishing a world state — falling out, in other words, on the "whether".  IR has always claimed the higher ground of empirical understanding (largely because it does foreground power relationships).  Might it be that on this score the IR scholars are working in an alternate, and not very plausible, reality?  Craig deploys the EU as a historical argument supporting the possibility of world government.  That’s not much to work with, except maybe for thinking about the 23rd century. 

It may now be respectable to utter the words "world government" beyond the halls of World Federalist Movement gatherings.  But I think IL is showing the better instincts on its immediate prospects.

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