What do the two crises – the COVID-19 pandemic and human-caused climate change – have in common? They are global and show no respect for the borders of sovereign nations. Add other global phenomena like the growth of international trade and supply chains, travel and mass migration, and information sharing via the Internet, and we see that the world’s peoples are more closely connected and dependent on each other than ever.
But we remain estranged and isolated by nationalism, making it difficult or impossible to solve global problems or to protect the earth’s life-support system. Continuing globalization exposes the weaknesses of an outmoded world order based on national sovereignty and calls for changes that place humanity above individual nations.
The Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, which ended the Thirty- and Eighty-Years Wars, established the idea that national sovereignty can maintain peace and order among nations. Westphalian Sovereignty, now enshrined in international law, asserts that each nation has exclusive control over its domestic affairs and that national borders are inviolable.
National Sovereignty Can’t Solve Global Problems
History since 1648 offers abundant evidence, however, that the world has been anything but orderly, with hundreds of violations of national borders and upending of domestic affairs by foreign powers including by violent aggression. Globalization further relegates Westphalian Sovereignty to the trash heap of good intentions.
A dynamic global atmosphere carries each nation’s air pollutants including greenhouse gases across the “inviolable” borders of many other nations. Associated changes in climates stress agriculture, water supplies, and public health systems across the world, with drastic effects on nations’ domestic affairs. Ocean currents carry water pollutants including plastics well beyond source-nation borders. In nations that are poverty-stricken, people have little economic opportunity, or suffer lawlessness. Knowledge gained from the internet facilitates mass migration, stressing the capacities and affecting the domestic affairs of nations en route and at journey’s end.
None of these problems is strictly a “domestic affair” and none can be solved by nations acting alone. The need for international regulations requiring compliance from all nations has become obvious and more urgent.
What About the UN?
The UN might seem the logical place to promulgate such regulations, but it lacks regulatory and enforcement powers over member states. In fact, it ascribes to Westphalian Sovereignty in its charter, which states in Chapter I, Article 2. Principle 7, “Nothing…..shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…..” Clearly, some powers that now fall within the jurisdiction of individual nations must be ceded to an international governing authority, but sovereignty practiced over centuries is a habit difficult to break.
A similar dilemma was faced by the founders of our nation. In the final stage of the American Revolution, the 13 colonies established the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (ACPU) that became their governing charter from 1781 to 1789. The weak central government it created was founded on the principle of protecting the sovereignty and independence of the states. The central government lacked executive and judicial branches, power to tax and regulate foreign and interstate commerce. Trade disputes broke out between states. Each state had a separate army and most had navies.
The inadequacy of the ACPU was obvious. Efforts to replace it with a constitution in which states ceded important powers to a stronger central government were finally successful and the U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1789. With amendments, it has lasted to the present day. Apart from the split in the federation that created the Civil War 72 years later, peaceful and largely orderly relations among the states have lasted nearly 230 years.
Is There a Better Way?
Could a democratic world federation of nations accomplish the same or better results on a larger scale? Barring a drastic emergency immediately requiring a world government, as in the aftermath of a catastrophic nuclear world war that destroys the governmental apparatus of many nations, it will be much more difficult and take much longer to establish a world federation. A major reason is the great diversity of cultures, traditions, and languages of the world. But as globalization continues, our present world order becomes more outdated and incapable of maintaining peace, human health and welfare and the earth’s life-support system on which everything depends.
Given such trends, it seems inevitable that some form of world government eventually will be established. Will it be democratic or autocratic? It isn’t too soon to start influencing the outcome. One organization that is trying to do so is Citizens for Global Solutions.
Ronald B. Davis of Orono is a member and volunteer for Citizens for Global Solutions. He is a professor emeritus of the University of Maine School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.