In the conflict-ridden realm of international relations, certain terms are particularly useful, and one of them is “Red Lines.” Derived from the concept of a “line in the sand,” first employed in antiquity, the term “Red Lines” appears to have emerged in the 1970s to denote what one nation regards as unacceptable from other nations. In short, it is an implicit threat.
Russian Red Lines
Vladimir Putin, self-anointed restorer of the Russian empire, has tossed about the term repeatedly in recent years. “I hope nobody will get it into their heads to cross Russia’s so-called red line,” he warned in April 2021. “Where it will be drawn, we will decide ourselves in each specific case.” These red lines, although addressing a variety of issues, have been proclaimed frequently. At the end of that November, Putin announced that Russia would take action if NATO crossed its “red lines” on Ukraine, saying that the deployment of offensive missile capabilities on Ukrainian soil would serve as a trigger. In mid-December, as Russian military forces massed within striking distance of Ukraine, the Russian foreign ministry demanded that NATO not only rule out any further expansion, but remove any troops or weapons from NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Balkan countries and obtain Russian permission before holding any military drills in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia.
Finally, on February 24, 2022, Putin―ignoring a U.S. offer to negotiate some of these items―sent a massive Russian military force pouring into Ukraine in a full-scale invasion. “This is the red line that I talked about multiple times,” he said, and “they have crossed it.” Most nations were not impressed by this justification, for the Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of large portions of Ukraine were clear violations of international law and, as such, were condemned by the United Nations General Assembly and the International Court of Justice.
Of course, Putin’s red lines and international aggression, though particularly blatant, are hardly the only features of this kind that have appeared throughout Russian or world history.
American and Chinese Red Lines
The United States has a lengthy record in this regard. As Professor Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School has written, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 involved “drawing a red line―with an implicit war threat” against “any European efforts to colonize or reassert control in the Western Hemisphere.” Given the relative weakness of the United States at the time, the U.S. government did not attempt to enforce President James Monroe’s grandiose pronouncement. But, with the emergence of the United States as a great power, its government expanded the Monroe Doctrine to justify frequent U.S. meddling in hemispheric affairs, including conquering and annexing Latin American territory. Even in recent decades, when U.S. annexations have become a relic of the past, the U.S. government has engaged in military intervention in other lands, especially in the Caribbean and Central America, but also in Asia and the Middle East (where President George W. Bush drew what he called “a line in the sand”).
In recent years, as China’s military and economic power have grown, its government, too, has begun emphasizing its red lines. Meeting with U.S. President Joseph Biden in mid-November 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that Taiwan was the “first red line that must not be crossed.” Xi did not mention the tension-fraught situation in the South China Sea, where China had set up military fortifications on islands claimed by its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines. But here, as well, China had red lines―leading to the current dangerous confrontations between U.S. and Chinese warships in the region. Sharply rejecting a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that denied China’s control of the area, the Chinese government continued to build up fortifications on the disputed islands. Furthermore, Chinese troops have continued for more than six decades to engage in violent military clashes with Indian troops along the disputed border, in the Himalayan region, between their two nations.
The Dangers of Red Lines Drawn by Individual Nations
Although it could be argued that red lines are only an innocent expression of what a nation considers unacceptable in world affairs, it’s worth noting that they are employed especially by major nations. The “great powers,” after all, have the military strength to give their warnings some credibility. Conversely, smaller, weaker nations do not usually bother to issue such pronouncements, as their warnings―and even their interests―are rarely taken as seriously. For this reason, the issuance of red lines usually boils down to a matter of what nation has the power to compel other nations to accept its demands.
Consequently, red lines lead inevitably to spheres of influence that other nations are supposed to respect―including a U.S. sphere in Latin America, a Russian sphere in Europe, and a Chinese sphere in Asia. Naturally, people and nations living in the shadow of these major powers are not enthusiastic about this arrangement, which explains why many Latin Americans want the Yankees to go home, many Europeans fear Russian hegemony, and many Asians are wary of the rise of China.
Another problem with the issuance of red lines is their tendency to inspire international conflict and war. Given their roots in the professed interests of a single nation, they do not necessarily coincide with the interests of other nations. In this competitive situation, conflict is almost inevitable. Where, in these circumstances, is there a place for collective action to fashion a common agreement―one recognizing the fundamental interests of all nations?
A World Federalist Alternative
Rather than a world of red lines proclaimed by a few powerful nations, what humanity needs is a strengthened United Nations―a global federation of nations in which competing national priorities are reconciled and enforced through agreements, treaties, and international law.
Setting red lines for the world is too important to be left to individual, self-interested countries. They should be set―and respected―by all.
Russia’s war upon Ukraine should remind us that violent international conflicts not only persist, but constitute a plague upon the world.
Over thousands of years, wars have brought immense suffering to people around the globe. In addition to the widespread annihilation of human life, wars have produced vast material losses, including the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, entire cities, the environment, and much of what people value as civilization. They have also channeled enormous financial resources into military buildups that, even if not employed in battle, deprive other public and private programs of adequate attention and funding. Also, since World War II, when nuclear weapons were first developed and used with terrible effect, the means of waging war have entered a new dimension, giving it the power to destroy virtually all life on earth.
Although, in recent centuries, many people have lamented war’s squandering of blood and treasure, as well as the suicidal nature of modern war, they have not yet found an effective way to stop it.
Public Efforts to Avoid War
One popular response to war is isolationism, which is designed to keep one’s nation out of the conflict. But this policy (labeled “America First” in the United States) ignores the suffering of other people and, of course, does nothing to stop a war elsewhere. In addition, it is often accompanied by a military buildup of one’s own nation, a policy that has a poor track record when it comes to preventing war.
Pacifism is on a higher ethical plane, for it deplores the horrors produced by militarism and war. Furthermore, if most people around the world accepted the absolute pacifist position (which rejects military force in all circumstances), pacifists might be able to prevent wars from occurring or continuing. But this is not the case and, given widespread public support for “just wars” (including defense against invasion), seems unlikely to become so. Nonviolent resistance, a form of radical pacifism, has greater potentiality as an alternative to war or surrender, although its full promise has yet to be realized in coping with international war.
Effective Governance and Violent Behavior
By contrast, within nations there are alternatives to violent behavior that, although not always totally effective, do reduce it substantially. Legislative bodies enact laws, while police and judicial institutions enforce these laws. Unfortunately, on the global level, these institutions are so rudimentary and limited in power that they fail to produce an effective check upon violence. Thus, on the national level, governments can restrain violence by individuals, mobs, or insurrectionists. But, on the international level, things proceed much as they did in the American Wild West of yesteryear. In this state of international anarchy, strong nations all too often threaten or wage war upon the weak, and nations often feel insecure unless they maintain a substantial capacity for war.
In short, while nations have established useful governance at the national level, the world lacks effective governance at the international level. As a result, when nations have an international conflict, they are tempted, in the absence of the force of law, to invoke the law of force.
Strengthening Global Governance
Even so, the nations of the world could unite in the interest of their common security and bolster institutions of global governance. To strengthen the UN Security Council, they could abolish the veto and substitute a rotating membership for the permanent membership of Russia, China, the United States, Britain, and France. To strengthen the General Assembly, they could give it additional legislative power, including the power to fund the United Nations through taxation. To enhance the democratic nature of the United Nations, they could establish a world parliament, with representatives elected by the public rather than selected by national governments. Additional power could also be granted to the International Criminal Court and to the International Court of Justice to conduct investigations, deliver judgments, and enforce their rulings.
These kinds of reform measures have been advocated for years by the World Federalist Movement/Institute for Global Policy and by its U.S. member organization, Citizens for Global Solutions. Strengthened governmental authority on the global level is also supported by world public opinion.
A stronger array of international institutions is not a cure-all for international war. But, like the enforcement of gun control within nations, it would significantly reduce the number of violent incidents. It would help prevent international aggression. And it would save the world from nuclear war by enforcing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. After thousands of years of blood and plunder, topped off in recent decades by the looming danger of a nuclear holocaust, isn’t it time to give strengthened global governance a try?
Nations of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your wars.
A world government is in the making, and we desperately need one. Why?
The world today is in turmoil, and our current global governance infrastructure (the UN, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), etc.) has proven itself unable to rise to the challenge, despite its best efforts. The undemocratic and ineffective UN Security Council, where five permanent members wield a veto that can block any binding resolution related to peace and security, routinely fails to prevent international political conflict. For example, Russia, a permanent member of the Council, has repeatedly blocked resolutions related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Individual countries, especially the US, Russia, and China, are not sufficiently held accountable when they don’t adhere to the provisions of international climate change or nuclear weapons control/disarmament treaties. This was the case when the US pulled out of the Paris Accords and Russia refused to support a recent UN version of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Human rights violations abound despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Why are our international institutions incapable of addressing these threats to global security?
The reason is that one desperately-needed element is missing from the global security architecture: international law. As esteemed world federalist and Nuremberg War Crimes Trial prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz stated, “the only way to… solve the problem of war… is to replace the law of force with the force of law.” The law of force characterizes today’s international system as countries exercise absolute sovereignty and can invade other nations, disregard international treaties, and abuse their citizens or migrants with impunity. And, when other countries attempt to de-escalate a crisis or urge the offending government to obey international norms and declarations, there is little that can be done beyond condemning the country at the UN or imposing sanctions, which hurt the entire country. And that is the way of a world governed by the law of force… injustice leads to more injustice.
A democratically elected world government can end this cycle of injustice by providing stability and security in a chaotic international environment desperately in need of some sanity. It would do this by requiring that each country’s national military be reduced to what is required for internal policing, diverting military budgets into domestic infrastructure that will enhance citizens’ quality of life. An “international peacekeeping force” would be created to enforce world law and prevent interstate conflict as part of an international “executive branch.”
But do not despair! A world government is more than feasible; it is in the works.
History has demonstrated that, as economic and technological change transformed countries, their political system likewise changed to safeguard people’s rights and security. Sovereignty resided in clans and tribes, then towns, cities, dynasties, and nation-states as socioeconomic conditions obligated people to entrust their security to more centralized governments with greater jurisdiction, capable of preventing internal conflict. The most recent “socioeconomic conditions”- the Industrial Revolution, the development of the atomic bomb, and the digital revolution- have given rise to a technological, economically, and physically interconnected world that needs an interconnected world government capable of protecting us all from the ripple effects of the abuses caused by absolute sovereignty. The most extreme case of absolute sovereignty annihilating the world is a country unilaterally starting a nuclear war.
This historical and inevitable transfer of authority to higher levels of government with greater jurisdiction is exemplified by American history when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 formed a federal government despite some delegates’ objections. This federal government worked to ensure internal unity and stability by preventing the South from destroying the United States to preserve slavery and- despite failing to prevent many human rights abuses against African Americans and other marginalized groups- eventually successfully passed landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that moved the needle toward greater justice and equality for all. And this was done while protecting states’ rights, just as a world government would protect national sovereignty. Were it not for a strong, centralized government, the separate states would probably have failed to effectively address the secession challenge and slavery might not have been abolished. So, while a world government, like the US government, would not be perfect, it would provide internal stability and unity and make universal declarations of human/civil rights- in addition to international treaties that address shared global challenges- legally binding.
Fortunately, people are recognizing the inevitability of a world government.
Already nations are demanding UN Security Council reform to challenge the undue influence afforded to a handful of lucky countries, urging that the more democratic General Assembly play a greater role in UN resolutions regarding peace and security. There are vibrant global campaigns to establish a UN Parliamentary Assembly whose decisions would be binding, and to strengthen international courts like the International Criminal Court. The movement for world federalism, led by the World Federalist Movement/Institute for Global Policy, is rapidly growing, with thousands of politicians all over the globe supporting the movement and new organizations like Atlas and Young World Federalists joining the cause.
When enough people exert enough pressure on their national governments to call for a world government, there will be a world government. Let’s hope, for the sake of the coming generations, that enough people wake up before it’s too late.
If humanity is to survive in the face of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and international political conflict, we must muster the courage to act with conviction and unity. On every level, starting at the individual and rising to the nation state, we must adopt the mindset with which world leaders approached the enormous task of ensuring global peace following the horrors of World War II. Yet, unfortunately, we are currently lacking that conviction and that unity.
Multilateral institutions have all too often failed to fulfill their mandate. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, publicly acknowledged the failure of the UN Security Council, the organ of the United Nations tasked with ensuring global security and peace, to prevent or end the Ukraine war. The Security Council has been ineffective because it is composed of five permanent members―the United States, China, Russia, France, and Britain―that have veto power that can block any resolution set forth to cope with conflict, as Russia has repeatedly done with respect to the Ukraine war.
Although there is a general consensus that the climate crisis must be addressed internationally, climate accords tend to be legally unenforceable and are easily stymied by disagreement over which countries are most responsible for cutting back on fossil fuel emissions and how to establish a roadmap for emissions reduction. For example, the Paris Accords require countries to set their “national determined contributions,” which can be lax or stringent, and rely mainly on peer pressure to promote compliance. Furthermore, the backing of the largest emissions contributors, the United States and China, is crucial if these agreements are to be effective. International action on climate change was greatly hindered by the U.S. government’s decision against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, just as the Paris Agreement suffered greatly when the Trump administration decided to pull the United States out of it.
Nor do our current global institutions seem capable of securing nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons states (NWS) like Russia, China, and the United States have recently failed to honor their nuclear disarmament commitments, with the Russian government refusing to back the final draft of an updated declaration on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Furthermore, China, the United States, Russia, and the six other NWS have declined to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an agreement promoted by non-nuclear weapons states frustrated with the failure of the nuclear powers to adhere to the nuclear disarmament commitments laid out in the NPT.
To effectively address these transnational threats, we need to begin strengthening and transforming the United Nations into a democratically-elected world federation. This is a colossal yet imperative task currently promoted by the World Federalist Movement and its U.S. member organization, Citizens for Global Solutions.
Why is a world federation necessary?
As the philosopher Emery Reves argued, the Industrial Revolution ushered in an economically and physically interdependent world while leaving political decision-making power in the hands of individual states. This is a lawless system that gave rise to the world wars. The only way to prevent conflict is to transfer some political authority to a higher source: a world government. Norman Cousins, former editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review, put the need for world federalism in the context of the atomic age, arguing that the advent of the nuclear bomb made national sovereignty “obsolete.” In an unregulated international environment, any country could easily acquire nuclear weapons, thereby threatening the national sovereignty of others, as well as all humankind. Thus, the concession of absolute national sovereignty is essential to secure the stability and survival of all nations in the future.
How can a world government be created?
One key proposal is to strengthen the United Nations by transforming the General Assembly into a world legislature that can pass binding resolutions. Richard Hudson, a world federalist, argued that such a legislature could employ a procedure for decision-making in which binding resolutions would be approved with a two-thirds majority vote of the current member states, countries that represent two-thirds of the total population of the member states, and nations that contribute two-thirds of funds to the world government’s budget. World federalists also advocate reforming the UN Security Council by revoking the veto and increasing the number of permanent members on the Council, key reforms supported by figures like Brazil’s newly-elected president, Lula da Silva. Other key suggestions include creating an “International Disarmament Organization” and strengthening the International Criminal Court.
The newly created world government could be equipped to effectively address climate change, interstate conflict, and nuclear proliferation. Each country’s national military could be reduced to what is required for internal policing, diverting military budgets into domestic infrastructure that would enhance its citizens’ quality of life. An “international peacekeeping force” could be created to enforce world law and prevent interstate conflict as part of an international executive branch. Furthermore, the democratically-elected world legislature could require the complete disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. As for climate change, the world government could issue binding resolutions guiding the Earth toward a more sustainable future through green technology and climate change mitigation. Furthermore, some world federalists and environmental activists advocate the creation of an International Court for the Environment, which could provide an enforcement mechanism for climate treaties.
Is a world republic is unattainable?
What country would agree to limit its absolute sovereignty? And yes, a country whose political leaders are held captive by special interests like military contractors and the fossil fuel industry might not agree to such an arrangement. Yet if the people unite with conviction to claim their right to live in a peaceful world, free from nuclear weapons, and to enjoy an economically and environmentally sustainable future―birthrights a world federal government is uniquely positioned to protect―this seemingly unattainable dream could become our reality.
I am a grandmother, and I have a dream that grandparents will work with their grandchildren to unite the world and build a better future.
But first we need to have a vision of how the world could be improved.
Many global problems face the world today
There are many problems facing the world today, including war and the threat of nuclear destruction, climate change, human rights abuses, hunger, extreme poverty, growing income inequality, and global pandemics. One central source of our global problems is that we have put nations above people. I think we should put people first. National sovereignty and security should not be more important that the sovereignty and security of individuals. Governments should be protecting the rights and freedoms of their people, not sacrificing them.
War is one way in which nations sacrifice their people rather than protect them. War kills and injures people. War destroys the environment. War robs us of our financial and natural resources War does not bring peace, although it does make a lot of money for some.
Think creatively to eliminate war
Surely it is time to think creatively about eliminating war. Here in the United States, we can look to our own history for a way to accomplish that. When Americans decided to transform the confederation of 13 colonies into a federation of states, they agreed to resolve their differences in a court of law rather than on the battlefield. The original 13 states were able to eliminate or transform their militias. With no need any longer to fight one another, they could rely on the rule of law to settle disputes. Although the rule of law is not perfect, it is the best method we have found. And it is preferable to war.
We need a similar transformation at the global level. Why not transform the confederation of nations known as the United Nations into a United Federation of Nations? Under this strengthened UN system, all nations could agree to resolve their differences using the rule of law rather than weapons of destruction. Nations could be required to disarm and to transform their armed forces into peacekeeping forces that would respond to natural disasters and other domestic crises.
Unite the World
To implement this program, we could start by creating a World Parliament at the United Nations to give a voice to the people of the world, rather than just their governments. We also need a world constitution to define a democratic federation of nations with a universal declaration of human rights and the ability to create and enforce world law that outlaws war and nuclear weapons. Furthermore, we will need international courts (such as the International Criminal Court) and international police to arrest those who break the law. Fortunately, much work has been done defining these components over the past 75 years.
All these components will cost much less than the vast amounts spent on the current war systems. Furthermore, a United Federation of Nations could be employed to deal effectively with other global problems, such as climate change.
This vision is shared by the Young World Federalists. Their tag line is “Unite the World.” As their website explains, they are “a global movement to unite humanity through the creation of a democratic world federation.” They believe that the current system of competitive sovereign countries fails to tackle the global challenges that impact us all. Accordingly, they advocate a new form of global governance, one in which people cooperate to secure their common interest through a democratic world federation. They envision a sustainable, just, and peaceful world through a democratic world federation. It would be a world run by humanity, for humanity, providing equal opportunity to all on a thriving planet.
Work across the generations
The Young World Federalists (YWF) are building on the work of well-established organizations such as Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS). CGS was founded 75 years ago, and many of its supporters, like me, are grandparents of the Young World Federalists’ generation. We are delighted to be working with these young people and, in fact, have a lot to learn from them in this modern era of social media and technology. We also have a lot to share with them, including our knowledge, experience, and funding. One of their programs that we are co-sponsoring is the Week for World Parliament, which includes an event in New York City on October 22-23.
Working together, young and old, we are committed to building a united world and a better future for all.