The Long View: Our Global Neighborhood

John's basic take on the report issued by the UN in 1995 on improving its own efficiency was this was a document written by hard-working, well-meaning bureaucrats. That doesn't mean it isn't also a revolutionary tract.

Many of the complaints in this volume are just. For example, NYC spent more on its uniformed police and fire services in 1995 than the UN did on peacekeeping. On the other hand, NYC arguably has a bigger army than most independent nations. There is also the difficulty the UN has collecting the funds its member nations have agreed to give it, and the patronage system that selects UN bureaucrats.

All of this is a whitewash designed to deflect attention from the organizing principle of the work, which is to make the UN, in concert with other existing international institutions, into a world government. This report suggests dismantling the UN as it is exists, the remnant of the coalition that won the Second World War, and turning it into a proper government, one with general powers, police, courts, and unambigious jurisdiction.

I suppose if I worked for the UN, I might be willing to endorse such an idea. If want your organization to succeed, you usually want the means to fulfill the ends.  I just cannot imagine actually wanting to work for the UN.

The boldest proposal in this document is worthy of any barracks-lawyer. The authors propose handing control of the global commons to the UN Trusteeship Council. There is something to be said for this, what with the tragedy of the commons. However, you might notice the "commons" is defined as anything not under the exclusive, unambiguous control of an existing nation-state. That pretty much amounts to everything that currently exists.

On the gripping hand, what is most interesting about this idea is its very parochialism. The class of international businessmen, bureaucrats, and professional do-gooders who back this proposal are the flowering of Western progressivism, and they have nothing in common with the teeming masses of the Global South they purportedly represent.

Our Global Neighborhood

The Report of the Commission on Global Governance

Oxford University Press 1995

$14.95, 410 pp.

ISBN 0-19-827997-3

The Great International "Them" Unmasked!

Even the most powerful and carefully devised conspiracy is bound to make some fatal mistake. Perhaps a letter will fall into the hands of a crusading journalist, a prominent conspirator will attract unwanted attention on the way to a secret meeting, the vast sums being moved through the international banking system to support the conspiracy's activities will excite the curiosity of an obscure but honest clerk. The conspiracy to end the international regime of sovereign states and replace it with a world government has made a different misstep: they wrote their ideas down in a report by a barnfull of international bureaucrats and published it in a 410 page paperback book. Some people just can't keep a secret.

Seriously, the earnest and hardworking diplomats and technical experts responsible for "Our Global Neighborhood" are not trying to do anything underhanded. Mostly. The idea behind the report was that, what with the end of the Cold War and the 50th anniversary of the U.N. coming up, it might be a good idea to do a general performance review of the major international institutions, particularly of the U.N. itself, and suggest some reforms. Willy Brandt, the former West German Chancellor, was chiefly responsible for getting the project organized in 1990, and it received the support of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the current U.N. Secretary General at the time.

Actually, as reports written by international committees go, this one is pretty good. It is of reasonable length, for one thing. Blessedly for a U.N.-related document, the text is no more cluttered with acronyms than the matter requires. There is a minimum of political posturing, and almost all the reform recommendations are practical. That, however, does not make them any less radical. In some ways, the international system they would create would be as different from the one we have now as the U.S. federal government is from the government under the Articles of Confederation. It is wrong, however, to dismiss the report as just another example of one-worldism. "World Federalism" and similar sentiments have existed, in the U.S. and elsewhere, since the end of the Second World War. They had always been negligible because there was nothing behind them. Today, this is no longer true. Long before Marx, Hegel recognized that no social development can get anywhere if there is no "class of civil society" behind it. Unlike the 1940s, such a class exists in the 1990s.

Many of the Commission's proposals have merit. They have a laundry list of social development agencies in the U.N. system that never seem to have done anyone any good and that richly deserve to be discontinued. As a streamlining measure, they suggest putting economic development and related activities under the purview of a new Economic Security Council. They show how the Secretary General could be set free to do more basic administration if he were not required to produce so many useless reports. They acknowledge that the U.N. bureaucracy is about as efficient as the Italian Post Office on a bad day (though not, of course, as bad as the municipal government of Washington, D.C.), and suggest a procedure for turning it into an honest civil service. This means, for instance, that officials would be hired on the basis of ability rather than what country's turn it is to fill a given post. They complain that the uniformed municipal services of New York City had more money to spend on fire and police protection in 1992 than the U.N. did on peacekeeping operations for that year. They argue, persuasively, that countries should at least pay for the activities their representatives have authorized. They suggest a number of reasonable measures to reform the formula for calculating the assessments made by the U.N. on its members, and various ways to make these deadbeats pay up.

In many ways, "Our Global Neighborhood" is refreshingly realistic. The report notes early on that there is no world "community." That is, we deceive ourselves if we believe that the peoples of the world all value pretty much the same things and that all identify themselves with world society in the way that they may identify themselves as Chinese or Sunni Moslems or French speakers. (The report does lapse into the use of the phrase "world community" later on, but since today we use expressions like "the pickpocket community" and "the tubercular community," it is understandable if the commission members could not help themselves.) What we do have is a world neighborhood. We live in a limited space where we are all going to interact whether we want to or not. Therefore, we have to make some accommodations so as not to annoy each other. This is a perfectly satisfactory exposition of the matter.

Amazingly for a document prepared largely by U.N.-types, the report has hardly any animus against free enterprise. This is remarkable because many of the people on the commission were responsible for such 1970s phenomena as the New International Economic Order, which was a plan whereby developed countries would ship their development to underdeveloped countries, and the New World Information Order, which was a plan for preventing independent western news organizations from disseminating unpleasant news about the governments of those countries. Most of the commission's major proposals contemplate the direct involvement of private businesses. Multinational corporations are seen as at least morally neutral, and even potentially useful. A recurrent theme of the report is that history has shown that centrally controlled economies do not work. Much of the report does not deal with the U.N. at all, but with bodies like the World Bank and the new World Trade Organization. These bodies could use a bit of coordination, but the commission finds it good that such institutions remain independent. Government itself is recognized to be of limited effectiveness.

Still, at the heart of the report, there lies a solid nugget of dissimulation. The commission is at pains to emphasize that what it is promoting is world governance, not world government. Governance is primarily a matter of establishing generally accepted rules. There may, of course, be certain bodies entrusted with the task of settling disputes and enforcing the rules from time to time, but they are not essential to the concept. The system of competition between professional soccer teams, for instance, is a form of "governance," but that is a long way from saying that soccer, either nationally or internationally, is government-controlled. The same point might be made about free market economies in general. While entrepreneurs and consumers will occasionally have recourse to the courts, most of the time business flows on autonomously, under the governance of well-known custom and the understood principles of contract. A surprising amount of the international system has always worked like this, from the usages regarding the repatriation of diplomatic personnel in time of war to the happy anonymity of such venerable institutions as the Universal Postal Union. The Report of the Committee on Global Governance purports to be doing nothing more than to make some incremental reforms to this already-existing ecology of international relations.

I'm sorry, it just won't wash. The adoption of the major proposals in this report would transform the chief international institutions of today into a world government of general powers, with the U.N. at its center. The commission members want the veto power of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council phased out, thereby transforming that body from a council of ambassadors to an executive. They want the current jurisdiction of the World Court, which today is voluntary, made mandatory for all member states. They want to make persons and organizations, and not just states, the subjects of international law, so they propose creating a "Council of Petition" where aggrieved private parties could plead their case without a state sponsor. They want an international principle to be established that world military forces may intervene for humanitarian reasons in member states without those states' permission, and they want a standing U.N. army to expedite the process. They want to create an international criminal court to punish crimes like genocide. They want to create an independent tax base to support international institutions. (They recoil, wisely, from the notion that the U.N. should become a taxing authority. Instead, they propose that levies be placed, presumably by member states, on activities of an essentially international nature, such as international money transfers and deep sea fishing. The proceeds would then be used to fund international agencies.) Perhaps the most breathtaking of their proposals is the Trusteeship of the Global Commons.

The U.N. Trusteeship Council was created to oversee the transition of certain former colonies to independence or other autonomously chosen status. However, the world today being what it is, the Council is fresh out of former colonies to oversee. The Commission on Global Governance suggests that this Council be given charge of overseeing the use of the "global commons." The oversight would include such things as licensing the use of the commons to private companies, and conditioning this use on the private parties agreeing to make certain investments conducive to global development. It took a moment for the full import of these suggestions to come home to me. The global commons is everything not under the exclusive jurisdiction of a sovereign state. This includes the ocean. And the mineral-rich ocean bed. And the atmosphere. And near space, including the narrow range of orbits in which geosynchronous communications satellites can be deployed. And all the planets in the solar system. And all the stars in the sky. Access to some of these resources is still a bit hypothetical, but we may rest assured that, as soon as someone figures out a way to make use of them, someone from the U.N. Trusteeship Council will be there, asking for a cut.

Now, though this is a outline for a government, it would not be a very effective government. The commission wants states (and the individuals within them) to be gradually disarmed, even though the proposed U.N. army would be little more than a SWAT team with airlift capacity. In other words, the proposal would ensure that when situations arise that require the use of force, there will be no force available. As for its funding and economic development proposals, expressions like "ramshackle" and "invitation to graft" come to mind. And actually, the commission does recognize that the burden of world governance would overwhelm the institutional arrangements the report outlines. The commission does not anticipate that the official institutions should bear the primary burden. Rather, the governance of the world will rest primarily on the spontaneous self-organization of global civil society.

They are onto something. Although the concept of a "citizen of the world" is very old, the fact is that, at most times in history, such creatures have been extremely rare. Particularly at the time the U.N. was created they were very thin on the ground. The world at the end of the Second World War was run by states with isolated, overprotected economies, mutually inexchangeable currencies, and visa regulations that Kafka would not have incorporated into his novels because they were too improbable. Global civil society, the people whose livelihoods and intellectual horizons could really be said to have a global dimension, was confined to a few thousand businessmen and a rather larger number of diplomats and higher civil servants. Today, the situation is quite remarkably different. Money and goods flow between states with an ease not seen since before the First World War, when the long twentieth century slide toward state control and militarism began. The costs of communication and travel have fallen spectacularly, and they are less and less under the control of private monopolies or state agencies. Businesses, if not losing their national character to the degree that some writers suggest, are at least developing a truly worldwide perspective. More important than any of these factors is the involvement of actual people with world affairs. For many, immigrants or the families of immigrants, this involvement is direct. For many others, far more influential, global questions have become questions of practical politics.

There are, according to the report, 28,900 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the world that operate in at least three countries. They include everything from the Sierra Club to Catholics for Free Choice to innumerable avatars of labor unions and trade associations. They have changed the face of international diplomacy. It used to be that international conferences were rather restricted affairs. Heads of government, their ministers and aides would get together for a few days in some picturesque spot, preferably in Switzerland, to bore each other into a pacific state of mind. Such events were rare, because the U.N. General Assembly, which sometimes seemed to think itself the Parliament of Man, was supposed to provide a continuing forum for such wide-ranging discussions. Today, however, the General Assembly is a sleepy anachronism. Instead, the U.N. takes bodily form in a series of monster international meetings, such as the Rio summit on the environment in 1992, the human rights get-together in Vienna in 1993, and the variously memorable Cairo summit of 1995 on population and development. Each of these conventions of diplomats is closely attended by a circus of NGOs to lobby and enlighten them. They attend in their thousands with posters and pamphlets, disproportionately young and unnecessarily humorless, housed in makeshift facilities that seem likely to become a permanent feature of U.N. operations. The literature on them is inadequate, though I might suggest P.J. O'Rourke's jaundiced account of the Rio summit in "All the Trouble in the World" (1994). We need a literature on them because they may become "the people of the world."

Something like this has happened before. When we think of "the people" in the revolutionary tradition, we are likely to think of shabbily-dressed peasants storming the gates of the masters' chateaux, or granitic Social Realist industrial workers staring into the eastern sunrise so as to expose the planes of their faces to best effect. In reality, however, as James Billington has explained in "Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith" (1980), the original "people" for the purposes of revolutionary agitation was the sophisticated rabble that patronized the cafes of the Palais-Royale in Paris. The gardens known as the Palais-Royale were owned by Louis XVI's slightly disreputable cousin, Phillipe d'Orleans, and so the activities there were largely immune to the police and censorship of the city. The cafes that ringed the gardens became the headquarters for most of the political factions that would play a part in the French Revolution. The gardens and cafes, many of the latter literally underground, provided venues for every philosophical sect, pleasure and vice that the late Enlightenment had to offer. The habitues were a special kind of person, and the gardens themselves a spiritually unique place, the place from which popular legitimacy issued. When the "people of Paris" marched on Versailles in 1789 to bring the king back to the city, it was from the Palais-Royale that they set out.

The NGOs and the international businesses that today seek both to expand the influence of international institutions and to shape their policies are new to the international system. Whereas heretofore international law and governance had been matters that concerned only states, now private parties are intimately involved. Moreover, there is nothing elitist or underhanded about these private parties. They are active in the political life of their home countries, so that decisions taken by international fora now have a reliable source of domestic political support. The political positions they promote are likely to be minority positions, but some minorities are always more influential than others, and the sorts of minorities that stand behind the NGOs are often very influential indeed. NGOs are now and will be for the foreseeable future overwhelmingly from the developed West. This is less of a drawback than it might seem. NGOs operate internationally in no small measure because they are frustrated with their lack of progress at home. They seek to go over the heads of their own governments. Thus, their rhetoric is often anti-Western, and so their oddly parochial origins are disguised, even from the NGOs themselves.

One of the chief restraints on the behavior of international bodies, and particularly the U.N., is that there is a big difference between a conference of ambassadors and an assembly of legislators. Ambassadors, after all, exist primarily to transmit the views of their home governments. They can generally be dismissed if they begin to act independently. To a lesser extent, these restrictions have also applied to the international civil service that was created to do the ambassadors' bidding. Today, though, ambassadors and civil servants who enjoy reasonable security of tenure can claim to represent something else, global civil society. This is not an empty abstraction, like the "We the Peoples of the United Nations" whose chimerical sovereignty is invoked by the preamble to the U.N. Charter, but a real population of breathing, rather persistent human beings. They are, of course, no more "the people of the world" than the denizens of the Palais-Royale were the people of France. However, like that other superior rabble, it is easy to imagine that they could someday become the "locus of legitimacy" for a new world order that is really new.

If global civil society as we know it today is going to play a major historical role, however, it will have to do so in fairly short order. Global civil society, for all its cant about transcending the Eurocentric vision of the world, is in reality the progressive West in its purest form. Perhaps it was only in the antiseptic, concrete-and-glass world of U.N. politics that this exotic flower could have come to maturity. Global civil society, like the society of Palais Royale, probably belongs to that class of exotics which flower dramatically but briefly. Napoleon closed down the Palais Royale only a few years after it had been the political center of the world. Napoleon knew the difference between government and governance.

This article originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1995 by John J. Reilly

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