Is world government the only hope?

EPA/Justin Lane

Surveying the current world order, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is essentially ungovernable. Chaos, conflict and crises seem to be the order of the day. The phrase “international order” seems increasingly oxymoronic and as remote a prospect as that other staple of the disciplinary discourse, the “international community”.

You might be surprised to learn, therefore, that some of the smartest international relations (IR) scholars in the world think that a world government or state is not only desirable on normative grounds, but it is also only a question of time before it happens. Admittedly, the time in question may be 100 or 200 years, but it’s a remarkable idea nonetheless.

There are a number of reasons for thinking that this might occur, according to the likes of Alexander Wendt, who is currently one of the most influential IR theorists in the world. No doubt the words “IR theory” have induced a good deal of eye-rolling among some readers, but just because something sounds unlikely and at odds with current reality, doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Who, after all, would ever have predicted that Germany and France would be the central pillars of a regional order that for more than half a century has ensured peace and political co-operation across the formerly blood-soaked European continent? If the EU’s current problems presage its downfall we may get a painful reminder of what Europe looks like without a powerful transnational political architecture.

World government is likely, the argument goes, in part because it is the historical direction of travel. Over the very long run, separate political units have vastly decreased in number and are likely to continue doing so –- the EU’s travails notwithstanding. It would be surprising and remarkable if there weren’t problems on the way to greater political integration where none has existed before.

There is another powerful reason to think great political co-operation and integration is likely: the world is simply too dangerous a place not to do so. Nuclear weapons in particular mean that states have little choice other than to cooperate if they want to avoid mutual annihilation. The recent agreement with Iran may not be perfect, but it is another important illustration of the way the world must go.

The destructive potential of contemporary armaments is something that must be collectively managed if it is not to destroy us. The good news here is that an old-fashioned war of conquest is almost unimaginable, pointless and irrational. The bad news is that the current arms race in East Asia still makes accident or miscalculation a real possibility. All the more reason for institutionalised dialogue, of course.

There is a compelling normative argument in favour of world government, too. If the still-powerful Western democracies take their own values and political principles seriously, they need to think about how they can be transposed to the international level. As the Americans have discovered to their cost, such values cannot be simply imposed on recalcitrant populations with little enthusiasm for, or history of, democracy, liberalism or respect for human rights.

This is – potentially, at least – where theory comes in. We – the human race, no less – need to think about the mechanisms and processes that might allow us to live with some prospect of stability; perhaps even progress.

Yes, it does sound a bit unlikely, but the alternative is despair and giving in to the bomb throwers (and manufacturers). If IR theorists can’t contribute to such a project, no matter how distant a prospect it may currently seem, we might well ask what their role actually is.

One such scholar who has embraced the challenge with remarkable energy and optimism is Luis Cabrera of Griffith University. Lou – a friend, colleague, and one of the world’s more admirable human beings – has established the World Government Research Network, which highlights the contributions of some of the leading thinkers on the possibility of world government.

In addition to Alex Wendt, the network’s inaugural conference features the likes of Daniel Deudney and Thoms Pogge – names don’t get much bigger in IR circles. True, there are some lesser lights, too (I’m going), but it is testimony to what can be achieved when a university decides to make a strategic investment in a potential growth area.

Griffith University’s public policy/IR department is undoubtedly one of the strongest in the country now as a direct consequence of this sort of initiative. Yes, that is a rather unsubtle bit of lobbying, I’m afraid.

You don’t need to take my word for any of this, though. If you’re interested, and anyone who’s bothered to read this far presumably is, check out the World Government website and listen to some of the finest minds on the planet. We can only hope they know what they’re talking about.