Beyond the New World Order:
A Post-Nationalist Perspective
(Reprinted from Toward Freedom)
1. Ready or Not
Their names are obscure, their goals veiled in slippery euphemisms. Yet their powers are growing steadily, and their actions have vast and unsettling implications for us all.
From the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) -- which, in turn, helped to launch the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- and on to the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and now the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the emergence of an elaborate management system for global trade and investment suggests an expected long-term outcome rarely acknowledged by its backers. That is, the gradual surrender of national sovereignty to what looks very much like a world government. Depending on what one thinks of the current world order, that's either a dream come true or a horrifying nightmare.
For some idealists, world government still offers the hope of an end to the destructive impacts of nationalism and the emergence of a higher social contract that begins to resolve the world's economic, political, and environmental inequities. For many others, however, it conjures frightening images of a dictatorial total state, imposed by force, with the power to commandeer resources and put down all challenges. Yet such speculation misses the point. The world already has what amounts to a governing administration, operating largely in private and unaccountable to anyone except the handful of people who manage its agencies and benefit from its decisions.
For several decades, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have virtually managed the economies of many countries, largely in harmony with the interests of transnational industries and major financial players. Although the United Nations does provide a forum for international dialogue and the settlement of disputes between states, the real power lies with the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, France, Russia, China and the US, plus Germany and Japan. Meanwhile, the WTO, which was formally launched in 1995 out of the so-called Uruguay Round of GATT, exercises substantial influence over vital aspects of international economic relations. Asserting authority over its member nations while enhancing the transfer of economic decision-making to the global level, its decisions tend to reduce human beings and the environment to the status of tools in the service of expanding trade and commerce. The next big deal is the FTAA, a Western Hemisphere plan for privatization and corporate penetration disguised as economic cooperation. In effect, these are all aspects and programs of our largely invisible world government, decisive instruments for the preservation of current power relationships and continued expansion of corporate capitalism.
It's a regime rife with contradictions. The WTO, for example, seeks to "globalize" access to biological wealth through intellectual property rights, while simultaneously using "national sovereignty" as an excuse to permit the "free" export of hazardous products. As Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva has explained, the WTO turns apartheid into an international philosophy. "The words 'freedom' and 'protection' have been robbed of their humane meaning and are being absorbed into the double-speak of corporate jargon," she writes. "With double-speak comes a double standard, one for citizens and one for corporations. One for the North and one for the South."
You might expect widespread resistance to an unaccountable body like the WTO, an insulated bureaucracy with the power to invalidate federal laws, impose fines, and overrule health and safety regulations. And, to be fair, strenuous objections have been voiced by unions, consumers, environmental groups, and indigenous peoples since the early 1990s, Even some conservatives have expressed their fears and doubts. But until protests rocked a WTO meeting in Seattle just a month before the turn of the century, most US media ignored its role and influence. Even after Seattle, the public in general remains uninformed about -- largely uninterested in -- how it relates to overall economic management of the planet.
Long before his presidential campaign, Ralph Nader warned that the WTO and other trade and investment pacts represent a serious threat to democracy, imposing "the autocratic authority of a world government." Linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky has charged that quasi-governmental structures are "driving global society toward a low-wage, low-growth, high-profit future, with increasing polarization and social disintegration." Designed by multinationals and the major industrialized nations, this emerging global state is being developed and launched to extend the reign of the market well into the 21st century, while simultaneously creating new Berlin Walls to seal off the have-nots.
Faced with such dire prospects, there's a temptation to retreat into comforting illusions: If the WTO can be "sunk or shrunk," or national sovereignty is strongly reasserted, or some "alternative" world authority wins support, the drift toward a repressive global state can be reversed. Some of that may be true. But if "global citizens" are to prevail in the struggle to replace corporate with democratic globalization, they will also have to acknowledge and more fully understand what they actually face: a corporate-financed and managed world government that is already well entrenched.
At this point in human history, some form of planet-level guidance is essential, at the very least to ensure health and freedom for all. We also need effective global management to deal with weapons, malnutrition, toxic gases, and genetic engineering, among other problems. From accepting economic apartheid, we ought to fight for the creation of a responsive and effective higher authority that can, for example, save the world's children, help all countries to develop along sustainable lines, and define global standards in a democratic way.
As satisfying as it may be to disrupt meetings and make news when political leaders and trade ministers gather to strike their deals, simply saying no to corporate power-grabs is not sufficient. Neither is retreat into theories about a future world democracy, whether coordinated through collectives or benevolently bestowed by some enlightened elect. If we have any hope of wresting control from the obscure cabals and self-appointed experts who currently run the show, the first step is to wake up and face reality -- to name it and absorb what that means.
2. Missed Opportunities
In 1946, the Roper polling service asked what people in the US thought about the possibility of moving beyond nationalism. One of the questions went this way: "If every other country in the world would elect representatives to a world congress and let all problems between countries be decided by this congress, with a strict provision that all countries have to abide by the decisions whether they like them or not, would you be willing to have the United States go along on this?"
Of course, any pollster who tried to ask that question today would probably either be called a Communist or sent out for a "reality" check up. Nevertheless, at the end of World War II an impressive 62.8 percent answered yes. Only 19.8 percent gave a definite no, and 17.8 apparently didn't know what to think.
Going still further, the poll also asked, "If every other country in the world would give up its armies and navies and instead just contribute its share of men and materials to an international police force, would you be willing for the United States to go along with this?" Maybe it was post-war nationalistic stress disorder, but 52.2 percent said they wanted national disarmament and a global military, 32.7 percent said no thanks, and the remaining 15.1 percent were, as usual, clueless.
In other words, more than half a century ago most US citizens may have been ready to move beyond the nation-state and handle global problems by electing a world parliament. It is certainly a grim testament to the power of nationalist propaganda and Cold War paranoia that such an emerging consensus, expressed just as the UN was launched, could have been so effectively undermined and reversed over the years.
These days, on the Left and Right, any mention of global governance -- even a modest expansion of the UN's authority -- is apt to spark cynical dismissal at best, and, not uncommonly, an elaborate conspiracy theory. At the same time, however, a corporation-friendly global administration, managed by unaccountable elites, has moved from the drawing board to the boardrooms through agreements and other tools of our current world government.
Disillusioned about national government's ability to meet basic needs, many people have been mystified by reactionary, often isolationist mythology. Most are painfully aware, of course, that no single nation-state -- especially a disoriented superpower -- can control inter- or intra-state violence, reverse looming environmental disaster, or protect human rights around the world. Yet too many have come to accept the notion that any form of "global management" is either a utopian dream or a "risky scheme" that will only make matters worse.
In a sense, this is a form of mass denial -- an inability to acknowledge the real shape of the New World Order, even though it was officially announced by George Bush I upon his election to the US presidency in 1988. Meanwhile, the emergence of regional economic blocs, along with the diverse activities of the UN and the influence of quasi-governmental structures and private institutions that are slowly usurping many powers of nations, all raise profound questions about sovereignty, self-determination, and the impact of global dynamics on local realities. In the long run, our responses to these new developments may well determine the survival of freedom worldwide.
How did we get from there to here? And what can be done at this point to begin moving beyond a global regime based on an ideology of profit and consumerism to a process of globalization from below that puts people and the natural world first?
To begin with, consider how our earlier, post-nationalist instincts were manipulated. That process began at the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks Conference, when the winners of World War II -- the US, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union -- decided to impose a primitive form of "unification" on the rest of the planet. But the confederation they envisioned would have little to actually administer and no effective enforcement power. Their fateful approach would also spur the development of rival blocs and an intensive arms race.
Throughout 1945, events crowded upon one another-- the death of President Roosevelt in April, the opening of the UN founding conference less than two weeks later, the end of the war in Europe, and then, on August 6, the leveling of Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. By then the winners of the war had already forced their UN plan on more than 40 other nations who sent delegates to San Francisco. Only the Dumbarton Oaks proposals were discussed, and although a few delegates -- notably Cuba-- called for a union of all peoples, no one had the nerve to defy the dominant nations known as the Big Five.
There were some discussions of a constituent assembly, as well as proposals to make international court jurisdiction compulsory and turn the General Assembly into a world legislature with real authority. During heated debate about the veto power of the Security Council's five permanent members, many countries protested that this contradicted the principle of national equality. The Australian delegate reminded the US that its Bill of Rights might never have been passed if five states had been granted the right to veto. But the Big Five -- the US, UK, France, Russia, and China -- refused to compromise: no veto power meant no Charter. In the end, 15 nations abstained from voting on the issue; Cuba and Colombia opposed it outright.
Outside the Conference, meanwhile, signs welcoming "world citizens" were on display, much to the displeasure of the US State Department, which eventually had them removed. Thousands of people signed petitions calling for a world legislature, elected by the people of all member nations. "The sovereignty which belongs to us," the petition stated, "we now wish to re-divide, giving to a higher world level of government -- which we continue to control through our representatives -- the power to decide questions of world-wide concern."
As the 1946 Roper Poll suggested, this was a sentiment with broad support at the time. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they favored a world congress, an idea supported by all age groups, both sexes, and across the country. Elmo Roper concluded, "These figures leave little doubt that a majority of Americans still believe in a strong world organization. Not only do they approve, in principle, of such a plan, but they are willing to take some of the practical steps by which such a plan might be assured."
However, Roper also predicted that certain developments might change this situation, particularly "a distrust of Russia's motives in regard to world domination." He also might have mentioned the ineffectiveness of the UN approach to confederation, the manipulation of post-War military tribunals by the victors, and the squelching of demands by scientists that development of atomic energy be controlled by a world authority.
As the 1940s ended, a modest movement for world government struggled on. At first, many groups merged into the United World Federalists, then they splintered into a rainbow of assemblies, coalitions, and would-be world government bodies. A hard-hitting evangelical treatise on global governance by Emery Reves, The Anatomy of Peace, appeared in over 20 countries. Organizational blueprints proliferated, including a University of Chicago study of a possible World Constitution. For many people, the threat of nuclear weapons provided more proof that world government was a necessity.
Yet, as Roper predicted, the Cold War made any serious consideration impossible for the next half century. In the authoritative anthology, United Nations, Divided World, Michael Howard concludes that the UN security system itself "collapsed almost before it was put to the test." Action against aggression could be taken only if the two "great powers" -- the US and USSR -- chose not to object. Although the General Assembly might occasionally "unite for peace," it was basically impotent. As years passed and opportunities were wasted, the UN Secretary-General became a popular scapegoat, and the organization as a whole was increasingly viewed as pathetic, irrelevant, and possibly even a corrupt bureaucracy. In the US, it was widely portrayed in the media as a forum for "third world" rhetoric and "anti-American" outbursts.
Despite its post-Cold War rehabilitation, the UN is still far from being, as its Charter originally proposed, "a center for harmonizing the actions of nations." And even if this modest goal is achieved someday, the conspiracy-minded still have little to fear. The UN will not soon -- if ever -- evolve into a world legislature with binding authority. Rather than watching the skies for black UN helicopters, those worried about the formation of a global dictatorship would be better advised to focus on World Bank headquarters and other branch offices of our actual world government, which is currently gearing up to implement the "structural adjustment" of the planet.
At this historic juncture, it's once again time to seriously consider alternatives that can move us beyond both nationalism and global corporate rule, time to question basic ideological assumptions, to come to grips with world government as it is -- and boldly envision where to go from here.
3. Hijacking Development
Throughout the history of the UN a few powerful States have manipulated both its institutional framework and policies, often using a "financial whip" to impose their will. Alternately neglected and undermined, the institution has struggled with countless humanitarian emergencies; meanwhile, its dominant members have worked to limit its scope and, more recently, "roll back" public programs worldwide.
The vision of democratic "global governance" has always faced strong resistance. For example, the decision to keep the so-called Bretton Wood Institutions (BWIs) -- the World Bank and International Monetary fund -- as well as the GATT and WTO separate from the UN has severely limited public participation in economic decisions. Although the UN did provide a forum for decolonization efforts during its early years, demands for economic justice were routinely sidetracked. From 1980 onward, the disaffection of dominant players -- along with a global economic downturn during that decade -- produced a chronic UN funding and identity crisis.
Control over the UN has taken the form of refusal to make promised financial contributions, pressure on various secretary-generals, and arm-twisting directed at specific countries. On the other hand, few constraints have been placed on the World Bank, which has used generous funding to impose draconian policies on the South. Beyond public control, the IMF and World Bank have become instruments for imposing domestic policies, requiring structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that tend to reduce living standards, dismantle state-run agencies, and distort development.
Today the UN is commonly called inefficient, bureaucratic, and compromised. Its deliberations -- except when they serve the short-term political objectives of the Big Five -- are portrayed as largely hot air. This propaganda makes it easy to write off the UN as a place where important financial, trade, and monetary policies could be made. Yet that was clearly part of the original vision. The UN Charter pointed directly toward work to promote "higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social programs..."
Clearly, it is past time to put the World Bank, IMF, and other international financial institutions under democratic control, and, at the very least, make their policies more consistent with the UN's long-term agenda. In his Agenda for Development, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali outlined a reasonable strategy, including "better coordination" with the BWIs. The same conclusion was reached at the 1997 Social Summit. As critics of the status quo often note, allowing the "hidden hand" of economic globalization to run its course will only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. At the end of the 20th century, for example, 70 percent of foreign investment in the developing world was going to only 10 countries, hardly an equitable situation.
Agenda for Development made three main points: development must include equity and more employment, the present framework for international cooperation is inadequate, and the UN should become a powerful force in this arena. Issues such as debt management, structural adjustment, and access to money and technology should not be left off-limits for UN action.
In addition, a stronger multi-lateral aid system is essential, possibly coordinated by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the operations of UN organs themselves must be improved. Most important, Boutros-Ghali's Agenda called for a firm linkage between the UN and the BWIs. In a world radically different than it was in 1945, such coordination is crucial. The current trend -- a diminished role for the UN in social and economic affairs, with more power turned over to unaccountable institutions -- must be reversed.