by George Monbiot
June 9, 2003
Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were smart operators. They knew that the hegemony of the United States could not be sustained without the active compliance of other nations. So they set out, before and after the end of the Second World War, to design a global political system which permitted the other powers to believe that they were part of the governing project.
When Franklin Roosevelt negotiated the charter of the United Nations, he demanded that the United States should have the power to block any decisions the UN sought to make. But he also permitted the other victors of the war and their foremost allies - the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China and France - to wield the same veto.
After Harry Dexter White, Roosevelt's negotiator at the Bretton Woods talks in 1944, had imposed on the world two bodies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose underlying purpose was to sustain the financial power of US, he appeased the other powerful nations by granting them a substantial share of the vote. Rather less publicly, he ensured that both institutions required an 85% majority to pass major resolutions, and that the US would cast 17% of the votes in the IMF, and 18% of the votes in the World Bank.
Harry Truman struggled to install a global trade regime which would permit the continuing growth of the US economy without alienating the nations upon whom that growth depended. He tried to persuade Congress to approve an International Trade Organisation which allowed less developed countries to protect their infant industries, transferred technology to poorer nations and prevented corporations from forming global monopolies. Congress blocked it. But, until the crisis in Seattle in 1999, when the poor nations were forced to reject the outrageous proposals inserted by the US and the European Union, successive administrations seemed to understand the need to allow the leaders of other countries at least to pretend to their people that they were helping to set the global trade rules.
The system designed in the 1940s, whose ultimate objective was to ensure that the United States remained the pre-eminent global power, appeared, until very recently, to be unchallengeable. There was no constitutional means of restraining the US: it could veto any attempt to cancel its veto. Yet this system was not sufficiently offensive to other powerful governments to force them to confront it. They knew that there was less to be lost by accepting their small share of power and supporting the status quo than by upsetting it and bringing down the wrath of the superpower. It seemed, until March 2003, that we were stuck with US hegemony.
But the men who govern the United States today are greedy. They cannot understand why they should grant concessions to anyone. They want unmediated global power, and they want it now. To obtain it, they are prepared to destroy the institutions whose purpose was to sustain their dominion. They have challenged the payments the United States must make to the IMF and the World Bank. They have threatened the survival of the World Trade Organisation, by imposing tariffs on steel and granting massive new subsidies to corporate farmers. And, to prosecute a war whose overriding purpose was to stamp their authority upon the world, they have crippled the United Nations. Much has been written over the past few weeks about how much smarter George Bush is than we permitted ourselves to believe. But it is clear that his administration has none of the refined understanding of the mechanics of power that the founders of the existing world order possessed. In no respect has he made this more evident than in his assault upon the United States's principal instrument of international power: the Security Council.
By going to war without the council's authorisation, and against the wishes of three of its permanent members and most of its temporary members, Bush's administration appears to have ceased even to pretend to play by the rules. As a result, the Security Council may have lost both its residual authority and its power of restraint. This leaves the leaders of other nations with just two options.
The first is to accept that the global security system has broken down and that disputes between nations will in future be resolved by means of bilateral diplomacy, backed by force of arms. This means, in other words, direct global governance by the United States. The influence of its allies - the collateral against which Tony Blair has mortgaged his reputation - will be exposed as illusory. It will do precisely as it pleases, however much this undermines foreign governments. These governments will find this dispensation ever harder to sell to their own people, especially as US interests come to conflict directly with their own. They will also be aware that a system of direct global governance will tend towards war rather than towards peace.
The second option is to tear up the UN's constitution, override the US veto and seek to build a new global security system, against the wishes of the hegemon. This approach was unthinkable just four months ago. It may be irresistible today.
There are, of course, recent precedents. In approving the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court, other nations, weighing the costs of a world crudely governed by the United States against the costs of insubordination, have defied the superpower, to establish a global system in which it plays no part. Building a new global security system without the involvement of the US is a far more dangerous project, but there may be no real alternative. None of us should be surprised if we were to discover that Russia, France and China have already begun, quietly, to discuss it.
Of course, one of the dangers attendant on the construction of any system is that it comes to reflect the interests of its founders. There has, perhaps, never been a better time to consider what a system based upon justice and democracy might look like, and then, having decided how it might work in theory, to press the rebellious governments for its implementation.
There is no question that the existing arrangement stinks. It's not just that the five permanent members of the Security Council can override the will of all the other nations; the General Assembly itself has no greater claim to legitimacy than the House of Lords. Many of the member states are not themselves democracies. Even those governments which have come to power by means of election seldom canvas the opinion of their citizens before deciding how to cast their vote in international assemblies.
It is also riddled with rotten boroughs. Many of the citizens of the United States recognise that there is something wrong with a system in which the 500,000 people of Wyoming can elect the same number of representatives to the Senate as the 35 million of California. Yet, in the UN General Assembly, the 10,000 people of the Pacific island of Tuvalu possess the same representation as the one billion people of India. Their per capita vote, in other words, is weighted 100,000-fold.
Even if all the world's nations were of equal size, so that all the world's citizens were represented evenly, and even if the Security Council was abolished and no state, in the real world, was more powerful than any other, the UN would still fail the basic democratic tests, for the simple reason that its structure does not match the duties it is supposed to discharge. The United Nations has awarded itself three responsibilities. Two of these are international duties, namely to mediate between states with opposing interests and to restrain the way in which its members treat their own citizens. The third is a global responsibility: to represent the common interests of all the people of the world. But it is constitutionally established to discharge only the first of these functions.
Its members will unite to condemn the behaviour of a state when that behaviour is anomalous. But they will tread carefully around the injustices in which almost all states participate, such as using money which should be spent on health and education on unnecessary weapons. They will do nothing to defend the common interests of humanity when these conflict with the common interests of the states. Nearly all the governments in power today, for example, are those whose policies are acceptable to the financial markets: they are, in effect, the representatives of global capital. Radical opposition parties are kept out of power partly by citizens' fear of how the markets might react if they were elected. So while it might suit the interests of nearly everyone to re-impose capital controls and bring many forms of speculation to an end, an assembly of nation states is unlikely to rid the world of this plague. The preamble to the UN Charter begins with the words "We the peoples of the United Nations". It would more accurately read "We the states".
That the Security Council should be disbanded and its powers devolved to a body representing all the nation states is evident to anyone who cannot see why democracy should be turned back at the national border. That the UN General Assembly, as currently constituted, is ill-suited to the task is equally obvious. I propose that each nation's vote should be weighted according to both the number of people it represents and its degree of democratisation.
The government of Tuvalu, representing 10,000 people, would, then, have a far smaller vote than the government of China. But China, in turn, would possess far fewer votes than it would if its government was democratically elected. Rigorous means of measuring democratisation are beginning to be developed by bodies such as Democratic Audit. It would not be hard, using their criteria, to compile an objective global index of democracy. Governments, under this system, would be presented with a powerful incentive to democratise: the more democratic they became, the greater their influence over world affairs.
No nation would possess a veto. The most consequential decisions - to go to war for example - should require an overwhelming majority of the assembly's weighted votes. This means that powerful governments wishing to recruit reluctant nations to their cause would be forced to bribe or blackmail most of the rest of the world to obtain the results they wanted. The nations whose votes they needed most would be the ones whose votes were hardest to buy.
But this assembly alone would be incapable of restraining the way in which its members treat their own citizens or representing the common interests of all the people of the world. It seems to me therefore that we require another body, composed of representatives directly elected by the world's people. Every adult on earth would possess one vote.
The implications for global justice are obvious. A resident of Ouagadougou would have the same potential influence over the decisions this parliament would make as a resident of Washington. The people of China would possess, between them, sixteen times as many votes as the people of Germany. It is, in other words, a revolutionary assembly.
Building a world parliament is not the same as building a world government. We would be creating a chamber in which, if it works as it should, the people's representatives will hold debates and argue over resolutions. In the early years at least, it commands no army, no police force, no courts, no departments of government. It need be encumbered by neither president nor cabinet. But what we would create would be a body which possesses something no other global or international agency possesses: legitimacy. Directly elected, owned by the people of the world, our parliament would possess the moral authority which all other bodies lack. And this alone, if effectively deployed, is a source of power.
Its primary purpose would be to hold other powers to account. It would review the international decisions made by governments, by the big financial institutions, and by bodies such as the reformed UN General Assembly and the World Trade Organisation. It would, through consultation and debate, establish the broad principles by which these other bodies should be run. It would study the decisions they make and expose them to the light. We have every reason to believe that, if properly constituted, our parliament, as the only body with a claim to represent the people of the world, would force them to respond. In doing so, they would reinforce its authority, enhancing its ability to call them to account in the future.
We could expect undemocratic states to wish to prevent the election of global representatives within their territory. But if the General Assembly was reconstituted along the lines I suggest, they would discover a powerful incentive to permit such a vote to take place, as this would raise their score on the global democracy index, and thus increase their formal powers in the General Assembly. In turn, the parliament's ability to review the decisions of the General Assembly would reinforce the Assembly's democratic authority.
We might anticipate a shift of certain powers from the indirectly-elected body to the directly-elected one. We could begin, in other words, to see the development of a bicameral parliament for the planet, which starts to exercise some of the key functions of government. This might sound unattractive, but only if, as many do, you choose to forget that global governance takes place whether we participate in it or not. Ours is not a choice between democratic global governance and no global governance, but between global democracy and the global dictatorship of the most powerful nations.
None of this will happen by itself. We can expect the nations seeking to frame a new global contract to do so in their own interests, just as the victors of the Second World War did. If we want a new world order (of which a parliamentary system is necessarily just a small part), we must demand it with the energy and persistence with which the vast and growing global justice movement has confronted the old one. But nations seeking to design a new security system would discover that the perceived legitimacy of their scheme would rise according to its democratic credentials. If it is true that there are two superpowers on earth, the US government and global public opinion, then these nations would do well to recruit the latter in their struggle with the former.
Now is the time to turn our campaigns against the war-mongering, wealth-concentrating, planet-consuming world order into a concerted campaign for global democracy. We must become the Chartists and the Suffragettes of the 21st Century. They understood that to change the world you must propose as well as oppose. They democratised the nation; now we must seek to democratise the world. Our task is not to overthrow globalisation, but to capture it, and to use it as a vehicle for humanity's first global democratic revolution.
George Monbiot is Honorary Professor at the Department of Politics in Keele and Visiting Professor at the Department of Environmental Science at the University of East London. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper of London. The Age of Consent, George Monbiot's proposals for global democratic governance, will be published in June. His articles and contact info can be found at his website: www.monbiot.com