I believe that world peace is possible, within our lifetimes, and that we should make it our goal.
Is there any higher goal? I can’t think of one.
If we define world peace not as the elimination of all conflict, but rather as the end of wars — organized violence at a national scale — we can achieve it. It’s monumentally ambitious, but the obstacles are lower than we imagine.
Now (the current period, historically speaking), the obstacles are lower than they’ve ever been.
A formula for success is not difficult to envision: a single, globally inclusive democracy, in which everyone has an equal voice. Think of it as a United States of the World. Everyone is included, nobody left out.
Here within the United States of America, we have conflicts over enormous issues: water rights, food, oil, religious beliefs, civil liberties, inequalities of wealth and opportunity, self-determination, dignity, ambition, and greed. In other periods of history, and/or in other parts of the world, these conflicts have taken the form of warfare. Here in the United States, we handle them by other means, mainly economic competition, politics, and free expression; we also channel some regional tensions into sports rivalries. Of course, our American society is far from perfect, and today many of our conflicts are being suppressed and left to fester, rather than resolved.
But, for the most part, we are not handling our conflicts through organized violence, either directed by the state, or at it. That’s the single best thing about being one country, the United States, rather than many separate states.
Is there any reason we shouldn’t operate on a similar model for the entire world?
Where in the world should we allow a child to be born without the opportunity to participate in an inclusive society?
Is there any reason we should continue to accept anything less than the opportunity for every person, no matter where they are born, to participate in a global economy, democracy, and civil society, unlimited by militarized borders? Why should a child born in Syria be walled into a war zone?
This is not just about idealism.
As a practical matter, international borders simply aren’t serving us.
Many of the greatest challenges we face are compounded by international borders. To stop climate change, for example, we need a globally coordinated response; instead we have major countries (the U.S. and China) pointing fingers at each other across borders, each saying “you first.” Or, look at economic inequality, perpetuated in part by the wealthiest people stashing their money in foreign countries, like Switzerland or the Cayman Islands, to avoid paying their fair share in taxes at home. Consider how the land and water are poisoned in countries with weak environmental laws — for example, just over the U.S.-Mexican border. Or think of grisly crimes like human trafficking, in which the perpetrators often smuggle their victims across borders to stay beyond the reach of justice.
These are just a few examples of how the forced and arbitrary division of our human community into separate countries prevents us from doing what we need to do. There are many more. In fact, almost every day there’s a new story of a problem we can’t quite seem to fix, in part because borders are preventing us from working together. My blog here at YesWorldPeace.org will track some of these.
International borders are holding us back from making the progress we need to make today.
Why do we accept international borders?
Mainly out of habit. In other words, because of history.
Centuries and millennia ago, people banded together to form tribes and villages. At first, people had no way to ensure justice or shared safety beyond an immediate vicinity, so we created perimeters, lines of defense. As villages grew into towns and cities, many fortified their boundaries. As we developed technologies and administrative systems, empires grew (Greek, then Roman), encompassing vast areas under central authority. Later, these empires collapsed, in part because the costs of military control over huge areas stretched them too thin. Afterward, small city-states covered much of Europe, while the church extended a unifying social structure over a wider area. Gradually, over the course of centuries, many city-states joined together to form the early outlines of countries we know today, such as France, Germany, and Italy.
Later, mostly outside of Europe, many of today’s national borders were originally imposed from outside, by European colonial powers. Over the last few centuries, the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and French empires carved up the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia, claiming vast areas such as India, Indonesia, Algeria, the former Congo, and Brazil as colonies. The borders were almost always arbitrarily imposed, reflecting imperial interests rather than authentic, prior cultural and political cohesion or difference.
In short, while the borders we’re accustomed to today have history behind them, that history, in many cases, is both short and regrettable. So there’s plenty of reason to question the legitimacy of today’s borders.
And, on a deeper level, it’s important to remember that our habit of relying on current national borders is not encoded in our human DNA. Borders are part of our past, but we don’t have to let them limit our future.
More importantly, the long-term trend over the course of history has been that small local units, such as villages and then city-states, have tended to unify into larger and larger blocs, forming countries. In some cases, especially in Europe and China, local elites either agreed to join together, or conquered their neighbors. In other places, colonial powers imposed national borders from afar. Although the events driving unification were not always pleasant, the overall trend across history, of villages and city-states unifying into countries is clear.
As technology has advanced, increasingly robust systems of communication have made it practical to include increasingly large areas within the borders of a country.
Borders are becoming obsolete.
We’re now at the next stage, with countries today taking a variety of steps toward unification into larger blocs. The European Union is the most obvious example. Although it’s grappling with fundamental financial & structural challenges as I write this, people everywhere are hoping it survives, because as long as it does, another war between France and Germany is unlikely, and because it points, imperfectly, toward a better way forward for everyone.
Another sign of countries banding together is the proliferation of trade agreements between countries in recent decades.* They aim to harmonize laws across national borders, so commerce can flow more easily between countries. There’s a lot wrong with these agreements: they generally undermine human rights and environmental protections, rather than advance them. These are serious problems that require our attention (and my overall thesis here is, in part, an attempt to address them). Still, these agreements, and the ongoing effort to enact more of them, reflect the fact that the countries we know today are no longer big enough to contain a growing share of human enterprise, both business and civic, which increasingly crosses national borders.
* Such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), or the proposed Transatlantic Free Trade Area.
The shape of war is changing.
Recently, wars have also begun to take a different shape from those earlier in human history. This changing pattern of warfare is another major factor that points to the declining relevance of national borders, and indicates that the time for comprehensive global cooperation has come.
Most wars in recorded human history have occurred between countries or along the borders of countries, generally for control of territory and the people and resources contained within it. In the twentieth century, World Wars I and II, the wars between Japan and China, and the US- Korean war fit this pattern. Previous, major historical wars that fit this pattern include the Mexican-American war, the Napoleonic wars, the Mongol conquests, Tamerlane’s conquests, the many European wars of the middle ages, the crusades, and the conquests that formed the Ottoman, Persian, Roman, and Greek empires, among others.
But that pattern is changing. Since about the mid-1950s, fewer wars have followed a conventional model of military forces fighting their way across a border to invade another country. Instead, most recent wars around the world have tended to occur within the internationally-recognized borders of countries, rather than across them. Typical recent situations include despots slaughtering their own people in an attempt to hold onto power (as in Syria, or Libya), warfare between ethnic, religious, or other groups within a country (the Congo, Darfur, Rwanda, Sri Lanka), or identity groups seeking to separate from a larger country (such as the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya’s attempts to separate from Russia, Eritrea separating from Ethiopia, or the Falkland Islands seeking independence from Britain).
Conventional, cross-border wars still occur, such as China’s invasion of Tibet, Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, or Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, and so do conventional, militarized territorial disputes between countries, as in Kashmir between India and Pakistan, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But these conventional territorial conflicts are less prevalent today than they have been historically.
This change in pattern is reflected in America’s recent choices of which wars to engage in. We’ve fought our recent wars mainly in pursuit of non-state actors, such as terrorists and drug lords. The latest American military operations — hunting for terrorists in Afghanistan, ostensibly hunting for nuclear weapons in Iraq, and trying to stem the flow of drugs from Latin America — have all been presented, basically, as police actions, rather than efforts to take or hold territory.
Regardless of these American wars’ basic merits, or lack thereof, police actions have the virtue, at least in theory, that they’re taken on behalf of a global community, and not just for the benefit of one country at the expense of another. This is a crucial point.
We need a better system.
The changing shape of warfare lays bare the limits of our current international system, which consists mainly of a weak United Nations, a militarily strong United States and Russia, and an economically rising China. The United Nations provides a forum for international agreement, but lacks significant power. This weak international system isn’t really much of a system at all; it’s really a hodge-podge of dated structures that aren’t keeping up with today’s needs. They work well enough to deter conventional, cross-border wars, which, thankfully, are in decline. But our current structures are obviously failing to prevent the kinds of wars that are occurring today.
Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people’s lives are being destroyed by wars that we as a global community are failing to prevent.
In America, we have the good fortune of geographic distance from most of these wars, but if the shocking events of 9-11 proved anything, it is that America is no longer immune from the tragic horror of war. We have a stake in preventing it, as surely as a child born in Syria or the Congo.
We need a better system to prevent wars, and also to facilitate the worldwide cooperation we need to solve global problems of justice and of environmental protection, and to ensure economic opportunity for everyone.
We’ve got to design this new system to protect people, not countries. Similarly, its legitimacy must flow from the support of people, not countries.
What would that system look like?
The obvious answer is: democracy.
Democracy is an old word, one we usually don’t get very excited about, because it’s such a core part of our American identity. Our democracy is also far from perfect. But it does the job of preventing massive, organized violence within our borders. It enables civil resolution of disputes and creates a zone of relative safety and stability within which we can travel, do business, and go about our lives.
The problem is that our democracy doesn’t extend far enough. Most of the world’s people are excluded.
Imagine democracy on a scale greater than humanity has ever accomplished before. A single, global democracy that includes everyone.