25 Years After Berlin, Do We Still Need Walls?

(A version of this article was published at The Huffington Post / The World Post  on November 8th, 2014)

The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago this winter.  People on both sides filled the streets in celebration, cheered on by virtually everyone around the world.  For all of us who were alive then, it remains one of the most hopeful historical moments we’ve ever experienced.

For the previous two generations, people everywhere had lived in fear.  In the East, repressive surveillance states turned neighbor against neighbor.  In the West, we lived under the specter of nuclear war and spent a huge share of our wealth on our military, at a terrible social cost.  The overarching conflict between the US and the Soviet Union drove proxy wars worldwide.

And suddenly, the cause of all this evaporated.  Surely, a bright, new world was at hand.

Now that 25 years have passed, it’s an appropriate time to take stock.  Have we seized our historic opportunity to create, at last, a more peaceful world?

Sadly, we have not:

  • By Wikipedia’s count, the US has engaged in 10 wars since then, and we now live in a surveillance state the East German secret police would have envied.
  • Russia has reasserted regional military dominance, annexing Crimea, threatening other parts of Ukraine, and re-conquering Chechnya.
  • The Middle East is a boiling cauldron of warfare, much of it touched off by the American invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

How can it be that we’ve made so little progress, following such a breakthrough?

As citizens, we largely left the job of converting the end of the Cold War into a lasting peace in the hands of our national governments.  We had little alternative at first: in 1989, the Internet had not yet been widely adopted, so people worldwide had no way to band together at scale.

But now we do.  The arrival of the Internet has upended virtually every major system on earth, revolutionizing our economy and breathing new life into grassroots politics.

Yet our governance structures remain stubbornly anachronistic. And they’re failing us, not only on the great question of war or peace, but also on many other front-burner issues today, including global warming, economic inequality, disease response, immigration, human trafficking, and financial crimes.

Although we seldom consider it, one key factor that ties all these failures together is our fragmented system of nation-states, separated by militarized borders.

As the challenges we face grow more urgent, and our national governments’ failure to address them more glaring, the time has come to question this model: whether separate nation-states are still serving us, or whether we can now do better.

Obviously, this is a very big question, and it can quickly conjure images of starry-eyed idealism and John Lennon songs.  But there are practical reasons why it merits serious consideration.

War and peace are just the most obvious of these.  Over the course of history, wars have typically occurred between separate nations.  Borders are conceived as safety perimeters, yet they often contribute to the instability that drives armed conflict.  For example, the borders in the Middle East today, drawn largely by colonial powers almost 100 years ago, have been cited as a grievance by ISIS.  On the other hand, the European Union offers a better model: France and Germany, antagonists in World Wars I and II, are unlikely to fight again as long as the EU survives.  For all its structural challenges, the EU’s more inclusive perimeter benefits everyone.

Global warming, an increasingly dire threat to human survival, has been internationally acknowledged for more than 25 years.  Yet greenhouse gas pollution has risen unabated.  Excitement over the recent US-China climate deal and the Lima Accord highlights the critical importance of worldwide cooperation to solve this problem, yet the news on both advances was so big because of national governments’ longstanding pattern of failure to take joint action adequate to handle this emergency.  Also, both agreements are non-binding.

Or look at economic inequality, which, like global warming, grows steadily worse with time.  In the most talked-about book of 2014, Capital, author Thomas Piketty says solving inequality will require a global tax on wealth; otherwise the rich will continue to park their assets in low-tax countries.  Piketty is not a lone voice on this: the Vatican also has called for “a ‘world political authority’ with broad powers to regulate financial markets and rein in the ‘inequalities and distortions of capitalist development.’”

And the list goes on.

The delayed response to the current Ebola outbreak, attributed to poor international cooperation, is expected to cost at least tens of thousands of lives, possibly a million.  The call for immigration reform is driven by human and economic needs that transcend borders.  Human trafficking depends in part on criminals whisking their victims across borders to evade the rule of law.  Many financial crimes are similarly enabled by borders.

On issue after issue, when we look at the big picture, it’s hard to avoid noticing that the division of our world into countries is preventing us from solving our biggest problems.

Is there an alternative?  Not yet, but the time has come to begin seriously envisioning one.

The European Union demonstrates a way forward: eliminating militarized borders, and expanding the safety perimeter to include everyone.  Yes, everyone — holding criminals, including dictators and terrorists, accountable to the law.

Expanding on the best features of the EU model, we could create a single, global democracy.

This idea is consistent with American history.  The United States was founded as 13 separate, sovereign states, linked only loosely under the Articles of Confederation.  When our country’s founders saw that this separateness prevented them from handling their major challenges, they created today’s Constitution, achieving greater unity, which has served us well.

Emerging technology can make a global democracy feasible.  The Internet alone can’t do it — there’s too much risk that votes and tallies could be hacked.  But the technology behind Bitcoin — an open-source “block chain” that compiles an indelible public record of every transaction — could be repurposed to record votes.  Big challenges remain, notably anonymity, unique voting accounts, and the digital divide, but all of these can be solved with time and commitment.  Meanwhile, we can begin the conversation about a global democracy.

What policies would a global democracy produce?  There’s a lot of reassuring international poll data showing that, while not all mainstream American values are shared worldwide, most are.  It appears that people around the world are more likely to agree on the big questions than the actions of certain leaders would suggest.

What about the trend toward secession, including the recent, close vote in Scotland, and the similar aspirations of people across Europe, the Middle East, and even the U.S.?  Although this may seem to run counter to global unification, in fact it shows how arbitrary today’s borders are, and how little attachment people feel to them.  It’s also an expression of the widespread view that today’s national governments aren’t working.

We are entering a time of upheaval, driven largely by climate change.  Fortunately, we can choose our path forward.  The main options so far boil down to either denial or defense.  Defense is key, of course, but the frame is depressing, and it has yet to engage the level of popular support required.

What if we also had an exciting, positive vision for our future?  A big, hairy, audacious goal.

How about this one: a single, global democracy, within our lifetimes.  Let’s begin the conversation.

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