We made a great connection today with Democracy OS, the leading group developing technology for true democratic participation. Here’s Santiago Siri, Democracy OS’ President:
(This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.)
147 students were massacred in Kenya two days ago. The Times says:
The attack on Thursday exposed just how powerless this industrialized, westernized country is in the face of a ruthless terrorist organization.
Here’s an abbreviated description of the killings on Thursday, from Agence France-Presse:
Piles of bodies and pools of blood running down the corridors: survivors of the Kenya university massacre described how laughing gunmen taunted their victims amid scenes of total carnage…
“I have seen many things, but nothing like that,” said [an aid worker].
“There were bodies everywhere in execution lines, we saw people whose heads had been blown off, bullet wounds everywhere, it was a grisly mess.”
These students died horrible deaths, in part because their national government could not protect them.
A similar point, about the incapacity of governments in the developing world to protect their people, was made by David Brooks about a year ago, in a column titled “The Republic of Fear,” highlighting a book called The Locust Effect. Brooks wrote:
People in many parts of the world simply live beyond the apparatus of law and order. The District of Columbia spends about $850 per person per year on police. In Bangladesh, the government spends less than $1.50 per person per year on police. The cops are just not there…
[Authors] Haugen and Boutros tell the story of an 8-year-old Peruvian girl named Yuri whose body was found in the street one morning, her skull crushed in, her legs wrapped in cables and her underwear at her ankles. The evidence pointed to a member of one of the richer families in the town, so the police and prosecutors destroyed the evidence. Her clothing went missing. A sperm sample that could have identified the perpetrator was thrown out. A bloody mattress was sliced down by a third, so that the blood stained spot could be discarded.
Yuri’s family wanted to find the killer, but they couldn’t afford to pay the prosecutor, so nothing was done. The family sold all their livestock to hire lawyers, who took the money but abandoned the case. These sorts of events are utterly typical — the products of legal systems that range from the arbitrary to the Kafkaesque.
We in the affluent world live on one side of a great global threshold… But people without our inherited institutions live on the other side of the threshold and have a different reality… Their world is governed… more by raw fear…
The primary problem of politics is not creating growth. It’s creating order.
Agree or disagree about “law and order” here in the United States; it certainly has its dark side.
But people everywhere, worldwide, deserve a basic level of security that only the rule of law can provide.
The old, discredited answer to this problem is colonialism. Almost always, colonial powers justified their exploitive rule from afar by pointing to indigenous incapacity to secure order. Of course, colonialism failed, bankrupting the colonizers and typically leaving Hobbesian chaos in its wake. Today, violence across the Middle East and in Africa is its legacy.
What we need instead is rule of law in which everyone has a voice and a stake. Yes, everyone, worldwide.
We need One Global Democracy.
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(This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.)
It highlights one of the scariest things about this and previous trade agreements: it
“would allow foreign corporations to sue the United States government for actions that undermine their investment “expectations” and hurt their business.”
Senator Sherrod Brown sums up the problem, saying:
“This continues the great American tradition of corporations writing trade agreements, sharing them with almost nobody, so often at the expense of consumers, public health and workers.”
This is both ugly and sad.
Sad because, fundamentally, trade agreements could do a lot of good. Trade is a much better way of allocating resources and distributing goods than warfare, and it helps link the world together on peaceful terms, which is why Steven Pinker cites it as one key reason for the historic decline of war, in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Trade agreements, and the pressure for them, are also among the strongest present-day expressions of humanity’s need to move beyond the restrictions of nation-states, militarized borders, and a fragmented patchwork of rules and rights. This is, potentially, a good thing.
The legitimate force that drives trade agreements is companies’ need for predictability and stability in order to invest beyond the borders of their home country. Everyone can support that.
But where trade agreements go wrong is in secret negotiations, with virtually zero democratic input or accountability, leading to scary stuff like the potential for corporations to demand and win hundreds of millions in tax dollars simply for obeying our laws.
Small wonder that congressional leaders including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and more than 20 House Republicans oppose fast-track approval for these agreements, that American citizens took to the streets to shut down the World Trade Organization talks in 1999, or that the people of Chiapas, Mexico responded to NAFTA violating their rights with the armed Zapatista rebellion.
There has to be a better way. Stability and predictability are undermined, not enhanced, with agreements like this Trans-Pacific Partnership draft, wildly skewed in favor of corporations, at the expense of people’s health and safety, the environment, and democracy.
Imagine, instead, an alternative that’s within reach: people participating, democratically, in sorting out what trans-national trade agreements should say. (Emerging technology will soon make this possible.) We’d get a leveling-up of environmental, health, and safety protections, reversing the race-to-the-bottom that otherwise prevails as companies seek to evade regulation and countries compete for their business.
The outcome would be much more transparent, stable, and predictable for the companies too. They could invest on a level playing field.
If we play fair, everyone can win.
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Today’s New York Times features a report on the many uses of blockchain technology, which underlies Bitcoin, that go beyond financial transactions.
This brings new public visibility to a point we’ve highlighted for some time.
Though not mentioned by the Times, one exciting non-financial application of the blockchain could be secure online voting, which is not possible through conventional Internet technology.
Secure online voting could be a key factor making a global democracy technologically and logistically feasible.
Here’s the Times:
The blockchain, [entrepreneurs] say, could ultimately upend not only the traditional financial system but also the way people transfer and record financial assets like stocks, contracts, property titles, patents and marriage licenses — essentially anything that requires a trusted middleman for verification.
The Times story also includes a pretty good basic description of the blockchain and what it can do.
Once again, the blockchain by itself isn’t the whole answer to enabling online voting, but it could get us over a couple of big security hurdles that have been insurmountable until now.
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Roger Cohen argues today that the rise of ISIS and the threat it poses to the West stem from the failure of the Arab Spring to provide a more civil path to frustrated Arabs:
“The rise of the Islamic State, and Obama’s new war, are a direct result of the failure of the Arab Spring, which had seemed to offer a path out of the deadlocked, jihadi-spawning societies of the Arab world.”
He also writes:
“Only Arabs can find the answer to this crisis. But history, I suspect, will not judge Obama kindly for having failed to foster the great liberation movement that rose up in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Inaction is also a policy: Nonintervention produced Syria today.”
But the buck doesn’t stop at Obama. It’s up to all of us to create an inclusive society that offers real participation and opportunity to people everywhere.
The escalating conflict between Islamic fundamentalists and the West underscores how important it is that we begin to build this better world now.
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(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.
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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When considering a global democracy, it makes sense to ask what policy outcomes would result from enabling everyone in the world to vote.
There’s a lot of polling data that suggests generally reassuring answers to this question. Not all mainstream American values are shared worldwide, but most are.
Due to their size, three population groups are particularly important: China, India, and the Islamic world:
- Islam accounts for 23% of the world’s population. Islam, of course, is not monolithic; moreover, the Muslim population is spread across many countries. Those with the largest Muslim populations, in descending order, are: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco.
The Pew data includes polling of all the countries with the largest Muslim populations except Iran and Algeria. A summary of poll results on relevant topics for the U.S., China, India, and the other countries with the largest Islamic populations, is below.
(Note: In this post, I use “Islamic countries” or “Muslim countries” as shorthand for countries whose Islamic populations are among the world’s largest, including India, even though a majority of India’s population is not Islamic.)
Climate Change & Environment
Overwhelming majorities in the all the countries selected agree that climate change is a serious problem.
In the most recent poll on climate change, in a smaller set of countries, most respondents think it’s a threat, with divergence as to whether it’s a major or minor one.
Most respondents in China and India say “people should be willing to pay higher prices in order to address global climate change.” However, majorities in most Muslim countries and in the U.S. disagree.
Asked whether “protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs,” strong majorities in almost every selected country say it should.
Poor quality of drinking water is seen as a serious problem by most respondents in every selected country except the U.S..
Overwhelming majorities in all Muslim countries polled say it’s important to live in a country where:
- You can openly say what you think and can criticize the state;
- Honest elections are held regularly with a choice of at least two political parties;
- There is a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way*;
- The military is under the control of civilian leaders; and
- The media can report the news without state censorship.
* China is also included in this question.
Majorities in almost all the Muslim countries polled, and a plurality in China, would prefer to rely on a democratic form of government rather than a strong leader to solve problems.
Majorities in almost all Muslim countries polled say democracy could work in their country and is not just for the West.
Majorities in many major Muslim countries express a strong preference for democracy over other forms of government.
Overwhelming majorities in three major Muslim countries say it’s important that:
- People can openly say what they think and can criticize the government; and
- People choose their leaders in free elections.
People in all the selected countries, including China, India, and the U.S., see “corrupt political leaders” as a major problem.
United Nations & Globalization
“The influence of the U.N.” is seen as a clear positive in every country selected except Pakistan, Turkey, and the U.S. (in a 2003 survey).
On whether their “country should have U.N. approval before it uses military force”, those surveyed are about evenly split, with several countries’ respondents marginally in favor.
People feel good about “the world becoming more connected through greater economic trade and faster communication” by overwhelming margins in all countries selected.
They feel good about “faster communication and greater travel between the people of (survey country) and people in other countries” also by overwhelming margins in all countries selected.
Economic Issues & Values
In all selected countries, majorities agree that economic prosperity is important.
In all selected countries, respondents agree that the gap between the rich and the poor is a significant problem.
Majorities in all selected countries agree that “most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some are poor.”
Yet there’s also strong agreement in all the selected countries that “it is the responsibility of the state to take care of very poor people who can’t take care of themselves.”
There are significant differences between selected countries on whether it’s more important “that everyone be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state or that the state play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need,” with people in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Turkey favoring an active role for the state, while respondents in India, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the U.S. prefer a laissez-faire approach.
In many selected countries (China, several Muslim countries, and the U.S., but not India), majorities agree that a lack of employment opportunities is a big problem. In another survey, majorities in China (again) and also India see unemployment as a major problem.
International financial instability is seen as a threat, to a broadly similar degree, in China, several Muslim countries, and the U.S..
In China and India, majorities agree that “today it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.”
Rights of Women
Overwhelming majorities in almost all selected countries agree that women should have equal rights with men. A further poll shows that this is important to clear majorities in three major Muslim countries.
In all selected countries, majorities agree that women should be able to work outside the home.
However, majorities in all selected countries except the U.S. believe that “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”
In almost all selected Muslim countries (not including India), majorities agree that “Women should have the right to decide if they wear a veil.”
Majorities in every selected country agree that “religion is a matter of personal faith and should be kept separate from government policy.”
Overwhelming majorities in all Muslim countries polled say it’s important to live in a country where “you can practice your religion freely.”
Similarly overwhelming majorities in three major Muslim countries say it’s important in a democracy that “people of all faiths can practice their religion freely.”
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When we think about the logistics of enabling everyone on earth to participate in a single democracy, it’s intuitive to envision technology playing a central role. The potential advantages for scale and cost-efficiency are compelling.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as having everyone vote at some website. There are a number of key hurdles to overcome:
1. The secret ballot: ensuring the anonymity of each vote cast, to prevent coercion.
2. Verifiability: enabling each voter to know that their vote is counted as cast, and creating cumulative records that can be audited in the event of a disputed vote count.
3. Securing the accuracy of the vote count, particularly against digital hacking.
4. Assigning one unique voting account to each person: what we in the U.S. know as voter registration.
5. Internet access for everyone: closing the digital divide.
Although Internet-based voting is a tempting prospect, current technology fails tests 1, 2, and 3: votes cast online can potentially be read by 3rd parties who could also see the voter’s identity; the voter has no assurance that their vote is counted properly by a computer; and digital records are vulnerable to hacking. (Paper ballots protect against all these problems.) Internet access (#5) is also still far from universal.
But there’s promising news on the technology front, related to the bitcoin phenomenon.
At the core of bitcoin is a single, massive, open-source ledger called the blockchain, which records all transactions throughout the bitcoin economy. An individual’s power to transact in bitcoin is based on transferable ownership of unique digital cryptographic keys. Anyone with the requisite technical knowledge can see every transaction recorded in the blockchain.
Ethereum, a new platform under development, will enable all sorts of functions, not just financial, to run on top of a similar, open-source blockchain.
Together, these technologies suggest the potential to solve problems 1, 2, and 3.
Each voter would have a unique digital key to assign for each vote they choose to cast; with proper design, the key would be anonymous. After voting, the voter would be able to see their unique key, paired with their voting choice, in the blockchain; and since the blockchain is publicly accessible, everyone can see the entire ledger of votes, collectively monitoring against hacking; because the protocol is open-source, anyone can contribute security features or review and verify the algorithms, to prevent hacking and to reinforce these defenses.
Along with the need for certainty on anonymity, challenges 4 and 5 also remain. Both are non-trivial, yet both seem intuitively to be solvable: they’re basically logistics issues. There are numerous efforts underway to close the global digital divide. That task may take a decade or more to complete, but that’s compatible with the timeline for this project; closing the digital divide and building a movement for a global democracy can run in parallel.
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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.