Global Solutions for Global Problems: Six Good Reasons for a World Parliament
For thousands of years, humans have responded to the challenges of life with some form of communal organization. In the course of human history, democracy emerged as one of political theory’s champions. In times of global challenge by terrorism, pandemics and climate change, the champion democracy has to stand the test and evolve: It is time for a world parliament.
Albert Einstein was right, when he said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Facing our massive challenges on the global level, this quote is more relevant today than ever. We need to ask ourselves: What is the thinking that has produced these overwhelming challenges? How do we have to change our thinking to get closer to sustainable solutions?
1. We will not solve problems with the thinking that produced them
The situation is unsettling: The civil war in Syria is driving more and more refugees into Europe. The lack of opportunity in parts of Africa is forcing many to abandon their homes. Climate change is turning into more than just a threat for islands in the Pacific. It has reached North America and is currently causing the worst drought of recorded history in California forcing Governor Brown to declare a state of emergency to manage the water shortage. The Pentagon has acknowledged climate change as an imminent threat to national security. And to the day almost 900 million people suffer from hunger, which is both a moral scandal and a future security threat.
But it’s not just humanitarian crises and climate change that pose threats to the national securities of the global community. The states pose threats to each other, and sometimes even to themselves. Russia is trying to recreate the bygone glory of the Soviet era by showing off its nuclear muscles. The US is happily meddling with matters in Ukraine and spying on allies the president has called “friends.” China is said to be behind massive cyber attacks on the US and Germany. And Germany is unable to prevent its weapon industry from illegally spreading weapons in crisis regions.
Many of our current issues today have been amounting for decades. In 1984 former German chancellor Willy Brandt said: “In our modern world, mass hunger, economic stagnation, environmental catastrophe, political instability, and terrorism cannot be quarantined within national borders.” In failing to recognize a fully globalized, transnational reality, old-style foreign policy with its nationalist principles is contributing to the problems, and not solving them. This is especially tragic, since this living generation is arguably one of the most important political generations of human history. We need new ideas!
2. Distrust and fear are the frontrunners of war waging dynamics
Chancellor Brandt said in 1971: “The future will not be championed by those who cling to the past.” But that doesn’t mean we can abandon proven techniques altogether. We need to find answers to the questions: Which are proven ideas that deserve our protection and enhancement? And what are bygone techniques that need to be cut loose for us to develop and embrace new ones? What is it that drives the most powerful states to turn aggressive like the United States in recent history? Will there ever be something like state sovereignty for the weaker states, or will it always be the privilege of the mighty? Distrust and fear currently seem to be the frontrunners of war waging dynamics, even more so than the fight for profit and resources. At the core of the pubescent relationship of large nation states to their own power lies a dilemma of the modern state order: The most powerful nations states are too big to submit, but too small to solve the problems of the global age.
The international governance system created after World War II under a nationalist paradigm has cemented this dilemma. This is especially visible in the UN Security Council. The Allies in WWII plus China dominate the council today and use their veto powers to block most of each other’s initiatives. Important long term issues don’t even make it to the agenda, because the council is already failing at finding remedy to the most immediate pressing day-to-day issues. So what can we do? Just give up? Surely not. Cynical resignation might be an option for frustrated Hippies who don’t see their dreams realized and have given up faith in a more cooperative, more peaceful world. For tomorrow’s generation, this isn’t an option. So what’s the alternative? Let’s get creative and find new solutions for old problems. And: Let’s re-invent proven solutions for new realities. This applies, for instance, to the grand dame of political theory: good ol’ democracy.
3. Global realities demand global solutions
The thought is simple: The political system must work where the truly decisive decisions are made. For the playground and the city museum, it’s the city council. For sales tax issues, it’s the state legislature. For major infrastructure or military projects, it’s Congress. In Europe you also have the supranational European Parliament dealing with trade issues and economic policy. The European Parliament finds a kindred spirit in other regional parliaments like the Pan-African Parliament. And the UN General Assembly provides at least some indirect representation of the people on the global level. But none of these delegates are elected by the people. They’re all chosen by the national governments. Now it’s time for the next step in the evolution of our political systems. It is time for a real world parliament!
This parliament should be established in the federative spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s writing on the political structures of the United States: “Who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children, than by strangers of another family? With which shall we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?” And as George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian in 2007: “The best way to give the poor a real voice is through a world parliament.” A global parliament would ensure, he says, that the voices of the poor world would no longer be “ventriloquised by Bob Geldof and Bono and the leaders of the G8.” The people would be able to speak for themselves.
4. The self-proclaimed “realists” will look very old very soon
In times of popular anti-government sentiment, some will oppose the idea as even more government. But be careful and don’t take your opposition to federal taxes out on this proposal. Global governance institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, G20 and others have become rather impactful institutions. A World Parliament provides us all with more representation in realm of all these global institutions! Others will think of this world parliament as a “nice, but unrealistic idea.” If you think of yourself as very reasonable and realistic when you patronize the idea – take a look at what the Today Show thought about the internet in 1994 (”What is the internet, anyway?”) or explore why the German Kaiser Wilhelm II believed in the horse and thought of the automobile as a “short-lived fashion trend.”
If you find pleasure in naive realism there, you will also enjoy quotations by German politicians, who expressed their “rejection of the thoughtless and illusionary talk of reunification” just a few months before the German reunification. Albert Einstein also provides amusement with the claim that there had not been the slightest hint “that nuclear power will ever be usable.” My point is clear: History is full of examples in which even the brightest of thinkers have celebrated themselves as great “realists” in their most blatant denial of reality. All of them looked very old very fast.
The private sector has shown the public sector how to create cooperative structures at the global level. It has demonstrated that we can use the interdependent reality of the global age not just for exploitation, but for the common good – if we do it right. Unfortunately, the public sector has been sound asleep to this leap in social engineering. Some nation states have fallen back into antiquated nationalism because of internal struggles. This nationalism is not just outdated and without ambition. Given the scale of our problems on this planet, it is dangerous and reactionary. We have to realize that our political lack of vision has thrust us into a rather apocalyptical scenario. When we talk about climate change, we’re now talking about nothing less than the existence of human civilization as we know it.
5. We don’t need crazy new ideas for this – we have all it takes
We as a human race have thousands of years of experience with the refinement of the democratic ideal. We’re well equipped to lift this old idea to new heights. But to do this, we’ ll have to face a few very uncomfortable questions: How can it be that a country like the United States with 318 million inhabitants ended up light years ahead of a country like India with about 1.3 billion inhabitants in political weight in the global arena? We know the technical answers to how it happened historically. But we never really had good answers to how it can be justified morally. This creates a tension: When I compared the political impact of a young person in India with the political impact of a young person in the United States today, I realized how privileged we really are, despite the dysfunction of Congress and our justified complaints about it.
I had to face a tough question: Am I really for democracy? Or am I only for democracy when I’m in the powerful seat and can set up systems to then “generously” represent the poor without giving up the privileged position I enjoy? For me to be truly for democracy, I would have to embrace letting go of at least some of the power. But that’s not as easy as I would like it to be. As humans we all struggle to let go of the power to dominate others. But I think, we ought to try, because we all gain from some courage in that regard. I believe, we know the solution for many of the biggest challenges of our time: democratically accountable global cooperation of the communal process we call governance. We don’t need crazy new ideas for this. The simple application of the tried and tested democratic principles we know will go a long way.
The support for such proposals is growing. The World Federalist Movement and its Institute for Global Policy is working out ideas. The UNPA Campaign was founded and the Global Week of Action for a World Parliament created. Currently these campaigns are still driven by politicians, nobel laureates, professors and activists. But events like the People’s Climate March, which brought together over 400,000 people to march for innovative climate policies and environmental protection, show that the time to spread the word has come.
6. We’re not at the end of democracy, we’re just getting started
Often it takes times of political uncertainty to drive the creative evolution of political systems. This was the case after WWII. Under no circumstances did the people want to get dragged into another world war, especially not in times of nuclear weaponry. Albert Einstein famously commented: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Einstein was convinced: “As long as sovereign states continue to have separate armaments and armament secrets, new world wars will be inevitable.” That’s why Einstein went even further than a mere parliamentary assembly: “In my opinion the only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government, with security of nations founded upon law.”
Many won’t be happy with Einstein’s faith in institutions. I myself take issue with the quasi-religious quality of his quote. But nonetheless we should take his warning seriously. I don’t think he means to be annoyingly moralistic. I think, he wanted to stimulate creative thinking to help solve some of the most pressing issues of our times. And we’re in need of that today. It is clear that the effort to save what we call human civilization is neither miraculous magic, nor a utopian daydream. It is courageous craft and common sense. That’s why Chancellor Brandt could say in the midst of the protests of the late 60s: “We want to dare more democracy!” His call is more relevant than ever, because as the world parliament ideas show: “We aren’t at the end of democracy, we’re just getting started.”
The article has been co-published on the German website of the Huffington Post.
Dr Steffen Murau is an executive board member and responsible for IFAIR’s Impact Groups. He currently works as a postdoctoral fellow at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and research associate at Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Potsdam. Steffen completed his PhD in International Political Economy at City, University of London in November 2017. From 2013 to 2017, he has been teaching political economy, international relations and economics at City, University of London, University College London (UCL) and Columbia University, New York. Until 2012, he studied political science, philosophy, economics and international law at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. He interned at Deutsche Bundesbank and the German Institute for Security and International Affairs, and implemented a development project in Cameroon with a German NGO. Steffen speaks German, English, French and Arabic.