Does the world need a government?

Saturday 2 November, 16:0017:15, Auditorium 1Ideology in the 21st century

From regional conflicts to environmental threats like climate change and plastic waste in our oceans, the biggest opportunities and threats to humanity’s well-being, even our planet, have become increasingly global. Much of this is driven by globalisation and the expansion of world trade. Yet while there are various institutions that attempt to deal with such issues at a global level, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, these lack any real power. Ultimately, power rests with national governments or supranational regional organisations like the EU.

As a result, the consideration of global issues is fragmented and ineffectual. The UN General Assembly is a talking shop with no power. The UN Security Council is frozen in Cold War mode: the permanent, veto-wielding members (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France) are an echo of a very different era. Even then, its rulings are often ignored. The Framework Convention on Climate Change may come to high-profile agreements about cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, yet there is little that can be done to enforce these agreements and emissions continue to rise ever upwards.

Is it now time to take these problems seriously? Many of those frustrated by our lack of progress on these big global issues would argue it is time for some form of world government. If the United Nations, or some similar body, had real power over national governments, global agreements could be made and enforced. Such power could be accountable to the General Assembly of national governments or an elected assembly could be created. Only then could issues of trade, refugees, sustainability and human rights be considered properly alongside each other.

But others argue that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for seven billion people to hold a world government to account. Indeed, many find the idea of a world government sinister. How would such an arrangement fit with ideals of democracy? After all, many UN member states – most notably China – do not even pay lip service to democracy at home. How would members of such an assembly be selected, if not simply appointed by national governments? Moreover, is it plausible that the US, China and other powerful states would simply hand over authority to a world government? After all, there is already a lot of criticism of climate-change agreements or the failure to stop nuclear proliferation. Even where there is some semblance of supranational government, as in the EU, there is considerable opposition, as illustrated by the UK’s vote to leave.

Can we really solve our global problems without global political institutions? Are the various crises we face today so great that perhaps we need to put national interests to one side? What are the practical problems with making sure future global institutions are accountable to the world’s people? Could a world government finally give us the means to pursue the common interests of humanity or could it be a vehicle for exercising great power without accountability?