In the fifth century before the Christian era, the Chinese philosopher
Mozi, appalled at the damage caused by war in his time, asked: "What
is the way of universal love and mutual benefit?" He answered his own
question: "It is to regard other people's countries as one's
own." The ancient Greek iconoclast Diogenes, when asked what country
he came from, is said to have replied: "I am a citizen of the
world." In the late 20th century John Lennon sang that it isn't hard
to "Imagine there's no countries . . . Imagine all the people/Sharing
all the world".
Until recently, such thoughts have been the dreams of idealists, devoid
of practical impact on the hard realities of a world of nation states. But
now we are beginning to live in a global community.
Almost all the nations of the world have reached a binding agreement
about their greenhouse gas emissions. The global economy has given rise to
the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund; institutions that take on, if imperfectly, some functions
of global economic governance. An international criminal court is
beginning its work. Changing ideas about military intervention for
humanitarian purposes shows we are in the process of developing a global
community prepared to accept its responsibility to protect the citizens of
states that cannot or will not protect them from massacre or genocide.
In ringing declarations and resolutions, most recently at the United
Nations Millennium Summit, the world's leaders have recognised that
relieving the plight of the world's poorest nations is a global
responsibility - although their deeds are yet to match their words.
When different nations led more separate lives, it was more
understandable - though still quite wrong - for those in one country to
think of themselves as owing no obligations, beyond that of non-
interference, to people in another state. But those times are long gone.
Today, as we have seen, our greenhouse gas emissions alter the climate
under which everyone in the world lives. Our purchases of oil, diamonds
and timber make it possible for dictators to buy more weapons and
strengthen their hold on the countries they tyrannise. Instant
communications show us how others live, and they in turn learn about us
and aspire to our way of life. Modern transport can move even relatively
poor people thousands of kilometres, and when people are desperate to
improve their situation, national boundaries prove permeable.
The era after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was the high water mark
of the independent sovereign
state. Behind the supposed inviolability of national borders, liberal
democratic institutions took hold in some countries while in others,
rulers carried out genocide against their own citizens. At intervals,
bloody wars broke out between the independent nation states. Though we may
look back on that era with some nostalgia, we should not regret its
passing: we should be developing the ethical foundations of the coming era
of a single world community.
One great obstacle hinders further progress in this direction. It has
to be said, in cool but plain language, that in recent years the effort to
build a global community has been hampered by the repeated failure of the
US to play its part. Despite being the single largest polluter of the
world's atmosphere, and on a per capita basis the most profligate of the
major nations, the US (along with Australia) has refused to join the 178
states that have accepted the Kyoto Protocol.
Together with Libya and China, the US voted against setting up an
International Criminal Court to try people accused of genocide and crimes
against humanity. The US has consistently failed to pay the dues it owes
to the United Nations, and in November, 2001, even after paying off a
portion of its debt in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it still owed
that institution $US1.07 billion.
When the world's most powerful state wraps itself in what - until
September 11 - it took to be the security of its military might, and
refuses to give up any of its own rights and privileges for the sake of
the common good, even when others are giving up their rights and
privileges, the prospects of finding solutions to global problems are
One can only hope that when the rest of the world nevertheless proceeds
down the right path, as it did in resolving to go ahead with the Kyoto
Protocol, and as it is now doing with the ICC, the US will eventually be
shamed into joining in. If it does not, it risks falling into a situation
in which it is universally seen by everyone except its own self-satisfied
citizens as the world's "rogue superpower". Even from a strictly
self-interested perspective, if the US wants the cooperation of other
nations in matters that are largely its own concern - such as the struggle
to eliminate terrorism - it cannot afford to be so regarded.
As more and more issues increasingly demand global solutions, the
extent to which any state can independently determine its future
diminishes. We therefore need to strengthen institutions for global
decision-making and make them more responsible to the people they affect.
This line of thought leads in the direction of a world community with its
own directly elected legislature, perhaps slowly evolving along the lines
of the European Union.