The need for world institutions?








Until about 500 years ago the European states appeared to themselves to be isolated from the rest of the world. That is, the people knew little about the world outside Europe, and most of them thought themselves superior (forgetful of the cultural influence exerted on Europe by the Muslim world, especially from the Translators' school of Toledo).

Since the fading away of the Roman Empire the doctrine of sovereignty in Europe was developed, first by the kings and later by the states. We may imagine that this was derived from the power of the nomadic tribal kings who invaded the territory of the empire and set up temporary kingdoms there. Later as these developed into the feudal states in which most power was actually held by the lords of localities, sovereignty was asserted by the kings as they increased their central power and built up the historic European states of France, England and Spain.

The extreme point came with the doctrine of Divine Right attributed to the French kings, and especially Louis the fourteenth, who claimed the sole right to make decisions in the state: "L'etat? C'est moi" (The state? That's me) - what we now recognize as the megalomania of a dictator. In England this assertion by Charles the first was settled in the 17th century when in the Civil Wars Parliament, representing the country gentlemen and merchants, defeated the king and in the 1688 settlement limited the power of the monarch by the sovereignty of parliament - an assembly of landowners and merchants. In France the ending of royal sovereignty came in 1789 with the Revolution.

However, the European monarchs also asserted their right to unfettered power over other parts of the world. Thus Spanish and English visitors to other continents had the habit of announcing that the land they had touched upon had become the sovereign property of their monarch, despite the presence of people whose ancestors had lived there since time immemorial. Throughout the colonial period Europeans behaved as though they were the sole conscious inhabitants of the planet with rights.

The doctrine of sovereignty giving absolute power to states in their relation with each other also led to wars. The mitigation of this doctrine has followed the exponentially increasing ease of communications between areas of the planet which has characterized the last 500 years, but especially the last 180 years (from steam and telegraphs).

Mitigation began in Europe at the peace conference following the Napoleonic wars, in which many of the historic states had been abolished or reorganized by Napoleon. Some of them were restored by the Peace Conference. The concept of the Concert of Europe was perhaps the first practical manifestation of the thinking which in our own time has produced the United Nations. Concert implied that a consensus of the leading powers was needed to keep the peace. It broke down many times and was unable to prevent the Crimean War against Russia, nor the wars accompanying the unification of Germany. These culminated in the first world war. (The Security Council of the UN and the concept of the Veto represents the modern version of the Concert - no Great Power could be forced to act against its own interest).

The Versaille Peace Conference at the end of the first world war set up the League of Nations whose purpose was to prevent wars by negotiation but the United States Senate refused to join and the colonial peoples had no representation. The League was unable to prevent the rise of extreme nationalist movements in many parts of Europe, which asserted strongly the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty. In both Germany and Italy the leaders declared that only their own nationals had rights in the world. (They were perhaps practicing in Europe what Britain, France and Spain had been practicing in the rest of the world).

The doctrine of absolute sovereignty limited only by force led to the second world war, which unlike the first, really did cover most of the world.

The outcome of the 1991 Kuwait war, in which Iraqi forces massacred Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels while the allies argued about whether they could intervene in "internal" affairs of Iraq, indicated the limitations of the doctrine of sovereignty in an age of satellite television when everyone could see the results of not intervening. The situation in Somalia is another case - government has ceased to exist.

A problem of the existing states claiming sovereignty is that most of them derive their sovereignty by inheritance from the European colonial empires, not from the will of their inhabitants, many of whom may wish to belong to a different state (see Borders).

Sovereignty has arisen as a problem in Yugoslavia. Other central and eastern European peoples are seeking states with classic sovereignty, reviving the problem of the Balkans. The break up of the former USSR is revealing similar problems.

Monetary sovereignty was one aspect of classic sovereignty which seems to be on the way out. Many of the post colonial states set up their own currencies but most of these were worthless outside their own territories. Even the medium sized currencies of Europe have been abandoned in favor of the euro - a single currency for 11 states. How far away is a World Currency Unit? (During the 19th century all European currencies - and the dollar - were united in a gold standard. This was disrupted by the 20th century wars. The euro is perhaps a re-establishment of the 19th century system - at least within the EU).

If monetary independence is an illusion, what about the military? One definition of sovereignty is the ability to exert military power. A large number of the members of the United Nations are not sovereign in this sense as their armies are only useful for internal security (bashing their own citizens).

There are a number of states that have the appearance of sovereignty but whose governments have limited powers. Thus for example in most of Latin America governments' freedom of action is limited by the wishes of the United States (see Jenkins). Many of them are in reality Native states - maybe Britain is one of them.



Possible Solutions

This is an intractable problem. In the time of poor communications governments could pretend that their actions did not have to take into account the needs of others as their power was confined within their boundaries. Even the most destructive of European wars, for example the 30 years war in Germany (1618-48), had few effects outside Germany. Nowadays pollution from a major war can affect every country, and the effects on the world economy can be felt everywhere.

As soon as the Europeans started ruling peoples in other continents, helped by the possession of guns and efficient sailing ships, the doctrine of sovereignty ceased to be useful as a social tool.

International organizations began in the 19th century with the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Switzerland and intended to mitigate the effects of war. In some respects it is a secular version of the international religious orders, such as the Cistercians, Templars and Hospitallers which operated across feudal borders in the early middle ages. By drawing up the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war it has established the theory, though not often the practice, that war should be limited by some consideration of common humanity other than the needs of the contending sovereignties.

During the 20th century more and more international organizations have been added. The United Nations is comprised of a number of different agencies, including Posts and Telecommunications, Agriculture, Science and Culture, Health. There are also those related to trade and economics, including the International Monetary Fund (actually a Bank) and the World Bank for Reconstruction and Development (actually an aid fund). The technical agencies generally function with less contention than the political agencies, though UNESCO - UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - was for many years in the hands of a rather corrupt Director and effectively ceased to function. FAO - Food and Agriculture - is also accused of building an administrative bureaucracy without much effect.

The Security Council and General Assembly are still seldom able to articulate a genuinely world view but serve as the forum for the views of the individual states. The 1990 Kuwait crisis showed that the UN only functions when the leading powers wish to use it.

In medieval Europe the local feudal powers of the 10th century gradually had to give up power to the national overlords, as trade and money revived, and as weapons became too expensive for a small power to pay for. In the modern world since 1945 there have been a number of regional associations in which states are said to "pool" sovereignty. The European Union is the most successful of these. In Latin America communities have been proposed but no real progress has yet been made. In the Caribbean a Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) has been formed to pool certain economic functions among the smaller islands. This may evolve into a federation. In Africa the Organization of African Unity is a very loose association of states. In West Africa an economic Community (ECOWAS) has few achievements as yet but has sent a joint military force to end the civil war in Liberia, which may prove to be a useful precedent.

The world may have already reached the condition in which no country can exercise sovereignty because of the interlinks between states. In 1991 Iraq discovered that its war-making power was limited by international sanctions, but so did the United States, the last power able to act with little consideration for the wishes of other powers. This war also showed that in modern times a major war can only take place by using the machinery of the United Nations to get at least the appearance of international consent.

Perhaps, some kind of world authority may now develop to recognize the situation in which space communications and surveillance as well as pollution cause the whole planet to be the only viable sovereignty. This would be the first political novelty in known history, as all powers so far have developed in opposition to other powers.

Despite the growth of international organization, nationalism continues strongly in some areas, even though this seems anachronistic.

Jokers say that what we need is an invasion from outer space to unite us in a common resistance - Earth for the Earthlings! But atmospheric and maritime pollution is already an enemy of everyone.

Last revised 20/03/10


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