“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify; who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States of America.” Thus spoke Joe Biden soon after defeating Donald Trump and becoming the 46th president of the US. May he succeed in his difficult mission.
The US is not unique in being severely polarised. Corrosive social and political divisions are also apparent in India, Pakistan, France, Turkey, Brazil, Ethiopia — indeed, in every country to a lesser or greater degree. The antidote to polarisation is reform of government and state institutions in a way that they work for all citizens without discrimination and injustice. Societies are healed when governance becomes fair and compassionate.
The larger question the 21st century is posing with increasing urgency is: How is our divided world going to be united and healed? Not since the end of the Cold War three decades ago has the world been as fractured, and as besieged with uncertainty, as it is today. Indeed, there are fears of a new cold war breaking out if US-China relations grow icier. The intensifying rivalry between the world’s largest and second-largest economies is not the only cause for worry. The militaries of the world’s most and second-most populous nations — China and India — have been engaged in a tense standoff for the past seven months. Nearby, the armies of two other nuclear-armed countries — India and Pakistan — have remained in an endless state of confrontation. Elsewhere, West Asia has seen four externally instigated civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. A “hot war” of a different kind is being waged by the greedy and reckless rulers in Brazil, who have literally set on fire parts of the Amazon forest, the world’s largest sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. There is also a crisis looming over nuclear disarmament. Time is running out for the extension of the only remaining nuclear weapons control pact between the US and Russia — the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — which is set to expire on February 5, 2021.
We must add to this list many other pressing challenges — ensuring affordable availability of the COVID vaccine to the entire global population; making the world economy inclusive, equitable and sustainable, with complete eradication of poverty as the foremost goal; achieving time-bound climate action to protect the planet; and stopping the militarisation of oceans, outer space and other global commons. If we do so, two questions inevitably confront us. Do we have leaders with a global vision, and not just a vision limited to making their own respective nations “great”? Are national governments showing adequate commitment to international cooperation, so essential to tackle problems that are common to many or all nations? The answers are obvious, and deeply disquieting.
Without effective global governance, the world faces the real danger of lurching towards more disorder, divisions and even wars. Here are some radical ideas to avert that danger.
First, if non-discriminatory and justice-promoting governance is the remedy to heal the fissures within nations, the same is also necessary for creating a more united, safer and better world. Therefore, the concept of establishing a democratic world government must be brought to the centre of global discourse and action.
Second, nations and nation-states will, of course, continue. But the paradigm of exclusive and paramount national sovereignty has become the greatest barrier to human unity and fraternity. When national sovereignty is invoked to threaten peace, well-being and development of historically inter-connected societies and regions, it becomes a menace to humanity. Therefore, in the age of globalisation, we must embrace the virtues of shared sovereignty, in which connectivity (physical, digital, cultural and people-to-people) takes priority over the fetish of territoriality. This will also make it possible for the world to create reliable new structures for collective global and regional security.
Third, militarisation of international disputes must be criminalised under the new laws of global governance. Before cynics dismiss it as impractical, they should consider this: Haven’t nation-states outlawed and criminalised violence by communities and individuals within their jurisdiction? If so, can humanity not rise to the next level of law-governed and trust-based coexistence? Yes, it can.
Fourth, a natural corollary of the above is that the world community must compel all nations, especially big and powerful ones, to not only destroy all their weapons of mass destruction but also steeply reduce their military expenditures.
Fifth, the United Nations has become incapable of discharging its mandate due to its well-known structural defects. It must be reformed and strengthened to gradually evolve into a future world government body. As a key element of UN reforms, permanent membership of its security council must be abolished as it is repugnant to the tenet of equality of all nations. Furthermore, nations that wage offensive wars or have failed to resolve disputes with their neighbours should stand disqualified/suspended from UNSC membership.
Sixth, there is a strong case for making governance more broad-based and participatory. In our increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent world, technology and mobility have made it possible for artists, cultural workers, educators, mediapersons, writers, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, professionals, environmentalists, young people, women and other previously disempowered communities, peace activists and spiritual seekers to have meaningful conversations and collaborations transcending national barriers. They are creating an ever-expanding reservoir of shared knowledge and wisdom capable of addressing the most complex challenges before the world. Therefore, their empowered participation, and ending the monopoly of professional politicians, in global governance is a must.
Lastly, it is futile to expect most national governments and political establishments to embrace either the idea or the imperatives of global governance. This is because they have become prisoners of sectional interests and outdated patterns of thought and action. In human history, people alone have been the ultimate change-makers. History takes a new turn whenever multitudes swing into action inspired by new dreams and troubled by an awareness that old beliefs and systems are a hurdle to the fulfilment of their vital needs and aspirations.
Hence, the time has come to rally the people of all nations, races and religions around a New Idea of the World. It is the idea that our globalised human family needs a new democratically governing body to address the chaos and troubles caused by myopic, self-centred and unaccountable national governments. Bringing such a body into existence is not going to be easy. But then which transformative human endeavour has ever succeeded easily?
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2020 under the title ‘A world to win’. The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee