A world on the brink of global crisis. War, disease, pollution and poverty run rampant. The grave, handsome, fearless president steps up to the podium and delivers a stern, impassioned call to arms against tyranny, terror and chaos.
On Sept. 24, United States President Barack Obama made his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, laying out the ills of the world and our global responsibility to right them. As I listened, all I could think was, “Damn, this is a good speech … it sounds like something out of a movie.”
I could almost hear the soundtrack orchestra swell as he said, “We call upon others to join us on the right side of history – for while small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun, they will ultimately be turned back if enough voices support the freedom of nations and peoples to make their own decisions.”
Obama’s speech is a director’s dream come true, a climactic moment ready-made for the big screen. As global governance collapses, the protagonist, a young but disenfranchised and embattled UN peacekeeper — played by handsome Life of Pi actor Suraj Sharma, perhaps — hears the speech and rallies his troops. Together, they formulate a new world order. There you have it: climax, romantic reunion, Hollywood happy ending.
But what would that new world order actually look like? I am inspired by one line in particular out of Obama’s address. “On issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century,” he says.
“If we lift our eyes beyond our borders, if we think globally and act co-operatively, we can shape the course of this century as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age.”
At the close of the Second World War, the UN was formed to foster international co-operation. If Obama is right, and we can’t rely on a system that was created for a different time and a different world, then what system should replace it?
I came up with a thought experiment. Ask Ryerson experts in three different fields this question: “Hypothetically, government on a local and global level has crumbled, and the global community comes to you to set up a new order. How would you describe your ideal, united world government?”
I was hoping for a scenario out of a science fiction book, a utopian vision. Turns out the answer — maybe even the question — is a little more complicated than that.
Ron Stagg is a longtime faculty member in the department of history and served twice as its chair. He specializes in Canadian social history and teaches a course on mass protest movements. What would Stagg’s new order look like?
“I’m going to say, because I’m a Canadian, I take that Canadian perspective: A federated system, because people would not all want to be under one government,” he says. “Create a system where there are individual governments in individual areas … not necessarily the existing areas.”
Many colonized countries, especially in Africa, are based on European systems. They don’t work, Stagg says. Allowing regional governments to create their own systems would be a good starting point.
In Stagg’s ideal world, a central government, kind of like Canada’s system on a global scale, would run things. “(We would need an) overall authority dealing with — law and order’s not exactly it … basically somebody to keep people in line so that they are not fighting among themselves, nor among the different entities within that world government. … That’s an ideal which will never be met.
“We’ve had two tries at world government, the League of Nations and now the United Nations, and neither one has worked because every country has their own interests that they bring to any discussion about things that are elsewhere in the world,” Stagg says. “So it’s hard to get anything done.”
The Hollywood Ending: Suraj Sharma, with the help of his plucky, ragtag group of soldiers and diplomats, sets up the United Federation of Earth. A union of mostly self-governing regions under a central, controlling government. It probably won’t work, according to Stagg. Prepare for a sequel.
“There are a lot of assumptions in this question, and I don’t think I can address all of the assumptions,” says Tariq Amin-Khan, an associate professor at the department of politics and public administration.
Amin-Khan, whose extensive work has focused on multiculturalism and nationalism, recently published a piece on the rise of militant Islam in the Third World Quarterly. He says historic imbalances of global power would be a major barrier to the creation of an ideal world government. But at the very least, the existing structures are in need of some major reform.
“Let’s start with the UN,” he says. Eliminate the system of five permanent members on the UN Security Council, who can veto resolutions like admitting new member states. Give everyone in the UN an equal vote to make decisions that “really alter the reality on the ground.”
“If you do things like that, that may be a beginning,” says Amin-Khan. “But we can’t even go there until we start to address the issue of power, right?
“Like, the U.S. is a very powerful state. Europeans are very powerful. Now, in what is called the Third World, there are also emerging powers, like India and China and Brazil. How do all those different interests come together?”
He adds that world organizations like the UN, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which enforce governance, are very biased.
“They have a particular interest they’re serving, so it’s very, very difficult to answer the question: how can this be done? I would argue, given the framework that I’ve set out for you, it’s extremely difficult.
“We can talk about ideals, but unless we can actually translate those ideals into practice, it becomes meaningless.”
The Hollywood Ending: Suraj Sharma, with the help of his plucky, ragtag group of soldiers and diplomats take on the flawed system that is the United Nations. Through a drama-thriller full of world governance reforms, spies and secret agents of vague yet menacing government agencies, they attempt to shift the balance of power. Will they succeed? Coming soon to a theatre near you.
Elizabeth Trott’s course on the philosophy of human nature at Ryerson begins with Plato’s theories. That includes the idea that we all have rational and calculating minds, “although some will probably use them more efficiently than others,” she says.
Trott’s ideal global governance consists of a “common language,” a universal system of values that speaks to the “sustainability of our being here.”
“If you can get a common language in which principles of intentional harm can be recognized and discussed, then you get a language in which individual differences (and common) modes of behaviour are made possible,” says Trott. “A language where you don’t beat your wife, where you don’t stop your kids from reading.”
This would start to address the question of the human condition, she continues. We all want to actively participate in the world around us. A common value system would encourage us to freely make choices that are in everyone’s best interest.
“That is the first step,” she says. “To recognize on some common ground that people want to do things, make things, be agents, not followers.”
For Trott, the ideal system would likely resemble some form of global democracy. Although such a system would be complicated.
“A democracy at a world level is going to be cumbersome to run. What do you do? Take turns? Who gets to be the world prime minister? Do you need a beneficent dictator? Do you (even) need an overall decision-maker? Do you need a philosopher king?
“Ultimately governing a world in which there is perpetual change mitigates against a single system. If you think, ‘All right, I’ve got the plan,’ then you’re misjudging the human condition.”
The Hollywood Ending: Suraj Sharma, with his plucky, ragtag group of soldiers and diplomats, sits down and gives it a good, long think. He realizes he has to fundamentally change human nature. “Shit,” Sharma mutters.
I’m going to level with you. What I learned about ideas of a united world governance on this thought experiment is that the idea is complex and nestled in humanity’s strange, singular history.
Whether going the path of an old, imperfect system, reforming the current one or looking forward to something new, it definitely won’t be as simple as a Hollywood plot.
One piece of advice from Trott may prove useful as the global community moves into the future: “A world government has to want to accommodate perpetual change.”
I think Suraj Sharma, with the help of his plucky, ragtag group of soldiers and diplomats, would agree.
Cue music. Roll credits.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Oct. 1, 2014.