It’s Not Just Europe: Who Can Bring the World to Its Senses?

(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post on April 1, 2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-herbst/its-not-just-europe-who-c_b_2989877.html.)

The New York Times’s senior editorial writer on foreign affairs, David C. Unger, asks in a Sunday Observer column, “Who Can Bring the E.U. To Its Senses?”Suggesting the original, wrongheaded, revised-at-the-last-minute Cyprus bailout plan as a paradigm, Unger focuses on “Europe’s outdated decision-making machinery,” noting how difficult it is for the European Union to respond to the Euro crisis, or any other continent-wide problem, when it is not a true union but merely a collection of states, beset by “chaos fed by conflicting national objectives.” Avoiding such chaos, he says, requires a central political authority with decision-making power, exercised by sustainable European economic institutions of government.

Yes indeed. The political deficits of the European project, now more than a half-century old, are quite visible, and the Europeans have conducted a serious conversation about it for a long time. The comparative advantages of our American federal Union seem clear, even considering our current political dysfunction. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, a plan was devised by the federal executive and central bank and presented to the Congress within weeks, voted down, revised, presented again and passed. Say what you will about the ultimate wisdom of that plan, but the Union could and did act through its central political and economic institutions, with ultimate decisions made by majority rule widely recognized as legitimate and binding among all 50 states. Such institutions are not just superior in a crisis; if populated by intelligent officials with the greater good in mind, they can be used to do some serious planning for the Union’s future. Some plan and execute better than others (one possible reason why China is eating our lunch), but little planning and coordinated action is possible without strong central governmental institutions.

But it is not just Europe which is lurching from one crisis to another. The whole world is beset by global problems that are existential, with no political or economic institutions capable of managing them — climate change, weapons of mass destruction on only tenuous leash, wars both national and civil, genocide, crimes against humanity, poverty, economic crises and dislocation, and cross-border health threats. So why can’t we even get a serious discussion started about how to make progress on putting in place strong centralized governmental institutions on the world stage?

Even where there is agreement on how to begin to address these global problems, our lack of effective global governmental institutions makes it difficult if not impossible to act absent consensus or unanimity. With almost 200 countries in the world, achieving such consensus is usually impossible, and where possible, painstakingly slow. Thus, in 1997, in Kyoto, an overwhelming majority of countries agreed to the Protocol, a treaty addressing greenhouse gas emissions, but the United States (which accounted for 36% of world emissions in 1990) signed it only reluctantly and has never ratified it, and Canada withdrew from it. Accordingly, only 37 countries have agreed to binding emission reduction targets, which amount to only a small percentage of annual global emissions, and the treaty, which did not even come into force until 2005, has not permitted the global community to mitigate the effects of global warming which threaten it – all this notwithstanding the clear support of the majority of the globe’s nations and inhabitants for such mitigation.

Virtually every day brings examples of our inability to rise above our global political institutional inadequacies. Last week, Iran, Syria and North Korea voted against and blocked the draft U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, an effort to control the $70 billion annual trade in conventional arms. The draft had been approved in treaty conference by the overwhelming majority of U.N. member states after years of negotiations. Having failed to achieve unanimity in conference, the Treaty now has to go to the General Assembly, where it will require ratification by 50 states before it can come into force. What effect it will have even then is not clear, because real enforcement requires real executive and judicial power currently lacking either in the United Nations or elsewhere in the world.

On the same day came news that the U.N. Security Council had approved a new “intervention brigade” to supplement the 19,000 peacekeeping troops and police in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 5 million people have died in the wars that have plagued that God-forsaken country. For the first time in history, this U.N. force will have a mandate to take offensive military action against militant groups, but the resolution authorized the brigade for only one year and specifically noted that this was “exceptional” — its power to carry out offensive operations should not be taken as “creating a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping,” which generally do not permit such operations.

As China, other BRICS and Asian nations rise in economic and political power, we will increasingly be living in a multipolar rather than a unipolar world, with influence more widely dispersed, and the United States less able to mold consensus or rule the roost as the global superpower. The world is going to need sustainable, legitimate and accountable global governmental institutions to exercise centralized legislative, executive and judicial powers sufficient to address these global problems. This will require serious reform of the United Nations, or starting over with a new international constitutional convention and structure. We should start a serious conversation about it, now.

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