Peter Singer on World Government
Source Dave Anderson
Date 02/10/19/10:30

Navigating the Ethics of Globalization

The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2.10.11


   Consider two aspects of globalization: first, planes exploding as they
   slam into the World Trade Center, and second, the emission of carbon
   dioxide from the exhaust of gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. One
   brought instant death and left unforgettable images that were watched
   on television screens all over the world; the other makes a
   contribution to climate change that can be detected only by scientific
   instruments. Yet both are indications of the way in which we are now
   one world, and the more subtle changes to which sport-utility-vehicle
   owners unintentionally contribute will almost certainly kill far more
   people than the more visible aspect of globalization. When people in
   rich nations switch to vehicles that consume more fuel than the cars
   they used to drive, they contribute to changes in the climate of
   Mozambique or Bangladesh -- changes that may cause crops to fail, sea
   levels to rise, and tropical diseases to spread.

   As scientists pile up the evidence that continuing greenhouse-gas
   emissions will imperil millions of lives, the leader of the nation
   that emits the largest share of those gases has said: "We will not do
   anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the
   people who live in America." President Bush's remarks were not an
   aberration, but an expression of an ethical view that he may have
   learned from his father. The first President George Bush had said much
   the same thing at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

   But it is not only the two Bush administrations that have put the
   interests of Americans first. When it came to the crunch in the
   Balkans, the Clinton-Gore administration made it very clear that it
   was not prepared to risk the life of a single American in order to
   reduce the number of civilian casualties. In the context of the debate
   over whether to intervene in Bosnia to stop Serb "ethnic cleansing"
   operations directed against Bosnian Muslims, Colin L. Powell, then
   chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quoted with approval the remark
   of the 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, that all the
   Balkans were not worth the bones of a single one of his soldiers.
   Bismarck, however, was not thinking of intervening in the Balkans to
   stop crimes against humanity. As chancellor of imperial Germany, he
   assumed that his country followed its national interest. To use his
   remark today as an argument against humanitarian intervention is to
   return to 19th-century power politics, ignoring both the bloody wars
   that style of politics brought about in the first half of the 20th
   century, and the efforts of the second half of the 20th century to
   find a better foundation for peace and the prevention of crimes
   against humanity.

   That forces us to consider a fundamental ethical issue. To what extent
   should political leaders see their role narrowly, in terms of
   promoting the interests of their citizens, and to what extent should
   they be concerned with the welfare of people everywhere?

   There is a strong ethical case for saying that it is wrong for leaders
   to give absolute priority to the interests of their own citizens. The
   value of the life of an innocent human being does not vary according
   to nationality. But, it might be said, the abstract ethical idea that
   all humans are entitled to equal consideration cannot govern the
   duties of a political leader. Just as parents are expected to provide
   for the interests of their own children, rather than for the interests
   of strangers, so too in accepting the office of president of the
   United States, President Bush has taken on a specific role that makes
   it his duty to protect and further the interests of Americans. Other
   countries have their leaders, with similar roles in respect to the
   interests of their fellow citizens.

   There is no world political community, and as long as that situation
   prevails, we must have nation-states, and the leaders of those
   nation-states must give preference to the interests of their citizens.
   Otherwise, unless electors were suddenly to turn into altruists of a
   kind never before seen on a large scale, democracy could not function.
   Our leaders feel that they must give some degree of priority to the
   interests of their own citizens, and they are, so this argument runs,
   right to do so. But what does "some degree of priority" amount to, in

   Related to that question about the duties of national leaders is
   another one: Is the division of the world's people into sovereign
   nations a dominant and unalterable fact of life? Here our thinking has
   been affected by the horrors of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. In Rwanda,
   a United Nations inquiry took the view that 2,500 military personnel,
   given the proper training and mandate, might have saved 800,000 lives.
   Secretary General Kofi Annan, who, as under secretary general for
   peacekeeping operations at the time, must bear some responsibility for
   what the inquiry termed a "terrible and humiliating" paralysis, has
   learned from that situation. Now he urges that "the world cannot stand
   aside when gross and systematic violations of human rights are taking
   place." What we need, he has said, are "legitimate and universal
   principles" on which we can base intervention. That means a
   redefinition of state sovereignty, or more accurately, an abandonment
   of the absolute idea of state sovereignty that has prevailed in Europe
   since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

   The aftermath of the attacks on September 11 underlined in a very
   different way the extent to which our thinking about state sovereignty
   has changed over the past century. In the summer of 1914 another act
   of terrorism shocked the world: the assassination of the Austrian
   Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, by a Bosnian
   Serb nationalist. In the wake of that outrage Austria-Hungary
   presented an ultimatum to Serbia in which it laid out the evidence
   that the assassins were trained and armed by the Black Hand, a shadowy
   Serbian organization headed by the chief of Serbian military
   intelligence. The Black Hand was tolerated or supported by other
   Serbian government officials, and Serbian officials arranged safe
   passage across the border into Bosnia for the seven conspirators in
   the assassination plot. Accordingly, Austria-Hungary's ultimatum
   demanded that the Serbs bring those responsible to justice and allow
   Austro-Hungarian officials to inspect files to ensure that that had
   been done properly.

   Despite the clear evidence of the involvement of Serbian officials in
   the crime -- evidence that, historians agree, was substantially
   accurate -- the ultimatum Austria-Hungary presented was widely
   condemned in Russia, France, Britain, and the United States. Many
   historians studying the origins of the First World War have condemned
   the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum as demanding more than one sovereign
   nation may properly ask of another. They have added that the
   Austro-Hungarian refusal to negotiate after the Serbian government
   accepted many, but not all, of its demands is further evidence that
   Austria-Hungary, together with its backer Germany, wanted an excuse to
   declare war on Serbia. Hence those two nations must bear the guilt for
   the outbreak of the war and the nine million deaths that followed.

   Now consider the American response to the terrorist attacks of
   September 11. The demands made of the Taliban by the Bush
   administration were scarcely less stringent than those made by
   Austria-Hungary of Serbia in 1914. (The main difference is that the
   Austro-Hungarians insisted on the suppression of hostile nationalist
   propaganda. Freedom of speech was not so widely regarded, then, as a
   human right.) Moreover, the American demand that the Taliban hand over
   Osama bin Laden was made without presenting to the Taliban any
   evidence at all linking him to the attacks of September 11. Yet the
   American demands, far from being condemned as a mere pretext for
   aggressive war, were endorsed as reasonable and justifiable by a
   wide-ranging coalition of nations.

   When President Bush said, in speeches and press conferences after
   September 11, that he would not draw a distinction between terrorists
   and regimes that harbor terrorists, no ambassadors, foreign ministers,
   or United Nations representatives denounced that as a "vicious"
   doctrine or a "tyrannical" demand on other sovereign nations, as the
   Austro-Hungarian demands had been denounced. The U.N. Security Council
   broadly endorsed it, in its resolution of September 28, 2001.

   It seems that world leaders now accept that every nation has an
   obligation to every other nation of the world to suppress activities
   within its borders that might lead to terrorist attacks carried out in
   other countries, and that it is reasonable to go to war with a nation
   that does not do so. If Kaisers Franz Joseph I and Wilhelm II could
   see this, they might well feel that, since 1914, the world has come
   round to their view.

   Terrorism has made our world an integrated community in a new and
   frightening way. Not merely the activities of our neighbors, but those
   of the inhabitants of the most remote mountain valleys of the
   farthest-flung countries of our planet have become our business. We
   need to extend the reach of the criminal law there and to have the
   means to bring terrorists to justice without declaring war on an
   entire country in order to do it. For that we need a sound global
   system of criminal justice, so justice does not become the victim of
   national differences of opinion.

   We also need, though it will be far more difficult to achieve, a sense
   that we really are one community, that we are people who recognize not
   only the force of prohibitions against killing each other but also the
   pull of obligations to assist one another. That may not stop religious
   fanatics from carrying out suicide missions, but it will help to
   isolate them and reduce their support. It was not a coincidence that
   just two weeks after September 11, conservative members of the U.S.
   Congress abandoned their opposition to the payment of $585-million in
   back dues that the United States owed the United Nations. Now that
   America was calling for the world to come to its aid to stamp out
   terrorism, it was apparent that it could no longer flout the rules of
   the global community to the extent that it had been doing before
   September 11.

   We have lived with the idea of sovereign states for so long that they
   have come to be part of the background not only of diplomacy and
   public policy but also of ethics. Implicit in the term "globalization"
   rather than the older "internationalization" is the idea that we are
   moving beyond the era of growing ties between nations and are
   beginning to contemplate something beyond the existing conception of
   the nation-state. But this change needs to be reflected in all levels
   of our thought, and especially in our thinking about ethics.

   For most of the eons of human existence, people living only short
   distances apart might as well, for all the difference they made to
   each other's lives, have been living in separate worlds. A river, a
   mountain range, a stretch of forest or desert, a sea -- those were
   enough to cut people off from each other. Over the past few centuries
   the isolation has dwindled, slowly at first, then with increasing
   rapidity. Now people living on opposite sides of the world are linked
   in ways previously unimaginable.

   One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx gave a one-sentence summary
   of his theory of history: "The hand mill gives you society with the
   feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist."
   Today he could have added: "The jet plane, the telephone, and the
   Internet give you a global society with the transnational corporation
   and the World Economic Forum."

   Technology changes everything -- that was Marx's claim, and if it was
   a dangerous half-truth, it was still an illuminating one. As
   technology has overcome distance, economic globalization has followed.
   In London supermarkets, fresh vegetables flown in from Kenya are
   offered for sale alongside those from nearby Kent. Planes bring
   illegal immigrants seeking to better their own lives in a country they
   have long admired. In the wrong hands the same planes become lethal
   weapons that bring down tall buildings. Instant digital communication
   spreads the nature of international trade from actual goods to skilled
   services. At the end of a day's trading, a bank based in New York may
   have its accounts balanced by clerks living in India. The increasing
   degree to which there is a single world economy is reflected in the
   development of new forms of global governance, the most controversial
   of which has been the World Trade Organization, but the WTO is not
   itself the creator of the global economy.

   Global market forces provide incentives for every nation to put on
   what the foreign-affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman has called a
   "Golden Straitjacket," a set of policies that involve freeing up the
   private sector of the economy, shrinking the bureaucracy, keeping
   inflation low, and removing restrictions on foreign investment. If a
   country refuses to wear the golden straitjacket, or tries to take it
   off, then the electronic herd -- the currency traders, stock and bond
   traders, and those who make investment decisions for multinational
   corporations -- could gallop off in a different direction, taking the
   investment capital that countries want to keep their economy growing.
   When capital is internationally mobile, to raise your tax rates is to
   risk triggering a flight of capital to other countries with comparable
   investment prospects and lower taxation.

   The upshot is that as the economy grows and average incomes rise, the
   scope of politics may shrink -- at least as long as no political party
   is prepared to challenge the assumption that global capitalism is the
   best economic system. When neither the government nor the opposition
   is prepared to take the risk of removing the golden straitjacket, the
   differences between the major political parties shrink to differences
   over minor ways in which the straitjacket might be adjusted. Thus even
   without the WTO, the growth of the global economy itself marks a
   decline in the power of the nation-state.

   Marx argued that in the long run we never reject advances in the means
   by which we satisfy our material needs. Hence history is driven by the
   growth of productive forces. He would have been contemptuous of the
   suggestion that globalization is something foisted on the world by a
   conspiracy of corporate executives meeting in Switzerland, and he
   might have agreed with Friedman's remark that the most basic truth
   about globalization is, "No one is in charge." For Marx that is a
   statement that epitomizes humanity in a state of alienation, living in
   a world in which, instead of ruling ourselves, we are ruled by our own
   creation, the global economy. For Friedman, on the other hand, all
   that needs to be said about Marx's alternative -- state control of the
   economy -- is that it doesn't work. (Whether there are alternatives to
   both capitalism and centrally controlled socialism that could work is
   another question, but not one for here.)

   Marx also believed that a society's ethic is a reflection of the
   economic structure to which its technology has given rise. Thus a
   feudal economy in which serfs are tied to their lord's land gives you
   the ethic of feudal chivalry based on the loyalty of knights and
   vassals to their lord, and the obligations of the lord to protect them
   in time of war. A capitalist economy requires a mobile labor force
   able to meet the needs of the market, so it breaks the tie between
   lord and vassal, substituting an ethic in which the right to buy and
   sell labor is paramount.

   Our newly interdependent global society, with its remarkable
   possibilities for linking people around the planet, gives us the
   material basis for a new ethic. Marx would have thought that such an
   ethic would serve the interests of the ruling class, that is, the rich
   nations and the transnational corporations they have spawned. But
   perhaps our ethic is related to our technology in a looser, less
   deterministic way than Marx thought.

   Ethics appear to have developed from the behavior and feelings of
   social mammals. They became distinct from anything we can observe in
   our closest nonhuman relatives when we started using our reasoning
   abilities to justify our behavior to other members of our group. If
   the group to which we must justify ourselves is the tribe, or the
   nation, then our morality is likely to be tribal, or nationalistic.
   If, however, the revolution in communications has created a global
   audience, then we might feel a need to justify our behavior to the
   whole world. As Clive Kessler argued recently in Third World
   Quarterly, that change creates the material basis for a new ethic that
   will serve the interests of all those who live on this planet in a way
   that, despite much rhetoric, no previous ethic has ever done.

   If this appeal to our need for ethical justification appears to be
   based on too generous a view of human nature, there is another
   consideration of a very different kind that leads in the same
   direction. The great empires of the past, whether Persian, Roman,
   Chinese, or British, were, as long as their power lasted, able to keep
   their major cities safe from threatening barbarians on the frontiers
   of their far-flung realms. In the 21st century the greatest superpower
   in history was unable to keep the self-appointed warriors of a
   different worldview from attacking both its greatest city and its

   My thesis is that how well we come through the era of globalization
   (perhaps whether we come through it at all) will depend on how we
   respond ethically to the idea that we live in one world. For the rich
   nations not to take a global ethical viewpoint has long been seriously
   morally wrong. Now it is also, in the long term, a danger to their

   There is one great obstacle to further progress in this direction. It
   has to be said, in cool but plain language, that in recent years the
   international effort to build a global community has been hampered by
   the repeated failure of the United States 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 United
   States has refused to join the 178 states that have accepted the Kyoto
   Protocol. Along with Libya and China, the United States voted against
   setting up an International Criminal Court to try people accused of
   genocide and crimes against humanity. Now that the court seems likely
   to go ahead, the U.S. government has said that it has no intention of
   participating. Though it is one of the world's wealthiest nations,
   with the world's strongest economy, the United States gives
   significantly less foreign aid, as a proportion of its gross national
   product, than any other developed nation.

   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
   arrogantly refuses to give up any of its own rights and privileges for
   the sake of the common good -- even when other nations are giving up
   their rights and privileges -- the prospects of finding solutions to
   global problems are dimmed. 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 International Criminal Court, the United States will
   eventually be shamed into joining in. If it does not do so, 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
   United States 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.

   I have argued that 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. That 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.

   There is little political support for such ideas at present. Apart
   from the threat that the idea poses to the self-interest of the
   citizens of the rich nations, many would say it puts too much at risk,
   for gains that are too uncertain. It is widely believed that a world
   government would be, at best, an unchecked bureaucratic behemoth that
   makes the bureaucracy of the European Union look like a lean and
   efficient operation. At worst, it would become a global tyranny,
   unchecked and unchallengeable. Those thoughts have to be taken
   seriously. They present a challenge that should not be beyond the best
   minds in the fields of political science and public administration,
   once those people adjust to the new reality of the global community
   and turn their attention to issues of government beyond national

   We need to learn from the experience of other multinational
   organizations. The European Union is a federal body that has adopted
   the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest
   level capable of dealing with the problem. The application of that
   principle, known as subsidiarity, is still being tested. But if it
   works for Europe, it is not impossible that it might work for the

   To rush into world federalism would be too risky, but we could accept
   the diminishing significance of national boundaries and take a
   pragmatic, step-by-step approach to greater global governance. There
   is a good case for global environmental and labor standards. The World
   Trade Organization has indicated its support for the International
   Labor Organization to develop core labor standards. If those standards
   are developed and accepted, they would not be much use without a
   global body to check that they are being adhered to, and to allow
   other countries to impose trade sanctions against goods that are not
   produced in conformity with the standards. Since the WTO seems eager
   to pass this task over to the ILO, we might see that organization
   significantly strengthened.

   Something similar could happen with environmental standards. It is
   even possible to imagine a United Nations Economic and Social Security
   Council that would take charge of the task of eliminating global
   poverty, and would be voted the resources to do it. These and other
   specific proposals for stronger global institutions to accomplish a
   particular task should be considered on their merits.

   The 15th and 16th centuries are celebrated for the voyages of
   discovery that proved that the world is round. The 18th century saw
   the first proclamations of universal human rights. The 20th century's
   conquest of space made it possible for a human being to look at our
   planet from a point not on it, and so to see it, literally, as one
   world. Now the 21st century faces the task of developing a suitable
   form of government for that single world. It is a daunting moral and
   intellectual challenge, but one we cannot refuse to take up. It is no
   exaggeration to say that the future of the world depends on how well
   we meet it.

   Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. This
   essay is adapted from One World: The Ethics of Globalization, to be
   published later this month by Yale University Press.

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