Nation-states, little boats that cannot handle global issues
As Kishore Mahbubani (The Great Convergence) points out, the nation-state was invented in the mid-16th century with the Treaty of Westphalia, and for centuries it served to organise and overcome wars between tribes and clans. But, three hundred and fifty years later, the nation-state and national sovereignty are no longer helpful because today’s world is entirely different. Before modern globalisation, the almost two hundred existing states could live more or less independently, as if they were small boats in the middle of the sea. All they needed at the global level were some basic rules so that the little boats would not collide and, if they had the courage, would be able to cooperate.
The world order established in 1945 was what it was trying to do, although some boats already had preference over others and whoever made the rules made them according to their interests. The 8 billion inhabitants can no longer be considered living on a small boat but as living in independent cabins on a large ship that does not have a single captain in charge of steering it to a safe harbor. On the contrary, almost two hundred captains lead the big ship, and, in this way, we want our world to navigate in the turbulent and iceberg-filled waters of the 21st century.
The icebergs among which this ocean liner must navigate
Not a few: Climate emergency, peacekeeping or war deterring, loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, depletion of fish stocks, deforestation, water scarcity, maritime security and pollution, poverty, education for all, global infectious diseases, prevention of natural disasters, migration and modern slavery, financial crises, among others.
Common sense (we call ourselves homo sapiens for a reason) would select a single captain with his crew. Of course, it is a romantic idea, and the voting citizens of the world would be reluctant -as they are not fully informed of the situation- for it. Therefore, we should think of imperfect but valid solutions to address these significant problems in the coming decades.
Who is in charge of ensuring that ships do not sink?
That is why it is necessary to create efficient global institutions, adapted to the present day and representing the people living in the different cabins of the passenger liner.
We need to strengthen, update and make these institutions efficient. The different nations-cabin need to admit that hundreds of cabin masters cannot govern the ship; the critical problems that threaten humanity cannot be addressed on a cabin-objectives basis. Moreover, the sea, global context, is having drastic changes occurring at an ever-increasing speed. The ideal would be to reinvent the institutional system to adapt it to the new reality. Unfortunately, this will not happen because the so-called homo sapiens have neither the imagination nor the courage to propose new solutions.
Who built (and when) the “World ocean liner”?
Curiously, the United States and Europe, founders and primary beneficiaries of this system, supported, as long as it suited them, both the institutional framework (WHO, UN, IMF,…) and global liberalisation.
Now they are beginning to let it fall as it begins to benefit India or China and does not allow its founding fathers to do and undo as they please.
We are in a situation that might resemble that of the unfortunately famous Titanic – where also if the ship is to be evacuated, the first-class passengers would be evacuated first. Seeing as our ship is about to hit an iceberg and sink into the deepest part of the sea, would it make sense for each cabin to try to save our cabins? If the ship sinks, so do our tiny cabins. To keep our little cabins, we need to save the ship.
Unfortunately, that is what is happening when, with the ship sinking because of the global problems it has – most especially the climate emergency – we have captains and crews who make sure that nothing happens to their cabin – or country. Yet, we don’t have a real ship’s captain taking the helm so that nothing happens to the passenger liner and its cabins.
Untouchable national sovereignty
This example clearly shows the contradictions between national and global interests – knowing that the global ones will sink the interests of each cabin-state. We have almost two hundred rulers looking after the interests of their citizens, protecting their cabins. But if we don’t watch the ship, it will sink, taking all the ship-countries to the bottom of the sea.
We have no defenders of global interests. Rulers concerned that their constituents cannot protect their citizens from the dangers of climate change, global pandemics – the current one seems to have been a warning from the sea – financial crises, or any of the big problems we mentioned at the beginning of the post. We need global institutions to protect us from these threats. Arguably we already have some, but, as we will see below, they belong to a select group of cabin boys who will, of course, prioritise saving themselves – like the first-class passengers on the Titanic – rather than saving the rest.
But, who rules this big "World ocean liner"?
The countries of the «West» have ten percent of the population – with demographic declines – while «the Rest» provides the remaining eighty-eight percent – with significant demographic growth. If we had fair, equitable, democratic, legitimate global governance, we should try to ensure that the needs and interests of all eight billion people are equally represented in global institutions.
The countries of the West do this perfectly well in their own countries, but at the worldwide level, they do just the opposite. They cling to power and avoid any attempt to distribute power more democratically, according to what each country, according to its national population, deserves.
The countries self-appointed and thus referred to by their media as the «international community,» the countries of the West are over-represented in the three leading global institutions. Three of the five current members with a veto in the United Nations Security Council represent 10% of the global population but hold sixty percent of the power. In the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the West controls fifty percent of the votes – and if that were not enough, it is established that an American and a European must lead both of them.
The resistance of the European Union and the United States to cede power to the remaining eighty percent of the world’s population resembles the resistance of monarchs and dictators to relinquishing their absolute control. Democracy at home, oligarchy outside. In the end, this attachment to a power generated after the Second World War will lead to the loss of all political legitimacy.
What will "the Rest" do?
One of the most relevant cabins on 21st century´s ocean liner, China, continues to accept Western institutions but is committed to reshaping international relations beyond the Bretton Woods institutions. Examples include the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), initiated by the Philippines, Australia, and Japan in 2001 but mainly bearing China’s imprint. Following the World Economic Forum model in Davos, the BFA focuses expressly on the «Asian perspective.»
Alongside the «Davos of Asia» is China’s version of the Shangri-La Dialogue – the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing – an alternative to the World Bank and IMF – the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) – and what some observers refer to as the NATO of the East – the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Following this dynamic, we could use a new water analogy: a boat approaching huge waterfalls and, instead of rowing against the current to pull away, half of the rowers want to row to the west bank and the other half to the east bank as the boat already starts to fall.
Will we (the so-called homo sapiens) be humble, brave and intelligent enough to forget the short-term domestic interests of each cabin or, on the contrary, will we paddle in the same direction to avoid the iceberg or go straight to the waterfall?
As the Spanish saying goes “They all killed her (our granma) but she died alone” whose meaning could loosely be “People tend to wash their hands on the matter”…
… but that is another story and we come to the end of another of our travel notes. But our Journey to the East continues so…