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The concept of world government refers to the institutional organization and administration of global affairs, including issues of peace and security, economics, the environment, and the potential constitution of a comprehensive international system of law and justice. In today’s international system, the United Nations (UN) most closely approximates the idea of an institutionalized world government. However, to the extent that the UN system does indeed represent a world government, it differs from state or domestic governments in that it possesses no centralized authority with the power to enforce its rule. Generally speaking, domestic governments have a clear vertical or hierarchical structure of authority, with clear rules delineating who has the final say concerning executive decision-making, legislation, jurisprudence, and law enforcement. The international system does not operate under such a clear chain of command. To reflect this distinction the term “global governance” is often used in place of the concept of world government.
An alternative tradition also exists that understands world government in darker, more ambiguous terms. From this perspective, the concept of world government evokes the specter of global domination by a single national power, faceless bureaucracy, or conspiratorial group controlling world affairs from behind closed doors. Nationalists and libertarians see the potential evolution of a world government as a potentially totalitarian threat to liberty and national identity. And for centuries, conspiracy theorists have claimed secret societies such as the “Illuminati” or Freemasons are the true powers that orchestrate global politics. Today, some fear that privatesector networks of the international political and business elite—such as the Trilateral Commission or the World Economic Forum—pull the strings of the global economy, representing a pseudo world government beyond the reach of public accountability.
The United Nations as World Government
While the UN is structured like a typical domestic government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches, it does not function like one. For example, the General Assembly of the UN is not the primary legislative body of international law. Rather, international law has two recognized foundations independent of the UN system: interstate treaties and long-standing customs—and as a result, in comparison to domestic governments, lawmaking at the level of world government is decentralized. Treaties are the most common way in which international rules are made. They involve the mutual agreement by two or more states to regulate behavior according to predetermined limits. The Geneva Conventions represent a series of such treaties. Customary laws, on the other hand—for example, the recognized freedom of the high seas—develop over time as a consequence of accepted long-standing conduct in international relations. Whereas treaty-based laws only regulate signatories, customary laws are held to be universal. To be effective, however, most international rules must be incorporated into domestic law by domestic legislators—thus the common requirement that national legislative bodies ratify international treaties. In the United States this is the responsibility of the Senate.
Considered as a form of world government, the UN also has very little independent enforcement power beyond threats of force issued by the Security Council. As a result, the authority of the UN depends upon either the willful compliance of member states or the force of a few dominant military and economic powers. For example, the International Court of Justice, representing the primary judicial institution of the UN system—and otherwise known as the World Court—was established to settle legal disputes between member states, and to issue advisory opinions if requested by other UN organs, such as the Security Council or the General Assembly. The statute of the International Court of Justice is part of the UN Charter, yet the enforcement of its decisions is generally dependent upon member-states’ willingness to comply. No state may be sued before the Court without accepting its jurisdiction over the particular case beforehand. Thus the more powerful a state, the more difficult it is to enforce decisions against it. The record of the United States is particularly poor in this regard. In 1986 the Court ruled against it in a case regarding the mining of Nicaraguan waters. The United States refused to recognize the process, and Nicaragua was powerless to appeal.
The Development of International Law
In fact, rather than referring to the international system as a present-day world government, it is more common to refer to international law as representing only the potential roots of a possible future world government. The modern rise of international law can be traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in part by recognizing the right of territorial sovereignty in interstate affairs. What came to be known as the Westphalian order is defined by two principles: state territoriality—the international recognition of well-defined borders—and the right to nonintervention in domestic affairs. The Westphalian order placed the independent nation-state at the center of the international system at the expense of larger supranational authorities such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, international law constituted only a minimal system of coexistence, and military force remained the primary mechanism for the settlement of conflict. The early nineteenth century witnessed the formation of the Concert of Europe—a balance of power arrangement with the goal of establishing security on the continent in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. Yet it was not until the end of World War I (1914–1918) and the founding of the League of Nations that the first systemic international organization was formed with the purpose of avoiding war altogether. And it was not until the close of World War II (1939–1945) that the formation of the United Nations, and the establishment of the International Military Tribunal for the Punishment of War Criminals, made aggressive war an internationally recognized crime.
After World War II, international law entered a new stage represented by the ban on the use of force and the elevation of human rights to the status of international law through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Historically, the subjects of international law had always been groups or collective actors, principally states. But with the rise of human rights and war crimes legislation more and more international law came to refer directly to the individual person, independent of particular group membership. With this development some understand international law to be following a trajectory that points away from the statist Westphalian model of international relations toward a universalist, cosmopolitan model of world government.
Most international law, however, remained state- or group-based well into the start of the twenty-first century. Many late-twentieth century developments do, however, point toward the coexistence of an alternative cosmopolitan model. For example, the International Criminal Court (ICC) points toward the development of an international system of justice in which individuals could claim to be citizens of the world subject to a single law executed by a single world government. Thus one might imagine a future world government as taking form around such a notion of universal citizenship. The ICC was founded in 1998 to prosecute perpetrators of the most heinous crimes recognized by the entire international community, including “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” However, important obstacles to its success remain: Not all countries immediately recognized its authority, subsequently undermining its claim to universality; most important, the United States disputed its mandate, claimed special exemption from its jurisdiction, and pressured other countries—especially its aid recipients—to do the same. Similarly, other trends suggest that the decentralized structure of the international system could just as easily develop away from the consolidation of a coherent world government. For example, in the early years of the twentyfirst century, international regulation was increasingly the product of private-public partnerships, resulting in a pluralization of rule-making structures rather than their institutional concentration.
- Cassese, Antonio. 2005. International Law. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Held, David. 1995. Democracy and the Global Order: From the Modern State to Cosmopolitan Governance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Held, David, and Anthony McGrew, eds. 2002. Governing Globalization: Power, Authority, and Global Governance. Oxford: Polity Press.
- Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2004. A New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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