The big idea

February 28, 2023 0 Comments

The big idea: is world government possible?

Today’s challenges transcend borders. Can history show us how to cooperate?

Global problems require global responses. And we have plenty of global problems. Is a single, unified authority – a world government – required to solve them? Is that even feasible? It rather depends, doesn’t it, on what we mean by the phrase. An emperor with a single empire? Some form of democratic federal government of the world? Star Wars features a galactic republic, but then that’s science fiction.

It is hard to imagine a global government with global citizens in a world with such strong local identities and such different political and social systems. As we have realised since the end of the cold war, the nation state is not only alive, it is kicking. The EU struggles with its members; think of that on a world scale. One person, one vote won’t work either when in certain countries a single leader would cast the votes for millions.

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If we accept, however, that government can be the exercise of power over the peoples of a particular area with or without their consent then, yes, it is possible to imagine some hegemonic power or a collection of powers governing the world, perhaps even benevolently. The Roman empire controlled its known world for centuries. Chinese emperors claimed the “mandate of heaven”, which, they assumed, gave them authority to maintain order on Earth. After the Napoleonic wars, the great powers formed the Concert of Europe to settle disputes peacefully and maintain a largely conservative order.


As our knowledge of each other expanded over recent centuries, so too did our capacity to imagine a truly global order. The European empires justified themselves by claiming to bring civilisation to their subjects. Supporters of an earlier version of the Anglosphere dreamed of a condominium of the British empire (especially its white parts) and the United States to govern the world. Lenin, Stalin and Mao had a still different vision, where a single communist state dissolved national borders.

Immanuel Kant dreamed of another possibility, where nations sharing liberal values cooperated willingly and peacefully. In the aftermath of the first world war, the US president Woodrow Wilson spoke for millions with his vision of a more liberal and democratic world order where nations worked together against common threats to humanity, from disease to war. Its embodiment was the League of Nations, which, with its council, assembly and bureaucracy, mirrored democratic governments but lacked their monopoly of force or ultimate authority.

If Hobbes and his followers are right, a state of anarchy among nations is all we can hope for

The League did not prevent the second world war, but lessons were drawn from its failure, perhaps most crucially that international unity from the start could prevent the spread of aggression. The shattered world of 1945 faced enormous challenges, both to rebuild and to prevent a third, even more catastrophic war. As head of the world’s strongest power, President Roosevelt was able to insist that the new United Nations have more power and more authority than the League.

The UN’s founding conference in San Francisco created a body that incorporated authoritarianism and democracy. Roosevelt’s Four Policemen for the globe – Britain, China, the US and the Soviet Union – were permanent members of the security council (France was added as a courtesy) with, as the UN charter says, “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. By 1948, the UN had created its own peacekeeping forces, something the League was never able to do. It also oversaw a host of agencies, such as the World Health Organization or the International Labour Organization, that created international standards and policies in areas such as health and labour, and became centres of global expertise.

Roosevelt also insisted on a general assembly where all nations from the biggest to the smallest would sit as equals. In time it developed its own blocs that, on issues such as the dissolution of the European empires, were able to mobilise world opinion and exert pressure on the powerful. At the very least, the general assembly is a forum for 193 nations, from North Korea to Sweden. It is fashionable now to write off the UN, but its existence helps us to think globally. The other key lesson the world’s leaders took from the 1930s was that reacting to the Great Depression by erecting trade and other barriers prolonged the misery and poisoned international relations. The Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and, eventually, the World Trade Organization, have helped manage the world’s economy and foster development. And, yes, there is much to criticise but, as with the UN, we would be worse off without them.

However, as the American academic Anne-Marie Slaughter argues, world governance involves far more than formal institutions. Rather, it exists in the thickening networks of special agencies and interest groups from police forces to charitable NGOs that operate across and in spite of borders. Whether they are fighting crime, managing international flows of capital or helping refugees, such networks are sustaining a global order, even spreading shared values and norms.

Will Covid-19 encourage us to make that order even stronger? Past great catastrophes made us think differently. New ways of managing international relations came out of the Napoleonic wars and the two world wars. The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses, for example in supply chains, and exacerbated inequalities. The world’s nations have too often resorted to blaming each other, and the distribution of vaccines to poorer countries has been shamefully slow. Yet there was an impressive international effort to develop and administer vaccines. Are we going to learn some lessons?

We had better do so quickly, for we face more pandemics, more global turbulence and, above all, the existential threat of climate change. Can we start, as Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan recently suggested in an article for Foreign Affairs, with a new Concert of Powers, with the limited goal of maintaining stability? The obstacles are formidable. Rogue nations defy world opinion. Regional rivalries threaten to spill over into war. Powerful leaders act as if there is no tomorrow, leaving long-term damage. Donald Trump betrayed and insulted allies. Britain continues to alienate its neighbours and biggest trading partners. “Donnez-moi un break” is not going to bridge the gulf that has opened up with the French.

You have to be an optimist at the moment to believe in a world government built on cooperation and shared values. If Hobbes and his followers are right, a state of anarchy among nations is all we can hope for. Or does the future hold one of those other models? A Concert of Great Powers, or something else? We thought the age of empires was over; maybe it has merely been resting.

Margaret MacMillan is Engelsberg chair in history and international affairs at LSE IDEAS and author of War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

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