COP26, the climate change summit that ended in Glasgow a week ago, resulted in a pact signed by almost 200 nations. Experts have decidedly mixed views about the extent to which this worldwide agreement will be useful, but one thing is clear: Most of the international community understands that if we are going to survive global warming, different nations will need to work together. Humanity's alteration of our atmosphere is a planetary problem — something that almost by definition cannot be tackled by each individual country on its own.
Yet there is a snag. The mere concept of international organization is so politically charged that the term "globalist" has become a common right-wing epithet. (It is also a popular anti-Semitic dogwhistle.) Today it seems unimaginable to have a serious conversation about humanity uniting under a world government to fight climate change. In the not too distant past, however, some of history's greatest minds pointed out that powerful global institutions would need to hold nations accountable when crises emerge that threaten our entire species.
Prior to World War II, the primary thinkers on the subject of world government were motivated by pacifist ideologies. The medieval and romantic glorifications of war increasingly became outdated as technology made its human consequences more horrifying. In place of the chivalrous view of warfare, great scholars from German philosopher Immanuel Kant to English author H. G. Wells urged a federation of all nations. Their thinking was as simple as the formula which applied to the cantons of Switzerland: Urge member states to work with one another in a confederate system of government, and then make sure that the central authority has enough power to effectively prohibit armed conflict. If that structure was applied to every country in the world, the logic went, war itself could be abolished.
Perhaps the most eloquent conveyor of these views was Theodore Roosevelt, who was hardly a pacifist but saw world peace as an admirable ideal. A year after his presidency ended, Roosevelt spoke to the Nobel Prize committee — which had given him its peace award years earlier for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War — about why an international peacekeeping organization would be a "master stroke" if it had enough power to effectively nip potential wars right in the bud.
"The supreme difficulty in connection with developing the peace work of The Hague arises from the lack of any executive power, of any police power to enforce the decree of the court," the former president argued. While it made sense that nations would refuse to relinquish their arms so long as there was a plausible risk of foreign attack, it was another to do so after "the community is so organized" that each nation can reasonably assume laying down its weapons will not imperil it. "Each nation must keep well prepared to defend Itself until the establishment of some form of international police power, competent and willing to prevent violence as between nations," Roosevelt concluded.
After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the formation of a League of Nations that would have been in rough keeping with Roosevelt's vision — but by the 1930s that body (which the United States never joined) had clearly failed. It was powerless against the rise of totalitarian governments in Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere, all of which posed a clear menace to world peace. It was also impotent to help ordinary people against the ravages of the Great Depression, and reminded every political leader that promises of peace would fall on dear ears if stomachs remained empty. Alarmed observers suspected that World War I would not turn out to be "the world to end all wars," and by 1939, a journalist named Clarence Streit had published a book called "Union Now." It explicitly urged democratic countries to form a world republic both to better serve their citizens and to erect a bulwark against tyranny.
After World War II and the dawn of the atomic age, those ideas took on a new level of urgency. With mushroom clouds wiping out cities and lingering radiation raising the specter of an uninhabitable planet, the call for world government was no longer about merely stopping wars. If the atomic bomb could be used to destroy the world, the very existence of the human race was at stake.
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One person who thought this way? The most famous physicist of all time, Albert Einstein.
Despite being most remembered for his contributions to science, the German-born scientist was proud of his strongly held political beliefs. He supported socialist economic policies, opposed segregation, threw his clout behind peace activism and openly called for Israel to be founded and show respect for Arabs. When it came to the menace of nuclear war (for which Einstein's own work was partially responsible), he felt compelled to advocate world federalism. He argued that the United Nations was a good start, but only if it served as a transitional body that ultimately brought humanity toward global government.
He expressed these opinions many times, but nowhere better than in a 1947 open letter to the United Nations General Assembly.
"We are caught in a situation in which every citizen of every country, his children, and his life's work, are threatened by the terrible insecurity which reigns in our world today," Einstein argued. "The progress of technological development has not increased the stability and the welfare of humanity. Because of our inability to solve the problem of international organization, it has actually contributed to the dangers which threaten peace and the very existence of mankind."
Einstein's views were shared by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, who believed even during World War II that it would have been far better if armed conflict could have somehow been avoided. After that war ended, Russell insisted that it would no longer be safe for the world's nations to have a major war because the USA and USSR both had nuclear weapons that could wipe out the species. As he explained in a 1951 essay for The Atlantic, the best way to prevent this would be "an alliance of the nations that desire an international government, becoming, in the end, so strong that Russia would no longer dare to stand out. This might conceivably be achieved without another world war, but it would require courageous and imaginative statesmanship in a number of countries."
The Einstein/Russell philosophy was perhaps best summed up in the 1946 essay anthology "One World or None," published by the newly formed Federation of American Scientists (FAS). In addition to Einstein, the book included pleadings for reason from physicists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr. It raised public awareness about the threat of nuclear war and the need for the world to work as a community so that such a devastating event would never happen. Eventually it culminated in the passage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which banned all test detonation of nuclear weapons except underground. Other efforts have been made to rid the planet of nuclear weapons altogether, but those have failed.
Perhaps the ideas of a pair of scientist instrumental in making atomic bombs possible — Danish physicist Niels Bohr and American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer — are most revealing. As explained in a 2019 paper by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:
While acknowledging the "importance of the project for the immediate military objectives," Bohr asserted that nuclear armaments offered a global opportunity, recognizing the weapon's potential in shaping the post-war international environment. He stated that cooperation during the bomb's development could offer strong foundations upon which to build a regime of international control. This initiative would be aimed at "forestalling a fateful competition about the formidable weapon" and would "serve to uproot any cause for distrust between the powers on whose harmonious collaboration the fate of coming generations will depend." Bohr went on to prophetically announce that "unless some agreement about the control of new active materials can be obtained in due time, any temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security."
Both Bohr and subsequently Oppenheimer believed that an agreement between the war-time allies based upon the sharing of information, including the existence of the Manhattan Project, could prevent the surfacing of a nuclear-armed world....
Even during their own time, the advocates for world government suffered for doing so. Like supporting civil rights or associating with known Communists, stating that nationalism was unsustainable and a world government necessary was a quick way to be viewed with suspicion. Many of the scientists who wanted global federalism also did things like advocate racial equality and defend leftist activism, and all of these things were lumped together when they got penalized. Einstein was monitored by the FBI and suspected of Communist sympathies; Oppenheimer, despite being the "father of the atomic bomb," had his security clearance revoked. The validity of their ideas didn't matter, nor did the fact that they were urgent because humanity may not survive unless they were implemented.
This brings us back to the problem of climate change.
"The old arguments are quite relevant to the challenge of climate change to the extent that they deal with the necessity and the difficulty of collective action," Steven Aftergood from the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote to Salon. "Underlying both is the same old question of whether each country (including those that benefit most from the status quo) is willing to accept limitations on its sovereignty for the long-term benefit of all others as well as itself."
He is not the only thinker to arrive at this conclusion. After the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the structural flaws in the existing neoliberal order, researchers from the Royal Holloway University of London concluded in an article for Bull World Health Organization that the outbreak "provides an early warning of the dangers inherent in weakened international cooperation. The world's states, with their distinct national territories, are reacting individually rather than collectively to the COVID-19 pandemic." While few things may seem as different from each other as a deadly disease and a bunch of factories belching smoke, the scientists added that when it comes to public policy, the issues are very much related.
"The geopolitics of public health and climate change intersect," the authors wrote. "We believe that a geopolitical framework is essential to understanding the capacity and willingness of states and the public to engage with super-wicked problems. The longer-term impacts of climate change risk amplifying the short-term impacts of pandemics as governments around the world seek to rebound after the costly interventions COVID-19 has required. We need to be aware that collective action, even when it appears obvious to many, cannot be taken for granted."
Scientist Paul Abela, writing for Medium, made a similar point for a popular audience. Abela noted that "if we continue on our current path we could radically change the environment and lead to the breakdown of civilisation. Failure isn't an option. With that being the case, why do we continue to do what we've always done?" As far back as 2009, Swedish scholars writing for the journal Sustainable Development observed that the international institutions that were supposed to help people stave off climate change were clearly failing at their mission. After reviewing a number of options, the authors agreed on two things: The existing structures are far too weak to be effective, and the necessary multinational alternatives must be done "within a system of democratic representation."
This does not mean that one can apply the exact same lessons from the nuclear proliferation controversy of Einstein's day to the issue of climate change. As Aftergood put it, "In some respects, the analogy is not exact and shouldn't be overstated. Nuclear weapons were perceived to endow their possessors with a certain international status and coercive authority — which is not the case with big polluters or other climate renegades." International efforts at climate cooperation, by contrast, fail because fossil fuel industries, right-wing activists and others who have an economic or political stake in the status quo possess far too much power.
The underlying and key observation is that, when it comes to matters of international significance, it is both unrealistic and unfair for some nations to be able to undermine everyone else's well-being. A global system for coordinating action and imposing accountability is necessary when it comes to the urgent life-or-death issues of our time like climate change.
Nor should nuclear proliferation be off our radar. Whether or not you think a world government is a practicable solution, Einstein's fear that nuclear war could break out has not dissipated since 1947 — and neither has his conclusion that the world must work together to prevent it.
"World government is still not a practical policy option," Aftergood explained. "But international cooperation, including cooperation among enemies and adversaries, is both possible and necessary to avert nuclear disaster." And, perhaps, the destruction wrought by climate change.