For Global Federation by Thomas Magnell

Magnell, Thomas (Drew Univ.) “For Global Federation.” CPP Newsletter Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2004).

We live in an increasingly dangerous world. Without putting too fine a point on it, something of the sort could have been said at many times in the past. On a large scale, people have always been subject to three types of hazards: natural disasters, diseases, and war. Floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes can have frightening majesty in their power. But awesome as natural disasters may be, they have not been sources of increasing dangers. For the most part, natural disasters have struck at similar rates, and until very recently with much the same destructiveness. Today, all but the most serious natural disasters are less devastating than before, largely due to technological advances. Increases in danger have mainly come from diseases and war. Until the nineteenth century, the degree of devastation brought on by diseases grew fairly steadily throughout recorded history. Ever greater population densities, especially with the growth of cities, gave advantage to viral and bacterial scourges. With the advent of concern for sanitation in the nineteenth century, and medical advances, particularly through developments of vaccines in the twentieth century, dangers of unintended epidemics receded. Yet, microbes must remain a serious source of concern, as the recent spread of AIDS has made evident to even the most sanguine observers. This is not a subject on which we can afford to be complacent, but if medical understanding through empirically based research continues to improve, and medical practice continues to develop throughout the world as it has for the last two centuries, then unintended epidemic risks are likely to continue to recede. That leaves war as a source of large-scale risk.

In fact, war presents the greatest risk of disaster today. With the other two types of hazard no greater than in the past, and in the case of diseases more and more under control, war is what makes the world increasingly dangerous. Weapons have grown in destructive power with advances in technology. In the twentieth century, they moved into a category of mass destruction, making short shrift of the lives, property, and cultural products of hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of people at a time.

The ever-increasing destructiveness of weapons throughout much of history, but especially in the twentieth century, has been well noted. What has been less often appreciated is the ever-decreasing cost in manpower and money of increasingly destructive weapons, with weapons of mass destruction becoming cheaper in the recent past and giving every indication of becoming even cheaper in the near future. In the middle of the twentieth century, only the most industrialized or militaristic nation states could afford nuclear bombs. Today, a country with as low a gross domestic product per capita as India, and a country with as low an absolute gross domestic product as Pakistan are nuclear adversaries. There is serious reason to believe that Iraq and North Korea will shortly have nuclear capacities, if they do not have them already. Neither nation will have required anything like the Manhattan Project to achieve nuclear parity with the arsenal developed by the United States within the memories of many people alive today. The costs of biological and chemical weapons have declined as well and are likely to continue to decline in the future. Killing has gone from retail to wholesale. What once took huge armies of individual soldiers prepared for combat became a matter for far fewer people from large economic bases. In the years ahead, as the wholesale price drops, weapons of mass destruction will be within reach of middling nation states, mundane criminal organizations, or non-governmental religious and ideological groups. This is not some wildly speculative thought for the distant future, but a real prospect that we must have the courage and intelligence to face.

The underlying problem that must be addressed is a predicament of vulnerability. People have always been vulnerable to aggression by other individuals and foreign attack. Nation states were a response to the vulnerability of individuals. Prior to the development of weapons of mass destruction, the protection provided by a nation state was roughly directly proportional to its military power. National security became a straightforward matter of prudence, with bigger and more powerful weapons providing protection against external aggression. Even with the development of weapons of mass destruction, the basis for national security remained much the same, as long as rational fears could be directed at a few readily identifiable nation states. The decline in costs of weapons of mass destruction is bringing about a change in the effectiveness of the protection that was afforded by national military might, if it has not done so already. Nation states are entering into conditions not unlike the conditions Hobbes described for individuals in a state of nature.

Despite differences in physical strength and intelligence, individuals, Hobbes argued, are equal enough in one respect to rationally fear each other. By the sword, stealth, or strategic agreements with others, just about anyone can maim or kill anyone else. We are equal enough in this respect to be equally threatening. For many reasons, people sometimes perceive it in their interests to maim or kill others. This makes us all vulnerable to individual aggression, equally so or nearly enough. We do not have to accept this unhappy predicament, however. By recourse to reason, we can remove ourselves from the anarchical situation by effectively establishing a central authority to mitigate, if not eliminate, the aggression we are otherwise right to fear. Some central authorities may be better than others, but considering the unhappy predicament without a central authority, Hobbes maintains that just about any central authority is preferable to none.

This last point gives voice to the view that survival is paramount, inasmuch as it is a precondition of any goods we might pursue. It is questionable that it is such a sweeping precondition, but even if it is, it does not follow that we should value it so highly. There might well be occasions where we should not rank our own survival above a number of morally relevant goods. But it does not follow from this that survival should not generally be valued highly; and clearly, as a precondition of pursuing many goods, it should be.

Whether or not any central authority is better than none, we may still make value judgments among alternatives for a central authority. If we can determine some to be better than others, it would be silly to argue for one of the worse alternatives. Our serious choice, then, would be to decide between one of the better alternatives or none at all. None of this need be dispiriting. It would be, if we could not remove ourselves from the unhappy predicament, or if even the best of the alternatives for a central authority could only be otherwise described as a bad alternative. There is no reason to think our situation as individuals so dismal.

With this much behind us, the prudential argument for global federation is easy to outline. The more affordable weapons of mass destruction become, the more nation states and groups not limited to nation states will afford them. With weapons of mass destruction in many hands, the likelihood of large-scale war increases significantly. Beyond a threshold of risk, soon to be passed if not already surpassed, all nation states are vulnerable. They share a near equality of vulnerability, in one respect at least. All nation states are vulnerable enough to large-scale warfare to make a fear of such a disaster rational. The unhappy condition of anarchy among nation states is a predicament of vulnerability that can only be addressed by instituting a global authority. Among the alternatives for a global authority, a global federation of nation states to which military power and authority is transferred is best. If global federation need not be describable otherwise as a bad alternative, then our situation is tractable, and in any case, something less than dismal. It should go without saying that a great deal must be done to fill in this outline in order to have a full, working proposal for global federation—more than enough for many people on many occasions.

Four Questions Regarding Global Federation

If we have indeed crossed the technological threshold of risk placing us in the predicament of vulnerability, or are shortly about to do so, we have grounds for global federation. Four pertinent questions naturally present themselves: Can global federation remove us from the predicament of vulnerability? Is global federation a more promising way to address the predicament of vulnerability than the alternatives? Is there scope for freedom in global federation? Can global federation be achieved? Here are the briefest of answers to each question, some of which have already been adverted to in passing.

By transferring military power and authority to a global federation, we take weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the growing number of nation states bent on having them, some with unsavory regimes. With sufficient power and authority, a global federation can intervene to keep what would otherwise be predictably rapid proliferation among current nation states and even non-governmental religious and ideological groups. Of course there is no guarantee that it would be completely successful. It must be acknowledged that even one or two rogue states would present dreadful dangers. But this must be acknowledged by advocates and critics of global federation alike. The dangers of one or two rogue nation states or groups with weapons of mass destruction are no less dreadful without global federation. Moreover, if this must be acknowledged, it would seem plain that the current situation, with weapons of mass destruction in many hands, is more dangerous still, which is the predicament of vulnerability. But with sufficient military power and authority, the risk can be greatly reduced, if never completely eliminated. The American experience is again instructive. The fifty states within the federation, large and small, original and recent, could instead be independent nation states. There would then be nothing to stop them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and many of them would surely do so. It is hard to see how anyone could think well of this. As Tom Lehrer quipped at the end of his prescient piece of satire, “Who’s Next?”: “We’ll try to stay serene and calm when Alabama gets the bomb.” Why does Alabama not have the bomb, and is not likely to even try? The practical reason is that in the end, any attempt to acquire military power on that order would be thwarted by the Federal government of the United States. It is not that the fifty states are without all military power and authority. They each control state militias that carry considerable fire-power. But it is limited. With the knowledge that the Federal government would prevent any state from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, every state can co-exist without seeking such power. Though without the security of apodictic guarantee, which human affairs do not permit, the fifty states and everyone in them are beneficiaries of federation.

There are three alternatives to global federation: maintaining the status quo, promoting systems of alliances, and accepting the hegemony of a powerful nation state, presumably the most powerful at any given time. The status quo gives us the predicament of vulnerability which is so dangerous that it grounds the prudential argument for global federation at issue. In terms of the argument, it cannot but be worse than global federation. Only if the technological threshold of risk has not been crossed and is not about to be crossed any time soon might the status quo be acceptable. But then the prudential argument would lack evidentiary support. The actual state of nation states is a premise of the argument.

Systems of alliance, including loose leagues and weak confederations, might ease the predicament of vulnerability for a short while, but they presuppose cooperation over time among nation states for which no warrant can be found in history. This is an historical judgment, but one, in the nature of the case, that is not difficult to make. Alliances can fan the flames of war, when regional conflicts spread through allies committed to mutual defense, as happened in World War I. Alliances can provide combustibles for war when false assurances of defense become transparent, as happened in World War II. While weapons of mass destruction are in only a few hands, alliances may prevent their use through deterrence. But alliances have not done much to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction among nation states within the alliances. It is hard to see how they would end proliferation outside the alliances, whether among nation states or religious or ideological groups. Again, with the declining cost of weapons of mass destruction, the serious risk to be addressed lies there. Systems of alliances are not likely to be up to the task and no better than the status quo for the long term.

The hegemony of a powerful nation state, like systems of alliances, can provide stability for a period, though competition for hegemony generally provokes increases in demands on and for military power. In an era of declining costs for weapons of mass destruction, the prospect of hegemony by one nation state is likely to spur other nation states to procure similar weaponry that they might not otherwise have sought. Few of us need reminders of rationales for arms races, and declining costs for weapons of mass destruction only exacerbate the problem. This applies to limited attempts at regional hegemony, no less than attempts at world-wide hegemony. Once more, if the predicament of vulnerability is as serious as I have maintained, and if addressing proliferation of such weapons is a matter of some urgency, then the alternative of world-wide hegemony by one nation state falters in the attempt at realization, though under certain conditions it might provide welcome relief on an interim basis. The history of regional hegemony is mixed, with China offering instructive considerations along with Rome, Great Britain, and the United States.

Whether or not benign in intent, world-wide hegemony, even if achieved, holds little promise for resolving the central problem. The control of weapons of mass destruction throughout the world by one nation state calls for enormous resources and resolve. The resources must come from the dominant nation-state alone or from the subject nation states together with the dominant nation state. If the resources are to come solely from the dominant nation state, the costs it must shoulder are unlikely to be sustained by it indefinitely, or if continually borne are likely to weaken it to the point where its hegemonic status is challenged. In either case, the predicament of vulnerability is renewed. If, instead, the resources are to come from the subject nation states as well, this really is tyranny, with the power lodged in one dominion paid for to a large extent by those subject to it without any controlling authority. The predictable irritation can be expected to undermine the effectiveness of the hegemony, bringing back once more the predicament of vulnerability. The dominant nation state must retain implacable resolve for a global responsibility which the subject nation states do not share. The competing interests of the nation states without that responsibility are sure to create pressures against warranted interventions and pressures for unwarranted interventions by the dominant power. Divided responsibility and authority is never wise and here renders the alternative of the hegemony of a powerful nation state no better than systems of alliance, apart from relief it may provide on an interim basis.

Freedom is among the most important human values. Like continued existence, it is a precondition of realizing many goods. It is also a necessary condition of autonomy, itself a high value. Any means of dealing with the predicament of vulnerability requires power. With power comes potential for loss of liberty. The potential is always there. Historically, most people have been ready to give up liberties for all manner of promised goods. Socialism, for instance, has traded on this readiness, and even in societies with hard-won freedoms, intellectuals have shown unabashed willingness to jettison even basic freedoms, often in the name of compassion. Global federation need not be particularly constraining. The scope for liberty in global federation is as broad as we set it. Federation is systematically tiered, with some powers and responsibilities delegated to the federal authority, and others left to the federated states. Just what is to be assigned to each level depends on how the federation is constituted.

Here too, the American experience is instructive. For a continental nation with a population today fully one-third the size of the world population at the time of its founding, freedom still rings true, if sometimes a little muffled. The growth of Federal power in the twentieth century may be disquieting, but it took place within a framework that continued to give considerable scope to freedom. One of the strictures of the framework which I have suggested would be desirable to reproduce in a global federation is the Tenth Amendment, restricting federal control to powers set down in a written constitution. Only slightly less striking and also desirable to reproduce in a global federation would be the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Of course, more than that would be needed and much more work would have to be done to specify the powers of a global authority in a global federation. But significant limits on power at the federal level are possible, and if freedom has the value I have suggested, significant limits on federal power are desirable.

If there are indeed prudential grounds for global federation, then global federation can be achieved. Self-interest may not govern all actions, but it certainly governs many. Here, where there are no less solid moral grounds, if the prudential argument is correct, there is no want of motivation. But as a matter of self-interest, nation states are more likely to enter into federation, the less they have to give up; and less likely to enter into federation, the more they have to give up. The ability to achieve global federation, then, is inversely related to the extent of the powers of the global authority, consistent with the powers needed to adequately address the predicament of vulnerability. It does not follow from this that global federation can only be achieved for the most minimal global authority, but it does lend practical support for limits to federal power. The prudential argument for global federation is not utopian. It does not address all ills. It does address the predicament of vulnerability, and, in doing so, is a source of hope.

Note: This discussion is drawn from Thomas Magnell, “A Reply to Three Critics of Global Federation,” in Immortal Longings, eds. Samuel M. Natale and Anthony Libertella, University Press of America, 2003. For additional discussion of the central issues see Thomas Magnell, “Vulnerability, Global Authority, and Moving Away from a Local Maximum of Value,” Journal of Value Inquiry, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2002. and “Life and Liberty on a Global Scale," Journal of Value Inquiry, Volume 37, No. 1, March, 2003.

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