The Worlds to Come: Part Four

by | 23 May 2022

There is a utopian vision of the world at the end of the current conflicts - and it is not as difficult to reach as it at first seems

The full series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


Part Four: One world or none

In 1946, in the shadow of war and in the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilisation had its first moment in which to consider what it had just done and what it would do next. It’s greatest minds – Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer – became deeply anxious. They hated war, wanted it to end, believed that they could help end it.

So they built a bomb and believed they were right to do so. Now war was over but the bomb was not. Their regret was immense, their fear greater still. Only a year earlier they had believed they could ride both tigers – a device to end a war that would never be used in another war. Now they could feel the tigers’ jaws closing around them.

Our greatest minds understood what they had done. They wanted to undo it, as best they could. Together they published a book of essays called ‘One World Or None’. The believed that the only hope we had was to take the power of destruction they had built and remove it from the hands of any single nation state, any one government.

What they wrote was right then. It is still right now. It is the heart of any chance the world has of saving itself in the wake of the Ukraine war. We must accept it’s truth – we can have one world or we can have no world. What follows may sound impossible, but it isn’t, any more than the fact that the UN Declaration of Human Rights sounds impossible too and that was achieved.

That better world is a world driven by the rule of law, a genuinely rules-based order. It would begin with a more comprehensive codification of the ‘rules of engagement’ between nation states. At its simplest it would be ‘never cross a border without permission, stay out of the domestic politics of other countries’.

It would require a proper process to create it, much as we had that process of creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It could not be a view of the world and how we must engage with each other as seen from only one point of view. We would have to accept that no-one gets everything they want in a just world.

How far we went with these rules is a matter of negotiation. I would like the rules to make clear the unfettered sovereignty of nation states but to put limits on what that sovereignty can do. No other nation should have the right to dictate behaviour, but all the nations together could. Put simply, global order must get beyond national sovereignty and establish a means of ensuring human rights for all the citizens of the world.

But that’s what I want. I personally don’t want women anywhere to be forced to wear face coverings because of the laws of men, but that is my left-wing, liberal western view and I suspect there are aspects of my life that my right-wing, Islamist counterpart in Afghanistan may well wish to ban too. So we need to negotiate everything carefully and sensitively.

Our greatest minds believed that the only hope we had was to take the power of destruction they had built and remove it from the hands of any single nation state, any one government

It would then require some important things to make it work. The first would be a means of enacting the law, international institutions which work even-handedly. The United Nations would have some kind of disputes body to which all nations would be subject and to which they could make immediate representation if their rights under that comprehensive international law were breached.

So the second Russian troops had set foot in Ukraine the government of Ukraine could have gone straight to the UN disputes body and ask for a ruling on whether this was a breach of law. If that body agreed it was then it would make a clear, immediate statement on withdrawal. If Russia refused to withdraw then we would require the second thing; a means of enforcing the ruling.

This would mean a UN-mandated military entity which would have only one task – prevent further breaches. When two compromised military blocks try to enforce the law on each other through vigilante justice (what happens just now), one can threaten the other with massive retaliation. Who is Russia going to nuke if it is UN-mandated action – everyone?

It is only by genuine unanimity in the face of rules which everyone accepts that we can expect enforcement to work. This is where we reach some uncomfortable truths – what this would mean for us. Both the US and the UK may well be the subject of more complaints to a disputes body than anyone else.

I would imagine that it is us and China and Israel who would prove to be the biggest problem. And problems would be myriad. We genuinely believe that it is our right to throw money at one side or another in someone else’s domestic election where we believe it is in our interests to support a specific outcome. (We also think it outrageous if it is done to us).

We would find it instinctively difficult to wean ourselves off our global privilege. So would many other states. For a period of time it would be non-stop dispute – but so much of that would be a legacy of the past. It would begin to end the legacy of what we do now. It would be a kind of hard detox for a world engaged in a perpetual Great Game.

But this isn’t just about military power. Of course we can’t solve everything through a military response; a UN disputes body would also have a pre-made menu of economic and diplomatic sanctions to which all nations would be committed. It would democratise the response globally and therefore give it a massive boost of legitimacy.

Sanctions for bad behaviour would no longer be ours to give or take based on whether we want it to happen or not. They would be prescribed in advance so there was consistency. Everything would have to be calibrated for consistency – if the International Criminal Court can pronounce on Russia’s war a crime in the space of two weeks, why not Israel’s the next time it attacks Palestine?

That consistency would enable the world to change. It would enable the creation of stability. Those legacy disputes (such as the Palestinian question) would remain, but once resolved it would be increasingly difficult for more to arise.

None of this is possible if the world is broken up into blocks facing off against each other. Nothing will do more damage than if Nato thinks this is a green light for more and more aggressive stances. If we surround Russia, Russia will retaliate. If we encircle China, China will retaliate. The Indo-Pacific isn’t ours. Why are we building up our military there? Why would China not respond?

First we need regional approaches to these problems (many more global disputes are regional than truly global). The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was an attempt to approach the question of regional stability without the militarisation of Nato, so naturally it was undermined by Nato.

So regions must create their own negotiating bodies to secure peace through collective engagement. Far from expand, Nato should finally disband. In its role aggressively asserting the interests of one block of nations in the world and because of its military dominance, Nato is not a path to peace but a barrier to peace.

The US should then retreat to its own continent as it expects others to do. Europe must step up to ensure its own peace, and that means engaging with Russia, a mainly European nation. We need the same in Africa, in Asia. We need mechanisms to ensure peace that do not approach it from a ‘shoot first, negotiate later’ approach.

We then need to have a clear strategy for global deescalation. If this was possible at the height of the Cold War it should have been possible over recent decades. Those were a wonderful opportunity for negotiation on stepping back further and further from the nuclear button. It was a chance to try to persuade each other that we were not all in a permanent arms race.

Now is the time to step up those attempts. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the best chance we have, a treaty being undermined with vigour by Nato. It not only helps us step back from nuclear weapons, it gives us a way to build the mutual trust that helps us to step back from military escalation more generally.

(It is worth remembering that the West more than anyone else has been breaking previous treaties on nuclear weapons and escalating our own nuclear programme at a startling rate of knots. Once again, on the build up of the world’s nuclear threat, we are without doubt the bad guys.)

The world is a fine place and worth the not fighting for

Finally, this better, more hopeful world needs one more thing; it needs a non-alignment. It needs a world in which we are not tied to each other in ways that require us to descend into war every time one of us does something wrong.

We understand that if we stand about in dark roads in large groups intimidating people who walk by we create the conditions for escalation. We saw that the inordinate pressure not to oppose the War in Iraq was only possible because of the ‘Western Alliance’. We need non-alignment to be the defining order of the world.

Don’t let the war hawks fool you – non-aligned status does not mean disengaged nor a willingness to turn a blind eye to injustice. What it means is that nations approach each incident open-mindedly and assess each on its own merits rather than be dragged by who is the most belligerent bully in our own gang.

The warmongers will describe the above as ‘naïve’. Sure they will, they are the barrier. Their friends in the arms industry would loose their golden egg-laying war-goose. The ‘wee generals’ would lose their chance to strut about the world stage threatening people. Corporate interests would dislike a rules-based world given how much they make out of avoiding rules through global competition.

All of this is why they repeatedly call the United Nations ‘toothless’. It is only toothless because they extracted its teeth with their vetos and bullying. And they only make it toothless because it is the alternative to their warmongering.

But stop and ask yourself, in an imaginary referendum of all the world’s population, what proportion would vote for a ‘peace through staying out of each other’s business’ option? My guess is the vast, vast majority.

And I suspect this model will have a massive global ally in the young. I am very doubtful that the generation under 30 are anything like as eager as the old, noisy voices to live their lives under the shadow of war. I also doubt very much that they are willing to suppress their climate anxiety in favour of a battle of civilisations.

If it sounds like too much of a reach just think how far forward we would go with just two steps – the dissolution of the Security Council and the veto held by its permanent members and universal national sign-up to the International Criminal Court as a condition for UN membership. It would be surprisingly easy for the rest to be achieved from there. Remember, the great majority of the world is non-aligned.

That is the basis of a better world, not the West, not China, not Russia. The non-aligned world is not angelic, not particularly moral. It just minds its own business and, mostly, keeps its bad behaviour within its own borders. At a global scale it is much more likely to ‘Do No Harm’ than us. It is imperfect, but it is a starting-point.

A world at peace, a world after war – it is not impossible. In fact in the face of climate change it is our only hope. So to paraphrase Earnest Hemingway, the world is a fine place and worth the not fighting for. I will not give up hope in the face of blood, destruction, ignorance and anger.

The full series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


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