Federalism and Global Governance

It is becoming increasingly clear that the concept of the absolutely sovereign nation-state is a dangerous anachronism in a world of thermonuclear weapons, instantaneous communication, and economic interdependence. Probably our best hope for the future lies in developing the United Nations into a World Federation. The strengthened United Nations should have a legislature with the power to make laws that are binding on individuals, and the ability to arrest and try individual political leaders for violations of these laws. The world federation should also have the power of taxation, and the military and legal powers necessary to guarantee the human rights of ethnic minorities within nations.

1. Making the United Nations into a Federation
A federation of states is, by definition, a limited union where the federal government has the power to make laws that are binding on individuals, but where the laws are confined to interstate matters, and where all powers not expressly delegated to the federal government are retained by the individual states. In other words, in a federation each of the member states runs its own internal affairs according to its own laws and customs; but in certain agreed-on matters, where the interests of the states overlap, authority is specifically delegated to the federal government.

Since the federal structure seems well suited to a world government with limited and carefully-defined powers that would preserve as much local autonomy as possible, it is worthwhile to look at the histories of a few of the federations. There is much that we can learn from their experiences.

2. The Success of Federations
Historically, the federal form of government has proved to be extremely robust and successful. Many of today’s nations are federations of smaller, partially autonomous, member states. Among these nations are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Mexico, Russia, Spain, South Africa and the United States.

The Swiss Federation is an interesting example, because its regions speak three different languages: German, French and Italian. In 1291, citizens of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, standing on the top of a small mountain called Rütli, swore allegiance to the first Swiss federation with the words “we will be a one and only nation of brothers”. During the 14th century, Luzern, Zürich, Glarus, Zug and Bern also joined. Later additions during the 15th and 16th centuries included Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Schaffhausen and Appenzell. In 1648, Switzerland declared itself to be an independent nation, and in 1812, the Swiss Federation declared its neutrality. In 1815, the French-speaking regions Valais, Neuchatel and Genève were added, giving Switzerland its final boundaries.

In some ways, Switzerland is a very advanced democracy, and many issues are decided by the people of the cantons in direct referenda. On the other hand, Switzerland was very late in granting votes to women (1971), and it was only in 1990 that a Swiss federal court forced Appenzell Innerrhoden to comply with this ruling. Switzerland was also very late in joining the United Nations (10 September, 2002).

The federal Constitution of United States of America is one of the most important and influential constitutions in history. It later formed a model for many other governments, especially in South America. The example of the United States is especially interesting because the original union of states formed by the Articles of Confederation in 1777 proved to be too weak, and it had to be replaced eleven years later by a federal constitution.

During the revolutionary war against England the 13 former colonies sent representatives to a Continental Congress, and on May 10, 1776, the Congress authorized each of the colonies to form its own local provincial government. On July 4, 1776 it published a formal Declaration of Independence. The following year, the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation defining a government of the new United States of America. The revolutionary war continued until 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed by the combatants, ending the war and giving independence to the United States. However, the Articles of Confederation soon proved to be too weak. The main problem with the Articles was that laws of the Union acted on its member states rather than on individual citizens.

In 1887, a Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia with the aim of drafting a new and stronger constitution. In the same year, Alexander Hamilton began to publish “The Federalist Papers”, a penetrating analysis of the problems of creating a workable government uniting a number of semi-independent states. The key idea of “The Federalist Papers” is that the coercion of states is neither just nor feasible, and that a government uniting several states must function by acting on individuals. This central idea was incorporated into the federal Constitution of the United States, which was adopted in 1788. Another important feature of the new Constitution was that legislative power was divided between the Senate, where the states had equal representation regardless of their size, and the House of Representatives, where representation was proportional to the populations of the states. The functions of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary were separated in the Constitution, and in 1789 a Bill of Rights was added.

George Mason, one of the architects of the federal Constitution of the United States, believed that “such a government was necessary as could directly operate on individuals, and would punish those only whose guilt required it”, while James Madison (another drafter of the U.S. federal Constitution) remarked that the more he reflected on the use of force, the more he doubted “the practicability, the justice and the efficacy of it when applied to people collectively, and not individually”. Finally, Alexander Hamilton, in his “The Federalist Papers”, discussed the Articles of Confederation with the following words: “To coerce the states is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised… Can any reasonable man be well disposed towards a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself, a government that can exist only by the sword? Every such war must involve the innocent with the guilty. The single consideration should be enough to dispose every peaceable citizen against such a government… What is the cure for this great evil? Nothing, but to enable the… laws to operate on individuals, in the same manner as those of states do.”

Because the states were initially distrustful of each other and jealous of their independence, the powers originally granted to the US Federal Government were minimal. However, as they evolved, the Federal Government of the United States gradually became stronger, and bit by bit it became involved in an increasingly wide range of activities.

3. Weaknesses of the UN Charter and Steps Towards a World Federation
3.1 Laws must be made binding on individuals

Among the weaknesses of the present U.N. Charter is the fact that it does not give the United Nations the power to make laws which are binding on individuals. At present, in international law, we treat nations as though they were persons: We punish entire nations by sanctions when the law is broken, even when only the leaders are guilty, even though the burdens of the sanctions fall most heavily on the poorest and least guilty of the citizens, and even though sanctions often have the effect of uniting the citizens of a country behind the guilty leaders. To be effective, the United Nations needs a legislature with the power to make laws which are binding on individuals, and the power to arrest individual political leaders for flagrant violations of international law.

The present United Nations Charter is similar to the United States’ Articles of Confederation, a fatally weak union that lasted only eleven years, from 1777 to 1788. Like it, the UN attempts to act by coercing states. Although the United Nations Charter has lasted almost sixty years and has been enormously valuable, its weaknesses are also apparent, like those of the Articles. One can conclude that the proper way to reform the United Nations is to make it into a full federation, with the power to make and enforce laws that are binding on individuals.

The International Criminal Court, which was established when the Rome Treaty came into force in 2002, is a step in the right direction. The ICC’s jurisdiction extends only to the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and (at some time in the future) the crime of aggression. In practice, the ICC is open to the criticisms that it is often unable to enforce its rulings and that it lacks impartiality. Nevertheless, the establishment of the ICC is a milestone in humanity’s efforts to replace the brutal military force of powerful governments by the rule of law. For the first time in history, individuals are being held responsible for violating international laws.

3.2 The voting system of the UN General Assembly must be reformed
Another weakness of the present United Nations Charter is the principle of “one nation one vote” in the General Assembly. This principle seems to establish equality between nations, but in fact it is very unfair: For example, it gives a citizen of China or India less than a thousandth the voting power of a citizen of Malta or Iceland. A reform of the voting system is clearly needed. (A recent and detailed discussion of these issues has been given by Dr. Francesco Stipo, See Reference 1.)

One possible plan (proposed by Bertrand Russell) would be for final votes to be cast by regional blocks, each block having one vote. The blocks might be: 1) Latin America 2) Africa 3) Europe 4) North America 5) Russia and Central Asia 6) China 7) India and Southeast Asia 8) The Middle East and 9) Japan, Korea and Oceania.

Today, Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives at the United Nations are appointed by national governments. However, in the long-term future, this system may evolve into a more democratic one, where citizens will vote directly for their representatives, as they do in many federations, such as Australia, Germany, the United States and the European Union.

3.3 The United Nations must be given the power to impose taxes
If the UN is to become an effective World Federation, it will need a reliable source of income to make the organization less dependent on wealthy countries, which tend to give support only to those interventions of which they approve. A promising solution to this problem is the so-called “Tobin tax”, named after the Nobel-laureate economist James Tobin of Yale University. Tobin proposed that international currency exchanges should be taxed at a rate between 0.1 and 0.25 percent. He believed that even this extremely low rate of taxation would have the beneficial effect of damping speculative transactions, thus stabilizing the rates of exchange between currencies. When asked what should be done with the proceeds of the tax, Tobin said, almost as an afterthought, “Let the United Nations have it.”

The volume of money involved in international currency transactions is so enormous that even the tiny tax proposed by Tobin would provide the United Nations with between 100 billion and 300 billion dollars annually. By strengthening the activities of various UN agencies, the additional income would add to the prestige of the United Nations and thus make the organization more effective when it is called upon to resolve international political conflicts.

The budgets of UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization, UNESCO and the UN Development Programme, should not just be doubled but should be multiplied by a factor of at least twenty. With increased budgets the UN agencies could sponsor research and other actions aimed at solving the world’s most pressing problems — AIDS, drug-resistant infectious diseases, tropical diseases, food insufficiencies, pollution, climate change, alternative energy strategies, population stabilization, peace education, as well as combating poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of safe water and so on. Scientists would be less tempted to find jobs with arms related industries if offered the chance to work on idealistic projects. The United Nations could be given its own television channel, with unbiased news programs, cultural programs, and “State of the World” addresses by the UN Secretary General.

Besides the Tobin tax, other measures have been proposed to increase the income of the United Nations. For example, it has been proposed that income from resources of the sea bed be given to the UN, and that the UN be given the power to tax carbon dioxide emissions. All of the proposals for giving the United Nations an adequate income have been strongly opposed by a few nations that wish to control the UN through their purse strings, especially by the United States, which has threatened to withdraw from the UN if a Tobin tax is introduced. However, it is absolutely essential for the future development of the United Nations that the organization be given the power to impose taxes. No true government can exist without this power. It is just as essential as is the power to make and enforce laws that are binding on individuals.

John Scales Avery: Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science; University of Copenhagen, Denmark

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