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World Governance: Beyond Utopia

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Ever since the rise of nation-states in the modern period, diplomats and political theorists have struggled to devise international institutions that might more effectively secure peace and some measure of justice among nations. The very complexity of the current international scene makes a fair and effective system of world governance more necessary than ever—but it also makes it unlikely. In these circumstances, it may be useful to sketch briefly a scheme for world governance that is an improvement over present circumstances, without being hopelessly utopian. That means that any such scheme must be appropriate for international politics as it actually exists.

The most salient feature of international politics has long been its anarchic character. Ever since the rise of sovereign nation-states, there has been no sovereign power above them. The absence of a super-Leviathan, combined with the absence of a broad consensus on values or on procedures of conflict resolution, means that international politics has long been, in Rousseau's terms, a “state of war,” real or potential. There have been truces, temporary remissions, and zones of peace—but so long as anarchy prevails, there can be no end to the possibility of war.

In the nineteenth century, the main European powers constituted a “concert” to try to preserve the post-Napoleonic peace settlements. But this was primarily a mechanism of consultation, and the concert eventually fell apart over the issue of intervention in domestic affairs.

After World War I, statesmen and citizens began to think of going beyond the sovereign nation-state. The League of Nations seemed like a big step forward, because of its provisions against aggressive wars and its procedures for peaceful change. But it was a strictly inter-national organization: its coercive powers depended on the willingness of the major states to put them into effect. Even worse, the League's strong connections with the territorial status quo established by the post-1918 treaties thwarted the application of its provisions for peaceful change.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2010

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