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The Resurgent Idea of World Government

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The idea of world government is returning to the mainstream of scholarly thinking about international relations. Universities in North America and Europe now routinely advertise for positions in “global governance,” a term that few would have heard of a decade ago. Chapters on cosmopolitanism and governance appear in many current international relations (IR) textbooks. Leading scholars are wrestling with the topic, including Alexander Wendt, perhaps now America's most influential IR theorist, who has recently suggested that a world government is simply “inevitable.” While some scholars envision a more formal world state, and others argue for a much looser system of “global governance,” it is probably safe to say that the growing number of works on this topic can be grouped together into the broader category of “world government”—a school of thought that supports the creation of international authority (or authorities) that can tackle the global problems that nation-states currently cannot.

It is not, of course, a new idea. Dreaming of a world without war, or of government without tyranny, idealists have advocated some kind of world or universal state since the classical period. The Italian poet Dante viewed world government as a kind of utopia. The Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, often regarded as the founder of international law, believed in the eventual formation of a world government to enforce it. The notion interested many visionary thinkers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. In 1942 the one-time Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie published a famous book on the topic, One World. And after the Second World War, the spectre of atomic war moved many prominent American scholars and activists, including Albert Einstein, the University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, and the columnist Dorothy Thompson, to advocate an immediate world state—not so much out of idealistic dreams but because only such a state, they believed, could prevent a third world war fought with the weapons that had just obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The campaign continued until as late as 1950, when the popular magazine Reader's Digest serialized a book by the world-government advocate Emery Reves, while at the same time the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations was considering several motions to urge the Truman administration to adopt a policy of world federalism (see Boyer, 1985; Cabrera, forthcoming). In fact, to this day the World Federalist Movement—an international NGO founded in 1947 and recognized by the United Nations—boasts a membership of 30,000 to 50,000 worldwide.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

More about this publication?
  • World Governance: Do We Need It, Is It Possible, What Could It (All) Mean?
    One of the main objections raised against world governance is not that it is impractical, but that it is unnecessary and even undesirable. There is a fear that world government would be or become tyrannical. German philosopher Immanuel Kant devised a project of "perpetual peace," but he was against a world state, advocating instead a kind of confederation of the states in the world. Finally, if a world government is indeed formed, how far should the instruments and tools of such a body reach? These and other issues have been explored in this book. Covering a wide range of disciplines - from philosophy to jurisprudence, ethics, and social science - the book explores how theorists have reflected upon the necessary components of an effective global order.
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