Green Horizon Magazine

GLOBAL GOVERNANCE: Can We Talk About It? Must We?

July 20th, 2014  |  Published in From the Editors, Slideshow

Global GovernanceWe live in a balkanized world. Huge problems of global dimensions are dealt with poorly or not at all. This is largely because the solutions are sought within a framework of separate and independent sovereign states and with a consciousness in each state imbued with the fervor of the national interest.

By John Rensenbrink

(continued)…Can we talk about this? Must we? I think we should. Yet I realize the matter is deeply complicated and tormenting, very hard to face by all across the entire political spectrum from conservative to liberal to radical and revolutionary.

Things global are at a crux. A crux is defined in my dictionary as a vital and decisive point, something that torments by its puzzling nature. At Green Horizon we think it’s now crucial to delve into that torment, to give it due consideration and to explore the alternative to the world of sovereign states in the form of an effective, just, and locally rooted world governance system. In this article I present an argument for going in that direction.

Charles Keil, in the article following this one, presents a model of a way to move in that direction Green Horizon has featured many articles in the past several years on local projects, local politics, and community-building. It is an emphasis that as an editor I have promoted and rejoiced it to the point of urging the U.S. Green Party to shift its strategy to catch the local wave now surging in the country beneath the radar screen of the corporate mass media. But though a strong and celebratory emphasis on the return of the local is current and tremendously important, a serious discussion of the global is overdue. Not only for Green Horizon but for other Green and progressive publications, as well as for Green parties, peace and environmental and social justice movements everywhere. Some may say with a degree of asperity: How can you talk like that! Isn’t global action already what umpteen NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are already doing? There are over 25,000 NGOs in the world dealing with one issue or another. Many contest with one or more of the 67,000 multinational corporations that bestride the world. There’s a United Nations, don’t forget, and many attendant agencies such as UNESCO. Most NGOs are active in putting pressure on these institutions and corporations. So what’s your problem?

Well, it’s not so much that I have a problem, though that may well be. The planet has a problem. The world is not well governed. More truthfully, the world is not governed at all. It is like it would be if your town, county, city or state has no police force, no fire-fighting brigade, no sewage treatment plant, no public schools and no place to meet together to hash out and make decisions about common problems. There is no office or person(s) in office whose primary task it is to care for the whole.

There are hosts of pressing problems in the world that spill over the borders of nations. And, yes, there is response. The plethora of NGOs has been mentioned. Groups and governments and powerful institutions like the World Trade Organization try to give serious attention. But the attention is focused on a particular issue or a particular interest. Actions are fragmented and tend to be episodic.

“You can’t solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein

One can name just a few formidable issues, each crying out for resolution: deep and widespread poverty, enormous population pressures, the mal-distribution of food, the increasingly desperate search for water, endless wars, barriers to peace by militarist national governments, nuclear proliferation, the poisoning of the world from nuclear disasters, the nuclearization of space, sexual violence against women, massive refugee dislocations, the shutting down of movements for democracy in country after country, pollution, hurricanes, tsunamis and floods, the often runaway exploitation of workers and land by the afore-mentioned multinational corporations, and the sure evidence of climate change seen in the melting of the polar ice caps and rising ocean levels everywhere.

There is every reason to give this host of problems very earnest attention. But something is missing. A political answer is missing—a holistic political answer. And since a global political answer is crucial, the discussions and actions undertaken lack depth. They lack coherence, lack coordination. They often work at cross purposes.


Actions for peace and solving global problems are up against the most stubborn barrier of all: sovereign war lords—big and small states—especially the big ones. Let me explain. Take my example above of your town, county, city or state being without government. But actually that picture is not complete. In this governless situation there are forces—in the form of many pseudo-governments—within your town, county, city, or state that try to establish a semblance of order in the chaos. Each inevitably competes with others. They are chiefs, each with their retainers and followers desperate for protection. In ancient China when this happened, they were called warlords.

So it is in the world now. The world is rife with warlords. They are called states but behave in the world-at-large as warlords. The big ones dominate the little ones, jostle with the other big ones, and are wary of the middle sized ones waiting in the wings for their turn in the spotlight.. They all strive and compete with one another for resources, geopolitical position, and spheres of influence.


Here is something even more interesting, puzzling and tormenting. Shift the focus from the international to the national level. Concerned people, progressive movements and political parties—everyone with a heart and a mind for a better world— push their national politicians in all kinds of ways to get them to “do the right thing.” They push them to “do something”. To do something about climate change, or about starvation in many parts of the world, or about nuclear proliferation. And so forth. It’s hard not to applaud this. Hard not to applaud and identify with the people who get on tightly packed buses for untold painful hours to join another massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. Going there to hear the speeches that implore and challenge the politicians to do the right thing. I’ve made this trip many times over many decades.

It should be noted that, again, it’s each issue at a time, and after a time it gets a little blurry as to what one is supposed to go to Washington for this time. But something much more tormenting is going on.

The inconvenient truth is that the politicians won’t or can’t do what is asked, even if and when they want to. Two crucial factors are at work, at least these two. Most politicians of the nations from the top down are imbued with a settled belief in the sanctity of the national interest. The national interest is first. Not the planet’s.

The second major factor is that their national government is caught in the vortex of a worldwide global structural impasse. The impasse is the nation-state system composed of sovereign state entities. This system may have worked in centuries past (barely), but now has outlived its usefulness. Yet, as it nevertheless remains firmly in place, it condemns every nation-state to follow its own narrow interest even in the face of overwhelming need for collaboration and effective global action for security, justice, and responsible governance. Andrew Shmookler has analyzed this situation in a provocative book he published in 1984, The Parable of the Tribes: the Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

Politicians who bravely try to get their government to deal with matters that can only be dealt with effectively on a global basis and in a global framework, and that therefore require a strong and steady collaborative effort of a global kind, must either severely water down what they propose or face charges of betraying the national interest, of failing in their patriotic duty, and worse. James Douglass tells us in a compelling book, JFK and the Unspeakable, that John Kennedy sought to rise beyond national self-interest in order to reach a basis for peace and collaboration. But he paid for it with his life.


But even supposing some things can get done on a piecemeal basis. Absorption in piecemeal efforts in an ad seriatim way consumes the time and energy of countless good men and women. Time that could be spent on a global focus for action.

We need a rapid development of a global political consciousness, starting with ourselves. This is what should be happening — but energy and time is taken up with actions that more often than not go nowhere because they bump up against the structural impasse of a nation-state system gone awry. They get smothered by the settled belief in the sanctity of the national interest. One- at-a-time actions could be meaningful (in spite of all, in spite of huge pressures on politicians to toe the nationalistic line). But until we work to couple those actions with a deepening global political consciousness on our own part, a consciousness that can migrate to others in a growing way, they remain ineffective.

An example of lost opportunity is the large climate change rally in Washington on Saturday, February 17, 2013. One sadly, even furiously, notes the absence of a speaker who might have included in his or her speech the need for a global political answer to climate change. The speakers were content to prevail upon, coax, and shame Washington’s politicians to get the government to do the right thing, when most if not all the movers and shakers in the government already believe they are doing the right thing, which is to act in terms of the national interest. Well, you may say, maybe the planners of the rally and the speakers were trying to get the politicians to include an appeal to enlightened self-interest as part of the national interest. That may have been in Bill McKibben’s mind and in the mind of the Sierra Club leaders who were chief sponsors of the rally. If that note was there, it was not strong, not what it should have been for loud and clear sounding of a theme.

But the deeper problem with appeal to enlightened self-interest is its inherent weakness— overwhelmed by the immediate and implacable national self-interest. Furthermore, what is the enlightened part of enlightened self-interest in this case? There is no image that comes with it of a tangible global political answer, one that has in it a provision for a public office, and for people in that office, for whom the care of the planet is THE mandate—their reason for being.


Peace movements the world-over as well as Green Parties in almost every country might seem very good sources for generating and nurturing a global political consciousness. The peace move – ment in the United States, for example, surely could be that, but it expends itself mostly in protest against the actions of the United States government. A negative posture abounds. It ties the movement into the nation-state paradigm or framework. One might think that after decades of ineffectual protest, the peace movement might couple their protest with strong calls for a transnational solution—including models of what those models can or might be. But there is very little coming from the movement that points in that direction.

I am reasonably familiar with Green Parties in the world, enough to know that the generating and nurturing of a global political consciousness is not on their agendas. Though a Global Green organization has been created in the last 12 years, it gives little sign of fostering a global political outlook. Its only effort in that direction is a Global Green Charter, approved at the first global gathering of Green Parties in Canberra in 2001. But the Charter seems on the shelf. Yet there is great potential in the formation of the global greens. This is a subject for subsequent articles in Green Horizon Magazine.

The United States Green Party (USGP) follows a protest pathway much like the peace movements; both mirror the steady barrage of reactive critiques of U.S. government by writers awash in a rhapsody of nay-saying. Let me quickly add that such critiques are often accurate, as such, and needed. But the problem is not so much what is said. It’s what isn’t said that is very troublesome. And because of that absence, the critique itself often falls flat.

The International Committee of USGP, of which I am a long-time member, also pursues a reactive mode for the most part. However, in one regard, it offers a strong hint of the kind of approach that’s needed. For several years, under the leadership of Justine McCabe, it has steadily promoted a One State Solution to the knotty Israel/Palestine problem. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with it, this represents the kind of modeling (or visionary/framework thinking) as a guide to action that needs to be applied to the planet as a whole.


Due mention has been made of the United Nations. Doesn’t it have that status and intent to be a public global office, and to have people in that office for whom the care of the planet is their reason for being? Yes but mostly no. Their care for the planet is filtered and radically watered down. Its structure is fatally flawed. The Security Council is composed primarily of the warlords, the big nation-states, each one having absolute veto power, and each pursuing its own national interest. The resolutions passed by the UN Assembly, a body composed of all the nations of the world, have a weak rhetorical significance. Anything beyond that is subject to veto by a member or members of the Security Council. The Secretary General occupies the one global office that might stand as a source of caring for the planet. But the Secretary General is hemmed in. He or she (so far only a “he”) is dominated and blocked by the Security Council, composed of the big warlords locked in ineffectual dispute with one another.

There are two ways to look at the UN. Either it is a very poor substitute for the real thing and of such a dismal nature as to hold back the formation of the real thing. Or it is a kind of successor to the old League of Nations, and may be seen as a further stage on the road to an effective and truly transnational governing force. Those who may argue this positive view have a hard sell.


We need a vision of an effective transnational governance structure whose responsibility it is to care for the planet with the power and authority to match its responsibility. For this to be real it must be anchored securely in democratic accountability and in strong and vital local political bodies. A global governance structure is needed that incorporates the grass roots principle of subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity states that a matter should be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level in possible, rather than by a central authority. A central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

We need a big discussion about global governance. The world was treated to animated discussion about global governance on the heels of WW II. Emory Reeves’ The Anatomy of Peace made a big stir. Albert Einstein and other creative global thinkers supported his work and advanced the dialogue. But it petered out, submerged by the cold war and then by the bid of the United States for imperial ascendance.

In the article following this one, Charles Keil offers a provocative thought experiment—a possible model of where to begin in raising consciousness of the need for global governance. We need more thinking like his, more discourse, more probing of possibilities. A flood of articles here, in other publications, and on line will spark and deepen awareness. They will animate the consciousness of political parties and movements. This can be done. We are not helpless spectators of our collective doom. As a reminder of impending doom, unless appropriate action is taken, consider the article that follows Keil’s article—Romi Elnagar’s searching article on the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its looming global aftermath.

JOHN RENSENBRINK is co-editor of this magazine, founding member of the Green Party of the United States, author of Against All Odds: the Green Transformation of American Politics, and professor emeritus of Government, Bowdoin College.

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