The Case Against World Government: An Argument the Bishops Missed

Would world government make the world safe from nuclear war? If so, at what cost? The American Catholic bishops, in their pastoral letter on nuclear arms, The Challenge of Peace, recommended disar­mament and world government as the long-term moral solu­tion to the nuclear threat. This is not surprising, inasmuch as the current international system, characterized by individual sovereign states pursuing their narrow self-interests in a context of mistrust and competition, does indeed set the stage for international hostility and noncooperation. The bishops, and many others before them, recognize that the nature of the international system is the root problem. Con­sequently, it is not surprising that the pastoral letter recommended a fundamental change in the international system as the “final solution” to the threat of nuclear war.

But, just as the nature of the international system precludes the level of cooperation necessary for general nuclear disarmament, so also it precludes the international cooperation necessary to establish a “freely conferred upon” international authority which “must be empowered by all the nations to enforce its commands on every nation.” The reasons that render general nuclear disarmament im­possible in the current international system render the cooperative establishment of such a world government im­possible.

The cooperative creation of an international authority capable of enforcing “its commands on every nation” could well address the threat of nuclear war. It certainly would, almost by definition, remove the current immoral (as de­fined by the bishops) U.S.-Soviet deterrence relationship. But that international authority could not ensure that nuclear weapons would never be used unless it had the coercive power necessary to preclude all potential wars and prohibit any unauthorized production or use of nuclear weapons. Such a world government .would have to be very powerful indeed, perhaps totally ‘id). It is unclear whether the possibilities of repression and coercion inherent in such a global authority would provide a safer and more secure world for its citizens. Nevertheless, the potential risks associated with a new world order may seem less threaten­ing than the current risk of nuclear war and the existing “immoral” deterrence policies.

But even if one assumes that a world government would be benign there is a fundamental problem with any such alternative as the moral solution to the threat of nuclear war. Because, in short, such an authority is beyond any realistic hope of coming into being. The existing structure of the in­ternational system virtually prohibits such a change.

The problem stems from the lack of any central authority which could guarantee the security of sovereign states. It is beyond belief to expect the United States, the Soviet Union, or any other state to give up sovereign control of its means of security unless it could be certain that the threat posed by opponents could be handled by the central authority. Indeed, such behavior could be seen as an irra­tional abdication of a state’s primary responsibility of pro­viding security for its citizenry

Moreover, the level of certainty concerning the ability of the central authority to protect each state’s interests could not be high, particularly during its formation. How could the United States, for example, be confident that the Soviet Union would give over control of all of its nuclear weapons that pose a threat to the United States? The necessary level of verification simply would be impossible. Similarly the Soviet Union would, without a doubt, be unwilling to con­cede sovereign control of its nuclear arsenal unless it could be certain that the United States no longer posed a nuclear threat.

How could either superpower (or any nuclear-armed state) be confident that the other had not secretly stockpiled some weapons? The point is that they could not; and unless states, particularly the superpowers, conceded sovereign control of their respective forces to the central authority it would not be capable of enforcing its decisions. In effect, little would change.

The League of Nations and its successor the United Na­tions are excellent examples of organizations with some claim to international authority, but with only minimal en­forcement power. Neither changed the nature of the interna­tional system for the very reasons that prevent the cooperative establishment of an effective global authority.

Thus, the existing lack of trust that is inherent in the sovereign state system prohibits the cooperative establish­ment of a central authority with genuine enforcement power. To establish such an authority virtually all states would have to agree, simultaneously, to concede control of their forces to the central authority, and each state would have to believe that all potential opponents would abide by that agreement and that the international authority could enforce that agree­ment and protect individual national interests. Unfortunately, the lack of trust among states in the international system, and the rational limitations that lack of trust places on each state’s willingness to cooperate, renders virtually impossible the cooperative establishment of a new world order.

The bishops’ call for a new world order as the solu­tion to the threat of nuclear war at least recognizes the root of the problem. However, only three preconditions could lead to the cooperative establishment of that new order: (1) international trust and cooperation; (2) a central authority willing and able to enforce compliance with international agreements; and (3) a common external threat to survival that would compel common action. If either of the first two preconditions existed, the new world order already would have arrived; but barring alien attack from outer space, there appear to be no common threats so persuasive as to unite the international system. As Brian Urquhart, general undersecretary of the United Nations, remarked at ceremonies celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the UN Charter, a genuine unification of the UN could not be real­ized “until an invasion from Mars takes place.”

Those who propose that a new world order is the solu­tion to the threat of nuclear war generally recognize that its creation would not be easy. For example, one proponent of this solution, Professor Saul Mendlovitz of Rutgers Univer­sity, has suggested that creation of a new world order would require the “same kind of imagination” that led to the general abolition of slavery. Yet the abolition of that wretch­ed institution in the United States did not come about through cooperative agreement; abolition was part of the bloodiest and most costly war ever fought by Americans.

Similarly, the end of serfdom in Imperial Russia in 1861 did not occur through the “enlightened consciousness” of the parties concerned. Rather, it came about largely as a result of the Crimean War and was forced upon the nobility by Tsar Alexander II, not without much acrimony.

A world government could, one supposes, be estab­lished through global conquest by a superpower or an alliance of powers. In the event of such an occurrence the new political leadership presumably could enforce edicts and new policies upon the rest of the world. Yet such a con­quest almost certainly would involve the use of nuclear weapons — the very threat which we are interested in avoiding.

(It is curious that strategic defense did not play any role in the bishops’ long term plan. One could speculate that they assumed that comprehensive strategic defense would prove impossible. Feasibility, however, could not have been the determining factor in their analysis given the virtual im­possibility of disarmament and world government. Effective strategic defense would, after all, meet the moral conditions demanded by the just war theory without requiring a new world order for its implementation.)

The “moral” solutions to the threat of nuclear war pro­posed by the bishops (i.e., cooperative disarmament and creation of a central international authority) suffer from the same fundamental flaw — neither is feasible in the current international system. And if the system could be changed so that the necessary preconditions for these solutions existed, the solutions would no longer be necessary. In short, the bishops recognize in their pastoral letter that the fundamen­tal problem concerning the threat of nuclear war stems from the nature of the international system. Yet the suggested solution to that problem — fundamentally changing the nature of the system — although logical, is unhelpful because we cannot get there from here without a prior, vir­tually simultaneous, benign transformation, in the way nations behave.


  • Keith B. Payne

    Keith Payne is the president of the National Institute for Public Policy.

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