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Let’s Be Practical About Building a Better World

What will it take to get the world community to effectively deal with the proliferation of global problems?

March 22, 2019

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Our interconnected world is creating more and more problems that endanger our future, and we clearly need an architecture to deal with this. In the past, nations have come together to deal with this in an orderly way — by creating a balance of power in which the interests of individual states are maintained.

Now, however, there is a broad perception that the proliferation of global problems, created in part through the integration of the global economy, is outpacing our ability at the global polity level to deal with them productively. Therefore, we need to provide some form of catalyst to move the process forward.

The question is: How best to move it forward? I see four truly important strands of thinking with regard to how to move the process forward beyond what we have today. The first two are well-known attempts in the past 100 years, and particularly the past 50 years, that are widely deemed to have been insufficient.

The first is the idea that nation-states can come together as a common marketplace — that globalization, by promoting communication and trade, will also promote sufficient understanding of our mutual interests. This view holds that we will come together to preserve the common cause in our own interests. It is sort of Adam Smith’s invisible hand at a political level.

In the course of pursuing our own well-being, we will be driven, as if by an invisible hand, to enhance the well-being of all, because in this common marketplace such commonalities arise.

If you combine this idea with the idea of liberalism, then you arrive quite naturally at the conception of nation-states as multicultural. They come together. There is no need for them to find some common identity. They interact with one another in the common marketplace, and thereby preserve their own identities — while becoming part of a peaceful whole.

Multiculturalism is widely perceived to have failed. Multicultural countries, such as the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, have not achieved a sense of the common good and a sense of common purpose simply through the market interactions among their citizens.

The second major attempt to find a common cause that unites humanity is the idea of the nation-state as a melting pot. Through our social interactions within nations, we come to understand ourselves as a socially cohesive group. The aspiration is that, through our increasing interactions globally, we may also come to understand our common humanity as our main identity.

On the basis of this notion, there are expressions of hope that arise from time to time that a world government may emerge, or something like it. This, it is hoped, will help us realize the idea of one humanity and one world. At present, however, there are no signs that humanity is making progress towards a global community.

Both of these ideas play themselves out in the political sphere within countries, largely in the form of assimilation. The United Kingdom is a champion of the nation-state as a marketplace, while France is a champion of the nation-state as a melting pot. It is therefore not surprising that France should suggest that the EU should come together as a common government, because it is an extension of its own understanding of what its nation-state is. And it is not surprising that the UK pursues a different vision for Europe, because it sees itself more as a marketplace than as a melting pot.

Both these attempts, multiculturalism and assimilation as a form of finding a common cause, have widely failed. What’s the consequence of that failure?

A third option is to revisit the notion of the social contract and attempt to apply it at a global scale. We need to agree on common principles that leave, of course, our divergent interests in our own private spaces, but we thereby create a public space in which we can understand one another.

This idea of a social contract, from its earliest beginnings in the 17th century, if not before, has always underpinned our understanding of nation-states. Interestingly, the notion that national states are in some sense an outgrowth of social contracts is completely wrong historically. There is no nation that has come together through the actual formulation of a social contract — explicit or implicit. Nations have come together through the exertion of power, and then possibly identities formed around that.

But on a global level, given the widely shared appreciation of the need for restraints and the common difficulties that we face, perhaps the time has really come to think about the social contract at a global level — to have a global charter of principles that we can all agree is a catalyst for coming together as a global polity.

That is a truly interesting idea. It is not really surprising that, over the past decade, there have been numerous initiatives, such as the Earth Charter, that move exactly in this direction — that try to provide some form of social contract for the world community.

Finally, a fourth attempt to bring people together is to create settings in which to work together in a common cause. If we sense, in light of all the challenges out there, that we must come together to build a common home, if we understand ourselves as all working on the same edifice, then perhaps we can indeed build the ship in which we will all live — a modern-day equivalent of Noah’s Ark. In the process of working together, we may come to appreciate our common humanity.

In my view, options three and four — the social contract, based on a deliberate acceptance of common principles, and the common cause, focused first and foremost on practical work — are complementary. If we can build a bridge between the two and make them meet, then perhaps we will have something very powerful indeed.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published on The Globalist on October 5, 2011.


One way to bring people together is to create settings in which to work together in a common cause.

The United Kingdom is a champion of the nation-state as a marketplace, while France is a champion of the nation-state as a melting pot.

Perhaps the time has really come to think about the social contract at a global level.