Keith Windschuttle

Just before Greens leader Bob Brown announced his retirement last month, he received some much deserved derision in the media for his “Fellow Earthians” speech in Hobart in which he speculated why none of the intergalactic forms of life had yet made contact with Earth and he urged Australia to take the lead in creating a one-world government. Journalists were divided over which of these notions was the crazier but united in their verdict about Brown’s grip on reality.

While it’s true that those who deliberate on the behaviour of extraterrestrial life do so in complete absence of empirical support, the preference for a world government is not so eccentric. In fact, down through the ages, a long line of intellectuals have advocated something similar for much the same reasons. In the Middle Ages, poet and philosopher Dante advocated world rule by the Holy Roman Emperor in order to bring universal peace and justice. In the Enlightenment, philosopher Immanuel Kant advocated a world federation to create and maintain “perpetual peace”. In the nineteenth century, English poet Alfred Tennyson’s vision of a federation of the world delivering universal law was also endorsed by the French novelist Victor Hugo. In the twentieth century, intellectuals H.G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, Bertrand Russell, Robert Maynard Hutchins, William O. Douglas, Edmund O. Wilson and Carl Sagan all supported either world government or some kind of worldwide federal system. At the end of the Second World War, Albert Einstein argued that to prevent the next global conflagration something far more powerful than the proposed United Nations was needed: 

A world government must be created which is able to solve conflicts between nations by judicial decision. This government must be based on a clear-cut constitution which is approved by the governments and the nations and which gives it the sole disposition of offensive weapons. 

In other words, those who dream of this solution want to create a universal rule of law to which the existing nations, empires and territories of the world would surrender their sovereignty, or at least crucial aspects of their sovereignty, in order to put an end to war. Whatever you think about the practical prospect of such an idea ever becoming a reality, it is not crazy or irrational. In the aftermath of wars like those of the last century, it is a concept with widespread political and intellectual appeal, especially among the surviving inhabitants of the most intense theatres of war. It was the central notion behind the surrender of national sovereignties that created the European Union.

What is more than a little nutty, however, is the political structure Bob Brown conjures up to do the job. He wants a democratic, bicameral world parliament. Its upper house would have one representative per country, which today would give it about 190 members. Its far bigger lower house would have representatives in proportion to the population of their countries. As critics immediately pointed out, such a chamber would not only be huge, it would be dominated by China and India, and the Third World would always have the numbers. You’d be mad to expect any First World country to surrender sovereignty to such a gathering.

However, there is another route to the same objective that is far more intellectually plausible and politically realistic. As John O’Sullivan recorded in our March edition in his introduction to John Fonte’s new book Sovereignty or Submission, since the end of the Cold War the notion of global governance has emerged as an intellectual orthodoxy with powerful support in the academy, the media, the law, the foreign policy establishment, the corporate world, and the bureaucracies that serve international institutions and non-governmental associations.

Global governance is a reversal of our existing political arrangements. It aims to take power from democratically elected parliaments and vest it in courts, NGOs and transnational bodies. Voters would increasingly find their representatives beholden to international treaties, international legal conventions and precedents, transnational bureaucrats and lawyers. Government policy would be decided less by open debate in the national media and more in the comparatively closed world of international conferences, academic seminars, consultant reports, learned journals and legal judgments.

Today, this is already obvious in immigration policy where the Australian government, bound by international conventions and treaties, has little room to move when people claim to be refugees. Even those who make the final decisions about which individuals will be permitted to enter this country are often not our own immigration officers but people appointed by the United Nations. On such a contentious issue, the national government may well regard this as a convenient way to wash its hands of responsibility and accountability, but it is no less an abdication of the sovereignty that electors once expected it to exercise.

The same is increasingly true in environmental policy. For decades now, most Australians have been happy to place the most attractive natural features of this country on the UN’s World Heritage list, thinking such an action would simply give us international prestige and boost tourism. In March this year, it became clear to the people of North Queensland how trapped they had become by such an apparently benign gesture. The Queensland government was seeking to expand the port of Gladstone to accommodate more and larger ships for its multi-billion-dollar trade in coal. It suddenly found itself under inspection by a visiting team from UNESCO for potential breaches of the World Heritage boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef. The new Queensland Deputy Premier, Jeff Seeney, said he would push for the boundaries of the World Heritage area to be moved to exclude Gladstone Harbour from part of the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, Gladstone Port Corporation complained that every major Queensland port, except Brisbane and Bundaberg, was now within the World Heritage Area. Seeney declared Queensland should not have to seek resource development approvals from UNESCO.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation all entered the fray. “Australia is on the brink of turning the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area into an industrial estate,” Greenpeace proclaimed. Legal firm Shine Lawyers, acting for local commercial fishermen, hired American celebrity environmental activist Erin Brokovich to visit Queensland and publicly threaten the government. “I know you recently had UNESCO out visiting the reef to look at the levels of impact,” Brokovich said in a television interview, “this should act as a warning bell that your new government needs to act very swiftly.” In the event, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke pre-empted the UNESCO investigation’s findings by declaring that, under the external treaties power the High Court found his office held in a 1983 decision, he would not permit the existing World Heritage boundaries to be changed, no matter what the cost to coal exports.

A dispute over the boundaries of Gladstone Harbour is obviously a very minor matter in the wider scheme of things, especially compared to the great goal of universal peace and justice sought by global governance. Nonetheless this case demonstrates in a neat microcosm the issues at stake, the major players, the underlying strategy and the tactics deployed in the political fray of what is bound to become a running series of conflicts in the future.

In almost every case, the critical players and institutions will be lawyers, courts and legal judgments. John Fonte argues that international law is one of the leading growth industries in the process. Its practitioners, mostly from legal academic backgrounds, are among the foremost intellectual theorists of an ever-expanding international and transnational law that is not only promoting the growth of international human rights and other treaties, but is also responsible for overturning many long-held assumptions in national laws. It is even questioning the authority of long-held constitutional principles. Fonte cites law professor Peter Spiro who argues judges are building a “global community of courts” in part because of networking and interaction on foreign and international tribunals. Spiro predicts the American Constitution is likely to be increasingly globalised by judgments that favorably cite international sources and precedents. “International norms can thus be adopted under the cover of constitutional supremacy.”

Walter Russell Mead, a scholar of international relations, describes the most likely outcome of the global governance movement: 

Think of the European Union blown up to global scale; in the Global Union nations would have their own governments and their own laws but an increasingly dense framework of commonly agreed-upon laws and norms, and an increasingly complex and effective web of global institutions would supplement and in many cases replace the authority of national governments.

In short, Fonte argues that global governance would not mean the kind of “one-world government” fantasised by Bob Brown. Instead, it would be a supra-national legal regime, a de facto constitutional authority above national constitutions but enforced mostly by compliant national courts. The citizens of nation-states would find themselves governed by institutions unaccountable to them and which, in many cases, they would not even know existed.

We would lose not only democratic sovereignty but, given the authoritarian predilections of the officials needed to run such a system, most of our liberal rights as well. Anyone who imagines a regime of such a nature would have the ability to put an end to war is naive.

Leave a Reply