Thursday, April 5, 2007

Authority in the Global Context

This post is a direct continuation of the previous two blog entries.

What’s Good and What’s Bad About the Current Situation

The wider spread of personal information and transportation technology is generally a quite positive development. A result has been a greater dispersal of power through populations, allowing for greater personal control, autonomy, and freedom. Similarly, in general the increased influence of multiple nation-states on the international scene is a positive development, which allows for greater representation of different perspectives and interests within the global context.

In terms of global security, the current situation presents a mixed bag. The international scene was relatively stable during the course of the Cold War (that is, overlooking moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis when global thermonuclear war threatened). The United States and its allies were always more powerful and influential than the Soviet Bloc, but through their nuclear arsenal and competing ideology, the Soviet Bloc provided a check on unilateral domination or on the outbreak of massive instability.

Today, the global security scene is anything but bi-polar. The Bush Administration’s policies and practices have attempted to assert a uni-polar world, and have failed. The increasingly multi-polar reality could be linked to a new sort of overall global stability, if as David argues, it can be reflected in and reaffirmed by international institutions. At the same time, this more multi-polar reality clearly allows for greater regional instability, something currently seen with the Middle East, East and Central Africa, and North Korea, and in less dangerous ways, ongoing trends in Latin America.

There are other troubling aspects about the current global situation regarding the effects of recent technological developments. As I argued before, technology in itself is neutral. The same recent information technologies that in some ways empower individuals around the world can also be used (by states or corporations or other individuals) in new ways to survey and control or otherwise influence those same individuals. In addition, new information technologies and developments in global transportation (generally framed under the rubric of “globalization”) have greater increased the power of capital relative to labor (as I discussed in two earlier posts: “The ‘Sameness’ of Republicans and Democrats,” March 13, and “Three Things Karl Marx Didn’t See Coming," March 14).

Rethinking International Institutions

In the article in The Economist’s The World in 2007 which prompted me to write this and the previous two posts, Peter David calls for a rethinking of important international institutions, especially permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, in order to address some (but not all) of the issues above. David acknowledges that the Permanent 5 are unlikely soon to be receptive to any major change to the structure of that particular part of the U.N. I can’t imagine any of the five willingly giving up the veto powers, nor can I imagine them being likely to soon give similar power to any other nation-state – after all, that would water down their power within the institution. On the surface, such reform is simply not in the interest of the 5 nations that have carte blanche to block any such reform.

Though he doesn’t discuss it in any detail (it’s actually only a short piece), David makes an intriguing suggestion. A reform of the Security Council, if handled carefully – perhaps by adding some combination of India, Brazil, Japan, and/or Germany as permanent and/or veto wielding members, could help contribute to international stability by coming closer to reflecting current global realities and seeming more legitimate to more people in more national contexts. A greater perception of legitimacy and authority (because the Security Council would actually be representing a greater range of interests and perspectives) would not alone guarantee global stability or conformity with U.N. mandates or sanctions – as any student of anthropology, sociology, political science or any of the other social sciences is aware, there is a difference between authority or legitimacy on the one hand and power or influence on the other – but it would certainly help contribute to greater political (and economic) stability.

As a result, while on the surface any major change in the structure of the Security Council is not in the interests of the Permanent 5 (and as a result any such change is not going to happen soon), at the same time, as the real influence of such international bodies becomes more diffuse, it is actually increasingly in the interest of those five nation-states, as well as most others, for reform to occur, for them to dilute their power and influence within the institution somewhat in order to shore up the power and influence (and their stake in it) in general.

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