This book follows up a key theme from David’s earlier works reviewed in these pages – The American Trajectory: Divine or Demonic? and The Christian Gospel for Americans. The first chapter takes as its starting point the anarchical character of civilisation identified by Bertrand Russell’s friend G. Lowes Dickinson in the 1920s. Contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy of political realism based on ‘power, self-interest, competition and self-help’, David argues that this global anarchy ‘can be overcome and that, if human civilisation is to have a bright future, perhaps any future at all, it must be overcome.’ The main obstacle is nation-state sovereignty, which David points out has two dimensions: internally in terms of the legitimate exercise of coercive power, and externally as independence from outside authority in the control of territory and population. The central issue relates to a higher world authority putting limits on the external sovereignty of each state.
Western thinkers since Dante have been exercised about the political structures required to prevent war, and in 1761 (260 years ago!) Rousseau published an abstract of a 1713 work by Abbe de Saint-Pierre in which he noted that ‘the misery created by war is so great that a plan to secure a lasting peace must be found.’ Kant followed with his own works at the end of the 18th-century, proposing a confederation without sovereign power that strongly resembles the later developments of the League of Nations and the UN. My own great-grandfather James Lorimer published The Institutes of the Law of Nations in 1883, in which he advocated disarmament alongside an international government with the ‘necessary military force to provide security’ and hence to guarantee the freedom of all national governments. The next two chapters outline the establishment and failure of both the League of Nations and the UN, precisely because the great powers wished to retain their own freedom of action and nationalistic dreams of hegemony: ‘the UN has not been able to maintain peace because it was deliberately denied the [executive, legislative and judicial] power to do this.’ (p. 34 ff)
The longest chapter is devoted to Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) on global democracy in relation to his theology. I read his Moral Man and Immoral Society over 40 years ago in which the egotism of individuals is sublimated into that of nations, who are expected to pursue their national interests in accordance with political realism. Niebuhr was influenced by the social gospel and the idea that God acts to create hope through ideals in moves towards the establishment of the Kingdom of God based on compassion, order and justice. He famously said that ‘man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ However, he failed to give full-fledged support to global democracy because of the realities of power grounded in historical realism. His moral realism recognised the need for a powerful and democratic global institution, but his political realism acknowledged the likelihood of the continuing domination by the most powerful. Indeed, this trend has accelerated since that time, and we now live in a systemically corrupted oligarchic and plutocratic world where power has become more concentrated and less accountable. As of 2021, we recognise that technology gives us greater powers for good and evil, and that the overcoming of anarchy through the imposition of order may result in tyranny and loss of freedom – all in the name of security.
Does this mean that the ideal of global democracy has no future? David thinks not, and I agree with him. He argues that ‘global democratic government is now necessary for the survival of civilisation, that its creation would be highly desirable for many other reasons as well, and that are even reasons to consider it possible.’ (p. 111) He envisages a federal structure with subsidiarity based on a global bill of rights and responsibilities and incorporating a legislature, an executive branch and a judiciary system. Although his work is not mentioned, this is exactly what Nicholas Hagger proposes in his books World State and World Constitution (see Issue 127, p. 57). The necessity arises out of the war economy, the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, and ecological degradation. Its desirability is a potential means of curbing plutocracy – one dollar, one vote – enshrining human rights and moving towards what Richard Falk calls universalist logic beyond the pragmatism and self-interest of statist and imperialist logic; also as a means of overcoming market economism and the unsustainability of economic growth.
Morality needs to trump posturing patriotism (the UK is upgrading its nuclear arsenal) if we are to create a world ordered on moral principles of justice, compassion and cooperation that would align power with goodness and altruism. David suggests that possibility of this coming about could arise through pressure from global civil society and an alliance of NGOs with the religions and, I would add, a global ethic. This is what the Bulgarian Sage Peter Deunov meant by a culture of love, the ‘fourth degree’ of human culture after violence, law and justice. Here, Love is life for and service to the whole, which is surely not an impossible ideal. This provides a compass direction for the future. The world will only be transformed when a sufficient number of people come together and non-violently rise up to call for a new system infused by love, compassion, empathy and care rather than power, coercion, violence and inequality. In this, we can each play a small part.
REINHOLD NIEBUHR AND THE QUESTION OF GLOBAL DEMOCRACY –David Ray Griffin
Process Century Press, 2021, 198 pp., $25, p/b – ISBN 978-1-94044-749-0