The University in the Global Age: Pt II

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In Pt I of my blog-column (6 Dec. ’19), I identified what I see as the main challenges facing tertiary education, globally.  These challenges, I suggest, have led many universities to an existential crisis as it dawns upon them that, for most, the traditional model of operation and financing has nearly run its course.

So, what to do?

In Part II, I detail my observations of US innovation in higher education which I had the privilege of examining, as part of my experience as a 2018 Eisenhower International Fellow.

The challenge of reform

The United States likely has the most diverse and innovative system of tertiary education in the world, due in large part to the fact that in the US, niche is massive.   But many US community colleges and regional, four-year institutions will, nonetheless, face closure or amalgamation if they do not reform significantly.

Outside the US, I believe the same is true. Whilst niche in the US is often still the economic size of small countries, the changing nature of employment and new digital capabilities mean that alternative providers and industry training opportunities can operate with profit globally.

This does not mean the end of the degree, but for those institutions operating almost entirely on a student-fee and government-funding model, even small changes in their operating environment can mean the difference between mere downsizing and bankruptcy.

This is particularly true in New Zealand where, like individual US states, maintenance of more than one or two large globally-ranked universities is increasingly beyond our capacity. With eight large, globally-ranked, comprehensive universities in New Zealand and a near bankrupt polytechnic sector, the reality is that the system is ripe for disruption.

However New Zealand is also well placed to be a global player in the provision of quality higher learning – not on a traditional ‘internationalisation’ platform, but as a distance provider of global significance.

Confronting the challenge

Let me convey my observations from my Fellowship travels around 14 US cities, visiting near 70 institutions and individuals. My travel took me across the US examining the most innovative university systems and alternative providers in the country. Primarily, I focused on three elements of university reform.

  1. Enfranchising people

How to structure qualifications and work with public and private entitles to better engage those traditionally disenfranchised from college education due to race, class or minority status?

Whilst universities are not the answer to all problems, our inability to effectively engage particular communities in terms of both student recruitment and retention will only increase as mechanization, globalization and AI makes extinct swathes of vocations in the near future. Our inability to engage will not only challenge the operation of our institutions, but will also undermine our ability to serve our societies in terms of economic prosperity and, even more importantly, to build safer, more secure, more trusting and sustainable communities.

  1. Managing info-tech

How might universities can leverage digital and disruptive innovation to implement those engagement and retention strategies identified under 1 above?

From fully online to public/private partnerships, through to block-chain credentialing – the future of life-long-learning is distributive, meaning that traditional providers are, and will be, only one of a number of options in higher education.

  1. Addressing the meta-narrative

How to leverage the first two elements to more effectively address the meta-narratives of our time, and not merely provide disparate qualifications to a client based system of students as customer?

The goal of facilitating the educational advancement of life-long-learners, in finding more rewarding employment, addresses one set of meta-narratives. But our emerging global community faces other pressing issues that revolve around two global challenges:

  • the normative structure of our communities; and
  • our relationship with the physical resources of our planet.

It is in these two domains that I regard the future of the global university to be headed. Building on the advancement of communities through educating individuals to be work-ready, the future also requires universities to more actively facilitate collaboration, both to frame the form of society we collectively want and need, and also work together to actualize that vision.

Let me, then, give an overview of my main conclusions from my travel.

Problem, Challenge or Opportunity?

Managerial talk these days dislikes the use of the word ‘problem’. As used in my first article, I described our collective points of concern as ‘challenges’. However, this presupposes perhaps my most significant observation from my time in the US. It is clear to me that for any ‘challenge’ to be addressed through innovation, and for that innovation to be successful – i.e. effective, scalable and sustainable – it is important for an institution (and therefore institutional leaders) to first clearly understand the landscape in which they find themselves and to understand one’s relationship with that landscape.

Without such knowledge, no foundation exists by which the competing array of problems, challenges, opportunities, strategies and tools can be identified, measured, addressed or applied. Too many institutions are beguiled by the notion of innovation without first understanding either their own operating environment, or their desired place in the world. In addition to this problem, too many strive to be something they are not – the world can only sustain so many Harvard, Yale and Stanford universities, and there is no shame at being an institution that balances workplace training, research-informed teaching, and aspects of research-led teaching within their operation.

In other words, let us be careful when supping from the cup of university rankings – the rankings elixir can lead us to conformity of operation that does not sit well with our particular institution and does not serve our communities.

So beware the temptation we have all felt at one time or another – of focusing on some new innovation in answer to a problem we do not understand and have not clearly identified. Let us not re-label ‘problems’ as ‘challenges’ until such time as we have clearly identified what impediments exist to our goals and objectives. It is clear, in my experience, that all the most innovative institutions in the US have these first-base issues nailed.

Make it Personal

There is no magic sauce, no formula, no one-way or right-way, but there are a number of wrong ways. Whilst we all face the same mega-trends, our relationship with those is necessarily different.  In case you missed it, Harvard University has a $30 billion dollar endowment and that changes the classification of problems or challenges for that institution. Digital innovation in pedagogy for example is an incredible opportunity for the likes of Harvard, it is not a challenge to their operating environment at all.

As a result, the way in which Harvard chooses to interact with digital innovation in delivery of courses (see EdX for example), is likely to be very different to a regional four-year institution or community college. All of the most innovative and dynamic institutions in the US have personalized the list of collective challenges – they are clear what each of those mean to their institution. They have achieved this by aligning those challenges with their history, community needs and their knowledge of the sector, to personalize their goals for the future.

Such an approach has allowed them to form a clear platform from which to assess innovation – what to adopt and what to reject. New Zealand, Australia and the rest of the world is not the United States.  An alignment of the challenges we face, with our different institutional history, community needs and knowledge of the sector from our position will result in likely alternative but equally progressive goals.

Sustainable Innovation is Not Accidental

Effective, scalable and sustainable innovation happens by design, it is not accidental. As indicated above, the examples of successful innovation that I examined in the US developed from both clear institutional goals and a clear process of institutional operation.

  • President Michael Crow for example, is near-religious in his consistency of communication around the purpose and direction of Arizona State University – likely the most innovative university in the US. However, he is also clear on the structure and processes by which the institution structures its academic units and makes decisions.
  • So too President Paul Leblanc at Southern New Hampshire University and ditto that at Purdue, Western Governors and Georgia Tech. It is crucial for university leaders to not only have a clear vision of the future of their institution but to also work together with their university community to align the operational with the mission.

A vision to work collaboratively with communities and industry on broad issues of societal reform for example, is put to naught if the institution is rigidly structured around isolated programmes that have little to no relationship with other programmes inside and outside their College, let alone society. And imagine for a moment, if our College Boards (Senates or Councils) operated as genuine units of research and development to produce a dynamic academic curriculum in which experimentation and progressive development were encouraged rather than the compliance and regulatory box-ticking regimes that predominates in many institutions.

I am sure we can all relate to the need to have a fleet-of-foot approach to the mission in the everyday operation of our institutions.

The Multiversity

Universities are complicated beasts – embrace it! Clark Kerr coined the phrase Multiversity in the early 1960s. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to university operation and leadership. At any one time a university serves a tremendous number of masters and that is the beauty of our sector.

What this means is that the commercialization of elements of university practice, on the one hand, need not mean an end to the development of a new theoretical narrative in the philosophy department by leading scholars, on the other. We are not corporate organizations yet have much to learn from the corporate world – we are also not entirely academically driven but that forms our backbone. We are hybrid organisations in a global environment where such complexity is the sign of the future.

Therefore, we are not an anachronism of the past – we are the symbol of the future.

Centres of Collaboration; not Centres of Knowledge

Traditionally universities have seen themselves as centres for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge: for me that is old world thinking.  The university of the future needs to conceptualise itself as a centre of collaboration for the collective creation and dissemination of new knowledge. The former is the stuff of ivory towers – the latter is the fodder of change-agents.

In Part III, I shall explore models of transformational change from the leading institutions I visited in the United States.

Prof Chris Gallavin is Dep. Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Massey University, and a member of the Centre’s Board.

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Can Nuclear Disarmament Strengthen Global Security?

Dr Lyndon Burford

Ten years ago, the US President reaffirmed in a major international speech that the United States sought ‘the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’. Despite the vision, Obama didn’t say why he thought a nuclear-weapon-free world would be peaceful and secure.

So the question arises, from the perspective of nuclear-armed and allied states, can nuclear disarmament as a process and endpoint (‘nuclear-zero’) help to improve the global security environment?

Why would nuclear-armed states disarm?

The leaders of nuclear-armed and allied countries regularly state their support for complete nuclear disarmament. Yet there is a constant tension between this rhetorical support for global zero and their nuclear deterrence policies. NATO, for example, sees nuclear weapons as the ‘supreme guarantee’ of allied security, and Russia believes that nuclear weapons are ‘an important factor’ in preventing nuclear conflict.

So why would nuclear-armed countries want to eliminate the weapons?

This question is vital for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which marks its 50th anniversary in 2020. The NPT is a foundation of the global security order. It is the core legal basis of efforts to stop more countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the only multilateral treaty that creates a binding obligation regarding nuclear disarmament (Article VI) for any nuclear-armed state.

All NPT members have repeatedly and unanimously agreed that the disarmament obligation in NPT Article VI requires nothing less than achieving nuclear-zero. The NPT ‘nuclear weapon states’ (China, France, Russia, UK, US) were parties to those agreements. Yet the nuclear weapon states last engaged in multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations in 1996. Since then, the number of states with nuclear weapons has increased from six to nine. India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea also have nuclear weapons, but are not NPT members.

Meanwhile, Russia-US arms control is in freefall, and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is all but dead due to events triggered by unilateral US withdrawal, despite all Western allies except Israel opposing the US move. The world is witnessing a complex new arms race that makes the simplicity of the Cold War seem almost quaint. Most experts believe the likelihood of nuclear weapon use, whether by accident, miscalculation or madness, is increasing.

Doubts among non-nuclear weapon states

As global security deteriorates, many non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly suspicious about the claims from nuclear states to support complete nuclear disarmament. Some believe the nuclear weapon states are using the NPT to control access to nuclear technology while retaining their nuclear weapons indefinitely.

To ensure non-nuclear weapon states continue to support the NPT and refrain from seeking nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states need to find a way to demonstrate the credibility of their disarmament commitments. The most credible way to do that is to negotiate for disarmament and actually disarm, but as noted, that isn’t happening. An immediate step in that direction is to explain why they think a world without nuclear weapons is desirable.

Why would that world be ‘peaceful and secure’?

The security value of nuclear-zero

The most obvious reason that a nuclear-weapon-free world is desirable is because nuclear use is the most likely trigger for nuclear war, and the likelihood of nuclear use is lowest at nuclear-zero. Let me explain.

Nuclear-armed and allied states argue that they can only reduce their arsenals when a permissive security environment allows them to. Logically, that means that achieving nuclear-zero will be impossible without a fundamental transformation of the global security environment.

Put another way, arriving at zero would be proof that a fundamental transformation of the security environment had already occurred. Otherwise, states that see nuclear weapons as essential to their security would not take the final step from low numbers to zero. Any discussion of the security environment or strategic incentives in a nuclear-weapon-free world must account for this point.

Building trust through disarmament

How might that transformation happen? A 2009 joint statement from the US and Russian presidents offers a clue. It affirmed that reducing nuclear weapons in a negotiated, verified process would ‘enhance the security of the Parties and predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces’. That implies that an iterative process of verified disarmament can help to improve the overall security environment by progressively increasing predictability and stability.

In addition, such a process can help to build trust between countries. To get close to nuclear-zero, the world will have to go through multiple rounds of verified reductions in the number, and role, of nuclear weapons. Each new round of verified reductions would improve trust levels among nuclear-armed states, and between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-armed states, because it would involve negotiating and/or promising disarmament action and then verifiably delivering it. Otherwise, further reductions would be unlikely to happen.

This cycle would also improve inter-state trust because, for political and technical reasons, the transparency and intrusive international inspections for all parties would probably increase with each round of reductions. All these developments could help progressively to alleviate security concerns related to other countries’ nuclear weapons. And if the risk of nuclear conflict continues to increase due to threats from disruptive technologies, the relative incentives to maintain nuclear weapons would decrease.

There’s nothing inevitable about this logic of course. The nuclear states achieved enormous nuclear reductions within the permissive security environment that followed the Cold War. Yet in 2019, respected experts are warning of a global nuclear crisis.

So it’s necessary to think about the difference between a permissive security environment that might allow for nuclear reductions, and the active political motivation that would drive a process towards elimination.

A key question that arises in that regard is, is it possible to achieve nuclear disarmament while maintaining the belief that nuclear deterrence increases national and international security?

New initiatives

New forums have emerged that could usefully address that question. Examples include the Swedish ‘stepping stones’ approach, or the US-led Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Working Group, both launched in 2019.

All states should seize the opportunities that these and other similar initiatives offer to address the critical threat that nuclear weapons continue to pose to global security. In particular, they could start by urging nuclear-armed states and their allies to explain why they believe that nuclear disarmament is a desirable outcome.

Dr Lyndon Burford is Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London, and a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel

Towards a Theory of Everything: Pt III. Development

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Kennedy Graham

Part II identified, in developing a ‘global theory’ for the 21st century, the following components:

  • primary features, global values, citizenship, law and governance;
  • foundational concepts of consilience and coherence, along with operational concepts of risk management and jurisdictional subsidiarity;
  • a central principle, the ecological imperative of survival, with normative socio-political principles compatible with, and subordinate to, the survival principle.

A global theory, developed through an international discourse based on ‘cultural cosmopolitanism’, would facilitate a move from the 20th c. transactional system to a 21st c. constitutional system that involved multi-layered jurisdiction.

  • How, then, to begin such a discourse – in an age of global angst?
  • What is our contemporary, transactional, international system doing about this?

Consider the primary features of a global theory: values, citizenship, law and governance.

Global values

A critical judgement call concerns the level of abstraction of a ‘human value’ that is appropriate for genuine global embrace.  What might China, France and Iran agree upon, along with the other 190 UN member states?

There is a difference, perhaps, between universal values which happen to be shared by all peoples, and global values that are genuinely embraced by all peoples.

The present system

The United Nations has, in fact, identified a set of values on behalf of ‘We the Peoples’. It can be found in the Millennium Declaration of 2000, with an updated version in the World Summit Outcome Document of ‘05).  The General Assembly has agreed that ‘our common fundamental values’, including freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for all human rights, respect for nature, and shared responsibility, are essential to international relations.

Thoughts for the future

Are these different from a set of putative values that might be embraced by a global community?  Can we identify a  ‘phase transition’, to borrow from the physical sciences, in which humanity sheds the shortcomings of the previous era and acquires new values, principles and laws that effectively address the exponential change around us?

A 21st c. version, reflecting consilience and coherence, might be developed along the following lines – comprising three primary global values: natural sustainability, biodiversity, and human responsibility.  Gallavin’s column (6 Dec. 2019) explores how the university system in the global age might explore this, with a view to strengthening, and consolidating, global citizenship.

Global citizenship

The present system

In recent years it has become almost standard for many people – youth, corporate leaders, sport and artistic entrepreneurs – to regard themselves as ‘global citizens’. It is, certainly, the beginning of a self-identification movement. Whether it meets Altigan’s standard of cultural cosmopolitanism (Part II), is a moot point.  Either way, it is a different thing from the formality of ‘global citizenship’.

Thoughts for the future

A formal appreciation of global citizenship, as opposed to a popular phrase, requires two features: definitional clarity; and a sense of identity and loyalty.

‘Citizenship’ has two definitional meanings:

  • the state of being vested with the rights, privileges and duties of a citizen;
  • the character of an individual viewed as a member of society, behaviour in terms of the duties, obligations and functions of a citizen.

The distinction is important; a person may exhibit behavioural characteristics independent of whether s/he is of that particular state of being. This is critical, because it raises the question whether a person can acquire and exhibit behavioural characteristics pertaining to a state of being which does not actually exist, or at least which is not fully developed.

Is there a global community or a global society?  If so, does it have political reflection in a global polity?

  • A ‘community’ is a social group ‘of any size’ with three characteristics: its inhabitants reside in a specific locality, they share in government, and they have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  • A ‘society’ is a community that has evolved certain stronger governmental characteristics.

Humanity has not developed a global polity, notwithstanding the international organizational network that has been built during the 20th century.  It might, then, be concluded that a ‘global community of peoples’ exists, though not yet a ‘global society’. In this schema, a community is a precondition of a society which is a precondition of a polity.

If a ‘citizen’ is defined as a member of a polity who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection, then no global citizen exists because no global polity exists.  A person could, however, be a member of a society without being a citizen of that society’s non-existent polity. Thus, a person could be a member of an existing ‘global society’ without necessarily being a citizen of a ‘global polity’.  (Global Citizenship, Graham; in For the Sake of Present and Future Generations, Linton S. et al, Eds.; 2015)

The critical missing ingredient, at present, is a human ‘global story’. Every tribe and civilization rests on historical recall, and we know the myths well, whatever the level of personal belief. But at the global level?  In his most recent book, Harari takes a look at life in an ‘age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has emerged so far to replace them’. (21 Lessons for the 21st Century; 2018):

“Philosophy, religion and science are all running out of time. People have debated the meaning of life for thousands of years. We cannot continue indefinitely. The looming ecological crisis, the growing threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of new disruptive technologies will not allow it.”

Global law and governance

The present system

The 20th c. transactional system, based on sovereign equality of the nation-state, has only one binding and, theoretically enforceable, ‘global’ law – the maintenance of international peace and security (UN Charter, Ch. VII).  The rest stops short of binding-enforced law – whether in dispute settlement (compulsory jurisdiction in the ICJ is optional); criminal accountability (accession to the ICC is optional); human rights (the HRC has no enforcement mechanism); or trade confrontation (WTO system rests primarily on arbitration method which itself is under strain).

Above all, protection of the global commons also remains primarily transactional – in climate change (1992 UNFCCC / 2015 Paris Agreement), outer space (1967 Treaty), and the oceans & seabed (1982 UNCLOS).

Thoughts for the future

Based on the procedural concept of subsidiarity, global law and governance would be confined to issues of the global commons (oceans & seabed, atmosphere, orbital and outer space).  If the ecological imperative becomes the central principle, as advocated earlier, then Bosselman’s book (Earth Governance; 2015) and his column for the Centre (13 Dec. ’19) is perhaps the most relevant and insightful. It would need to extend to the non-militarisation of space, despite recent policy initiatives by some of the major powers.

If subsidiarity were to apply beyond the global commons to embrace a ‘global ethic’, then Thakur’s contribution to the R2P principle – see his book Responsibility to Protect; 2015, and column for the Centre (29 Nov. ’19) – is equally relevant.  The principle, endorsed in the WSOD (2005) and acknowledged now by the Security Council, states the global community’s responsibility to intervene against atrocity crimes – perhaps more controversial than the commons, having regard to the national theories of China and Iran (see Part II).

A global ethic, in fact, might be taken as generating three major advances beyond contemporary international law, namely:

  • compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ;
  • universal adherence to the ICC (legally responsible for the Rome Statue’s four crimes of gravest concern; and politically justifying the R2P principle); and
  • non-possession of all WMDs including nuclear weapons, as a peremptory norm.

We are, of course, politically far away from this, but conceptually it is a legitimate part of a global theory.  If global values rest on philosophical insight, and global citizenship on socio-cultural cosmopolitanism, then global law and governance rest on political-legal constitutionalism. Each of these advances may reflect a behavioural step-change more than a scientific paradigm change. So be it.  Global values will provide the philosophical foundation for global citizenship, which will accord the political legitimacy for global law and governance.

Current UN Structure, 75 years on…

The transactional nature of the present system falls well short of a constitutional global order.  To date, member states have refused, during opportunities for reform, to move beyond the purposes and principles of 1945.  These are:


  • International peace & security;
  • Self-determination of peoples;
  • Cooperation in socio-economic goals & human rights; and
  • Harmonization of action for those purposes.


  • Two structural: sovereign equality; and domestic jurisdiction;
  • Five procedural (good faith; pacific settlement; non-use of force; universal support; non-member conformity).

These purposes and principles, left unmodified, keep humanity locked into the mid-20th century.

The UN system along with associated international organizations comprises a bewilderingly complex institutional mosaic.  Coordination is attempted through the UN System’s Chief Executives Board (CEB), comprising 31 individuals representing:

  • the UN Organization (with the Secretary-General as chair);
  • 12 of the UN’s own funds and programmes;
  • 15 specialised agencies, autonomous from, but institutionally tied to, the UN;
  • 3 related organizations (IOM, IAEA and WTO).

The CEB is essentially the coordination body of the present transactional international system.  To that end, it pursues 33 programme themes.  Yes, thirty-three.

The UN itself operates a Senior Management Group (SMG) of the 45 top-ranking UN officials in the Secretariat, programmes and funds, and regional commissions.

Both the CEB and SMG are composed of highly-competent individuals – former heads of government, senior diplomats and other leading professionals – there is no question the UN is well-staffed in terms of calibre and integrity.  But this simply means that coordination and operation of the transactional system runs well.  In the wider world, moreover, the UN has been increasingly undermined by some important member states, financially and operationally, to the point where its immediate reaction to a crisis is that of hand-wringing, and  medium-term policy reflects functional impotence through abuse of the veto.

The 75th anniversary of the UN is scheduled for this year.  Since 1 January, the UN75 Campaign has got underway, with dialogues in all settings – ‘from classrooms to boardrooms, parliaments to village halls’.  The aim is to reach as many people as possible: to listen to their hopes and fears, and learn from their ideas and experiences.  The ‘Global Conversation’ can be joined by any individual around the world.

UN Day 2020 (24 October) promises to be a major event, and it needs to be approached in a constructive spirit.  As Colin Keating noted in his column (20 Dec. ’19), the Centre is partnering with UNANZ this year to undertake a research project on Strengthening Multilateralism through UN Reform. UN Day 75 promises to be a major event, and we hope to deliver the project’s findings by then.

But what it will not witness is any questioning of the fundamental, underlying system, transactional in nature, and its capability to deal with humanity’s crisis in the 21st century.

Scenarios of future paradigmatic change

Suter identifies four potential scenarios for the future (Global Order and Global Disorder: Globalization and the nation-state, Suter, K; 2002):

  • ‘Steady State’: the basic nation-state structure will remain; it has it problems but remains the best option;
  • ‘World State’: there are no purely national solution to trans-national problems, so some form of global governance is essential for common problems;
  • ‘Earth Inc.’: national governments lose control, with transnational corporations taking over and knitting the world into one global market;
  • Wild State’: national governments lose control, no alternative entity takes over; chaos reigns.

This doesn’t offer much that is optimistic. But let us proceed, at least on the basis of a ‘defiant optimism’.

Initiatives for developing a 21st c. ‘global theory’

In addition to the ongoing work by the UN and its 75th anniversary, what is also needed in this new decade is a reputable advisory body to explore what paradigmatic change should occur to the contemporary international system. Boston’s column on the need for national parliamentary ‘futures thinking’ (18 Dec. ’19) implies the need for this.

In fact two bodies already exist, of potential relevance:

  • The InterAction Council, founded in 1983 and composed of 40 former political leaders, seeks practical solutions for the political, economic and social problems confronting humanity, with three priority areas: peace and security, world economic revitalisation, and universal ethical standards. It is currently chaired by Canada’s Thomas Axworthy, and includes former NZ Prime Minister, Jim Bolger.
  • The Elders, composed of some ten of the world’s most respected former leaders, was formed in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, and has subsequently been chaired by Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and currently Mary Robinson. In 2015, The Elders launched a ‘Stronger UN’ initiative, but confined their focus to Security Council reform and the appointment procedure for the Secretary-General.  It has also recently focused on climate change.

Might some UN advisory council be composed, of such sage and respected leaders, for the purpose of providing advice direct to the General Assembly and Security Council through the Secretary-General?  Scope may exist for such a council, perhaps alongside some ecologists and youth-leaders – the 21st c. ‘global citizens’ – to undertake a more ambitious project – towards a ‘global theory’.  The David Attenboroughs and the Greta Thunbergs would have a role to play.

But it would need to be a formal body, with recommendatory powers to the UN Secretary-General, under Article 99 of the Charter.  And the world’s parliamentarians should have an associated role, through the IPU or some evolved comparable body.

Perhaps such leaders may be able to, and free to, develop a global theory.  They could be formally charged with the task.  Their product may not resemble what has been written above.  As noted in the two earlier parts, the key to progress in human knowledge and wisdom is not to presume to have the right answers, but to successfully identify the right questions to address, in real time.

Dr Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies.

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Towards a Theory of Everything: Part II.

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Kennedy Graham

In Part I of the above, I explored the methodological differences between the various branches of human knowledge, the idea of consilience for an underlying unity of knowledge, and what a synthesis derived from this might mean for global studies.

In this second part, I take things a step further.

  • Is it possible to develop a theory of everything in the science, or the art, of global politics, with a set of inter-related components?
  • Might there be paradigmatic step-change towards such a theory comparable, in some manner, to the way physical science develops?

The answer is probably ‘yes, but’.

Yes, but it needs supporting concepts on which it may be founded, and on which it may operate.

Foundational concepts

As noted in Part I, differences exist between the natural and social sciences in both nature and method:

  • Natural science focuses on objective, descriptive knowledge, developed rigorously through the scientific method – from hypothesis to observation-measurement, to falsification-verification, to proven knowledge and, occasionally, paradigmatic change.
  • Social science, including political science which includes International Relations, focuses on subjective, prescriptive knowledge, invented on a generational basis through social theory – from value-assertion to popular appeal, to electoral mandate, to political legitimacy and, often, recurrent reformulation.

If consilience unites these dual methods, then I would argue that, for theory to fulfil the ultimate purpose envisaged, consilience has a twin: coherence.

If consilience is the underlying unity of knowledge, coherence is its judicious application to human behaviour – ‘judicious’, in the sense that all human knowledge is applied, rationally and creatively, in the ‘human interest’.  If consilience is the science of global knowledge, then coherence is perhaps the art of its application.

The duality would be along the following lines:


Unity of knowledge:  epistemological relationship between physical and social science.


Application of knowledge: for a creative yet practical methodology in which all knowledge supports a global theory, through:

  • Global values: consensus across cultures and political systems on broad global values;
  • Global citizenship: self-identity as a human group, with global civic rights and responsibilities;
  • Global law: global rights and responsibilities resting on legitimacy of legislative power;
  • Global governance: binding decisions, applying global law to formally-specified global issues.

Operational concepts

A future global theory is thus based on dual aesthetic concepts, consilience and coherence – the first to unify human knowledge, the second to apply it to constructive use.

It also requires two operational concepts to act as a ‘filter’.  They are: risk management and jurisdictional subsidiarity.

Risk management

The global community is beginning to take global threats seriously, albeit half a century later than it should have.   The research community is active – Cambridge University has its Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, while Oxford has its Future of Humanity Institute. Other think-tanks do comparable work, but the question is whether such research is influencing, and being operationalised by, international organizations.

In 2015 the Netherlands Foreign Ministry, with support from UNEP and a number of research bodies (WRI, Clingendael, SIPRI, Hague Centre for Strategic Studies), launched in 2015 a Planetary Security Initiative.

The PSI, however, focuses on climate change, and its implications for broader political and strategic policy.  It is therefore naturally a part of, but not the totality of, a ‘global theory’.

Jurisdictional subsidiarity

The concept of subsidiarity is well-suited as a principle of legitimate governance filtered to scale. If the central principle of 20th c. international system was sovereign nation-state equality, seeking cooperation for common ends, the 21st c update needs to be multiple jurisdictional legitimacy from local through to global levels, operating on subsidiarity for the common interest.

Subsidiarity is captured in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty (2009) which states (Art. 5. 3):

Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence … the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.

If the subsidiarity principle applies with equivalent force at local, national and regional levels, then 21st c. logic requires its application at the global level, for legitimate governance on our new global problems, limited in range but far-reaching in significance.

Constitutional v. transactional systems

A 21st c. global theory along these lines has a long way to go.  There is a qualitative difference between the inherited system we currently have, and the future system we need.  The ‘current’ 20th c. system, some four centuries in the making – is transactional in nature. It involves interaction between 200 sovereign entities, competitively pursuing the national interest, somewhat akin to a market-place where political and economic exchange is overseen by a ‘multilateral rules-based order’ (UN, Bretton Woods), largely unenforced.

Such 20th c. transactionalism falls well short of a constitutional order. The future 21st c. system will need to be constitutional, of whatever kind that may be.  This will be the paradigmatic change required – philosophical, cultural, political and legal.

Compare ‘global theory’ with ‘national theory’.  A national theory is an inter-related set of belief systems that underpin a national community that has self-identified in an ethno-cultural sense. Such beliefs cover, primarily, philosophical values, a legal system and political legitimation.

  • China’s philosophical values are based on Taoist harmony and Confucian order, from which its legal system derives, while its political legitimation rests on a single, centralised-hierarchical party system.
  • France’s philosophical values are based on Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment morality and liberty, from which its legal system derives (civil code), while its political legitimation rests on a pluralistic, multi-party system.
  • Iran’s philosophical values are based on Islamic (Shi’a) faith, bestowed through divine revelation, from which its legal system derives (Sharia), while its political legitimation resides in a bestowed leadership, with inter-relationships between the legislature and judiciary involving separate councils to protect the framework and settle high-level disputes.

In each case, the philosophical, legal and political systems inter-relate, on the basis of a national constitution.

How to find a unity of knowledge (consilience) from this degree of disparity, and apply it judiciously to the common good (coherence)?  A coherent ‘global theory’ will need to apply an area of unified knowledge at a general level of detail.  At present, the emerging global community is united more in technology than in belief.  Therefore, what?

Towards a ‘global theory’

Three perceptions of the trend towards global law and governance can be discerned in the current era.  They reflect evolving perceptions over time.

Teleological evolution

The first, sixty years ago, reflected a natural confidence in linear change.  As Hammarskjöld put it in a speech in 1960, the UN system undergoes innovation through ‘organic adaptation’ to need and experience:

“… international constitutional law is still in an embryonic stage. We are still in the transition between institutional systems of international coexistence and constitutional systems of international co-operation.  It is natural that, at such a stage of transition, theory is still vague….”   ‘Development of a Constitutional Framework for International Cooperation’ Hammarskjöld (Chicago, May 1960)

Global constitutionalism

The second, fifteen years ago, reflected a frustration with the slow pace of change, and the need for some legal activism towards global constitutionalism.

“… the current world-wide debate on the strengthening of the UN must also include a principled professional review of the normative provisions of the UN Charter and of other constitutive instruments that form the conceptual infrastructure of the organized world community.  We believe that the ‘invisible college’ of international and constitutional lawyers should have a visible – and audible – role to play in the re-thinking of world order.”  ‘Towards World Constitutionalism’, Macdonald, R. & Johnston, D., Eds. (Martinus Nijhoff; 2005)

Cultural cosmopolitanism

The third, two years ago, regarded a transformation to global constitutionalism from international transactionalism as too complex and ambitious in one step. A global political-legal system has not yet been achieved.  A global cultural paradigm is a precondition of, as a functional tool for discourse on, global constitutionalism.  A global ’constitutional culture’ will be the only realistic basis for the constitutionalisation of a society as diverse as the international community.  ‘Global Constitutionalism: A socio-legal perspective’, Altigan, A. (Springer, 2018)

It may be that, whereas Hammarskjöld lived near the end of the ‘linear’ historical age stretching back over five millennia of human thought, the 21st c. is the beginning of an existential, non-linear, age of human existence.  As Kakutani put it recently, the 2010s were the ‘end of normal’, with ecological stress, nationalist populism and the digital revolution making the ‘20s and thereafter unchartered terrain (NYT Int., 30 Dec. 2019, p. 9).  If that is so, Altigan’s view may well prove correct: that we need a global cultural paradigm as a precondition of a purposeful and successful move to global constitutionalism.

A ‘global theory’ needs to rest on the broadest foundation of human thought.  It needs universal, if broad, consensus across all social theories: philosophy, culture, politics and law.  Historically, such theory has had two features that make them less relevant in the 21st century, than in the previous five millennia:

  • Each theory has been culturally-generated, notwithstanding claims of universal relevance and appeal;
  • Each theory has been normative in character, assessing how humans should inter-relate.

In the 21st century, a ‘global theory’ requires qualitative change in both these characteristics. It will need to be:

  • genuinely pluralistic, with universal endorsement across all cultures, albeit at a general level of detail;
  • imperative in character, prescribing how humanity may survive at a civilizational level.

Global pluralism requires a significant level of cultural relativism, whatever the social science. This doesn’t diminish or demean the subjective validity of a particular culture; it simply recognises the multiplicity of cultures around the world and the need for an objective ‘trans-cultural’ approach to them if pluralism is to provide a foundation for a comprehensive global theory.  That is the essence of the trans-disciplinary approach employed in global studies.

If universality and survivability are to be its twin foundations, then a global theory will need to be essentially an ecological theory, in which socio-political insights are made compatible with, and subordinate to, the ecological imperative. This will require values, governance and law to be based on the ‘ecological imperative’.

Is there interest in such a theory?

In a word, ‘yes’ – there is already considerable intellectual effort invested in conceptualising ‘global theory’.

Two academic journals are broadly relevant: The International Journal of Inter-disciplinary Global Studies (since 2006) and the quarterly Global Studies Journal (since ’08).   Both, however, together with the associated Global Studies Research Network, focus on ‘globalization’ rather than the broader, and more important, subject of global theory (which includes globalization as simply one phenomenon).

Recent books on specific aspects of global theory are:

– Global Justice, Christensen (2020);

– Global Political Economy, O’Brien & Williams (2020).

The more ambitious, comprehensive effort at global law and governance as a coherent whole, are the following:

– Global Governance & the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century, Lopez-Claros, Dahl & Groff (2020);

– Rethinking Global Governance, Beeson (2019);

– Earth Governance, Bosselmann (2015);

– Governing the World, Mazower (2012).

Do we have time for theory?

It may be queried whether ‘high theory’ is relevant at a time of crisis; whether we should rather just ‘get on with it’.  It is tempting to agree.  The Australian bush fire-fighters are, mostly, volunteers.  There is suddenly ‘no time’ to opine, certainly not at leisure.

But without a cohesive theory of some kind, however broad it may be, around which the tribe, village, nation, and world can intellectually, emotionally, and ethically evolve, we simply shall not succeed in getting on.  And as Wilson noted (Part I), asking the right questions is a precondition to getting the right answers through synthesis, even if they do not immediately and effortlessly appear.

We face a global crisis. We need a global theory.

Dr Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies.

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Towards a Theory of Everything: Pt I. Conceptualisation

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We have entered an era of human crisis.  What we think and do in the future will inevitably build on, but cannot be confined to, the past.

The Centre’s Trust Deed (2012) requires it to “encourage and facilitate informed interdisciplinary research into global affairs in the 21st c. CE”.  As part of this, the Centre is to “review the history of human ideas, including the various philosophical streams of thought, whose contemporary expressions may strengthen global cooperation and unity.”

Easier said than done – but the aspiration is to clarify our future thinking, for thinking about the future.   After all, in the present historical moment we seem to have lost the plot.

Earlier columns by others are directly relevant to such an aspiration: ‘Keeping a parliamentary eye on the future’; The global university of the future; The new [digital] omnipotence; Earth Trusteeship; Responsibility to Protect.  But I get ahead of myself.

To commence with the ultimate challenge – is it possible, feasible and credible to strive for a single, over-arching, coherent, political-legal ‘theory of everything’ that can help in the creation of a global unity that guides us through this century’s crises?

It depends.

It depends on our ability as a human group to self-identify, attain a working consensus on how we think – what is important, what is ‘true’, what is emotionally binding as a collective source of global legitimacy.

This is not the moment to dive below sensible depth in philosophy and epistemology.  But it does prompt us to have regard to paradigmatic evolution in our knowledge – whether there is irreconcilable difference, or potential cross-over, between the various categories of human thought.

To the extent that Sapiens can fathom truth, pure mathematics remains eternally unsullied, the ultimate in deductive reasoning – setting aside for the moment the debate over its relationship to human consciousness.  But the applied sciences, dependent as they are on the maths, are a step down because they are dependent also on the human faculty for inductive perception and understanding of reality.

The basic categories of knowledge are generally divided into the natural and social sciences.  They have become separate silos, notwithstanding C. P. Snow’s attempt at reconciliation (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution; 1959).

Natural science

Natural science, comprising both physical and life science, proceeds on the basis of objective knowledge resting on the scientific method – formulating a hypothesis, and subjecting it to falsification or proof through measurement and/or observation.  Contestation and critical analysis are encouraged.  Strictly, scientific ‘truths’ do not exist; they simply have not been proven false, and await further refinement, until a paradigm shift occurs. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn; 1962)  This is the way we have built up our scientific knowledge of the world around us and the nature of reality beyond, through paradigmatic change – ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, to quote one of them.

Physical science

Consider the main branches of physical science – astronomy, physics, chemistry and Earth science.  Each has experienced revolutionary paradigmatic change, fundamentally influencing the other.  A few examples will suffice.

  • Cosmology has developed from a static, single-galaxy, geocentric universe to a heliocentric universe to a dynamic, multi-galaxy, a-centric universe (some 2 trillion galaxies within our observable horizon). We have ‘knowledge’ of its age (13.8 b. years), its origin (Big Bang), its evolution (inflation, consolidation and expansion), its size (92 b. light-years in diameter) and its composition (microwave uniformity). These aspects of knowledge began as theories, subsequently proven through observation and measurement.  Yet the shape of the universe – open, flat or closed depending on the Omega density factor – remains in the realm of theory.  One day it will probably be established, as our technology continues to improve.
  • Astrophysics has proceeded from the classical laws of motion, with gravity as a force, based on absolute time and absolute space, to General Relativity based on absolute space-time, with gravity as a field. Again, theory subsequently proven through observation and measurement.
  • Particle physics, focusing on baryonic matter and force carriers, has developed from the theory of basic elements (earth, water, air, fire) to atoms to particles of quantum length and scale. Once more, theory subsequently proven – taunting human intuition yet trumping it through daily use of the GPS and computers.

This is where human knowledge currently stops. Incompatibilities exist in the inter-relationship between these branches of science – between the power of prediction at macro-level, and wave-particle duality with the uncertainty principle at micro-level.  Gravity and the electromagnetic-weak force are unreconciled in the contemporary Lambda-CDM model of physics.

There is increasing confidence, following recent discoveries of the Higgs field and gravitational waves, that quantum gravity, including string theory and the multiverse, may be the next revolution in our understanding of reality. It has generated a renewed quest for a Theory of Everything that reconciles the apparent incompatibilities while also explaining dark matter and dark energy.   But this remains hypothetical; and not only does it stop short of scientific proof, it exceeds our current technological ability to provide it.

Life science

Paradigmatic change of equal enormity is found in the theory of evolution (On the Origin of Species; 1859), combining naturalist insights from geology, bio-geography and natural selection drawn from botanical and animal observation.

These astonishing achievements of the human intellect over five millennia are, to put it mildly, humbling. But what does it mean, if anything, for the rest of human knowledge?  Might it have potential for the social sciences?  What might it mean for global studies?  Because we seem to know a lot yet continue to lack wisdom.

Social science

Social science varies in both breadth and rigour.  Some social sciences – anthropology, psychology – are not too distantly related from natural science in their methodology.  Most, however, are behavioural studies – education, economics and sociology, to cite just a few.

The study of history, at least in its broadest sweep, lends itself to paradigmatic thought. Harari, for example, has identified four major revolutions which humanity has experienced: cognitive, agricultural, scientific and digital (Sapiens: A brief history of humankind; 2012).

  • From the first, we think and speak;
  • from the second, we organise and produce;
  • from the third, we experiment and exploit; and
  • from the fourth, we compute and share.

The digital, he suggests, will prove to be the most far-reaching.  But this is historically descriptive; and to the extent he is predictive, it is sobering, to say the least.

This unavoidably leads us into political theory. Most universities are content to teach ‘political science’, a label that is itself controversial – some rather teach ‘political studies’.  International relations (IR) and global studies (GS) are often seen as sub-sets of political science but in fact are different disciplines – different from the others; and different from each other. Both study the behaviour of nation-states, but they differ in scope and method.

  • The central focus of IR is the international community of states; its method uses mid-20th political-legal thought on which it rests. The main IR theories (realism, liberalism, constructivism, functionalism, post-structuralism) envisage linear change.
  • The central focus of GS is the global community of peoples: its method focuses on 21st global problems and solutions. The main GS theories (economic globalisation, cultural cosmopolitanism, legal constitutionalism) presage qualitative change.

Some modern cross-over exists between the natural and social sciences – bio-linguistics, neurobiology, neuro-economics and psycho-biology.  It is discernible also in the next imminent scientific-technological leaps – genetic engineering and quantum computing.

But, as a general rule, the social sciences, including IR and GS, differ in method from the natural sciences. While hypothesis and theory search for verification (rather than proof) through observation and measurement, the scope for cognitive bias is evident.  And the departing premises of social theory are driven by prescriptive human values, not descriptive scientific facts.

This doesn’t mean that a social ‘theory of everything’ is impossible.  But what it does mean is that such a theory, whether partial and specific or total and comprehensive, is potentially biased, to be regarded with due circumspection and caution.

Yet, there is an interesting vignette.


The idea of consilience rests on the principle that the convergence of evidence from independent sources strengthens the credibility of a conclusion.  Several centuries old, the idea currently attracts renewed attention following E. O. Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).

Wilson contends that all knowledge is intrinsically unified.  Behind disciplines as diverse as physics and biology, anthropology and the arts, there exist a few natural laws. Consilience is the interlocking of causal explanation across disciplines through applying epigenetic rules.  Wilson criticizes the ‘scholarly habit’ of speaking variously of anthropological explanations, psychological explanations, biological explanations, and other explanations reflecting the perspectives of individual disciplines.

“I have argued that there is intrinsically only one class of explanation. It traverses the scales of space, time, and complexity to unite the disparate facts of the disciplines by consilience, the perception of a seamless web of cause and effect. ….  The central idea of the consilience worldview is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics. 

The focus of the natural sciences is shifting from the search for new fundamental laws toward a new kind of synthesis for understanding complex systems.  That is the goal of studies of the origin of the universe, the history of climate, the functioning of cells, the assembly of ecosystems, and the physical basis of mind.

The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom.  The world henceforth will be run by synthesisers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, to think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

Increasingly through history, nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole.

In thus globalising the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind’s noblest and most enduring goals. The most important questions in this endeavour for the liberal arts are the meaning and purpose of all our idiosyncratic frenetic activity: What are we? Where do we come from? How shall we decide where to go?

… it is too early to speak seriously of ultimate goals …. It is enough to get Homo Sapiens settled down and happy before we wreck the planet. A great deal of serious thinking is needed to navigate the decades immediately ahead. …  We have begun to probe the foundations of human nature, revealing what people intrinsically most need, and why.  We are entering a new era of existentialism … [in which] only unified learning, universally shared, makes accurate foresight and wise choice possible. 

Wilson concludes that, in due course, not only will the natural sciences rest on a unity of knowledge, but all human knowledge, across the physical and social sciences, and even the humanities, will do so as well.

A united system of knowledge is the surest means of identifying the still unexplored domains of reality. It provides a clear map of what is known, and it frames the most productive questions for future inquiry. Historians of science often observe that asking the right question is more important than producing the right answer. The right answer to a trivial question is also trivial, but the right question, even when insoluble in exact form, is a guide to major discovery.

A trans-disciplinary theory of global studies

What are we to conclude from all this? We should not pretend that the unity of all knowledge is upon us, or about to come – a whole new take on ‘believing through faith’.  Nor should we aspire to a spontaneous ‘theory of everything’ in global studies, at least in the foreseeable future.  But we can, and undoubtedly we should, be working actively and creatively for a theory of global studies that presumes, and answers to, the emerging global community – with all its stresses and failings.

Such a ‘theory of global community’ should, to the extent our current knowledge and passing insight enables us to do so, draw equally from all disciplines, without pretension but without hesitation, thereby crafting a belief system that loosely unites humanity in a 21st c. framework, transforming its 20th century predecessor.

Part II will explore how global studies might be a synthesiser of existing knowledge, based on certain components, and asking the right questions.

Dr Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies

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