Systemic Global Change: Part III

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In Part II of this blog series, three conclusions were drawn:

  1. This decade is likely to be a seminal moment of systemic change to the contemporary international system, updating its 20th features to fit the 21st.
  2. The legitimate grouping for decision-making should comprise not only the executive branch of governments but the legislative branch, at the international level.
  3. The critical path should be a series of expert studies, convened by such a ‘group’, and fed directly into the decision-making process.

As always, it’s more easily said than done.  But let me explore this some more, and move to a final conclusion.

Multi-jurisdictional levels and ‘subsidiarity’

First off, to clarify the reasoning in Parts I and II, four comments follow:

  • The point is neither to denigrate the nation-state, nor predict or advocate its demise. Like the city and the sub-national province/state/region, the nation-state is a natural feature of our political evolution.
  • The rationale for ‘systemic global change’ is that, by definition, the 20th c system of 200 entities, possessing sovereign status with a veto or ‘strong consensus’ appurtenance, is not structured to solve problems of the global commons, which abound in the 21st.
  • The principle for determining global legitimacy for such change is ‘subsidiarity’ – already employed in the EU and African Union: legislative and enforcement power, at multi-jurisdictional levels, is confined in scope to those issues that a lower functional level is unable to deal with effectively.
  • The task is to determine what the contemporary global systemic risks might be, and what the nature of systemic institutional change should be, applying the subsidiarity principle.

The critical role of former leaders

Part II (18 April) identified a number of eminent bodies calling for such change: various independent commissions, the WHO/WB Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, Future Earth Institute, a Call by the Elders, and the Open Letter to the G-20 signed by a hundred former national leaders.

Former leaders fulfil a major function, combining past experience with current freedom to judge what is imperative, and what might be politically feasible. In doing so, and making a collective call, they give guidance and backing to current leaders – they who carry the responsibility of decision-making, with immediate and far-reaching accountability.  This is how it should be.

The seminal nature of the moment

The seminal nature of the current pandemic, including the need for a global response plan, has become clearer, even within the past week:

  • Juval Noah Harari (BBC 27 April) has warned of the catastrophic consequences of a lack of such planning: At the global level, we are not seeing any kind global leadership, any kind of global plan – not on the health front and even less on the economic front. …  If we don’t get a kind of global safety net – a kind of global plan – the economic and political consequences could be catastrophic and poison international relations for years to come.
  • The French Prime Minister, introducing new protective measures, made the observation (28 April) that “never in history – not in war, occupation or disease – has France had to confront such massive disruption.”
  • A report by the International Rescue Committee (28 April) has concluded that ‘without swift action in the coming weeks’ to mitigate the spread, the world could see up to 1 b. infections and 3.2 m. deaths over the course of the pandemic in 34 crisis-affected countries it serves. The Report was based on a scenario analysis contained in the model and data-set published in the ICL/WHO’s ‘Global Impact Study’ (26 March). As IRC President, David Miliband, put it: “These numbers should serve as a wake-up call: the full, devastating and disproportionate weight of this pandemic has yet to be felt in the world’s most fragile and war-torn countries.
  • In its latest quarterly report (29 April), ILO expects a 10% decline in global work hours, meaning that 1.6 b. workers in the informal economy are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods, equivalent to just under half the global work force.

Linear reform or systemic change

Since Part II (18 April), new calls for systemic change have been issued.  The first envisages major, but linear, reform to the UN system. The others seem to suggest systemic change. Thus:

  • Together First, whose focus group is comprised of eminent individuals from around the world (including Angela Kane, one the Centre’s Advisory Panel members) issued a report (21 April) with an accompanying call: “The UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 must be the starting point of a global governance transformation. Together Firstis campaigning for the September 2020 world leaders’ summit to discuss, agree and initiate the reforms we urgently need, based on an inclusive action plan.”  The secretariat for this group is the UN Association of the UK, which points out that all the reforms proposed could be achieved without having to amend the UN Charter.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev (15 April) has called on the UN General Assembly to convene an Emergency Special Session (this would be the 11th). “Many are now saying the world will never be the same. But what will it be like? That depends on what lessons will be learned. … We have so far failed to develop and implement strategies and goals common to all mankind”.  The Emergency Session “should be about nothing less than revising the entire global agenda.”
  • The Global Challenges Foundation convened a webcast (24 April): ‘The future we want – the UN we need’, hosted by Sweden’s Foreign Minister. To cite the Swedish Govt: “As the UN is entering its 75th year of operation, different global challenges than the ones that sparked its formation have emerged.  … Global threats … are transnational by nature but we must ask ourselves if the governance structures required to meet them are strong enough.” Two keynotes were given by Fabrizio Hochschild (the UNSG’s Special Adviser on the 75th Anniversary) and by Prof Augusto Lopez-Claros (whom the Centre was to host in New Zealand this month – see column, 17 April).  The two presentations provided a fascinating juxtaposition of linear reform and systemic change (I participated in the webcast).

Worth recalling, again, the statement by the UN Secretary-General: “This pandemic is the greatest test we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations.”   More recently (30 April), he made the following observation:

“There is … a disconnect between leadership and power. We see remarkable examples of leadership but they are usually not associated with power.  And where we see power, we sometimes do not see the necessary leadership.”

For its part, the WHO co-hosted (24 April), with the President of France and the Gates Foundation, a virtual meeting with political leaders (11 heads of state/government, the UN Secretary-General, the African Union chair and G20 President) plus health leaders from the private sector.   They pledged:

“… to work towards equitable global access based on an unprecedented level of partnership. They agreed to create a strong unified voice, to build on past experience and to be accountable to the world, to communities and to one another.”

So, the call from the increasingly vocal global civil society, the most eminent former leaders of our contemporary era, and global corporate leaders is becoming increasingly urgent and clear.  The evidence is there: a gathering view that systemic change appears now to be necessary.

A potential moment. group, and path

What, then, might be the accumulated advice from these experienced leaders and experts, comprising perhaps an unprecedented ‘collective intelligence’ and ‘emergence’ of the global community?

Perhaps something along the following lines.


  1. At the 75th UN Anniversary High-Level General Debate (22 Sept.) national leaders, meeting physically or through telecommunication, will:
  • declare the COVID-19 pandemic to be a ‘global emergency’;
  • call for a global response in which all Member States pledge themselves to effective and genuine mutual assistance;
  • convene the UN’s 11th Emergency Special Session (The New Global Agenda) on 29 September, to commence the task of improving and strengthening the United Nations System, assessing the range of risks faced by the global community, and establishing an ‘ESS Global Agenda Council’ to supervise a report, based on the findings of a Global Agenda Expert and Leadership Advisory Group, for consideration at its resumed Session in September 2021.
  • The ESS Global Agenda Council will be co-convened and co-chaired by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, who will jointly appoint the leaders of regional organizations and appropriate leaders within the UN System, with a maximum of 20 personnel.


  1. In January, the Council, duly established, will establish the Advisory Group, with the Leadership component being composed of all members of The Elders, along with former presidents Mikhail Gorbachev, Hu Jintao and Barak Obama.
  2. In February, the Council will establish the expert component of the Group, based on recognised expertise in environmental, socio-economic, health, and food security issues.
  3. In September, the Emergency Special Session will reconvene, to consider the Report of the Advisory Group. The Session will be attended jointly, by diplomatic representatives of all Member States and parliamentarians representing the Inter-Parliamentary Union, comprising a two-chamber Session.
  4. The Report will be distributed to the foreign ministers of all Member States and to the Speakers of all parliaments that are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for consideration, debate and response.


  1. Annual sessions of the 11th Emergency Special Session, to debate the issues raised in the Report and convey further proposals, with a view to enabling the Council to revise the Report.
  2. In September 2025, the 11th Emergency Special Session will reconvene in its final sitting, to consider the Report, and adopt decisions as it deems fit, for an effective global institutional system for the 21st

Dr Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is Director of the Centre.

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Systemic Global Change: Pt. II

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Kennedy Graham

Part I on Systemic Global Change explored systemic risk and systemic change, the ‘seminal moments’ of the 20th century when the contemporary international system was established and refined, and the efforts undertaken during the UN era for effecting change.

This part explores Questions 3 and 4: the coming decade – is this decade a ‘seminal moment’?  If so, which grouping may legitimately effect change, and what might be the critical path?

  1. The 2020s – a seminal moment?

The 20th century was international, essentially unipolar/bipolar, and unidimensional.  The 21st c. is global, essentially multipolar, and multidimensional.

  • The notion of 20th risk was essentially confined to inter-state aggression, with both the Covenant and Charter focusing exclusively on this, in terms of enforcement power. While the UN broadened into thematic areas of human rights and socio-economic development, enforcement power has remained confined to collective security.
  • The concept of 21st risk encompasses a complete array of threats to human civilization, even existence. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge) has identified anthropogenic risks such as AI, biotechnology, climate change, environmental stress, resource depletion, nanotechnology, WMDs, and over-population. It also identifies an array of ‘natural risks’, one being a global pandemic.

In December ’19, the UN Secretary-General advanced the view that ‘new and dangerous risks require multilateral solutions’.   The risks went way beyond inter-state aggression.  The SG was addressing the Italian Senate, on 18 December, a few weeks before Italy confirmed its first COVID case.

In January 2020, the Science & Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists issued the following warning:

‘’ the world’s institutional and political capacity for reducing the possibility of civilization-scale catastrophe has been diminished, and the need for emergency action is urgent.”  

The difference with the 2020s is palpable. Formal planning for a reformed UN or a replacement body will not be led by one hegemonic power; none prevails today, for better or worse.  Will it be a group of ‘major powers’, a 21st version of the 1919 and 1944 ‘Groups of Four’?  Will it extend to major regional hegemons?  Will it be a product of ‘the 193’ at the UN itself?  Will it reflect something qualitatively different from before?

The last scenario seems the most likely.  Two new features are certain:

  • multi-polarity, reflecting genuine cross-cultural input; and
  • direct engagement by the global community of peoples, facilitated by digital communication.
  1. Legitimate groups; critical paths

Who then, should determine, through a process of legitimately-bestowed authority, what the global systemic risks are – of the kind the Cambridge Centre identifies?  Who is to propose appropriate systemic institutional change?  What is to be the critical path they follow?

Critical paths

The current Charter does, in fact, provide a procedural basis for self-regeneration, by the General Assembly, Security Council and/or the Secretary-General:

Art. 7, 22, 29: Subsidiary organs ‘as may be found necessary’ may be established, by either the General Assembly or the Security Council:

Art. 98: The Secretary-General makes an annual report ‘on the work of the Organization’;

Art. 99: The SG may bring to the attention of the Council ‘any matter which in his opinion’ may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security;

Art 109: A General Conference to ‘review the present Charter’ may be held by a 2/3rd vote of the Assembly and a majority (without veto) of the Council.

The UN does, therefore, contain a capacity for self-regeneration.  And its Chief Executives Board for Coordination, composed of the heads of 31 organizations and programmes with the SG as chair, meets bi-annually.  But that is a mechanism for coordination by officials, not for self-regeneration by governments.

Experience shows that the initiative has to come from outside the UN system.  Part I identified, in particular, the independent commissions. But the origins and outcomes of the commissions do not reflect a consistent pattern.

One commission (Brundlandt) was set up under a UN General Assembly resolution (1983). The Secretary-General, in consultation with UNEP, appointed the Chair and Vice-Chair who appointed all other members.   The report was welcomed by the Assembly, again by resolution (1987).  It was distributed to all member states, and became a central focus of the Earth Summit (1992).

Three commissions have been at the initiative of a member state.

  • Global Governance emerged from the 1991 Stockholm Initiative on Global Security & Governance. The idea was endorsed by the Secretary-General, but it remained independent of the UN. The report was presented to the SG in 1995, not at a UN meeting but at the World Economic Forum.
  • Responsibility to Protect was at the initiative of Canada, but in direct response to an appeal from the Secretary-General for a report on the subject. The report was released on 30 Sept. 2001, three weeks after 9/11.  It took some years before the conceptual norm was adopted by the General Assembly in the 2005 World Outcome Document (paras 138-139).
  • Human Security was on the initiative of Japan, in response to a call by the Secretary-General at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. The report was presented to the Secretary-General in May 2003.

The fifth (A More Secure World) was the Secretary-General’s personal initiative, calling for such a report in his annual address to the General Assembly.   The report was released as a GA document in Dec. 2004. In his separate report to the Assembly (In Larger Freedom; March ‘05), the SG incorporated much of the Commission’s ideas. His proposals for additional or altered bodies (Peacebuilding Commission, Human Rights Council) were approved.

He also conveyed the Commission’s proposal for a reconstituted Security Council with enlarged permanent membership, based on either of two models (A or B):

“Member States should agree to take a decision on this important issue before the summit in September 2005. It would be very preferable for Member States to take this vital decision by consensus, but if they are unable to reach consensus this must not become an excuse for postponing action.”

There was no doubt in his mind over the seminal nature of the proposals advanced, calling it a ‘new San Francisco moment’ because “we cannot just muddle along and make do with incremental responses”.  This proved too much; the Assembly refusing to agree.

The problem, it seems, has not been the ‘critical path’.  It is that the decision-makers have been the executive branch of government and its diplomatic arm – on which legitimacy is bestowed and which, therefore, may feel undisposed, perhaps unable, to effect systemic change.

Will this unprecedented global health pandemic fundamentally alter that? As noted in Part I, much depends on the level of aspiration for change – the distinction between systemic change and linear reform.  Even with regard to the pandemic, there is uncertainty and ambiguity over the distinction between coordination and governance.

Coordination is the default mode, at least for the immediate crisis:

  • On 9 March, the GPMG (see Part I) issued an urgent call: ”World leaders must act swiftly and generously to commit $8 bn. of new funding now to limit the human and economic costs of this crisis. Their leadership and support will be instrumental at this critical time.”
  • On 16 March, however, the G-7 leaders responded that: We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts”. The word ‘coordinate’ figured 11 times in a one-page document.
  • On 18 March, the Elders (currently chaired by Mary Robinson and including Ban Ki-moon, Brundtland, Ahtisaari, Carter, Tutu, Zeid and Machel – see column, 18 January) steered a mid-course, calling on ‘world leaders and citizens alike’ to: “root their response … in humanitarians principles and solidarity. … COVID-19 shines a light on or common humanity and shared vulnerabilities, and it is only through a collective, collaborative response that all our fundamental interests can be served.”
  • On 31 March, the UN Secretary-General issued a report (Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19’). This pandemic, he says, is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations.” But the response, he believes, demands “coordinated, decisive, inclusive and innovative policy action”.
  • On 8 April, in an Open Letter to G20 leaders, initiated by Gordon Brown and signed by 92 former heads of government (including five from New Zealand – Palmer, Bolger, Shipley, Clark, Key) called for ‘immediate coordinated action’, with specific measures agreed upon ‘with speed and at scale’, involving ‘emergency support’ for the WHO plus economic restoration measures by the IMF and World Bank.

Further out, however, there is a recognition that we need to address systemic change, of some kind:

  • The Open Letter of April ends thus: “The longer-term solution is a radical rethink of global public health, and a refashioning – together with proper resourcing – of the global health and financial structure. The United Nations, the governments of the G20 nations, and interested partners should work together to coordinate further action.”
  • In an interview a few weeks earlier (Guardian, 26 March), Brown went further in a personal capacity, urging world leaders to create ‘a temporary form of global government’ to tackle the twin medical and economic crises caused by the pandemic. Despite US policy, it was “still possible to get support for an emergency body with executive powers.” His ‘proposed global task force’ would fight the crisis on both fronts: “We need some form of working executive.”

Brown’s far-reaching proposal seems to envisage a global executive body, and his view appears to be supported by two other leaders who signed the letter:

  • Carl Bildt (Sweden): A new global institution … would need to have the authority and the means to intervene as intrusively as necessary to stop a contagious outbreak in its tracks.”
  • Kevin Rudd (Australia): A core group of constructive powers among the G20 should act to reform, fund, and politically defend the central institutions of global governance for the post-COVID era ….. (Economist, 15 April).

It is clear that such a body would have a focused constraint on mandate and duration ‘for immediate action’. The Open Letter, however, seems to go further with a ‘longer-term solution’. But what is meant by a ‘radical rethink’ – a refashioning of the global health and financial structure?  In Brown’s view, the G20 ‘virtual meeting’ of 26 March should preferably have included the UN Security Council, but beyond that comment, there appears to be no group statement by former leaders about the future role of the UN system as a whole.

Where, then, does all this leave us?  Over the longer-term (i.e. this decade), what group, or grouping, might have a genuine global democratic mandate on which to act?

Legitimate groups: democratic mandates

If the executive branches of the world’s governments are, by and large, the product of legitimate power, they are intrinsically indisposed, perhaps even unable, to effect alteration of the power arrangement that legitimises them.  In contrast, it is the legislatures of the world that bestow that power, and organise the power arrangements.  Only the elected representatives will be able to effect systemic change.

Perhaps, then, we need to turn from the United Nations to the Inter-Parliamentary Union – and from the regional and national executives to the legislatures.

Established in 1888, the IPU preceded even the League.  Some 140 years later, it operates, to productive effect, in Geneva.  But beyond its obvious clientele, its global recognition fails in comparison to the UN, almost to vanishing point. While it has recently developed closer relationship with the UN, it remains more an observer than a change-agent in world affairs.

There is huge unrealised potential in the role of the IPU, but despite its sound work, it is in need of an update, appropriate to the ‘seminal moment’ of the 2020s.  It could, for a start, be renamed – perhaps the Global Council of National Parliaments.  And it could more consciously assume the role of speaking on behalf of the global community of peoples that it represents.  For some decades, there has been a movement for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, but the counter-argument is that the existing, independent, institution is a better arrangement.

The IPU could also collaborate closely with regional parliaments – the European and African parliaments in particular.  The European Parliament and the Commission are co-managing, in collaboration with International IDEA, a project (INTER PARES) to link up national parliaments on climate change, and it is considering the effect of the pandemic on this work.

Yet the IPU and its parliaments, whether regional or national, cannot act on such a major global issue without a strong and clear democratic mandate.  So what might be the input from the global community of peoples?

The global community: metacognition and ‘emergence’

An earlier column (Towards a Theory of Everything, Jan. ‘20) drew upon a trans-disciplinary approach to global studies that involve the natural as well as the social sciences, based on the concepts of consilience and coherence.

Natural scientists are now studying the phenomenon of ‘swarm intelligence’ – the spontaneous synchronous movement of different species (schools of fish, herds of mammals, swarms of bees). Humans are naturally spell-bound by the beauty of bird-flock murmurations, but for their part, scientists believe it has an evolutionary purpose, and may hold implications for human behaviour.

It is, they conclude, part of a ‘higher order arising out of seeming randomness’ – a phenomenon known as ‘emergence’, an area of study still in its infancy. As Robbins observes:

“Cracking the secret of emergent behaviour and flock intelligence could throw open a brand-new understanding about the principles that govern the world around us.  … [E]xperts who are mining this complex natural  phenomenon say that this … could someday cast light on the phenomenon of embrogenesis … It might lead to the creation of medicine-carrying nano-machines .. or to a far more refined understanding of how our brain works. .. .

Scientists speculate that it could one day be used to help us better understand how people make economic decisions or why they vote the way they do….

And flock-intelligence is the basis for a seven-thousand person collaborative computer project aiming to harness the metacognition of the world’s best and brightest in the hope of finding a super-solution to the colossal problem of climate change.”

Iain Couzin (Director, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology) suggests that the study of animal swarms may be a product of, as well as generate, metacognition, a collective mind that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.   “The group can sense the world and solve problems the way individual components cannot.”

Thomas Malone (Centre for Collective Intelligence, MIT) directs a research project on whether and how humans and AI might be connected to spark a ‘human metamind’.  Google and Wikipedia, he says, are examples of metacognition that flows from individuals working separately.  The entire Internet is, in a sense, a giant flock of humans contributing toward a whole.  Creating this metacognition, says Malone, ‘has great potential’.

In our conflicted age of globalism and nationalist populism, the digital revolution is widely regarded with trepidation. This would, however, be the ‘upside’. The norms associated with systemic risk – sustainability, civilian protection, human security were embraced in the pre-digital age, but systemic change confronted the implacable inertia of nation-state power.

It may be that in the new age, metacognition will have an unexpected force on systemic change, as a result of individual fear and fright throughout the global community, and a yearning for human security.  How such ‘emergence’ feeds into the system at the seminal moment will depend on the legitimacy of the decision-making group, and its receptivity to democratic input.


Four questions have been addressed in Parts I and II, but three conclusions pertaining to this decade emerge from the analysis:

Conclusion 1 Seminal moment 

The decade of the 2020s is likely to be a seminal moment of systemic change to the contemporary international institutions, updating the essential features from the 20th century to the 21st.  

Conclusion 2 Legitimate groups

The legitimate grouping for decision-making could be comprised of both legislative and executive branches of government, thereby reflecting a global democratic mandate; comprising perhaps an ad hoc Global Executive Council of the heads of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the UN system, World Bank Group, IMF and WTO.

Conclusion 3 Critical paths

The critical path could be a series of expert studies on ‘systemic risk’ and scenarios of ‘systemic change’, commissioned directly by the above grouping, and fed into the decision-making process.

Dr Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is Director of the Centre.

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Systemic Global Change: Pt. I

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Kennedy Graham

In A New Global Institution? (11 April), Klaus Bosselmann identified ‘systemic risk’ and ‘systemic change’ as inter-related concepts for embracing a post-pandemic worldview: “A systemic risk is the possibility that a singular event may trigger instability or collapse of an entire system”.

In my Global Community Catches a Virus (31 March), one conclusion of four was: whether the experience changes the ‘20th c. system’ will depend on how severe the global toll is.

It remains too early to judge the final toll of this pandemic.  Global exponential change continues even as some countries flatten their national curve and emerge from the paralysis of lockdown.  A distributed vaccine is about a year away, and specific national lockdowns will not flatten the global curve before then. Meanwhile:

  • Within 17 days, cases almost tripled from 0.8 m to 2.2 m, while fatalities quadrupled from 38,000 to 154,000.
  • The WHO has warned that the epicentre may be spreading to Africa, where a less effective medical response capacity may result in a further 130,000 fatalities; other estimates put this in the millions.
  • We confront, as the IMF Director observes, the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with 2021 witnessing ‘only a partial recovery’.

The global toll is thus of historic proportion already. But does this mean that systemic change to our 20th c. organizational system is inevitable?  Not necessarily.  For insight on this, we need to explore four questions:

  1. When were the seminal moments in the past; and who were the decision-makers?
  2. Is there a critical path, reflecting a difference between ‘systemic change’ and ‘linear reform’?
  3. Is this decade a seminal moment, and how might it differ from previous ‘moments’?
  4. If so, what might be the ‘legitimate group’, and the ‘critical path’?

Part I addresses the Questions 1 and 2.  Part II will address Questions 3 and 4.

  1. Seminal moments; legitimate groups

In the modern era, there have been four seminal moments of foundational change: 1648, 1815, 1920, 1945.

  • The first two were confined to Europe, but were ultimately of international effect.
  • The last two were international events, but had global implications.

The era is based on Westphalian sovereignty (1648), generally taken as the foundation of the nation-state.

Within that, the contemporary era, just a century old, introduced international organizations as the arena for nation-state cooperation. The contemporary system has had two models:

  • The League, with pacific settlement as the means of conflict-prevention and collective security in response to inter-state aggression; and
  • The UN, as above but strengthened and broadened in thematic scope.

The system is the child of Western liberal thought.  In the early 20th century, the Bryce Group (UK) which called for a ‘League of Nations’ as early as 1914, and the League to Enforce Peace (US), both had influence on President Wilson. The LEP drew leadership from academia, business and the peace movement, including ex-president Taft as chair, the US Secretary of War, and the president of Harvard.

But active planning for the League was done within the US establishment.  The Covenant was drafted within months by an ad-hoc committee under the direct supervision of Wilson and including his close adviser Edward House and journalist Walter Lippman.  The essential feature of the League, collective security in response to inter-state aggression, was the personal vision of the President, from which both his political fate and US non-membership played out.

Equally, the UN was direct progeny of the US. As early as December ’41, President Roosevelt established an Advisory Committee on Post-war Foreign Policy, with a Permanent International Organization Sub-Committee.  By definition, the UN was the child of US foreign policy.

The Committee was closely managed within the State Dept., with Hull, Welles and Stettinius directing it at turns through the entire journey, even though the group included selected academics and civil leaders.  But the presidential influence and drafting belonged to a middle-level official, Leo Pasvolsky – described by Holbrooke as “one of those figures peculiar to Washington – a tenacious bureaucrat who, fixed on a single goal, left behind a huge legacy while virtually disappearing from history”.

The initial US vision of a legislative body with binding powers, however, met with Soviet opposition, and the principle of sovereign national equality, with a (reduced) veto, was restored. The ‘big four’ had significant input at Dumbarton Oaks, but the ‘others’ had only a peripheral role at San Francisco.

Was 20th c. international organization the product of ‘legitimate groups’?  Yes, to the extent that the mid-Westphalian international community accommodated political legitimacy. The 1920s and ‘40s were, essentially, a unipolar world.

  1. Critical paths: systemic change v linear reform

Both models of 20th c. international organization were introduced amidst concern over their adequacy to the stated purpose – preventing, or responding to, inter-state aggression.  The main concerns were four: equal voting; Security Council veto; national contributions to military action; judicial shortcomings of the Court (voluntary jurisdiction; absence of enforcement).

The current version, now 75 years old, has not been fundamentally changed, numerical enlargement of rotational membership in the Council being the main alteration.  A broader interpretation by the Council in recent decades of what constitutes a ‘threat to peace’ has encompassed internal conflict and terrorism – the nearest thing we get to ‘systemic risk’.  But these reflect ongoing political judgement, not systemic change.

Systemic change

Systemic change is required, as Micha Narberhaus puts it, “when efforts to change one aspect of a system fail to fix the problem.”

The whole system needs to be transformed. Systemic change means that change has to be fundamental and affects how the whole system functions. Systemic change can mean gradual institutional reforms, but those reforms must be based on and aimed at a transformation of the fundamental qualities and tenets of the system itself. When our objective is systemic change, we need to look at the whole system including all its components and the relationships between them.

With regard to the UN, systemic change has two main dimensions: normative and institutional.  Norms are the product of thought; they bestow legitimacy. Institutions are the product of legitimacy; they become the arena for power.   They are therefore subject to change in different ways.

Many efforts, of different kinds, have been made at both normative and institutional change.  They are best regarded in categories, since they exert different influence.  Three can be identified: academic studies, expert reflections and independent commissions.

(a) Academic studies

Academia has studied UN reform in great depth, particularly in the disciplines of political science, international relations, and law. The most notable are probably the following:

  • 1958: World Peace through World Law, Clark & Sohn
  • 1971: Swords into Plowshares :The problems and progress of international organization, Claude
  • 1991: The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, Simma et al (Eds)
  • 1993: The Constitutional Foundations of World Peace, Falk, Johansen & Kim
  • 2005: Towards World Constitutionalism, Macdonald & Johnston
  • 2012: Governing the World: The history of an idea, Mazower

Individuals directly engaged in our own Centre have, for their part, made relevant contributions:

  • 1999: Global Public Goods: International cooperation in the 21st century, Kaul et al
  • 1999: The Planetary Interest: A new concept for the global age, Graham (Ed.)
  • 2006: Leadership Accountability in a Globalising World, Williams
  • 2010: Global Governance and the UN: An unfinished journey, Thakur et al
  • 2012: Crisis of Global Sustainability, Kanninen
  • 2015: Earth Governance: Trusteeship of the global commons, Bosselmann

Two recent studies have caught widespread attention for their contemporary relevance and insight:

  • 2018: Global Constitutionalism: A socio-legal perspective, Altigan
  • 2020: Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st, Lopez-Claros et al

The Centre was hosting Prof Lopez-Claros (Wellington, Auckland) in April, but his visit is postponed.

(b) Expert reflections

The most notable examples of penetrating reflections from eminent former UN officials are the two studies by Urquhart and Childers: A World in Need of Leadership (1990) and Renewing the United Nations System (1994).   Their proposals rest on intimate knowledge of the UN in action.

Both academic studies and expert reflections, however, are extraneous to the system.  They may influence, but do not directly effect, change.  How, then, might fresh proposals for transformational change be fed into the system?  We turn to the series of commissions (and, separately, panels), composed of eminent persons, and how their reports are fed into the system – for the purpose of change by the system.

(c) Independent commissions

There are, by now, many reports by now produced by independent commissions composed of eminent persons.  The ‘originals’ were Pearson (1969), Brandt (1980), and Palme (1982), and there is a large number since then.  Five of these, in particular, shed light on the effort at systemic change in the contemporary era:

  • 1987: Our Common Future: Report on environment & development, Brundtland Commission
  • 1995: Our Global Neighbourhood: Report on global governance, Carlsson-Ramphal Commission
  • 2001: Responsibility to Protect: Report on intervention & state sovereignty, Evans-Sahnoun Commission
  • 2003: Human Security Now, Ogata-Sen Commission
  • 2004: A More Secure World: Our shared responsibility, Anand Commission

Normative change

Three commissions (1987, 2001, 2003) have made major contributions in creating new international norms.

‘Sustainability’: The concept of sustainability was etched into the human mind with the Brundtland Report:

“The planet is passing through a period of dramatic growth and fundamental change. … Sustainable global development requires that those who are more affluent adopt lifestyles within the planet’s ecological means… … [The] challenges pose problems for institutions, national and international, were established on the basis of narrow preoccupations and compartmentalized concerns.”  

‘Responsibility to protect’: This has also proved to be a seminal advance. Its central propositions are:

  1. Sovereignty entails state responsibility as well as rights;
  2. One such responsibility is to protect all people inside a State’s sovereign territorial jurisdiction;
  3. When the State fails to discharge this, owing to incapacity, unwillingness or complicity in atrocity crimes being committed, the responsibility trips upwards to the international community acting through the United Nations.

Board member Ramesh Thakur was a member of the R2P commission, and a principal author of the report. As he put it in his column of 29 November, the principle has recalibrated the relationship among and between peoples, states, and the international community.

 ‘Human security’: Despite criticism at the time as being too vague, this concept is proving now to be highly prescient. As the report puts it: Human security complements ‘state security’ in four respects:

  1. Its concern is the individual and the community, rather than the state;
  2. Menaces to people’s security include threats and conditions that have not always been classified as threats to state security;
  3. The range of actors is expanded beyond the state alone;
  4. It includes not just protecting people but also empowering people to fend for themselves.

These ‘global norms’ will form part of the foundation for the restructuring of our 21st c. thinking, as we begin the complex and uncertain, even painful, journey into the post-pandemic era in the 2020s.

But what of systemic change to the institutions themselves?

Institutional change

This is far more intractable – we change our norms more easily than our institutions.  The two commissions dedicated primarily to institutional change (1995, 2004) failed to persuade nation-states to change the UN’s institutional system.

The former advanced the idea of ‘global governance’ as a supplement to the UN system but with a visions of systemic change.

 “At the global level, governance has been viewed primarily as intergovernmental relationships, but it must now be understood as involving NGOs, citizens’ movements, multinational corporations, and the global capital market. Interacting with these are global mass media of dramatically enlarged influence.  …. [G]lobal governance is not global government … The challenge is to strike a balance in such a way that the management of global affairs is responsive to the interests of all people in a sustainable future, that it is guided by basic human values, and that it makes global organization conform to the reality of global diversity.” 

The 2004 report, in which I did consulting work for the chair, proposed a number of initiatives – a Human Rights Council and a Peacebuilding Commission, but most controversially, enlargement of permanent membership of the Security Council.  The first two ideas proved easier, and were accepted.  The Council membership, however, addressed the power equation, and so no systemic change was agreed.

Why did normative change occur, but not institutional change?  Does it depend on the procedural path pursued, or the nature of the decision-making group? This is explored in Part II, but meanwhile consider the distinction, identified above, between ‘one aspect of the system’ and ‘the whole system’.

Specific institutional change: the WHO

 The criticism that has been levelled at WHO in recent months for alleged shortcomings in handling the current pandemic has not yet been matched by constructive proposals for a remedial framework.  The temptation to politicise the pandemic, whether over national origin or ‘coordination failure’ by the organization, has proven too great for at least one major power.  All other UN member states have recommitted to financial support and to a constructive analysis of remedial measures once the crisis levels off.

Every agency within the UN system – 15 specialised agencies, 12 funds & programmes, and three ‘related organizations’ – is politicised, at least in respect of the pursuit of the national interest by each member state.  But it is the antithesis of the global ethic, especially in a moment of crisis, to ‘break and run’ from any of them, on the grounds of alleged shortcomings.

In fact, the WHO has been acutely aware of the possibility of future global health pandemics as an existential risk.  In 2018 the WHO and the World Bank Group co-convened an independent ‘Global Preparedness Monitoring Board’ co-chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland (a former WHO head) and Red Cross/Crescent leader Elhadj As Sy.  Its 15 members include three from the USA, including Dr Anthony Fauci.

In its first annual report (A World at Risk; Sept. 2019), the co-chairs made the following observation:

While disease has always been part of the human experience, a combination of global trends, including insecurity and extreme weather, has heightened the risk. … the spectre of a global health emergency looms large.  … there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal health pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and security. The world is not prepared.”

The Summary (‘Action for Leaders to Take’) specifies seven ‘urgent actions’ to prepare the world for health emergencies.

The report is highly professional.  Yet the Board’s work is undertaken by members in their personal capacities, and the organizational disclaimer is severe:

The findings, interpretations, and conclusions designations [sic] employed, and the presentation of the material in this publication, do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the co-convenors, WHO or the World Bank …”

No doubt the imperfections in WHO’s forecasting and preventive capability will be vigorously explored in due course.  But that will be constructive, and it is a different thing from what is currently occurring at the international political level.  It remains uncertain precisely how the WHO would move beyond ‘international coordination’ to ‘global enforcement’.  It is unlikely, however, that proper systemic change will be achieved in isolation – pertaining to the one, single, organization.

Generic institutional change: the UN

As the global pandemic plays out, other reports from the scientific community offer a reminder that global health is an inter-related part, but only one part, of the systemic risk.  The contemporary system is simply not equipped to handle these existential risks, unforeseen in the first half of the 20th century.

A recent report by Future Earth (an interdisciplinary research group launched at Rio+20 in 2012), has concluded:

                “The world is facing a series of interlinked emergencies that are threatening the existence of humans, because the sum of the effects of the crises is much greater than their individual impacts, according to a new global study.  Climate breakdown and extreme weather, species loss, water scarcity and a food production crisis are all serious in themselves, but the combination of all five together is amplifying the risks of each, creating a perfect storm that threatens to engulf humanity unless swift action is taken.”

The larger question, therefore, is whether COVID-19, with all its immediacy, global intimacy, and personal angst, will prompt humanity to move towards a systemic change to update our 20th c. system into the 21st.  See Part II.

Dr. Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is Director of the Centre.

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The Global Community Catches a Virus

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Kennedy Graham

The current global health pandemic is shaking the foundations of the international community of states, possibly to its core.  Those foundations still reflect mid-20th c. political-legal thought, institutional structures, and procedural behaviour.

Over the past quarter-century or so, we have recognised the emergence of global problems, and the need for global solutions to them – primarily climate change, but also the other planetary boundaries of which two have also been breached.  Yet this has not resulted in effective global action for the required solutions.

Will this pandemic be different?

None of us can predict the future, despite a few occasional efforts.  But we do need, and the Centre requires us, to explore the implications of major global events, and their effect on our thought, institutions and behaviour.

Four questions are most relevant to the above:

  1. Context: What is the context for this crisis – is it a unique experience for humanity or not?
  2. Psychology: How, and to what extent, might the psychological state of humanity be changing?
  3. Competence: How is the ‘system’ (nation states plus international organizations) handling the crisis?
  4. Impact: What are the implications for humanity – if it is unique, is it uniquely significant?

Let me explore each of these.


In any contemporary crisis, it is important to survey the contextual terrain.  What is the cause, and the likely magnitude and duration of COVID-19?  Is the origin of this pandemic similar to others before, or is it unique?

This is, of course, not humanity’s first encounter with a widespread health pandemic.  There is plausible evidence of a bacterium-spawned decimation of the population of Europe five millennia ago.  The major known cases, recorded over the last 1,500 years, are best categorised as follows:

  • Historical: Three bacterial plagues in the 6th, 14th and 19th centuries CE;
  • Recent: One major flu virus in the early 20th; and
  • Contemporary: Four virus pandemics (late 20th / early 21st), involving Ebola, HIV, SARS-1, SARS-2.

More specifically:

Bacteria: The three major historical plagues were caused by the same bacterium (Yersinia pestis):

  • The Plague of Justinian (peaking 541-2 CE; recurring until 750), originating from the rat flea from East Asia, is estimated to have killed 40 m. people, half the world’s population, as it spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. It was concentrated on Constantinople with some 5,000 deaths daily there at the peak;
  • The Second Plague, deriving from the same source, commenced in 1347 and lasted three centuries. It originated with the Black Death (peaking 1347-51) which killed an estimated 138 m. people (mid-point) in Eurasia, reducing the world population (then 475 m.) by over a quarter. It culminated with the London Plague in 1665-66, which killed 100,000 (a quarter of the city’s population).
  • The Third Plague, bubonic and pneumonic (originating in Hunan, China in 1855, spreading to India and continuing until 1895 in Hong Kong) killed some tens of millions across Asia.

Viruses: The modern pandemics have been borne by viruses (flu, Ebola, SARS and MERS):

  • The Spanish Flu (1918-20), which probably originated from the war trenches of Europe, affected primarily Europe and India, killing some 75 m. people (mid-point), about 5% of the global population.
  • Ebola (1976-present), a haemorrhagic virus originating from bush-meat and transmitted by tree-dwelling fruit-bats, has been confined to Central and West Africa. There have been 24 outbreaks over four decades, with over 31,000 cases and (with a fatality rate of about 50%), over 13,000 deaths.
  • SARS for ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome’ (2002-04) was a disease caused by the corona virus (SARS-CoV-1). Originating in China (Yunnan, Guangdong) from the cave-dwelling horseshoe bat, the virus affected 8,422 people from 29 countries, with 774 deaths.
  • MERS, for “Middle East respiratory syndrome, is a disease caused by the corona virus (MERS-Cov), originating from bats and spread by camels. It has caused 988 deaths, 52% in Saudi Arabia, the country of origin.
  • COVID-19 (2019-present) is a related virus strain (SARS-CoV-2), with the same source (bats) and geographical origin (China). It originated on 31 December 2019, and as of 31 March 2020 there are 782,000 cases, spread throughout 200 countries, causing 38,000 deaths (3-4% mortality rate) with 165,000 having recovered.

Separate from the above, the HIV-AIDS, a virus derived from non-human primates and originating in Africa, is caused primarily through human sexual contact.  Since the early 1980s, it has infected 75 m. people and killed over 32 m. people (mid-points). Currently, some 38 m. are living with HIV (54% in east and southern Africa).

From the above, the following seems clear:

  • Fatalities from the historical plagues (40 m., 138 m., 20 m.) and the ‘recent’ flu virus (75 m.) are far higher than all but one of the contemporary virus pandemics to date (13,000, 1,000, 1,000, 38,000); the HIV/AIDS phenomenon being the exception (32 m.); the lower fatalities are primarily due to better sanitation plus improved medical knowledge and technology;
  • The difference, however, is that with all previous pandemics, the ‘fatality curve’ has played out over many years, even decades, whereas COVID-19 remains in its infancy. Its global life-span is likely to be numbered in years, not months – to quote Singapore’s Health Minister, ‘this is just the beginning’.

The distinguishing feature of this pandemic is two-fold: it affects, for the first time, a global community, and secondly it is fundamentally influenced by the massive increase in global population and population density. The three historical plagues and the ‘recent’ influenza were cross-regional but sub-global.  The first four contemporary viruses concern the global community but were contained sub-globally.  HIV-AIDS is global, but primarily dependent on specific human behaviour. COVID-19 is different; it is global and it is subject to the whim of Nature.

It is too early to judge where and when the landing will occur.

  • A vaccine is unlikely for at least one year; so ‘behavioural prevention’ is critical. But even today, only a quarter of the global population is in lockdown.
  • While the national curves have bent in China, Singapore and South Korea – comprising one-fifth of the global population – the global curve remains exponential. The geographical epicentre continues to move – from China to Italy to USA, perhaps on to Africa and the Middle East. The lifestyle implications, both as to cause and effect, of wealthy global travel v. crowded ghettos and refugee camps, is an, as yet, unaddressed dimension of this pandemic.

Conclusion 1

This is a unique experience for humanity. Unlike historical pandemics that took greater numbers (to date) of the ‘world’s people’, this pandemic is directly affecting the ‘global community’ – like nothing before.


Humanity has been humbled by this event, and is in a state of fright, if not panic. It is the first time, in current human lifespans, that a global menace is directly threatening each individual’s life, on a personal basis.

  • Nuclear conflict and climate change did not make the cut – too abstract or (seemingly) long-term;
  • Even ‘world war’ was, for half of the world’s population, personally remote for the individual;
  • The three previous contemporary pandemics have been ‘sub-global’, not spreading far beyond certain regions or communities.

Not COVID-19. It threatens each of the 7.8 b. individuals, to lesser or greater degree, but directly and personally.  In addition, most of us are digitally linked into instantaneous updating. So, while only a quarter are currently in lockdown, this will grow to a large global majority, and that is historically unprecedented.

What might be the psychological effect?  It’s best to assess the short-term (1 year), medium (10 years) and long-term (25 years).

In the short-term (2020), there are two penetrating experiences looming, for virtually every human:

  • The twin personal concerns of health and finances. Notwithstanding the policy judgements to be made between economic vitality and personal wellbeing with its inevitable doctrinal dimension, these two issues are being directly addressed – unlike the experience of the historical plagues.
  • The unprecedented, and surreal, experience of societal lockdown, bubble isolation and ‘social distancing’ – concepts not entertained just months ago. On balance, the anecdotal feedback at this early stage is relatively positive: it’s a simpler life if you can just get used to it; and you get deferred things done. Against this, issues of collective behaviour, mental health and domestic violence are requiring attention.

In the medium-term (2021-30), there will be a wakening-up-after-the-night-before phenomenon.  Will it be a hangover, or a new clarity of vision?  This depends on several factors:

  • How successfully the personal concerns are dealt with over a decade, rather than one year;
  • How will the individual, family, company and farm, nation, and the human group all judge the ‘wellbeing’ dimension of the experience—a wake-up call for a better lifestyle, or simply a temporary break from 21st c living?
  • How will the global economy, starting with financial lending, quantitative easing, and employment re-generation survive and begin to prosper, albeit in modified form?

In the long-term (2031-50), there will be major implications:

  • Conclusions on how well the international system handled this particular pandemic;
  • How much advance warning specifically on global health pandemics was ignored or downplayed?
  • What are the inter-relationships between global health and global sustainability?

These questions cannot be conclusively answered today, but some are already being addressed. Some scientific and political experts are bravely addressing the tough issues:

There is no indication that anyone, among the above, is standing for democratic election.

Conclusion 2

COVID-19 will have a penetrating effect on the human psyche, with individuals around the planet feeling vulnerable in an unprecedented way and to an unprecedented extent, querying the economic-social-digital lifestyle of recent decades, and anticipating the possibility of comparable ‘global frights’ in the future.

System competence

How well is the contemporary system (nation-state / international organization) dealing with this pandemic?

  • Will it witness a ‘complete recovery’ that restores the status quo ante?
  • Will it witness a ‘partial recovery’ that retains the foundations but improves upon them? or
  • Will it bring the foundations down, requiring a qualitative replacement, and if so, will that occur through relatively peaceful activity, or through a seminal period of violence, as in the past?

Many national leaders began by assuring their own people that things would be restored to normality quite quickly.  One forecast a recovery by Easter.  Others were reluctant, and therefore dangerously slow, to declare a national concern, then emergency, then remedial measures.  All buckled under, quickly and obediently, to the force of Nature.

There has been widespread concern over the failure of the ‘system’ to heed expert warnings of this type of risk:

  • As Gonzalez et al maintain: “Epidemics usually occur when health systems are unprepared. … As humanity recovers, policymakers must seek scientific expertise to improve their ‘preparedness’ to face future events. … The ultimate goal is to develop a resilient global health infrastructure. … Epidemics destabilize fragile governments, ravage the most vulnerable populations, and threaten the global community.”  US National institute of Health (Methods Mol. Biol. 2018: 1604:3-31)
  • Bryan Walsh (BBC) recalls that: On BBC Future in 2018, we reported that experts believed a flu pandemic was only a matter of timeand that there could be millions of undiscovered viruses in the world, with one expert telling us, ‘I think the chances that the next pandemic will be caused by a novel virus are quite good’.”

For major global threats, the 20th c. system rests on the centrality of the UN Security Council and collaborative work from any relevant UN agency or programme.  But, notwithstanding some definitional flexibility by the Council since the early ‘90s, primarily to do with armed conflict (internal conflict, global terrorism), the 1945 Charter’s ‘threat to international peace & security’ constrains effective action on 21st c global threats.  Of the three ‘standard’ existential threats in this category, consider the record:

Nuclear disarmament:

The UNSC remains fixated on the non-proliferation regime, and will not consider any notion of a prohibition of nuclear weapons; while the Conference on Disarmament has been impotent for three decades.

Climate change:

The Council, having been forced by some member states (in their presidential terms) to address this since 2007, has refused to declare climate change a ‘threat’ (simply a ‘risk multiplier’); despite the Secretary-General announcing that it was such a threat, in his view.  Meanwhile, the UNFCCC-COP multilateral machinery, comprising 197 parties squabbling like geese, fails to take effective global action since its first meeting in 1995.

Health pandemics:

In July 2000, the Council adopted its first-ever resolution on a health issue (S/RES/1308):

Recognizing that the spread of HIV/AIDS can have a uniquely devastating impact on all sectors and levels of society; …..  Stressing that the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security.

The US, which initiated the resolution, thanked the Council members for the “unprecedented resolution on a health issue–the first in the history of the Security Council”.

A second resolution was passed in 2011 (A/RES/1983).  On neither occasion did the Council declare the pandemic to be a threat, simply a risk, to international peace & security.

With regard to COVID-19, the Council has chosen not to discuss the subject in substance, contenting itself with a statement by the month’s president (China) that Council members were continuing to work on the ‘hot spots’ of armed conflict.

For its part, the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ on 30 January 2020) and a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March ’20.  But as an institution, it has been widely criticised for failing to develop an effective preventive framework. Its annual budget (about US$2 b.) is expected to cater for 7.8 b. people – the budget is broadly equivalent to that of Auckland Hospital.  To quote Walsh:

The WHO, which performed so well under the stress of SARS, has botched more recent outbreaks so badly that experts have called for the entire organisation to be overhauled.

For his part, the UN Secretary-General has expressed his extreme dissatisfaction over the systemic and political failings of the international system in battling COVID-19.  See his comments in a recent interview:

“It’s a nightmare that we face. … This is the biggest threat to humanity we have seen in the recent past. …. The best scientific evidence is that, unless there is strong action and we reach herd immunity, this might reach 60% to 70% of the global population. … Millions of people dying in the world, and this is morally unacceptable.  … It’s a matter of enlightened self-interest.  You’re talking about a global pandemic. If controlled, it will work out, but if it spreads like wildfire in the developing world, there will be millions of cases.  … This is not a matter of scaring people; it’s a reality.  … Of course, I’m not happy with the present situation.  There is an effective dysfunctionality in the way all this is happening – the way things are being handled. We do not have a global governance authority. The only way out, therefore, is effective international cooperation. … But it is not only COVID-19. Look at peace and security, the international system has never been so dysfunctional. …  International cooperation has never been at so low a level. … We are at a transitional moment… we are in a chaotic situation – neither multilateral nor unipolar.  Relations between the major powers have never been so dysfunctional as today. …  This is not the moment to fight each other.  … The choice is between chaos and united action.  … This is not a financial crisis; it’s a human crisis. … Power is not in the UN; it is in the nation-states. … So, be responsible, be smart, but above all understand that only in solidarity can we defeat this disease.”

BBC Hardtalk interview (26 March 2020)

Action by UN member states is evidence of his concern. On 23 March, the SG urged warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the ‘bigger battle against COVID-19: the common enemy that is now threatening all of humankind’.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.  That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.  It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

Since then, Libyan factions have intensified their actions, North Korea has fired more ballistic missile tests over regional waters, and the Saudi-UAE military coalition has launched further air attacks against Yemen’s capital.

Conclusion 3

Whether national leaders and UN officials successfully change the 20th c. system will depend on how severe the global toll is – whether the reaction reflects historical habit (pick-up-the-pieces and rebuild) or some proactive insight that proves to be unique to the moment.


To cite Gonzalez, again:

“At present, the world is in an intermediate phase of trying to reduce health disparities despite exponential population growth, political conflicts, migration, global trade, urbanization, and major environmental changes due to global warming. For the sake of humanity, we must focus on developing the necessary capacities for health surveillance, epidemic preparedness, and pandemic response.” (Op. cit.)

Conclusion 4

This pandemic is uniquely significant in its likely effect on the human psyche, calling into question our role as a species on the planet, how we relate to one another and to other species, how we re-think the notions of global sustainability (ecological footprint, planetary boundaries, Earth trusteeship), economic theory and distributive justice, and our political institutions and legal principles.

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Strengthening Multilateralism through UN Reform

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Kennedy Graham

In his December column, former ambassador Colin Keating outlined the concept of a research project which the Centre is about to undertake on Strengthening Multilateralism through UN Reform.

This project has its genesis in a speech that Colin gave on the occasion of UN Day last October, in which he challenged New Zealand to undertake a project that results in recommendations for a lead role in restoring the credibility and effectiveness of multilateralism.

The Centre proposed to the UN Association of New Zealand (UNANZ) that the two bodies respond to this, and twin on a research project on the subject.  The governing bodies of both organizations endorsed the proposal.

Colin and I, as co-managers of the project, have been preparing the nature, timing, and product of the project.  Easier said than done, but of intense interest and, hopefully, some significance.

So, what of the details?

As Colin put it in his speech on UN Day:

“Don’t be naïve about the UN. Frankly, I think that one of the reasons why support for the UN is waning in New Zealand is because too many of its supporters in the past have sought to oversell its role and been slow to face up to its limitations and failings. It is time to be much more upfront about the need for reform.

Reform can be a great focus for lobbying politicians. There is a problem. The UN needs reform. New Zealand is ideally placed to be able to contribute hugely to a transformation. So, as a fourth challenge to you all, why not demand that New Zealand set up and properly resource a six-month project involving politicians from all parties, officials, the defence force and civil society to make recommendations on a role for New Zealand to take a lead in restoring the credibility and effectiveness of multilateralism.”

The details, developed in consultation with the Centre’s Board chair and the UNANZ President, are beginning to take shape.  The project was ‘launched’, more or less, this past week when its content was sent to a wide-ranging group of people, to ascertain their level of interest, and seek their engagement, in the work.

The background to the project is the increasing concern, held around the world, over what appears to be an undermining of the ‘multilateral rules-based order’ (MRBO), centred largely though not exclusively through the UN, that has formed the imperfect but comprehensible framework for international relations over the past 75 years.

Some national leaders, most notably from France and New Zealand, have articulated at the UN General Assembly in recent years, the need to preserve and revive the essence of the MRBO, lest the international community of states lose its way in grappling with the global problems that confront humanity in the new century.

Their speeches are both visionary and of rhetorical worth, but it does raise, not for the first time, the question of substance.  What does ‘strengthening multilateralism’ mean, in terms of serious and focused proposals for conceptual and institutional reform, and in which areas and at which level of analysis?

Addressing these substantive questions is the challenge of our project.

Lest we be seen to presume the answers, which we certainly do not pretend to have, we have compiled a questionnaire that surrounds the broad areas of UN reform.  This has gone out to a range of New Zealanders – former political leaders, former diplomats, academic experts, civil society representatives.  At the appropriate time, we shall consult with current parliamentarians and officials.

No doubt we shall convene some meetings on the project, or at least speak to the project at certain NZCGS and UNANZ meetings.  And the aim is, of course, to speak to, and listen to, everyone who is interested in the subject.

We hope to have the project wrapped up, within six to nine months.

More anon.

Dr Kennedy Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies.  He is a former diplomat, UN official, university teacher and MP.

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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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Climate Challenge 2020:

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I was recently invited to talk to a consultancy firm about my take on the climate challenge facing both our world and our country, now that New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act is in force, and as the UN’s latest COP writhes in interminable stalemate – 25th version.

I was given various questions to address. These were my reflections.

  1. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the international community’s ability to take collective action to ‘bend the curve’ on greenhouse gas emissions?

Mid-way between the two – a ‘defiant determination’ to change course, fast.  No option.

We need to be rational and proactive. This requires accurate recognition of the following.

  • The ‘problem’ was formally identified in the IPCC’s AR-1 of 1990, when global emissions had reached 34 Gt CO2-e, up from 1 Gt in 1750. Some 30 years after identifying the problem, emissions are at 55 Gt.
  • The goal, from the 1992 Framework Convention, is to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change, defined as a 2°C rise in post-industrial temperature. Current targets (2015 Paris NDCs) will result in a 3.2°C rise – authoritatively described as ‘catastrophic’.
  • The ‘raised ambition’ in the collective NDCs for 2030 emissions (expected in a 2020 review) is a three-fold increase in targets for 2°C, resulting in 25% reduction in global emissions. For 1.5°C, it is a five-fold increase – for 55% reduction.

To quote the UN Secretary-General:

“The best science, according to IPCC, tells us that any temperature rise above 1.5°C will lead to major & irreversible damage to the ecosystems that support us.  Science tells us that, on our current path, we face at least 3°C. The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.”

As Time’s Person of the Year has pointed out, we have no-one to blame but ourselves.

When I began working on climate change, in New York in 1989, we already knew that it was going to become perhaps the world’s greatest single problem.  In 1990 I convened in Italy what appears to have been the first international parliamentarian workshop on climate change.  The Bellagio Communique called for a 50% reduction in global CO2-e from1988 to 2010 (comprised of 20% cuts in fossil fuel emissions, 50% reduction in deforestation, 10% in methane, and 100% in CFCs).

Strangely, this did not occur.

Thirty years later, as New Zealand’s PM has pointed out, climate change has become a ‘wicked problem’, the defining moment of her generation.

I suggest it’s the defining moment for the human species, after 100,000 years.

The underlying issue is whether a 21st c. global problem can be solved through 20th c. international principles and procedures with 200 ‘sovereign’ states negotiating through consensus, or whether it needs a smaller body with legitimate powers of planning and enforcement.  Climate change has been on the UN Security Council agenda since 2007, but the Council has effectively done nothing, beyond describing it as a ‘risk multiplier’.

A more intelligent and ambitious approach, of course, would be the concept of Earth Trusteeship, acknowledging the sovereign responsibilities of States for environmental stewardship, as outlined by Klaus Bosselmann in his recent blog-post.  How to transition to such a conceptual foundation is a major issue, and Klaus has been engaged in this since the Rio Earth Summit (1992) and the Earth Charter (2000).

I see six eras (‘phase transitions’) that the scientific advisers, governments and the global community are going through on climate change:

‘Phase transition’ on climate change

  Phase Science Govts Society
1 Denial n. a. n. a. 2000
2 Prevarication n. a. n. a. 20005
3 Acknowledgement 1990 (AR-1) 1992 2010
4 Analysis 1995 (AR-2) 2012 n. a.
5 Prescription 2007 (AR-3) 2016 n. a
6 Emergency 2019 ? ?

Can we bend the curve?  There are a number of curves to bend, and they are inter-related.


Psychology curve (denialism / prevarication / acknowledgement)


Technology curve (renewable energy / product materials / land-use)

Behavioural curve (life-style = driving / flying / racing / eating)

Political curve (global leadership / national consensus)


Achievement curve

 2. How important is New Zealand leadership on this issue in the global context given our small size and relative contribution to global emissions?

A large economy-size is critical to the Achievement Curve.  The G-20 account for 78% of global emissions.

But any size is critical to the Political Curve, conveying leadership through example. This is especially so in the case of New Zealand, with its energy / agriculture / forestry mix.  Others are watching.   We should avoid a sophomoric desire to be ‘the’ global leader; but we can offer progressive thought and exemplary resolve.

 3. Will future governments commit to delivering on the net-zero target by 2050, or will the goal-posts be shifted?

The target is likely to stay the same or be strengthened, as a result of the science, global societal pressure, and the advice of the forthcoming NZ Climate Commission.   Sub-targets (by sector & by gas) are likely to change, as the Commission advises.

4.  How much difference will it make if we have a National-led or a Labour-led government following the next election?  

It depends on future coalition politics. Any coalition will probably address the following:

  • The structure will remain, in the form of the 2019 Zero Carbon Act, and the new Commission;
  • Much will depend on New Zealand’s review in 2020 of its current 30% target for 2030;

I suggest that a cross-party consensus develop over the following:

  • The 2030 and 2050 CO2-e targets (irrespective of the particular gas sub-target split);
  • A ‘policy ratio’ of 80/20, i.e. there is agreement over 80% of reductions for the CO2-e targets; and there is democratic debate over optional mitigation policies (by sector; by gas) for the remaining 20%, but within a continuing cross-party agreement on the overall CO2-e target. A balloon is an apt metaphor.

 5.  What are the key uncertainties / risk factors for climate policy in NZ? 

There are, broadly speaking, six challenges – two per sector. They are:

Energy challenge:

  1. Low population density plus high transport distance
  2. Pioneer lifestyle = urban SUVs plus rural utility vehicles

Agriculture challenge:

  1. Digging-deep on ‘grass-fed’ meat; the ‘most efficient in the world’
  2. Readiness, or reluctance, of producers to change to industrial protein

Forestry challenge:

  1. Land-use: Trade-off between pastoral  / arable / forestry
  2. Sequestration: Exotic v. natives


Dr Kennedy Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies. He is a former NZ diplomat, UN official, university teacher and MP.

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Multilateralism & the Rules-based Order:

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Kennedy Graham

Yesterday I attended MFAT’s annual Beeby Colloquium on International Law. Having had the privilege of working closely with Chris back in the ‘80s, it is quite a moving experience to attend these events.  It is also, equally, an annual highlight in terms of intellectual stimulation and insight into issues of international law.

In earlier blog-posts, I have touched on the issue of a multilateral rules-based order and the competing perceptions among prominent national leaders as to what this means and what is might be composed of. At the 2019 Colloquium, a more penetrating and analysis emerged from the informed and thoughtful contributions, not least from one of the Centre’s Board members, Duncan Currie, on the ‘common heritage’ concept and the law of the sea.

A highlight yesterday was some personal comment advanced by MFAT’s Acting Dep-Sec, Victoria Hallum.  Here are a few of her observations:

“New Zealand’s attraction to multilateralism and multilateral rules is strong.  Multilateralism allows us to pursue enduring multilateral solutions to shared problems.   New Zealand has tended to see the best solutions as underpinned by multilateral rules, because when States consent to being bound by these international solutions under international law, it increases the chance that they / we can rely on these solutions, and enhances stability and predictability.

However the multilateral system, as we know it, has been created in a way that is very State-focused and State-centric.  International law is particularly so, founded as it is on the principles of state sovereignty and state consent.  States are the main subjects of international law and non-State actors are still only recognised to a limited degree, with very constrained rights and responsibilities. There is some recognition of international organisations, the ICRC has a special status, we have international criminal responsibility for individuals, and investors can have rights under international investment law – to cite some examples.  But this is still very limited.  

Yet at the same time, non-state actors have more power and more ability to engage and have impact across national boundaries than ever before.  I am talking about:

  • multinational companies that operate apparently seamlessly across borders ;
  • distant water fishing vessels flying the flag of one state, owned by a corporate entity in another, crewed and mastered by nationals of a third state;
  • armed militias and terrorist groups;
  • NGOs ranging from well-orchestrated and transparent membership-based organisations through to more amorphous covert actors such as Anonymous;
  • And also the way in which individuals, aided by technology, can coalesce almost organically around particular issues, such as the “Me Too” movement or the recent climate strikes.

The consequence is that many of the current ‘wicked problems’ requiring international solutions cannot be solved by states alone.  Coming to terms with this and finding ways to engage with non-state actors to solve transboundary and global commons issues could be seen as the next frontier of international law.” 

My own take-away from the Colloquium is that, not only is international law under siege for various reasons, but the underlying aspects of the rule of law, at the global level, are up for re-examination.  Let me briefly try to encapsulate these below.  They are, to the extent they can each be captured in a word: jurisprudence, legitimacy, application, integrity and technology.

One paragraph on each – very much my own interpretations:

1. Jurisprudence

There was debate over whether the contemporary (1945-2019) ‘multilateral rules-based-order’ is experiencing a fundamental fragmentation, i.e. breaking down, or whether it is simply ‘enjoying’ a more vigorous input from different political systems (especially Confucian) beyond the traditional (Western) imprimatur.    The fundamental competing value systems of stability and liberty need some dialogue and reconciliation before a true jurisprudential foundation for ‘global law’ can be agreed.

2. Legitimacy

Victoria, and others, queried whether, in the 21st c. world, international law can be exclusively state-centric and rest on consent, or whether it needs comparable input from private corporations.  Can international (global?) law be legitimate if the legislative process does not accurately reflect the spread of power/influence?  Or, should it remain state-centric or at least public in source, with advisory input from the private sector?

3. Application

Should international law continue to be applied primarily to States, or should the recent trend to apply criminal international and humanitarian law to individuals be continued?  To what extent should the success of the ICJ encourage the concept of ‘compulsory jurisdiction’, and to what extent should the travails of the younger ICC give reason for pause?

4. Integrity

To what extent should the principles of good faith and of sovereign equality be maintained with rigour, and to what extent should it be tempered in the ‘real world’ by an acceptance of ‘exceptionalism’?  To the extent the latter is accepted, how much is this compatible with purely US exceptionalism, compared with that by other major powers?

5. Technology

To what extent can international law keep pace with the extraordinary pace and depth of 21st c. technological change?  How much of this ‘wicked problem’ applies to digital technology (social media) and how much to weaponry (nuclear weapons, autonomous weapons)?   How to define some of this?  Once defined, how to redress the stated problem?

Food for thought.  Areas for the Centre to explore.

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

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