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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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)
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)
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.