Towards a Theory of Everything: Pt III. Development

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.

Author: Dr Kennedy Graham

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

January 18, 2020

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