Jonathan S. Blake is a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow.
Nils Gilman is the deputy editor of Noema Magazine.
From rising seas to invisible viruses, many of today’s and tomorrow’s problems are inherently planetary in scale and scope. Yet the primary governance institution that we have to address them, the nation-state, is not. The scale of the challenges is incommensurate with our capacity to govern them. The result is that planetary problems such as climate change and pandemics are uncontrolled and uncontrollable.
At the same time, the effects of these and other challenges on populations are often locally specific. We experience them not as abstract planetary concerns, but as local threats. COVID-19 is a worldwide event, but we experience it directly as wreaking havoc in our own communities: forcing us to shelter at home, closing nearby bars and restaurants, and putting friends and family at risk.
If we’ve learned one lesson from the pandemic, it’s that nation-states don’t govern well at the planetary level or at the local level. The same is true for other planetary phenomena like climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions operate at a planetary level, but consequences vary dramatically from one locality to another. Neither the problem nor its impacts align with national boundaries.
On the one hand, nation-states on their own cannot mitigate climate change, because doing so requires collective action at a planetary scale. And existing multilateral governance of the climate, codified in the Paris accord that President Joe Biden’s administration recently rejoined, relies on voluntary compliance from sovereign nation-states — a recipe for insufficient action at best.
On the other hand, nation-states are also not the right institution for climate change adaptation: Los Angeles, Miami and Minneapolis are all impacted by climate change, but in vastly different ways that require vastly different policies. In fact, these cities’ climate impacts have more in common with cities in other nation-states (for example, Cape Town, Dhaka and Moscow, respectively) than they do with each other. Yet nation-states are wired for coordination and collaboration among the subnational entities contained within them, not across them.
This dynamic is found across a range of major issues. From economic precarity to public health, the nation-state is ill-equipped to manage the planetary roots of the problems and the local consequences for communities. The nation-state’s failure to govern effectively has in turn produced a crisis of legitimacy. People around the world have concluded that an institution unfit for purpose is undeserving of loyalty. The roiling resentments that have driven political upheaval in the United States, Europe, Middle East, South Asia and Latin America share an underlying belief: My nation-state has failed me.
Solving these twin crises of ineffective and illegitimate governance requires a fundamental restructuring of our governing institutions. In particular, it requires stripping the nation-state of many of its powers and governance functions, moving some up to planetary institutions and others down to local institutions.
If, as the sociologist Daniel Bell observed back in 1977, “the national state is too small for the big problems of life and too big for the small problems,” then political forms that are both bigger and smaller are the logical solution. One size does not fit all; collective challenges come at different scales. What we need now is a governance system with multiple levels of institutions working on problems at different scales that are not subordinated to the nation-states that happen to exist today.
The Contingent Nation-State
Nation-states only became the dominant form for organizing politics and governance starting in the second half of the 20th century. As recently as the 1940s, as much as half the world’s population was governed under other sorts of sovereign entities: colonies, dependencies, mandates, condominia (joint sovereignty), empires, protectorates, trusteeships, free cities, suzerainties, dominions and various other arrangements.
At the end of World War II, most international observers expected this variegated global sovereignty landscape would largely persist. While independence was clearly in the cards for some lands, with India and Pakistan gaining independence in 1947 and Israel in 1948, few at the time anticipated the universalization of the nation-state. When the United Nations building in New York was designed in 1947, the general assembly hall included seating for only 70 member states (there were 57 at that point). That number would be exceeded just three years after the building opened in 1952. By 1976, there were 147 members, and an average of one more a year has been added since then; today, there are 193. Over those decades, it became broadly accepted that the nation-state is the only legitimate form of sovereignty and the primary institutional vehicle through which “governance” should be organized.
During the early postwar years, however, not everyone aspired to be governed by a sovereign nation-state. Many colonies in the 1940s and 50s, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, were initially less interested in gaining independence than in being included in the welfare states then being built by their colonial overlords in Europe. It was only when it became clear that the Europeans would not consider that option that colonial leaders defaulted to demands for independence — and even then, there were abortive plans for regional forms of governance. The hegemony of the nation-state would be reinforced as it became seen as the best vehicle for achieving the signature postcolonial project: achieving economic development and modernization, often tellingly referred to as “nation-building.”
On the eve of the postwar rise of the nation-state, many prominent leaders were pointing in the opposite direction, suggesting that a better approach to managing global risks (above all, the threat of recurrent world wars) would entail pooling sovereignty at a global level. All but forgotten today, the World Federalist Movement during these years dismissed the idea of sovereignty as a “myth” and proposed nothing less than a “world federal government.”
This was no fringe idea: Albert Camus, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Jawaharlal Nehru, Rosika Schwimmer and Wendell Willkie were all at one time or another proponents of the idea. The University of Chicago went so far as to convene a “committee to frame a world constitution,” which, in 1948, poetically declared that “the age of nations must end and the era of humanity begin” and called for a “federal republic of the world” in which all states would pool “their separate sovereignties in one government of justice to which they surrender their arms.”
Ultimately, this movement succumbed to the ideological hostilities and power struggles of the Cold War, resistance in rich countries to the threat of global redistribution and rising political entrepreneurs across the colonial and postcolonial world who wanted their own plot of sovereignty. Instead of a world federalist state, what emerged was a whole host of multilateral member state institutions through which sovereign nations would work together on various specific challenges.
The United Nations Security Council, for example, was charged with maintaining international peace and security. The World Bank would provide loans and expertise on development. The International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) guaranteed the stability of the international monetary system. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and then its successor, the World Trade Organization, promoted lower tariff barriers to ensure smooth and predictable global trade. Likewise for many other topics of international concern.
Uniting all these organizations is an underlying structural tension in which ultimate authority over global issues lies not with the global institutions themselves, but with the member states. It would be unfair to say that they do no good at all, but they vary enormously in capacity, deliver their services unevenly and have debilitating blind spots. A cynic might argue that the global governance architecture that many envisioned in the mid-1940s of a federalist world government has in fact been realized — with the caveat that this world state was born crippled and today remains incapable of addressing the greatest planetary challenges of our time. In other words, we already have a world state — it’s just a failed state.
One response to the evident failures of global governance institutions has been the demand for renewed sovereign powers. Neo-nationalists across the world blame many local problems on “globalist elites” who they say have sold out their countries to the global system, often in the name of naked self-enrichment. Such critiques have merit, but they do not address the most rank failure of all: the inability of nation-states, especially democratic ones, to be able to deal with the risks associated with contemporary planetary interdependence.
The “planetary” refers to issues, processes and conditions that span the Earth and transcend nation-states. “Global” and “globalization” are the currently popular terms for describing world-scale issues. But the planet is not the globe: The globe is a conceptual category that frames the Earth in human terms. Globalization, likewise, adopts a fundamentally human-centric understanding of the “integration” that has happened over the last few decades — the accelerating flow of people, goods, ideas, money and more.
The planet, by contrast, frames Earth without specific reference to humans. “To encounter the planet,” explains Dipesh Chakrabarty, “is to encounter something that is the condition of human existence and yet profoundly indifferent to that existence.” The Earth is not ours alone. Worldwide integration is not merely the intentional work of humans. Humans are embedded and codependent with microbes, the climate and technologically enabled emergent trans-species communities.
Planetary thinking emerges from ongoing transformations in the fields of ontology, or the nature of being, and epistemology, the study of knowledge. We know now, for example, that humans are a geological force of nature, responsible for raising atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels not seen in 3 million years, which in turn is forcing radical changes to the biogeochemistry of the planet. We also know that, like all animals, we are “symbiotic complexes of many species living together” — we rely on the presence of hundreds of species of microorganisms in our bodies to function.
Taken together, these scientific discoveries decenter our sense of our place in the universe. Like Galileo and Darwin in earlier eras, the planetary represents a paradigm shift. It is neither empirically nor normatively adequate to assume, as the idea of globalization does, that humans top the global hierarchy and all else must and can bend to the march of human progress. We are but one (very recent) component in the biogeochemical ferment of the Earth, caught up in feedback loops of the carbon cycle and microbial and multispecies codependency.
The hubristic idea that humans stood apart from the planet encouraged us to pursue a doomed political project, imagining that we could exert god-like mastery over the very biogeochemistry in which we are inextricably entangled. But the planetary begins from a place of humility: a political project that recognizes the limits of what we as humans can control, and that therefore demands a reassessment of how we govern, and to what ends.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide and pathogens do not care about international borders; they are bounded only by the Earth system. Planetary problems do not just flow between nation-states or exist in the interstitial space between them. They exist across nation-states and within them, and they break down the conceptual division between international and domestic. A system that rests on dividing the world’s territory and populations into self-contained sovereign nation-states will not adequately address planetary problems or their local manifestations. If planet Earth is one big political space, it must be governed as such.
How then should we govern the planet? How should we design systems of governance that align with our new understandings of Earth and its changing systems?
Managing challenges of this scale requires shifting the governance of planetary problems “up” from nation-states to planetary institutions, as well as the management of as many other governance functions as possible, including the localized impacts of planetary problems, “down” to sub-national institutions. In this new architecture, there will still be an important role for the nation-state — overseeing military matters and distributing economic goods, for example — but it will be much diminished.
The division of labor among these different scales of governance should follow the “principle of subsidiarity.” Originating first in Calvinist and then more consequentially in Catholic thought, subsidiarity endorses the view, as the political theorists Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen have written, that “social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate level consistent with their most adequate resolution.” Thus, the powers that should be allocated up from states to planetary institutions are those that govern planetary problems, while the powers that should be allocated down from states to local institutions are those that govern local problems.
By planetary governance institutions, we do not mean the traditional institutions of global governance. The U.N., I.M.F. and World Health Organization, among other contemporary global governance institutions, are multilateral member-state institutions that focus on human-specific flows and represent the interests of their member states. They don’t respond directly to planetary challenges or answer directly to citizens.
The planetary demands new binding institutions at the planetary scale, not simply member state institutions that operate on a voluntarist basis. This does not mean a single world state. We envision a specifically delimited authority at the planetary level over specifically planetary matters.
In practice, this means we need binding planetary institutions that go beyond the Paris accord for climate, beyond the W.H.O. for syndromic surveillance and health, beyond the U.N. Environmental Program to deal with biodiversity, and a wholly new planetary institution to deal with tech-related risks. Together, these would form a new planetary tier of governance, above and beyond the nation-state.
Nation-states should also be delegating as many governance functions as possible down to institutions that are closer to the people they serve. In a world with diverse communities with differing needs, desires, cultures and histories, subsidiarity promises both better outcomes and better institutional legitimacy.
Empowering local governments allows leaders who are closer and more attentive to local problems and local demands to develop locally appropriate responses and to change nimbly as local circumstances evolve. Instead of fulminating at remote and unresponsive bureaucrats at the national or supranational level, citizens can participate more directly in the decisions affecting their daily lives. As such, subsidiarity represents a solution to the widespread legitimation crisis of democratic institutions worldwide.
Resolving the twin deficits of performance and legitimacy is not simply about delegating downward but also promoting horizontal links between local institutions. For instance, climate change adaptation should be addressed by sub-national institutions — regions, cities or even neighborhoods — that are organized into networks of peers to learn from each other and pool resources effectively.
The C40 cities network, which focuses on sharing best practices for climate change resilience and adaptation, is a good example of horizontally linked subsidiarity in action. Other international networks of cities focused on topics ranging from social housing to reducing political polarization and hate have arisen in recent decades, and these subnational governance networks are effectively linking up with older multilateral organizations like the U.N. and the O.E.C.D.
Together, nested and interlocking planetary, national and local institutions would form a system of multilevel governance. This system architecture allows for governance bodies to be better suited to the scale of the issue they are tasked with governing. Rather than default to the nation-state (and then wring our hands when the nation-state fails), as we do now, the principle of subsidiarity provides a rule of thumb for determining which governing institutions should be assigned to deal with which challenges.
While some national leaders will abhor this assault on the source of their power, others will be relieved to move off of their desks issues that they know they are unable to address properly. In fact, decentralization and devolution of power to local authorities has already been happening in many countries for decades. There should be more. What is missing today is the ability to move actual binding power up to specific institutions with planet-wide authority.
The 21st century is teaching us that there exist systems and processes that are outside the scope of full human control. Nineteenth and 20th-century ideologies that assume or promote human dominance over “nature” and “technology” — and the institutions that were born of them — have reached their breaking points.
For life on Earth to flourish, we must remain within certain hardwired biophysical limits. Crossing certain boundaries will trigger processes and feedback loops that will drive the planet inexorably toward being much less hospitable. Pathogens, resulting in part from the changing climate but also from humans increasing interactions with wild spaces, can and will spread, despite advancements in medicine — viruses and bacteria, just like their human hosts, seek to “be fruitful and multiply.” And new technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, might also reach a point beyond human control. This leads to a paradox that will increasingly define our lives: We humans cannot master the planet, and yet we are in a unique position of responsibility for it.
Just because our current institutions are not up to the task does not mean that no institutions are. The planetary, as the researchers Eva Lövbrand, Malin Mobjörk and Rickard Söder write, represents “an invitation to rethink our institutions, commitments and rules and to forge new forms of cooperation built upon participation, solidarity and justice beyond the state and indeed the human.” The best path forward is to rescale governance, from top to bottom, creating the fora to make the decisions and direct the collective actions needed to address issues that span from the planetary to the hyperlocal.
Our governance institutions have evolved throughout history due to changing conditions, and this time should be no different. Planetary subsidiarity as a blueprint for multi-scalar governance does not guarantee that we will reach the right answers, but continuing with nation-states and a broken global governance system guarantees that we will not. Faced with our planetary future, the wildest thing of all would be to change nothing.