How To Govern The World Without World Government

Forget globalist fantasies — voluntary cooperation among nation-states is the only way humanity can survive, says Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger.


Noema Deputy Editor Nils Gilman and Associate Editor Jonathan Blake recently met with Harvard Kennedy School professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger to discuss his latest book, “Governing the World Without World Government.”

Noema: Your new book makes the case for how we should produce global public goods without relying on what you call “globalism” — that is, the belief in the possibility of supranational government. While it is obviously the case that the sovereign nation-state remains the bedrock of national politics and international relations, it is equally hard to deny that the idea and practice of state sovereignty impedes global cooperation and thereby threatens the conditions of global habitability. We live within a complex of planetary-scale physical, geochemical and biological systems that operate according to the laws of nature, regardless of the laws of nations. What should we do about this collision?

Roberto Unger: The dominant tenor of writing on global governance is animated by what I call a “soft globalism.” By that, I mean that many people who write about this topic are often antagonistic to national sovereignty and prefer the attenuation of it. Yet these thinkers’ soft globalism puts them at odds with the overwhelming preferences of contemporary humanity, which massively rejects any suggestion of a move toward a world state.

Whereas the soft globalists seem to think there exist a huge range of possible alternatives for governing the world worth considering, experience suggests there’s only one option that works: voluntary cooperation among sovereign states to help solve problems that they cannot adequately solve alone.

Now, I don’t believe in national sovereignty simply because it’s the majority view. I agree with it substantively. The division of humanity into sovereign states is more than a brute fact. My position is that humanity develops its powers and its potential only by doing so in different directions, and can be unified only by being allowed to diverge. Visions of convergence — that we will all converge on the same set of best available practices and institutions — are a disaster. They subvert and impede the experiments by which humanity develops its potential.

All human beings are born nailed to two crosses. We are crucified, first, in a position within the internal social order of a nation-state. We are born into a particular class, caste or community and are required to spend our lives struggling to emancipate ourselves from the consequences of that crucifixion.

But we are crucified the second time by finding ourselves accidentally born into one of these national communities into which humanity is divided. I don’t diminish the significance of this double nightmare. But the alternatives to it are even worse. The idea of evolution toward a world state, a world empire, would be a prison from which we could not escape and in which we would have much less prospect of continuing the ascent of mankind.

Now, of course, we face problems that are global problems. How can we hope to avert the worst harms and achieve the most important common goods, when the world is divided into clashing, greedy, forceful and violent national states? The division of the world into sovereign nation-states is by far the lesser evil, compared to the union of mankind into a single state or into a collection of hegemonic states that would achieve an agreement among themselves and impose it on the rest of mankind in the name of what is allegedly necessary for all.

Our way of approaching the organization of the world should be in the service of the ability to create alternative structures, to create the possibility to resist the imposition of dogmatic blueprints by the powerful. That’s why we need pluralism.

Now, pluralism comes with dangers, including the danger of environmental destruction. Some of these national experiments will take us backward. But the fact that the future is open means it is inherently open to danger. It cannot be open without being dangerous.

“Humanity develops its potential only by doing so in different directions, and can be unified only by being allowed to diverge.”

Noema: Let me give a concrete example and ask which of the types of voluntary cooperation among plural political structures you think might be most productive to deal with it. Your home country, Brazil, happens to claim sovereignty over most of the Amazon rainforest. But many people — including climate scientists and ecologists — view the preservation of the Amazon as a global public good. Do you agree?

Unger: Yes, it is a subject in which all humanity has an interest. That’s true.

Noema: Okay, so given that all humanity has an interest in this, let’s imagine that Brazil were to elect a president who believed that the best thing to do with the Amazon was to chop the whole thing down and turn it into grazing land. What should be the response, given the voluntary cooperation model you propose?

Unger: One can always imagine examples that push anything to the limit, and, of course, we’ve had a case like this in former president Jair Bolsonaro, who I think you are referencing. Yet despite his lack of commitment to the preservation cause, he was very, very distant from the extreme case than you present. As Brazilians sometimes say, “We have preserved much of the Amazon, unlike, for example, the French or the Germans, who have chopped almost everything down and planted some trees in the garden. So why are you going after us?” Then it becomes a discussion about the details. And we come back to the world of reality, in which there aren’t these simple contrasts.

Noema: One retort might be that the planetary sapience of the importance of preserving biodiversity hotspots did not exist at the time that the French, Germans and Americans razed their forests.

Unger: Let’s forget about the past and focus on the question of contemporary environmentalism. The main temper of the environmental cause in the rich North Atlantic world is a kind of post-structural, post-ideological politics. Northern environmentalists would like the Amazon to be kept, in essence, as a park for the benefit of humanity, when in fact there are more thirty million people living and working there.

Let me give you a concrete example with respect to the Amazon. What does sustainable development in the Amazon mean? It could mean two things. On the one hand, it could mean a primitive, artisanal extractivism, in which you have, for example, indigenous rubber tappers taking latex out of the trees. I think that, implicitly, that’s what a lot of these Amazon-preoccupied people in the rich countries have in mind. It’s a form of “sustainable” development that has no science, no technology, no scale and, therefore, no future. It’s a joke. It’s the same thing as having “primitive peoples” roaming around in a kind of zoo.

On the other hand, the alternative to that is having an advanced form of sustainable development based on technology and science and new institutional models. In other words, it would be a variant of the knowledge economy. It’s either primitive, craft production, or it’s highly advanced. And where is this high advancement to take place? Then we come back to the question of division of experiments. The reason to have divisions is so that we can go from a period in which we had a crazed president who is hostile to environmentalism of any kind to another period in which we can retake the idea of preservation as a variant of the knowledge economy. And instead of having what the Americans have, for example, which is an insular knowledge economy, that excludes the vast majority of workers and firms and therefore produces both stagnation and inequality, we can aspire to have a knowledge economy for the many. We can take the problem of preservation in the Amazon as one of the hooks or provocations for this project of building strong, inclusive economies.

“The idea of evolution toward a world state would be a prison in which we would have much less prospect of continuing the ascent of mankind.”

Noema: The issue, however, is that past experiments have closed the possibility of certain present and future experiments. Once the Europeans and North Americans chopped down forests and killed off so many species in the name of our national experiments, it foreclosed what might have been reasonable experiments about cutting down remaining intact forests — assuming we want to keep a habitable Earth, that is.

Unger: I understand that. What you’re saying is that there are terrible things that can happen as a result of this division of humanity into sovereign states. The fundamental answer to that was enunciated by British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead when he said, “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” Yes, it is dangerous. And there is no antidote to that, because the alternative danger is having a set of princes or an emperor imposing an order on humanity — which is much, much worse.

Noema: Let us pose an alternative governance model, one that we proposed in an earlier essay. We imagine a set of narrowly tailored planetary institutions dedicated to broad-strokes standard-setting on specific planetary problems. In this arrangement, a planetary climate change institution, for example, would set non-voluntary limits on atmospheric carbon emissions for the planet as a whole, handing out mandates to national governments. Each nation-state would then get to decide how to reach those targets, but the targets would be set at the supranational level, though by problem-oriented institutions, not a general-purpose world government.   

Unger: Here’s my question: How will this regime that you described come about? If it arises as a form of voluntary cooperation, then it would be an example of what I call a “special purpose coalition,” like the International Agency for Solar Policy and Application or the efforts to prohibit human trafficking or to safeguard biodiversity. But if someone imposes this regime on states by force, then I have a problem. Because if they can impose this apparently progressive maneuver by force, there are lots of other things that they can impose by force. And then we have the beginning of the world state, and the doors of the prison are locked forever.

“The division of the world into sovereign nation-states is by far the lesser evil.”

Noema: Is your problem with transnational institutions capable of setting binding targets that they represent a slippery slope toward a (potentially tyrannical) world government?

Unger: No, it’s not a slippery slope argument. I’m focused on the question of whether the beginning of this process arises from an imposition, in which there is a background threat of force. Or is there going to be a regime of inducement and of cooperation? And I think that if we can impose this by force of arms, there’s anything that we can impose by force of arms. Why stop there?

Noema: Is this simply a question of scale? After all, many if not all nation-states were formed by force against various unwilling populations. And, of course, many of these governments continue to be repressive. Is your fear that what is already happening at many national scales would be imposed on the global scale?

Unger: As I said in my metaphor about the crucifixion, nation-states are not beds of roses. I am not imagining some way to extirpate the element of oppression from human life. There is no neutral definition of a free society: Every institutional order tilts the scales, encouraging some forms of life while discouraging others. My fundamental argument is in favor of experimental pluralism. There will be a struggle in these different states, and some of them will be much more democratic than others, and some will allow for the enhancement of human agency more than others. But with humanity divided into different political communities, there mustn’t be just one conductor.

“Northern environmentalists would like the Amazon to be kept as a park for the benefit of humanity, when in fact there are more thirty million people living and working there.”

Noema: Let’s turn to one important instance of institutional innovation arising out of a peaceful coming together of nation-states: the European Union. In your book, you describe the EU as a regional coalition of the willing that provides a possible “model for global order.”

Unger: Let’s accept the European Union as a model for globalization. If you take that idea seriously, then you’d quickly reach a question: Why is it that in Europe, so many who are young or old, or adventurous or romantic, or very left or very right, are against the European Union? The answer is that the EU lies under the dead hand of technocratic centrism. That’s why everyone who has life in them is against the Union.

Europe is a museum, the least interesting part of the world. Most signs of life there come from the right. Otherwise, a Frenchman just wants to sit in his cafe and be served by a Polish waiter. The idea that there should be ideological and political clashes and experiments has vanished.

How did that come to be? It came to be because the dominant architectural principle in the evolution of the EU is legal and institutional convergence. European economic and social policies are increasingly centralized in the EU government, de jure in Brussels though de facto in Berlin. Conversely, the power to develop the social and educational endowments of the citizens is delegated to the national and sub-national authorities.

What could be the alternative? The alternative should be just the opposite. The main vocation of the EU should be to ensure the capabilities of all its citizens and to develop their educational and economic endowments. Then the widest latitude of institutional experimentation should be devolved to the member states. This would be a model of globalization worth pursuing.

Such a change couldn’t come about as be a gift from the European technocracy to the peoples of Europe — it could only come about if the southern and eastern member states allied with opposition forces within Germany, and within France, to force a change. It’s highly unlikely to happen in the present circumstance, but that’s what would be necessary. And then the European Union would be a model for the kind of globalization that would be better for the world, rather than a kind that’s worse.

Noema: We are sympathetic to this view that we should encourage plural and dynamic experimentation. At the same time, if global temperatures increase by four or five degrees centigrade, none of the experiments we’re going to be having are going to be very pleasant. And the fact remains: all the attempts at voluntary cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have failed. So what do we do?

Unger: First of all, I don’t agree with the idea that climate change is somehow the supreme global harm. The major global danger is the same as its always been: war among the great powers. Everything else is less important, including climate change. And it’s a problem that we cannot escape because it is rooted in the division of the world, which we need, because the alternative to it is worse.

Noema: Your certainty that any alternative to the sovereign state will be worse seems to dismiss a range of possible futures. Yet back in 1987, you wrote, “History really is surprising; it does not just seem that way.” Do you still believe that?

Unger: We now know that there was a time in the history of the universe when the present structural entities did not exist. The basic subatomic structure described by particle physics did not exist, and the laws and constants and symmetries of nature as we now describe them did not apply. The universe has a history. So, history is prior to structure, already cosmologically.

Then we have in the evolution of the universe a series of events that increased this power (that always existed) for the production of the new. Already prior to life in the geological record, we find the creation of novelties, like the formation of crystals. Then comes the mind, consciousness and more. The evolution and ascent of humanity and the development of our powers of agency is related to this enhancement of our ability to create the new. And each of these is a prophecy of more creation of the new. The fundamental reason why reality is surprising is that the new is possible.

This brings me back to our question of governing the world without world government. Whatever we do with respect to the arrangements for the organization of the world, its consequence must not be to suppress or even to diminish our ability to create the new. Because our ability to create the new is our fundamental power.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It has not been revised by the interviewee.