A BRIEF HISTORY

Where did the concept of global governance come from?

The global governance structures seen in the world today are the product of a lengthy trajectory shaped by historical failures and successes alike. The ideal of universal political cooperation among global actors to manage shared problems is not a new idea, but has only been embodied in concrete institutions in the last century. Attempts at global governance face the hurdle of being tasked with solving humanity’s most pressing and enduring challenges while respecting the circumstances of individual nation states and other diverse communities. While most recognize the need for national legislative bodies to enact laws, an executive to implement them and to run the government, judiciaries endowed with the power to interpret and apply the law, central banks to issue currency and manage aspects of economies, and police forces to guarantee the safety of citizens, there is inadequate discussion on the extent to which structures performing similar functions should exist at the supranational level.

The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

— Albert Einstein, 1946

Charles Castel de Saint Pierre, 1658-1743

Early Visions

Against the background of episodic phases of political instability and violence, history is replete with calls for exploring alternative political arrangements or methods of organizing global human affairs in a way that would be more conducive to an international rule of law. For instance, in the wake of recurring, devastating continental wars, the French cleric Charles Castel de Saint Pierre (1658-1743) called for the creation of a European Confederation in his Plan for the Perpetual Peace in Europe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau later adapted his ideas to call for the creation of confederative government to end the “perpetual dissensions, brigandage, usurpations, rebellions, wars, and murders” of Europe which had long distracted people from more productive pursuits.
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787

The League of Nations

Acting on this model to remedy the nationalist maladies that precipitated World War I, US president Woodrow Wilson championed the institutionalization of global governance. He sought to abandon isolationism in favor of more robust engagement with the world. In his vision, the League of Nations “would be founded on a moral principle, the universal opposition to military aggression as such, whatever its source, its target, or its proclaimed justification.” The League eventually failed because of the destructive power of lingering nationalism and militarism, deeply embedded in the national consciousness of its member countries, something that the League was too weak to reverse or cure on its own. As conceived in its Covenant, the League had very weak enforcement mechanisms for violation of its articles and thus was not an effective mechanism to restrain some of its signatories from violating its key provisions, as happened with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland and Mussolini’s incursions in Ethiopia.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1882-1945

The United Nations

Within three weeks of entering the Second World War, US President Franklin Roosevelt set up in early 1942 an Advisory Committee on Post-War Foreign Policy under the direction of then-Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary Sumner Welles. The aim of the Committee and, in particular, its Permanent International Organization subcommittee was to work on the design of an organization that would secure global peace and security while avoiding some of the weaknesses associated with the League of Nations. It is important to note that, until October of 1943, much of the global governance thinking largely led by by the United States centered on the future establishment of some type of international entity founded on federalist principles, not unlike in conception to the model adopted by the United States during its Constitutional Convention in 1787. The League eventually failed because of the destructive power of lingering nationalism and militarism, deeply embedded in the national consciousness of its member countries, something that the League was too weak to reverse or cure on its own. As conceived in its Covenant, the League had very weak enforcement mechanisms for violation of its articles and thus was not an effective mechanism to restrain some of its signatories from violating its key provisions, as happened with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland and Mussolini’s incursions in Ethiopia.
Opening Session of the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations, 1944

Reconsidering the UN

Following the establishment of the United Nations, the global governance debate has continued to evolve. The key objective remains striking a balance between the need to ensure that the UN will be able to deliver peace and security and achieve the other goals laid out in the Charter, and the need to retain appropriate powers at the national level. Dissatisfied with the UN Charter and against the background of the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a group of US-based intellectuals formed The Committee to Frame a World Constitution. The committee met from November 1945 to July 1947 at the University of Chicago.
The United Nations’ 193 flags

Looking Forward

Today, we are again at a turning point. Multilateralism is under threat. Passions of narrow nationalism, however maladapted to a globalized world, are currently experiencing a resurgence in some quarters rather than receding. The future of global governance, and perhaps of civilization itself, depends on our ability to reconcile somehow political realism, the scientific facts of a limited planet under serious stress, the fears generated by rapid change and the hopes of finally achieving a just and intensively cooperating world. Without reform in global governance, we risk a downward spiral of disintegration into an intensified anarchy of absolute national sovereignty in a globalized world, made more dangerous by our advanced technologies for destruction and the destabilization of the life support systems of our planetary environment.

Inspiring Visionaries

The concepts essential to global governance have been illumined throughout history. They are foundational to the ideas proposed by the Forum. We want to recognize some of the visionaries that have inspired our work.

Important Historical Documents

View some of the original texts that have shaped the course of governance as we know it today.

Grenville Clark: Dumbarton Oaks Plans Held in Need of Modification (1944)
United Nations Charter (1945)
The Treaty of Rome (1957)
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (2017)
Cord Meyer: A Serviceman Looks at Peace (1945)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

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