Global governance projects don’t just foster unaccountable bureaucracies and rule by experts. They are increasingly corrupting the idea of human rights.
Twenty sixteen was not a happy year for globalism. In different ways, Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s decision to exit the European Union represented a rejection of those who view nation-states as a relic of the past and believe that the future belongs to supranational and global institutions.
To be sure, people voted for Trump and Brexit for many reasons. Some, however, mattered more than others. One major factor was surely the sense that the political class—including some who identify as conservative, neoconservative, or classical liberal, and many who live in cities such as Washington DC, London, and Brussels—long ago lost touch with millions of the people they ostensibly serve and represent. The visible disdain with which figures like the European Commission’s outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker viewed anyone who questioned the wisdom of diminishing national sovereignty only compounded that sense of disconnection.
In retrospect, the only surprise is that such a widespread popular reaction against global governance didn’t come sooner. Precisely how these developments will play out remains unclear. They are, however, an occasion to highlight the deep problems underlying the various ambitions for global governance that have long marked progressive opinion in America and Europe.
Modern global governance projects have manifested themselves in Western thought at least since the eighteenth-century. In 1713, a Catholic priest, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, published a book entitled Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (“A Project for Bringing about Perpetual Peace in Europe”). Saint-Pierre was the first modern thinker to make a substantive intellectual case for a type of universal federation of states. This federation, he proposed, would be governed by a Congress and vested with many of the characteristics of sovereignty in order to promote and maintain universal peace among European nations.
Saint-Pierre’s vision was further developed by that most influential of continental late-Enlightenment thinkers, Immanuel Kant. In Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay (1795), Kant called for the establishment of a “league of peace (foedus pacificum).” This “federation,” Kant held, would “extend gradually over all states and thus lead to perpetual peace.” In this regard, Kant was intent on transforming the law of nations that had hitherto regulated relations between states. In Kant’s view, the law of nations served only to circumscribe rather than abolish war. It was also, he claimed, unenforceable in a world of nation-states. Hence it needed to be grounded upon and reshaped by new political arrangements.
While Kant doesn’t quite call for a “world authority” or “world government,” his logic points in that direction. What he variously calls his “free federation” or “continuously growing state consisting of various nations” goes far beyond formal and informal cooperation among sovereign nation-states. In the borderless world of his league of peace, Kant argued, “the human race can gradually be brought closer and closer to a constitution establishing world citizenship.”
Significantly, Kant also maintained that the federation’s rulers should be especially attentive to “the opinion of philosophers.” Philosophers, he stated, bring “enlightenment [to] the business of government.” They are, Kant added, “by nature incapable of plotting and lobbying” and “above suspicion of being made up of propagandists.” Given the role played by philosophers and intellectuals more generally in rationalizing and promoting any number of evils throughout history, Kant’s view of them is either very generous or utterly naïve.
Kant’s commitment to the promotion of transnational political entities that exercise authority, and an enlightened class of intellectual-advisors, manifests itself in contemporary globalist ideologies. These ideologies acquired momentum following the destruction unleashed by the two world wars and the establishment of global and supranational institutions designed in part to check the power of nation-states. In the late 1970s, these developments were paralleled by more and more nations integrating themselves into what we now call the global economy.
The spread of free trade, however, need not imply the adoption of global governance structures. As illustrated by the German economist-philosopher Wilhelm Röpke in his writings on international political economy, the nineteenth century was characterized by widespread economic liberalization and significant reductions in protectionism. Yet, Röpke noted, supranational institutions did not proliferate in the years between 1815 and 1914.
Certainly, national governments during these decades engaged in multilateral cooperation when dealing with cross-border problems such as disease control. They even created a small number of international agencies to coordinate activities such as postal services. Nonetheless, nation-states did not believe that economic globalization required them to surrender their sovereignty to supranational bodies.
Arguments about free trade are part of the contemporary debate about global governance. But the focus of contemporary globalist ideologies and their advocates has never been upon stimulating free trade per se. They are more concerned with promoting trade deals. These are very different from free trade. Moreover, the primary focus of global governance advocates remains the supranational and global centralization of political power, the diminution of national sovereignty, the top-down regulation of all spheres of life across the globe, and the rule of experts.
Good examples of this are the numerous institutions and agencies associated with the most advanced contemporary prototype of global governance: the EU. It has its own parliament, two Presidents (one for the European Council and one for the European Commission), a High Representative for Foreign Policy, a Commission, a Council, a High Court, and a Central Bank. Their activities are supplemented by a Court of Auditors, an Ombudsman, an Investment Bank, and a Committee for Regions. The EU even has its own “Economic and Social Committee” that purports to represent the views of “civil society, employers and employees” to the rest of EU officialdom. There are also no fewer than five different groups of assorted EU agencies, which address questions ranging from energy regulation to banking supervision and vocational training.
To this, we can add the hundreds of NGOs—many of which receive EU funding—that lobby EU commissions, regulators, and agencies to take positions on numerous questions: positions that they may well find harder to advance at local, regional, and national levels of government. In any case, why bother trying to get democratically elected national legislators to adopt particular policies when you can bypass them by getting a binding regulation issued by Brussels bureaucrats that national governments are bound to tamely incorporate into their national laws?
From this standpoint, it’s worth asking if any of these EU commissions and agencies and those who work for them are accountable in any meaningful way to ordinary European citizens. And while some of these organizations, such as the European Union Agency for Railways, serve benign coordinating functions, what do we imagine to be the agendas being promoted by, for example, the European Institute for Gender Equality or the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights? Even a rudimentary search of their websites shows just how far they have embraced ideologies such as the empirically groundless gender theory.
Rights without Reason
This brings us to another dimension of global governance enterprises that should concern us: the vision of the human person and happiness that permeates many of these transnational institutions. Much of this is revealed when we examine some of the ways that supranational organizations talk about the subject of rights.
The days are long past in which people such as the Lebanese Eastern Orthodox academic and diplomat Charles Malik and the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, men steeped in Judeo-Christian humanism and natural law thought, exerted a strong influence on the reflections of global agencies upon human rights. Instead, Nietzschean concepts of freedom increasingly prevail.
In his new book Le dérèglement moral de l’Occident, the French philosopher Philippe Bénéton argues that the entire conception of rights throughout the West hasn’t just been uprooted from its most basic cultural foundations in the civilization formed by the synthesis of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. It has been detached, Bénéton claims, from any substantive account of natural reason. Rights are now seen as grounded in desires and as serving to liberate the individual from any natural or social constraints that might inhibit the realization of such desires.
Bénéton provides fascinating insights into just how much these ideas about rights have become the norm in supranational institutions ranging from the Council of Europe to various United Nations agencies. Drawing on his own experience in similar organizations, Bénéton observes that asking questions about whether a purported right is rooted in anything beyond personal desire is often met with procedural obstructionism, stony silences, accusations of racism or various phobias, and invocations of who-am-I-to-judge-ism. These views might not concern us so much were it not for the fact that they are increasingly the orthodoxy in many institutions that aspire to global governance.
Opposing these ideas and the globalist schemes in which they are increasingly embedded doesn’t imply opposition in principle to cooperation between countries. Nor does it involve exaltation of the nation as the only community that matters. To the extent, however, that national sovereignty puts a powerful check on global governance ambitions and the reign of those who have imbibed deeply of such aspirations, it is surely a very good thing.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared at Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good and was reprinted with permission.