In a coincidental (some would say providential) piece of timing, one of the Vatican’s departments published a paper a fortnight ago on global financial and monetary reforms, leading commentators to draw links to the ongoing Occupy movement and wave of protests: “If Vatican cardinals have yet to join the Occupy Wall Street protesters, a document released by the Holy See calling for a “world authority” to crack down on capitalism suggests some are considering it”.
A specific theme addressed in the main text addresses the question of regulation of financial markets, in a larger context of striving towards “recognizing the primacy of being over having and of ethics over the economy”, emerging with suggestions of a “world political Authority” to manage and regulate processes of globalization.
I’ll return to this idea, and its echoes of world government, later, but there is a fascinating piece of commentary elsewhere in the document, in its concluding section, on one of the fundamental questions of international relations: how to build and sustain international order, and what the rules and principles that govern international life are.
This vision of international order is a breathlessly liberal one, emphasizing global interdependence in its challenges to traditional notions of state sovereignty, and worth quoting at length (emphases added):
“Modern States became structured wholes over time and reinforced sovereignty within their own territory. But social, cultural and political conditions have gradually changed. Their interdependence has grown – so it has become natural to think of an international community that is integrated and increasingly ruled by a shared system – but a worse form of nationalism has lingered on, according to which the State feels it can achieve the good of its own citizens in a self-sufficient way.
“Today all of this seems anachronistic and surreal, and all the nations, great or small, together with their governments, are called to go beyond the “state of nature” which would keep States in a never-ending struggle with one another. Globalization, despite some of its negative aspects, is unifying peoples more and prompting them to move towards a new “rule of law” on the supranational level, supported by a more intense and fruitful collaboration. With dynamics similar to those that put an end in the past to the “anarchical” struggle between rival clans and kingdoms with regard to the creation of national states, today humanity needs to be committed to the transition from a situation of archaic struggles between national entities, to a new model of a more cohesive, polyarchic international society that respects every people’s identity within the multifaceted riches of a single humanity. Such a passage, which is already timidly under way, would ensure the citizens of all countries – regardless of their size or power – peace and security, development, and free, stable and transparent markets…
“So conditions exist for definitively going beyond a ‘Westphalian’ international order in which the States feel the need for cooperation but do not seize the opportunity to integrate their respective sovereignties for the common good of peoples.It is the task of today’s generation to recognize and consciously to accept these new world dynamics for the achievement of a universal common good…
“The birth of a new society and the building of new institutions with a universal vocation and competence are a prerogative and a duty for everyone, with no distinction. What is at stake is the common good of humanity and the future itself…”
In a few short paragraphs, it completely upends the conventional wisdom about how international politics is conducted. For what is being envisioned is nothing less than a radical, wholesale transformation of world politics – a shift to a sort of world society, but one that is fundamentally underpinned by a transformation in the human moral condition as an ethical, normative imperative. In this aspect, this description of the world doesn’t seem too far removed from the liberal peace imagined by Immanuel Kant, where basic relationships among political entities are changed in a more peaceable direction. For Kant, this possibility of ‘perpetual peace’ was the result of the spread of democracy – an ever-expanding zone of peace as the number of democratic republics expands, because of the caution, transparency and respect for individual rights that democracies engender.
The tenor of the document’s authors, however, remind me more of the liberals writing in between the first and second world wars – searching for a way out of senseless war, believing that humans were inherently peaceable, and therefore, that new mechanisms would be needed to realize this possibility, such as the collective security of the League of Nations. The imperative here is different from Kant’s, however: rather than peace being a characteristic inexorably growing out of the type of governance that societies possess, the mechanisms sustaining peaceful relations would have be strived for, a conscious choice a bit like having to climb up to some higher plateau.
It it this second liberal conviction that seems to characterize the Pontifical Council’s thinking – that a post-Westphalian progress must involve a conscious effort, urged onwards to reach a higher plane that transcends – and rejects – the Hobbesian state of nature of international anarchy. It is cosmopolitan all the way down in its recurring emphasis on a larger level of collective identification as to where our loyalties lie – that from clans and kingdoms, we are now states, and from states, we might next be truly global citizens. Perhaps like the interwar liberals, the ethical necessity of global community takes shape against a darkening backdrop of economic recession, threats of beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism and closed borders, and moral confusion at the intersection of economics and human society. In this regard, this model is decidedly different to the Christian pessimism of Reinhold Niebuhr, who saw in man’s moral nature, the tragedy of immoral society, unable to transcend power (and sin), and that struggles for progress may themselves lead to calamity.
In this mix of description and prescription, liberalism and cosmopolitanism, is the promise of reaching the ‘common good’ that infuses Catholic social thought. The hard-nosed student of world politics might be tempted to dismiss it as the stuff of pipe-dreams. But while this is certainly not the world of tomorrow, it is at least a model of the world some years or decades down the road – and in its audacious clarity, will perhaps lay down a marker for the sort of world that we might want, even if it is at the very end of the day.