An extract from Chapter 11 of the book Transcending Politics:
11. Nations and supernations
I started this book by covering two reasons why politics urgently needs to be improved:
- Bad politics is obstructing the development and application of important solutions to human problems; via both incompetence and malice, it hinders or forbids what actually deserves to be enabled and encouraged; conversely, it accelerates what actually deserves to be restricted
- Bad politics is creating problems of its own; via misguided overzealous pursuits of half-truths, it increases the likelihood of social alienation, group conflict, and national catastrophe.
As I’ll argue in this chapter, the problems and opportunities of local politics are mirrored and magnified by the problems and opportunities of international politics:
- Bad international politics, via both incompetence and malice, is preventing the adoption of optimal regulatory policies which, in order to be fully effective, would need worldwide endorsement
- Bad international politics is creating problems of its own; via misguided overzealous cross-border pursuits of half-truths, it increases the likelihood of global schism, military conflict, and planetary catastrophe.
In each case – the local and the international – the basic solution is the same: harness technology more wisely and more profoundly than before. To improve politics, what’s needed is a compelling integrative vision setting out the progressive application of enhanced technologies of abundance and enhanced technologies of collaboration.
Improving local politics is an important start, but will ultimately be fruitless unless we can also improve international politics. Even if a country is at peace with itself, it will face numerous risks if the countries around it are plunging deeper into chaos. Borders provide no respite from radioactive fallout, no shelter from extreme weather, and are of little use against determined cyber-intruders.
So let me rephrase the sentence with which I opened this book. There’s no escape: the journey to a healthier society inevitably involves international politics. More precisely, that journey involves the positive technoprogressive transformation of international politics.
If successful, this vision will slow down and then stop those existing political initiatives that are pulling humanity in separate, fractious directions; instead, it will enable a renewed focus on building a comprehensively better future in which everyone benefits.
Assessing international politics
As a prelude to discussing international politics, let’s briefly remind ourselves of the constructive role that politics can play in society. Politics is the process of collectively agreeing which constraints we put on each other’s freedom.
Thus, as members of society, we have the freedom to drive motor vehicles from A to B, but we are constrained by speed limits and other traffic regulations. We have freedom of speech, but are constrained not to whimsically shout out “fire, fire!” in crowded locations. We have the freedom to develop and market new products and services, but we are constrained by various standards of health and safety. We have the freedom to keep a portion of what we earn in employment, but we are constrained to pass a specific portion of these earnings to central authorities by way of taxes. We have the freedom to hire and fire employees, but we are constrained by legislation covering discrimination and unfair dismissal. We have the freedom to prepare to defend ourselves against violent attack, but we are constrained not to exercise disproportionate force in any such defence. All these constraints annoy us or frustrate us from time to time. However, we generally accept that it is better for society that some constraints exist. It’s the (hard) task of politics to figure out which are the right constraints at any one time – and then to oversee their enforcement.
International politics follows these same principles, not at the level of individuals within a local society, but at the level of societies within a global community. International politics is the process of collectively agreeing on constraints we put on national sovereignty.
Thus, nations can prepare to defend themselves against violent aggressors, but are constrained not to carry out certain kinds of tests of nuclear weaponry. Nations have the freedom to exploit the natural resources at their disposal, but are constrained not to unduly damage the international environment as a side-effect. Nations can use measures such as tax relief to support businesses working in their countries, but within constraints so as not to unfairly distort international market dynamics. Nations can determine their own policies on research and development of new products, but are constrained by international moratoria to avoid particularly risky fields of investigation. Just as for the constraints imposed by local politics, these international constraints from time to time cause annoyance and frustration. Nevertheless, most countries recognise that, in principle, greater safety, stability, and prosperity should follow from adoption of appropriate constraints on sovereignty. Just as for local politics, the dilemma is how to agree these constraints – and how to ensure they are fairly enforced.
The extra complication for international politics is that, unlike the level of the nation state, there is no overall governing structure for global relationships. There is no global police force to track down violators to ensure compliance. There is no process of democracy whereby one set of global politicians can be voted out of office, if they are perceived as having failed in their leadership roles. Existing international bodies, such as the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court located in The Hague, have limited powers, which individual countries seem to be able to ignore with impunity.
Some thinkers express gratitude for this lack of an international government. Prime sovereignty, they argue, should remain at the level of the nation state. No international government could be trusted to operate in a way that gains and keeps the assent of the various leading countries of the world. Any such body would be inclined to add extra layers of bureaucracy and interference. It would likely mandate policies that would be an anathema to national self-determination. It would suck up extra taxes, away from local jurisdiction, to serve the needs of globe-trotting administrators and their far-flung interventionist projects. Therefore – according to this viewpoint – any moves to an international government should be resisted.
Similar opposition is often expressed to the idea of “super-state” conglomerations of neighbouring counties. The notion of a European Union committed to “ever closer integration” alarms many observers, who fear the imposition of alien values and the usurpation of local autonomy. These observers believe that citizens could never feel as much loyalty to the European Union as to their nation state (such as Germany, Spain, or the United Kingdom). Thank goodness, they say, for the failures of super-states.
I say, in contrast, that these failures are to be regretted. Without effective, trustworthy mechanisms of global coordination, countries are driven to take matters into their own hands. We end up in a race to the bottom. This makes the world a more dangerous place for all of us.
Indeed, observers in various parts of the world are increasingly concerned about falling under the growing influence of strident “superpowers” such as China or the United States. A world where America politicians are pursuing an international policy of “America First”, or where Chinese politicians are pursuing an international policy of “China First”, is a perilous place for the smaller countries that may be caught in the crossfire or trodden underfoot. It’s no surprise if countries such as Iran and North Korea seek powerful weaponry as bargaining chips against potential global steamrollers. Once grown accustomed to their new-found arsenals, these countries are in no hurry to disarm. Weapons of mass destruction, in the hand, seem to be worth far more than acres of pious hopes.
The prisoner’s dilemma
Arms races involving military weaponry are one example of international politics failing. At each step in such a race, any country which perceives itself as falling behind its potential adversaries can see a logical case to improve its armaments, so as to reduce the chance of it being overpowered in conflict. At the next step in the arms race, the same cold logic applies again, to whichever country now perceives itself as laggard. “Keeping up with the Joneses” has a terrible meaning when each round of expenditure adds extra potency to a growing explosive stockpile. The individually logical steps add up to a tragically illogical outcome.
There can be arms races without earth-shattering physical explosives. Other forms of race include software malware or biological pathogens. Systems described as “defensive” can contribute to the escalation of a race, too; they may spur the other side to improve their offensive capability in order to circumvent the new defensive mechanisms.
Trade wars can, likewise, prove deeply damaging, with countries taking increasingly dramatic economic steps to seek competitive economic advantage.
These are all cases of the “prisoner’s dilemma” model. This occurs when there are two (or more) participants, and the actions that are rationally the best for the individual participants add up to an outcome that is rationally poorer than what could have been achieved if the participants had collaborated.