Comedians play an important role in society — they hold a mirror up to us and force us to confront social realities which we might prefer to just ignore.
In his recent address to the UN General Assembly, the caricature of American capitalism turned president, Donald Trump did just this (though most likely unknowingly). Speaking to the leaders of the world, he said:
“As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,”
“All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”
Throughout the entirety of the speech, he used the word sovereignty no fewer than 21 times, making it abundantly clear that the path that he envisions for the world rests upon the attempted coordination of inherently self-interested sovereign states.
This view of the world is flawed, outdated and is increasingly becoming more dangerous.
It hasn’t always been this way though. The social construct of the sovereign state has brought us to where we are today, and by nearly all measures, we now live in the greatest time in history. Poverty is at historic lows, our technological capabilities border on the magical, and it’s reasonable to assume that within the next few decades, humanity will truly become a space-faring species.
Sovereignty is rightly heralded as the foundation for the current state of order we find ourselves in.
It’s defined as:
Supreme power and authority over a territory and its domestic affairs
In 1648, the ’30 years War’, which resulted in the deaths of over 8 million people and bankrupted most of its combatants, was brought to an end by the signing of a number of peace treaties which together have been called the ‘Peace of Westphalia’. International relations scholars point this moment as the birth of the sovereign state. The signing of these treaties and the unanimous acceptance of the social construct of sovereignty meant that countries could pursue their own interests without fear of interference from external sources.
Instead of worrying about conquest (most of the time), countries could focus on improving living standards and building infrastructure — elevating the human condition for those within.
Up until recent years, the effects a country could have were localised. They simply didn’t have the firepower, population, or energy at their disposal to have substantial impacts on the planet.
We now live in a very different age.
Today, the actions of a country, even the decisions of a single man or woman, can have dire global consequences. Over the past two centuries, the power in our hands has grown radically. We’ve created weapons that, if deployed, could end life as we know it on earth (we’ve had a few close calls already). We dig up and burn fossil-fuels in such volumes that it’s having a drastic, runaway effect on climate change. Our capabilities have grown to such a degree that we are warping the very womb from which we sprung. Does our collective wisdom grow in proportion to our power?
The threats that we face today can’t be held back by borders. They are global issues that require global coordination to face. Worse still, the actions or inaction of one country alone could bring about ruin to the rest of the world, regardless of the territory from which these actions arise.
Shackled by the constraints of sovereignty, countries owe a duty to their citizens and their citizens alone. They act accordingly to the detriment of the global community in classic cases of the tragedy of the commons. These manifest in the forms of climate change, deforestation and overfishing to name just a few.
Bangladesh is one country that is already feeling the disastrous impacts of rising sea levels due to climate change.
This country of 163 million people is affected by a flood every four to five years that is severe enough to cover 60% of the country. A 3ft rise in sea levels (something which we’re apparently already ‘locked-in’ for) could displace over 30 million people in the country.
In the Pacific Islands, the people of Kiribati have had to buy land 2000km away for agricultural and fish-farming projects to ensure the nation’s food security. It could be one of the first countries wiped off the map due to rising sea levels.
This is just the beginning.
Should these countries have to shoulder the burden indirectly placed on them by the cumulative actions of countries around the world? How can a country care for its people when they’re vulnerable to threats of a global scale? And what of the people who are stateless? In a world filled with nation states whose duty it is to provide for its citizens, who will provide for those that have slipped through the cracks?
Should we have a say on the decisions that will undoubtedly influence our lives, even though they occur within foreign sovereign states? Is our freedom being violated in some way?
Countries simply don’t have as much control over their fates as they used to. The lives of many are dictated by the whims of people who live on the other side of the world. The self-serving tendencies of nation states now weaken them in a world of interconnectedness and interdependence one couldn’t have imagined a few centuries ago.
What about the UN?
In the middle of the 20th century, a time of unparalleled global instability, the United Nations was created to promote international co-operation and to create and maintain international order.
Unfortunately, the UN is unable to enforce what is deemed to be globally acceptable, as state sovereignty reigns supreme. While some weaker countries are forced to submit to the will of the collective, the superpowers of the world hold too much power to be coerced into putting global interests ahead of national interests. Equality between nation-states only exists on paper — in reality, there are only a few juggernauts who hold our future in their hands. These are the permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
These five major powers also hold the authority to employ the use of force in accordance with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a global political commitment endorsed by all member states of the UN to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The R2P came to be because it was felt that there were some things that the global collective wouldn’t stand for. Inherent in the nature of sovereignty is the responsibility of states to protect the populations within their borders. If this responsibility is shirked, external interference can be justified. Human rights should be placed above national interests.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t been as effective as hoped. It has been made clear that the complicated, antagonistic nature of superpower-politics supersedes the need for the resolution of ongoing depraved crimes against humanity occurring across the world.
Some contemporary examples of this include the conflict in Syria and the genocide of the stateless Rohingya people in Myanmar.
Moving beyond the Nation State
Countries have a life of their own. Like all of life, the drive for self-preservation is paramount. It’s unreasonable to assume that a united world will be brought about by the actions of short-sighted, self-interested sovereign states.
“Rome wasn’t unbuilt in a day”
Instead, the responsibility lies with the people of the world. You. When it comes to identity, the choice lies with the individual. Who are you? Are you defined by the country that you were born in? Or the city you live in now? What about your religion or job?
As the days progress, more and more people view themselves as a part of the global community. A BBC World Service Poll in 2016 showed that over half of the people surveyed in emerging economies saw themselves first and foremost as global citizens.
Perhaps it’s time we recognise this shared identity with a Global Citizenship, a citizenship for all. Digital citizenships already exist — you can now become an digital citizen of Estonia. With this digital identity, you can register a company based in the EU and run it completely online, digitally sign contracts and other documents, and get access to global online payment providers.
Why don’t we do the same, but use it as a means of recognising our global identity?
What sort of services could we provide digitally to the billions of people in the world? What will we be able to do in 5 years?
This is a choice we can make. If enough of us come together and believe in it, there’s no reason why something like this couldn’t come to be.
Deconstructing sovereignty or altering it radically so that it’s compatible with the needs of the 21st century is no simple task. Rome wasn’t unbuilt in a day. But no matter how great a challenge we face, it’s better than walking the tightrope of uncertainty we stand precariously on today.
We can’t know what the global political institutions of the future will look like. What we do know is that we face problems the likes of which have never been faced by humanity. We know that these problems require global coordination and collaboration. We know that we all call this green and blue rock hurtling through space home and that we are bound by our humanity. Let us act accordingly and respond to these global challenges. Together.
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