Three times in the 20th Century elite groups propelled by imperial ambition plunged the world into disastrous wars. Amidst growing signs that we are going down that same path again it has become imperative to broaden understanding of why the world is in such a mess and what can be done to deal with it. In particular, it is necessary to know how the United Nations must change if it is to succeed in its Charter aim of establishing a world without war. To those ends this two-part article provides a new narrative of modern international cooperation, telling of its rationale, experience and prospects. It looks both at the systemic and structural underpinnings of international cooperation and conflict as well as the superstructures of power relationships and policy that steer history.
The Roots of Cooperation Historians are prone to note the congregation of Europe’s crowned heads at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) as the precursor of modern multilateral organizations; but there is little real link between them. The roots of the United Nations lie instead in the scientific and industrial revolutions that required cross-border cooperation to set common measures and use standardized technologies, in particular the telegraph, the railroad and the steamship. In 1865 the International Telegraph Union was established in Paris. Today it is the oldest Specialized Agency of the United Nations System; renamed International Telecommunications Union in 1932, it now helps steer global cooperation as the latest wave of transforming technology pushes us ever deeper into the Information Age.
The second oldest UN Agency, the Universal Postal Union (UPU), was created in 1874 because the steamship and railroad created such a boom in the volume of international mail that it swamped the old system of bilateral postal agreements. The International Meteorological Organization, precursor of the World Meteorological Organization, was founded a year before the UPU but it was officially replaced by the WMO in 1951. The push to found the IMO came from naval and shipping interests seeking to use the new telegraphic capability to share information on changing weather conditions.
The Roots of War At the same time as industrial technologies promoted cooperation they also spawned conflict. That happened because industrialization created two revolutionary new classes in European societies, one composed of business entrepreneurs who built factories and the other of factory workers. International competition among the former over foreign raw materials and markets gave a new edge to colonial wars. The latter, victimized first by factory owners and then by leaders promising violent escape from exploitation, was infected globally with ideas of class conflict and the dream of dominion.
The First World War The European “scramble” for African colonies in the last quarter of the 19th Century segued into intensifying competition between Britain and Germany that led into the First World War (1914-1918). It was expected to last a few months and be much the same as traditional conflicts; it stretched into years of brutal trench warfare with machine guns and poison gas. At the time it was history’s most murderous conflict, killing over 10 million young people, the flower of a generation in Europe’s largest nations. During the war a revolution in Russia established the Soviet Union as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and set off seven decades of ideologically driven oppression and conflict around the world.
The League of Nations The “war to end all wars” concluded with American intervention under President Woodrow Wilson who made the Covenant of the League of Nations part of the peace treaty. But the US Senate would not ratify the Covenant so the League was dominated by the same imperial Powers responsible for the war. Based in Geneva, the League had hundreds of employees (711 at its peak), an International Labor Office (ILO) and an International Health Office (IHO). The League was a response to war, the ILO to Communism and the IHO to the deadly influenza pandemic that in one year (1918-1919), killed more people than the war, anywhere between 20 and 40 million.
The League began well but the aggressive instincts of its most powerful members could not be contained. They manifested first in international trade. In the belief that “strong nations” maximized exports and minimized imports, they took to blatant manipulation of currency exchange rates and tariffs but succeeded only in so destabilizing international markets as to drive an increasing number of private traders out of business. The result was rapidly shrinking trade: American imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932, while US exports to Europe fell from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. World trade as a whole fell by some 66 per cent between 1929 and 1934.
The Second World War As trade shrank it caused a vicious spiral of closed factories, increased unemployment and falling consumption, a process that came to be described as “the Great Depression” of the 1930s. Amidst its mass misery fascist demagogues rose to power in Europe and when Hitler began rearming Germany all countries followed suit. That began an inexorable slide into a war more horrible than anyone had imagined: its “battlefields” expanded to cover the whole productive infrastructure of nations, including their populous cities, factories, mines, trains, food and water supply systems. The carpet-bombing of civilian targets during the war and the use of nuclear bombs to end it left much of Europe and Japan in rubble and made clear another general conflict would end civilization.
The United Nations in Concept Well before the war ended President Franklin Roosevelt initiated planning on a new peace organization. The planners drew a lesson from the fact that the war had killed the League but not the earlier technical agencies; they conceived of the United Nations as a primarily political organization coordinating a number of autonomous economic and socially oriented Specialized Agencies. Among the new agencies were the League’s offices for worker’s welfare and disease control spun off as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). A Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) were entirely new. So were the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, conceived to work in tandem to revive the world economy: countries could get reconstruction loans from the Bank only if they agreed to join the system of fixed currency exchange rates supervised by the IMF.
A comprehensive World Trade Organization was proposed to work closely with the World Bank-IMF partnership but it was abandoned in favor of a more limited General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that did no more than negotiate a reduction of the thickets of restrictions thrown up in the previous decades. (In 1995 it was replaced with a comprehensive World Trade Organization.)
The UN itself was planned with several Organs. A General Assembly of 51 founding members (now 193) exercised overweening deliberative, legislative financial and directive responsibilities. A small Security Council of 11 (15 now), with five militarily powerful “permanent members” – Britain, China, France, Soviet Union (now Russian Federation) and the United States – had primary charge of maintaining international peace and security. An Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of 18 members (54 now), was meant to coordinate the Specialized Agencies. In the expectation that the imperial Powers would put all non-self-governing territories under UN care the Charter provided for a Trusteeship Council made up of the Permanent Members of the Security Council. To support the work of all these organs the UN Charter called for a Secretary-General and staff (Secretariat) loyal only to the Organization and pledged not to take instructions from any State.
Things Fall Apart In important ways the UN System never had a chance to work as it was conceived. Less than two months after the adoption of the UN Charter the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed the strategic concept on which the Security Council was based. As the Soviet Union lost the advantage of its massive conventional forces in Europe, Winston Churchill’s March 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech unleashed the Cold War, paralyzing the Security Council and engulfing the Secretariat in pressures that made independence impossible and integrity difficult. ECOSOC was unable to coordinate the Specialized Agencies effectively because each had its own governing body and agenda. Only 11 non-self-governing territories were put under the Trusteeship Council, 10 of them left over "mandated territories" from the League of Nations; decolonization of the large European Empires took a different route (see below).
In the case of the IMF and World Bank the original concept worked well for a while and then was overcome by events. The IMF’s fixed rate currency exchange system served as a firm floor for the recovery of Europe and Japan but the imbalances created by the huge flow of dollars out of the United States led in 1972 to the collapse of the system of fixed currency exchange rates. As that was happening, the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the price of oil four-fold. Hit with dramatic drops in the value of their currencies and the sudden rise in the cost of energy, poor oil importing countries were buried under unsustainable loads of debt. Globally, there was “stagflation” – a combination of economic stagnation and high inflation.
How the Cold War Began The Cold War was the most important of the negative factors that impacted the United Nations at birth. To understand how it came about we have to look back to the November 1943 Tehran Conference at which the leaders of Britain, Soviet Union and the United States agreed on strategy for the final phase of the war. Prime Minister Winston Churchill sought reassurance from President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain would get a special dispensation as the United States pushed to end European empires. He did not get it. Instead, the president joined with Stalin in ridiculing Churchill, infuriating the older man.
Subsequently, at dinner with Churchill and Stalin, Roosevelt suffered a sudden collapse that was immediately suspected to be poison but was later ascribed to “stomach flu.” His health never recovered; after two more similar attacks over the next year he died suddenly in April 1945 while having a bowl of broth. The cause of death was said to be a “brain hemorrhage” but neither that nor any of his other reported ailments could be verified because his medical file disappeared from a locked safe at Washington’s Bethesda Naval Hospital. During the last decade several efforts to present Roosevelt’s premature death as “natural” have appeared on the Internet and in scholarly works such as Jay Winik’s 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History; but the alternative has to be given serious consideration in view of what transpired immediately afterwards.
Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman had no experience in world affairs. Less than a year after he took over, Churchill was in Washington, presenting his rejected proposal for a special US-UK special relationship – not to the President but to Admiral William Leahy the coordinator of American military chiefs. On the basis of their discussion Churchill drafted what came to be known as the “Iron Curtain” speech, making the case for “growing friendship and mutual understanding” between the United States and the British Empire to confront the Soviet Union.
In the face of the strong and uniformly critical media response to the speech – everyone from the Wall Street Journal on the Right to The Nation on the Left viewed it as a disastrous mistake – Truman said he had not known what Churchill was going to say. According to Truman biographer David McCullough, the president had not read a copy of the speech given to him on the train to Fulton, Missouri (where Churchill spoke). McCullough did not note how odd it was that Truman received so late, a speech on a critically important issue prepared by his primary military aide in consultation with a foreign leader. No matter how the matter is finessed, it cannot be denied that Churchill had, in fact, engineered a military coup against Truman and reversed Roosevelt’s firm rejection of a “special relationship” between America and Britain. He had also engaged a new and unconstitutional nexus of power in Washington that President Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman, termed the “military-industrial complex.”
What happened during the Cold War The history of the Cold War has been heavily propagandized, especially its origins. One of the perceptions shaped by propaganda is that the Cold War was mainly a US-Soviet power struggle. While there was certainly a global strategic face-off and endless tactical gambits by both sides, the most malign international processes of the period, the ones that affected most countries and people, did not emanate from Moscow or Washington but from Europe’s imperial Powers seeking to protect their "interests" in the so-called “Third World” (see points 1 to 4 below). The two Super Powers, in contrast, were involved early in efforts to wind down their confrontation.
Disarmament Both Moscow and Washington were very aware of the dangers of rampant militarization and in 1961 presidential Special envoys John I. McCloy of the United States (Assistant Secretary for War under Roosevelt), and Valerian A. Zorin of the USSR agreed on the principles and sequencing of steps leading to general and complete disarmament. They envisaged the following steps
The General Assembly unanimously endorsed the accord on 20 December 1961 by resolution 1722 (XVI). Less than two years later President Kennedy was assassinated and the McCloy-Zorin initiative died with him. It remains, however, as a blueprint that can be activated when political circumstances permit.
Four Cold War Processes
1. A New Colonialism: The declaration of a global ideological war allowed Europe’s imperial Powers to shape-shift into the leaders of the “Free World” and go about rearranging “decolonization” in their own best interests. In India, the first to get the treatment, a state-fomented tide of religious strife split the country, killing 3 million in a few weeks and creating 14 million refugees in their own land. The new country thus created was held together only by militant “Islam” and the military, with command of both vested in an intelligence service established by a serving officer of the colonial army. The first “India-Pakistan war over Kashmir” was arranged when the armies of both countries were still under colonial commanders and “Mountbatten, the Last Viceroy” had become India’s “First Governor General.” Similar bloody processes overtook decolonization in every resource-rich or strategically important country. In Burma/Myanmar the entire anti-colonial leadership was assassinated in parliament prior to the transfer of power. In Viet Nam, an anti-colonial struggle mutated into a prolonged proxy war that killed anywhere from 1.3 million to 3.5 million people. Other countries in South East Asia suffered similar situations and proportionate losses.
In Africa the list of blood-lettings was long. A million were killed in Algeria’s struggle for independence. The independence of the Congo, among the most richly endowed countries in Africa, was immediately sabotaged, Dag Hammarskjold killed as he attempted to rectify that, and the country thrown into a semi-permanent state of war that continues six decades later. Angola and Mozambique, also naturally rich, were plunged into prolonged, supposedly ideological civil wars. Sierra Leone suffered a savage insurgency that plundered its rich diamond mines. There were sponsored genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. The fabled mineral wealth of South Africa fell under racist apartheid which extended its tyranny to Namibia. A tribal movement in Kenya to recover expropriated land was met with the torture and indiscriminate murder of some 100,000 “terrorists.” Uganda saw its multicultural society disintegrate in violence. Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan had successive bloody military coups and insurrections. In Latin America, savage, long-running guerrilla wars and waves of repression spread terror.
All this was blamed on the institutional weaknesses of local societies, the cupidity of their leaders and the surreal “resource curse” dreamed up by apologists of the new colonialism. The cartels and shell companies that arranged the mayhem and drained wealth out of the victimized countries got minimal attention. Overall, the proxy conflicts of the ostensibly “Cold” War killed an estimated 100 million people.
2. Drug Trafficking: Opium was the most valuable item in colonial trade and its 1912 ban under American insistence only enhanced its value. Under cover of the Cold War drug trafficking became global: in the 1970s a Colombian gangster with connections built an airstrip in the Crown territory of the Bahamas and began exporting cocaine on an industrial scale to North America and Europe. The banks founded by opium traders in the 19th Century, especially London-based HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), remained dominant in laundering drug money in both hemispheres. Working with armies of shell corporations and some 70 off-shore “tax havens” (most of them set up in the decades after World War II), they managed a multi-trillion dollar black market economy servicing organized crime around the world. The much ballyhooed “war on drugs” had little effect because a vast flow of dirty money overcame all resistance in political systems, intelligence agencies and police forces. In effect, the drug trade integrated the different “Empires” of the colonial era into a single global criminal jurisdiction profiting all the same elite groups. (“Transparency International” lives up to its name by consistently looking through all this to see corruption as a national cultural variable. Its annual corruption index takes no notice at all of the giant transnational banks that feed from and foster organized crime.)
3. The Rise of “Extremist Islam:” The root causes of “extremist Islam” lie in 19th Century colonial manipulations in India after its 1857 war of independence, and later, in Arabia and Egypt. To punish Indian Muslims for their participation in the 1857 war the great liberal Madrassahs of Delhi were closed and the social/intellectual elite they had produced was dispersed and impoverished. That rendered a part of the Muslim community in North India vulnerable to colonial "divide and rule" policies that evolved some decades later into a campaign of violent hate and fear that pushed it into supporting the creation of Pakistan. In the Middle East there was a similar decapitation of liberal Muslim leadership. It was done there by the colonial creation of two historically unprecedented entities, Saudi Arabia with its extremely intolerant Wahhabi creed and the fascist Muslim Brotherhood founded with financial help from the Suez Canal Company in the zone of Egypt it controlled. Before and during the Cold War, Wahhabism and the Brotherhood killed off or weakened all progressive leadership in the Middle East, ensuring the sterility of Muslim responses to all political challenges, especially those thrown up as a desperate and traumatized Zionism encountered a rising but equally wounded Arab nationalism.
During the Cold War Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated to field the Mujaheddin fighting force in Afghanistan. To maintain “plausible deniability,” the war was financed by trafficking opium and heroin out of Afghanistan, which became in a decade the source of 90 per cent of the world’s illicit supply of those drugs. After the end of the Cold War in 1989 the Mujaheddin split into the international al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden and the domestic Afghan Taliban which kept control of opium production. The ISI continued to be in charge of the logistics of processing and export. In short order “jihadi” terrorist groups spread along the export routes passing through Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
A more organic source of extremism is rooted in the ancient bitterness between Sunni and Shia Muslims that was revived with Ayatollah Khomeini’s venomous ascent to power in Iran, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that followed, and the terrorist attacks on Shia minorities throughout the Middle East and Pakistan. The revenge exacted by Iraq’s majority Shia government in the wake of the second Gulf War opened the door for Islamic State. To summarize: “extremist Islam” is a colonial creation manipulated into its current forms during the Cold War; it has become the mask of terrorist organized crime groups profiting the same elites that fought the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.
4. The Business of War: The business interests of the “military-industrial complex” blossomed as the Cold War manufactured international confrontations and crises, driving up military expenditures by all States. (The Cold War peak was over $1 trillion a year.) Constant improvements in the technologies of death contributed to the instability and to the profits. The most obvious aspect of this was the proliferation of nuclear weapons. India went nuclear by its own efforts; Israel (according to the American Federation of Scientists), did so with French help; the Soviet Union helped China into the nuclear club, which then passed on the expertise sequentially to Pakistan and North Korea.
Deadly chemical and biological weapons also proliferated; there is no agreed factual narrative of how that happened. An army of conspiracy theorists believe the AIDS virus was developed in the Belgian Congo in the 1950s and spread initially in Africa through smallpox inoculations. A team of scientists has refuted that scenario and advanced the theory that the virus “jumped” naturally to human hosts from the monkey population of West Africa. The narratives of other deadly viruses are not without some evidence of malign intent. The last laboratory samples of the smallpox virus were supposed to have been destroyed in 1999 after the disease was definitively eradicated in nature; instead, they seem to have been kept for obscure experimentation. There was an active search to find samples of the 1919 flu virus. It was extracted from Arctic permafrost, brought in for laboratory explorations, and its genetic information published on the Internet, easily accessible to terrorists (establishing "plausible deniability" in case of future use).
Not much is known about the origins of new viruses like Ebola, Marburg, SARS and Bird Flu and there is a cloud over the ostensible discovery of a “superbug” in Delhi. (The Lancet published a paper announcing the discovery but refused to carry a protest from one of its Indian authors alleging that the published version was a distortion.) The latest additions to the roster are the Zika virus and a new “superbug” that CNN reported on 28 May had killed 23,000 people in the United States. Other weapons disguised as natural occurrences reportedly involve environmental modification technologies able to create earthquakes and tidal waves. The news media, brought to heel everywhere by corporate takeovers and the pressures of the Cold War, have reported all this in small print and sotto voce, leaving the reality of Daddy Warbucks and Dr. Strangelove entirely in the theatrical realm.
The Secretary-General as Political Football The crippling effect of the Cold War on the United Nations is nowhere clearer than in its Secretariat. The Soviet Union did not accept the basic concept of an independent civil service and kept a tight grip on the appointments and promotions of its nationals. The United States, in the grip of McCarthy era paranoia, instituted mandatory security checks for its nationals and opened an FBI office at UN headquarters. With the exception of China (which for almost three decades was represented at the UN by Taiwan), the Permanent Members of the Security Council laid claim to top-level jobs. The disrespect of the Secretariat has been most obvious in the selection and treatment meted out to the eight men who have held the post of Secretary-General; each has been in greater or lesser degree, a political football
Trygvie Lie (pronounced Lee), a Labor politician from Norway, never knew what hit him after the Cold War began. His firm support of the Korean War won instant Soviet disapproval. After the United States side-stepped a Soviet veto in the Security Council and extended Lie’s term in office through the General Assembly, no Eastern Bloc diplomat would even shake the Secretary-General’s hand or speak to him at social functions.
Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden entered the “License to Kill” area of the imperial Powers when he went to bat for the newly won independence of what had been Belgian Congo. While on a peace mission to the region his aircraft crashed, killing all on board. There was immediate talk of a conspiracy but no conclusive evidence; new findings indicating the craft was shot down led the UN to reopen the investigation in 2015.
U Thant of Burma got the UN top job with American support after waiting out a Soviet bid to have an ideological “Troika” head the UN. However, when the Secretary-General began speaking out on the escalating Viet Nam War, the Johnson administration came down on him like a ton of bricks. The Secretary-General declined a second term and accepted it only after a written assurance from the United States that he could speak his mind; his capacity to do so was, however, limited by mouth cancer.
Kurt Waldheim of Austria had been an ex-Nazi SS officer accused of war crimes during World War II, a fact he kept secret by lying about his past. There is no way the P-5 could not have known about that so he was obviously picked to be Secretary-General because they could control him. Under Waldheim spies and informers proliferated throughout the Secretariat and its quality deteriorated markedly.
Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru had the personal integrity and diplomatic skill to take advantage of the winding down of the Cold War to end long-running proxy conflicts in Namibia, Cambodia and Central America. Despite his success the organization came close to bankruptcy as the Reagan administration withheld ever larger chunks of its mandatory contributions to the UN budget.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt had a one-term stint as Secretary-General marked by disastrous UN involvements in Rwanda, Iraq and the Balkans.
Kofi Annan of Ghana succeeded in getting the United States to return to full funding of the UN budget but relations with Washington became irreparable after he told the BBC in 2004 that the American-led war in Iraq was “illegal.”
Ban ki-moon of South Korea got the job because the P-5 reportedly regarded him as “safe.” He has not disappointed on that count.
The Cold War in Perspective
Beyond its paralyzing dichotomies and corruptions the Cold War had a number of paradoxical effects on the UN:
The Group of 77 African and Asian member States were distrustful of the imperial Powers pretending to be leaders of the “Free World” and chose to avoid the East-West divide. In 1964, Latin American countries joined them to create a caucus of all 77 developing countries in the UN (now 134). The Group of 77 developed a strategic unity and orientation that has been maintained for over 50 years. Although overtly focused only on economic and social issues, G-77 habits of consultation and consensus-formation came to pervade the consideration of all issues on the UN agenda. Thus, during negotiations on the Convention on the Law of the Sea developing countries maintained overall coordination as they dealt fluidly with a host of sub-groups and special interests. It is difficult to imagine how developing countries could have developed such a consultative habit outside the framework of the Cold War.
Development as Priority Pressure from a united G-77 has pushed all UN institutions to assign high priority to the economic and social development needs of developing countries. At a time when the influential Club of Rome was sounding alarms about “Limits to Growth” the UN’s new Environment and Habitat programs were placed firmly in the context of economic and social development. When the work of ECOSOC’s Statistical Commission brought to sight a number of new challenges ranging from demographic and environmental changes to the crime wave let loose by the global spread of drug trafficking, the development priority of the G-77 infused all UN responses.
South-South Cooperation After its failure in the 1970s to negotiate a New International Economic Order the G-77 moved its unity out of conference rooms and into technical “South-South Cooperation” (SSC). That evolution promoted the attitudes, skill-sets and institutions that allowed developing countries to emerge as the primary drivers of world economic growth after the financial crisis of 2008.
North-South Partnership The Charter makes no mention of technical assistance for economic and social development but it is now the largest sector of UN activity. That happened because of the Cold War competition for “Third World” hearts and minds. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, multilateral technical assistance through the UN System engages developed and developing countries in a wide-ranging partnership that is now beginning to incorporate South-South Cooperation in a pattern termed “Triangular Cooperation.”
International Security The Security Council’s inability to implement the primary charge of disarmament given it in the Charter (Article 26) led it to expand the concept of threats to international peace and security. It became seized of the situation in apartheid South Africa by declaring the racist system such a threat. A decade after the end of the Cold War, it saw another genre of threat in the AIDS pandemic. Those two ground-breaking initiatives set precedents: any massive violation of human rights and any pandemic are now matters of automatic concern to the Council. That is a fundamental and essential redefinition of international security.
Military Cooperation UN peacekeeping operations originated as part of the toolkit of neocolonial manipulation of conflicts in developing countries but it facilitated the growth of regional cooperation on security issues and accustomed the militaries of troop contributing countries to the framework and habits of multinational operations. That has long-term positive implications for a future of peace.
To Sum Up The 43 years of the Cold War were grim with blood and oppression but they promoted valuable patterns and habits of cooperation. The UN General Assembly became a global sounding board and pulpit, the civil center for deliberation and normative action amidst a maelstrom of noisy strife and conflict. In the last seven decades it has created and codified more international law than in all history and spread its mantle from the ocean floors to Outer Space. It declared universal human rights and incorporated them in binding Covenants. Virtually unnoticed by the world at large the United Nations has laid the essential foundations for a peaceful future.
The Clash of Civilizations After the end of the Cold War a study group at Harvard came up with the thesis that international affairs would be an inescapable “Clash of Civilizations.” It was an all too obvious effort to provide continuing cover for aggressive imperial manipulations but the concept had too little force and clarity to replace the Cold War paradigm. Too many Islamic leaders were creations and allies of the West to be convincing as faces of a new Evil Empire. Even Saddam Hussein, who became a popular bogeyman after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, had been a poster-boy Western client in his 8-year war that exhausted the zeal of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Shia revolution in Iran.
Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 attacks was an even less convincing enemy. Although 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis the regime in Riyadh was a firm American ally, its Ambassador in Washington so close to the White House that he was known as “Bandar Bush.” In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration broke its own countrywide ban on flights to round up and fly scores of Saudi nationals out of the United States with little or no screening. The 9/11 Commission’s decision not to include in its final report 28 pages dealing with evidence implicating Saudi officials in supporting the attackers points not to a Clash of Civilizations but to collusion. So does the videotaped allegations by CIA personnel that they had intelligence about the 9/11 attackers well before the event but were ordered not to communicate it to the FBI. Significantly, that video (in Episode 1 of The New Yorker Presents streaming on Amazon), ends with President George W Bush pinning the Medal of Freedom on CIA Director George Tenet.
If we consider that George W Bush won the White House by a foul, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the “military-industrial complex” which precipitated the Cold War had tried to replace it with another enduring excuse to profit at the expense of humanity. Churchill’s 1946 role fell to the billionaire Gammel family: father James was one of the largest investors in George Bush’s oil company and young George W Bush spent summers at his farm in Scotland, getting to know scion Bill whose college buddy was the future Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Lessons for the 70th Year The most urgent lesson from this narrative of UN history is that we must understand the living legacy of the colonial era if we are to escape its murderous grip. That will not be easy for lies, half-truths and a complete refusal to admit to colossal crimes have for 70 years cloaked the reality of the global elites created by the Age of Empire. Their rule has been the bloodiest period of human history, the most corrupt, the most shameless and destructive in the torment of the weak and the plunder of the earth; but it has been presented as an advance towards Europe’s Belle Epoque and turned into the stuff of romance and adventure in fiction, theater and film.
After World War II, as formal imperial structures were dismantled, those who had benefited from them were shape-shifting into the new money laundering elite. These old/new elites will not relinquish their power meekly at the behest of UN resolutions and declarations. The three world wars (I, II and Cold) show the extent to which they will go to retain power, and it would be wise to expect horrors equal in magnitude as we seek to escape from their monstrous dominance. In our nuclear tinderbox world with a Pandora’s Box of invented plagues it requires little imagination to think of what might happen. What will be needed is a willingness to see elite thuggery in such things as the revival of Brent Crude to $50 because of the coincidence of the oil fires in Alberta, the sudden resurgence of terrorism in Nigeria and the problems roiling Gulf petroleum exporters. (The Canadian and Nigerian governments should begin formal investigations into possible criminal connections and the thousands of peoples who have lost their homes might consider suing the oil majors; even if the outcomes are inconclusive, it will flag the beginning of the end of elite impunity.)
There are also a number of less dramatic eventualities that could affect world order severely. Consider the following:
China is trying to change its investment and exports-led economic model to one driven by domestic consumption. It usually takes decades to make that transition but Beijing is trying to do it quickly by fiat, after years of enormous economic stimulus have created massive real estate and debt bubbles. There is also an out of control “shadow banking” sector representing official corruption. The collapse of any one of the three would cause a sudden financial crisis and an economic crash. The impact will certainly be global.
East Asia as a whole is experiencing tensions reminiscent of the Cold War years. North Korea has repeatedly threatened nuclear war. Beijing’s claims and activities in the South China Sea could easily flare into something really ugly.
The European Union is facing existential choices as Britain holds a referendum (23 June) on whether to remain a member and the long-running Greek economic crisis enters yet another inconclusive phase. There are also the problems of refugee inflows from Africa and the Middle East and the troubled relationship with the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, the political Right is strengthening across Europe, stirring fears that pre-World War II history could repeat itself.
In the Middle East, the chaos of Syria and Iraq is framed by the troubled triangular relationship of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and engages four of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Perhaps all of them are involved in the proxy struggle of various factions of “extremist Islam.”
The United States presidential election could put an “America First” proponent in the White House, making every global crisis more difficult to resolve.
Developing countries fortunate enough to be not directly involved in any of the situations above face challenges ranging from desperate poverty and middle income stagnation to the creeping onset of climate change.
In dealing with any or all of the above the United Nations has little traction, largely because its internal narratives are not cognizant of the realities of international order. In part, the UN is also disabled by its 19th Century processes and approach to issues.
The Positive Prospect The situation described above would be hopelessly beyond remedy if it were not for the connectivity revolution that has transformed the world in the last few years. The figures are spectacular. Mobile phone subscriptions are estimated to have risen from 2.2 billion in 2005 to 7.1 billion in 2015, just 350 million short of total world population. Of that total, 3.2 billion people were online at the end of 2015, two thirds of them in developing countries where only a little over 34 per cent of households had home access to the Internet (compared to over 81 per cent in developed countries).
Meanwhile, mobile broadband access has expanded at continuous double-digit rates annually to reach 47 per cent of the world population in 2015, 12 times more than in 2007. In 2014, ITU’s Connect 2020 Agenda set a minimum target of 50 per cent access to home Internet access in developing countries (15 per cent for Least Developed Countries). We are within hailing distance of the time when every individual will be connected to networks that expand seamlessly from the local to the global, a prospect unimagined even a decade ago.
Continued in Part II
The United Nations is now in the same situation as the League of Nations in the period before World War II. Read our proposal for radical change:
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Why Connectivity is a Game-Changer The connectivity revolution reverses trends that have concentrated power in elite groups for the last five centuries and made them, even within democratic frameworks, increasingly authoritarian. In particular, connectivity can decentralize the capacity to create and control wealth, making it realistic to expect changes long considered “Utopian:” that human development will equalize around the world; that all war can be ended; that democracy will become the human standard.
Beyond that lies a longer term prospect seemingly fantastic but entirely within the realm of scientific possibility: that the worldwide web of human consciousness will become the neural network of a global brain and give humanity a new level of universal awareness. Achieving those goals will require a level of international cooperation without precedent. To mobilize and build it into UN reform we must understand the nature and emergence of modern Europe, the region most responsible for the current state of the world.
The Shaping of Modern Europe Two quite different but mutually reinforcing processes have shaped European history. One dates back to the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate as imperial Rome battled an irrepressible Jewish resistance in Israel. The subsequent hijacking of his legacy by Saul of Tarsus (the Roman persecutor of Christians who became the Biblical Paul), denied Jews a messianic leader but at disastrous cost to Europe.
The region’s brutal tribal aristocracy was moved by his universal message but neither understood nor benefited from its powerfully pacific content. The result was centuries of unrelenting violence to spread the faith and keep believers in line. It began with the destruction of Pagan Nature worship and the bloody conversion of the northern tribes, continued with the madness of the Crusades and was followed by the Inquisition’s grisly tortures. By the time it drew to an end more than 1500 years later with the wars and oppressions following the Protestant schism, Europe’s intellectuals had tired of the very concept of God.
Their "Enlightenment" brought in a mechanistic soulless universe where humanity was no longer cast in the image of its Creator but was merely a species of hairless ape proclaiming “I think therefore I am,” and as importantly, “to think is to be full of leaden-eyed despairs.” As Christianity lost command of the European imagination nationalism became the new religion and driver of conflict. Its basic concepts came from two very different philosophers, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes and the German Friedrich Hegel.
Hobbes drew from his experience of civil war that the normal state of humanity was a “war of all against all” that only a sovereign of god-like importance could call to order. Hegel envisaged a divine “Spirit” that gave unquestionable dominance to different nations at different periods. Thus, as the industrial revolution transformed a spiritually forlorn Europe that held nothing sacred it was suffused with combative nationalism unlike anything the world had seen before.
The Concentration of Elite Power The second process began with powerful families in Britain fencing and claiming lands that had always before been open to cultivation by anyone willing. The tumultuous and bloody “enclosure movement” made many people landless, and laws forbidding them to leave their home areas ensured the cheap labor needed to enrich the new “landed gentry.” A portion of their wealth flowed to merchants who were thus able, when shipping technology allowed trans-oceanic voyages, to finance trade with the Americas and Asia.
One group of merchants in London seeking to share the formidable costs and risks of trade with India changed the rules of traditional partnerships to limit the liability of members, thus enabling them to sell their stakes in the company without the permission of other shareholders. That innovation made the East India Company (formed in 1600) the first joint-stock corporation. It was widely imitated, and over the next century the corporation became Europe’s central wealth creating institution.
The stock markets where corporate shares were bought and sold created a new investing class uninvolved in corporate management and morally distanced from the activities that generated profits. Initially the most profitable corporate activities were also far removed from Europe: the slave trade out of Africa, the genocidal takeover of colonial territories in the Americas and the opium trade from the colonized part of India into China. But investors continued to be unperturbed as the industrial era brought to their doorsteps the heartless exploitation of factory labor that included children as young as six, the toxic pollution of land, water and air, and ever more destructive war. Their collective conscience was quieted by a new “realist” zeitgeist that drew on Darwin and Nietzsche to postulate elite Power as a necessarily pitiless evolutionary principle beyond Good and Evil. By then the Church had lost so much authority it could no longer offer a competing perspective.
The Evolution of Corporations In his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1723-1790) dwelt at some length on the perennial threat corporations posed to free markets. The problem was their capacity to raise enormous sums of money with ease. Smith held out as a rule that “managers of other people’s money” did not exercise “the same anxious vigilance” with which private partnerships “frequently watch over their own;” consequently, “negligence and profusion … always prevail” in their affairs.
As example he held out the South Sea Company that had a treaty-bound monopoly to supply African slaves to the Spanish Empire. Its trading stock at one point amounted to over £33,800,000, some three times the entire capital of the Bank of England. The directors of the company raised that vast sum with blatant hucksterism. They talked up the huge profits waiting to be made from their monopoly, bribed politicians to support their claims and loaned preferred investors the money to buy stakes in the company. The frenzy they generated in the London market drove the price of a single share of South Sea Company stock from £100 to £1000 in a few months. When the madness abated and the bubble burst, thousands of investors who had borrowed money to buy stock were ruined.
The profligacies of the South Sea Company were not exceptional. Smith cited 55 companies that had “failed from mismanagement, notwithstanding they had exclusive privileges.” The rate of failure (or major fraud/scandal) ,evident in Smith’s list – one every three years since the East India Company was founded – has accelerated over the last two centuries.
Since Adam Smith’s days corporate criminality has grown and diversified enormously. Heinous records were set by the Dunlop tire company’s murderous exploitation of workers in Liberia, Bayer’s support of Joseph Mengele’s vicious human experimentation in Nazi concentration camps and the use of their inmates as slave labor by I.G. Farben and Krupp. Their legatees today use sweatshop and child labor routinely to manufacture brand name clothing and sporting goods.
Environmental crimes by arrogant corporate officers contemptuous of ordinary people and the Earth itself are in a separate category. A textbook case was the 2010 blowout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the worst oil spill in American history. As the burning rig spread 4 million barrels of oil into the fragile and beautiful ecosystem of the Gulf, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, claimed on television that the environmental impact would be “very, very modest.” He went off for a yacht race as the spill continued and infuriated many with his on-air whining about wanting his “life back,” an extraordinarily callous term considering that 11 BP employees had died in the accident.
In the 21st Century corporate corruption has expanded from individual organizations to the official regulatory systems. An investigation following the 2008 financial crisis found that during the market bubble that preceded crash the watchdog Commodity Futures Trading Commission had eased rules to allow speculation it was mandated to prevent. The “LIBOR scandal” that came fully to light in 2012, described by one MIT academic as “by orders of magnitude” the worst scam “in the history of markets,” would not have been possible without official complicity. It involved some of the biggest banks in the world manipulating over a period of years the London Interbank Offered Rate, a daily benchmark used to set interest rates for everything from mortgages and student loans to Wall Street financial derivatives, the latter alone has been estimated to be some $350 trillion.
Corporate Gigantism and its Discontents While crimes, corruptions and crises have forced the mass media to pay attention to corporate malfeasance, a much larger area of negative impacts has remained in the shadows. They are related to the corporate gigantism that resulted in the middle decades of the 20th Century as the growing expense and complexity of industrial technology eliminated smaller corporations. The giant conglomerates that came to dominate the business scene were beyond the management skills of most traditional family owners and corporate control passed to technocrats and bankers whose bottom-line calculations could indicate the most preferable options at every level of huge organizations. While that transformation was under way gigantic manufacturing corporations were also transforming industrialized societies, especially the most productive of them, the United States:
To ensure the volume of demand necessary to support mass production a new advertising industry sought to homogenize consumer preferences and create mass markets.
As they did that by using mass media to manipulate the attitudes of consumers, thousands of independent newspapers, radio stations and television broadcasters were deemed inefficient in terms of audience reach and driven out of business. Newspaper chains and the radio/television networks replaced them. To prevent legislative and public policy shocks affecting their business environments, corporations fielded armies of political lobbyists and began to fund individual politicians, derailing vital democratic processes.
In the United States, the subversive impact of those changes on the mass media and political parties was compounded by Churchill’s 1946 military-industrial coup in Washington (see Part I). Thus, there was little effective opposition when the profit-maximization protocols of corporate banker-managers let loose a giant wave of post-Cold War economic “globalization” and exported millions of American jobs to China with no consideration for the livelihood of those thrown out of work. The mainstream media and politicians were so subverted from their original responsibilities to the American people that they were either silent or became cheerleaders for the corporate agenda.
The Global Black Market The neocolonial project that sought to replace Europe’s dissolving imperial structures with sub-rosa forms of control involved the development of a system of over 70 “tax havens” and millions of “shell companies.” Intended initially to launder the proceeds of drug trafficking (estimated by one US official source to be $500 billion now), it soon diversified to cater to all forms of organized crime. The money was channeled into the world’s largest banks and invested in assets indistinguishable from the licit economy but invisible to tax collectors, mainstream economists and the mass media.
No one has tried to map that black-market economy, now roughly estimated to range above $30 trillion, but some economists have tracked the wealth draining into it from the world’s poorest countries. Between 1970 and 2010, a period when the UN was agonizing over the supposedly“unsustainable debt” of sub-Saharan countries ($189 billion in 2010), illicit transfers from their economies drained $1.06 trillion into off-shore accounts. Developing countries as a group lost $9.1 trillion in just one decade, 2001 to 2010. More than a quarter of all Latin American household wealth and almost a third of all Middle Eastern and African wealth was estimated in 2011 to be held offshore.
Information about all this has come from authoritative analysts and merited headlines in mass media but it has been routinely ignored or buried in the back pages. When related information such as the astronomical “bonuses” paid to bankers did make the headlines, the media played dumb and did not link it to money laundering or the working of the underground economy.
That carefully maintained blind spot ensures that the massive global impact of the underground economy remains invisible to ordinary people. In the 15 years straddling the millennium, trillions of dollars laundered out of the criminal economy washed into real estate, stock and commodity markets, upending traditional supply-demand equations. The most visible part of the action occurred under the aegis of “hedge funds,” originally founded to insure the super-rich against risk but adapted after the end of the Cold War for maverick speculation (commanding some $2.5 trillion). The magnitude and speed of their computerized trading disabled the valuation, asset allocation and risk amelioration functions of stock and commodity markets, making them little more than casinos.
UN analysts coined the word “financialization” to describe what was happening to markets but they did not flag where hedge fund money originated. In American real estate, there was a huge bubble; in its final phase greedy bankers gave mortgages to people without the means to repay them and then bundled the worthless “sub-prime” paper into widely owned investment grade securities. When the bubble burst, the worthless securities would have collapsed the American financial system if not for rapid action at taxpayer expense to rescue all but one of the stricken banks.
In the decade after the 2008 crisis the United States and Germany led a determined international effort to control money laundering by major banks. A number of them were indicted in American courts and made to pay fines ranging from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, but it had little effect. In December 2012, Europe’s largest bank, London based HSBC (originally the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation established by opium traders in the early 19th Century) was fined $1.9 billion by US authorities after admitting failure to “adequately monitor” over $200 trillion in wire transfers between 2006 and 2009, including over $670 billion in wire transfers from HSBC Mexico. In the same period, its branches in Mexico had also sold $9.4 billion in cash. The fine caused hardly a blip in the price of HSBC stock but afterwards there was increasing talk of EU banking regulations being too onerous and the need for an up and down vote in a Brexit referendum. Typically, the reporting on Brexit has not mentioned any of that.
Elite Impunity The impunity of corporate officials responsible for the smorgasbord of malfeasance noted above has changed significantly since the days of Adam Smith. The principals of the South Sea Company lost all their money and Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer went to prison; the bankers who precipitated the 2008 financial collapse suffered no punitive consequences and kept their astronomical bonuses and stock options. Four major banks, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Barclays and The Royal Bank of Scotland agreed in 2015 to pay over $8.5 billion in fines imposed by US authorities for their conspiracy (2007 to 2013) to rig currency exchange rates and manipulate interest rates, and a number of other institutions paid smaller penalties; but with the exception of one UBS trader, none of the dozens of individuals working for the 20 banks implicated in the swindle has been convicted of any crime.
The leniency shown to corporate officers is incomprehensible when we consider the long term and broadly distributed damage they cause. The 2008 financial crisis did not cause a financial collapse because central bankers in major industrialized countries and China flooded the markets with easy credit. That sidestepped the immediate crisis but they could not prevent the “Great Recession” that followed or, almost a decade later, the “Great Distortion.” Japan and the European Union with economies near the stalling point now have “negative interest rates” (official bonds returning less than face value); China has slowing growth, an army of “zombie corporations” with unsustainable debt, a relentless housing bubble and an uncontrollable “shadow banking” sector; the United States has a recovering economy addicted to cheap money.
The one element consistently missing from the mass media reportage and expert analyses of all this is the global underground economy. For example, television pundits have presented as paradoxical that negative interest rates in Japan did not weaken the Yen as intended but had a contrary effect because of a strong inflow of funds. In the wake of the Brexit vote there was another incomprehensible “flight to safety” in Japanese bonds, further strengthening the Yen. There is actually no paradox. The strong inflows into Japanese bonds reflected widespread fear of a major deflationary spiral; a managed negative interest rate was better than uncontrollable erosion of hidden fortunes. We can deduce that the money came from the unaccounted underground economy because it did not flow into 10-year US Treasuries then offering a 1.5 per cent payout.
Why Connectivity Will End Big Business Connectivity empowers small businesses – including individual artisans – to find and cater to niche markets. The more that happens, the more it serves to disaggregate the mass markets shaped by advertising that are essential to the economic viability of mega-corporations. It is only a matter of time before networks of small and medium enterprises serving their local markets put out of business all hierarchically organized mega-corporations. The power of decentralization is already evident in the profitability of small scale e-commerce, the weakening of department store sales, the rapid reach of viral social media, the rise of peer-to-peer credit and in changing patterns of advertising: in 2015, for the first time, more money was spent to reach consumers on-line than through broadcast television. Meanwhile, two unrelated trends – the plummeting price of solar energy and increasingly sophisticated 3-D printing – portend the capacity to produce the highest quality of industrial product in the remotest locations. In the foreseeable future (within the horizon for technological projections), that will end the need for factory-scale production, causing a whole row of industrial-era dominoes to fall. Without factories, there will be no need to concentrate use of labor and energy for efficiencies of scale, and that will bring down the magnitude of demand that now drives intercontinental trade in bulk commodities. Small and medium producers will depend on locally/regionally available raw materials and cater to thousands of localized markets, ending globalized trade as we know it. As manufacturing spreads into the countryside the relentless urbanization of the last four centuries will stop. Urban real estate prices will reflect valuations increasingly based on aesthetic and social considerations. Cities will return to being cultural centers and hubs for the trade of their hinterland. In short, every change necessary to combat climate change will happen without enforced regulation.
Connectivity as “Capital” Underlying all this is a profound change in how wealth is created. Through most of history land has been the primary means for creating wealth and everywhere, farmers and military elites exchanged produce for protection, the former monetizing land with their labor and the latter commanding the surplus to reach for goals beyond subsistence (ranging from hedonism and material luxury to aesthetic and spiritual development). When trade displaced land as the greatest source of new wealth in Europe, “capital” became “other people’s money” collected through stock markets and used through corporations. With industrialization, money alone was no longer enough to create wealth: it had to be used to bundle raw materials, technology, labor and marketing expertise. The onset of computers and satellites bought another change that made information management the most potent source of new wealth.
The mushrooming growth of companies like Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Ali Baba and Infosys were funded through stock markets and they operate within familiar corporate frameworks; but they are significantly different from their industrial era predecessors in resource use, employment patterns and environmental impact. Giant tech firms are also different in being acutely sensitive to consumer preferences, social, aesthetic and moral. As the world moves into an era when the general population is educated and connectivity is governed by specialized and sophisticated networks, it is likely that we will see all entrepreneurial and productive functions supported by crowd-funding, eliminating the corporate model entirely. Even at the current early stage of connectivity startling opportunities have opened up to sidestep the traditional financial obstacles to economic growth.
The Power of Crowd-Funding
A National Housing Lottery The computerized information processing technologies now at the heart of wealth creation have set off a paradigm shift in economics, opening up historically unprecedented potential to erase poverty and move all of humanity onto the same level of socioeconomic development. For an illustrative example, consider the target of “housing for all by 2022” set by India's current government in 2014. The general consensus among Indian commentators is that it will be impossible to achieve that target. The Times of India reported on 9 August 2014 that to meet it the government would have to build 2.5 million housing units every year for the next 8 years, a very tall order considering that all programs for low-cost housing have together added only 200,000 units in the last three years. With nearly 48 per cent of the population below the Asian Development Bank poverty line ($1.51 daily income in 2014), it is also unrealistic to think that the private sector can take up the slack even if heavily subsidized: in mid-2014 there were only 58 housing finance institutions in the country.
The prospect is transformed if we consider crowd-funding the housing sector through an innovative new institutional framework with a Web-based National Housing Lottery (NHL) as its central organization. An NHL could be established under the aegis of the National Housing Bank (NHB), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of India with a quarter century of experience in formulating and implementing sustainable housing policies at the central and state levels.
Such a lottery, with the price of a lottery ticket ideally set at Re.10 (about $0.15), would put modern housing within reach of the poorest people. It would generate a steady flow of finance to builders, create a multitude of jobs at every level of skill, implement environmental standards painlessly and improve sanitation standards rapidly. Those multiple targets would be met with markets rather than bureaucracies providing cross-sectoral efficiencies; NHB regulators would keep a sharp eye on market trends to to identify and stop efforts at unethical manipulation. Broader goals such as the government's plan to build 100 new "smart cities" would also become easier because most of the essential parameters could be included in the housing templates. Initiatives to develop “smart villages,” already under way, would gather strength. Perhaps most importantly, none of these developments would burden the tax payer. The conventional housing finance units now in existence would have to be wound up, but their staff could be absorbed easily into the expanded NHB and its new regulatory arm.
Lotteries Can Replace Stock Markets Officially regulated and organized lotteries can become the stock markets of the Information Age. They can be used in every country regardless of its current level of affluence and for any purpose; in developed markets, the prizes could be new units or upgrades in existing units to meet the latest standards for environmental sustainability. As the number of tickets sold per house can be adjusted upwards without affecting the viability of the lottery, governments can generate revenues to pay for anything they want, including building /refurbishing infrastructure, constructing schools, providing for health care and old age pensions, or indeed, unburden their citizenry of that most hated of imposts, the income tax.
Lotteries can also be organized for other things than houses. For instance, the Greek government could pay off its onerous national debt in a matter of months by organizing an Internet-based lottery offering as prizes all-expense-paid trips to Greece. The number of tickets sold for each prize can be set to cover the expenses of all those actively involved in providing a pleasant experience for the tourist, from waiters and guides to hotels and airlines. An additional number of tickets can be sold to pay off the Greek national debt and fund any program the government wants. As some 22.5 million tourists pay to enjoy a Greek vacation every year – most of them Europeans – we can expect that with the whole world bidding the available lottery tickets would be quickly sold out. Suppose the government sold just 10,000 $1 lottery tickets for each prize, it would generate a total income of $225,000,000,000, which is about the same as the country's GDP. The 10,000 figure is of course, ridiculously low; 100,000 tickets could easily be sold globally for each prize. Not only would such a scheme pay off the national debt, it would create a very healthy level of employment and have the economy humming in short order. However, before the world can move to realize the potential of the Information Age it must lay to rest the dark legacies of the preceding era.
Walking Back the Imperial Theme There are two broad areas in which imperial legacies must be addressed: (1) The global underground economy must be dismantled (2) The conflicts and perilous nuclearized face-offs must be ended in the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean Peninsula; and (3) The idea of history as understood during the colonial era and incorporated into the working of the United Nations must be remedied
The Underground Economy Enforcement action against money laundering banks cannot eliminate or even significantly disrupt the deeply rooted and robust underground economy; it will be necessary to change the legal framework that promotes drug trafficking and allows “tax havens” and “shell companies” to engage in blatantly illegal activities. To those ends the General Assembly can:
Armed Conflicts and Nuclear Confrontations Dismantling the global underground economy will eliminate all organized terrorist movements, for they cannot survive without funds. For the same reason the covertly sustained wars in Africa that serve to hide the theft of natural resources will end. The remaining conflicts/tensions and state-sponsored terrorism can thus be addressed in an overall context of falling tensions and improving confidence in positive outcomes. In South Asia, the improvement could be quick and radical because the legacy of imperial interests in the region, especially the drug trade out of Afghanistan, has been at the core of India-Pakistan antagonism. Chances of a transformation in North Korea will also be high because the easing of external tensions combined with the impact of sanctions and the unpopularity of its vicious ruler will increase the likelihood of kaleidoscopic internal change. In the Middle East the end of organized terrorism will lead to a relaxation of tensions that could significantly affect the outcome of peace efforts.
Making History a UN Reform Issue The United Nations is generally ahistorical. No UN document provides a chapeau looking at how problems arose or tells how they evolved and can be resolved. Every UN resolution provides a trail of precedents but go as far back as the links lead, the basic picture never changes: there is the same formulaic view calculated not to offend anyone. In UN documents the past is not living prologue but an inert backdrop offering neither perspective nor meaning to the present. All this is deeply political, exemplified by UNESCO, which once under African leadership had a “World History Project” aiming to balance an area deliberately distorted during the colonial era but now has only a “history of UNESCO” program. The switch reflects the Orwellian belief that inconvenient history can be sent down a Memory Hole; it springs from the colonial era view of the past as a malleable product of the present.
As the widely influential pre-World War II Oxford professor R. G. Collingwood put it in his posthumous book The Idea of History, the “historian cannot have certain knowledge of what the past was in its actuality and completeness … The past in its actuality and completeness is nothing to him; and as it has finished happening, it is nothing in itself; so his ignorance of it is no loss.” In actuality, immutable causality makes the past a vital element of the present. Its significance is sometimes, as with Europe, far removed from appearances or, as with China, headlined through the millennia but little understood.
The Significance of European HistoryThe long arc of the preceding narrative has traced the current global malaise to two trends that governed European elites as they came to dominate the rest of the world. One distanced them from a sense of the sacred, the other disengaged their conscience: Power became their guiding principle, and Profit the measure of all things. Counter-trends came from the democratic revolution of America and the spiritual reassertion of Indian independence that set off the movements for human rights and self-determination that transformed the world in the 20th Century. But imperial Europe continues to operate through the criminal underground economy, and dismantling its structures will solve only half the problem: elite attitudes remain intact and must be effectively addressed if there is to be lasting change. Perhaps the only way to do that is to repudiate the “God is dead” worldview that rationalizes Europe’s hard-edged concept of its “permanent interests.” The argument that the last five hundred years have shown that God is alive and well can be set out as follows:
That new view of the past gains further significance if we consider that the emergence of a globally connected humanity indicates the startling but very scientific possibility that it will constitute the neural network of a global brain and generate an autonomous consciousness. While Evolution is undoubtedly the scientific explanation of how the world came to be the way it is, there is also without doubt a guiding element in its direction and purpose.
The Long Passage of China Unlike Europe, China had little part in the origin of global problems but it will have a decisive influence in shaping the future. That is not just because China is the most populous of nations and among the most industrious and creative; it is also because the country’s history signals a particular danger. The Chinese elite have a long record of brutally repressing dissent, dating back to 221 BCE when Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor, burned the writings of his critics, had 460 of them buried alive and another 700 stoned to death. Every Dynasty since then has treated dissent as a threat to stability and order and put it down harshly. In the 20th Century, Mao Zedong’s recurring “re-education,” “anti-rightist” and other programs culminated in the “Cultural Revolution,” all of them torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of teachers, scholars, writers and monks. In the post-Mao phase nonviolent pro-democracy students were reportedly massacred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and in the 21st Century, dissenting scholars, writers and artists continue to be routinely persecuted and jailed. The effects of repressing those most capable of perceiving societal challenges and leading adaptive change are amply evident in China’s long incapacity for nuanced responses to political challenges; it has on occasion been unable even to separate reality from its elite delusions:
Against that background, the current economic and political situation in China should be deeply worrying to the United Nations, especially as it has caused increased regional tensions, military preparations and exercises. Yet the situation is nowhere on the international agenda. The rest of the world can do little to ameliorate the situation but that is not an excuse to pretend it does not exist.
The UN in a Networked World A networked world holds unprecedented potential for the United Nations System to reform itself to gain relevance and traction to 21st Century realities:
Final Thoughts The United Nations described above would be a thematically differentiated Global Network Central guided by the General Assembly and coordinated through ECOSOC. It would enable seamless interaction with relevant international audiences on every item on the UN agenda. When fully functional these arrangements will constitute a democratic, non-bureaucratic and entirely crowd-funded world government. A networked Security Council would eventually be able to bring a secure world to the point where it could initiate the process towards general and complete disarmament as set out in General Assembly resolution 1722 (XVI) of 20 December 1961.
Meanwhile, the technological trends described earlier in this narrative will have decentralized humanity into communities powered by renewable energy and basing all production and consumption on climate friendly resources. Once human development is globally equalized the entire networked apparatus could adjust smoothly to deal with the massive changes necessary as world population begins to fall precipitously over the next century.
It is scientifically realistic to expect that by then global communications networks will have achieved the complexity necessary to generate an autonomous meta-consciousness. In considering that prospect it would be well to think of the United Nations as more than an exercise in diplomacy and government; as the vehicle for the evolution of the species to an altogether new level of cosmic awareness it is an essentially spiritual endeavor.