The Veto Trap

The Problem

Issues demanding global governance are suddenly everywhere. Climate change action; internet regulation; tax haven abuse; care for the oceans; coordinated responses to terror organizations, tyrants and torturers; coordinated responses to natural disasters (refer uncoordinated mess in Nepal) and contagious diseases (refer ebola solved by heroes not process).

The more time passes, the more urgent it is. The world must develop the capacity to execute appropriate global responses where warranted. Each one of us could be the next victim of our continuing failure to organize ourselves.

Now, we all know there will be problems establishing protocols for whole of world governance. It won't be easy. But is that a good enough reason to do nothing?

Doing nothing seems to be the current status quo. So, what's up?

On analysis, the biggest obstacle to any form of proper global governance is the 'veto trap':

The veto trap is this:  There are five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, each of whom have a right of veto.  That is, a right to prevent the implementation of any action of the UN that they consider adverse to their interests.

Those countries are:

  • Russia
  • USA
  • France
  • China
  • UK

They are 5 out of the 194 countries in the world. They represent less than one third of the global population.

The truth is that everybody knows that each one of them will block any change to UN structure. Why? Because they are beneficiaries of the status quo.

To be clear, the beneficiaries of the current status quo have absolute power to maintain the status quo.

Meaning, the United Nations is blocked from becoming more useful. Any suggestion of structural change to the UN will raise the possibility of a reduction in the power of the Big 5. It is a given that at least one of them (probably all of them) will vote it down. So, the proposition is never raised.

And so the United Nations can never be an institution for global governance, nor a vehicle to usher in any other form of global governance.  Because everybody knows that any proposal to change the current structure will be vetoed down every time.

The problem is that without structural change, the United Nations will continue on as a goliath and usually benevolent NGO, with some special powers. It can never be a forum for the kind of global governance that is needed today.

How Did This Happen?

The UN was set up in 1945. Its purpose was to promote world security post World War II. Special privileges (the power to veto any decision) were given to themselves by the winners of the war.  Fair enough.

Back then security, not governance, was paramount. There were 2.3 billion people in the world (there were 14 cities in the world with over a million people). Interconnectedness between peoples was limited. International conflicts were represented by border wars. Resources were plentiful .

Now it is 2016. The global population is over 7 billion (there are 1,400 cities with over a million people). People have the ability to affect the interests of one another from afar – on purpose (eg cyber), or by accident (eg pollution). Resources are not plentiful. 

Common sense global regulation in response to our capacity to pollute, shoot and commute to each other from one side of the world to the other is needed.

It is true that the UN has expanded its functions since 1945.

But not nearly enough.  One of its functions is not (and has never been) global governance. 

So, what to do?  Sit here, and watch it all unfold?  I guess so.  After all, no matter how real and urgent the need for global governance, it can't happen, right? For a start, we can assume the five veto members of the Security Council will not be the ones to raise the issue of structural reform. Why would they?

Well, maybe it is up to the rest of us. Maybe it is up to the other two thirds of us to make a noise. So, when the US, for example, sets about negotiating a framework for India to become the sixth permanent member of the Security Council, as it did in January 2015, people across the world need to take notice. To object. To say out loud:  "Is it in the world's interest for the veto system to become even further entrenched!?" 

The truth is: the status quo is less secure for all global citizens than strong global governance. Not just us or just them.

And the truth is also that 'who won the Second World War' should no longer be a relevant factor in the structure of global politics.

What To Do

This apple cart needs to be upended.

You see, we now need to move to an era of actual global governance, as opposed to global politics.

This is necessary for the security of all of us. But in order to have global governance of the kind required, first a global penny needs to drop  – on both the existence of the current predicament and the reason for it.

At the moment, our leaders seemingly give no thought to this roadblock that is causing a crisis in global governance. Perhaps because it will not help them win their next election? Of course. A government's survival agenda is different to that of a person, after all. Our interests extend beyond the next election. We need to look beyond our governments on this one. We need to think as global citizens.

Ultimately, we will need to encourage, petition, pressure and require the UN veto powers to let go of their privileges in order to make way for a new, more democratic and more powerful United Nations or equivalent body. It will be asking for a lot!  Admitted. But what is the alternative?  If structural reform to the UN is needed to best protect the freedom and security of all of us, then, this is what must happen. This is the conversation that we need to have.

Do not fear global democracy. The less democratic the structure, the more likely tyrants will hold sway, not the other way around.

What new structure?

Ok, so, what is an example of a so called 'global governance' structure?

The pros and cons of alternate structures for a more democratic and powerful United Nations are discussed in 'About' on this site.

The most likely kind of system might be something like this:

A parliamentary style decision making structure that is reasonably representative of all people in the world – bearing in mind absolute democracy is never possible (see 'The Meaning of Democracy' on this site (and works of Professor Kenneth Arrow)) (For example, all countries to be represented by one vote but with added votes per x number of people (eg 1 extra vote if you have a million people, 2 extra for 5 million people, 3 extra for 20 million, 4 extra votes for 100 million, 5 extra votes for populations over half a billion, and 6 extra votes if your population is over a billion); and, say, three additional votes down to one additional vote for the top 30 countries by size of their economy.)

The benefits of such an organization would be boundless. It could have a powerful army that could prevent atrocities, eliminate torturers and eradicate tyrants that use physical force to prohibit the free thinking of others.  It could regulate in respect of international issues that bear upon the personal and economic security of all people. It could enforce such regulations by various means. What is wrong with that?

Make no mistake. All this would be happening now if we were starting the United Nations afresh. The only roadblock to this happening now is the default setting of veto powers. 

One can imagine how difficult it would be for a Big 5 leader to promote a new global governance structure. It would surely be seen by many as sabotaging the position of privilege of their own sovereign state. But that is politics, not common sense. The self interest of the few must be seen as a hurdle to be overcome, not as a dead end at which the people of the world must stop.

The present system is bad even for the citizens of the Big 5. They too would benefit from:

  • A stronger and more democratic UN or equivalent body that would enable unwanted dictators and people who commit atrocities to be sorted out swiftly and surely.
  • A system of global governance that enables coordinated responses and enforceable regulation in respect of international behaviours, conduct, people and things that threaten all of our personal security.

Our fate rests on our ability to organize ourselves as a group. It is clear enough that we cannot do that right now, and that the reason for this is that we are caught in a veto trap. Let us recognize that.
11 February 2015

updated  24 June 2015

further updated 1 October 2016

and on 21,24,25,26 October 2016



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