Watching the spreading revolt against autocracies in the Middle East – Tunisia, Egypt and tonight Libya – I am struck by how irrelevant is that international body of state governments, the UN. What a pity the UN is as awful as it is, a body all too often deadlocked in stale debate, repeating tired patterns of bloc politics. No one is inspired by it; no one can love it. Populated only by governments both democratic and not, it is run according to that dry calculus of states’ interests, which too often do not accord with the wishes or needs of humanity as a whole. And too often there is precious little real debate, let alone passion unless frustration counts as passion.
What a contrast with the vibrant energy, courage and aspiration of the young crowds on the streets of Cairo or Tunis.
What would be a better system to arbitrate humankind’s international affairs? This is a thought experiment, just an attempt with a blank sheet of paper (or blog post) to imagine something that might be better. And I will ignore all that has gone before, and all the usual arguments, to try to conceptualize an ideal system. So bear with me. This is just a crude sketch.
We want a system that reflects the wishes of all the people, that does so fairly, and that produces good results which reflect the maximum degree of consensus. We want something unbureaucratic, light – perhaps not an institution (at least of the old kind) at all; a network of some kind perhaps; perhaps it doesn’t need a physical meeting place, but can take place on-line (though this attribute does not alone produce anything worthwhile).
How about something that involves mass participation – to create the maximum legitimacy – but also permits serious debate: I am not thinking of some kind of mass online voting (are you for or against Israeli settlements? Please press one of these buttons); this would plainly be inadequate: where would be the debate, the arbitration, the groping for compromise and consensus so necessary in successful human negotiation, of whatever kind?
So how about a system where whoever can participate on line (let us ignore for a moment something that cannot be ignored in the real world: the fact that most of the world is not on line), but a subset of that group participates in debate, but are guided by the questions and preferences of the larger group. The debate might be prolonged; the goal would be to reach maximum agreement. Principles would have to govern debate and discussion, to which all participants should agree in order to qualify (no use of violence; no abuse; perhaps the “Indian Talking Stick”, where all who speak are required to articulate the position of the prior speaker before uttering their own).
The debating group might aim to produce a set of propositions upon which they had agreed, coloured in with their own views and preferences. The larger on line group would then vote, producing a decision. In this way, I hope, you might replicate the virtues of mass participation (something the UN very much does not permit, of course) without its flaws: the idiotic, lowest-common-denominator name-calling and simplification one sees in most internet forums. Such a system would also enjoy the benefits of smaller group debate – real discussion, understanding, respect – but without excluding everyone else. (I am inspired by the excellent work of Prof James Fishkin on “deliberative democracy”. His work has shown that where there are real decisions at stake, groups of this kind produce more consensus, more respect for facts and more commitment to decisions that more detached forms of decision-making.)
I would not propose to replace the UN, not yet. But a system like that suggested here could be set up in parallel, producing decisions without legal force but of considerable moral and normative force, because they reflected the debated and contemporary preferences of a large group (ideally one day the world’s population) in contrast to governments’ decisions, which are the distilled outputs of inherited thinking about what states need, negotiated in an environment that discourages imagination and, as I have seen too often, cooperation.
So this would need a lot of further elaboration, and of course debate and discussion. It’s a late Sunday night in NYC, and it’s time to put down my pen.