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Imagine sharing the world

By Peter Singer - posted Tuesday, 19 November 2002

In the fifth century before the Christian era, the Chinese philosopher Mozi, appalled at the damage caused by war in his time, asked: "What is the way of universal love and mutual benefit?" He answered his own question: "It is to regard other people's countries as one's own." The ancient Greek iconoclast Diogenes, when asked what country he came from, is said to have replied: "I am a citizen of the world." In the late 20th century John Lennon sang that it isn't hard to "Imagine there's no countries . . . Imagine all the people/Sharing all the world".

Until recently, such thoughts have been the dreams of idealists, devoid of practical impact on the hard realities of a world of nation states. But now we are beginning to live in a global community.

Almost all the nations of the world have reached a binding agreement about their greenhouse gas emissions. The global economy has given rise to the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; institutions that take on, if imperfectly, some functions of global economic governance. An international criminal court is beginning its work. Changing ideas about military intervention for humanitarian purposes shows we are in the process of developing a global community prepared to accept its responsibility to protect the citizens of states that cannot or will not protect them from massacre or genocide.


In ringing declarations and resolutions, most recently at the United Nations Millennium Summit, the world's leaders have recognised that relieving the plight of the world's poorest nations is a global responsibility - although their deeds are yet to match their words.

When different nations led more separate lives, it was more understandable - though still quite wrong - for those in one country to think of themselves as owing no obligations, beyond that of non- interference, to people in another state. But those times are long gone. Today, as we have seen, our greenhouse gas emissions alter the climate under which everyone in the world lives. Our purchases of oil, diamonds and timber make it possible for dictators to buy more weapons and strengthen their hold on the countries they tyrannise. Instant communications show us how others live, and they in turn learn about us and aspire to our way of life. Modern transport can move even relatively poor people thousands of kilometres, and when people are desperate to improve their situation, national boundaries prove permeable.

The era after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was the high water mark of the independent sovereign

state. Behind the supposed inviolability of national borders, liberal democratic institutions took hold in some countries while in others, rulers carried out genocide against their own citizens. At intervals, bloody wars broke out between the independent nation states. Though we may look back on that era with some nostalgia, we should not regret its passing: we should be developing the ethical foundations of the coming era of a single world community.

One great obstacle hinders further progress in this direction. It has to be said, in cool but plain language, that in recent years the effort to build a global community has been hampered by the repeated failure of the US to play its part. Despite being the single largest polluter of the world's atmosphere, and on a per capita basis the most profligate of the major nations, the US (along with Australia) has refused to join the 178 states that have accepted the Kyoto Protocol.

Together with Libya and China, the US voted against setting up an International Criminal Court to try people accused of genocide and crimes against humanity. The US has consistently failed to pay the dues it owes to the United Nations, and in November, 2001, even after paying off a portion of its debt in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it still owed that institution $US1.07 billion.


When the world's most powerful state wraps itself in what - until September 11 - it took to be the security of its military might, and refuses to give up any of its own rights and privileges for the sake of the common good, even when others are giving up their rights and privileges, the prospects of finding solutions to global problems are dimmed.

One can only hope that when the rest of the world nevertheless proceeds down the right path, as it did in resolving to go ahead with the Kyoto Protocol, and as it is now doing with the ICC, the US will eventually be shamed into joining in. If it does not, it risks falling into a situation in which it is universally seen by everyone except its own self-satisfied citizens as the world's "rogue superpower". Even from a strictly self-interested perspective, if the US wants the cooperation of other nations in matters that are largely its own concern - such as the struggle to eliminate terrorism - it cannot afford to be so regarded.

As more and more issues increasingly demand global solutions, the extent to which any state can independently determine its future diminishes. We therefore need to strengthen institutions for global decision-making and make them more responsible to the people they affect. This line of thought leads in the direction of a world community with its own directly elected legislature, perhaps slowly evolving along the lines of the European Union.

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This edited extract from One World: The Ethics of Globalisation, (Text Publishing, RRP $28) was first published in The Age on 27 October 2002.

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About the Author

Melbourne-born Professor Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University.

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