International cooperation as a stepping-stone to a world government

Since the end of the Cold War, numerous cooperative agreements between nations have demonstrated that international cooperation (IC) is possible. When nations cooperate, they do so on a voluntary basis and are able to abandon agreements at will. Global governance, which is understood here as the institutionalisation of IC, in the ideal case implies regulations aiming to solve global problems through agreement enforcement and accountability of the actors involved. This essay argues that IC and global governance in their present form constitute a stepping-stone to a world government.

The most established definition of cooperation in academic literature is the one by Robert Keohane (1984).(1) Keohane assumes a conflictive policy situation at the outset of each cooperative agreement. Policy adjustments are then negotiated to bring agreements more in line with each actor’s preferences. Once both policies become more compatible, the act of cooperation is completed. But does this definition adequately describe IC across all fields? Also, does it describe IC in the 21st century? There is evidence that it does not. The actual meaning of the Latin cooperatio—joint operation—does not require a conflictive policy situation at the outset. Neither does it require a policy adjustment to the preferences of other actors. For a joint operation, it is sufficient that two or more actors operate together using shared resources.(2) Keohane´s definition, written primarily for security issues during the Cold War, no longer seems appropriate for the wide range of IC in the 21st century.(3) Due to its limitations, for this essay IC is redefined as follows: Cooperation occurs when two or more actors are involved in a joint operation with shared resources. This endeavour can be repeated whenever there is a commitment of all actors. The initial purpose of cooperation can transform throughout time, but it can also not lead to anything, or result in the complete opposite intended (cp. Anderson 1999). In some cases, it can trigger new agreements between governments, which may lead to change in international political relations.(4)

Past accomplishments of IC can be demonstrated by looking at several examples. First and foremost is the security cooperation between the United States and the former Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War, which astonished international society. Arms control and disarmament agreements, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I, 1991) and the establishment of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (1994), the Russia NATO Council (2002), and the G8 Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (2002), constitute concrete initiatives of arms control and denuclearisation. The U.S.–Russian cooperation was further strengthened by anti-terrorism agreements enacted in the wake of 9/11.(5) Secondly, cooperation on environmental concerns has been prevalent. Virtually all countries, since the early 1990s, have agreed to sell lead-free gasoline and produce and sell catalytically converted cars to reduce pollution from CO2. One of the biggest successes of environmental cooperation has been the agreement to reduce chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions, as specified in the Montreal Protocol (1997), in order to stop ozone depletion. The most recent debate around nuclear energy and the non-alternative coal-burning power plants constitutes one more consensus on what not to do.(6) Thirdly, significant achievements in IC can be observed through development studies. Despite the criticism of development cooperation and its effectiveness (Burnside and Dollar 2000; Easterly 2006), it is manifest that international assistance has contributed at least somewhat to poverty reduction (Lancaster 2007, 2008; Riddell 2007; Sachs 2008, 2005). Whereas world poverty shrank from 85% to only 50% over more than two and a half centuries (from the beginning of the 18th century to 1960), with the help of foreign aid, from the 1950s onwards, it diminished to 25% by 1992 and to 15% today (Sachs 2008). The notable reduction in the 20th century indicates that development cooperation, which started after World War II, has played at least some substantive role.(7) All these accomplishments of IC indicate that nations’ disposition to work together has been strengthened over time.

The key obstacle to IC has been and always will be society itself. Distrust, competition, and the inexplicable but constant angst of “losing out” inherently limit cooperation.(8) International institutions attempt to overcome this dread by increasing transparency through the distribution of information, creating surroundings of more certainty and thereby facilitating cooperation between states (Keohane 1984). However, any system of supra-national governance requires loosening the principle of state sovereignty to a certain degree. Countries dedicated to IC have learned to tolerate some intervention in their domestic politics (e.g., the European Union). Slowly, states are realising that IC is rewarded by transparency, stability, security, and benefits that they could otherwise hardly obtain in an interdependent world.

The perspective of holism, the ability to go beyond the simple view of oneself, understanding the unit as a part of the whole, provides an explanation for this enlightenment. The Spiral Dynamics theory describes this stage of human development as the Turquoise Stage (Beck and Cowan 1996). Since the system as a whole determines how the different parts of it work, for an action to be considered worthwhile, it must be "meaningful to the overall health of life" (p. 8). At the Turquoise Stage of development, humans will develop enlightened self-interest, legitimating cooperation even where no relative gains are evident.(9) National governments will want to participate in “steering the boat” of international politics, without neglecting their self-interest in a leak-less (i.e., impeccably functioning) boat because they necessarily will always be passengers. Therefore, at some point, states will be ready to give up a part of their sovereignty to participate in this navigation, submitting themselves to the resultant enforcement and accountability, thereby enhancing IC and constructing global governance. This is by no means a linear or automatic process. Examples such as the integration of the European Union demonstrate that what may seem at the beginning a utopian illusion (a single currency for all countries) can become real in the end. Even though the current debt crisis reveals drawbacks of the monetary union, a collapse of the whole system is unlikely; instead of exclusive national policies further political integration constitutes a tangible solution. Another example of this non-linear process is cooperation on climate change. Whilst there have been several steps back on the ladder of IC on environmental issues, such as the refusal of the United States (the world’s top CO2 producer) to sign the Kyoto Protocol,(10) the achievement of committing 191 countries to the mandates of the agreement itself is remarkable. These examples portray the trial-and-error nature of constructing global governance, in which the experiment of IC constitutes a stepping-stone to a world government.

At the Turquoise Stage of human development, towards which humanity is headed, the necessity of a body able to carry out the functions of a world government is becoming pressing. At present, the UN is the only organisation potentially capable of shaping global governance. Still, the institution is burdened with internal problems. Antiquated decision-making bodies with historic voting patterns, such as the Security Council, as well as gatherings like the General Assembly attract strong critics. Substantial reforms of the UN system, which have been discussed for quite some time, are indispensable in order to construct an institution able to face the challenge of global governance.

With an operating institution in place, solutions to some of the world’s problems become feasible. For example, similar to the national taxation systems, the world government could collect an international tax rate in the form of a certain percentage of each country´s GDP. As in national welfare state systems, these resources could be redistributed among member states according to necessity.(11) Moreover, costs for the provision of global public goods could be covered (cp. Kaul, Grunberg, and Stern 1999). Suggestions like this inevitably attract strong criticism from opponents of market regulation. Yet the same debate has taken place on the national level, where redistributive measures have not been easily accepted but were finally tolerated to a certain degree in most countries. On the international level, the key to the acceptance of such a system is the consciousness of interdependence, which requires IC for the survival and welfare of the world´s population. Global governance can be constructed when states sacrifice part of their sovereignty, and institutionalise the already accomplished achievements of international cooperation, extending them to the creation of a world government.


The author is a PhD student at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She would like to thank Joanna McGarry for helpful comments and support. 


1 Keohane´s (1984) definition starts with a situation where "each actor’s policies (pursued without regard for the interest of others) are regarded by others as hindering the attainment of their goals". Cooperation occurs "[…] when actors adjust their behaviour to the actual or anticipated preferences of others, through a process of policy coordination" (p. 51).

2 These shared resources can be time, effort, material, money, or human capital.

3 This problem becomes clear through the example of development cooperation. Consider two countries, one developed and the other developing, who are not yet involved in a donor-recipient relationship. They are not necessarily hindering each other from achieving their respective goals. Therefore, there is no conflictive policy situation at the outset. Further, neither country adjusts its policies to the preferences of the other. Yet, development cooperation is a form of IC in the 21st century.

4 This was the case, for example, with the foreign aid system and its institutionalization through the Donor Assistance Committee (DAC).

5 Examples of this cooperation are Russia’s G8 initiative on Public Private Partnerships to counter terrorism, a strategy endorsed by the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006, and the G8 Global Forum for Public Private Partnerships to Counter Terrorism in November 2006.

6 Most certainly, the actual question of interest would be what to do instead.

7 Picard and Buss (2009) are the only authors dating the beginning of foreign aid to subsidies provided by Athens to its allies during the dispute with Sparta (between 650 and 362 BC). The majority of development-cooperation literature identifies the starting point as either Harry Truman´s (1949) opening speech (Point Four) or the institutionalization of bilateral aid with the creation of the DAC in 1960 (Lancaster 2007, 2008; Riddell 2007).

8 When saying society instead of human nature, I refer to the difference between a Hobbesian view and Jean-Jacques Rousseau´s approach of the origin of evil.
9 Relative gains as opposed to absolute gains (Grieco 1988).

10 Even though in quantity China has overtaken the U.S.´s CO2 emissions, the United States continues to be the largest CO2 producer on a per capita basis. The United States produces twenty tonnes per capita, Russia eleven, China five, and India just one (UNstats 2009a).

11 Such an agreement would replace official development assistance (ODA), bringing to an end decades-long discussions on donation targets, like the DAC’s recommendation of 0.7% of GNP.