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Strengthening Transnational Governance to Mitigate Risks
J. Hughes   Dec 8, 2008   Accelerating Future  

The IEET, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Lifeboat Foundation hosted a meeting on Global Catastrophic Risks on Friday, November 14 in Mountain View, California.  Jeriaska generously videotaped and transcribed the talk given by IEET executive director J. Hughes in favor of strengthening transnational governance to mitigate risks.  Video and audio of the talk are also available, as are the slides.

Strengthening Transnational Governance to Mitigate Risks

gcr08_hughes_01x4440x.png A confession—for a college application essay back in the day (back in 1978 to be exact) I wrote an essay on why we needed a world government and I’ve never really changed my mind since then.  Basically I am going to be giving a proscriptive talk about why we here in the catastrophic risks-assessing and mitigating community need to be taking more seriously global governance. I think there is a strong libertarian bias in this community, which has resulted in statements like the one Anders said this morning, which is that “the risks of government are quite severe.”  Yes, there are risks of government… there are also risks of anarchy.  There are risks of having too little governance and risks of having the wrong kind of governance.  I want us to take a very serious look at the existing institutions of transnational governance and the ways in which they play into mitigating the kinds of risks that we are trying to talk about.

gcr08_hughes_02x4440x.png First, just a quick overview.  The Federalist movement has been around for a hundred years.  It led after World War I to the creation of the League of Nations.  The League of Nations was a failure.  After World War II, it led to the creation of the United Nations, and in a different way to the creation of the EU and NATO.  I would argue that the EU and NATO have been a resounding success in many ways.  It has been a slow and fitful evolution of those institutions, but in many ways they have been very successful. Unfortunately, eight years ago many of the kinds of progress that we had been making towards transnational governance ground to a sudden halt, and we had then the coalition of the willing and the opposition to multilateral action on the part of the Bush Administration.  What had happened, as was predicted by Paul Kennedy back in the 1980’s when he wrote about the trajectory of all empires, is that all empires reach a point of imperial overreach.  They start to try to maintain an empire that is too big for them to afford, and they begin to collapse financially, militarily and in other ways. We have reached that point, as an empire.  We have been spending a trillion dollars trying to find weapons of mass destruction and establish democracy in Iraq.  At the same time, our economy has been falling apart, and we’re not going to be able to do it anymore.  I think there is a widespread recognition around the world and among the policy elites that we need a new multilateral order that’s not Pax Americana, that’s not the U.S. Marines as the global policemen, but is some kind of new way of establishing this global order. Thank… Gaia, we just had an election which has given us at least an opening for a discussion of such a new type of order.  President-Elect Obama will hopefully have a foreign policy that will facilitate such a multilateralism.  Since we’re all futurists and we like systems of complexity theory, I want to put it a little bit in that context.  I think there is a trajectory of intelligence and a trajectory of life that, just as we are evolved out of single-celled organisms to form hypercycles and autopoietic boundaries around themselves, that found that there was an evolutionary advantage to having a forebrain and a skin around all of our cells, states have the same kind of trajectory.  We evolved from tribes into nation-states, and now we are evolving from nation-states into some kind of superorganismic state.

gcr08_hughes_03x4440x.png It is always ironic to me when I read futurists like Kevin Kelly who just last week published an article about “looking for the global superorganism.”  He had a number of different things—If the global superorganism were to evolve out of the internet, what kinds of things would we expect to see?  Well, dude, look for the global superorganism when you have a bunch of people having a conversation about how we can all collectively do something together, such as, for instance, mitigating global collective risks.  I think that institutions are superhuman organisms of a sort.  They have memory, they have intentionality, they have self-reproducing capabilities.  What we need to build at the global level is our global forebrain: to be able to have the foresight to see risks and to respond to them in an active way. I think there is a strong cognitive bias on the part of people in our community to say that all the risks are on the part of the visible things that governments have done.  Of course, governments do very many bad things and they kill very many people, but if you wanted to compare living in Somalia to living in Soviet Russia, the worst excesses of the Stalin regime did not affect the average person to the extent that living under no government in Somalia affects the average person.  That is the kind of cognitive bias I think we have to think about.  Now, I am not saying that the options are totalitarianism versus anarchy, but I’m saying that the fact that we don’t have an effective global governance system today creates far more problems for us than the risks that we run if we had an effective global governance system.

gcr08_hughes_04x4440x.png What are some of the barriers to having global governance?  One is that at least a quarter to a half of the world lives under one form or another of authoritarianism.  To have a truly representative global governance system, you need at least a quarter to a half of the people at the table representing extremely odious regimes.  Those people are not selected by any kind of democratic process and are not held accountable to their people.  And so you have the parodies of justice at the UN level where you have human rights commissions with Libya and China on it.  I’m not a Pollyanna-ish person about the United Nations.  I think we need to fight intensively for democratization of undemocratic regimes, just not with the U.S. Marines. We need to democratize undemocratic regimes and support Chinese democratization.  I think those things will probably come about in due course.  Another problem at the political globalization level is the need to balance political and economic power with population.  It does not make much sense to have the victors of World War II, even if they are the G7 or whatever, controlling the Security Council without very much input from the growing populations of Africa, Asia and India.  We need to reform global institutions to ensure their legitimacy.  There are many ways in which the UN has fallen down in terms of legitimacy—I think most strikingly, recently, the corruption committed by UN peacekeeping forces that were poorly trained, which I’ll come back to in a second.  We need to achieve local support—that is, national support—for increasing levels of political coordination in the financing of the UN.

gcr08_hughes_05x4440x.png Now, I am kind of optimistic in the current situation because there is a lot of talk, because of the financial meltdown, about holding a Bretton Woods II—trying to reorganize the new set of institutions to regulate banking, trade and commerce at an international level.  I am quite optimistic, actually, that there will be at least a couple of possibilities and openings over the next couple of years for not only organizing banking and protecting free trade, but also establishing a firmer financing basis for transnational institutions.  One proposal that has been around for a long time is what is called a Tobin tax, which would be a tax on all international currency transactions.  People have proposed that as a basis for a stable financing of the United Nations.  Of course, people have talked about carbon taxes as well.

gcr08_hughes_06x4440x.png Just to point out, basically the current US debt to the United Nations is about two billion dollars.  The current total world debt to the United Nations is about five billion dollars.  What is two billion dollars in terms of our new metric of politics?  That’s about .2% of what we just spent on the global economic meltdown that we just had.  For .2% of what we just spent on the variety of banking bailouts, what kind of political capital would we gain by actually paying our debt to the United Nations?

gcr08_hughes_08x4440x.png Let’s talk about resilience for just a second.  The United Nations has been working on trying to coordinate the concept of resilience at an international level for at least fifteen years.  The most recent document, the Hyogo Framework for Action, building resilience of nations and communities to disasters, you can read all about at  They want to make disaster risk reduction a national and local priority with strong institutional basis for implementation—this is all UN speak of course—identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning, use knowledge, education and innovation to build a culture of safety and resilience, reduce the underlying risk factors and strengthen disaster preparedness. You read the document and it is exactly what we should be doing at every single level—coordinating with regional bodies, coordinate with national bodies, establish various kinds of goals… absolutely no enforcement.  Coming out of this kind of meeting you would all say that’s exactly what we should be doing to build civilizational resilience in the face of natural disasters, but there’s absolutely no enforcement.  They just rely on Togo saying, “Yeah, we’re setting up disaster preparedness.”  There’s no funding for it, etc.  There is an international UN trust fund for disaster reduction, which is to support the Hyogo framework, but of course it is not very well funded.  By the way, the UN refugee agencies, which would be another part of disaster preparedness, have helped 50 million refugees since they were established fifty years ago.

gcr08_hughes_09x4440x.png Another concept about how global collective governance establishes a framework for reducing risks is the concept of collective security.  We need to promote and strengthen the ability of our transnational institutions to turn what could be wars into police actions—to make countries invading one another, civil wars and genocides a matter of law enforcement, as opposed to a matter of international conflict.  Since 1945 there have been sixty-three UN peacekeeping missions around the world.  Currently there are twenty missions going on, with 10,000 personnel from 118 countries.  The UN is also building an international police force, which has thousands of police under training around the world.

gcr08_hughes_10x4440x.png I would advocate for a standing UN army instead of peacekeeping troops.  I think that’s one of the reasons why we have had such collapses of discipline among the peacekeeping troops (because we did not have a standing army under uniform discipline). For world law enforcement, if we are going to be tracking down people who break international treaties around things like nanotech regulation or bioweapons, we need to have international law.  It can’t just be the international criminal court, which goes after things like genocide and crimes against humanity.  We need a new set of mandates for international law enforcement so that Interpol can be tracking down terrorists in a much more aggressive way than they currently do.

gcr08_hughes_11x4440x.png Who am I to say it any better than Einstein said it, or Oppenheimer said it, or any of the other people who argued that we need world government in order to confront the threats of world destruction from weapons of mass destruction?  We have a number of treaties, and we need to get the United States to sign on to some of them and enforce others of them.  If you think back to the history of what happened around Iraq, we were talking about sending in 50,000 international troops, maybe from NATO, to back up the IAEA and the inspection teams in Iraq before the United States invaded.  Of course, the Bush Administration wanted to invade Iraq, so they didn’t want to talk about these options.  We were at the point of actually talking about backing up the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections and the other UN treaty verification teams in Iraq with troops—and if they had actually done that, they would not have found anything, we now know.  Now, whether in the long run that turns out to be a good thing or a bad thing, who knows?  I know we just spent a trillion dollars on it.

gcr08_hughes_12x4440x.png We need to have regulations at an international level for synthetic biology.  With nukes you can relatively easily detect from space production facilities.  With synthetic biology, it may be a room a quarter of this size where you could be building potential weapons of mass destruction.  We need to have new international conventions to regulate synthetic biology.  George Church has made such proposals, the National Academy of Sciences has made proposals, about how we could have licensure for people who are going to be dealing with DNA printers, who are going to be dealing with the equipment that facilitates the creation of pathogens, and how we could have GPS codes on each one of them, how each one of them could be strictly surveilled and monitored around the world.  That is going to require some global cooperation.

gcr08_hughes_13x4440x.png I think one of the things we are going to need as climate change begins to radically undercut global food production is we are going to need dramatic development, technology transfer, and implementation of drought-resistant, climate hardy crops around the world.  Currently there are a number of programs at the UN that try to facilitate these kinds of Green Revolution activities.  Those are going to need to be supported.

gcr08_hughes_14x4440x.png For pandemic activity, the UN has a WHO pandemic alert and response system.  They have been trying to strengthen, coordinate and support local health systems.  They have been trying to mandate the local health systems, like with the Chinese outbreak of SARS that they tried to hush up.  After that, they tried to say that every country should report to the WHO within 24 hours of any kind of outbreak of a pandemic, but of course they have no enforcement.  We need to have transnational enforcement of these kinds of activities.

gcr08_hughes_15x4440x.png For NEOs, Near-Earth Objects, the association of space explorers has been lobbying for the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to have a mandate to be in charge of the detection and the management of the NEO activity.  Another direction that the globalization of space needs to go in is we need to demilitarize US space policy.  Have any of you ever read the US Space Command mandate that the Bush Administration published a couple years ago?  It basically says that the US needs to militarily dominate space.  When you make that a foreign policy goal, you get reactions like China saying, “I guess we’re going to go and dominate space.”  They just spent $600 billion on their economic stimulus plan, and I bet a little bit of that is going into their space program as well.

gcr08_hughes_16x4440x.png I think that the prospects for international conflict around space are quite severe, and we need to demilitarize space, partly by getting everybody on board the Outer Space Treaty, or some future version of that, forbidding the militarization of space and promoting cooperation in space.  Also, regulating space junk.  The more tin cans we have in our orbit that are spinning around at 10,000 miles per hour, the harder it is going to be for anybody to get off the planet.  The regulation of space junk, satellites, weather manipulation like Josh was talking about, all of these are things that should be worked on.  There is this group now called the Global Exploration Strategy group, which involves a lot of the spacefaring nations, that have been trying to talk about different kinds of cooperative space ventures that can be engaged in, such as robotic exploration.

gcr08_hughes_17x4440x.png Here is a speculative one for my futurist friends.  There is also discussion about what sort of protocols we should have if we figure out that there is extraterrestrial intelligence.  If you figure it out, who should you tell?  Should it just be the President?  Should it be the UN Secretary General?  Who gets to decide how you respond?  Say, like in Contact, they beam down how to build the machine that will allow you to communicate with them on a regular basis.  Who gets to decide whether we respond to that or not?  That is a pretty important question, and I think that it could be in fact an existential risk question, if you’re paranoid.

gcr08_hughes_18x4440x.png I talked at the Singularity Summit last year and I brought up cybersecurity.  Everyone was completely uninterested in talking about this.  There is a treaty called the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls for conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies.  It’s an international trade in weapons treaty.  It establishes an international body and has something like a hundred members and forty participating states, but among many other things it regulates trade in cryptographic software, expert systems and supercomputers.  I would say that if Eliezer in his wisdom cooks up some kind of supercomputer, that we actually do have a right as a nation and as a world organization to say that we would rather you not export that to North Korea.  We would rather that stay in the hands of liberal democracies.

gcr08_hughes_19x4440x.png My plea is that instead of indulging in our fear of hypothetical totalitarianism, we live in a world in which we cannot get effective international political action to stop the murder of the Darfur.  We live in a world where we cannot get effective political action to spend the $2 billion it would take to provide sanitation and prevent the unnecessary deaths of millions and millions of children around the world.  We live in a world in which we can’t get international political cooperation to make sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.  That is the kind of world we live in.  We don’t live in a world in which the immediate threat is a totalitarian government coming from the Hague and sticking wires in all of our heads so that we have pleasure machines and never want to do anything but love the Hague. That’s not the world we are going to live in for the foreseeable future.  We live in a world where there are many, many serious catastrophic risks and where there actually are existing institutions at the national and international level trying to address those catastrophic risks.  We need to coordinate our efforts, our foresightful futurist policy efforts, with the ones that already exist out there. That’s my contribution today.  Thanks very much.


James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Amazing job

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