This Unstable World | Mar 1999

FMBR Editorial: May, 1999

This Unstable World

Marshall Pease

There are many nations in the world each of which claims sovereignty and the right to act as it pleases within its borders. Each demands this right as an unconditional measure of its pride and the ultimate mark of the respect it claims as its due. It is the basic loyalty the state demands in the name of patriotism, and, in this view, even takes precedence over issues of humanity. Witness the claim of Milosovic that what his forces do in Kosovo is an “internal security matter” not open to the judgment of the world. Whether Milosovic himself believes this or simply finds it a useful political ploy may be questioned. It seems clear that his supporters in Yugoslavia and here and in other countries do believe it.

This emphasis on sovereignty is not limited to dictators or demagogues. Neither is it limited to countries of which we disapprove. It exists in this country. We too emphasize our nation’s sovereignty when it seems to be challenged. Even our acceptance of the United Nations and other transnational organizations is commonly justified as in “our national interests.” Why not “in the interests of humanity”?

The problem with this situation is that it is unstable. It emphasizes differences and makes them more critical. In technical terms, it provides feedback which, too often, acts to exaggerate conflicts and perpetuates an atmosphere of bitterness and hostility that often seems to defy all efforts at resolution. The issue, whatever it is, tends to become institutionalized and the nation’s political and cultural processes mobilized to ensure that there will be no compromise. In too many cases, the issue ultimately comes down to military power and the willingness of the disputing countries to use it ruthlessly. The centuries of international conflicts and war are evidence of this fact, as are the various persistent hostilities and savage struggles scattered over the world today.

The basic cause of the instability is the feedback inherent in the idea of independent sovereignties. One can look back on the long history of colonial exploitation as illustration. In that era, the exploiting countries sought to keep the colonies at a suitable level of subordination, all in the name of national interest. At times and in various places this was a matter of explicit policy. The natives could not be allowed to threaten what the mother country saw as its due. At other times, the policies were glossed over with such slogans as the “white man’s burden.” The world no longer tolerates such practices, at least not in any explicit form. The powerful, industrialized nations still do look to other, less powerful and less developed nations as sources of cheap labor but things are improving. What is driving the improvement, however, does not seem to be a fundamental shift of priorities but merely a more enlightened view of what are the national interests. If this is really the case, it leaves intact the feedback process and the resultant instability, albeit in a new and perhaps less dangerous form. The underlying unity of humanity will continue to be subordinate to what are conceived as that national interest.

How else might the world be organized? I do not have the answer. Perhaps it depends on re-energizing the “One World” concept so popular a few decades ago. Or perhaps it will emerge as a consequence of the ever more extensive person-to-person linkages being forged by the exploding communications technology. Perhaps the concept of sovereignty as an absolute will simply fade away as people come to understand better who and what they are. I do not know. But each person can contribute by keeping their focus on the underlying unity of humanity.

Marshall Pease, May 1999