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Interview With a Philosopher: On Replacing The U. N. Security Council

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John Davenport teaches philosophy and ponders radical ideas at Fordham University in New York City. He is the President of the Soren Kierkegaard Society of North America, and is author of the book Will as Commitment and Resolve. We chat here about replacing the United Nations Security Council. Hey, why stop with small talk?

Tom: Hi, John. It seems you've been entering into significant political debates about global governance where few philosophers dare to tread.

John: Hi, Tom. Yes, though my work builds on ideas in just war theory, and the work of thinkers like Allan Buchanan and Jürgen Habermas's democratic theory. Since 2004, I've been arguing that we need to replace the U.N. Security Council with a large federation of democracies spanning all continents.

Tom: That a pretty extreme idea.

John: Yes, it is. I've been a strong supporter of the U.N. system for most of my life, but I came to my new view after the cold war ended but the Security Council still remained unable to act in humanitarian emergencies such as Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Rwanda, and Darfur. The results have been too horrible for us to continue on this path.

Tom: What brought you to this issue, especially since much of your work is on Kierkegaard and moral psychology?

John: You're right. It's a big switch for me, but when the Iraq War began in 2003, I started thinking more and more about the structural problems of the U.N. system and the great power vetoes that stall significant action. In fall 2004, I debated Jean Elshtain, who at the time defended the Bush administration's American unilateralist approach, which has cost us so much in lives, federal debt, and international reputation. It seemed like both here and in Europe, the debate was cast as a simple dichotomy: either US unilateralism or the UN system. As you know, Tom, philosophers hate false dichotomies, and this has been a very harmful one!

Tom: So you started looking for a third way?

John: Yes; this was before political scientists like Ivo Daalder, James Lindsay, and Marie Slaughter started making proposals for a so-called "concert" of democracies to work alongside the U.N., but Buchanan and Keohane had already considered this kind of alternative, along with a rapid response force that would be able to intervene quickly in future Rwanda-type scenarios. My approach was inspired by their work, but also guided by the logic of the Federalist Papers.

Tom: In what way? How do the problems of 1787 relate to global governance today?

John: It may not be obvious at first glance, but the problems are structurally very similar. When the American constitutional convention met, it was faced with what philosophers today call a "collective action problem," which means a set of incentives that lead parties to act strategically in ways that are mutually self-defeating. In short, the new American states were not cooperating because the weak Continental Congress had no enforcement powers and was unable to do anything without unanimous consent of all states, or at least all the large ones, and a supermajority of the others. They couldn't even collect enough revenues to pay pensions to officers of Washington's army. It was pathetic!

Tom: I can see the parallel coming.

John: I'm not surprised. The problems with the UN Security Council are almost identical to those of the Continental Congress operating under the weak Articles of Confederation. As you know, the Security Council cannot act without all five of the permanent members, and a majority of the rest. Russia and China block anything they see as intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. And even in the rare event that the Security Council passes a resolution with some teeth, it's entirely dependent on member nations for enforcement. If Alexander Hamilton came back today, he'd say: "Wow, I've seen this before!"

Tom: Or maybe, "Egads!" And he'd write a very long essay. So you think he'd recommend a solution analogous to the one in 1787?

John: Yes, as I argued in a piece titled "A Global Federalist Paper:" we need a federation with a legislature that is able to act by simple majority votes that are binding on all members, an executive with its own standing armed forces, and a set of courts that are answerable to this transnational government, rather than free-standing like today's international courts (which also lack any real subpoena powers).

Tom: Some would respond, "Why not simply strengthen the UN, which already exists and includes almost all nations as members?"

John:For three reasons, Tom. First, it's politically impossible: according to the UN charter, all five permanent members and two-thirds of the General Assembly have to approve amendments. As long as it remains a dictatorship, China will certainly never approve an amendment replacing great power vetoes with simple majority votes and establishing a UN rapid response force.

Second, many member states are more interested in protecting their sovereignty than in establishing human rights; they would never approve the needed changes. The UN will always remain a weak treaty organization whose powers are merely derivative from nation-states. That is the heart of the structural problem, just as Hamilton said of the Congress of Confederation in Federalist 15.

And third, worst of all, many member states and at least one permanent member of the Security Council are not democracies: their governments do not in any meaningful sense truly represent their peoples at the UN. In that respect, our problem today is much worse than the American problem in 1787, for at least all 13 states were largely democratic (at least for white men!).

Tom: So, you'd establish a new international federation limited to democratic nations?

John: Precisely. We not only need real consolidated powers to uphold basic rights and prevent genocidal violence and racial persecution; we also need the government that wields these tremendous powers to be democratically legitimate. The UN will never be that. The new federation needs to have a legislature and executive directly elected by citizens of its member states. Obviously that is only possible among democratic member states.

Tom: I can imagine some Star Wars fans out there worrying that this sounds a bit like a world empire. Images of Darth Vader come to mind.

John: No reason for worry. The federation would not force any nation to join; probably quite a few democratic nations would remain outside it at first. But it would end the present way that nations attempt to free-ride by waiting for others to step up and solve global problems, from humanitarian crises, to environmental resource depletion, to the obvious problematic lack of helpful global financial coordination.

Tom: But could this balkanize the world?

John: I have tried to respond to this kind of objection in an online essay published by the Carnegie Council. If the federation began with democracies from around the world, including Russia, there is no chance of restarting the cold war. China would not like it, to be sure, but perhaps it would persuade China finally to democratize in order to become a full member. We have to take some risks if we are to start upholding the principles established at Nuremberg (as I discuss in a paper on Just War theory forthcoming in the Journal of Religious Ethics). When the lion's share of the world's military might and money resides in democratic nations, it's shameful that we allow genocide and murderous tyrannies to continue. Imagine how different the world would be today if a large federation, rather than the small US coalition, had led the Afghan and Iraqi interventions?

Tom: Better, perhaps, but still challenging.

John: For sure, but we owe it to our children and all the children across the world to step up to these challenges and face the need for institutional reform head on.

Tom: Well said, John. You've given us a lot to think about. Thanks.

John: Glad to have the chance to air the ideas. This is important stuff. Thanks for the interview, Tom. Your readers should feel free to contact me any time at

Copies of some of the papers mentioned here are available online.