In two interviews posted recently on YouTube, historian, philosopher and best-selling author Yuval Harari said:
“I think you can’t have democracy, at least in today’s world, without a strong sense of nationalism.” (connect)
âI don’t believe in a single world government in the world, I think it’s a bad idea. It’s not just that it won’t work, it’s a really bad idea. (connect)
Yet Democracy Without Borders advocates a world order based on global democracy and the principle of federalism, which involves world government. In particular, these goals are reflected in a new theory of long-term change. When an academic with the reputation of Yuval Harari questions his fundamental goals, we want to understand why. It turns out that his opposition is unclear.
Global democracy and the sense of connection
Considering democracy first, Harari goes on to explain what he means by “a strong sense of nationalism”:
“If you don’t feel connected, if you don’t feel that you have a shared destiny with others in your country, there is absolutely no reason for the world to accept the verdict of democratic elections.”
However, feelings of connection may exist beyond the national level. The climate crisis, pandemic and other global challenges are creating an increasingly strong sense of planetary connection. As polls show, more and more people identify as citizens of the world and realize that humanity shares a common destiny on spacecraft Earth. We cannot avoid making decisions that affect our common future, and the question is how best to achieve them. Democracy Without Borders advocates for debate and decision-making in a global democracy that pursues the common good, instead of the current system of 193 separate sovereign nations, each defending their own narrow national interest, negotiating compromises at the lowest common denominator to the UN and elsewhere.
It’s not that you first need a sense of connection and then you can tackle challenges together. It’s the opposite. Common challenges forge a sense of connection and stimulate the change necessary for an effective response. As humanity faces increasingly pressing global crises, the common sentiment necessary to underpin common decision-making is rapidly emerging. Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future are a good example. Global democracy is called into existence by existential threats.
This does not mean that global democracy does not face other formidable obstacles, such as an autocratic China and a kleptocratic Russia. He simply agrees with Harari that a sense of connection is a prerequisite for democracy, but he argues that exclusive nationalism is not the only way to achieve it. The rapidly emerging sense of planetary connection makes global democracy more and more achievable. National and global democracy can coexist, as shown below.
World government and federalism
On world government, Yuval Harari continues:
âThe key message is not that we need to replace nation states with a world government. No, we need nation states to work together in the common interest, because there is no contradiction between promoting national interests and cooperation with other countries. “
and, in the context of Covid:
ââ¦ In the United States, the failure of the federal government to come up with a single plan for the whole of the United States. This does not mean that federalism does not work and that we must dissolve the United States into 50 independent nation states. It means we have to try harder.
Indeed, nation states should not be replaced by a world government and few suggest it. Instead, an additional level of world government must be created to facilitate cooperation among nation states in the common interest, based on the principle of subsidiarity. Just as the United States functions better under a federal government than as independent states (in the ephemeral confederation from 1783 to 1789), a world federation could more effectively address global challenges than 193 independent nation states. A world federal government would not replace nation states. It would work with and complement them, dealing only with global issues that are not best addressed at lower levels of governance. Harari rejects a unitary world state, in which a world government replaces nation-states, but does not appear to envision a world federation, in which a world government complements nation-states.
He goes on to suggest that there is no contradiction between the promotion of national interests and cooperation with other countries. This is like saying that there is no contradiction between advancing your own interests and cooperating with the other prisoner, in the The prisoner’s dilemma. It all depends on the configuration of the game. Global governance as it is currently structured is not designed to serve the common good, it is designed to defend the national interest of the victors of WWII. It’s not the same thing. Three decades of ineffective (in) action to reduce carbon emissions demonstrate the urgency of reforming global governance to serve the common good.
This article does not attempt to retrace Yuval Harari’s evolving views on global governance. For example, in a first version of his bestseller Sapiens he wrote:
âDuring the 21st century, nationalism is rapidly losing ground. More and more people believe that all of humanity is the legitimate source of political authority, rather than members of a particular nationality, and that the safeguard of human rights and the protection of the interests of the The entire human species should be the common thread of politics. If so, having nearly 200 independent states is a hindrance rather than a help. Since Swedes, Indonesians and Nigerians deserve the same human rights, wouldn’t it be simpler for a single world government to protect them? (From Animals to Gods: A Brief History of Mankind (2012), p. 244)
This call for a single world government to replace nation states seems to contradict his most recent comments. Later versions of the book have different text.
It seems from these recent interviews that Yuval Harari considers that global democracy is unachievable and that world government is undesirable. It matters because he is an influential thinker. However, on closer listening, his opposition is not so clear. Mankind has a growing sense of connection and a shared destiny necessary to support global democracy, and a global federal government would facilitate cooperation among nation-states without threatening their existence, just as Harari intended.