The issue of how we human beings are to govern ourselves on this planet as we move into increasing planetary chaos caused by climate change is now coming to the forefront of thoughtful people worldwide. Historian Alfred W. McCoy followed his 2017 book about the declining American empire (In the Shadows of the American Century) with an even more sweeping book reviewing the past five centuries of world systems and empires and looking into our endangered human future through the lens of massive climate change and environmental disruption (To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, 2021).
Shadows of the American Century contains three chapters that help illuminate the immense contradiction between the US empire’s professed ideals of the integrity of national sovereignty, democracy, and universal human rights and the dirty business of maintaining global hegemony that regularly violates each of these ideals. Chapter 3, “Covert Netherworld” recounts the sordid history of US covert operations, Chapter 4, “A Global Surveillance State,” reviews the empire’s pervasive worldwide spying programs; and Chapter 5, “Torture and the Eclipse of Empires,” describes the pervasive use of torture by the empire from the 1950s to the present.
Washington has always worked to keep awareness of its so-called “political realism” from the American people and to foster a global image that covers up the ugly reality of empire. In Manifest Destiny (2018), F. William Engdahl describes the scheme of “fake democracy,” Washington’s creation of “nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that would be used to covertly create pro-Washington regimes in strategic parts of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union” (p. 3). In Sorrows of Empire, (2004), Chalmers Johnson discussed the huge, top-secret “black budget” awarded annually to the military that is used under cover of “secrecy and disinformation—the dissemination of plausible but false data—[that] makes a farce of congressional oversight” (p. 119).
In To Govern the World McCoy argues that there have been many long or short-lived empires during these centuries but only three “world orders”—the Iberian (dominated by Spain and Portugal), the British (from the late 17th to early 20th centuries) and the American (commencing at the close of the Second World War and rapidly waning in the early 21st century). He argues that the world order established with the founding of the UN after the war was based on three fundamental features: the equality of sovereign nations, the universality of human rights, and the availability of immense energy derived from fossil fuels.
A primary reason for the decline of the American global hegemony is the violation by the USA of its own stated global principles of national sovereignty and universal human rights. The CIA and US military have regularly violated these principles through the manipulation of the internal affairs of dozens of nations, including interfering with elections, fostering coup d’états, assassinations, or outright invasions. The “exceptional” nation promotes these principles worldwide while making an exception for itself whenever it feels its national interests should take precedence.
In both books, McCoy reviews the rise of China to global wealth and economic prominence over the past several decades. Chinese massive investments in Latin America and Africa, and its sweeping Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting the vast landmass from Asia to Europe, have threatened US hegemony as the share of the world’s trade steadily declines for the US and increases for China. China’s principles are not human rights and national sovereignty but economic integration, while at the same time challenging the idea that the world’s oceans form a global commons by claiming the South China Sea as part of its own sovereign territory.
China declares that human rights are relative to culture and not universal, and it offers no universal principles to the world that might conceptually solidify a global empire other than economic integration and the prospect of moving evermore people out of poverty through economic and industrial development. Unlike the US, with more than 700 military bases worldwide, China establishes military bases relative to its own regional security and immediate sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. Its hegemony is primarily economic rather than military (pp. 295-79).
Although McCoy’s book makes clear that the central point of colonialism and imperialism for the past 500 years worldwide has been the economic exploitation of victim populations, his book contains no critical analysis of capitalism. By omitting this necessary component in any world-order analysis, his theses are weakened. He draws a compelling picture, but not a complete picture of the past 500 years of world-order hegemonies. Instead of the three defining features he presents for analysis (national sovereignty, human rights, energy), there need to be four. Missing is a critique of capitalism. As has been pointed out since the time of Karl Marx: capitalism contains “inner contradictions” that make it an impossible and non-viable economic theory and its worldwide dominance remains a fundamental component of any world-system analysis.
Also missing from McCoy’s analysis is any notion that there are internal contradictions between the concept of “sovereign nation-state” and the notion of “universal human rights.” I have described these contradictions in earlier writings, such as One World Renaissance (2016), and will not review them at length in the present article. In a world of some 193 supposedly independent units called sovereign nations, nearly 50% of them have never been democracies, even in name.
As McCoy points out, the US empire has long favored authoritarian governments and dictatorships that are more obedient to Washington’s interests than fickle democracies. Such governments routinely violate human rights on behalf of their imperial masters. Without global government based on the legal enforcement of human rights worldwide, there can be no meaningful world order based on so-called “universal human rights.” A fragmented world constituted of supposedly autonomous territorial units inherently contradicts the concept of truly universal human rights and dignity.
To Govern the Globe describes China’s meteoric rise to global power and its challenge to US superiority, making it the next possible global hegemon. China’s “state capitalism” has transformed that nation into the largest economic powerhouse in the world with projects to move its model of rapid economic development across Asia and the world. McCoy writes:
When the Cold War ended in 1990, more than a third of humanity was still living in extreme poverty. Even as late as 2015, nearly half the world’s population, about 3-4 billion people, were struggling to survive on little more than five dollars per day. Ultimately, it was the BRI’s bold geopolitical gambit, combined with its strategy of improving the lives of humanity’s forgotten millions, that gave Beijing’s scheme sufficient force to shake the established global order…. Its industrial output increased from $1.2 trillion in 2006 to $3.2 trillion in 2016, surpassing both the United States at $2.2 trillion and Japan at just $1 trillion. (pp. 265-66)
But here is where the third component of the world order comes into play: energy. Beijing’s rapid economic expansion is built on fossil fuels, making it the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses worldwide. Fossil fuels ultimately make such industrial development self-defeating. The rapid expansion of the world’s industrial output from the invention of the first steam engine in 1712 to the trillions of dollars in exchange of goods and services worldwide in 2022 corresponded directly with the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from its pre-industrial level of 285 ppm to its present, rapidly growing, level of 426 ppm.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the altered composition of the atmosphere is causing global climate change that is wreaking havoc with the stable climate of the Holocene era that has enabled human civilization to flourish and develop for the past 6000 years. Just as I researched in my 2021 book, The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet, McCoy describes the environmental consequences of climate change that we see all around us and that are destined to dramatically intensify throughout the 21st century: more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as superstorms and flash floods, vast wildfires destroying the forests necessary for planetary ecosystem health, killer heat waves in regions around the world so severe that they are lethal to human beings, prolonged droughts destroying the stable ability of croplands around the world to produce food, declining of the world’s fisheries, desertification, deforestation, and rising sea levels destined to flood coastlines around the world and inundate dozens of major coastal cities.
Since the warning cries first went out from scientists in the early 1960s, very little has been done, and all of these climate disruptions have rapidly increased around the world. Great power rivalry, imperialism, colonization, and promotion of empires has characterized world history for the past 500 years. This era is necessarily being brought to an end by climate disruption. (Although from the war in Ukraine between Russia and NATO and the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea, it is apparent that the global elites have not yet discerned this fact.)
McCoy argues that if China succeeds in displacing the US as a global hegemon, this will be very short-lived, perhaps only one or two decades (p. 303). Rising seas within a few years will inundate China’s major economic centers at Osaka, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Heat waves and drought will devastate China’s North China Plain, a major agricultural area of the country. As with most of the world, China’s governors and national wealth will be spent on simply trying to deal with these massive disruptions and global hegemony will be the least of their concerns (pp. 310-11).
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not being achieved by the nations of the world precisely because a collection of independent, autonomous territories, in economic, military, and political rivalry with one another, cannot possibly achieve the unity of will, purpose, vision, and resources necessary to combat climate disruption. The UN SDGs, while mostly worthwhile, is predicated upon the false assumptions behind the UN system (that it is possible to have a world order of universal human rights within a system of competing for sovereign national territories). Chapter 6 of my Earth Constitution Solution examines this issue in some depth.
We need a truly united world system predicated on both universal human rights and the global unity necessary to integrate human actions in the face of climate destruction. The UN Charter must be replaced by the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. All nations must join within an Earth Federation dedicated to the common welfare of all the world’s peoples as well as future generations. This Earth Constitution calls for all viable UN agencies to be incorporated into the emerging Earth Federation. But only such a federation can provide the resources, political will, and synergistic unity necessary to deal with the climate crisis.
McCoy makes several observations concerning how the world might cope with the ever-increasing devastation of the climate crisis. He states that “any world order, whether Washington’s or Beijing’s, that is based on the primacy of the nation-state will probably prove incapable of coping with the political and economic crisis likely to arise with the appearance of some 275 million climate-change refugees by 2060 or 2070…. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the 200 million climate change refugees anticipated by 2050 or 275 million by 2070” (p. 317).
He fails to mention the obvious fact that even without climate disruption, under the sovereign nation-state system, the world has no way to protect the human rights of its citizens. Human rights have been violated massively every year since the Universal Declaration was issued in 1948. Fragmented territorial sovereignty contradicts universal human rights protection. McCoy concludes: “To cope effectively with this crisis, the world would have to create an international system that privileged protection of the global commons and human rights over the inviolability of national sovereignty of the kind sanctioned by the current global order” (p. 317). This is precisely one major function of the Earth Constitution.
McCoy’s imagination is perhaps limited by his backward-looking perspective as a historian. He cannot imagine a world system that truly transforms regressive capitalism and divisive nation-state sovereignty into a unity in diversity truly based on human rights and human welfare. He mentions “future” equivalents of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank (p. 318) without any apparent awareness that these private, profit-oriented financial institutions are not set up to promote human welfare but to maximize profit for their investors. They all, therefore, contribute to planetary climate destruction.
McCoy appears to lack any awareness of the Earth Constitution, which accomplishes the objectives he finds necessary for future global governance but goes beyond the failed and contradictory features of the current world system to create, for the first time in history, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people of Earth. He says we need “a concrete form of global governance [that must] exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons” (p. 318), and this is on the mark. The Earth Constitution is precisely concrete, explicit, and clear as crystal about how the world needs to be governed in the face of planetary climate disaster.
The Constitution provides all these things, linked together within a global democratic conceptual framework that fulfills and expands the framework of universal human rights into an integrated system that puts people’s well-being at the heart of global government, not nation-state power or self-interest, nor global banking exploitation, nor multinational corporate domination. Global democracy and the rule of democratic legislated world law alone can give us the protection of universal human rights along with effectively dealing with the climate crisis.
Under Article 2 of the Constitution, the people of Earth are recognized as sovereign. Under Article 4, the global commons (the oceans, atmosphere, and key climate resources) are recognized as belonging to the people of Earth, protected by enforceable constitutional and democratically legislated laws. Under Article 8, global public banking is created to serve the needs of nations and peoples for ecological health and human well-being, not for the profit of private banking or exploiting multinational corporations.
If we want a future at all on this beautiful planet, we must govern the world systematically, democratically, and constitutionally on behalf of the unity in diversity of everyone and the welfare of future generations. The emergence of a planetary climate emergency over the past half-century has changed everything. We must not only end empires and establish planetary democracy but deal effectively with the climate crisis. We need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Online. Or in print with Institute for Economic Democracy Press, Appomattox, Virginia, 2010 and 2014.
Engdahl, F. William (2018). Manifest Destiny: Democracy as Cognitive Dissonance. Wiesbaden, Germany: Mine Books.
Johnson, Chalmers (2004). The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books.
McCoy, Alfred W. (2017). In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
McCoy, Alfred W. (2021). To Govern the Global: World Orders & Catastrophic Change. Chicago: Haymarket Books.