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The Peace Beyond Nation-States

It’s rare for someone of high political position in any nation to tell it like it is about the international system. However Margus Tsahkna, Estonia’s minister of foreign affairs, comes closer to telling the truth about the world (dis)order than any political figure I’ve read in a long time.

In a recent op-ed in The Guardian entitled, “2023 Has Shown Us the Misery Big-Power Politics Creates,” Tsahkna writes:

“International institutions now too often seem powerless, at best, to deal with the most serious challenges of our time. At worst, they are complicit in enabling them. With confidence rapidly fading, the entire system risks collapse.”

Tsahkna is correct, “We need to forge an international system far more resilient to aggressors, but also far better equipped to deal with poverty, disease, and the climate crisis…and we need to be much more creative and ambitious.”

To do so we must delve deeper. Even at the political level, there are premises about “the rules based international system” that no longer apply. To begin with, citizens and political leaders need to stop conflating the international framework with the global sphere.

The tem international means just that –the relations between nation-states. The international system has many institutions and organizations, starting with the United Nations. On the other hand, despite what has become a de facto global society, there is a vacuum of philosophical foundation, visionary leadership, and effective global bodies.

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No matter what reforms are made at the political level however, without a psychological revolution that effectively ends the mindset of man’s tribalism/nationalism, the increasing conflict and threat of collapse that Tsahkna is warning about can only grow.

We are still thinking within the box of the international system, which followed the inter-religious Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Which is to say, we are still living within the framework created 376 years ago when “the sovereigns of a kingdom could choose the religion of their kingdom and the others couldn’t become involved!”

So the first question we face in the year 2024 is: What are we at the end of? The short-lived post-Cold War era? The post-World War II international order? The Westphalian system of separate, sovereign nation-states? Or tribal identification, which is as old as man?

As I see it, the first thing that has to change for Homo sapiens to begin to live up to the name we gave ourselves (‘wise humans’), and begin to live in harmony with the Earth and each other, is enough people ending the atavistic pattern of identifying with particular groups for survival.

That means a sufficient number of human beings must have the emotional perception that we are first and foremost human beings, not Americans, Russians, Ukrainians or Estonians. Otherwise war will continue, and nuclear war will be inevitable at some point.

As Margus Tsahkna wrote, “We are at a pivotal moment in world history…but remember, even in the spring of 1941, when almost all of Europe had fallen to the totalitarian powers, it was during the very darkest days of the second world war that the rules-based world was developed.”

I agree, and that “we must not wait for a repeat of the devastation that they endured.” But I would argue that though the physical devastation is less, and is thus far confined to places like Gaza, Ukraine and the Sudan, there is as much psychic pain, sorrow and darkness in the world this Christmas season as in 1941.

The world is immeasurably more interconnected, and information, factual or distorted, bombards people all over the world much more intensely.

If you visit California, I would encourage you to see two places of stunning beauty: Yosemite Valley during the off-season, and Muir Woods at any time of the year.

The majestic redwoods of Muir Woods north of San Francisco are where the cornerstone of the United Nations was poured. Walking through the silent groves along the earthen paths and looking up at the slender giants, one feels the reverence and solemnity the founders of the UN also felt in that wondrous place.

A small plaque marks the spot where dozens of dignitaries, minus the recently deceased Franklin Roosevelt, for whom the UN was the great vision of his life, signed the initial documents.

Sadly, the United States is no longer capable of such leadership. The American people have turned inward in the worst sense of the phrase, and there is a good chance that Donald Trump, an unabashed authoritarian, will be elected president again in 2024. If that happens it will not only mark the end of America as the “leader of the free world;” it will signify the end of democracy in the United States for the foreseeable future.

Even if President Biden is reelected however, America is no longer capable of leading the world toward the radical changes necessary to salvage what is best of the rules based international system within a new paradigm of an authentically global order.

So in practical terms, what form would such a psychological revolution take? It must be an expression and catalyst of a breakthrough far greater than the Peace of Westphalia, which provided the foundation for nation-states. Where and how is it to emerge?

As Tsahkna said, the conversation that began in bombed-out London and culminated among the redwoods in California “should never have been considered finished.”

In the last few years the conversation has been restarted through the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica under the auspices of its Rector, Francisco Rojas.

It began with a simple question, which Rojas answered in the affirmative: Can the foundation for an effective but non-power-holding global body, enabling the cooperation essential to meet man's polycrisis, be poured at the only General Assembly mandated university?

The sovereignty (literally, ‘supreme principle’) of nearly 200 separate nation-states is not only a source of tremendous fragmentation; it is no more relevant to our time than the sovereignty of kings.

Martin LeFevre


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