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Excerpt from

Chapter Sixteen



As it happens, the end of the second millennium has brought the rough equivalent of hostile extraterrestrials--not a single impending assault, but lots of new threats that, together, add up to a big planetary security problem. They range from terrorists (with their menu of increasingly spooky weapons) to a new breed of transnational criminals (many of whom will commit their crimes in that inherently transnational realm, cyberspace) to environmental problems (global warming, ozone depletion, and lots of merely regional but still supranational issues) to health problems (epidemics that exploit modern thoroughfares). None of these things has quite the galvanizing effect of space invaders, but they are all scary, and they all imply supranational governance in one sense or another. They threaten many nations with common perils that are best overcome through cooperation. 


You can already see some of the new structures of governance emerging. They are tenuous, but in their very weakness future strength is visible. Consider the Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC gives an international body unprecedented power to spring surprise searches on any member state at the behest of any other member state. In 1997, when the US. Senate debated the treaty before ratifying it, critics warned about a loss of American sovereignty. In reply, defenders of the convention found themselves in the odd position of stressing its underlying weakness: if the inspectorate tries to search your garage, the American government can stall, and if the search seems unconstitutional, can thwart it. Presumably true. Still, if other countries can do the same, then much of the CWC's value to the US.-the ability to demand inspections in foreign countries-goes down the drain. And if the US. wants to realize that value--if it wants other nations to surrender a bit more sovereignty--then it will have to surrender a bit more sovereignty. That's the way these games work. 

The question, then, is whether the value of a stronger inspectorate will ever warrant the price of lost sovereignty. And the answer is almost certainly yes. The spread of technological information--including how to make weapons--has always been unstoppable in the long run, and new media, notably the Internet, are making the long run very short.

Actually, chemical weapons are the least of the problem. On the Richter scale of weapons of mass destruction, they barely register. It is biological and nuclear weapons that ensure that by 2020 any well-funded terrorist group will have the know-how to kill 50,000 people in any given city.

Biological weapons are much easier to make and to hide than nuclear weapons. The encroachment on sovereignty that they will call for is, to current sensibilities, shocking. All kinds of industrial and medical facilities will have to be monitored. The personal possession of some equipment will probably have to be banned, and surprise inspections will be necessary. This prospect--that some supranational agency could demand to search your basement or your kitchen freezer--would now strike most Americans as unthinkable, even if local police were in tow to guard against abuse.

But trauma has a way of making the unthinkable widely thought. In the middle of World War II, the historian Arnold Toynbee met with a number of notables in Princeton, New Jersey, to discuss the postwar world. By the end of the meeting, Toynbee had convinced John Foster Dulles-a temperamentally conservative man who would later become secretary of state in a Republican administration-that world government was essential. Dulles signed on to the group's conclusion that "as Christians we must proclaim the moral consequences of the factual interdependence to which the world has come. The world has become a community, and its constituent members no longer have the moral right to exercise `sovereignty' or `independence' which is now no more than a legal right to act without regard to the harm which is done to others."

And World War II, bear in mind, was not as scary for the average American as biological weapons will be. There was no chance in 1942 that whole American cities would be decimated without warning. Once this threat becomes real, appreciable sacrifices of sovereignty are among the less extreme solutions that will get trotted out. (And among the more benign. Persecuting particular groups, such as Muslims, may seem far-fetched now, but recall the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Wouldn't supranational governance be preferable?)

Lots of non-zero-sum problems show the same logic: basic technological trends make their growth all but certain, and their eventual solution will likely entail real accretions of supranational governance.


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at