We Need a World Government — But It Has to Be Democratic

The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged influential figures like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to press for new structures of global governance. But the system they have in mind won’t be democratic. We need a radically democratic world government.

Former prime ministers Gordon Brown (L) and Tony Blair (R) arrive at Westminster Abbey on September 10, 2019 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe - WPA Pool / Getty

At the start of June, a clutch of governments and medical charities committed $2 billion to a global procurement fund, with the goal of ensuring access to any potential COVID-19 vaccine for poorer countries, along with another $8.8 billion to support vaccination efforts for other diseases such as measles.

The Trump administration predictably sat this one out. But Donald Trump’s British counterpart, the Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson, hosted the virtual 2020 Global Vaccine Summit where these pledges were made, and stumped up £1.65 billion for the fund. Johnson’s advisers suggest that these contributions could save up to 8 million lives, in what he has dubbed “the greatest shared endeavor of our lifetimes.”

This is not nothing. At the same time, these coronavirus pledges still amount to barely a tenth of what is needed to ensure that the poorest 4 billion people on the planet are immunized when a vaccine does become available. Oxfam has estimated that such an effort would cost $20 billion — the equivalent of what the world’s ten largest pharmaceutical companies make in just four months, or a mere two hours of global economic output.

NATO for Pandemics

So far, so typical. A finance-pledging event for global development that produces underwhelming results? A self-congratulatory get-together that carefully avoids mentioning the much greater number of lives that won’t be saved? It’s all a bit “dog bites man” — the old newspaperman’s term for thin-gruel newsworthiness.

However, there was something much more “man bites dog” in Boris Johnson’s call for the creation of a “NATO for infectious disease.” He urged his fellow world leaders to “unite and forge a path of global co-operation”: “Just as we have great military alliances like NATO, where countries collaborate on building their collective military defense, so we now need that same spirit of collaboration and collective defense against the common enemy of disease.”

Johnson’s penchant for cod-Churchillian rhetoric is notorious, of course, so it’s tempting to dismiss this as just another example of his Pooterish exuberance. After all, the Tory leader has just brought the UK out of one long-established supranational structure, the European Union. Is he really planning to create a NATO for pandemics, or just invoking “the spirit” of one?

Perhaps it is something in between. Johnson stressed that this project would involve “a new international pandemic surveillance and information-sharing effort,” making it possible to identify future outbreaks wherever they might occur. It would also require “a radical scaling-up of our global capacity to respond, exactly as Bill Gates has set out.”

This is precisely the kind of language that has prompted swivel-eyed New World Order conspiracists to redirect their ire from George Soros to the Silicon Valley billionaire in recent months. Gates has been talking insistently about the need for a global pandemic corps — and since he committed $1.6 billion of his own money at the summit, the Microsoft founder is not short of listeners.

According to Gates, the world needs a network of front-line clinics that can deliver vaccines while also serving as an early-warning system. He calls for a global regulatory system to enforce compliance with information-sharing by national states, along with structures capable of developing and distributing billions of doses within a few months of the discovery of a new pathogen. Gates recognizes that market incentives will not suffice and has even begun to sound vaguely social-democratic, stressing that the public sector must play a leading role.

Brown’s Vision

Two former British prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, have been more explicit still about the need for a new global system. In an interview published on March 26, Brown said that there should be a temporary global task force endowed with executive powers. Its function would be to coordinate action in response to the twin crises of the pandemic itself and the Great Shutdown of the world economy it has precipitated.

The world executive Brown has in mind would beef up the G20 and include the heads of existing international organizations such as the UN Security Council, the IMF, and the World Bank. On the vaccine front, its role would be to facilitate research and development, organize production and purchasing, and block profiteering. Its economic role would be to supervise central bank interventions, head off capital flight from emerging economies, and coordinate fiscal stimulus.

“It used to be said of the Bourbons that they would never learn by their mistakes,” Brown wrote in an opinion piece on the same theme. “Centuries on, national leaders still seem unable to apply or even absorb the hard-earned lesson that crises teach us, from the SARS epidemic and Ebola epidemic to the financial meltdown: that global problems need global, not just local and national, responses.”

Inside observers at the 2009 G20 meeting, where the world’s largest national economies agreed to an unprecedented $1.1 trillion fiscal stimulus package, say that Brown was largely responsible for corralling world leaders to engage in pump-priming, at a time when such large-scale state intervention was considered highly unorthodox. He convinced those in attendance that global coordination was necessary to prevent another Great Depression. Brown’s belief in expanded global structures of governance has only grown stronger with the present crisis.

“We need some sort of working executive,” Brown said:

If I were doing it again, I would make the G20 a broader organization because in the current circumstances you need to listen to the countries that are most affected, the countries that are making a difference and countries where there is the potential for a massive number of people to be affected — such as those in Africa.

Future Times

Tony Blair has been no less adamant about the need for a super-G20 as a coordinator of the global pandemic response, adding that the UN Security Council is no longer representative of the world today. For Blair, the G20 itself constitutes “the only short-term practical way” to deliver such coordination. But in a long-term perspective, he wants to see “much better structures in place for us to combat what is a global crisis, with global efficacy” — and not merely to deal with COVID-19, since “there may well be future times where we require this.”

These are not merely off-the-cuff remarks. Blair made similar comments at the Progressive Policy forum, lamenting the idea that countries have been able to flout World Health Organization (WHO) data-sharing obligations because the WHO has no power of enforcement.

According to Blair’s policy institute, a global pandemic response must be able to perform a wide range of tasks: to coordinate mass testing and contact tracing, equip countries with the medical equipment they need, raise production capacity, avoid supply-chain bottlenecks, and coordinate industrial production. It should be in a position to prevent equipment seizures, overcome export barriers, ensure data sharing and technology transfers, coordinate economic support, and supervise food and agriculture to alleviate catastrophic food insecurity.

Some of this agenda could be achieved straightforwardly enough through interstate treaties rather than a new global executive. However, much of it would require real governmental authority for the new body, not least the ability to compel national governments to obey its directives, even if Blair — always the savvier public relations operator of the Brown-Blair duo — makes no explicit mention of the term “world government.”

Gordon Brown seems to be taking action to put this into effect. He convinced more than 200 former prime ministers, presidents, and other senior politicians to sign a letter supporting the creation of a G20 executive task force to deal with the twin viral and economic crises. Signatories included the ex-leaders of Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Spain, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, South Africa, and South Korea, not to mention former UN general secretaries, European Commission presidents, World Bank heads, and many more besides.

This “G20 on steroids” is only meant to be the temporary, quick-fix precursor of something more permanent:

The longer-term solution is a radical rethink of global public health and a refashioning — together with proper resourcing — of the global health and financial architecture. The United Nations, the governments of the G20 nations, and interested partners should work together to coordinate further action.

Brown has introduced a clear line of thinking into the public realm — one that has been taking shape among figures of the technocratic center for some time now, identifying a need for some form of global governance in the face of worldwide threats.

The world is already “governed” by some 1,000 treaties and agencies that involve varying levels of finance and enforcement. For these centrists, moving toward a world government would not be a revolution so much as the next logical step, accelerated by the pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn.


This conceptualization of global governance, if not yet global government, of course comes at a time of near-complete breakdown in relations between the two superpowers, the United States and China. The White House is currently occupied by a committed “America First” anti-globalist who has cut financial support for the World Health Organization and stopped funding UNESCO entirely.

Donald Trump has pulled out of the UN Paris Climate agreement and UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. He has also withdrawn from the nuclear weapons treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, and is in the process of withdrawing from the Open Skies unarmed aerial surveillance treaty, whose origins date back to the Eisenhower administration.

The emerging “Brownian” line of thinking on global governance naturally excludes the nationalist or populist right. For Brown and his co-thinkers, the Trumps, Vladimir Putins, and Viktor Orbáns of the contemporary world should not be seen as an argument against the development of transnational structures: on the contrary, their presence is another reason to push ahead with this agenda.

The same goes for the antagonism between the United States and China. Just as Washington has been pulling back from engagement with the international order in an isolationist huff, often tinged with anti-Chinese sentiment, authoritarian China has galloped into the very intergovernmental territories from which the United States has retreated.

The United Nations is confronting its biggest financial crisis in decades, as Washington hesitates to cough up $1 billion in unpaid dues. Last year, UN secretary-general António Guterres said that the organization would be unable to pay staff their salaries, and dozens of life-saving humanitarian programs such as those in Yemen are facing closure for lack of funds. Beijing has stepped into the breach: China is now the second-largest UN funder after the United States, and the leading sponsor of peacekeeping operations.

This has given China considerable leverage over staff appointments and the implementation of projects. The country is already a leader in the field of clean energy, and the world’s second-largest issuer of green bonds. Combined with China’s bankrolling of UN bodies, this has produced what diplomacy-watchers call a “seamless integration” of Chinese climate diplomacy with the agenda of the UN Environmental Agency, and brought some twenty UN agencies into alignment with Beijing’s flagship overseas development effort, the $4–8 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

This context has shaped Gordon Brown’s perspective. Brown is concerned about Beijing’s initial cover-up of the Wuhan outbreak and subsequent tardy reporting, not to mention what he describes as the WHO’s “meek agreement” in the early stages that the coronavirus threat was moderate. However, this does not lead him to conclude that the US-China rivalry is a block to global governance — China is evidently very keen to participate in those global structures that exist — but rather that a “leaderless world” permits such structures to be captured.

It’s not merely the fact that bodies such as the WHO instinctively draw back from antagonizing major funders like China. Because those organizations have no enforcement powers, they are also under pressure to grant considerable leeway to small states with little financial leverage if they want to carry out their programs. As Kathy Gilsinan has reported in the Atlantic, during the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, the WHO hesitated to declare a public-health emergency for months, because it didn’t want to upset the governments of Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone.

“A Disturbing Prelude”

In the fraternity of “anti-globalists,” the libertarians of the Mises Institute have issued a warning against any move to exploit the pandemic so as to establish a world government. Another cry of alarm has come from a transnational group of conservative Catholic bishops and cardinals. The group, which included senior clerics from Europe, Asia, and the United States, issued an appeal warning people against “powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population,” allegedly with the goal of imposing illiberal measures that would be “a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”

John Gray, the British philosopher and long-standing critic of what he calls the “Global Delusion,” sees no such globalist conspiracy at work. On the contrary, he can only find evidence of a crumbling fantasy. Gray argues that the pandemic has discredited the idea of globalization cherished by liberal elites, as countries such as Germany and France seek to repatriate pharmaceutical production from China, while international organizations like the WHO fumble.

According to Gray, the European Union is now “closer to break-up than it has ever been,” with Italy left to fend for itself by Brussels and Berlin (at least until it threatened to emulate Britain’s departure from the bloc, at which point European purse-holders committed to some level of debt pooling). He believes that COVID-19 has recharged the nation-state, as “the only institution with the power and authority to deal with the pandemic and shield its citizens from the dangers of an increasingly chaotic world.”

Former WHO board member Jane Halton worries that Gray’s prediction may indeed come to pass. But she sees a regression into so-called vaccine nationalism as the real nightmare. Once a vaccine is developed, Halton warns, there will be strong pressure to reserve supplies for domestic use instead of distributing it worldwide on the basis of epidemiological priority.

Market Failure

If figures like Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are at least taking the idea of a global government seriously, how should the Left respond to this emerging discourse? To address this question, we need to dig into the record of GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) and its intergovernmental teammate CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations). Both organizations were meant to tackle a widely acknowledged market failure when it comes to vaccines: every chain of the process — research, development, and production — is insufficiently profitable for pharmaceutical firms to make it worth their while.

This problem arises because vaccines are essentially one-offs. If they work, a patient only has to take them once — perhaps also with a booster — whereas drugs for chronic diseases have to be taken on a regular basis, sometimes for the rest of a patient’s life. The big pharmaceutical corporations are obliged to maximize their profits in a market system — it’s not that they choose not to produce vaccines or make them freely available out of moral wickedness.

GAVI and CEPI were meant to plug this gap, with government funding pledges and donations from medical charities such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation to supply the financial underpinning. The two organizations are manifestly doing the Lord’s work here, even though they are woefully underfunded. For example, GAVI and the Canadian government bore the cost of development, clinical trials, and eventual distribution for the Ebola vaccine Ervebo.

But we still have to ask: Why should the taxpayer or a charity pay for the unprofitable vaccines or drugs, while pharmaceutical firms get to keep the revenue from more profitable ones? It would be better to have the latter subsidizing the former. This is what happens with publicly owned postal services: profitable routes that involve sending a package from Toronto to Vancouver, for example, subsidize the unprofitable, costly routes from Vancouver to a tiny village in the Yukon.

Pharmaceutical research, development, and manufacture is so essential a sector for the protection and thriving of humanity that, as with the provision of health care, it should be a priority for decommodification — removal of this good from market allocation entirely.

But there is a further challenge with respect to epidemiological rationality here beyond decommodification. Even if a country like the United States, the UK, or Switzerland took its pharmaceutical sector into public ownership, would that country have a responsibility to supply the drugs and vaccines it produces to all mankind? It would certainly be in their interest to do so, for reasons of herd immunity. No matter how egalitarian access to a vaccine may be on the domestic front, its effectiveness will still be undermined if people in the rest of the world are shut out.

Yet however epidemiologically rational it may be to pay for universal access, it would be unfair — and probably unfeasible — to place the burden of doing so on just one country. It follows then that the entire global pharmaceutical sector would have to be decommodified. Every large pharmaceutical firm would have to be nationalized — or rather “globalized.” But by whom? There’s no world democratic government equipped to carry out the task.

Technocracy or Democracy?

In recent decades, the Left has repeatedly banged its head against this conundrum: the necessity of supranational governance structures clashing with the lack of supranational democracy. At the turn of the millennium, the global justice movement protested against the undemocratic diktats of the World Trade Organization and other such organizations in cities like Seattle, Genoa, and Gothenburg. The press called it the “anti-globalization movement,” to the annoyance of many activists, because they weren’t opposed to globalization as such — just this particular, undemocratic form of globalization.

More recently, when exit from the European Union became a central issue in British politics, liberal-centrist currents put forward a largely uncritical defense of the bloc. But the main arguments coming from the Left polarized around two opposing viewpoints, “Left Remain” and “Left Exit” (or “Lexit” for short). The Left Remain position — sometimes referred to as “Remain and Reform” (or even “Remain and Rebel”) — was associated with figures like former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Another Greek economist, Costas Lapavitsas, was one of the most high-profile advocates for the “Lexit” position.

The Left Remain position ran more or less as follows: “Of course it is true that the European Union’s structures are immune to democratic accountability by design, with essentially no internal mechanism for democratic reform, but it is increasingly difficult or even impossible in a globalized economy for any one country to implement even mild social-democratic reforms! And so we must remain.”

The Lexit position, an almost perfect inversion of Left Remain, went basically like this: “Of course it is increasingly difficult or even impossible in a globalized economy for any one country to implement even mild social democratic reforms, but the European Union’s structures are immune to democratic accountability by design, with essentially no internal mechanism for democratic reform! And so we must leave.”

Both analyses are entirely correct, yet on the face of it, the conclusions are mutually exclusive. What could have reconciled the two camps —  and might still do so — is a return to the stance of the global justice movement, when it refused to accept a false dichotomy between undemocratic globalization and a retreat to the confines of the nation-state.

In the European case, this would amount to a third option: a democratic United States of Europe, built not by elite maneuvering but through a process led by the working class that constructs a transnational demos from the ground up. That process of construction might very well have to pass through the shock of a Brexit, “Italexit” or “Grexit.”

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair aren’t wrong when they argue that grave threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic aftershocks require a global response. But the model they put forward for world governance is an extended version of the EU — a global technocracy insulated from democratic control.

No Time to Waste

The Communist Manifesto famously declared that “the workers have no country.” Ever since the nineteenth century, the Left has aspired to create a global democratic fraternity — a vision at the heart of its anthem, the Internationale — and taken steps along that road with its own transnational organizations, from the International Workingmen’s Association onward.

In practice, however, such internationalism has understandably tended to involve mutual aid across borders: industrial action in support of workers in other countries, or opposition to imperial wars. The idea of building tangible institutions of global democracy has always been something that one day will happen, not something that we can think of doing right now.

To the extent that there has been progressive talk of building such institutions in the here and now, it has tended to come in the form of Albert Einstein’s enthusiasm for the League of Nations; the fusty, Rotary-Club-esque World Federalist Movement; or the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. These lean in the right direction, but repeat the mistake of Brown and Blair, holding out the prospect of a new state structure imposed from the top down, like the EU, rather than from the bottom up, as was the case with the early United States, where a self-aware demos emerged and built a new state structure itself.

But we no longer have the luxury of waiting. Structures of global governance are already being constructed by means of international treaties, and the trend is likely to gather pace if figures like Brown and Blair have their way, without democratic accountability.

We need to counter that tendency with a movement for global democracy, which may take a long time to build — perhaps a generation. But global democracy is the only framework capable of addressing pandemics and other worldwide threats, because only majoritarian decision-making on a global scale can deliver the necessary popular mandate for any world executive.

Regardless of whether we at least begin to make the case for global democracy, some form of world state will be built anyway. It would be weak in the face of such threats because it would lack legitimacy, and at constant risk of authoritarianism, because without elections, there would be no way to kick such a world government out of office when a majority of the world’s population disagreed with its actions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is harrowing enough, but experts warn that we could yet see the emergence of a virus with a much higher fatality rate — a “once-in-a-century” pandemic on par with the Spanish flu that followed World War I. We really have no time to waste. Global statists of the world, unite!