Lecture by Peter Davidse, Rome summer 1997, on the invitation of John Ewbank.


When we would look at the Earth from the window of a space station, like the Russian ‘Mir’, the world is tranquil, undisturbed and amazingly beautiful. Most of us have the experience of looking out of an aeroplane window. Also at the normal flight altitude it is almost impossible to distinguish the frontiers between countries. Some cases are easy: if a so called ‘natural border’, such as a river or a mountain range, has been chosen. Otherwise we see no difference in the landscape, with a few exceptions, the great wall between China and Mongolia, the iron fence between the US and Mexico and formerly the concrete wall that divided Europe. I choose this introduction to illustrate a profound process that is taking shape: that of development towards world citizenship. Quite often these words are used casually: all humans are world citizens. It is a state caused by the fact of our physical birth on Earth. To be a world citizens is a natural phenomenon, although more evolved, world citizens in this sense are comparable to mountain ranges, rivers and forests: simply there, giving shape to the habitat of Earth. But the concept of citizenship traditionally covers much more than this. In the Bible it is recorded that saint Paul is a Greek citizen, and has to be treated as such. It distinguishes him from others, such as slaves and strangers. Thus recognition as citizen has important consequences for the behaviour of others around him, because it identifies him as belonging to the upper layer of Greek society. It has legal consequences: rights are conferred upon the individual as a citizen. When the citizens came together in the agora, they were expected to take up their responsibilities as members of the polis.

This political process constituted the means by which men sought to continue the good and happy life of their community. When we situate the concept of citizenship in western political thought, we find it preserved in the roman empire. Although the real power was in the hands of the 300 romans elected in the Senate. Within the Germanic tribes, barbarians in the eyes of the romans, operated a notion very similar to that of citizenship. Young men that passed the test of jumping over a circle of other men were considered mature enough to participate in the meetings of the tribe discussing the affairs and future of the community.

The “eidgenossenschaft” (freely translated as: ‘the club of comrades that have taken the oath’) is the counterpart of the polis. During the middle ages the political landscape changes markedly. As in other traditional societies (Eg. China, Japan or Egypt) the ruler became someone to be regarded as divinely ordained. In feudal times, as before, all ways in western Europe still lead to Rome. Coronation ceremonies were introduced in which a representative of the pope (from the Greek “papa” – father, no longer a brother, the bishop of Rome acquired this epitaph in the 6th century) played a central role in the transfer of power.

The concept of citizenship, with it’s notion of equality, disappeared into oblivion, not to return again until the reformation, the renaissance and the scientific discoveries culminate in the age of reason and enlightenment. During the dawn of modern times citizenship becomes a revolutionary concept. In stead of a society in which each one belongs to the lord placed above, sovereignty emanates from each individual. A ‘bottom up’ process characterizes, at least theoretically, the social and political structure: governors are those chosen to fulfill this function by the governed. In the industrializing world merchants, bankers and entrepreneurs gain political rights equal to that of the old aristocracy. Workers organize themselves successfully and increasingly face the future as masters over their own fate. Democracy: government of the people, by the people, for the people replaces the absolute monarchy.

Charlotte Waterlow writes in ‘The Hinge of History’ “The idea that ‘people matter’ is based upon a supremely optimistic assumption about human nature. It is that all people, of whatever sex, race, colour, or social status, are, as persons, endowed with creative powers, and that it is the purpose of society to provide the conditions for the development of these powers – which may range from scientific or artistic genius to the blessing which the craftsman bestows on the humble object which he fashions. This idea inspired the American Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, who inserted in it, uniquely, the ‘Right to happiness’; the Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed by the French Revolutionaries in 1789; and the American Constitution’s Bill of Rights of 1791.

And 150 years later, in 1948, it was affirmed for all humanity in the United Nation’ Universal Declaration of Human rights, the first universally agreed moral code in history.” World Citizenship is not to be treated as a natural phenomenon, but as a concept of crucial importance for shaping history. To declare oneself a World Citizen is to identify oneself as member of one world community. At first sight, this is largely a symbolic act, almost nothing more than the expression of a desire, since the nation state system that was founded in 1648 – with the peace treaty of West-Phalia – is hard to overcome as paradigm for the organisation of basic units in mankind’s political life.

But taken seriously and consistently acted upon, a critical mass can be built, so that one day during the latter part of the twenty first century, an Earth Summit will be concluded with the signing of ‘the Constitution for Planet Earth’ including a ‘Bill of rights and responsibilities for all world citizens’. After ratification of this constitution by the parliaments, the political landscape will be similar to the surface now seen from the distance of space station Mir: one world without frontiers. Off course, one can consider these thoughts utopian, a far fetched dream with little impact on real life. But to do so risks the danger of closing ones eyes for the real magnitude of the problems facing us today.

Since we are gathered near the Vatican, it is appropriate to quote the encyclical “Pacem in Terra” of Pope John the 23rd: “137. Today the universal common good poses problems of world-wide dimensions, which cannot be adequately tackled or solved except by the efforts of public authorities endowed with a wideness of powers, structure and means of the same proportions: that is, of public authorities which are in a position to operate in an effective manner on a world-wide basis. The moral order itself, therefore, demands that such a form of public authority be established.” Two more citations from the famous encyclical: “Public Authority Instituted by Common Consent and Not Imposed by Force 138.

A public authority, having world-wide power and endowed with the proper means for the efficacious pursuit of its objective, which is the universal common good in concrete form, must be set up by common accord and not imposed by force. The reason is that such an authority must be inspired by sincere and real impartiality: in other words, it must be an action aimed at satisfying the objective requirements of the universal common good….” And: “The principle of Subsidiarity 141. The public authority of the world community is not intended to limit the sphere of action of the public authority of the individual political community, much less take its place. On the contrary, its purpose is to create, on a world-wide basis, an environment in which the public authorities of each political community, its citizens and intermediate associations, can carry out their tasks, fulfill their duties and exercise their rights with greater security.” (In: ‘Uniting the Peoples and Nations, readings in World Federalism’ compiled by Barbara Walker)

With the last paragraph one of the main principles of federalism is introduced. The principle of subsidiarity guides at which level a certain problem has be addressed. The higher level only comes to the assistance of a lower level if it cannot be solved on this lower level. Subsidiarity ties in with another main principle of federalism: participation. It is appropriate to organise a higher level authority if the external effects are non-negligible. Not doing so can be very costly.

An example from the world of fishing illustrates this. “In march 1995 a Spanish vessel fished just outside the Canadian territorial waters. It was not the only vessel. All of them hunted the fish vigorously and successfully. They were free to do so, because it was in international waters. No law binds the fisherman there, also no fishing law. Until that time Canadian fishers were the only ones to fish these waters. They pursuit the fish not so vigorously, in the justified hope to have a good catch again next year. The Spanish practice extinguished this hope. The Canadian government was furious. It captured a Spanish vessel and arrested its crew. This was against the, international, law that allowed fishing freely. Soon the crew was set free again, the ship was given back. Long negotiations started over the nets, but the Canadians cannot hold them.” (From: ‘Human rights and the necessity of global governance’, Jan Berkouwer.)

The new technology of the better and larger fishing vessel brings into contact two communities that before coexisted without interaction. The peace of a local community is disturbed, the wealth of another temporarily increased. The social reality follows the technological innovation at a distance. A way out for all parties involved is to coordinate their fishing activities, so the depletion of fish is prevented and the catch sustained. A similar example, but at a much larger scale, is the expansion of Germany lead by Adolf Hitler. His philosophy was that by occupying a larger territory, won at a low price in a series of ‘Blitz Kriegs’ (Flash Wars), and making the inhabitants productive for Germany, a ‘Third Reich’- prospering a thousand years -, could be created. His ambition, backed by the German people, could be stopped by the combined force of the Allied Powers. When Irak invaded Kuwait, it acted on similar strategic thoughts. The aggression was halted by the UN force lead by the United States.

The list of possible examples of states behaving like free riders, seeking their own profit in disregard of the interests of others, is long and not closed yet. To counteract the possibly devastating effects of such behaviour, defence systems are constructed, maintained and developed. The total cost of which is more than 700 billion $ per year (more than a 100$ yearly per inhabitant of this world). In case armed conflict really develops, the price is also paid in numbers of wounded and dead combatants and civilians. At the top of the power pyramid, a few states posses atomic weapons. The terror contained in the mutually assured destruction, is said to have a deterring effect. The weapons are not used, and a negative peace is kept.

Often we associate subsidiarity with a top down process, empowering lower levels of government. In these examples the subsidiarity principle points at the need to organise adequate authority at a higher level. When this is properly done, it is very profitable. The single market has facilitated the growth of the European economy, and the single currency will undoubtedly do the same. The United States of America could never have become a superpower, if the states had not federated, now some 200 years ago. The principles involved. The subtitle of this lecture is towards a maximum of freedom with a minimum of government. Freedom can be defined as a liberty of choice that the individual can exercise. A larger degree of freedom means a wider range of options available. One can define freedom negatively, eg. freedom from hunger or fear. Or one can be free to, in a positive sense, eg. freedom to speak, to gather, to buy things from others. Freedom exists in a relationship with others. A distinction can be made between different types of freedom: – the freedom of one ends where that of the other starts, eg. a radio in the serenity of nature – both live freely without interference, eg. Europeans and native Americans before Christoffel Columbus. – freedom in cooperation, one needs the other to be able to exercise his freedom, eg. a commercial transaction. One millionaire washed ashore on a deserted island in the ocean is as well off as a poor beggar in those circumstance. In a society where people are free to choose their occupation, specialisation of labour flourishes, the liberty of one man to become a shoemaker can be exercised, because simultaneously another chooses to become a taylor. – freedom based on an agreement to disagree. Eg. in a democratic system different parties represent different ideologies, but sit together in parliament and exchange views, they don’t kill each other. Now let us turn to government. With the exception of individual self-government ), all types of gouvernment consist of at least two levels: the gouverner(s) and the gouverned. Within federal thinking, the personalist school of thought distinguishes three types of political regimes. !