Politics Goes Global

FRANZ SCHURMANN

June 17, 1992|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

Just as factories and college graduates are leaving the United States to go abroad, so are politics. And as U.S. presidential politics have degenerated to the question of which candidate comes across best on TV talk shows, global politics are becoming serious, exciting -- even glamorous.

The Rio Earth Summit is a case in point.

Politics take place only in the context of governments. Environmental politics in Rio occurred in the presence of 118 heads of state from 178 nations. Their attendance signified recognition that a global governance exists that some day could turn into real world government.

Two institutions have emerged as key components of this new world governance: the United Nations Security Council and the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial nations.

Until the end of the Cold War in 1989, the Security Council had long been paralyzed by East-West conflict. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was the first test case to see if it could mount a concerted major action. Support from the five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- was vital.

When the most reluctant permanent member, China, abstained rather than vetoing action in the Persian Gulf, it was a sign that virtually all U.N. members realized that world governance had emerged.

G-7 began with the 1975 Rambouillet economic summit. It rapidly evolved into a kind of ''board of directors'' of the world economy with which virtually every national economy in the world is now inextricably enmeshed. Besides the United States, Britain and France, G-7 includes Japan, Germany, Italy and Canada. Russia has become an associate making it ''G-7 plus one.''

Proposals have been floated to make economic titans Japan and Germany, along with India, Brazil and Nigeria, permanent members of the Security Council. And because China is booming economically, it will also eventually be invited to join G-7.

Politics require issues. Three great issues have emerged that need global politics to move them ahead: peace, environmental protection and development.

During its first four decades, the United Nations mainly was involved in passive peace-keeping. Now, however, it has moved into active peace-making, evident especially in Cambodia, El Salvador and Yugoslavia.

Thus the United Nations is beginning to take on some of the functions of an executive branch of government operating under a kind of ''cabinet'' of the great powers and an ''advisory council'' of the world's economic titans.

The current environmental movement began in the late 1960s, when ecologists became active locally and the Club of Rome was organized at the global level.

Despite the 1972 U.N.-initiated Stockholm conference on the global environment, most activists concentrated on lobbying for environment-friendly policies at national levels.

In 1989, G-7, meeting in Paris, agreed that the world ''owed a debt to nature.'' And now Rio has formally certified environmental degradation as a global issue, just as much as peace.

By linking development to environmental issues, the Rio summit, in effect, declared that economic development can no longer be seen just as a matter of national policy. Critics, especially from the Third World, charge that the rich and powerful North has been given veto powers over the South's development.

But virtually every Third World country was present at Rio, and its delegates mercilessly hammered away at the North over development-vs.-environment priorities. That signified recognition by the poorer countries that development, too, has become primarily a global issue.

Unlike the U.N. General Assembly, where nations argue with each other, the Rio scene looked like a ''house of representatives,'' where a real political -- not diplomatic -- process was taking place.

As national politics become less and less meaningful in the United States and elsewhere, people for whom politics is a vocation are flocking onto the global arena, as evident from the swarms of activists who came to Rio.

Once their motto was ''think globally and act locally.'' Today it's ''both think and act globally.''

Franz Schurmann, author of ''The Logic of World Power'' and other books on foreign affairs, teaches history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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