Perspective

Perspective: No state is an island: Re-envisioning collective security

The modern nation-state was founded in part on the idea that the people within its borders will be more secure if they band together against outside threats.

The idea has worked pretty well. The most developed states have achieved high levels of security and even comfort in recent years — although citizens of numerous “failed” states have suffered greatly, from poverty, civil strife, and, all too often, from human rights violations at the hands of leaders that were supposed to protect them.

The powers of the nation-state, in fact, have been extended to protect its citizens against all kinds of threats – from concerns about the safety of food and water to deficits in social welfare to workplace hazards.

But in recent years, thoughtful people have also seen a great waning in the state's power to provide security. As our world has become more interconnected and interdependent, the nature of the threats to citizens of a nation-state — any nation-state — have become more diffuse, pronounced, and intractable.

The simple fact is that today some of the gravest threats to the well being of citizens everywhere come from small groups, devices or organisms that easily pass through the once secure borders of the once well-fortified nation-state.

This new reality figures prominently in the conclusions of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. Appointed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Panel is composed of 16 former heads of state, foreign ministers, and top government and private officials. Their expertise — and the power and frankness of their convictions — make the Panel's report mandatory reading for anyone concerned about long term peace and security.

At the heart of the Panel's report is this observation:

“Today's threats recognize no national boundaries, are connected, and must be addressed at the global and regional as well as the national levels. No State, no matter how powerful, can by its own efforts alone make itself invulnerable to today's threats.”

In view of this, the Panel calls for an expanded and revised notion of collective security to counter wider threats such as terrorism, biological weapons, civil strife, transnational organized crime, environmental degradation, and infectious disease.

“What is needed today is nothing less than a new consensus between alliances that are frayed, between wealthy nations and poor, and among peoples mired in mistrust across an apparently widening cultural abyss,” the Panel concludes. “The essence of that consensus is simple: we all share responsibility for each other's security. And the test of that consensus will be action.”

The Bahá'í International Community has long said that collective security is humanity's only route to lasting peace. More than 140 years ago, Bahá'u'lláh wrote: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

Bahá'u'lláh also said the essential condition for creating this underlying sense of unity is the recognition of our collective oneness and interdependence. “The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens,” He said.

And Bahá'u'lláh also made clear that a wide range of issues —from poverty to racial prejudice to equality of the sexes — must likewise be addressed for humanity to realize its full potential and for peace to be firmly established.

In this regard, the Bahá'í International Community has long supported international institutions that have sought to express and uphold the notion of collective security. Bahá'ís were early supporters of the concept of the League of Nations . And Bahá'ís were present at the founding of the United Nations and have since been active as an international non-governmental organization in support of its goals and principles.

At the same time, the Bahá'í International Community has also long recognized the shortcomings and limitations of the United Nations. In 1955, for example, the Community issued a statement proposing major revisions to the United Nations Charter.

Although many of the 1955 proposals concerned the Cold War crisis, many of the ideas — such as a call for broader membership in the Security Council and a more active General Assembly — seem to presage the current High Level Panel's report.

The introductory letter to the proposals, for example, outlines the broad principles by which Bahá'ís approach the issue of collective security:

“The Bahá'í recommendations are based upon three apparent truths: that real sovereignty is no longer vested in the institutions of the national state because the nations have become interdependent; that the existing crisis is moral and spiritual as well as political; and that the existing crisis can only be surmounted by the achievement of a world order representative of the peoples as well as the nations of mankind.”

The identification of a “moral and spiritual” crisis seems especially relevant today when perhaps the greatest threat to humanity comes, in fact, not from new technologies or even political ideologies but rather from the spread of religious fanaticism.

In the twentieth century, the greatest threats to the collective well-being of humanity came not in reality from bombs or bullets, but rather from ideologies that stressed the superiority of one group over another, whether race, nationality, or economic class. And in all cases, the main threat came largely from one state, against another state.

Today, however, some of the biggest threats to humanity's common security come from individuals or small groups acting against the state. And the underlying motivation for these threats often comes from religious intolerance and fanaticism.

This point was borne out in a letter two years ago from the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the worldwide Bahá'í community.

“With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome,” wrote the Universal House of Justice in an open letter to the world's religious leaders.

“Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender, and nation,” the Universal House of Justice continued.

In its analysis of the global security situation, the High Level Panel identifies poverty and underdevelopment as underlying motivations for some of the potential threats to our common security. The Panel also points to the issue of religious intolerance.

“International terrorist groups prey on weak States for sanctuary. Their recruitment is aided by grievances nurtured by poverty, foreign occupation and the absence of human rights and democracy; by religious and other intolerance; and by civil violence — a witch's brew common to those areas where civil war and regional conflict intersect,” writes the Panel.

In considering the new vision of collective security offered by the Panel, it is important to see the picture in its widest view: that of our underlying oneness and essential interconnectedness.

The Panel lays out a number of structural changes at the United Nations. These include a larger Security Council, a reinvigorated General Assembly, and a revitalized Commission on Human Rights.

It also envisions a greater role for civil society, endorsing the recently released report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations/Civil Society Relations. “We believe that civil society and non-governmental organizations can provide valuable knowledge and perspectives on global issues,” said the Panel.

In the end, however, the success or failure of these reforms will hinge upon the degree to which world leaders — and the peoples they serve — fully recognize the degree to which we have become interdependent — and the degree to which the human race is one.

Only through the recognition of our essential oneness, a fact that is fundamental to our material and spiritual reality, will humanity find the motivation to break with the past and create the sense of global unity required for us to move to the next level of collective security.

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