Is this a good time to think about heading off future wars? The "limited military operation" in Ukraine (as the Kremlin modestly describes its war) certainly has everybody's attention.
As we are seeing, military force is a terrible way to change boundaries between countries. But borders are inherently unstable, as historical atlases of Europe over the last thousand years drive home.
After World War II, ignited by forceable border changes, the U.N. Charter decreed such changes no longer legitimate. Unfortunately, the Charter lacks "teeth" if a permanent Security Council member like Russia commits aggression, since it can veto U.N. decisions.
Russia's seizure of Crimea and current war against Ukraine suggest that forceful seizure of territory still prevails as the final resort.
Sometimes border disputes are settled by negotiation or by arbitration, but this requires mutual consent by the conflicting countries, often absent.
Occasionally territory is transferred by sale. Notable examples include the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 and Alaska in 1867. A sale ignores the wishes of a territory's inhabitants, but so do transfers at the point of a gun. Purchase is obviously better than war, but it usually isn't possible.
Boundary disputes between American states are settled by the Supreme Court. But litigation requires a government with jurisdiction over both disputants. We have no world government.
During my first sabbatical from Adrian College I was a Fellow in Law And Political Science at the Harvard Law School and audited Archibald Cox's labor law class, among others. Oddly enough, American labor law suggests how we might avoid many wars.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducts elections to see if a "bargaining unit" of workers wants to be represented by a union. If a majority in the unit votes for representation by a particular union, it becomes sole bargaining agent for those workers (all of them, not just those voting yes).
But before voting there may be disputes about exactly which workers are members of the bargaining unit. These disputes can't be resolved by voting, since they are about who belongs in the unit (and therefore voting) and who does not belong in the unit.
Likewise, disputes about national boundaries cannot be settled simply by having people vote. Such disputes need to be settled before we know who should be voting.
Disagreements about membership in a collective bargaining unit are resolved by a "unit clarification" procedure. The NLRB holds hearings at which everyone can present arguments and supporting evidence.
The board then decides where the "boundaries" of the bargaining unit will be, which workers will be in the unit and which will not be.
A similar approach could work at the world level.
An agency authorized only to make binding decisions about disputed national boundaries would not be a world government. It would have no law-making power, no taxing power, and no judicial power.
It could only handle boundary disputes. But that "only" could become a vital part of a more peaceful world.
It should be easier to get the countries to ratify a multilateral treaty establishing a World Boundaries Board than to get them to subordinate themselves to a general world government.
The Boundaries Board could never dictate the laws under which different countries are governed.
It would not impinge on the sovereignty and independence of any country, except that countries would no longer have unilateral power to modify their borders with neighboring countries. On this one subject they would no longer be judges in their own case.
The human race now faces a Darwinian challenge. Are we fit to survive? Only world-level cooperation can address existential challenges like climate change, pandemics and war.
I would not bet good money that we are up to it.
I am inclined to doubt that it will it be politically possible to establish even a World Boundaries Board.
Prove me wrong!
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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