A Global State of Nature? Pleading for a Renewed Covenant

By Fred Dallmayr, Co-Chairman, World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations”

Our time illustrates a state of increasing brutalization.
Tzvetan Todorov

These days, whenever one reads a paper or watches the news on television, one is faced with an avalanche of atrocities and mayhems. For example, on January 27, 2015, these were the main news items: U.S. drone kills 12 years-old Yemeni boy; Shiite militias accused of executing 70 unarmed civilians; eight die in attack on Libyan hotel; nine Ukrainian soldiers die; thousands protest in Mexico over disappearance of students. These are just the headlines on one day. Other, equally grim stories were reported on the previous days. And we know: the flow of horror stories will not stop during the following days. So, what is happening in our world? Is world history really the relentless slaughter bench—as Hegel once surmised?

This verdict does not concur with mere hopeful scenarios depicted by some students of international politics. According to the latter, the world today is at the cusp of a momentous “paradigm shift”: from inter-state relations to a genuine “global politics.” Whereas traditional inter-state politics—inaugurated by the Peace of Westphalia—was marked by the constant rivalries among sovereign states, the new paradigm of global politics would usher in a more peaceful era released from the war-mongering ambitions of the past. While Hegel’s verdict may have applied to the state-centered Westphalian system, it would no longer hold true for the emerging global scenario. But how plausible is this assumption? The expectation clearly is predicated on two factors: first, the retreat of powerful state actors; and secondly, the upsurge of a viable global civil society. As it happens, neither of these factors is presently in place.

Regarding the role of state, it is true that many of the older nation-states have been reduced to the role of satellites or (quasi-colonial) client states.  Their military capabilities are restricted to performance in so-called “proxy wars.”  However, the shrinking of older states to subsidiary status does not eliminate the role of state sovereignty.  On the contrary, what has happened is the rise of super-states, of hegemonic super-Leviathans endowed with sheer limitless war-making capacities.  To this extent, Westphalia has given rise to a new super-Westphalian order.  The so-called “clash of civilizations” is to a large extent a clash of super-Leviathans clustering around themselves an aura or penumbra of client civilizations.

What is still more disturbing is the fact that the practically unlimited war-powers of super-Leviathans is accompanied by the absence or decay of civil society, especially of what is sometimes called “global civil society.”  This decay is due to the erosion of ethical civic bonds and the growing “atomization” of society—an atomization which has been spearheaded by Western countries but is now being globalized around the world.  What is happening as a result is not the upsurge of a robust global civil society—functioning as a possible antidote to super-Leviathans—but the decay of social life into a Hobbesian “state of nature”—now a globalized state of nature.  According to Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature was (and is) characterized by the lack of binding ethical rules and the claim by every member to an unlimited right to do as he/she pleases for the sake of security.  Hobbes called this right or freedom the “right to everything” (ius ad omnia), the right to do anything perceived as required for security, including the unlimited right to kill opponents.  The exercise of this absolute right by everybody inevitably leads to an absolute condition of terror or fear of death, a condition which renders life “nasty, brutish, and short.”  It is this condition of universal terror which increasingly is gripping both domestic and global civil society.

On the global level, this condition of terror is illustrated by the pretense of a global right to kill anybody anywhere—and this quite outside the bounds of traditional warfare.  This pretended right to kill is evident in the use of drones anywhere in the world, resulting often in mayhem among civilians.  It is also evident in the use of para-military mercenary forces in many parts of the world, forces which—though wielding lethal power—are not accountable to any legal authority. [1] The most obvious example, however, of a universal killing license—in a global state of nature—is the American employment of “Special Operations” forces (SOF) on a global scale.  According to a report by Nick Turse, writing for Information Clearing House, such special forces operate now in 105 countries.  As he points out, since September 2001, these forces have grown “in every conceivable way,” including numbers, budget, and clout in Washington; their personnel has more than doubled from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today.  During the fiscal year ending in September 2014, SOF deployed to 133 countries—roughly 70% of the nations of the world.  This capped a three-year span in which “the country’s most elite forces” were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, “ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.”  And in just the first weeks of 2015, the troops had already set foot in 105 nations.  Nick Turse speaks of a “secret global war across much of the planet.” [2]   This war obviously has its heroes; in a new Hollywood movie, the new super-hero of Western civilization is called “American Sniper.”

The prevalence of a global state of nature is demonstrated not only by military or para-military operations, but also by violent or harmful conduct stopping just short of physical killing.  The demeaning and slandering of opponents in the global arena testifies to a total lack of global civility and elementary standards of conduct.  Too often, “freedom of expression” is used not to criticize the powers that be but to abuse the powerless and the stranger.  Basically, anybody who claims an “absolute” right or freedom outside any social bonds thereby commits an act of violence (what Gandhi called himsa).  Any assertion of a Hobbesian “ius ad omnia” inevitably constitutes the mainspring and basic source of terror and fear.  But for Hobbes there was also a possible exit from terror—namely, through a social covenant where people relinquish absolute freedom in favor of relational civility.  As Henry Giroux rightly observes:  “As the bonds of sociality and social obligations dissolve,” the state of nature lurks.  “Older discourses that provided a vision” have been cast aside; and “as Hannah Arendt once argued, the very nature of the political in the modern period has been dethroned” (or else been replaced by a brutal friend-enemy formula). [3]

What has to happen in the global arena, to prevent the worst from happening, is the globalization of the Hobbesian exit route: that is, the replacement of the prevailing global state of nature by a global social covenant serving as the gateway to a vibrant global civil society.  This transit is difficult and arduous.  It requires not only the adoption of new procedures and mechanisms (although some of this may be helpful).  Most of all, it requires a human transformation, a willingness to abandon the “ius ad omnia,” and to embark on the task of dialogue and mutual learning.  In pursuing this path, it is crucial that learning is mutual and not unilaterally imposed.  To give some examples:  Many Muslim women modestly cover their heads; instead of being irritated, at least some of us might take this as an inducement to behave more modestly ourselves.  Muslims pray (or are expected to pray) five times each day; again, rather than taking offense, at least some of us might rein in our conceit and pray more in turn.  Of course, Muslims also can learn much from the West:  about democracy, individual agency and other matters.  Again, Gandhi can serve as a guide.  Although himself a practicing Hindu, he aimed at (what he called) a “heart-unity” with Muslims—far removed from insults, slander or intimidation. [4]

In his conduct, Gandhi exemplified what it means to cultivate a social covenant through non-harming (ahimsa) and justice-seeking (satyagraha).  Inspired by his example, the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” is committed to the cultivation and steady renewal of the global social covenant.  In the face of the ongoing global mayhem, this commitment is an urgent and categorical demand.


[1] See Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare:  Killing by Remote Control (New York:  Verso Books, 2012); John Kaag and Sara Kreps, Drone Warfare:  War and Conflict in the Modern World (Malden, MA:  Polity Press, 2014); Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater:  The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York:  Nation Books, 2013), and Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York:  Perseus Books, 2013).
[2] Nick Turse, “The Golden Age of Black Ops: US Special Ops Missions Already in 105 Countries in 2015,” Information Clearing House, January 23, 2015.  http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article40759.htm
[3] Henry A. Giroux, “Death-Dealing Politics in the Age of Extreme Violence,” Truthout/News Analysis, January 26, 2015. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28721-death-dealing-politics Giroux also traces the state of nature in the form of “death-dealing politics” in the American domestic scene, stating:  “The war on terror has been morphed into a form of domestic terrorism aimed not only at whistleblowers, but all of those populations, from poor people of color to immigrants, who are now considered disposable.”
[4] See Fred Dallmayr, “Gandhi and Islam:  A Heart-and-Mind Unity?” in Peace Talk-Who Will Listen? (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), pp. 132-151.