The First World Government

Asimov Collective/Flags of the first world government.

This article will feature in our next print edition PALLADIUM 13: Global Empire, subscribe to receive your copy on March 21, 2024.

The prospect of a world government has been seen as the inevitable future of humanity for centuries if not millennia. Many luminaries—from Immanuel Kant to H.G. Wells—spoke and wrote passionately in its favor, arguing it would produce a utopian world free of war, strife, perhaps even want, where humanity finally applied its talents to taming and remaking nature. Others issued dire prophecies and warnings of an inescapable dystopia, wrought by a great and terrible political Leviathan. Nearly all considered it a remote prospect. What if I told you world government has been achieved?

The distinction between formal and informal arrangements is one that has to be given careful thought when thinking of any empire, especially a global one. King Herod was nominally a king of Judea, yet the presence of Roman soldiers is enough for everyone at the time, and today, to recognize this kingdom as part of the Roman Empire during his reign. This arrangement was common for the Roman Empire with the kingdoms of Mauretania, Cappadocia, Pontus, Bosphorus, and many others de jure or de facto sharing Judea’s status. The United States has many similar arrangements today.

American GIs landed in Iceland to take over its World War II occupation by Britain in 1940, and they never truly left, with Naval Air Station Keflavik operating to this day. From 1951 to 2006, the Iceland Defense Force that was tasked with defending Iceland was run not by the government of Iceland, which supports no standing army, but by the United States. By many estimates, 2% to 5% of Iceland’s GDP during this era was oriented to providing services to the base, similarly to how state spending on legions in ancient Britain sustained the Romanized economy there. This far-flung military garrison in a protectorate is but one of many Roman-like special relationships the United States cultivates. With nearly 5000 military sites worldwide, these bases themselves cover over 42,000 square miles of federal government territory, together approximately the size of the U.S. state of Virginia.

With 31 member states, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) includes the small nuclear-armed powers of France and the United Kingdom, manpower of over a billion people, accounts for over 50% of world military spending as of 2024, and holds three out of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. The much-discussed Article 5 of the treaty that gives NATO legal existence states that an attack on one signatory is an attack on all of them. This article was only invoked once in the history of the alliance, after the September 11th attacks on the United States in 2001. The alliance further obliges all member states to spend 2% of GDP on their militaries, a target many countries have fallen short of, but more have met since the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Beyond NATO itself, the United States has collective defense treaties with over a dozen nations, with Brazil, Australia, South Korea, and Japan being just a few of the more prominent examples.

When the Delian League was founded in 478 BC as a coalition of Greek city-states to fight the Persians, the common treasury of this ancient NATO was kept in the democracy of Athens. Eventually, a war against Sparta would see the fortunes of Athens wane and the city-state would come to extract onerous tribute, make harsh demands, and even mete out punitive measures against former allies who found themselves mere client states of the Athenian empire. A potential parallel is worth careful consideration as Germany today experiences permanent economic marginalization driven by energy costs in the aftermath of the 2022 destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline that once brought Russian natural gas to the U.S. ally. When examined in practice, the “international rules-based liberal order” is neither liberal, nor rules-based, nor orderly.

The Five Eyes alliance with the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia further means the entire Anglosphere in practice shares all signals intelligence efforts to the point where such efforts can be thought of as a single supranational intelligence organization. This traces its origin to a secret treaty associated with the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941, which set U.S. and British goals for the post-war world. The Five Eyes is one of the most comprehensive espionage alliances in history.

The United Nations, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund are nominally international institutions backed by U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic heft and are, of course, headquartered in either Washington D.C. or New York. According to one of these internationally-influential D.C.-headquartered institutions, the Atlantic Council, the U.S. currency itself is a major backbone of world government:

The U.S. dollar has served as the world’s leading reserve currency since World War II. Today, the dollar represents 58 percent of the value of foreign reserve holdings worldwide. The euro, the second-most-used currency, comprises only 21 percent of foreign reserve holdings.”

This dollar dominance means that the Federal Reserve, based in Washington D.C., is perhaps the most powerful economic institution in the world, with decision-making power on an economic scale transcending the already vast 25.4% of global nominal GDP of the United States proper. Nominal GDP is a better proxy for trade power than GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) and is useful for thinking about what commands the flow of global goods and services into North America. This monetary importance will not be as easy to quantify for future archaeologists as that of the ancient Roman solidus, as it leaves no metal trace, but it will be universally attested in the written sources future historians are likely to have.

Preserving the “international rules-based order” on which such economic and institutional arrangements are built is often given as the moral underpinning of the deployment of the immensely powerful U.S. military. Sometimes this takes the form of large-scale invasions, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Other times they are more narrow and calculated interventions, such as the bombing campaigns on Yugoslavia or Libya, which took advantage of vast U.S. air power. Providing U.S. arms to client states or armed groups is also a favored strategy, such as in Syria or in Ukraine. The United States and its international system are not the first empire to claim universal legitimacy, but they are the first to back this claim of legitimacy with capabilities of a planetary scale.

Why United States Lead to United Nations

It might be tempting to view this undeniable global empire as an accident of history, yet there are deeper historical trends that give reason to think it was nearly inevitable that the United States of America would at least attempt to achieve such an empire. The U.S. traces its origin in the 18th century to an uneasy confederation of rivalrous colonies, peoples, and ideologies, on a continent with what was even then understood by observers to be the continent with greatest natural geopolitical potential. The vast landmass could be quickly conquered by the more advanced military and social technology of colonial powers, yet, once settled, in a matter of just a few generations would inevitably overshadow whichever motherland seeded it. 

The war of independence unleashed the revolutionary spirit in the New World much as the French revolutionary wars unleashed it in the Old. Every war is a great exertion of society, and debts are incurred in this exertion—financial, social, and moral debts. The more mobilized society is, the greater the technical debt of the social system. These debts are paid one way or another. This is why the Whiskey rebellion that started in 1791 spooked George Washington as much as it did; it was the seeming real possibility of veterans deciding how those debts would be paid. 

The revolutionary spirit was not uniform in the coalition that gave rise to the United States, and it can be said that several of the Founding Fathers dreaded unleashing democracy or sympathized even with outright monarchy, such as Alexander Hamilton. Yet, while the Constitutional Convention tied the colonies closer together, and delayed a reckoning, it couldn’t prevent it. The plurality of American states reformed through a civil war into a singular United States, a fully revolutionary state with some elements of nationalism. Revolutionary states tend to adopt isolationism whenever they see foreign entanglements as compromising or endangering their experiment. They tend to adopt expansionism and evangelism when strong. Both modes of foreign policy preserve the special sense of mission that serves as their founding myth of overturning—and scapegoating—the previous regime.

They need a nemesis and will invent it if need be, either domestically or abroad. Not much more needs to be said about U.S. foreign policy and its global effect on political legitimacy and political change. It was not by chance then that the United States conquered the world—but destiny. Geopolitical destiny at first, and then the destiny of its political economy. This eventual conquest in some ways improved America, and in others changed it beyond recognition. 

In some ways, it also improved the world, while in others it made it worse. The Green Revolution has fed the world, with famine being the result of local conflicts more than any constraint of nature, and smallpox, the greatest foe of mankind, has been eradicated by a World Health Organization program. The regime of economic globalization first rebuilt a defeated Germany and Japan, and after the end of the first U.S.-Russian Cold War lifted a billion Chinese out of poverty and into the global middle class.

Yet, many nations in the periphery of the former European colonial empires still struggle with civil war under America’s watch, and the great power itself is not free of the risk of a global nuclear war if it overreaches or if a rising power such as China were to covet the crown of the world. The evolution of human society seems to have dangerously stalled under this uniformity, and after the 20th century’s global baby boom, even the drive to procreate seems to leave our species as we complete our long-compounding domestication. We live neither in a utopia or a dystopia, not yet at least.

The World Long Divided Must Unite, The World Long United Must Divide

If, as it seems, we already live under a world government, this would make it a much more mundane political phenomena, neither the beginning of totalitarianism nor a rational panacea to the ills of the world. It would mean that the world government hasn’t yet erased freedom of conscience or speech, nor has it taxed all productivity into oblivion. The apocalypse which John of the Book of Revelation feared would result from Rome’s iron grip on Judea—and indeed what seemed like the whole world—has yet to come about under this world government. 

This identification of our political condition would further mean proponents of world government are wrong in thinking it sufficient or even necessary to help combat the very real potential disasters that might befall humanity as a whole, such as an awakened and hostile superintelligence rising from our data centers, an asteroid from the depths of space crashing into our planet as happened in past epochs of life on Earth, or even the prospect of a devastating global nuclear war.

Moving beyond these extreme theoretical possibilities—to the likely outcomes of our future—what then is the right model for the future of our species under the first world government in human history? As far as the claims of legitimacy go, the Chinese Mandate of Heaven or the mandate Jupiter Optimus Maximus gave to the Romans were at least as worked-out and intricate in their internal political logic as the intellectual monuments built to the moral and supposed practical superiority of liberal democracy. 

Each endured in their own corner of the planet, unchallenged for a thousand years, yet eventually crumbled as much for internal as for external reasons. The political claims of universality, once made, are not easily let go. The title of Roman Emperor and the Persian titles of Padishah or Shahanshah, the King of Kings, were claimed and reclaimed for thousands of years by many successor or would-be successor states even after the polities they claimed. Similarly, our international order will never ideologically admit defeat even if it materially comes to pass.

As technology obliterates distances and increases the legibility of all things to power—and as the world is emptied of so-called barbarians since none of us yet live off-world—the long-term trends seem to point to a future of planetary scales. This would then make the civilizational analogy of Imperial China an even stronger one than that of the Roman Empire. The history of China has seen the sundering of political unity at the imperial level, even when no existential external threats from the steppe were to be found.

Political order can be very long-lived, but does erode away over centuries without renewal and consolidation of power, absent external or internal enemies. This observation was best put in the opening lines of one of China’s most esteemed classical literary works, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where Luo Guanzhong wrote in the 15th century that “the world, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” 

When the Chinese world divided as the Zhou dynasty fragmented into the first warring states period, the engine of social and political evolution restarted, and ran until the region once more coalesced centuries later in the order of the Qin and Han Dynasties. The Han civilization fell in a way similar to classical Rome in Late Antiquity. In the Three Kingdoms Period—immortalized in Guanzhong’s novel—the powers of Wei, Shu, and Wu contested over their depopulating and declining world.

Similar events unfolded many times, including the division of the Southern and Northern Dynasties in the fifth century AD as well as the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms in the tenth century AD. The Chinese 20th century can be understood as precisely such a period, beginning with the warlord era in 1916, interrupted and transformed by the Sino-Japanese war in 1937—which some argue should be considered the beginning of World War II—and concluding with Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 that saw the People’s Republic of China established and the opposing Kuomintang party exiled to the small island of Taiwan. The future centuries of the world are likely to see similar dynamic struggles as political unity inevitably breaks.

As we intellectually grapple with our present American Leviathan, the only plausible fledgling challenger that presents itself is China, with its economic growth and demonstrated capability of technological innovation, yet without a true international empire this challenge rings hollow. China aspires to be part of and perhaps even the inheritor of America’s order. Even this limited aspiration is of course something the United States might not cooperate with.

A bitter Russia remains, clinging to a claimed equality with the United States. It has proven itself capable of resisting U.S.-backed regime change or fragmentation, and since 2014 even of modest territorial expansion through war. It however hasn’t proved itself capable of tempting states to align with itself against the United States and is unlikely to do so in the future. This means it cannot unify any significant area of Eurasia as the Soviet Union once did. Modern Russia aims to assert itself as a great power, not a superpower, and cannot dismantle the world government but merely erode it.

The international community—that almost but not quite admits to itself that it is a commonwealth—centered on the United States might, as it declines, end up being less than the first world government, merely the first world government. Even today, reviewing maps of various security and international political matters, for example which countries sanctioned Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, reveals that perhaps this international community is most assured in governing the First World: Europe, North America, and the rims of the Pacific Ocean. As its power is eventually challenged, it will retreat to those areas rather than persist in influencing the planet as a whole. Outside this reduced realm, and mostly unnoticed by those inside the First World, new political paradigms and empires will emerge first in Eurasia and eventually in Africa.

The forces that brought about the claim of world government in 1945 with the United Nations, and its reality in 1991 with the Soviet Union’s fall, are not unique to the United States of America. The second or third world government might well be American as well—the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinan reconquered Rome and Italy centuries after those lands passed into Ostrogothic political control—but it also might not be. China or, on a long enough horizon, even India present themselves as new potential centers of global empire. 

The forces that will bring about the eventual and inevitable end of this first economic and military singleton are also not unique to the United States and will play out again and again into the deep future. Absent profound technological collapse, future interregnum periods are likely. When they happen, these will see the development of new social technologies in amazing bursts of cultural vitality, but they will be temporary, and a planetary government will eventually coalesce once more. The predynastic period of human history is over. Much like ancient Egypt cyclically politically reunified the Nile River, or how China reunified the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers under a succession of dynasties, so too shall humanity reunify future Earth over and over again. We stand then not at the end of history, but at the beginning of a new and likely very long planetary epoch.

Samo Burja is the President and founder of Bismarck Analysis. He is also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation and chairs Palladium Magazine’s editorial board. You can follow him at @SamoBurja.