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Review Essay by Jack Perry

One World: The Ethics of Globalization. by Peter Singer. Yale University Press. 235 pages. $21.95.

Here is a different way of looking at the world and at the tumult of world affairs.

Most of us have the habit of surveying the world through the lens of power, of nations and their armies facing off against other nations and their armies. Peace, in this view, often seems the lull between wars.

In his fine history, The First World War, John Keegan, describing the descent of the nations into that horrific war, said that international policy had been “guided not by the search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority.”

World War I led directly to World War II. During that great conflict, Wendell Willkie, the Republican “barefoot boy from Wall Street,” who lost the l940 presidential election to Franklin Roosevelt, made a celebrated round-the-world journey. He wrote a good book about the journey, published in 1943, called One World.

Willkie wrote that the war then raging “must mean an end to the empire of nations over other nations.” He ended his book saying that Americans faced “the most challenging opportunity of all history—the chance to help create a new society in which men and women the world around can live and grow invigorated by independence and freedom.”

For the American people, who only three years before had been in the majority staunchly isolationist, Willkieâs call to see “one world” as America’s challenge was impressive, and controversial. Looking at the title more than the book, many Americans after the war—as the Cold War all too quickly took over the world stage—began to talk about “one world” in very different ways, some seeing “one world” as a shining ideal, others seeing “one-worlders” and “one-worldism” as hopelessly naive and as “soft on communism.”

We do not give our leaders enough credit for guiding us through the minefields of the Cold War without descending into real war. Dean Rusk said, “The greatest accomplishment since World War II is that not a single nuclear shot has been fired in anger.” It took political and moral courage for a succession of presidents to show the American people that we could deal with the Soviet Union through negotiation, rather than through force. It wasn’t one world, but it was also not a new world war.

When the old world order fell apart and a new one began to emerge in 1989 with the fall of the Wall and of the Soviet Union and of the Cold War itself, the United States became close to supreme in its global power, and there came a great pressure for a new kind of “one world,” one dominated by America pursuing, in Keegan’s phrase, “the age-old quest for security in military superiority.” Looking through old lenses at a world of nations at war, some Americans decided it was time for one world in which something very close to a worldwide American empire was established.

But here is a different way of looking at all that. It is in a book with the same title as Willkie’s, One World, but this one bears the subtitle, The Ethics of Globalization. It is by Peter Singer, an Australian-born philosopher who since 1999 has been a professor of bioethics at Princeton University.

On the cover of Singer’s book, against a stark black background, is that familiar picture of our lovely little blue planet taken from space. How fragile it looks, to the discerning eye! And that space-taken photograph is a vital symbol to Singer: “The twentieth century’s conquest of space made it possible for a human being to look at our planet from a point not on it, and so to see it, literally, as one world.” And if our planet home is truly one little world, Singer says, don’t we all become one, don’t we all have to turn our attention to saving and preserving our planet, rather than making war upon it and against it? Singer is giving us nothing less than a way to look at the world through ethical eyes.

Willkie’s “One World” made a great symbolic leap in l943 from a world divided among empires and warring nations; to a world where all humankind ought to be seen as one in their quest for freedom. Sixty years later, Singer’s “One World” looks at the world as truly become one, to the extent that ethics reaches across all borders and the quest for empire becomes, or ought to become, obsolete.

Singer argues that “more and more issues increasingly demand global solutions,” whether we are talking about the air we all breathe—his first chapter is titled “one atmosphere”—or the troubled process of economic globalization, or the building of one worldwide system of law, or the creation in the minds of humankind of “one community.” Our growing numbers and our shrinking resources, he suggests, force us to take “one world” seriously and literally. “The extent to which any state”—even the United States—”can independently determine its future diminishes.” That is Singer’s message.

Many of us are heartily sick of wars and rumors of wars and believe we need new agendas for world affairs, agendas that address not weapons and conquest but human needs and the health of the planet. Looking back with Willkie, and looking forward with Singer, perhaps it is not impossible to dream such dreams.bluestar

From the “Charlotte Observer” of Feb. 3, 2003. Republished by permission of the author.

Professor Perry, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, is director of the Dean Rusk Center at Davidson College, Davidson, N. C.

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