Review: Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions (Georgetown University Press, 2014)

[1] Though it was published three years ago (2014), the information, issues, and tenor of Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions contains a present day salience perhaps not foreseen by the editors and contributors at the time. We appear to be entering another time of intense debate over the nature and need of things global – globalization, globalism, global institutions, global narratives – versus a resurfacing of neo-nationalism through Brexits, the call to make America great (or first) again, and the public and foreign policies of states as diverse as Russia, China, Hungary, or the Philippines. Perhaps not another “paradigm shift” as occurred in November 1989, but questions have returned to the public discourse loudly and clearly about the vitality of NATO, or the relevance of regional organizations such as the European Union, or if the positive purpose of regional or hemispheric trade treaties like NAFTA is outweighed by their future impacts, risks, or constraints. Such a discourse about public policies and systemic narratives may not capture everyone’s immediate attention, but the outcomes of such debates impact almost all and everywhere especially when what is at stake for the authors (and readers) is the protection and expansion of that most microcosmic of subjects, human dignity, and that is what makes Lagon and Arend’s book important for people of good will and faith. How these relationships appear in the 21st century and how they can be strengthened is the book’s and the contributors’ purpose. But first, a brief comment on the grounding theory, assumptions, and definitions of Human Dignity

[2] How the world’s nation-states and global institutions are organized or linked in a world system is one of the ultimate questions for international relations. The classic theoretical answer known as “realism” largely pits nation states over against one another in pursuit of their self-interests, making the security of the nation-state, any nation-state, the principle norm and objective in a basically anarchic world. As newer calls for nationalism or to make national interests first take a more center stage, the realities of realism become more real again (though they never were left very far behind).

[3] A second classic contender for answering the question, “how does the world work,” has been international relations liberalism. In this system, nation-states initiate ways of constraining some of their independent powers by creating international organizations, such as the United Nations, or NAFTA. This world system expands how power may be distributed by including economic capacities and some normative capacities (such as international law or human rights) in addition to security needs among the calculations made by political leaders.

[4] Lagon and Arend and their contributors, anchor their discourse about the world in a different model, one that uses the image of a neo-medieval world. The term conjures a more fluid political and cultural reality where responsible agents and agency comes through more than just nation-states, their leaders, and the international organizations that they create. In this model they are joined by regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, faith-based communities and organizations, economic actors, and others that may not have others best-interests at heart, and where power and impact are measured differently than as “guns or butter” alone.

[5] Obviously, the firm believer in one of the first two world systems probably would be skeptical of all that would follow. Others might ask (as the editors did) what could keep such a system going or give such disparate agents common purpose. That pursuit would be the advance of human dignity.

[6] To the editors’ credit, substantial “print” space is devoted to define the relationships between human rights and human dignity and their universality for all people. Equally important – for faith communities and secular institutions alike – are the varied entry points to claims on what makes for human dignity or how it is best understood.

[7] Though important, even essential, the human rights discourse has limits. For the editors and the book’s contributors, the human rights legacy is largely a legal one with an advancing number of sometimes overlapping declarations and treaties since the end of World War II, and with varying numbers of signatory nations attached to them. Human rights also represent an ongoing stalemate on which human rights are, indeed, rights, and whether or not there is an accepted universality. This has often been described as the difference between political or civil rights, economic rights, and cultural or community rights. Some nation-states guarantee (or profess to) more rights on their citizens than others do. One need only think upon the recent and ongoing debates about health care in and since the 2016 American election to get a sense about it being a universal human right or something else. Enter in the importance of human dignity.

[8] Human dignity undergirds human rights, just as human rights defends and protects human dignity. Human dignity is foundational for human rights. Across the centuries and from different points of origin, human dignity would be linked to self-worth, human potential, the intrinsic and innate value of humanness, and found in human abilities of creativeness and agency, their spirit and honor and recognition, the essential goals humans pursue, and the capabilities they have and/or have the ability and freedom to develop. Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Kant, Francis Fukuyama, Harold Laswell, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, and the Charter of the United Nations are all points of reference in this human dignity mosaic. Together they lead to the following bridge definition for all of the book’s collaborators:

Human dignity is the fundamental agency of human beings to apply their gifts to thrive. As such, it requires social recognition of each person’s inherent value and claim to equal access to opportunity. To be meaningful, human dignity must be institutionalized in practice and governance. (16)

In such a definition coalesce the hopes of freedom, value, universality, equality, opportunity, relationships, agency, participation, and the protections and affirmations afforded by institutions. In such a norm can come together universal aspirations, institutions, and public policies for ultimately common cause. In such a pursuit, lie the aims of the text – to highlight how human dignity holds up in the workings of traditional and emerging institutions, and to commend those best practices where human dignity has become mission. For these aims to be successful, the collaborators must move beyond the human rights stalemate, take full advantage of the many starting points for a human dignity discourse and agenda, and then prescribe how such an agenda can be best shaped.

[9] It is a tall order and one which this text, to its credit, partially fulfills. Ironically, the editors believe that the United States has an essential mentoring and facilitating role to play among today’s collage of intergovernmental and non-governmental institutions in order to improve the chances of human dignity worldwide. The reader will recognize that this assumption places the editors, the co-writers, and this text squarely in the middle of current American political dynamics “ripped out of the headlines” as the saying goes. Not only a tall order, but perhaps also wishful thinking.

[10] So what do Lagon and Arend cover in between the covers and the theory? Do they succeed, or do what they say they need to do? What do they leave with the reader and perhaps also the person of faith? Let’s see.

[11] The body of the book divides between chapters covering traditional organizations, such as the Security Council of the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund, and what the editors identify as emerging organizations. These might include religions and faith-based institutions, and the global issues that stretch across transnational to local impact, such as human trafficking and poverty alleviation, and the many new partnerships and networks that these concern bring together. The authors of these chapters, many who have academic connections with Georgetown University in Washington DC, also represent or work in government, business, the United Nations, former US State Department Administrators, think tanks, international governmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations and geographically span the globe. Although it is often difficult to bring together an edited volume with consistency, the editors achieved that objective by asking their contributors provide a brief assessment of the agency today, how it might/might not intersect with a human dignity agenda and some case study material, followed by some conclusion, prescriptions, or ways ahead. At the same time Lagon and Arend nicely fulfil a book of this type’s need to be diverse in terms of scholars, their representative agencies in the global order, and geographic expertise.

[12] In the chapters devoted to the traditional institutions in the international system (UN Security Council, Secretary-General of the UN, the IMF, regional security organizations, the Human Rights regime, and forces arraigned against terrorism), one is most often confronted with predictions on their potential for greater involvement with human dignity should the stakeholders of these institutions wish to pursue them; or that their future activities have an implicit (rather than explicit) relationship to establishing human dignity. What makes these “the traditional agencies” are their relationship to the post-World War II order that institutionally revolved around the United Nations system (and interdependent regionialisms) and the Bretton Woods institutions. All of these were (are) state based. The work of facilitating peace, stability or security such as in the work of the Security Council and RSOs can stimulate an environment where dignity is found and expressed. Economic progress can encourage further economic independence and security, improving the capabilities and participation that are essential elements of the editors’ definition of human dignity.

[13] Given the problematique already identified above in what has happened since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written and embraced by most of the world’s nations, much of the chapter on the Human Rights Regime reviews the arguments for the foundational linkage between human dignity and human rights. The writers then spend most of their words on what can improve this relationship and move beyond the current stalemates. More emphasis on implementation, on increasing capacity on the ground, encouraging consistency on the oversight of political rights, linking economic rights with business responsibilities, the formation of a new Global Trust for the Rule of Law modeled after the Global Trust against HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis, more training for local practitioners and improved access and supervision by NGOS of human rights abuse are a partial list of how to improve the multi-sectoral human rights regime to serve the purposes of increasing human dignity.

[14] Of perhaps greater interest to those not engaged directly with international relations or today’s (and yesterday’s) patchwork of global institutions, would be the section devoted to the non-traditional or emerging institutions. Indeed, here is where the idea of a new medievalism as a map of the global institutional future becomes more real.

[15] One is confronted immediately with how different these “institutions” look. Whole religions and religious leaders. Faith-based organizations and non-governmental organizations. The mandate of the International Criminal Court. The global networks devoted to rooting out human trafficking or working on the collective issues around HIV/AIDS. The numerous competing arrangements and instruments devoted to poverty alleviation from the private sector. Businesses, the internet, and social media. Such a listing greatly expands what can be considered institutions, or having agency, or how social capacity gets used.

[16] There is also a greater immediacy to the human dignity agenda found in these chapters. Whether through an improvement in participation and stakeholdership in political and economic processes affecting one’s community, to reckoning on the importance of social stigmas faced by individuals with certain diseases, to the ability to reach across ideological and ecumenical divisions to work on issues profoundly inhibiting the experience of human dignity (trafficking), to bringing “statelessness” out of the dark and into the light of global discussion and policy revisions, to having greater opportunity to confront poverty and its causes – human dignity becomes a more explicit component for the institutions reviewed, their purposes and motivations, their operations, and as measures of outcomes or implementation.

[17] In any collaborative activity or omnibus text such as Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions is, it might be easy to criticize the choices for cases as a matter of convenience or their staid presence in the world, or not enough representation. Not so, here. Consider some of the choices. Terrorism and counter-terrorism needing to be seen through inter-institutional lenses where those involved in terrorism must be granted certain measures of dignity and rights. Questions raised about the current procedures and laws in place surrounding how migrants, refugees, and stateless peoples must be addressed. An emphasis on increasing support and awareness for regional organizations due to the regionalization of most major public policy challenges. The changes brought on in both donors and receivers through a different set of relationships and allocations directed towards the alleviation of poverty. The increasing relevance of religion, interfaith associations, and faith-based organizations in addressing marginalized audiences and their cries for dignity. If any concern was to be raised about this (and it is worth raising) it would be over the limited dialogue of environmental and climate issues that find their way into this text. As one considers the forced movements of whole communities either due to desertification or shifting ice blocks, are these not ecologies that challenge human dignity and human choice?

[18] What are some take-aways from a volume such as this both for the student of international relations and of ethics? First would be that the discourse over human dignity must be inclusive bringing together many interested parties for potentially a common set of goals, opportunities for work, and programmatic intersections. One can think about holistic approaches to current challenges such as found in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (and their targets) or the recent encyclical by Pope Francis on sustainability which makes common cause of environmental, poverty, and human security concerns as means for better providing social justice and dignity to the human community. Secondly, though there seems to be more opportunity for emerging, newer, or hybrid organizations to align themselves more completely with human dignity objectives than traditional institutions (as much due to their state-centered organization and usually multiple objectives and constraints), the global system is still a system based upon nation-states as are the international governmental organizations. This suggests that missions of service to and advocacy for greater measures of human dignity require flexible approaches and an emphasis on transnational, international, intra-national, and local networking for purposes of information and knowledge of successful models of action. There may be a premium of dividends for those agencies who can link between some of these primary levels of activity. This also means that the struggle for human dignity evolves as newer challenges/issues come on line that threaten human community, justice, and dignity. Thirdly, that the human dignity “lens” strengthens the pursuit for human rights and human security, while human rights and security girds and protects pursuits for human dignity and freedom. This is an essential realization as one cannot realistically come to such a discourse or set of actions without contemplating the threats that exist that would diminish our humanness in favor of lesser but sometimes more immediate and self-interested goals. Finally the editors’ caveat of America seen as a role model, mentor, and guarantor shepherding in the human dignity lens must be seen through today’s calendar and not yesteryears’. Surely one can wonder about the reality of such a prescription. Would that modeling come from policy or resistance? A competition between human dignity and a new medievalism versus new nationalisms seems ripe for such a discourse.

Michael Kuchinsky

Michael Kuchinsky, M.Div., Ph.D. recently retired as Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at Gardner-Webb University.