As terrorism seeps deeper into the collective consciousness of the 21st century, we are being driven to this fork in the road of political options: global disorder or global governance?

The first option is too horrible to contemplate. The second is the more realistic future, but what shape will it take, how will it happen, and for what end?

Apologists for the idea of global governance recognise that global law enforcement must be central, given the terrorist scourge. Law enforcement would not be the end in itself; it would form part of a greater global vision that must have a moral agenda—one that requires commitment to values that facilitate governance by applying law at every level of social life, from the individual to communal, to nation-states and whole regions.

Global values will include agreed meanings and uniform establishment of ideals such as freedom, rights, justice, equality and democracy. This may be difficult to implement—some will, as global citizens, agree to a maximal government restricting many freedoms, where others would rather a minimalist set-up. On the matter of justice, cynics will wonder who will dispense it in a global system and whose interests will it serve? Will democracy be a precondition or goal in obtaining all of the above? If so, how will non-democratic members, non-cooperative citizens and dissenting organisations in the global governance system be treated?

Bitter memories of failed empire-building experiments are still fresh in the minds of some of our older generation. Anything that resulted in outcomes resembling the genocidal work of the Ottoman empire, Hitler’s Third Reich, Stalin’s gulags, and Pol Pot’s killing fields would send the idea of global governance quickly and prematurely down the plug-hole of history. Indeed, some global citizens will be concerned that any global governance system that permits the American Gunatanamo Bay model of law enforcement would be unconscionable.

The central issue for global governance will, therefore, be to achieve a resolution to the great imbalance between most of the world’s peoples and their governments, and the globe’s only “super-duper power” (as Raymond Seitz, former US ambassador to UK, termed it), the US. Is it sensible to speak of global governance working while we are under the domination of this “super-duper” power?

What is this “super-duper” power capable of? While America is outnumbered and out-territoried 20 to 1 by the rest of world, it has, as Seitz put it, “a magnitude of power without precedent in the 20th century” and “you have to go all the way back to Rome to identify a source of such commanding sway.” Seitz thereby concludes, “It is incorrect to call the United States a super-power, the United States is a super-duper power.” During the last decade of the 20th century, its economy (GDP) amounted to about $US10 trillion worth of activity accounting for approximately 30 per cent of the total global output in that decade. As Henry Adams in 1776 put it, “The success of the American system [is] a matter of economy.” In this respect, the US already heads a modern version of a lopsided universal empire with the ability to enforce its will.

In military terms, the United States has some 1.4 millon troops at its disposal. For 2002, the American military budget amounted to a staggering $US380 billion. By 2007, it is expected to be nearly $US500 billion, including homeland security. Some funds will be spent on Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs)—satellite precision-guided missiles. Using “Future Imagery Architecture,” 12 JDAM spy satellites (beginning operations later in 2006) will be able to track objects as small as baseballs night or day, anywhere in the world. With perfected digital definition, they can do so for 20 minutes at a time. Enough time to know where anyone’s head is in the world. And with bar-code ID now reduced in size to one-third the thickness of a human hair, being a super-duper power means being able to do what you like to anyone’s head anywhere on the planet!

Well almost. There will always be social obligations incumbent on even the most gargantuan of global forces. As Robert Harvey nicely observed, “A neighbourhood in which the policeman has no friends and is himself the chief object of hatred is a dangerous one indeed.” Finding pals and global approval will matter as much for the United States as, say, for any little old Pacific state. Wealth and arms may buy cooperation, and some security and comfort, but are no guarantee of respect.

On this front, America has an image problem that only money can buy, but can’t solve. Prior to 9/11, 84 per cent of French, 79 per cent of British, 74 per cent of Italian, and 73 per cent of German people regarded the US as “entirely” self-interested. Robert Jervis, a former president of the American Political Science Association, rightly noted that the US—not Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or North Korea—was seen as “the prime rogue state” by the rest of world. Even after the 9/11 tragedy, some polling seemed to suggest that little had changed.

The heart of this image problem is the super-duper power’s perceived moral inconsistency. As Ivo Daalder, from the Brookings Institution, concluded, “We are not very good at putting ourselves in the shoes of others.” Indeed, American foreign policy during the latter part of the 20th century supported the dictatorships of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua, Milosevic in Serbia and even Saddam in Iraq, to name but a few. More recently, global governance advocates have had to deal with General Colin Powell’s refusal to provide American assistance to Bosnia in 1995, with President Bill Clinton’s refusal of a UN request to send troops to Rwanda in 1994 (where 800,000 died).

In 2004, Colin Powell [while still US Secretary of State] had this to say about Darfur, in the Sudan, where 50,000 had died: “We concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur …and that genocide may still be occurring,” but “no new action is dictated by this determination.” If that is the political stance of the world’s super-duper power on a crisis as obvious as the Sudan, global governance will be a long time coming. Few nations will have much faith and optimism about Americans coming to terms with lesser crises.

Global empires have lasted about 150 years on average, and in the opinion of some we’re midway through pax Americana. If the American empire lives up to historical expectations, we can expect it to start to decline about now. But if the Chinese are next to dominate the world stage, we may see a rush toward global governance as non-Asian and non-aligned peoples seek an alternative to the Sinotisation of their culture and values.

Or perhaps we will yearn for governance of another kind—a supernatural kind dreamed of and much sought after—a Super Power to whom we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).