Marginalizing the Superpowers

2 April 2022

PART II:  Smallerpower for Global Security?

How to avert, rather than delay, World War III? PART I concluded that the superpowers will have to be marginalized, which means we shall have to imagine something unimaginable. Here’s one possibility, if only to encourage others.

What follows originally appeared in The Hill, with small differences.

Imagine a city with weak government and no police force. The gangs would take over and battle each other until they carved up the place for themselves, if they didn’t destroy it first. This is our global village, now more than ever.

Roaming its streets are various gangs, some called Groups, their membership largely self-appointed, on the basis of size and strength, wealth and weapons. Besides NATO and other military alliances, we have the Group of 7 (G7) and the Group of 20 (G20), a group of three superpowers (g3), and a group of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (g5). The G7 and G20 have the wealth, the g3 have the power, and the g5 have the authority, at least to veto the official efforts of all the others. All of the g5 (a) have a history of colonizing or bullying other countries, (b) have the five largest arsenals of nuclear weapons in the world (accounting for 97% of the total); and (c) with Germany, are the largest exporters of armaments (81% of the world’s total).
This is an Insecurity Council.

Our possible alternative begins with democracy, but not the usual kind. We are not about to get planetary elections—mercifully. But we may be able to grow legitimate global government from the roots of domestic democracy, which has enabled many cities and countries to rid themselves of unacceptable leadership. 

Each year, The Economist publishes the Global Democracy Index, compiled from measures of electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The score for each country ranks it as a full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime, or autocratic regime. In the first category of the latest (2021) Index are 21 countries, many of them small, including Uruguay, Mauritius, and Costa Rica. The first with a population of more than 20 million is Taiwan (at number 8), and the largest is Japan (at number 17). This means that none of the world’s ten most populous countries is ranked as a full democracy. So ranked are none of the g3, only 1 of the g5, 3 of the G7, and 6 of the G20.

If the G7 and G20 have created themselves, what’s to stop a D21 from creating an Assembly of Full Democracies? Compared with the current groups, its membership would be more legitimate, its reach more global, and its concern for the collective interest, especially security, more credible. For the most part, these are not liberal democracies, in that they do not privilege free enterprises over free people. 1 Many are the most progressive countries in the world, having managed to sustain a healthy balance across the three sectors of society—public, private, and plural (community). In contrast, each of the three superpowers is skewed toward one of the sectors: public sector communism (in China), plural sector populism (in Russia), and private sector capitalism (in America, as well as in the prevailing form of globalization, which faces no countervailing power).

Should democracy decline in any of these countries, the procedure for removing it would be as objective as that for including it: a factual assessment of its performance as a democracy. Indeed, this adaptability could be the Assembly’s greatest strength. With widespread recognition, political parties in some countries might campaign with a promise to get their country included (with the Index holding them to account). Imagine: democracy could become fashionable again! 

Is it outrageous to suggest that a D21, comprising a bunch of “pipsqueak” countries (as a Harvard Business School colleague once described Canada after I criticized the U.S.), can provide a more secure voice in the world? What’s outrageous is the status quo. What’s outrageous is Russia going into Ukraine, China going into Tibet, America going into Vietnam. Superpower is outrageous. A global grouping of full democracies is not outrageous.

The established powers will hardly step aside, and the United Nations, comprising numerous autocracies2, will not suddenly get its security act together. We need a legitimate, sustainable voice for security in the world, with popular international support.

How about smallerpowers? An Assembly of Full Democracies could be a conspicuous alternative to the flawed or impotent groups that are now so prominent. It might even serve as a kind of Peace Council in-waiting. Should a nuclear confrontation loom, it may be the only place to turn for resolution beyond confrontation—an authority to calm the global schoolyard.

Moreover, by getting their collective act together, these countries could challenge the bullying of the superpowers as well as the divide-and-rule maneuvering of economic globalization. (We have just celebrated a global agreement for a minimum tax rate of 15% on corporations. A minimum? Or a maximum?)  Eventually, an expanded Assembly might even metamorphose into a Council of Democracies for serious global government, backed up by substantial policing to keep the peace. Imagine that!

If you are inclined to dismiss this alternative, please come up with another. The status quo is no longer an option. Instead of continuing to tolerate the current inanity, we shall have to vote with our ballots and our feet, to create a groundswell in support of an alternative body that can protect us from the imaginable that could become imminent. As soon as we recognize how outrageous is the obvious, we will be able to recognize how obvious can be the outrageous.


Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Canada and the author of several books about management. He is also the author of “Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Right and Center” and ( info). 

1. The United Kingdom is the notable exception. It will be interesting to see how it fares in the next ranking. In any event, should any nuclear power be included in such an assembly?

2. The Economist Index lists 59 countries as autocracies and another 34 as hybrid regimes, compared with 21 as full democracies and 53 as flawed democracies.