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Originally written for publication in Charles Lerche (ed.), Emergence III: Conflict Resolution.

Contemporary Governance and Conflict Resolution:
A Bahá'í Reading

by Graham Hassall


It is an age of universal reformation. Laws and statutes of civil and federal governments are in process of change and transformation. Sciences and arts are being moulded anew. Thoughts are metamorphosed. The foundations of human society are changing and strengthening.

A new world order is emerging in the wake of the post-Cold War realities. As America awaits the fifth "big change," reinterpretation of the "cultural pantheon of several distinct realities" assumes special meaning for global well-being, for peaceful coexistence and global prosperity. The triumphal globalist notion of "the end of history" is repudiated by the appalling contradictions of the Cold Victory. The search for a "prophetic paradigm" - beyond nationalistic idolatry, utopian hubris, and liberal democratic complacency - continues for the sake of peace, justice, freedom, love, and the prosperity of all humankind.

‘Religion as critique’

In this essay I explore the conflict resolving capacities of contemporary political processes in the context of Bahá'í Writings on governance and conflict. The essay adopts a "religion as critique" approach to the practices of modernity, and identifies a number of "challenges of contemporary government" that must sooner or later be addressed in the inevitable move to more effective governmental norms and processes. To state my thesis in brief, the Bahá'í Writings provide the foundations for a "critique of modernity" at the same time that they suggest possible paths to the future. A major criticism of modernist government is its inability to solve conflicts. In fact, current structures of government contribute in many circumstances to the production of conflict rather than its resolution. These conflict-laden structures are accompanied by conflict-enhancing attitudes, which tolerate high levels of conflict due to a belief that such conflict is inevitable.

Religion has traditionally played a role in overcoming conflict. Prophetic law has, additionally, served as an undeniable basis, a statement of the social grundnorm (now referred to as ‘natural law’) on which contemporary legal codes have been based. The "revealed laws" are supplemented by man-made laws through human reason and by reference to tradition. Both sacred and contingent sources of law are valid but the purpose of law is promotion of the well-being of the masses rather than "chains that bind them". Ancient codes of law, whether written or customary, require reform if they prove detrimental to the welfare and interests of peoples in a period of rapid social evolution. Religious critique of modernity takes many forms, from discourse to political action, to violent confrontation. Obviously, this essay advocates the pursuit of change through dialogue and discourse. Less obvious may be its normative approach, as opposed to idealistic: it proposes pursuit of change in desired directions through both intellectual and social engagement, and not through intellectual idealisation alone.


Governance in the Bahá'í Writings

The term "governance" refers to the structures that are established by societies for the purpose of regulating their affairs, and promoting their welfare. The history of the diverse peoples of the world is in one sense a vast pool of experience with different systems of governance, each having its strengths and weaknesses, and each contributing something to the practice of governance in our day. From remnants of splendid empires the nations of the first, second, and third worlds have emerged, each commending the victories of their own style. From despotisms to authoritarian democracies to anarchous, stateless societies; from laizze-fare capitalism to communalism and communism; from narrow nationalisms and ethno-nationalisms to socialist and liberal internationalisms - world history records many and diverse experiments in social and political organisation.

The Bahá'í Writings, no less than earlier prophetic religions, concern themselves with governance. In numerous of His tablets, Bahá'u'lláh refers to the ‘lamentably defective’ condition of the contemporary order. But this critique differs from other critiques of modernity, particularly the post-modern, which "void" meaning through de-construction of contemporary paradigms of power without suggesting alternatives. Rather, it points to limitations in modern ideologies, structures of government and systems of values, while acknowledging signs of positive social and political change.

The need for reform was a constant refrain in the discourse of Abdu'l-Bahá. Public talks in North America highlighted the "call to freedom" that challenged the "dogma, creeds and hereditary beliefs" which could not withstand "the analysis of reason in this century". His essay addressed to the Hague Conference for A Durable Peace questioned the adequacy of the nation-state as a basis for peace. His treatise Secret of Divine Civilization and Shoghi Effendi’s essays, World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, expand on Bahá'u'lláh’s general themes. Shoghi Effendi explained that states that the "animating purpose" of Bahá'u'lláh’s Teachings is to broaden the basis of society’s foundations and to "…remould its institutions in a manner consonant with the needs of an ever-changing world." The Bahá'í model of governance presents itself, he suggests, as a "pattern of ...divine civilization" that challenges "...most of the institutions of contemporary society..." and rejects such conflict that is "built in" to current processes and structures as the adversarial structure of civil government, the advocacy principle informing most of civil law, struggle between "classes and other social groups", and the competitive spirit in much of modern life.

The "alternative" model of governance offered in the Bahá'í Writings seeks to "transform" current practices, rather than "replace" them. According to the "organic" theory of social evolution, such interventions, combined with the current systems' inherent instabilities, will assist in realising fundamental change, which will include changes in values as well as in structures and procedures, to an extent that systems theorists call a "paradigm shift".

Shoghi Effendi has explained that the Bahá'í model cannot be associated with any single known model of governance, but "...embodies, reconciles and assimilates within its framework" the best features of each classical model, while remaining free of their defects. It is unlike any form of government, whether democracy, autocracy, dictatorship, monarchy, or republic; and as such cannot be wholly likened to such historic religious legal systems such as the Hebrew Commonwealth, or the governmental orders developed in the Christian and Islamic civilisations. It is, in other words, a unique Administrative Order, both in theory and in practice, and in both secular and religious traditions." Bahá'u'lláh commended the "republican form" of government, but preferred that the role of monarchy be retained, and praised the British system for being "adorned with the light of both kingship and of the consultation of the people".

In recent years the Universal House of Justice and its agencies have elaborated on such subjects as the future of the United Nations Organisation, and the challenges of social development. The Prosperity of Humankind suggests that reassessment of structures and processes of government will include redefinition of the terms "power" and "authority"; formulation of laws that are "universal in both character and authority"; reformulation of consultative practices and of concepts of justice; a conscious effort to ensure that "technological breakthroughs" and "limited resources" are not reserved for privileged minorities; and the continued development of laws protecting human rights and the whole range of civil, political, social and economic rights. Among specific observations of current practice, it criticises the lack of citizen involvement in local-level decision-making.

Modernity and the exhaustion of possibilities

…the greatest explanatory power is found in the battle between two great world-wide forces in collision – the disintegrating, centrifugal force reflecting the inward ‘pull’ of nationalism and ethnicity that dominates today’s headlines, and the integrating and harmonizing centripital force representing the ‘push’ of economic and technological interdependencies that is reshaping the same landscape".

Nationalism continues to frame most thinking about the quest for order in modernity, and modernists continue to regard the social and political technologies of liberal democracy and international relations as being adequate for managing conflict. With the decline of the communist system, some have proclaimed the "end of history" and the victory of liberal democracy. But this supposes an "exhaustion of possibilities" that attempts closure of debate on political innovation. The idea that "there are no more solutions left" to combat the world's problems - is simply a prejudice.

Although nationalism has provided the key ideological motif in the modern period, it has not been without significant limitations. Communism, similarly, has proven an ideological program unable to deliver genuine social, political and economic advance. The cause of Fascism flowered for a time in mid-century, but proved so extreme as to bring opposition to itself from all directions. Toward the end of the twentieth century ethnonationalisms have emerged as key ideological forces. The structures of governance that have been built on these predominant ideologies of modernism have reached the limits of their effectiveness, and are in disarray. Philosophically the confidence of the "moderns" has been replaced by the skepticism of the post-moderns; and even where revolutionaries have replaced their former hegemonic overlords the challenges of governance remain.

If liberal democracy perfects the science of governance, how do we account for the vast gap in social indicators between humanity’s present condition and the ability of governments to meet its needs? The few apparently successful liberal democracies must be seen against a far more encompassing background. Mohan summarises the present impass in this way:

Capitalism and communism represent two diametrically opposed schools of thought. The strength and weakness of the two systems stem from the inherent nature of materialism. Communism has failed, and socialism is fighting for its survival in the material culture that is apparently pervasive and successful. Capitalism's claim that it has been ultimately victorious over the ruins of the Marxist ideologies is both unscientific and pretentious. ......In a way, the post-material consciousness is, rather, a rediscovery of lost values: basic empowerment (democratisation), fundamental authenticity (good faith), primitive innocence (freedom from oppression), and primordial justice (ethics of action and values). These four elements will serve as the tenets of social praxis and help define the paradigm of a rational and humane society that is both responsible and compassionate.

The modern period has undoubtedly made considerable progress in its approaches to government. The ideal of democracy has been extended and strengthened, adherence to the ideas of the rule of law and of constitutionalism have spread, and the concept of justice as the basis of governmental authority has matured. Elected representatives make law and change law, courts resolve disputes, and bureaucratic agencies aim to deliver government programs throughout the state. Although most decision-making occurs at national level, decision-making and problem solving at global is becoming more comprehensive, as indicated in the rapid maturation of international law.

The expression of competing voices within parliaments concerning matters of government invented by liberal democracy is an advance over the lack of such representation under feudalism and the absolute monarchies. The provision of courts of law from local to national levels, with yet other courts in which to appeal decisions of lower courts, are similarly an advance over earlier judicial bodies that were poorly equipped to assess evidence, and to dispense justice. So too, the elaboration of modern bureaucracies to administer every aspect of government policy provides a level of public support unmatched at any time in history.

Similar advances can be reported for most parts of the globe. Societies that were traditionally stratified, based on class, caste, even slavery, are undergoing modification. There has been expansion, too, of the institutions and values of democracy, and to such qualities of civil societies as expansion of print and electronic media, and the emergence of significant numbers of private citizens actively involved in public life. This social change has been aided by the spread of technology and communications including satellites, and most recently, the internet.

Tasks that remain include improving electoral processes to ensure that public affairs are handled by leaders with the requisite qualities; improving the performance of the various constitutional organs, such as the parliaments, courts, and executive branches of government; and strengthening other mechanisms of accountability. Yet another task requires redistribution of constitutional powers, some to a global state, others to local authorities. Most importantly, constitutional changes must be accompanied by a transformation in the values of leaders and peoples alike. Without a consciousness of the 'wholeness of humankind' and a desire for unity, other essential reforms in leadership selection, global constitutionalism, and citizen participation, will be insufficient, and national, ideological and partisan interests will continue to control state power. The suffering and underdevelopment of the majority of the world's people will continue, as will disparities between rich and poor.

As long ago as the 1930s Shoghi Effendi commenced commentary on the detrimental effect of narrowly defined national policies on global order. His essays Promised Day is Come and World Order of Bahá'u'lláh contrast the destructive forms of nationalism that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a positive form of nationalism that must characterise future states. Shoghi Effendi traced "intolerant and militant nationalism" to Hegelian philosophy which deifies the state. `Abdu'l-Bahá’s view was that if the predominant conception of patriotism remains "limited within a certain circle, it will be the primary cause of the world's destruction". Following World War One national leaders who feared that allegiance to any form of internationalism would "sap the loyalty" required for the continued existence of the nation states, opposed such developments as the Geneva Protocol, the idea of a United States of Europe, and an Economic Union of Europe. We now observe, of course, that each of these institutions has come to pass. Economically, "narrow" and "brutal" nationalism, which had been reinforced by the post-war theory of self-determination, had resulted in "high prohibitive tariffs" which in turn "inhibited the healthy flow of international trade and finance". In short, was Shoghi Effendi’s conclusion as early as the 1930s, national leaders had failed to adapt national processes, which were "suited to the ancient days of self-contained nations" to present-day needs.

Shoghi Effendi also associated the rise of nationalism with the demise of religious belief, noting that in some instances nationalist movements had included a "conscious, avowed and organised attack on Christianity"; had been associated with a "systematized work of defamation against all forms of ecclesiastical influence", and had contributed to de-Christianization of the masses; and decline of authority, prestige and power of the Church." The resulting secularisation of society in modernism has been described as a 'disenchantment' of public life, a reduction of meaning to social good which leads to cynicism, to despair, and to hypocritical uses of power by elites who deny the existence of any duties higher than their own selves and their constituencies. Even the rights of coming generations are sacrificed to the interests of those currently in power. Public office is no longer held 'in trust', on behalf of those who came before, and those of future generations. Conflicts between competing social, political and economic interests are considered unavoidable, and for the most part un-resolvable (hence, to be 'managed', rather than 'resolved'). In this modernist view, conflict between states is as inevitable as conflict within states. In the international arena there is also the expectation that conflict can be managed in accordance with the interests of each sovereign state. Where interests coincide, states may agree to multilateral or bilateral treaty arrangements; but in cases of conflict most states reserve the right, ultimately, to defend their interests militarily.

The adequacy of this modernist framework is being challenged in several ways. The traditional notion that the nation is the supreme political unit, possessing such sovereign rights as the right to wage war, to control the flow of goods and people across its borders, and to legislate and carry out domestic law, is inconsistent with the growing practice of international commerce and trade. Nationally organised forms of government and state are increasingly impotent in the face of global problems that include environmental deterioration, population explosion, the depletion of resources of energy, the outbreak of war and the conclusion of peace, the establishment of security, and of economic and social justice. The right to wage war is incompatible with the expanding regime of humanitarian law and human rights protection. [Alston, 1996 #6498] It is also too costly, and the impact of modern weaponry too devastating to achieve any political objectives. Descent into military conflict only indicates inability to adopt effective conflict resolution techniques. The fact that the current models of government are failing to meet human needs indicates that additional models will be established, through necessity. [Jessop, 1990 #1430] The task is to choose between alternative possible futures.

Four Challenges of Contemporary Governance

Modern governments, whether liberal democratic or socialist, face four major challenges: establishing and maintaining legitimacy, promoting democracy, solving disputes effectively, and ensuring social and economic development. These challenges incorporate the values of unity, democracy, justice, and prosperity. Governments that do not respond effectively to these challenges risk serious internal conflicts and social instability.



Legitimacy refers to the acceptance of the foundational principles of a state, and to the constitution of a state. A people that sees its state and government as having legitimacy has a sense of constitutional unity. Without this sense of unity, a state is in danger of serious conflict, and even collapse. A government can establish this sense of legitimacy over time by meeting the needs of the people, and by building a sense of purpose and unity amongst them. The ability to build legitimacy depends partly on the quality of dialogue between the people and the state. The legitimacy of a state provides the foundation for the operation of democracy. [Rosenfeld, 1994 #6871]

Many states emerged from the break-up of Colonial Empires, or from colonial intrusion, or from inadequate peace treaties at the conclusion of unjustified wars. The 'nation' was the form adopted for anti-colonial struggle and perhaps a majority of the nations are identical with the boundaries of colonial states established by the European powers. The legacies of these origins include continuing uncertainty and dispute as to the relationship between ethnicity and statehood, and hence uncertainty as to the status of minorities and "first peoples". Given that the boundaries of many contemporary states were determined arbitrarily, the lack of an authority to adequately settle boundary disputes is a serious hindrance to peace between states.

Anderson’s observation that nations are no more than 'imagined communities' [Anderson, 1983 #3036] that require considerable social and political engineering to propagate echoes Abdu'l-Bahá’s much earlier observation of nations and peoples as "limited unities" that were "imaginary and without real foundation". The artificial and arbitrary nature of national boundaries, coupled with insufficient mechanisms for handling boundary disputes, has been one of the major sources of inter-national conflict in the past two centuries. [Prescott, #1643]

The historical moments in which a great many nations were formed - through treaties or declarations of independence, left ‘the people’ out of negotiations concerning their own destiny, and launched their nations in undemocratic circumstances which have not necessarily been remedied. Most current conflicts related to claims of ethno-nationalism, or separatism, have as their root cause a legitimacy deficit. [Harris, 1998 #7130; Richardson, 1993 #6956; Smooha, 1992 #6968]

The legitimacy of many contemporary states may currently be under challenge for one of several other reasons: in many places they are not meeting the ‘basic human needs’ of their peoples. Ironically, while states are spending large proportions of their income on ‘defence’, they are failing to provide security. The ‘global order’ lacks legitimacy through lack of participation by citizens in decisions taken by nation states in the international arena.


In a broad sense democracy refers to the election of leaders by the people. People who elect their own leaders are said to be ‘free’, although this ‘freedom’ refers to their agreement to act as they wish within the bounds of the rights and responsibilities that are determined by the society’s legal system and public culture. The idea of democracy is not to achieve ‘total freedom’ - for such a thing is impossible - but to provide a social and political society in which individuals are able to pursue goals of their own choosing, to fully develop their personalities, abilities and talents, and to contribute the fruits of their efforts back to their society. [Inter-Parliamentary Union, 1998 #7094] Democracy offers both legitimacy and accountability, since the people have control over their leaders and over the laws that bind them. Where these conditions are met, a government acquires authority, and possessing authority, becomes effective in governing with a sense of justice.

Democracy is a core Bahá'í value. But in the Bahá'í conception, it does not refer merely to ‘freedom of speech’, or to the articulation of individual human rights. It refers rather to a culture in which the individual feels free to set forth views in an atmosphere of tolerance; in which the people’s elected representatives see themselves as trustees of the public will; in which the people have respect for the decisions of the duly elected authorities; in which the values of diversity, reciprocity and mutuality are appreciated. Democracy therefore refers to a culture rather than to rules.

"Consultation" exemplifies a practice of governance that is given considerable attention in the Bahá'í Writings. Open consultation is acknowledged as an essential component of a united society. Through it, each can know the thoughts of others. Any interference with the expression of thoughts leads to distortion of messages, to misunderstandings, and ultimately to disunity. The implications of this insight are explored in depth in Habermas’ ‘theory of communicative action’ [Habermas, 1996 #7041] and other literature about ‘deliberative democracy’. [Held, 1993 #2755]

The Bahá'í approach to consultation recognises the power of discourse to influence to either positive or negative effect. Bahá'u'lláh counsels on the proper use of language. The consultative principle, already found in most systems of government, is applauded as "a lamp of guidance which leadeth the way". A principle with which it must be associated - albeit an association as yet unappreciated by theories of bureaucratic effectiveness - is that of compassion. The presence of these two capacities allow governments to "be able to fully acquaint themselves with the condition of the people they govern".

Bahá'u'lláh encourages "free association" between peoples, since familiarity between people leads to "concord, which is conducive to order". But this policy requires "tolerance and righteousness. Bahá'u'lláh refers at length to the promotion of "fellowship, kindliness and unity"and continually warns of the need to "flee" from "anything from which the odour of mischief can be detected." An additional aspect of the principle of tolerance concerns treatment of minorities, who live in all societies. The Bahá'í writings reject insistence on uniformity, and encourage appreciation of diversity.

Current principles of democratic government contain some, but not all, elements of the Bahá'í model. At a fundamental level, for instance, the Bahá'í approach retains the principle of elected leadership while abandoning current notions of electoral "campaigning", and upholds the necessity for contestation of important issues while denying the necessity for institutionalised opposition. In every country where any of this people reside", is his injunction, "they must at country with loyalty, honesty and truthfulness".

Electoral Design

Ironically, the ‘representative democracy’ practised in many states contains a number of elements that hinder rather than stimulate democratic activity. The nomination of a limited number of candidates, for instance, limits the choices placed before the elector, and favours the interests of dominant personalities. Furthermore, it hinders the ‘spirit of initiative’ in society, and discourages inclinations toward individual responsibility. Party systems also intervene between the individual voter and public offices in determining policy options and in controlling legislatures through, for example, controlling the voting preferences of party members.

In majoritarian systems the ability to restrict the number of candidates is related to the need to obtain at least 50% of the vote by the winner. Rather than being free to vote from the eligible population at large, the voter must select one of the nominated candidates, whose approval generally rests with a political party. Operation of majoritarian systems, in the name of democracy, create permanent minorities, whose interests can never gain the support of such a majority, and whose interests are never therefore fully considered by the elected representatives. [Lijphart, 1994 #771]

Campaigns associated with political elections generate considerable conflict and violence. The process whereby candidates seek support from the electorate by publicising their policy platforms in order to will voter approval has become increasing distorted and subject to abuse. Problems include "negative" campaigns (to turn an electorate against one’s opponents), the making of promises in order to procure votes without the intention of keeping them, and outright electoral corruption. Parties also now rely on sophisticated polling to identify electoral sentiments so that candidates can address them in order to win votes. Increasingly, parties are seeking out "high profile" candidates from the entertainment and sports industries, to attract public attention.

The extreme cost of obtaining a pre-eminent position, given that competing parties are seeking a similar goal, has dramatically increased the cost of political participation, and party financing has become a major ethical issue. Without extensive funding, the political project becomes impossible, but obtaining the required level of funding on a regular basis is a major task, and has frequently led to the use of illegal strategies.

In sum, with the elaboration of electoral campaigns leaders are increasingly self-referring. In other words, candidates propose themselves, and seek to minimise the worth of their rivals. Much selection has occurred prior to the ballot. Party campaigns are increasingly based on sophisticated market research. The lack of integrity in contemporary electoral systems has reduced the calibre of candidates willing to participate. Party systems are divisive at fundamental levels. This can be verified empirically, with elections throughout the world increasingly being marred by ‘electoral violence’ between supporters of rival parties and candidates. For all these reasons democracy has become associated with partisanship, with cynicism, apathy and corruption. It has to be raised above these results of the "political theatre" produced by nominations, candidature, electioneering and solicitation.

Moral courage has always been a virtue of the leadership. With growth in social complexity and the size of moral dilemmas, the capacity to lead with moral clarity is all the more desirable. Abdu'l-Bahá extolled the incorruptible leader schooled in both religious and worldly knowledge and expanded on the ‘qualities of the spiritually learned’ in his early work Secret of Divine Civilization.

New communicative capacities are emerging to fill the need for ‘active citizenry’ formally provided by the processes of nominations and campaigns. The absence of electoral campaigning in the Bahá'í process eliminates problems of determining influences on candidates through donations to campaign funds, for none exist. Also, the problem of monitoring election expenses does not exist. Voters are to take part in elections "consciously and diligently" and not be aloof or assume an indifferent or independent attitude.

The institutions of representative democracy purport to represent 'the people'. Increasingly, however, 'the people' are voicing their own opinions, and stand in less need of representation. New technologies of communication are allowing 'we the people' to mobilise, and to articulate their views. This has lead to an increase in the range of views being broadcast, and a decrease in the representative power of the elected representatives. The task now is to be able to hear this increased range of voices, and to do so in a manner that still allows decisions to be made in a timely manner. The rapid rise of the NGO movement also suggests that citizens desire to air their views separately than through their elected representatives.

Many important issues are no longer decided by national parliaments, and citizens are voicing their concerns directly to governments other than their own. They have become, in other words, active in a supra-national civil society. The notion of 'the people' of a nation being in some way a united collective has thus been shattered this century by the emergence of extra voices, such as stateless peoples deprived of recognition by international law. The inability of the nation state system to recognise these peoples has been a source of aggravation throughout the century.

Parliamentary design

The separation of members of the legislature into ‘the government’ and ‘the opposition’ is another problematic feature of the Westminster tradition. Whereas the intention of the division was to ensure that the parliament, as the legislature, held the executive accountable for its actions while at the same time providing an alternative group of representatives to develop and demonstrate their capacity to become an ‘alternative government’, the ‘logic of the system’ has taken its toll on theory. Abdu’l-Bahá stated what everyone knows:

Parliamentary procedure should have for its object the attainment of the light of truth upon questions presented and not furnish a battleground for opposition and self-opinion. Antagonism and contradiction are unfortunate and always destructive to truth.

However, Westminster-derived parliaments are regarded as arenas of political-point-scoring rather than deliberation, and rarely provide an opportunity to all members to consult ‘fully and frankly’ on issues of public concern. The ‘Westminster divide’ also inhibits the utilisation of all human resources in parliament by assigning a substantial minority to ‘opposition’ status.

The division of powers that features in most modern constitutions, while based on the meritorious search for a check on absolute power, also promotes conflicts within the constitutional offices, such as between a head of executive and head of judiciary. While such conflicts are often held to indicate that the ‘separation of powers’ is being tested and strengthened, it can also mean that the interests of the masses are being neglected while members of the elect and elite who are in public office idly dispute the allocation of powers, functions, and privileges.

The 'separation of powers' doctrine also introduces problems into the possible emergence of global thinking of governance. In the western tradition, the separation of powers as achieved over time in England, France and the United States served the purpose of limiting the potential of any one branch of government of exercising total power. It was "check on governmental authority". The constitutional doctrine of limiting state authority has come to occupy a position of dogma. In the spread of constitutional ideas around the world it is now being applied with less success in cultures unfamiliar with the idea of the separability of authority. But whereas this institutionalisation established a certain degree of order in political life, it is not a universally valid construct, and has led to levels of conflict that threaten the very fabric of states and societies. The method of debate in most contemporary parliaments does not constitute consultation in pursuit of answers to complex problems but political discourse having other objectives, particularly survival and conquest within the system.

Parliamentary design and the behaviour of political parties are linked. Law is associated with power, and state law is viewed as a medium for marshalling the resources of the state to conduct competition with all other states. Political power has come to be shaped as a 'prize', which, when won by the leading party, can be exercised in that party's interests. A 'conservative party', for instance, may win power and act on policies that favour the privileged, while elsewhere a 'labor party' in government privileges the rights of workers. Power is viewed as an opportunity to force change in their direction of their desires. A very different view of law sees it as a medium for setting standards.

Political parties emerged from the desire of interest groups to act with a united voice in public life and in parliament. But parties have come to dominate legislatures in ways that were unimaginable a century ago. With the decline of democratic consultation in parliaments, they quickly became dissatisfied with mere representation in parliament, and sought control of the executive. By late twentieth century, the rationale of the "party machine" has become capture of a majority in the legislature, and in all associated spheres of public life.

The artificiality of ‘two-party systems’ is evident in the decline of effect two party systems within democratic political systems. The rise of third and fourth parties has been accommodated through changes to proportional representation systems, which continue to place the interests of parties above those of citizens. Party coherence invariably depends on specific ideological and public policy programs, whereas the complexity of public life is rendering ideologies inadequate. No party is able to generate policies that cater to the needs of all members of society, and the futility of attempting to do so in advance of the party’s participation in the legislature points to a further failing of the present system: a pattern of parliamentary debate - and political discourse in general - which ignores all the principles of consultation and privileges coercive and aggressive styles of debate intended to drown dissenting voices rather than to entertain them.


In communities of disenchantment, legality need not be coupled with justice. To create just laws a system of governance must find some way of identifying and co-opting just leaders. Just laws can only derive from close understanding of the conditions of society. In some political systems the elected leaders are known for their familiarity of their 'electorates'. In others, however, their notoriety stems from the fact of their ignorance of the circumstances of those whom they purport to represent.

The purpose of law is to ensure the wellbeing of all. Laws protect the rights and interests of individuals and of the community as a whole, by outlining systems of obligations and duties, and providing sanctions for when the laws are transgressed. Laws also provide for the transfer of wealth within a society, through systems of taxation and other levies, for the purpose of redistribution of wealth among those more and less need in society. When laws provide certainty, and are based on principles of fairness, they can contribute to a sense of wellbeing and harmony in society. A ‘justice’ system based on an adversarial mode of decision making is less a quest for truth or justice than a quest for victory in the eyes of the law.

The promotion of human rights requires "fundamental redefinition of human relationships" and movement in this direction has "barely begun". Elements in the redefinition include consultation (requiring standards far beyond current practices of negotiation and compromise, and "culture of protest" - associated with debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, and paradigms of partisanship); far greater access to knowledge, and to the opportunity to "apply it to the shaping of human affairs".

The reformulation of consultative practices includes recognition of the interrelationship between justice, consultation, and the attainment of social and economic development. Justice is best achieved when those in power are motivated by concern for their own personal future condition. Bahá'u'lláh exhorts governments to hold in highest regard the principles of reward and punishment, these being the "two pillars" which "traineth the world". When this principle is recognised, public offices are best filled according to "desert and merit". He stressed the need for structures of government led by the learned and the wise, yet responsive to the will of the masses.


A final challenge of contemporary governance is the generation of social and economic prosperity. This challenge requires more than ‘economic development’, more than industrialisation and increased consumption, and more than the spread of material benefits. It refers to the attainment of the wellbeing of the people, through their acquisition of material development in accordance with their own plans, activities, and priorities. It refers, that is, to the development of the peoples’ personalities in accordance with their own volition and choice. In Bahá'í perspective, justice on a world scale is not possible given the existing nation-state system that has no intention of remedying the disparities between the nations, and makes no effective inroads, furthermore, into disparities that exist within nations.

Modernity in transition: why change is inevitable

Transition toward more global and more conflict-resolving governance has commenced and further change is inevitable. Whether focused on reforms to electoral systems, parliaments, courts, or the use of executive power, such change is invariably motivated by the need to minimise conflict, enhance legitimacy and effectiveness.

Traditional constitutional law has been critical law because it has been limited in scope to government structure, and has not opened itself to consideration of international law and diplomacy. If constitutional law is to concern itself with human dignity, and with freedom and welfare it must now address global issues. Humanity faces the collective task of navigating its way into the future, through fundamental review of its existing frameworks of organisation and action. The quest for global security is not a utopian one. The fact that global peace has been threatened since the advent of the nuclear age demonstrates that the need for security on a global level is real. The Commission on Global Governance has issued a call for a concept of global security broader than one focusing on military issues alone. This may signal a move toward the notion of ‘collective global security’ advocated in the Bahá'í Writings.

Late twentieth century economies have become trapped in a weapons culture, in which defence industries account for significant proportions of national economies. The violent political instrument of warfare must be abolished through international and national law. Development of science and technology require critical review to ensure that the rapid expansion in scientific capacity is used for the public good, and not for evil purposes related to warfare and destruction. Nation-states have a role, but their scale, function, will, and capabilities are not equal to the challenges of globalism. Hegel's concept of the "total state" no longer holds. Some form of global federation is required, with power distributed between and among levels of states.

There is growing recognition of the complexity of human affairs, in which opposing agents of chaos and order, of growth and decay, generate ‘open’ historical moments in which the destinies of whole peoples and nations are determined. There is, also, growing recognition of the ‘relationality’ that exists between all peoples, and between peoples and the ecosystem as a whole. This is sometimes described as a "unity in diversity" in which each individual has a legitimate place in the functioning of the whole. Reciprocal relations between ‘the people’ and ‘the state’ are often formulated and expressed in terms of rights and responsibilities. Consciousness of the oneness of humanity, if taught to the next generation, could protect it from ethnic and religious conflict and encourage processes of collaboration and conciliation. It could generate a desire to base decisions on just principles and led to the development of laws that are "universal in both character and authority". Certainly, it would foster a more even spread of access to knowledge of science and technology.

So-called commitment to both 'democracy' and 'economic development' presents a paradox: if so much power is now in the hands of 'the people', why is it that they have not been able to change their material conditions? Partly, this shows flaws in the 'roles' played by the 'protagonists', governments have viewed the masses as recipients of aid and of development programs, future models of democracy will transfer powers of decision-making to the grass roots. How is 'people power' effective? Through unity, co-operation, and reciprocity. These processes are activated through consultation, dialogue, and the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of each other's aspirations. The inability of nation-states to grant citizens democracy at the international level has contributed to the emergence of civil society at both national and international levels consisting of non-governmental activities and coverage of public interest issues by a now world-encircling media.

Governance and Conflict Resolution: keys to participation

Bahá'í Scriptures anticipate "far-reaching changes in the governance of human affairs and in the institutions created to carry it out." The systems of ‘government’ elaborated during the modern period have laid the crude foundations for such changes, but have "exhausted the possibilities" for progress within modernity’s paradigm. Working beyond that paradigm the outlines of an emerging practice of "governance" are appearing. They embrace a greater consideration of the aspirations and ideas of individuals while also recognising group rights, foster consultation at all levels of decision-making, add responsibilities to the rights enjoyed by both the individual and the state, add mediation to the traditional forms of dispute resolution, transcend national boundaries to consider the impact of decisions on citizens and states beyond one’s own, and accept accountability as a practice that benefits the public interest.

Access to news of world affairs can be empowering or debilitating because it provides the individual actor with an impossibly large set of options for engagement. The challenge is to resist options of alienation, passive consumption and observation and the Bahá'í Community offers one such path for individual or collaborative exploration of practical paths of action. Although the activity of governance is often regarded as beyond the reach of the individual, the extent to which individual input is solicited by those in ‘power’ is surprising. Furthermore, it is expanding. Importantly, for the transition to more conflict-resolving approaches to governance, it is not necessary that an entire system experience the system uniformly. Within a particular country, for instance, receptivity to conflict resolving values and practices within a particular branch of government – whether the bureaucracy, the courts, or a committee of parliament – can serve as an example to other government agencies when and as they experience the need to find more efficient and satisfactory approaches to decision making and problem solving.

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