New Governance Needed for a New Year

Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

By Lloyd Axworthy 

I write this under a certain cloud of apprehension. Ancient Mayan prophecies predict the end of the world on December 21st, 2012, which just happens to be my birthday. So in addition to preparing for another ring on the tree of life, I labour under the prediction that the aging process may not matter a hill of beans, it may just be a collective *poof*.

However, if the Mayans prove wrong and December 22nd dawns another day (likely at well below freezing here in Winnipeg), my sense of relief will be tinged with an ongoing feeling of dread and remorse. For there is a major and consequential shift taking place in the world I know, and the principles I believe in.  Namely, the demise of a period of time, where the world appeared to be working toward a system of cooperation and collaboration.

When was that period you may well ask? Last week, I attended the 15th anniversary of the Land Mines Treaty in Ottawa. There, I had the chance to talk to many had been involved in making the treaty happen, and one common theme arose out of our conversation: It was how in that period of the late 1990s, it was indeed possible for governments, NGOs and international organizations to work together to advance the principle of human security.  This collaboration then became the standard for collegial behaviour between nations and people to build up institutions and standards that offer protection  from threats and risks that cross border.  “Problems without passports,” as Kofi Annan described them.

Today, there is not the same motivation or commitment to multilateral problem solving. As a result, we are regressing to a world system that is becoming fractured and divided without a common cause to uphold, or stand on. Consider recent evidence: The Doha talks on climate change collapse without any serious movement towards an agreement to limit carbon emissions. At the same time, to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius there will have to be drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. This understanding exists as new information reveals that 1200 new coal plants are planned around the world [1], the majority in India and China.

Then there is the Eurozone financial morass. Once the model of interstate cooperation, and integrated, cross border policy and practice, the EU has become a sorry example of failure and bickering.

For those of us who took pride in peacekeeping, the sorry sight of UN peacekeepers being pushed aside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as civilians are killed or rapes, or the tragic case of the Haitian cholera epidemic being traced to peacekeepers is an embarrassment. This is especially true of the effort of UN officialdom to downplay its consequences.

This is only surpassed by the futility of the UN membership, especially the P-5 to mount any form of protection for civilians in Syria, causing the institution to have lost any credibility as the keeper of peace and security.

Al of this simply adds up to a deepening crisis of international institutions to play the role of governance in a world of quarreling, quibbling nation states, sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to acting in a global interest. Why? Possible answers are the failure of leadership in the institutions, or the institutions themselves are becoming too unwieldy vis-à-vis the tens of thousands who populate the large UN conferences. Or is it that in difficult economic times, leaders have to hunker down on domestic issues and don’t have the time or inclination to focus on broader global issues that don’t have immediate political payoff. Daniel Rodgers in his recent book “The Age of Fracture” simply asserts that the consensus — the common acceptance of certain values and commitments has “disaggregated” to use his word and there isn’t much that we believe in together.

Whatever the reason, it is having disastrous effects, both domestically and globally. There is a real loss of direction and purpose, which results in an unwillingness to work much beyond our own immediate narrowly conceived national interests. This folly is symbolized by the refusal of the US Senate to ratify a treaty on disabilities [2] that mirrored practices already in domestic law.

In this one sense maybe the Mayan prophecy is right. The sense of one world, of belonging to a community of shared interests is breaking down. Meanwhile, as the earth warms, natural disasters increase in severity, the public purse is strained to meet these catastrophes, and worst of all millions of innocent people die because of the failure to find common cause on prevention and solutions.

Too pessimistic? Maybe.

Ultimately, I want to issue an invitation to those who might be reading this blog. Let me know whether or not you agree that there is a crisis in our international governance. If you do tend to agree, or partially accept the argument, then offer your own suggestions on how to rehabilitate the concept of a collaborative system that can both incorporate the myriad of competing pressures and override this self-serving trend. Let’s get a conversation going on how to find a consensus to restrain violence, control emissions, exchange ideas and design better functioning international architecture.

Until then, Happy Holidays



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