by Steve Howard, Secretary General of The Global Foundation
Chairman Zeng Peiyan, Vice Chairman Wei Jianguo, distinguished colleagues, thank you for inviting me once again to address your Global Think Tank Summit, on the topic of global governance.
Let’s face it, we are failing.
The world is fast fracturing into geo-political blocs and, like sleepwalkers, nations are stumbling their way through a kind of international governance fog.
There are many forces at work, pulling our world apart. The global response to Covid, a pandemic that has affected the whole of humanity, should have served as an opportunity to check this downward spiral.
Instead, it has become as an accelerator towards further global atomisation and reductionism. The World Health Organisation is under the gun; the World Trade Organisation progressively ignored; other international treaties, norms and conventions disregarded.
Is this what we want – the law of the jungle, of every nation, every man or woman, for him- or herself? Of course not.
I do not mean to single out one great or small power over another – all share the blame, sleepwalking through fog.
We are living through a moment in history that could end very badly, and sooner than we think.
We know what doesn’t work
What will reverse this trend and, at best, set us on a more constructive and collaborative global path? I, for one believe we don’t have much time at our disposal, if we move only at the speed of the most recalcitrant actors.
Global institutions are incapable of major structural reform of their own governance, as they are creatures of nation states and in some cases, have become self-serving, away from their original purpose.
Nation states have been the owners of the global system, yet they are not able to agree and progress the governance arrangements that reflect the dramatic changes in global circumstances and power shifts over recent decades.
Nations of the emerging world, notably China – which I now, incidentally, count as an emerged nation – have somewhat politely and then more noisily knocked on the door of the largely Western club of nations that shaped the global governance power arrangements 70 years ago. Since then, the old order has been far too slow to concede power and re-shape international governance to be commensurate with the economic and political weight of the newer arrivals on the global scene.
So, we have a stalemate, as the uni-polar world has given way to a bi-polar, or maybe a multi-polar, or at worst, a non-polar world, where no-one is ultimately accountable for the global commons.
We have to find a way through this mess. Wise owls, such as the former leaders who spoke at the opening session yesterday, know that power abhors a vacuum. Global problems without cooperative solutions will inevitably lead to conflicts.
Taking positive steps, together
We need a new paradigm, a philosophical basis of understanding, about how humanity can best co-exist, on this, our only planet. The looming threat of climate change and extinction of life as we know it, should be one powerful motivator for us to find common cause.
We need to galvanise a fresh dialogue between civilisations, one that respects differences in values and cultures and instead aims to identify common interests – what you in China rightly call ‘win-win’.
This dialogue should attempt to build an agreed picture of the future around common language, like a shared dictionary of human meaning. From such a worthy goal, we can then set about discussing and agreeing, or not, pathways to reach that future.
At the heart of these pathways must be a commitment to continuing the best aspects of globalisation and discarding the worst. Rampant populism in Western nations flows from those who feel left behind while others have gained. Our own mantra, of ‘cooperative globalisation’, globalisation which is transformative, fair, and inclusive, as well as prosperous, has gained increasing traction with many leaders across global society and is worthy of further exploration.
Who and how will lead such conversations, with credibility? International institutions? National governments? Non-state actors, including business and civil society? Alone, no.
We need a blend of the best of all of these, working in concert, for what I term ‘coalitions of the willing’, to borrow a much-maligned phrase.
We could start with your prestigious institution and the many eminent think tanks you have invited to this important summit. Task us! Why could CCIEE not lead such a project and invite distinguished contributors from many walks of life, in a non-official, almost experimental, and experiential way, to see at least what might be possible?
West meets East
The beauty of think tanks is that they have the scope to try things out and maybe some elements will work their way through into official policy and institutional life over time. Our Foundation has had experience with this, in working with China as it has calibrated and improved a number of its international contributions. The successful formation of the AIIB is perhaps the most outstanding example.
Coming from a background in the Western tradition, my own organisation is willing to step up its own global efforts in this regard, by continuing to involve Chinese scholars and other leading thinkers from the emerging world in our constant and evolving global dialogues, the next being in Rome this November and hopefully, in Beijing, early in the New Year.
There is not one single answer to the massive challenge of the failings of global governance. But to not attempt to confront and respond to the challenge will condemn us and our generation. Each of us, in our own, best way, should re-double our efforts to help put the world back together, before it is too late to do so.