People are empowered by their lack of power. Malcolm Gladwell

Sinking Statesmanship

The ship of global governance is weak and leaky. It desperately needs fixing if it wants to stand a chance in the troubled waters that lie ahead.

In June, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined an ambitious $20 billion plan to make the city more resilient to extreme weather events. With the memory of Superstorm Sandy still fresh, he warned that the city could face a sea level rise of up to 80cm by the end of the century. Cut 13,000 kilometers southeast to Mozambique, a country where six out of ten people live in extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, Mozambique could also experience a rise in sea level – one large enough to displace 10 percent of the population. Sea walls to block the tide? Probably not. The cost of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for New York City is 40 percent more than the annual economic output of all of Mozambique.

A victim of decisions

The changing climate and its consequences is just one problem that both residents of New York and of New Delhi share. There are many more: international financial instability, food price volatility, growing microbial resistance to drugs, biodiversity losses. On these issues, the rich may have a bigger boat but they face the same storms as the poor.

The management of global public goods is a huge challenge – in which, ironically, the absence of organized “power” at the international level, i.e. at the level of what is called global governance, is part of the problem.

The world does have a set of intergovernmental institutions that make up global governance and are meant to address global challenges: the World Bank, the IMF, the G-20, the World Health Organization, the recently created Global Climate Fund and many more. But their actual powers are relatively limited. The “system” of global governance is weak and ineffectual – unable, for example, to tax mobile capital, prevent drug trafficking, or effectively address the climate problem.

In addition, on many issues the intergovernmental “system” lacks democratic legitimacy, seeming to better represent the rich elite than the world’s typical citizen at the global median daily income—the income at which half of all people earn more and half less. (That income is just €4 per person, about the equivalent of the price of a cup of coffee in Berlin.) The world’s median citizen is relatively powerless in the face of global risks – whether they arise in her own country because of a political crisis, or abroad because of rising food prices, financial crises, or climate change. In short, the typical citizen of the world is often a victim of decisions, or of the lack of decisions, made by others.

Moreover, the system of global governance, which should help all boats navigate the storms, no longer has an admiral of the fleet. The 2008-2009 financial crisis and its aftermath, including Washington’s ongoing political gridlock, has arguably marked the end of the 20th century era of the US admiralty. With the rise of China and other large emerging economic and political powers, the fleet is harder to keep together.

But a new and different kind of global power is on the rise – one that is informal and citizen-based. Attitude surveys indicate that citizens in rich as well as poor countries – aided by dramatically falling costs of communication, participation, and coordination – are aware of the risks a hyper-connected global market system creates, and the potential for global cooperation to minimize those risks. They are demanding change.

Networks of activists are becoming more numerous, more far-reaching, and are more frequently crossing borders. This is not only true in rich countries; over the last ten years, the number of well-organized and well-funded African non-governmental organizations (with “UN consultative status”) has increased eight-fold. Awareness and activism have the potential to reflect and reinforce changing attitudes about what is a fair and sustainable system, particularly among the young and the better-educated. Changing attitudes can contribute to gradually changing global norms.

As global challenges become more pressing and visible, it is those with the bigger boats – the “global citizens” who are better off in material terms, have political voice at home, and have the resources to exert their voices on global issues – that can be most effective in demanding change. They have not only a moral responsibility to promote a better globalization, one that will bend the benefits of economic growth and global markets toward the bottom half of the world’s population, but an interest in doing so, if their children are to enjoy increased security and prosperity.

Protecting small boats in stormy seas

Acceptance of that responsibility and recognition of that interest – by Germans, American, and affluent Brazilians, Chinese and Indians – implies supporting in their own countries not only aid from rich to poor, but the trade, migration, tax, anticorruption, and climate policies that would promote more fully shared prosperity around the world. The acceptance of this responsibility implies also support for strengthening current institutions of global governance. Ultimately, it is the official institutions that provide ballast on the stormy seas of globalization, as the vehicles by which sovereign states commit themselves to better policies in their own long-term interests.

Over the very long term, as evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker points out, human history has been a story of better organized and more altruistic norms prevailing over parochial and selfish interests. We’re hopeful that growing global demand in the form of activism and changing norms – especially for protecting small boats in stormy seas – will be increasingly translated into a more robust supply of good global institutions and sensible rules and understanding.

Read more in this debate: Dietmar Bartsch, Dietmar Bartsch, Alan Grabinsky.

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