Towards a More Bound-Together World
Towards a More Bound-Together World
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Op-Ed / Global 6 minutes

Towards a More Bound-Together World

Will the world be more tightly bound together in 20 years from now or less?

Looking back two decades, the pace and intensity of global interaction have surpassed the predictions of even the most globally minded, and there is no strong ground for believing that trend will reverse over the next two decades. The ideological and geopolitical divides of the twentieth century look mostly now irrelevant. Economic interdependence is becoming ever more inescapable, innovation in communications technology seems unstoppable, and “problems without passports” are forcing cooperation among nations. Some of those problems-resonating across borders and posing challenges beyond the capacity of even the most powerful states to solve alone-remain alarmingly huge: not least coping with the current global economic meltdown, meeting the challenge of climate change, and setting the world on the path to eliminating the one class of weapons that is capable of destroying it. But as big as they are, there is more reason for optimism than pessimism that concerted action by key policymakers across a more tightly bound-together world will eventually tame them.

Of course new geopolitical tensions, mainly associated with the inexorable rise of Asia, will replace the old. Free-market ideology will take quite some time to recover the attraction it had pre-Lehman Brothers, and there will be strong policy divisions about the nature and extent of government intervention. For the foreseeable future, in many different economic and security contexts, national pride and identity are going to act as counterweights to the urge to cooperate in the common interest. All the familiar barriers to the take-up of global public goods of different kinds are going to long remain obstacles: the urge to preserve sovereignty, differing preferences, the attractions of free riding,the need for weakest-link compliance, and dependence on the summation of multiple individual efforts.

But for all that there is plenty of evidence of a growing urge to find cooperative solutions to common problems, and no sign of that trend abating. Examples abound in economic and social policy, but I will focus for present purposes on my own area of peace and security. There has been, since the end of the Cold War, an extraordinary reduction in the number of wars (defined as conflicts causing more than 1,000 battle deaths per year) as well as in battle deaths and incidents of mass killing-close to an 80 percent decrease in each case. Counterintuitive as this may seem to almost any daily news consumer, the statistics have been amply and credibly documented by the Human Security Report Project. And while disease and malnutrition are still bigger killers than battle deaths themselves, the numbers of people dying violently in conflicts worldwide is-for the first years of the 21st century-measurable in the low tens of thousands, compared to hundreds of thousands throughout most of the second half of the 20th century. A number of factors have contributed to this, including an end to decolonization wars and proxy wars fuelled by the Cold War superpowers. A large part of the explanation, however, is the huge increase in cooperative peacemaking, peacekeeping, and postconflict peace-building activity since the early 1990s, with the UN and regional organizations playing a crucial role.

One of the most intriguing and encouraging of all recent peace and security developments has been the rapid development of a new global normative consensus that mass atrocity crimes occurring within state boundaries are not just internal matters. There is not much left of the mind-set that had prevailed for centuries that genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity, as well as war crimes committed in a civil war context, were really nobody else’s business. The concept of “the responsibility to protect” , born in the report of that name by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, emerged in response to the catastrophic failure of the international community to respond with any consensus or effect to the tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, and was unanimously adopted by more than 150 heads of state sitting as the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. The core idea is that the primary responsibility to protect against mass atrocity crimes is that of the sovereign state itself, but when it manifestly fails to exercise that responsibility, because of either incapacity or ill-will, that responsibility shifts to the wider international community to respond with whatever action is necessary, up to and including coercive military action in extreme cases. Much still needs to be done to ensure the effective implementation of the new norm in practice-as the case of Darfur amply demonstrates-but no government can be heard to argue these days that sovereignty is a license to kill.

A good part of the reason for this normative shift, more than any overdue acknowledgement of the moral obligations that should flow from our common humanity, is the pragmatic recognition that states that cannot or will not stop internal atrocities are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, the trafficking of drugs and people, and the spread of health pandemics and other global disasters.

Yet complacency is clearly premature. From the violent wars that fractured 20th-century Europe to the present-day financial crisis, recent history has provided stark lessons that significant interdependence is no guarantor of collective security, physical or financial. Many of the institutions in which we have invested responsibility for today’s most pressing global questions are manifestly not fit for the purpose. If the urge to cooperate is to translate into effective international cooperation in practice, then some significant institutional renovation is going to be necessary, in three areas in particular.

The first is the UN Security Council, the only international body with full, accepted executive decision-making authority and one which is absolutely crucial for the maintenance of global peace and security. Yet its composition, together with the veto powers vested in its five permanent members, far more reflects the power realities of 1945 than those of the 21st century. If it remains unreconstructed and unreformed, it is only a matter of time-perhaps ten or fifteen years at best-before its credibility and authority will diminish to dangerous levels in the eyes of most of the world.

The second big international need is to continue the evolution and strengthening of regional organizations, from the highly advanced and sophisticated such as the European Union, to the important but still only partially developed, such as the African Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to the barely functioning, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Despite their origins in economic cooperation, they have very important roles to play in peace and security issues, and will need to take up more of the burden in this respect in the future. In most cases, they are likely to have a better understanding of local dynamics, a greater sense of ownership of the problem, and to operate more cost effectively than a global body. Unfortunately, strong, coherent regional institutions around the world remain merely works in progress.

The third, and most immediately important deficit in international institutional architecture is in the area of what might be described as global policy formulation. What is needed is a broadly accepted center that will consolidate ideas, debate options, and formulate policy conclusions that have an inherent credibility and momentum and universal take-up potential, not only for economic policy but for social policy and peace and security policy as well. The G8 (United States, Canada; France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom; Japan; Russia) has long had aspirations to play that role, but its composition prevents it from being seen as a legitimate policy leader. Its recent willingness to expand a portion of its meetings to embrace the ‘Outreach Five’ (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) has been seen by many as more patronizing than generous and constructive.

The best available practical solution would seem to lie in the evolution of the G20, from a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999 to an all-purpose global policy formulation and advocacy body, meeting regularly at the head-of-government level, as it did for the first time in November 2008. While there will always be arguments about who is in and who is out, it is easier to manage the evolution of an existing body than the creation of a brand new one. And the present G20 structure (United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico; France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom; Russia; China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia; Saudi Arabia; South Africa), does incorporate all major regions, some 80 percent of world trade, 85 percent of global GNP and roughly two thirds of the world’s population. It is just small enough to make decisions, but large enough to be genuinely representative-encompassing all, or nearly all, of the world’s major and emergent strategic and economic powers. The second meeting of the G20 leaders, scheduled for April 2009, will be an early test of the effectiveness of this configuration, but should not be seen as a decisive one: multilateral institution building is never accomplished overnight.

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