Systemic Global Change: Part III

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In Part II of this blog series, three conclusions were drawn:

  1. This decade is likely to be a seminal moment of systemic change to the contemporary international system, updating its 20th features to fit the 21st.
  2. The legitimate grouping for decision-making should comprise not only the executive branch of governments but the legislative branch, at the international level.
  3. The critical path should be a series of expert studies, convened by such a ‘group’, and fed directly into the decision-making process.

As always, it’s more easily said than done.  But let me explore this some more, and move to a final conclusion.

Multi-jurisdictional levels and ‘subsidiarity’

First off, to clarify the reasoning in Parts I and II, four comments follow:

  • The point is neither to denigrate the nation-state, nor predict or advocate its demise. Like the city and the sub-national province/state/region, the nation-state is a natural feature of our political evolution.
  • The rationale for ‘systemic global change’ is that, by definition, the 20th c system of 200 entities, possessing sovereign status with a veto or ‘strong consensus’ appurtenance, is not structured to solve problems of the global commons, which abound in the 21st.
  • The principle for determining global legitimacy for such change is ‘subsidiarity’ – already employed in the EU and African Union: legislative and enforcement power, at multi-jurisdictional levels, is confined in scope to those issues that a lower functional level is unable to deal with effectively.
  • The task is to determine what the contemporary global systemic risks might be, and what the nature of systemic institutional change should be, applying the subsidiarity principle.

The critical role of former leaders

Part II (18 April) identified a number of eminent bodies calling for such change: various independent commissions, the WHO/WB Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, Future Earth Institute, a Call by the Elders, and the Open Letter to the G-20 signed by a hundred former national leaders.

Former leaders fulfil a major function, combining past experience with current freedom to judge what is imperative, and what might be politically feasible. In doing so, and making a collective call, they give guidance and backing to current leaders – they who carry the responsibility of decision-making, with immediate and far-reaching accountability.  This is how it should be.

The seminal nature of the moment

The seminal nature of the current pandemic, including the need for a global response plan, has become clearer, even within the past week:

  • Juval Noah Harari (BBC 27 April) has warned of the catastrophic consequences of a lack of such planning: At the global level, we are not seeing any kind global leadership, any kind of global plan – not on the health front and even less on the economic front. …  If we don’t get a kind of global safety net – a kind of global plan – the economic and political consequences could be catastrophic and poison international relations for years to come.
  • The French Prime Minister, introducing new protective measures, made the observation (28 April) that “never in history – not in war, occupation or disease – has France had to confront such massive disruption.”
  • A report by the International Rescue Committee (28 April) has concluded that ‘without swift action in the coming weeks’ to mitigate the spread, the world could see up to 1 b. infections and 3.2 m. deaths over the course of the pandemic in 34 crisis-affected countries it serves. The Report was based on a scenario analysis contained in the model and data-set published in the ICL/WHO’s ‘Global Impact Study’ (26 March). As IRC President, David Miliband, put it: “These numbers should serve as a wake-up call: the full, devastating and disproportionate weight of this pandemic has yet to be felt in the world’s most fragile and war-torn countries.
  • In its latest quarterly report (29 April), ILO expects a 10% decline in global work hours, meaning that 1.6 b. workers in the informal economy are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods, equivalent to just under half the global work force.

Linear reform or systemic change

Since Part II (18 April), new calls for systemic change have been issued.  The first envisages major, but linear, reform to the UN system. The others seem to suggest systemic change. Thus:

  • Together First, whose focus group is comprised of eminent individuals from around the world (including Angela Kane, one the Centre’s Advisory Panel members) issued a report (21 April) with an accompanying call: “The UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 must be the starting point of a global governance transformation. Together Firstis campaigning for the September 2020 world leaders’ summit to discuss, agree and initiate the reforms we urgently need, based on an inclusive action plan.”  The secretariat for this group is the UN Association of the UK, which points out that all the reforms proposed could be achieved without having to amend the UN Charter.
  • Mikhail Gorbachev (15 April) has called on the UN General Assembly to convene an Emergency Special Session (this would be the 11th). “Many are now saying the world will never be the same. But what will it be like? That depends on what lessons will be learned. … We have so far failed to develop and implement strategies and goals common to all mankind”.  The Emergency Session “should be about nothing less than revising the entire global agenda.”
  • The Global Challenges Foundation convened a webcast (24 April): ‘The future we want – the UN we need’, hosted by Sweden’s Foreign Minister. To cite the Swedish Govt: “As the UN is entering its 75th year of operation, different global challenges than the ones that sparked its formation have emerged.  … Global threats … are transnational by nature but we must ask ourselves if the governance structures required to meet them are strong enough.” Two keynotes were given by Fabrizio Hochschild (the UNSG’s Special Adviser on the 75th Anniversary) and by Prof Augusto Lopez-Claros (whom the Centre was to host in New Zealand this month – see column, 17 April).  The two presentations provided a fascinating juxtaposition of linear reform and systemic change (I participated in the webcast).

Worth recalling, again, the statement by the UN Secretary-General: “This pandemic is the greatest test we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations.”   More recently (30 April), he made the following observation:

“There is … a disconnect between leadership and power. We see remarkable examples of leadership but they are usually not associated with power.  And where we see power, we sometimes do not see the necessary leadership.”

For its part, the WHO co-hosted (24 April), with the President of France and the Gates Foundation, a virtual meeting with political leaders (11 heads of state/government, the UN Secretary-General, the African Union chair and G20 President) plus health leaders from the private sector.   They pledged:

“… to work towards equitable global access based on an unprecedented level of partnership. They agreed to create a strong unified voice, to build on past experience and to be accountable to the world, to communities and to one another.”

So, the call from the increasingly vocal global civil society, the most eminent former leaders of our contemporary era, and global corporate leaders is becoming increasingly urgent and clear.  The evidence is there: a gathering view that systemic change appears now to be necessary.

A potential moment. group, and path

What, then, might be the accumulated advice from these experienced leaders and experts, comprising perhaps an unprecedented ‘collective intelligence’ and ‘emergence’ of the global community?

Perhaps something along the following lines.


  1. At the 75th UN Anniversary High-Level General Debate (22 Sept.) national leaders, meeting physically or through telecommunication, will:
  • declare the COVID-19 pandemic to be a ‘global emergency’;
  • call for a global response in which all Member States pledge themselves to effective and genuine mutual assistance;
  • convene the UN’s 11th Emergency Special Session (The New Global Agenda) on 29 September, to commence the task of improving and strengthening the United Nations System, assessing the range of risks faced by the global community, and establishing an ‘ESS Global Agenda Council’ to supervise a report, based on the findings of a Global Agenda Expert and Leadership Advisory Group, for consideration at its resumed Session in September 2021.
  • The ESS Global Agenda Council will be co-convened and co-chaired by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, who will jointly appoint the leaders of regional organizations and appropriate leaders within the UN System, with a maximum of 20 personnel.


  1. In January, the Council, duly established, will establish the Advisory Group, with the Leadership component being composed of all members of The Elders, along with former presidents Mikhail Gorbachev, Hu Jintao and Barak Obama.
  2. In February, the Council will establish the expert component of the Group, based on recognised expertise in environmental, socio-economic, health, and food security issues.
  3. In September, the Emergency Special Session will reconvene, to consider the Report of the Advisory Group. The Session will be attended jointly, by diplomatic representatives of all Member States and parliamentarians representing the Inter-Parliamentary Union, comprising a two-chamber Session.
  4. The Report will be distributed to the foreign ministers of all Member States and to the Speakers of all parliaments that are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for consideration, debate and response.


  1. Annual sessions of the 11th Emergency Special Session, to debate the issues raised in the Report and convey further proposals, with a view to enabling the Council to revise the Report.
  2. In September 2025, the 11th Emergency Special Session will reconvene in its final sitting, to consider the Report, and adopt decisions as it deems fit, for an effective global institutional system for the 21st

Dr Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is Director of the Centre.

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Environmental Victims in the Global Community

Dr Chris Williams

My 1998 book, ‘Environmental Victims’, sought to relate the intensifying spread of environmental problems around the world to issues of natural justice, international law, public health, social policy and international security.

The project looked at environmental problems specifically from the perspective of the victims, around the world.  Case studies arrived about the Niger Delta, Bhopal, Bougainville, and Southern Africa. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal contributed a Charter of Rights against Industrial Hazards.

In parallel, the ‘environmental justice’ movement in North America argued that disadvantaged and minority ethnic groups were disproportionately affected. The film Erin Brockovich (2000) portrayed the devils in the legalistic detail. Norman Myers had collected copious data on ‘Environmental Refugees’ in 1995. In 2017 New Zealand had to consider humanitarian visas for ‘climate refugees’.

Definitions were needed. Einstein did not help with, ‘The environment is everything that isn’t me.’  The cause is what we do and fail to do. Harm (‘loss or detriment’) stems from the presence of toxic agents, but also the absence of vital dietary substances, such as iodine and iron.

There are also synergistic effects. The absence of iron can increase our intake of heavy metals such as lead. This built a neat matrix for environmental causation – Acts/Omissions in terms of Presence/Absence.

The UN Declaration on Victims of…Abuse of Power (1985) provided a framework, concerning ‘persons who…have suffered harm…through acts or omissions that do not yet constitute violations of national criminal laws but internationally recognised norms relating to human rights.’

Recent concepts – state crime and corporate crime – develop this. The first environmental victim-activists against state-corporate complicity had suffered mercury poising from 1925 in Minamata Bay (Japan). They achieved the UN Minamata Convention on Mercury in 2013.

Novel problems attract novel precedents. Unborn child victims had no legal personality. But case-law evolved in relation to abortion, and in utero brain damage caused by medical negligence, and judges deftly adapted the ‘best interests of the child’.

Traditionally, causation must be ‘adjacent’ but environmental impacts are distant and complex. English lawyers even argued that asbestos dust outside a factory comprised ‘guilty dust’ and ‘not-guilty dust’. European countries inverted the burden of proof – if pollution from a factory constituted health hazards, it became the responsibility for the polluter to prove it was not the cause of health problems. English laws, about damage caused by joy-riders in stolen cars, had already deployed this “guilty until proven innocent” principle, because the primary crime removed the possibility of proving the resultant harm.

Are we culpable for contributing to climate-change and e-waste from ICT use?

In the 1990s I suggested that ‘intended benefit’ should make us culpable for pollution from plastic bags. Now 74 countries have outlawed plastic bags. Recently I was a researcher on e-waste tips in Nigeria. I was with children recycling our e-waste who were suffering a toxic hell that even the ancient gods had not envisaged. Yes, we’re culpable.

So might environmental victimisation apply to environmental health pandemics? In 1994 French ministers were charged with ‘complicity in poisoning’ for distributing HIV-infected blood. UK poisoning law was extended to HIV/AIDs.  A virus became ‘a noxious thing’, in law.

But if Trump supports Corona virus damages claims against China, should indigenous Americans claim for their ancestors killed by white settlers with smallpox-ridden blankets?

Dr Williams is a member of the Centre’s Advisory Panel. He has held academic posts at universities in UK, Egypt and Jordan (UN University Leadership Academy), including the Global Security Programme at Cambridge University.  His other books include ‘Leaders of Integrity: Ethics and a code for global leadership’ (2001) and ‘Leadership Accountability in a Global World’ (2006).

The New ‘Global War’

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The coronavirus has overrun the world in no time. This ‘blitzkrieg’ so far only needed four months to destroy many lives, dealing the world economy a serious blow – threatening to topple the Great Depression from its pole position of modern economic catastrophes, and becoming a harbinger of fundamental change to politics and our societies.

Indeed, we are ‘at war’ as the President of France warned in a recent interview (Financial Times).  Macron pointed to a Europe, weakened by the Brexit aftermath, and under stress from a crisis more dangerous than the Greek battle over the way out for the Euro, demanding true solidarity of the richer with the poorer members in times of urgent need, or else….

The virus has not only attacked people, threatening lungs and lives; it has also gripped the jugular of our national economies. Just as it inhibits the entry of oxygen into the bloodstream, it has thrown a spanner in the works of our political, economic and social systems.

And as the pandemic is fought by each of us as responsible humans, obeying lockdown at home with serious restriction on movement and social intercourse, governments are trying to contain the menacing consequences of this warlike event – the breaking of international supply chains, sudden ruptures to production, and ensuing loss of work and income.  Never in the past century, except in wartime, has such a sudden jolt to the fate of the world occurred.

We have so far seen estimates by IMF of shrinkage up to 9% in annual GDP of industrialised countries. China has lost almost 7% in the first quarter (compared to 2019), the first contraction ever recorded. Total loss of production in the global economy may reach at least US$ 9 tr. – the combined size of the 3rd and 4th biggest economies (Japan, Germany). Unemployment in the US has suddenly increased tenfold to 22 m. The situation elsewhere is equally appalling.

Past economic convulsions

Re-modelling the successful response to the US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 which morphed into a global financial debacle in September ‘08, the central banks and treasuries quickly committed financial relief in many ways, including interest rate cuts and injections of fresh ‘money’ amounting to trillions.

Whether this is enough to keep the world economic system in some sort of balance, remains to be seen. The famous ‘income multiplier’ has been thrown into reverse gear, and I would not dare to guess whether the additional public spending is more than band-aid. The ‘animal spirit’ of people in investment and business is stunned, and confidence indicators are at a very low ebb.

Nevertheless, the funding of benefit-payouts plus the support of firms fighting financial suffocation will lead to a huge bubble of new public debt. The US fiscal deficit, already under strain before the pandemic, could reach $4 tr. in 2020 (almost 20% of GDP), the highest since World War II by far. In this context, the contested tax cut of about $2 tr. to pump up the economy and the stock exchange, together with Trump’s election prospects, all gain a new and cynical dimension.

With this somewhat gloomy prelude to an uncertain future, I ponder the consequences of the ‘war’.

Some experts have talked about the need, under these circumstances, for Hyper-Keynesianism. In his essay The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the famous father of deficit spending warned the winners against imposing unbearable burden unto the vae victis.  John Maynard Keynes, looking ahead, saw through the haze of revenge and pleaded for rational forgiveness – to win the peace as well.

His warning was discarded. World War II was, to a high degree of confidence, the consequence of the badly managed peace after the end of the previous conflict. The early warning of 1919, and Keynes’ active role as one of the architects of our post-war financial system a generation later, laid the foundation for seven decades of relative peace and prosperity in Europe and elsewhere.

The current economic convulsion

Economically, we face consequences of an unknown magnitude, the most serious threat since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the aftermath of World War II.

I can personally remember what happened in Austria in 1947, in parallel with the generous Marshall Plan. As a contribution, and with the aim of putting the economy on a firmer ground, the currency was ‘reformed’. Small savers (such as my war-widowed mother) lost a third of what Kant once called ‘the accumulated industriousness of the people’.

That was then, this is now.  In 2013 at the peak of the Greek debt crisis, the president of the European Central Bank, whose main task is defence of the Euro, advanced a proposal (in her former capacity as IMF head): a ‘crisis tax of 10%’ of net household assets, to solve the problem through reducing global debt to the level of 2007.

This idea could be revived – this time with the virus as the culprit.

Another concept is brandished by the ‘new monetarists’ who think nothing of printing all the money required to finance any form of expenditure one can fancy. This would, however, be short shrift for a more permanent crisis tax – less noticeable and more difficult to fight.  The longest bull-run on the world’s stock exchanges, now aborted, was already supported by ample, almost free, money along with credit.

I am among those who trust the value and stability of savings – together with correct assessment of chance and risk engendered by debt monetization.  ‘Risk assessment’ is a complex issue.  Risk is like energy, something, that may change form but never disappears.  I expect, also, that the call for ‘social justice’ will become louder, as the rift between poor and rich deepens. The explicit taxing of wealth will become a more broadly accepted proposal.

All this will surely make our national societies more aggressive, not necessarily more equal.  What will this portend for the global community?  But will Trump consider revoking, or reworking, his two trillion tax reform?

Will we ‘win the war’ against coronavirus, but lose the peace thereafter?   The management of this war’s consequences could be of similar importance to the world as the challenge a century ago to manage a lasting peace at Versailles or St. Germain.

I would not go so far to say, beware of a new Hitler. But some political figures in Europe and elsewhere, most recently in the US, have shown great populist talent and enormous personal chutzpah.

 Could the European ‘political project’ be the first prominent victim, with all the ancillary consequences of that terrible loss, as Macron warned prominently for the second time within six months (originally in The Economist, Nov. ‘19)? I hope not. Where is the Churchill of 2020 – to do what Sir Winston allegedly quipped: “never let a good crisis go to waste”?

I dream of leaders strong enough to overcome the hurdles of domestic politicking, and voters wise enough to give them the power to do so.

Recall Keynes once more – who argued back, in 1944, for a world united, conceived the idea of world money (Bancor), and proposed a ‘world government’ of whatever appropriate kind.

Well, look – we have already achieved a little bit of that, at least at the regional level such as in the European Union. Only a dream?  But … as the Austrian poet Weinheber described the birth of action nursed by a dream…Traum ist das unsre und stärker als die Tat, die willig ihm nachfolgt,

Hans Haumer, a former university teacher, worked on stabilisation policy in the IMF and held senior positions in banking and the stock exchange in Austria. He has given a TED talk, and his books (in German) include ‘The Wild Duck Principle: Strategy of struggle and consensus in management’; ‘Wealth: Metamorphosis of a human dream’; and ‘Trust, Fear and Hope in an Uncertain World’. He lives in Vienna and Waiheke Island.

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A New Global Order? Not necessarily

Dr Fraser Cameron

I read with interest the latest views of Board members on how to improve global governance.

While I broadly share the sentiments expressed I fear they fail to take into account the enduring reality of the nation state, rivalries between these entities for various reasons, and last but not least the vanity of politicians, often supported by manipulative media empires in hock to a business culture based on greed.

The articles also rather ignore the problems of establishing a new world order when the two major powers, the United States and China, have intensified their rivalry and have very different views of how the world should be organised. What the US and China do have in common, along with Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, etc. is that we are living in a world of great power rivalries. They do not try to hide this. Indeed the power factor is spelled out clearly in their respective national security strategies.

A note on the US is required as it is by far the most important actor in global politics. Despite their diplomatic achievements in establishing a new international order post 1945, successive US administrations failed to provide the necessary leadership apart from during the Cold War.

It is worth recalling US failure in the inter-wars years too, despite Wilson’s efforts to establish the League of Nations. At the height of its power in the 1990s and early 2000s the US showed no interest in new bodies such as the ICC. I remember well the bad blood as the US pressed the central and eastern European countries wanting to join the EU and NATO not to sign up to the ICC. I also recall Condaleeza Rice at her first meeting with EU ambassadors informing them that climate change ‘was not a priority’ and US funding of the UN would depend on ‘family values’ being accepted.

The US view on international order was best summed up by GW Bush assembling ‘a posse’ to go after Osama bin Laden.

Despite the good intentions of Obama, it was an uphill struggle on Iran and Paris; and he could not secure a majority for TPP.  With Trump in the White House the rhetoric and actions against allies and partners was worse than anyone could have predicted.  He was the first US president to describe the EU as ‘a foe’ and slap tariffs on its industries, as he did with Japan and others. His views on the UN, NATO, TPP, Paris, Iran, etc. need no elaboration.

In addition a large number of US politicians and officials now view China much as they viewed the Soviet Union – a mortal enemy. Given the extreme polarisation in America, even if Biden were to win in November, he could not return the US to its positions in the Obama era. In short, there is little or no chance of the most powerful nation in the world accepting any international restraints in the foreseeable future.

China, the second largest economic power, pays lip service to international institutions but seeks to influence them (WHO) and if blocked establishes its own bodies such as the AIIB or BRI. When court rulings go against it, as in the South China Sea, it simply ignores them. Russia follows a similar line with the Eurasia Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Inge Kaul laments the irrelevance of the G20 (she could have added the G7) and concludes that ‘during these difficult times an important opportunity was missed.’  But given the leadership of most of the self-appointed nations in the G20 why is she surprised? Neither forum, of course is a decision-making body.

Klaus Bosselmann contemplates ‘a new global institution’ mentioned by Carl Bildt. It is always interesting to observe how many new ideas emerge from former prime ministers and presidents! But what would this new institution do that existing ones cannot do? The first question is why the existing institutions do not function properly and the answer is simple. Apart from the EU, all international bodies operate on the basis of consensus. Everyone, from the US to Uruguay has a veto.

One reason for the success of the EU is that many decisions are taken by qualified majority. But as Covid-19 showed, despite over 50 years of working together, the instinctive first reaction of all member states was national rather than European.  The EU has now pulled back from the abyss and has put forward an impressive rescue package. The heated debate over Eurobonds, however, is a reflection of very different approaches to national economic policy.

Ken Graham argues that the 2020s is likely to be a seminal moment of systemic change to international institutions but fails to provide convincing evidence to support this assertion. He suggests a new grouping involving the IPU (to provide democratic legitimacy?) and the UN system. This begs the questions: how many parliaments genuinely reflect the views of their citizens? And how far does the UN system extend?

For the reasons I have argued above, namely the absence of political will in the major states, this is unlikely to make it to the runway let alone take off and fly.

So what can we do?

  • First, it is important to keep making the argument for greater regional and global cooperation. One should not forget the regional dimension as this is becoming more and more important in terms of trade.
  • Second, the liberal democracies must work closer together to defend and reform existing international bodies. There are, for example some legitimate criticisms about the WHO. An ad hoc group of such like-minded countries, including the EU, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Singapore, has already agreed to work around the US veto and establish a provisional dispute settlement mechanism under the WTO.
  • Third, there is a need to work more closely with the US congress, individual states and civil society in America. A long-term, consistent lobbying effort with key actors in the US system is required if we are ever to secure a fundamental change in the American approach to global issues and multilateral institutions.

An incremental process comprising an increased educational effort and building coalitions of like-minded countries may not sound ambitious but it reflects the reality of the world just now.

The impact of the current pandemic will be far-reaching but more in societal norms such as life-work balance, teleworking and digital technology.  It will have limited impact on international institutions because, regrettably, the political will to reform is absent.

Dr Fraser Cameron, a former UK and EU diplomat, is Director of the EU-Asia Centre (Brussels) and a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel.

Systemic Global Change: Pt. II

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Kennedy Graham

Part I on Systemic Global Change explored systemic risk and systemic change, the ‘seminal moments’ of the 20th century when the contemporary international system was established and refined, and the efforts undertaken during the UN era for effecting change.

This part explores Questions 3 and 4: the coming decade – is this decade a ‘seminal moment’?  If so, which grouping may legitimately effect change, and what might be the critical path?

  1. The 2020s – a seminal moment?

The 20th century was international, essentially unipolar/bipolar, and unidimensional.  The 21st c. is global, essentially multipolar, and multidimensional.

  • The notion of 20th risk was essentially confined to inter-state aggression, with both the Covenant and Charter focusing exclusively on this, in terms of enforcement power. While the UN broadened into thematic areas of human rights and socio-economic development, enforcement power has remained confined to collective security.
  • The concept of 21st risk encompasses a complete array of threats to human civilization, even existence. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge) has identified anthropogenic risks such as AI, biotechnology, climate change, environmental stress, resource depletion, nanotechnology, WMDs, and over-population. It also identifies an array of ‘natural risks’, one being a global pandemic.

In December ’19, the UN Secretary-General advanced the view that ‘new and dangerous risks require multilateral solutions’.   The risks went way beyond inter-state aggression.  The SG was addressing the Italian Senate, on 18 December, a few weeks before Italy confirmed its first COVID case.

In January 2020, the Science & Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists issued the following warning:

‘’ the world’s institutional and political capacity for reducing the possibility of civilization-scale catastrophe has been diminished, and the need for emergency action is urgent.”  

The difference with the 2020s is palpable. Formal planning for a reformed UN or a replacement body will not be led by one hegemonic power; none prevails today, for better or worse.  Will it be a group of ‘major powers’, a 21st version of the 1919 and 1944 ‘Groups of Four’?  Will it extend to major regional hegemons?  Will it be a product of ‘the 193’ at the UN itself?  Will it reflect something qualitatively different from before?

The last scenario seems the most likely.  Two new features are certain:

  • multi-polarity, reflecting genuine cross-cultural input; and
  • direct engagement by the global community of peoples, facilitated by digital communication.
  1. Legitimate groups; critical paths

Who then, should determine, through a process of legitimately-bestowed authority, what the global systemic risks are – of the kind the Cambridge Centre identifies?  Who is to propose appropriate systemic institutional change?  What is to be the critical path they follow?

Critical paths

The current Charter does, in fact, provide a procedural basis for self-regeneration, by the General Assembly, Security Council and/or the Secretary-General:

Art. 7, 22, 29: Subsidiary organs ‘as may be found necessary’ may be established, by either the General Assembly or the Security Council:

Art. 98: The Secretary-General makes an annual report ‘on the work of the Organization’;

Art. 99: The SG may bring to the attention of the Council ‘any matter which in his opinion’ may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security;

Art 109: A General Conference to ‘review the present Charter’ may be held by a 2/3rd vote of the Assembly and a majority (without veto) of the Council.

The UN does, therefore, contain a capacity for self-regeneration.  And its Chief Executives Board for Coordination, composed of the heads of 31 organizations and programmes with the SG as chair, meets bi-annually.  But that is a mechanism for coordination by officials, not for self-regeneration by governments.

Experience shows that the initiative has to come from outside the UN system.  Part I identified, in particular, the independent commissions. But the origins and outcomes of the commissions do not reflect a consistent pattern.

One commission (Brundlandt) was set up under a UN General Assembly resolution (1983). The Secretary-General, in consultation with UNEP, appointed the Chair and Vice-Chair who appointed all other members.   The report was welcomed by the Assembly, again by resolution (1987).  It was distributed to all member states, and became a central focus of the Earth Summit (1992).

Three commissions have been at the initiative of a member state.

  • Global Governance emerged from the 1991 Stockholm Initiative on Global Security & Governance. The idea was endorsed by the Secretary-General, but it remained independent of the UN. The report was presented to the SG in 1995, not at a UN meeting but at the World Economic Forum.
  • Responsibility to Protect was at the initiative of Canada, but in direct response to an appeal from the Secretary-General for a report on the subject. The report was released on 30 Sept. 2001, three weeks after 9/11.  It took some years before the conceptual norm was adopted by the General Assembly in the 2005 World Outcome Document (paras 138-139).
  • Human Security was on the initiative of Japan, in response to a call by the Secretary-General at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. The report was presented to the Secretary-General in May 2003.

The fifth (A More Secure World) was the Secretary-General’s personal initiative, calling for such a report in his annual address to the General Assembly.   The report was released as a GA document in Dec. 2004. In his separate report to the Assembly (In Larger Freedom; March ‘05), the SG incorporated much of the Commission’s ideas. His proposals for additional or altered bodies (Peacebuilding Commission, Human Rights Council) were approved.

He also conveyed the Commission’s proposal for a reconstituted Security Council with enlarged permanent membership, based on either of two models (A or B):

“Member States should agree to take a decision on this important issue before the summit in September 2005. It would be very preferable for Member States to take this vital decision by consensus, but if they are unable to reach consensus this must not become an excuse for postponing action.”

There was no doubt in his mind over the seminal nature of the proposals advanced, calling it a ‘new San Francisco moment’ because “we cannot just muddle along and make do with incremental responses”.  This proved too much; the Assembly refusing to agree.

The problem, it seems, has not been the ‘critical path’.  It is that the decision-makers have been the executive branch of government and its diplomatic arm – on which legitimacy is bestowed and which, therefore, may feel undisposed, perhaps unable, to effect systemic change.

Will this unprecedented global health pandemic fundamentally alter that? As noted in Part I, much depends on the level of aspiration for change – the distinction between systemic change and linear reform.  Even with regard to the pandemic, there is uncertainty and ambiguity over the distinction between coordination and governance.

Coordination is the default mode, at least for the immediate crisis:

  • On 9 March, the GPMG (see Part I) issued an urgent call: ”World leaders must act swiftly and generously to commit $8 bn. of new funding now to limit the human and economic costs of this crisis. Their leadership and support will be instrumental at this critical time.”
  • On 16 March, however, the G-7 leaders responded that: We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts”. The word ‘coordinate’ figured 11 times in a one-page document.
  • On 18 March, the Elders (currently chaired by Mary Robinson and including Ban Ki-moon, Brundtland, Ahtisaari, Carter, Tutu, Zeid and Machel – see column, 18 January) steered a mid-course, calling on ‘world leaders and citizens alike’ to: “root their response … in humanitarians principles and solidarity. … COVID-19 shines a light on or common humanity and shared vulnerabilities, and it is only through a collective, collaborative response that all our fundamental interests can be served.”
  • On 31 March, the UN Secretary-General issued a report (Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19’). This pandemic, he says, is the greatest test that we have faced together since the formation of the United Nations.” But the response, he believes, demands “coordinated, decisive, inclusive and innovative policy action”.
  • On 8 April, in an Open Letter to G20 leaders, initiated by Gordon Brown and signed by 92 former heads of government (including five from New Zealand – Palmer, Bolger, Shipley, Clark, Key) called for ‘immediate coordinated action’, with specific measures agreed upon ‘with speed and at scale’, involving ‘emergency support’ for the WHO plus economic restoration measures by the IMF and World Bank.

Further out, however, there is a recognition that we need to address systemic change, of some kind:

  • The Open Letter of April ends thus: “The longer-term solution is a radical rethink of global public health, and a refashioning – together with proper resourcing – of the global health and financial structure. The United Nations, the governments of the G20 nations, and interested partners should work together to coordinate further action.”
  • In an interview a few weeks earlier (Guardian, 26 March), Brown went further in a personal capacity, urging world leaders to create ‘a temporary form of global government’ to tackle the twin medical and economic crises caused by the pandemic. Despite US policy, it was “still possible to get support for an emergency body with executive powers.” His ‘proposed global task force’ would fight the crisis on both fronts: “We need some form of working executive.”

Brown’s far-reaching proposal seems to envisage a global executive body, and his view appears to be supported by two other leaders who signed the letter:

  • Carl Bildt (Sweden): A new global institution … would need to have the authority and the means to intervene as intrusively as necessary to stop a contagious outbreak in its tracks.”
  • Kevin Rudd (Australia): A core group of constructive powers among the G20 should act to reform, fund, and politically defend the central institutions of global governance for the post-COVID era ….. (Economist, 15 April).

It is clear that such a body would have a focused constraint on mandate and duration ‘for immediate action’. The Open Letter, however, seems to go further with a ‘longer-term solution’. But what is meant by a ‘radical rethink’ – a refashioning of the global health and financial structure?  In Brown’s view, the G20 ‘virtual meeting’ of 26 March should preferably have included the UN Security Council, but beyond that comment, there appears to be no group statement by former leaders about the future role of the UN system as a whole.

Where, then, does all this leave us?  Over the longer-term (i.e. this decade), what group, or grouping, might have a genuine global democratic mandate on which to act?

Legitimate groups: democratic mandates

If the executive branches of the world’s governments are, by and large, the product of legitimate power, they are intrinsically indisposed, perhaps even unable, to effect alteration of the power arrangement that legitimises them.  In contrast, it is the legislatures of the world that bestow that power, and organise the power arrangements.  Only the elected representatives will be able to effect systemic change.

Perhaps, then, we need to turn from the United Nations to the Inter-Parliamentary Union – and from the regional and national executives to the legislatures.

Established in 1888, the IPU preceded even the League.  Some 140 years later, it operates, to productive effect, in Geneva.  But beyond its obvious clientele, its global recognition fails in comparison to the UN, almost to vanishing point. While it has recently developed closer relationship with the UN, it remains more an observer than a change-agent in world affairs.

There is huge unrealised potential in the role of the IPU, but despite its sound work, it is in need of an update, appropriate to the ‘seminal moment’ of the 2020s.  It could, for a start, be renamed – perhaps the Global Council of National Parliaments.  And it could more consciously assume the role of speaking on behalf of the global community of peoples that it represents.  For some decades, there has been a movement for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, but the counter-argument is that the existing, independent, institution is a better arrangement.

The IPU could also collaborate closely with regional parliaments – the European and African parliaments in particular.  The European Parliament and the Commission are co-managing, in collaboration with International IDEA, a project (INTER PARES) to link up national parliaments on climate change, and it is considering the effect of the pandemic on this work.

Yet the IPU and its parliaments, whether regional or national, cannot act on such a major global issue without a strong and clear democratic mandate.  So what might be the input from the global community of peoples?

The global community: metacognition and ‘emergence’

An earlier column (Towards a Theory of Everything, Jan. ‘20) drew upon a trans-disciplinary approach to global studies that involve the natural as well as the social sciences, based on the concepts of consilience and coherence.

Natural scientists are now studying the phenomenon of ‘swarm intelligence’ – the spontaneous synchronous movement of different species (schools of fish, herds of mammals, swarms of bees). Humans are naturally spell-bound by the beauty of bird-flock murmurations, but for their part, scientists believe it has an evolutionary purpose, and may hold implications for human behaviour.

It is, they conclude, part of a ‘higher order arising out of seeming randomness’ – a phenomenon known as ‘emergence’, an area of study still in its infancy. As Robbins observes:

“Cracking the secret of emergent behaviour and flock intelligence could throw open a brand-new understanding about the principles that govern the world around us.  … [E]xperts who are mining this complex natural  phenomenon say that this … could someday cast light on the phenomenon of embrogenesis … It might lead to the creation of medicine-carrying nano-machines .. or to a far more refined understanding of how our brain works. .. .

Scientists speculate that it could one day be used to help us better understand how people make economic decisions or why they vote the way they do….

And flock-intelligence is the basis for a seven-thousand person collaborative computer project aiming to harness the metacognition of the world’s best and brightest in the hope of finding a super-solution to the colossal problem of climate change.”

Iain Couzin (Director, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology) suggests that the study of animal swarms may be a product of, as well as generate, metacognition, a collective mind that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.   “The group can sense the world and solve problems the way individual components cannot.”

Thomas Malone (Centre for Collective Intelligence, MIT) directs a research project on whether and how humans and AI might be connected to spark a ‘human metamind’.  Google and Wikipedia, he says, are examples of metacognition that flows from individuals working separately.  The entire Internet is, in a sense, a giant flock of humans contributing toward a whole.  Creating this metacognition, says Malone, ‘has great potential’.

In our conflicted age of globalism and nationalist populism, the digital revolution is widely regarded with trepidation. This would, however, be the ‘upside’. The norms associated with systemic risk – sustainability, civilian protection, human security were embraced in the pre-digital age, but systemic change confronted the implacable inertia of nation-state power.

It may be that in the new age, metacognition will have an unexpected force on systemic change, as a result of individual fear and fright throughout the global community, and a yearning for human security.  How such ‘emergence’ feeds into the system at the seminal moment will depend on the legitimacy of the decision-making group, and its receptivity to democratic input.


Four questions have been addressed in Parts I and II, but three conclusions pertaining to this decade emerge from the analysis:

Conclusion 1 Seminal moment 

The decade of the 2020s is likely to be a seminal moment of systemic change to the contemporary international institutions, updating the essential features from the 20th century to the 21st.  

Conclusion 2 Legitimate groups

The legitimate grouping for decision-making could be comprised of both legislative and executive branches of government, thereby reflecting a global democratic mandate; comprising perhaps an ad hoc Global Executive Council of the heads of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the UN system, World Bank Group, IMF and WTO.

Conclusion 3 Critical paths

The critical path could be a series of expert studies on ‘systemic risk’ and scenarios of ‘systemic change’, commissioned directly by the above grouping, and fed into the decision-making process.

Dr Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is Director of the Centre.

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Systemic Global Change: Pt. I

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Kennedy Graham

In A New Global Institution? (11 April), Klaus Bosselmann identified ‘systemic risk’ and ‘systemic change’ as inter-related concepts for embracing a post-pandemic worldview: “A systemic risk is the possibility that a singular event may trigger instability or collapse of an entire system”.

In my Global Community Catches a Virus (31 March), one conclusion of four was: whether the experience changes the ‘20th c. system’ will depend on how severe the global toll is.

It remains too early to judge the final toll of this pandemic.  Global exponential change continues even as some countries flatten their national curve and emerge from the paralysis of lockdown.  A distributed vaccine is about a year away, and specific national lockdowns will not flatten the global curve before then. Meanwhile:

  • Within 17 days, cases almost tripled from 0.8 m to 2.2 m, while fatalities quadrupled from 38,000 to 154,000.
  • The WHO has warned that the epicentre may be spreading to Africa, where a less effective medical response capacity may result in a further 130,000 fatalities; other estimates put this in the millions.
  • We confront, as the IMF Director observes, the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with 2021 witnessing ‘only a partial recovery’.

The global toll is thus of historic proportion already. But does this mean that systemic change to our 20th c. organizational system is inevitable?  Not necessarily.  For insight on this, we need to explore four questions:

  1. When were the seminal moments in the past; and who were the decision-makers?
  2. Is there a critical path, reflecting a difference between ‘systemic change’ and ‘linear reform’?
  3. Is this decade a seminal moment, and how might it differ from previous ‘moments’?
  4. If so, what might be the ‘legitimate group’, and the ‘critical path’?

Part I addresses the Questions 1 and 2.  Part II will address Questions 3 and 4.

  1. Seminal moments; legitimate groups

In the modern era, there have been four seminal moments of foundational change: 1648, 1815, 1920, 1945.

  • The first two were confined to Europe, but were ultimately of international effect.
  • The last two were international events, but had global implications.

The era is based on Westphalian sovereignty (1648), generally taken as the foundation of the nation-state.

Within that, the contemporary era, just a century old, introduced international organizations as the arena for nation-state cooperation. The contemporary system has had two models:

  • The League, with pacific settlement as the means of conflict-prevention and collective security in response to inter-state aggression; and
  • The UN, as above but strengthened and broadened in thematic scope.

The system is the child of Western liberal thought.  In the early 20th century, the Bryce Group (UK) which called for a ‘League of Nations’ as early as 1914, and the League to Enforce Peace (US), both had influence on President Wilson. The LEP drew leadership from academia, business and the peace movement, including ex-president Taft as chair, the US Secretary of War, and the president of Harvard.

But active planning for the League was done within the US establishment.  The Covenant was drafted within months by an ad-hoc committee under the direct supervision of Wilson and including his close adviser Edward House and journalist Walter Lippman.  The essential feature of the League, collective security in response to inter-state aggression, was the personal vision of the President, from which both his political fate and US non-membership played out.

Equally, the UN was direct progeny of the US. As early as December ’41, President Roosevelt established an Advisory Committee on Post-war Foreign Policy, with a Permanent International Organization Sub-Committee.  By definition, the UN was the child of US foreign policy.

The Committee was closely managed within the State Dept., with Hull, Welles and Stettinius directing it at turns through the entire journey, even though the group included selected academics and civil leaders.  But the presidential influence and drafting belonged to a middle-level official, Leo Pasvolsky – described by Holbrooke as “one of those figures peculiar to Washington – a tenacious bureaucrat who, fixed on a single goal, left behind a huge legacy while virtually disappearing from history”.

The initial US vision of a legislative body with binding powers, however, met with Soviet opposition, and the principle of sovereign national equality, with a (reduced) veto, was restored. The ‘big four’ had significant input at Dumbarton Oaks, but the ‘others’ had only a peripheral role at San Francisco.

Was 20th c. international organization the product of ‘legitimate groups’?  Yes, to the extent that the mid-Westphalian international community accommodated political legitimacy. The 1920s and ‘40s were, essentially, a unipolar world.

  1. Critical paths: systemic change v linear reform

Both models of 20th c. international organization were introduced amidst concern over their adequacy to the stated purpose – preventing, or responding to, inter-state aggression.  The main concerns were four: equal voting; Security Council veto; national contributions to military action; judicial shortcomings of the Court (voluntary jurisdiction; absence of enforcement).

The current version, now 75 years old, has not been fundamentally changed, numerical enlargement of rotational membership in the Council being the main alteration.  A broader interpretation by the Council in recent decades of what constitutes a ‘threat to peace’ has encompassed internal conflict and terrorism – the nearest thing we get to ‘systemic risk’.  But these reflect ongoing political judgement, not systemic change.

Systemic change

Systemic change is required, as Micha Narberhaus puts it, “when efforts to change one aspect of a system fail to fix the problem.”

The whole system needs to be transformed. Systemic change means that change has to be fundamental and affects how the whole system functions. Systemic change can mean gradual institutional reforms, but those reforms must be based on and aimed at a transformation of the fundamental qualities and tenets of the system itself. When our objective is systemic change, we need to look at the whole system including all its components and the relationships between them.

With regard to the UN, systemic change has two main dimensions: normative and institutional.  Norms are the product of thought; they bestow legitimacy. Institutions are the product of legitimacy; they become the arena for power.   They are therefore subject to change in different ways.

Many efforts, of different kinds, have been made at both normative and institutional change.  They are best regarded in categories, since they exert different influence.  Three can be identified: academic studies, expert reflections and independent commissions.

(a) Academic studies

Academia has studied UN reform in great depth, particularly in the disciplines of political science, international relations, and law. The most notable are probably the following:

  • 1958: World Peace through World Law, Clark & Sohn
  • 1971: Swords into Plowshares :The problems and progress of international organization, Claude
  • 1991: The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary, Simma et al (Eds)
  • 1993: The Constitutional Foundations of World Peace, Falk, Johansen & Kim
  • 2005: Towards World Constitutionalism, Macdonald & Johnston
  • 2012: Governing the World: The history of an idea, Mazower

Individuals directly engaged in our own Centre have, for their part, made relevant contributions:

  • 1999: Global Public Goods: International cooperation in the 21st century, Kaul et al
  • 1999: The Planetary Interest: A new concept for the global age, Graham (Ed.)
  • 2006: Leadership Accountability in a Globalising World, Williams
  • 2010: Global Governance and the UN: An unfinished journey, Thakur et al
  • 2012: Crisis of Global Sustainability, Kanninen
  • 2015: Earth Governance: Trusteeship of the global commons, Bosselmann

Two recent studies have caught widespread attention for their contemporary relevance and insight:

  • 2018: Global Constitutionalism: A socio-legal perspective, Altigan
  • 2020: Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st, Lopez-Claros et al

The Centre was hosting Prof Lopez-Claros (Wellington, Auckland) in April, but his visit is postponed.

(b) Expert reflections

The most notable examples of penetrating reflections from eminent former UN officials are the two studies by Urquhart and Childers: A World in Need of Leadership (1990) and Renewing the United Nations System (1994).   Their proposals rest on intimate knowledge of the UN in action.

Both academic studies and expert reflections, however, are extraneous to the system.  They may influence, but do not directly effect, change.  How, then, might fresh proposals for transformational change be fed into the system?  We turn to the series of commissions (and, separately, panels), composed of eminent persons, and how their reports are fed into the system – for the purpose of change by the system.

(c) Independent commissions

There are, by now, many reports by now produced by independent commissions composed of eminent persons.  The ‘originals’ were Pearson (1969), Brandt (1980), and Palme (1982), and there is a large number since then.  Five of these, in particular, shed light on the effort at systemic change in the contemporary era:

  • 1987: Our Common Future: Report on environment & development, Brundtland Commission
  • 1995: Our Global Neighbourhood: Report on global governance, Carlsson-Ramphal Commission
  • 2001: Responsibility to Protect: Report on intervention & state sovereignty, Evans-Sahnoun Commission
  • 2003: Human Security Now, Ogata-Sen Commission
  • 2004: A More Secure World: Our shared responsibility, Anand Commission

Normative change

Three commissions (1987, 2001, 2003) have made major contributions in creating new international norms.

‘Sustainability’: The concept of sustainability was etched into the human mind with the Brundtland Report:

“The planet is passing through a period of dramatic growth and fundamental change. … Sustainable global development requires that those who are more affluent adopt lifestyles within the planet’s ecological means… … [The] challenges pose problems for institutions, national and international, were established on the basis of narrow preoccupations and compartmentalized concerns.”  

‘Responsibility to protect’: This has also proved to be a seminal advance. Its central propositions are:

  1. Sovereignty entails state responsibility as well as rights;
  2. One such responsibility is to protect all people inside a State’s sovereign territorial jurisdiction;
  3. When the State fails to discharge this, owing to incapacity, unwillingness or complicity in atrocity crimes being committed, the responsibility trips upwards to the international community acting through the United Nations.

Board member Ramesh Thakur was a member of the R2P commission, and a principal author of the report. As he put it in his column of 29 November, the principle has recalibrated the relationship among and between peoples, states, and the international community.

 ‘Human security’: Despite criticism at the time as being too vague, this concept is proving now to be highly prescient. As the report puts it: Human security complements ‘state security’ in four respects:

  1. Its concern is the individual and the community, rather than the state;
  2. Menaces to people’s security include threats and conditions that have not always been classified as threats to state security;
  3. The range of actors is expanded beyond the state alone;
  4. It includes not just protecting people but also empowering people to fend for themselves.

These ‘global norms’ will form part of the foundation for the restructuring of our 21st c. thinking, as we begin the complex and uncertain, even painful, journey into the post-pandemic era in the 2020s.

But what of systemic change to the institutions themselves?

Institutional change

This is far more intractable – we change our norms more easily than our institutions.  The two commissions dedicated primarily to institutional change (1995, 2004) failed to persuade nation-states to change the UN’s institutional system.

The former advanced the idea of ‘global governance’ as a supplement to the UN system but with a visions of systemic change.

 “At the global level, governance has been viewed primarily as intergovernmental relationships, but it must now be understood as involving NGOs, citizens’ movements, multinational corporations, and the global capital market. Interacting with these are global mass media of dramatically enlarged influence.  …. [G]lobal governance is not global government … The challenge is to strike a balance in such a way that the management of global affairs is responsive to the interests of all people in a sustainable future, that it is guided by basic human values, and that it makes global organization conform to the reality of global diversity.” 

The 2004 report, in which I did consulting work for the chair, proposed a number of initiatives – a Human Rights Council and a Peacebuilding Commission, but most controversially, enlargement of permanent membership of the Security Council.  The first two ideas proved easier, and were accepted.  The Council membership, however, addressed the power equation, and so no systemic change was agreed.

Why did normative change occur, but not institutional change?  Does it depend on the procedural path pursued, or the nature of the decision-making group? This is explored in Part II, but meanwhile consider the distinction, identified above, between ‘one aspect of the system’ and ‘the whole system’.

Specific institutional change: the WHO

 The criticism that has been levelled at WHO in recent months for alleged shortcomings in handling the current pandemic has not yet been matched by constructive proposals for a remedial framework.  The temptation to politicise the pandemic, whether over national origin or ‘coordination failure’ by the organization, has proven too great for at least one major power.  All other UN member states have recommitted to financial support and to a constructive analysis of remedial measures once the crisis levels off.

Every agency within the UN system – 15 specialised agencies, 12 funds & programmes, and three ‘related organizations’ – is politicised, at least in respect of the pursuit of the national interest by each member state.  But it is the antithesis of the global ethic, especially in a moment of crisis, to ‘break and run’ from any of them, on the grounds of alleged shortcomings.

In fact, the WHO has been acutely aware of the possibility of future global health pandemics as an existential risk.  In 2018 the WHO and the World Bank Group co-convened an independent ‘Global Preparedness Monitoring Board’ co-chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland (a former WHO head) and Red Cross/Crescent leader Elhadj As Sy.  Its 15 members include three from the USA, including Dr Anthony Fauci.

In its first annual report (A World at Risk; Sept. 2019), the co-chairs made the following observation:

While disease has always been part of the human experience, a combination of global trends, including insecurity and extreme weather, has heightened the risk. … the spectre of a global health emergency looms large.  … there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal health pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and security. The world is not prepared.”

The Summary (‘Action for Leaders to Take’) specifies seven ‘urgent actions’ to prepare the world for health emergencies.

The report is highly professional.  Yet the Board’s work is undertaken by members in their personal capacities, and the organizational disclaimer is severe:

The findings, interpretations, and conclusions designations [sic] employed, and the presentation of the material in this publication, do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the co-convenors, WHO or the World Bank …”

No doubt the imperfections in WHO’s forecasting and preventive capability will be vigorously explored in due course.  But that will be constructive, and it is a different thing from what is currently occurring at the international political level.  It remains uncertain precisely how the WHO would move beyond ‘international coordination’ to ‘global enforcement’.  It is unlikely, however, that proper systemic change will be achieved in isolation – pertaining to the one, single, organization.

Generic institutional change: the UN

As the global pandemic plays out, other reports from the scientific community offer a reminder that global health is an inter-related part, but only one part, of the systemic risk.  The contemporary system is simply not equipped to handle these existential risks, unforeseen in the first half of the 20th century.

A recent report by Future Earth (an interdisciplinary research group launched at Rio+20 in 2012), has concluded:

                “The world is facing a series of interlinked emergencies that are threatening the existence of humans, because the sum of the effects of the crises is much greater than their individual impacts, according to a new global study.  Climate breakdown and extreme weather, species loss, water scarcity and a food production crisis are all serious in themselves, but the combination of all five together is amplifying the risks of each, creating a perfect storm that threatens to engulf humanity unless swift action is taken.”

The larger question, therefore, is whether COVID-19, with all its immediacy, global intimacy, and personal angst, will prompt humanity to move towards a systemic change to update our 20th c. system into the 21st.  See Part II.

Dr. Graham, a former diplomat, university lecturer, UN official and MP, is Director of the Centre.

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The Global Pandemic – and Missed Opportunities

Prof Inge Kaul

In a study I recently undertook of the G20 (2019), I showed that during the past decade, the main joint, collective action of that body had been to issue communiqués and other types of statements.
As a group, G20 Leaders have expressed concern about all kinds of challenges, recommitted themselves to goals already agreed in other multilateral meetings or, even repeatedly, stated in earlier communiqués.

They have also lauded other entities for actions they have taken or asked others (IMF, OECD, World Bank – others) to consider taking one policy measure or another.

They have even promised they will take action individually or seek to bolster their coordination – not necessarily among themselves but, for example, with the private sector.

So, what has the Group achieved with regard to the global pandemic of 2020?

In a phrase, not much.

During their virtual Summit (26 March), G20 leaders continued with this kind of behavioural pattern. Their joint statement opens with the words:

“The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities. The virus respects no borders…We are strongly committed to presenting a united front against this common threat.”

What follows then? Words – promises on paper.  No concrete, tangible action.

Again, leaders state:

  • they “are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life”;
  • they are “committed to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic”.

This includes, they note, a readiness to:

  • ‘support and commit to further strengthen WHO’s mandate’;
  • undertake ‘immediate and vigorous measures to support our economies’;
  • ‘mobilize development and humanitarian funding’.

No mention, however, of:

  • specific initiatives that some or all of them will jointly undertake, or
  • figures, with target dates, specifying the amount of additional money they will put on the table.

I am not expecting the G20 suddenly, due to COVID-19, to take on an operational role.

But I would have expected that, this time, they would have acted differently: and lived up to the exceptional scale and urgency of the crisis the world confronts.

They could, for example, have decided to act as lead investors in a global mission-oriented project, perhaps executed, by the World Bank, in close collaboration with WHO and other multilateral development banks or other appropriate agencies.

This could have been aimed at establishing a sizeable special fund that could be used to bulk-purchase face masks (if and when available), security equipment and gowns for hospital staff, beds, medicines and, in due course, vaccines – in order to make these supplies available at affordable prices to poorer developing countries.

An action like this would, I suggest, have added credibility to the last sentence of the Leaders’ communiqué:

“We will protect human life, restore global economic stability and lay out solid foundations for strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth.”

An important opportunity of building trust and offering hope to the world, during these difficult times, was missed by the G20.

Inge Kaul is Senior Fellow at Hertie School (Berlin), Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Center for Global Governance (Washington DC), and a member of the NZCGS Advisory Panel.  This column is adapted from her article of 3 April in the IPS News Agency.

A ‘New Global Institution’?

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Klaus Bosselmann

Ours are proving to be interesting times – going quite beyond lockdowns and bubbles.

Covid-19 reminds us that Nature is in charge of human destiny, not governments.

Countries the world over are trying to meet unprecedented challenges that are all occurring at once. Faced with such complexity, some political leaders have reacted like headless chicken; others in a more rational manner – all with a sense of urgency, yet unsure what to do next.

For the moment, they rely on experts of health risks, but they may increasingly need experts of systemic risks.

So, what is systemic risk?  And what is systemic change?

Systemic risk

A systemic risk is the possibility that a singular event may trigger instability or collapse of an entire system – in this instance, a global economy focused on consumers of goods (including tourism) rather than real people in their interdependences of each other and the natural world.  See Rod Oram’s column below of 22 March – almost ‘a lifetime of experience’ ago….

If a jumping virus can bring the entire economy to instability and potential collapse, this tells us a lot, not only about the fragility of such a system but also the way we humans govern ourselves.

To start with, epidemiological statistics show that Covid-19 is just one of countless (zoonotic) diseases that originate in animals.

  • They account for billions of illnesses and millions of deaths annually. Global wildlife trade has been a main driver. In China alone, the trade with wild animals has an estimated annual value of US$ 18 b.
  • In 2007, leading epidemiologists described the presence of coronaviruses in bats in combination with the culture of eating exotic animals in Southern China as ‘a timebomb’.

Clearly, a worldwide ban of wildlife markets is now overdue.

Connected with the disastrous commodification of wildlife is the ever-growing, economically-driven, appetite for land and wetlands, forests and natural resources. This is blurring the line between wildlife and human spaces, accelerating loss of biodiversity, destroying the natural world and deteriorating the climate.

Each of these environmental issues deserves our full attention, but they are interrelated and can only be tackled systematically.

Its effect on human thought

It would be too simple to blame politics, or capitalism, or over-population. The systemic problem goes deeper.

We need to rethink human-nature relationships. Humans are part of the natural world. Boundaries between species are not absolute, but mere markers for the continuum of life in constant ‘becoming’. The virus reminds us of that.

So when will ‘modern society’, supposedly educated in evolution and ecology, find a way out of the human-centred (anthropocentric) worldview that has dominated Western thinking for centuries?

Nature is not ‘the other’, and life is not something disconnected from humans. Over the last thirty years, scholarship in environmental science, philosophy and law has adopted non-anthropocentric strategies that recognise the intrinsic value of Nature and the life-supporting essentials of Earth’s ecological systems.

Is this of purely academic interest?  Not at all; in over twenty global agreements, nation-states have expressed a fundamental duty to co-operate in order to protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems (atmosphere, biosphere, oceans, water and land).

Talk is cheap, of course, especially at levels of global diplomacy and rhetoric. So far, hard economics have consistently trumped soft duties of caring for Earth. If taken seriously, however, this duty would revolutionise everything we know about economics. It would mean that the integrity of ecological systems sets the parameters for social and economic development – not the other way round.

Systemic change

The defining moment with Covid-19 will occur when we come out the other end.

That moment will do one of two things:

  • It will bring us back to where we had been before (business-as-usual), or
  • It will lead us to continue and advance the low-consuming, low-energy, low-mobility lifestyle that was forced upon us, but which may have been experienced as ‘not all bad’.

Maybe there is merit in exploring more sustainable forms of consumption and production. This could be what political philosophers refer to as a ‘constitutional moment’ – when society begins to think about the fundamentals of how it wishes to be governed and what kind of policies and laws it expects from its government.

Thanks to the ‘Greta effect’, climate action has finally become a stronger prospect, not least here in New Zealand. We may also realize a ‘Covid-19 effect’, especially in this country. It has to do with taking Nature seriously as demonstrated, for example, in the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017.

This Act gave legal personality to the Whanganui River and in this way recognised the intrinsic value of Nature. Embedded in the Act is the philosophy of katiakitanga as an expression of deep kinship between humans and the natural world – see Chris Finlayson’s column of 3 March.

A seed only, but PM Jacinda Ardern has promoted katiakitanga to world leaders at the UN in New York and at the Global Economic Forum in Davos. Perhaps now is the time to think further about this, and see how it can work here at home.

Environmental trusteeship would hold rampant destruction of Nature in check.  It would enable social and economic development to settle on firm, truly sustainable, ground.  In his column of 31 March, Colin James noted the recent call by former Swedish PM, Carl Bildt:

Anew global institution … would need to have the authority and the means to intervene as intrusively as necessary to stop a contagious outbreak in its tracks”.

Let us make environmental trusteeship the lasting legacy of this virus.

Prof Klaus Bosselmann is director of the Centre for Environmental Law (University of Auckland) and a member of the NZCGS Board.  His two most recent books are: ‘The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming law and governance’ (2017) and ‘Earth Governance: Trusteeship of the global commons’ (2015).

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The Geopolitics of Global Justice

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Ramesh Thakur

In March, the International Criminal Court decided to authorise a formal investigation by the chief prosecutor, of war crimes in Afghanistan alleged to have been committed by Afghan, Taliban, and US forces since May 2003.

The US Secretary of State attacked the judgment as ‘reckless’. The US would do ‘whatever is necessary’ to protect Americans from the ‘truly breath-taking action by an unaccountable, political institution masquerading as a legal body’.

What are the implications of this development for the geopolitics of ‘global justice’?

The decision reversed an earlier ruling in April ‘19 by a pre-trial chamber that had been criticised for buckling to American pressure.  The US had threatened to put sanctions on the ICC and its judges, including prosecution in US criminal jurisdictions, if they visited the US (the site of UN headquarters). The visa of the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to enter the US was revoked – an action normally reserved for the worst human rights violators.

The ICC was, at the time of creation (1998), a progressive step in consolidating the international humanitarian regime. Many of us had advocated for it and welcomed it. The Court would hold perpetrators of atrocities against civilians to international criminal account, while the sibling norm, Responsibility to Protect, would aim to protect the victims.

But the Court has drawn much merited criticism for focussing mostly on crimes committed by individuals in smaller countries, almost exclusively African, turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of powerful countries.

Bensouda had sought permission in 2017 to launch a formal investigation on alleged Afghanistan crimes after her preliminary inquiries had concluded there was a case to answer. Amnesty International said that the pre-trial chamber’s decision last year was a ‘shocking abandonment of victims’ that would ‘weaken the Court’s already questionable credibility’. Had it been allowed to stand, it would have signified the death of the ICC.

Like India, the US is not a signatory of the ICC and does not recognise its authority over citizens. Unlike India, the US is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and, in that capacity, has participated fully in decisions to refer individuals and countries to the ICC.

This makes the US guilty of gross hypocrisy. In a breach of natural justice principles, UNSC members that are not ICC states parties are permitted to vote on decisions relating to the Court. Because the UNSC can refer cases to the ICC, defer cases before the Court, and adopt resolutions to enforce Court judgments, the geopolitics of the Council contaminate the Court’s judicial processes. For justice to be seen to be done, non-ICC states parties should be legally barred from participating in all Court-related matters before the UNSC.

The ICC’s institutional integrity was compromised by the way it handled allegations of sexual misconduct against an earlier prosecutor. The most sustained criticism came from Africans who faulted the ICC for targeting only Africans, jeopardising delicate peace negotiations in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Libya, and disrespecting African views.

The Afghan and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts will be litmus tests of the ICC’s ability to hold powerful countries and their client regimes to international criminal account for activities that have not been adequately investigated and prosecuted in domestic jurisdictions (the subsidiarity principle).

If China or Russia rather than the US had been in the cross-hairs of a full-fledged ICC investigation and threatened its officers, the Western mainstream media would have launched full-throated attacks on Presidents X and Putin.

Because it is the United States, expect a near-complete conspiracy of silence.

Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor at ANU (Canberra), and a Board member of the Centre.  This column is adapted from an article in Times of India (11 April).

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