Systemic Global Change: Pt. I

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 vision 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.

Author: Dr Kennedy Graham

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

April 17, 2020

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