Systemic Global Change: Pt. II

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.

Author: Dr Kennedy Graham

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

April 18, 2020

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