Systemic Global Change: Two Ingredients

The international community of states, today, is so heavily engaged in deadly rivalry and competition that we have forgotten the idea of global unity and cooperation.  The latter is, however, a precondition of human survival.

The year 2020 began with Avangard finding its place in the Russian defence forces.  It is the world’s most sophisticated hypersonic glide vehicle. It travels at 27 times speed of sound on the top of an ICBM carrying a 2 Mt. nuclear payload. It cannot be detected by the American missile shield as it determines its own flight path. Russia has now acquired an edge in its arms race with the United States.

Avangard is the latest addition to the arsenal of hypersonic missiles, lethal autonomous weapons, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons, cyber-weapons, and China’s DF-100 missile which can bust an aircraft carrier. The growing stockpile of arms is bringing us closer to our collective death. But nobody is paying attention.

Whether it is lethal arms, pandemics, trade or global warming, we seem to forget that cooperation alone can help us find a way out of the predicament we have created for ourselves.

China and the United States have excelled in levelling acrimonious charges and counter-charges over the spread of Covid-19. China accuses the US armed forces of carrying the infection to Wuhan. The US blames China for deliberately holding back the information on the outbreak.

The foreign ministers of the two countries were together in a hotel in Munich (14-16 Feb.) two weeks after the WHO declared a global health emergency and only a month before most of the world brought the global economy to a standstill. But there is no indication of them constructively exploring collaborative solutions to contain the pandemic.  Nor is there evidence of the world leaders endeavouring to produce a joint action plan immediately after the WHO’s proclamation.

The failure to cooperate is not confined to the ongoing pandemic. We have seen it in the handling of trade disputes and climate change. As for the post-nuclear arms race nobody will talk about it.  Until, that is, the Cuban Missile Crisis recurs.  Or will that be the Korean Missile Crisis, next time?

It may appear that nation-states are losing their ability to manage global problems. But I wonder if they are losing the will, not merely the competence, to deal with issues that might impair our civilization.

One reason is the tunnel vision of our leadership. They can only see what appears on the screen and not what is there in the CPU.

  • If they are obsessed with the corona virus, they ignore hypersonic missiles and lethal autonomous weapons poised to cause Apocalypse, either by intent or accident.
  • If they are obsessed with terrorism, they don’t foresee a pandemic even one month before it attacks the world.
  • If they are obsessed with trade, they don’t see global warming.

The second reason is their fondness of nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet and Nobel laureate, described nationalism as a ‘menace’ about a century ago. Around the same time, Albert Einstein called it the ‘measles of mankind’. In modern language, we might call it the ‘corona virus of humankind’.

The third reason is that the international architecture is made of nation-states. What we call the United Nations Organisation is the United Governments Organisation. It does not represent the spirit of humanity. It is a bargaining forum for the nation-states, where each one aims to negotiate and aggrandise its own interests. All other organisations, including the G-20, G-7, World Bank, regional development banks, and Asian International Infrastructure Bank, are all ‘inter-state’ bodies.

The nation-states can decide if they want to swim together, or sink together.

  • SARS and Ebola did not cause mayhem because the nation-states promptly decided to cooperate. Covid-19 is causing disaster because the nation-states did not immediately cooperate.
  • Global trade and financial flows grow when nation-states facilitate their movement. Goods and money do not flow easily when the leading nation-states use agricultural crops and 5G as the pretext for confrontation.
  • Emissions can be contained if nation-states of the world honour their Paris commitments to shift to a low-carbon economy. Emissions do not recognise borders; they proliferate around the planet when nation-states refuse to think beyond their national boundaries.

There is a serious risk of human civilization being ravaged in a nuclear or post–nuclear war, impaired on account of climate change, suspended due to attacks of viruses, or hit by a biological or technological mishap caused by the grand failure of some, critical, AI mechanism.

If we want to avert these risks, there are two pathways.

  • First, in the present architecture, nation-states will need to find ways to trust and work with each other, in a constructive and genuine way.
  • Secondly, we shall have to conceive of a global-governance grid that is beyond the horizon of the United Nations, and which does not depend on the representation of the nation-states. It must represent, and serve, only humankind.

Both are formidable challenges. They may appear utopian when our nationalism, our vanity, and our greed, are on full display.

We have a rather ‘lazy habit’ of finding solutions to the world’s problems once world wars ravage millions of people. If a nuclear bomb, a deadly virus, or an ecological disaster annihilates one billion out of eight billion inhabitants on our planet, we will certainly begin our journey on these pathways.

Do we want to wait until such a tragedy happens?

It is a call for our collective wisdom, our morality, and our conscience.

Author: Sundeep Waslekar

Dr Sundeep Waslekar is President of Strategic Foresight Group, an international think-tank that has worked with governments of 65 countries. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts at Oxford University.

May 8, 2020

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  1. Dr Mayur K Muthe

    Would like you to clarify the statement” sars ebola did not…..cooperate”.
    The SARS ended up infecting 20 % of world population with 5 million deaths.
    Absence of digital media especially social media ,in my opinion, was one important factor bcoz of which the epidemic did not cause much panic.

  2. sundeep

    Reply to Dr Mayur Methe:
    According to WHO, total number of infections in the case of SARS were 8000 and deaths under 800. Please see the link to the WHO report. The same data is accepted by the Center for Disease Control of the US Government.
    If according to you, there were 1.3 billion infections (20% of the 6.5 billion world population in 2003) and 5 million deaths, can you please cite a source as credible as WHO mentioning these figures and provide link? Thanks.

  3. Vinay Joshi

    Bloated sense of independence and one up manship has caused depleting sense of interdependance of economies & eco systems….however this is an opportunity to create awareness at the bottom level as well as at the top….

    Would like to contribute to this cause with my might


  4. Gray Southon

    A very valuable contribution. While nation states have problems, I suggest that they are much more manageable than global government, though global governance structures can be valauble, we need nations. However we are cursed by a history, culture, media and entertainment industry that sees nations as principally competing entities. Conflict, it seems, is much more interesting than cooperation. We have a great record of cooperation, but a deep ignorance of it because it is largely ignored by media, and possibly academics. For instance, the SDG agreement received very little attention.

    Also we need to think beyond the superpowers to the ability of smaller states to develop their agendas. Take for instance, the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty. Who is telling the story of how that is being promoted, or undermined?

    We need a much more effective process of promoting the processes, skills and value of cooperation.


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