This is my summer blog post – meaning that I am on vacation and have some time to raise my head above the parapet and think about other things.
The world is flat, and we are being attacked by black swans — events arising from correlations of economic incidents across the whole world. Globally, humans are becoming increasingly interdependent. Local solutions no longer work; by minding my own business I am now inevitably meddling with yours. The results are global warming, worldwide water shortages, food scares, wild price fluctuations of rare earths and other natural resources, and so on.
Unfortunately, what we see all around is local selfishness and myopia. Britain is congratulating itself for staying out of the euro mess and the lending crisis on the continent, but is an illusion to believe that the UK can isolate itself from Europe. It’s our biggest trading partner by a long shot; and if Europe goes down, we go down.
The European region acts no better. The founders of the Euro knew perfectly well (and have publicly stated) that its functioning would require a common economic policy and a migration of sovereign rights. But all are sticking to the illusion that European countries can continue to mind their own business, avoiding the transfer of power to unloved EU institutions that is necessary to coordinate policy. It is lamentable that a continent with a still world leading infrastructure, and world leading knowledge and talent, throws away its influence because of internal squabbles and sovereignty fights.
The world acts no better, either. It is now becoming clear that we will not be able to slow global warming; rather, there will be an increase of more than 3°C over the next 50 years. Everyone clings to the hope that it will not be so bad; but when whole regions dry up into deserts and we face migrations on a scale never before seen in history, this illusion might shatter catastrophically, endangering the lives of our grandchildren, or even our children.
Climate talks have failed, and continue to fail, because everyone points the finger at someone else. The emerging economies accuse the developed countries of having sinned in the past (which is true) and of not doing enough today (which is also true). The US acts as though nothing is happening, and now claims progress because of a windfall from shale gas. The developing countries – above all, China – now produce more global-warming output than anyone else.
It all stems from a failure to look beyond our own little rice or cereal bowl at every level – national, regional, and global. Why? Is it because our politicians are too stupid or too lazy to tackle the problem? Or because they are beholden to cynical capitalist businesses that are blocking any move against their interests? No, that would be too easy; businessmen also worry about their children, and politicians are no more stupid, lazy, or corrupt than we all are.
The reason is that the negotiation games and interest conflicts among the many parties are just too complicated. All those involved – be they politicians or businesspeople – have day jobs that pay their salary, and can engage only part-time in tackling the wider-ranging problems.
The question we all face is this: how much am I willing to give, in order to achieve a benefit on a global basis, when it compromises my ability to be effective at my local level? How much investment can a CEO be seen to funnel into clean technology that helps the environment but not the share price, before he or she is dismissed? And how much carbon restriction can a head of state be seen to advocate, burdening the nation’s industry and slowing job creation, in order to support the lofty goal of reducing global warming?
Part-time negotiators simply cannot deal with this effectively. Because of the way our global governance institutions are set up, their work is inevitably pulled back into conflicting local perspectives all the time, making the negotiation and horse-trading too complex. They may secure a deal with two or three partners; but with 10, it becomes very hard, and with 190, impossible. The old approach of a G7, UN Security Council or G20 is no longer credible because the seven, 15 or 20 nations simply ignore the other 170-plus.
So, what can be done? I think there is a proposal that at least leads into a constructive direction. We need a world president (or chairman, or call it whatever you want): someone who is accountable not to any local constituency, but who can focus on the issues that affect us all. These problems have now become so large that we must find a way to address them.
I do not mean a global dictator, or anyone with a lot of power. For an example, look at the Queen. She does not have a lot of power – just enough to needle the political players and force them to pay attention. She is independent of any local constituency, and the greatest source of her power is her moral and ethical authority.
When I discussed this idea with a friend, he accused me of adopting an old Western imperialistic view. Well, I might be forgiven for using the Queen as an example (I am in the UK writing this, after all) but there is nothing particularly Western in this proposal. I am simply saying that we need a moral heavyweight to get us out of the coordination mess. Chinese emperors did precisely this over 2,500 years, and their symbolic unification power worked even when they could not use their formal power – for example, when they were too young or incapacitated.
The candidate for world president certainly does not need to be Western or male. And I am not saying that such a candidate, of high integrity and authority, is easy to find; though I could name a few.
We need someone who has the entire boat in mind, not just one row of seats; who has enough power to get attention from the big players; and who leads by moral authority. If someone like this could provide the general direction, then maybe it would be a bit less difficult for the part-time negotiators to follow it through to a deal. And that would give us a glimpse of hope.