President Obama said on April 11, in his weekly radio and Internet address that major obstacles such as climate change, the global financial crisis, terrorism and nuclear proliferation demand coordinated action to overcome. He said. "These are challenges that no single nation, no matter how powerful, can confront alone," "The United States must lead the way. But our best chance to solve these unprecedented problems comes from acting in concert with other nations."
It is a nice sentiment, and on the face of it, it seems logical and persuasive. But can the world act in concert? And on what? The one overriding truth of the nation state system as we know it is that states will act in their own perceived self-interest even if that comes at the expense of other states and long term goals. And the perception of self-interest is almost inevitably short term. It would certainly seem to be in the broad interest of mankind to curtail carbon emissions and at least slow global warming. But polar bears are not as important as the survival and competitive advantage of your business community and the jobs and profits they produce. And the lobbyists and shareholders of those businesses are not likely to let up the pressure on their members of Congress to reach global agreements that give competitive advantage to China or India.
Recent history has not been kind to global efforts to solve problems. The Doha round is dead - the victim of conflicting North-South interests and the inability of nation states to compromise when faced with political pressure at home. The Fifth World Conference on Women was deferred in 2005 due to fear that the gains of the 1995 conference would be lost in the face of positions on abortion and the human rights of women adopted by the Bush administration. United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, is set for 7-18 December 2009, but success is far from certain. The Obama administration is currently in the process of back tracking from early statements on climate change and a cap and trade system for carbon emissions.
The United Nations Security Council has been blocked from effective action in Darfur to save lives and has been unable to confront Sudan’s president Bashir to restore humanitarian aid to its former level. The International Criminal Court issued an indictment of Bashir, which the African Union and Arab League ignored. The Security Council cannot even act effectively to enforce its own resolution against North Korean missile testing and had to settle for a watered down Presidential statement, which everyone knows who has worked at the UN is a toothless face saver for an embarrassed Council. Afghanistan is going backwards as NATO countries argue over policy and participation. The President is rebuffed by the Iranians in his effort to open a door. And he was far short of his goals at the G20. Where is the leadership that President Obama is talking about?
In the early 90’s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world came together and marked major progress on trade, intellectual property, population problems, women’s rights, and a plethora of Security Council, NATO, and AU interventions in global hot spots. Education about global health and international systems to deal with pandemics were instituted. Growth pulled millions of people out of poverty. Most of the world, except for the United States came together on climate change at Kyoto.
The difference between then and now was that then wealth was expanding and more people and states could share in the pie. Today, contraction means that states and individuals are trying to hold on to those larger slices at the expense of others. The industrialized country leadership has pledged to avoid protectionism, but protectionism is insidious and does not have to mean new openly restrictive measures. It can mean the failure to correct existing imbalances that favor the few at the expense of the many. For example, it can mean the collapse of negotiations over agriculture in the Doha round. Protectionism can mean the failure to reach agreement on a new climate agreement at the UN Conference in December. It can mean buy America provisions in legislation and failure to compete for massive new expenditures under the stimulus package.
Perhaps this is not a time for bold new international initiatives. Perhaps we should take a page out of the book of the organizers of the Fifth World Conference on Women and be satisfied to protect that which has already been gained and defer that which exceeds our capacity right now while we work to restore growth and wealth. President Obama is correct that our future depends on our ability to act in concert with others. But in that process, we have to be realistic about the nature of that concert. Let us focus on what can be done now and leave for later global initiatives that will inevitably divide us today and create a downward spiral of beggar thy neighbor.