The global problem-solving paradox
As secretary-general of the United Nations, I spend much of my time speaking with world leaders and taking the pulse of global trends. It’s clear to me that we are at a defining moment in international relations. Global decision-making is plagued by gridlock—and a fundamental paradox lies at the heart of it.
On the one hand, many of today’s global leaders recognize our common threats—COVID-19, climate, the unregulated development of new technologies. They agree that something needs to be done about them. Yet that common understanding is not matched by common action.
Indeed, divides keep deepening.
We see them everywhere: in the unfair and unequal distribution of vaccines; in a global economic system rigged against the poor; in the utterly inadequate response to the climate crisis; in digital technology and a media landscape that profit from division; and in growing unrest and conflict around the world.
So, if the world agrees on the diagnosis of these common problems, why is it unable to effectively treat them?
I see two fundamental reasons.
First, because foreign policy often becomes a projection of internal politics. As a former prime minister, I know that despite good intentions, international affairs can be hijacked by domestic politics. Perceived national interests can easily trump the larger global good. This impulse is understandable, even if it is wrong-headed in instances where solidarity is in a country’s self-interest.
Vaccines are a prime example. Everyone understands that a virus like COVID-19 does not respect national borders. We need universal vaccination to reduce the risk of new and more dangerous variants emerging and affecting everyone, in every country. Instead of prioritizing vaccines for all through a global vaccination plan, governments have acted to safeguard their people. But that is only half a strategy.
Of course, governments must ensure the protection of their own people. But unless they work simultaneously to vaccinate the world, national vaccination plans could be rendered useless as new variants emerge and spread.
Second, many of today’s global institutions or frameworks are outdated or simply weak and the necessary reforms are impeded by geopolitical divides.
For example, the authority of the World Health Organization is nowhere near what is required to coordinate the response to global pandemics. At the same time, international institutions with more power are either paralyzed by division, like the Security Council, or undemocratic, like many of our international financial institutions.
In short—global governance is failing at precisely the moment when the world should be coming together to solve global problems.
We need to act together in the national and global self-interest, to protect critical global public goods, like public health and a livable climate, that support humanity’s wellbeing. Such reforms are essential if we are to deliver on common aspirations for our collective global goals of peace, sustainable development, human rights, and dignity for all.
This is a difficult and complex exercise that must take into account questions of national sovereignty. But doing nothing is not an acceptable option. The world desperately needs more effective and democratic international mechanisms that can solve people’s problems.
As the pandemic has taught us, our fates are tied. When we leave anyone behind, we risk leaving everyone behind. The most vulnerable regions, countries, and people are the first victims of this paradox in global policy. But everyone, everywhere is directly threatened.
The good news is that we can do something about our global challenges. Problems created by humanity can be solved by humanity. Change won’t be easy, nor will it happen overnight. But we can begin by finding areas of consensus and moving in the direction of progress.
This is our greatest test because so much is at stake.
We are already seeing the consequences. As people start to lose trust in the ability of institutions to deliver, they also risk losing faith in the values that underlie those institutions. In every corner of the world, we see an erosion of trust and what I fear is the emergence of a twilight of shared values.
Injustice, inequality, mistrust, racism, and discrimination are casting dark shadows across every society.
We must restore human dignity and human decency and respond to people’s anxieties with answers.
In the face of growing inter-connected threats, enormous human suffering, and shared risks, we have an obligation to speak up and act to put out the fire.
The writer is secretary-general of the United Nations.
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