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Divided Nations


12 Mar 2013



The growing disconnect between the problems that bind us and the countries that divide is the greatest threat to humanity.  Each day we are confronted by mounting evidence of the yawning governance gap. Recently, British people have been surprised to find their meat has been through the mincer of multiple legal jurisdictions through which beef has been blended with horse.  Russians have been shocked by a meteorite that crashed unannounced into their territory, due to the failure of global coordination of space.  In Tokyo, a bluefin tuna was auctioned in Tokyo for USD$1.7 million, raising concerns globally that market signals may be hastening the extinction of rare tuna.  And in the USA Hurricane Sandy’s impact on lower Manhattan and the New Jersey shore has raised interest in the work of scientists who identify freak storms as an early warning of climate change.  Meanwhile, across Europe the aftermath of the financial storm continues to destroy jobs and livelihoods.

The past months highlight the rising impact of global developments on all our lives.  Two forces have combined to mean that we are more interdependent than ever.  The first is that the walls have come down. Only North Korea is now isolated.  The changes unleashed with the destruction of the Berlin Wall have rippled around the world.  There has been a political, economic and technological convergence.  Flows of information, as well as finance, goods, services and people across borders have transformed the nature of our societies and opportunities.  Physical barriers have come down since the end of the Cold War, but so too have virtual barriers, with the internet providing the information system for hyper-globalization.

This is good news, and has been associated with the most rapid rise in incomes in history.  Poverty more often than not is because people are disconnected from globalisation, as they do not have the infrastructure, education or access to benefit from new opportunities.  Increased integration of ideas and opportunities has been associated with the most rapid rise in population and urbanisation in human history.  There are two billion more people on the planet than when the Berlin Wall came down. As a species, we are more intimately connected physically and virtually than at any time since our distant ancestors left their collective East African communities over a hundred thousand years ago to flee dangers and explore our beautiful world.

The growth in incomes and people reflects the success of globalization. Unfortunately, while people and systems have become more integrated, increasingly making national boundaries almost irrelevant, politicians and governance systems are locked into fossilised national structures which have failed to keep pace with global developments. The result is that globalisation is not being managed.  The pressure is rising as problems fester and complexity gives way to cascading failures and collapse.  Financial crises, pandemics, cyber attacks, climate change and other global threats are the underbelly of globalisation.  The more connected we are, the more we need to accept that we need global management.

The financial crisis is the first of the 21st Century Crises but will certainly not be the last. The lessons must urgently be learned.  First, we need to recognise that technological and social change are evolving at an accelerated pace, and politicians and regulators need to map and understand the recent evolution of the key threats.  Second, the most significant challenges that arise are likely to emerge from cross-border or global threats. If the primary purpose of governments is to protect us, this needs to be an urgent focus of attention. Third, none of these threats can be addressed by any one country alone. Even the most powerful and largest countries – such as the USA or China – will require increased international cooperation. Fourth, the existing global institutions are unfit for 21st Century purpose.  Finance is the best endowed, most joined up and most powerful of the global institutional systems – and yet it proved itself incapable of moving beyond its Bretton Woods mandate. A core purpose of the global financial system is to guarantee global financial stability. This system, which is the best we have of the global institutions, proved itself unfit for 21st century purpose. Urgent reform and renewal is required.

Better global institutions are only part of the solution. They can be only as good as the countries that govern them allow.  Our politicians and public need to recognise the need for global action and provide the necessary political mandate for reform and resources that are required for effective governance, if this is to be achieved.  Equally importantly, we need to think about alternatives and new models of governance. Professional networks, social accountability systems, the role of non-government organisations, together with the mobilisation of action by subsets of willing participants and other new methods of moving global governance forward, are required.  We cannot rely on the slow melt of the icebergs or their institutional equivalents in the global governance system to initiate global action.

We have the power to act. Global actions require local and national participation. There is no necessary trade off. International cooperation and action requires community perspectives and legitimacy if it is to be effective. Nations are divided, but we as citizens need not be.  Indeed, we cannot be, if we are to address the critical 21st century challenges.?

This blog first appeared on the Oxford University Press website


This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.