PARIS – Global problems are rarely straightforward. But, in general, careful analysis of their various facets leads to some understanding of their causes and, in turn, to reasonably promising solutions. Indeed, the opportunity to analyze such problems regularly is precisely what makes my role as a columnist so gratifying. Lately, however, promising solutions have been increasingly elusive.
Simply put, much of the world is mired in conflict, with little hope of escape. In Ukraine, violent clashes between pro-Russian separatists and the police are just the latest development in the country’s deteriorating security situation. Syria remains locked in a brutal civil war. And tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program – not to mention Israel’s decades-old conflict with Palestine – are exacerbating instability in the Middle East, where ten countries, taken together, have become the world’s largest market for weapons, purchasing more new arms annually than China.
Several African countries – Mali, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Somalia – are engulfed in permanent civil war, leaving citizens without potable water, much less schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure. In Nigeria, the Islamic militia Boko Haram – a glorified gang of criminals – brings disgrace on the Prophet, in the name of whom they abducted more than 200 schoolgirls to sell or use as sex slaves.
In Asia, China’s military buildup and increasingly assertive approach in pursuing its territorial claims in the South and East China seas – which overlap with claims by Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam – is raising concerns among its regional neighbors. It does not help that China’s economic growth, which provided a powerful boost to the region’s smaller economies in recent decades, has slowed considerably.
China is not the only major emerging economy experiencing diminished growth. Brazil, too, is suffering from slow growth, not to mention stubborn inflation and mounting deficits. Meanwhile, Latin American countries like Mexico and Colombia remain under threat from drug cartels that sometimes are better armed than the police or the military.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, an election has come to a close. But it was an election for nothing; the outcome merely reinforced the growing divide between pro-Europeans and Euro-skeptic populist parties.
While the global economy may seem to be recovering from the recent crises, it remains fraught with risk, stemming from the $750 trillion in liquidity – up $50 trillion since 2006 – sloshing around in speculative markets. This capital does not finance investments or fuel economic growth; its sole purpose is to reap enormous but unpredictable profits for a select few. This bubble, like all bubbles, will burst, triggering a much more severe crisis than that of 2008.
At least event organizers are keeping busy. The United Nations is preparing its 21st climate conference, to be held in Paris in 2015, with world leaders knowing full well that it, too, will end in failure to conclude a comprehensive global agreement.
Given the scale of the world’s ecological challenges, our leaders’ incapacity to cooperate effectively on the environment could not be more problematic. For example, at the current rate, the world’s fish resources will be extinguished in the next half-century. Yet Russia, Ukraine, and China recently opposed the establishment of Protected Marine Areas, which are critical to the survival of numerous species.
We have only one planet, and we must learn to coexist on it. Yet the overwhelming feeling is one of chaos and degradation. We cannot afford to wait for world leaders to solve our problems any longer. The global public must unite to compel decision-makers to take real action aimed at overcoming obstacles to peace, harmony, and sustainability.
The first obstacle is international law’s lack of enforcement authority. While respecting individual countries’ sovereignty is vital, so is accountability – and that requires some international authority to monitor and punish crimes.
The good news is that the global public is increasingly supportive of international intervention in some cases. But it must go further, demanding that any treaty should include a provision for surveillance and sanctions; that a country’s right to veto intervention be limited according to the amount of time that has passed and the issue at stake; and that measures to protect populations be decided upon by majority vote.
The second major obstacle is the intellectual demise of what could be called “the science of economics.” Nowadays, the banking industry shapes decision-making worldwide, exemplified in its enduring right to unlimited speculation and its capacity to capture profits that are unmatched by any other industry, especially for its senior managers, while exposing the world to overwhelming risk.
Instead of allowing a single self-interested sector to dictate the economy’s functioning, policymakers must determine precisely what the acceptable balance is between risky speculative activities and financial stability – and ensure that the financial sector adheres to it. Governments’ emphasis should always be on reducing unemployment, instability, and inequality.
The third major obstacle to global peace and prosperity is the disappearance of ethics from the functioning of states and markets. Governments and multilateral bodies like the UN have gradually been discredited, along with the value systems on which they are based.
While major religions retain some value-based authority, most have remained largely silent on the real political, economic, environmental, and security challenges that the world faces. Why do Christian churches continue to focus on people’s private behaviors and not on the rules of the social and economic game? Why does the Chief Rabbinate of Israel never discuss peace, much less make a statement on what, in the eyes of God, should have priority: a piece of land or millions of human lives? Why do Muslim authorities so rarely condemn crimes supposedly committed in the name of the Prophet?
Perhaps that will change, too. Pope Francis, for example, appears to be leading the Catholic Church in the direction of greater social engagement. It is the global public’s duty to take the same route.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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