The Global Paradox of Problem Solving | The Qatar Peninsula
The global paradox of problem solving
09 Feb 2022
As Secretary-General of the United Nations, I spend much of my time talking to world leaders and taking the pulse of global trends. It is clear to me that we are at a decisive moment in international relations. Global decision-making is plagued by traffic jams – and a fundamental paradox lies at the heart of it.
On the one hand, many of today’s world leaders recognize our common threats – COVID-19, the climate, the unregulated development of new technologies.
They agree that something has to be done about them. Yet this common understanding does not go hand in hand with common action.
Indeed, the divisions continue to widen.
You see them everywhere: in the unfair and unequal distribution of vaccines; in a global economic system rigged against the poor; in the wholly inadequate response to the climate crisis; in digital and a media landscape that benefits from division; and in the growing unrest and conflict in the world.
So if the world agrees on the diagnosis of these common problems, why is it unable to treat them effectively?
I see two basic reasons.
First, because foreign policy often becomes a projection of domestic policy.
As a former prime minister, I know that despite good intentions, international affairs can be hijacked by domestic politics. Perceived national interests can easily outweigh the larger global good.
This impulse is understandable, even if it is misguided in cases where solidarity is in the interest of a country.
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, more dangerous variants emerging and affecting everyone, in every country.
Instead of prioritizing vaccines for all through a global immunization plan, governments have acted to protect their people. But this is only half a strategy.
Of course, governments must ensure the protection of their own people. But unless they simultaneously work to vaccinate the world, national vaccination plans could be rendered useless as new variants emerge and spread.
Second, many of the current global institutions or frameworks are outdated or simply weak, and needed reforms are hampered by geopolitical divides.
For example, the authority of the World Health Organization is far from sufficient to coordinate the response to global pandemics.
At the same time, the most powerful international institutions 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 the precise moment when the world should come together to solve global problems.
We must act together in the national and global interest, to protect essential global public goods, like public health and a livable climate, that support human well-being.
These reforms are essential if we are to realize our common aspirations towards our collective global goals of peace, sustainable development, human rights and dignity for all.
This is a difficult and complex exercise which must take into account issues of national sovereignty.
But doing nothing is not an acceptable option. The world desperately needs more effective and more democratic international mechanisms capable of solving peoples’ problems.
As the pandemic has taught us, our destinies are linked. When we leave someone behind, we risk leaving everyone behind. The most vulnerable regions, countries and people are the first victims of this paradox of global politics. But everyone, everywhere, is directly threatened.
The good news is that we can do something about our global challenges.
Problems created by mankind can be solved by mankind.
Last September, I published a report on these issues. Our common agenda is a starting point; a roadmap for bringing the world together to address these governance challenges and reinvigorate multilateralism for the 21st century.
Change will not be easy and will not happen overnight. But we can start by finding areas of consensus and moving forward.
This is our biggest test because the stakes are enormous.
We are already seeing the consequences. As people begin to lose faith in the ability of institutions to deliver, they may also lose faith in the values that underpin those institutions.
Around the world we are witnessing an erosion of trust and what I fear is the emergence of a twilight of shared values.
Injustice, inequality, distrust, racism and discrimination cast a dark shadow over all societies.
We must restore human dignity and human decency and respond to people’s anxieties with answers.
In the face of growing interconnected threats, enormous human suffering and shared risks, we have an obligation to speak up and act to put out the fire.
António Guterres is Secretary General of the United Nations.