Has the 21st century started?

Some historians think that the 19th century began in 1789 and only ended in August 1914. Maybe we have a similar situation with the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. At least it appears that the 20th century did not end on 31st December 1999. 149 heads of state and government came together at the UN in September 2000 and adopted unanimously a Millennium Declaration which was to serve as a global blueprint for the first 15 years of the new century. The declaration sketched a new societal model with very different political and economic goals. Based on the universal human rights, the gathered political leaders committed to policies of a fairer economy, social justice, and democratic participation of their people. Following the meeting, UN experts formulated 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with targets and indicators to be achieved by the end of 2015, but narrowed the focus for action to development cooperation. In other words, OECD countries were only expected to observe the declaration and its goals in the context of their international cooperation programmes.

One step forward, two steps back

Although the formulation of global goals was a big step forward to better link national with international or even global public policies, the narrowed focus was inadequate to block other developments, such as the financial crises, civil wars and the failing of a great many national states. Hence developments in many parts of the world have taken another course since September 2000 than to follow the Millennium Declaration.

New global goals

But the efforts of 2000 did not die. Many countries took on the Millennium Goals as their own, and thus it was not surprising that since 2012 negotiations began to formulate global goals until 2030. The resulting 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) which have since been formulated and adopted, overcome the reduced application perspective. They are to be implemented in and by all member states of the UN. Together with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change of December 2015, I consider that year as the beginning of a new millennium. Why?

A new geopolitical situation

Leading up to 2015 we have seen the beginning of a major shift in geopolitics. The era of US American hegemony is ending. Already President Obama has taken the US out of the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and stability. President Trump is even going a step further. For him it is “America first”. He wishes international responsibility to be transferred to allies and partners. In fact, he only wants to cooperate with those who shoulder their share of responsibility. The US retreat from global leadership does not always produce good results, as the sad and tragic case of Syria shows. Although arguably a US military engagement would not have necessarily produced an end to the atrocious civil war. Both US Presidents have failed to use their still existing international influence in a constructive way. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which serves as the linchpin of the global collective security system, the US should have agreed that Russia, another of the five permanent members in the council, take a lead role in brokering a peaceful solution to the internal conflict in Syria on behalf of the Security Council. Maybe the open resentment and resistance to US leadership by Russia and China would have been reduced and Russia would not have acted on its own and in parallel to UN efforts to moderate the political negotiations of the warring parties. I am aware that such an approach towards Russia is unthinkable in the political circles of Washington, but that makes such a proposal not unthinkable and or unsuitable.

Elements of a new global economy

For the first time we also live in a world, where the trade of small weapons is banned through an international convention. The UN has finally made good on a mandate which they received in 1945. Although the ban on atomic weapons sees up and downs, their devastating power will eventually tilt the balance in favour of a ban or at least in favour of non-use. China and Russia abstained during the adoption of the convention regarding the ban of small firearms, and three member states voted against, namely Syria, North Korea and Iran, but the majority adopted the results of many decades of international negotiations. If the US Congress were to ratify the convention, then Russia and China most likely will reconsider their position. But for now we can only state, that an important step in the direction of starving political conflicts of small arms has been successful, albeit not with the for the UN usual consensus vote.

The financial crises which we have experienced since 2000 brought several economies to the brink of collapse. Unscrupulously speculative and gain-oriented behavior by the financial institutions without ethical standards and/or effective control mechanisms was the primary cause of the crisis. Rating agencies were trying to force governments and political leaders to act in a way which was not necessarily in the interest of the common good. As popular resistance and political opposition to the proposed measures and the bailouts of financial institutions with public funds were increased, information was leaked about massive tax evasion, tax havens, and phony companies in some Latin American countries where private and public businesspeople and politicians had parked substantial amounts of their private funds. It will be years before this international network of clandestine financial transactions is overcome, but no Finance Minister can afford today not to close loopholes in the tax system. Even the Trump administration will sooner or later face this problem, too, even if they may not wish to act on it.

If in the aftermath of adopting the 17 SDGs, the monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of these goals in each country progresses, we might over time see a political accountability system emerge, which will measure the performance of political leaders by what they have achieved with regard to the well being of people and the maintenance of our natural environment.

The current lines of political conflicts

When following today’s media reports, we may think that the ideological conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries have been replaced by religious conflicts. But as the wars in Europe between catholic and protestant Christians over many centuries were masking social and economic conflicts, and were fights for political power and the control over European societies, so does today the conflict between Sunnites and Shiites, and between Islamists and the Western societies. In other words, it is not the religious controversies which we need to address, but the underlying social, economic and cultural disparities.

We live in a globalizing world, in which economic interests and corporations operate across national boundaries, while political power remains in the hands of national governments. Even the EU has not succeeded (so far) to replace the nation state as the ultimate authority. Globalization and technological changes have marginalized in many countries many people. Not always is it easy to distinguish the respective impact of these two forces. But lately nationalistic and populist politicians have blamed globalization for the outplacement of many workers and employees in the labour market. They have responded to the frustrations of those who have lost their bearings in the rapidly changing world. These politicians wish to force the managers of multinational corporations and financial institutions to reset their priorities, and not only chase after the highest possible profit rate for their companies outside their country of origin, but to invest in their country and create through public private partnerships additional employment and renew necessary infrastructures. It is too early to say whether this will stop the process of globalization or whether these political trends will fine tune globalization and overcome the disparities and discrepancies as they exist today.

Growing nationalism……

Increased nationalism has produced a multi-polar geopolitical situation, in which several countries and regions compete with each other, politically and economically. The US, Europe around the EU, China and Russia, possibly Australia are such poles in the geopolitical landscape. Others are seeking their place in this emerging world order, such as Turkey, Japan, and Brazil. Apart from economic competition, there also are trends discernible how best to respond to these challenges. There is growing skepticism in many countries whether the model of Western liberal democracy is the most suitable political system to manage today’s societies. Countries like China and Russia have answered this in the negative. Countries like Turkey and Brazil are in the process of eliminating elements, which they adopted from the Western model of parliamentary democracy.

…….and the challenges to good governance

However, the forms of democracy may well vary. There is no “one size fits all”. Western democracies have grown out of specific historic developments. The British, the French, the German democracy have distinct differences, and yet we would all considered full-fledged democratic systems. Hence we shall not be surprised that other countries, too, develop their form of democracy. Throughout the 20th century Western politicians thought that the process of democratization could be grown globally by copying Western systems. By now, we know that this was and is an illusion. What is, however, important, is that generally accepted and robust checks and balances exist in a society and in a nation state, which control competing interests and avoid that specific interest groups dominate the rest of the society over long periods of time. Hence periodic elective changes of the political leadership, transparency and accountability for the handling of public office and in particular public funds, participation of the population in the setting of political priorities and an uncompromised recognition of the rule of law based on the human rights of all individuals irrespective of race, gender, religious belief and sexual orientation are the corner stones of good governance.

No perfect record anywhere

We all know that these are stretch objectives, and that no country in the world can claim to have a perfect or even a near perfect record. But what I think we can claim today is that there is no country in the world, where at least some groups in the society are working according to these principles and wish a national political system which upholds these principles. Not always are these groups in control of the political situation in their country. Occasionally, some of these political endeavours may be supported through international cooperation, in particular through the UN system, but by and large the people of each country have to establish the checks and balances which avoid the misuse of power and the military aggressions which have characterized the 20th century through 2 world wars and innumerable regional and intra- country armed conflicts. Today no war is acceptable and we are getting closer to ban all trade of arms and we mount peace-keeping forces under UN mandates to reduce armed conflicts.

Today, at the beginning of 2017, we are still far from living in a world of peaceful competition for the best solutions with regard to social equity, sustainable development and well-being for all. Instead we witness or experience murderous armed conflicts, and while only a handful of countries manufacture and deliver the weapons for these conflicts, the very same countries are not necessarily willing to at least provide a safe haven to those, who have fled from their war-torn countries.

International rule of law

While we have put in place many rules for international trade and foreign investments, we have failed to accept similar rules for international migration. We have a growing body of international conventions and agreements, but these only become nationally binding in those countries which have ratified them. There are only very weak enforcement mechanisms and there is no instrument at our disposal to enforce international law even in countries whose governments may not have ratified an international convention or agreement. The Paris agreement on climate change is just such a case.

We shall live in the 21st century in a world of great diversity, but we also live in a world which has established since the 1950s, bit by bit an international framework of rules, regulations, values and principles, which demand an ever-growing willingness and competence of political leaders in all countries to abide by them. Creating an enabling enforcement system is one of the big challenges of this century.

Holding the world together

For now we have only mechanisms in place for monitoring and evaluation the adherence to this emerging body of international law. But who will monitor and evaluate that we stay on track? The quick answer is: the peoples of the world, who in 1945 founded the UN for exactly the purpose of avoiding future wars, of guaranteeing the well-being for all and peaceful cooperation. Since the founding of the UN we have seen many failures, weaknesses and shortfalls in the performance of the UN. But we have also seen intellectual leadership and operations which have helped countries to get back on their feet after devastating disasters. We have seen many aspects of human life and the protection of our natural environment covered by international conventions and programmes to implement these conventions.
We have a set of UN organizations which set standards and norms so that countries can trade, cooperate and raise the living standards of their people. We have monitoring bodies to monitor the implementation of international conventions and an ever increasing number of indices which permit to compare and rank countries’ performances. We are nowhere near a general acceptance of an index like the Human Development Index, but we at least agree today that economic growth and a high GDP per capita is by no means the best of all possible results.
The UN in spite of all its weaknesses will hold the international community of nations together. Maybe in the not too distant future even politicians like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and other world leaders will cede some of their national interests within the institutional framework of the UN in the interest of the global and international common good. Their current agendas are not geared towards achieving the sustainable development goals. But there are bits and pieces and those we need to stitch together in order to overcome the legacy of the 20th century once and for all.

Autor: Kerstin Leitner

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