The West – first Europe, then America – has dominated the world agenda for the last two to four centuries. In the 20th century, between the October Revolution and the Fall of the Wall, the world was polarised into two main blocs – the 'free' West and the (by implication) unfree Socialist bloc, and everyone else was obliged to align with one or the other. Then came the end of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China from Maoism to capitalism.
Something else started. In the 1990s, USA took charge as the 'global policeman', big investor and dominant power, without realising that it was running mainly on momentum and was already in historic decline. The main contribution of George Bush has been to make it a harder landing, but he has not caused, neither can he nor any US president stop, this inevitable decline. He is a symptom of it – and his successor will be too.
It is happening because the 'new idea' that makes a culture or nation great sooner or later becomes an old idea, and someone else overtakes on the outside with another 'new idea'. USA's peak was in the 1950s-70s, and by the 1990s its creativity was becoming formulaic and its energy was driven increasingly by addiction, not ambition. With that of America, the leadership, initiative and authority of the 'developed world' is deflating too. It was a carbon-based, resource-gulping, military and materialistic civilisation, and its time is passing.
Meanwhile the momentum and influence of new powers is growing. The cards are getting re-shuffled in international relations. This is leading to a tectonic shift in the power-geometry of the world, and we're in its early stages. We're faced with the decline of the West and of 'superpower geometry'. It is becoming 'multi-polar'. This is big. It leads us to a Very Big Question.
The issue is global governance. The logical step would be a single over-arching world organisation. But the history of colonialism, the Cold War and USA's recent dominance have, in a sense, blocked the prospect of establishing global governance in a centralised or unified way.
The United Nations might have become the basis for such governance, but it has so much been the plaything of dominant powers, hamstrung by the precedence of national over global interests and tainted by earlier dilemmas and errors, that this possibility is pretty much lost. At best UN can coordinate nations, but it cannot act on its own behalf with full authority – nations are still able to disagree and do more or less what they want.
What is quietly taking shape instead is a pattern of roughly equal blocs or potential unions covering the main 'tectonic plates' of today's world. Already in existence are China, USA, EU and Russia, while Latin America, black Africa, the Arab world, South, Southeast and Central Asia are making tentative steps – and then there are gaps and border areas to sort out.
This is an awkward transition for which the European Union provides a model, founded as it was on a step-by-step basis over the decades. Yet the action is happening not in Europe, but in the so-called 'developing world'. There are many frictions, complications and growth-pains involved. What the developing world is taking on is far more than economic growth and development: it is taking on the big issues of the 21st century.
There's a lot of talk about the 'international community', but it's not clear what this means. There is nevertheless a pressing need for a fully functional international community, because the biggest challenges we face, from financial systems to resources to population to climate, are global, and no superpower names the game any more. Therefore, international agreement and cooperation are needed on a growing scale. It needs to deliver results – this is an urgent, practical need, increasing each year, driven by a succession of crises.
But also, everyone wants to be an exception. The world's nations like to be internationalist when it suits them, and they become detractors when things get tricky, demanding or costly, or when national sovereignty is felt to be challenged. So the 'international community' is rather dysfunctional, and tolerated as long as it doesn't dig too deep.
This is why we're surreptitiously shifting toward 'tectonic plates'. Around ten blocs who, between them, co-determine the global game, are theoretically more workable than a gaggle of nearly 200 varied and unequally-scaled nations. A multi-polar geometry is a kind of resolution of the dilemma between national and global priorities. If, that is, it succeeds.
Its success will lie in the overall balance of the multi-polar system, and of sensible relations between blocs. Also, each bloc will need the internal agreement of its own peoples. At present, Europeans have mixed feelings toward the EU: they love some aspects of it, dislike others, and the biggest issue is actually lack of public interest. To people worldwide, Europeans are Europeans, but Europeans think of themselves as French, Danes, Czechs and Greeks.
A multi-polar system will involve jostling and power struggles, intercultural grating, differences of principle and priority, crunch points and times of disarray. So this won't be easy, and the transition over the coming decades will have painful and even dangerous moments. But the transition has started. The process answers a real need: weather events, diseases, migration, money and the actions of people do not stop at borders. Sovereignty is already a questionable notion when Mitsubishis cover the world, but it is still an emotional and historic issue.
Are we serious about this 'international community'? If we are, we'd better get on with serious community-building. One thing about communities is that we all become neighbours, obliged to live and work with each other. This has a deep effect – we all start affecting and influencing one another much more. It involves getting along with people we might not like and people we have past history with. You know, it's Americans with Iranians, Vietnamese with Chinese, Israelis with Islamists, religious with secular people, townies with farmers, old with young – Us with Them.
This involves going through a process and coming to a settlement, a big arrangement to which all members can sufficiently agree. It needs to happen at the conference table and at street and forest level. If we are to succeed in the challenges ahead, it will be because basic agreement and cooperation will have been achieved, involving all of the world's people without exception – a kind of consensus and mobilisation.
The really knotty issue is that everyone must feel willing to be members, and understand why, in terms both of their own and wider interests. We need to be willing to set aside old conflicts and situations to prioritise overriding global issues. Otherwise, the global issues we face will be hamstrung, delayed or blocked, and the consequences will hit us all, equally. We'll all go down together.
Community-building is a difficult thing. It involves a truth-process, a clearing of past ills that block progress. Everyone has to join of their own free-will, otherwise there will be perpetual drag-factors at work – detractors, exceptionalists, nit-pickers, resisters and, of course, dominators who think they know best. If drag-factors prevail, the community becomes dysfunctional, locked in perpetual conflict, lost in disarray or stuck with a case of mutually-assured deterrence and inaction. Actually, there is little choice. In a community process, it's not permissible to walk out. Everyone must stay with the process and agree to do so because, with or without them, the process must continue, and they inevitably re-join.
It's not advisable for big guys – China, India, EU, USA – to dominate the agenda unless perhaps they genuinely understand and articulate the needs and priorities of the whole community. Unlikely. The West, having set in motion the 'development model' that is now giving us planet-wide climatic and environmental problems, now lectures the rest of the world about what should be done – and, in a sense, the world is right to push back, and the West is also right to argue its case. But there is a serious job to be done, using all means that are available, and it must be done somehow. The world cannot afford to delay.
Who will facilitate this community-building process? The UN? Some countries have legitimate distrust of the UN's impartiality and competence. But it's the only genuinely international body we have. Are we going to create another? Is there time? Would it make things different? Or do we need to give UN the necessary power, finance, people, transport planes and capacity to interfere, when necessary, in nations' private affairs? If we don't take such a step, then we will need to meet global needs by multilateral cooperation, country by country, which will bring up equally large questions, many weaknesses and lots of complexity.
What about the grievances of the past? Countries have been raped for their slaves, cocoa, oil and strategic placement. People have been marched over by foreign armies. The world is stacked with old arguments that go back centuries, even millennia. Plenty of countries have an axe to grind, and internal stresses too. Unfortunately, we cannot just shrug shoulders and set these things aside. Old resentments and social pain are passed through the generations on a deep level. So community-building involves a rather profound, delicate, emotional truth-process, even a catharsis. And this, of course, is tricky.
Catharsis – emotional release – involves bringing old issues up and out. Without it, they will lurk in hidden recesses, awaiting touchy moments when a situation arises to remind us of something that shouldn't have happened before. Then they can explode. When such touchy moments arise, they not only complicate or obstruct things, but they create new damage, with new generations of hurt people, new wrecked landscapes and new tangles arising from them.
The Israeli bombing of South Lebanon in 2006 was a good example of an emotionally-charged situation where the Israeli response, for whatever reason, far exceeded need or wisdom – and this was not just an isolated case. We cannot afford this – time is too short. So we must be brave.
We have to bring out the old hurts and resentments without letting them go too far. Truths do have to be said. Not only the legitimate truths of victims – of Vietnamese toward Americans, Serbs toward Germans, Uighurs towards Chinese or indigenous peoples toward imperialists – but also the truths of victors, oppressors and accomplices.
The British became oppressors partially because they themselves, way back, had been invaded four times. Han Chinese became overlords partially because of the ravages of Mongols that stirred them into action. Imperialism and power-projection are fight-back strategies staged, tragically, by former victims. So tragedy cuts all ways – we are all humans who suffer the predicament of being alive in the situation we find ourselves in.
This is the realisation that bonds a community: we're all in the same boat, and we'd better behave ourselves, otherwise the boat sinks and we all drown. Men and women, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, in the 21st century we share a predicament. We are all equally threatened with major global challenges, and the only way to get a grip on the situation is to act together. This requires self-discipline, mutual understanding, forgiveness and truth. If we fail apply such qualities to ourselves, expecting others to do it first, then we might as well stop talking about an international community.
So we'd better get on with the community-building process. Not just the mandarins at the international conferences, but you and me too. This concerns changing our attitudes and behaviour. Making friends with strangers, enemies and outsiders is necessary and sensible. Sharing and cooperation is the new economics. Redefining our personal, clan and national interests is necessary, because self-interest is increasingly costly and suicidal. The extremists of today are the moderates of tomorrow. The problems of today are the hidden blessings of the future, if we will but see them differently.
This involves bringing up awkward truths, to get them out of the way. Not conflict, but reconciliation. Declaring an end to the past and its arguments. Not an easy or simple thing. This happens by being willing to go through a process, with a far-sighted determination to come out the other side, to get somewhere.
We need to speak our truths without blame or accusation, share our pain without hurting others afresh, and share our strengths without excluding the stranger at our door. This sounds idealistic and fancy, but it's pragmatic and realistic now and in coming decades. If we don't hang together, we simply hang separately.
Which is why the international community just has to happen. It's why North Koreans, Iranians, Israelis, Cubans and, yes, now Americans, have to be brought in from the cold. If we cannot join hands and work together as a global team of billions, we go down. We betray our grandchildren, we hurt Allah, we burn up our planetary home, and the shame will be ours, with no one else to blame.
So, united nations, here we come. My nation and sub-group, your nation and sub-group – still relevant, but now within a much wider context. We're all God's little children, however we describe it. We have a job to do, building a new culture and civilisation, a new humanity occupying one wee planet on the edge of a provincial galaxy. If we don't, all of human history could come to little or nothing. This is the importance of the international community, and the clock is ticking.
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2008.
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