If you have ever stopped to consider our typical response to a global challenge — whether it's another instance of genocide, an illegal nuclear weapons program, or a financial crisis, or whether it is climate change, unprecedented migration, or a potential pandemic like Ebola — you will have noticed that our knee-jerk response is to find a solution based on short-termism (also known as expediency).
What I mean by an expedient solution is one that has three features: First it is reactive — we lurch from crisis to crisis attempting to put out the fire of the day. Second, it is based on a consideration of short-term benefits without regard to long-term consequences. Third, it is based on a narrowly-conceived self-interest that fails to take into account the broader common interests of an interconnected humanity.
A consequence of this expedient approach is that we never get to the root of any of our global problems and successfully solve them. Instead we content ourselves with temporarily extinguishing the flames while the embers continue to smolder, waiting for the gusts of wind occasioned by the next crisis to restart the fire. How many times have we seen this phenomenon play out with repeated genocides despite our loud promises of "never again!" Nuclear proliferation and illegal nuclear weapons programs proceed apace despite our protestations that they must stop. The number of refugees worldwide is greater than it's ever been. Financial crises recur with greater ferocity and fears of potential pandemics have been averted only for us to find ourselves in the thick of a swiftly-moving COVID-19 pandemic without adequate preparation.
Another consequence is that our solutions to one problem often sow the seeds of the next disaster: We sent arms and trained fighters to dislodge the Soviets from Afghanistan only to find that we had created a new challenge in the form of the Taliban. We then entered into a war to uproot the Taliban and ended up mired in a conflict that continues to this day.
To make matters worse, our solutions to various global challenges are often incongruent with each other and end up undermining each other. In a quest to lock up much-needed energy resources in the form of oil, a country will agree to overlook the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by another country as China did during the genocide in Darfur, warning that it would veto any attempt by the Security Council to formally declare the killings in Darfur a genocide.
A recent example that illustrates the disastrous consequences of problem-solving based on short-termism involves the decision by the Ecuadorian government to build a dam. Its purpose was to meet the country’s energy needs and help lift its population out of poverty quickly. To achieve this goal, it borrowed vast sums of money from China . Unfortunately, in their eagerness to do the deal, neither Ecuador nor China paid adequate attention to the fact that the dam was built just below a volcano. Consequently, only two years after the dam was completed there already were 7,000 cracks in its machinery. In addition, large amounts of silt, trees, and bushes were piling up in its reservoir, rendering it ineffective. Not only did the completed dam fail to achieve the goal of alleviating poverty, but the Ecuadorian government soon discovered that it did not have the means to repay its debt to China. In the end, Ecuador has ended up worse off than it was before it embarked on this venture. Its energy needs are still unmet and China now gets to keep 80 percent of Ecuador's most valuable export, oil, making Ecuador even poorer than it was to begin with.
For decades we have ignored the glaring evidence that short-termism is an outworn habit that does not serve our well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic is now teaching us, in the hardest way possible, that we simply can't do business as usual anymore. It is time to change our collective dysfunctional habits now, chief among them the habit of employing expediency to solve global challenges. The prolongation of a universal crisis that is playing out across the world is forcing us to think ahead, plan proactively for a time when we can emerge out of a global lockdown, and revive our battered economies. We need to do all this while also preparing for the possibility of a second and third wave of infections caused by the coronavirus and while working on antidotes and a vaccine.
The obvious question is: Is there an alternative method we can employ to solve our global challenges that is more effective, constructive, and empowering than short-termism? If so, what is it? The simple answer is: Yes; we can opt for a principled approach to solving global challenges. What, you may ask, does this entail? Essentially it requires that we do three things: First, identify a set of shared foundational principles that can form the basis of a new system of global governance. Second, get a handful of national leaders who are trusted and have standing in the international community to agree to these identified principles and then seek the consent of all their fellow world leaders. Finally, get the nations to commit to applying these shared foundational principles methodically and uncompromisingly whenever they want to solve any given global challenge.
For those of you who are skeptical that such agreement is possible, I would invite you to consider the universal adoption of a new principle of the "Responsibility to Protect" otherwise known as R2P at the global summit in New York in 2005. The process that was followed to achieve this goal is highly instructive and can be used as a roadmap to replicate a similar success in achieving global consensus around a set of shared global ethics. If you would like to learn more about the process employed, you can read more about it in my book "Building a World Federation: The Key to Resolving our Global Crises."
Fortunately, a number of prominent figures have been talking about the importance of identifying and agreeing upon a shared set of foundational principles or what they sometimes refer to as a set of “shared global ethics.” A couple of blog posts ago I shared with you an analogy given by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and later Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He describes the world as a ship with 193 cabins, each of which has its own set rules and staff to govern its internal affairs. In addition to pointing out that the ship as a whole lacks both cabin and crew, he also observes that the governing rules being applied within some of these cabins pose a direct threat to the ship as a whole and may cause it to sink with all its occupants. Even prior to Professor Mahbubani's astute observation, the governing body of the Baha'i community in its 1985 message to the people of the world, titled "The Promise of World Peace," urged leaders to begin solving their problems by identifying the principles involved and then applying them, rather than turning to expedient solutions. Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia and long-term head of the International Crisis Group similarly expressed his view that the only way to find viable and effective solutions to problems of governance was to first identify the principles involved and then apply them methodically. He bemoaned the fact that this was not current practice at any level of government that he had seen. Others who have joined the growing chorus calling for nations to adopt a set of global ethics include Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organization, and Ian Goldin, professor of Globalisation and Development at Oxford University.
By far the most compelling reason for adopting a set of global ethics is this: Just as there are physical laws that govern our lives — such as the law of gravity — so too, are there principles that govern our social reality. The most important of these principles is the oneness of people and nations. These laws operate on us whether we choose to recognize and acknowledge them or not. However, let us be clear: We ignore them at our peril. Imagine what would happen if we were to build an airplane without taking into account the law of gravity. No one would want to fly in it as the result would be disastrous! Why then, do we think when building institutions and organizations that govern our societies — whether political, social, financial or otherwise — we can ignore certain principles and truths about who we are as human beings and our relationship to each other without consequence? We flout these social realities at great cost to ourselves. It is no wonder that our social institutions are crumbling.
Let us then commit to working together to replace our destructive habit of short-termism with the empowering, future-building habit of seeking principled solutions to our global challenges!