Will the 21st century be marked by a shift from acting in national interests to acting in global interests?
July 14, 2008
In the 21st century, global changes will be even deeper than a rebalancing of economics and politics among different parts of the world. The challenges of sustainable development — protecting the environment, stabilizing the world’s population, narrowing the gaps between rich and poor and ending extreme poverty — will take center stage.
Global cooperation will have to come to the fore. The very idea of competing nation-states that scramble for markets, power and resources will become passé. The idea that the United States can bully or attack its way to security has proved to be misguided and self-defeating. The world has become much too crowded and dangerous for more “great games” in the Middle East or anywhere else.
The defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet. That common fate will require new forms of global cooperation — a fundamental point of blinding simplicity that many world leaders have yet to understand or embrace.
For the past 200 years, technology and demography have consistently run ahead of deeper social understanding. Industrialization and science have created a pace of change unprecedented in human history.
Philosophers, politicians, artists and economists must scramble constantly to catch up with contemporaneous social conditions. Our social philosophies, as a result, consistently lag behind present realities.
In the last 75 years, most successful countries gradually came to understand that their own citizens share a common fate, requiring the active role of government to ensure that every citizen has the chance and means (through public education, public health and basic infrastructure) to participate productively within the society — and to curb society’s dangerous encroachments on the physical environment.
This activist philosophy, which holds that the self-organizing forces of a market economy should be guided by overarching principles of social justice and environmental stewardship, has not yet been extended robustly to global society.
In the 21st century, our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives — and on the practical means to achieve them.
The pressures of scarce energy resources, growing environmental stresses, a rising global population, legal and illegal mass migration, shifting economic power and vast inequalities of income are too great to be left to naked market forces and untrammeled geopolitical competition among nations.
A clash of civilizations could well result from the rising tensions, and it could truly be our last and utterly devastating clash. To find our way peacefully through these difficulties, we will have to learn, on a global scale, the same core lessons that successful societies have gradually and grudgingly learned within their own national borders.
It has not been easy to forge cooperation even within national boundaries. In the first century of industrialization, England and other early industrializing countries were characterized by harsh social conditions in which individuals and families were largely left to scramble in the new industrial age. Charles Dickens and Friedrich Engels left a lasting testimony to the harshness of the times.
Gradually and fitfully, the early industrializing societies began to understand that they could not simply leave their own poor to wallow in deprivation, disease and hunger without courting crime, instability and disease for all.
Gradually, and with enormous political strife, social insurance and transfer schemes for the poor became tools of social peace and prosperity during the period from roughly 1880 onward.
Around half a century ago, many nations began to recognize that their air, water and land resources also had to be managed more intensively for the common good of their citizens in an industrial age.
The poorest parts of town could no longer be the dumping ground of toxic wastes without jeopardizing the rich neighborhoods as well. Heavy industry was despoiling the air and the water. Industrial pollution in one region could be carried by winds, rains and rivers hundreds of miles downstream to destroy forests, lakes, wetlands and water reservoirs.
The forging of nationwide commitments was hardest in societies like the United States, which are divided by race, religion, ethnicity, class and the native born versus immigrants. Social-welfare systems proved to be most effective and popular in ethnically homogenous societies, such as Scandinavia, where people believed that their tax payments were “helping their own.”
The United States, racially and ethnically the most divided of all the high-income countries, is also the only high-income country without national health insurance. Even within national borders of divided societies, human beings have a hard time believing that they share responsibilities and fates with those across the income, religious and — perhaps especially — racial divide.
Yet now the recognition that we share responsibilities and fates across the social divide will need to be extended internationally so that the world as a whole takes care to ensure sustainable development in all regions of the world.
No part of the world can be abandoned to extreme poverty, or used as a dumping ground for the toxic — without jeopardizing and diminishing all the rest.
From time to time since World War II the world has cooperated on the central challenges of living together on this small planet. The American neoconservatives who have fantasized about U.S. unilateral dominance have ridiculed those who believe in global cooperation, but the truth is that when global cooperation has been tried, it has paid off brilliantly.
Foreign aid has contributed to the economic development of Asia and Latin America through the Green Revolution of increased agricultural productivity, the control of infectious diseases (such as smallpox), the vast rise of literacy and school attendance — and much more.
Foreign aid and global agreements have facilitated the dramatic, indeed revolutionary, dissemination of modern methods of contraception and family planning, leading to a crucial voluntary drop of fertility rates in most of the world.
Global cooperation has produced major advances in global environmental control, most successfully in heading off the destruction of the layer of stratospheric ozone, and has established frameworks for dealing with climate change, biodiversity and desertification.
Global cooperation has dramatically slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and encouraged several dozen countries to abandon their quest for such weapons.
It might seem that such global cooperation will prove to be utopian. The prevailing unilateralism of the United States will seem for many people to be an inevitable feature of world politics in which politicians are voted in or out of office by their own populations rather than by a global electorate.
However, global cooperation in many fields has been enormously successful in the past, in large part because well-informed national electorates support global cooperation when they understand that it is in their own enlightened self-interest and vital for the well-being of their children and children’s children. Our challenge is not so much to invent global cooperation as it is to rejuvenate, modernize and extend it.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from COMMON WEALTH, by Jeffrey Sachs. Copyright 2008 Penguin Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives — and on the practical means to achieve them.
The defining challenge of the twenty-first century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a <i>common fate on a crowded planet</i>.
Global cooperation will have to come to the fore. The very idea of competing nation-states that scramble for markets, power and resources will become passé.
A clash of civilizations could well result from the rising tensions, and it could truly be our last and utterly devastating clash.
The recognition that we share responsibilities across the social divide will need to be extended internationally so the world takes care to ensure sustainable development in all regions.
Jeffrey D. Sachs
Director, Earth Institute at Columbia University Jeffrey Sachs is director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and was a special advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals. Mr. Sachs has advised governments in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia and Africa on economic reforms, and he […]