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Speeding Up Good Governance

What can be done to accelerate global decision-making on key issues?

May 12, 2004

What can be done to accelerate global decision-making on key issues?

Leaders around the world are often blamed for taking too long to solve crucial problems. In response, Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin argues that he and his colleagues lack an efficient means to push through an international agenda. In this Globalist Document, he suggests how to accelerate global decision-making.

The responsibility for good international governance falls ultimately upon the shoulders of the political leaders of the world's sovereign governments.

But there is a real problem here. Many of today's international organizations are not designed to facilitate the kinds of informal political debates that must occur between politicians.

In short, leaders cannot make the bold decisions required if international fora remain focused only on ratifying the product of bureaucratic negotiations. The most fruitful exchanges between leaders often take place in the corridors of great meetings — one on one, far removed from the actual agenda.

When leaders do meet in international fora, it is difficult to break free of the "Briefing Book" syndrome and get down to brass tacks, to thinking outside the box.

Bureaucrats and diplomats can take an issue so far — and no further. Only political leaders can make the leap so often required to break an intellectual, emotional or historical impasse.

Photo-ops are no substitute for political will. We have to find ways for political leaders to work with each other internationally the way they work with different political constituencies at home.

This means debating, exploring and searching for value-driven solutions that are inclusive rather than divisive, stabilizing rather than destructive, pragmatic rather than ideological.

How do we get there? An approach I believe to be worthwhile would be to look at the lessons learned from the Group of 20 finance ministers that was formed in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997.

We foresaw an informal gathering of finance ministers, representing established and emerging centers of influence and coming from very different political, economic, cultural and religious traditions.

We wanted to bridge the "us" versus "them" mentality that bedevils so many international meetings. And it has worked remarkably well — because peer pressure is often a very effective way to force decisions.

We believe a similar approach among leaders could help crack some of the toughest issues facing the world. We need to get the right mix of countries in the same room, talking without a set script.

We are not proposing a new bricks and mortar institution — but we do believe a new approach directly involving political leaders could help break a lot of logjams.

I would suggest we should convene a select group of countries from North and South tackling just one issue — and see where that takes us.

It could be global terrorism or global public health. For instance, the United States, Canada and other G8 countries — working with the UN — have done much to develop a humane response to the AIDS crisis in Africa.

In Canada, our parliament is legislating changes to allow Canadian companies to provide generic anti-HIV/AIDS drugs to African countries at low cost. We are the first industrialized country to bring forth groundbreaking legislation of this kind. I am very proud of this.

But the need for cheap medicines goes beyond AIDS and beyond Africa.

Can we not find a balance between the clear need for the intellectual property rights that underwrite much of our medical research — and the equally clear need to help alleviate suffering among people who cannot afford the fruits of that research?

There are other issues a Leaders' G-20 could deal with as well, such as rescuing the current round of multilateral trade negotiations, where the biggest stumbling block is agriculture. Agriculture is not simply a trade issue that will be decided solely on its economic merit.

In countries like France, Japan and the United States, it is first and foremost a political issue — one which only political leaders at the highest level can deal with.

Everyone agrees the failure of the Doha round is in no one's interest — and yet failure looms. If the talks collapse, then many countries, rightly or wrongly, will feel that although the international systems we have built over the decades may work for some — they do not work for them.

This is a bad message to be sending, especially when we are trying — as a matter of the utmost importance to our security — to reassure countries that we care about their futures, that we want to extend the benefits of globalization to them and see them prosper.

In much of the discussion about good governance — both within countries and internationally — we assume that most governments would prefer to work well on behalf of their citizens rather than remain apart in wretched isolation.

But as we know, this is not always the case. What of those countries that are unwilling to take the first steps towards responsible national or global citizenship?

What do we do when their populations face humanitarian catastrophe? What do we do when people are confronted by a culture of hate or violence spawned by their own government, as occurred in Rwanda?

If a nation violates all accepted standards of responsible behavior, the question is: Do we, the international community, have a responsibility to protect — in this case, to protect a country's people from their own government?

A recent international commission reported to the United Nations that we do have that responsibility and it set out various types of acceptable interventions, including measures such as sanctions and military action under certain conditions — including acting under "the right authority."

We in Canada find ourselves very much in agreement with Kofi Annan when he said: "Surely no legal principle, not even sovereignty, can ever shield crimes against humanity."

We believe that humanitarian intervention — under compelling circumstances, such as a Rwanda or a Kosovo — is warranted. We reject the argument that state sovereignty confers absolute immunity.

As Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel has said: "Neutrality always means coming down on the side of the victimizer — never on the side of the victim."

What is required is an open discussion about the need for intervention in situations that offend the most basic precepts of our common humanity.

We need clear agreement on principles to help determine when it is appropriate to use force in support of humanitarian objectives.

We have to demonstrate to people around the planet that international systems can be made to work for everyone. We have to give every person a stake in good governance — at home and internationally.

Day by day, it becomes clearer that our long-term security requires the spread of freedom around the world: Freedom from oppression, freedom from corruption, freedom from hunger and ignorance and hopelessness.

Freedom for everyone to live a secure, prosperous and productive life.

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from Paul Martin’s speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washignton, D.C., on April 29, 2004.