05 Jul 2013


The most pressing challenge that humanity faces today is the need to take collective action to manage the global commons. Indeed, the outcome of the 21st century will depend on our ability to recognise and deal with increasingly complex and numerous planetary issues.

In my new book, The Great Convergence, I use a simple boat metaphor to explain this point. Before the era of modern globalisation, when people lived discretely in more than 100 separate countries, humankind was like a flotilla of more than 100 separate boats. What the world then needed was a set of rules designed to ensure that these many boats did not collide and to facilitate their cooperation on the high seas, if, occasionally, they did. Despite some obvious failures, these rules succeeded in producing a relatively stable global order for more than 50 years.

Today, global circumstances have changed dramatically. The seven billion people who inhabit planet earth no longer live in more than 100 separate boats. Instead, they all live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. But this boat has a problem. It has 193 captains and crews, each claiming exclusive responsibility for one cabin. However, no captain or crew takes care of the boat as a whole. None of us would sail into an ocean of rapidly changing currents and looming storms without a capable captain and crew at the helm of our boat. Yet the global policy community proposes to do exactly that: sail into the uncertain waters of the 21st century without a captain.

Clearly we are not ready to accept a “captain” of planet Earth in the form of a “global government”. Global government will not happen in our lifetime and in that of our children. However, we can strengthen institutions of “global governance”, especially the large body of multilateral institutions under the UN umbrella.

One of the dirty little secrets I expose in my book is that it has been the policy of Western developed countries to weaken, rather than strengthen, UN institutions. However, while some may think that this policy may have served Western interests in the past (and I argue that it never did), it certainly does not do so now. As a shrinking minority in the world’s population, it is in the interest of Western countries too, to strengthen multilateral institutions.

The good news here is that we can create a better world with a simple policy switch: to move from weakening UN bodies to strengthening them. In practical terms, this means giving more assured long-term funding to bodies like the World Health Organisation (to deal with the rising threat of pandemics) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (to help prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons).

Even though the West claims that it believes in stronger and more effective leadership of UN organisations, it has often taken the opposite route in practice. A real test of Western policy in this area will surface in 2016. The next UN Secretary-General will come from Europe as a result of the well-established practice of regional rotation.

In the past, Europe has produced the best ever UN Secretary- General, Dag HammarskjÖld from Sweden. He died in office on his way to negotiate a cease-fire and was awarded the Nobel Prize posthumously. But Europe also produced one of the worst, Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian, who covered up his Nazi past to take up the UN post. This will therefore be one of the key questions the world will face in 2016: will Europe put forward a candidate more like Hammarskjold or Waldheim? If it is the former, the capacity of our world to deal with problems of the global commons will be given a major boost. In short, we will sail into the 21st century with a strong rather than a weak “captain” as we deal with a rising tide of new global challenges.

Kishore Mahbubani is Dean of the LKY School of Public Policy, NUS, and author of The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World.