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Who’s To Lead?

Fall 2009 Features

Who’s To Lead?

A strategic meditation on the new century’s troubles and what’s to be done

Who is to lead world affairs in the 21st century? The question gets to the heart of politics, which was once famously defined as “the social processes that determine who gets what, when, and how.” But process is never without context, and this new century seems a world spiralling in crisis. Even before the international financial crisis (IFC) of 2008-2009, the real-time effects of climate change, the increasing price and decreasing availability of food, and roller-coaster but ultimately escalating energy costs meant that the bottom billion were already suffering more than their fair share. A few months into the IFC, World Bank President Robert Zoelick declared: “… a human crisis is rapidly unfolding in developing countries. It is pushing poor people to the brink of survival.” (See the Feature piece by John W. McArthur.)

Central to the question of who leads in the process of politics is the maxim that good leadership requires good citizenship. If crisis is to be opportunity, and not a portent to catastrophe, then an unwavering moral commitment to equity, an effective civil society and an aggressive and innovative approach to governance will be central to who leads, and to who gets what, when and how.

There is little doubt today that catastrophe looms large in the popular imagination, and not without reason. Millions suffer as they are denied humanitarian assistance, or are violated, forcibly starved or displaced in vast swaths of territory in Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan-Pakistan, Sri Lanka or North Korea. These countries are inaccessible to sustained independent humanitarian assistance. Belligerents either refuse access, or it is too dangerous – as in Afghanistan and Iraq – for aid agencies to work in areas where political and military objectives have been perfidiously tied to humanitarian principles and practices. More broadly, a West pitted against Islam, a seriously damaged multilateralism, persistent war and political crisis in the Middle East, the proliferation of nuclear states and terrorist networks, a world population – currently at 6.8 billion, and nearing nine billion by 2050 – and new, old and new-again pandemics like H1N1 and tuberculosis (as well as its newly drug-resistant forms), together describe a world not simply in crisis, but seemingly on the verge of catastrophe.

Catastrophe denotes a reversal of what is expected, and marks the end of a story. It overturns the social frameworks on which humans depend for security, through which they make sense of the world, and through which they imagine possibility and a future with one another. If these crises escalate or are added to the triple crises of food, fuel and environment, the perfect storm may yet come to pass – a context wherein the wrong kind of leadership could well be catastrophic.

Today’s crises are complex, interdependent, ramify in unexpected ways, and pose real threats – perhaps even to the viability of modern civilization or even the human species. Risks and events seem to defy anyone’s control, old answers to new questions no longer suffice, and yesterday is no longer a baseline for tomorrow. If nothing else, they reveal the tenuousness of the myth-story that human beings have long used to explain themselves to themselves. It can seem, to quote Yeats – writing in the aftermath of WW1 – that, as “things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold.”

While America remains the world’s only military superpower, the IFC marked the end of American hegemony in the realm of economy, ideas and policy. The ‘rise of the rest’ is real, both economically and politically, and even as it is now crystal-clear that markets need states – if only at a minimum, to set and enforce the rules of the game – it is not clear that the US and the West will be able to continue to set the rules of this game. Indeed, Brazil, Russia, China and India – the newly named BRIC nations, each of which owns vast sums of US treasury debt – potentially seek to rival the US and the West with their own supranational currency. Even with more than seven trillion public dollars for the collapsed international financial architecture – with the massive state-led bank bailouts and auto-industry buyouts – there are no quick or certain fixes for a broken system.

The year 2009 will see the first contraction in Global Domestic Product since 1945, and world trade flows will have fallen optimistically by 10 percent. Because it is more integrated with the global economy than ever before, the already vulnerable developing world – and especially Africa – is paying a deeper price than the industrial countries. Twenty-three of the 30 million newly unemployed are now added to the 1.3 billion under- or unemployed, the majority of whom are in the developing world. There, foreign direct investment – down from 1.2 trillion in 2007 to 363 billion in 2009 – trade, official development assistance and remittances are all desperately down, while inflation continues its staccato rise.

Globalization is in reverse, and while neoliberalism, along with most of the utopian ‘isms’ of the 20th century, is dead, the nation-state system remains stuck in a Westphalian conceptual trap, groping for leadership. Since the end of WW2, the world’s 192 sovereign governments have, in the aggregate, lost considerable influence, while multinational corporations have become very powerful. Of the 100 largest economies in the world at the beginning of this millennium, 51 were businesses and only 49 nation-states. Today, competing and overlapping state alliances and blocks (Chimerica vs. G8/G5 + Egypt vs. G20 vs. UN Fora vs. BRIC), multinational corporations, intergovernmental organizations like the WTO and the WHO, transnational public-private partnerships, foundations like Gates, one-man states like Bono, the UN, big and small NGOs, and transnational civil society networks are all powerful forces that shape and reshape contemporary international relations. Uncertainty is the new condition, and if catastrophe is to be averted, leadership matters – perhaps as never before.

The world is not as it was, and if it is to be other than a lawless wilderness, it must first be seen ‘as it is.’ In early 2008, the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health argued that “social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.” It emphasized the need for changes in the operation of the global economy if the health gap between rich and poor is to be closed. At that time, the G8 had delivered only four billion of a promised 25 billion toward global health and development goals. Now, in the wake of the IFC, that gap is an open and growing abyss. The G8 countries have not met their commitment to double aid to Africa by 2010, and are unlikely to do so. Only days after the 2009 London G20 Summit, official development assistance from Germany was categorized by the EU as ‘off track’ for 2009. Italy has actually cut aid, and France has reduced its aid targets and cut its aid budget. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – agreed in 2000 – are the lowest common denominator of globally agreed goals rooted in, and driven by, social justice and equity. Six of the eight MDGs are on track to miss their 2015 target date and, at the pace of current funding, will not be achieved until 2050.

Even before the IFC, a 100 million people were pushed into poverty each year because of out-of-pocket health care payments. In 30 low- and middle-income countries, upwards of 80 percent of all people who die every year cannot afford existing medical treatments. Beyond HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, more than one billion people suffer from neglected tropical diseases, for which there is inaccessible, inadequate or outright non-existent treatment and – because of a lack of return on investment for the private sector – a paucity of research and development. Now, perhaps inevitably, that number will be higher.

In 2009, more than 100 million will be added to the already one billion people – one in six on the planet – who go to bed hungry every night. Last year, hungry people deposed the prime minister of Haiti. (See the In Situ report by Caroline Kheboussarian from Port-au-Prince.) They rioted in at least thirty countries. Food prices were twenty-four percent higher in real terms at the end of 2008 as in 2006, and one-third of that increase was due to the emergence of biofuels as an alternative to oil-based fuels. On June 19, 2009, World Food Program representative Josette Sheeran said: “A hungry world is a dangerous world. Without food, people have only three options: they riot, they emigrate, or they die.”

Beyond hunger and health, climate change is happening with greater speed and intensity than initially predicted. Its consequences for political stability, the global economy and poverty reduction efforts could well be catastrophic. (See the One Pager by Gwynne Dyer.) It is climate change that drives competition for access to water and arable land in Darfur, and that leads today to war crimes, crimes against humanity and slow-motion genocide. The consequences of climate change will certainly worsen as the number of cars – for example – increases from today’s 700 million to an IMF- predicted three billion by 2050. A decade from now, crop yields in some parts of Africa are expected to drop by 50 percent, and water stress could affect as many as 250 million Africans. Globally, not only will the number and severity of droughts, floods and hurricanes increase but, as climate change worsens – humanitarian assistance notwithstanding – wars over water and arable land will also worsen. A June 2009 report by researchers at Columbia University warned that we could see the largest migration in human history, with up to 700 million climate migrants by 2050.

These are challenges on an epic scale. They require out-of-the-box leadership that brings a more orderly and reliable response to social and political issues that go beyond the individual response capacities of states.

The 21st century context demands a political process that offers not a reformed global system of government – for the world cannot wait, and will not wait, for that utopia – but a governance that offers ideas rooted in equity, as well as the vision, hope and optimism of principled pragmatism.

So who is to lead, how, and to what end? Ryan Balot, a classics scholar at the University of Toronto, has some old insights that matter to new problems. Athenians, Balot argues, were resilient in the face of crisis – preventing these from developing into catastrophes, because they had rich, open, democratic political deliberation that respected nature and acknowledged human limitations. And from this culture of open deliberation, the Athenians had the ability and will to hold political leaders to account for their choices and actions.

Hannah Arendt – a Jew who as a young woman escaped the Nazi Reich to France and then to New York – was one of the great political philosophers of the 20th century. Arendt spent her entire life as an academic trying to understand how it was possible that the 2,500-year history of Western political thought and experience could have given rise to the totalitarian regimes of Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Communist Russia. Some of what Arendt observed is crucially important to the questions of ‘leadership by whom, how, and to what end?’ She wrote that “we are not born equal: equality is the result of choice and of human organization.”

When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, 125 cities across America erupted in a firestorm of rage and bloodshed. It was inconceivable back then that a mere 40 years later, a black man would be elected president by a majority of Americans. Obama does not represent African-Americans – rather, he represents the power of engaged citizenship in a contest of ideas and choice.

On July 4, 1994, the day that the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda ended – the day the author left Rwanda – few on the planet could have imagined that, 15 years later, an International Criminal Court (ICC), however imperfect, would actually exist – let alone issue an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state, Mr. Omar Al Bashir of Sudan. Now, for the first time in human history, those who violate the laws of war can be held to account internationally if their own governments fail to so hold them. The ICC came into being because citizens and civil society organizations like Amnesty International and thousands of others in churches, schools, community clubs and on university campuses around the world organized – bringing together academics, jurists and some of the best political and legal minds in the world. They engaged in rigorous public debate and policy analysis, and explored alternatives. All spoke, listened, demanded a better politics and sought out courageous politicians who came to the point where it was impossible to ignore the voice and choice of citizens.

Ten years ago, 400,000 of two million people with HIV/AIDS in the developed world had access to treatment. In the developing world, it was less than 40,000 of an estimated 28 million. Millions suffered and died needlessly. Today, because of an engaged, activist global civil society, nearly four million in the developing world are on treatment, there are new international health institutions, and the realities and possibilities of global health have changed forever.

Every major advance in scientific, social or political thinking came about because someone dared to believe the impossible. The most innovative and politically transformative ideas – ideas in the defence of greater equity and justice – of the last 200 years have not only emerged in, but have been driven by, civil society. The abolition of the slave trade, the emergence of organized labour, children’s and women’s rights, civil rights for African-Americans, reform of the post-WW2 and the post-Cold War rules of war, the environmental movement, the global health movement – all are examples of transformative political ideas rooted in notions of equity. Each began as a lost cause, and, however imperfectly, has achieved practical outcomes that surpass those of the prior world.

How does one see possibility? It does not lie in naive utopian dreams, but in what one does. Human beings are clearly capable of doing great and good things. But wanting or being good is not good enough. Arendt’s central preoccupation – summarized brilliantly in the work of Margaret Canovan – was the re-evaluation of politics and political action. Arendt concluded that neither religion nor philosophy will save humankind from the possibility of political failures like totalitarianism. She concluded, though, that the right kind of politics can lessen the possibility. She was deeply concerned about humankind’s responsibility for politics and the duty of citizenship – looking after the world and taking responsibility. “The first political act is to speak,” she once famously said. Indeed, if there is silence, there can be no justice. And revenge – the lowest form of justice, but a form of justice nonetheless – is the only certainty. And to speak is to expect that someone will listen. She saw as hubris the notion that everything is possible. She was concerned, too, with gratuitous activism, with limits. Politics is not a field for the action of deterministic forces, but political action is something that happens among plural actors. Political action, then, is a practical activity – not a matter of executing theoretical blueprints, but something to be practiced with courage, skill and, sometimes, restraint. For Arendt, human beings have demonstrated their capacity to do the thoroughly unexpected, and if answers can be found at all, they will be found in human political capacity. In speaking and listening, therefore, human beings create the possibility of political process and institutions that can minimize the risk of disaster, political crime and catastrophe. For Arendt, it is politics that creates the possibility of humanizing the lawless wilderness.

Legitimate leaders emerge in an open process of deliberation and debate: they are chosen by their followers and arrive at the helm not by seizing it, but by convincing others that they should lead. Beyond the man himself, the Obama phenomenon occurred precisely because American citizens spoke, listened and rejected a politics of fear; they instead embraced possibility in a world of uncertainty. This phenomenon has transformed a politics of cynicism into a politics of hope and optimism – even in the face of crisis and potential catastrophe. The same can be true internationally, where engaged citizenship is essential to effective leadership. Such a citizenship is one that will no longer be talked down to – one that is willing and able to understand complexity, as well as the necessity of hard choices as part of the public responsibility that good leadership and good citizenship demand. Young people the world over – the largest growing demographic globally – are inspired not just by the Obama phenomenon, but also by a politics of voice and choice.

In a context of uncertainty, one should recognize the imperfection of humanity and of human beings’ limited ability to know and therefore to master fully the particular time and place in which they finds themselves. Human beings can never fully grasp reality, but their understanding can more closely approximate it. This limitation is not a bad thing; it requires a certain humility about the complexity and unknown quality of the world. Paradoxically, though, it also gives human beings a certain liberty to live in the world with their full capacities, passions, ability to use reason and to make choices. This means that a good leader in today’s world would, in the first instance, recognize the dangers of utopianism and, in turn, respect rhetoric and public debate – not in the sense of platitudes and slogans, but in the Socratic sense of using reason and evidence-based argument – so that a perspective emerges that reasonably reflects reality, and that also has a reasonable approach to altering reality.

Good leaders know how to alter the prevailing conditions of the reality in which they find themselves. They engage a public iterative process of first articulating a values-based vision that illuminates a particular question or problem; then defining the concrete elements of their vision for the future; then inviting debate; and, finally, firmly making a choice. This leadership process applies equally to the formally legitimate politics within and across states, and to the informally legitimate politics of civil society and the private sector. In short, leaders must also choose.

“Yes we can” meet the challenges of this early new century, but leaders have to move beyond slogans, and conciliators and centrists like Obama will have to be pushed hard by leadership and active citizenship from within civil society – so that what defines the centre shifts to a world of greater possibility and a place of greater equity.

The global standing of those who claim to lead will depend not simply on what they can achieve for their own formal constituencies, but just as much on what they are willing to do and achieve for others. Globally, there is an absence of central authority – this against the manifest need for cooperation among governments and others to seek common practices and goals in addressing global issues. As the world gropes for leadership, effective governance is central. Governance means working with and through other nations, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society to understand issues, define their cross-cutting challenges, gather evidence and define policy choices. Today, while American power is not hegemonic, it is still dominant, and a more humble America is best placed to take this on. Certainly, where at least some of the actors pursue a short-sighted, raw self-interest at least some of the time, global leadership will require an act of moral imagination that sees the pursuit of the common good as wise-self interest. ‘Coalitions of the willing’ should be built around this perspective. Such coalitions will need to be flexible, allowing for leavers and joiners as they move toward a vision of greater equity.

The G8, with its inside (G7) and outside (G20/G5 + Egypt) club membership, is fading in relevance as the world searches for an authentic form of governance that is both legitimate and effective – one that will not only rise to the challenge, but seize the opportunity for a more just, fair, equitable world. Leadership, if it is to be more than custodial, must look for tractionable starting points that honour dignity as the basic relational commitment of one human being to another. This principle has pragmatic implications.

It means that, in the face of crisis, a principled, pragmatic leadership must deal with the consequences humanely – by first separating the humanitarian relief of suffering in situations of crisis and war from the necessary political responsibility of dealing with root causes. Humanitarianism is not a political solution to the causes of crisis, but rather, quite evidently, a humane response to its effects. Practically, this means that in – for example – war, humanitarian relief must not be conditional or tied to any political or military objectives. It means that belligerents and the wider global political community must recognize and fund an independent humanitarianism that is free and unfettered by the necessary political choices that war demands. This should apply to situations of war, as well as to crises like the global food security crisis. The director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, said recently: “One thousand million empty bellies accuse and shame us… And are a threat to world peace and security.” He is right on both counts.

The world urgently needs reform to existing governance structures to establish an early reaction mechanism – similar to the ones used for natural disasters and conflicts – in order to preempt or respond to food crises. There is no such mechanism now, and the creation of another layer to the array of organizations and institutions that are already in place should be avoided. It is more effective and cost-efficient to revitalize what already exists.

More broadly, effective leadership is able to identify the interdependence of ‘cause-and- effect’ factors across traditional policy silos – for example, the oppositional relationship between increased biofuels and decreased food security – in order to frame morally acceptable, integrating ideas that emerge from policy convergence.

The same kind of bold leadership that has been marshalled around the IFC is required for a sustainable human and humane future. Health and development should not be matters of charity, or subject to the variances and whims of market forces. Sustained efforts to address global health, climate change, food security and economic and financial stability are all mission-critical to a sustainable future. With crisis comes opportunity, and opportunity – if it is to be seized – requires political courage. In this vein, the single greatest crisis-opportunity is sustainable funding for the Millennium Development Goals. Sustainable development requires such sustainable funding, and this requires bold thinking and leadership around ideas such as a currency transaction tax (CTT) for development. A CTT would, in the words of former French President Jacques Chirac, be a “tax on the benefits of globalization.” A 2008 North-South Institute study found that, if properly implemented, the CTT could generate a minimum of US $33 billion per annum for the MDGs without affecting foreign exchange markets. In 2006, France and many other governments launched an airplane ticket tax, with proceeds now going toward an international drug purchase facility to assist the campaign against pandemics. In 2004, more than a hundred countries endorsed a proposal urging action on a CTT-type financing regime. This small levy on foreign exchange transactions is an idea whose time has come.

Today, necessity must be the mother of invention. The thoroughly unexpected must be done. Even in the face of spiralling crises, citizens and political leaders can embrace possibility and humanize a lawless wilderness. These are just simple ideas. But ideas have always been more powerful than economies or armies, and are central now to how humanity invents its future.


James Orbinski is a past international President of Médecins Sans Frontières, a professor at St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, and a founder of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and of Dignitas International.


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