Where Are the Global Leaders?

The G-8 Summit in Japan earlier this month was a painful demonstration of the pitiful state of global cooperation. The rich world's political leaders have failed not only to provide adequate financing to address global problems, but also to harness the best science and technology, and to empower the international organizations that are best placed to implement solutions.

The G-8 Summit in Japan earlier this month was a painful demonstration of the pitiful state of global cooperation. The world is in deepening crisis. Food prices are soaring. Oil prices are at historic highs. The leading economies are entering a recession. Climate change negotiations are going around in circles. Aid to the poorest countries is stagnant, despite years of promised increases. And yet in this gathering storm it was hard to find a single real accomplishment by the world’s leaders.

The world needs global solutions for global problems, but the G-8 leaders clearly cannot provide them. Because virtually all of the political leaders that went to the summit are deeply unpopular at home, few offer any global leadership. They are weak individually, and even weaker when they get together and display to the world their inability to mobilize real action.

There are four deep problems. The first is the incoherence of American leadership. While we are well past the time when the United States alone could solve any global problems, it does not even try to find shared global solutions. The will to global cooperation was weak even in the Clinton administration, but it has disappeared entirely during the Bush administration.

The second problem is the lack of global financing. The hunger crisis can be overcome in poor countries if they get help to grow more food. The global energy and climate crises can be overcome if the world invests together to develop new energy technologies. Diseases such as malaria can be overcome through globally coordinated investments in disease control. The oceans, rainforests, and air can be kept safe through pooled investments in environmental protection.

Global solutions are not expensive, but they are not free, either. Global solutions to poverty, food production, and development of new clean energy technology will require annual investments of roughly $350 billion, or 1% of GNP of the rich world. This is obviously affordable, and is modest compared to military spending, but is far above the pittance that the G-8 actually brings to the table to solve these urgent challenges. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a valiant effort to get the rest of Europe to honor the modest aid pledges made at the G-8 Summit in 2005, but it has been a tough fight, and one that hasn’t been won.

The third problem is the disconnection between global scientific expertise and politicians. Scientists and engineers have developed many powerful ways to address today’s challenges, whether growing food, controlling diseases, or protecting the environment. And these methods have become even more powerful in recent years with advances in information and communications technology, which make global solutions easier to identify and implement than ever before.

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The fourth problem is that the G-8 ignores the very international institutions – notably the United Nations and the World Bank – that offer the best hope to implement global solutions. These institutions are often deprived of political backing, underfinanced, and then blamed by the G-8 when global problems aren’t solved. Instead, they should be given clear authority and responsibilities, and then held accountable for their performance.

President Bush may be too unaware to recognize that his historically high 70% disapproval rating among US voters is related to the fact that his government turned its back on the international community – and thereby got trapped in war and economic crisis. The other G-8 leaders presumably can see that their own unpopularity at home is strongly related to high food and energy prices, and an increasingly unstable global climate and global economy, none of which they can address on their own.

Starting in January 2009 with the new US president, politicians should take the best chance for their own political survival, and of course for their countries’ well-being, by reinvigorating global cooperation. They should agree to address shared global goals, including the fight against poverty, hunger, and disease (the Millennium Development Goals), as well as climate change and environmental destruction.

To achieve these goals, the G-8 should set clear timetables for action, and transparent agreements on how to fund it. The smartest move would be to agree that each country tax its CO2 emissions in order to reduce climate change, and then devote a fixed amount of the proceeds to global problem solving. With the funding assured, the G-8 would suddenly move from empty promises to real policies.

Backed by adequate funding, the world’s political leaders should turn to the expert scientific community and international organizations to help implement a truly global effort. Rather than regarding the UN and its agencies as competitors or threats to national sovereignty, they should recognize that working with the UN agencies is in fact the only way to solve global problems, and therefore is the key to their own political survival.

These basic steps – agreeing on global goals, mobilizing the financing needed to meet them, and identifying the scientific expertise and organizations needed to implement solutions – is basic management logic. Some may scoff that this approach is impossible at the global level, because all politics are local. Yet today, all politicians depend on global solutions for their own political survival. That by itself could make solutions that now seem out of reach commonplace in the future.

Time is short, since global problems are mounting rapidly. The world is passing through the greatest economic crisis in decades. It’s time to say to the G-8 leaders, “Get your act together, or don’t even bother to meet next year.” It’s too embarrassing to watch grown men and women gather for empty photo opportunities.