A Global Civics Lesson

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

ISTANBUL: The reality of the world’s epic interdependence is well known. We have seen how financial engineering in the United States can determine economic growth in every part of the world; how carbon-dioxide emissions from China end up influencing crop yields and livelihoods in Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and beyond; how an epidemic in Mexico endangers the rhythm of public life in the US; or how volcanic ash from Iceland affects travel across Europe.

We are also familiar with the inherent difficulties of devising and implementing solutions to global problems through nation-states, and have relied on two broad models to deal with this predicament. The first is composed of a wide range of creative ad hoc alliances and solutions.

When standard global public health instruments proved insufficient, for example, we built the Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, AIDS, and Malaria. When the internet became global, its management was turned over to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which enlists the voices of individual internet users in its governance — a significant departure from intergovernmental multilateralism.

The US, as the most powerful member of the international system, tends to prefer ad hoc approaches to global governance. With its vast resources and alliances, ad hoc solutions allow the US to advance its interests effectively without the entanglements of more enduring rules, customs, and structures.

Europeans prefer a more systematic reliance on the rule of law, and also on what has come to be known as the global public-goods paradigm. Adherents of this view point first and foremost to the existence of certain vital global public goods, climate being the most obvious example.

By definition, public goods mean a collective-action problem. The global public-goods paradigm also implies some commensurability, if not uniformity, in the way we respond to various global collective-action challenges.

Americans tend to find this expectation of commensurability suffocating, while Europeans find it reassuring and liberating. (The developing world has been largely absent in this debate, with notable exceptions in the form of indignation about unfairness built into the status quo, peppered with obstructionism.)

Like many other cardinal questions, the tension between these approaches is unlikely to be resolved conclusively. We are more likely to live with this tension for a long time, with emphasis shifting back and forth between approaches.

It would thus be much more worthwhile to focus on a neglected issue: what responsibilities do we all have toward people who happen not to be our compatriots? Both the ad hoc and the global public-goods schools shy away from this question, and yet without at least some working answer, we will lack the compass needed to navigate our increasing global interdependence.

We need to recognize that global governance is not a technocratic puzzle to be solved by clever institutional design. We cannot establish an effective social contract without an explicit understanding of our responsibilities towards each other — and of the rights that emerge alongside those responsibilities.

The answers are to be found not only in the speeches given at the United Nations General Assembly or at the Davos World Economic Forum, but in the conversations we have with our friends, families, and colleagues. We must all consider what responsibilities we are willingly ready to accept, and then discuss our answers with others.

This will mean starting to imagine — without panic or rush, and with all the care and thoughtfulness that this conversation requires — a global civics. Current and probable future levels of global connectivity and interdependence enable and require us to commence this conversation.

Whether or not we realize it, we have comparable conversations every day. For example, every day millions of people drive at high speeds encased in a ton of metal, and they do so extremely close to others who are doing the same thing. A slight move of the steering wheel in the wrong direction would wreak havoc, but we cruise carefree, because we have reasonable expectations about the behavior of other drivers.

Our expectations of other drivers, which serve to mitigate the theoretical risks of driving, can exist because people adhere to a framework of laws, habits, and conventions about how to operate automobiles. In an increasingly interdependent world, we need a corresponding global framework to put our minds at relative ease. That framework has to be based on global civics, a system of conscious responsibilities that we are ready to take on — and corresponding rights that we are ready to claim — after due deliberation.

To imagine the shape of global civics, a worthwhile exercise would be to take 15 minutes to consider what we would say to the seven billionth human being — who will join us in less than a thousand days — about the human condition awaiting her. This hypothetical conversation would help us take stock of global conditions that we have all helped produce, and would set us on a path toward discovering our core responsibilities to each other and the next generation — the essence of global civics.

Hakan Altinay is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, www.project-syndicate.org.

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