It’s the long term, stupid

Anthony Barnett
23 June 2004

One of the questions of the contemporary world is how should two vastly unequal social groups relate: its wealthy minority, concerned to prevent attacks upon it, and its poor majority, concerned to secure the essentials of daily livelihood. Behind it lies a paradox expressed in an article by Kofi Annan which openDemocracy published on 17 June: “Today, the strong feel almost as vulnerable to the weak as the weak feel vulnerable to the strong.”

There are many possible answers to this question. All involve enormous sums of money and affect the lives of entire peoples. Any politically relevant solution will have to be both international and win democratic legitimacy, entailing long-term commitments that extend well beyond the cycle of national elections. This, truly, is a 21st century agenda.

Could a central part of the answer be to promote Ecosoc, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, to the same level of authority as the Security Council?

Many readers might shake their heads – or shrug their shoulders. In one sense, yes, it is a technical, specialist question.

I know it is not going to happen just yet. But I’d like to live in a time when the issue of Ecosoc’s influence sends tens of thousands to their computers wanting to email articles about it to their friends (and foes).

Because if you do not want to take your shoes off every time you get on an aeroplane (or perhaps in future a train), or see vast sums of money expended on security and surveillance measures, what then needs to be done?

Something is so obviously wrong that it is mad. Huge resources of money, time and effort are expended after disasters which could have been prevented for a fraction of the cost. It is a madness currently built into the west’s way of doing things. The press and media sell papers and gain viewers by attacking “do-gooders” who interfere in the affairs of other people. Politicians attack “wasteful” aid and get re-elected.

Then a catastrophe strikes, huge numbers are afflicted with Aids, famine or terror-supporting dictatorships. The press and media sell papers and get advertising by running gruesome images and calls for action. Statesmen (and they are overwhelmingly men) then seek their “place in history” by intervening in the name of humanity.

This cycle of crises, their permission and solution – so immensely profligate and inefficient in human terms – is also, for those with power and money, a profitable way of life. In short, it is all much more dramatic and exciting than… well, than Ecosoc.

In his advocacy of a “social-democratic consensus” for globalisation, David Held states that the world has the resources and, broadly, knows what needs to be done, but lacks the necessary political will. Just assume that he is right on the first two points (and they are assumptions being strongly contested in our debate). It does not follow that to achieve the necessary political will is a small matter.

The construction of a democratic public able to exercise and sustain such a “will” needs at least four things:

  • an intelligent rather than cynical media capable of projecting and sustaining interest in public debate

  • legitimate international diplomacy that enhances rather than undermines national democracies

  • a robust capacity to identify and regulate vested interests that benefit from uneven growth and inequality

  • a people-based politics that has moved on from the voids of party politics and can talk through the kinds of choices and priorities essential to real world activity.

As part of openDemocracy’s contribution we decided to cover questions of effective crisis prevention – however dull this might appear at first sight even to a global readership. We want to ask how analysis and action can combine in ways that both work and are acceptable. So we are particularly interested in the high-level panel that Kofi Annan has appointed to address the role of the United Nations and its response to what he sees as a triple crisis in world affairs.

The proceedings of the high-level panel are being supported by the United Nations Foundation which was created by Ted Turner. I asked the Better World Fund (a sister organisation of the UN Foundation) to back openDemocracy’s editorial work on the issues it is addressing - not to promote its efforts but to assist us putting some critical energy into reporting and examining the problems it is raising. If a conference the UN Foundation backed is bad, we’d say so; if its arguments are overly diplomatic, we’d seek to clarify them.

The first outcome is that we co-sponsored an international seminar at the London School of Economics. Paul Kingsnorth reports on it for us. Paul is the author of a recent round-the-world survey of the global social justice movement, ‘One No, Many Yeses’.

In his report Paul describes a small, perhaps significant moment. Julian Hunte, the current president of the UN general assembly who is from St Lucia in the Caribbean, said that there is no prospect that the Security Council would be reformed as the powers holding veto votes would not relinquish them. In his view, the best, quickest way to make the influence of the majority world felt would be to enhance the power of Ecosoc. David Hannay, the distinguished ex-diplomat and British member of the high-level panel shook his head in disapproval.

The high-level panel reports in December 2004. At the moment it is proceeding with little public coverage of the issues. The outcome is all too likely to be yet another document whose main impact on the world will be the loss of the trees it took to print its unread pages.

But a rare moment is approaching when such a report could make a difference. The United States invasion of Iraq is a disaster, one that our columnist Paul Rogers has tracked in understated fashion since it was a mere gleam in the eye of the maddest neo-con. In its aftermath it may be possible for better international authority to be established. The suggestions the panel makes and rejects will open and close possibilities. What Julian Hunte proposes is one of these options. In effect, he seems to be saying that taking debate about economic and social issues out of the hands of the Security Council may be essential to giving development issues the importance they deserve.

One of the things I learnt from the London conference was the simple but obvious point (so often the ones that matter) that there is a huge imbalance of interest, resources and time invested in the military side of security. This starts at the top. Perhaps, then, the best place to start to reverse this is indeed also at the top. Rather than reforming the Security Council and seeking to add to its powers, why not limit its influence and shift power to a new veto-less Development Council responsibility for overseeing questions of global livelihood, food security, education and equality for women?

This is where the crises that dominate the world’s daily attention and the slow, patient work of institutional reform interconnect. In the era of 24/7 media coverage, it is more then ever necessary to insist on the shaping influence of the long term. That is why openDemocracy seeks to look at the world using a long lens, not a rearview mirror.

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