The failure of international summitry

How can cooperation be designed to be in every nation’s best interests in the long and short-term? And how can we, citizens, make failure so costly that politicians have no choice but to cooperate?

John Bunzl
5 December 2013

These days, international summits to solve climate change and other global problems have become symbols of both hope and failure: hope that our leaders will take substantive action, but knowledge that these summits too often produce little more than hot air. Aware of the global challenges we face, we can’t understand why they don’t act. So what’s wrong with international summits? And what can we do about it?

Short-term interests

An agreement firstly has to be in each nation’s short-term interests. Even a serious threat that’s perceived as longer-term, like global warming, may not be enough to galvanise action. Second, there needs to be a political cost for our leaders if they fail to reach an agreement. But unfortunately neither of these conditions is met in international summits nor in multi-lateral treaty-making.

Concerning short-term interests, China and the USA are the world’s biggest emitters, so their costs in dramatically reducing CO2 emissions will be very high. Thus, cooperating with the international community is simply not in their short-term interests. Moreover, when leaders return home having failed to reach an agreement, there’s little or no political cost. Rather, the fact an agreement would have incurred significant economic costs is used to show that the leader was, by failing to agree, only protecting the public’s interests.

Making cooperation a win-win

How, then, can cooperation be designed to be in every nation’s best interests in the long and short-term? And how can we, citizens, make failure so costly that politicians have no choice but to cooperate?

Any global policy - whether it’s CO2 reductions or any other - would almost inevitably mean some nations losing out (or gaining) more than others. But there is an answer. Rather than trying to solve global problems one at a time, the solution lies in combining two or more complementary issues so that what a nation may lose on one issue, it can gain on another.

If, for example, negotiations on a global tax on currency transactions (Tobin Tax) occurred alongside a climate negotiation, the countless millions of dollars this tax would raise from financial markets could be used to compensate nations that may lose out by cutting their carbon emissions. China, the USA and other major emitting nations could suddenly find that drastically cutting their emissions was, because of the compensation, in their self-interest, transforming the present sterile stale-mate into fertile cooperation.

But how can we, citizens, ensure this multi-issue approach? And how do we act so that failing to reach an international agreement could cost politicians not just a poor press, but their parliamentary seats? We know by now that street protest and online petitions, although sometimes effective, can only take us so far. But what we need is a way to take back control.

Getting back in the cockpit

A global campaign that answers these questions already exists and is beginning to make headway. It’s called the Simultaneous Policy – Simpol, for short. Over three UK general elections, in 2001, 2005 and 2010, a small number of campaign supporters succeeded in getting 27 British MPs and countless candidates from all the main political parties to pledge to implement the campaign’s global policy package alongside other governments.

But how could a very small number of citizens achieve such big results in so short a time? The answer lies in the new, powerful way they use their votes. They do this by writing to all the competing parliamentary candidates in their electoral area, telling them the following: “As a voter in your constituency, I’ll be voting in future national elections, not for a specific politician or party, but for any politician or party—within reason—that pledges to implement Simpol’s policy package simultaneously alongside other governments”.

In that way, campaign supporters still retain the ultimate right to vote as they please, but they also make it clear to all politicians that they’ll be giving strong preference to candidates that have signed the Simpol pledge. So, politicians know that if they sign the pledge they attract those votes, and yet they risk nothing because the policy package only gets implemented if and when sufficient governments around the world have signed up too. But politicians also know that if they fail to sign the pledge they risk losing those votes to their competitors who have signed, and so could risk losing their seats.

There would, of course, be no point in a politician signing the pledge simply to gain more votes only to later renege on that commitment. Because, if they did, they’d only lose the votes they sought to gain in the first place, and so could jeopardize their parliamentary seats. Simpol thus puts citizens back in control. By the same token it gives citizens unprecedented control over the policies to be negotiated and implemented at the global level. With many parliamentary seats and even entire elections around the world often hanging on a relatively small number of votes, it’s not difficult to see that, by using this powerful “carrot and stick” way of voting, a small yet critical number of citizens could make international cooperation in politicians’ vital interests.

Seeing how voting can once again have real meaning, more and more citizens are likely to be drawn to the campaign, so leading still more politicians and governments to sign on. Whether democratic or not, and whatever their level of development, the worsening world predicament in any case makes it in the interests of all nations to solve problems cooperatively. What this campaign provides is an appropriate framework for that to occur, and a way for enlightened citizens to take the lead, so leading to the kind of international summits that really can make a difference.

Thanks to this novel way of voting, some Members of the European, Australian and other parliaments have signed up alongside their UK colleagues. The campaign presently has endorsements from leading statesmen and women, economists and ecologists and supporters in over 100 countries.

We can carry on moaning at the failures of international summits, or we can do something about it! www.simpol.org

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