The World Talks But It’s Not Enough

The world converged on New York at the end of September to discuss the most pressing issues facing the globe. The heads of state from more than 140 countries tackled climate change, sustainable development, global peacekeeping, and the Islamic State. There were some important agreements at the UN and in various side discussions. But consensus on the most critical threats facing the world continued to remain elusive.

Several world leaders used the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UN’s founding to make big announcements. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, unveiled his new strategy for Syria, which includes direct military intervention on the side of the Assad government in Damascus and intelligence-sharing with Iran and Iraq to defeat the Islamic State. Pope Francis, in his call for greater focus on the threat of climate change and the needs of the poor, criticized the “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity.” And President Obama, in an implicit response to the obvious failures of U.S. military strategy in Syria, argued that combatting extremism requires not brute force but winning the “hearts and minds” of those who might otherwise be drawn to the Islamic State.

There were also new commitments. The assembled countries pledged 40,000 more peacekeepers for future UN missions. And the UN initiated new Sustainable Development Goals to build on the Millennium Development Goals that succeeded five years ahead of schedule to cut extreme poverty in half.

In a summit that took advantage of Xi Jinping‘s presence in the United States, the Chinese leader met with President Obama in Washington, DC. The two agreed to establish “international rules of the road for appropriate conduct in cyberspace” that would reduce commercial cyberattacks. Xi also announced that China would implement a new cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gasses. And, in an important cultural agreement, China will help one million Americans learn Mandarin by 2020.

It was obviously a very busy week for global diplomacy. In addition to the agreements listed above, it was important that Obama could sit down with both Putin and Xi, shake hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro to continue to advance U.S.-Cuban ties.

But here’s what was missing from all the formal meetings and official announcements.

For all the talk of the Islamic State and global peacekeeping, there was no movement in the direction of a political settlement to the civil war that is tearing apart Syria and pushing millions of its citizens into neighboring countries as well as Europe. Russia and the United States have a deep disagreement over whether to push for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad, but they both still seem to favor a military solution to the problem. The U.S.-led coalition has launched 7,000 aerial attacks against the Islamic State, and last week Russia conducted its first air strike.

Virtually every country in the world agrees that the Islamic State is a problem. But this self-declared caliphate will continue to thrive as long as chaos reigns in Syria and Iraq. Bombing has not decreased the size of its fighting force, for thousands more zealots have decided to make their way to the new territory to join the fight. The war has also inspired extremists in other parts of the world – Nigeria, Afghanistan, the northern Caucasus region of Russia – to declare their affiliation to the Islamic State. So, the United States, Russia, and Iran have to put aside their various disagreements and forge a political settlement that can end the fighting in Syria and Iraq and increase the isolation of the Islamic State.

Of course the world will be a better off place with 40,000 more peacekeepers. But what‘s the point of hiring thousands of more firemen if we continue to set more and more fires? World leaders made no commitments to reduce their spending on military, cut back on arms sales, or stop overseas military interventions. The Obama administration, for all its talk of the importance of diplomacy, has done nothing to lead the way in shifting money and attention away from conflict creation and towards conflict prevention. The United States still leads the world by large margins in the funds we lavish on the Pentagon, the number of military bases we maintain around the world, and the military missions we are conducting in more than 100 countries.

It’s also great that China is taking climate change seriously. But cap-and-trade systems have been notoriously ineffectual. In its regional versions of cap-and-trade, China has been giving out its carbon permits for free, so the industrial sector is continuing to get a free ride. Unless the true costs of pollution are factored into manufacturing and energy production, industry won‘t be forced to invest in sustainable alternatives. And, as the Pope pointed out, addressing climate change without dealing with the materialism and consumerism at the heart of our global economic system will come to naught. This is one problem that we cannot grow our way out of.

The meetings continue. After the UN General Assembly gathered, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon put together another high-level meeting – on the refugee and migrant crisis. In December will come the next big climate change gathering in Paris. It’s always important that world leaders meet and talk. It‘s heartening that they recognize that these are problems worth discussing.

But unless all the talking translates into new efforts, new institutions, and most importantly new resources, we’ll be left with only a lot of pretty words about a lot of ugly problems.

Hankyoreh, October 12, 2015


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