The declining global political system can be restored
Democracy, human rights, the rule of law and diversity are the best medicine for our worsening social illnesses
We must once again recognize that a global approach, in partnership with countries that have similar views, is a force multiplier.
I'm often asked whether I'm an optimist or a pessimist. I'm an optimist who worries a lot. While I believe in our collective ability to make progress through political and economic liberty, I worry because we tend to repeat the mistakes of the past instead of learning from them.
In the arena of world affairs, I'm not sure we're any smarter now than we were in the past. The 20th century was the bloodiest in history. And the new millennium hasn't begun well.
More than 17 years after 9/11, the terrorist threat is evolving, decentralizing and, in some ways, growing more dangerous. The Russian and US governments warily coexist. And China and the United States appear to be on a collision course, viewing each other suspiciously through a lens of competition. In Europe, uncertainties surrounding Brexit are cause for concern.
Meanwhile, we're not doing enough to combat climate change. The world is also doing far too little, far too slowly, to halt the killing in Yemen and Syria. And between North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons program and growing cyber threats, our efforts to curb the spread of dangerous weapons are falling short. I also worry that, in almost every region of the world, it seems that authoritarians and strongmen are on the rise and the democratic euphoria that greeted the end of the Cold War has dissipated.
I still believe firmly in humans' ability to learn from history, to establish and live by the rule of law, and to create economic and political arrangements that work to benefit all countries.
The psychology of collaboration that long prevailed has been shattered, replaced by a psychology of separation that triggers disagreements about everything from trade to international law to arms control. It makes me fear a return to the international climate that prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s when the US withdrew from the global stage, and countries everywhere pursued what they perceived as their own interests without regard for larger, more enduring goals.
The explanation for these developments begins with globalization and technology. These forces, which brought the world closer together, have also made many people cling more tightly to their ethnic, cultural and religious identities. Though most have benefited from globalization, those who feel betrayed and insecure often search for someone, preferably an outsider, to blame. Meanwhile, the rise of social media enables us to share our grievances instantly and globally.
For decades, the best aspirin for global headaches was the unity and strength of major industrialized powers in North America, Europe and Asia. We must once again recognize that a global approach, in partnership with countries that have similar views, is a force multiplier. In addition, we must embrace the rise of non-state actors, another important development. I'm referring to non-governmental organizations, institutional investors, multinational corporations—groups that make their own decisions and help shape the global terrain.
Some companies have annual revenue that is higher than the GDP of a small country, and more influence than some national governments. The global system must bring these groups in earlier as decisions are made about the economy, trade and development. Our task in reforming the system is, however, like assembling an airplane that is already in flight. So, along with greater collaboration between the public and private sectors, we need leaders who look beyond what's popular at home to what is necessary for the common good. That may be a naïve hope, but it describes a real need and is yet another reason why we need greater collaboration between the public and private sectors.
I began by saying I was an optimist who worries a lot, and I'll end by saying that without underestimating the challenges, I still believe firmly in humans' ability to learn from history, to establish and live by the rule of law, and to create economic and political arrangements that work to benefit all countries. But to make progress, we can't simply assume that the forces of enlightenment and freedom will prevail. Those who feel threatened by globalization can be counted on to make their fears known, through nationalism, protectionism and political protests, while others will continue to see the 21st century as a battleground where the religious wars of the Middle Ages are to be re-fought.
To succeed—indeed, to survive—we must reassert authority based on the principles of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and a commitment to intercultural understanding and peace. That's a tall order, and it's not a job for governments alone. We each have a responsibility as businesspeople and individuals not to be prisoners of history, but to shape it, doing all we can to build a brighter future.
Madeleine Albright was a speaker for a White & Case client event held November 7, 2018 at our New York office.
Madeleine Albright served as United States Secretary of State under President Clinton, and is now chair of Albright Stonebridge Group and a professor of International Relations at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. During her diplomatic career, Albright wore pins—like this Vivian Shimoyama creation depicting the shards of a shattered glass ceiling—she selected to reflect her opinions on the day.
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