Global Civics and Hammarskjöld

The broad manifestations of our epic global interdependence are increasingly better appreciated. Financial engineering in the United States can determine economic growth in every part of the world; carbon dioxide emissions from China can affect crop yields and livelihoods in the Maldives, Bangladesh, Viet Nam, and beyond; an epidemic in Viet Nam or Mexico can constrain public life in the United States; and a nuclear leak in Japan can have a bearing on public health all around the world. The inherent difficulties of devising and implementing solutions to global problems through nation-states have become increasingly apparent. Traditionally, two broad models have been used to deal with this predicament. The first relies on a wide range of creative ad hoc alliances and solutions, and has admittedly produced much to celebrate.1 The second model is based on a more systematic reliance on rule of international law, and also on what is known as the global public goods paradigm. Proponents of this latter concept point first and foremost to the existence of certain vital global public goods, with climate being the most obvious example. The global public goods paradigm also implies some commensurability in the way that people respond to various global collective action challenges. Some tend to feel suffocated by this expectation of commensurability among various global governance tracks, while others find it reassuring and liberating.

Both of these models are premised on the belief that global governance is essentially a technocratic puzzle for which smart institutional design will provide the necessary answers. Yet, the web of interactions and interdependencies has become too thick to treat each issue as a distinct transaction. What the world is negotiating is, in effect, a global social contract, not a technocratic fix. The key question that needs to be answered is, What responsibilities do we all have toward people who are not our compatriots? The question is so simple that one is often struck by the strange absence of ready answers to this fundamental question. Generating meaningful responses to it will entail starting to imagine a global civics.2

There is no reason to assume that interdependence will not continue or even decelerate in the near future. Many around the world perceive that their ability to exercise meaningful control over their lives is eroding. This leads to anomie, anxiety, and a diffuse backlash. The choice is not between returning to a romanticized past with robust, nonporous borders and almighty nation-states versus being a helpless leaf at the mercy of winds from the far corners of the world. The choice is whether or not humanity will be able to hammer out a global social contract. A set of guiding principles -- a moral compass -- is needed to enable the people of the world to navigate the treacherous waters of growing global interdependence.

One could think of it like driving a car. Each day, millions of people drive at speeds above fifty miles an hour in a ton of metal 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 drive in an implicit fellowship with other drivers and have reasonable expectations about their behaviour. Such fellowship and expectations of other drivers, which serve to mitigate the theoretical risks of driving, can exist because people follow a long-established framework of laws, habits, and conventions on how to operate automobiles.

In an increasingly interdependent world, people need a corresponding global framework to put their minds at relative ease. Part of that reference framework must be based on global civics -- a system of conscious responsibilities that we are ready to assume. We all need to ask ourselves, When it comes to other human beings, what are we personally ready to commit to and what would global civics look like? A thought experiment can aid in figuring this out.

Let's try to imagine what one would say to welcome the seven-billionth human being on this planet, in just one year's time, about the human condition awaiting her or him. This conversation, however hypothetical, would help us take stock of the global situation to which we have all contributed. It would also set us on a path toward discovering our most imminent responsibilities to each other and the next generation -- the essence of global civics.

The first thing we could tell our newcomer is that she can expect to live more than seventy years, and that this is twice as long as what people counted on a century ago. We would tell her that, although the world is a very unequal place in terms of income and wealth, disparities in life expectancy are decreasing. We could report in good conscience that the world possesses some effective global public health instruments, and that we have eradicated smallpox and might see the end of polio and malaria in her lifetime. She could be told to expect to have more than eleven years of schooling, with education being another area where gross but diminishing global disparities loom large. We could also report that the world that awaits her values gender equality more than in any other era, so that she can anticipate a more enabling world than the one experienced by her mother or grandmother.

In the spirit of first giving the good news, we can, in good faith, report that this seven-billionth person will have capabilities that not only empower her, but would have been the envy of emperors and tycoons from earlier centuries. In terms of information and knowledge, our newcomer will have unprecedented access through the likes of Google Scholar and Wikipedia. The breadth of information and knowledge available to her and the ease of access to such information would have been unfathomable to the Encylopédistes and academies of sciences of previous centuries.

At the same time, we should admit to her that there are critical risks. Although we know about the mind-numbing horrors of previous genocides and have profusely sworn to not allow this ultimate crime to recur, the sad fact is that nobody would likely come to rescue our seven-billionth fellow human if she were to face genocide. We would have to tell her that not only have the world's military powers frequently abdicated their solemn responsibility to protect, but they have also not allowed the development of procedures and institutions for people to join a United Nations volunteer army to intervene in cases of imminent genocide.

We would need to tell this newcomer, too, that we have set into motion, first unknowingly and then with full awareness for the past twenty years, a chain of events related to climate change that may very soon become irreversible and lead to catastrophic environmental consequences. We now know that hydrocarbons are priced too low and do not reflect the real cost that their consumption inflicts on the environment and future generations. In effect, future generations have been subsidizing our current welfare, and they will need to deal with a deferred and compounded bill.

Finally, we would need to tell her that for decades in the twentieth century, the world's superpowers gambled with human civilization by amassing thousands of nuclear warheads and that, on more than one occasion, humanity was remarkably close to a nuclear holocaust. Although, as of today, we have not realized the more than forty-year-old goal of total nuclear disarmament enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we have reduced the active arsenal to a fraction of what it once was.

Working on a welcome message for our seven-billionth fellow human being provides us with an opportunity for introspection as well as a frank accounting of the implicit responsibilities we have to other human beings and future generations. There is no privileged forum or constituency for this deliberation. We all need to search for our own answers, and discuss our findings with our peers. Dag Hammarskjöld was one of the earliest to start a personal and an institutional conversation on the proper contents of a global civics. He served the United Nations for eight years as a distinguished Secretary-General. His tenure proved to be formative years for the United Nations and its nascent machinery. Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right of all to an international order where the dignity and worth of each human being and their pursuit of ever larger freedom can be fully realized. To serve that audacious goal, the United Nations needs to simultaneously represent and transform the current international system; Hammarskjöld performed a masterful job of comprehending and advancing that goal. John F. Kennedy referred to him as the greatest statesman of the twentieth century; another distinguished Secretary-General and Nobel Laureate, Kofi Annan, said that he had on many occasions asked himself what Hammarskjöld would have done. There is no better praise than the universal respect one has from his peers and successors.

Hammarskjöld is the only person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously, and his death is also emblematic of the challenges embodied in global civics. Mortal, fallible human beings can be dwarfed by status quo interests and the enormity of global challenges. Yet, the answer cannot be naïve optimism. Idealists have been called cynics who have not yet been mugged by reality, and there is a significant degree of truth in this assertion. However, one can also argue that cynics are moderate idealists who yearn to be rescued from their excessive pessimism. The task of shuttling between the feasible and the ideal has never been easy, and it has certainly defied timeless prescriptive formulas. The best guide we have are paths carved by the likes of Hammarskjöld. It is imperative that we study their paths and predicaments, and proceed to our own trailblazing.

1 For an audit of existing global governance schemes, see Hakan Altinay, "The State of Global Governance: An Audit," YaleGlobal (

2 For a full discussion of global civics, see Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World, (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).