Wednesday, August 20, 2014

National Leaders Lag Global Crises: A Systemic Explanation

Surveying the world on August 19, 2014, the UN’s Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, claimed that the greatest humanitarian crises in the history of the United Nations were outstripping any solutions coming from the organization’s members. World leaders, he said, “have to sit down together with an open heart to negotiate in the interests of their people,” Ban said.[1] Yet there’s the rub, for even though the Secretary-General avoided the point (perhaps because it implies structural reform at the UN), national officials acting in the interest of their respective citizens do not necessarily have an interest in coming together with other such officials to take care of the mammoth human external costs of countries at war with themselves.

By the day of Ban’s astonishing declaration that the world faces the greatest humanitarian crises in the history of the UN, 6.5 million people had been displaced in the three years of civil war in Syria. The Russian-aided separatist movement in Ukraine had claimed 2,000 lives since the beginning of 2014. Fighting in Iraq and Israel were also among the humanitarian disasters in progress. In 2013, at least 33 million people had been displaced by such conflict—the highest figure ever recorded, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.[2]

Even though Ban complained about the lack of political will in the international community to resolve the ongoing conflicts or at least provide sufficient humanitarian aid to the displaced, the problem lies deeper. That is to say, it is no accident that national officials around the world were not leading on these global problems. Rather than merely being a question of leadership, thus idiosyncratic to particular officials, a disjunction naturally severs their political interests from their international “responsibilities;” for is it even fair to an elected official to say that he or she has an ethical duty to work toward solutions to problems outside the actual or best interests of his or her constituents? Similarly, would it be ethical for a corporation’s board of directors to disregard their fiduciary duty to the stockholders in committing funds needed in the company to societal problems that only vaguely negatively impact the company’s short- or long-term profitability? Certainly, global and societal problems cry out for help, and it is only human to want to respond, but what if the incentives and disincentives built into the system work tacitly against rather than for such a response?

In his statement, Ban Ki Moon admits both that national officials work in the interests of their respective peoples and that he himself cannot solve the crises or attend to their humanitarian external costs. “I can bring world leaders to the river,” he explained, “but I cannot force them to drink water.”[3] What lies only implicit, unfortunately, in relating these two points is the lack of any governmental sovereignty on Ban’s level, on which resolving humanitarian crises is not an externality. Depending on government officials on another level to respond as if this were so on their level too is foolish, not to mention erroneous. In fact, it may even be unethical, given the fiduciary duty of elected national officials to represent their respective constituents. That Ban backed off from mention of this structural flaw in the global fabric is telling, particularly given the conflict of interest that exists for any national official in deciding whether to cede some sovereignty to the UN or retain the authority. Ban wants to keep his job, and he knows where the true power lies in the UN.

Leadership, especially the visionary sort, does not respond to crisis after crisis; rather, a vision is of an alternative paradigm, and thus connotes structural change in governance systems. Perhaps political leadership had been so melted down into public administration and the culture of managerialism by 2014 that structural change even as an ideal could only be imagined as an oxymoron, and certainly not uttered in the public square. With such a tight straight-jacket, it is no wonder that pressures around the world built up and exploded. Are we then left with a tale of two cities—one gripped by a pathological fear of change and the other moved only in fits by revolutionary fervor? Is the want of visionary leadership in formulating, enunciating, and advocating systemic change to be forever sacrificed in favor of either Edwin Burke’s conservatism or Robespierre’s forced radical change?

[1]Oren Dorell, “U.N. Chief: Crises at New High,” USA Today, August 20, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.