2015 will be a year of global conferences: the Financing for Development (FfD) Conference in Addis Ababa in July, the UN Summit on the post-2015 development agenda in September and the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. It is too early to tell whether these conferences will succeed or fail. However, it is not too early to tell which critical factor will determine success or failure.
This critical factor will be the mindset that the diplomats will bring to these three conferences. Having served as Singapore’s Ambassador to the UN for over ten years, I know that most diplomats who come to global conferences believe that their primary mission is to defend their “national” interests, not “global” interests, at these conferences. This mindset must change. Why?
The simple answer is that our global order has changed. To explain this fundamental change, I use a simple boat metaphor in my latest book, “The Great Convergence.” In the past, when the seven billion people of planet Earth lived in 193 countries, it was akin to living in 193 separate boats. Each boat had a captain and crew to manage it, and there were rules to make sure that the boats did not collide. That was the old global order. Today, with the rapid shrinkage and growing interdependence of our world, when seven billion people live in 193 separate countries, it is akin to living in 193 separate cabins on the same global boat. But there is one major problem with this global boat. We have captains and crews taking care of each cabin but no captain or crew taking care of the boat as a whole. None of us would sail an ocean on a boat without a captain or crew. Yet this is how we are steering planet Earth in the 21st century.
Why, then, are we surprised that we continue to lurch from one global crisis to another: the global financial crises of 2008-09, the global terrorism incidents of the past decade, the global spread of Ebola and, of course, the common danger of global warming. None of these global crises can be solved if we just take care of our cabins only. Hence, when the diplomats arrive at the three forthcoming major global conferences, they must change their mindsets and understand that they have a responsibility to defend both their national and global interests.
Indeed, if they take care of global interests, they will also be enhancing their national interests. Take the case of Financing for Development. The two major global financial institutions, the World Bank (WB) and IMF, are hobbled by the fact that a small number of Western countries control and dominate these institutions. Their leadership is not chosen on the basis of merit. Only an American can run the WB, and only a European the IMF. This deep reluctance to relinquish control and allow global management of these global institutions has naturally led to the emergence of competing institutions, like the New Development Bank (better known as the BRICS bank) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This competition is, in part, a result of countries putting national interests ahead of global interests.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. The West can give up its minority domination of both WB and IMF. It can also allow the leadership of both institutions to be chosen through a global meritocratic process. Just as Microsoft and PepsiCo, Harvard Business School and McKinsey choose their leaders on the basis of merit, not nationality, the WB and IMF can do the same with all their senior leadership positions. The world will then feel a real sense of ownership of these two institutions. As a consequence, the financing agenda of the WB and IMF will reflect global, not sectoral interests. If this bold experiment of unleashing the full potential of WB and IMF succeeds, they will provide new models of global cooperation. And the same formula can then be used to meet other global challenges. In short, since we are all now sailing on the same boat, let us pick the best captain and crews to manage all our key global institutions.