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The Quest for Security and Social Justice

Australian Financial Review, 6 September 2002

The world after September 11, 2001 is not that different from the one that existed before. The main effect of 9/11 was to alter perceptions rather than realities. Some things have changed, but the fundamentals of the global security and social justice environments remain much the same. This conclusion should not produce any complacency: it means the challenges are as great as ever, and the solutions as elusive.

To begin with what has changed. There is a horrifying new sense of vulnerability, with more lives lost to terrorism on that one day than in 50 years of terrorist attacks in Ireland and Israel and without any kind of unconventional weapons being deployed. The vulnerability is being felt not only in America where the shock of losing the physical and psychological protection of the two-ocean cocoon has been particularly acute but around the world.

Secondly, we understand much more about the interconnectedness of the world in particular that grievances bred elsewhere can have catastrophic consequences half a world away, and that the ease of transport, international communications and personal movement between countries has made it easier than ever before not only to plot evil but to deliver it. We may not have seen the end of American unilateralism, but we can wave goodbye to isolationism.

Thirdly, we know that we can no longer treat with erratic neglect the problems of the Arab and Islamic world, with its near complete democratic vacuum from Morocco to Pakistan, ignoring those issues except when oil supplies seem threatened.

Fourthly, 9/11 and its aftermath seems to have made some old problems easier to solve, like the terrible civil wars in Sudan and Sri Lanka, and some difficult relationships easier to manage. Relations between the US, Russia and China are on a more stable and substantial basis since 9/11 than for some time albeit at the cost of Chechnya and Xinjiang being turned into even more open free-fire zones.

Finally, and conversely, 9/11 may have made a number of old problems harder to solve. Some reasonably contained or containable problems may be in danger of reigniting, not least because of Washington's new enthusiasm at least rhetorically for "hot pre-emption". It's hard to find anyone outside the US (the Howard government always excluded) who thinks the lumping together of Iran, North Korea and Iraq as coaxial evildoers was other than simplistic, provocative and counter-productive. Less visibly but no less worryingly, there is the very real diversion of attention, and diplomatic and other resources, away from unresolved problems in the Balkans and many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

For all this, there are three significant areas in which the fundamental things have not changed at all: what people want from their governments; global security; and global social justice.

On the first of these themes, there is no great secret about what people want from their governments from the people who make decisions that affect their lives, whether at the local, national, regional or global level. In its barest essentials, it comes down to two big things: security and liberty. Teased out in a little more detail, it comes down to five basic needs:

  • national security, or freedom from the fear of military conflict;
  • community security, or freedom from the fear of violence, with law and order and a decent justice system;
  • personal security, or freedom from the fear of want, with income and employment, housing, health and educational opportunity;
  • environmental security, or freedom to enjoy decent physical conditions in which to live and work and play;
  • personal liberty, or freedom to move, speak and assemble, to live in dignity and without discrimination, and to participate in the political process, at least in the selection of those who make the decisions that affect our lives.

There are many different ways of expressing these basic needs or interests and in different parts of the world, at least in public discourse, some of the items on this list particularly in relation to liberty are given different priorities, or no priority at all. But whether openly acknowledged or not, it is hard to argue that at the level of ordinary, individual human beings these things are not universal aspirations. The challenge of delivering good governance may have become greater since 9/11, but in its essence it remains the same set of challenges.

What have also not changed are the fundamentals of global security. There are two considerations here in particular. The first is that the distribution of power in the world remains incredibly lopsided, with the US just as much a military and economic hyperpower in comparison with everyone else and as a result a target for a great deal of envy, resentment and outright hostility from a lot of the rest of the world. (The further increase in US defence expenditure, at least partly prompted by 9/11, makes the disparities even starker. The additional US$48 billion requested by George Bush is larger than the total military budget of any other nation, and will bring US military spending to 40 per cent of the global total double its share of global GDP, and eight times its share of global population.) The second consideration is that throughout the world, in many parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America, there are major unresolved political problems some of them with underlying economic and social causes that have been inadequately addressed, incompetently addressed or deliberately left to fester, nearly all of which have the potential to generate significant conflict.

What are the challenges we have to face as a result of these fundamentals being as they are? Wars between states are much less common than they used to be, but can't be discounted. The situation between the two new nuclear powers India and Pakistan remains extraordinarily fragile, with a huge risk of miscalculation on both sides; the Taiwan Strait remains quiet for the moment, but will need a lot of work to keep it that way; and tensions between many states in Africa are still very close to the surface. Also, if the US chooses to go to war against Iraq without the cover of a UN security council resolution (citing, for example, non-compliance with weapons of mass destruction inspection regimes), there is a large chance, to say the least, of the benefits proving grossly overstated and the risks wildly understated.

Wars or conflict within states remain by far the most likely cause of continuing disturbance, and spillover effect elsewhere. In the past decade, 53 of the 56 major armed conflicts were of this kind, whether driven by grievance, greed, state failure or all of the above. From Colombia to Zimbabwe to Somalia to Macedonia to the Caucasus to central Asia to Indonesia and many places in between there is a very real risk of major conflict breaking out, or escalating, or recurring or continuing. Ensuring that the key players in the international community pay constant attention to these conflicts is very hard, but extremely necessary.

Wars on states are hardly a new phenomenon, with terror being used as a weapon by the weak against the strong since time immemorial, but this is the security challenge we have focused on most since 9/11. Just as with the concept of globalisation, the notion of "asymmetric" security threats moved in an instant from abstraction to alarming reality. How to best deal with these threats, apart from simply shoring up homeland security and punishing the perpetrators has become the big policy issue, but it's not the only one.

The security challenges we must confront can be approached from another angle in terms of the way that violence is, or can be, perpetrated. The concern here is about three different kinds of weapons. First, there are the conventional weapons including small arms and landmines as well as those of a higher-tech variety in which the world is awash, and where the policy options for reducing the flood are very limited.

Secondly, there are weapons of mass destruction nuclear, chemical and biological where non-proliferation regimes are under stress, and there is real concern about such weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors with terrorist agendas. The problem is a real one and has to be addressed with every ounce of co-operative spirit the international community can muster including the business community, which has a critical role in relation to chemical and biological inspection regimes in particular. The only serious policy goal for all of these weapons, including nukes, is absolute elimination, on the basis that so long as any state has them, others will want them, and as long as they exist there is a fair probability that they will eventually be used, by accident or design, to catastrophic effect. It's not a very good argument that you need to retain some nuclear or chemical or biological weapons to deter rogue states from producing or using them, when present-generation conventional weapons provide all the deterrent or retaliatory muscle that could ever possibly be required.

The other class of weapons we have to worry about are what are being called weapons of mass disruption. In some ways these are the hardest to deal with, even with much more sophisticated intelligence gathering and exchanges than we have now: cyberspace attacks on critical communications networks; highly strategically focused, simultaneous physical attacks on key electrical stations, causing cascading power failure throughout a country; and miscellaneous other nightmare scenarios now being written about.

The third big area that has not changed since 9/11 is the reality of global social justice fundamentals. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan made the point succinctly in his end of year press conference last December: "For many people in the world, 2001 was not different from 2000 or 1999. It was just another year of living with HIV/AIDS, or in a refugee camp, or under repressive rule, or with crushing poverty."

The trouble with globalisation is that while the dramatically increased flow of capital, goods, people, technology and information around the world has undoubtedly dramatically increased overall wealth, the rising tide has not lifted all the boats. At the end of the 1990s one third of the world's countries had lower per-capita incomes than they did at the beginning. According to the International Labour Organisation, about one third of the world's labour force, or one billion people, were unemployed or underemployed. The digital divide the inequality of access to the equipment and infrastructure needed to derive any benefit from the IT revolution is for much of the world a bigger chasm than ever. As HIV/AIDS wreaks its havoc, access to one of the most absolutely basic of all human needs, health care, has been for much of the world's population becoming increasingly hard to maintain even at a rudimentary level let alone at the sophisticated and expensive level demanded in the West. And at the very time in the world's history when education has never been more important, the quantity and quality of the public education system in many nations has been falling away something of which we've been particularly reminded in the past year as attention has focused on the extremist Islamist sentiment being fostered in the madrasas, where many poor families in Pakistan and elsewhere have been sending their children for an education they simply couldn't afford any other way.

Nobody seriously argues that globalisation as we know it can be halted or reversed. The real policy division is between those who regard the kind of globalisation we have as close to the best of all possible worlds and just want to let its dynamics work themselves out, on the basis that in the long run we will all be trickled down upon and those who don't, who believe, rather, that for all the benefits of global interconnectedness and interdependence, globalisation as we have known it has a number of rough and ugly edges, and that it cries out to be tamed and civilised and compensated for, especially through strategies of aid and trade.

I am in the latter camp, as indeed if the debates at successive World Economic Forums are any guide is an increasing number of world business leaders. There is too much evidence on the downside for even the most dewy-eyed optimist to ignore on the widening gaps between rich and poor people, rich and poor nations and rich and poor regions. The developed world is slowly beginning to show signs of understanding how comprehensively it has abdicated its responsibility, in terms of development assistance, to redress the fearful deprivation that exists in so much of the developing world starting with basic health, housing and education. But the recent Monterrey Conference on Finance for Development hardly changed anything in terms of serious commitments including those by the Bush and Howard governments.

Apart from aid, the other great contribution the international community can make in addressing global inequality is to facilitate trade. The problem for the world's poor and dispossessed is not that too much trade is going on, but that there is still too little. Fundamental inequities in the world trading system remain above all the innumerable barriers placed by the developed countries on trade in areas of critical importance to developing nations agriculture, textiles and clothing and the misuse of "trade defence" instruments like anti-dumping. Hopefully, the new World Trade Organisation development round now in train will at last address these inequities but nobody should hold their breath.

The challenges to good governance I have described and the policy tasks that I have outlined cry out for imaginative, engaged commitment by the world's governments, intergovernmental organisations and business leaders. After 9/11 no less than before, no government not even that of the most rich and powerful nation the world has ever known, and certainly not that of a country of 20 million people with no great economic or military clout of its own can solve for itself, without international co-operation and reciprocal support, the full range of problems that affect its people, whether they be risks from terrorism, international crime, health pandemics, unregulated population flows or environmental catastrophe.

So what, at least in general terms, has to be done? My checklist for governments and intergovernmental organisations is straightforward. First, act comprehensively, which in the case of security problems means recognising that they are not one-dimensional, and that social, economic and cultural factors can be at least as important as political and military ones in explaining why people and governments act as they do, and in persuading them to act otherwise.

Secondly, act co-operatively, which means recognising that in the real contemporary world, however big you are, most international problems are solvable only with the help of others. In relation to security threats, acting together rather than in splendid isolation is also what is required, for the most part, by the UN charter the only dominant system of security law we have, and which we would have to invent if it didn't exist.

And thirdly, act intelligently, which means acting not only comprehensively and co-operatively, but in other ways as well. Before the event, it means acting in a preventive manner nothing is as cost-effective in terms of dollars, lives, property destruction and misery. During the event, in reacting to a situation, it means avoiding counterproductive actions. Don't solve one problem by creating others as may have happened in buying support for the war in Afghanistan at too high a price from some of the authoritarian governments in central Asia. If you're determined to take out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability, do it in a way which has some chance of bringing the rest of the international community with you. And if you're going to make a helpful contribution to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, recognise the limits of security-first incrementalism and focus on the necessity of getting people talking again about the substance of a fair and comprehensive political settlement. After the event, it means acting sustainably being prepared to devote as many resources to post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building as to the initial intervention. There is a real danger, despite all the rhetoric, that this will not happen in Afghanistan.

I have long argued, in and out of government, that administrations have a hard-headed self-interest in acting decently, intelligently and co-operatively in seeing their national interests not as bounded by traditional security and economic interests, but as extending to being, and being seen to be, good international citizens. However it is not only governments that have a responsibility here. The international business community has exactly the same kind of enlightened self-interest in making a positive contribution on global issues, including security matters. Global business leaders have an enormous business stake in a safer and saner world; many have the resources to make a difference, and collectively they certainly have a voice that can make a difference.

International business should not see itself as a passive bystander, a prisoner of events. Its role is twofold: to not exacerbate the problem; and to contribute something positive to the solution. In the area of security, not contributing to the problem means, simply: not acting in a way that directly or indirectly supports the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or the illegal distribution of conventional weapons; not trading or investing in circumstances that directly generate revenue for those engaged in illegal armed conflict eg the conflict diamonds issue; not investing in activities that directly reinforce or perpetuate a grievance-based conflict eg oil production in Sudan; not contributing in other ways eg environmentally and socially insensitive resource exploitation to the creation of grievance-based despair and hostility; and not giving encouragement, whatever the temptation, to corrupt practices of the kind that undermine the quality and effectiveness of governance.

International business can also contribute positively to the solution in the security area, for example by: being a voice for intelligent government engagement in conflict prevention and resolution; being a voice in particular for intelligent, cost-effective, before-the-event preventive action whether that involves diplomatic strategies, legal and constitutional strategies, economic development strategies or military strategies; being an active and helpful voice in the building of effective non-proliferation regimes for weapons of mass destruction, even if that support has commercial implications; and being prepared, if you have the capacity, to put effort and resources into the rebuilding of shattered post-conflict societies.

At the end of the day, in facing these challenges effectively, an enormous amount comes down to the role of individuals and individual leadership. In all my years of engagement in public policy, both domestically and internationally, I have never ceased to be amazed at the capacity of individuals to make a difference, for better or for worse whatever the cherished views of analysts and historians about deeper underlying currents and causes, and the ultimate insignificance of individuals in the real scheme of things. The capacity of individual leaders to choose cynicism over statesmanship, and votes over principles, is notorious enough, but just as common is the capacity, against the logical run of play, to miss opportunities or otherwise create havoc in ways that are absolutely critical to outcomes.

So much seems to depend on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition you get a Mandela or a Milosevic, a Rabin or a Sharon, an Arafat or an Ataturk, an Obasanjo or a Mugabe. That has always been so, and I suspect it always will be.