I am aware that I address you on the anniversary of one of the most potent expressions of the great upsurge in student and worker activism that swept the United States, and the world, during 1968.
Nearly 50 years ago to this day, the students of this University (Columbia) commenced a strike and a series of occupations in protest against the association of this institution of learning with a weapons research think tank, and against racial discrimination.
Yet for all those moments that seem, to some, exotic today, those students acted with a vital purpose. They were inspired, and would in turn inspire, similar movements of thought and action in that most radical of years, from those brave citizens who stood for greater democracy in Mexico and against authoritarianism in Czechoslovakia, to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement on our own island of Ireland, which demanded an end to over 40 years of sectarian discrimination.
Through all the acknowledged diversities of those movements – the diversity in the cultures they represented, the oppression that they suffered, and the foes with which they contended – there was a remarkable unity in their demands – a demand for economic and social justice, a demand for environmental justice, and a demand, above all, for peace, and all the possibilities that peace brings.
1968 was also the year in which one of the most important voices for peace, for global solidarity and for a renewed moral purpose, both in the United States and on our planet, was silenced by the bullet of an assassin. Earlier this month, we marked the fiftieth year since Dr Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee.
On Tuesday, I addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations as part of a two-day meeting held on the challenge of peacebuilding and sustaining peace. In preparing my remarks, I recalled the declaration of solidarity that Dr King made 51 years ago at Riverside Church, not five minutes’ walk from where we are today. For it was there that Dr King drew together all the strands of the movement for civil rights and equality in this country, and spoke of an enlarged solidarity with those who suffer injustice in other places. He was speaking, of course, of the Vietnam War. If I may quote Dr King:
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle
I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Mad on war
Today, in the first decades of the 21st century, we can still speak of a society going mad on war. Our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, and the fruits of new science and technology, are still turned, not to the promotion and preservation of peace, but to the pursuit and prosecution of war and preparations for war.
Fifty years after Columbia University students sought to sunder the relationship between the academy and the armaments industry, too many of our finest minds are still called upon or induced to devote their skill, cultivated over so many years in our institutes of higher learning, to discovering new and more effective ways of killing.
A Joint Report prepared by the World Bank and the United Nations in advance of the meeting of the UN General Assembly last week indicated that, in 2016, more countries experienced violent conflict than at any time in the past 30 years.
Reported battle-related deaths in 2016 were ten times higher than the post-Cold War high in 2005. This has occurred in both lower and middle-income countries, including those nations considered to have relatively strong institutions, which had long been considered a perquisite for economic expansion and social peace.
That this surge in violence can occur at the very same time as the high point in the internationalisation and liberalisation of capital and goods markets, commonly referred to as globalisation, should not surprise us.
The end of the Cold War brought with it the opportunity of renewed international co-operation, and the possibility of finally acknowledging unfair trade, odious debt, great poverty and inequality, and an opportunity too of addressing global environmental degradation and its deleterious effects on the ecology of our shared and vulnerable planet and, with the peace dividend, devoting the resources and energy diverted to arms production towards a shared prosperity.
The prosecution of a theory of interests by the most powerful, a loss of critical capacity at analytical level, a pressure to belong within an uncritical neo-utilitarianism has made moral rejections within the academy seem reduced to the level of an exotic indulgence.
‘No Planet B’
Yet, there have been extraordinary successes, one that we can build on. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification stand as expressions of practical global solidarity, representing not only the three great achievements of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, but the primary vehicles through which we will organise our efforts to confront the environmental threats that face humanity in this century.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – in marshalling the Member States, the international financial institutions and the UN and its agencies behind a common purpose and commonly agreed set of targets – provided an example of what could be accomplished if nation-states and international institutions were prepared to dedicate their resources to the vindication of freedom from want. Yet, its failings should also be acknowledged.
The Goals – the most ambitious of which was to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty – were only binding on the Global South. In their formulation and preparation, the voices and assumptions of the Global North carried more weight than the countries to whom the Goals applied.
Above all, in this, the tenth year since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, we should acknowledge that the international economic policy framework of the early 2000s reflected a hubristic faith in the efficacy of liberalised capital markets and free financial flows, a faith that had dominated World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since the 1980s.
The former chief economist of the World Bank, and one of the most eminent scholars in this institution, Joseph Stiglitz, did the world a signal service by revealing the economic and social damage visited upon Global South by the imposition of a narrow intellectual framework. Yet the framework is evidenced in the courses of Economics 101 in universities and business schools across the globe. It has the medievalist ring of an unquestioned form of a natural law.
I am speaking, of course, of the theory of government and governance that we now know as neo-liberalism. We know its policy agenda all too well: the removal of all constraints on the growth, use and flow of capital and wealth; the privatisation of state assets and contracting out of the state services; the redistribution of income upwards through sharp reductions in the taxation of capital and introduction of charges for public services; and the dismantlement of collective bargaining and institutions of wage and price co-ordination.
It is heartening to see that now that the international financial institutions – the World Bank and the international Monetary Fund – are beginning to return to some elements of the wisdom of their founding father, John Maynard Keynes, and to recognise that the control by the state of capital flows in the public interest should not only be permitted but should at times be actively encouraged. Then too there is a growing and welcome literature on what Mariana Mazzucato calls ‘the entrepreneurial state’ and its role in sustainable economics.
The MDGs hope
The agreement of the 2030 Agenda by 193 nation-states here in New York in September 2015 was a significant moral milestone, and departure, for our planet, representing the shared resolution of the nations of the world to attempt again through shared action to end poverty and hunger, combat inequalities in income and opportunity, to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies, reverse environmental degradation and create conditions for a shared prosperity.
This shared commitment is so different in character from the imposition of any neo-liberal ‘structural adjustment programme’ of the past imposed by the international financial institutions, or any diktat of the powerful emerging from the Security Council or from any single power.
The global target agreed at the Paris Climate Conference is ambitious – yet even if the objective of limiting the global temperature increase to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is achieved, communities throughout the world will suffer terrible and unpredictable consequences.
Let us also recall that the Parties pledged to pursue efforts to limit that temperature increase to one and half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If we listen clearly to the advice, and may I say the warnings, of the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, we must acknowledge that an additional half a degree Celsius will have an enormous impact in terms of the reduction in crop yields, severity of heatwaves, disruptions to the water cycle and the oceans, and of course to the sea level rise.
We must also acknowledge that there is some scientific debate as to whether we have, as a species, emitted so much greenhouse gases that we have effectively condemned ourselves to a one and half degree Celsius warming. Fear of failure should not dissuade us – indeed, it should spur us to action.
These two agreements, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord, represent a hard-won global consensus, and the means by which we shall, in this century, be judged and measured as to our success or failure. They have the possibility of being the twin pillars on which a more peaceful world can be built, not only by preventing the kinds of environmental disasters which have begat and still continue to beget conflict, but by offering the possibility of realising the global solidarity and its delivery into policy of which Dr King spoke of fifty-one years ago.
2015 was, and perhaps it has not been emphasised enough, a moment of hope, one that proved that, despite the cynicism that too often mars international relations, the nations of the world could discern a global common good, and in doing so, re-dedicate themselves to the UN founding principles.
Yet the shadows gather. We have already begun to see Member States resile from their commitments, whether in the temptation of those who consider themselves to be great powers to return to safe certainties and old politics of the Security Council and to the G8 as vehicles for global agreement or through a new and quixotic isolationism which eschews the UN and turns instead to a bilateralism informed more by a false nostalgia for the 19th century than the needs of the 21st.
In 2016, the percentage of global GDP devoted to military expenditure was 2.23%, the lowest since 2000, far below the Cold War heights of 6%, thus presenting the possibility that our intellectual and material resources could be mobilised, for a new agreed purpose, not to fan the fires of war, but to cultivate the possibilities of peace. Yet, some of the Permanent Members of the Security Council are now preparing themselves for a new arms race, and the arms industry, buttressed by vast state contracts, continues to export weapons of death and destruction for use in Syria, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Let me be direct – it would be easy for me to merely criticise the intention of the US to withdraw from the Paris Accord in 2020, the year in which its targets, which include commitments to large sums for climate adaption in the most vulnerable parts of the Global South, are activated; and yes, it is a great disappointment for the entire global community that a founding UN member which did more, perhaps than any other, to inflect the organisation with its characteristic spirit of democracy and daring, should now turn away.
There is, however, a more insidious risk to our shared global commitments, whether made at Paris or New York. It is that we, and I speak here of the Global North and of my country, were not truly authentic in our words, and that we do not intend to make the difficult and necessary sacrifices demanded of us over the next decades, and that we shall not sanction the substantive change to the global political economy required by the promised new global solidarity. It is authenticity that the young and the old of the streets of the world find missing from the discourse of our times.
The African challenge
For example, more than any other place on Earth, the continent of Africa is now, and will be, the crucible for the global challenges that we confront in this century. It is bearing and will continue to bear the greatest consequences of climate change, with all the possible implications for the displacements of people, the degradation of the environment, and the eruption of new conflicts over diminishing natural resources that it brings and will bring. By 2050, the continent of Africa will contain 2.5 billion people, nearly 1.3 billion of whom will be young people.
By mid-century then, Africa will be the continent of the young, with over forty percent of the young people of this planet residing there. We must not see in Africa a threatening continent, a set of countries that are the source of so many displaced people – as we do too often in the EU. Perhaps it is that some of our European partners are still informed by the prejudices of a fading, but still present, colonial superiority complex. With so much human possibility, Africa has the potential to be the continent of promise and opportunity in our twenty-first century, one that will carry so many of the hopes, the dreams and the ambitions of our shared planet, a continent where a new symmetry of economics, ecology, ethics, and solidarity can be built, where science and technology can cross borders, be delivered with humane purpose.
These hopes can only be realised if we stay true to the commitments we made to one another in the last months of 2015. This will require a convergence of vision between the institutions of the UN, the Member States, organisations of regional co-operation, and, if we are to be serious about reforming the global economy, the Bretton Woods institutions, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
It is ‘authenticity of the word’, ‘respect for diversity’, ‘gender equality’, equality in all its forms – these are the gifts our world needs.
The recent death of that distinguished international civil servant Peter Sutherland has reminded us of the enormous difficulty of negotiating multilateral trade agreements, and of the careful diplomacy required to secure the agreement of, if we take the last successful Uruguay Round, 123 sovereign nation-states. The current Doha round, the ninth since the formation of the multilateral trading framework established after the Second World War, now involves 164 members of the WTO.
Can that inevitably complex diplomacy be moved to carry the decisions of 2015? There is a terrible lesson too that we are slow to concede. It is that globalisation of trade is not, and cannot be, an ethical globalisation of peoples unless we regain symmetry with terra madre and pursue a civilisation of sufficiency and diversity for its peoples.
Surely the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord should guide any renewed attempt to complete the Doha round. May I also say that there is no point simply paying lip service to these commitments as part of a kind of simple ‘just-so’ story of trade liberalisation, as I fear happened with the MDGs – we must be honest regarding the full effects of liberalisation on the economies of both North and South and facilitate the role of the state in protecting citizens.
We should also not allow our gaze to be distorted by the considerable quantity of rhetoric being expended on what are considered to be unfair or inimical bilateral trade imbalances between wealthy nations – a contest between the ghosts of an old mercantilism.
We should recognise, as a starting point in any reflections, that over 80% of global trade now takes place in value chains linked to transnational corporations, as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has estimated. This is surely, even on its own limited terms, not the model of free trade and commerce between nations imagined by Adam Smith but is rather closer to that model of the economy proposed by the most distinguished economist Herbert Simon, one in which most economic decisions regarding production, distribution and exchange take place within hierarchical firms.
Does this not point to the necessity for a renewed international discussion surrounding the role of such powerful economic entities? Can we continue to defend the legitimacy of the multilateral trading system, or indeed regional trading agreements, if they give primacy to the rights of such companies over the rights of citizens? Can we come to treat the multilateral trading system as something that is not merely instrumental to some narrow economic end, or as a symbol of negotiating prowess on the part of one country or another, but as a signal that it is possible to come to international agreements on economic matters by a process of deliberation which seeks to put the common interest – as agreed by the world in 2015 – above any sectional interest?
If we recognise that trade flows are the proper subject of diplomacy, and that they are not the response of natural phenomena but of a negotiated international settlement, can we also extend our thinking to capital and financial flows, and recognise that states acting in co-operation with one another can, as we have in the past, constrain, control and bind such forces such that they yield to the common good? Do we not need to privilege those productive capital flows that lead to investment strategies that are socially accountable, job-creating, and ecologically and economically sustainable? Investment strategies that, in short, support and do not undermine the global agreements to which we committed ourselves in 2015.
Two years ago, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 70/262, which recognised that sustaining peace was both an end-point and process through which a common vision of a shared society could be crafted, in which all the needs of the people could be meet. When he assumed office, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres emphasised that conflict could only be prevented by, in his words:
addressing the root causes through the three pillars of the United Nations: peace and security, sustainable development and human rights. That must be the priority in everything we do.
If I may recall, once again, the words of Dr King, when he said, in his penultimate sermon, that ‘we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality’. That mutuality, and that solidarity, demands that the Member States remain authentic to the commitments that they made to their peoples, and to each other, through those two landmark agreements in 2015. It demands that we summon the same optimism that informed the UN in its founding moment and the same vigour, energy, devotion and idealism that Robert Kennedy brought to his campaign for peace in this country 50 years ago. Above all, it demands the same spirit of hope and righteousness that animated the students who sought to change, not only a university or a city, but a nation and the world. May they of a new generation and future generations succeed in scholarship and practice, and thus give meaning and authenticity to life itself.
This is an abridged/edited version of a speech given by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, at the World Leaders Forum, Columbia University, NYC, April 26 2018
Main image via Wikimedia Commons