Taking the long view
The coming year will be a narrative of tension - a series of difficult choices between the imperatives of the present and those of tomorrow. How we resolve this tension will be the measure of our vision and our leadership.
As a community of nations, we face three immediate tests in the coming year. The first has just begun. Not the global financial crisis, important as it is. I am speaking, here, about climate change, the one truly existential threat.
We have only 12 short months until a key summit in Copenhagen, where world leaders will gather next December to reach an agreement to curb global warming. We need a deal that will extend, deepen, and strengthen the Kyoto Protocols. We need a new treaty for the 21st century that is balanced, inclusive, and comprehensive - one that all nations can embrace.
We took an important step early this month in Poznan, Poland, where climate ministers and experts met to hammer out a work plan toward the future. The negotiations were difficult. They promise to become even more so. Some argued that, amid our current difficulties, we cannot afford to tackle climate change. I say we cannot afford not to. The future of the planet is at stake.
Our second test is economic. Clearly, we need a global stimulus. Major economies have responded to the current crisis with ambitious fiscal and monetary rescue plans. The emergency G-20 summit in Washington last month showed that governments are working together to coordinate policies. Those efforts were broadened at a more recent meeting in Doha.
All of this is welcome. But we need to do more. Above all, we need to think boldly and freshly. If we are to spend our way out of the financial crisis, we should be smart about it. And that means that these expenditures must be investments. They must be sustainable, so that we are not merely throwing money at problems but, instead, are using those funds to lay the foundations of a more stable and prosperous future.
China has shown leadership. Fully one-third of its recently announced €418 billion economic stimulus programme will be channelled into green growth and infrastructure. The Chinese have seized an opportunity to address several challenges at once - to create jobs, conserve energy, and combat climate change. The US under President Barack Obama plans to do the same.
These policymakers know that investment in alternative fuels and eco-friendly technologies will deliver a massive future pay-off in terms of a safer environment, energy independence, and sustainable growth. But they also know that green investment can produce jobs and spur growth in the here and now. Other nations should follow suit. We will never usher in an era of sustainable prosperity in the absence of a big, global push, with all nations moving in the same direction. If ever there were a time for bold and ambitious vision - a chance to chart a new and better path - it is now.
Our third test is a matter of pragmatic principle. Climate change and global finance are not our only crises. Indeed, they compound other threats: Food insecurity, volatile energy and commodity markets, and the terrible persistence of poverty. No nation has been spared. But it is the poorest nations that feel these blows most sharply.
If not handled correctly, today's financial crisis will become tomorrow's human crisis. Social unrest and political instability will grow, exacerbating all other problems. The danger, ultimately, is a cascading series of crises, each building on the others, with potentially devastating consequences for all.
During the coming year, therefore, we must act in a spirit of global solidarity. Measures we take to deal with the financial crisis must be in the interests of all nations - the poorest as well as the rich and powerful. Aid programmes for developing nations should be considered a part of any global stimulus and long-term economic recovery plan.
At the very least, that means not using the financial crisis as an excuse to reduce international aid and development assistance. We must honour our commitments under the Millennium Development Goals as a pragmatic as well as a moral responsibility. We stand on the threshold of a new multilateralism. The pendulum of history is swinging back toward the UN and collective action. The challenges we face as a community of nations today are increasingly those of collaboration and cooperation: Fighting climate change, rebuilding the global financial system, and promoting sustainable development.
In this interconnected world, the challenge is to see the nexus among these three sets of problems. With vision, we will find solutions to each that are solutions to all. But it will take leadership to translate that vision into action, just as it will take leadership to balance our larger long-term interests against the fierce urgencies of now.
The author is Secretary-General of the United Nations.
© Project Syndicate, 2008 www.project-syndicate.org