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Global solutions for global problems

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 7 December 2016


The election of Donald trump has stimulated discussion about a possible new phase of US isolationism. Although the power of the US is in decline, a total withdrawal of the US from global affairs would be a bad mistake at a time when we need to strengthen international collaboration to meet a series of global challenges.

We cannot be sure what exactly Trump has in mind when he talks about 'making America great again' but his claim that the US has been carrying some other countries is certainly arguable. Post-war US policy has always been about ensuring US primacy, not underpinning the security of other nations. Where that occurred it was coincidental to the US confronting its perceived global enemy, communism. The Cold War is long over and China is now the rising power, but the most important fact is that the whole notion of strategic confrontation is finished. The reality is that we simply cannot afford to think in anything but global terms: global action to deal with global problems.

The most obvious threat is global warming. By definition, the growth in greenhouse gases is a global problem, global in cause and global in effect. The scientific evidence indicates that global warming is now happening faster than predicted and approaching possible tipping points where greenhouse gasses in the arctic tundra and undersea will begin to enter the atmosphere. If this gets underway catastrophic runaway global warming will be unavoidable.

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A related problem is the threat of global pandemic. So far we have been relatively lucky in this regard, outbreaks being identified and contained before they could become widespread. Global warming will exacerbate this problem because diseases generally like warmer conditions. It is the new phenomenon of global air travel that has made this such a challenge in the last few decades; prior to this, long sea voyages acted as quarantine mechanisms.

We also have a global economy these days. Most of things we eat, wear and use are acquired through global markets, and even the jobs we do and the places we live in are impacted by global conditions. Perhaps the main economic driver in the last decade or so has been the flow of raw resources into China, the transformation there of these materials into cheap goods and their ongoing sale in the rich western countries, especially the US. This engine has been slowing down, and along with continued financial instability and erratic energy costs, the global economy is looking increasingly sick.

Associated with this economic instability is the growth of robots in the workplace and home which will severely impact on employment on the US and Europe. The core technology for these electronic systems mostly came from the US, but manufacture is shifting to Asia. Soon enough robots will make robots, and the circle will be closed.

Underneath these growing structural problems we have a global economy where supply chains, marketing operations, transport systems and communication networks are all organised on a global scale. The underlying force behind this trend is the principle of economies of scale – the higher numbers of goods produced, the lower each unit cost.

Despite all this economic, commercial and infrastructural globalisation, we have only weak global governance structures. There is of course the United Nations, but it is generally considered corrupt and enjoys minimal respect, although its various agencies often do good work. In the past the UN has been particularly hamstrung by the refusal of the great powers, especially the US and Soviet Union, to hand over real power, particularly in regard to security matters. Because no one really cares the UN is allowed to stumble along run my mediocrities.

There is also the G20 which got real attention during the financial crisis of 2008. National leaders actually turn up to these meetings, something they rarely do at the UN. There is the opportunity for actual discussion and policy formulation at the highest level, but little formal process to ensure action.

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An isolationist Trump administration could certainly push the US away from meaningful participation in facing global problems, something Trump has already threatened to do in relation to global warming.

Even one term of office could suck up the last leeway in terms of time for dealing with global threats, like global warming, even if it did simulate other countries to take up the slack. (China, for instance, might see leadership in facing up to global warming as an excellent way to push its claims to global power status.)

The arrival on the scene of elected leaders like Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, perhaps Le Pen and other nationalists in Europe certainly threaten the integrity of any supra-national organisation. As Brexit showed, any time these politicians wanted to curry favour with their core constituency they could just talk tough and thumb their noses at the organisations pursuing the greater good.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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