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A sea of troubles: the urgency of shaping a better world post-pandemic

Update from Wilton Park CEO Tom Cargill, 7 June 2021

Despite the pandemic continuing to flood large parts of the world, the global political agenda is being dragged back to ‘business as normal’ and the prospects are not particularly reassuring. Climate change will rightly take centre stage in the run up to UN Climate Change Conference – COP26, to be hosted in Glasgow in November, described by US Climate Envoy John Kerry as the ‘last, best chance to get real’ on climate change. Yet queued up behind this existential challenge for the planet are scores more deep, divisive and seemingly intractable problems of global consequence. A largely unsung international network of local activists, diplomats, aid workers, multilateral agency staff, and many others are endlessly damping down the fires we never hear of. They are also grappling with those crises that have destroyed lives and torn apart communities for decades, often with little sign of ending.

This week Wilton Park hosts the latest of a series of events which started back in 2015 on peacebuilding in Africa. This time we are focussed on Nigeria, one of those countries that for those who know it even just a little, deserves to be one of the world’s principal engines of scientific, cultural and commercial dynamism, and yet remains beset by a bewildering array of interconnected challenges.

This week’s event in particular looks at the insecurity and violence endemic in Northern Nigeria, and in keeping with the spirit of Wilton Park, seeks to move beyond state and elite-centred approaches to encompass the wider communities involved in conflict, including youth and women’s networks.

The sad fact is that despite many organisations and individuals, including Wilton Park, playing a positive role in tackling insecurity globally, Africa was the only continent that saw an increase in political violence in 2020, many remaining stubbornly resistant to external intervention. This is true of course with conflict around the world, a fact that is reported to be guiding the new US Administration’s cautious approach to involvement in the Middle East.

Yet, as with climate change, inaction is not an option. In Africa in particular the world faces a set of challenges which may seem remote and somewhat abstract for now, but which, in coming decades will almost inevitably threaten global stability. The continent is projected to be home to almost half the world’s population of 11 Billion by 2100, and combined with growing inequality, the severe threat climate change poses for much of Africa, and the increasing multipolar competition for influence and access to the rich mineral and natural resources across the continent, the impact of political instability in Africa will almost inevitably carry major global consequences.

These complex and interconnected crises just represent some of the major challenges in that queue behind climate change demanding urgent, and collective attention. The set of global institutions and principles designed 76 years ago, often referred to as the ‘Rules Based International System’, is supposed to provide a framework for joint action to address these challenges. Yet this system is struggling to deliver the legitimacy, focus and action required to make real progress. The bodies which comprise this system, most notably the United Nations, are beset both without and within by a combination of neglect, inertia, and even active efforts to undermine their work by governments opposed to the principles of common values and collective responsibility for which they stand.

Yet 1945 when the UN was founded was clearly a very different era to the one we are in today, and there is a sense that while there is an urgent need to bolster the Rules Based International System, there is also a need for reform. Indeed the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which describes the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade, explicitly articulates, for the first time not only the need to defend but to ‘shape the open international order of the future’. This is an important, new and bold objective, necessary not only to preserve and enhance the legitimacy of collective decision making and action in a fast changing world, but to ensure it is fit for purpose in the face of the multiplying challenges to global peace and stability.

So the moment is overdue for renewed global leadership to drive forward the reforms required to roll back the brooding gloom. The G7 Summit in June will be an important moment, and there are some promising signals of intent. Wilton Park will also be building further on our track record of providing a safe, objective space for the relationship and consensus building that will be required as the basis for collective global action and reform. In coming years Nigeria, like so many countries in the region, deserves the collective global support required to fulfil its potential as a stable, wealthy, democratic, scientific, cultural and commercial force for good. Our common ambition should be nothing less.

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