Engaging Civil Society: The Way to Reforming the Global Order?

“We are suddenly living again in a world of disorder”, observed Lord Mark Malloch-Brown at the outset of his talk in The Hague Institute yesterday. Despite new opportunities for UN action following the end of the Cold War, the world is just as divided today as it was before 1989. “The international community is more profoundly broken than we want to acknowledge”, he asserted.

In the latest installment of The Hague Institute’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Lord Malloch-Brown spoke on “Threatened States in a Challenged Global Order”. Drawing on his experience as a senior leader at the UN (including as Deputy-Secretary-General), the World Bank, The World Economic Forum, The Open Society Institute and NGOs such as International Crisis Group, the Open Society Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund, he shared his concerns about the prevailing global order and his vision for its reinvigoration, through collaboration with civil society.

The story of the past few decades was one of economic progress with political costs, Lord Malloch-Brown argued. Globalization has dramatically improved the lives and incomes of people in Asia, Latin America and Africa by fostering economic exchange in an international system operating under the rule of law. Yet, global exchange has simultaneously put pressure on nation–states, many of which are experiencing “identity crises” caused by the sheer power with which the economic changes have transformed our lives. “International disorder is just one symptom of that,” our guest speaker commented. The threat to stability is also emerging within nation-states as “traditional instruments available to the sovereign state have become inadequate” and citizens seek refuge in new forms of identification.

While power has been transferred to regional blocs such as the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union and Mercosur, citizenship has become increasingly disengaged from the state. The change of sympathies has become apparent in that today, in many countries, more people support NGOs than political parties. In the UK, for example, today “individual animal charities have more members than the Conservative or Labour parties,” Malloch-Brown pointed out. With the proliferation of global issues that worry all members of society, the appeal of non-state actors has increased at the expense of traditional political processes.

As power and loyalty diffuses at unprecedented rates, global institutions have largely been unable to respond to the change. The UN and the wider system of international institutions remain the preserve of states. In the wake of geopolitical change, this order is even less tenable. Lord Malloch-Brown underlined that “the political order of 1989 has run its course”; today, economic warfare has become more salient as a policy tool of states, “undermining the very economic integration that makes them so effective”. The consequences of this fragmentation could be dire. To preserve the international rule of law and the international collective security regime, global governance mechanisms must consider how to provide a framework of functioning institutions and rules in today’s complicated global system.

Lord Malloch-Brown’s prescription was not only limited to structural and institutional change; he also vaunted the role of leadership, identifying it as a quality missing from the contemporary international political scene. He argued for local action backed up by international governance mechanisms as a solution to this predicament, stressing that attempts at reform ought to begin by finding solutions to specific problems (such as water management) rather than concocting grand institutional designs.

Underlining that the passion of individuals to make a change should not be underestimated, Lord Malloch-Brown endorsed the recent advice of the Elders in reforming the UN Security Council as well as the election of the UN Secretary-General. The Hague Institute and Stimson Centre’s Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance is similarly offering recommendations for transforming the UN so as to better respond to current global challenges.

Ending with predictions for the near future, Lord Malloch-Brown revealed his deep conviction that “civil society will force its way in”, precipitating much-needed reform. Although the UN does not live up to its responsibilities at the moment, it has the distinct advantage of being an existing institution. Better, concluded Lord Malloch-Brown, for it to use its instruments and institutions more effectively, than for the international community to start from scratch.

For the op-ed of Lord Mark Malloch-Brown in NRC/Handelsblad, please click here.

A summary of the event as it happened is available below.

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