The challenge of the Zeitenwende
Maintaining the global commons in the context of the new world order – or the ‘Zeitenwende’ – presents an epic challenge
The 2022 G7 summit will take place during a ‘Zeitenwende’, the ending of one world order and the beginning of another. Understanding the nature of this Zeitenwende is a critical prerequisite for designing a collaborative strategy for the G7.
The Zeitenwende has been brought into focus through Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. In all likelihood the new world order will be characterised by a decoupling of global supply chains, an arms race fuelled by the current military conflict and the resulting economic sanctions, and a global economy plagued by distrust, both among and within political blocs.
This context will make it particularly difficult to deal with the major challenges the world currently faces, which may be summarised by ‘four Cs’: climate, COVID-19, connectivity and commerce. What all four have in common is that each rests on the global commons. None can be tackled by states acting in isolation. Global collaboration has become essential for the prosperous survival of humanity. However, it is precisely such collaboration that is undermined by the conflict-prone context of the new world order.
On climate, countries are making progress towards recognising the seriousness of the threat, but this progress is still inadequate. The commitments made at the 2021 Glasgow Summit – even if they were all fulfilled – would still lead to an unconscionable 2.4°C to 2.7°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. No enforcement mechanisms exist to ensure that the commitments will be met.
On COVID-19, rich countries have managed to produce far more vaccines than they have been able to deploy, while poor countries have been left woefully under-supplied. This vaccine-grab has taken place despite widespread recognition that, due to the threat of new variants, the pandemic is defeated nowhere unless it is defeated everywhere.
On connectivity, the huge gains from digitalisation are being undermined through a massive failure of digital governance. Exploiting these gains does not require that most personal data be in the hands of digital service providers and data aggregators. It does not require digital barter, whereby digital users receive free digital services in return for free, untransparent disclosure of personal information, which is subsequently commodified by advertisers and political influencers. The social value of the digital commons is devalued when it must serve the profit motives of the digital service providers and data aggregators.
On commerce, there is a growing recognition that free economic markets do not automatically exploit all potential gains from trade. To do so, they require trust among the trading partners and this trust – this ‘social capital’ – constitutes an economic global commons on which much of global trade and capital flows rely. The conflict-prone context of the new world order saps this trust, making it difficult for trading partners to be confident that their supply chains are politically and economically reliable.
Preserving the global commons
Against this backdrop, it is vital that the G7 make the preservation of the global commons its central concern. What is to be done if it is impossible currently to re-establish a rules-based world order that respects basic human rights, because some powerful parties are unwilling to support such an order? A potentially useful answer is that the preservation of the global commons may have to rely on voluntary alliances. This is the idea underlying German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ‘climate club’, in which countries commit to the requisite climate action and rich countries provide resources to enable poor countries to join.
This approach rests on the recognition that the global commons cannot be preserved when each country acts in its own narrow-minded self-interest. Instead, countries must form coalitions in which they support one another in the pursuit of common purposes. These purposes are not defined solely by economic output, but must also include environmental and social gains. Amassing economic wealth at the expense of natural and social wealth does not necessarily improve well-being. A broader approach to well-being – requiring the measurement of economic, social and environmental performance across countries and through time – is required for true progress. On this account, an encompassing measurement of national performance in the G7 is essential for evaluating the overall performance of climate clubs.
This approach could also be applied to the rest of the four Cs. Climate clubs can be joined by ‘healthcare clubs’, in which countries commit to universal healthcare with regard to transmissible diseases and rich countries provide the resources to enable poor countries to participate.
With regard to commerce, the creation of further ‘economic clubs’ is to be expected, in which members commit to the maintenance of political, social and environmental principles as the basis for their trading relationships.
Finally, with regard to connectivity, the digital governance system needs to be reformed to give digital users control, individually and collectively, of the data about themselves. This will call for ‘digital empowerment clubs’, in which countries commit to requiring digital authentication for official personal data, protection of ‘data commons’, in which the trustees of the commons have a fiduciary responsibility to act only in the interests of the users, digital consumer protection and particularly the protection of vulnerable users, and upholding competition online along lines analogous to those offline.
Maintaining the global commons in these four domains is the epic challenge of the G7’s Zeitenwende.