Global Issues of the Twenty-First Century
and United Nations Challenges


by Christopher Spencer
Former Senior Advisor International Organizations,
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Updated: 15 JAN 11


         (A) Employing Human Resources Better:

Behind most sources of global instability lie two inter-related factors. First, in many places and ways, humanity already exceeds the carrying capacity of both its biosphere and institutions. Its rapidly increasing capabilities have enabled it to expand its global impact and numbers much faster, and to conduct activities more destabilizing, than either the ecosystem or existing social arrangements can handle. Second, the global order, while knowledge-based, wastes most of the vast pool of human intelligence that might remedy or constrain these human numbers and profligate activities. Only a tiny handful of the humans now alive will ever approach their full potential. Billions live marginal lives; 30% of the world's labour force are not productively employed; 1.5 billion are condemned to the strait-jacket of illiteracy. Moreover, 80 million are added annually to human numbers - and to growing pressures on institutions and resources. Any alleviation of expanding human pressures and wasted human capacities - through responsible development and fertility, accelerated education and competence - is the most truly global challenge facing the international community, and UN.

         (B) Ending Misuse of Non-Human Resources:

Humanity's fixed global heritage is being destroyed or exploited at an accelerating rate, a process ultimately unsustainable. This applies to both renewable and non-renewable resources; to those claimed by individuals or organizations and those seen as humanity's common heritage and/or as valueless externalities. From now on, all exploitable reserves must be at least roughly calculated, valued, and used on a broadly sustainable basis. If these difficult aims are to have meaning and some hope of success, global accords and close cooperation are essential; the UN is already taking the lead.

© Cleaning Up Our Mess:

Since the scientific revolution, and particularly since the population and technological explosions, certain human activities have done such dangerous and costly damage to the biosphere that Homo sapiens has no choice but to try to make corrections. At minimum, widespread and/or transboundary biospheric disruptions (e.g. air pollution; soil erosion, pollution and depletion; desertification; water misuse; deforestation) must be controlled or reversed. The scale and wide-spread nature of most of these problems, and the limited financial and technical ability of many of those worst affected, require that most can best or only be addressed collectively on a worldwide basis (Earth Summit, Rio 1992).

         (D) Dealing with Biospheric Disruption:

We confront or create serious physical phenomena of global impact, many caused by forces that can only be indirectly influenced, or even understood. These may or may not be avoidable, but many can now at least be predicted, or reduced in force or effect. Examples may be climatic (global warming, ozone depletion); geological (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami); meteorological (floods, storms, droughts); or space-originated (asteroids). Almost any human counter-action can only or best be undertaken collectively by the global community.

         (E) Meeting New Security Threats:

The end of the Cold War did not ease, but rather probably intensified, human insecurity. The UN recognizes that dangers to international peace and security now equate less with inter-state military violence, and more with other threats, varied and multiple, to local, regional or global survival. The priority reaction to these altered threats must be changes and flexibility in human response. Human perceptions, priorities and institutions must adapt to situations. The necessary process of reaction is so grave, urgent and universal that it must be addressed collectively, as at the UN World Summits.

         (F) Confronting Violence:

Since the end of the Cold War, while conflict between states has become rare, intra-state violence has increased. Self-determination, ethnic and religious differences have replaced resource gain and even ideology as reasons for inter-human combat. The proliferation and lethality of new weapons alone demands the reduction and eventual elimination of mass conflict. There is a continuum of things the UN can and must do. Through prevention and mediation, varied military or other sanctions, peacekeeping, and other intervention or assistance designed to stabilize or defuse situations, the UN must act as it was designed to do - further the building of global peace. A shrinking world makes peacemaking everywhere enlightened self-interest for all.

         (G) Dealing with Disaster:

Almost all the challenges identified raise the possibility of catastrophe, however prescient the UN's efforts. World interdependence increases chances that local events have global effects; the colossal and ever-growing scale of human intrusions on the biosphere make catastrophes both more likely and serious; and the omnipresent media, combined with the appalling discrepancies in wealth, make assistance politically unavoidable. Geography, resources and technology alone make UN-coordinated action preferable.

         (H) Promoting Disarmament:

The end of the Cold War brought new hope for peace dividends, but left a world awash in arms, surplus arms-making capacity, and unemployed arms professionals. Traffic increased in both scale and recipients, as prices fell. Control over the development, manufacture and deployment of lethal weapons and substances, particularly nuclear, biological and chemical, has become no longer the preserve of the superpowers and their allies. UN concern and activity has grown, but will be constrained by: continued weapons research, driven by fear, greed and curiosity; global diffusion of both weapons and relevant knowledge; the increasing difficulty of verification; and the vulnerability of complex modern society to disruption. All demand global reaction.

         (I) Reducing Hazardous Frustration:

With the proliferation of weapons comes the profusion of those who could and might use them. The desperation of unemployment, the anger of those masses who perceive themselves deprived in a grossly unequal but more-informed world, and the boldness of ethnic and religious certainties, sows contagious seeds of terrorism, fanaticism and martyrdom. Arming and financing extremists are inter alia the growing numbers and wealth of drug dealers and other international criminals, and new thousands of well-trained and armed international mercenaries and activists. Miniaturization, the diffusion of lethal knowledge and components, and multi-use equipment and substances, impede surveillance, while the vulnerability of energy- and information-dependent society makes it more susceptible to focussed attack and blackmail. Counter-action must therefore involve all governments to eliminate sanctuary and safe transit. Counter-intelligence must become as airtight and coordinated as possible. Only global coverage is truly effective.

         (J) Countering Medical Challenges:

Two trends cause increasing health concerns. First is the rapid and relentless escalation in the global movement of both people and things. Every conscious transfer also carries the threat of transmitting human, plant or animal disease, and inevitably raises the likelihood of pandemics. Second, the very widespread (over)use of antibiotics etc. has produced more resistant mutations, and a global race to keep ahead. All this calls for tighter global biological preventive and control measures. Fortunately many can be integrated to a degree with other security screening, and control of toxic goods movements. Again, any impervious system demands all-inclusive global coverage.

         (K) Building a Global Rule of Law:

Every (binding) interstate agreement constrains sovereignty, and every resolution passed in a universal forum contributes to creating global standards/norms. The general trend is thus for the body of international practice, precedent and law to grow at an unequalled rate. The reason is practical. A world whose international inter-connections grow exponentially must establish and maintain relevant rules, controls and principles. The development of international law and tribunals must keep pace with interdependence. If global, the UN is involved.

         (L) Developing Global Rights:

The formation and acceptance of universal human rights and democratic norms raises questions. While some governments argue that human rights are culturally based, in practice the body of those globally accepted is expanding. In any event, any universal code must be developed through the gradual build-up of norms. The process of formulation and acceptance is constantly underway in various UN fora, and has been for many years. Movement, though slow, is clearly forward and increasingly intrusive within states.

         (M) Managing Mass Migrations:

Humans now move in unprecedented numbers, not simply because there are more people, but because both the need and opportunity have grown: both push and pull forces are powerful. The UN officially recognizes well over 20 million refugees forced unwillingly out of their own country. Globally, about one person in a hundred is either a refugee or displaced, i.e. forced unwillingly to move within their country. Other mass migrations are more ambiguous, particularly the uncontrolled flows in poorer countries from country to city. When either or both the migrant and the place of immigration is unwilling, problems are bound to arise beyond mere acculturation. These truly global issues can best be dealt with at the global level.

         (N) Maintaining Global Financial Order:

One major aspect of globalization is the interdependence of national finances. This reflects the vast, expanding scale and global nature of: international trade (goods; services; technology), investment (short-term; direct), migration (personal assets; remittances), and the related or speculative financial transfers (now worth about $1.5 trillion daily). This reality limits all governments' control over national fiscal policies, exchange rates, economic success, and debts, and can threaten national stability - increasingly through external financial developments. Resulting world-wide issues include: the need for/terms of global financial rules and assistance; the nature, control and value of (national) currencies; the optimum rules for foreign trade, investment and migration; the damping of irrational confidence, price, stock-exchange frenzies; the elimination of tax havens and money laundering. All involve the UN system (particularly the IMF-World Bank).

         (O) Optimizing International Trade:

         As the volume and value of international trade grows, it raises new problems of negotiation, regulation and adjustment. The World Trade Organization will have a key role in dealing with the rapidly growing trade in services, chronic problems with agriculture, the issues of international investment and corruption, environmental and labour standards, and the taxing of international trade between parts of supra-national corporations. Many economic agreements are already global. They will inevitably grow in number and complexity as trade blocs form.

         (P) Dealing with Failure and Anarchy:

The collapse of major institutions, both national and international, including numerous failed states, is foreseen as a delicate predicament for the international community. The UN may be the only acceptable resident physician in many cases. Two problems inevitably arise: the degree of global control and help that is tolerable yet sufficient, and the enormous cost and possibly time-scale involved. For many reasons, however, a political-security black hole can no longer be left unattended by an interdependent community.

         (Q) Accommodating Non-State Power:

The influence, wealth and activities of many non-state trans-national organizations (NGO's, corporations, ideological movements, media, etc.) is approaching or exceeding that of sovereign states. The international rules in regard to such bodies remain very limited. One reason is that they may have no genuine nationality and/or can play one state off against another. Somehow such organizations must be persuaded to respect a minimal system of supranational norms, or jurisdiction if necessary. Only the UN system has any hope of accomplishing this.

         ® Optimizing Global Knowledge:

In a knowledge-driven world, the maximum and most rapid exploitation of accurate information and essential technology should be facilitated, if only to the general welfare. Assisting in raising global access to information is a challenge so big and beneficial that it falls on the UN. Third World states can be assisted electronically in gaining entry to the most essential pools of knowledge, particularly to exploit modern technology for rapid and general education. The distortions and instability that accompany the global revolution can thus be absorbed as quickly and painlessly as possible, and the Third World make a major contribution to global sustainable development.

         (S) Alleviating Global Distress:

The avoidable frustration, hopelessness and anguish of billions of humans, brought about by absolute privation, and extreme and growing income divergence, both within and between states, must be addressed - if only for enlightened self-interest in global stability. The international community through the United Nations has a unique capacity, and so responsibility. We must try; there is no rational excuse.