The prestigious Trilateral Commission met here in Tokyo earlier this month, bringing together some 130 influential people from three continents to focus on key world issues and offer some advice to participants in the forthcoming Okinawa Summit of world leaders. The commissioners heard speeches from Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, Peruvian novelist and activist Mario Vargas Lhosa, Softbank President Masayoshi Son and other stars and founts of wisdom. Former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi had planned to open the event with a major policy speech, but sadly was struck down by a stroke before he could attend.

What were the chief concerns of this gathering of movers and shakers? They ranged from rising tension over Taiwan to antimissile defense and the future security pattern in Central Asia, from the role of the nation state to the new governing skills needed in a networked world, and on to the multiplying problems now affecting, to varying degrees, the world’s global institutions: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the European Commission and even the newly minted European Central Bank.

Along the way, time was found to ruminate on winners and losers in the New Economy and what impact the relentless pressures of global competition and increased transparency would have on the more opaque traditional corners of Japanese life.

It is easy to be cynical about these kinds of talk fests, just as it is easy to be cynical about the world summits that they shadow and feed into. After all, it is not summits and debates but enterprise, imagination and the sweat of millions of brows that create the world’s wealth.

Even the international order now depends more on the web of natural interdependence between private-sector concerns and nongovernmental bodies than between officials and governments — especially in Asia. One is often left wondering after some great summit, as “the captains and the kings depart,” whether the dreary communiques, with their pieties about trade liberalization, world stability, safeguarding the environment, and so on, justify all the time and effort poured into organizing these events.

And yet fresh ideas and approaches need debate, discussion and lucid dialogue the way plants need water. They cannot flourish without them. The fascinating question this time in Tokyo, and the question that hovers over the Okinawa G8 summit in July, was whether Japan, as the host of the next summit, can inject some new ways of thinking, talking and communicating into the lofty process. Can the message be conveyed to the world, as it plainly is not being conveyed right now, that the amazing global trading and financial system that has grown up in recent years can bring colossal benefits to the poorest?

And can the breathtaking communications capabilities of the networked world — which somehow make even more appalling the current juxtaposition of poverty and deprivation with the wired, Internetted societies of the advanced world — be mobilized to provide solutions to global problems that decades of speeches and summit resolutions have failed to achieve?

One Japanese political leader who believes the time has come for a breakthrough, and that the gathering in Okinawa can be the beginning of a genuinely new approach, is Keizo Takemi, former foreign minister and member of the House of Councilors. Takemi, who presented a paper to the Trilateral Commission, has grasped the point that too often eludes international bureaucrats: that with information technology storming ahead, the opportunity now exists to mobilize all human intellectual resources, right across conventional policy boundaries, in the attack on world poverty and suffering and the consolidation of peace and stability.

Most effective, he argues, would be the construction of “intellectual networks that are interdisciplinary and international and enable a smooth sharing and organic utilization of knowledge in all fields.” Indeed, Takemi believes these new networks of knowledge will “become the single greatest driving force of the 21st century international order.”

He is surely right to seek to raise the sights of international policymakers in this way. It cannot make sense that while total interactive communication envelops two-thirds of the world, in the other third — often just a short jet flight away — children die for lack of the simple knowledge and communications needed to establish regular food and medical supplies. For want of a mobile satellite telephone system, millions starve.

If human beings really are “only a click away” from each other and distance means nothing, that ought to apply as much to Ethiopia and Central Africa as to downtown Manhattan and central Tokyo.

What hope is there that the summit leaders will get the point that, confronted with a diversity of threats, humanity now has unprecedented power at its fingertips to coordinate and deploy a vast diversity of responses?

One hopeful sign is that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan seems to prefer thinking about the billions still living in squalor and deprivation, and what to do about them, to grandiose ambitions for U.N. military intervention in every conflict — the sort of ambitions that have led to such humiliation for the United Nations and other international agencies in the past.

A less hopeful sign is that too many other world agencies are still mired in elitist jargon, compartmentalized thinking, internal squabbles and tired-sounding cliches about financial aid and conflict resolution and peace enforcement. These are the desperate, too-late responses, not the preventive cures.

Most of today’s global institutions, including the G8 summit routine itself, were born in an era of conventional hierarchies of power and resources. Today, the hierarchies have crumbled, and power is being redistributed more widely, into the hands of private agencies and new and unfamiliar organizational networks.

It remains to be seen whether the world’s leaders will have received this crucial message from below when they meet in July. If they have, and if Okinawa begins to sound a few hesitant notes of a new and more effective era in the management of world affairs, the adventurous thinkers who visited Tokyo this month will deserve some of the credit.

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