Commentary / World

G-7: talk or meaningful action?

by David M. Malone

Special To The Japan Times

We live in an increasingly “connected” world. This connectedness runs deeper than the Internet; it is about the growth of international air links and the fading of national borders; about global supply chains for businesses large and small; and about the massive global movement of energy.

Yet all these connections also have a dark side. Organized crime and terrorism depend on the Internet. Infectious disease loves air travel and porous borders. Piracy depends on long supply chains.

In a society as safe as Japan, it is easy to forget that the first obligation of a government is to protect citizens from threats to their security. Yet in a connected world, where almost all threats are cross-border, nations can no longer just go it alone; they need to find ways to work with each other — to be multilateral, rather than unilateral. And the Group of Seven meeting at Ise-Shima this week is an enabler of such international cooperation.

The G-7 would be wise to recognize that it is Eurocentric, and that the global balance of power has shifted in a way that requires the members of the G-7 to work with non-members to change the world. But that fact should not permit them to shirk the responsibility of being the world’s richest and most powerful countries — to support the world in managing security threats. We see three key categories that cause concern:

The first is “old news” that, unfortunately, is new again: war, famine and migration. These are the beating heart of the great multilateral institutions — for example, the Red Cross system, the World Food Programme and the High Commissioner for Refugees. But while the nature of war, the scope of global hunger and the scale of migration have changed, our institutions, sadly, have not kept pace.

The G-7 needs to deliver on its commitment to multilateral institutions. There has been sufficient rhetoric (promises at the United States-led summit on peacekeeping, and lots of talk on terrorism), but not enough follow-through (the G-7 today provides less than 2 percent of troops in peacekeeping missions, and there is little new joint action on terrorism in terms of intelligence sharing and cooperation on operations to fight terrorism). In part, this is because states are struggling to understand how to enshrine common interests in institutions. Doing so offers greater protection than going it alone.

The second category of threats is “tomorrow’s news”: issues such as cyberterrorism or organized crime that do not receive adequate attention yet because they are not at the top of a crowded agenda.

How might multilateral institutions guard against cyberthreats and help secure the digital economy? The less glamorous parts of the multilateral architecture are instructive; the International Civil Aviation Organization has provided uniform and predictable rules that have enabled the continued global growth of aviation. Is there potential for a similar set of conventions on cybersecurity issues? Might a common definition of international cybercrimes help establish a platform for stronger cooperation?

A statement by the G-7 calling for the development of multilateral cybersecurity frameworks, for example, would open the door. Imagine the impact of a G-7 plus China agreement on data protection and privacy. (It was an agreement between the U.S. and China that provided the key to unlocking the successful conclusion to the Paris Summit on Climate Change last December.)

Here, there is also an opportunity for research institutions (including the United Nations University) to work with the private sector and help states to come together by focusing on the tremendous cost-savings that effective multilateral agreements can promise.

The third category is potential “future news” threats: biowarfare and pandemics, fragile cities and climate-driven insecurity. These risks extend beyond national borders. They are where the “tragedy of the commons” is most likely to arise — and where multilateral constructs may bridge national boundaries. Consider that more than 850 million people live in small cities; that in cities, homicide is the leading cause of violent death; and that, across Latin America and West Africa, violence related to organized crime is on an upsurge. Are we doing enough and can we afford to wait on these risks?

Three more worrying trends magnify these security risks: an erosion of trust in state institutions, a slowdown in the pace of industrialization and the evidence of a continuing global economic crisis. Nothing creates insecurity like economic decline. The combination of mistrust and hopelessness for young people seeking jobs is potentially toxic.

Acknowledgement of these trends as security threats by the G-7 would help to stimulate focus on the implications of a post-industrial economy for less fortunate countries. Here, the reach of multilateral institutions, and their special legitimacy, creates an opportunity. Most of these threats may not be acute within the G-7, but their consequences will not respect borders as millions flee their impact.

There are modest but critical steps that the G-7 can take: increased investment in peacekeeping; concrete measures to counter radicalization; encouraging a multilateral response to cybersecurity; and pledging to support networks through which cities can share lessons learned in the struggle against violence and organized crime.

States generally act only in their own interest, although humanitarian exceptions are many. But we can ask the G-7 countries — as the most powerful and prosperous economies of the world — to recognize the value of taking decisions in support of common interests, and to act accordingly.

Because every time the world turns a blind eye to people suffering from conflict (such as in Syria) or fails to come together to protect all people from terror and crime, we lessen ourselves. And we step further away from the promise of the U.N. — a world free from war. If the leaders of the G-7 — the most powerful countries on Earth — will not help the world to make good on that promise, who will?

The G-7 summit format has often been derided as a vast flying circus, all hot air and no meaningful action. Ise-Shima can be different. Will it be?

David Malone is rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo and U.N. undersecretary-general.