This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier on 5/23/2017.
As world leaders gather for the 43rd G7 Summit in Sicily, they face a dizzying range of urgent challenges: climate change, new security threats, humanitarian crises, and the future of workers buffeted by a volatile global economy. These challenges all demand immediate collective action. However, the international system is less equipped now than at any point in the past twenty years to meet these rising challenges. In addition, the G7 leaders face immediate and long-term questions about the future of the organization (and the world) that have not been raised since the end of the Cold War—all this, while experts and commentators fret about the end of the liberal international order. This moment presents unique opportunities to shore up the achievements of the state-based international architecture and buttress that architecture with new space for citizen-led action.
In the past century, arguably the best investments ever made by G7 powers and their allies were the mechanisms and institutions that stabilize this invaluable international structure, which is intended to keep the peace between States.
The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union emerged from the ashes of World War II, driven by dedicated leaders and a population hoping to prevent the next global cataclysm. Since their establishment, the data on violent conflict makes unequivocally clear that humankind has had tremendous success. The number of deaths from violent conflict—both per-capita and in real numbers—has been declining substantially and steadily for three generations. Additionally, this decline is supported by the more recent creation of other critical regional bodies such as the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Mechanisms for cooperation usually prevent wars, accelerate peace processes, and set the stage for steady economic growth. Yet, this international organization is strained, and we are in a moment of crisis. The cooperation mechanisms established to prevent and mediate wars between states are struggling to address the conflicts, fragility, and misrule within states.
In extreme cases like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, the inability to address internal conflicts have unleashed new transnational forces: an unprecedented refugee crisis, the rise of stateless extremist movements, and the concomitant rise of extreme nationalist movements in otherwise stable countries. Cyclical crises in “fragile states”, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, or Somalia, have claimed millions of lives, billions of dollars, and required tens of thousands of peacekeepers with little hope for a speedy end. Security threats have become intertwined with social phenomena, which states cannot cope with on their own.
The cracks in the foundation of the international architecture are on display for all to see. Public trust in institutions is diminishing and populist movements are generating support by railing against their shortcomings. Citizens around the world feel more uncertain and insecure in this rapidly changing world, even if the data make clear that we are decades into one of the safest and most secure periods in human history.
As the G7 leaders gather, they must re-commit to shoring up the gains made by the formal architecture, while also committing to supporting a new informal architecture capable to deal with the new crises of today and tomorrow. Leaders must support the institutions that have prevented the outbreak of inter-state war on anything like the scale that it was prior to 1945. Supporting those institutions in the 21st century means necessarily undertaking some changes to ensure they remain relevant and responsive to today’s world. That includes reviewing membership, funding, and decision-making structures that reflect the post-WWII order; embracing efforts to eliminate waste and redundancy; and ensuring more accountability and democratic engagement directly with the citizenry. Yet, withdrawing from these institutions or hastening their collapse would be akin to smashing a hole in the hull of a ship that has sprung a leak.
At the same time, the G7 leaders must realize that ordinary citizens are more engaged in local and global affairs than they were seventy years ago, and seize this opportunity to support an informal architecture that complements the formal systems. The organization that we lead, Search for Common Ground, has been one of thousands of local and international civil society groups working to build this architecture. From interfaith committees that disarmed militias in the Central African Republic to Track II diplomacy by scientists that helped secure the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran, we have seen ordinary citizens step up to support the formal peace architecture. Such results of citizen-led peacebuilding have been concrete, tangible, and uniquely in the capacity of citizens—not States—to produce.
To ensure that the hard-won reduction in violence continues for the next seventy years, G7 leaders must seize the opportunity presented by the current crisis of global governance. It is a moment to plug the leaks in the formal mechanisms of interstate cooperation, while recognizing that governments alone will not succeed without creating opportunities and partnership with civilian-led efforts to build a more peaceful, just, and prosperous world.
About the authors: Shamil Idriss is the President and CEO at Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated conflict transformation organization. Shamil leads Search in ending violent conflict in more than 35 countries globally, including some of the most devastating conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. Mike Jobbins is the Director of Global Affairs and Partnerships at Search for Common Ground. He leads Search’s work on thematic priorities, including Countering Violent Extremism, Business and Human Rights, and responses to humanitarian crises.