Earth Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 31 Dec 2001


Following from the traumatic events of 2001, the new year will be crucial for setting the rules and conduct of international affairs, especially in the military and security spheres, for the future.  There will be tension between the temptation of unilateral action by the powerful versus the democracy and greater stability of international decision-making.  In economic and environmental matters, 2002 will also see important developments.

So another new year will soon be upon us—and a most important one for sure.  It will set the tone, even the framework, of international relations for many years to come.

The set of rules and conduct that now appears likely to emerge is grim indeed.  But since it is not yet cast in stone, there is still some chance for the “small players”—the developing countries, the citizen groups and even individuals—to help in its shaping, or at least in damage control.

The biggest issues and events will revolve around global security, war and peace.  As the year starts, it looks as if the United States is bent on a go-it-alone war of its own against countries, governments and groups that it considers terrorist, by which is meant a real or perceived threat to its security.

It is likely to ask other countries to either join its continuing “war against terrorism”—and on its terms—or else not stand in the way.  The US will expect the rest of the world to go along with whatever it has decided to do; it may label the dissident countries as unsympathetic, traitors or even worse, collaborators of the terrorists.

The US is more than ever the world’s only superpower. Having been so seriously wounded by September 11, and shown the might of its response in Afghanistan, it will now be tempted to continue to act on its own, wield the big stick and strike at countries which it perceives to be a threat or nuisance.

If other governments are too fearful to protest, or if the protests are too weak in the face of American power, then 2002 may see the rise and establishment of US military unilateralism that would undermine the principle of international decision-making (however inadequate that itself may have been observed in practice in the past).   

The world would then enter a very dangerous era, with the powerful  dispensing with the checks and balances of multilateral decision-making, and simply acting as they please.

This road may seem simpler to take for those wielding the power, but it will also cause many to suffer injustice or perceived injustice.  In the end it will lead to greater instability and more turbulence.

The alternative to unilateral action is for all countries to discuss and decide collectively, under the United Nations, perhaps through a conference or a special session, on what terrorism is (for example, as is often quoted, one person’s terrorist may be another person’s freedom fighter) and how to deal with it.  But for the UN to regain its eroded authority, the big powers (and particularly the US) will have to agree to its playing its rightful role, and this is unlikely.

There is thus the danger that 2002 will see the continuation of a trend charted in 2001:  towards a free for all, in which countries (taking the cue from the US) unilaterally declare their enemies to be terrorists (or that they are as guilty as terrorists since they do not act against the terrorists) and then take military action without the approval (or despite the disapproval) of the UN. 

Israel has already acted thus against the Palestinians.  Other governments may follow suit.  There is already intense tension in South Asia.  Chaos will break out if several countries were to take the attitude, that “if the US can declare its enemies as terrorists and strike, so can we.”  

In 2002, the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be of paramount priority.  But that goal seems more elusive than ever.  If the bloodshed continues or worsens, the Middle East will be in greater turmoil, with fallout on the rest of the world.

The new year will also see critical developments on the economic front.  The global economy is likely to remain on the downside for much (perhaps all) of 2001, with all the three major entities (the US, Japan and Europe) in recession or stagnation. 

Regions of the developing world will thus go through a year of slowdown or downturn.  Manufacturing exports and commodity prices will come under some serious stress, and some more countries may, like Argentinia, face the threat of debt default and chaos.

The UN will hold a world conference on Financing for Development in March in Mexico.  That will be an opportunity to review the failed policy of free capital movements, which has slayed many a once-healthy developing economy. 

Indeed, reform of the global financial system and the IMF is long overdue and the latest crises in Latin America should nudge the developed countries towards  it in 2002.  But the political will most likely be found to be still missing.

The World Trade Organisation will start work on a long agenda of negotiations, agreed to at its Ministerial conference in Doha last November.  The developing countries can be expected to continue their fight to have some of the existing unfair rules changed or clarified.  But the developed nations will ignore most of the complaints and simply push ahead with developing fresh measures and rules to open up the developing countries’ markets for their companies. 

Since 2002 is the first year of China’s membership, everyone will watch with great interest how the Chinese will settle down in the WTO, whether it will join other developing countries to defend their joint interests, and whether the developed countries will put pressure on it to strictly follow its obligations.

The new year will also be important for the global environment.  In 2001, the US signaled its unilateral approach in this area by pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.  After a brief period of depression over this blow to international cooperation, the other countries went ahead and made their own commitments under the protocol to limit their emissions of gases that heat up the world’s atmosphere.

2002 will see the UN’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, ten years after the Rio Earth Summit.  It will be another chance for world leaders to pledge concrete actions to turn back the environmental crisis which has worsened further after Rio.

It must be admitted that the environment is now low on the political agenda, as the world is so preoccupied with security and economic problems.  Yet the environment crisis may be an even bigger time-bomb requiring more serious attention.

In 2001, there was a growing global citizens’ movement fighting social and environmental ills and battling the injustices and effects of unbridled globalisation.  That movement was temporarily jolted, like everything else, by the September 11 events, but is recovering gradually.

The coming year will see the social movements getting active again, and this may help provide a little of the balance that is needed in a world that is in grave danger of being shaped by political hegemony and economic domination and of suffering even greater environmental stress.