from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Looking Past the Inbox: Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations

November 6, 2013

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Every year, it seems, a new group of eminences grises issues a report deploring the state of the world and purporting to offer a roadmap out of our predicament. These documents tend to be short on imagination and substance. A welcome exception is Now for the Long Term, the recently-released final report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. Its focus is a question that has long bedeviled policymakers: How can one persuade political actors—national governments, international organizations, corporations, and private citizens—to shift their frame of reference from immediate demands and present desires to the requirements of a stable, prosperous, and sustainable future?

The commission, chaired by former WTO Director General Pascal Lamy and sponsored by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, comprises a cast of global luminaries. They include Michele Bachelet of Chile, Trevor Manuel of South Africa, Chris Patten of the United Kingdom, and Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, among others.

The report has three main parts. The first section outlines how seven megatrends—in demography, mobility, geopolitics, society, sustainability, health, and technology—are confronting the world with unprecedented challenges. This is well-trod territory, repeating many of the findings of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report. Where Now for the Long Term begins to break new ground is in part two, which identifies five major stumbling blocks to better global governance. As the commission sees it, these include the failure of institutions to adapt; a preference for short-term thinking, accentuated by electoral, media, budgetary, and business cycles; dwindling political engagement and eroding public trust; the sheer growing complexity of global problems; and divergent cultural perspectives.

It is in section three, however, that the report really shines. The commission identifies “five principles” to guide “an agenda for the long-term.” These include making greater use of “creative coalitions,” including but not limited to nation-states; making international institutions more transparent and responsive; “revaluing the future” by shifting existing institutional incentives; investing in younger generations; and “establishing a common platform of understanding.” In each case, the report includes several illustrative examples of how such recommendations can be put into practice. Among the most noteworthy are proposals to:

  • Set up a new early warning platform, “CyberEx,” to promote shared understanding by governments and the private sector of critical threats to cybersecurity;
  • Create a C20/C30/C40 coalition of states, companies, and megacities to fight climate change, linking G20 nations, thirty of the world’s largest corporations, and the existing “C40” group of megacities committed to action on global warming.
  • Establish “Worldstat,” an independent agency charged with improving the quality, collection, and dissemination of vital global statistics;
  • Establish a “Voluntary Taxation and Regulatory Exchange” where countries report their corporate taxation regulations, to combat tax avoidance and evasion;
  • End discrimination against future generations by revising discounting methods, as well as investing in youth (including through conditional cash transfer programs); and
  • Incorporate “sunset clauses” into the charters of all publicly-funded international organizations, to ensure that such bodies do not outlive their usefulness.

If the report has a weakness, it is its lack of political realism. The commission acknowledges, at least implicitly, that all politics is local. And yet its ambitious agenda requires elected leaders to do the unprecedented: subordinate the immediate, particularistic interests of their constituents to long-term, global interests. “We urge decision makers to overcome their pressing daily preoccupations to tackle problems that will determine the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s generations,” reads the executive summary. What’s missing here is a thorough discussion of how existing political incentives might be changed to reward the long view. For instance, how might one persuade the Indian parliament to do away with agricultural subsidies that constitute a life-line for peasant communities?

The report is also silent on the role of competing national interests, betraying a liberal (at times technocratic) belief that lack of relevant knowledge is the main impediment to policy convergence. And yet, the clash of interests and values is real. Consider proposals to reform the UN Security Council or the international financial institutions, which inevitably pit satisfied and rising powers in zero-sum competition. Likewise, debates over climate change are about burden sharing—and the prospect of lost economic growth. Trade negotiations, similarly, get tangled up in the distribution of benefits among likely winners and losers.

In other areas the failure to collaborate may reflect incompatible values. Consider internet governance or humanitarian intervention. Is it legitimate for the state to censor digital communications in the interest of social stability? When (if ever) is it appropriate to intervene to protect civilians? Given such normative pluralism, the commission’s call for “world leaders to establish shared global values” comes across as naïve. It assumes that divergent values reflect false consciousness and can be overcome by dialogue or socialization. This may be, but it will take some time.

The report also omits any mention of the word “sovereignty.” This is unfortunate. We may well be moving into an era of multi-stakeholder and multilevel global governance. Still, states remain more important than international organizations, the private sector, NGOs, civil society, or major cities. And it is sovereignty concerns—to protect freedom of action, preserve domestic policy autonomy, or evade the constraints of international law—that constitute one of the biggest impediments to effective multilateral cooperation. Interdependence may be rising, but sovereignty retains its weight.

Finally, Now for the Long Term fails to address the role of international leadership in global governance. Historically, the great powers have been the chief architects of world order, for good or ill. The United States played a particularly instrumental role in the 1940s. Where will such leadership emerge today, at a time of relative U.S. decline? Again, the report is silent.

Despite these political blind spots, Now for the Long Term merits wide circulation and close reading. It is full of innovative ideas, gleaned in part from past successes and failures, about how to mitigate future risks to political stability, shared prosperity, and ecological sustainability.

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