Grading the world on our biggest problems
April 22nd, 2013
10:44 AM ET

Grading the world on our biggest problems

By Stewart Patrick, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Stewart Patrick is senior fellow and director of the international institutions and global governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.

As Mayor of New York, the late Edward Koch famously asked constituents, “How’m I doing?” He got an earful. But he valued the instant feedback and even adjusted occasionally. As we commemorate Earth Day, we might ask the same question of ourselves – but on a planetary scale. When it comes to addressing the world’s gravest ills, how are we doing?

Not so well. That is the big takeaway from the first Global Governance Report Card, released today by the Council on Foreign Relations. Designed in the old grade school style, Report Card grades the international community and the United States on how they are responding to six big challenges: global warming, nuclear proliferation, violent conflict, global health, transnational terrorism, and financial instability. The grades, available online, reflect input from fifty prominent experts.

Beyond assigning letter grades for each of the six “subject areas,” the Report Card evaluates performance in specific sub-categories. Thus for climate change, it evaluates global progress in critical objectives like curbing emissions or using carbon sinks. It also singles out countries or organizations deserving praise as class “leaders,”  as “most improved,” or worthy of a “gold star.” Finally, it calls out actors who undermine global solutions, labeling them “laggards,” “truants,”  or (in the case of North Korea on the nuclear issue) “in detention.”

The grades range widely, but two lessons are clear: First, the gap between the demand for and supply of effective multilateral cooperation is a yawning one. Second, the United States remains an inconsistent global leader.

This is most obvious in the slow-motion catastrophe of global warming, for which the world and the United States receive their worst marks (D and C-, respectively). After 18 annual conferences of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the futility of seeking comprehensive agreement among 193 U.N. member states is self-evident. Ideally, a breakthrough might be possible in a smaller, informal venue like the Major Economies Forum (MEF), which gathers the world’s 17 top greenhouse gas emitters. Alas, the MEF has been unable  to translate the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” into binding emissions reductions by developing countries. Meanwhile, the abject U.S. failure  to pass climate change legislation, much less institute a domestic “cap and trade” system, deprives the United States of leverage to get China to do more.

The upshot?  There is a 90 percent probability that the average temperature on Earth will increase between 3.5 and 7.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. The ensuing parade of calamities will include melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, collapsing coral reefs, extreme weather events, desertification and fresh water shortages, famine and mass migration and, conceivably, violent conflict. Avoiding the worst consequences of a warming planet will require both dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases and major investments in adaptation – neither of which is on the horizon.

Things are slightly better when it comes to nuclear proliferation – the greatest near-term threat to global security. Today, there are only nine known nuclear powers. But we could be approaching a tipping point. The ongoing defiance by North Korea and Iran, Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal, the spread of dual-use technology, and glacial progress towards nuclear disarmament are all eroding the foundations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Today, 49 nations could produce nuclear weapons if they wished, and terrorists are seeking such capabilities themselves. All is not lost – yet. Two  Nuclear Security Summits inspired by the Obama administration have helped lock up much of the world’s fissile material from diversion, and the United Nation has adopted resolutions to penalize illicit transfers to non-state actors. For their efforts, the international community merits a C (and the United States a B, for keeping Iran’s feet to the fire and signing the New START agreement with Russia).

Things are similarly mixed when it comes to advancing global health. First the good news: in recent years the world has showered unprecedented attention and resources on global health initiatives. New public-private initiatives have sprung up, involving not only sovereign governments and formal bodies like the World Health Organization but also private corporations, and philanthropies like the Gates Foundation. Thanks to innovative financing mechanisms like the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, as well as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, both child and adult mortality have declined, and life expectancies have risen. But all is not rosy. Most donors prefer disease-specific interventions rather than strengthening developing country health systems. And financing, once flush, is drying up as austerity policies take hold in cash-strapped countries. Lastly, the developing world faces a new epidemic of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. As the global health leader, the United States merits a B, but the world earns just a C.

Stopping violent conflict, meanwhile, remains a constant struggle. The United Nations, created “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” has made decent strides towards this goal. War between nations is now extremely rare. Perhaps more surprisingly, over the past two decades the average number and intensity of civil wars has also fallen steeply, notably in sub-Saharan Africa. One big reason is a surge in U.N.-mandated peace operations and special political missions. More negatively, the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations as well as the African Union, continue to be given unrealistic mandates without the resources or political support to implement them. And global efforts to prevent  – rather than simply respond to­­ – violence remain desultory. Finally, blockages in the U.N. Security Council can stymie action even in the face of mass atrocities – as we witness every day in Syria. Given these shortcomings, the international community earns only a C+, the United States a B-.

The biggest unsung triumph in global cooperation may be counterterrorism (CT). To be sure, there have been many excesses – from arbitrary detention to torture to assassination. But, overall, the world has shown tremendous solidarity. After 9/11, the Security Council passed Resolution 1373. It required all countries to criminalize terrorism, created a new Counterterrorism Committee, and established a CT Executive Directorate to provide technical and financial assistance to fill national gaps. The Financial Action Task Force, created to combat money-laundering, was pressed into service to crack down on terrorist financing. Finally, the Security Council extended Resolution 1540, prohibiting the transfer of nuclear materials and technology to non-state actors. Al Qaeda is not dead yet, as events in Mali and elsewhere underscore, but the network has been deprived of reliable havens, financing, and ideological support. For their efforts, the world earns a B, the United States a B+.

But the most impressive recent example of international cooperation has been progress in restoring financial stability since the global credit crisis hit in 2008. After looking into the abyss, the world’s major economies avoided another Great Depression by coordinating their policy responses. They elevated the G-20 into a leaders-level forum in which advanced and emerging powers could respond to crises. The G-20 injected trillions of dollars into the world economy, revived and expanded the coffers of the International Monetary Fund, created a Financial Stability Board to regulate cross-border financial institutions, mandated new capital requirements for big banks, negotiated governance reforms to the IMF and World Bank to benefit rising powers, and avoided 1930-style descent into tit-for-tat protectionism. To be sure, the G-20’s momentum has slowed, accusations of currency manipulation persist, and the Eurozone crisis trundles on, roiling financial markets. But the positive overall picture earns the international community a B – and the United States a B+ for leadership for firm leadership.

If the climate change picture provides ample cause for despair, the effective response to the global financial crisis offers grounds for hope. It demonstrates global institutional reform and effective multilateral cooperation is possible. The two critical ingredients are a compelling sense of crisis and vigorous U.S. leadership. Here’s hoping that by next Earth Day, the existential threat posed by global warming will finally persuade the U.S. Congress to join the White House in taking the dramatic policy steps needed to persuade China and other major emitters to respond in kind.

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Topics: Climate • United Nations • United States

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soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    "49 Countries/Nations could produce Nuke, if they wish..."?

    Evils are growing.
    Who raises them?

    April 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  2. Muin

    Yeah. I would give zero on all those 6 categories too. Specially climate change is getting worse and will continue to get worse. Communists in China gave U.S multinational corporations and world's multinational corporation a safe heaven to avoid environmental regulations along with cheap labor. Many poor countries and developing countries are looking at that as a model. They want to be manufacturing hub like China, use coal and nuclear plant to get rid of power shortage. So climate change is going to get worse before it gets better.

    April 23, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  3. Rolf von Grafenstein

    No American leadership, anymore. Even, Argentina is performing better. The World does not need, does not want American leadership. We need joint EU-NATO leadership, for the next decades.

    April 23, 2013 at 8:29 am |

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