THE FOUR PROBLEMS OF THE APOCALYPSE AND THE UNITED NATIONS

JULY 10, 2020

Following is an excerpt from a recent “fireside” Zoom at DeftEdge with John Mathiason, whose forthcoming book is the title of this blog post.

PSA: Very interesting book title. I assume it has some sort of Biblical reference, John?

JM: Yes. For those not familiar with the Bible, pestilence, war, famine, and death are listed as Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelation (6:2–8) in the Bible.  The four problems I deal with are pandemics, climate change, nuclear weapons and cyber-security. These four problems, I believe, have apocalyptic implications for our world. However, unlike the complete and final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation, I am thinking of events that involve destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale.

PSA: Any one of these problems, by itself, could lead to the end of the world for humans.  

JM: And none of these problems can be solved by the action of individual States or coalitions of States, or by the marketplace, since they are essentially borderless and require behavioral changes across the world.  

PSA: With the exception of cyber-security, these are not new problems.

JM: Although their scale is far greater than in the past.  

AH: What role do you see for the UN and other international organizations?

JM: While international institutions have been created, or are being created, to deal with these problems, it is not clear the problems can be solved before they become catastrophic.  

AS: Let’s look at each in terms of the nature of the problem, the types of solution and the role of international organizations.

JM: Okay. First, pandemics.  The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is neither the first pandemic, nor in all likelihood, is it the last. It is not the deadliest either, at least just yet.  However, due to a combination of asymptomatic spread and increased openness of international society, its reach has been wider and faster. Never before in our history has the entire planet confronted the same challenge at the same time. As because of advances in science, it is now easier to identify viruses and determine vaccines and treatments, COVID-19 crisis should sooner or later be resolved.  However, until there is a vaccine, mitigating the crisis depends on prevention strategies, both national and international, based on behavioral changes like wearing masks and social distancing, that are followed by most people.  It has also shown that these strategies should be global, so that they are implemented consistently.

PSA: So, what do you think of the idea of county-by-county local strategies?

JM: Local strategies even at the country-level are misplaced in their belief on the effectiveness of borders. Virus does not respect borders. I agree with Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at University of Minnesota, who in an NBC interview, used a more apt metaphor. Forest fire. This analogy suggests that the fire is going to burn wherever there is wood to burn. He is right when he says that, “Right now, we have a lot of susceptible people. I don't see this slowing down through the summer or end of the fall. I don't think we're going to see one, two and three waves."

AH: How does the World Health Organization fit in in this scenario?

JM: WHO was established precisely in order to ensure global responses to such health crises. In its early years, these challenges pertained to diseases such as smallpox, malaria and polio, that were largely addressed.  Now, there are new pandemics.  Covid-19 pandemic has shone light on both its advantages and its limitations.  It is really good at organizing a technical response to the virus. Its main difficulties have to do with keeping the organization out of political issues driven by member states, including in this case, China and the United States.

PSA: While pandemic may appear like an existential crisis, there is a larger issue with even bigger ramifications that lurks just behind in its shadows.

JM: Right. I believe you are referring to the climate change.

Environmental issues have been part of human events for most of history but the increasing global temperature due to emissions into the atmosphere from carbon sources, like burning coal or oil or methane from cattle, is relatively recent. At least in terms of measurement.  If the emissions are not significantly reduced, the global temperature will rise to a level that human life will not be sustainable. We already know that.  

However, what is less well known is that reducing emissions requires both political and behavioral changes on an unprecedented scale. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence of its actualization anytime soon. So far, we have only had an international agreement that basically amounts to agreeing that something has to be done!  The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an incomplete agreement that does not yet prescribe policies to be followed.  Those set out in the Paris Agreement are voluntary and, according to scientific consensus, are inadequate.  Moreover, the announced withdrawal of the United States (one of the three largest emitters) will further weaken the response.  A full, enforceable agreement that is publicly supported globally and an international institution for that purpose will have to be quickly created.

Source: UNFCCC Adaptation Committee

AS: On that “happy” note, what’s the third apocalyptic problem?

Nuclear weapons.  The possibility that nuclear weapons could destroy human life on the planet has been an international concern since World War II.  It is perhaps the longest response to an apocalyptic problem, but one which has not ceased.  Most (five) of the States that possess nuclear weapons as well as almost all of the states that do not have them have agreed that either they will not try to get them or if they have them, will not use them.  However, there are four states that have nuclear weapons but have not joined the agreement (India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel) and other countries, like Iran, who are said to be developing weapons or could do so. Also, some states like the United States, are pulling away from agreements.  The International Atomic Energy Agency is charged with ensuring the agreements are kept and that nuclear weaponry would not spread. It has been largely effective, within the limits of the agreement, but would have to be more effective in the changing political climate.

AH: And the last one?

JM: Cyber-security.  The newest apocalyptic problem is a consequence of the most recent growth of communication via the Internet. Communication has always been limited by technology, but in the middle of the 19th century, the first two international organizations (the International Telegraphic Union and the Universal Postal Union) were set up to ensure that communications across borders could be achieved.  At the end of the 20th century, communication via the Internet became dominant.  It can trigger a pandemic because it can be used for warfare, to stimulate violence, to exercise crime or to pass disinformation.  It is currently mostly unregulated and there is no real agreement on how the Internet should be governed or what governance should imply.

PSA: Where does the combination of the four leave us? What does it mean for the UN?

JM: Each of the problems needs a combination of international response and national implementation.  A good way to start is to reexamine the dominant theories that have been guiding the analysis of international institutions.  International politics for the last 400 years has been dominated by what has been called the Westphalian system, derived from the Treaty of Westphalia adopted in 1648 to end the Thirty Years War.  This defined state sovereignty as a full. It assigned the responsibility to nation-states for everything that happens within their borders.  Interactions between and among states was driven by calculations of “national interest” and as a result were mostly conflictual.  As Barry Gewen put it, “People in all places and at all times strive for power. This was the essential idea behind Morgenthau’s thinking.

PSA: In that sense, all international interactions are a zero-sum game, with clear winners and losers.

JM: Correct. When a cross-border problem develops, states reach agreements on how to deal with it in terms of expected behavior which, if not forthcoming, leads to punishment.  They can also lead to a creation of institutions that can help ensure that states comply by setting up rules and procedures or by monitoring compliance.  The earliest international organizations, the previously noted ITU and UPU, were designed to do that.

AS: What are some of the other perspectives?

JM: After World War II, where the previous system [League of Nations] was diagnosed as having failed, there was a new effort to create institutions that would promote reduction of conflict and increase cooperation.  This was to be a rules-based order, where the rules specified national and international behavior in specific contexts.  

PSA: That would be the regime theory?

JM: In international relations, this came to be called “regime theory.” It explained how states would agree on organizational structures to solve problems that could not be solved by individual states or coalitions of states.  As Stephen Krasner put it, regimes are “sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given area of international relations.” Agreeing on principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures is what international negotiations are about.  Over the past 75 years, a number of regimes have been agreed, like that dealing with nuclear weapons. Others, like pandemics, climate change and cyber-security, are still in process.

International organizations consist of the governments that theoretically comprise them and the secretariats that manage them.  The role of secretariats has largely been hidden.

PSA: Hence, the invisible governance …

JM: Correct, which is why my previous book was titled “Invisible Governance: International Secretariats in Global Politics.” Only recently, some have become more visible, particularly WHO staff as they brief on the Covid-19 pandemic.  

They provide essential services to managing the international regimes by providing information and support to negotiations, information and support to expanding national implementation and key information and support to accountability.  Their role will increase as efforts are made to address the problems of the apocalypse, in a world where inter-state conflict will have to decrease, and the role of the general public will increase.

AH: So, where does the United Nations (and its System) stand in terms of the four problems?  

The answer is mixed.  For two, nuclear weapons and, to an extent pandemic, there are institutions in place and working.  For the other two, the institutional structure is only beginning to be put in place.  If the problems are to be solved, there has to be a rapid upgrading of all of the institutions so that they can deliver services that produce results.  

What should be done?

First, there has to be a recognition that the institutional structure is needed and will be supported.  All countries will have to join and participate in the institutions.  For example, the United States will have to stay in WHO and the Paris Agreement. States that have not agreed to the regime, like the five countries still outside of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, will have to join.

PSA: Perhaps, their de facto nuclear power status needs to be made de jure ….

JM: Second, the regime structures in both climate change and cyber-security need to be completed, with binding treaties that include principles, norms, rule and the institutions to implement.

Third, the institutions, and their secretariats, need to be adjusted so that they can provide the necessary information, support services and accountability to ensure that the problems are really addressed.

Fourth, access by the global public to the institutions needs to be increased and improved so that the institutions’ production of information works to solve the problems.

And finally, this approach should be taken by academics as well as practitioners in analyzing the four problems of the apocalypse.

AH: Thanks, John, for that insightful conversation. We look forward to reading the book when it’s out. All the best.