By Jennifer Clinton
This year you may detect a considerable change as world leaders gather at the United Nations. Fear not, they will still deliver speech after speech. Their motorcades will continue to clog the streets of Manhattan. But the power dynamic will be different.
It will be the first time that so many heads of state have assembled since the #MeToo movement began. Populists around the globe have radically changed debates and democracies. In Syria, the civilian-led White Helmets stepped up as the world struggled to respond to the mounting violence. Global governance got more local. When the US pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, 400 American mayors said their cities would continue to honor the deal. Some of the most ambitious advancements into space are coming not from countries, but companies.
Those meeting in New York now confront unprecedented constraints on their power. Rather than the United Nations General Assembly setting the global agenda, leaders find themselves increasingly forced to adapt to agendas set by others. A recent poll by US News and World Report, showed how people around the world consider business executives, like Jack Ma and Jeff Bezos, more influential on policy matters than most any head of government.
Many will attribute this tectonic transformation to technology. We can indeed access and amplify information more easily. But, connectivity is only part of the picture. Our capacity to communicate and collaborate across borders is really what drives individuals’ actions into global movements.
You may be able to virtually walk down the streets of Kampala or Karachi with Google Maps. Yet, walking a mile alongside a Ugandan or Pakistani will illuminate a lot more. Running an international exchange organization, I witness every day as connections convert to comprehension to change. This is where global power is shifting. Once unimaginable cross-border collaborations are growing each year, among entrepreneurs, researchers and activists.
No longer are they as dependent on structure, stimulus, or support from government programs. Roles are reversing as public officials find themselves increasingly pushed by international influences. A Chinese scooter startup is advising on US municipal transport reforms in the US. Civil society groups in one nation are exposing corrupt leaders in another. Movements, such as #MeToo, can no longer be contained to one country.
Not all of these developments are positive. Extremist groups, like ISIS, can gain followers and funds from around the globe more easily. Criminal activity, especially cybercrime, seems to know no boundaries. Some governments find it far easier to meddle in the affairs of other states.
The challenge we face is to update our rules, resources, and relationships to reflect the realities of the new world order. Affording a few established international organizations observer status at the United Nations is no longer enough. Holding meetings on the margins with outside groups is insufficient. Many of these institutions and individuals enjoy greater power and influence than government entities. How can we more effectively engage a wide range of actors in the development and implementation of international policy and programs?
We should start by recognizing that today change seldom comes from conferences, especially government gatherings. You wouldn’t start a business at a summit. Most movements begin organically. The best ideas come from exposure and experience.
To solve our most pressing problems we need to bring more of the world together. Launch a massive program of global missions that mix leaders from government, business, and civil society. Immerse them in collaboration, not just conversation. Have them incubate ideas on the ground, not in a grand hall.
This experiential approach would break down silos. Not just between government and the public. Many organizations and businesses working to address common issues lack a platform for partnering. Such a general assembly of actors would reduce inefficiencies and increase the scale of projects. The United Nations might play a coordinating role, but it would be critical to unburden the missions from its bureaucracy.
The heads of states might highlight these initiatives and add to their support. Yet, many of the solutions they seek could start well before the leaders meet. This results-oriented diplomacy might alleviate the time and tensions that emerge from talks between national leaders.
Such a creative structure certainly can’t solve all the challenges the world faces today. Nonetheless, it would get more people focused on what we have in common and how we come together to pursue new possibilities. Developing such integrated international networks will ensure that risks and opportunities are identified earlier and more effectively.
Governments no longer dominate the global stage in the way they once did. The main objective of those meeting along the East River ought to be how they break down barriers and empower others to tackle tougher issues. Indeed, their agenda might not be quite so ominous or overwhelming were they to embrace a much more inclusive model of international affairs.
Dr. Jennifer Clinton is President and CEO of Cultural Vistas, one of the oldest and largest international exchange organizations of its kind in the world.
Opinions expressed in View articles are those of the author.