Retreating from international institutions and cooperation will handicap humanity as we tackle our greatest problems.
The UK’s referendum in favor of leaving the EU and the rise of nationalist ideologies in the US and Europe is worrying on multiple fronts. Nationalism espoused by the likes of Donald Trump (U.S.), Nigel Farage (U.K.), Marine Le Pen (France), and Heinz-Christian Strache (Austria) may lead to a resurgence of some of the worst problems of the first half of 20th century. These leaders are calling for policies that would constrain trade and growth, encourage domestic xenophobia, and increase rivalries and suspicion between countries.
Even more worrying, however, is the bigger picture. In the 21st century, our greatest challenges will require global solutions. Retreating from international institutions and cooperation will handicap humanity’s ability to address our most pressing upcoming challenges.
The Nuclear Age
Many of the challenges of the 20th century – issues of public health, urbanization, and economic and educational opportunity – were national problems that could be dealt with at the national level. July 16th, 1945 marked a significant turning point. On that day, American scientists tested the first nuclear weapon in the New Mexican desert. For the first time in history, individual human beings had within their power a technology capable of destroying all of humanity.
Thus, nuclear weapons became the first truly global problem. Weapons with such a destructive force were of interest to every nation and person on the planet. Only international cooperation could produce a solution.
Despite a dangerous arms race between the US and the Soviet Union — including a history of close calls — humanity survived 70 years without a catastrophic global nuclear war. This was in large part due to international institutions and agreements that discouraged wars and further proliferation.
But what if we replayed the Cold War without the U.N. mediating disputes between nuclear adversaries? And without the bitter taste of the Second World War fresh in the minds of all who participated? Would we still have the same benign outcome?
We cannot say what such a revisionist history would look like, but the chances of a catastrophic outcome would surely be higher.
21st Century Challenges
The 21st century will only bring more challenges that are global in scope, requiring more international solutions. Climate change by definition requires a global solution since carbon emissions will lead to global warming regardless of which countries emit them.
In addition, continued development of new powerful technologies — such as artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies — will put increasingly large power in the hands of the people who develop and control them. These technologies have the potential to improve the human condition and solve some of our biggest problems. Yet they also have the potential to cause tremendous damage if misused.
Whether through accident, miscalculation, or madness, misuse of these powerful technologies could pose a catastrophic or even existential risk. If a Cold-War-style arms race for new technologies occurs, it is only a matter of time before a close call becomes a direct hit.
As President Obama said in his speech at Hiroshima, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.”
Over the next century, technological progress can greatly improve the human experience. To ensure a positive future, humanity must find the wisdom to handle the increasingly powerful technologies that it is likely to produce and to address the global challenges that are likely to arise.
Experts have blamed the resurgence of nationalism on anxieties over globalization, multiculturalism, and terrorism. Whatever anxieties there may be, we live in a global world where our greatest challenges are increasingly global, and we need global solutions. If we resist international cooperation, we will battle these challenges with one, perhaps both, arms tied behind our back.
Humanity must learn to work together to tackle the global challenges we face. Now is the time to strengthen international institutions, not retreat from them.