So many major international issues are at an impasse: nuclear weapons proliferation and disarmament, international terrorism (we cannot even agree on a definition), global pandemics, the Doha round of trade talks and climate change to name a few. For any given global impasse, leaving aside differences and clash of interests over the substance, to what extent do existing and alternative forums and mechanisms for conducting negotiations - the institutions of international governance - facilitate, impede or obstruct the ability to strike deals through a process of bargaining and accommodation?
The challenge of global governance is fivefold. The evolution of international institutions to facilitate cooperation and mute conflict lags behind the rise of collective problems with cross-border dimensions. The most pressing problems are global in scope and require global solutions. The policy authority and coercive capacity for mobilising the necessary resources for tackling them remains vested in states. There is a disconnect between the distribution of authority in existing international institutions and the distribution of military and economic power in the real world. India and Japan are out of the UN Security Council permanent membership and China and India are outside the G8. Very few global issues can be resolved effectively without involving all three.
There is a gap between legitimacy and efficiency. The UN's unique legitimacy flows from its universality, which also makes it a terribly inefficient and frustrating body for making, implementing and enforcing collective decisions. Conversely, the small size of the G7/8 forum was meant to facilitate easy and highly personalised decision-making but renders its outcomes deeply unrepresentative of population, economic, military and diplomatic power and influence, and therefore lacking both in legitimacy and effectiveness.
During the Cold War, the main axis around which world affairs rotated was East-West. Since the end of the Cold War, this has morphed into the North-South axis. Responding to the agenda-setting discourse by Senator Barack Obama on March 18 on race and politics in modern America, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times noted that "the Obama campaign has led many white Americans to listen in for the first time to some of the black conversation - and they are thunderstruck".
A similar chasm exists between the industrialised and developing countries. And the global North is yet to listen in to the global South's conversation. The poison of mutual mistrust rooted in the history of their
encounter from opposite sides of the colonial divide and their differing everyday realities today continue to infect some of the most critical items on the agenda of international public policy, from war, terrorism, and nuclear weapons to human rights, the protection of civilians across borders, free trade in agriculture, and climate change.
For example, the threat of climate change is grave enough to make collective action both necessary and urgent. Global climate change poses significant risks to the planet, and all nations have an important stake in addressing this threat. But while the responsibility for causing climate change rests largely with the rich countries, the poor people will be the hardest hit by worsening drought, weather volatility and extremes, and a rising sea level.
The responsibility for having created the problem through carbon-intensive growth and profligate consumption patterns, and therefore for the solutions, rests mainly with the rich countries who have the financial and technological muscle to undertake the necessary steps to counter climate change. The three worst per capita greenhouse gas emitters are the US, Canada and Australia. If the whole world adopted US and Canadian levels of production, consumption and waste generation, we would need nine planet Earths to sustain them.
Who is going to pay for the costs of addressing global climate change? How will these be shared? "Sustainable development" has been subverted into sustainable consumption for the industrialised countries. Developing countries need more transition time, financing for low-carbon technology transfer and assistance with adaptation. Differential capacity between the rich and poor countries carries the risk of "drifting into a world of adaptation apartheid", in the words of Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu.
Industrial and emerging market economies need to acknowledge their common but differentiated responsibilities, accept an equivalence of burden-sharing, see that all countries take national action on climate change, and negotiate an effective regime aimed at stabilising global levels of carbon emissions within agreed acceptable targets.
For this they need to come together at a common forum on a regular basis. Germany semi-formalised the G8+5 (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) Heiligendamm formula. The '5' have made clear their opposition to being invited to share coffee and dessert as guests at the table. It is insulting and offensive to have the likes of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waiting in an anteroom until summoned by the G8 leaders to join them briefly around the table.
For the G8 and G5 to emerge as competing forums would be a tragedy. Instead they must be combined into one grouping that also includes at least one Islamic nation to create a new G14. No forum can guarantee resolution of clashing interests, but an intimate yet representative group whose members get to know, understand and trust one another is more likely to succeed than either the G8 or the UN.