Research

Big Power, Superpower, Selfish Power: No Saints, Only Sinners

Let me extend a warm welcome to all of you on behalf of the organisers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Rwanda, the Rwanda Convention Bureau, ORF America—a new institution in Washington DC that we built during the pandemic—and, of course, ORF India. We are delighted to be here with all of you.

Personally, I am thrilled to be back in Rwanda. I can actually share with you that the number one item on my to-do list, once the pandemic allowed us to travel, was coming back to Kigali. It is immensely satisfying to reconnect with everybody again. I hope over the next few days, we will exchange notes, renew friendships, and shape new partnerships.

By way of introduction to what we plan to do over the next two and a half days, I thought I could take a few notes out of my pandemic diary. On how I was observing the world and assessing it even as we were isolated, quarantined, separated, and sometimes hopeless and helpless, I found that there were three questions that I grappled with.

First and foremost, we must question global governance as it exists today—its institutions and its leadership. When the pandemic hit, if we are really honest, all of us in this room were left to our own devices. There was no cavalry coming to save us, we had to do it ourselves. At the peak of the pandemic, it was every human for themselves. Countries were isolated, societies were quarantined, and global governance was missing in action. We must promise ourselves that next time we will do better and efforts towards that must start today.

What is the point of investing in global institutions, if not for their reassuring presence during these times? I am not suggesting that we need to do away with these institutions. In fact, I urge all of us to rethink, re-invest, and reshape how they work, who they serve, and for what purpose they are designed. And that must be something high on our agenda, as thinkers, as practitioners of policy, and as global citizens. So the quality of global governance has to be the first question we respond to.

We all know that the pandemic was a great leveler. There were no big powers, there were no superpowers, there were no great powers. There were selfish powers who dominated the world. New York, London, Paris, Cape Town, Delhi, name the city, everyone was devastated by the pandemic. Higher spending on health care, greater medical systems, better facilities, all amounted to nothing. We must, therefore, re-think our health architecture—programmes that are meant to preserve lives and protect ourselves must be re-examined. Countries that had spent billions of dollars on building medical capabilities were struggling to respond, as were much poorer nations. Perhaps, instead of spending money on prestige medical projects, a more equitable distribution could have prevented the spread of the virus in geographies that were underprepared and had low infrastructure capabilities.

The second clear reality, or rather virtual reality, was the digitalisation of our societies. No policy by any political leader, no matter how charismatic, could have created the rate of digitalisation that the pandemic was able to do. It was outstanding and astounding at the same time. Outstanding, because we were able to connect; we were able to earn a livelihood; we were able to remain engaged. We were able to, in some sense, continue as a community, as a society. Astounding, simply because the institutions to protect these digital spaces, which are now so precious, do not exist.

We saw the digitalisation of everything. Individuals exist online, yet they live offline. They connect to their near and dear ones offline, but communities are built online. Countries are now digital nations yet, we see wars crop up to defend lines on a map time and again.

We must ask: Have our politics and policies realigned themselves to the emergence of this digital society? Are we recognising the digital arena as an independent domain, akin to a new geography, that requires its own set of rules, principles, ethics, and governance? Or are we still seeing this as an instrument attached to our real world? Depending on how we assess our digital reality, we will come up with responses that may be sub-optimal or ambitious…or perhaps the ones that are most appropriate. This is a debate we must have about the digital societies that the pandemic has, in many ways, incubated.

Next, we are witnessing a reversal to parochialism, tribalism, and selfish behaviour. We have seen nations cannibalise and weaponise production capabilities for their own selfish requirements, hijack medical shipments and more. There were again no big powers or super powers—just selfish ones. There were no saints, only shades of sinners, and all of us were implicated by these actions. This self-serving behaviour was, in turn, endorsed by national media and demanded by electorates on the streets; which begs the question: How do we rectify this?

We have also witnessed a recession of globalism. We are more interconnected, but we trust less, we care less. We are less empathetic. We can’t wish away the rise of these emotions, sub-nationalist and nationalist. But we also can’t ignore the benefits and the protection that an interconnected world provides us. Who are the next generation of leaders who will rebuild globalisation in a different format?

We don’t need to invest in perverse dependencies. What we need is smart, interconnected resilience. The globalisation of tomorrow must be very different to the texture of yesterday. I must reiterate the point I began with: Community is cavalry.

When it comes to our development needs—education, health, skills, and other social sectors, the pandemic has pushed us into a do-it-yourself mode. While we must seek partnerships, we must build networks, and we must create relationships, we must first build ourselves and our capacities. Sharing individual journeys, group experiences, and learnings of countries is one way to strengthen this process of investing in ourselves and our community.

The Kigali Global Dialogue is an attempt to build that community. We are not going to give you the silver bullet to solve all problems. Nor will the dialogue offer a prescription for a better tomorrow. But we are here to be your fellow humans on a journey that we will undertake together.

May you all enjoy the ride over the next two and a half days, and may we discover important lessons on the way. Thank you for joining us at this Dialogue.

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