Special Report

Problems Without Passports

Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our own communities and in the world at large. Peoples and cultures are increasingly hybrid. The same icons, whether on a movie screen or a computer screen, are recognizable from Berlin to Bangalore. We are ...

Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our own communities and in the world at large. Peoples and cultures are increasingly hybrid. The same icons, whether on a movie screen or a computer screen, are recognizable from Berlin to Bangalore. We are all consumers in the same global economy. We are all influenced by the same tides of political, social, and technological change. Pollution, organized crime, and the proliferation of deadly weapons likewise show little regard for the niceties of borders; they are problems without passports and, as such, our common enemy. We are connected, wired, interdependent.

Such connections are nothing new. Human beings have interacted across planet Earth for centuries. But today’s globalization is different. It is happening more rapidly. It is driven by new engines, such as the Internet. And it is governed by different rules, or in too many cases, by no rules at all. Globalization is bringing more choices and new opportunities for prosperity. It is making us more familiar with global diversity. However, millions of people around the world experience globalization not as an agent of progress but as a disruptive force, almost hurricane-like in its ability to destroy lives, jobs, and traditions. Many have an urge to resist the process and take refuge in the illusory comforts of nationalism, fundamentalism, or other isms.

Faced with the potential good of globalization as well as its risks, faced with the persistence of deadly conflicts in which civilians are primary targets, and faced with the pervasiveness of poverty and injustice, we must identify areas where collective action is needed — and then take that action to safeguard the common, global interest. Local communities have fire departments, municipal services, and town councils. Nations have legislatures and judicial bodies. But in today’s globalized world, the institutions and mechanisms available for global action, not to mention a general sense of a shared global fate, are hardly more than embryonic. It is high time we gave more concrete meaning to the idea of the international community.

What makes a community? What binds it together? For some it is faith. For others it is the defense of an idea, such as democracy. Some communities are homogeneous, others multicultural. Some are as small as schools and villages, others as large as continents. Today, of course, more and more communities are virtual, as people, even in the remotest locations on earth, discover and promote their shared values through the latest communications and information technologies.

But what binds us into an international community? In the broadest sense, there is a shared vision of a better world for all people as set out, for example, in the founding charter of the United Nations. There is a sense of common vulnerability in the face of global warming and the threat posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction. There is the framework of international law, treaties, and human rights conventions. There is equally a sense of shared opportunity, which is why we build common markets and joint institutions such as the United Nations. Together, we are stronger.

Some people say the international community is only a fiction. Others believe it is too elastic a concept to have any real meaning. Still others claim it is a mere vehicle of convenience, to be trotted out only in emergencies or when a scapegoat for inaction is needed. Some maintain there are no internationally recognized norms, goals, or fears on which to base such a community. Op-ed pages and news reports refer routinely to the "so-called international community," as if the term does not yet have the solidity of actual fact. I believe these skeptics are wrong. The international community does exist. It has an address. It has achievements to its credit. And more and more, it is developing a conscience.

When governments, urged by civil society, work together to realize the long-held dream of an International Criminal Court for the prosecution of genocide and the most heinous crimes against humanity, that is the international community at work for the rule of law. When an outpouring of international aid flows to victims of earthquakes and other disasters, that is the international community following its humanitarian impulse. When rich countries pledge to open more of their markets to poor-country goods and decide to reverse the decade-long decline in official development assistance, that is the international community throwing its weight behind the cause of development. When countries contribute troops to police cease-fire lines or to provide security in states that have collapsed or succumbed to civil war, that is the international community at work for collective security.

Examples abound of the international community at work, from Afghanistan and East Timor to Africa and Central America. At the same time, there are important caveats. Too often the international community fails to do what is needed. It failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda. For too long it reacted with weakness and hesitation to the horror of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. The international community has not done enough to help Africa at a time when Africa needs it most and stands to benefit most. And in a world of unprecedented wealth, the international community allows nearly half of all humanity to subsist on $2 or less a day.

For much of the 20th century, the international system was based on division and hard calculations of realpolitik. In the new century, the international community can and must do better. I do not suggest that an era of complete harmony is within reach. Interests and ideas will always clash. But the world can improve on the last century’s dismal record. The international community is a work in progress. Many strands of cooperation have asserted themselves over the years. We must now stitch them into a strong fabric of community — of international community for an international era.

Kofi A. Annan is secretary-general of the United Nations and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.