Building bridges between the West and the rest

News22 Jun 2011Ellen Lammers

Ellen Lammers interviews Jan Egeland, 27 August 2010

Jan Egeland is director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (since September 2007). He was under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator between 2003 and 2006. This position heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Prior to becoming head of OCHA, Egeland was the secretary general of the Norwegian Red Cross . From 1999 to 2002, he was the United Nations secretary-general’s special adviser on Colombia. From 1990 to 1997 he was state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It appears that the Norwegian foreign ministry has quite explicitly responded, in both its foreign policy and development white paper, to the fact that our changing world requires a much more global outlook and new policy priorities. Would you agree with that?

Indeed, that is the stated objective of Norway. As a small and vulnerable country in a world of powers and changing realities, our line has always been that it is in our interest to engage in as much global cooperation as possible. Norway should very actively push for that. But there is of course an inherent tension, many Europeans would say. On the one hand, Norway is one of the strongest supporters of the UN, more or less consistently the biggest per capita contributor, ahead of any other country, I think. On the other hand, the Norwegian public twice rejected the referendum to join the EU, which is supposed to be supporting the same thing, namely, cooperation across borders and more multilateralism.

Then there probably is a difference between the government’s vision and what the public wants?

Yes, in a sense there is. Two labour party governments, with strong support from the conservative side, have wanted us to join the EU. So did the main employers’ unions and trade unions. But the Norwegian people have felt no attraction to Brussels and all that it represents. There’s a tension here. A very strong national pride and sense of national identity is at work here, and also scepticism to the idea that you are not ruling yourself.

You say Norway is small and vulnerable, but it is also very rich. This may make people feel that multilateralism is no priority.

It is true that in good and bad times Norway has less than a third of the unemployment rates of an average EU country. It has a stronger economic development than average EU countries. And it has a surplus in trade balance. There clearly is no economic incentive to join the EU. I was in the Norwegian government during one of the campaigns in favour of Norway’s EU membership. We said we have to base our campaign on arguments about European solidarity and peace, on joint efforts for the environment, not on economics. But in the end this was not considered a strong enough argument for those who were afraid of the European bureaucracy, and of giving up part of their sovereignty.

Inge Kaul suggests that the role of states needs remodelling, that is, they need to act more as intermediaries between external and domestic policy demands. She calls this ‘responsible sovereignty’. Do you think this is a useful concept?

Perhaps it is. This morning I addressed the Norwegian ambassadors, who are all at home now. I argued that the influence of the government’s Foreign Service, just as much as formal intergovernmental organizations, on international affairs is waning. This is simply because there are so many new networks, private groups with commercial interests, groups with local interests that now have an international outreach and agenda. And they network independently of states. The influence of the state is declining in international issues. The influence of intergovernmental structures is abating too. And because so many actors are internationally active, there is a great need for standard-setting, coordination, policing. That is more and more the role of the UN.

What kind of new organizations are you referring to?

In the humanitarian field, for instance, I would estimate that within one generation we’ve gone from 50 NGOs with a substantial international outreach to at least 500 such groups. Norway alone has five NGOs that each have an annual turnover of between US$100 and US$200 million. And they employ thousands of people worldwide. Half a dozen Norwegian towns and cities have substantial outreach programmes, representatives abroad, lots of exchange programmes, and much of that is totally unlinked to the ministry of foreign affairs. And of course we have Norwegian companies doing international commercial deals without waiting for the government… The same is true for other European countries.

How do you evaluate this development? Does it create opportunities for tackling global problems together, making use of global networks?

It’s a mixed picture. On the one hand, it is very positive and very powerful. Part of globalism is that normal people and associations can go anywhere, link up with anybody, globally. At the same time, I would argue there are undercurrents that are clearly highly chauvinistic or nationalistic. There’s more Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and serious tension between the West and the rest, in particular between the West and Islamic countries. There is also a lot of tension within the non-aligned world.

We discussed this today with the minister of foreign affairs. Are the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] really becoming this alternative force that people believe, or are they going to have heightened internal tensions, both within the new powers and among them? Globalism and international tendencies are not linear. There are many conflicting tendencies at work simultaneously. We can make two mistakes: one is to underestimate the importance of the new and emerging powers. That’s generally been the problem in the West. People have not understood that China is becoming a superpower in many ways. On the other hand, one can also overestimate it. I don’t think they will overtake the West economically by 2020, as Goldman Sachs predicted in 2003.

Look at the last decade. China’s economy has grown nearly 300% between 2000 and 2009. The American economy only by about 43%. But the gap between the two in dollar terms is now wider than it was at the beginning of the decade, because the American economy was so much more bigger to start with. We’ll see what happens, but I would warn against very linear predictions.

What should be Norway’s approach be, regardless of whether or not they prove to be as powerful as we now think, towards cooperation with these countries, and how should we include them in the multilateral field?

Norway must try within the limits of a small country to build as many bridges as possible between the West and the rest, between the new emerging powers and the old powers, and between religions. I believe strongly that one mistake we’ve all made in the past in multilateral settings is instinctively think that if the Norwegians, for example, were to consult with Brussels, Washington, London, Paris and the UN headquarters and everybody reached an agreement, that it was a done deal. But we’ve now learned that India, Brazil, South Africa and China are rightfully saying ‘we need to be fully consulted too’. And of course the battle in Copenhagen last year was much the result of the West and the UN secretariats not having consulted well enough with the new and emerging powers.

You say that Norway should be building as many bridges as possible. Do you see it doing that?

Norway has had its peace diplomacy, from all the way back to my own days when we played a part during the Oslo Accords and the agreements between the guerrillas and governments in Guatemala and Sri Lanka, and so on. We have shown that little Norway can actually facilitate contact even between adversaries and between north and south, and east and west. But I definitely think that Norway has, like most European countries, a long way to go to fully reach out and consult with other countries, including India and other Asian countries, and Egypt and other African countries as we automatically seem to do within the Western world. In meeting the common challenges in our interdependent world, the climate challenge is the number one issue now, and the one for which we need to really try to resolve the north-south and east-west divide. I’m very nervous that it’s going too slowly and that too little is happening.

Is the inaction due to these divides, which are not sufficiently bridged?

Yes, there is no notion of this being a common challenge in which everybody has to accept their fair share of the burden and cooperate. It’s not happening. We are losing out. Never has there been so much cooperation in the world and, at the same time, never has there been so much tension on so many fronts in the world. I was part of the UN leadership when Kofi Annan tried to facilitate a process of Security Council expansion in 2005. And of course the Security Council has to be expanded. Who cares who won and who lost the Second World War? Unfortunately, that determined how the council was originally constructed, but who cares today? We want to look at what the real world looks like. It is not 1945 anymore. So it was only natural that India and Japan and Germany and Brazil and Nigeria and South Africa and Indonesia would join the council. And the very fact that the world powers could not agree on who should sit there is a bad omen for international cooperation in the future.

And there has been little progress since 2005?

We are further away in 2010 than we were in 2005, and to me this is a time bomb. India will soon become the most populous country in the world, and still we have three European countries with permanent seats and veto rights on the council, which have populations the size of an Indian province.

What do you think is a possible step forward? What would it take?

I think it would take a new kind of a deal between the old and new powers. They need to see the importance of meeting common challenges and meeting them together. Second, we need to get a UN reform that works. There is no doubt that the UN and the regional organizations have legitimacy, but as long as the UN is as inefficient and slow in decision making as it still is today, you will have G-8s and G-20s popping up all the time.

Do you think that is a dangerous development?

Not necessarily. I get this question all the time: Is the G-20 a threat against the UN? No, the G-20 is a threat against the G-8. Because the G-8 was also completely unrepresentative of the real world. The G-20 did away with the G-8. This development may be more of a problem for the World Bank and the IMF than for the UN. The UN is seen by a clear majority of national states as the legitimate decision-making arena and the powerful pulpit for meeting global challenges. So there is no opting out from the obligation to make the UN more effective and efficient.

During the Kofi Annan period, a very good reform process was initiated, and the proposals from that time are still valid today, including the Security Council reform. I myself initiated a humanitarian reform effort. I set up a brand-new half a billion dollar humanitarian fund, that is fully operational and saving lives all over the world. We reformed the humanitarian way of operating globally, with clusters of organizations working together to meet specific sectoral goals. Action became more effective, funding became more predictable. It can work. So to reform the international system you have to work systematically and inclusively to make it happen.