We couldn’t vote, but we can act

23 November 2016

We in Canada, alongside other people around the world, did not get to vote in the recent American election. Yet we are meant to suffer the international consequences of it. Shall we sit back, as usual, and watch events unfold, including the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change left unchecked?

Moreover, shall we continue to look on, in Aleppo and elsewhere, as communities are blown apart while a few great powers maneuver behind the scenes? Now another of these powers will have a bully at the helm—a loose cannon with his finger on the nuclear button. Bullies may admire each other, but what happens when they cross each other?

On the other hand, perhaps Donald Trump has done the world a great service, by bringing to a head long festering problems that can no longer be tolerated.

Enough of the Great Global Powers    Imagine a city with weak government and no police force. Gangs would roam the streets, seizing territory and battling with each other for advantage. Well, this is the world we live in today. Three political powers roam the globe, exercising their influence, while an economic force called globalization empowers the affluent of the world to ride roughshod over everyone else.

We all know about noble America, the defender of freedom, as in World War II and the Marshall Plan that followed. Nonetheless, we had better not forget about nasty America, with its wars in Vietnam and Iraq as well as its repeated incursions throughout Latin America. Are we about to experience another round of nasty America—America made great again? Power does corrupt, whether it speaks English, Russian, or Mandarin.

We may not choose the leaders of the great powers, but we can certainly challenge the outsized control that they, and globalization, exercise over our destinies. Consider a council, a coalition, and connected communities.

A Council of Peaceful Democracies    Five countries dominate the United Nations: the permanent members of the Security Council. This should be called the War Council, since all five have large arsenals of nuclear weapons and histories of bullying—whether in the form of colonialism or belligerent incursions—and are the five largest exporters of armaments in the world.

Imagine instead a Peace Council, of democratic countries with no nuclear weapons, no history of military incursions in recent times, and relatively insignificant exports of armaments.  

Does this sound impossible? It could be made possible simply by creating it. Imagine if Pope Francis, perhaps the most respected leader in the world, convened an initial meeting of several such countries, to define the mission and determine the membership of such a council. This could include countries that have been particularly active in peacekeeping (such as Sweden and Canada), democracies in South America and Africa (for example, Uruguay, Ghana, and Brazil when it gets its political act together), Costa Rica (which got rid of its armed forces in 1948), and perhaps South Korea, from Asia (once it resolves its current difficulties).

Before ridiculing this collection of peripheral powers, consider how many such countries there are, and the influence they could have when working together for a safer world. Get your head around this form of influence—peace in place of power—and the ridicule could instead be directed at the obstinate permanent membership of the Security Council.

Such a council could take positions on issues such as the inequitable distribution of wealth in the world and the recent demise of so many democracies. With no official status, or even one day with it, the power of such a council would  depend on the efforts of institutions and people on the ground.

A Coalition of Engaged NGOs   Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) abound in the world, each with its own mission. Amnesty International deals with human rights, Greenpeace with the environment, Doctors Without Borders with the medical consequences of calamities. Yet many of these problems share a common cause, namely the imbalances that pervade the world today: the domination of all things economic over anything social, the capacity of global corporations to intimidate sovereign governments, and the lop-sided influence of the three great powers. Imagine, then, a coalition of engaged NGOs that could champion the establishment of a compelling, constructive vision—a manifesto for balance—around which concerned people everywhere could coalesce.

Connected Communities of the “good folk”   One message of the Trump, Brexit, and other votes is that never before have so many people been prepared to act on the resentment they feel. What they have lacked, however, is this compelling vision to replace the deceptive rhetoric of populist politicians. That could provide a groundswell of collaboration among what can be called the “good folk” of the world—people concerned with decency and democracy.

Collaboration happens in communities, not networks. (If you doubt this, ask your Facebook “friends” to help paint your house.) Thus, the real force for change exists in community groups on the ground, albeit networked around the world. If Amnesty International alone has seven million members, think about how many other people now function in groups in particular communities, and how many more groups would form given a clear rallying call for change.

Well, then, what are we waiting for?   All the necessary elements are in place for a groundswell of global action: Peaceful nations perhaps now ready to work together; the mass media to highlight the excesses of our imbalanced world; the NGOs to articulate a compelling vision for change; community groups of concerned people determined to make the necessary changes; and the social media prepared to connect these communities into a worldwide movement.

These community groups could pressure their governments to legislate and regulate for better balance, to promote an international Peace Council, and to support businesses that act responsibly while targeting businesses as well as governments that do not. Think of how powerful the tool of boycotting would be—so well-honed by international alliances—when executed at the grass-roots level, across the globe.

Is this vigilante justice?  Not at all. It is making good use of the marketplace, a concept that corporations understand well, as does President-elect Donald Trump, not to mention Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. We do, after all, have the right not to buy, also to let the buyer be aware—and the seller too.

Am I dreaming in color? Sure, for good reason. The likely alternative could well be one of the nightmare scenarios that would destroy our planet and our progeny.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. A similar version appeared in the Huffington Post on 22 November. See my book Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. 

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