Why Won’t the World Take Global Threats Seriously?

Doomsday scenarios are not something that only happen in the movies.

Security threats do not always come from a determined adversary or sworn enemy. What if, like in the age of dinosaurs, we faced an external threat? A huge, hurtling meteor, for example, that could destroy most life on Earth as it did 66 million years ago?

It’s a scary thought to contemplate this early in the new year, but the question of whether we humans could deal with a real and credible global threat to our species is both timely and real.

Global threats, however, just aren’t very high up on today’s worldwide political agenda, where nationalism is on the rise–whether Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” domination strategy.

But what happens if–or when–the entire Earth’s existence is threatened? If a meteor is hurtling toward this blue marble of a planet and only collective action and coordinated efforts can save humanity? When dollars can’t buy you out of a survival fix and opposing militaries can’t fight for primacy in a world left for ashes.

These are the types of scenarios political scientists consider when they think about something we rarely speak about in polite, daily, competitive conversation: “cosmopolitanism.”

For some, the idea of a world government or a cosmopolitan outlook is sheer heresy. America’s 20th-century attempt at a League of Nations was a fail, and the United Nations is generally disrespected by this administration and National Security Adviser John Bolton. The concept of a world body to deal with global challenges to peace and security is easily derided these days. A “cosmopolitan” approach is also mistakenly conflated with “globalism,” the Trump administration’s greatest bugaboo.

Globalism, however, is not cosmopolitanism.

Globalism implies open borders, multinational corporations hopscotching the globe to avoid taxes, exploit workers, pressure wages down, degrade our environment and undermine democratic norms while, at the same time, relying on open, democratic societies for security and rule-of-law guarantees.

Globalism has destroyed livelihoods and weakened local industries in many industrialized nations. Globalism has incited nationalist populism and enlivened Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism.” Anti-globalist forces have found resonance not only in the United States but also Hungary, France, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom.

Globalism, however, is not cosmopolitanism. The latter is a bit clunky, an awkward highfalutin’ concept to use when talking about the world, our shared DNA, humanity and maintaining the global commons’ healthy, sustainable environment. Maybe calling this cosmopolitan global consciousness “One World” politics would be better and more popularly understood.

Why does “one world-ism” even matter? Because there are common threats to our world that can only be solved by nations’ coordinated and collaborative action.

When might that be necessary? The far-off meteor or attacking aliens scenarios (both film favorites) are used by political scientists to focus the mind and make the argument for cosmopolitan, one-world coordinated efforts, but the climate-change challenge is the gathering threat that seems most imminent. If choking the planet and melting the ice caps seem far-fetched, there is always the potential that we blow ourselves up with our collective stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear war may be unthinkable–after all, the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine has kept us alive all these years. But even the most sanguine statesman knows that we are a hair-trigger or false alarm away from nuclear Armageddon. That’s why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the Doomsday Clock forward to 11:58pm. Midnight means the possible end of humanity.

Despite the ticking clock, global threats never feel urgent or immediate. They remain unimaginable because they haven’t occurred. Debates and action around uncomfortable threats and challenging ideas are easy to avoid. A bit of science denial, revisionist history and reflexive ostrich behavior allows nationalist leaders to skirt the “collective action problem” and ignore or defer any need to work together on the global commons. Leaders prefer freeriding on the work of other nations.

Freeriding, however, is not free. Inaction is a decision, too, and can be costly if the world fails to act together quickly and decisively on issues like climate change. We cannot continue to operate with the belief that unforeseen or deniable global threats–once they become a clear and imminent danger–would suddenly stop national selfishness and force nations to band together, act collectively, and unify in purpose.

So why can’t nations join together preemptively? Why not start today to work on the world’s current existential biological, chemical, nuclear, and environmental threats?

Do we really need something like the doomsday movie scenarios in “Independence Day” or “War of the Worlds” to kick us into action? And how do we coordinate, or even agree, on the problem? If it’s aliens, do they need to land everywhere for the world to consider the threat global? If it’s global warming, do Miami and Malibu need to be underwater or is it enough for the Marshall Islands to disappear?

Conceiving of one-world coordinated action is hard as nations compete for power and primacy. For now, “One World” is limited to being a branding device for airline frequent flier programs and a Cosmo is a drink we’ll eventually need plenty of to drown our collective sorrows.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.