Paul Pillar

The World Gets Mediocre Grades

The Council on Foreign Relations has just released a “Global Governance Report Card” (prepared chiefly by Stewart Patrick) that assesses how the international community has been doing over the past five years in addressing six major global challenges: climate change, finance, nuclear proliferation, armed conflict, public health and terrorism. Any evaluation this ambitious offers selections and judgments that can and will be shot at, but the report card (backed up by more detailed discussions in each subject area, including which states and organizations have been doing well or poorly) offers useful food for thought.

One of the main impressions is that the grades the global community has earned are unimpressive. They range from a B on finance and terrorism to a D on climate change, with the average somewhere around a C+. The world community is coasting through its curriculum. The dean's list does not appear to be in sight.

Another immediate impression is the relative performance in the different subject areas, especially that D for climate change. The graders probably have this about right. The pattern of performance reflects more attention to short-term attention-grabbers and less to long-term disasters in the making. Severe recessions and terrorist attacks command immediate attention; slow destruction of the planet does not.

For each of the six areas the United States gets its own separate grade for its part in the global performance. The U.S. grades vary in tandem with the world grades but are always a notch or two higher—ranging from a B+ for finance and terrorism to a C- for climate change. Does this reflect a U.S.-centric bias? Perhaps. It also raises questions about the size of roles and responsibilities for different actors. The United States gets credit for doing more than most others about most of these problems, but some would argue (while others would not) that the United States, given its size and power, should be expected to do more.

One can also raise issues of consistency in the evaluations. On global finance Germany is dinged as a “laggard” for initially pushing for austerity measures that “undermined market confidence and intensified economic challenges” elsewhere in Europe. But the discussion of the United States gives no hint of a parallel macroeconomic issue in America, including an issue of persistent unemployment. The only criticism made of the United States in this section (other than points about its relations with the IMF and World Bank) is about Congressional inaction on the deficit that “subjected the U.S. Treasury bond market to unnecessary risk”—even though that market has shown no sign of anxiety and interest rates remain historically low.

Obviously different people can bring different values to such questions and to this exercise as a whole. Even when values are not involved, to say whether the world community has left a given situation in good or in poor shape often does not point to any one policy lesson. In the armed conflict category, for example, the report card laments how messy Iraq has been since the U.S. withdrawal and how messy Afghanistan looks to be as the United States is drawing down there. Should the main lesson be that the United States should not have attempted any nation-building in those countries (and in Iraq, never have gone in at all), or that it has not done enough in the way of nation-building? One can find people on both sides of such questions.

As broad as the six subject areas are, in a sense they are not broad enough. Under terrorism, for example, high marks are given for attention to terrorist finance and terrorism with unconventional weapons—and yes, there certainly has been plenty of attention to those topics—but the world community is rated as doing a “poor” job of “fighting terrorism while protecting human rights.” Some might go farther and argue that protection of human rights deserves to be a major category in its own right. The main lesson here is that interactions and trade-offs abound. When the world community has messed something up it often has been a matter of focusing too narrowly on some single objective—such as stopping terrorism, overthrowing a dictator, or reducing a deficit—with insufficient attention to all the other interests and costs involved.