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Reith 2007: New politics for a new age

Updated Wednesday, 9th May 2007

Giles Mohan responds to the Reith Lecture by Jeffery Sachs on 'New Politics for a New Age'.

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Jeffrey Sachs' fifth Reith Lecture picks up on a number of issues he has dealt with earlier. He explicitly focuses on how political action can help achieve a form of globalization that, in his words, 'works for all'. His location in Edinburgh is no coincidence since 18th Century political economist Adam Smith, who hailed from the city, was one of the first people to realise the potential of globalization. However, Professor Sachs argues in this lecture that the world is much more complex than Smith could have imagined so we need a new sort of politics for this interconnected world.

This politics, argues Professor Sachs, will be built on cooperation, but this won't be centred on a single power, like the USA. Rather, because we live in a multipolar world the political solutions have to be a process of cooperation rather than a one off event or some unilateral action determined by an as yet non-existent world government.

The good news is that we already have some key elements of this cooperative solution in place; namely a number of international agreements emanating from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, nuclear non-proliferation and the Millennium Development Goals. Together these form the architecture of peaceful cooperation, but the question is why if they already exist haven't we done more to implement them?

This is where we all, as citizens of our countries and members of the human race, have to do more to ensure accountability. This means holding those decision-making bodies responsible for the things they say they'll do – like relieving debt or reducing greenhouse emissions. Professor Sachs argues forcefully that we all have a role to play and that our actions range across scales from donating to charity through voting for and lobbying our leaders.

However, he spends much time focusing on the knowledge of our leaders saying that "our governments ignore the goals mainly because the political leaders don't understand how to achieve them. They hide out of fear, ignorance, short-sightedness, and the sway of vested interests". His answer is those in the know – scientists, technologists, etc – should work hard to make sure leaders understand these complex issues.

Do you agree with Professor Sachs' argument? The last phrase 'vested interests' suggests the issue is not simply one of ignorance or competence. By Professor Sachs' logic if leaders are made aware of things they'll automatically change their actions and push for a different policy. But what if powerful actors in governments and corporations would be disadvantaged by certain seemingly 'rational' policy decisions? They may well fight tooth and nail to oppose them, no matter how enlightened the leadership has become. So, I wonder whether Professor Sachs' call for deeper knowledge and greater expertise is enough to produce the peaceful cooperation he desires?





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