01 July 2011
Like a House on Fire
How global crises are forcing old enemies to relate as friends.
A friend of mine called me the other day and told me a pretty interesting story. The central character of this story was, Jeremy, his long-time neighbor. These two neighbours don’t have a very good relationship. Jeremy happens to be a hopeless drunk, and his drinking habit hasn’t exactly helped their neighbourly relationship. One evening, my friend was outside washing his car when he heard Jeremy calling for help. When he glanced across the fence, he noticed that an intoxicated Jeremy was sprawled out on the lawn, which wasn’t completely unusual. Except on this occasion Jeremy’s kitchen was on fire. Jeremy, in his drunken state, had been trying to cook, fell asleep and...well, the rest pretty much scripted itself.
My friend was livid. He had always complained that one day Jeremy would literally kill himself, and it would be entirely deserved because of his reckless living. But almost as soon as he had this thought anger gave way to terror as he realised that Jeremy’s recklessness could cost him his own home. And with that thought, he picked up his bucket, jumped the fence and started to douse the threatening flames. As my friend finished the story, he said, “I never thought I would see the day when I would lift a hand to help that man.”
This got me thinking. Here is my friend, angry as hell, but compelled to forego his animosity because of a startling recognition of the interconnectedness of their lives. The fact of the matter is that this is no different from the reality facing all nations today. This has become, in rather dramatic fashion, the nature of our world.The issues of a nation state are not self contained but interconnected. Threats do not respect geo-political boundaries as we may hope they would.
There are many global crises confronting world leaders today: cyber-security, climate change, natural disasters, environmental degradation, the global food crisis, the energy crisis, natural resource depletion, epidemics, terrorism. The all-too-familiar list goes on. Like my friend, global leaders are forced to become less concerned with who started the problem, and to more attentive to dealing with the burning issues. Pun intended. There is a shift in leadership consciousness taking place in the world today.
When U.S. officials met with Taliban leaders for months of quiet diplomacy, one of the highest-ranking members of the Obama Administration reportedly commented, "Only now are we beginning to see the kind of outreach that evidences a willingness to discuss the future." Contrast this to the simultaneous public outcry against such a norm-breaking approach to US foreign policy. It is clear that though the shift is underway, many are yet to understand and embrace it. In a world as complex as ours, there are conditions under which enemies must relate as friends. Like it or not.
The basic inescapable truth is that nations have to learn to exist in functional community. “Functional” because it has to be pragmatic and practical relative to the current needs of global society. The challenges and patrimonies that we all have in common are creating the context for a new leadership values-base. New global circumstances are forcing a new appreciation for the interconnectedness of all nations. At the same time they pronounce judgement upon parochial, self-centred decision-making. Action geared towards the benefit of all, grudging though it might be, has become a necessary leadership requirement for tackling many of the world’s problems.
At the end of our conversation, I asked my friend, irritated as he was, whether he would consider assisting in getting Jeremy some help with his drinking problem. There was a long silence on the phone. And then he said, “You know, that might not be a bad idea.”