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Global Perspective: Cooperation, speed vital in tackling compound crises

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who released a statement on the situation in Ukraine, is pictured in front of the sculpture "Non-Violence" depicting a knotted gun, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on April 19, 2022. (Mainichi/Toshiyuki Sumi)

By Akihiko Tanaka, Professor Emeritus, Tokyo University

    The world in 2023 remains in the midst of compound global crises that could be described as once-in-a-century events. Climate change is inflicting increasingly severe damage on us, and the new coronavirus epidemic continues to flare up in China. The war in Ukraine is not only causing terrible casualties for both the Ukrainian and Russian people, but also fueling serious energy and food shortages and inflation around the world, which are accelerated by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, interest rates are rising, and currency exchange markets are volatile. Developed countries face potential recessions while some developing countries are experiencing severe debt problems.

    It is against this backdrop that Japan must play an important role in helping resolve global challenges in 2023 as the chair of the Group of Seven summit meeting in May and a current nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council. What philosophy and strategy should Japan adopt in tackling those problems?

    I believe that the concept of "human security," which Japan started promoting when the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was in power from 1998 through 2000, should be the guiding principle not only for Japan, but also for the world.

    The concept was originally proposed in 1994 by the United Nations Development Programme in its "Human Development Report." In a departure from the Cold War thinking that focused solely on the security of nations, the report argued that in the future the emphasis should be placed on the security of every single human being.

    In today's world where Russia is invading Ukraine and the U.S. and China are locking horns in a deepening conflict, some may argue that national security should come first, and human security should wait on the back burner. But such a view is incorrect. It is true that human security came to attract attention only after the end of the Cold War in 1989. But the essence of human security -- freedom from fear and want, and the maintenance of human dignity -- is as old as the history of modern political thought, and national security is also a means to achieve these fundamental values.

    Today, the people of Ukraine suffer from a lack of human security as missiles are falling on them and power is cut in the winter cold. Preventing a situation like this was precisely the purpose of the 1945 U.N. Charter that "outlaws" war as a means of settling international disputes. For the Ukrainian people, national security equals human security.

    Furthermore, aggression from other countries is not the only threat against human security. Other threats include structural deprivations beyond individual control such as extreme poverty, hunger, lack of safe water, and poor sanitation. And they are exacerbated by the ongoing compound global crises. Even in stable, developed countries, catastrophic floods and forest fires stemming from climate change are wreaking havoc. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented scale of deaths and people suffering from the aftereffects. As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring energy and other prices are threatening the human security of vulnerable populations even in developed countries.

    Such complex and intertwined threats to human security cannot be addressed solely through the self-help efforts of individual countries. We must work together with many stakeholders. I believe this is the philosophy that Japan, as the chair of the G7, should be appealing to the world. The preamble to the Constitution of Japan states, "We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want." The Constitution, which was promulgated in 1946, already included the philosophical origins of human security.

    Philosophy alone, however, is not enough to address today's challenging compound global crises. What strategy should we adopt then?

    First, it is vital to take a cooperative approach that is as inclusive as possible. It is true that we cannot afford to relax sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, which is a clear violation of international law, and the G7 must strengthen its support for Ukraine. In East Asia, it is natural for Japan to establish an adequate defense posture and strengthen its alliances to protect peace. Our response to compound crises such as climate change, infectious diseases, or debt crises, however, must be more inclusive, being open to all countries and stakeholders including geopolitical competitors.

    Second, speed is key in responding to humanitarian crises. In 2023, more countries may need emergency energy and food assistance or fall into debt crises. In the face of travel restrictions due to COVID-19, the G7 countries frequently utilized online meetings to tackle issues in real time. As the chair for the upcoming G7 summit, Japan is expected to raise issues and coordinate action in a speedy fashion.

    Third, our support for democracy matters. While taking the inclusive approach described above, the G7 should provide special support to countries that remain democratic and promote democracy despite human security challenges. Even countries that are not sufficiently democratic now merit assistance from the G7 to improve human security when they are showing signs of stabilizing internal security and moving toward political liberalization and institutionalization.

    Fourth is the emphasis on a long-term perspective. While addressing emergencies is necessary for the international community, without long-term efforts, it will not be possible to create resilience to prepare for future human security crises. We must strengthen regional connectivity and aim to develop "soft" infrastructure, such as education and human resource development, along with hard infrastructure resilient to human security threats such as natural disasters.

    Japan's leadership in international cooperation based on human security is not an act of charity. International cooperative action is essential to protect the human security of the Japanese people, too.


    Born in 1954, Akihiko Tanaka graduated from the University of Tokyo's faculty of liberal arts with a degree in international relations, and completed a doctoral program in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After serving as a professor at the University of Tokyo, he was the president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies from April 2017 through March 2022. He assumed his current position at the helm of JICA in April 2022. A scholar of international politics, Tanaka is the author of "Atarashii Chusei" (The New Middle Ages) and "Posuto Modan no Kindai" (Postmodern 'Modernity').

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