A Choice for Humanity

The world is witnessing a revival of the Cold War, writes Donald Johnston, partly facilitated by Donald Trump’s leadership in the United States. Adam Scotti photo


Donald Johnston followed a successful political career in the upper echelons of Liberal governments in Canada with an equally successful career as a senior member of the international economic policy community as secretary general of the OECD. Two years after the publication of his book Missing the Tide: Global Governments in Retreat, Johnston presents a clarifying choice at a time of global disruption.


Donald Johnston 

In 2003, the distinguished British scientist Sir Martin Rees published his seminal work, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? 

In it, Rees lists the many ways by which humankind could engineer self-destruction. Nuclear conflict is one, but in an increasing number of areas, such as uncontrolled technologies, there are others. He suggested that civilization had a 50-50 chance of surviving into the 22nd century. Coming from one of the most respected scientists of his generation, it is not surprising that his conclusions had a shocking impact on many of us. In his 2018 book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, while not discounting the prospect of catastrophic events of our own creation, Rees concludes on a more optimistic note: 

“Now is the time for an optimistic vision of life’s destiny—in this world, and perhaps far beyond it. We need to think globally, we need to think rationally, we need to think long-term—empowered by twenty-first-century technology but guided by values that science alone can’t provide.” 

In 2003, I was skeptical of Rees’s doomsday prediction; I am much less so today as we complete the second year of the Trump administration. In 2017, I published a book titled Missing the Tide: Global Governments in Retreat.

I wrote the book because during my decade-long tenure (1996-2006) as Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which straddled the turn of the millennium, I began to see the world suddenly denying itself the wonderful opportunities offered by the extraordinary multilateral architecture carefully constructed by enlightened and visionary world leadership in the wake of World War Two. But the history of this century since the 1990s is littered with failures to seize those opportunities. They run the gamut from securing global peace and close cooperation after the collapse of the Soviet Union to resolving the seemingly intractable challenges of the Middle East with the initial promise of the Arab spring to combating climate change and increasing global growth through the benefits of globalization in trade and investment while fighting poverty by bringing the developing world into the mainstream of international commerce. 

In the 1990s, it was difficult not to be optimistic in almost every area of economic and social concern, including climate change, which we saw on the road to resolution with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. How wrong we were. The pessimistic views I expressed may have been controversial when I wrote the book because we had not yet witnessed the destructive impact of Donald Trump. A bull in a global china shop, Trump is attempting to destroy institutions whose reasons for existence and importance he clearly does not understand and which he may never have heard of before he entered the White House. 

David Ignatius, the respected national security columnist for the Washington Post, wrote this blurb for my book’s cover which captured the essence of my concerns in 2017: 

“Don Johnston has written what he rightly calls the ‘true but tragic story’ of how the United States and its allies squandered their chance to build a better world in the 1990s. Published as Donald Trump takes office, this compelling memoir by the former Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development will be painful reading. It’s a story of bungled opportunities to draw Russia, Turkey, and other problem nations of the twenty first century closer to the West. Most of all Missing the Tide is the sad story of how the United States lost its luster as a true superpower, ‘magnanimous and fair’. All the wisdom that Johnston accumulated in his ten years of running the OECD is shared in this book to help leaders catch the tide if it ever returns.” 

As concerned as I was when I wrote the book, the potential scenarios now imaginable under the erratic, incoherent U.S. leadership of Trump have driven me to despair over our collective future. This future is revealing itself as much more dangerous, even potentially apocalyptic. Will generations to come enjoy the benefits of the better civilization we have dreamt of? I am doubtful. I see the world today much like my country fireplace loaded with kindling waiting to be lit. All it takes is a match. There are many matches out there. Many more than when I wrote my book. Look at just one area: 

The world is witnessing a revival of the Cold War, with the West increasingly pitted against China and Russia. From a military point of view, the U.S. may have already lost its military superiority according to a high-level U.S. internal expert report. The management of the world is falling into the hands of “strong men” with democracy under attack across the globe. The U.S. under President Trump is facilitating that dangerous trend by saluting tyrants for their autocratic tactics while withdrawing the U.S. from its global leadership role. The World Trade Organization, the United Nations, perhaps NATO and the Bretton Woods institutions—the International Monetary Fund and the World bank—are said to be on his short list for elimination or neutering. This is being warmly welcomed by China and Russia, who see themselves replacing the U.S. both militarily and economically. 

China will soon be the world’s largest economy. While its per capita GDP will not match that of the U.S.—or of most OECD members—for some decades, as the largest economy it will begin to dictate the rules of the game in trade, investment and financial services regulation. These were areas traditionally dominated in the post-industrialized world first by Britain, then, for most of the 20th century, the U.S. 

I have listened to informed representatives of both China and Russia expressing satisfaction with this weakening of U.S. global power and influence. The implications for such a transfer of geopolitical power to non-democracies are colossal. At a time when we are dealing with such existential threats to humanity as climate change and the potential for nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists, the cost of a shift away from multilateralism and the rules-based international order toward an unaccountable, dangerously opaque replacement could be incalculable. 

The world urgently needs to address threats to democratic governments and to constructive capitalism. We need to tackle the menace of corruption, contagious epidemics and other global problems I spent a decade dealing with in coordination with the heads of other multilateral institutions and the frontline diplomats, researchers, doctors, lawyers, economists, peacekeepers, volunteers and other experts whose work on behalf of humanity they support and defend.

We have a choice to make between the dystopian warning Martin Rees issued in 2003 and the more optimistic, values-driven clarion call he delivered last year. And while that choice is an either/or proposition, that it must be made at all is a challenge for generations to come.  


Donald Johnston is a former Canadian federal cabinet Minister; former Secretary General of the OECD; founding Director and former Chair of the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) and Chair Emeritus of the McCall MacBain Foundation, Geneva.