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Towards a More Harmonious World Order

Kofi Annan addresses students at Peking University.


Harmony is a universal aspiration. The English word comes from the Greek harmonia, meaning concord. In China too, I am told there is an expression – “Harmony is the beautiful way” – that dates back to the Analects of Confucius.

In Africa also, we have a proverb – “in harmony, everything succeeds”. From these references, we can see that the search for harmony is an eternal human quest, but it has often been frustrated by man’s thirst for wealth and power.

The Charter of the United Nations provides that the organisation shall be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations.  As Secretary-General, I felt that my role was to try to maintain or bring harmony among states, and indeed within countries that had fallen into violent conflict.

So I have gained some experience in the difficult art of creating harmony among states and communities. From that experience, I have arrived at the conviction that harmony is grounded on three, mutually-supporting pillars:

  • Peace and security;
  • Sustainable and inclusive development;
  • Human rights and the rule of law.

I will say a little more about each of these pillars of harmony and why I believe that they are the foundation of successful societies even though I recognize that every society has its own unique characteristics.

First, peace and security, without which there can be no harmony.

In historical terms, the world has seldom been as peaceful. We have not had a war between major powers in decades. The world is ever more orderly.  Life expectancy is rising around the world. By and large, we are far less likely to die violently than our ancestors.

Despite this progress, we live in uncertain times. The familiar contours of the international order are shifting. In the western world, the financial debacle of 2007-2008 created a sense of crisis, which allied to the lengthy and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the conflict in Ukraine have led to calls for disengagement and retrenchment.

At the same time, ancient civilisations like China and India are reclaiming their historic place in world affairs. Today, China is the world’s biggest economy based on purchasing power parity. Asia as a whole is the world’s richest and fastest-growing continent. It is also home to more than half of the world’s population.

These tectonic shifts in wealth and demographics will have profound geopolitical consequences. Yet it is increasingly obvious that, more than ever, international co-operation is necessary if we are to manage these changes in the world order.

Let us recognize that these changes have brought challenges for the Asia region as well. Asia faces numerous threats to its own peace and security: the resurgence of nationalism; ethnic and religious tensions; territorial disputes, including between states with nuclear weapons; and competition for military pre-eminence. This time of change is fraught with risks that must be carefully managed. That will require wisdom and moderation on all sides.

The second pillar of a harmonious world is sustainable and inclusive development.

The world has created more wealth in the last two centuries than ever before in the history of mankind, improving the lives of billions of people in the process. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that economic development can have huge social and environmental costs that must be addressed.

This is a global challenge, but China is at the heart of it, having achieved extraordinary economic growth over the last thirty five years. Never before in human history has a country grown so fast and lifted so many of its people out of poverty.

China has also helped the rest of the developing world through its demand for raw materials and its international investments, much of which has been directed towards my own continent of Africa. Indeed, China has contributed enormously to the achievement of the MDGs, mainly through its domestic growth and poverty reduction, but also through its impact on the rest of the world’s growth.

But that spectacular economic achievement has come at a cost, namely income inequality, which is now one of the highest in the world , and pollution, with major consequences on the environment and public health. China is now taking measures to address both problems. This is vital because to be sustainable, economic growth will have to benefit everyone and be protective of the environment.

I come now to the third pillar – the respect for human rights and the rule of law. International relations have often been a tense contest between international law and power politics. Yet all countries have recognised that a global rules-based system is vital for harmony.

Indeed one of the problems of the last few decades is that so many powers have selectively applied and respected international law. Regarding human rights, there is a common misunderstanding in many developing countries that, somehow, these are Western luxuries that must be sacrificed for development. Yet history, and even current events, teaches us that this is a false dichotomy.

In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. We see that societies that do not respect their citizens’ human rights, or where some categories of citizens are seen as above the law, are less harmonious and, in the long run, more fragile.

There is an African proverb that teaches us that wisdom is like a baobab tree – no one person can embrace it, so a country as great and ancient as China has no lessons to receive from me. However, I would like to share with you some final thoughts and recommendations for your consideration.

First, as Secretary General and afterwards, I have pressed for reform of the international system; this would serve all nations.  Together with my fellow Elders, I have put forward proposals that aim to make the Security Council and the international financial institutions more democratic and representative.

I also see value added with the new financial institutions that China is initiating, and from which Africa could benefit. They should complement existing global organisations. Inadequate infrastructure and energy are two of the biggest challenges to development in Africa. I urge existing and new institutions to work with the countries in Africa in effectively addressing these constraints.

Second, I would argue that as the world’s most populous nation with its huge economy and global trade and investment networks, China’s national interest has changed. China therefore has a vital interest in a prosperous and peaceful world based on common rules on international trade, investment and market-based exchange rates.

This has many implications for China’s domestic and foreign policies. In achieving that vital national interest, China may be called upon to play, in concert with other nations, a more active role in addressing threats to international peace and security, upholding international law and addressing such global challenges as climate change. China’s recent announcement on carbon emissions is a welcome step in that direction.

The fate of the world might be decided by the decisions that are taken, or not, at the climate change conference in Paris at the end of the year. Chinese policy will be one of the keys to the success or failure of this great global effort to address one of the most important issues of our time. It will be an opportunity for China to play a leading role in making the world safer for all our children.

Finally, and of course not abandoning the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States, China can help bring harmony to troubled countries where it maintains a strong strategic and commercial relationship. When a friend’s house is on fire, one must help to put out the flames.

We are living through a period of historic change in world affairs. Power and wealth are no longer the prerogative of one region.  Global institutions must adapt to these shifts. The twenty first  century might very well prove to be the Asian century but this should not mean the end of the rules-based, open international system that has served China and most of the world so well over recent decades.

Thanks to domestic economic reforms and openness to the world, China has already reasserted its centrality in global affairs. So China has everything to gain by up-holding a rules-based international order while also working to re-shape that order to fit the new realities.

That harmonious world order should be founded on the three pillars that I have just described.  I firmly believe that there can be no lasting harmony without peace and security, sustainable and inclusive development and the respect for human rights and the rule of law.