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Collective Action Key to Solving Global Ills

Collective Action Key to Solving Global Ills
The go-it-alone principle won’t solve planet-wide problems such as terrorism and global warming, says a USC international relations expert. Cooperation is key.

By Usha Sutliff

Pressing global problems – from terrorism to pollution – will only worsen in the coming decades unless governments band together to solve them, according to a new book by USC professor Todd Sandler.

In “Global Collective Action” (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Sandler clearly defines the principles of international cooperation – and the factors that promote or inhibit it – at the regional and global level.

He also offers sound policy recommendations in areas including:
the promotion of global health; the control of rogue nations; intervention in civil wars; global warming; and the fight against transnational terrorism.

Global collective action – which occurs when two or more nations cooperate to get something done – is not without its successes. The global community responded well to smallpox, Sandler contends, but has fallen short when it comes to reducing drug trafficking or effectively combating transnational terrorism.

“The main pitfall right now is that nations don’t cooperate very much in terms of dealing with terrorism,” said Sandler, holder of the Robert R. and Katheryn A. Dockson Chair in Economics and International Relations in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“Each nation is most interested in securing its own borders. This means that attacks are then transferred to less secure countries where the prime target nation has interests.”

For example, he said, the United States is like a “fortress” now, but the percentage of transnational attacks against its interests worldwide holds at roughly 40 percent – the same level as before the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent massive increase in domestic security.

Security alerts, Sandler contends, are ineffective because terrorists know how to manipulate the system.

When they increase their “chatter” – a possible signal for an impending attack – the U.S. is forced to spend millions of dollars protecting bridges, monuments, government buildings and public places. This money spent on deterrence is not refunded when no terrorist attack ensues.

“The terrorists want to cause us economic hurt, and they can do that by making us believe there is going to be another attack,” Sandler said. “We’re also giving them information that it’s not in their best interest to have – namely, when we’re vigilant and when we’re not.”

The answer lies in a more global approach, according to Sandler. The United States has taken the lead on the so-called “war on terror,” but little headway has been made because governments continue to place more importance on their autonomy than on their national security, he said.

“The likelihood of getting a more global approach is zero until there is an attack even worse than 9/11,” he said. “At this point, some nations cooperate and some don’t. It really takes one or two nations not to cooperate to spoil what everybody else achieves.”

Sandler proposes solutions ranging from small, discreet Special Forces units stationed across the world so they can be deployed quickly without inadvertently signaling their activities to the media, to more global cooperation in terms of deterrence, intelligence and punishment of terrorists.

Ironically, terrorists have become quite skilled in employing global collective action, Sandler writes. He uses the example of the al Qaeda network, which operates in more than 60 countries and stages attacks around the globe.

But, while terrorism remains at the forefront of the international agenda, global warming “is the most difficult problem confronting the globe,” Sandler said.

“We stand with virtually no agreements, and we see our carbon increasing at exactly the same level as it was prior to any of the protocols,” he said.

A fundamental problem is that nobody knows for sure what the dynamics of global warming are, Sandler said.

Another problem, he said, is that nations are loath to relinquish their autonomy.

“With some countries, they’re better off if they get warmer,” Sandler said. “Canada, for example, stands to gain greatly if the grain belt and the Corn Belt move northward. As a result, it’s not an activist for global warming.”

The answer there is to define the problem, spell out how nations must cooperate and have one nation with a strong stake in seeing global warming resolved take the lead, but no such leader nation is currently around, he said.

“Every global collective action will have these parameters,” Sandler said. “Once we know them, we can come up with a prescription for fixing the problem.”