A New Global Compact?

They came, they saw, they used cellphones.

They met global investors, checked e-mail, smiled at CNN cameras, and maybe caught a Disney show on Broadway.

These 149 national leaders - the largest such gathering ever - met in New York this week, and tried to figure out how the world's main forum for collective action, the United Nations, could be useful in the global rush of ideas, technology, culture, and trillions in private capital.

Nation-states were on display at this Millennium Summit. The UN, which was set up 55 years ago to keep governments from war and to uplift humanity, was built by nation-states.

But after all the five-minute speeches and a vague agreement on goals, it appears the UN will continue to make only baby-steps to redesign itself for an era when borders mean less and the Internet, investors, and humanitarian intervention across borders mean more.

A growing number of people now see themselves beyond the bounds of clan, tribe, ethnicity, and nationality - and more important, beyond the bounds of material limitations.

Too many governments have seen their economies tumble with a few clicks of a currency trader's mouse.

This summit was an attempt by a creaky global institution to play catch-up with globalization. Some leaders, like the protesters in Seattle, want to impede globalization because of its dark side. Others want to ride it in the direction it is going and try to guide it.

Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary-general, reminded everyone that globalization can lift billions of people out of squalor if the new global marketplace acts like a global society.

Last July, Mr. Annan created a hybrid of these two worlds. His "Global Compact" invites corporations to sign on to nine principles drawn from the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, the 1995 Social Summit, and the 1992 Earth Summit. Instead of badgering private firms as the UN has done in the past, the compact helps companies lift their standards toward workers, society, and the environment.

The real goal: to encourage those corporations which have both power and a conscience to show the weak governments of the world that workers can be treated better, dirty streams made clean, and human rights honored.

In other words, the UN wants governments unresponsive to their people's needs to be shown a better way. This experiment may remain small or be abused, but it's the most creative reinvention of the UN to be seen yet.

Getting global diamond firms to stop trade with African rebels is another example of the UN tapping into corporate responsibility.

A UN that realizes it can't be all things to all people and partners with private business may be the way to go.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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