The InterAction Council and its First 25 Years

The InterAction Council and its First 25 Years

The InterAction Council (the “Council”) was established in 1983 under the initiative of former Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. The idea was that a group of former world leaders would be free to reflect on their experiences, and look beyond the immediacy of current issues and the limitation of national interests, to focus on the long term structural factors driving the global agenda. At its inaugurating session during the height of the Cold War, the Council identified peace & disarmament, world economic revitalization & development, and the nexus of development, environment and population as priority issues to address. Later, the concept of universal ethics was added.
After a quarter-century of annually uniting thinkers and practitioners to come up with policy recommendations to the world at large, and specifically incumbent leaders, the Council has now developed into a “global culture.” Indeed, the collective wisdom of our former leaders has proven very useful, over the past quarter-century, in solving some of the global problems.
The Council’s activities over the past twenty-five years may be roughly divided into the Cold War era (1983-90), the post-Cold War era (1991-2000) and the era most prominently featured by War on Terror and unilateralism (2001-2007).  Throughout this span of time, the Council has always been ahead of the conventional thoughts prevailing among policy makers of the time. Many of the policy recommendations proved the foresightedness of the group, some of which were realized afterwards, though, of course, the Council alone does not claim credit for them.
The Cold War era
During the height of the Cold War era, when many dreaded a nuclear war nightmare turning into reality, Helmut Schmidt chaired the newly created InterAction Council, leading the group to make many innovative, future-oriented and epoch-making policy recommendations. Representative ones include the following:

  • In 1983-84, the Council urged the leaders of the super-powers, the United States and the then Soviet Union, who had not met over the previous seven years, to at least meet, maintain communication and come to a common interpretation on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The then US President Ronald Reagan and USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev finally met in November 1985 in Geneva, where they issued a Communiqué, committing to “no nuclear wars.”
  • From the outset, the Council has been pointedly advocating disarmament, particularly the abolishment of nuclear arsenals. Throughout the ‘80s Council stressed the adverse effect of increased military spending on development in developing countries, proposing to link ODA with the level of military spending in recipient countries.
  • Another appeal assiduously made in the ‘80s was to end the grossly unjust Apartheid in South Africa, which was dismantled in 1994.
  • The Council held four expert group meetings during the latter half of the 1980s (‘87, ‘88, ‘89 and ‘90) related to the environment and ecology, warning of the danger of “greenhouse effects” and urging that an international conference be convened on global ecological issues to set target values for the emission of CO2, among others. This led to the Rio Summit in 1992 and eventually to the Kyoto Protocol of 1998.
  • The Council repeatedly endorsed, in the late 1980s, the creation of a European central bank system and a single European currency. The European Central Bank was created in 1998 and the Euro was introduced in 2002.
  • The Council’s greatest foresightedness was to take up the role of religions in our world and the need for a universal ethical standard. During the height of the Cold War, when religion was regarded as a non-factor in world politics, the Council convened a meeting, in 1987, with religious leaders in Rome, Italy. It was the first dialogue of this kind in history. They identified the ethical standards shared by all major religions. In the secular age of the 1980s, that was prone to forget religious factors, the Council was seized with the potential unity that religions could achieve through dialogue, and with the equally large potential for extremism and division they could spawn. In 2001, the disaster of September 11 shocked the world into the realization that a clash of religious civilizations could be real. The religious schisms which the Council began to examine in the 1980s came to preoccupy decision makers and theologians alike in the new century and similar meetings have proliferated.

Post- Cold war era

During the first half of the 1990s, the decade of localized wars and chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Council continued to be led by Helmut Schmidt. The chair shifted to Pierre Trudeau (1996), Andreas van Agt (1997) and then to Malcolm Fraser (1998-2005) and Kiichi Miyazawa (1998-2007) as Co-Chairmen. In the first half of the decade, the main focus was on unstable geopolitics in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and financial markets under the rapidly spreading globalization. Malcolm Fraser shifted the focus increasingly on responsibilities – our obligations under international law, our duties toward the deprived, and our obligations not to forget justice as we confront terror.

  • Already in 1991, the Council warned of the implicit dangers of deregulating and globalizing financial markets, emphasizing that technological progress and globalization would raise the systemic risk. The Council warned in 1994 that if something went wrong in these markets, a domino effect would start; a perceptive warning of what indeed happened in l997-98.  It urged, among others, central banks and other regulators to enhance their capacity to deal with crises through coordinated regulation and to take more stringent capital requirements for lenders. Again in 1997, the Council warned of the dangers of the serious dislocation due to the scale of international flows, the impact of speculative moves and the pace with which these moves spread. A major global financial crisis followed in the fall of that year. And the world is having to witness in 2007-08 another domino effect in globalized financial markets. In 1999 the Council asserted that political leaders had the responsibility to understand risks and take more prudent and effective measures.
  • Deeply concerned with the constitutional crisis that left former Yugoslavia with no head of state, the Council, in 1991, warned that every effort should be made to avert an unnecessary tragedy and avoid bloodshed.  It called for CSCE countries to apply all possible means to Yugoslavia immediately and to establish an independent commission to evaluate the situation. The world had to witness the outbreak of a series of wars on the Balkan Peninsula two years later.
  • In 1993, the Council recommended a “six party formula”– North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States (similar to the 2+4 formula applied in resolving the international dimensions of German unification) - for the solution of the Korean Peninsula problem. This materialized in 2003.
  • In 1996-97, with its concern that globalization of the world economy was matched by globalization of many of the world’s problems, the Council declared that globalization also applied to the necessity for global ethical standards, since without ethics and self-restraint, humankind would revert to the jungle. It identified the “Golden Rule” as an ethical standard common to all major religions that make a collective life possible. And the Council built on the earlier work of the Rome Statement by codifying the assumption of a common ethical base in a “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities." While the declaration has not attained the initial objective of being adopted at the UN as a twin document of the Human Rights Declaration, it has been broadly discussed all over the world and has become widely acclaimed as an important torchlight in the 21st century.
  • In 1996-98, the Council appealed several times to the international community to criticize the then Nigerian president and demand the release of all the unjustly held political offenders, including Olusegun Obasanjo, a Council member. Although some tragically never saw the light of the outside world, Obasanjo was released and re-elected as President of Nigeria in 1999.
  • In 1999, the Council looked into the complicity of the religious implications of the Middle East Peace Process, which had stalled. It stressed that the genesis of the Middle East and other conflicts lies not in a religious but in a territorial-political dispute, and that all groups in the conflicts have used religion to enhance the legitimacy of their territorial-political claims. It declared that to resolve a conflict, both sides must understand that it is not possible to change the world by violence. It stressed the importance of tolerance, respect and dialogue, which had to stem from knowledge penetrating to all levels of society. The Council asserted that peace must be permanent, not provisional; provisional peace could be imposed by the strong over the weak, but such peace could not last. A lasting peace was not a zero-sum game but a win-win situation.
  • In the final year of the 20th century, the Council envisioned responsible and enlightened leadership in the new century. Key elements were identified, such as the determination to change society in a way that would benefit society as a whole and to provide accountability and transparency in decision-making. A major challenge to leaders was that, while the world’s problems were global, leadership remained national, thus requiring them to demonstrate to their constituents that global problems had significant national impacts.  This challenge was to be made abundantly clear in the 21st century.

The Era of War on Terror and Unilateralism

At the dawn of the 21st century, 9/11 abruptly changed the world or, more precisely, the US perception of the world. It pushed to the extreme the US’ unilateral tendency, which had already been creating an unstable political structure and making international interdependence asymmetrical. The Wars on Terror and US Unilateralism were most predominantly featured in this era. The InterAction Council in this period was first led by Malcolm Fraser with Kiichi Miyazawa until 2005 and thereafter by Ingvar Carlsson. Abdel Salam Majali assisted Carlsson as Organizing Chairman in 2006 and Franz Vranitzky in 2007. Now, Jean Chretien will lead the Council together with Ingvar Carlsson.

  • In the spring of 2001 (before 9/11), the unilateralism tendency of the new Bush Administration was already obvious. The Council warned that unilateralism would lead to a largely unrestrained exercise of power. Since consultation is absolutely essential, the Council called for better mechanisms and institutions for global governance, including the existing international organizations, regional bodies and civil society. It also urged governments to maximize consultation and cooperation among themselves.
  • In 2002, the Council began focusing on international law.  While the Council asked the international community to show understanding to the US as it reacted to the 9/11 assaults, it also underscored the dangers of an exclusively unilateral approach in countering terrorism. It emphasized the importance of the UN in preserving the international rule of law. The group also asked the international community to identify and agree upon clear criteria for military intervention on humanitarian grounds. The Council was convinced that an international system founded on the rule of law benefits all states including the most powerful nations; that power needs to obey law in order to be legitimate. In 2003 the group urged UN member states to recognize that real security can best be established through collective action, respect for international institutions and, most crucially, a commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes. The Council will look into how to restore international law in the forthcoming 26th annual meeting to be held in June 2008.
  • With the clear proliferation of nuclear arsenals, the Council returned to this ominous problem in 2003 in Moscow, and 2005 in Stanford, California, those being the countries with the most numerous nuclear weapons. They reminded the world that nuclear weapons were illegal, morally unacceptable, militarily unnecessary and extremely dangerous. States were asked to achieve the objectives of Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to move towards the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons, with specific recommendations to all the nuclear parties. The Council emphasized the important but under-utilized role of education in disarmament and non-proliferation, as continued ignorance could be catastrophic.
  • In 2006 the Council examined, in Jordan, the complicated relations between the Islamic world and the West. It asserted that the world must reaffirm the ethic of humanity, reverence for all life, mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding as the basis for all human interaction, be it among individuals, societies or nations. The Council again urged the world to engage in a dialogue among religions to capitalize on commonalities rather than exploit differences. That would foster multi-faceted discussions and understandings between the West and the Muslim world on issues of faith, culture and the sharing of resources. The Council reinforced that the ultimate goal was justice and dignity, such that all could enjoy the fruits of a unified human civilization. In order to implement its own recommendation, the Council, in the following year, engaged in a dialogue with theologians and leaders of the world’s major religions. The statement made in Jordan was appreciated by the moderate Arab countries as being “fair and impartial” and offers to cooperate with the Council began to come in from the oil producing Arab countries after this specific meeting.
  • In 2007, to mark the 25th anniversary of the InterAction Council, a dialogue with leaders of the world’s major religions was held on how to restore world religions as a force for peace, justice and ethics. Religious leaders have a significant role to play in harnessing the power of people to face global problems. In order to identify ways to promote peace and solidarity, while preserving cultural diversity and the plurality of faith communities, the Council made a set of recommendations.  These include to recognize that the common core ethical norms of all religions is the foundation of global citizenship; to reject the misuse of religion by political leaders and urge religious leaders not to let their faiths be misused for political purposes; and to harness the power of religious movements to meet environmental challenges of respecting life and protecting the Earth for the benefit of future generations. This dialogue, as well as some of the previous ones with religious leaders, will be published by Queens University in Toronto, Canada, in June 2008 under the title Bridging the Divide: Religious Dialogue and Universal Ethics.

Future Outlook of the InterAction Council, the “Global Culture”
Again, to implement its own recommendation, the InterAction Council will bring in the future generation by establishing the “Young Leadership Forum.”  Starting this year some 20 bright young men and women from all over the world will be invited to the Council’s annual plenary meetings. This has been made possible by the increasing number of governments willing to support the Council’s activities. Heretofore, the Government of Japan was the main financier. Now, the Governments of Germany, Korea, and Saudi Arabia, as well as several large foundations, have expressed their commitment to assist the Council’s activities. This is positive proof that the Council, after a quarter of a century, is now recognized as a “Global Culture.”
Note:  About half a dozen groups of former leaders have sprung up in the 21st century, obviously in recognition of the significance and usefulness of the Council’s concept.