Opening Remarks at SAIIA Conference

Opening Remarks at South African Institute of International Affairs Conference “Emerging Challenges to Global Governance and Security as the UN turns 70”

by Joe Clark

12 June 2015, Johannesberg


I am pleased to be with you today, all the more in my capacity as Vice Chair of the Global Leadership Foundation (GLF) - an international organisation with South African inspiration.

GLF was founded and is chaired by FW de Klerk, with Chet Crocker, my colleague in this symposium, as a founding Member.  We are a global network of former Presidents, Prime Ministers and senior officials who make our experience available discreetly to political leaders in power today, principally in the developing world.  Our Members include Sir Kwet Masire of Botswana, Lynda Chalker of the United Kingdom, Vicente Fox of Mexico, Senator Tom Daschle of the USA, Gareth Evans of Australia, Chandrika Kumuratunga of Sri Lanka, Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria, Salim Salim of Tanzania, Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, Enrique Iglesias, long-time President of the Inter-American Development Bank, my fellow Canadian Louise Frechette, and others.  We are a not-for-profit organisation, whose wide range of experience, and independence, allows us to act as “virtual peers” to leaders attempting governance or political reform.  

Let me begin with a lesson.  One of my privileges as Canada’s Foreign Minister was to participate in six annual “dialogue meetings” of ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian nations. In the fall of 1990, my ASEAN colleagues were all in North America for the UN General Assembly meeting, so I invited them all to a special “ASEAN Dialogue” meeting at the Jaspar Park Lodge in Alberta’s splendid Rocky Mountains, where we could discuss Canada’s goals in South-East Asia. Inevitably there was a heavy snow storm which, with typical Alberta winter eccentricity, closed the nearest airport to Jasper but left the mountain road from Calgary to Jasper clear.   So we all piled into a bus, and whisked over the spectacular icefield parkway until, suddenly, the blizzard struck. Among my visitors was the Foreign Minister of Brunei, his Royal Highness Prince Mohamed Bolkian, the brother of the Sultan. I said: “Your Royal Highness, this is probably the first time you’ve been in a snowstorm”.  At which point the Indonesian Foreign Minister, the late Ali Alatas, said: “This is the first time His Royal Highness has ever been on a bus”.

The lesson is that we all have buses we’ve not been on before.  We see the world through the lens of our own perspective and prejudices.  Yet today, it is vitally important that we see things clearly. Africa is changing - in reputation, confidence and capacity. International power is shifting - both among nation-states and between nation-states and “non-state actors”. I use the phrase “non-state actors” to mean the new positive players:  the Gates Foundation is more innovative than most governments; Greenpeace and others NGOs are more influential than many states; and the private sector is more sensitive and more socially-responsible.  The phrase “non-state actors” has  a different connotation in the continent of Boko Haram, AQIM and Al Shahab, so let me use highly technical language and describe one as the “good guys” and the other as the “bad guys”. Nonetheless both are transforming attitudes and events, in a world roiled by conflict - more than in recent memory.  Those changes are just beginning.  The young generation, weaned on technology and the internet, have unprecedented mobility, physically and psychologically and, their frustration at unemployment, and their anger at systems that don’t work are new forces in cities. That increasing pace urbanisation itself is potentially a new source of angst and resentment in rural and traditional places.

In governance, there has been a rapid erosion of the deference which formerly made it easier for leaders to lead, whether those leaders were presidents or institutions or an accepted view of the world.

Much of the world’s focus is on countries which have the capacity to be dominant powers, specifically the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. There is absolutely no doubt that their inherent ambition and power, the interests they share, and the tensions between them, are of paramount importance. But other actors matter too, including the growing capacity of the growing number of significant “middle powers” - countries like South Africa and Canada, and others. In fact, middle powers matter more than we once did, because the tensions between dominant powers can lead them to narrow their focus, and often, therefore, their capacity to lead or stimulate change.  Middle powers, by contrast, often have much more flexibility in opening dialogues, reaching across existing boundaries, and encouraging the skeptical or the constrained to explore new options.   There is a long list of essential work in international relations for which middle powers are often better suited than stronger powers:

  • mediation in cases where stronger powers are mistrusted;
  • moderation on issues which might be unpopular or contentious in Washington or Beijing
  • compromises which are often easier for smaller powers to initiate
  • simply being in the “middle” and not in the lead


Often, in a superpower age, leadership had to come from the top. In this era, where several nation-states have significant power, and some non-state actors have increasing influence, there is a need for more leadership “from beside”.

What is central is not who sit at the head of the table, but rather what the various members at that table can accomplish together.  That is unusually important in a period where the challenge is not to provide new pews for those who think alike, but to build opportunities, and alliances, where there is a change to express, and reconcile, the significant differences which mark modern times. In significant cases that broader process can also take account of the rising power of forces that are not nation-states - such as non-governmental organisations, foundations like the Gates Foundation, environmentalists, and socially-responsible corporations - which have acquired new prominence and influence in an era where information moves instantly and everywhere.

Top of page