Earth in the Balance: The Vision of Willy Brandt

The 1980s and 90s were by no means 'lost decades.' In the years since the publication of North-South and Common Crisis, developed nations have enjoyed robust job creation, high employment, modest wage increases, high consumption, low inflation, beneficial interest rates, accessible mortgage rates, booming stock markets, broad consumer confidence, and great opportunities for upward mobility.



In the past twenty years, the world transformed enormously and, in some ways, for the better. People are living longer and there are more of us. Global population has risen from 4.3 to 6 billion, yet global food production has multiplied even faster.


  The world is producing more energy, accelerating productivity growth, and increasing living standards in many regions. More people are educated than ever before. We've had the longest peacetime economic boom in history. Trade and production have become a truly international system, with a growing surplus of goods worldwide. Transnational corporations have proliferated with new markets, new ways of conducting business, and new means of production.


Satellites, television, telephone, fax, computers, and the Internet have vastly increased the global flow of money and information. The technological and communication revolution, the electronic marketplace, and expanded transportation systems have connected people in distant places. Once-formidable barriers have come down in the digital age. Global convergence is a perceived reality.

The Internet, providing consumers and business with new opportunities, increased creativity, greater freedom, new choices, and more power, has democratized information. Instant information and greater transparency have also altered the internal political dynamics of every nation. With national borders growing more pliable as a result of the new technology, there are strong challenges to social cohesion, national sovereignty, and traditional ways of governing. It's all that governments can do to accommodate the public pressure for change within their own boundaries, let alone in the global arena.

Urbanization and migration have increased dramatically in the last two decades. Citizen networks, grassroots organizations, and voluntary associations are burgeoning. Values and lifestyle are in transformation, embracing foreign races and cultures. Democracy and human rights are demanded. Equality for women is a continuing challenge. Health services and education are now universal goals. Environmental protection and sustainable development have become rallying cries.  

Many dictators have been ousted. More countries have adopted democratic institutions than ever before. The end of the Cold War – and its forty-year threat of global annihilation – has raised the hope of total demilitarization. Nearly all the former communist nations and most nonaligned nations, prepared or not, have plunged into the global economy. Except for a few isolated regions, monetarism in various forms has taken hold the world over, leaving no aspect of life untouched.

The end of the Soviet influence also left the world without a political or ideological check against global privatization. A new economic order – a kind of raw capitalism – has rushed to fill the vacuum created with the close of the bipolar world. Nothing stands in the way of the world's triumphant markets, fusing now into a single operation. Globalization has provided greater efficiency, increased output, and rising profit to producers; it has also meant reduced costs, increased credit, and more products for consumers.

  Yet, the global market, which has brought so much advancement to so many, now looms as an obstacle to human progress. The values of Big Finance underpin all social and political decisions. The policies of deregulation, overinvestment, excess production, low wages, and suppressed demand have consolidated commercial monopolies and created an excess of goods and capacity in most industries and services, while choking off liquidity in international development and destroying locally-rooted business across the world.

Obsessed with interest rates, export earnings, product surplus, debt financing, and high-risk speculation, world markets have been inattentive to research and development, public infrastructure, appropriate technology, training, employment, production, fair wages, and the provision of food, clean water, housing, health care, and education for the world's poor. Globalization continues to turn public assets into private assets at the international level, leaving governments powerless to stabilize and regulate abuses of market power.

Everywhere in the world, stock markets are teetering, while corporate profits shrink and debt levels surge. As market forces spin out of control, we come to the brink of global recession and political disorder. We may be entering a round of economic turmoil vast and unfamiliar. The international status quo could find itself under tremendous pressure to adjust its finances.


Had we acted back in the 1980s, the transition would have been far easier. Brandt's words in North-South are prescient.

"Change is inevitable. The question is whether the world community will take deliberate and decisive steps to bring it about, or whether change will be forced upon us all through an unfolding of events over which the international community has little control" (N-S, 269).

After twenty years of inattention and delay, the sheer momentum of market forces may be driving us to a fateful climax. Realistically, we could hardly expect to move from a world of politically independent states into a realm of global economic interdependence without some element of friction.


Now, as we cross that threshold, it is not comforting to know that there are no democratic international economic institutions in place to greet our arrival.

The world is adrift on a sea of floating exchange rates with no one at the watch. The World Bank grants loans to improve the infrastructure of developing nations, but the poor are left destitute. The IMF is charged with assuring stable exchange rates in the world's currency markets, but exchange rates have never been as volatile. The US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan act as a de facto World Central Bank, jiggering exchange rates for much of the world. US dollars function as the near-universal reserve currency, leaving local economies dependent on the fiscal policies and fortunes of America. The G-7 finance ministers, representing 1/7 of the world's population, act in lieu of an international economic policy-making body. Instead of promoting peace and prosperity through commerce, World Trade Organization agreements suppress wages, protective standards, and exports prices in the poorest societies. Developed nations grant a modest level of foreign aid, but developing nations send them back many times that amount through financial transactions with unfavorable exchange rates, unequal trade, and debt payments. The world's only representative organization, the United Nations, has no economic authority to redress these imbalances.

Global society is not well served by this arrangement. The planet has an abundant supply of goods, but a lack of buying power. Do we really expect three billion people – half the world's population – to become consumers when they are surviving on less than $2 a day? Can we say that we live in a free and just world when 80% of the people receive only 20% of the income?

Twenty years ago, Willy Brandt saw markets, corporations, and banks building a private bridge across the world, leaving the international public without access to its own resources and unable to span the widening gap without its own organization and infrastructure. His Independent Commission on International Development Issues sought to bring public self-interest, social development, and human potential back into the picture with its blueprint for a new global economy.

  As Brandt envisaged, an awakening of global democratic interdependence in the twenty-first century is already stirring a new definition of self-interest, putting to rest former assumptions about human meaning and personal motivation, and their translation into social policies, institutions, and relationships. Presently, the personal identity which globalization offers the world's people ranges from the liberties of a 'corporate self' to the choices of a 'consumer self.' Increasingly, equal opportunity is demanded for the fulfillment of a 'global self' and a 'civic self', allowing citizens to participate directly in decisions affecting the planet, as well as their own lives.

The Brandt Commission also anticipated that a new definition of 'interest' would reformulate the traditional debate between individual rights and social needs. We are now witnessing the validity of that prediction. The transition from a world of independent states into an integrated global economy is creating new forms of interpersonal transaction and new standards for social exchange, as limiting and devitalizing structures break down and individual interest broadens to encompass the safety and prosperity of humanity. Before long, national self-interest may also be seen, not as competition between nations, but as the ability to sustain the world itself.

The recommendations in the Brandt Reports were based on the vision that individual incentive and the fulfillment of human need would someday be inclusive, balancing the creation of personal wealth with the provision of public goods and services.

"We are convinced," wrote Brandt, "that the mutual interest of North and South will be served, that the world will be a more secure and prosperous place, if these proposals are adopted. This principle of mutual interest has been at the center of our discussions" (N-S, 64).

Willy Brandt lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the end of the North-South division has proven far more challenging. As an independent panel, untied to any government or global institution, the Brandt Commission left it to the international public to respond to its recommendations and generate action, knowing that fulfillment of those goals for world development would require a broad and representative constituency:

"For without wide recognition and support from every sphere – global, regional, and especially at local levels – our proposals will have little impact, countries will pursue their own interests, and the world will hasten its march to oblivion" (CC, 8-9).

Each of us must soon face a responsibility to something greater than our families, our nations, and ourselves. As Brandt attested, the future of earth is in the balance:

"Never before was the survival of mankind at stake; and never before was mankind capable of destroying itself, not only as the possible outcome of a world-wide arms race, but as a result of uncontrolled exploitation and destruction of global resources as well" (CC, 9).

"The conquest of poverty and the promotion of sustainable growth are matters not just of the survival of the poor, but of everyone" (N-S, 75) …"There is much in favor of a 'programme of survival' with common and unifying objectives: we must aim at a global community based on contract rather than status, on consensus rather than compulsion" (N-S, 15).

The Brandt Commission offered a new formula, a program for survival and world recovery, to balance the economic and social needs of the world's people with the ability of earth's resources to meet those needs, now and in the future. Globalization cannot be our future, for it imposes growth without uplifting humanity. But the voices of an interdependent public for democratic integration can transform global privatization by tapping our immense resources of untried initiative and unspoken creativity, generating a living contract for sustainable development and cooperation, and restoring our personal and social capacity for growth.

Clearly, the Brandt Commission set a high standard for the world's people, and the prospect of a new global economy raises many practical questions. Why, if the Brandt Reports weren't adopted two decades ago, could they be expected to work today? Are Brandt's goals realistic in the current international climate? Can we get there from where we are now?

If the Brandt Commission's proposals have lacked a political framework in which they might be carried out, it is not because they are not concrete. It is rather in the very nature of Brandt's recommendations to point toward adjustments in the international balance of responsibility that are broader in scale than have yet been realized or implemented at national levels. It is possible that, even after a twenty-year lull in the North-South dialogue, the Brandt Reports may yet help overcome the lack of confidence in the negotiating process by serving as an impetus – and a practical example – of ways that representatives from both developed and developing nations can bargain constructively, search for more proportionate solutions, and attempt new multilateral initiatives.

Many of the statistics and fine points have changed in the last twenty years, but the complex of world issues remains the same.

  Only the global community can judge whether every detail in the Brandt Reports is still on target, but the breakdown of the international system today affirms the thrust of those proposals. The Brandt equation for the global economy continues to have a deep impact on international thinking, if not on policy. The ideas refuse to go away. In many ways, they were prophetic.

"There is a real danger that in the year 2000 a large part of the world's population will still be living in poverty," said Brandt. "The world may become overpopulated and will certainly be overurbanized. Mass starvation and the dangers of destruction may be growing steadily – if a new major war has not already shaken the foundations of what we call world civilization" (N-S, 11).

Perhaps only a world crisis will refocus the issues of wealth and need, generating new dialogue and the opportunity for change. What divides us now is not a shortage of resources or plans. The only scarcity is the courage to act.

You are currently viewing
– Brandt 21 Forum –
a project of the
Centre for Global Negotiations

The Brandt Equation: 21st Century Blueprint for the New Global Economy
Table of Contents
PDF download (257KB)

About the Brandt Commission
Biography: Willy Brandt

Members of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues (ICIDI)
Willy Brandt (Chair)
Abdlatif Y. Al-Hamad (Kuwait)
Rodrigo Botero Montoya (Columbia)
Antoine Kipsa Dakouré (Upper Volta)
Eduardo Frei Montalva (Chile)
Katherine Graham (USA)
Edward Heath (UK)
Amir H. Jamal (Tanzania)
Lakshmi Kant Jha (India)
Khatijah Ahmad (Malaysia)
Adam Malik (Indonesia)
Haruki Mori (Japan)
Joe Morris (Canada)
Olof Palme (Sweden)
Peter G. Peterson (USA)
Edgard Pisani (France)
Shridath Ramphal (Guyana)
Layachi Yaker (Algeria)

Ex officio Members
Jan Pronk
Goran Ohlin
Dragoslav Avramovic

Contact Us · Site Map · Search · Help
Centre for Global Negotiations, Copyright © 2007 | Terms of Use | Privacy Notice