The immoral incompetents

As we enter a time of deep confusion and uncertainty across the globe, not everything is in flux. Certain facts remain solid. We live and shall continue to live in a world of just over 190 nation states. The economic crisis has once again shown that the ­essential decisions remain with national governments, however often they confer. The main decisions of international institutions only become possible when nation states agree.

The nation states are immortal and incompetent. Immortal because they are based on the stubborn and continuing loyalty of the citizen, which makes them reluctant to pool authority. Incompetent because none, not even the most powerful, can by itself meet the needs and wishes of its citizens. It follows that nation states need to work together, increasingly under the auspices of international institutions. So, far from fading away, diplomacy has proliferated. Diplomatic techniques once mainly confined to the sphere of war and peace, frontiers and treaties, are now applied to almost every subject under the sun, including of course the sun itself and all the issues of climate change. Only rarely have the nation states given institutions the authority to settle disagreements without their consent.

This great array of international institutions is based essentially on the settlements of 1945 to 1950. The United Nations and its family still stand like palaces upon a hill. From afar they seem impressive and there is a continuous scurry of delegates arriving for meetings with impressive titles. But they become less impressive as you approach. The structures are no longer weatherproof; wind and storm since 1945 have had their effect. We see it, for example, in the Security Council. The roofs leak, the pillars are crumbling, the windows no longer keep out bad weather.

These institutions were in the decade of their birth an impressive example of a combination of rules and power under enlightened American leadership. This combination remains essential. A settlement based on rules without power was attempted after 1919 in the League of Nations but quickly collapsed. But a settlement based on power without rules leads us straight back to the jungle. In any viable international institution its rules must bind the powerful as well as the weak. The example set by the US is crucial. That example became blurred under the last presidency, particularly in the launching of a war against Iraq without valid authority. President Obama intends to restore his country's reputation; his first steps are impressive.

Can he go further and lead a complete restructuring of international institutions? That was attempted in 1814, in 1919 and in 1945. But on each of these occasions Europe and later the world lay in ruins. Cities were shattered, streets littered with corpses, roads choked with refugees. The old ways had totally failed. We are not in that situation today – There is no strong impulse to demolish and rebuild. Nor, even if he were persuaded otherwise, has Obama the power to become a great new builder. The United States is beginning on the downward slope of the historic cycle of power. She is broadly in the position of Britain around 1900, still the most powerful single nation, but no longer able to impose solutions. It is odd that both of us marked this point with an unpopular war against a small country, Britain against the Boers, the repair not rebuilding is realistically our objective. Meanwhile we can underpin global institutions with regional effort. The Middle East badly needs a regional structure, but this can only happen if both Iran and Israel are included.

In Europe we have made remarkable progress, but have recently bogged ourselves down in argument about machinery. There is now no question of a United States of Europe; the nation states remain immortal. There is scope for improving our mechanisms. But Europe mainly needs political will, not constitutional tinkering. It is the successful exercise of combined European will which counts, for example in organising our response to the financial crisis, or in working out a concerted policy toward Russia and our energy needs, replacing the trivial competition for President Putin's favour undertaken until recently by Messrs Schröder, Chirac and Blair.

Our leaders operate in a media-driven atmosphere. The demands of the media force them to communicate morning, noon and night. Speech too often precedes action, and action precedes thought. Courage and intelligence have always been requisites of good leadership. Today we should add a third, namely patience, an insistence on time to listen, study, think. The only piece of technology which has not speeded up in recent decades is the human brain; we must respect its natural cruising speed and the limits of safe acceleration.

President Obama places high value on patience and thorough thought. Our leaders in the Middle East and Europe should watch and do likewise.

Douglas Hurd, a former Conservative home secretary and foreign secretary. This article is based on a speech given last month at the Doha Conference on Democracy and Sustainable Development.