Courtesy of Cornell University

The talk focused on the goals of sustainable development, the potential climate consequences of a cold war between the United States and China, American exceptionalism and the threats it poses to international peace.

November 17, 2021

‘We Are Coming Apart at the Seams’: Columbia Prof. Jeffrey Sachs Discusses Global Cooperation

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Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, economics, and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, presented in the third installment of a fall lecture series entitled “The American State in a Multipolar World” on the importance of global cooperation amid current tensions between the United States and China.

The lecture series was organized by the Center for the Study of Economy and Society, and Sachs delivered his lecture on Monday evening, virtual and live from Columbia University. The night focused on the goals of sustainable development, the potential climate consequences of a cold war between the United States and China, American exceptionalism and the threats it poses to international peace. 

“Jeffrey Sachs is not an armchair intellectual,” Prof. Victor Nee, sociology, the director of the center, said at the beginning of the lecture. “He is an action-oriented economist.” 

Sachs directed the Earth Institute, which addresses global sustainability issues, at Columbia University from 2002 until 2016, and he is also president of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a commissioner of the U.N. Broadband Commission for Development, which both tackle sustainable development. With experience advising three U.N. secretaries-general, he currently serves as a sustainable development goal advocate under Secretary General António Guterres. 

Sachs began his lecture by referencing recent diplomatic climate events such as the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, as well as the G20 Rome summit and the U.N. General Assembly meeting. Despite these diplomatic meetings, he remarked that the world has still not definitively planned to solve environmental issues like climate change.

Sachs then spoke of economic tensions between the U.S. and China in recent months, emphasizing that the U.S. must avoid conflict because confrontation with China is potentially dangerous, according to Sachs. 

In favor of de-escalation between the two countries, Sachs described how communication between them would allow the countries to decrease tensions. 

He argued that strategists in both countries are tied to the notion that the other is non-cooperative and wrongly assume the worst of the other side. Sachs said he believes that these assumptions and acting on them could be dangerous, especially when the alternative of communication is possible. 

“It really wouldn’t hurt the two leaders of the two most powerful countries in the world to chat a little bit more than once a year perhaps,” Sachs said. “It’s not so hard to Zoom these days, and I think this kind of open communication would certainly clarify tremendously many of the perceived challenges that each country faces.” 

Sachs’ remarks came as President Biden met with President Xi Jinping virtually on Monday to discuss the country’s priorities and concerns, where Biden also maintained the U.S. commitment to the “One China” policy, which states that there is a single government in China that Taiwan is a part of.

“American policymakers do not assume that there could be cooperative outcomes. They rather assume, wrongly in my view, that Chinese actions are both fixed and hostile,” Sachs said.

He argued that these views are due to China’s rising place in the world economy and greater innovation. At the same time, Sachs warned against the view of China’s growth as threatening because their technological advancements could prove to be beneficial and significant in human well-being, evidenced by antimalarial medicine, low-cost photovoltaics and wind turbines.

Sachs pointed to past U.S behaviors he saw as uncooperative, including failing to accept U.N. treaties, exiting U.N. organizations, maintaining a global military presence and imposing nonstop sanctions.

He continued that Chinese actions are mostly defensive in response to potential hostility from the United States, and he expressed his doubt and disapproval of the view that China is entirely opposed to U.S. interests. 

Sachs concluded with four alternatives to the current global situation, the last of which was his own “global cooperation theory” outlined in his book, The Age of Sustainable Development. The theory focuses on the necessity of global cooperation to tackle common threats, like nuclear conflict, climate change and pandemics. 

“We need a global doctrine of subsidiarity,” Sachs said. “I believe that our paramount foreign policy challenge is strengthening multilateralism, making the U.N. system more effective than it is and the recognition of global shared values.”  

The lecture concluded with a brief Q&A with questions about trends of centralization in China and growing polarization in the U.S. 

“We are coming apart at the seams, I believe, geographically, culturally, but perhaps most importantly, across an educational gradient in the U.S., and it is quite dangerous,” Sachs said. “Our own internal divisions are so serious now that we are not functioning properly internally irrespective of the international scene.”