Ofer Sitbon

New thinking for a world of new problems

Answers to global terror and mass migration must account for the financial and climate conditions that spawn them

The revelation that one of the terrorists involved in the horrific bombings in Paris entered Europe as an asylum seeker from Syria demonstrates, in a nutshell, the most important problems of our era. Rapid tectonic social changes, be they the disintegration of the Arab world, the influx of refugees into Europe or the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, require us to reexamine our core assumptions.

We face immense crises: terrorism, climate change, poverty and social gaps, the ongoing financial crisis, the crisis of democracy and leadership. But the conventional tools we use to deal with them are too limited. Just as addressing problems that cross borders cannot, by definition, succeed when undertaken by a single state; solutions that address one crisis without addressing its links to the other crises will always be inherently inadequate.

The rapid changes sweeping our world require fresh thinking, a willingness to suspend conventional conceptions and to adopt a systematic and multifaceted approach to confronting the current problems, without losing sight of the interdependence that binds us now more than ever. We must stop trying to handle the problems of the future using tools that suited the world of the past. As Albert Einstein put it: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This is especially apt in dealing with ISIS, the rise of which is, to a great extent, one of the unforeseen results of the US invasion of Iraq. Bombing alone will not put an end to ISIS terrorism. In fact, the sole use of military force is likely to escalate the problem. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi can be replaced.

Similarly, thinking in terms of walls and fences both against terrorism and waves of refugees and sorting them into ‘us vs. them’ categories will not succeed. Ultimately, we are all in the same boat and their problems are our problems too. More profoundly, it can be said that both approaches – the aggressive attitude and the separatist approach – tackle only the tip of the ISIS terrorist iceberg. To annihilate it, you must deal with its root causes.

Thus, for example, we need a forceful and steadfast struggle against the human greed that drives global capitalism and that also fuels the atrocities committed by ISIS, which, by some estimates, holds a staggering two trillion dollars in assets. Who is buying oil from ISIS worth around a billion dollars a year? Who sells weapons to ISIS? Which banks keep ISIS money? And why have the selfish interests of Big Capital, backed by US and British determination to protect their financial sectors, been able to defeat numerous attempts to combat tax shelters — places where taxation is nil and confidentiality high, and which serve corporate giants and the global one percent, but also drug lords and, yes, terrorist organizations.

If we could ask the terrorist world to describe its ideal regime of financial secrecy, chances are it would opt for the current one. Yet, it is also clear that dismantling this regime could have far reaching consequences: according to a study published in 2012 by Tax Justice Network TJN, the world’s leading organization dealing with tax justice issues, the super-rich hide at least 21 trillion USD in these under-the-radar tax havens.

Attacking tax havens — which, to be sure, would require a global mobilization that is still far away — would also have a dramatic impact on the waves of refugees sweeping Europe. Corporations that already benefit from cheap labor and weak regulation in the countries from which the refugees come, particularly in Africa, are doubly rewarded with loopholes that enable them to avoid paying hundreds of billions of dollars a year in taxes, further impoverishing the countries.

This continuing — and legal — plunder denies the citizens of these countries the opportunity to benefit from the vast natural resources located in their territory (of course, these countries also have a high level of institutional and individual corruption), and hinders economic development and the building of effective social institutions that might have prevented the departure of the refugees in the first place. It is no coincidence that the agenda of the recent G20 summit meeting in Turkey included the need to fight tax evasion by the super-rich and by corporations alongside other major global issues such as terrorism, the refugee crisis and the climate crisis.

A global solution is also needed with regard to the climate crisis and to its huge social consequences: the advent of “climate refugees,” in part because of desertification processes and of drought crises; Or the social upheavals such as the “Arab Spring,” which erupted in part due to the rise in food prices, itself a result of climatic changes. There is abundant evidence that extended drought was a causal factor in the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and, by extension, in the waves of refugees to Europe and the rise of ISIS.

In a coincidence rich with symbolism, Paris will, in December, host a decisive international conference on climate change. But its chances of success remain unclear: despite the scientific consensus on human responsibility for the climate crisis, and despite its obvious manifestations, present and future (a recent study predicts that by the end of the century, temperatures in some parts of the Middle East will be too high to allow human life), the industrialized countries, which are responsible for most of the carbon emissions, have thus far failed to agree on emissions cuts and on financing their commitments to help developing countries cope with the consequences of global warming.

Will we rise to meet challenge of the hour?

About the Author
Dr. Ofer Sitbon is a fellow at Shaharit; heads TJN Israel; and serves as the head of the Corporate Social Responsibility clinic in the College of Law & Business.