The end of internationalism: Are rich nations turning their back on the world?

“To be honest, right now we are slightly overwhelmed by the world.”

It’s not quite 9am and Yves Daccord asks his assistant--politely--for a second espresso. His office, in a quaint old chateau with big windows looking out to the mountains that ring Geneva, is pretty pleasant.

But he sits with his back to the view, his gaze crosses borders, and what he sees worries him.

Daccord, 52, is director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This 153-year-old institution has a continuing mission to protect the victims of war, with direct assistance and by promoting and strengthening the international laws and principles that guard their wellbeing.

But Daccord believes this mission has never been harder.

“There is a sense of ‘ouf, my God’,” he says. “The gap between the humanitarian needs of the people and the response they receive, not only from us, from anybody, is increasing. That’s clear. Everywhere. We see that. It’s changing quickly.”

The more than 60 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide is the most since World War II, and more than 600 million people now live in conflict-affected countries. By 2030 two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in “fragile” states--those unable to deal with the extra burden of natural disasters or war.

In response, the Red Cross’ budget has had to grow by 50 per cent in just four years.

But it’s not just that the world is consumed by conflict, by natural disasters. There has always been conflict, there are always disasters.

What worries Swiss-born Daccord is that he senses a withdrawal, a vacancy at the top.

“What makes everybody so worried is you feel … there is a gap at the global governance level,” he says. “Who’s in charge of that? Where do you address yourself, you know?

“I’m not naive, I don’t feel that before it was easy, that somebody would take care of that. But there was a sense that some part of the world you would have some stability in terms of leadership, you would have an understanding, you would have maybe some country to be in a position to understand to convey this message at the level of [the United Nations] Security Council.

“Today at the top leadership [level] there is a sense of ‘My God, we don’t know how to handle that’. And maybe there is this sense for all of us, ‘my God it’s difficult but nobody knows anymore how to handle it’.”

He cautiously agrees that state leaders are responding to something within: a rise of nationalism, a withdrawal from internationalism, manifesting in Brexit, in Trump, in France’s Front Nationale and Greece’s Syriza, among many others.

In part he puts it down to the global economy. “Despite what the market is telling us, the reality for most of the people around the world is the situation has not improved since [the] 2008 [crisis],” Daccord says.

“If you are middle income, lower income, the reality is your life has become more difficult, from Europe to Africa, Asia, whatever.

“Tomorrow doesn’t look ‘cool’ in terms of economic and social opportunity. And that’s what we reflect, that’s what we hear, that’s why people are coming back somewhat to what they know: ‘my community, my own interests, my border’.

“It’s easier to come back to something which gives a sense ‘at least I know what is happening… in my community’.”

There is not a complete rejection of the global community, he points out. The world has become very small and culturally international. From Seattle to Sudan, children are now “interested in the same people, the same stars, the same brands”.

In Mogadishu, in a country that recently had “zero infrastructure”, he says, “old ladies are playing on the market with mobile phones”.

“There is this sense, which is very global. We are not back to tribalism.”

But globalisation is not all smartphones and Kardashians. It should also be states coming together to solve problems.

Daccord laments a “very inward-looking” Europe that has squandered a decade in which it should have been a world leader in humanitarian work.

He complains that, worldwide, “the big discussions have been about the financial crisis and about the security crisis. And that’s not enough”.

“I don’t feel any appetite at the country level to be able to discuss really key questions.”

And many of the key questions can’t be dealt with by countries acting alone, he points out.

There is the migrant crisis, for example. Europe “is starting to understand that its containment strategy is gone”. And there are other migrant hotspots across the globe--in central America, in south-east Asia.

“What we are really lacking right now is political will at the international level… If you want to solve the migration crisis it can’t be solved at the country level.

“If it’s at the country level then what do you do? You build borders, because you don’t know how to do anything else. If you want to solve it, it needs to be at the global level. It’s a very complicated solution and the problem is I don’t feel we are living in a time where we have the space to develop consensus. Consensus has no traction these days.”

Daccord doesn’t think much of Australia’s policy on migrants, though he adds that the Danes and Malaysians are just as bad. “What I find amazing is to believe that by detaining people and closing the border you will manage a migration crisis,” he says.

“If detention is used as a tool to manage migration, and it is in a lot of countries, it’s bound to be a real problem… you should treat the people with dignity. If you start not to do that, if you start to treat them badly almost on purpose to try to give a message ‘please don’t come to my country’, I think there is a real risk that you spiral negatively over time.

“I would push as much as possible for Australia to [ask itself] ‘do you think your policy allows people to be treated humanely?’. That’s the question the government should be able to answer.”

As another example of a failure of internationalism, he presents Ukraine--a simmering internal conflict where the Red Cross is almost single-handedly providing aid in the east of the country, propping up the health system, trying to defend the rights of prisoners on both sides of the ceasefire line.

“I’m worried that Ukraine is completely falling out of the interest of the international community,” Daccord says. “As a humanitarian [organisation] we have some limits and most of these questions should be resolved politically. But if there is not pressure or help from the international community I think it will be extremely difficult to solve.

“If you look at the broader perspective, Ukraine is just one among other situations where you see the international community has a lot of difficulties to establish a minimum of convergence to deal with conflicts. We see Ukraine as being one among other conflicts where the international community can’t find solutions.”

Syria is another of the world’s biggest challenges right now. The question we should be asking, says Daccord, is what do we do collectively to allow Syrians to stay in Syria? Once you look at it this way, the scale of the problem begins to reveal itself, he says. The sanitation and water systems for example--if they break and stay broken, millions more will leave. “We have to have a different type of collaboration (in Syria),” Daccord says. “Between states and organisations.”

It’s not just in the practical work of the Red Cross that Daccord feels an absence.

He says they are “completely confounded”, for example, in the process of building new international law and new norms. This might sound like the esoteric talk of an international lawyer, until Daccord explains that it’s about dealing with new threats to peace and morality.

For example? “Tomorrow in the field you will have robots that will be able to decide if you are an enemy or not, and they will decide that without any human intervention… how do we govern that, how does the law [of war] apply?”

So, who decides such things?

“Normally what happened before in the diplomatic process [was] you bring the states together and it would take between five to 10 years to arrive to a conclusion. That’s the normal process.

“But today that that doesn’t work any more. There is such a gap between the problems and building response collectively that it doesn’t work. Not just in the humanitarian world. It doesn’t happen.

“There is a sense that there is no governance, nobody in charge.”

Daccord is not alone in his fears. In April six of the United States’ biggest humanitarian organisations issued a joint plea for international action, in a report that warned of “a dramatic increase in protracted conflict and displacement, combined with an ever-increasing number of natural disasters [which have] resulted in widespread human suffering, loss of dignity, dashed hopes and death”.

The organisations, which included CARE, International rescue, Oxfam, Save the Children and the World Food Program, presented a doomsday scenario.

“Preserving and enhancing the gains civilisation has made over the past few centuries is at serious risk,” the report said,

It’s not just about money--though money is needed. The size of the global humanitarian appeals coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs more than doubled from 2008 ($US7.1 billion) to 2015 ($US18.7 billion).

World Food Program chief Etharin Cousin told Fairfax Media last year that “donors have never been more generous”--and new donors such as Saudi Arabia and Korea significantly increased their contributions to the WFP.

“Unfortunately the needs are running at an unprecedented level of increase across the entire global community,” she said.

The WFP has seen a dramatic flip in the nature of its emergencies. Most of its programs used to be disaster-related. But now 80 per cent of its large emergency responses are conflict related, Cousin said.

The trouble is, aid doesn’t end war. “If conflict is what is driving you and… you don’t have political solutions to the conflict, it requires us to continue to provide support.”

Her “ongoing plea”, she said, was “that the world not turn away from those in need… even if they can’t see it. We live on a small planet and we are all responsible”.