NEW YORK – Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan is worried about lost jobs. And he says many people worldwide have lost faith in political and corporate leaders and fear being forgotten and left behind forever.
Annan says it's time for mainstream leaders to explain that innovation and artificial intelligence are taking away jobs — not China or Mexico — and to tell those who have lost their livelihoods: "We are going to retrain you. We are going to prepare you for the new economy coming."
Unfortunately, Annan says, promises have been made about jobs that can't be fulfilled, "and that worries me — that next time around people will be angrier, and we may see civil unrest."
The Nobel Peace laureate spoke about challenges facing a turbulent world going through "major upheaval" — from deindustrialization to increased nationalism and isolationism — in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press editorial board this week.
Flanked by three fellow members of the "Elders" group founded by Nelson Mandela that he now leads — including a former president, a prime minister and a U.N. peace envoy — Annan stressed that no country, however powerful, can solve problems alone and urged greater support for multilateralism.
"I think not only should we engage the population, but also accept that the multilateral approach is the right way to go given the issues, whether it's environment, drugs, health issues, and that the international interest is often also the national interest," he said.
In tackling the key issue of unemployment, Annan recalled the safety nets and welfare programs established by governments during the industrial revolution and World War II.
"We are at a similar juncture now," he said, where many jobs won't come back and governments need to address the concerns of people who are unemployed. He used the example of a welder who makes $25 an hour and can be replaced by a robot that can do the job for $2 an hour — "and it doesn't need health care."
Annan, who was U.N. secretary-general from 1997 to 2006, also warned that "we are in a very turbulent world and we need to be very careful what we say and what we do in order not to exacerbate the situation."
President Donald Trump's go-it-alone foreign policy and flip-flopping on issues is weakening America's standing at a time when U.S. leadership is still needed on international issues including climate change, freedom of the press, human rights and democracy, he said.
And he expressed concern that this uncertainty, and the fact that there isn't "a natural replacement in the sense of one country stepping in to take the situation in hand," will make the world "less stable" at a time that it is going "through major upheaval."
Leaders are also being challenged by their own citizens, and he acknowledged that it's extremely difficult to be in charge of a government or business today.
"People have lost trust in political and corporate leaders," he said. "And if we don't encourage leaders, first of all fresh people, to go into politics and we don't encourage the leaders to lead, we will create a situation which is normal."
"When leaders fail to lead, the people lead and make them follow. But you don't know where they're going to lead you to — and they might even pull things back," Annan warned.
Speaking for himself and his fellow Elders, Annan said "we hope that the ill wind we are facing now will blow away."
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.