Article Values

A Global Governance Paradigm Shift | First Principles First

This article was informed and inspired by the brilliant and diverse colleagues who joined a month-long international dialog on Transforming Global Governance, convened by the Stimson Center, August 2020. 


Given that COVID leaves us no choice but to re-invent “normal,” and given that our old normal was never a viable long term survival plan, it’s time for global governance actors to seize the moment and risk going for our highest vision of a just, compassionate, happy and well humanity living on a thriving planet. There has never been a time like the present to go all in on what is spelled out at the core of every religion’s teachings, and in “first principles” documents including the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Declaration and Programme of Action on the Culture of Peace, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the Earth Charter.

We cannot accomplish first principles, like equity, justice, freedom and dignity, by just fixing what’s wrong. By definition, fixes perpetuate norms. Focusing on fixes leads to maintaining a status quo that is not fundamentally engineered to fulfill on first principles, in part because it relegates them as unrealistic and secondary to maintaining economic and social norms. 

Despite all the good work going on in the name of sustainability, it is not even time to sustain because sustaining the way things are would be suicidal. In terms of values priorities, sustaining is a low bar that is not very inspiring and is not even a biologically sound ideation because the nature of life is that it is always changing and the nature of the human spirit is that it’s always reaching for higher expression. When we think primarily in terms of fixing or sustaining, we are necessarily hindering development of new and different social and economic conceptual frameworks because both literally mean delegating resources to keeping the same things going. 

We now have the unprecedented capacity, resources, connectivity and urgency to stake claim to a reality that reflects our highest vision of who we can be as a species. This historic moment is an epoch opportunity for the world to move beyond fixing and sustaining by actually putting first principles first.

We cannot fix or sustain our way to a more equitable and just future because our fundamental conceptual framework, our paradigm, doesn’t hold the requisite valuations for first principles like equity and justice. And our systems do not hold first principles as core accountabilities in decision-making and action-taking.

We tend to believe the high bar of mutually thriving in a verdant and peaceful world is unrealistic. The principles spelled out in humanity’s most profound declarations are also often considered not to be realistic because, like fish in water, our beliefs about what is real and possible are part of our acculturation to the ubiquitous culture we exist in. Our acculturation blinds us to how we might be unconsciously perpetuating paradigmatic norms for a world that can be incinerated many times over with a button push while millions of children go to be cold, hungry and scared. So-called “realistic” social and economic priorities hold higher valuations for financial and political entrenchment and for power mongering than for our most common, and most noble, desires and aspirations. 

The argument of realism can no longer be trusted as a basis for governance, in part because our realism leads us to believe that it is more practical to make small changes than to “rock the boat”. But according to systems science, we cannot expect incremental improvements to create systemic change because small changes get absorbed by the continued functioning of a system. Creating the world we want, and the United Nations we need, calls for bold and bodacious re-visioning of what we consider to be realistic and reasonable. 

Initial Conditions

Fulfillment of first principles would require a shift in initial conditions, a term borrowed from mathematics meaning “starting point values”.  Just like the result of a math equation would necessarily change if starting point values are changed, a change in bedrock social norms would signify a paradigm change—a foundational, ontological shift in our very ground of being. Such a monumental shift would be a leap away from starting point norms that accommodate poverty, violence and pollution and toward norms that are peace-based, compassion-centered and earth-friendly. 

First principles are generally perceived to be lofty, unrealistic aspirations to be attained after profits are secured and power games are played, but what if we decided to reset our initial economic conditions such that our valuations for weapons no longer exceeds the valuations we assign to our common wellbeing? What if we decided to take this historic opportunity to set the UN Declaration of Human Rights as our initial condition, as the very basis point for building new economic and social norms? What if we make first principles our ground zero conditions? In other words, what if we actually, unabashedly put first principles first?


First principles occur in the intangible realm of metaphysics, the domain of existence, being, knowing and causality. They are articulated in terms like values, morals and ethics, all of which are metaphysical distinctions. We generally overlook metaphysical factors because the paradigm in which we are all acculturated includes fluff mythology the fictitious belief that metaphysical factors are inconsequential fluffy stuff. There is no evidence to substantiate fluff mythology. To the contrary, the primacy of intangibles, like values and consciousness, has been demonstrated by meta-physicians, unpacked by sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and spiritual leaders throughout time, and confirmed by a plethora of international values and leadership studies across all sectors over decades. Many citations can be found in my book: The Alchemy of Power.

Fluff mythology construes metaphysics as something that has no basis in reality. But the data is clear: when metaphysical factors, like consciousness and culture, are accounted for and intentionally developed, almost all social and economic indicators go up. Fluff mythology proliferates the belief that power comes with tangibles like tanks, while it dismisses the far more formidable, yet intangible, power of our consciousness. Although rarely accounted for, consciousness determines what gets materialized and what doesn’t. Consciousness is the initial condition of whatever people make happen. It is causal and determinative, yet we don’t account for consciousness as the major player it is in all outcomes.

Spiritual paths help us access, articulate and act on our consciousness of first principles. Religions and indigenous spirituality have much to add to social development because, according to Dr. Azza Karam, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, not only do they serve as social gatekeepers, even in secular countries, they also bring intelligence from a realm of discovery that has outlived, and is deeper, more powerful, and more shared than any other social realm. More and more spiritual leaders are transcending religious boundaries as they align around raising collective consciousness toward a common good centered world.

A view of participants in the General Assembly Hall during the opening ceremony of the Fifteenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

I’ve sat at many tables in and around the United Nations with a wide range of religious, indigenous and spiritual colleagues who are there because of their stellar social service work or because their people need help. But charity and aid work are secondary to their spiritual missions. They hold critical metaphysical intelligence on first principles, yet there is little space in the UN system for the deeper wisdom that is the primary work of religious and spiritual entities. I have witnessed both overt and covert censorship of metaphysical wisdom but it is mostly just overlooked. The systemic prejudicial exclusion of metaphysical considerations often results in only the fringiest voices breaking through and the cycle perpetuates. 

Nonetheless, former UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold and countless other greats have told us that social development is well supported by our ageless and universal spiritual aspirations to raise consciousness toward higher and higher moral ground. UNESCO’s mission to “Build peace in the minds of men and women” recognizes that cultural development and consciousness are inextricably linked. We know for sure that morally compromised consciousness diminishes the possible good for people, prosperity, partnerships, planet and peace. Like the expression of all other positive values, morality stokes the human spirit and amorality diminishes it. When people align around values, they get along, are productive and innovative, and they tend to work toward win/win results. (citations in my book: The Alchemy of Power) Yet, values are rarely accounted for or managed on their own terms. 

Values & Valuations

Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell (1961), which hangs in the UN’s New York City Headquarters.

Values priorities play a primary role in how things go for societies and the people who populate them because values are the fundamental building blocks of cultures. Values are unique in how they bridge the intangibles, like morality, with the tangibles, like systems. They are the link between our consciousness and our physical world. Accounting for values is a means of accounting for consciousness as well as a means of cultural accountability.

Values are our most primal human drivers, more operative than genetics according to twins studies. They underpin personal behaviors and decision-making and they are at the heart of all great governance documents. We know for sure that when values drive processes, things more often go better for more people. Although they are metaphysical, values can be quantified and developed. 

Values accountability, by way of methods like Barrett Values Centre’s Cultural Transformation Tools, establishes a common, inclusive framework for both addressing starting point assumptions that do not serve humanity’s best interests and for articulating desired intial conditions and end results. Because values transcend demographics, including gender, nationality and privilege, and they are universal yet distinct, values accountability is a coherent means for establishing and tracking first principles, as well as constituents’ needs and wants, across populations and among multilateral stakeholders. 

Accounting for values alignment and divergences in multilateral processes would help clarify sovereign concerns and, at the same time, reveal common ground that lies deeper than political lenses can see. Values-based metrics provide a cogent basis for mutual resolution. Data on values alignment alleviates the need for multilateral representatives to get consent from constituents on every issue while also ensuring they get their say. Values accountability would cut down on the considerable amount of guess work and subjectivity that happens in multilateral processes.

Because the influence of values fulfillment on outcomes is so profound and so broad, and because values cut across geographic and political boundaries, values-driven data provides a baseline for tracking first principles indicators across the UN system, member states, public and private sectors, and civil society. Values accountancy provides a coherent, robust, data-based means to ground social development in first principles. Widespread values accountability would help root global projects, including the International People’s Fund, Global Parliamentary Assembly, Global Marshall Plan, or the new civil society UN platform proposed in the UN75 People’s Declaration and Plan for Global Action, in people-centered valuations. Metadata on values priorities would provide scaffolding for new economic, social and global governance structures that are fit for the purpose of building a better world.


Culture can be defined as the expression of aligned values within a group which is why measuring values is a means of cultural accountability. Just like cultures in lab dishes support the growth of some organisms and not others, human cultures can more naturally support negative values like corruption, inequity, and injustice — or not. Values-based cultural accountability not only helps locate the sources of social disruptions, it also captures shared priorities and common vision for proactively creating the future we want.

For example, block chain and other currency technologies raise transparency concerns that cannot be adequately managed by laws and penalties because internet access is such that we could simply never hire enough agents to track all transparency issues. If it was developed into a system as a primary cultural value though, transparency would become the norm. If we made transparency integral with how emerging monetary technology unfolds, it would become the baseline reality such that a lack of transparency would be considered an aberration. If we made transparency the constant, initial condition on which decision- and law-making on the use of currency technologies are based, it would go a long way toward supporting a first-principles-first world. 

Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Anan, recognized the need to expand our realms of work if we are to achieve the UN Charter objectives. In 1999, he wrote,

“Over the years we have come to realize that it is not enough to send peacekeeping forces to separate warring parties. It is not enough to engage in peace-building efforts after societies have been ravaged by conflict. It is not enough to conduct preventive diplomacy. All of this is essential work, but we must also act at a deeper level if we want enduring results. We need, in short, a culture of peace.” 

Annan is pointing out the need to create the cultural situation for peace—to establish the proverbial lab dish that accommodates peace and does not accommodate violence. If we want to live in a peaceful world, we need to create the initial conditions of peace. Anan advises global governance to engage more deeply in cultivation of culture. The UN Declaration and Programme of Action on the Culture of Peace illuminates the way to do that. 

Paradigm change

Decades before the unanimous 2020 United Nations General Assembly vote to convene toward a New Economic Paradigm based on Happiness and Wellbeing, a groundswell of global citizens were calling for deep, systemic changes. The ever-growing international call for, and unprecedented need for, paradigmatic change reflects a global consciousness shift that can only be accommodated by transforming global governance such that first principles become our new, non-negotiable initial conditions.

About Joni Carley

Dr. Joni Carley consults and advises private and public sector leaders and their teams. Her expertise in values-driven leadership and cultural development draws on a unique depth and breadth of experience—ranging from the jungle to the boardroom, from the C-suite to the podium, the African Bush to Asian Temples, and from universities to the United Nations, where she is currently Vice Chair of the Coalition for Global Citizenship 2030 and serves as Advisor and Senior Fellow at Nonviolence International, New York.
She is also a Kosmos representative in consultative status with the UN.

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