Q: what’s worse than being rescued than the IMF? A: China refusing to rescue you

Poor old Europe: it just goes from bad to worse. Already sore from being brutally sidelined during the Copenhagen summit last year, it now faces this addition of insult to injury:

Greece is wooing China to buy up to €25bn of government bonds, a move that underlines Beijing’s increasing financial power, as Athens struggles to fund soaring public debt. Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank, had been promoting a Greek bond sale to Beijing and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (Safe), which manages China’s $2,400bn foreign exchange reserves, said people familiar with the issue.

That’s what the FT reported yesterday, and the news immediately set pulses racing in Brussels and Frankfurt.  As Unicredit’s chief economist put it to the FT a day later,

For the eurozone, “a member country implicitly rescued by China would be an even worse signal than an IMF programme”.

But even worse, China then signalled they probably didn’t want Greece’s ropey debt anyway. Yu Yongding – who’s not only a senior member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences but was also a member of the Canadian-run L20 project back in the day (and hence a sort of Chinese government-licensed public intellectual on global affairs) – commented yesterday that,

It is unreasonable for an economist to support a diversification away from an unsafe asset class to a much more unsafe asset class. Let European governments and the European Central Bank rescue Greece.

Cue predictable carnage as the markets digested this news: stocks immediately fell 4%, according to the WSJ, and bond investors demanded a record spread of 3.70% between Greek 10 year bonds and the benchmark 10 year German bonds. But the events of the past couple of days are also an interesting little microcosm of larger issues, some of which are these. Continue reading

Making the news

Time Magazine’s Jay Newton-Small:

It’s been frustrating then, to watch foreign, especially U.S., news crews pull up to Cite Soleil and start walking down the street with cameras and lights and audio booms. Of course, they would cause a stir. And then all it takes is one card handed out, one bottle of water given to a child in sympathy and it provokes a stampede of folks all under the misapprehension that there’s some form of aid to be had. Jostling begins and suddenly, BREAKING NEWS THERE’S RIOTING IN HAITI!!!

Personally, I have seen no real riots: after the tv crews sprint back to the vehicles the crowd disbands and everyone goes home. But the longer the tv crew remains the more violent the crowd gets: people are desperate especially when they think they’re vying for a few pieces of food or water that they may not get if they’re not out in front. The UN, for example, hired Haitians with megaphones to walk up and down the line assuring people this morning that everyone on line would receive food and water – this calms down the ones behind and stops them from pushing to the front. TV crews obviously don’t do this and, I was told by some U.S. military sources, are potentially leaving behind hurt, injured or dead from the mini-riots they incite.

Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization

Tomorrow, the 40th anniversary session of the World Economic Forum begins in Davos, with the theme of “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild“.  To coincide with it, David and I have teamed up with CIC director Bruce Jones to co-author a new report entitled Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization: Risk, Resilience and International Order.

The report – commissioned and sponsored by the UK Foreign Office (though not a statement of government policy) – focuses on the mismatch between new transnational threats and flawed international institutions, and argues that if efforts to develop, reform and renew international institutions continue to fail, then there is a real and under-appreciated risk of a systemic failure that sees the current period of globalization start to unwind.

There’s precedent for this, we note in the report. The ‘first globalization’ came to an abrupt halt in 1914 with two world wars and an intervening depression, having failed because:

States’ shared assumptions pushed them towards fragmentation rather than cooperation, mutual incomprehension instead of shared awareness. An epoch that that seemed to be characterized by interdependence and common interests ended in shared disaster.

Even just in the last decade, the three defining events –  9/11, the 2008 food and fuel price spike, and the credit crunch – were all about a collective international failure to manage shared risks effectively.  So, we argue, states’ foreign policy doctrines need to move away from the national interest – which is in any case defined badly, if at all – and towards shared risk management.

We also set out a range of concrete recommendations in pursuit of the same ends, including:

Creating new analytical mechanisms for creating shared awareness about shared risks. E.g. the IPCC provides crucial analysis of the problem of climate change – but there’s no equivalent on the solution.

Improving the ‘bandwidth’ of the G20. E.g. by strengthening Sherpa mechanisms, and building links between the G20 and formal institutions, thus improving the range of policy options going to heads.

Setting up a ‘red team’ in the international system that has the job of exploring risks and challenging policymakers on whether enough is being done to manage them – similar to the Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency in the US, which has the job of “preventing surprise”.

Changing how governments organize and deliver foreign policy. We argue that all governments will need to spend more money on managing global risks, and do more to integrate the different elements of foreign policy (aid, diplomacy, military).

The paper’s conclusion:

The challenge facing globalization can be compared to ‘shooting the rapids’. Charting a course through whitewater, there are many possible paths, but few attractive destinations. It is the river, not the paddler, that dictates the speed with which the boat moves. There is no opportunity to pause and rethink strategy, or to reverse direction: it is the capacity to reorganize while undergoing change that ultimately determines the journey’s outcome. Above all, the challenge is a collective one: the direction of the boat depends on the combined efforts of all those on board.

The task of building a resilient globalization is similar. Much could go wrong. The pace of the transition will be dictated by the risks themselves, yet governments will only succeed if they are prepared to take the initiative. Even in the best case, outcomes will be ‘messy’ and far from perfect. Results will be determined by governments’ ability to act in concert, as well as with networks of non-state actors.

The aim should not be to balace power between competing states, but to aggregate the efforts of those willing to aim for the preferred destination, while marginalizing or excluding those who are not (including those who actively seek to capsize the boat).

How “global governance” works

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We said – a couple of us start to walk up to the room where the multilat is because we had sent advance to look at the room, the room where we were going to have the China bilat and realize the room is occupied by what we think are the Chinese and we can’t get into the room to look at it. So they come back and it sort of got our antennae up a little bit. So by the time several of us, including Denis McDonough and I, got into the multilateral room we’ve now figured out why we can’t get into that room: because that room has Wen, Lula, Singh and Zuma. They’re all having a meeting.

Q So they weren’t at the airport?


Q And you guys didn’t know this.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did not know this. We are getting – I can show you some of the emails that we’re getting saying – because truthfully I asked one of the advance guys, did you see anybody else in the hallway? And he said, just clearly Chinese.

Q So Wen –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Wen, Lula, Singh and Zuma. But we’re starting to get emails one by one, hey Zuma is in this room, too; hey, Singh is in this room, too. So all of a sudden that’s when we start to make sure we’re walking up to the multilateral room. The President is beginning to leave. He spends time right before he leaves – this would have been right before 7:00 p.m., the President is talking with Chancellor Merkel and Gordon Brown about going for this bilateral meeting with Premier Wen, that they had rescheduled for 7:00 p.m.

Again, we thought we were still on for a bilateral meeting. That’s when our delegation walked over. We held and I think Ben moved the pool because we had heard at this point previous to this that the pool for the Chinese had been assembled outside of this room. And we had the President wait for a minute while Ben moved the pool so that – we had heard that they were going to pre-set without any of us. So we had the President hold.

That’s I think when many of you start to pick up this story. This is when I think you, in the pool report, said, you know –

Q When he said, are you ready, are you ready?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Are you ready for me? We were going to –

Q You were going to crash their meeting.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, no, no, no. We weren’t crashing a meeting; we were going for our bilateral meeting.

Q And you found those other people there.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We found the other people there. We found this out as we were going –

Q So as you walked in you realized it –

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We found this out – remember, we found this out as Denis and I are walking up to the room to go with the President, because the delegations were the same for the Wen bilat, Denis, Ben and I were both in the delegation for the original Wen bilat. That’s when the President walks in – Helene has in the pool report, you know, “Are you ready for me?”

Q Is it correct to say that when he walked in he didn’t know?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t – I think it’s safe to say they did not intend to have that meeting with four of them; they intended to have that meeting with one. The President walks in – and by the time I finally push through I hear the President say – there aren’t any seats, right, I mean, I think if you’ve seen some of the pictures, there were basically no chairs.

– From Robert Gibbs’ play-by-play to reporters on Air Force 1, en route home from Copenhagen.

The Foreign Office’s budget travails

Finally, some proper media coverage of the appalling budgetary nightmare in which the UK Foreign Office finds itself – the result less of actual budget reductions (though that problem is certainly in the post too), but of the pound’s decline against the US dollar. Alex Barker and Anna Fifield in the FT:

The problems at the Foreign Office were caused by a Treasury decision in late 2007 to stop shielding it from currency fluctuations a few months before sterling’s 30 per cent decline against the dollar. As a result the Foreign Office lost about £100m from its £830m core budget this financial year, in spite of attempts to hedge. The shortfall is expected to rise to £120m in 2010-11, close to 15 per cent of the core budget.

Most coverage has focused on what this means for counter-terrorism budgets in Pakistan (although wouldn’t you know, the Telegraph has found a bonuses angle to the story).  But that’s just a microcosm of a much larger issue.

Reflect for a moment on the fact that the three defining events of the last decade – 9/11, the 2008 food and fuel price spike, and the credit crunch and ensuing global downturn – were all fundamentally about foreign policy.

More than that, they were about a collective failure by states to manage trans-boundary global risks, as David and I argued in our article on global resilience for World Politics Review last year. (By the way, we’ll be publishing a new Brookings Institution report on Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalisation next week, co-authored by us and CIC director Bruce Jones – this to coincide with the 40th anniversary meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which takes ‘global redesign’ as its theme.)

True, the Foreign Office is not the lead department on terrorism, resource scarcity or international economics. It’s hardly as if FCO could have prevented 9/11, the resource spike or the credit crunch on its own. But that’s the whole point. No-one – no one government department, no one company, no one country – can manage these risks on their own. Which means better risk management is fundamentally about influence: persuading coalitions of states, international organisations and non-state actors to collaborate in pursuit of global resilience.

So one might think that a properly resourced (and, we would argue, reformed) Foreign Office would be recognised as central to the UK’s ability to work to manage global risks. Instead, the Treasury has left FCO to swing in the wind over a failure to hedge against currency fluctuations (something you might suppose would be the Treasury’s job in the first place) – and on top of this will look to cut the Foreign Office’s budget in the next Spending Round.

It’s not just the irony that every time FCO’s budget gets hammered, it’s because the rest of the government is having to clear up after  the Treasury’s failures – whether in currency hedging, or having to bail out the banks (breaking the public sector bank in the process) because the Treasury screwed up financial regulation.

It’s that it shows such a truly awe-inspiring inability to learn from past mistakes. Never mind whether HMT is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted on the credit crunch. By taking the knife to the Foreign Office, it seems hellbent on letting all the other horses out too. If we want to shift from constant fire-fighting against global risks towards actual prevention – which, bean counters note, also happens to be much cheaper – then we should be scaling up FCO’s budget dramatically, and turning it into an influence projection platform fit for the 21st century.

It’s not even as if it’ll be that expensive, for heaven’s sake. The FCO’s budget is peanuts in the larger scheme of things (see chart below, which shows UK spending on the three international departments as a proportion of total government expenditure).  You could eliminate the Foreign Office altogether, and the dent you’d make in the deficit wouldn’t be more than a rounding error.


(P.S. It’s worth noting that – contrary to what you might suppose – the arguments above apply to DFID as well as FCO. True, DFID’s programme budget is rising steadily upwards towards 0.7% of GNI. But its admin budget – including staff – will also be under severe pressure in the next Spending Round.

It’s already had to lose one in six staff since the Efficiency Review in 2005. If you go to their offices in Palace Street, you find that they’ve let out their entire top floor to other tenants. So if, as we’ve long argued here, effective development work depends on people as much as money, then DFID too needs to be properly resources in headcount terms.)

Posted in UK

One quarter of US grain crop now fed to cars rather than people

Food for thought from the Earth Policy Institute yesterday:

The 107 million tons of grain that went to U.S. ethanol distilleries in 2009 was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels. More than a quarter of the total U.S. grain crop was turned into ethanol to fuel cars last year. With 200 ethanol distilleries in the country set up to transform food into fuel, the amount of grain processed has tripled since 2004.

Total number of underourished people in the world this year, according to FAO: 1.04 billion; in other words, US ethanol production could eliminate a third of global hunger.

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