Now, a report for the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC, and the Centre on International Co-operation at New York University looks at international politics in an age of want.
The sort of problems governments increasingly face, they say, will be much less predictable than those associated with old great-power rivalries. Pressure from demography, climate change and shifts in economic power builds up quietly for a long time—and then triggers abrupt shifts.
They claim that the current global system is ill-designed for such a world. It is not just that the foreign policies of big countries are in flux. Rather, the way states deal with new threats is, in the jargon, “stove-piped”. As a UN panel said in 2004, “finance ministers tend to work only with the international financial institutions, development ministers only with development programmes.”
The authors say that what is needed is not merely institutional tinkering but a different frame of mind. Governments, they say, should think more in terms of reducing risk and increasing resilience to shocks than about boosting sovereign power. This is because they think power may not be the best way for states to defend themselves against a new kind of threat: the sort that comes not from other states but networks of states and non-state actors, or from the unintended consequences of global flows of finance, technology and so on.
What would all that mean in practice? They cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation as the sort of institutions they want more of: bodies that use technical expertise—leaving aside the IPCC’s mistake over the melting of Himalayan glaciers—to induce countries to recognise their mutual interests. Such agencies can promote foresight, and help governments think harder about the consequences of failure (unlike traditional diplomacy, which likes muddling along). They propose an Intergovernmental Panel on Biological Safety along the lines of the IPCC to improve biosecurity; they also suggest boosting the G20 by giving it a secretariat and getting national security chiefs together.
Many of these ideas may go nowhere; national sovereignty is hugely resilient. But to those who call the whole exercise pointless, they cite Milton Friedman, who, when monetarism was being mocked in the 1970s, replied “our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”