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).