The coming global order will see five big powers bullying the world into solving its problemsby Paul Collier / May 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Big boys: protesters march against the EU, America and Japan in Hong Kong
International relations have taken a pessimistic turn. A year ago there was widespread optimism about a new multi-polar world. A newly humble America would make space for others. China seemed to be evolving into a “good global citizen.” Even Europe was hopeful of an enhanced role, as the trusted friend of both powers. Yet today, optimism about China has evaporated in the wake of internal repression, attacks on Google and huge mining and oil deals with murderous African regimes. President Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 raised hopes of breaking the impasse in the middle east, but then he allowed the moment to pass. Europe’s hope to be the broker of a Chinese-American agreement at Copenhagen flopped, while Chancellor Merkel now seems keen on moving her country towards self-righteous introversion in the aftermath of the Greek bailout. The new positions of president and foreign minister of Europe yielded incumbents who seem more likely to add to the cacophony of European voices than to tower over them.
At first blush the world seems to be heading for a newly precarious, 19th-century style balance of power. Yet the picture is not nearly as disturbing as it seems. The importance of new leadership—from Barack Obama, for instance—is wildly exaggerated. Most decisions are shaped not by personalities but by interests—and it is how states think of their interests that should shape the way we conceive the international politics of the future.
In the 20th century the chief national interests overwhelmingly concerned employment and welfare. This required national, rather than international, action as governments organised the supply of roads and schools for their citizens. International co-operation was restricted to trade and security. Even here, necessary co-operation was really only between Europe and the US. Under the auspices of the general agreement on tariffs and trade (Gatt), the two power blocs liberalised trade restrictions. Under the auspices of Nato they provided a collective defence against communism. In short, there was little need for more global co-operation.
But the national interests of 21st-century states are different. Today, national governments alone manifestly can’t deliver everything that their citizens demand. Put simply, our world needs more of what economists call global “public goods”—things like a stable climate, a well-functioning post-crisis economy, clean oceans and fewer cyberattacks, from which all countries benefit.
This does not imply…