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After Copenhagen: The Future of Globalism

Are we at an impasse where the road to global agreement is clogged indefinitely?

Takeaways


  • In the post-Western world, who holds power is determined much more in a true global bazaar, rather than a country club.
  • The move back to a multi-centric world was a strong net plus. But as was the case with the spreading of democracy, no transformation comes without serious hiccups.
  • The path of progress was often triggered by an "x" factor that had been completely unexpected even relatively shortly before it arrived.
  • The second half of the 20th century was often marked by the dialectical belief that referring a complex matter to a global forum would allow humanity to see clearly.
  • The abundance of aspirations in the world leads to an increase in frustration.

What was remarkable about Copenhagen's aftermath is that, in this case, the chiding — for once — came from both the political left and the right. The former was frustrated that no agreement had been reached, while the latter was elated since it finally found itself confirmed in its view that integrated global policymaking represents a crass overreach in a world shaped by the interests of nation states.

So are we then at an impasse where the road to global agreement is clogged indefinitely — and the naked pursuit of national strategies will prevail?

To arrive at a realistic answer, it is important to keep things in perspective. A good place to start is just how difficult decision-making has become even in a purely domestic arena, far below the level of complexity involved at the international stage.

Remarkably, this finding applies not just to large nations — and is hence not a reflection of population size. Rather, it is largely a function of the nature of democracy itself — and the ever greater intensity with which it is being implemented around much of the world.

What we need to realize is that complaining about ever more political stalemate is the flipside of the broad application of a political mechanism that is fundamentally geared toward the ability of a vast number of people to express their political preferences. More significantly, it is a consequence of bringing them to bear without regard to such feudal-era simplifiers as one's economic or social status.

To be sure, the professionalization not just of politics itself, but of the representation process of the various constituent interests within each nation — paired with the inherent rise of everybody's aspirations — accounts for a large part of this ever-rising level of complexity. And, naturally, complexity gives rise to mounting frustration.

Of course, it would be naïve to assume that the old feudal structure — where some social and economic interests just plain matter more than others in the political economy of a nation — is a thing of the past.

Rather, what distinguishes modern-day democracies is the degree to which they manage to keep these in check. Ironically, in Europe — with its more social-democratic democracies on both sides of the former Iron Curtain — their weight is more suppressed. In contrast, in the United States they are still more pronounced.

What increases the frustration is that the world is marked by an abundance of aspirations — and a lesser share of opportunities through which to fulfill these aspirations.

Given the fact that the domestic political landscape pretty much the world over has a sense of being stuck, at least when measured against the prevailing level of aspirations, one would be hard-pressed to expect a different outcome at the international level.

And yet, in the second half of the 20th century, the global landscape was often marked by a sense of optimism — the dialectical belief that referring a complex matter to a global forum would allow humanity to see with clearer eyes what would not seem to be resolvable on the home front.

And indeed, despite such interludes as the Cold War, many conflicts and difficult issues ultimately resolved themselves in a positive fashion — whether the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union or global economic integration.

In retrospect, what was remarkable about this path of progress was that it was often triggered by an "x" factor that had been completely unexpected even relatively shortly before it arrived on the world scene (think Gorbachev or Deng Xiaoping or the shipping container).

What the current phase reminds us of is that, Zeppelins or not, there is no automatic stairway to heaven — and that we are on an arduous road fraught with setbacks and disappointments.

Ultimately, the story of Copenhagen and of climate change — to date and in the future — is bound to reflect the very nature of humanity itself. It is an endeavor oscillating between optimism and pessimism, activism and passivity, a can-do spirit embracing the process of evolution and serious self-doubt, progress and regress.

While that saga goes on, (almost) always moving a bit more forward than backward, we'd do well to realize that the current phase is also marked by a dual complicating factor.

The first is the move back to a multi-centric world. Just like the rise of democracy which ended the era of feudalism was a strong net plus, so is this present transformation on the global stage. But as was the case with the spreading of democracy, no transformation of such a fundamental nature comes without serious hiccups or adjustment costs.

The second factor is the shifting role of the United States. In the 20th century, the American century, it of course pursued its national interests — but often did so in a particularly enlightened manner, largely due to its pronounced position of material superiority.

That relative superiority had to, and did, come to an end. Adjusting to this new status requires adjustments on the part of the United States as well as the rest of the global community.

We can't rely on "father America" to broker new global deals. In the post-Western world, who holds power — including the power of true persuasion — is determined much more in a true global bazaar, rather than a country club.

In conclusion, rather than sulk about the passage of the good old world of clear leaders and solutions in a highly abstracted sense, let's accept that all of us, not just the Chinese, do live in interesting times.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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