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The Global Governance Deficit: The Theater of the Absurd

What will it take to stop 21st century global governance from being a “theater of the absurd”?

August 19, 2011

What will it take to stop 21st century global governance from being a "theater of the absurd"?

The most famous play by Luigi Pirandello, the late 19th/early 20th century Italian surrealist author and 1934 Nobel Prize Laureate, is entitled “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” I read it many decades ago and do not remember the plot in detail. However, I do remember well the ambiance the play conveyed.

There are six actors, they are on a stage, they know they are supposed to be there — but they have no author and hence no script. They walk about and exchange improvised words, but they keep looking for a plot, which ultimately they never find — and the play ends pretty much as it began. The genre this play emanated from was what was known in Europe at the time as the “Theater of the Absurd.”

In watching successive G20 summits, with their pantomimes and invariable smiling and waving photo-ops, I have had a strong sense of déjà-vu. In fact, the G20 summits — and perhaps all forums of global governance today — are reminiscent of Pirandello’s play. In the case of the G20, of course, it is 20 characters (plus the hangers-on) in search of a script.

Great Global Transformation

The Great Global Transformation got underway in the period from the launch of China’s radical reform program in the late 1970s to the early/mid-1990s, when countries around the world adopted market liberalization policies. These years are essentially a prelude to the first decade of the 21st century, when the rise of the so-called emerging economies erupted as a symphony in full force.

Then in 2008/09, the world economy was turned upside down as it never had been since the Great Depression. In the postwar era, financial crises were considered a common condition of developing countries, and the world had seen just recently the crashes in Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Turkey.

In 2008/09, however, the huge U.S. financial crisis occurred. Since then, the three major established economies — Europe, the United States and Japan (those that had held power and wealth for over a century) — have been in a very perilous state.

Emerging economies have had to lend to established economies to help them meet their debts and obligations. As things stand now, in the summer of 2011, Japan, Europe and the United States are the “sick men” of the global economy. The paralysis in policymaking and governance that has afflicted all three illustrates vividly what the Singaporean scholar and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani refers to as “the great Western incompetence.” (In terms of economic geography, he includes Japan, even if physically in the East, in the West.) They all suffer from what the Japanese call “advanced-country disease” (Senshin-koku-byo).

With these countries in such a perilous state, it is clear that the G7/8 has become obsolete. The small grouping of advanced nations was the opposite of a Pirandello setting. The show had been running since the mid-1970s, the actors all knew each other well, they all knew their script — and they knew when they were acting and when they were not.

The first G20 summit in November 2008 was something of a success, mainly because of its novelty and because of the appearance of the new actors — Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. Once the novelty effect and improvisation acts were over, however, it became clear that the G20 summits were turning into a Theater of the Absurd.

The theater consists partially of the old actors, who by the time of the next G20 summit meeting in November 2011, in Cannes, France, will certainly not have recovered from their bad bout of paralysis. The U.S. debt deal is a temporary fix with more trouble to come. For its part, Europe is hardly out of the danger zone, while Japan can be counted on to continue muddling through.

On the other hand, the G20 is also partially comprised of dynamic, fast-growing emerging actors full of zest and energy. They look upon their former overlords with dismay and a degree of contempt. They strut onto the stage brimming with confidence.

Yet while the new actors may have individual scripts, there is no collective script. They do not know each other, and they have not been much accustomed to playing together on the same stage.

There was an opportunity when the head of one of the major global governance “scriptwriters” (the IMF) emanating from among the old actors (France) had to resign in disgrace. The new actors might have nominated one of their own to replace former IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But lacking a collective script, they watched helplessly from behind the curtain as the old actors grabbed the limelight — and elected one of their own prima donnas: Christine Lagarde, a French lawyer. So from the sick came an actress with a key role.

In the meantime, the global governance play continues to be in suspended animation. There is no action on the trade script, nor on the climate change script, nor on the food and water scripts. There is famine in East Africa, but the actors are so confused they fail to get their act together.

The difference between Pirandello and what is happening now is that Pirandello was writing fiction, while we are witnessing reality. If the actors continue to roam about the stage with no purpose, the play may end up being a tragedy. We must try to bring this absurdity to an end.


The G20 summits are reminiscent of Pirandello's play. In the case of the G20, of course, it is 20 characters (plus the hangers-on) in search of a script.

The G20 is partially comprised of dynamic, fast-growing emerging actors. They strut onto the stage brimming with confidence.

If the actors continue to roam about the stage with no purpose, the play may end up being a tragedy.