Thursday, November 03, 2011

Back in a Hobbesian World

A referendum on the Euro debt deal will mark the death of an idea. An idea that promised an end to the petty squabbles among nation states; whose advent should have marked the onset of a new multi-polar world. Reality is messy and visibly vulgar.

There is political and economic turmoil in Europe – people are out on the street in Italy and Greece and the tension is just below the surface in Portugal and Spain. The presence of police in riot gear suggests the era of supranational states is at an end. And that portends of the return to the realist world where states scrap with one another.

The debate surrounding the financial crises in Europe and the rescue of the euro is increasingly being cast in terms of national sovereignty. In a way it was inevitable. Over the last thirty years governments have abdicated financial authority to mobile financial capital, and blamed international financial institutions about their inability to do anything. At the same time, the free flow of information enabled by the Internet and global media networks have also constrained governments that in the past have controlled their populace by controlling their access to information. With the loss of the ability to control the population, state actors appear to have also lost the ability to protect them – from the blitz of foreign ideas, from the vagaries of international business cycles and the fickle flow of international capital.

Not ten years ago it was reasonable to suppose the postwar concord in Europe could be stretched to accommodate the re-balancing of global power. Everyone, it was thought, shared an interest in sustaining a rules-based international order. However, few waiting on the sidelines of the G20 meeting today harbor that view. Globalization is not a positive sum game.

The ideal of a common Europe was built on the understanding that European national interests were best achieved by co-operation. That made sense when the key drivers were France, Germany and the western core. In a sense the seeds of the Union’s unraveling were sown in its success. The current crisis casts the Union project as a zero sum game -- Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy’s profligacy paid for by German taxpayers. While the Germany state will not say that, many individual Germans will. Greece, both the state and its citizenry, have their own views on the legitimacy of the Euro deal brokered by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy.

All across the world, there appears to be a scale back from the orderly world of postindustrial constructivism to that of brass-knuckle realism. There are fights about recognition of sovereignty; seats on the United Nations Security Council and influence within global financial institutions.

Those who thought states would empower supranational institutions to make decisions for them are being forced to rethink their positions. Truth be told, the concept of global governance has always had a bit of a pie-in-the-sky quality to it. The suspicion that multi-lateralism was rigged in favor of western values and state interests was always alive in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. But the idea that the end of multi-lateralism could start in the capitals of the Western world is a bit of a shock. The abuse of global financial system, the widening chasm between the have and the have-nots and the failure to achieve meaningful financial governance at home, have all served to bring western internationalist ambitions to heel.

In Europe, the Union, once touted as a global superpower is struggling to stay relevant just on the continent; while in America, all talk is about the parallels with Great Britain at the start of the last century. As unemployment rises and there are few signs of a robust recovery, calls for protectionism and economic partisanship are being heard in the American political debate. And its is not just the Tea Party in the United States or le Pen in France, the shrill voices of self-declared patriots all over the world are calling for a defense of national interests. Even in India and China, countries benefiting from globalization, there are few willing to stand up for it. As for the former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was known to say, "All politics is local."

Across North Africa and the Arab world, newly emboldened citizenry is demanding democracy, threatening to dislodge disobliging dictators. Their slogans are not about Pan-Arabism or globalization -- they champion their nations states. They might not acknowledge it, but Thomas Hobbes is their patron saint!