The global economy looks to be headed toward what Mohamed El-Erian has called a "new normal" after the market meltdown and financial upheaval of the last two years. But along the way, we're in for a bumpy ride.
So far, the crisis has come in the form of waves repeatedly testing the ability and willingness of the world's established powers and rising stars to build a cooperative approach to our largest transnational problems. The bad news is that the men and women who gathered to save the world in Washington in late 2008 and London in 2009 have turned their attention to pressing problems at home. The worse news is that some of those problems have now given rise to a third wave, one which will ensure a new round of conflict in the international arena.
The first wave began with Lehman Brothers' collapse in September 2008 and continued through the meetings of the G-20 in London in April 2009, when political leaders in both the developed and developing worlds, persuaded that the global financial system was in mortal danger, came together to take action. They proved that something like international consensus is possible, at least on those rare occasions when everyone seems to face the same threat at the same time. World leaders and their governments moved into high gear with stimulus spending, austerity plans, and assorted other drastic remedies, while heads of state gathered to work toward global agreements. For once, the need for some form of collective action was clear, and the major powers sang from the same choir book as they seemed to open up to the rising powers clamoring for an enhanced role in the new G-20 era.
The second wave arguably began with the December 2009 declaration from White House economic advisor Larry Summers that America's recession was over. Technically, he was right: The U.S. economy had resumed growing, albeit slowly. But politically, he created something like a "Mission Accomplished" moment for President Barack Obama's administration, a problem exacerbated by his comment that "most professional forecasters are now looking for a return to job growth by spring" of 2010. His announcement soothed the fears of those who were listening to the dire predictions from my friend, economist Nouriel Roubini, and others who warned -- and are still warning -- that the recession might not yet have hit bottom. The easing of fears, however, reduced the need for unity on the international stage.
This year, when it became clear that developed economies were not going to bounce back quickly, voters began turning on their leaders. The Japanese electorate, which dismissed the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009 after more than a half-century of nearly uninterrupted rule, began punishing the party that took its place. Emergency steps by the European Union and International Monetary Fund pulled Greece, Spain, and other shaky European economies back from the brink of insolvency, but at a high political cost: In May, the British electorate dispensed with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and voters in Germany's most populous state defeated Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. In the United States, Democrats, who control the White House and held large majorities in both houses of Congress, faced a tsunami of public anger in this year's midterm elections.
At the same time, emerging markets rebounded, further scrambling the world's political order. China is leading the way, but a relatively sunny economic outlook in India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, and other new heavyweights has contributed to the sense that the balance of power in international politics has shifted away from the old G-7 countries. That doesn't mean the G-20 will emerge as an uncontested new center of global governance; if anything, it has become clearer this year that consensus might now be even more elusive.
Differences within the expanded group over the proper role for government in an economy have come to the fore with American pundits like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pushing for new stimulus as Europeans commit themselves to weather the political storms following their austerity measures and China, Russia, and the Persian Gulf's Arab monarchies forge ahead with a state-directed form of capitalism. World leaders have seen their interests diverge as different countries emerge from the crisis at different speeds and with different tools. One big result is that proposals to address transnational problems like climate change and the need to create a new international financial architecture are now as dead as the Doha global trade round, stuck in limbo since 2001.