As longtime blog readers are aware, I'm working on a book-length project arguing that global economic governance has done a surprisingly good job of things in the post-2008 world. Not perfect, mind you, but "good enough" global governance.
Now, the interesting thing about making such a counterintuitive argument is the number of opportunities one comes across of the conventional wisdom asserting itself -- the idea that the system is crumbling, we're in a Brave New World of uncertainty, no one is in charge, yadda yadda yadda. You, my dear reader, must wonder how I react when I see such assertions. Well, pretty much like Cliff Poncier but with shorter hair:
No, seriously, I like seeing good arguments pushing against my position -- it's a way for me to see whether my argument holds up.
Which brings me to Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner and Steve Weber's new essay in The National Interest, entitled "The Mythical Liberal Order." The title is pretty clear -- as is their argument:
Instead of a gradual trend toward global problem solving punctuated by isolated failures, we have seen over the last several years essentially the opposite: stunningly few instances of international cooperation on significant issues. Global governance is in a serious drought—palpable across the full range of crucial, mounting international challenges that include nuclear proliferation, climate change, international development and the global financial crisis.
Where exactly is the liberal world order that so many Western observers talk about? Today we have an international political landscape that is neither orderly nor liberal.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the envisaged liberal world order, the “rise of the rest” should have been a boost to global governance. A rebalancing of power and influence should have made international politics more democratic and multilateral action more legitimate, while bringing additional resources to bear. Economic integration and security-community enlargement should have started to envelop key players as the system built on itself through network effects—by making the benefits of joining the order (and the costs of opposing it) just a little bit greater for each new decision. Instead, the world has no meaningful deal on climate change; no progress on a decade-old global-trade round and no inclination toward a new one; no coherent response to major security issues around North Korea, Iran and the South China Sea; and no significant coordinated effort to capitalize on what is possibly the best opportunity in a generation for liberal progress—the Arab Spring.
It’s not particularly controversial to observe that global governance has gone missing. What matters is why. The standard view is that we’re seeing an international liberal order under siege, with emerging and established powers caught in a contest for the future of the global system that is blocking progress on global governance. That mental map identifies the central challenge of American foreign policy in the twenty-first century as figuring out how the United States and its allies can best integrate rising powers like China into the prevailing order while bolstering and reinforcing its foundations.
But this narrative and mental map are wrong. The liberal order can’t be under siege in any meaningful way (or prepped to integrate rising powers) because it never attained the breadth or depth required to elicit that kind of agenda. The liberal order is today still largely an aspiration, not a description of how states actually behave or how global governance actually works. The rise of a configuration of states that six years ago we called a “World Without the West” is not so much challenging a prevailing order as it is exposing the inherent frailty of the existing framework.
I encourage you to read the whole thing. I have two reactions to it. The first is thast I wholeheartedly endorse one point that they are making. The notion that the liberal wprld order was perfectly functioning prior to 2008 is one of the biggest sources of misperception about the global political economy. As Barma, Ratner and Weber point out, this was at best a partial order even prior to 2008. This matters: a misplaced nostalgia for prior eras of global governance is one reason that so many commentators think that the system is f**ked right now. Once you realize that the post-1945 liberal order was partial, riddled with exceptions, and also prone to crisis, suddenly the present day doesn't look so bad in comparison.
Now, that said, I think Barma, Ratner and Weber get some big things wrong. This is a blog post, so I'll focus on one point in particular -- the claim that liberal ideas are faltering in today's world:
Ask yourself this: Have developing countries felt and manifested over time the increasing magnetic pull of the liberal world order? A number of vulnerable developing and post-Communist transitional countries adopted a “Washington Consensus” package of liberal economic policies—freer trade, marketization and privatization of state assets—in the 1980s and 1990s. But these adjustments mostly arrived under the shadow of coercive power. They generally placed the burden of adjustment disproportionately on the most disempowered members of society. And, with few exceptions, they left developing countries more, not less, vulnerable to global economic volatility. The structural-adjustment policies imposed in the midst of the Latin American debt crisis and the region’s subsequent “lost decade” of the 1980s bear witness to each of these shortcomings, as do the failed voucher-privatization program and consequent asset stripping and oligarchic wealth concentration experienced by Russians in the 1990s.
If these were the gains that were supposed to emerge from a liberal world order, it’s no surprise that liberalism came to have a tarnished brand in much of the developing world. The perception that economic neoliberalism fails to deliver on its trickle-down growth pledge is strong and deep. In contrast, state capitalism and resource nationalism—vulnerable to a different set of contradictions, of course—have for the moment delivered tangible gains for many emerging powers and look like promising alternative development paths. Episodic signs of pushback against some of the excesses of that model, such as anti-Chinese protests in Angola or Zambia, should not be confused with a yearning for a return to liberal prescriptions. And comparative economic performance in the wake of the global financial crisis has done nothing to burnish liberalism’s economic image, certainly not in the minds of those who saw the U.S. investment banking–led model of capital allocation as attractive, and not in the minds of those who held a vision of EU-style, social-welfare capitalism as the next evolutionary stage of liberalism.
Yes, this explains why the publics in the developing world have rejected economic globalization as an economic strategy -- oh, wait, I'm sorry, they haven't done that, nor have their governments. If anything, the commitment to a liberal economic order has held up remarkable well since 2008. As for the appeal of the "Beijing Consensus" or the "China Model," I'll outsource this refutation to Yang Yao, Scott Kennedy, and Matt Ferchen.
The fundamental disagreement between these authors and myself is revealed in this paragraph:
Global governistas will protest that the response to the global financial crisis proves that international economic cooperation is more robust than we acknowledge. In this view, multilateral financial institutions passed the stress test and prevented the world from descending into the economic chaos of beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies and retaliatory currency arbitrage and capital controls. The swift recovery of global trade and capital flows is often cited as proof of the relative success of economic cooperation. The problem with this thesis is that very real fears about how the system could collapse, including the worry that states would retreat behind a mercantilist shell, are no different from what they were a hundred years ago. It’s not especially indicative of liberal progress to be having the same conversation about global economic governance that the world was having at the end of the gold-standard era and the onset of the Great Depression. Global economic governance may have helped to prevent a repeat downward spiral into self-defeating behaviors, but surely in a world order focused on liberal progress the objectives of global economic governance should have moved on by now.
My response to this is two-fold: first, given the crisis-prone nature of global capitalism, preventing and repairing catastrophes should be a pretty timeless function of global economic governance. Second, there is no way that one can objectively compare the world order of the 1930s -- or 1940s or 1970s, for that matter -- and not conclude that massive amounts of liberal progress have not been made. The world is far more free politically and economically now than at any point in history. That suggests a surprisingly robust liberal world order.
Or, in other words, all this negative energy about global economic governance just makes my argument stronger, man.
What do you think?