The prospect of Joe Biden in the White House is starting to revive hopes of a renewed push for a multilateral world. But such success depends on America’s allies as much as it depends on President Biden.
The fact that a major political event – the US election – has raised such hopes solidifies the reality that the foundations of a globalised business world are political. Yet much of the commentary about globalisation, international trade and multilateralism – and the threats to all – is seen in the economics and business pages of newspapers and magazines. Business leaders plead for an accommodation with China, fearful of the short-term financial consequences of a new cold war.
It all misses the much bigger point – that the multilateral system is a political construct that can only survive and be effective in political terms. The economics flow from having a stable political framework, not the other way around.
Families without parental authority are anarchic. A wolf pack that loses its alpha male or female will disintegrate unless someone else takes on the leadership role.
So it is with multilateralism. A multilateral system can only survive and thrive if some country – a global hegemon – can impose order among multiple competing, and often divergent, perspectives and interests. When discussions have been had, when everyone has been heard, strong and trusted leadership is required to find a reasonable basis for agreement and to force decisions. This was the basis of the Pax Americana and, before it, the Pax Britannica. The politics of ‘why can’t we all just get along’ is delusional, not of this world, and a recipe for chaos and systemic breakdown.
Hegemons are not liked. They tend to be resented. But they are essential.
Today we find ourselves in a world where US hegemony is waning. The world is breaking down into three main political blocs: the US, the EU and China – each expanding its own sphere of influence. As far back as 1989, Paul Krugman explained that a world that consolidates into three blocs of comparable size would reduce overall welfare even if each bloc acted to maximise the welfare of its own citizens. The multilateral system cannot survive such a spread of political power and the consequent absence of overall global leadership.
It is time that we came to terms with what matters in the political dynamics of globalisation
For those who wish to maintain a functioning multilateral system, there is therefore one, and only one, relevant question – who is going to be the global hegemon that maintains order?
There are only two options – the US or China. The EU is not in a position to adopt global leadership. It finds it difficult to find consistent internal agreement on foreign policy matters and it is nowhere in terms of any ability to project hard power – a situation made worse following Brexit. France is a permanent member of the UN security council and the only EU country with any credible military presence. But it cannot, at present, speak for the whole of the EU.
For the democratic world, the choice is now stark: whether to throw its weight behind the US, the world’s leading democracy, or whether to support authoritarian China as it continues to grow in power and influence until it potentially takes over the global hegemonic role – peacefully or otherwise.
Dithering and trying to keep a foot in both camps for venal, short-term commercial reasons is not an option open to any serious politician who understands the dynamics of globalisation. It is a sure way to ensure that multilateralism will continue to fracture.
For Europe and other democracies, the only game in town is now balance of power politics. They do not have the power to impose their will and become global hegemons. But they are powerful enough to tilt the balance of power between the US and China. Committed Europeans may bristle at this suggestion. It is realpolitik nevertheless. Fantasy thinking is not helpful even if wrapped in European pride.
Some argue that the US has taken a tilt towards isolationism that will survive Donald Trump; that it can no longer be relied on to lead a democratic alliance. That would be a misinterpretation. The US has always oscillated between international engagement and domestically-focused isolationism. But, eventually, America has always come through on the world stage.
True, there have been missteps. But which country has not had plenty of those?
It is time that we came to terms with what matters in the political dynamics of globalisation. It’s time to understand that economic prosperity and multilateralism can only be built on the back of a sound political framework guided by strong leadership. That multilateralism depends on how America’s allies behave not just on America itself.
Who do we want to lead? Stop vacillating. It’s time to choose.
Joe Zammit-Lucia, co-founder of the RADIX network of think tanks