Global Leadership: The Tessellation of the Leviathan

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Unless you are an anarchist, you probably appreciate a little bit of state in your life – the collective force that upholds public order, guarantees your personal security and protects your private property. In the 17th century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes asked what would happen if individuals were allowed to interact with each other in the absence of a powerful state apparatus, that is in the absence of a Leviathan. He asserted that competition, jealousy and selfishness would lead to a war of all against all, making, in his now famous words, the life of man “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. For generations that have never witnessed civil war, this seems exaggerated, but it serves to illustrate the dangers associated with leaderless political communities. In the future, the global order might be characterized exactly by this absence of leadership.

Rising concern of interconnected, global problems

When being asked about the challenges that the world faces today, the leaders at the World Economic Forum in Dubai were quick to agree. Climate change, unemployment, trade, growth, public debt, financial stability and the lack of economic resilience feature prominently in the list of top concerns of virtually everybody that is concerned with the welfare of his or her society in the long and increasingly so, the short run.

Snapshot of interconnected challenges today. Click on image for full report. (Source: WEF Global Risks Report 2012)

Most of these challenges are global in that they affect and are shared by a majority of countries worldwide. Spain’s and Greece’s youth unemployment rates are now higher than in many North African countries, where youth unemployment was cited as one of the most important reason for the Arab Spring. Public debt is a problem most prominently associated with Europe, but the average level of debt to GDP of the European Union is lower than that of the US, while that of Japan, which in the mainstream media is hardly mentioned, is higher than the EU’s and US’ combined. The question of global trade has been addressed by representatives of the 157 member states of the WTO at the Doha Development Round since November 2001 and few would argue that China will be unaffected by an economic meltdown of the Eurozone to which it ships 20% of its exports. The financial crisis of 2008 that originated from a housing bubble in the US led to a global recession and destroyed, according to the IMF, an estimated $4.1 Trillion in assets worldwide.

It would seem that against the backdrop of this substantial political and economic interconnectedness of states, global cooperation becomes more likely and imperative. The threat of these problems further exacerbating provides a powerful incentive for the global community to put its differences aside and negotiate one global solution after the other. But the past gives little cause for optimism, as even in the question of global trade – a domain in which every nation stands to benefit under a balanced set of rules – the representatives admitted a failure in April 2011 to reach a consensus after over a decade of negotiations.

Why is global cooperation becoming impossible? 

In Dubai, at the plenary sessions on Global Governance Outlook and The Geopolitical Outlook: Future Shocks, international thought-leaders helped to flesh out why global cooperation becomes increasingly impossible.

First, the shift in power from the developed to the developing world and the rise of different and sometimes even incompatible societal value systems renders agreement difficult. Not only does China disagree with the US on economic and political fundamentals, but also the same disagreements can be found in a variety of domains between Russia, India, Europe, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa and others.

Second, the decline of US global dominance and the resulting power vacuum in the world make it impossible for any country to dictate its conditions in the absence of an agreement – an option that would, in principle, be available to a global leader and its allies. The fact that few countries have the capacity and none the willingness to exercise global leadership can be observed by the way a variety of crisis are dealt with on an international level: There is no new Marshall Plan to help a struggling Eurozone, there is no global intervention in the civil war in Syria to protect the civilian population and there is after decades of negotiations still no international strategy to tackle global warming.

Third, the prospect of China becoming the world’s biggest economy within the next decade and the associated shift in power from the US to China creates potential for geopolitical paralysis. As Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister, specifically pointed out, China’s rise marks the first time since King George III that a non-Western, non-English speaking and non-democratic country has the biggest economy in the world. An increasingly intense cyberwar, the rise of resource nationalism, the absence of trust-building measures and the fact that China will despite of its growing power remain state capitalist, poor and authoritarian undermines the common ground upon which joint global cooperation could be built.

Global solutions in a G-0 world

As discussed in our podcast, Ian Bremmer calls this a G-0 world – a world in which global leadership is notable through its absence and in which every nation increasingly fights for itself. It is beyond any doubt a problematic world, in which some of the most vulnerable societies will be made even worse off and in which the protection of values is preconditioned upon their relevance to national interests. It also raises an important question: how can we deal with global challenges in the absence of global solutions?

The answer is that solutions must be smaller – that the great cannot be enemy of the good. In the absence of a global Leviathan, states will have to come together in coalitions of the willing to address and manage global problems. Growth is not a sufficient but still a necessary condition for solving today’s global unemployment challenge and few things seem to be as conducive to growth as international trade. Doha as a truly global solution has failed, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US led trade agreement that would account for 40% of world GDP, is on track to being completed. The failure of Rio+20 on the political front has revealed that against the background of imminent economic and financial crisis, global priorities have shifted away from environmental issues, such as climate change, but the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, an initiative of a political community that represents less 25% of world GDP and not even than 7.5% of the world population, will force airlines worldwide to pay their share for environmental pollution.

Are we falling into Hobbes’ prediction?

States are in many ways like individuals: they have interests, values and the capacity for rational action and a global order, in which every state has to protect its own interest, can be subject to the same threats that Hobbes so powerfully described. In the coming years, nations will have to make tough choices to deal with mounting global challenges. They could choose to stand by each other and solve them in cooperation with as many allies as they can muster, or choose to ignore them, until the cost of inertia exceeds its benefits. Hobbes’ predictions are only as good as his judgement of individuals is true – it is up to us to prove him wrong.

Are we heading into a "Hobbesian" future? (Painting by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600, titled Battle of the Amazons. Source: Wikipaintings)

2 thoughts on “Global Leadership: The Tessellation of the Leviathan

  1. Hi Wlad, thanks for the great in-depth post.

    I think the challenge with having smaller, state based solution (or even states that come together through “coalition of the willing”) to global challenges such as climate change is that, it is effective up to a certain point. For ex, Obama just recently vetoed the EU’s aviation carbon tax.

    Are we not outdated in defining “actors” and “problem-solvers” by states when addressing global problems? From a geopolitical perspective, I guess this is what Ian Bremmer calls a G-0 world – and geopolitically, states of course matter to this day.

    I think how connected and networked we are today plays a huge role in addressing global concerns. For ex, in the US, it is impossible to get anything passed by the Congress on climate change. But look at Bill McKibben, who founded, which is now the world’s largest social movement that mobilizes action to address climate change (one of campaigns today holds the record of the most widespread day of political action). If I remember correctly, it just started with a couple of Middlebury students, a website, and Bill’s leadership.

    • Hey Sunmin, it’s absolutely correct to point out that some of the most important actions to address today’s challenges don’t originate in nation states anymore, but rather in NGOs, social movements and sometimes individuals. Moreover, even if governments arrived at an agreement, there’s no guarantee that this agreement would be accepted by the powerful NGO actors within a particular country, which again undermines the centrality of nation states (So for instance Greenpeace is headquartered in Amsterdam, but it’s hard to imagine how an agreement that the Netherlands as a country signed would be binding for an NGO such as Greenpeace). So I think it’s correct that our analysis of the world’s potential to solve global problems should not be exhausted by considerations for nation states.

      However, I think it’s not outdated to see governments as the central and most important actors to solving global problems. After all, government action is based (to a varying degree) on the preferences of a country’s citizenry. It is important to investigate how these preferences are formed and few would disagree that groups such as contribute significantly to shaping them, but at the end of the day, the goal of any movement or NGO is to translate its values into legislature that is backed by the full power of a nation state. Greenpeace for example might prevent some whales from being killed by fighting off fishermen with their own boats, but many more whales could be saved if the respective fishermen knew that they will be legally prosecuted and punished for their activities.

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