Structural Complexity in the Global System

[Editors Note – Arthur was another expert that joined the Harvard-Beida Conference earlier in the month.]

The disjuncture between economic and military structure is not a new phenomenon.  The Cold War, certainly from the early 1960s on, consisted of military bipolarity and economic multipolarity (at a minimum, the end of the Bretton Woods order in the early 1970s signaled the end of US economic hegemony).

The post Cold War has seen military unipolarity and economic multipolarity.  In each case, economic multipolarity has meant that there have been powers capable of exerting substantial economic power but not militarily capable of global power projection.  In a sense, the current case of China is similar.  China is a global economic power, with an economic impact that extends to every continent, but militarily only a regional one.

The critical difference today is the alignment pattern.  In the past, the other centers of global economic influence were security allies of the US and dependent on the US for their military security.  Now, China is not part of a US security sphere, and the concern is that it will have in its economic orbit states that have security links to the US.  This raises a concern that did not exist in earlier periods, that of an economic power (China) that would use its economic leverage to achieve geo-strategic objectives antithetical to the US and its allies.  The result could then be economic appeasement on the part of US allies.

One place to look for this consequence is the current financial troubles of the government of Vietnam.  Will acceding to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea be the price of a Chinese bailout of Vietnam?

Can the US Steer in Turbulent Waters?

As I read the posts of two friends and colleagues, I realize how much I miss our conversations.  This exchange serves as a poor substitute.  The current prod for discussion is Henry Kissinger’s review of a new biography of Bismarck and what can be learned about how the US can manage a difficult and mixed-motive relationship (one that contains elements of conflict as well as cooperation) with China.  In his post, Alan Alexandroff puts the challenge as one of holding “irreconcilables together.”  And he concludes,

“If the policy is a product of a unique diplomatic skill – as proved to be the case with Bismarck – then such behavior and policy – keeping China as both a friend and a foe – will prove equally impossible.  The future then will be riven with competition and even conflict.  Not a happy thought.”

Dick Rosecrance’s reply to the possibility of an ambivalent and inconsistent policy towards China is to argue that the requisite Chinese reciprocity has not been forthcoming and that the US is already shifting towards a policy of linking with allies in the hope that “a stiffening of this enlarged Western position can produce a change in Beijing.”

I want to make only one observation, and that is to ask whether the kind of policy Bismarck pursued is possible in a polity such as the US.  Kissinger himself discovered, as National Security Advisor and as Secretary of State, that such inconsistency was difficult to sustain in the US political system.  In his review, Kissinger quotes from Jonathan Steinberg’s biography, noting that Bismarck accomplished what he did “without commanding a single soldier, without dominating a vast parliamentary majority, without the support of a mass movement, without any previous experience in government and in the face of national revulsion at his name and his reputation.”  Moreover, he served for 28 years, first as minister president of Prussia and then as chancellor of Germany.  Neither such continuity in office, nor such an independent ability to craft policy exists in the US today.

On the other hand, without a coherent grand strategy, and given the shifts in recent administrations, the US has generated plenty of inconsistency and ambivalence in our treatment of China.

It’s About “Effectiveness” – Stupid

[Editor: This is the first of hopefully many blog posts by my colleague Art Stein of UCLA and the host at Grand Strategy.]

The Colin Bradford piece in FP, “Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era”, Dan Drezner’s blog comment, “Learning to Embrace the Policy Deadlocks” and then Bradford’s rebuttal – again in FP – “Don’t Judge the G-20 by Its Summits,” and finally the Alexandroff retort in Rising BRICSAMPunching Below Its Weight” strike me as eliding omitting [editorial comment – you can tell this is one smart academic] the crucial issue: is disagreement in a broader venue such as the G20 a problem for global governance, and especially economic governance?

The original Bradford piece argued that disagreement is not so bad.  The G20 should not be judged by outcomes but as constituting a process and one that was broader and more diverse.  The argument contains a core implicit argument – one never articulated, much less examined and substantiated.  More on this below.

Drezner’s critique was largely focused on mass public reactions to G20 disagreements.  Interesting, but tangential at best.  Mass reaction would presumably be secondary to the concrete consequences of such disagreements.

The Alexandroff reaction to the Bradford-Drezner exchange is to focus on “effectiveness”, and this gets closest to the heart of the matter.  He notes that disagreement is a feature of the G7/8 as well.  Even the small number G set exhibits all kinds of “varieties of capitalism”:  more or less corporatism;  larger and smaller welfare states;  more or less industrial policy.    A substantial variety of types existed/exist even in that small club.

The core issue, then, is whether for the G8 or the G20 disagreement and divergence over policy options are preferable to agreement, coordination, and a concerted response.  There is a small literature among economists about whether macroeconomic policy coordination makes things better or worse.  Implicit in Bradford’s argument is that disagreement and its policy consequences are not so bad and, implicitly, to be preferred to agreement between a less diverse set of actors.  Perhaps.  But what is the evidence?  Is that true for every policy?  From the perspective of one of the world’s largest economies – California – dysfunctional politics does not seem so great.

All this reminds me of the argument about whether market failure or government failure is worse.  Government action is often encouraged to deal with market failure.  But government failure is also a problem.  Is government failure a problem in global economic governance?  Is the failure to coordinate and sustained disagreement preferable?  That was certainly the argument of states that wanted to impose capital controls and thought the Washington consensus was wrong and that they should be free to experiment with a different policy.  The acceptance of policy divergence and experimentation did mean that the experience of the global financial crisis of 2008 was not same everywhere.

So, whether the G20 works or not depends on: the issue, and what is required to deal with the particular problem.

1) It will depend on the nature of the disagreements, whether they are fundamental (about the desirability of markets), substantive (about how to deal with a specific problem), or distributional (about how to allocate the costs).

2) It will depend on how the parties respond to disagreement.  Will the response be 20 separate uncoordinated responses to problems?  Will the response to disagreement among the 20 be to form smaller clubs of agreement, say a G7 and a G13 set of separate responses but coordinated within each subset?

3) It will depend on time and the consequences of delay.  One proposition: the larger the group the greater must be the crisis to generate a consensus response, and the greater the delay in responding to crises.   The consequences of delay are also likely to vary.  Note the national responses undertaken before the first G20 meeting was even held.

In short, the commentaries and blog posts are correctives.  Yes, a stampede of lemmings is undesirable.  Yes, disagreements can lead to better policy.  There is an argument known in business schools as the “Abilene paradox” about the consequences of “mismanaged agreement” (the international relations literature refers to this as “groupthink”).  So we should not respond in despair to disagreement.  After all, bargaining occurs in situations of disagreement and it takes time to arrive at bargaining solutions, and initial disagreement and even stalemate do not preclude eventual agreement.  But sometimes, available bargains are not struck and the even when they are, the costs of delay are enormous.  Few international conferences result in an agreement at the first meeting and in immediate resolutions to problems.  Yet many international conferences have resulted in breakdown, a failure to deal with underlying issues, and, in the national security sphere, as precursors to war.

One’s view of the consequences of disagreement will thus depend on one’s answer to some of the questions posed above and to the specific issues and experiences (not surprisingly, Pacific island nations fearing their disappearance have been the ones most urgently pressing for responses to global warming).

And a comparison with historical assessments of other institutions should make us wary both of snap judgments or even generic views.  Think of NATO, and all the times people decried its disagreements, the problems in obtaining consensus, and the divergent assessments depending on the issue.  I would guess the G-20 will look no different, assuming it has some successes.

Relative Success, Failure, and the Hierarchy of Nations

The conversation about Rising BRICSAM is about changes in the hierarchy of international power and influence. It is interesting to think about the general factors that create changes in the size distributions of actors in competition.

Stability and instability.

It might be instructive to compare the rise and decline of nations with that of firms. The hierarchy of firms changes dramatically in relatively short periods of time. Of the top 100 firms in 1912, only 52 survived to 1995, only 28 were larger then, and only 19 remained in the 100. Continue reading

G8 Outreach and the Absence of Hothouse International Institutions

Alan’s post on Monday focused on the views of G8 members about the possibility of expanding their membership. This post was drafted before Alan’s and focuses instead on the G-8’s outreach efforts.

I’ve described in previous posts the different bases for constructing international groupings and how the BRIC and IBSA originated but have not expanded so far.

There is still another way to construct an international grouping, and that is through the workings of external actors. Institutions can be constructed in an artificial hothouse environment, at the instigation of others. The Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) came into being in April 1948 and emerged from Secretary of State Marshall’s desire to have a coordinated vision for postwar reconstruction and an integrated request for aid. Similarly, Continue reading

The Creation of Clubs: The BRIC

In a previous post, I distinguished three bases for grouping countries. In this blog, I discuss the BRIC and its possible expansion to BRICSAM in that context.

The Creation of Clubs

States form international institutions self-consciously to achieve some objective(s). The institutions can be organized along areal or functional lines. They can be universal and include all members of some specified set or they can be clubs of subsets. Creating any institution then requires some agreement on purpose, membership, and procedure.

Most groupings emerge from the vision of political leaders and their political needs. The BRIC case was somewhat different.

Origins of the term in objective analysis

The term BRIC was coined in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, head of global economic research at Goldman Sachs. It was a Continue reading

Objective, Subjective, and Socially Constructed Groupings in International Politics

BRICSAM is being proffered as a new grouping of states. Alan has written a set of excellent blogs asking whether the BRICSAM states have comparable wealth and power positions and whether all the countries fit in the same category or class. What began as a Goldman Sachs grouping of BRICs was expanded by CIGI with the addition of SAM (South Africa, Mexico and somewhat more problematically ASEAN (in some form)).

The exercise raises the question of how groupings of states emerge and how categories of states develop in international politics.

Objective Grouping

Some groupings emerge from some objective criterion. States can be assigned as elements to a set by some observable attribute: the set of nuclear powers, the set of oil producers, the set of democracies, the set of Latin America states, the Continue reading

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Declinism

The conversation about BRICSAM takes place against the backdrop of assessments about the international system. And the problem is that there is an ever-present cottage industry extrapolating from short terms dynamics to make sweeping generalizations about the course of the history, and it is typically wrong. Put differently, we are experiencing yet another wave of declinism.

In the late 1950s, the fear was that US was being overtaken by the Soviet Union. Sputnik signaled the inadequacy of American science and high Soviet growth rates (contrasted with anemic US growth and three Eisenhower recessions) would eventually mean that Soviet GNP would exceed that of the US.

Beginning in 1970 with Herman Kahn’s The emerging Japanese superstate, Americans were subjected to two decades Continue reading

Multilateralism may be an Existential Reality but Unilateralism is Open to One and All – AAS

The analytic question is whether there is an option of unilateralism versus multilateralism, and secondarily whether it is available to all states or is only the luxury of a hegemonic power such as the US.

I want to argue what may seem to be two contradictory points.  First,  there is a sense in which multilateralism is an existential reality.  And second, to the extant that unilateralism is an option, it is one available to all states and not just to a hegemonic US.

1) It is possible to argue that multilateralism is an existential reality.

This is akin to the argument made in the security literature that deterrence is an existential reality and not a doctrinal choice.  However much governments procure weapons and espouse doctrines to the contrary, deterrence is simply a fact of life, one which constrains nuclear states.

The same point can be made about multilateralism.  It is an existential reality.  Much as governments try to deny the reality, much as they try to go it alone, they are in the end constrained by the reality that little of any consequence can be accomplished without acting in conjunction with important others.  One can say that this lesson has even been learned by the Bush administration.  Blowing things up is something the US can accomplish on its own (though even there it needs others’ approval for the use of overseas bases and for overflight permissions), but little else.  In one domain after another, the US is looking for the support of others and has discovered this hard reality of international politics.

2) Unilateralism is open to one and all.

On the other hand, states do have a choice, and the choice of going it alone, separate from its efficacy and advisability, is open to all.

Think of the list of particulars used against the current US administration as evidence of its unilateral proclivities and ask how many of these steps are open only to a hegemonic power.  Could Canada not decide to leave Kyoto?  Could Canada have decided not to join the ICC?  The consequences of joining or not may be different (both for the country and for all other countries), but the choice remains.

The same is true for the use of force.  Take the case of Australia.  It has militarily intervened twice in East Timor, once at the request of the international community and once at the request of the East Timorese government (I think I’ve got this right).  The point, however, is that Australia has the ability to intervene militarily in its region and in line with its interests, and can do so even if it does not obtain Security Council approval.

The issues for any middle power are capability and cost.  A state has the choice of acting on its own if it has the capability to do so and is willing to bear the cost.  Israel chose to attack the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981.  It had the ability and it was willing to pay the political costs of going ahead.

Unilateralism is more consequential the more powerful the state exercising it.  A middle power pursuing a unilateral course can be seen benignly as a free rider or malevolently as a system challenger.  But a hegemon pursuing unilateralism is likely upsetting the very possibility of a cooperative solution.

The Social Psychology of Small Groups and International Relations

I attended a talk by a sociologist, Noah Friedkin (UCSB), discussing the structure of influence in networks and groups and his findings strike me as interesting for our discussion of multilateralism.

Friedkin has done experiments in which people are asked for some assessment and then get a chance to interact and then make a post-discussion assessment. A general finding in groups of 3 or more is that the second assessment almost invariably is within the bounds set by the initial assessment. Whether people modify their initial assessments or Continue reading