Collaborative Leadership Stumbles; A Dangerous Political Fuse Has Been Lit

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Well all the columns and opinions have been written, I assume,  over the Chinese G20 Summit. Other than congratulating the Chinese leadership for having pulled it off – and there is something to be said for that – the general conclusion to be drawn from these many pieces was that little was achieved with the major concern – coordinated economic growth by all the G20. The communique was a classic instance of bureaucratic ‘gobbledegook’.   While the yardsticks were moved on a number of issues, no bold announcement by the G20 Leaders was made.  As my colleague, Colin Bradford declared in his Brookings blogpost, “2016: The year for leadership that wasn’t for the China G-20”

2016 may have been the year that teed up the need for new direction, fresh initiatives, and strong leadership, but the contrary interests of G-20 member countries seem to have missed this opportunity at Hangzhou. Whereas some of the keywords for an ambitious transformative approach are in the Hangzhou G-20 communiqué, there is evidence of avoiding commitments, ducking the big ideas, and mouthing the right words but dodging the verbs and adjectives that contained ambition.

And Colin, I might add, is a strong proponent for the G20 Leadership Summit. While some observers might question the proposition, Douglas Bulloch at Fortune  laid the problem at the doorstep of what he saw as the key mandate – global growth:

This [London G20 Summit] marked a high point for the G20, but also established its central mission; sustaining global growth in order to stave off a retreat from globalization. In that sense, it is not simply an institution of the international order, but the crisis committee tasked with keeping the globalization show on the road. At every meeting since then all the coordination over sustainability, anti-corruption and climate change has taken second place to the larger question of global growth.

I suspect that this view is somewhat revisionist on Bulloch’s part.  The leadership may well agree with him today but this has come to the G20 only belatedly.  And the reality is that the the key issue is no longer just a coordinated effort at economic growth, much of which can only be dealt with at the national level in any case.  The problem is much bigger today, as many have recently pointed out.  It is also a question of support for globalization and indeed for the global order as has been constructed over the recent decades.

Belatedly we see that attention has turned to the quality of globalization and a recognition that what has been wrought may be threatening continued global prosperity.  There appears to be an acknowledgement that globalization has harmed many. Globalization that has led to dramatic income and wealth inequality across many nations. The political fuse has unfortunately been lit.  It will not be so easily put out.  It has led to a political backlash against open markets and free trade agreements in many countries – to opposition to the current liberal order.  And this is not just from authoritarian sources. There has been far too little effort to support for those caught in the dramatic changes in markets and work in so many countries. What we appear to have created and allowed to fester is what might be called ‘careless globalization’.

Support, however, for a globalization and the liberal order has not disappeared.  President Obama in his last appearance as President at the UN General Assembly yesterday described what is required:

I want to suggest to you today that we must go forward, and not backward.  I believe that as imperfect as they are, the principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law that we have forged remain the firmest foundation for human progress in this century.  I make this argument not based on theory or ideology, but on facts — facts that all too often, we forget in the immediacy of current events.

He, like many others, have identified that previously careless globalization must be avoided.  As he put it:

In order to move forward, though, we do have to acknowledge that the existing path to global integration requires a course correction.  As too often, those trumpeting the benefits of globalization have ignored inequality within and among nations; have ignored the enduring appeal of ethnic and sectarian identities; have left international institutions ill-equipped, underfunded, under-resourced, in order to handle transnational challenges.

And as these real problems have been neglected, alternative visions of the world have pressed forward both in the wealthiest countries and in the poorest:  Religious fundamentalism; the politics of ethnicity, or tribe, or sect; aggressive nationalism; a crude populism — sometimes from the far left, but more often from the far right — which seeks to restore what they believe was a better, simpler age free of outside contamination.

It may be true – and a number of my colleagues across the G20 strongly are of the view – that there is a failure of G20 leadership, an unwillingness to commit to national economic growth programs and to then coordinate with their colleagues across the G20.  One need only reflect on the Brisbane Action Plan. But this is no longer the central problem for G20 leadership.

The current leadership is nowhere near to an acceptance of a ‘course correction’ as urged by the outgoing US President.  And that leaves open the rather unsettling prospect that supporters of aggressive nationalism and populism may well take the leadership helm in a number of countries, most pertinently in the United States.  Not only will there not be a course correction for globalization but instead we have created the conditions for a crack up in the liberal order.

As Roger Cohen recently described the support for the aggressive nationalist Republican Presidential candidate in the NYT:

Far from the metropolitan hubs inhabited by the main beneficiaries of globalization’s churn, many people feel disenfranchised from both main political parties, angry at stagnant wages and growing inequality, and estranged from a prevailing liberal urban ethos.

Somewhere on the winding road from whites  – only bathrooms to choose-your gender bathrooms, many white, blue-collar  Kentucky workers – and the state is 85.1 percent white – feel their country got lost.

To these people, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is not the empty rhetoric of a media savvy con artist  from Queens but a last-ditch rallying cry for the soul of a changing land where minorities will be the majority by the middle of the century.

A very unsettling prospect indeed!

Image Credit – How Hwee Young/AFP/Getty Images

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