Global Convergence vs. National Divergence

I’ve had this thought taking shape ever since Kenneth Weisbrode discussed the different U.S. approach to Asia and Europe in his WPR Briefing from last month. Here’s the relevant passages from Weisbrode’s piece:

In much of Europe and America, nationalism remains a taboo subject. Elsewhere it does not. As a result, we have one world committed to erasing the legacy of nationalistic rivalry with institutional cooperation, and another that entertains such institutions only insofar as they advance national interests vis-à-vis rivals. . . .

Thus, Obama’s tour of Asia was touted as a goodwill visit to rising world powers, while his trip to Europe is part of a renewed “triple crown” strategy to patch up relations with and among multilateral institutions . . .

That raises the important question: Which side is America on? [That of] nationalism and power politics, or [that of] multilateralism and global governance? Obama would probably say there is no such choice to be made: America can, indeed it must face both ways.

But . . . Washington needs a new organizing principle and a new set of approaches to help square this particular global circle whereby national, even nationalist, aims and orientations coexist peaceably with viable international institutions.

The passage is insightful for distinguishing the ways in which the past 20 years have been simultaneously characterized by both global convergence and national divergence. And what finally triggered this post was the formulation that came to mind yesterday: During the Cold War, the bipolar divergence over the norms and institutions of global governance meant that within blocs, national interests tended to converge (if not at every level and stage of strategic calculation, then certainly at the most fundamental ones). Since then, the global convergence in terms of norms and institutions has counterintuitively allowed for a fuller pursuit of divergent national interest.

So far from being the vehicle for post-nationalism, as hoped, multilateral organizations have increasingly become what Michel Real has called, in referring to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, “instruments of mutual neutralization.” The latest example of that is the recent OSCE summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, where disputes over how to address the Cold War’s legacy frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestr and Georgia led to a joint declaration reaffirming the group’s core principles, and little else. We can see the same dynamic at work within the European Union at times, most recently with regard to the sovereign debt crisis, as well as increasingly within NATO, for that matter.

The problem is obviously inherent to decision-making processes based on consensus among sovereign states, which depend on a convergence of interests in order to function. I suspect that given the systemic shock represented by U.S. unilateralism under the Bush administration, there will be a hesitation to opt out of the converging global governance system over the immediate short term. But I also suspect that the clock is running in terms of finding workable upgrades that make it both inclusive and effective.

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