Global Governance: Managing Problems Without Solving Them

One of my father’s favorite expressions is that character equals destiny. Nowhere did that seem more evident than in the run-up to today’s G-20 summit, which resembled a classical Greek tragedy: The audience sees the obvious resolution to the crisis, but the actors — prisoners of their character, and thus their destiny — plow onward to their fate.

So despite the need for a harmonious summit to fend off the gathering currency wars, the U.S. Fed chose last week to announce its quantitative easing policy, promptly denounced by just about all of the U.S. interlocutors at the G-20 forum. But as if to undermine whatever ammunition that offered Beijing in its resistance to U.S. pressure to revalue its own currency, China’s trade surplus leaped 61 percent last month, to $27.2 billion.

As a result, the Seoul summit is likely to produce an agreement in name only:

The new compromise appears devised to eke out a modest agreement on principles that each country would adhere to voluntarily.

In other words, an agreement that allows everyone to leave Seoul having achieved none of their objectives, other than to have not conceded anything.

This is what I’ve come to think of as the “Copenhagen Syndrome,” and I’m increasingly convinced that we’re entering into an extended period of global governance that will be characterized by it. What it means is that problems will be managed but not solved, treated but never cured. The forums will be multilateral, but the process will be bilateral at best, unilateral at worst.

While this represents a significant setback for the vision embraced by the Obama administration upon taking office, it is neither a fatal nor a surprising one. Any systemic transition involves a certain amount of friction and turbulence. It is also important to maintain the distinction between a setback to foreign policy vision, and a setback to foreign policy objectives. For now it is both, inasmuch as the U.S. has successfully established the need for more diffuse global governance, but is having trouble steering the new forums toward its own vision of desirable outcomes.

But that could change, depending upon the outcomes now produced by the shift to more unilateral approaches. These might advance U.S. interests and with them the multilateral forums embraced by the Obama administration, or they might advance U.S. interests at the expense of such forums. The worst-case scenario is that they advance neither U.S. interests nor the emerging global governance system, with very worrisome implications for both.

In any event, this period of turbulence will sorely test the commitment of liberal internationalists to multilateral institutions and global rule sets, because these are likely to become even more dysfunctional before they get more effective. “We will agree to disagree,” might work as a diplomatic formula, but it’s not a plan of action.