Friday, April 03, 2009

Wielding power by mapping its limits

More wisdom from the FT's Philip Stephens today:
By contrast, the US president has grasped that if America is to hold on to its pre-eminent role in the world it will be within a system in which others have a stake. Mr Obama shows wisdom beyond his years in realising that to understand the extent of US power – and it is still unrivalled – a president must also map its limits.
and more:

The so-called Group of 20 – I counted 29 delegation heads round the dining table in 10 Downing Street – is a cumbersome grouping. Its reach gives it legitimacy, but at the price of operational efficiency. A smaller grouping – say, of 15 – might yet be a better answer.

Whatever the imperfections, the process promises to embed the habit of multilateralism in a multipolar world. History reminds us that big shifts in global power, such as we are witnessing, often end in war as rising states challenge the status quo. A few arguments about tax havens or bank regulation are a small price to pay for a peaceful transition.

The FT columnists, in their long collective struggle to take the measure of the economic meltdown, have been haunted by the specter of war following economic upheaval. Here's Martin Wolf:

Now think what will happen if, after two or more years of monstrous fiscal deficits, the US is still mired in unemployment and slow growth. People will ask why the country is exporting so much of its demand to sustain jobs abroad. They will want their demand back. The last time this sort of thing happened – in the 1930s – the outcome was a devastating round of beggar-my-neighbour devaluations, plus protectionism. Can we be confident we can avoid such dangers? On the contrary, the danger is extreme. Once the integration of the world economy starts to reverse and unemployment soars, the demons of our past – above all, nationalism – will return. Achievements of decades may collapse almost overnight.
Gideon Rachman:

If Europe starts rolling back the four freedoms, the implications will stretch well beyond economics. Protectionism and nationalism are close cousins. The principles of consultation, co-operation and open borders within the EU have helped to repress the old, nationalist demons.

Nice to see a glimmer of optimism from Stephens.

P.S. My one beef with Stephens is that he's fond of straw men:

Those who view politics as an event rather than a process will have been disappointed. So also will those expecting, or pretending to expect, that the summit would fix the global economy. The world is too complex for the instant gratification demanded by 24-hour rolling news channels.

I read a lot of predictions that the summit would be a disaster - none that it would "fix" much of anything. Pleasant surprise, a la Stephens, seems to be a hear-universal reaction. Someone did a nice job lowering expectations. Or was that a broad-based defense mechanism?

P.P.S. Strobe Talbott makes much the same point about Obama's core message to the world as Stephens:

“President Obama embraced, and made his own, a shift in attitude towards a much more pluralistic world order in which the United States is still uniquely influential by virtue of its ability to persuade,” says Mr Talbott. “In essence, President Obama managed to identify himself with a form of American statesmanship that recognises the difference between being a leader and being a boss.”

And from the horse's mouth:
“There has been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods [the 1944 conference that set up the postwar economic order],” [Obama] said. “Well, if it is just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy – you know, well, that’s an easier negotiation. But that’s not the world we live in. And it shouldn’t be the world that we live in. It’s not a loss for America. It’s an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India, these are all countries on the move. And that’s good.”
Yes, it's good. And it's good to hear an American President say it.

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