Who will manage the global commons?

Who will manage the global commons as we move from American dominance to a truly mulipolar world?

Twitter offers the pleasure of knowing what casual acquaintances are doing, and to occasionally catch useful or fun events you wouldn’t otherwise know were happening.

Last week, I was giving a talk at the Washington, DC, VA. I had some unexpected time to kill, and I happened to see that @ezraklein and @edwardGLuce were participating in a very good, albeit sobering Brookings panel discussion concerning Luce’s new book, Time to start thinking: America in the age of descent.

Luce provided an excellent bill of particulars about our education system, our dysfunctional political structures, and the unprecedented economic competition we face from China, Brazil, and elsewhere. It seems to me that the obvious decline of American power, in many forms, is the elephant in the room in many matters of global import. George W. Bush accelerated this decline through tragically misguided policies at home and abroad. Yet the trends go deeper than any one administration, even one as disastous as Bush 43.

Ezra Klein followed Luce’s presentation by asking some basic and challenging questions. Have we really been harmed by our nation’s relative decline in (say) global GDP? Other than the blow to our national ego, it’s not clear we are harmed in any way by the decline of our relative economic preeminence on the world stage. Klein published his core argument in a nice Bloomberg column, here.

He’s obviously right that Americans are much better off (say) dealing with a China that is prosperous, creative, and successful than we would be if China were an impoverished, economically stagnant, or failed state. Wealthy and creative trade partners provide valuable markets for American goods. Their scientists can help invent renewable fuels and treatments for deadly cancers. Successful states have a strong stake in a safe and stable world order. I’m much more frightened of Pakistan than I am of India, even though the latter poses a much more serious competitive threat to specific American firms.

Klein notes one more ostensible cause for comfort, too:

[Y]es, the U.S. has its problems. But I wouldn’t trade our problems for anyone else’s. Europe, China and Japan face immense demographic challenges. All three are aging rapidly and, for cultural and political reasons, immigration is unlikely to swell their workforces. Japan, with a median age of 44.6, is one of the oldest countries in the world. In China, the birth rate has fallen from 2.6 births per woman 30 years ago to 1.56 today.

Political challenges loom equally large. The euro area looks irredeemably flawed — perhaps even unsalvageable. It’s unclear how China’s political system will evolve as the country grows richer, or how it will survive if the rapid growth of the past few decades slows dramatically. As for India, its political system makes the euro area look like a model of farsighted governance.

Then there are the economic challenges. Brazil, China and India are becoming middle-income countries. Historically, that is a harbinger of slower growth….

As far as it goes, this argument is again unassailable. China, India, Japan, Europe, and Brazil all face more profound economic, political, and geostrategic problems than we do. We continue to be blessed, despite our declining share of world GDP.

Only I’m not too comforted here. As we become forced to live by our wits in a more multi-polar world,  we are precisely trading our problems for everyone else’s on this list. We need each of these nations to keep its house in order, and to help us tackle very difficult common challenges. I’m not sure that they–or we–are really up to this task. As Luce responded: Who will manage the global commons when America can no longer impose our will to solve collective problems?

That’s a serious question. American hegemony has not always served us or the world very well (see, e.g. Vietnam). Yet for decades, our predominant military and economic power has often proved quite useful. Pax Americana has helped many others—not least China, India, Japan, Europe, and Brazil—to develop and prosper rather well within a relatively stable global system. There’s no obvious nation, or set of nations, that is safely prepared to play this role.

America proved sadly myopic, during our period of momentary global dominance, in our failure to plan for our inevitable geopolitical decline relative to other powers. We failed to nurture strong global institutions to address many environmental, economic, legal, security, and public health concerns. At times, we thumbed our nose at these institutions, and not only in egregious cases such as the run-up to the Iraq war. As China emerges as a genuine peer competitor, with its own interests, its own troubles, and its own ambitions, we have many reasons to regret this missed opportunity.

To put things in Luce’s terms, it’s time to start thinking: not only in selfish terms regarding our ability to remain militarily secure and economically competitive, but also in more global terms, finding new ways to help ourselves and everyone else survive and prosper in a more complex world.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “Who will manage the global commons?”

  1. I’m somewhat more optimistic than you that American hegemony, or at rather the hegemony of an alliance led by America, can prevail even as other nations prosper and we are no longer so overwhelmingly powerful in relative terms. Who’s going to challenge us? The only possibility is China. And if and when they become too aggressive, India will most likely join with us to oppose that. Europe and Japan will remain with us. Russia may even join with us. I think the Chinese understand this pretty clearly, and so I don’t think they’re even going to try to challenge us directly. They’ll seek instead to negotiate a relationship in which they have more power; but the overall framework will be one with which we, India, Europe, and Japan can live. Which is a perfectly reasonable outcome consistent with their interests and ours.

    1. Hegemony is not about “who will challenge us”, it is about “who will do what we want”. Sometimes doing what we want is stupid and dangerous (invade Iraq), sometimes it is the mechanism for global co-ordination (eg 1987 financial accords). Either way, the collection of other countries willing to jump when America says so has shrunk substantially.

      Of course there will always be countries willing to do what America wants when it’s in their interests — we won’t have to bribe Israel to join a US invasion of Iran. That’s not hegemony. Hegemony is being able to perform the role of co-ordination when other countries, for whatever reason, DON’T want to do what the US wants. For an example of what happens when this is not in place, look at the Euro-zone right now. For an example of countries uninterested in doing what the US wants because the US is no longer hegemon, look at the Euro-zone right now.

  2. I have to wonder about the sanity of anyone, who is talking “growth rates” in the face of peak oil and climate change and the collapse of the ocean ecologies. I dare say a low Chinese birthrate is something of a necessity in one of the most overpopulated large countries on earth. Having the greediest and most irresponsible elite in the developed world might be a problem few other countries in the world would be interested in sharing with us. The rapid disinvestment underway in the U.S. is already having serious effects on wages and welfare. There was a time, when the chattering classes talked up the strength and integrity of American institutions. You don’t hear that kind of thing anymore. (Probably Ezra is too young to remember it.)

    1. I’m with you on the general argument. However, after energy descent and the resultant population crash, the USA will be pretty well-placed wrt natural resources (what remains), big water barriers, some fertile land to the north to trade with, some remaining land with rain, etc. Russia and Canada will be relatively lucky as well. It won’t be a utopia, but some will get by OK.

      1. This analysis IMHO is a not insignificant driver of the US military’s research and deployment of solar and biofuels. When the last drop of oil is burned he with the tankful of soy-based biodiesel will win the last war.


  3. I don’t see a direct challenge to US power. BUT, military power has been of declining utility for 50 years or so, as states learn to build internal structures that are more or less immune to military pressure except at the margins. So China, Russia and others are increasingly free to ignore the US. I expect this to show up in areas like resistance to extension (perhaps even maintenance) of intellectual property regimes, in a redirection of financial flows, and in cooperation over issues like Iran. And perhaps not having to deal with population pressures as environmental issues worsen will be a plus for Europe and Japan?

  4. — “American hegemony has not always served us or the world very well (see, e.g. Vietnam).”

    Come, now! What do you mean by “us”? There is more than one constituency in the USA, and some constituencies were served very well indeed by Vietnam, and other exercises in hegemony.

  5. What American global leadership has their been recently?
    – Climate change: you must be joking.
    – Other environmental challenges like overpopulation and overfishing: invisible.
    – Financial stability and growth : apart from causing one financial crisis and sitting on the sidelines for the second…
    – Law and order: one small me-too win on Gaddafi, not making up for the Iraq disaster, the Afghan mess, and inaction on Sudan. Zero progress or leadership on Palestine.
    – Institution-building: at least the actively destructive GW Bush policies have stopped, but that’s about it.
    – Nuclear proliferation: weakening the barriers (India – an underrated GW Bush Fehlleistung); a lot of effort but practically no results on Iran and North Korea.
    – Health: A decent HIV drugs programme, but very little on anything else (malaria, reproductive health, pain relief..)
    – The US Navy continues to benevolently keep the sea lanes safe, mostly.

    It’s worth remembering that Islamic jihadi terrorism is a nonexistent or very minor problem to most of the world. The GWOT has been a huge distraction, as Bin Laden intended. From my perspective, US relative decline is proceeding faster than you think (as is European). Basically, GW Bush and the Congressional GOP threw away American hegemony.

  6. “He’s obviously right that Americans are much better off (say) dealing with a China that is prosperous, creative, and successful than we would be if China were an impoverished, economically stagnant, or failed state.”

    I think that is clearly dependent on what military actions China undertakes utilizing it’s prosperity. If China were a nation at peace with it’s neighbors, competing entirely on the basis of commerce and cultural exchange, certainly. If they put that prosperity into military aggression, an impoverished, economically stagnant, failed state starts to look good. Health is generally a good thing, but not so much in bullies.

    The example of Tibet, or China’s ongoing threats towards Taiwan, do not suggest that a flush and confident China is going to be a good neighbor.

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