Leaving the Hotel: West needs to leave its fruitless search for common values and instead negotiate global governance in a realist world
Dr. John C. Hulsman and Samir Saran
03 December 2012
Though in theory they come from many places (particularly in the heretofore ruling West), the vast majority of the international foreign policy elite and its corresponding commentariat really only come from one place: Hegelian Land. Make no mistake about it; they form one quite homogenous group, with an unsurprisingly homogenous worldview. Spending weekends attending endless meetings in five-star hotels across the world (The Four Seasons is an especial favorite), their common views are so ingrained in discussions that they are rarely directly commented upon, let alone debated.
In fact, NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Man has no need of self-reflection, since everyone they know shares their values, having attended the same prestigious universities, married into the same families, worked in the same think tanks, and spent their jet-set weekends together, talking about such weighty matters as ’the centrality of the global commons,’ ’the rise of the south,’ ’the end of the nation state’, ’the multilateral global elite,’ and ’the advance of the developing world toward universal norms,’ amongst other such self-aggrandizing pipedreams. Their basic analytical mistake (and it is seminal) is that as everyone they know shares these parochial Wilsonian values, such a point of view must be all that matters or really exists. Truly, they all hail from one indivisible Hegelian world. But as Woody Allen put it in Annie Hall, ’Intellectuals have proven to the world that you can have all this brilliance and still have absolutely no idea of what’s going on.’ Like the possibly apocryphal story (later fiercely denied) about the New York Times film critic Pauline Kael, who was said to be sincerely baffled as to how President Nixon won re-election in 1972 (he carried 49 states) when everyone she knew had voted for the hapless George McGovern, there are distinct intellectual dangers to being so entirely cocooned in a comfortable, if wholly unrepresentative, bubble. Advanced-stage otherworldliness and an ingrained intellectual arrogance make true analysis almost an impossibility.
Sure, NGO Man (and Woman) would placidly reply, there are Neanderthal outliers (such as the two of us who were not properly vetted before being allowed in the inner sanctum) who still believe in the nation state, but the very transnational nature of today’s problems will soon make them appear to all to be the reactionaries that they are (never mind that the rising powers in today’s world such as the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) share little in terms of common values except for a strongly nationalistic distrust of the West and the governance frameworks that have been designed for an Atlantic world). The fact that these rising powers are self-evidently nation-states proving to all not basking in delusion that the new multipolar era demonstrates that the Westphalian state system is above all, alive and well would never be brought up at The Four Seasons.
However, it is their last, common, wholly wrongheaded assumption that all states inherently share overwhelmingly binding universal values and norms, which is their self-evident truth that is most out of step with reality. Paradoxically, by believing the unbelievable (if the real multipolar world outside the hotel is to be finally taken into account), NGO Man dooms true initiatives at global governance to sure failure, making efforts to endeavor to make the planet a genuinely better place come to naught. Obliviousness in the end isn’t just about harmless self-delusion; intellectually NGO Man gets in the way of solving the very problems he spends so much time purporting to ’care’ about.
The Common Values Chimera
Especially in Europe (though America is far from immune), one tired conversation dominates most European institutions and forums, threatening to become a fatal liability, distancing the EU from the new capitals that influence global decision making in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is Europe’s obsession with "Common Values" and the Don Quixote-like quest for "Common Humanity." Wasting time and intellectual capital looking for this faux Holy Grail is doing nothing less than preventing the global community discovering vital common ground on the key issues that the emerging multipolar world is confronted with. Be if the issue of climate change, political intervention in unstable nations, or over broader geopolitical stability, spending time trying to find the fool’s gold of universal values gets in the way of cutting the interest-based deals that will actually make the new multipolar world work.
This European obsession also leads to an analytical failure at the geopolitical level, blurring Western understanding of the new ’clubs’ such as the BRICS and explains their comforting dismissal of the reality that much has changed, due to the fact that the BRICS themselves seemingly share little in terms of ’Common Values.’ From Brussels’ point of view how can such an organization (let alone its constituent members) matter if it doesn’t adhere to the Gospel of Monnet? But the BRICS do share common interests, with three among them being the most important. First, all BRICS countries stress there must be a stable external environment that cannot and must not be jeopardized by partisan interventions in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Africa; in other words, contrary to NGO Man, state sovereignty still matters and non-intervention is also a viable political choice.
The Iranian nuclear crisis is a case in point. The usual, half-cocked Western intervention--in this case an ineffective bombing strike by either Israel or the US that would have to be repeated--would amount to a geostrategic calamity (immeasurably strengthening the mullahs, quite possibly destabilizing broadly pro-Western governments in places like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and setting back any hopes of stability in the region for a generation). Average Iranians and the Arab street may well hate and distrust the current leadership in Tehran; this does not mean that their distaste translates into obvious support for the West to bomb Iran into a recognition of its errors in ignoring the universal Hegelian virtue of negotiating in good faith.
Instead a realist response which allows that interests and not values must be paramount if effective agreements are to be arrived at in this new era impels a different way forward. If states themselves (such as Iran) are threatening the regional balance of power, closer ties between threatened countries within a region as well as between its major players and offshore balancing allies (such as the U.S.) are the chess move needed, rather than violating the offending country’s sovereignty due its less than dogmatic devotion to universal values or its inability to join the conversation in a language that it just does not recognize. Rather, extended deterrence based above all on the truly universal interest of physical survival) is the way forward, an approach seemingly and inexplicably abandoned by the Obama administration.
The second common BRIC interest is that an accountable and stable global financial regime must evolve with a far greater say for the rising economic powers-- the promises for which remain unfulfilled since 2008/09. The unambiguous and ambitious Delhi Declaration by the BRICS Heads of State served as a timely reminder to the Atlantic powers of the strength of the impulses that have brought the BRICS member nations together in the first place.
The message that went out was that the BRICS members will gradually begin to institutionalise an alternative path in terms of financial and economic governance. Be it the BRICS Development Bank initiative, the trade settlement processes, or teaming up on resisting the ’carbon tax’ unilaterally announced by the EU, these countries are beginning to realize the importance of reframing the rules and perhaps changing the game itself.
In parallel, as this possible transition occurs, they will continue to demand progressive reforms in the existing structures of global financial governance. Their meeting on the sidelines of each G-20 meeting may not have resulted in their putting up a common candidate for the IMF as of yet, but these interactions (this new pattern of standardised consultation) will continue to strength their common ambition to push for reforms of outmoded Bretton Woods Institutions which have failed to even uphold the fundamental tenants of equity and inclusiveness on which they were built (or achieve the still more lofty goal of absolute poverty reduction).
At the recent and much written about Delhi Summit, while Western media and critics were dismissing these interactions as insignificant and unsustainable, the BRICS nations were drawing up a blueprint for a common development bank for the LDCs (Less Developed Countries), local lines of credit for trade, and an alliance of national BRICS stock exchanges. While such developments may not necessarily lead to long-term cooperation on other issues of significance, they will certainly fortify and greatly extend common interests in the areas of trade and finance. Representing nearly half of the global population, and a similar proportion of global growth, BRICS economies are no longer willing to be rule-takers on issues which are inherently crucial to their development trajectories. For the wise, this can be read as a sign of the coming outright rejection of the Washington consensus. That the Atlantic powers will have to accommodate this paradigm shift is certain; how they will respond remains a seminal mystery of the new age.
Finally, the BRICS all agree on a far greater global emphasis (if not commitments) on the development and poverty reduction efforts in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the fact that "green capitalism" or "green values" are new hurdles that BRICS must stand up against. No developing power is likely to commit economic suicide to make over-privileged Western Greens happy. In many ways, the recently concluded Rio+20 Summit seemed to mark the end of climate multilateralism, with countries failing to agree on anything substantial, despite the hype and hoopla preceding it. In an increasingly uncommon world, it is irrational to expect global binding commitments on issues as complicated and contested as climate change or sustainable development. In fact, far from being a shared value--the definition of the term "Sustainable" is contested itself. What implies inclusive growth and poverty alleviation for one, means stifling ’Green Capitalism’ for the other.
However, this basic schism has been obscured over the many rounds of negotiations and many conferences convened and attended by NGO Man. It should be understood that the emergence of the BRICS on the global economic and political stage does not necessarily signal a default willingness to shoulder responsibility for historical emissions. Moral arguments may get you a fair round of applause at The Four Seasons, but if you want a deal, then Atlantic countries need to vacate carbon real estate or pay the rent for squatting on it to accommodate for their ’lifestyle emissions’.
With the average per capita consumption of primary energy of the BRICS members still only a fraction of OECD averages, the notion of universal responsibility for the fate of the planet is redundant from the outset. No nation-state can be pinned down by narratives of universal moral accountability and culpability, given the real context. A man barely surviving on a dollar or two a day has no obligation, motivation or reason to preserve this planet the way it is for the next generation. And yes, he disagrees with the President of the United States of America and the Green Evangelists of the EU on this; they simply sit in different structural positions. Giving him a better tomorrow may over time see us strike the deal that the annual climate circuses around the world have failed to achieve.
Acquainting NGO Man With the Realities of our Times
It is well past time for Europe and the West as a whole to wake up to the world they actually live in and now move towards the more workable paradigm of "Shared Interests and Shared Prosperity", terms that flow from the vocabulary of the "realist" camp, acknowledging that beneath every façade, nations and societies share only one common value, that of self-preservation based on self-interest. Sure, some of these interests do become normative and can be classified as values, but that they remain ’interests’ above all must be recognized and in an indulgent and modest moment, negotiated as well. ’Values’ lead to deadlocks and rigidities, ’interests’ are often tradable, and when primary interests clash, well, at least one knows the score. This approach offers a far greater global potential for great powers old and new to collaborate and cooperate than the parochial, annoyingly moralistic? values-based approach that is viewed by most outside of the EU as a not-so-subtle attempt to impose European interests by the back door, despite objectively lacking the power to do so. A man in the gutter and a man in a mansion will share only one common value self-interest and self-preservation. While the former will seek ways to reach the mansion, the latter will undoubtedly discover rules to remain there. But this fetish with values and the lack of agreement on their universal existence and definition is not the only intellectual challenge that efficient global governance is confronted with today. The concept of sovereignty--and the very different individual experiences of nation-states that compel them to define this critical notion differently--is another potential stumbling block.
For example, the US certainly does not share the diluted notion of sovereignty so common within the EU; as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made abundantly clear, if Europe continues to free ride on American defense spending in NATO soon it will not be seriously consulted on the strategic issues of the day, common values or no. For America, NATO has always been a means to an end, not Valhalla in itself, as Europeans complacently believe. Rather, the perilous state of the American economy and its increasingly fraught domestic politics are already altering its role as a global policeman and as things get ever harder, a more inward-looking America is inevitable, based on its overriding economic interest to right its fiscal ship.
Similarly, the BRICS and other emerging power centers view this transition period of their relative rise as precisely the time to consolidate their sense of nationhood and to reclaim sovereignty from the formerly Western-dominated world. Again, Europe is the global intellectual outlier. Global governance in the new world we actually live in must be founded on the notion that sovereignty actually matters far more than those in many European capitals so fatuously think. If the BRICS are to be made stakeholders in the new era, alongside the older, western powers, this is the first negotiation and accommodation that must take place.
The third reality of our times is that large economies in the Indo-Pacific region (India, China and some others) with low-income populations will now be the fulcrum for governing the most important regions of the world; if they succeed the new primary engine of global growth will be safeguarded, if not, we will live in a far more hostile planet. Due to their own troubles and relative economic decline, the US and EU will increasingly need to carve out partnerships with India, China and the ASEAN countries to secure the sea lanes, manage the rules of trade, secure property and property rights and ensure peace and stability at this hinge point of multipolarity. This dependence on large emerging economies--which for a long while will remain relatively poor--will change the very ethos of global governance.
Due to this sea change, global priorities are bound to change as well. Growth and not human rights will dictate the agenda. Industrialization will trump environmentalism and poverty alleviation will define sustainable development. The implementation of governance will alter dramatically. Due to the core difference in the understanding of sovereignty, partnerships between the Atlantic countries and countries of the Indo-Pacific will be tested. On the other hand, partnerships could strengthen when instead of patronizing sermons, efforts are made to accommodate the views, interests and needs of all based on the fruitful search for shared interests. So how to make sense of this confusing new world? The primary rule of the road must be the unbreakable link between burden sharing and power (or responsibility) sharing. This basic principle (while easily applied in terms of the voting weights controversy in the IMF and World Bank) must become nothing less than the new mantra for the multipolar age. For it is the only hope for future global governance efforts, based as it is on the only durable political factor in the world….actual power realities.
Of course, this fundamental global change takes place on a continuum; it will take several decades for the transition from a Western-dominated world to a world with many powers (with the BRICS leading the economic way) to be completed. But as the global financial crisis made clear, change may be occurring far more rapidly than anyone could have imagined. Along the way, a fading west and a ’not-yet-up-to-it’ rest could well drop the ball over vital global governance issues, resulting in what Ian Bremmer (somewhat apocalyptically) has referred to as a G-0 world, where nothing much gets done.
It is time for Europe to get over it. Nations will not have common values, because nations themselves are a collection of diverse historical experiences and ambitions. However, there is no need to throw in the towel over global governance, for nations can have a vision for shared prosperity with different approaches to get there. To make all this work, there must be some common macro rules for the road for achieving this shared prosperity (the greatest common interest of all) and these must be negotiated on the realist terms of common interests and not through the fruitless semantics of ethics and morality. It’s time for NGO Man to leave the hotel and experience the new world that has sprung up while he was inside; the multipolar era needs realism to work.
(Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), an international relations consulting fir, and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the author of all or part of 10 books, including Amazon bestsellers Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently an acclaimed intellectual biography of Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. Samir Saran is Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation and Chairman and CEO of ’g_trade’, the creators of the 3rd dynamic green index, ’BSE Greenex’ at the Bombay Stock Exchange. He is author/co-author and editor of a number of publications including Re-imagining the Indus, Navigating the Near, Radical Islam and BRIC in the New World Order. This expanded essay flows from an earlier op-ed written for the Times of India, May 11, 2012.)
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