16 August 2008

The Great Illusion: Part One

Paul Krugman has a thought-provoking piece in the New York Times. He compares the international situation now with 1914, when the last great wave of globalization ended and the world turned in on itself for more than a generation.

I am substantially less well informed to comment than Krugman or many others, but it seems to me he is right to highlight the end of Pax Americana (but didn't that end in 2001, if it ever existed?). He is also right to point out how quickly national selfishness and protectionism reared their heads in the food price crisis - with export bans and the like.

There are three crucial differences between 2008 and 1914, however, which make me hopeful that we are not about to see an end to globalization.

The first is that international institutions are enormously stronger now than in 1914. The UN Security Council may have been powerless to do much about Russia and Georgia fighting, but that's because Russia is a member of it. The League of Nations would have issued a nice condemnation, but that institution was useless precisely because the USA, USSR, Germany and Japan were not a partof it. Besides the powerful military and economic bodies, there are countless talking shops where even sworn enemies without diplomatic ties can talk to each other in private, with a mediator if necessary. Europe depends on Russian gas; but Russia depends on Europe's continuing custom: you can't re-route a pipeline.

Second, unlike the Great Depression, the food price crisis contains the seeds of its resolution. 'Crisis' is often taken to mean a disaster, when really it means a turning point: this crisis is also an opportunity, by giving farmers in food-importing countries the incentive they need to grow more food. Here in West Africa, the price of imported rice and cooking oil has gone through the roof; but local food and oil production are starting to rise. Behind the crisis talk on the World Bank's website, a press release celebrates the halving of rice imports in countries as diverse as Guinea, Nigeria and Uganda, thanks to high-yielding rice varieties!

Third, there are large areas of the world that are as stable now as they ever have been. Krugman reminds us that war is now unthinkable in Western Europe; I would argue this extends to all 27 EU member states. The Americas and most of Asia are not islands of stability, they are oceans.

Rather than the end of globalization, I am much more concerned about another great illusion: the idea that we can deal with climate change by burying our heads in the sand. More uninformed ramblings on that to follow . . .

No comments: