How can the international system cope better with crises? Good new paper

February 9, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Alex Evans of Global Dashboard is always interesting on risk and global institutions. His latest paper, with Bruce Jones and David Steven takes such a long view that it feels pretty cosmic. But here’s my attempt at a summary/highlights of ‘Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization: Risk, Resilience and international Order’ (far too many syllables for a haiku).

We live in a world of discontinuous change: ‘Shocks, rather than stresses, are the primary triggers of change, as three global crises – the September 11 attacks in 2001, the combined food and oil price spike that peaked in 2008, and the global financial crisis in the same year – have demonstrated.’

But the clunky and sluggish international system is rubbish at dealing with volatility and shocks. ‘At both national and global levels, policy formation and delivery is weak and fragmented across issues and organizations. The need to overcome these ‘silos’ forces complex issues upwards to leaders’ level, both at home and internationally in forums such as the G20. Unfortunately, lack of ‘bandwidth’ leaves heads of government with limited capacity, and leads to a prioritization of firefighting over long-term risk management. The organizations charged with the delivery of foreign policy – aid agencies, militaries, foreign ministries – were designed for a different age.’

To replace it, the authors call the adoption of a new ‘risk doctrine’: ‘The overarching need is hence to move from a foreign policy paradigm that focuses on a usually ill-defined conception of the national interest, to one that aims to manage shared risk. Although agreement will still prove elusive, a risk paradigm provides a basis for cooperation between states. It emphasizes uncertainty; increases the focus on future challenges; provides a longterm context to balance immediate interests in acute crisis; and can bind together disparate structures for cooperation.’

Then comes a metaphor that brings back traumatic personal memories of white water rafting (or more accurately, white water drowning – see below) on the Ugandan Nile:

‘The challenge facing globalization can be compared to ‘shooting the rapids’. Charting a course through whitewater, there are many possible paths, but few attractive destinations. It is the river, not the paddler, that dictates the speed with which the boat moves. There is no opportunity to pause and rethink strategy, or to reverse direction: it is the capacity to reorganize while undergoing change that ultimately determines the journey’s outcome. Above all, the challenge is a collective one: the direction of the boat depends on the combined efforts of all those on board.’

So far, so very abstract. What does it all mean? ‘Governments should take several initial steps to position themselves to shoot the rapids, including:

Investing in mechanisms that build shared awareness of key risks, using the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a model. Policymakers should consider setting up similar bodies that can provide a locus for strategic conversation on threats and solutions in areas such as resource scarcity, bio-security, global climate policy (as opposed to science), and international support for fragile states.

Increasing the ‘bandwidth’ of the G20 by investing in stronger sherpa mechanisms and building links between the G20 and formal institutions, thereby providing heads of government with more comprehensive analysis of policy options.

Looking for opportunities to collaborate, whether in ad-hoc groups that are constructed risk by risk; in semi-permanent alliances, negotiating blocs and interest groups that bring together countries who have shared awareness across a range of risks; or in formal architectural solutions like the EU, ASEAN, WTO or UNFCCC that institutionalize cooperation between countries.

Establishing a ‘challenge function’ within the international system that is charged with exploring non-financial systemic risks, complementing the work of the Financial Stability Board in the economic realm. Such an organization would need to be agile, flexible, networked and relatively independent – organized on similar lines to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is charged with ‘preventing surprise’ for the United States.

Changing the organization and delivery of foreign policy. All governments will need to increase substantially the funding they devote to managing global risks, as part of a marked shift in emphasis from domestic to global policy. Funding levels should be determined as part of a fundamental review of the combined instruments of international relations – foreign assistance, diplomacy, military – that evaluates the contribution of each level to effective risk management.’

For more practical (or prosaic) minds, the authors provide a nice table comparing where we are with where we need to get to on the big global challenges: nuclear security; biosecurity; fragile states; terrorism; demographic change (urbanization and population growth); resource scarcity; climate change and global economic stresses. Plenty of stuff to get your teeth into there.

And here’s why the shooting the rapids metaphor makes me so anxious – imagine it’s the G20 in the boat….. (and I bet these guys selectively edited the video – our raft capsized five times on the same stretch of river)