Democratic Globosclerosis

By Daniel Larison

Michael Brendan Dougherty questions Brooks' lament of lost unipolarity, and Michael lands some solid blows.  I found this passage in Brooks' column to be the most telling:

This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.

The real difficulty with multipolarity is not so much that there are more groups vetoing collective action as it is that many rising powers don't agree with Washington or Brussels what the real problems are.  They veto collective action in one area or another because that "collective" action increasingly appears to be actions directed against their interests or the interests of their client states.  "Globosclerosis" is inevitable in a politically diverse world with hundreds of nation-states and multiple major powers.

Officially, everyone solemnly intones that nuclear proliferation is undesirable and should be prevented, but the Iranian acquisition of nuclear technology does not appear to India or China as a threat.  Their perspective as rising powers that have more recently acquired their own nuclear arsenals means that even an Iranian bomb seems far more rational and justifiable to them than it does to our government.  At the same time, the real power and status that India has derived from its arsenal, such that our government has been trying to seal a nuclear deal with New Delhi in pretty obvious violation of the NPT, show every aspiring state that the way to be taken seriously by the U.S. is to possess this sort of power.

What a multipolar world really shows is the limits of multilateral institutions.  During most of the Cold War, the U.N. did not provide much in the way of collective security because the member states were either divided between the two superpowers or organized under the Non-Aligned Movement, and after the Cold War the U.N. was able to provide meaningful collective security only when the remaining superpower backed the action.  Now that there are multiple new powers emerging in the world, the multilateral framework, which presupposes a consensus that will almost never exist among so many divergent interests, has been breaking apart.  This has been exacerbated by the consistent targeting of Russian and Chinese satellites for sanctions and attack, while leaving U.S. allies that have their own egregious records unscathed, but these are simply symptoms.  The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the artificial and unusual disparity of power between the U.S. and the rest of the world that occurred in the wake of WWII has been steadily narrowing, and it will continue to do so.  This is essentially a return to something more like a normal state of affairs after the extremely abnormal 20th century.

So what is the immediate cause of Brooks' lament?  The failure (yet again) of the Doha round of global trade talks.  The Doha round has run into these problems before, memorably depicted in an Economist cover a few years ago, and the issues continue to be the same: developing countries want the major industrialized states to open up their markets more to their agricultural products, while the major industrialized states have very comfy farm protections and subsidies that they have no intention of changing very much.  How does Brooks portray the collapse of trade talks?  Like this:

The Doha round collapsed, despite broad international support, because India’s Congress Party did not want to offend small farmers in the run up to the next elections. Chinese leaders dug in on behalf of cotton and rice producers.

In other words, the Indian and Chinese governments were pursuing the interests of their farmers in a bid to open up more agricultural trade, which U.S. and European governments did not support to the degree that was being demanded.  So, in fact, the Doha round has failed yet again not so much because of rising powers and multipolarity, but rather because the established powers would have preferred to be able to impose their agenda on poorer states as they did in the past and refuse to make concessions necessary to conclude the negotiations successfully.  Of course, the established powers have legitimate interests as well, and they are answerable to their constituents back home, but they would like to continue to benefit from giving developing nations short shrift in the Uruguay round without paying a price for this in the new round of talks.  It is no wonder that the negotiations keep collapsing.  Brooks chides the Indian Congress-led government for not wanting to alienate small farmers, but this is entirely rational, since Congress came to power nationally on a wave of discontent with the BJP, whose "Shining India" economic progress did not apply very much to vast numbers of Indians.

This reminds me of a point that Zakaria makes in The Post-American World when he marvels at the productivity of China and approvingly quotes a Chinese official, whose simple answer to addressing rural poverty was increased industrialization.  Zakaria then remarked:

When I have put the same question to Indian or Latin American officials, they launch into complicated explanations of the need for rural welfare, subsidies for poor farmers, and other such programs, all designed to slow down market forces and retard the historical--and often painful--process of market-driven industrialization.

As I said to myself when I read this, "Yes, but then the Indians and Latin Americans allow their people to vote!"  The day may come when China does have some form of elective government, and when that day comes we are probably going to see an enormous backlash against the kinds of policies that have been promoted for the last thirty years.  One of the most important factors in what Brooks calls "globosclerosis" (and what I might call states acting in their own interests) is democratization, which empowers all those who benefit least from globalization and encourages political opposition to continuing economic and trade practices that seem to serve the interests of multinationals and foreign countries more than the interests of one's own country.  Whenever the majority is permitted a say in how economic and trade policies are set, there will always be resistance to ever-greater liberalization and free trade.  This has happened in every industrializing country, and will happen on an even larger scale as the vast majority of the world participates more and more fully in the global economy.

The connection between "globosclerosis" and democracy becomes even more clear when you see another of Brooks' complaints:

Europe’s drive toward political union has stalled.

This is a reference to the defeat of the reworked European constitution in the form of the Lisbon Treaty in the recent Irish referendum.  Consistently, whenever plans for closer European political union are put to a vote in member states, including some of the oldest members in France and the Netherlands, most of the voters refuse to accept it.  This "failure" stands out as the least worrisome of all the things Brooks mentions, and instead of lamenting the defeat of a political project most Europeans don't really understand and don't want when they do understand it we should be glad that an even more centralized, continental political apparatus has not prevailed on the other side of the Atlantic.  To frame this as a conflict between "strong narrow interests" and "diffuse, generalized interests" explains exactly why these things have failed and why, in certain cases, it is an undeniably good thing when considered as a matter of representing the people who will have to bear the costs and consequences of the policies in question.  One of the principal causes of opposition and resentment against globalization and the policies that promote it is the impression that these policies are set without respecting the wishes and interests of the people affected by them.  Obviously, everyone can't get everything that they want, but there would be far fewer entrenched opponents of these policies if they were not so often advanced and defended with such obvious contempt for the interests of the citizens in their respective countries.

The poor approval ratings of various heads of government around the world can be explained much more readily by looking at each case and recognizing that Bush, Brown and Fukuda in particular are deemed to be either political or policy incompetents (or both).  Indeed, Fukuda's opponents are gaining at his expense amid rising prices by exploiting anti-globalization sentiment.  These three leaders are unpopular because they and the policies they support are unpopular, and particularly in Japan it is the LDP's support for free trade that is helping to do it in.  Obviously, in light of the resistance from democratic electorates to the very policies Brooks is defending, it makes absolutely no sense to say that a League of Democracies is the "best idea" out there right now.  A League of Democracies, assuming that it were not simply a vehicle for U.S. interventionism, would duplicate and perhaps even compound the difficulties current multilateral organizations are experiencing precisely because the organization's members would have to answer to their voters at some point.

Cross-posted at Eunomia