Sunday, May 9, 2010



THE 1990s was "the age of abundance", Round the world, incomes were

rising; capital markets were processing endless flows of money and

investment; technological gains meant that ever more information was

available ever more cheaply. Politics in the age of abundance was all about

values. In America this was the period of the "culture wars" over abortion

and gun ownership; internationally, there was a huge expansion in

concern over human rights.

The 2010s, it is sometimes said, will be an age of scarcity. The warning

signs of change are said to be the food-price spike of 2007-08, the bid by

China and others to grab access to oil, iron ore and farmland and the

global recession. The main problems of scarcity are water and food

shortages, demographic change and state failure. How will that change


In the domestic debates of some rich democracies, things are shifting

already. In Europe the talk is of how to distribute the pain of cutting public

debts. The sort of problems governments increasingly face will be much

less predictable than those associated with old great-power rivalries.

Pressure from demography, climate change and shifts in economic power

build up quietly for a long time—and then triggers abrupt shifts.

They claim that the current global system is ill-designed for such a world.

It is not just that the foreign policies of big countries are in flux. Rather,

the way states deal with new threats is, in the jargon, "stove-piped". As a

UN panel said in 2004, "finance ministers tend to work only with the

international financial institutions, development ministers only with

development programmes."

What is needed is not merely institutional tinkering but a different frame of

mind. Governments should think more in terms of reducing risk and

increasing resilience to shocks than about boosting sovereign power. This

is because power may not be the best way for states to defend themselves

against a new kind of threat: the sort that comes not from other states but

networks of states and non-state actors, or from the unintended

consequences of global flows of finance, technology and so on.

What would all that mean in practice? There are agencies like -The

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Global Alliance

for Vaccines and Immunization .Such agencies can promote foresight, and

help governments think harder about the consequences of failure (unlike

traditional diplomacy, which likes muddling along). They propose an

Intergovernmental Panel on Biological Safety along the lines of the IPCC to

improve biosecurity; they also suggest boosting the G20 by giving it a

secretariat and getting national security chiefs together.

Many of these ideas may go nowhere; national sovereignty is hugely

resilient. The basic function is to develop alternatives to existing policies,

to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes

the politically inevitable.

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