Sunday, January 30, 2011

An intriguing perspective on international relations

I've been as critical as any other conservative or 'classical Liberal' about the push for a unified 'world government' (although, of course, I don't believe the conspiracy theories about a so-called 'New World Order'). A recent article in the Wall Street Journal proposes a rather different perspective on the subject, emphasizing dialog and discussion rather than diplomacy and legal frameworks. It hasn't changed my point of view, but it has given me a lot of food for thought. Here's an excerpt.

We have entered a new Middle Ages: an era that most resembles the pre-Westphalian era of nearly 1,000 years ago. That was the period of history when the East was as powerful (if not more so) than the West, cities mattered more than nations, powerful dynasties and trading companies were engines of growth and innovation, private mercenaries fought in all wars, religious crusades shaped inter-cultural relations, and new trade routes over land and sea forged the world’s first (nearly) global economy.

. . .

The best place to view what model of diplomacy lies before us in the New Middle Ages is the Swiss enclave of Davos, where each January the planet’s most influential heads of state, CEOs, mayors, religious leaders, NGO heads, university presidents, celebrities and artists flock for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), an event that over the past four decades has established itself as what "60 Minutes" last year dubbed "the most important meeting on Earth". What CBS’s flagship program discovered was that this gathering of "capitalists, globalists, and futurists" seems to work precisely because it is neither formal nor official.

Davos has nothing to do with sovereignty and everything to do with authority: it’s peer-to-peer among anybody who’s somebody. Where else do hundreds of Fortune 500 CEOs, American cabinet secretaries, the mayor of London, prime minister of Catalonia, chairman of China’s Export-Import Bank, investor-statesmen like George Soros, rock-star activists like Bono, and billionaire hybrid executive philanthropists like Bill Gates speak directly and honestly, and form new ventures on the spot?

Compared to the modern inter-state diplomatic system, Davos represents
anti-diplomacy - and yet it actually reflects the true parameters of global diplomacy today better than the United Nations. The reason is that in our ever more complex diplomatic eco-system, relations among governments represent only one slice of the total picture. Beyond the traditional "public-public" relations of embassies and multilateralism, there are also the "public-private" partnerships sprouting across sectors and issues. Qatar’s natural gas fortunes hinge on its arrangement with Exxon, India’s ability to attract foreign investment is contingent on support from the business magnates who make up the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the alliance of the Gates Foundation, pharmaceutical company Merck, and the government of Botswana saved the country’s population from being wiped out by AIDS, to name just a few of the now literally countless such arrangements flourishing today. The third and often neglected dimension of the new diplomacy is "private-private" interactions which circumvent the state altogether. Think of the Environmental Defense Fund dealing directly with Wal-Mart to cut the company’s overall emissions by 20 million metric tons and install solar panels at 30 new locations. The diplomats at Cancun could only dream of such concrete measures.

All three of these combinations of negotiating partners thrive at Davos and in all WEF activities, which range from mini-Davos-style regional conferences to year-round multi-stakeholder initiatives in public health, climate change, anti-corruption and other areas. The WEF does what no U.N. agency would ever do: allow "coalitions of the willing" to organically "grow and go" - incubating them but also quickly spinning them off into self-sustaining entities; but importantly also letting projects die that fail to attain sufficient support from participants. In this sense the WEF is both a space for convening but also a driver of new agendas.

. . .

Contrary to the WEF’s reputation as a host for secret, if glamorous, deal-making, the Economist praised "Davos Man" as the necessary antidote to traditional diplomats who seal themselves behind veils of protocol, instead immersing themselves in the latest innovations, technologies and trends, speaking English as their lingua franca, and reinforcing thinking and debate through engaging with the media. Today the WEF has more followers on Twitter than any international organization, and uses Davos to convene "Global Town Halls" with live online participation to debate global priorities.

Surely Davos does not correct the "democracy deficit" afflicting the world’s power structures, but what it does better than any other is correct the "diplomacy deficit", giving anyone it invites the right to represent themselves without interference or manipulation. NGOs speaking for the world’s oppressed, social entrepreneurs, and all manner of others seeking attention and funding get unobstructed access to the world’s richest companies, governments and philanthropists. Davos is where money and megaphones come together.

. . .

Global governance is not a thing, not a collection of formal institutions, not even a set of treaties. It is a process involving a far wider range of actors than have ever been party to global negotiations before. The sooner we look for new meta-scripts for regulating transnational activities and harnessing global resources to tackle local problems the better. Davos continues to be a good place to start.

There's more at the link.

Food for thought, indeed! I'd always been somewhat dismissive of the annual Davos gathering, but it may be more practical than I'd believed. If the author of this article is correct in his assumptions, it shows a new way for groups and interests presently excluded from power structures to make themselves heard, and achieve solutions to problems that at least acknowledge, if not address, their interests, perspectives and agendas. Whether or not that's a good thing is, of course, very much open to question! I guess the answer depends more on one's political perspective than on the bare facts of the matter.


1 comment:

Moshe Ben-David said...

You're absolutely right Peter, there's no New World Order conspiracy. I used to be called a kook because I told people about organizations called the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission.

I remember when I was called an idiot for mentioning something called the World Bank. I still know plenty of people who thought I had lost it when I said that a time would come when surveillance cameras would be as common as street lights and that we would be easily identified by retinal scans or face recognition scans.

After all, who could possibly believe that governments would be powerful enough to incarcerate or kill tens of millions of people without opposition from within or without?

I'm glad I've gotten over that conspiracy stuff.