Wednesday, 21 October 2015


At first glance, today’s major international crises seem to have little in common. Some, such as Greece’s debt drama, are economic disasters; others, like Syria’s implosion, are characterized by brutality and political chaos; and still others, most notably Ukraine’s predicament, fall somewhere in between. But, despite what policymakers might like to believe, these events are not unrelated. On the contrary, they reflect a deeper crisis of international integration and cooperation. Over the last 60 years, the world experienced unprecedented peace and prosperity for a simple reason: countries voluntarily integrated themselves into an international community underpinned by shared rules and norms. But this trend has given way to piecemeal crisis responses, whether austerity or localized damage control, that are based on the unreasonable assumption that problems like those in Greece, Syria, and Ukraine will eventually correct themselves.
In relying on stopgap measures to address crises, global leaders seem to have forgotten how interdependent the world has become. Upheaval or stagnation in one part of a complex system can have outsize consequences elsewhere, in the form of, say, a refugee crisis or an uptick in inequality. Creditors cannot be expected to be any more lenient with Ukraine than they have been with Greece, a member of the eurozone. But a hard stance on Ukraine while it fights a war with Russia could threaten Europe’s strategic buffer from the Baltic to the Balkans. Unfortunately, today’s crises so far have seemed largely disintegrative. Consider capital flight, which forced Greece to impose controls. Of course, exit mechanisms like capital flight can have a positive impact. In the eighteenth century, capital flight kept predatory rulers in check. Adam Smith viewed the rise of movable capital as a force that would encourage enlightened public policies that serve the general interest. But, in today’s interconnected world, capital can move much more quickly and to many more destinations, crossing borders with the click of a mouse. Moreover, the global financial industry is largely autonomous, driven by self- interest, rather than a desire to advance the common good. As we have seen in Europe since 2010 as well as in Ukraine and Puerto Rico more recently , the ability to rush for the exit at any time removes investors’ incentive to compromise. As policymakers struggle to create a consensus around a reform agenda, the prospects of rejuvenating the pacts and policies underlying integration and cooperation deteriorate. But the world order is by no means fated to develop into chaos. Today’s crisis of international integration can become the catalyst for the creation of new or revitalized global system. To ensure that a crisis produces such a constructive integrative response, policymakers must change their mindset. Instead of seeing only problems that need to be contained, they should view crises as an opportunity for progress.
Today, some important integrative policies lie within reach. On the economic front, policymakers should stop pouring public money into bailouts that benefit private creditors at the expense of taxpayers, and they should end austerity programs that kill growth prospects and do not address debt overhang. They must also reform tax systems and improve cooperation to reduce tax evasion, using the added revenues to invest in physical infrastructure and education. Such measures will create jobs today, and secure prosperity for tomorrow.  Political measures are also needed. Europe needs a more democratic framework that keeps financiers at the negotiating table. Similarly, with the possibility of admitting Ukraine to NATO a dead letter, the west should take steps to ease tension with Russia, in order to ensure its continued participation in international efforts to address key threats as it did when negotiating the recent agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.
Muddling through can lead to only one outcome: disintegration. Only when world leaders recognize the common source and the interconnectedness of current international crises will they be in a position to address them effectively.

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