Global nightmare, false alarm, or new geopolitical order

It is likely we will see a fundamental shake-up in the global pecking order in the aftermath of the US election.

We have had a month now to calm our jangling nerves. President-elect Donald Trump sat down and had a civilized conversation with President Barack Obama. He promised to keep a couple of popular features of Obamacare and said he understood global warming was partly man-made. But he clearly plans to be an almost omnipotent president. One has only to look at the military men he is recruiting to his cabinet. He will probably control both Congress and Senate for four years and, maybe worse for Americans, shape the Supreme Court for another decade. What can Canada expect and can we find a safe path forward in the geopolitical confusion that is likely to come?

Is it the end of the world as we know it? It is likely we are seeing a fundamental shake-up in the global pecking order. The United States, under a weakened Obama, was already fading. Europe is too weak and divided to be a stand-in. Whatever else, this seems like the end of the US as the all-purpose global leader. The world, shaped by the US, has experienced a decade of mismanaged domestic economic policies that has led to the continuing global financial crisis. This has been combined with a series of misjudged and costly military interventions across Asia and the Middle East, including in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The US is no longer everybody’s favourite model. China and Russia, with their complementary aspirations for regional and global spheres of influence, are likely to become more substantial military powers in the next decade or two, especially if their present partnership holds. Somewhat bizarrely, the Trump of “America First” talks as if, as long as the US is not directly challenged, he is prepared to tolerate their aspirations. Bye-bye Ukraine and South China Sea.

China is expected to regain its global leadership in overall economic performance in the next few years. As it completes a politically driven shift of focus to a pro-poor, internal consumption approach, its economic growth will likely stabilize at a healthy 7 percent per year, on the way to surpassing the US’s gross national income (GNI) by roughly 2025. Especially with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal dead in the water, China will again become the driver of many global resource markets. It will be dominant in shaping Asian markets, both as a consumer and seller. Geopolitically, it could start to fill the vacated US shoes. Somewhat perversely, the present Chinese approach of boosting domestic consumption to provide jobs for otherwise uncompetitive workers might emerge as a sensible strategy for Trump to use in meeting his own promises to rust-belt voters, those “left behind” poor white male Americans.

However, we should have no illusions that Trump might emerge as a closet liberal, even if he is wriggling back from a few extreme positions on Obamacare and that wall along the Mexican border. As Paul Krugman notes, a Trump-inspired Keynesian push, even one that includes substantial tax cuts for the rich, could temporarily be better than a few more years of global financial crisis. Indeed, for some in the international development community, Trump’s policy message resonates with the UN’s global Agenda 2030, with its signature “no one left behind” policy.

There is no such semi-silver-lining for the Paris agreement on climate change. Last month’s COP22 meeting in Morocco to formalize the treaty put in place a legalistic trick designed to undermine the immediate Trump threat. The treaty now forbids any signatory to withdraw for the next four years. This is mandatory solidarity! Of course, Trump and his emerging team of climate deniers can do a lot of damage inside the US itself, although a couple of European leaders have suggested that they might promote new global trade rules that would apply a special tariff penalty to any country (that is, the US) that fails to meet its carbon reduction target. The Trump threat could also have an inhibiting effect on Canada’s new plan for a universal, slowly escalating carbon tax. We will have to grit our teeth and hope that the benefits of the green technology people are hoping for turn out to be real. (Who knows, in extremis, California, which already co-ordinates some green policies with us, might one day ponder joining Canada!)

Trump’s international policy stances, especially his seeming admiration of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his hesitation over confronting China, could lead to a whole new set of partnerships. For example, in the UN Security Council, a new alignment of power could sometimes find the US on the side of Russia and/or China, shirking the traditional positions of the G7/OECD block of liberal votes on human rights or international development. Canada could find itself on the losing side of important debates. The situation could be worsened by a division in the voting of members of a diminished European Union and a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

It is hard to define what will be the future path of the other two Asian giants, India and Japan. They certainly have no inclination to kowtow to China, but they desperately need market access and partnerships to sustain their own economic growth. They, probably along with Indonesia, Thailand and even Vietnam, will want to opt into any new China-led agreement that replaces the failed US-led TPP. With political support from a more inward-looking Trump-led USA uncertain, fence-sitting may not be a very easy option. The choices will be even more painful for OECD-linked Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Independent of Trump’s plans, Japan, similar to much of Europe in its current anti-immigrant hysteria, will need to seek out substantial immigration to counter the shrinking of its population. It is increasingly essential for Japan, although it might be culturally painful, to have more person-power to sustain a strong economy. It will need to sign a formal trade deal with China, as well as signing up for China’s Asia Infrastructure Bank. If it does not, its global competitiveness will slowly decline.

India’s situation is more optimistic. It is now, after all, the world’s largest country, in population terms, and the fastest growing economically. But that growth rate is an aberration, the result of China’s transition to a new inward-looking policy, which has temporarily lowered China’s growth rate to closer to 6 percent. Also, because of its long history of intraregional tensions with Pakistan and other countries, India cannot lead its own economic bloc in South Asia. It will therefore need to find an accommodation with China. This should not be impossible, since there is a complementarity in their mindsets and management skills — one the world’s largest democracy, the other the world’s strongest economy (after the US), and both very education/skills-focused societies. They could overcome past tensions and form a great partnership. If that fails, India will likely end up aligning with the US, but only after Trump.

Under Trump, the US might seek once again to be the hegemon for the Americas. This will likely fail. Why would Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, Latin America’s dominant economies, give up their independence when they have their own, albeit more modest, regional partnerships? They will wait for Trump to go, and hope, as will many others, that the US will quickly regain its place as a constructive world leader (hopefully a chastened one), a neighbourly quasi-social democracy just like Canada.

Africa, which has the biggest concentration of the world’s poorest, must find the political will to move to a more inclusive, more equitable and liberal-minded political model. Over the very long term it has untapped potential from its natural resources, land and minerals, but in order to access these it needs a more highly skilled population, and it has to control that population’s growth. It is starting on these journeys, but slowly and erratically. Aid to Africa is a significant part of the US’s assistance program, and it will be be a major setback for Africa if it loses that aid under a President Trump. If this happens, it will also open up even more space for China, whose aggressive aid and investment presence is already by many counts the biggest among all the donors, even the major multilaterals. The impact on Africa of global warming-induced droughts is a new threat to the continent’s progress. This threat will only be compounded if the Trump government stays offside in the global struggle to combat climate change.

The Middle East will require a lot of healing to recover from its multiple wars, many of which the US triggered as a result of its post 9/11 paranoia. The countries most affected are Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Palestine. The US remains an active player in this region, but more as an ambiguous peacemaker than as an active warmonger. The uncomfortable accommodation between Russia and the US as both fight ISIS may even deepen under President Trump, who seems to want to avoid further costly US entanglement in the region’s destructive conflicts. He seems to have lost his bombing blitz urges, as long as there is no direct threat to the USA. This is a possible “plus” point for Trump’s impact (Hillary Clinton was the more eager hawk), but the region’s physical and political rehabilitation will take longer than Trump’s term. The Sunni-Shia/hence Saudi-Iranian competition is deep-rooted, and there is no resolution in sight, unless an even more drastic fall in oil prices makes that competition totally unaffordable for both!

This complex framework of changing power relations points to many challenges for Canada. The US political elite has just had a deafening wake-up call from those citizens who are left behind economically and ignored politically. Canada cannot expect to escape significant collateral damage, living as we do next to this seriously wounded and bitter giant.

We need to be part of the diplomatic effort to get Trump and his administration to recognize the folly of not confronting the existential threat of global warming. Over the medium term, we need to take measured steps to move beyond our historical economic linkages with the now weakened EU and UK, recognizing they alone can no longer be sufficient for our economic future, even our global security. Those steps involve understanding and responding proactively to the major shifts of power and global leadership in Asia. As Australia has already been doing for a decade or more, we need to connect to the emerging networks of Asian partnerships, notably (but not exclusively) those centred on China and India. Less critically, we could bypass the US to link more strongly to Latin America. These networks are not sitting waiting for us; we will need to seek them out and earn their trust. This effort will be part of our commitment to a better global future, including implementing the UN’s Agenda 2030 on sustainable development, as a donor and as a global citizen.

Today’s multi-ethnic Canada is well placed to succeed in these efforts. We should seize this unplanned opportunity for bold changes, to think outside the box. The President Trump crisis facing our southern neighbours should serve as the trigger for a decade of Canadian outreach to the new emerging centres of power in an increasingly multipolar world.




G20 needs new blood, sense of mission

The Hill Times  OPINION

by John Sinclair. 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

G20 needs new blood, sense of mission

Trudeau might suggest a tighter-knit forum for decisions on core global issues, starting with climate change.

As China prepares to host the G20 leaders’ summit for the first time this week, it is promising a different kind of summit, one focused on global development and the challenges of implementing the pro-poor goals of the UN’s new Agenda 2030.

But China seems fated to do little better than past chairs. The G20 is starting to look as tired as the G7. It needs new blood and a new sense of mission. Perhaps there are too many Europeans; certainly there is no voice at the table for the poorest nations.

The G20 started in 1999 as a club of finance ministers mainly G7 but augmented by the BRICS and a few other friendly minor countries, including some middle-income developing countries. The goal was to make symbolic amends for an ineffective International Monetary Fund response to the recent Asian financial crisis.

The world has avoided a new depression in 2008 via massive stimulus packages implemented by a G20, upgraded to a Leaders’ Summit. However, the regulatory reform of the flawed global financial systems that triggered the crisis is still unfinished. Indeed, the situation has been compounded by the ripple effect of recent European financial disorder. As for the upcoming United States election, it is being fought over who can most forcefully say globalization is the cause of all our social ills, including growing inequality and underemployment.

The global financial crisis continues into its eighth year. And it is in the second year of a refugee crisis, as Europe copes badly with the flow of battered humanity escaping the conflict in Syria. The Brexit referendum bombshell, driven by the UK’s own distinct crisis of unwanted migrants from inside the European Union, has stunned an already stalled Europe. Deep depression describes the mood in the very dis-united United Kingdom. Meanwhile many countries, rich and poor, are struggling with trade losses due to China’s policy of a calculated slowdown to 6.5 per cent growth.

China has perhaps over-invited developing countries as summit guests since there will be no big news, no bold new G20 action, no new aid pledges for the least developed or fragile states. Everybody is waiting for a breakthrough in the gloomy economic news.

But the latest IMF forecasts are all about shrinking growth. Global growth is down to 3.1 per cent for 2016, with most of that coming from emerging economies. They’re led by India, moving slightly ahead of China. The growth forecast for so-called advanced economies is just 1.8 per cent. All this is conveniently blamed upon Brexit. It means a major G20 preoccupation this weekend will be how to help the UK and EU find a soft landing after the folly of that referendum.

So what might we see out of Hangzhou? The working agenda is dominated by work by  finance ministers and central bank governors. There is again a pre-negotiated communiqué. The Leaders appear somewhat bystanders.

Once more there will be “almost completed” deals on structural reform, tougher regulation of footloose bankers and this year’s special innovation: promises of more infrastructure spending. Talk about reformed international financial architecture is promised, but the horse is already out of the stable, symbolized by China’s new $50-billion-plus Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. [Canada announced plans to finally join just days before the G20 meeting.]

Another round of technical debate is needed to forge a broad consensus around so-called tax fairness reform. The present package is essentially designed for large/high-income economies.  In many European countries public pressure insists governments stop tax-avoiding, profit-shifting companies like Starbucks or Google. But the same OECD countries are home to multinational giants seeking every way of avoiding paying taxes. The weakest victims, poorer developing countries, are essentially excluded from both the design and benefits of new OECD/G20 anti-tax-evasion measures. They are to be denied access to key data on taxes evasion by multinational giants.

What key innovations for an enhanced G20 might Prime Minister Justin Trudeau press? He has gone to China a few days early to “reset” the bilateral relationship. He might use that access and Chinese respect for his prime ministerial father’s boldness to get China’s sympathetic ear for an effort to transform the G20 into strictly a leaders’ dialogue.

They need to break the common image of the G20 as a vehicle used by a tired G7 to try to get the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to align with their worldview. Mr. Trudeau might suggest that leaders act more boldly to revamp the G20 as a tighter-knit forum for debate and decisions on core global issues, economic and political, starting with climate change. An encouraging precedent is that reportedly the United States and China plan to jointly announce their ratification of the Paris climate agreement on the eve of the summit.

Another G20 initiative could be a new Marshall Plan designed to assure financing, public and private, for the poorest countries in implementing the UN’s Agenda 2030.

And why not encourage the 2017 G20, under German leadership, to target a lasting peace for the Middle East?

G20 finance ministers and central bankers would still have their own high-level meetings on topics like upgraded financial regulation. They could simply mandate a small delegation to report at one session of an otherwise leaders-only G20 meeting.

Acting together, G20 leaders could mobilize the resources and political willpower to counter the economic pessimism reflected in Trumpism and the rise of the radical conservative right in Europe. They should also show the driving spirit to ensure the UN Agenda 2030 is not a fanciful dream, but something realizable.

The G20 needs a more compact forum, but one with the inclusiveness of the UN. It could start by adding a permanent seat for least-developed and fragile states, perhaps by reducing the disproportionate European presence.

John Sinclair is a Cambridge-educated economics graduate formerly with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank. He comments on international development with the McLeod Group, teaches, and writes.



Who’s Leading the world?

Who’s Leading the World?

August 11, 2014 by John Sinclair.       

The simple but disturbing answer is: nobody.

Our world has over a billion people still living in extreme poverty. There are 25 million jobless in Europe. Jihadists control half of Iraq. The Doha Trade Round is in its 13th year without producing any major benefits. And we are burning carbon ever faster, bringing ourselves closer to global warming disaster.

Meanwhile the G7 seems focused on reviving the Cold War, while the G20 is stuck in first gear working mainly on institutional reform in the mega-banking sector. G2 is a non-starter: the USA and China have very different worldviews.  Despite a recent boost for the UN’s leadership in transposing old MDGs into new Sustainable Development Goals for 2015-30, ultimately it is a tired and underfunded family of institutions. Even the BRICS—who are key to future global leadership—are in defensive mode and starting to create their own parallel world of institutions.

This is not anarchy: things are being done, and some crises are being tackled (especially when they hit the CNN headlines). But leadership and vision are absent. We are seeing institutional frameworks that should complement each other instead struggling to protect old turf. Competition, rather than partnership and co-ordination, is still the norm. Meanwhile, jobless growth in often unequal societies is squandering the potential of the next generation, driving the young towards social apathy and even terrorism.

Much of the flawed leadership can be linked to the 2007 global financial crisis, which transformed a modest club of finance ministers into the Leaders’ G20. The crisis proved beyond the capability of the G7 alone: it was China’s economic weight (and its four trillion dollars of US Treasury bonds) that proved key to financial rescue.

The G20 rescue plan was too single-mindedly focused on stabilization (i.e. saving those “too big to fail” banks); creating jobs was only a secondary consideration. As a result, the crisis still casts a cloud over the world economy. Global stagnation has become the new norm: seven years into the crisis, the IMF has just lowered its 2014 world growth forecast.

And now the global governance framework is getting into deeper geo-political trouble with Russia’s expulsion from the G8 for its actions in Crimea. The likely tragic error of an incompetent Ukrainian separatist shooting down the wrong plane has raised Cold War tensions to heights not seen in decades.

Almost at the same time, there was a critical action in Brazil at the latest BRICS Summit. This group now represents over a quarter of the global economy, outshining the old G7 in growth. Reflecting their frustration at the failure of Western governments to deliver on promised first steps towards rebalancing power within the World Bank and the IMF, BRICS leaders announced two new global instruments. One is the New Development Bank (NDB), a World Bank clone designed to finance infrastructure and other development projects, with an initial $50 billion in capital and a $100 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement to replace key functions of the IMF. By 2016 the NDB will move into a glossy HQ tower in Shanghai under its first president, an Indian.

So where are we going with global governance?

The news seems uniformly bleak. The G8 is dead, leaving the G7 as an old Western clique. The G20 is underperforming even in reforming global financial systems. Now this year’s chair (the Australian PM) again wants to expel Russia, a move that could shatter the organisation. Meanwhile, the BRICS are racing ahead building a parallel governance framework driven by the global South.

Even the conservative editors of the Economist, according to their commentary last month, think the North is missing the boat in blocking the South from its fair share of leadership in the world of multilateral organisations. On the urgent issues of trade reform, political reconciliation and climate change, G7 leaders seem to want such items kept off the G20 agenda because that wider forum would be too ‘unmanageable’ (i.e. would not meekly buy into the G7’s worldview). And is it just coincidence that in the first nine G20 meetings, the summit has never been hosted by any of the developing countries who constitute 8 of its 20 members?

Sadly, neither North nor South seems ready for change. Drift seems to be the favoured scenario, even in the face of growing global challenges. Both hide from the reality that global economics and politics are increasingly intertwined. They grumble at indecision in the UN Security Council (UNSC), a body unaltered since it was created to include only World War II victors. Critically, no existing or aspirant member wants to give up their blocking UNSC veto. The concern is that the North will sign on to bold Post-2015 goals in the UN, but then refuse the funding and other actions needed to implement them.

Canada, once a leader in the multilateral domain, is now seen as a spoiler and foot-dragger. We were the biggest cheerleader for expelling Russia from the G8, and now we and the Australians seem to oppose any idea of broadening the G20’s mandate. We prefer to revel in the fantasy of the G7 as the world’s natural leaders, while countries of much greater significance (e.g. China and India) sit by in a hamstrung G20.

It would seem that Canada and others in the G7 find it difficult to deal with nations holding a different—and increasingly important—worldview.  It might be a bold move for Canada to encourage a moreinclusive G20, with a voice for the weakest as well as the most powerful. At present, however, political insecurity is keeping a weakened North distant from its future partners in the South.