Stephen M. Walt

What’s the matter with the world today?

People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and ...


People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and maybe even about the future. The overall level of global violence is at historic lows (despite some tragic conflicts that still defy solution), the world economy has done very well over the past half-century (despite its recent problems) and life expectancy, public health, and education levels have risen dramatically in many parts of the world (though conditions in a few places have deteriorated badly).

So Cassandra-like pessimism may not be appropriate, even for a realist. Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if our ability to deal with various global problems is decreasing, mostly due to the deterioration of political institutions at both the global and domestic level. Here are some tentative thoughts in that direction.

One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall "problem-solving capacity." When the ratio of "emerging problems" to "problem-solving capacity" rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others.  Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.

Human society is not static, which means that new challenges are an inevitable part of the human condition. New problems arise from the growth of societies, from new ideas, from our interactions with the natural world, and even from the unintended consequences of past successes. As a result, policymakers are always going to face new problems, even when the old ones remain unresolved.

Moreover, a key feature of contemporary globalization is that today’s problems tend to be more complex and more far-reaching, and tend to spread with greater speed. A volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel in Europe. A failed state in Afghanistan nurtures a terrorist network that eventually strikes on several continents. The Internet doesn’t even exist in 1990, but now it empowers democratic forces, facilitates commerce and intellectual exchange, and enable extremists to recruit supporters and transmit tactical advice all around the world. The HIV virus emerges in Africa and eventually infects millions of human beings on every continent. Bankers in America’s mortgage industry makes foolish and venal decisions, and a global financial collapse wipes out trillions of dollars of wealth and affects the lives of billions of people, some of them dramatically. Human beings in the developed world burn carbon fuels for a couple of centuries and now poor countries on the other side of the world face the risk of widespread coastal flooding (or worse) in the decades ahead. In short, the numerator of our critical ratio — i.e., the rate at which big problems are emerging-seems to be rising.

What about the denominator, our "problem-solving capacity?" Solving problems requires things: 1) accurate knowledge, 2) sufficient resources, and 3) the political capacity to direct our knowledge and resources to the problem at hand. If you lack sufficient knowledge, you won’t know what to do when a new problem comes along. (This was the problem governments faced during the Great Depression, because orthodox neo-classical economics prescribed the wrong remedies.) If you don’t have sufficient resources, you might figure out what needs to be done but be unable to afford it. Finally, even when knowledge and resources are available, the responsible authorities still need to be able to make decisions and allocate resources in the prescribed manner, before the problem gets worse.

I would argue that most of the problems we face in addressing current global problems are due neither to a lack of knowledge nor to insufficient resources. Our understanding of problems such as climate change, how to secure nuclear materials, the eradication of disease, budget deficits, or even the regulation of global financial markets has never been greater, and there are a vast array of non-partisan academic and other intellectual institutions to help us analyze and understand new problems. In many cases we know pretty much what needs to be done, even if there’s still some uncertainty about the details.

Similarly, societies around the world are wealthier than ever before, and even some of the most expensive global challenges (e.g., climate change) could be addressed with manageable effects on economic growth.  Similarly, problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran’s nuclear program are not persisting because we are too poor to address them.

The real challenge lies in the declining capacity of political institutions to combine knowledge and resources in a timely fashion, so that problems get addressed before they become too large. This problem exists at both the global and national level, and if I am right, it suggests that the achievements of the past fifty years may be difficult to duplicate.

In the worst case, in fact, even major powers will gradually be overwhelmed by a rising tide of new challenges that they have become incapable of addressing quickly and/or adequately.

At the global level, for example, the various institutions established after World War II are showing clear signs of age. For example, it’s been clear for years that the composition of the United Nations Security Council no longer reflects the distribution of global power-why is France a permanent member but not Germany, India, Japan, or Brazil?-but nobody agrees on the remedy for this problem so nothing is done. The replacement of GATT by the World Trade Organization was heralded as a major achievement back in the 1990s, but there has been little or no progress since the 1994 Uruguay Round — that’s 16 years ago — and the Doha Round that began in 2001 has been an abject failure. The European Union has been a remarkable achievement in many ways, but the Greek financial crisis has exposed the downside of monetary union and Germany’s new-found reluctance to subordinate its own national interests to the broader European project suggests that the EU itself may be facing a rocky future. Nor does one see much evidence of successful global coordination to the 2008-09 recession, even among the EU member states themselves, while talk of a "common foreign and security policy" remains just that — talk.

In the security realm, the global non-proliferation regime has been fraying for decades, and failed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to countries like North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, and perhaps, at some point in the future, Iran.  NATO is in the process of losing the war in Afghanistan, with the European participants going through the motions primarily to keep Uncle Sam happy. Nor should we forget the failure of key states or international agencies to do very much about the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the collapse of Somalia, or the downward spiral in Zimbabwe. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispute over Kashmir, and the Sudanese civil war remain unresolved as well, and does anyone seriously believe that any of them will be settled anytime soon?

Similarly, the recent U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen demonstrates that trying to get 192 countries to agree to limit greenhouse gas emissions is a fool’s errand, and various well-publicized efforts to address other commons issues — including sex trafficking, narcotics trade, money laundering, etc. — do not seem to be making much progress either. Even the more-or-less successful nuclear security summit held in Washington last week did little more than make an initial stab at the problem, and it remains to be seen in the participating states will follow through.

One sees similar trends in national politics as well. Washington D.C. has become synonymous with the term "gridlock," leading the Economist magazine to describe the U.S.  political system as "a study in paralysis." Obama did get a health care reform package through, but it still took an enormous effort to pass a watered-down bill that pandered to insurance companies and other well-funded special interests. Meanwhile, decisive action to address climate change, the persistent U.S. budget deficit, or financial sector reform remain elusive, and it’s going to get a lot tougher if the GOP makes big gains in the 2010 midterms. Nor is it reassuring to realize that the Republican Party seems to be taking its marching orders from two entertainers — Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck — the latter of whom has made it clear that he’s interested in making money and doesn’t really care about public affairs at all. And let’s not forget that even popular Presidents like Ronald Reagan had trouble pushing major initiatives after their first year or two in office. Hey Houston: if you’re still not convinced we have a problem, consider what has happened to the state of California, whose once-vaunted universities, schools, parks and public infrastructure are visibly eroding, largely because of a wholly dysfunctional political system.

Nor is this problem confined to the United States. Japan’s ossified political order remains incapable of either decisive action or meaningful reform; the Berlusconi-government in Italy is an exercise in opera bouffe rather than responsible leadership, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s early flurry of reform efforts have stalled and Mexico remains beset by drug-fueled violence and endemic corruption. Britan’s ruling Labor Party is a spent force, but the rival Conservatives do not present a very appealing alternative and may even lose an election that once seemed in the bag. And so on.

There are some countries where decision leadership is not lacking, of course, such as China (at one end of the size scale) and Dubai (at the other). Yet in both these cases, a lack of genuine democratic accountability creates the opposite problem. These government can act quickly and launch (overly?) ambitious long-term plans, but they are also more likely to make big mistakes that are difficult to correct them in time. Indeed, as James Scott warns in his indispensable book Seeing Like a State, dictatorships that combine ambitious development goals with inadequate accountability sometimes achieve impressive results in the short term but produce wide-ranging disasters in the end.

In short, what I am suggesting is that our inability to cope with a rising number of global challenges is not due to a lack of knowledge or insufficient resources, but rather to the inability of existing political institutions to address these problems in a timely and appropriate way. Please note that I am not talking about our ability to achieve perfect solutions, only responses that are good enough to keep problems from getting worse and that can be improved over time as we acquire even more experience.

Describing how to fix this problem is beyond the scope of a single blog post, but let me suggest three potential remedies. 

1. Less is More. As outgoing FP editor Moises Naim suggested in his essay on "minilateralism," we need to focus less on universal agreements that all states adhere to, and more on achieving agreements among a smallest number of the most important actors in a given realm. I was skeptical of this idea when I first heard it, but I’m increasingly convinced that he was onto something. 

Instead of a new Doha Round, for instance, a multilateral trade regime involving the G20 would be far easier (though not easy) to negotiate.  Instead of trying for a climate agreement approved by the nearly 200 U.N. member states, focus on achieving an agreement among the top ten producers of greenhouse gases (or maybe even just the top five) and then try to bring in the rest over time. And if the bottom 100 countries never join in, it probably won’t matter that much.

And while we’re at it, we might think about getting rid of some global institutions that don’t seem to be doing much of anything anymore. I’ve heard at least one retired diplomat complain that nothing ever gets done because foreign offices spend all their time preparing for the next (probably meaningless) international summit.  He was obviously exaggerating, but do we really need NATO, the EU, the WEU, the OSCE, the G20, the  and the entire alphabet soup of existing international organizations?  Might allowing some of these organizations to quietly shut their doors help us get the others to work better?

2. Emphasize Accountability. Both internationally and domestically, leaders have to be held accountable for mistakes. Here in the United States, about the only thing that can derail a politician’s career and reputation permanently is a sex scandal (and sometimes even that doesn’t even do it). The architects of major disasters like the Iraq war remain ubiquitous and respected members of the foreign policy establishment, the pundits who backed it continue to publish, and Democrats who backed the war now occupy most of the top foreign policy positions in the Obama administration. So if you curious why we seem to repeating some of the same mistakes in Afghanistan, maybe there’s your answer. I’m all for hiring experienced people, but shouldn’t we try to recruit people who have been right on the really big issues in the past?

3. Raise the Salience of Institutional Reform. Fixing dysfunctional institutions isn’t sexy; it is in fact the essence of wonkish drudgery. Most of us (myself included) prefer to focus on the issues themselves and offer various prescriptions, instead of thinking about how to design political institutions that can bring knowledge and resources together for the common good.  Put simply, fixing institutions is boring. But I’m beginning to think that we neglect it at our peril, and it is intriguing to see that some academics are way ahead of me on this issue. 

In sum, unless we repair our domestic political orders and renovate the global political architecture, problems are going to pile up faster than we can fix them and the end result will not be pretty. Taken far enough, one could even imagine some sort of major global cataclysm, which would provide the opportunity — just as World War II did — to reshape the global order anew. But given what such an event would cost, that’s a route to reform that I’d prefer to avoid. 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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