Daniel W. Drezner

Learning to embrace the policy deadlocks

Colin Bradford has written a lot of useful and interesting material on global economic governance.  I say this because I’m not really sure that his latest FP contribution meets the high standard of his prior work.  In "Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era," Bradford seems to be arguing that even if there are disagreements within ...

Colin Bradford has written a lot of useful and interesting material on global economic governance.  I say this because I’m not really sure that his latest FP contribution meets the high standard of his prior work. 

In "Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era," Bradford seems to be arguing that even if there are disagreements within the G-20, it’s still an effective public policy forum.  Here’s a sample "law":

1. Visible disagreements can have positive side effects

Some commentators have argued that, because the G-20 reveals differences and divisions, the group itself must be a failure. Yet gone are the days when we could categorize a summit as a success or a failure based on the outcome document. Dichotomous thinking doesn’t really work anymore. So if G-20 meetings display more tension than consensus, that might actually be a good thing. In its discord, the G-20 merely reflects the landscape of this dynamic 21st century. There is order and disorder in our world today, competition and coordination, conflict and consensus — all going on at the same time. The G-20 is flushing those issues up not only for leaders to deal with but for publics to deal with as well. Unlike the G-8, the G-20 is creating stronger linkages between leaders and publics, because — not in spite of — the fact that the conflicts are visible.

Hmmmm….. nope, not buying this spin.  Bradford’s basic argument is that the G-20 exposes the fundamental disagreements  so that the global public sphere can better understand the fundamental faultlines of global economic governance.  The publicist that resides inside my brain can appreciate the virtue of this spin, but it’s just that. 

It’s true that governance structures can serve as arenas of contestation.  The problem with this logic is threefiold, however. 

First, as a general rule, mass publics don’t pay too much attention to high-falutin’ economic summits.  The issues are too arcane and the remove from daily life seems to large.  So the only thing the public will digest from G-20 deadlock is that leaders can’t agree on something. 

Which leads to the second point — in the end, publics usually want to see outputs from governance structures.  There can be virtues from policy deadlock, but I’m thinking that if an issue makes it to the G-20 agendas it’s because a lot of people want concrete policy action rather than additioonal bloviation.   Continued disagreement will lead to mounting public frustration.

Which leads to the third point — many national governments can endure long-lasting policy deadlocks because their domestic legitimacy is unquesioned.  In the United States, for example, despite mounting frustration with a sclerotic policy process, there’s not a huge groundswell for amending the Constitution to make it easier to pass laws.  That’s because both the Constitution and the U.S. government have been around for a while. 

The G-20 doesn’t have this legitimacy "cushion" to fall back on.  It’s not a national government with a monopoly on authority within its bailiwick.  It’s not a treaty body like the WTO or IMF.  Unlike even the G-8, it can’t point to decades of existence as a justification for its continued relevance.  The G-20 rises and falls with its perceived effectiveness.  While the forum had a good 2008 and a decent 2009, last year was a friggin’ disaster.  If the trend of policy gridlock continues, it won’t matter what Nicolas Sarkozy proposes, the G-20 will be a dead forum walking

Unfortunately, Bradford’s essay sounds like a marriage counselor telling a troubled couple to "own your problems… embrace the discord."  Sorry, not buying it. 

Am I missing anything? 

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