The age of global interdependence The New Statesman October 2013

The age of global interdependence

In a world where everything and everyone is connected, nations and their governments must learn the power of the network

We are on the edge of one of those periods in history when the pattern of world power changes; when the established order shifts, and a new order begins to emerge. These are almost always difficult times for the weak, tough for those whose power is waning, and usually bloody for almost everyone.

This economic recession is not like any other we have recently experienced. We will not plummet down and bounce back comfortably to where we were before. This is about something deeper. The tectonic plates of global power are shifting, and when it is over we in the West will, relatively speaking, be weaker and those in the East will be stronger.

The last time we saw a shift of power on this scale was when leadership of the world passed from the old powers of Europe to the emerging power of the United States. And we all remember the convulsions which followed that collapse of empires and the emergence of a new order.

Some propose China’s ascent will follow a straight line, but I do not believe that. China’s ascent to great power status – and great power is her most likely destination – will not be smooth. Their economy may be largely liberalised, but unlike India, their society is not. My guess is as they begin to lose their old communist structures in favour of a freer society, there will be considerable turbulence. Chinese history is littered with instances when the nation, as disparate and ethnically diverse as Europe, stood at the edge of greatness and then descended into dissolution and chaos.

Nor do I agree with friends who tell me, often with ill disguised glee, that the United States has passed the zenith of its glory. The symptoms of decline in nations are scleroticism, institutional arthritis and resistance to change. And the United States shows none of these – as the still remarkable election of Barack Obama clearly shows.

But though the United State’s position as the world’s pre-eminent power is unlikely to change soon, the context in which she holds that position is certain to. We are no longer looking at a world dominated by a single superpower. The growth of new power centres means the emergence of a multi-polar world; one which will look more like the nineteenth century balance that great British Foreign Secretary George Canning used to call “The Concert of Europe”.

This will have a number of important consequences.

The Atlantic relationship will remain key on the both European and American side. But it will not serve as a lynchpin for all other policies, as it has over the last half century. The United States will have interests which do not always coincide with those of Europe, and vice versa. For Europe, this will mean a more subtle and sophisticated foreign policy, not simply hanging onto the apron strings of our friendly neighbourhood superpower. And for both, it means developing a more mature relationship, in which we can disagree without shouting betrayal.

Arguably the important consequence of this new shape will be this: we are reaching the beginning of the end of six centuries of the domination of Western power, Western institutions and Western values over world affairs. We are already discovering that, if we want to get things done – redesigning the world economic order, intervening for peace – we can no longer do them within the cosy Atlantic club. We will have to find new allies in places we would never previously have looked.

Power is not just shifting laterally from West to East; it is shifting vertically, too. It is migrating out of the structure of nation states and into the global space, where the instruments of regulation are few and the framework of law is weak.

Look at the institutions having difficulties at the moment – national governments, political structures, the old establishments. Note that nearly all depend on the nation state; their range of action confined within borders. Now look at those institutions growing in power and reach: the internet; the satellite broadcasters; the trans-national corporations; the international money changers and speculators; international crime and terrorism. Note that all operate oblivious of national borders and largely beyond the reach of national regulation and the law.

Not only power but problems, too, have been globalised. The uncomfortable truth – which Westminster refuse to acknowledge, and our old institutions find no way to cope with – is that almost no problem can be solved within the nation state or by its institutions alone. Not our ability to protect ourselves; not the cleanliness of our environment; not our health; not our jobs; not our mortgages. These and more now depend not on the actions of our governments, but on their ability to work with others in a set of institutions which are global in scope and international in character – of which history may say the EU was the first, albeit highly imperfect example.

Another factor is shaping our age in a way different in scale from anything before, and this is our increasing global interdependence.

Of course, what happens in one nation has always been of interest to its neighbours and allies – that’s why one of the oldest government functions is diplomacy. But today’s interdependence is of a completely different order. Nations today are not just linked by trade, commerce and diplomacy, they are intimately interlocked in almost every aspect of daily life.

What happens in one can have a profound, direct and immediate consequence on another. An outbreak of swine flu, the collapse of Lehman brothers, the revelations of 9/11 – these can set in train a domino effect across the entire globe in a matter of moment.

Everything is connected to everything, and this interconnectedness applies not just to external relations; it applies to internal organisation, too. But the problem is that our governments are not structured to do things in an interlocking way. They are made up of vertical stove pipes, steeped in a stove piped culture and are run, in the main, by people with stove piped minds.

Our present government took its form – as did every advanced Western democracy – in the nineteenth century. It followed the fashionable structures of the Industrial Revolution and the era of mass production: strong command chains; vertical hierarchies; specialisation of tasks. This was right and appropriate, for it suited the age.

But it does not suit our age. For this is the age of post industrial structures, of flat hierarchies; of networks dedicated to bringing disparate inputs together at a single focal point.

Government structure and culture remain resolutely stuck in the past. Ministers and Senior Civil Servants are judged on how well they hold the territorial integrity of their department, preserve its budget and defend its payroll. Networking with other departments is regarded as a threat, not an opportunity. The screaming of gears heard in Whitehall is the sound of institutions knowing that they ought to network, but finding it impossible to do so.

Time now to unveil my third law for the modern age: The most important part of what you can do, is what you can do with others.

It is an institutions’ ability not to do, but to network, which matters most. If you want to see the price of failing to understand that, you need look no further than Afghanistan. The chief reason for failure lies not in the ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, who we love to blame, but in our failure to have a co-ordinated international plan: our inability to work between nations, our determination to look solely through the prism of national, rather than international action and our refusal to speak and act with a single purpose. The real scandal of Afghanistan was that our soldiers paid with their lives because our politicians could not or would not get their act together.

It does not matter if you are an army unit, or an NGO, or an aid deliverer like DfID, or a Ministry like the Foreign Office – the most important part of what you can do is not what you can do by yourself, but what you can do with others.

And because everything is connected to everything, another revelation of our age is this: we increasingly share a destiny with our enemy. This concept is not new of course, for it has always been the proposition of poets and saints and visionaries that we should learn to live together. The great John Donne poem No man is an island says it all: “every man’s death affecteth me, for I am involved in mankind. Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.

[William E.] Gladstone said it too in 1879, when Lord Roberts invaded Afghanistan, in his second Midlothian campaign:

“Do not forget that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan amongst the winter snows, is no less inviolate in the eye of Almighty God as can be your own. Do not forget that he who made you brothers in the same flesh and blood, bound you by the laws of mutual love. And that love is not limited to the shores of this island, but it crosses the whole surface of the earth, encompassing the greatest along with the meanest in its unmeasured scope”

But here is the difference between their age and ours. For Donne and for Gladstone, these were recommendations of morality. For us they are part of the equation for our success and maybe even our survival.