As the World Economic Forum (WEF) of humanity’s transnational economic, political and business elite prepare to naval gaze with one another on the collapse of global capitalist optimism, the international system’s dysfunctions could not appear more glaring. Clearly we are in an interregnum of what, in what the late great evolutionist Stephen J. Gould, dubbed ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in which an old order of life suddenly crumbles after ages of seeming stasis before a new one takes its place. Or put another way in the world of international politics, the old world order of western dominance is in accelerated decline while the new world order has yet to take shape.
Over more than a space of a year, a confluence of economic and geopolitical forces accompanied by societal upheavals of a class and inter-generational nature, have unhinged the global order. This occurs at a time when incumbent structures such as the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system are ill-adapted to cope with multiple security and financial crises while newly emergent formations like the G-20 and BRICS have yet to find their footing in advancing global governance.
Perhaps part of the reason for this global disarray has to do with several disconnects between social, economic and geopolitical forces which have been unable to finds the means of convergence in charting a new patterns of governance both within and between nations as well as globally. This global upheaval is happening at several levels. The macro-level of the shifting global economic centre of gravity from west to east has given rise to an inconclusive ‘high politics’ of global governance in the emergence of such formations as IBSA and BRICS along with the eclipse of the G7/8 by the G-20 and such ephemeral conceptions as a Sino-American ‘G2.’
The global economic meltdown that has accelerated western relative decline in the Atlantic community has given rise to a populist politics of right-wing reaction and xenophobia on the one hand and an anti-capitalist ‘Occupy’ movement on the left. These are the national domestic fallouts from the fluidity of ‘high politics’ at the global level. But setting the pace for these upheavals in the west has been the major upheaval in the South centered in the transnational democratic revolutionary challenges that erupted over the past year in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Other strands of global disarray are, over the past several years, the totally ignored disconnect between the Davos global elitism of the WEF on the one hand and the World Social Forum (WSF) that first surfaced at Porto Alegre.
For that matter, the sudden rise of a black president heading up the world’s sole superpower was, itself, testimony to the socio-economic and demographic tectonic shifts underway in North and South alike; dynamics propelled by a new hand-maiden of change: the high-tech revolution in information communications technology and its globalising social media spin-off. The pervasiveness of this informational globalizing phenomenon is challenging the status-quo in democratic and authoritarian political systems alike. Little wonder that one of China’s reactions to the ‘Arab Awakening’ has been a defensive battening down of the hatches lest the regional revolutionary transnationalism of ‘Araby’ generate a contagion affecting Beijing’s ‘harmonious’ and ‘peaceful rise’ narrative. Neither has China’s neighbor, Russia, and co-leader in challenging the international system at the level of ‘high politics’ been immune from this ‘springtime awakening.’ If democratic uprisings in MENA ushered in 2011, popular democratic yearnings surfacing in Russia closed out the year in a rude-awakening for Putinism.
Forums talking past one another
But, in all of this, the disconnect between Davos and Porto Alegre, between the elitist WEF and its popular activist WSF counterpart bears attention for what this disconnect reveals about the fractured politics not just of the international system in its Westphalian dimension but in the international society that transcends the national boundaries of this eroding system of sovereignty. It is as if social forces on continental-regional and international scales have been dialoguing past one another for the past several years as tectonic shifts within societies as well as between east and west have steadily gained. Only with difficulty, accompanied by brinksmanship have challenges to the global order been confronted. Stale-mates or near-stalemates abound on several fronts.
Indicative of this situation, at the level of ‘high politics,’ has been the collapse of the Doha WTO ‘development’ trade round which never overcame contradictions between developed industrialised and major emerging market economies. The Doha collapse mirrors global economic governance stalemate capped by currency tensions between the US and China at the level of the G-20; this, in turn, exacerbated by economic meltdowns in the peripheral economies of the Eurozone and attendant collapse in EU cohesion.
Then there was the end-of-the-year cliff-hanger attending the climate talks in Durban where governments under the umbrella of the UNFCCC just did manage to pull off an agreement universalizing responsibility among developed and developing countries, emerging powers included, on eventually arriving at a binding legal accord on emissions. Yet the future of a post-Kyoto binding commitment remains in doubt amid the primacy of ‘national interest.’
All of these stalemated reflections of disconnects in the system of global governance find similar resonance at the security level of ‘high politics.’ This is seen in the United Nations as the UN Security Council has tried to cope with transnational Arab upheavals in the MENA: western ‘humanitarian’ interventionism coming up against Sino-Russian led non-interventionism; this while sub-international bodies such as the Arab League in the case of Syria and the African Union, in the case of Libya, have grappled with setting the agendas of how the rest of the world has (or should have) responded to these and similar crises throughout these African and Arab regions of intra-state upheavals. What is occurring here reflects a crisis in values; one that converges with similar ambivalences emanating out of COP17.
It seems that in an Age of Global Integration where various and sundry interdependencies have eroded the sovereignty of ‘national interests,’ notions of non-intervention and ‘non-interference’ are increasingly on the defensive amid related pressures toward, what the Dalai Lama terms ‘universal responsibility.’ At the same time, however, the presumed moral high ground of humanitarian intervention in the service of a universalist ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is far from clearly evident, especially when inter-mixed with competing geopolitical-economic agendas. Even still, finding effective political ways and means of overcoming the protectionism of impunity that defines ‘elite sovereignty’ masquerading as ‘national sovereignty’ when the latter is not legitimized by ‘popular sovereignty’ underpins the interventionist compulsion.
Toward a world social and economic assembly?
In reality, in today’s world, everyone is unwittingly implicated in everyone else’s affairs whether this is a situated desired or not. The problem is the absence of any internationally agreed upon vehicle or ‘space’ in which a convergence of these various disconnects in global and transnational ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics can be find an effective airing. This is where, perhaps, the key to such a process of convergence may be found in bringing together the World Economic and Social Forums. And what better place for this to take place or at least for the idea of a WEF-WSF dialogue to commence than at the upcoming Rio Earth Summit on Sustainable Development?
Coming in the wake of the new but still fragile climate consensus reached at COP17 in Durban, the Earth summit in Rio provides a much broader tableau upon which any number of issue and thematic strands of global policy might begin to be structured into an ongoing global dialoguing mechanism as opposed to what has come to be termed ‘global deal’ summitry. For sustainable development is really about building sustainable human and environmental security which merges into traditional security imperatives that are the preoccupation of the UNSC. The same goes for issues of global economic governance.
As such, a South African proposal at Rio might entail the global institutionalizing of the multidimensional issues to be raised in Rio within a new format, one grounded in a structured dialogue between the WEF and the WSF networked through their respective continental and regional fora. The upshot could be the establishment of a World Social and Economic Assembly with the WEF and the WSF comprising two chambers. Apart from serving as a consultative mechanism for the ongoing airing of global governance, sustainability and security matters, this assembly could become a platform where other multilateral initiatives would seek a hearing and indeed be expected to regular present their agendas.
The WTO, G-20, IBSA, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the New Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership as well as older formations like the Non-Aligned Movement and UN specialist negotiating vehicles like the UNFCCC would find a hearing in this global assembly. The aim: to begin structuring a role for global civil society in making itself the intersection of convergence in overcoming the ‘high’ and ‘low’ political disconnects in the shaping of a global integrationist international system.
This article was originally published on SABC Online. Access it here.