LONDON (Reuters) - The crises at the heart of the international financial and political system go beyond the debt woes currently gripping the Western world and to the heart of the way the global economy has been run for over two decades.
After relying on it to deliver years of growth, lift millions from poverty, keep living standards rising and citizens happy, nation states look to have lost control of globalization.
In the short term, that leaves policymakers looking impotent in the face of fast-moving markets and other uncontrolled and perhaps uncontrollable systems — undermining their authority and potentially helping fuel a wider backlash and social unrest.
In the longer run, there are already signs the world could repeat the mistakes of the 1930s and retreat into protectionism and political polarization. There are few obvious solutions, and some of the underlying problems have been building for a long time.
“In times of economic recession, countries tend to become isolationist and retrench from globalization,” says Celina Realuyo, assistant professor of National Security affairs at the US National Defense University in Washington DC.
“Given the increased number of stakeholders on any issue — climate change, the global financial system, cyber security — it is unclear how traditional nation states can lead on any issue, let alone build consensus globally,” she said.
The financial system, the Internet and even the supply chains for natural resources have quietly slipped beyond effective forms of state control.
These instruments of globalization have delivered huge wealth and kept economies moving with arguably greater efficiency, but can also swiftly turn on those in authority.
Just as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak discovered that shutting down the Internet was not enough to prevent social-media fueled protest overthrowing him, the world’s most powerful nation states are confronting their helplessness in controlling markets and financial flows.
Technology and deregulation allow both information and assets to be transferred around the world faster than ever before — perhaps faster than states can possibly control, even with sophisticated laws, censorship and other controls.
The broad consensus at the 2009 London G20 meeting has already been replaced by a much uglier tone of polarization and mutual recrimination at both domestic and international levels.
Where once they would have lobbied quietly, Russia and China now angrily criticize the United States, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin describing it as an economic “parasite.”
In the United States and Europe, far right groups including the Tea Party, eurosceptics and nationalist forces look to be rising, sometimes potentially blocking policy-making. On the left, calls grow for greater controls on unfettered markets and capital.
Over the past year, global currency valuations have become the source of new international tensions as major states accuse each other of “competitive devaluation” to boost exports.
In cyberspace, nations worry powerful computer attacks on essential systems could one day spark war, with rows over cyber spying already fuelling mutual distrust.
It’s unlikely that nations can genuinely pull back from globalised systems on which they have become reliant.
“The Net sees censorship as damage and routes around it,” computer science guru John Gilmore said in 1993. In the modern, high-speed globalised system, one could say the same of attempts at financial and economic restrictions.
Many areas of the global economy have also become effectively “ungoverned space” into which a host of actors — from criminals to international firms such as Google and Goldman Sachs to countless other individuals and groups — have enthusiastically jumped.
International companies and rich individuals move money — and even entire manufacturing operations — from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to seek low wages, avoid tax, regulation and sometimes even detection. In many states, that helped fuel a growing wealth gap that is self producing new tensions.
Some argue demands to impose new controls may miss the point. In any case, many of the current crises in the system are the result of attempts to control or distort markets and economic flows.
“Ironically, the theory was always that.. the (euro) single currency would stop the unpleasant capitalists from destabilizing Europe,” says Charles Robertson, chief economist at Russian-British bank Renaissance Capital, pointing to its intention of freeing European states from never-ending local foreign exchange hassles.
“So the short answer is no, without massive capital controls, states cannot stop this.”
Arguably, the wider global financial system has similar inbuilt problems and imbalances — but after decades of being largely ignored, they look to be unraveling rapidly, by the same fast-moving markets that previously fed them.
That is a problem not just for already struggling Western countries but the emerging powerhouses some hoped would replace them as a source of global leadership.
“For most of the last decade, growth and economic activity in many places has been driven by forces that were inherently unsustainable,” says Simon Derrick, head of foreign exchange at Bank of New York Mellon.
“What’s happening now is these... are coming under pressure and it’s getting to the stage where that can no longer be ignored. But none of these issues are going to be politically easy to do anything about.”
Low U.S. interest rates and taxes particularly after 9/11 and the dot-com crash fueled the asset booms that produced the credit crunch.
But they were only sustainable in part because U.S. government spending — including on expensive foreign wars — was effectively underwritten by emerging economies, particularly China, buying up their debt.
Beijing could make those purchases because it was earning billions from soaring exports underpinned by what most observers agree was an unrealistically low-pegged currency.
Those dynamics fueled record economic growth that help to maintain domestic stability. If that slows, some worry unrest could return — particularly if Chinese Internet controls and other domestic security measures prove as unable to control dissent as the admittedly less sophisticated systems of North Africa.
Critics say most attempted financial crisis fixes — bailouts and stimuli— have simply “kicked the can down the road,” providing short-term relief but little more.
“Nobody’s kicking a bigger can with more force than the Chinese government,” wrote Ian Bremmer, president of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “The entrenched dominance of their state-led economy has created the greatest near-term buffer to instability in the developing world... (but it is also) by far, the most unsustainable and volatile long-term.”
Reporting by Peter Apps, Editing by Sitaraman Shankar