The crisis of our crises

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The crisis of our crises

PRINCETON, New Jersey - At first glance, today’s major international crises seem to have little in common. Some, such as Greece’s debt drama, are economic disasters; others, like Syria’s implosion, are characterized by brutality and political chaos; and still others, most notably Ukraine’s predicament, fall somewhere in between. But, despite what policymakers might like to believe, these events are not unrelated. On the contrary, they reflect a deeper crisis of international integration and cooperation.

Over the last 60 years, the world experienced unprecedented peace and prosperity for a simple reason: countries voluntarily integrated themselves into an international community underpinned by shared rules and norms. But this trend has given way to piecemeal crisis responses, whether austerity or localized damage control, that are based on the unreasonable assumption that problems like those in Greece, Syria and Ukraine will eventually correct themselves.

In relying on stopgap measures to address crises, global leaders seem to have forgotten how interdependent the world has become. Upheaval or stagnation in one part of a complex system can have outsize consequences elsewhere, in the form of, say, a refugee crisis or an uptick in inequality.

For example, Europe’s malaise - which has persisted partly because its leaders have insisted on muddling through, rather than seeking comprehensive solutions - has had serious consequences for Ukraine, a country teetering on the edge of a meltdown. By the end of this year, Ukraine’s economy is expected to be 15 percent smaller than it was 2013, and its debt-to-GDP ratio may be near 200 percent, exceeding Greece’s at its worst. And the security situation in the eastern part of the country is deteriorating.

Creditors cannot be expected to be any more lenient with Ukraine than they have been with Greece, a member of the eurozone. But a hard stance on Ukraine while it fights a war with Russia could threaten Europe’s strategic buffer from the Baltic to the Balkans.

The economist Albert O. Hirschman once said that a crisis can be either disintegrative or integrative. Individuals and organizations, confronted with adversity and lacking faith in policymakers, can either “exit” from the institutions and societies that bind them, or rally together to revitalize them.

Unfortunately, today’s crises so far have seemed largely disintegrative. Consider capital flight, which forced Greece to impose controls. Of course, exit mechanisms like capital flight can have a positive impact. In the eighteenth century, capital flight kept predatory rulers in check. Adam Smith viewed the rise of movable capital as a force that would encourage enlightened public policies that serve the general interest.

But, in today’s interconnected world, capital can move much more quickly and to many more destinations, crossing borders with the click of a mouse. Moreover, the global financial industry is largely autonomous, driven by self-interest, rather than a desire to advance the common good.

As we have seen in Europe since 2010, as well as in Ukraine and Puerto Rico more recently, the ability to rush for the exit at any time removes investors’ incentive to compromise. As policymakers struggle to create a consensus around a reform agenda, the prospects of rejuvenating the pacts and policies underlying integration and cooperation deteriorate.

But the world order is by no means fated to devolve into chaos. Today’s crisis of international integration can become the catalyst for the creation of a new or revitalized global system.

This has happened before. Indeed, the current world order arose from the major crises of the Great Depression and World War II, with countries building the social pacts and economic institutions that would underpin peace and prosperity for the next several decades.

To ensure that a crisis produces such a constructive integrative response, policymakers must change their mindset. Instead of seeing only problems that need to be contained, they should view crises as an opportunity for progress.

Today, some important integrative policies lie within reach. On the economic front, policymakers should stop pouring public money into bailouts that benefit private creditors at the expense of taxpayers, and they should end austerity programs that kill growth prospects and do not address debt overhang. They must also reform tax systems and improve cooperation to reduce tax evasion, using the added revenues to invest in physical infrastructure and education. Such measures will create jobs today, and secure prosperity for tomorrow.

Political measures are also needed. Europe needs a more democratic framework that keeps financiers at the negotiating table. Similarly, with the possibility of admitting Ukraine to NATO a dead letter, the West should take steps to ease tensions with Russia, in order to ensure its continued participation in international efforts to address key threats (as it did when negotiating the recent agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program).

Muddling through can lead to only one outcome: disintegration. Only when world leaders recognize the common source and the interconnectedness of current international crises will they be in a position to address them effectively.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

*Jeremy Adelman is director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University. Anne-Laure Delatte is a research scholar at the National Center for Scientific Research of France and a visiting lecturer at Princeton University.

by Anne-Laure Delatte, Jeremy Adelman

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