The New Concert of Powers
How to Prevent Catastrophe and Promote Stability in a Multipolar World
A globalized economy was supposed to bring people together—or so went the dominant strain of thinking in the foreign policy world for most of the last few decades. In a few short years, the near consensus has collapsed. Gone are the prophecies of ever-accelerating integration and the paeans to trade and investment promoting prosperity and comity for all. Now, the discussion centers on just how much the world’s two largest economies should “decouple,” on pandemic-addled governments taking control of supply chains and vaccine doses, and on techno-democracies vying with techno-authoritarians to shape the digital commons. Far from tempering geopolitical competition, trade has offered another means of waging it.
Yet might today’s pessimism miss as much as the Pollyannaish visions of the recent past did? Tracing patterns over two centuries, Harold James foresees a new wave of globalization, not in spite of today’s fragmentation and discord but because of it: in a crisis, leaders tend to respond at first with nationalist posturing, only to accept before long that recovery demands more cooperation and connection, not less.
Gordon Hanson—building on his influential research documenting the magnitude of the so-called China shock to the U.S. economy—highlights the broken promises and acute harms of past trade agreements. Even a “worker-centric” policy, as the Biden administration has promised, will not be enough to get trade on a better track. A bolder approach is needed.
Adam Posen contends that blaming trade and openness for the United States’ ills gets the problem exactly wrong: the culprit is a two-decade retreat from international economic engagement, which has increased inequality and hindered growth. Audrye Wong offers a similarly damning assessment of China’s “economic statecraft,” including headline-grabbing efforts such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which backfire as often as they succeed.
Finally, Matthew Slaughter and David McCormick observe that even as overall trade has plateaued, flows of data across borders have grown exponentially—yet spurred little in the way of international action to manage the momentous economic, political, and security implications. The United States, they argue, must take the lead in crafting new rules for a world in which data is power.
These diagnoses differ, and the prescriptions point in varying directions. But a common thread runs through them all, highlighting what old assumptions got wrong: ultimately, not immutable economic forces but policy choices—foolish or wise, myopic or farsighted—will determine where we go from here.
—Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Editor