Saturday, March 14, 2009

It is Hardly Ever About the Economy: On the G-20 and Global FInancial Crisis

The next set meetings of the G-20 has commenced in the midst of what is possibly the early stages of the current economic downturn. G-20 Ministers Meet Aid Divisions, BBC News OnLine, March 14, 2009. According to its own self conception: "The G-20 now has a crucial role in driving forward work between advanced and emerging economies to tackle the international financial and economic crisis, restore worldwide financial stability, lead the international economic recovery and secure a sustainable future for all countries." G-20, Welcome to the UK.

But they are not. What is clearly emerging are the secondary agendas of three blocks of states that mean to use the crisis, and their roles in managing it, to their own advantages. The cover is the crisis, the appeal is to their respective populations through pliant media outlets, but the focus is power and its rearrangement to reflect the rearrangement of perceived changes in financial power among this motley crew of states. What is emerging is a clearer vision of three fundamentally distinct agendas that might be advanced through the fortuity of the financial crisis that has required the present set of G-20 conclaves.

The United States and Britain: "The US, supported by Britain, wants other governments - especially those in continental Europe - to do more to bring their economies out of recession, says the BBC's business correspondent Mark Gregory. " G-20 Ministers Meet Aid Divisions, supra. And that means spending money, especially money that these states no longer have--but can borrow. All of this is directed to the protection of the status quo and its enlargement. It is based on notions of oversight but not control, on transparency but not regulation, on macro rather than micro management. And it tends to permit instability.

The "real" European Union: "German Chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the issue was not to spend more, but to put in place a system that would help prevent similar crises in future." Id. And in an ironically delicious turn of phrase that would have been pure honey to the former Kaiser Wilhelm II, the report noted "Germany was in the "vanguard" in Europe, she said, adding that they now had to let the action take effect before deciding on more spending." Id. Regulation is the issue here--over those institutions and funds that affect these states but may not be within their territorial jurisdiction. Thus, "Some progress has been made on this front. Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg on Friday said they would relax banking secrecy rules." Id. This may reduce the effects of risk but also mutes the possibility of reward.

The BRIC states: "Brazil, Russia, India and China - known as the Bric countries - said they would not contribute extra cash unless they were given extra voting power. "We will only agree to increase capital to the IMF after the reform the (IMF) quotas is carried out, because there is still an imbalance in our participation in the IMF," Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said after meeting officials from the Bric countries. " Id. Direct control is the issue here. The BRIC states want to grasp firmly the wheel of control or help shape the devolving markets.

The emerging objectives are clear: The United States and the UK seek to preserve the status quo, and their own power and hegemony in the process. That power is grounded, in part on the values inherent in the current system of devolved power. For devolved power is inherently Anglo-American in its values. It is soft power, spread through contract and private relations. It transforms states from regulators to guardians within their own territories and participants abroad. It suggests a system of frameworks but not control of details. It preserves private choice and a limited role for states at the micro level. And it benefits states whose political culture is advanced through these mechanics. This is effectively the most benign form of the old Enlightenment notion of a clockmaker approach to understanding and deploying political culture.

The European Union States, on the other hand, are using the opportunity as the excuse they need to strengthen a long term goal of asserting control over the private sector. Globalization, at least to the extent it has unmoored economic and other private actors from the control of territorially based states has proven to be somewhat disconcerting to the political elites of Europe. They prefer the traditional system of hierarchy--public over private, political law over governance and contract--and the strict division among these categories. For these states, the goal is to assert a greater and more direct control of the transnational private sector through law made by and enforced through states. There is little advantage, for these states, in the proposal by the Americans. The preservation of the status quo, however rewarding it might have been for their populations, does not serve their political ends. Regulation, then, serves to shore up national power. It provides both a defense against encroachments by non-state actors into the political sphere and a protection of states against the encroachments of non-state supra national entities in the governance sphere. Here one can see more fully deployed the old internal contests over the shape and extent of the governance of the princeps in modern form--Republic or Empire.

The BRIC countries also have a traditional goal. Like the European Union states' position, they too seek to use the economic slowdown as the excuse they need to affect a change in power relationships. Instead their object is to increase their standing, and their power, among the community of states. The financial crisis provides an opportunity for these states to advance in ways that traditionally were only possible after a successful war. But wars are now much more difficult to assert successfully, and the network of legal restrictions designed effectively to outlaw all forms of physical aggression, has pushed these states into the battleground of finance. To attain public power, then, they had to acquire private power in the form of wealth. For these states, it is not a control over the private that is important, but the attainment of power as against other states that has been a long term goal. For India, Brazil and China this strategy is consonant with the politico-cultural imperative to continue to wash away the respective taints of the colonial experience; for Russia (like Germany a century or more ago) to win the respect of the West. In both cases, money is meant to buy their way into a greater sense of politico-cultural equality with the old first line states. Here is a nod toward tribal confederation after the fall of a perceived imperial hegemony of the post 1945 settlement (however accurately or badly constructed).

Values, positive law and confederal control, each defines a fundamentally distinct framework of norms form which these states approach any given issue--including but not limited to those arising from the current financial downturn. Every issue presents an opportunity to advance the normative framework from which solutions are developed. Yet the three camps do manage to speak through the single unifying language of regulation. In each case, the camps will speak the language of constitutionalist law, at least in the sense of the use of law to constitute those institutions and framework through which power will be regularized, split and shared among a variety of actors. Thus, while the discussion will be about the global economic situation, the real discussions will be about something quite distinct--power. And not just a simpleminded carving of a singular power--that is fantasy. Instead, the focus will be on rearrangements of the way is understood to be constituted, asserted and shared. The three camps each push at different ends of this tangle, and to different ends. Still, while the forms are respected, and the discourse appropriately constructed, there may well be something of a reasonable, if limp and secondary response to the financial matters that brought these states together.

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