21CC Challenges to 21st Century – Oxford Martin School/21CC

Last weekend, I attended 21CC: Challenges Of Our Century conference that aimed to engage Oxford student community to discuss and debate the most pressing global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, from the future of economics and humanitarian aid, to food security and pandemics.  In collaboration with the Oxford Martin School, a world-renowned champion of interdisciplinary research, the conference offered Oxford-based students an unmissable opportunity to hear the exchange of ideas between internationally recognized policy makers, business leaders and leading experts.  The event had four panels that tackled four critical challenges – state of the global economy, infectious diseases, food security and humanitarian assistance in conflict ridden environments. Some engaging speakers presented their thoughts including a good mix of academics and practitioners with Oxford students challenging them at every step should they err.

The first session kicked off with prospects of the global economy over the next decade and further. Members of the panel included Ian Goldin, Rana Mitter, Frances Stewart and Ian Harnett. Some of the major trends discussed included sovereign debt crises, need for growth to check their rise, urgent need for jobs globally especially amongst the youth, importance of China given it’s rising share in the global economy, and balancing economic with ecological concerns. The panel sparred on the best means available to engender sustainable growth across the world, task that is made more difficult by the looming sovereign debt overhang. Mitter argued that this particular debate in the Chinese context is taking place with considerable vigour surrounding the so-called Xiaokang Society or one that is characterised by moderate prosperity and stable middle class and on their propensity to prize growth that is well-rounded. Within the west, or the OECD, growth will largely revolve around debt and its collective management. As already witnessed across many European countries, austerity is the name of the game which forces us to ask if we need an adequate insolvency policy for countries and its financial actors.


The next session focused on infectious diseases, TB, Malaria and HIV, and its possible eradication in this century. Mark Dybul, director of the GFATM, was the star attraction despite his delayed entrance. Tremendous advancements in science and drugs research have alerted the terrain of infectious diseases, resulting in gains that were not foreseen a generation ago. But problems still exist. Dybul argued that we are on the cusp of making strides that have the potential to dent the recurrence of these diseases. Innovations in spatial mapping are being deployed to precisely locate and target interventions in countering the HIV virus. Dybul also spoke about how vaccinations are being used through these GIS methods to demarcate high transmission dynamic areas and then concentrating all efforts to mitigate these diseases. Insofar as TB and Malaria are concerned, we need to redouble our efforts and financing to thwart their episodic.rise across the world; TB still plagues governments across Asia and Africa to this day.

The third session focused on food security and the incumbent challenges under producing more food using fewer resources and inputs and managing those resources effectively once they are produced, both of which form two parts of the food security.divide. Liam Dolan, plant scientist, argued that genetic approaches to food production offer great promise in raising yields and these genetic innovations can not only harness existing inputs pike water and sunlight more productively but they also, in certain circumstances, enable to manage for climatic shifts deftly too. John Ingram focused his remarks on the food distribution side of the issue and how we need to develop robust and responsive food systems, including functions like retailing, purchasing, storing, and consuming also enhance food security. Knowledge is also part of the equation here; we need to be able to leverage knowledge better to address both gaps.

And the final session looked at the prospects of improving humanitarian assistance in conflict ridden zones. Here the speakers mentioned the context above all matters in the determination, disbursement and distribution of aid and here there’s a gap between what aid donors can do and what is actually expected of them. Despite the litany of challenges that exist in fractious and toxic security conditions, we need to do a better job of understanding requirements and channeling assistance to ameliorate that, knowing that there exist massive limits to the utility of assistance in conflict settings.

All the sessions were filled with good speakers addressing tough global questions, good range of thoughts offered to explain where we are and how we can get to where we should be ably complemented by an engaging audience that were probing and perceptive in response.

Stephen Krasner – State Building in the 21st century

One of the preeminent political scientists of the last generation – Stephen Krasner gave a talk at the LSE on state building and how to intellectually grapple with the theory of failed states and bettering them such that they don’t pose threats to other states. Issues surrounding state failure have captured global attention since 2000 with the onset of 9/11 and concomitant zeal displayed by the Bush administration to root out societies unfit to govern and transform them into modern democratic societies with open societies, rule of law and functioning market economy. But this impulse was not and has never been adequately theorized on and still remains a problem lacking intellectual consensus.

Krasner commenced with an overview of the three dominant approaches to state building or state development – modernization theory, institutional capacity and elite bargaining and competition or rational choice institutionalism. Moving on, he recounted their core tenets and their chief criticisms. For modernization theory which argued that as states economically develop, they will also become more open, leading to political reform and democratization. It has a progressive tenor and largely been the dominant school within American social science over last fifty years. However, until now, it has yet to effectively account for the question of how growth starts, which is a fatal flaw. The second, instituitional capacities approach, posits that the building and development of political institutions is critical since it allows for economic and social rights that are mobilized to be institutionalized. Several sources of institutional capacity exist including war and its relationship to state development, colonialism and religion. But the problem with this approach is that it could seem rather naive and foreign for countries with distinct political and institutional histories. And the final and most recent and popular approach is elite bargaining and competition, summed up by the ascendance of rational choice institutionalism. RCI argues that elite competition and strategic bargaining is crucial to the functioning of modern political institutions; importantly, it suggests that given the propensity of elites to capture the state and acquire political spoils, its critical to constrain them through institutions and also incentives that enables effective governance. But RCI is problematic because it tends to dichotomize states into open and closed orders and is also rather ignorant of larger structural factors underpinning and influencing state development.

Krasner continued to taze out the policy implications of the state of extant state building literature to argue that RCI offers the best strategy for states and external donors when supporting failed states or states failing or in peril, the so called transitional states. And he argues this for two reasons: over the longer term, state building will rely on elite interests and their management etch will involve aligning of domestic and external elites coupled with an understanding of their innate interests. Thus, it is critical to acquire a sober understanding of power configurations within these states and their core interests, since they hold the levers of power that be. Engaging in grandiose projects of state building and democracy is of limited use and are bound to fail. And even the supporting of Weberian rational type bureaucracies is of limited utility given that they curb rent seeking opportunities. Ending, Krasner forcefully argued that state power lies in the hands off those that control the material levers of power and foreign donors need to therefore recalibrate their efforts around them instead of circumventing them. Though sober and realist in tenor, Krasner’s views offer a much needed intellectual alternative for external donors to consider given the failures associated with state building over the past decade.

Chinese IPE: The Global Conversation

As China’s economic heft continues to grow, so it’s importance to the field of study of the international political economy. IPE has grown leaps and bounds over the past three decades and it appears to have reached an inflection point with the ascent of emerging powers and their rising share of global market share and it’s effect on the global geopolitical order. Thus far, the discipline has proffered minimal coverage on these emergent countries with China leading the pack amongst it’s peers. Continuing this trend, a recent special issue in Review of International Political Economy (RIPE) is devoted to gauging, assessing, and forecasting on a distinct Chinese IPE school. No doubt, scholars will grapple with these issues and debates as the Middle Kingdom’s clout in the global economy deepens.

The special issue, aptly, consists of five papers, each co-authored by a Chinese and western scholar. Introducing the issue, Gregory Chin, Margaret Pearson and Wang Yong provide a thorough historical overview of the field in China, the leading centers of thought, academics, intellectual antecedents of their variant approaches and major junctures that have shaped their thinking. Chinese IPE has three characteristics – it’s chief policy concerns as China integrates further into the global economy and notably how the later impacts it’s growth; it’s overt statist character that manifests through policies that favor mercantilist style of economic policymaking and closely tied to this is the role of the CCP; and finally, it’s theoretic diversity typified by various schools of thought, rationalist and constructivist to marxist. Despite marked strides, major gaps remain including issues like China’s role in global governance, agency in south-south arrangements and the possibility of internationalising RMB.

For the foreseeable future, Chinese policymakers will view the global economy and their relationship to it through the prism of their principal bilateral relationship, that of the United States. Yong Wang and Lou Pauly  consider debates regarding American hegemony from the Chinese perspective, looking askance at their asymmetrical partnership with the US but also realising that they are both tightly interlocked in a web of intricate bilateral linkages. Incumbent under this tepid attitude are reservations over the domestic politics within the United States and its pernicious effects on the bilateral, also global, accord that both have devised over the past two decades. Pauly and Wong end with Chinese misgivings on the systemic role that the United States currently plays and the privileges that endows them but with a clear understanding that they are major stakeholders in sustaining that precarious equation.

Pang Zhongying and Hongwing Yang dissect another critical issue for China, their emergent and evolving role within the global governance architecture that has assumed more importance than ever. China’s relationship with international organisations and other international regimes will be of considerable interest as its interests expand and their problems also transcend territorial boundaries. To protect and advance their interests in this case, China needs to invest more towards multilateralism and also sharpen its views and visions vis-a-vis the global order. But the domestic intellectual side appears to be hardpressed to address this lacuna. Most institutions and academics that focus on this critical relationship fail from offering thoughtful advice to their policymakers given the dominant western-centric conception of the order and consequent difficulties associated with locating China’s role within it; the authors also bemoan the existing institutional environment, which militates against the generation of adequate knowledge for this purpose due to several bottlenecks, including the inability to be candid and forthright publically on these issues.

Qingxin Wang and Mark Blyth offer their thoughts on the gradual emergence of a constructivist school of inquiry within the Chinese IPE and their progress made thus far. There are innovations taking place on this particular theorizing front. Wang an Blyth provide a robust overview of the range of concepts being used to explore and analyse major international economic decisions being taken in Beijing. Recent work by Yan Xuetong considers the works of several Qing era scholars and, in particular, their views on international affairs and global order. Through his work, Yan argues that current policymakers can draw from confucian philosophical tenets to better grapple with the challenges that globalisation and global relations pose to the Chinese government. Other constructivist accounts on Chinese IPE also exist; Wang Qingxin investigates how the socialisation of Chinese economists impacted their accession to WTO in 2001. And Su Changhe examines the interactions between the international system and  the domestic political economy through a rational materialist framework looking at the distribution effects on various domestic actors and how that impacts their economic policy choices.

All in all, the special issue is a valuable resource for students and scholars of IPE as they wade through the issues pivoted around China’s interaction with and influence on the global economy and vice-versa.

Governing the World: History of an Idea

Governing the World: The History of An Idea – Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower’s wide ranging and elaborate history of international governance since the Concert of Vienna offers us a valuable treatise in mapping the historical contingencies that led to the onset of the internationalist impulse, power constellations that guided its ideas and actions, statesman and innovators that bucked various countervailing trends to forge various transnationalist agendas and the lessons that can be drawn when dealing with reforming extant global governance. The canvas is indeed sprawling and extensive and one that required considerable dexterity to stitch together and Mazower does it well. Barring few mishaps, the narrative plods through two centuries of great power politics and its trysts with conceptions of internationalism, that have also varied and evolved with the times. From Metternich and Napoleon to Marx, Saint Simon and Wilson, Lloyd George, Churchill, Roosevelt, Kennan, Acheson, Rusk all the way to Reagan, Bush and Clinton, internationalism has largely been a product of human endeavor coupled with structural contingencies and the attendant opportunities that gave life to its ebbs and flows.

Mazower makes it abundantly clear that robust and resolute internationalism rests on great power and when invested in one sovereign, as it has been for the last fifty years through the US, there is considerable scope to wield international executive authority through international regimes, organizations, ideas and more recently through formation of networks. But even this process is punctuated by obstacles as Washington has cooled and warmed to successive waves on internationalisation. When synergies exist and interests align, power and authority flows outward, not always for the better and when they clash, one can expect fitful bouts of condemnation and outright scorn. But one can also make the case that Mazower does stretch this argument far; American power and leadership has had a transcendental effect on multilateralism but not all of the latter’s triumphs can be attributed to American enthusiasm and equally nor can all its failures to Washington’s indifference.

But no doubt, when there has been active American support, international organizations have found a lease of life as instruments of American power. Some of the latter parts of the book dealing with the rise of a new international economic order through the global propagation of neoliberal ideas is a case in point. As the post-war Keynesian consensus began to lose steam with advanced industrial economies lagging, the rise of a new global economic compact was paved with the deployment of the IMF and World Bank to make southern economies fertile venues for greater investment and capital engendering three decades of untrammelled global financialisation. Mazower charts this process quite well alongside the shifts that preceded this turn, including the rise of contrarian global economic movements like the NAM and G-77, consisting of countries in the global south beseeching for a more equitable global economic order. Moreover, global development cooperation have often been entangled in these debates over the past two decades. Also part of this global development push was the leveraging of social scientific knowledge to drive the growth of economies across the world. With the assistance of foundations and the American government, the emergence of area studies and mainstream economic thinking, notably Rostow’s Modernization Theory, called for understanding and developing economies from a rather generalist perspective, excising contextual elements from the domain of policy. Decades later, Kofi Annan’s ambitious developmental internationalism continued this vein but has proved to be a rather tepid accomplishment but when conceived a decade ago alongside the rise of a new horde of actors and agents from various private and social sectors, it reinvented the UN for a new era after decades of disdain.

Alongside the UN, whose fortunes have been twinned to realities and perils of great power politics, the League of Nations gets considerable coverage as the first transnational organisation that united nations for a common purpose. The League was in many ways a revolutionary achievement given that it included many major European powers following a major conflagration, a robust cadre of technical experts who sought to devise cooperation across a range of functional areas whose legacy continued to the UN and beyond and a mandate, however thin, to institutionalise a burgeoning internationalist impulse that had existed for close to a century in various forms – scientific, technical, humanitarian and economic. What it lacked was the political foundation that gave these variant strands authority and legitimacy. For all its credit, the lack of a hegemon to steer its way undid the League. It also did not help that it also had abysmal leadership for its entire tenure but as Mazower argues it was not an abject failure; legacies of the erstwhile organization played a critical role not only in the creation of the UN and various agencies but also other internationalist projects, namely European integration and other American foundations, who also discharged important roles in the post-war era as incipient agents of internationalism.

Despite the considerable achievement, Mazower’s book has a few blind spots. There is almost an overt western centric tone to the entire book; though understandable from the perch he operates from, the discounting of regionalism across the world and the fitful efforts to cobble together transnational projects in the global south do not get much coverage. Asia is almost absent from his schema. The book would have also benefitted from more coverage on the move to integrate following the war. Though dealt with tangentially, the functional spur that commenced following the war with American largesse and geopolitical support found its own momentum leading to decades of unprecedented cooperation. And this story deserves to be considered on its own right. But these are minor quibbles to a narrative that has been conveyed with vigor, lucid prose, and the support of myriad lively characters that have populated the annals of internationalism and for that Mazower must be commended.