How we got to the archipelago world

July 25, 2011

By Nader Mousavizadeh
The opinions expressed are his own.

Ten years after the attacks of September 11th, the brief moment of global solidarity that followed when we were “all Americans,” in the words of Le Monde, seems as improbable as it is distant. Barring a global catastrophe, the world is unlikely to unite again as it did on that day – and not just because of the conduct and course of the wars of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq. A deeper – and more radical – shift is at work in the politics of the global economy. A fragmentation of power, capital and ideas is creating a new map of the world – with lasting implications for investors and policymakers alike.

The evidence is everywhere. Europe beginning to roll back key aspects of the free market even as it manages yet another bail-out of Greece; the failure of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations; a Doha trade round dead in all but name; the emergence of new global governance structures, such as G-20; the flows of macro-finance investments between emerging markets combining state and business interests; China’s “going out” strategy upending traditional vectors of global capital and influence; an Arab Awakening as much defined by its diversity as its aspiration for accountability and legitimate government; the resurgence of nationalist, populist movements across rich and poor parts of the world; a proliferation of hybrid economic and political systems defying old categories of left and right, liberal and authoritarian.

Conventional thinking holds that all this is a threat to an otherwise well-ordered global order – or that it reflects a zero-sum shift from West to East, U.S. to China, democracies to dictatorships.  For large parts of the world, of course, the existing global order seemed less well-ordered than designed to perpetuate – by any means necessary – dated power structures of the mid-20th century.  Equally, to see this merely as reflecting an all-embracing power shift to the East (as observers both Eastern and Western do) ignores the fact that pivotal powers such as Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria are charting distinct paths aimed above all at economic independence and national power – beyond ideological labels.

Instead, what we’re seeing is an emerging world of sovereign states vertically integrating national interests across the public and private sectors – and then going out strategically to compete for resources, growth and job creation. Having previously understood global interdependence as a reason for horizontal integration across markets and regions, states as diverse as Finland, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Mexico are now pursuing distinct, often bilateral, strategies for economic and political security. This is the new dynamic of global competition – one with implications as profound as they can seem contradictory.

From South-east Asia to West Africa, commodity states are leveraging their economies to the Chinese demand driver without wishing to replace Washington’s dominance with Beijing’s.  Across the Middle East, citizens are deploying technology and new-found communications tools to demand consent in how they’re governed without losing their ability to see their values and traditions reflected in the fabric of their societies.  In Latin America, state-owned corporations are working hand-in-hand with governments to pursue inclusive growth of a kind that holds promise beyond what was achieved by structural adjustment programs imposed by Western-dominated multilateral institutions.

There is an undeniable logic here. After all, it was never credible that climate change threatened each country or region in the same way – or to the same degree; that an overleveraged West threatened the global economy as much as it did its own dominance over rising powers; that the attempts of rogue states acquiring weapons of mass destruction represent an equal threat to states large and small, West and East. And now the narrative has been broken.  Where you stand really is a function of where you sit – for states and people alike.

Today, after a six-month period of sovereign debt crises, tsunamis, nuclear disasters, revolutions, uprisings, and military interventions (and the list could go on), it would be natural to see this emerging order as inherently unstable. Volatility may seem like the new norm, but we’re more likely seeing a turbulent transition to a more resilient, and more diverse, global economy governed by national interests. The old stability was as much an illusion in Mubarak’s Egypt as it is in a global economy structured for the benefit of a few dominant, but deeply indebted, powers.

For the West, negotiating this new mosaic of power will require a mix of pragmatism, modesty, innovation, and strategic patience.  It means, at times, partnering with Chinese investments in Africa instead of trying to convince its leaders that they have more to gain from yet more conditional aid.  It means, at other times, accepting that an Egyptian government more legitimate and accountable in the eyes of its people will chart a course less pliable to Western demands. It means looking at a successful, modernizing Muslim country like Turkey and understanding that there is far more to gain by engaging with its growing influence than in lecturing it on the character of its politics, as long it remains a constitutional democracy.

Above all, it means focusing on management of the structural drivers of global growth and development – including energy, commodities, inflation and, yes, climate change – in ways that address the ways they affect different countries in different ways.  The locus of legitimacy has returned to the nation-state, and as new powers gain the economic and political power to assert their interests, no solution that isn’t both global and national will be successful or sustainable.

A multi-speed global economy – with diverging long-term growth profiles – will increasingly be mirrored by a multi-dimensional global politics. This is a Great Game worthy of the name and the winners will be those states and corporations increasingly seeking their own success irrespective of traditional boundaries of geography, ideology, interest and alliances.

Welcome to the Archipelago World.


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The world you describe emerging isn’t all that different than the one we’re in or are leaving. With the exception of the conspicuous lack of global empires – and not even the over stressed efforts of this country will build another one – it really is business as usual, but with more people doing it. You omit the role of global religions.

As a political consumer – by no means a major participant – I would have no difficulty living in a world of nation states that hammered their violent opposition out at the UN. I can’t remember the last civil war I ever lived through? I don’t claim allegiance to any global religion and love/hate them all. They are a form of philosophy and they share the shelf with a lot of other books.

I’m used to a country that contained semi-autonomous states within a federal framework. Another supra-federal or national tier would go about as noticed in daily life as the numerous orbiting satellites. As long as the higher tier didn’t ask for per capita taxation, they could save everyone a fortune. I don’t think I would expect to vote for them either. The matters they deal with are usually so specialized that unless there was a lot more discussion about international law and treaties in the mainstream media and on the street, that knowledge would be practically useless. But there are other ways to stimulate national economies besides defense expenditures. But there is always a residual belief that making life easier is also makes it more dangerous.

The idea that military spending is vital to a nations moral or economic health is dubious. The constitution makes it illegal for states to boost their own economies by creating their own armed services except for the National Guard militia. The average US citizen lives with protection but not the ability to project a forceful threat. We live with police forces as a part or normal civil life. Police forces cannot legally threaten each other across municipal or state lines. Smaller communities need fewer police than larger ones. They tend to have small budgets and can’t afford expensive equipment. They tend to be more human in appearance and scale. They aren’t likely to be “Robocops”.

Why isn’t that a common sense approach to everyday life between nations? It is because the nation states themselves can be criminals. Mafiosi more than statesmen govern the world. Statesmen are more subtle and polite Mafiosi. All sorts of unaccountable characters can buy bankrupt nations.

War may be the last holdout of bankrupt economies that are failing in maintaining a misguided way of life or standard of living. It masks the unconscious desire of human beings to shrink their own numbers and thin out the competition for resources and to rid itself of “undesirables”. War is a big ladle that can be used to stir things up and those holding the ladle will avoid feeling the bowl at the cost of enslaving their own citizens. But that ladle always stirs at both ends and it also gives the “enemies” or “those who need our help” (the old/new excuse) in the kettle a handle on the cooks. I mean Crooks. I mean cooks.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

An interesting perspective on the way ‘globalization’ has evolved far beyond its apologists of the preceding decades. Remember the once trendy idea that governments and nations would become obsolete, as commerce and the internet created one global market?

Here in the US, I find it hard to escape the feeling that we are tacitly making some fundamental choices. A the risk of over-simplification: Will we strive to recover and return to a high-demand economy that fuels both domestic activity and international trade? Or will we devote ourselves to becoming a corporate and financial haven for multinationals whose business interests and value chains are largely elsewhere?

Posted by TheCageNovel | Report as abusive

Wow, that was a mouthful!
Say Nader, you should write another article like this one but “Zoom Out” 100 years. The world and it’s societies are shifting into high gear. Buckle your seat belts ’cause there might be some bumps.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

An article loaded with UN-style international-speak (babble) and far too heavily slanted toward an effort to come up with something really new and innovative on geopolitics. The author makes too much effort – more than facts allow – to divorce himself from traditional thinking.

While there are certainly present some of the ‘non-zero-sum’ developments and trends he notes, they aren’t dominant forces in today’s geopolitical developments, but rather are subjugated to more traditional geopolitical movements. The “East” is rising to take global dominance away from the West.

“East” includes most of the emerging economies, not merely those powers like China that are geographically located in the East. And their integration and cooperation with each other and increasingly following the lead of the Russia-China strategic axis is much more important and mature a geopolitical development than the author wants to see or admit.

Bottom line: this is a power play, with the emerging economies working hard to take away U.S. dominance. The author makes too much of the uniqueness of the individual emerging economy players, and not enough of the ever-closer-knit coalition-like relations among them.

Posted by NukerDoggie | Report as abusive

The world, as far as I remember, has always been an Archipelago World. Those who used to live on the biggest island, probably did not notice. I am afraid, though, that in the end, this “multidimensionalily” might manifest itself in just two dimensions, just exactly how the previous “multidimensionality” in the 19th century did… The usual game of declining powers and rising powers with inevitable war at the end, nothing new. But there is one good idea in the article one does not hear so often from such kind of people, which is: power is always a zero sum game!

Posted by tk2 | Report as abusive

Let me say it in simple words: POWER WAR ECONOMY = MONEY. The trouble in our world is that all of this started with money and that’s what all this is about. We all must admit that money owns us and not viceversa. Everything is about money. The whole world is addicted to it, can’t do without, while our planet is fighting against us, us, who destroys instead to preserve our biggest treasure on this earth WATER, AIR, NATURE = OUR REAL POWER. That’s the sadness of the human being.
Only throughout our children we can still change the world teaching them what is crucial to continue living on this earth, otherwise there won’t be a future for them.

Posted by Janaiy | Report as abusive

Hope we find the right formula by mistake. It is one world one nation.

Posted by NoBorder | Report as abusive

From this description, it seems that the US is wholly unprepared to live in an archipelago world. Having thrown in the diplomatic card years ago in favor of achieving–or attempting to achieve–profits and power by bombing “friends” and enemies alike, we have missed the fact that the “my way or the highway” strategy is no longer tenable. If, as the author states, “negotiating this new mosaic of power will require a mix of pragmatism, modesty, innovation, and strategic patience,” then the US is truly doomed.

Posted by Medusa | Report as abusive

Great Concept which could be translated into “The Age of Networks” but Archipelago is more romantic and carries stronger social connotation- Sure enough the Archipelago has always existed just like the US melting pot was nothing more than a nice transitory dream. – If we have our eyes open it is clear that we are existing the age of Industrial globalization and standardization to enter a world of overlapping networks and customization in all realms of human activity even the art of warfare is changing – Now is the time for our Corporate elite to prepare to the new world with new paradigms our fall into the dump of history – Are we prepared to think out of the Box ?

Posted by Nesty44 | Report as abusive

@ NukerDoggie: Your Nixonian slip is showing, and your paranoia is palpable. That’s alright. It’ll all be over soon.

What amazes me is the continuing stream of media discussion about the coming world-shift, which uniformly ignores entirely the most fundamental factor that will re-order everything. This factor does not care about power dynamics, or honesty and legitimacy, or bribery, or leverage. Before this one force, all economic and political concerns will be swept aside as houses before a tsunami.

I agree with your assessment, and your description, Nader. I appreciate its hopefulness, its positive tone. I love your conceptualization of the world’s interests as an archipelago.

But you, too, are ignoring the elephant in the room. Your conceptualization of the world’s interests as an archipelago is more right than you know, but does not go far enough. For it is our fate to witness, in the very near future, the devolution of a world civilization built upon cheap, abundant and highly efficient fuel. A fuel that is being produced at lower EROI’s annually, and accelerating in its descent. A fuel that has not been replaced by any alternative, and we have run out of time on developing any replacement.

Instead, we artificially damp the price by releasing reserves, we encourage the continued production of autos, planes and trains. We (at least the U.S. and certain other powers) continue to profligately throw this resource away in militaristic paroxysms, some of which are patently for the very purpose of obtaining control over the last dregs of this fuel. We kill, and we are killed, and those in power know it is of small consequence, because when the extraction of the fuel goes negative ROI, we’re done. The civilization cannot be supported upon what is left.

In a few thousand years, if anything of our words survives, the people who puzzle over our civilization will wonder, “What the hell were they thinking?” It certainly wasn’t about our future.

Posted by BowMtnSpirit | Report as abusive

“If, as the author states, “negotiating this new mosaic of power will require a mix of pragmatism, modesty, innovation, and strategic patience,” then the US is truly doomed.”

Medusa, that is pithy. Succinct. And who could argue?

Oh well, technological civilization was great while it lasted!

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive

NukerDoggie-I also see this confluence of China, Russia and their followers as more significant than the individual sovereign nations. There will always be some nation striving to be the big dog, usually more than one, and if it is not the U.S. it will just be somebody else.

Also, Nader, I admire your optimism but please get some help with editing.

Posted by Fern | Report as abusive

I enjoyed reading this – enjoyed seeing the changes from this perspective. Maybe you should have written Obama’s speach yesterday, this sounds more reassuring and points to a goal, a transition that does not necessarily have to end in a horrible state.

Posted by Pinch | Report as abusive