January 27, 2014 7:33 pm

Growth and globalisation cannot cure all the world’s ills

New forms of political conflict have emerged that are resistant to traditional prescriptions
Ingram Pinn illustration

Faced with a dangerous political threat, governments the world over tend to place their faith in the same magic medicine – economic growth. When world leaders try to address the roots of terrorism, for example, they instinctively assume that prosperity and jobs must be the long-term answer. And when a regional conflict threatens to get out of control – in east Asia or the Middle East – the standard political response is to call for greater economic integration. From Europe to China, governments place their faith in economic growth as the key to political and social stability.

But just as doctors fear the emergence of superbugs that will not respond to existing drugs, so world leaders are beginning to witness the emergence of new forms of political conflict that are resistant to their traditional prescriptions – more trade and more investment, washed down with a good dose of structural reform.

Three political superbugs are causing special concern. The first is the spread of conflict in the Middle East. The second is the growing rivalry between China and Japan. The third is rising inequality in the western world – and the threat of social conflict that goes with it.

Delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which ended last week, are the classic believers that capitalism and globalisation are the best antidotes to conflict. This belief is so deeply ingrained that it no longer even needs to be articulated. You can just see it in the way in which a Davos audience responds to political leaders.

This year it was President Hassan Rouhani of Iran who was received with great enthusiasm, largely because he seemed more interested in trade and investment than in nuclear weapons. Mr Rouhani did not shift Iran’s position on the difficult political issues – such as Syria, Israel or nuclear weapons – in any important way. But he sent a significant signal by beginning his speech with a statement of his ambition for Iran to become one of the 10 largest economies in the world. The Iranian leader also stressed the need to improve his nation’s relations with the rest of the world in order to achieve that goal. This emphasis on economics suggested to those in the audience that President Rouhani is literally a man you could do business with.

As a result, Mr Rouhani is in the novel position, for an Iranian leader, of being regarded as a voice of reason in the Middle East. But the president’s elevated status in the eyes of the Davos crowd is also a sign of how bleak things look elsewhere in the region.

No appeal to economic rationality is likely to end the war in Syria – where both sides are fighting for survival. It is also clear that the jihadists who are flourishing in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are unmoved by the fruits of globalisation. Unless something goes seriously wrong, they will not be showing up in Davos any time soon.

Many still hope that an improvement in the economic situation of the Middle East will assuage the economic despair on which militant Islam is assumed to flourish. Yet not all jihadists hail from poor countries or impoverished backgrounds. Some of the militants showing up in Syria have travelled from Europe. Others have come from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. Jihadism is a disease that does not respond well to the traditional economic drugs.

The rise in tensions between China and Japan is an even more graphic illustration of the fact that economic self-interest is not a cure-all for political problems. China is now Japan’s largest trading partner and the biggest recipient of Japanese foreign investment – facts that many analysts still hope will make conflict between the two nations significantly less likely. Yet in some respects, China’s growing prosperity is actually driving the increase in international tensions in Asia. That is because the rise of China has altered the balance of power between Beijing and Tokyo and – combined with the bitter history between the two countries – that explains why relations are getting worse.

In Europe and North America it is the threat of political and social tensions within nations, rather than international rivalries, that are worrying the global plutocracy. A central element of the Davos creed is the faith that globalisation is good for both the western world and for emerging powers.

However, it is now almost conventional wisdom that the globalisation medicine has had an unpleasant side-effect. Even if it raises overall growth levels it has also powerfully contributed to wage stagnation and increasing inequality in the west. As a result, European politicians are worrying about a possible resurgence of the nationalist right and the radical left. And the Americans are increasingly worried about the gap between the richest 1 per cent and the rest – and the political consequences should the gulf keep widening.

It is easy to mock the global plutocracy – fretting about war and inequality – as they sip fine wines, behind a security perimeter high in the Swiss mountains. Yet global bankers and business people are, at least, largely immune to the viruses of xenophobia and nationalism. Their unofficial slogan is “make money, not war”. And they treat foreigners as potential customers rather than potential enemies.

In that sense, the idea that capitalism and globalisation are the best antidotes to political conflict – for all its flaws – retains a lot of attraction. Even if the old economic treatments for political conflict are losing some of their potency, they are still the best we have.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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