Human ingenuity has created an integrated global economy, weapons of mass destruction and threats to the biosphere on which we rely. Yet human nature remains that of an instinctively tribal primate. This contradiction becomes more prominent than before, as the interdependence deepens and the rivalry between the superpowers intensifies.
This raises a sobering question: is it possible for a divided humanity to provide essential global public goods? Since Xi Jinping, leader of the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, even decided not to attend COP26 in Glasgow, the response does not seem encouraging.
The fundamental global public goods are prosperity, peace and protection against planetary disasters, such as climate change or severe pandemics. These goods are interconnected: without peace between the great powers, prosperity is fragile at best; and neither peace nor prosperity will last in a world ravaged by environmental disasters.
States exist to provide public goods and, even so often, do not. But no global state exists. Instead, global public goods must be provided by agreement between some 200 sovereign nations, especially the major competing powers. This leads to freeriding and disputes over whether the intended burden sharing is fair.
After World War II, global prosperity was supported by a mosaic of rules and institutions designed and managed by the Western powers, led by the United States. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union chose to stay out of the new system. The rules governing trade were based on the mercantilist principle of reciprocity. Meanwhile, after the collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate regime in 1971, currencies and capital flows were unmanaged. Migration was also left to the decisions of individual states.
Meanwhile, world peace was maintained by a balance of terror between the rival nuclear superpowers. But that did not prevent proxy wars and very dangerous times, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Finally, action on the global environment and even pandemics has been limited and ineffective, apart from a great success, the Montreal Protocol Agreement on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer of 1987. We are now engaged in discussions on the climate threat for three decades: emissions have continued to increase.
Sadly, our ability to deliver global public goods, modest in the past, is expected to shrink further as the rivalry between the United States and China intensifies. Of course, China does not promote a global ideology, as the Soviet Union did. However, China and the United States are very different countries, one a centralized despotism, the other a crumbling democracy. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has a dynamic market economy that is strongly integrated into the world economy. It is also essential for addressing global environmental challenges. The management of global public goods of prosperity and protection of the planet – in addition, of course, to peace – cannot be done without China.
So how could this work, not just over the next few years, but over what is likely to be many decades, maybe generations? The short answer is: with difficulty. The longer answer is: by being ambitiously pragmatic. We have to accept that we share our planet and interact too deeply with each other to avoid cooperation, even though we may hate each other. What we need to do is define and internalize the fundamental interests that unite us.
What can this mean in practice?
When it comes to prosperity, the most important requirement is that each country, especially the superpowers, define the freedom they need to protect their desired economic, political and security autonomy, while respecting the commitments that make their actions predictable.
In matters of peace, the objective must be transparency on the objectives and capacities of each party, in order to avoid military or related surprises. This will require deep engagement between Chinese and Western military and civilian establishments at all levels.
Regarding the protection of the planet, among the most important challenges, it is essential to agree on how to mitigate threats to the climate. The outcome of COP26 will provide a convincing indication of the possibility. But greater capacity to manage pandemics is also urgent.
We are at a turning point in history.
The old Western-dominated economic system is not going to transform into a more orderly global system, as some hoped in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the great challenge of securing peace in the nuclear age remains. and the new challenge of protecting the biosphere is becoming more and more urgent.
We must not abandon attempts at global cooperation. It would be a catastrophe threatening peace, prosperity and the planet. Rather, we must focus on defining and implementing the minimum cooperation we must now have if humanity is to achieve what we will all need.
This will involve sitting down with each other to establish or renew: first, institutions and practices to promote prosperity that can offer economic development, debt management, and liberal and predictable trade; second, institutions and practices for the protection of peace that will provide transparency and credible security to all; and, finally, institutions and practices for protecting the planet that will provide a habitable Earth for us and our fellow human beings.
None of this will be easy. Yet we have reached a point where the alternative to exceed our limits is disaster. If we are to enjoy peace, prosper and protect our planet, we must accept to disagree, while continuing to cooperate.
No reasonable alternative exists.
Follow Martin Wolf with myFT and on Twitter