SSU Forum with Professor David Held

Date: Tuesday, October 24 2017, 10:30 - 12:00
Venue: Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject: “ Elements of a Theory of Global Politics: From the Holocaust to the Present Day”
Lecture: David Held, Professor, Durham University
Language: English
hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo
Abstract: It is now conventional wisdom to see the great policy challenges of the twenty-first century as inherently transnational. The world increasingly needs effective international cooperation, but multilateralism appears unable to deliver it in the face of deepening interdependence, rising multipolarity, and the growing complexity and fragmentation that characterize the global order. Against this challenging background, a number of interesting anomalies and exceptions to multilateral dysfunction are highlighted, suggesting pathways through and beyond it. The lecture offers a vital new perspective on world politics as well as a practical guide for positive change in global policy.

The Security Studies Unit was honoured to host a talk delivered by David Held, Professor of Politics at Durham University (UK). Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, Director of the SSU and of PARI, introduced the guest as a most distinguished scholar whose work is well-known globally to any student of international political theory, starting from the volume “Models of Democracy” (now in its third edition) through the analysis of globalization and global governance, to the most recent work on global issues.

Professor Held thanked Professor Fujiwara for the chance to speak at the University of Tokyo, and stated to introduced his talk by explaining to the audience the driver that keeps him producing new books and research. The reason is the continuing interests in the outstanding issues of the present age. In particular, a few years ago Professor Held published “Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need It Most”. This book was a quite pessimistic assessment of the grave problems characterising the globally interconnected world, where cooperation is faltering on crucial questions which may well have a very large destabilising effect on the near future of the planet.

The argument of “Gridlock” is focused on an analysis of why multilateral cooperation efforts such as the Copenhagen conference on climate change (2009) or the Doha Round (2008) failed. The explanation is first of all that the causes of failure were exogenous, not endogenous. They came from the outside, not the matter itself of the negotiation. Professor Held argued that international scholars have been asking for long time the wrong question. The question is not “why do states cooperate?” as in most of realist scholarship, but “why do state not cooperate?”

Looking back in history, after the disaster of WWII, the founders of the UN gathered in San Francisco in order to build a different world order where harmonisation of national interests would have yielded a peaceful planet. This promised was not fully kept, as the Cold War set in. However, the military standoff between the US and the USSR paradoxically facilitated the emergence of some kind of interdependence (in the form of MAD or mutually assured destruction) by establishing a sense of shared vulnerability. Despite all the complexity and risks, the post-WWII environment facilitated the emergence of a governance system which guaranteed peace among great powers despite the occurrence of proxy wars. That was also a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, with the recovery of Europe and a strong US growth, followed by the emergence of East Asia as a major centre of economic activity, first in Japan, then in other smaller nations, and from the 1980s in China. China’s economic growth has been tremendous, as it has lifted hundreds of millions out of dire poverty.

For about seventy years there has been a virtuous cycles where post-war institutions created the conditions for the rise in prosperity, while the expanding logic of capitalism and technological innovation have increased interdependence. Economic globalisation was allowed to thrive as economic operators were living in a relatively liberal, relatively democratic environment.

However, global interdependence is now producing vast side-effects, which collectively lead to a near halt, or extreme difficulty of, international cooperation. Professor Held explained the four pathways to gridlock as

  1. Emerging multipolarity: the multiplication of actors and the diminishing hegemony of the US or the Western world in general makes negotiations more complex.
  2. Institutional inertia: established institutions are bureaucratic organisations which can leap to new problems/visions only with extreme difficulty.
  3. Harder problems: the problems that the world faces today are much more complex, interconnected, and multifaceted than before. Some may be “wicked problems” with no obvious solution.
  4. Fragmentation.

This gridlock leads to a vicious circle of unsolved problems leading to unmanaged/unmitigated challenges, which fuel a populist, nationalist, anti-global backlash, which in turn diminishes the space for international cooperation, strengthening the gridlock even more. The conclusion of “Gridlock” was therefore that our age is somewhat similar to the 1930s in terms of economic stagnation (post-2008), populism, nationalism, xenophobia.

Such pessimistic conclusion, Professor Held continued, was challenged bythe continuing presence of some important anomalies and exceptions to the main argument . This is the main idea behind the newest volume, “Beyond Gridlock” (2017).

The optimistic note in the new book is that change is possible, and even probable ,in certain circumstances . The book focuses on twelve different key areas (from financial regulation to climate change), which experts from each area were called upon to help elucidate the conditions of change . It then constructs a theoretical framework based on seven pathways for change, which are grouped around the key ideas of resilience, innovation, and agency . One key driver of change is the civil society. However, Professor Held argued, the civil society alone cannot overcome the gridlock. Various historical instances have demonstrated that hurdles in cooperation can be transcended only if there is an alliance between civil society and key reformists states, which take up the banner of change in international institutions. This has been particularly visible in the path to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which showed how the coalescing of multiple actors (states and non-states) around certain principles and goals can be conducive to positive commitments to international cooperation. Paris was indeed a breakthrough, but it was not the only one. The P5+1 in the negotiations with Iran, the global initiatives on money laundering, the international response to the Ebola epidemic, the international campaign against piracy, are all examples of an approach which could and should be extended to other areas.

Finally, the key message from Professor Held was that on the one hand existing international institutions are gridlocked and appear largely incapable of delivering answers to pressing and grave global challenges. This leads to a spiral of self-reinforcing trends strengthening the gridlock. However, on the other hand, the very awareness of this gridlock is leading towards the emergence of alternative forms of global governance which may well be capable of delivering some solutions and possibly in the longer run a reform of the international institutional setting itself.