By Lawrence Summers
With two wars still continuing and violence in Georgia dominating the foreign policy debate; and with the financial crisis and economic insecurity for families dominating the domestic debate, US international economic policy is receiving less attention in this presidential election year than usual. The limited attention it has received has focused on concerns about specific trade agreements, not broader questions of international strategy. That is unfortunate. The next administration faces the prospect of having to make the most consequential international economic policy choices in a generation at a time when the confidence of governments in free markets is being increasingly questioned.
The current distribution of regional economic power is unlike anything that was predicted even a decade ago. The rise of the developing world, its growing share in global output and far greater share of global growth, is perhaps a quantitative but not a qualitative surprise. The qualitative surprise is this: with almost all the industrial world in or near recession, much of the momentum in the global economy is coming from countries with authoritarian governments that are pursuing economic strategies directed towards wealth accumulation and building up geopolitical strength rather than improving living standards for their populations. China, where household consumption has now fallen below 40 per cent of its gross domestic product – which must be some kind of peacetime record – is the most extreme example. Similar tendencies, however, can be seen in other parts of Asia, Russia and other oil exporting countries.
Even before the slowdown in the industrial world, a striking feature of the global economy was the substantial net flow of capital from the emerging periphery to the industrial centre. Rising oil prices have geopolitical as well as economic consequences. The run-up in oil prices over the past year has generated more than $10bn (€6.8bn, £5.4bn) a week in extra revenues for Opec members. Asian export powers and oil exporters have enjoyed a vast accumulation of wealth, adding about $1,000bn a year in assets.
These shifts have affected almost every global economic issue. The pressure created by the investment of these surpluses was one of the big factors driving the excesses that preceded our financial problems. Concern about the flow of imports from countries that have pursued a strategy of export-led growth is a big reason for the protectionist backlash now being seen in the industrialised world. It is now recognised that meaningful efforts to address climate change require a framework that induces China and other emerging markets to co-operate.
It has become a cliché to suggest that the world’s institutional approaches to economic co-operation need overhauling to take into account the rising economic clout of emerging markets and the decline in dominance of the group of seven leading industrialised nations (G7). This is correct. The steps taken so far – the initiation of the G-20 during the 1990s and the adjustments of voting shares in international financial institutions – are valuable if insufficient. Read more