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Global Discord by Paul Tucker — holding on to values and power

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Demonstrators near the Chinese consulate in New York last month show their support for the anti-lockdown protests in China © Mark Peterson/Redux/eyevine

Beneath what seems like a daily diet of compounding crises across the global economy, public health, war, geopolitics, trade, migration, energy and climate lies a deeper structural dilemma.

We are beset by transnational pressures at a time when our collective ability to manage them is challenged by the rise of China. The world’s most populous country does not share the values or economic practices that underpin the liberal rules-based international system created by the west in its own image after the second world war, when China was a poverty-stricken backwater.

How to co-operate in ways that recognise new power realities but do not call on western democracies to betray their own values is the central theme of Paul Tucker’s book Global Discord.

Tucker, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England now at Harvard’s Kennedy School, argues convincingly that we are in a world of “geoeconomics within geopolitics”, with geopolitical contest increasingly delivered through economic means: think sanctions or the race to dominate technology standards.

He warns that interests (the things we want) cannot be separated from values (the things we believe in) since “values are interests too”, and that scope for co-operation rests on the extent of shared norms and desire for esteem within a society of nations.

The book has extraordinary sweep and breadth of learning. It straddles the line between academic work and rigorous book for generalists — at times awkwardly — and would have benefited from a more aggressive editor.

The first half provides an erudite survey of the history and theory of international relations. It captures the ebb and flow of the universal rights tradition over centuries relative to the “Westphalian” focus on national sovereignty — so named after the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that ended Europe’s wars of religion.

The account is dense with formal categorisation. Phrases such as “Liberal Order System” (or was that Liberal System Order?) bring back painful memories of headaches reading Hegel — it is a good job that Tucker does not write in German. The upside is a structured way of framing how we got here and the choices ahead.

We may quibble with parts of the tale. Tucker portrays the late 19th century as an era of Westphalian sovereignty of individual states when it was the age of imperialism — mostly the greed-and-glory type but also behind-the-border ‘humanitarian’ intrusions. This was Westphalia for the west but not for the rest.

He takes China’s claims of unbroken civilisational continuity over millennia too uncritically, neglecting recent scholarship that highlights the way China’s concept of its place in the world was transformed by the Mongol doctrine of the Great State after it was conquered in the 13th century by Kublai Khan. And he shortchanges the way in which the pooling of sovereignty, such as the EU, empowers smaller states to help shape global standards congruent with their values — a very British shortcoming. But none of this undermines the general authority of the text.

Tucker shows how co-operation under the existing system, with its institutions and rules, is now threatened by “two Giant Knaves”. The rising power, China, desires to reshape the system to better reflect its values and make the world safe for the Chinese Communist party. Meanwhile, the incumbent hegemon, the US, is beset with the internal divisions and external frustrations that fed the Trumpian revolt against the system it created and which still supports American dominance.

Book cover of Global Discord by Paul Tucker

The book picks up pace as Tucker pulls together his thesis, drawing on two intellectual heroes, the philosophers David Hume and Bernard Williams, to propose a third way between amoral realism and universal moralism in international relations based on norms (Hume) and legitimacy (Williams). He argues that liberal democracies should set a minimum standard for partners for anything beyond unavoidable co-ordination: a political system sufficiently legitimate at home not to require excessive coercion. North Korea would clearly not pass this test; Tucker seems to suggest China might but is not clear either way.

Beyond this, Tucker proposes a world of concentric circles, with deeper co-operation among states that share more norms and values. Viewed from a western democracy, the inner circle would be a “thick society” of like-minded democracies; viewed from China, a cluster of like-minded autocracies. States would reduce strategic dependence on others with very different values, while avoiding a full break into autarkic blocs.

The final chapters explore what this means for the international institutions that underpin the global economic system. Here Tucker proceeds with masterly ease, drawing out the geopolitical centrality of the reserve status of the dollar and the way this can create financial stability risks by fuelling demand for purportedly safe US assets. He proposes limiting principles by which international financial institutions such as the IMF may retain legitimacy and effectiveness in a world the west no longer dominates.

Tucker’s pluralist proposal to maintain as universal an international system as can be reconciled with a basic legitimacy test, while calibrating the depth of co-operation to the extent of shared values, feels timely and right.

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Unfortunately, the set of countries required to deal with global challenges that require deep co-operation may not correspond with the set that shares extensive values: climate change is the obvious example. So, we are left with penetrating insight, but not a maths-style solution.

As a book, this is the equivalent of a hike to a summit that might have been accessed by cable car instead: harder work than strictly necessary, but invigorating and well worth it for the view.

Global Discord: Values and Power in a Fractured World Order by Paul Tucker, Princeton University Press £32, $42, 552 pages

Krishna Guha is vice-chair of Evercore ISI and a former member of the management committee of the New York Fed

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