Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The global consensus on trade is unravelling

Lawrence Summers does a little narrative shuffling. 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.