international analysis and commentary

Six takeaways from a high-level Venice gathering

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 When a group of around eighty top-level experts gather for a closed door conversation, there is a great opportunity to connect the dots of a complex world, but also to get a sense of what may be missing from the debate. The following are takeaways from such a roundtable organized by Aspen Institute Italia and Chatham House in Venice on March 8-9, mostly pointing to key questions that remain unanswered.

  1. The general outlook of the global political economy is a useful point of departure for our discussions, but we seem to lack an overarching conceptual framework. In particular, it is not clear whether the world needs a traditional “hegemonic” power to provide order as a last resort or it is good enough to have two superpowers (very likely the US and China) jostling for influence while uneasily cooperating on some issues. Perhaps, all we really need is a few agreed basic rules and an accepted balance of power. Then the question becomes: can the economic complexity of the XXI century be managed reasonably well by a balance of power in the absence of sophisticated institutional mechanisms and rules of the game? If multilateral institutions continue to lose effectiveness and legitimacy – as they are doing – where will the rules be negotiated and who will enforce them?
  2. On Europe’s future, most experts agree that better decisionmaking is the key. Under great pressure the EU has been able to make some hard decisions, far from perfect but still remarkable. Yet, Europeans are constantly tempted to procrastinate and be complacent. The anti-establishment duo of populism/sovreignism is probably the consequence of policy failures due precisely to the last-ditch efforts made after long periods of elite complacency (or even blindness). If this is the case, the current predicament of liberal market democracy in Europe is really a policy challenge, much more than a matter of politics. Electoral cycles run their course, but the ultimate response to voters’ disaffection and anger is more effective policy, better governance and a new “social compact” – whatever one thinks of social media, disintermediation, fake news and the like.
  3. In the chronically unstable and worrisome Middle East, no outside power can really change regional dynamics, but these remain very fragmented and conflict-ridden. The Saudi-Iran competition seems to be just a superficial manifestation of deeper unresolved issues, mostly economic and social: no one really knows what model can help most countries of the Mid-East progress beyond their current situation, given demographic trends and the demands of dissatisfied polities. With the notable exception of Tunisia and the idiosyncratic case of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the entrenched elites or the forces competing for power do not significantly differ from those of the period prior to the 2011 “Arab Springs”.
  4. On China: If and when a US-led coalition decides to actively contain its rise, especially its regional ambitions and cyber-capabilities, China will be a radically different adversary than the Soviet Union. China is very well integrated in the international value chains and enjoys vast financial reserves, with a recent history of rapid growth that was greatly facilitated by the ability to circumvent several rules of international tradeThus, most Cold War analogies are irrelevant and misleading. The Chinese system, suffering from major imbalancies and deficiencies, can evolve in various directions; in any case, civil society will play a role that would have been unthinkable in the Soviet Union – and even in China itself just a decade ago.
  5. The prevailing view in Venice was that global governance will get worse before it gets better. The conference room had an extremely high concentration of intelligence and knowledge, but in assessing global prospects we should consider a different form of intelligence: artificial intelligence (AI). The goals that humans will assign to AI will determine many developments in finance, communications and social media, manufacturing, military affairs etc. At a later stage, it is possible that multiple forms of AI will evolve their own volition, at which point we can only hope that humans will intelligently deal with these very intelligent entities.
  6. The short-term question that appears to have no sensible answer is what Europeans should hope about Brexit for their next high-level meetings. Will they look at it as a point in the past, as current history, or even as something that never happened? At least one aspect of the British national psychodrama is indeed contagious: no one knows exactly what to wish for.