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June 13, 2013

Breaking Down the Wonk/Pundit Stovepipes
Posted by David Shorr

Oilprice logo3Recently I did a media interview with a different kind of outlet than usual: a web-based energy market newsletter called Since it was this blog that led interviewer James Stafford to my doorstep, I thought I'd complete the circle by posting substantive points from our exchange as well as some broader reflections on what foreign policy wonks and traders -- or at least economic and foreign policy -- have to do with each other.

Our main topic was the multilateralism of climate change, particularly the question of whether the regime for carbon emission reductions post-Kyoto Protocol must take the form of a legally-binding treaty. As I say in the interview, a system of pledges and peer review may be more workable and appropriate:

We’ve seen that Beijing and New Delhi are more amenable to a system of peer review for GHG reductions than a fully elaborated and codified treaty. And here in our own country, senate Republicans’ waning interest in the issue (or outright hostility) makes US ratification of any treaty uncertain at best. 

Not that shifting to a looser “pledge and review” framework would settle all the difficult issues. China and India have also put up resistance when it comes to measurement, reporting, and verification of GHG levels.  Yet these kinds of steps to monitor progress are no less important for an informal climate regime. The whole point of a peer review system would be to get on with the work of cutting emissions instead of wrangling over every word of a draft treaty.

In certain areas like nuclear disarmament, I believe in traditional black-letter conventions as much as the next multilateralist. But as I've written on this blog before, that might not be the right approach for climate change. The reasons have to do with India and China. To start with, the Kyoto agreement's glaring gap was that it placed no obligation for emission cuts on the two rising powers (a flaw that climate-shirkers in the developed world have seized on). And because of China and India's economic development and growth imperatives, they'll only be willing to go so far. Also, one of the big questions about the impact of rising powers on the international system is the anticipated shift of their role from "rule-takers" to "rule-makers." This issue might be the harbinger of that shift. 

Not that I'm breaking new ground here. Bona fide experts on energy and climate change diplomacy like CFR's Michael Levi or Joshua Busby of the LBJ School have forgotten more than... But despite the intense fight in the UNFCCC over a legally-binding agreement, it hasn't really been subject to much debate in the wider policy community.

Which brings me to the topic of the lines that divide the major areas of discourse and policy in international affairs. We tend to think of stovepiping as an inter-agency process problem, with parts of the bureaucracy too focused on their patches of turf to see the big picture or produce smart policy. But lately I've wondered about the relationship between larger policy realms and professional specializations such as economic, foreign, social, or security policy. Is there another problem stemming from too much separation of the conversations among wonks contending with the different baskets of issues? 

In my own case, I'm a foreign policy specialist who often finds himself the odd man wonk out in a crowd of economic policy types. This could mean two things. Either I'm at the vanguard of a new convergence between economic and political affairs, or I've wandered off from my own herd and ended up in another. I'd like to think it's the former -- that the dividing lines have shifted, or blurred at any rate. So then, what's wrong with the standard ways of categorizing and deliberating the substance of international policy? 

Start with the category where I live: high politics. This is the domain of issues with heightened diplomatic stakes. It's diplomacy that forces -- or at least probes -- the question of where national governments stand. These are tests of political / policy alignment, not necessarily in terms of geopolitical blocs but certainly clarifying the world community's political center of gravity on an issue. And the substantive questions of 21st Century high politics aren't always the classic politico-security affairs associated with foreign ministries, the cabinet agencies that have this remit.

Consider the top tier of the current international agenda: restoring the global economy to health and growth, stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, and checking climate change. Only one of these, nonproliferation, is a traditional political/security matter. If everyone "stays in her lane" for the debates on these issues -- leaving them in the hands of the specialist communities who are steeped in them -- won't the quality of discourse and policy outcomes suffer as a consequence?

This is the question that crystallized yesterday in an email exchange with a very smart colleague, Sophia Murphy, who is an expert on food security. Sophia has noticed economic and trade policy experts sometimes saying simplistic, apolitical things about governments failing to take some sensible policy step. I can also recall hearing a senior national security hand recently assert China would never agree to rebalance their economy from dependence on exports toward greater domestic consumption. Except that Chinese leaders actually have decided to do just that. Not that we need to bring this person into the economic policy debate, but perhaps you can see how wonk segregation can warp perceptions about Chinese policy.  

In these last several years as a G20-watcher, there's a frequent quip that's always a head-scratcher for me. I often hear economic wonks say that issues on the G-20 agenda are "too technical for heads of government to deal with" -- better leave them to finance ministries. For some questions that is no doubt true, but I see problems with the tendency to wall off economic policy coordination as a realm apart. For instance, the austerity v. stimulus debate has arguably been the most consequential of recent times, and the stovepiping of discourse has probably short-changed an important political overlay.

Of course the essential substance of that debate is indeed economic. The blurred dividing line is more noteworthy on an issue like the threat of severe food price shocks like we saw in 2008 -- the issue on which I've been working with Sophia. The obvious politico-security salience of the topic is the upheaval of food riots that broke out during the last food crisis. Yet there are other stakes for this issue giving it added significance for the international political system. This is a question of cushioning people who haven't reaped globalization's full benefits from the tribulations of globalized commodity markets, helping rectify inequities of globalization.

But you wouldn't know that if you classified it as purely a matter of economic policy.


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