Sunday 22 April 2018

Sobering analysis charts a world in freefall

Zero Sum World Gideon Rachman (Atlantic Books £20)

MOST of the books reviewed in these pages over the last few weeks have tried to analyse what went wrong here in Ireland.

'Zero Sum World' by the sometimes brilliant and always well-informed Gideon Rachman has bigger fish to fry. Rachman's survey of global problems is so large that Ireland barely deserves a mention but this book still does not make for pretty reading.

The chief foreign affairs columnist of the 'Financial Times' concerns himself with the inability of the large countries to reach agreement on everything from nuclear proliferation to the war in Afghanistan and the likelihood of some sort of world war.

The book contains little that is new, but it is sobering to contemplate the sheer number of problems confronting the world right now and the inability of the major powers to make headway when it comes to solving those problems even when they present a clear danger on the scale of North Korea.

While this book is not necessarily aimed at the business reader, it belongs on your shelf because the increasing belligerence that Rachman charts is affecting business and could well affect us a good deal more painfully in the years ahead as the great Pax Americana gives way to a multi-polar world once again.

After all, Irish economic and foreign policy often seems to consist of little more than wooing US companies and assuring American presidents that they are lucky enough to have Irish blood coursing through their veins.

Rachman finishes the book with the obligatory suggestions for fixing the world but this section is the least satisfactory or convincing.

One wants to believe that the end of American hegemony will be a peaceful affair, but even the most cursory reading of history reminds us that empires rarely collapse without causing waves that can wash painfully over small and open countries many miles away.

Rachman seems happier quoting Trinity College Dublin academic Kevin O'Rourke's research that shows that globalisation is not a one-way street and has been reversed several times in the past "almost always with wars that were accompanied by highly disruptive and contagious financial crises".

Such views can sometimes seem vague but the study of international relations is an arcane subject that often produces very commonplace conclusions, and it is interesting to read someone like Rachman effectively renounce his free-market neo-liberal views which he and others have expressed so eloquently in the past.

The Irish embraced neo-liberal economic views with a gusto matched in few other European countries but are now wondering ruefully whether we should not have listened a little harder to our more sceptical European neighbours.

'Zero Sum World' leaves one with the uneasy feeling that we may also have to start re-evaluating our often unspoken neo-liberal foreign policy assumptions that America will still be top dog in 20 years and send in the Marines to protect us should we face a serious geopolictical problem.

It is a powerful reminder that we here in Ireland must re-evaluate our world view as well as our views on economic management.

Irish Independent

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