Back in October 1973, the Great and the Good gathered. They did so at the behest of David Rockefeller, the financially independent and influential public citizen whose chosen vocation happened to be global banking. At the time, developments were impelling him. Rockefeller was feeling the growing need for a new “non-governmental discussion group”, as Wikipedia recollects.
Per Rockefeller’s inspiration, this group would enlist notables from the broader “West”, encompassing the three geographies of Japan, North America and Europe. Every two years, these wise people, self-sorted, would meet to discuss salient global issues of the day. Conjuring all of this well-intentioned collective wisdom would yield insights and solutions, it was hoped, to the world’s pressing problems. This global group of well-intentioned elites would convene as the Trilateral Commission. They meet to this day.
Given the present US administration’s ham-fisted and precarious Afghan withdrawal process (still ongoing as I write these comments), one could argue that the Great and the Good should gather again in an extraordinary session of the Trilateral Commission, since fresh Afghan developments join global pandemic, renewed great power rivalry, climate change and other stability-jarring matters.
I, however, would like to suggest a new commission or conclave for the globally concerned. And, as I’ve fulfilled this role in different corporate committee circumstances, I would be happy to do so again as official committee secretary and minute-taker. This new global meeting format would be self-styled as the “Quadrilateral Commission”.
Instead of organizing itself according to an OECD-informed geography, this new discussion group would model itself and direct itself toward the ongoing due-diligence of four key qualities, or rather characteristics, from which geopolitics ensues.
The Quadrilateral Commission would periodically “mark-to-market” the current state and nature of 1) international “confidence”, the abiding belief that system/relations are functional and viable; 2) “deterrence”, the acknowledgement among nations that actions bear consequences; 3) “transparency”, the global provision that allows individuals and states to see clearly, to question and to ascertain; and 4) “reciprocity”, the behaviors and reinforcing action between, among and within states that foster trust.
It’s good to diligence these qualities, which the new Commission would do, because their respective magnitudes underwrite how stable or not the international order is likely to be.
Take the number #2-listed quality, deterrence: Recent developments in Afghanistan may dim state perceptions of the US as the de facto steward of global order, since the current pull-out strategy from Afghanistan appears to have been poorly conceived and difficult to execute. Maybe in retrospect, this episode might just be the proverbial tempest in the teapot, since US economic and military powers remain considerable, even preponderant.
But, maybe not. Maybe US-inspired deterrence has lost a step? Maybe other actors will be tempted to see how quick and resolute current US underwritten deterrence is? Gaming it successfully could yield outsized returns. The Commission should consider these questions and take note.
Now, think about “confidence”, which in some ways dovetails with each of the other three qualities, including the perhaps stressed state of deterrence. Growing leverage levels throughout emerging and developed markets may be undermining global credulity on how these debts will be serviced. Staggered interruptions to the normal functioning of markets due to Covid may be fraying confidence, even in the midst of the global recovery.
Then there are current levels of transparency. While many nations abide by international standards for transparency and disclosure – reinforcing confidence among lenders, investors, and international observers that things are what people say they are – other countries do not. This can be consequential. Notably, China, Gabon and Russia – three countries with low measures for country transparency, per the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators (WGI), ominously number among the small survey of countries possessing state-of-the-art Biosafety Level-4 labs (BSL). Plumbing and understanding the limits on transparency – and the consequences – might also be on the new Commission’s to-do list.
And lastly, the Commission should parse how robust or not international displays of reciprocity are. Reciprocity is the life blood of the international order, of civilization, for that matter. An Ur-level of reciprocity is realized in the confidence a country resident has in holding its local currency, for example. The state seeks to define further its sovereign order and extent through issuing local currency; the resident holder pockets that local currency for its promise as a store of wealth and its fungibility. The efficacy of the sovereign supports the promises inherent in the currency. Now, think of a country with a population of 1.4bln people. That said country issues local currency with said promises attached. But that same country, China, maintains significant capital controls on the Renminbi (Rmb), limiting or even precluding its fungibility. In that way, a promise is broken and Rmb holders may become more inclined to reciprocate as such, as they can.