Religion, economics and politics – how will we define global governance in the 21st Century?

This weekend, while the Western world worries about how to bail out Greece, a group of eight developing nations will meet in the hopes of expanding industrial trade and investment across what could one-day be one of the world’s most important trade blocs.

The D8 – or Developing 8 – includes Iran, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Together, they represent over 970 million people, or 14 per cent of the world’s population today. Note that the G8 represent about the same amount of constituents. Perhaps more important, the D8 represents some of the fastest growing countries in the world, and over 60 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. I note this latter figure because I’m increasingly curious about the role ideology and culture will play in our evolving systems of global governance.  And given the homogenous religious composition of the D8, one can’t help but wonder what role religion will play in establishing both multilateral and global economic and political governance structures.

Since the end of the bi-polar period of the Cold War, global governance has fit in a neat and tidy box built and directed by powerful countries in North America and Western Europe. Certainly, bilateral trade and relations has often been built on cultural and religious ties but global governance has chosen ideology instead. And so for the past two-decades, neo-liberalism and the Washington Consensus has pushed an agenda that is focused on free trade, a reduced role for government and modern, liberal democratic rights. And before that, countries could choose between Communism and the free-market. Economics determined influence, and influence was based on ideology.

However, the results of the last twenty odd years of a Western economic ideology on developing economies hasn’t proved the accompanying thesis i.e. the strongest growth over the past several decades have come from countries ruled  through autocracy and with strong government intervention in markets rather than the ideology of the day.

Thus while there is no hard and fast rule that democracy preceeds development, countries that have been forced by economic realities to follow the ideologies and strategies as directed by our current systems of governance have had no choice but to acquiesce on this one single path.

Moving forward, it’s not hard to imagine that given the growing influence of countries that followed very different economic growth strategies, notably China, Brazil and Russia, the rules and strategies that underpin global and multi-lateral governance will start to become increasingly democratized amongst these various ideologies and experiences.

The US and its powerful European allies won’t be able to direct the affairs of others quite as they used to. Evidently, one could point at the period of the Cold War and argue that a duality of economic and political strategies aren’t a panacea for those who choose amongst them but that’s somewhat beside the point; people / governments want choice.

And we’re now about to enter a phase of global governance where the diffusion of economic power will mean they can. China, India and Brazil are already power-brokers amongst developing countries, and increasingly use their wealth and financial reserves to invest heavily both in their backyard, and well beyond. For example, China is the leading investor is both Burma and the Congo – and allows economics rather than politics to rule their relations. Brazil is a leading investor across Latin America and increasingly in the Middle East and Africa.

Groups such as the D8 may represent one more of those choices. Oil rich, demographically powerfully, and geo-strategically very important vis-à-vis security and energy, these 8 countries represent a significant coalition of power, one that could hold exceptional influence in the coming years as they use their energy-related wealth and burgeoning youth population to build their global influence. And given the relative homogeneity of religious composition amongst members, one can’t help but wonder if a grouping such as this will see religion be the tie that binds, rather than economic or political ideology. If Communism was the other during the bi-polar Cold War, might religion be the other as we move beyond Western unilateralism?

To begin with, it’s very unlikely we’re headed towards a bi-polar world, let alone one based solely on religion. China and the US may be the strongest, but they’re far from the only power brokers around. Brazil, India and Russia each believe they have equal rights to global influence. Moreover, as I noted in my last column, Turkey and Iran are both playing increasingly active regional roles. Multi-polarity is fast approaching.

But the question is what will tie countries to each other or to one of those poles – will it be economic ideology as it was from 1920 forward? Political ideology? Or will it be religion?

I for one certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see global governance move away from its current unilateral umbrella to a model of concentric circles, each representing a combination of economic influence and shared ideology – but when religion starts to become one of the defining factors of these new groupings, I can’t help but worry that Samuel Huntington’s vision of a Clash of Civilizations, and the conflict that would ensue, stands a much greater chance of becoming a reality.

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