Convergence Beyond Great Fanfare: Cursory Thoughts at the Turn of the Year

Whereas the global economy accelerates the production of trans-border interdependencies in trade and consumption, legal-normative and cultural systems have their own momentum alongside these processes and produce diversity and effects that are unforeseen. The gap between these evolutions in international society is a major concern from a global cooperation perspective. Their integration plays out on different levels, even within a national framework. Mediating technological developments and changes in value systems will be a major challenge, and we are probably only a step from the next round of profound shifts in infrastructure and communication technology that will further change our labour and everyday life. Digitization and automation have already developed new applications. But legal and cultural frameworks are not yet in place. Johan Rockström recently commented that there is no 'silver bullet out there where we simply can slide seamlessly into a completely different future'.

  • It will never ever be enough with just technological solutions: we will have to change our lifestyles, we have to change our values.

That raises new questions because scientists detect interdependencies between policy fields that were not on the screen so far. The climate-migration-health nexus is a case in point. At Princeton this nexus is researched by a group of economists and philosophers. Marc Fleurbaey from the Center for Human Values at Princeton points to the social dimension of this field. Mitigating climate change has those implications and in a way 'this is not just about protecting future generations; it is about protecting the future poor'.

Decisions in one policy field might raise concerns in another:

  • This is really an ethical problem. Some approaches essentially say: We shouldn't care about the number of people; that has no value in itself. We should just focus on how well-off the average person is. But there are other approaches which say that there is a value in having more people and if you reason in these terms, then you look at things very differently. There is potentially a trade-off. So you might accept having more people, even when on average they will be slightly less well-off, just because you put value in the fact of having many people enjoying the life of being a human person.

What should 'we' tell the people? What 'nudges' them in the favourable direction?  That's what expert Johan Rockström asks himself:

  • Perhaps we made a big mistake in the late 1980s where we said: 'We have a climate problem, it results from fossil fuel burning, and it has caused global warming, and let's solve it.'
    Perhaps we should have said something different: 'We have a problem. We are emitting greenhouse gases, which shortens the lives of a very significant proportion of the world population. It causes the oceans to collapse. We have an air pollution problem that hits individuals. Let's decarbonize. And then - oops! - yes, it raises the temperatures as well. It just so happens that it also leads to global warming, which seems to be a big problem as well. But the big problem is associated with individual health. 'It shortens your life. Do you really want that? Is that a cool future? Why do you want a coal mine, a dirty risky job, a sector that kills people, a sector that shortens life, a sector that is also not very high-tech and not very attractive from an advanced society perspective. Why do you want that?'

Scenario building is therefore likely to become a major research domain, by far exceeding the classical perspectives of international relations research. The Centre organized scenario workshops in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on Europe-West Africa migration policy perspectives and the results are to be published soon.* A masterclass in May outlined possible research fields. These results are already published.*

The economy-technology-value nexus still seems to be less of a focus of research than it could (or should) be. When Wu Guoguang argues that the global economic system by its very functionality fits authoritarian political rule better (than democracy), he contributes an aspect to the debate on political liberalism and global democracy that the discourse in the humanities tends to neglect.

When we think of the major events with a possible impact on the future of world society, the G20 Summit in Hamburg in June will pop up, along with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (UN resolution 71/258), signed by 120 nations in July, and the Bonn Conference of the Parties (COP23) in November.

In May, a conference in Beijing to promote China's Belt and Road Initiative was attended by representatives of over 100 nations, including 29 heads of state. At a time when US foreign policy is coming close to what could be called 'fake governance', the rising power steps in with elegant ideas and versed strategic clout. Unless we are mistaken, the challenges will come on the ground. But the project raises the productive question of how the world wants to frame an interconnectedness (legally, culturally, technologically) against which the complexity of the BRI looks like a children's sketch - no less than the Westphalian system, one might be tempted to say. And therefore this reconfiguration may be part of a bigger picture. 

Even the last Cold War front along the Korean peninsula may soon dissolve in a reconfiguration that will transform borders and the nation state without unmaking either of them. 

At times, when convergence is already going on, some identitarian resistances play out and may produce an ultimate sense of urgency. What identitarians do not understand is that transformation always means losing and gaining something in parallel. This is also the downside of win-win constellations. Global cooperation research claims to know something about it. And how the rising power will connect with this discourse may be one of the bigger questions for the near future.

With my best wishes for the New Year

Martin Wolf



Wu, Guoguang (2017), Globalization against Democracy, A Political Economy of Capitalism after its Global Triumph, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grinin, L. E.; Korotaev, A. V. (2015), Great Divergence and Great Convergence. A Global Perspective. Cham: Springer.

Statements from interviews with Marc Fleurbaey and Johan Rockström, 5 November 2017, Bonn, by Martin Wolf.

Marc Fleurbaey
Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics and Humanistic Studies, Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

Johan Rockström
Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and a professor of Environmental Science at Stockholm University

Related Centre Publications

Markus Böckenförde, Elisabeth Braune (eds.)
Prospective Migration Policy - Scenario Building on Relations Between West Africa and Europe
(Global Dialogues 15). Forthcoming

Nora Dahlhaus, Daniela Weißkopf (eds.)
Future Scenarios of Global Cooperation - Practices and Challenges
(Global Dialogues 14). Duisburg 2017