Mon, Mar 31, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Will the war kill globalization?

If multilateral cooperation is to survive, the rift between the pro- and anti-US camps must be healed

By Brigitte Granville

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

The UN and NATO are widely perceived as damaged, if not broken, by their failure to agree on what to do about Iraq. Will these cracks in the international political system now wound the world's economic architecture, and with it globalization, as well?

International economic agreements have never been easy to make. Reaching consensus among the WTO's 145 members, where one dissent can cause utter disarray, was difficult even before the world's governments divided into pro- and anti-American camps. Indeed, multilateral trade agreements were being eclipsed by bilateral deals, such as between the EU and various developing countries, long before the divisions over Iraq appeared.

Of course, the problem goes deeper and not everything that touches globalization has turned dark. Immigration controls, for example, have been relaxed in several European countries (notably Germany) due to declining populations and educational shortcomings. But bad economic times are rarely moments when governments push bold international economic proposals.

Economic fragility among the world's leading economies is the biggest stumbling block. The US and the EU have few fiscal and monetary levers left to combat weak performance. Short-term interest rates in the US, at 1.25 percent, are at a 40-year low. The US Congress has pared US$100 billion from the Bush administration's 10-year US$726 billion tax cut plan and the US's projected 10-year US$2 trillion budget deficit will grow as the Iraq war's costs mount, with President George W. Bush submitting a supplemental request for US$80 billion (0.8 percent of GDP) in extra military spending this year.

Such spending risks absorb productive resources that could be employed more efficiently elsewhere. This was demonstrated by the rapid growth of output and incomes that followed the arrival of the so-called "peace dividend" which came with the Cold War's end. Moreover, others (Arab countries, Germany, and Japan) will not cover the US' military costs, as in the 1991 Gulf War. We are now back to the more usual situation where war is financed by government debt, which burdens future generations unless it is eroded by inflation.

In the Eurozone the scope for fiscal stimulus (lower taxes and/or higher public spending) was constrained until war blew a hole in the Stability Pact, which caps member budget deficits at 3 percent of GDP. The limit will now be relaxed due to the "exceptional" circumstances implied by the Iraq war-providing relief, ironically, to the war's main European opponents, France and Germany. But the European Central Bank remains reluctant to ease monetary policy.

In Japan, there seems little hope that the world's second-largest economy can extricate itself from its homemade deflation trap to generate the demand needed to offset economic weakness elsewhere in the world. Four years of deflation and a drawn-out banking crisis offer little prospect of economic stimulus. Higher oil prices and lower trade turnover aggravate the problem.

But high oil prices threaten the health of the entire US$45 trillion world economy. Oil prices have flirted with their highest level since the Gulf War and will go higher if Iraq's oil infrastructure (or that of neighboring countries) is damaged.

The adverse effects on growth will be felt everywhere, but nowhere more, perhaps, than in the energy-dependent South Korea and China. Although China's official growth rate reached 8 percent last year, its high budget deficit and large stock of non-performing loans (about 40 percent of GDP) mean that it cannot afford any slowdown if it is to keep people employed, especially in rural areas.

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