CAMBRIDGE - The world economy is entering a new phase, in which achieving global cooperation will become increasingly difficult. The United States and the European Union, now burdened by high debt and low growth - and therefore preoccupied with domestic concerns - are no longer able to set global rules and expect others to fall into line.
Compounding this trend, rising powers such as China and India place great value on national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. This makes them unwilling to submit to international rules (or to demand that others comply with such rules) - and thus unlikely to invest in multilateral institutions, as the US did in the aftermath of World War II.
As a result, global leadership and cooperation will remain in limited supply, requiring a carefully calibrated response in the world economy's governance - specifically, a thinner set of rules that recognises the diversity of national circumstances and demands for policy autonomy. But discussions in the G-20, World Trade Organisation, and other multilateral fora proceed as if the right remedy were more of the same - more rules, more harmonisation, and more discipline on national policies.
Going back to basics, the principle of 'subsidiarity' provides the right way to think about global governance issues. It tells us which kinds of policies should be coordinated or harmonised globally, and which should be left largely to domestic decision-making processes. The principle demarcates areas where we need extensive global governance from those where only a thin layer of global rules suffices.
Economic policies come in roughly four variants. At one extreme are domestic policies that create no (or very few) spillovers across national borders. Education policies, for example, require no international agreement and can be safely left to domestic policymakers.
At the other extreme are policies that implicate the 'global commons': the outcome for each country is determined not by domestic policies, but by (the sum total of) other countries' policies. Greenhouse-gas emissions are the archetypal case. In such policy domains, there is a strong case for establishing binding global rules, since each country, left to its own devices, has an interest in neglecting its share of the upkeep of the global commons. Failure to reach global agreement would condemn all to collective disaster.
Between the extremes are two other types of policies that create spillovers, but that need to be treated differently. First, there are 'beggar-thy-neighbour' policies, whereby a country derives an economic benefit at the expense of other countries. For example, its leaders restrict the supply of a natural resource in order to drive up its price on world markets, or pursue mercantilist policies in the form of large trade surpluses, especially in the presence of unemployment and excess capacity.
Because beggar-thy-neighbour policies create benefits by imposing costs on others, they, too, need to be regulated at the international level. This is the strongest argument for subjecting China's currency policies or large macroeconomic imbalances like Germany's trade surplus to greater global discipline than currently exists.
Beggar-thy-neighbour policies must be distinguished from what could be called 'beggar thyself' policies, whose economic costs are borne primarily at home, though they might affect others as well.
Consider agricultural subsidies, bans on genetically modified organisms, or lax financial regulation. While these policies might impose costs on other countries, they are deployed not to extract advantages from them, but because other domestic-policy motives - such as distributional, administrative, or public-health concerns - prevail over the objective of economic efficiency.
The case for global discipline is quite a bit weaker with beggar-thyself policies. After all, it should not be up to the 'global community' to tell individual countries how they ought to weight competing goals. Imposing costs on other countries is not, by itself, a cause for global regulation. (Indeed, economists hardly complain when a country's trade liberalisation harms competitors.) Democracies, in particular, ought to be allowed to make their own 'mistakes.'
Of course, there is no guarantee that domestic policies accurately reflect societal demands; even democracies are frequently taken hostage by special interests. So the case for global rulemaking takes a rather different form with beggar-thyself policies, and calls for procedural requirements designed to enhance the quality of domestic policymaking. Global standards pertaining to transparency, broad representation, accountability, and use of empirical evidence, for example, do not constrain the end result.
Different types of policies call for different responses at the global level. Too much global political capital nowadays is wasted on harmonising beggar-thyself policies (particularly in the areas of trade and financial regulation), and not enough is spent on beggar-thy-neighbour policies (such as macroeconomic imbalances). Over-ambitious and misdirected efforts at global governance will not serve us well at a time when the supply of global leadership and cooperation is bound to remain limited.
Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at Harvard University, is the author of The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy.