Abram de Swaan: The Global Coordination Problem: Collective Action among Unequal States. [Abstract]

The most pressing problems facing mankind today require for their solution some form of worldwide collective action at the level of states. In order to combat the global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, wealthy countries must cooperate to provide vaccines for people in low-income countries, if only to prevent these populations from becoming breeding grounds for new strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that will also endanger the richer nations. Another, even more pertinent case is the campaign against global warming, which requires concerted action by committed state regimes to curtail the worldwide emission of greenhouse gases. Such figurations give rise to the classic dilemmas of collective action. Throughout human history, with ups and downs, the scale of collective action has extended. This is a corollary of the gradual increase in the scale of governance, from villages to small kingdoms to nation states. National economies, too, have expanded with the increasing control and consumption of fossil energy, as Johan Goudsblom has demonstrated. By the end of the 19th century, nation states were the largest units of effective coordination, each one comprising between one and a hundred million citizens. In the course of the 20th century, a few entities have evolved to the next higher order of magnitude with hundreds of millions, or more than a billion citizens and with a gross national product exceeding in most cases 10 trillion US dollars: these “gigants” are China, the USA, India, and the EU. They are at present the initiators and managers of global collective action. The recent COVID-19 pandemic created an urgent coordination problem. The enduring climate crisis evokes very similar dilemmas of collective action. The Russian invasion of Ukraine quite suddenly compelled the USA and the EU to join in antagonistic collaboration and overcome challenges that were much the same. State actors resort to a limited set of strategies and practices in order to overcome the pitfalls of collective action and the gigants have a leading role in coordinating them.

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