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Ahead of her talk at the Hay Festival, Dr Amrita Narlikar, Director of the University of Cambridge's new Centre for Rising Powers, discusses how countries like Brazil and China are changing the shape of global politics.

Consensus-based decision-making worked when trade talks were a rich man's club. It's very different with a diversity of countries at the core.

Dr Amrita Narlikar

How can global organisations be more representative of rising powers? It's one of the big issues of our times as we witness enormous shifts in the world's power dynamics, but it's not a new one.

Amrita Narlikar heads a new centre at Cambridge which uniquely attempts to look at the impact of rising global powers by placing it in a historical as well as political and economic context. She will talk about one aspect of this work – world trade – at the forthcoming Hay Festival [26 May to 5 June], where she joins 17 others University speakers as part of the Cambridge series.

Dr Narlikar's talk will centre on the World Trade Organisation, but will broach wider questions of multilateral reform. “The WTO is a fantastic example of attempts to accommodate the new powers like Brazil, China and India – the opportunities this presents and the unanticipated problems,” she says.

She adds that the WTO is quite distinctive as it has responded fairly well to the rise of new powers compared to other global institutions, such as the UN Security Council. It has given the new powers a major role in high table negotiations and decision-making. “It is one of the few organisations that has responded. You would expect this to make the balance of power fairer, but lots of unanticipated challenges have resulted,” she argues.

One of the positives is a greater diversity of players, but this has slowed down decision-making. Increasing the number of players coming to the table with different viewpoints has created a situation of recurrent deadlock. Trade rounds are taking longer to finish and, as a result, people are becoming more disengaged from the discussions, says Dr Narlikar.

Another problem is that, although there has been a broadening of the decision-makers at the WTO, the actual process of decision-making has not been reformed. It still relies on reaching a consensus on the issues being discussed. “That worked when the GATT talks were a rich man's club, a small group of countries which agreed with each other. It's very different when there is a diversity of countries at the core, with allies in the developing world. Consensus-based decision-making breaks down,” says Dr Narlikar.

Her talk will argue the need for the decision-making process to adapt to a more pluralistic system. “The current system greatly delays the benefits of increasing diversification and creates a very polarised system which is not good if we value stability,” she says.

The Centre for Rising Powers, which had its inaugural lecture on 12 May, is different from the other new country-specific research centres which has sprung up in response to the rise of the BRICs, says Dr Narlikar.  The CRP looks at the rise and fall of powers theoretically and historically and how they negotiate and bargain for a place at the power table. “People are behaving as if this transition period has never happened before, but it is a deep-rooted phenomenon and there is always the risk of systemic upheaval,” says Dr Narlikar.  “Further, as power transitions seldom happen in a vacuum, the Centre is just as interested in the established powers and other members of the international system that have to deal with, manage, or withstand the rise of new powers.”

The CRP is very interdisciplinary – its steering committee includes academics with a background in economics, history and political science as well as practitioners. Dr Narlikar highlights that the Centre is committed to cutting-edge research, but with a view to informing and engaging with policy. Other events planned for the future include a panel discussion with former British ambassadors to Brazil, India and China.

Dr Narlikar's talk is just one of a range of sessions being given by Cambridge academics at the Hay Festival. They cover everything from Renaissance costume to liberal ideas about toleration to the history of astronomy. For full details, click here.

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