x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

As US leads from behind, who will jump to the front?

Global problems demand global leaders, but as the West loses its grip, the world seems increasingly leaderless.

Last week's G8 summit will be remembered for the pictures of tieless men who met at a scenic resort in smart-casual wear. Other than some vague commitment to improve trade, tax and transparency, there was no significant agreement among the group of eight economic powers. The meeting had the distinct feel of middle managers on their annual away-day who merely socialised and put off all strategic decisions until next year's gathering.

Indeed, the failure of the G8 to break the deadlock over Syria barely disguised the absence of any important accord among major powers - the United States, Europe and Japan - that have ruled the globe since at least 1945. This sheer lack of joint action suggests that we are living in a leaderless world.

Yet at the same time, the need for global leadership is growing in the face of problems such as climate change, cross-border crime (including terrorism) and worldwide financial flows. Unfortunately, the West looks bereft of ideas, increasingly divided and unable to impose its will on the rest of the world.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the demise of the Soviet Union, successive US administrations harboured ambitions of global hegemony with the support of their western allies. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously predicted the "end of history", by which he meant a global convergence to western-style liberal democracy as the "final form of human government".

Similarly, neoconservative commentators such as Charles Krauthammer spoke of the West's unipolar moment under the uncontested leadership of the United States. The "Washington consensus" of neoliberal economics - to which there apparently was no alternative - entrenched a western-centric world.

Violent conflict in Somalia, Bosnia, the Caucasus and the Middle East in the 1990s put paid to Europe's dream of a perpetual peace after the end of the Cold War. In response, left-liberal thinkers and politicians led by the former US president, Bill Clinton, and Britain's ex-prime minister, Tony Blair, adopted the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, defending human rights through aerial bombings and other military means. Thus was born western unipolarity masquerading as multilateralism.

Following the attacks of September 11, the West launched a neoconservative crusade to convert the Arab world to democracy. But the western claim to uphold universal values collapsed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. The financial meltdown of 2008 and global contagion destroyed the West's supposed moral supremacy and its ability to dominate the international agenda.

However, the emergence of the BRICs and the G20 have failed to transform the global system. Competing economic power alone is no means to shared ends. Thus, the shift from US unilateralism in the 1990s and the emergence of a multipolar order in the 2000s has now produced a rudderless world.

The popular pressure on western governments to focus on domestic problems rather than transnational challenges has further undermined global coordination and western leadership. The US may be the sole superpower with the strongest armed forces in the world but Washington is increasingly concerned with domestic issues like jobs, immigration and debt.

Amid the euro zone crisis, the EU faces the unravelling of the European project on which the global projection of its values rests - including the pooling of national sovereignty and trans-regional cooperation. And Japan is desperately trying to escape from the vicious cycle of debt-deflation in which it has been locked for over two decades.

Taken together, the West is more introspective than at any point since the Great Depression.

However, emerging-markets states are nowhere ready to fill the power vacuum. Countries as diverse as China and Russia try to manage economic slowdown and soaring social tensions. Meanwhile, the governments of Brazil and Turkey face an unprecedented wave of demonstrations. In different ways, all these regimes privilege authoritarian consolidation and central state control over democratic renewal, human rights and the rule of law.

It is true that emerging markets do not just wield growing economic power but are also beginning to project normative clout. They are demanding that the global "rules of the game" be changed to reflect a more diverse, less western-centric world. As a former Singaporean ambassador to the UN once remarked, the West, which is undoubtedly the most democratic part of the world, cannot uphold an undemocratic international system forever.

The trouble is that emerging powers appeal to values which sound western, including national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs - principles whose origins can ultimately be traced to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

Today the scale and intensity of global interdependency is such that isolationism is not an option. Across the West there is a growing populist backlash against the dominant forms of globalisation and a retreat to narrow national self-interest. Without global leadership the growing power vacuum will increasingly be filled by extremist forces of secular nationalism or religious fundamentalism - or in some cases both at once.

Yet on Syria and other international issues, the Obama administration is "leading from behind", meaning that it eschews leadership and lasting involvement in favour of managing risks from afar.

Rising powers in the Middle East and elsewhere are strong enough to fill this void, but so far, none is able or willing to bring about a different settlement.

 

Adrian Pabst is lecturer in politics at the University of Kent and visiting professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille