Who Will Run the World?

Barack Obama's election comes at a moment when conventional wisdom proclaims the end of America's global dominance and the big question is who will pick up the mantle of global leadership. The uncomfortable answer that Obama is likely to confront is this: nobody.

SINGAPORE – Barack Obama’s election comes at a moment when a new bit of conventional wisdom is congealing. It concerns the end of America’s global dominance.  

True, freewheeling American-style capitalism has not acquitted itself proudly of late. And America’s military superiority has not proved all that useful in accomplishing American ends. But who may pick up the slack in providing global leadership?

The uncomfortable answer that Obama is likely to confront is this: nobody. America may be damaged, but no replacement is on offer. Europe is self-absorbed, focused on creating whatever kind of entity it ends up deciding to be. China’s standard response to any suggestion that it exercise global leadership is to hide beneath its vast internal agenda and plead poverty. No other country comes close to having either the capacity or the ambition.

In the face of the familiar litany of desperate global problems – not just financial instability, but also climate change, energy insecurity, potential pandemics, terrorism, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction – the prospect of a rudderless world is more than alarming. What is to be done? And by whom?

Given that the United States has not been playing much of a leadership role on many of these issues recently, it is worth taking a look at what happens when no one country exercises effective leadership. One set of answers might seem apparent from the collapse of international trade negotiations and the unraveling international system to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Things can certainly get grim. But that is not the whole story. 

To see why, consider climate change. It is now clear that avoiding catastrophic climate change requires dramatic and rapid reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, cuts that would lower annual emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Yet emissions are not just rising, but accelerating. The coming recession may stem their growth temporarily, but only slightly. The necessary reductions imply a rapid and radical transformation of industrial, energy, and land-use systems around the world.

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What are governments doing about this? Supposedly, by December 2009 they will agree on a new treaty to set limits on emissions. But the prospects that an agreement will be reached in Copenhagen in December 2009 are close to nil.

The new Obama administration will have only a few months to develop meaningful proposals that can win domestic support, and will be preoccupied with the aftermath of the current financial debacle and the Iraq war. Europe is pushing for ambitious targets but is having trouble with its own vested interests. The large emerging countries, although they will suffer disproportionately from wilder weather and rising sea levels, show little interest in picking up the slack. Negotiation watchers term the current American-Chinese dance of mutual blame a suicide pact. In short, the process is a mess.

This is hardly surprising. An inter-governmental system that falls apart under the challenges of trade negotiations and proliferation threats is unlikely to master the deep complexity and multitudinous vested interests that the issue of climate change entails. Traditional diplomacy will at best devise a face-saving but meaningless accord next year.

In many areas, frustration with inter-governmental intransigence and incompetence has sparked extraordinary innovation by non-governmental organizations, corporations, and ordinary people. Private organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council provide and, increasingly, implement environmental standards where inter-governmental action has failed. Private actors from foundations to pharmaceutical corporations to NGOs are actively experimenting with alternative ways to tackle transnational health challenges. Often governments are part of these experiments – but they are not necessarily the drivers, and progress does not depend on signing treaties.

Indeed, there are many ways to put matters on the global agenda, as shown by Bono’s campaigns on African development and Al Gore’s on climate change. Agreements about how to make things better already frequently include NGOs and corporations in various capacities – and sometimes exclude governments altogether. Private groups using everything from satellite imagery (as in forestry) to the unofficial equivalent of on-site inspections (as in human rights) monitor who is abiding by – or violating – what standard of behavior.

While enforcement in the coercive sense remains the domain of states, coercive enforcement is rare even when it comes to inter-governmental agreements. Whether countries abide by agreements has far more to do with international processes of persuasion, socialization, and capacity-building – and those can be done by anyone with a good argument.

The big question today is whether all these alternative approaches can add up to more than a bit of desperate tinkering around the edges. Standard international-relations thinking does not even entertain the question, and those conventional ways of seeing the world have blinded us to looking at this crucial question.

As a result, we do not yet know the answer. Data remain scarce. There are hundreds of global public-private partnerships working on various global ills – but few have been examined to see what good they do. The mishmash of initiatives, actors, campaigns, and appeals creates opportunities for major progress – and mass confusion. 

If there is to be real progress toward more effective and efficient global governance that can address the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change and the rest of the global agenda, we must do much more than look for an easy replacement for American hegemony. We must figure out how to make sense of this enormous diversity of ways of saving the world.