What will Global Leadership look like in the “Post-American” world?

What will Global Leadership look like in the “Post-American” world?

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Leadership is not an uncommon occurrence in the span of social relationships which constitute human life. Think of the patriarch or matriarch of a family; the village elder in preindustrial societies; the President of the United States.

Clearly, leadership occurs also in relationships between nation-states, sometimes involving the use of force, as with Russia’s intervention in Crimea in 2014. But what you may remark about here is not the presence of leadership in international relations, but its increasing lack; global politics has never been tranquil, but there is a sense of moving closer to the centre of a maelstrom — disorder and chaos — though that is not to exaggerate matters: relationships between nation-states continue to follow broadly well-established patterns, and there are no wars between great powers.

But that seeming tendency towards greater disorder certainly has truth. This was already observable by the tail-end of the US Presidency of Barack Obama, with Russia’s Crimean intervention and China’s increasing assertiveness over its territorial claims in the South China Sea. However, the currents of global politics have been yet more volatile with Donald Trump’s election as US President, the world’s most powerful man threatening to withdraw the United States from key international agreements and institutions such as NATO and the WTO; and having also translated some of his rhetoric into action, with the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

My argument is that leadership is a necessary feature of a stable global order, and that, in an increasingly interdependent world, with nuclear weapons, leadership by multiple great powers is preferable to domination by one power— unipolarity. My suggestion is that America’s withdrawal from its responsibilities — and also the European Union’s and China’s, probably the only two geopolitical entities of comparable clout — is contributing towards the current move towards global disorder.

The world of international relations is often cruel and harsh. There is, of course, no world government. No one can, per se, compel a nation-state to perform a certain action, as the more supposedly renegade policies of Trump, or Putin, or, move obviously, Kim Jong-Un, demonstrate. So, is this a problem? Is leadership by a state unnecessary here then?

Many “liberal” theorists of international relations (but not all), who emphasise the room for cooperation and reduction in conflict in global politics, would be more optimistic about possibilities for cooperation in an age beyond American hegemony, or indeed domination by a collection of great powers in the style of the late 19th century and early 20th century. They make valid points: there is capacity for reciprocity — giving good for good and bad for bad — which is boosted by the roles of international organisations like the IMF, which share information between nation-states and provide a basic set of rules. In essence, we need no American hegemon, or dominant powers, because there exist international institutions.

But this account is flawed, despite its partial validity. There is obviously no meaningful “international community”— cultures differ substantially, and the morality of common man or woman is still one which places a higher value on compatriots, as is readily observable in the stream of events which constitute international affairs.

As for reciprocity, whilst, again, cooperation is a possibility, so is “defection” — that is, international relations are akin to the kind of game described by game theorists as a “prisoners’ dilemma”: whilst it is better for both parties together to come to an agreement, such as over the climate, nuclear weapons, and trade, it is often better still for each party to renege. Indeed, with the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, because the climate is a non-excludable “resource”, it follows too that efforts to stop climate change are non-excludable — meaning the US can free- ride on the efforts of participating countries.

And here is where leadership proves important: negotiation becomes easier with a fewer number of parties. Why? Well, for one, it is easier for the parties to find an agreement which is satisfactory to all, and which yet is substantive. Moreover, free- riding becomes more difficult, because as a party’s importance grows, so does the necessity of its involvement in any agreement. This makes sense: it is impossible to free ride on nothing.

Indeed, although the Paris agreement remains in place, and new free trade deals have been struck, such as between Canada and the European Union, it is notable that such significant agreements are driven by other great powers — in the case of the Paris agreement, mainly by China and the EU.

So where does this leave us? Well, for one, the realist account of international relations certainly seems vindicated, though it, naturally enough for any model of a social system, has its limitations. Leadership by great powers is necessary for international agreements, and therefore also for the stability of international affairs.

This suggests that the strong realist foreign policy of the current US administration may pose challenges to global order, as is indicated by withdrawal from the Paris agreement, threats to leave the WTO, threats to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal, and so on. Moreover, as alluded to earlier, China’s and the EU’s occasional reticence from taking on responsibilities in place of the US are problematic. How exactly events will unfold will depend on how far Trump’s rhetoric translates into action, the next administration (which may well be led by Trump himself) and its ideology, and the response of the other great powers, especially China and the EU. International affairs are moving closer to the centre of the maelstrom, and even if it is true that we are far from the turbulent world of, say, the 1930s, we would do well to avoid complacency and to keep an eye on events.

BY: Matt Cunningham

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