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New Calls for Global Leadership

August 11, 2008


Two years ago I posted a blog about The Need for Global Leadership. It followed a post about the continuing saga of the Doha Round of trade talks that was struggling to make headway. As most of you know, those talks collapsed earlier this month (see my post The Collapse of the Doha Round). In the earlier post on global leadership, I stressed the importance of a having a vision sufficiently grand to inspire action. New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks is now calling for a new organization of likeminded democracies that could combine sufficient power and influence to “do something” when others organizations appear hopelessly deadlocked [“Missing Dean Acheson,” 1 August 2008]. My colleague Tom Barnett finds Brooks’ arguments just plain dumb [Some truly bad thinking from Brooks]. I also have some concerns about Brooks’ column, but for slightly different reasons. Brooks begins his column writing about the same “wise men” I wrote about in my post on global leadership. These “wise men” helped put the world back together following the last world war. Brooks writes:

“We’re about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II, and they’ve asked: Why can’t we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today’s problems? The answer is that, in the late 1940s, global power was concentrated. The victory over fascism meant the mantle of global leadership rested firmly on the Atlantic alliance. The United States accounted for roughly half of world economic output. Within the U.S., power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class — men like Acheson, W. Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett.”

Before examining the rest of Brooks’ column, one needs to examine the straw man premise he has just set up. He decries the lack action on subjects like terrorism, global warming, and nuclear proliferation and concludes that the stalemate has occurred because there is a lack of concentration of power. It almost seems an afterthought when he writes that “power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class.” My post on global leadership was a call for leaders — leaders with the vision, wisdom and will to see what was right and find ways to make it happen. It helps when such leaders have an institution they can use to implement their plans, but the problem per se is not institutional. Take global warming for example. The United States under the Bush administration has resisted global efforts to address the problem and no new institution would have changed that. On other two challenges Brooks mentioned, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the Bush administration has managed to cobble together remarkably effective coalitions to address them — again without a new institution. Brooks, however, focuses on the institutional basis of what he calls “globosclerosis” rather than on the fact that what is really lacking is dedicated class of public servants with broad vision and political acumen. Only a handful of today’s politicians understand the importance of bipartisanship and the art of compromise. Brooks writes:

“Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest. This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.”

Brooks points to the collapse of the Doha Round as evidence of the problem. The culprits there being China and India. He could just have easily pointed to the failure of the Kyota Accord and included the U.S. in the mix of culprits. His point, however, is valid. Special interests continue to win out over common interests. He provides other examples.

“The Doha failure comes amid a decade of globosclerosis. The world has failed to effectively end genocide in Darfur. Chinese and Russian vetoes foiled efforts to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. The world has failed to implement effective measures to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The world has failed to embrace a collective approach to global warming. Europe’s drive toward political union has stalled. In each case, the logic is the same. Groups with a strong narrow interest are able to block larger groups with a diffuse but generalized interest. The narrow Chinese interest in Sudanese oil blocks the world’s general interest in preventing genocide. Iran’s narrow interest in nuclear weapons trumps the world’s general interest in preventing a Middle East arms race. Diplomacy goes asymmetric and the small defeat the large.”

I have no quarrel with that logic. The problem is that the examples reflect politicians being politicians instead of being leaders. The “wise men” discussed earlier weren’t politicians. They were bureaucrats with stature who could see beyond the challenges of the day to a brighter future. Their influence over politicians, however, was significant. Brooks continues to insist, however, that the basic problem is institutional. He continues:

“In a multipolar world, there is no way to referee disagreements among competing factions. In a democratic nation, the majority rules and members of the minority understand that they must accede to the wishes of those who win elections. But globally, people have no sense of shared citizenship. Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so. There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism. The autocrats of the world don’t even want a mechanism because they are afraid that it would be used to interfere with their autocracy. The results are familiar. We get United Nations resolutions that go unenforced. We get high-minded vows to police rogue regimes, but little is done. We get the failure of the Doha round and the gradual weakening of the international economic order.”

Brooks points to the Iraq fiasco as a prime example of why unilateral action is not the solution to globosclerosis. What, he asks himself, is the answer?

“Globosclerosis continues, and people around the world lose faith in their leaders. It’s worth remembering that George W. Bush is actually more popular than many of his peers. His approval ratings hover around 29 percent. Gordon Brown’s are about 17 percent. Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda’s are about 26 percent. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi have ratings that are a bit higher, but still pathetically low. This is happening because voters rightly sense that leaders lack the authority to address problems. The bottom line is that presidential candidates can talk grandly about global partnerships, but it’s meaningless without a mechanism to wield authority. A crucial question in an authority crisis is: Who has a strategy for execution? The best idea floating around now is a League of Democracies, as John McCain and several Democrats have proposed. Nations with similar forms of government do seem to share cohering values. If democracies could concentrate authority in such a league, at least part of the world would have a mechanism for wielding authority. It may not be a return to Acheson, Marshall and the rest, but at least it slows the relentless slide towards drift and dissipation.”

There is no doubt that some of the post-war institutions set in place by the “wise men” are now a bit long in the tooth. Fixing them, however, has a better chance of succeeding than trying to establish new ones. There is no reason that NATO, for example, could not be morphed into the “League” Brooks recommends (it would be easier and cheaper than coming up with an entirely new organization), but the basic problem would still remain — a lack of leadership. The past eight years of unilateral American action divided old allies and created few new friends. No new institution would have changed that. What we need a new generation of clear-sighted world leaders who have the imagination to see a brighter future and the will to get us there. That kind of leadership is the sine qua non of any solution to globosclerosis.

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