An Orderly Anarchy

By: /
September 6, 2011
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If the United States no longer runs the world—as most 9/11 retrospectives grimly conclude—who will take its place?

Some predict a fast-rising China will soon dominate. Others foresee a period of rivalry and conflict among great-power equals. Yet, for the moment, what's striking about the international scene is not the struggle for world domination, but rather the scramble to avoid global responsibility and leadership. We live in an age when no one much wants to be in charge.

Power—usually—abhors a vacuum. But today's great powers are a timid lot. After launching an all-out "War on Terror" in the wake of the 2001attacks—capped by invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—the US has spent the last several years looking for excuses to retreat from its military occupations, and to share out the global policeman role among freeloading allies. The EU talks a good line on world leadership, but it's done little to increase its global power—such as investing in more than a token military—and shows no sign of being able to agree on how to wield that power if it did. And while the US and Europe have turned inwards, China has been surprisingly reluctant to play a major global role, focussed more on keeping its head down—and its economic miracle on track—than throwing its weight around. Despite repeated warnings about the inevitability of conflict between the US and China, we are worlds away from the last centuries' great wars—ideological and military—for global supremacy.

Maybe multilateral organizations are finally coming into their own, and the utopian dream of world government is at hand. But don't bet on it. Once the target of mass riots because of its alleged plot to foist global capitalism on the world, the WTO now looks so feeble that it's lucky to attract a half dozen listless protestors outside its meetings. Its long-running Doha Round of free trade talks is dying because of international apathy, not international acrimony. Meanwhile, the fact that the UN crowd feels the need to crow so loudly about recent successes in Libya says as much about the organization's powerlessness to deal with real international threats, such as a nuclear Iran or African famine, as its ability to cheer on the toppling of tin-pot dictators. Multilateral organizations remain nothing more—or less—than the collective will of their members. And those members feel in no mood to step up to the plate.

There are several reasons why world leadership is in short supply. One is that the financial costs are too high, especially for overstretched western powers reeling from financial crisis, anaemic growth, and spiralling debts. Another reason is that, despite unrelenting globalization, electorates are more focused on domestic concerns—crime, unemployment, education—and warier of foreign entanglements. Despite 9/11—or because of it—a recent Pew Research Centre survey finds that Americans are more isolationist today than they've been in four decades.

The biggest reason is that world power just ain't what it used to be. In an ever more open, interconnected and competitive world, GDP and technology define global success and prestige far more than armies and navies. China appears on everyone's radar screen, not because of its foreign policy or military clout, but because of its phenomenal economic growth. In comparison, nothing has done more to take the shine off of "superpower" status than the image of the United States—with a military larger than the next 12 world powers combined—bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Being a "world power", classically defined, looks like a liability more than an asset.

What are the implications of our leaderless world? Some worry—with good reason—that the international community will prove incapable of tackling big collective problems, such as global imbalances, or climate change, or nuclear proliferation. The US and China may not be about to launch a new Cold War—if only because they are now so financially and economically intertwined­—but nor have they offered anything like a shared vision or joint leadership.

And yet—with these big caveats—global anarchy is going surprisingly well so far. The WTO may be deadlocked, but world trade is surging. The General Assembly may be ineffectual, but across a range of practical issues—from internet rules, to accountancy standards, to disease control—cross-border co-operation is thriving at the grassroots level. Governments may still have trouble playing in the same sandbox, but global integration is racing ahead.

So let the diplomats and academics obsess about who's on top and who's not.  For the moment, the rest of us are just getting on with it.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.