The U.S.-sparked global financial meltdown is just the latest sign that the world is at a defining moment in history. Given the global ace of political, economic and technological transformation witnessed the last two decades, the next 20 years are likely to bring equally dramatic change.
Yet the world cannot remain saddled with outmoded, ineffective institutions and rules. With the rise of non-Western economic powers and the emergence of nontraditional challenges — from global warming to energy and food crises — the institutional structure and mandate need to advance. That demands far-reaching institutional reforms, not the halfhearted and desultory moves seen thus far, geared mostly at establishing ways to improvise and thereby defer genuine reforms.
A classic case is the Group of Eight’s "outreach" initiative, which brings some emerging economies into a special outer tier designed for show.
Worse was the reform-shorn Group of 20 summit meeting, hosted earlier this month by a lame-duck U.S. president who will be remembered in history for making the world more volatile, unsafe and divided through a doctrine that emphasized pre-emption over diplomacy in a daring bid to validate Otto von Bismarck’s thesis that "The great questions of our time are not decided by speeches and majority decisions . . . but by iron and blood."
George W. Bush’s blunders ended up causing the collapse of U.S. soft power and triggering a domestic backlash that propelled the election of the first African-American as president.
But while Barack Obama is the symbol of hope for many in the world, he inherits problems of historic proportions at a time when the United States — mired in two wars and a financial crisis compounded by the weakest U.S. economy in 25 years and a federal deficit approaching $1 trillion — can no longer influence the global course on its own.
Obama simply cannot live up to the high expectations the world has of him. A new U.S. resident cannot stem the global power shifts. The days are over when the U.S. could set the international agenda with or without its traditional allies.
The real challenge for Obama is to help lead America’s transition to the emerging new world order by sticking to his mantra of change and facilitating international institutional reforms. The evolution of a new rule-based architecture of global governance will jibe well with long-term U.S. interests.
The financial contagion’s current global spread could have been contained and its effects limited had the broken Bretton Woods system been fixed. Hopefully, we won’t need a major sustained crisis to engulf each international institution before it can be reformed. Some institutions already may be beyond repair, making their dissolution or replacement the only viable option. Even amid the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is still only talk of reform, without a real push for a new international financial architecture.
Existing institutions were born of conflict and war. As Winston Churchill once said, "The story of the human race is war." But global power shifts now are being triggered not by military triumphs or geopolitical realignments but by a factor unique to the contemporary world — rapid economic growth.
The speed and scale of Asia’s economic rise has no parallel in world history. Asia’s growing importance in international relations — best illustrated by authoritarian China’s rise as a world power in one generation — signals a systemic shift in the global distribution of power.
While the present ailing international order emerged from the ruins of a world war, its replacement has to be built in an era of international peace and thus designed to reinforce that peace. That is no easy task, given that the world has little experience establishing or remaking institutions in peacetime.
Reform is also being stymied by entrenched interests unwilling to yield some of their power and prerogative. Rather than help recreate institutions for the changed times, vested interests already are cautioning against "over-reaction" and conjuring up short-term fixes for the multiple crises the world confronts. But without being made more representational, fit and efficient, the existing institutions — from the United Nations to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — risk fading into irrelevance.
Some, like the International Monetary Fund, may never regain relevance, and not be missed. Others, including the G8 and International Energy Agency, are crying for membership enlargement, while the World Bank — if recast and freed of the overriding U.S. veto power — could focus on poverty alleviation especially in Africa, most of whose residents live on the margins of globalization.
It will ill-behoove an African-American U.S. president to continue the international neglect of Africa — a neglect China has sought to blithely exploit. Other institutions, such as the U.N., can be revitalized through broad reforms.
Detractors portray the U.N. as a "talk shop" where "no issue is too small to be debated" endlessly. But it remains the only institution truly representative of all nations. Its main weakness is a toothless General Assembly and an all-powerful cabal of five Security Council members, who opaquely seek to first hammer out issues among themselves but of late appear irredeemably split. The U.N. has to change or become increasingly marginalized.
To mesh with the international nature of today’s major challenges and the consensual demands of an interconnected world, reforms in all institutions ought to center on greater transparency and democratic decision-making. The Security Council cannot be an exception.
To help jump-start stalled reforms, those aspiring to be new permanent members would do well to suggest an across-the-board abolition of the veto, to fashion a liberal democratic institution where decisions are arrived at through a simple three-quarters majority rule.