Reimagining global leadership: Not who but how

Navigating the 21st century requires solidarity not polarity.

President Joko Widodo with leaders of the G20 and international organisation leaders lift their hoes after planting mangroves at the G20 Indonesia Summit events at the Ngurah Rai Forest Park, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, November 16, 2022. Akbar Nugroho Gumay/G20 Media Center/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
President Joko Widodo with leaders of the G20 and international organisations after planting mangroves at the G20 Indonesia Summit on Bali on November 16, 2022. [Handout via Reuters/Akbar Nugroho Gumay]

Over the past decade or so, signs that the American-dominated world order is crumbling have become increasingly more visible. The rise of China – boosted by its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 – has challenged the unipolarity maintained by the United States. Beijing has undoubtedly become a dominant force in the global economy, bolstering its military and strategic capabilities.

But it has not been the only power trying to assert itself in recent years. Russia under the revisionist leadership of Vladimir Putin has also sought to regain its status as a world power. To that end, the Russian president has adopted more assertive politics vis-à-vis the West and moved closer to China, especially after Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2013.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the showdown over global leadership and prompted new questions over who should lead the ever more complicated international system.

Some have argued for a multipolar world system, claiming it would make it easier to manage global challenges, such as climate change, pandemics and cybercrimes. They say it is fairer, more equitable and democratic than the unipolar or bipolar world systems.

Others contend that there is no one better suited to lead a fair and democratic world than the world’s leading democracy, America, along with its democratic allies. After all, it remains the dominant military and economic superpower, dwarfing China, India, Russia, Japan and others in terms of its hard, smart and soft powers.

Indeed, none comes even close to contesting US geopolitical clout, forward military deployments or maritime projection. The US has about 750 bases in at least 80 countries worldwide. China commands one base – in Djibouti. Similarly, there is no match for its economic dexterity and vitality, high-tech innovations and commercial successes, not to mention the unrivalled Brand America.

These claims hold much truth and may have been totally convincing back in the 1990s when the US emerged victorious from the Cold War after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But they no longer are.

In the past two decades, America’s political and economic decline has taken its toll over its global leverage and authority, and its Faustian deals with unsavvy autocrats have damaged its credibility.

Strategically, US military entanglements in the Greater Middle East under the pretext of the “global war on terror” since the 9/11 attacks have greatly undermined US power projection. The disastrous war in Iraq and the long and humiliating defeat in Afghanistan showed the limits of the US military force.

Strategic disengagement and retrenchments under Presidents Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s administrations made it difficult to shape events and influence leaders, who increasingly deemed the US an erratic and unreliable partner.

On the economic front, the 2008 financial crisis, which started in the US and threatened the collapse of the global financial system, has dealt a blow to its neoliberal system, pushing more countries to diversify their economic relations.

It also paved the way for the rise of the G20, and the emergence of mid-size powers, which now exercise growing influence on the global stage at the expense of the US and its G7 allies.

Meanwhile, Brand America suffered bigly, not least because of the advent of Trumpism in 2016, symbolising the retreat of Western liberalism and the rise of populist, corrupt and autocratic forces in the West and beyond. These trends rendered American-promoted liberalism a harder sell to the rest of the world.

US President Joe Biden’s declaration that “America is back” after he defeated Trump in the 2020 election was not followed by a notable resurgence of US power.

His attempts to salvage US leadership through the so-called “rules-based international system” have failed. This system has been viewed as a rigged scheme that favours the West against the rest and, in the process, bypasses international law.

And yet, the alternative – a multipolar world – is not such a bright prospect as other powers step in to fill the void. Multiple world powers competing and fighting to enhance their interests and advance their influence does not necessarily add up to a better world. Rather the contrary: Diversity shaped by animosity could also lead to anarchy and chaos.

That is why, as the debate over the new global leadership rages, the more important question to ask is how this new order will be led and managed.

It can be either driven by strategic and ideological hostility – which would have a devastating impact on the world – or by a more pragmatic, power-sharing scheme shaped by expansive economic and commercial relations.

If history is any guide, there is no hope to be had from international law or international agreements when world powers are at loggerheads. Worse, the management of global challenges would suffer.

The past 30 years of unipolarity and the preceding 30 years of bipolarity may have failed miserably to bring peace and security to the world, but make no mistake, the previous 300 years of multipolarity were utterly disastrous, leading to devastating regional, colonial and imperials wars of all strands and horrors.

And so, it seems to me that despite having the advantage of a cleareyed historical perspective, today’s world powers seem as rash as their 19th and 20th century predecessors, approaching world affairs as a zero-sum game instead of a win-win gambit. In the not-so-distant past, world powers tended to be hypocritical, but today they are increasingly cynical as if it is naive to be righteous and smart to be cruel.

In sum, multipolarity should not be confused with multilateralism. A bunch of competing world powers do not make for a responsible international community. As long as international relations are driven by power and greed, not cooperation and shared creed, the world will suffer regardless of who or how many are at the top.

Given the choice, the world should embrace solidarity over polarity and collaboration over hostility.