The basic message of this week is that the world must find a new model of collective leadership following the collapse of US authority. Like many crises, the fundamental decline of US leadership has been apparent for years, but it had proceeded gradually. Then, like a weak bank hit by a depositor panic, the collapse happened suddenly and in plain view.
At the UN, the world grappled with poverty, disease, hunger, and climate change in the near total absence of US leadership. This was pathetically underscored by President Bush, whose speech to the UN on Wednesday was filled with “terror,” “terrorists,” and “terrorism” 31 times, but didn’t include a single mention of “climate,” “environment,” or the “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs). By the time of the UN’s MDG Summit Day yesterday, the US was simply nowhere to be seen, neither in the plenary sessions nor in the breakout events.
In Washington, the heavy weight of eight years of incompetence of the Bush Administration took its toll on the economy and on national politics. The Bush administration could not put forward a clear and convincing rationale for its proposed $700bn bailout. Most technical analysts think that the Treasury-Fed plan has it wrong in serious ways. The person-on-the-street view is that Washington is simply bailing out the irresponsible and super-rich titans of finance, a view that the administration could not dispel. In the end, desperate pleas by the administration ended only in recriminations and a reported bitter debate at the White House Thursday evening. Americans have awakened to a new massive bank failure, a roiling financial crisis still lacking a strategy or plan, and a presidential campaign in surreal disarray as John McCain ostensibly suspends his campaigning and his participation in today’s scheduled debate.
As the writers say, you couldn’t make up this stuff.
The prospects for the world, however, are nowhere near as grim as an American-centric view would suggest. The really remarkable thing about the UN MDG week has been the evidence of a new global coalition of governments, businesses, civil society, and international organisations that are inventing new models for effective global action and cooperation. A remarkable meeting on malaria, for example, brought out global companies (News Corp, Exxon-Mobil, and Sumitomo Chemical just to name three), foundations and NGOs (Gates Foundation, UN Foundation, Nothing but Nets, Malaria No More), international organisations (including the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria), top business executives (Bill Gates, Ray Chambers, Rajat Gupta, and Peter Churnin, among others), activists (Bono, Youssou N’Dour), and world-leading scientists and public health specialists (Awa Coll-Seck, Awash Teklehaimonot, David Nabarro, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan), to unveil an impressive 7-year plan to bring this killer disease under decisive control. And this time, the plan is backed not only by these powerful sectors, but by real money, billions of dollars (including a significant contribution from the US government in this unusual case).
We have arrived in a multi-polar world. As German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck put it in Berlin yesterday, “The US will lose its status as the superpower of the world financial system.” Yet a multi-polar world not only makes sense (given that the US has only 5 per cent of the world’s population, and a declining share of its income), but can also bring forth countless areas of shared leadership and entrepreneurial creativity from all sectors of global society.
No doubt, we have entered a much more complex global scene. Success for the world – in finding peaceful solutions to huge global challenges – will depend mainly on our capacity to cooperate with each other across sectors, cultures, and regions. Despite the weighty absence of the US from most of this week’s UN proceedings, there are grounds for optimism that the world can and will find a new successful course. And after January 20, 2009, perhaps – and we must hope – the US will be back at the table, with its international peers in a new multi-polar setting.