Those looking for signs of real progress at the many international conclaves that are on national leaders’ agendas, will be disappointed. The Doha Round of trade talks is stuck in the mud; the negotiations to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol are getting nowhere, the Copenhagen fudge notwithstanding; even the G20, hailed a short year ago as the harbinger of the new world order, does not seem to be achieving anything. Instead, all the talk is of the undeniable change of power relationships — the US is in relative decline, while China is on the ascendant — without sufficient focus on how a changing world’s affairs might be reordered.
Global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are hopelessly slow in changing their governance structures, even as they seek renewed relevance in the most active continent in the world. On the military front, America’s forces are in a quagmire called Afghanistan, while its partner countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation pull out their troops one by one, providing yet more proof of the erstwhile global hegemon’s inability to exert its will, and of the absence of new structures and powers that might contribute to evolving a new world order. American impotence in the face of nuclear defiance by Iran and North Korea only adds substance to the thesis, as does the lack of traction for the multi-nation efforts to engage with these nuclear recalcitrants.
In short, 20 years after an enthusiastic academic announced the “end of history” and the triumph of the western world, international relations are caught in a twilight zone where new shapes and forces are only dimly seen. The majority of countries, mostly poor and small, may not have empathised with America’s sense of exceptionalism and its view of itself as a benign superpower, but the fact that it acted as a global policeman ensured the peace in distant corners of the globe (East Asia, for instance, and perhaps Europe itself) and kept the sea lanes open, even as its espousal of free trade helped fashion the opening up of national markets and massive expansion of global trade. But while the US is no longer able to impose its writ or to act alone (any guesses on when it will next send its troops overseas?), other countries are still at cross-purposes when it comes to protecting the global commons and helping to write new rules to govern them. On almost any major issue, all that can be seen are coalitions of the unwilling.
This is a prescription for paralysis, which a world in flux cannot afford. For while it is obvious that the international governance and alliance structures that were evolved immediately after World War II look dated, it is also evident that nothing new is emerging in their place. The US will argue that this is in part because the rising powers (India included) are not stepping forward to play their role, while others will argue that conflicting interests are a fact of life. For this situation to change, the two major powers of the new world must both adapt. China must get “normalised”, and the US must look for more cooperative arrangements with other benign forces. Only then will it be possible to evolve a 21st century arrangement for the world.