A World Without Authority

Updated On: Feb 01, 2008

TODAY, 26 Jan 2008
By Simon SC Tay

Global community will have to wait until the US settles its domestic affairs

The United States remains the world's only superpower. Yet, three recent phenomena suggest that America is unable to lead and assert authority to benefit itself and the world.
First, there is the drama of the American primary elections. Observed closely by the rest of the world, what stands out is that no one is out. The diversity of the field on both sides — a woman, an African-American, a Baptist preacher, a Mormon businessman and a war hero — and the mixed bag of results so far suggest that it will be sometime before Americans find a centre; if they can indeed find a middle ground.

This combines with a second factor: The exhaustion of the Bush presidency. All outgoing presidents are a bit of a lame duck in their last months. But the Bush administration seems almost a dead duck.

His administration has no putative heir, as Bill Clinton had Al Gore, the almost-President. George W Bush is an isolated figure in the electioneering. No Republican seems keen to grasp his legacy or call on his help in getting out the votes. The administration is in near statis. Officials, bar perhaps Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, have fallen in standing and effectiveness.

While many factors contribute to this state, one single explanation stands out: Iraq. The Bush administration got America and a long list of allies into Iraq on what has turned out to be questionable evidence of non-existent weapons of destruction. Now, with an impending British pullout of troops, they stand virtually alone.

Administration in Iraq has failed to bring peace and stability, let alone the democracy that was promised. Numbers of dead still mount, both American and Iraqi. Men, munitions and money have been poured into the effort but no dignified exit has emerged.

The third factor that weakens American authority is economic. It is true that, in last week's market turmoil, the US Fed acted decisively to stem a sharp fall across the globe. But fundamental questions remain for America to answer — first and foremost, about the depth of the sub-prime crisis, and future of the US economy and strength of its dollar.

There is no sign of returning to the US-led growth of the last decade. Instead, the consensus is for slow growth or even a recession in the US, coupled with a falling US dollar and rising inflation. Such economic weakness will be another danger for American leadership.

A sign of this is the anxiety to know if Asia's growth is now effectively decoupled from America, rather moving in tandem. If Asia's economy is not decoupled, the downturn in the US can lead to sharp corrections in Asian markets as we saw last week, and threaten the underlying economic growth. The dreams of 3 billion Asians to rise from poverty to wealth may thus be rudely awakened by events and decisions made on the other side of the Pacific.

Yet even as American leadership is in question, there are few real candidates or even pretenders to that throne. The European Union (EU), China and India have each shown a wish to be more independent voices in the world. But none can supplant the Americans.

We are moving through a period in which the world is without authority. Signs of this have emerged in international negotiations.

In the Climate Change meeting held in Bali at end-2007, the US and the EU bitterly stood off against each other. Consensus was absent, even in a year when so many — especially in the West — have been convinced of the need for urgent action. Thus, there was no real pressure on developing countries, whether small or large carbon emitters like China and India, to make commitments.

At the last meet, a road map for negotiations over the next two years was agreed by all. But the truth is that the road will be slow and perhaps lead nowhere until the US has a new President and policies on climate change are clearly defined.

In a very different forum, the World Trade Organisation, where I was last week, signs of a leaderless drift could also be read. The Doha Development Round, which was declared in the political atmosphere that followed the atrocities of 911, is grinding on with many broken deadlines and much bickering.

The debates have wide-ranging consequences, from key agricultural and non-agricultural sectors to questions of how to promote development for the poorest countries and reconcile environmental protection for all with new trade rules.

Negotiators in Geneva have done their grunt work to frame the issues, but sticking points remain that can only be resolved by political leaders. For the trade talks to come to any successful outcome, decisions are needed on vital issues like the protection of farmers and the promotion of domestic industries. These questions need answers from the highest level.

And coming to the right answers will require leaders who understand both their national constituencies but also know the benefits that can be gained for the world as a whole. In the current dynamics of American electioneering, and a growing sense of protectionism in the US, this seems close to impossible.

We will, for now, have to live in a world beset by urgent global problems of finance and trade, war and climate change but without authority and without ready answers. Somewhat like Gulliver's Travels, there is a giant asleep on the beach after his sea wreck, and we the Lilliputians can only wait for him to wake up, to see what he does next.

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, a non-governmental think-tank, and associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.


What does a world without authority mean for small nations like Singapore?

Small nations can help international organisations and regional groups, like Asean, to do what they can. But for the bigger global issues, we will just have to wait for Gulliver to wake up.

Where does Russia, with President Vladimir Putin trying to flex his country's muscle, feature in such a world?

Russia is only just re-emerging into the regional and international community. It is really cut off from most international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. So its influence is quite minimal, despite new wealth and a reassertion of power. There are opportunities for countries to partner Russia in some ways — for energy and to mobilise its capital. But Russia cannot lead globally.

How long is the US likely to be in this state of rudderlessness?

The world will have to wait for America's domestic politics. It will be a long campaign road. The new President will have to cope with the long-term problems of the exhaustion and exit from Iraq, and a fundamentally weakened economy. America must also face a drop in its goodwill across the globe.

Simon SC Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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