If US President Barack Obama is to be believed, the West’s leadership continues to be essential for a liberal global order. Brazil, China and India may carry a punch in the world’s economy, but the US and Britain matter.
In a speech delivered at Westminster Hall in London last week, he disabused the notion that the US was in decline. “That argument is wrong,” he said. “The time for our leadership is now…our alliance will remain indispensable to the goal of a century that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more just.” Within days of making his speech, he was off to a summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries in Deauville, France. At this not-so-rich boys club, the mood was much more sombre: There was little discussion on economic subjects and more about democracy in North Africa and the Arab world. To many, this was confirmation that the West had lost economic traction to the Group of Twenty (G-20) countries.
This is a curious moment in the world’s history. On the one hand, there is no doubt about the US and the Europe’s loss of economic vitality. Piled under a mountain of debt, they consider even 2-3% annual growth as very good. In comparison, Asian and other emerging market economies are chugging at the speed of light. On the other hand, a majority of the world’s political problems—from democracy to piracy—require the kind of coordination that G-20 and other more “democratic” groupings are in no position to provide. Fractious and torn with nationalist squabbles, the “newer” countries are a study in what happens when you gain economic prowess, but do not acquire the political responsibilities that accompany them.
It is natural for countries in this period of change to be confused and make mistakes. India is a good example of this. Its position on the selection of a new chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows this clearly. First, there were noises in favour of its “candidate”, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. No one did a check that he was overage (by rules) for this position. Then came the joint statement by five executive directors against a “monopoly” of certain nations to that position. Its final position may change, again. These shifting positions were informed more by nationalist desires than rational calculations of national interest. What this does is to alienate India from Western countries, with which it shares much and they end up considering China—whose “rise” is increasingly fearful for many—a more reliable partner. Instead of being a great power, India presents a picture of a parvenu power. This is something that is best avoided.
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