Confusion in the global cockpit

Confusion in the global cockpit

Like the calamity wrought on Air France flight 447—that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009 by the muddled man-machine interface—the ongoing tussle both within and between key Western powers and emerging powers, notably BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), is creating confusion in the cockpit of global governance and might cause a similar disaster.

Consider the following: In a major speech before the British Parliament President Barack Obama, while welcoming the rise of Brazil, India and China, asserted that Western leadership in general and the UK-US partnership in particular was “essential to the cause of human dignity" and to support the aspirations of oppressed peoples “from the beaches of Normandy to the Balkans to Benghazi". This does not imply that BRICS, particularly their democratic members, are against the cause of human dignity, but that for a number of reasons they were unwilling to provide the necessary leadership to support the cause.

However, the inability of the US to apply this ideal evenly across the Middle East, notably in Bahrain and Palestine, underlines the limits of the principal, especially when it conflicts with national interests. Moreover, the inability of the mighty North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces to decimate the puny Libyan military even after a two-month-long campaign highlights the limits of military power alone.

Indeed, the growing calls by BRICS to stop the military campaign, including by India and 15 members of the African Union in the declaration of the second Africa-India Forum, indicates that while Western leadership might be essential it is equally necessary to build a consensus with BRICS to support that action.

While BRIC and Germany (which did not endorse the military action against Libya) might be tempted to put forward a smug “I-told-you-so" façade, they would do well to consider the consequences of their inability to provide an alternative approach to prevent a certain massacre of civilians, including Indians who had decided to stay back, in Benghazi. Clearly, masterly inactivity is incompatible with a leadership role in global governance. Unless BRICS are willing to offer an alternative vision of global leadership they will only have themselves to blame for conceding leadership to the West.

This tussle is also evident in the competing visions of the Group of Eight (G-8) and Group of Twenty (G-20) and the leadership of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has implications for international financial and economic governance. The recent G-8 summit in Deauville, France, reflected the growing irrelevance of the club of once rich countries and their last ditch efforts to hold on to global economic and financial leadership. The fact that the G-20, particularly BICS, continue to play a significant role in the international financial and economic recovery clearly indicates that the G-8 countries alone are not in a position to provide the necessary leadership. Indeed, even if the G-20 were to disappear, financial and economic global governance is inconceivable without BRICS working with the G-7.

Moreover, unlike the international peace and security arena, in the area of financial and economic governance BRICS have been eager to take lead, as is evident in their challenge to the “obsolete unwritten convention" of a European leading IMF.

However, a logical second step in a serious challenge would be to provide an alternative leadership model (and consensus candidate) that would be acceptable to at least all BRICS in the first instance. With the 10 June deadline for nominations looming, it remains to be seen whether BRICS can agree on a consensus candidate to put their considerable weight behind. Inability to do so would again concede leadership to the Europeans. Clearly, a smooth transition from one set of pilots to another is essential to maintain stability. Failing to do so would put global security and economic governance on a dangerous flight path and, possibly, to crash and burn.

W Pal Sidhu is Senior Fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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