The last decade of the 20th century saw the emergence of the US as the sole superpower and the advent of the new millennium confirmed this reality. However, the supremacy and role of the US as the world’s policeman in recent years has been met with much hostility, creating obstacles for the American cause of ‘democratising’ the world. This policy now lies in a shambles. The US retreat from Iraq and then from Afghanistan was less a choice than a necessity. The earlier activism of George W Bush gave way to President Barack Obama’s preferences for relatively diminished global engagement. This approach has created a vacuum in world leadership. No other country appears anxious or capable of filling this vacuum.
Such policy leanings of the big powers may have roots in the nature and complexity of the crises that plague various regions of the world today. The Middle East is in total disarray. Syria has been embroiled in a five-year civil war, and world powers have only now agreed on a plan to cease hostilities in the country in a week’s time. Iraq is on the verge of collapse, while Libya is a failed state. Saudi Arabia and Iran are entangled in a contest for regional domination, Afghanistan is still in turmoil, and Pakistan is fighting its war on terror. In addition, we see China and Japan pitted against each other in the conflict over the islands in the East China Sea. Europe is facing challenges in the form of the refugee crisis.
In this world of conflicts and war, who is going to put the world in order or at least provide a push for it? The year 2016 will see this challenge of a lack of leadership become even more serious. The upcoming US presidential elections will make things more complex. The new entrant to the White House will remain hesitant in taking difficult decisions. Any plan to end a crisis requires a mechanism, which in turn needs funds and manpower for implementation. That will be difficult to achieve as there is little public support in the US to contribute troops or dollars in global conflicts.
China is undergoing a phase of economic reforms. It is concentrating on managing affairs at home while approaching a greater role in world affairs cautiously. Its recent initiatives in the Middle East had political overtones, but were more focused on its economic priorities. Beijing’s focus rests on the East and South China Sea, where its diplomatic efforts presently are aimed more at lowering temperatures.
The year 2015 saw Europe go through its fair share of crises in the form of the Greek financial collapse, the refugee crisis and the Paris carnage. Europe probably has the best comprehension of the complexities of the Middle East as it has had a colonial presence in this region. However, there has been a systematic erosion of leadership in the European Union (EU) over the years. There are internal pressures from right-wing parties, whose aversion towards migrants, international matters and even EU issues is now very much apparent. Angela Merkel has led Germany well, but the fallout of the migrant crisis has made it nearly impossible for her to be active in the international arena. Russia seems to be moving towards Soviet-era politics through the military takeover of Crimea, the backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine and the bombing in Syria. However, the fall in oil prices has had a crippling effect on its economy. President Putin and his team, in the foreseeable future, may be too busy setting the country’s financial affairs in order instead of playing an effective role in global politics.
At the end of the Second World War, there was an effort on the part of the global powers to come together. The UN, the IMF, the World Bank and later the EU were the common forums that were established to handle global affairs. In contrast, the present and the emerging global leadership is too busy putting its own respective houses in order and there is a lack of a common vision for the future of the world. This crisis in global leadership is alarming, and the question remains: who will lead the world in these highly uncertain and volatile times?
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2016.