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The US-sparked global financial meltdown is just the latest sign that the world is at a defining moment in its history, with today’s manifold challenges and tectonic power shifts epitomising the birth pangs of a new global order, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Nov 17, 2008 20:00 IST

The US-sparked global financial meltdown is just the latest sign that the world is at a defining moment in its history, with today’s manifold challenges and tectonic power shifts epitomising the birth pangs of a new global order. The world has changed fundamentally in the last two decades. Given the pace of political, economic and technological transformation, the next 20 years are likely to bring equally dramatic change. Yet, the global institutional structure has remained static since the mid-20th century.

The world cannot remain saddled with outmoded, ineffective institutions and rules. That, in turn, demands far-reaching institutional reforms, not the half-hearted and desultory moves we have seen thus far, geared mostly at establishing ways to improvise and temporise, and thereby defer genuine reforms.

A classic case is the G-8’s so-called ‘outreach’, which brings some emerging economies into a special outer tier designed for show. Worse was the reform-shorn G-20 summit meeting, hosted last weekend by a lame-duck US President who will remembered in history for making the world more volatile, unsafe and divided through a doctrine that emphasised pre-emption over diplomacy in a bid to validate Otto von Bismarck’s thesis that “the great questions of our time are not decided by speeches and majority decisions... but by iron and blood”. George W Bush’s blunders ended up causing the collapse of US soft power and triggering a domestic backlash that has propelled the election of the first African-American as President.

But while Barack Obama is the symbol of hope for many in the world, he inherits problems of historic proportions at a time when the US — mired in two wars and a financial crisis buffeted by the weakest US economy in 25 years and a federal deficit approaching $1 trillion — can no longer influence the global course on its own. Obama simply cannot live up to the high expectations the world has of him. After all, a new US President cannot stem the global power shifts. The days are over when the US could set the international agenda with or without its traditional allies.

The real challenge for Obama is to help lead America’s transition to the emerging new world order by sticking to his mantra of change and facilitating international institutional reforms. The financial contagion’s current global spread could have been contained had the broken Bretton Woods system been fixed. Hopefully, we won’t need a major sustained crisis to engulf each international institution before it can be reformed. Some institutions already may be beyond repair, making their dissolution or replacement the only viable option. But even in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is still only talk of reform, without a real push for a new financial architecture.

Existing institutions were born from conflict and war, in keeping with what Winston Churchill once said: “The story of the human race is war.” But global power shifts now are being triggered not by military triumphs or geopolitical realignments but by a factor unique to the contemporary world — rapid economic growth. While the present ailing international order emerged from the ruins of a world war, its replacement has to be built in an era of international peace and thus be designed to reinforce that peace. That is no easy task, given that the world has little experience in establishing or remaking institutions in peacetime.

Reform is also being stymied by entrenched interests, unwilling to yield some of their power and prerogative. Rather than help recreate institutions for the changed times, vested interests already are cautioning against ‘over-reaction’ and conjuring up short-term fixes for the multiple crises the world confronts. But without being made more representational, fit and efficient, the existing institutions risk fading into irrelevance.

Some, like the IMF, may never regain relevance, and not be missed. Some others, including the G-8 and International Energy Agency, are crying for membership enlargement, while the World Bank — if recast and freed of the overriding US veto power — could focus on poverty alleviation, especially in Africa, most of whose residents live on the margins of globalisation. Even if a geographically challenged Sarah Palin did not know Africa was a continent and not a country, it will ill-behove an African-American US President to continue the international neglect of Africa — a neglect China has sought to blithely exploit.

Yet other institutions, such as the UN, can be revitalised through broad reforms. Detractors portray the UN as a “talking shop” where “no issue is too small to be debated endlessly”. But it remains the only institution truly representative of all the nations. Its main weakness is a toothless General Assembly and an all-powerful cabal of five Security Council members, who opaquely seek to first hammer out issues among themselves but of late appear irredeemably split. The UN has to change or become increasingly marginalised.

To mesh with the international nature of today’s major challenges and the consensual demands of an interconnected world, reforms in all institutions ought to centre on greater transparency and democratic decision-making. The Security Council cannot be an exception. To help jump-start its stalled reform process, those aspiring to be new permanent members would do well to suggest an across-the-board abolition of the veto to fashion a liberal democratic institution where decisions are arrived at through a simple three-quarter majority rule.

Brahma Chellaney is a strategic affairs specialist