By Walter Ladwig

Accounts of both American decline and the rise of peer competitors are substantially overstated in the popular media.  However, with the American public seemingly exhausted by a decade of war and financial crisis, the stability and continuation of the liberal international order forged in the wake of World War II faces a significant challenge from an increasing lack of global leadership necessary to make the system work.

Hegemonic Stability Theory suggests that the perpetuation of a particular international order—such as the present open and liberal world economic order—requires the leadership of the dominant state in the international system.  The absence of such leadership can have disastrous consequences.  For example, Charles Kindleberger has argued that the lack of global leadership by a dominant economy was a key cause of the economic chaos which occurred between the world wars and fostered the Great Depression.

This example illustrates the twin requirements of global leadership: capacity and will.  In the interwar years, Britain had the will but not the capacity to lead the world economy, while the United States may have had the capacity, but certainly lacked the will, to lead.

The present international order, the institutions that underpin it (e.g. the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF), and even the process of globalization are largely the product of American initiative and American leadership.  What happens to this system if that leadership no longer exists?  Some scholars are sanguine that norms and institutions can take on a life of their own in the absence of a leading state that will enforce the international “rules of the road.”  However, if the “rise of the rest” means that these structures do not represent the existing distribution of power, there are reasons to doubt that such arrangements can continue to function effectively.

The optimistic and pessimistic cases are likely to be put to the test since the present international system clearly faces a leadership deficit.  The United States still possesses the capacity to lead—particularly when working in conjunction with its allies—but increasingly lacks the will to do so.  The American public is overwhelmingly focused on the country’s skyrocketing debt and its disappearing jobs.  Support for foreign commitments is down and scepticism about the impact of globalization is up.  Neither political party is likely to win power by challenging these sentiments.

For the better part of the last decade-and-a-half, Europe has been focused on internal consolidation.  The present economic crisis suggests that all available political capital will be dedicated to keeping the EU and the euro intact for some time to come, with little time or attention available for matters further afield.

The so-called emerging powers, such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, all face significant constraints on their will and capacity to provide global leadership.  These stem from a lack of domestic stability, questions surrounding the sustainability of their economic growth, or unfavorable demographics.  Moreover, many of these countries possess incompatible interests and objectives that would prevent them from exercising leadership in concert.

The “rise of the rest” is likely to enhance this global leadership deficit as the increasing multipolarity of global politics means no single country will possess sufficient capacity to lead.  What kind of impact might this have?  A reduction in global initiatives and an increase in regionalism would seem likely as the institutions of global governance prove to be increasingly ineffective.  Gridlocked WTO negotiations, for example, may give way to regional free trade agreements undertaken by “coalitions of the willing.”

More worrying is the prospect that problems which truly require a global response, like climate change or nuclear proliferation, will get punted because they are too difficult to deal with.  If Kindleberger is right, we should expect that a global leadership deficit will presage increasing volatility in international politics for some time to come.

Dr. Walter C. Ladwig, III is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London.