A Crisis of Credibility in Global Leadership
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(23 April 2020) — America, the nation the international community quite often relied on to provide leadership in times of natural disasters, threats to international peace and security, when global cooperation, collaboration, and coordination is necessary, and when collective responsibility and humanitarian response to global or regional crises is needed, has ceded that unique role. A void is created, as there is no other country with the will and the capacity necessary to be a worthy successor.
China, a country that has emerged as a global economic power in recent years, a country which has spread its economic tentacles across every continent, and emerged as a geopolitical player at the dawn of the 21st Century, has failed to achieve global credibility during the first global crisis to test its leadership. The truth is, while China no doubt wanted to be a geopolitical influencer, its primary goal has been, and remains that of achieving global economic power.
The European Union before Brexit, exasperated by the lack of leadership in Washington, may have competed for global leadership. But, with the novel coronavirus following so closely on the heels of a weakened post-Brexit EU, it will be quite some time before European potential for global leadership can be resuscitated. While a change in the US presidency may alleviate some of their concerns, the experiences of the past three plus years would have been too much for European countries to have confidence in reliance on future US leadership.
Russia, having been downgraded from super power status in the post-Cold War era, under Vladimir Putin’s leadership has been preoccupied with relentlessly pursuing disruption of political processes in western democracies. Russia’s impact on global affairs has been minimal and its geopolitical influence is limited to a few client states and regions. It uses its position as a holder of the anachronistic veto in the UN Security Council, not to advance international peace and security, but too often to create obstacles to meaningful international responses to crises at critical moments. Russia’s struggling economy, partially due to US sanctions imposed against its energy and financial sectors by former president Barack Obama, has received a double blow from the novel coronavirus pandemic and devastatingly low oil prices.
International organizations and institutions are dependent on Washington’s financial support, and global stability is vulnerable to Washington’s withdrawal from leadership. The United Nations, its specialized agencies and bodies, already stretched by the demands on its resources from the continued growth in refugees and concomitant humanitarian crises, climate change induced poverty, and peace keeping operations, were unprepared to meet the challenges and demands of the pandemic.
The World Health Organization, an agency of the UN, whose leadership and support is needed by most countries for guidance and assistance to respond to health issues such as the novel coronavirus pandemic is the biggest casualty of Washington’s withdrawal of support. US president Donald Trump’s decision to withhold funds for the WHO at a time when the demands on its resources are at the highest has struct yet another blow to collective responsibility. The US president chose instead to use the WHO as a scapegoat for some of his own failings in responding in a timely manner to the coronavirus pandemic
International financial institutions (IFIs) seem content to offer the same solution to every financial situation. Already debt burdened, the IMF and other IFIs offer more debt to resource strapped countries with economies reeling from the pandemic, at a time when these countries are most vulnerable. Since the last great recession at the beginning of this Century, countries which made tremendous sacrifices which negatively affected human security in order to emerge from near economic collapse, now find themselves grabbing at the only lifeline available to them – acquisition of more debt. This new dynamic could potentially return these weakened economies to the depths from which they have emerged since 2008.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of political structures in traditionally recognized liberal democracies. Freedoms are being constrained under questionable execution of states of emergencies, as some political leaders seize the opportunity to increase control over their citizens. The pandemic has exposed autocrats and despots alike. At a time when bold and credible democratic leadership is needed, incompetence has emerged in the face of this crisis.
The global economy is in a tailspin, and, while the concept of globalization has been severely challenged, it will require global leadership, cooperation, and collaboration which put people ahead of corporate greed and exploitation. With the current leadership in Washington virtually shutting the US off as a major player in global affairs, and most countries looking inwards for solutions, the international community will be leaderless. Despite the current stress, multilateralism, in particular the United Nations system, must assume a greater role in order to prevent global chaos.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed significant weaknesses in national governments and the international system. Going forward, the international community must move as one to restructure a more equitable international space within which weaker, more vulnerable countries can have a fair chance for recovery and future development. There must be a framework, a mechanism, for collective leadership in crises situations that transcends the power and influence, and control of powerful individual states. The United Nations can provide the vehicle through which to shape the changes we need. Now, more than ever, the reform of the UN Security Council is an imperative. Now is the time, to move posthaste to remove, or limit the anachronistic veto power held by the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
While there has been strong arguments in the past for expansion of the UNSC to include countries such as Germany and emerging countries of the south – Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa, except for Germany, none of these countries have shown any capacity to lead in their respective regions much more on a global scale. These countries, like most, lack leadership capacities and equal protection of its citizens.
Small countries are left to survive in a turbulent world thrust upon them by globalization. A phenomenon they had no part in creating and from which they derived very little, if any, benefit yet stands to lose whatever progress they may have made in spite of.
Unfortunately, most of the dependent countries, rather than seeking lasting solutions which are imbedded in cultural and social realities, and creation of credible changes needed to respond to their peoples’ needs, have mimicked so-called ‘first world’ solutions which do not fit within their capacities to implement and which provide very little structural transformation to meet emerging challenges.
Those living in areas of conflict fleeing for their lives had nowhere to go to escape the coronavirus, and the 90 million refugees in camps around the world are the least served during this pandemic. There is no relief for them and their future has become less certain and far more hopeless.
The changes we need cannot come from the powerful or rich countries, but from large and small countries and economies alike. There must be a rebirth of bold moral leadership from the south, and the future of the international system must not be left to be shaped by the north for their own purposes.
© 2020 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post