With the United States gripped by its election fever and unlikely to be back in a state of normalcy until next year after a new administration is installed, the need for leadership on a number of international issues is felt more strongly than before.
Ranging from the current financial crisis to curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and nipping a new round of proliferation in the bud, these issues cannot be put on the backburner for another year or two before the Americans sort out their internal feuds. Even then, it is not at all clear what policies the next US administration might pursue on any of the key issues the world faces.
The Democrat hopeful, Senator Barack Obama, has offered no clear policies on those issues apart from hinting that he would do the opposite of what George W Bush has been doing, something that, if elected, he may find is easier said than done.
The usual Democrat attack theme against Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, is that he represents a” third Bush term.” However, that is not at all certain. McCain has distanced himself from Bush on several crucial issues and a look at his team of advisors shows that none of Bush’s key collaborators is included. So keen is McCain to mark himself from the incumbent that he has not invited Bush to appear at any campaign venues. For the time being at least, there is, of course, no substitute for the United States as the key player on the international stage, a position that is unlikely to be challenged seriously for at least another decade or so.
Thus, the hiatus created by the American election represents a moment of uncertainty for the global system.
However, this does not mean that the rest of the world should simply take to the fiddle as Rome burns. Other actors, from the European Union to China and Japan, and passing by Russia, Brazil and India could and should help smooth the rough ride ahead wherever they can.
To be sure, all those actors are limited by the reality of economic and military power and political mobility.
The European Union can act only on based on the least common denominator. This means that it often ends up effectively endorsing a status quo it cannot challenge, as we saw in its latest initiative regarding the Russian invasion and annexation of Georgian territory.
Russia has all but squandered whatever leadership claim it might have had by becoming embroiled in a banal irredentist conflict with one of its tiniest neighbors, Georgia. The annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was a big mistake in terms of Russia’s strategic interests as a leading global power. It has now become a big bully embroiled in a local brawl with a midget.
Brazil, though the “regional superpower” in Latin America, still lacks a global profile. Thebes it could do is to try to contain the excesses of a new group of radical leasers, from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who may be pushing their respective nations towards civil war.
India, for its part, has not sought a leadership role since the heady days of the nonaligned movement and, with a few exceptions such as Afghanistan, does not appear interested in getting involved beyond its own national interests.
Although still the world’s second biggest economic power, Japan has never been able to punch at its weight in the political arena. An ageing nation, it is still haunted by ambiguous sentiments about its militarist past and hampered by more than a decade of semi-recession.
That leaves us China, regarded by many as the major rising power in Asia. Although I do not see China’s long-term prospects, that is to say in the next three to four decades, as totally serene, China already has enough muscle to claim a greater role in the international arena.
It is projected to become the world’s second largest economic power within the next four or five years. It has developed close, often intimate, relations with more than 60 nations across the globe, mostly in Africa. As the biggest importer of crude oil, China weighs in heavily on the global energy market. China is also one of he top three suppliers of weapons to the world, a position that bestows great political influence. When it comes to the current financial crisis, China, as the biggest foreign holder of US dollars and one of the top five investors in the global economy enjoys a position of influence second only to that of the United States. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council, China could both initiate and scupper any major international initiative.
China’s role is decisive on a number of issues.
Were it to stop backing the weird system in North Korea, the Kim il-Jung gang would find it hard to cling to power, let alone seeking nuclear weapons. A change of policy by China could favor the reunification of the Korean peninsula under a pluralist system.
China is in a similar position on Burma (Myanmar). Were it to withdraw its support from the ruling generals, they would stand little chance against the surging democratic movement in that unhappy land.
Although a neighbor of Afghanistan, China has adopted a low profile there, a fact that has encouraged the Pakistanis to pursue a duplicitous policy towards the new regime in Kabul. Of all the big powers, and for reasons of history and geography, China is the best placed for helping Afghanistan achieve greater stability.
China’s role is also crucial in persuading the Khomeinist regime in Tehran to modify its adventurous foreign policy and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A strong message from Beijing that a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic would not be acceptable could sway the debate in Tehran in favor of those who oppose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s radical policies.
Equally important is the role that China could play in helping India and Pakistan settle the thorny Kashmir dispute once and for all. It is no secret that Chinese support over the past four decades has been a key element in encouraging Pakistan’s often-defiant posture on the issue.
For more than a decade, however, China has studiously stayed on the sidelines of international arena. The reason was that the leadership in Beijing wished to focus on holding the Olympics as a successful re-launch of the new China brand. To hat end, they developed a foreign policy code-named “no enemies”. This meant that China would shun taking any position that might upset anyone, even such bankrupt tyrannies as that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
The Chinese absence is bad for China and bad for the world. The Olympics are over and the new China band has been launched. It is time for China to assume responsibilities incumbent on any major power in the service of conflict resolution and peace.