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Who’s leading, and where are we going?

Posted By and on December 4, 2019 @ 14:30

Global leadership works best when liberal great powers embrace a shared, inclusive vision of global order, jointly manage the challenges to that order, and fund the public goods that underpin it. Lately, things haven’t been going so well. Liberal great powers are distracted by domestic priorities, and rising autocratic powers are pushing disruptive agendas.

The two dominant powers—China and the US—find themselves locked in an accelerating strategic competition. And a range of countries—including India, Japan, Germany, Indonesia and Brazil—find themselves struggling with a set of leadership expectations they aren’t well placed to meet.

Let’s start by looking at the world’s 20 largest economies, as measured by GDP size. The easiest way to do this is to use the country comparison tables in the CIA’s World Factbook, which provides a purchasing power parity measure of national economies [1]. The results are as follows.

Rank Country Estimated GDP in 2017
(US$ billion)
1 China 23,210
2 United States 19,490
3 India 9,474
4 Japan 5,443
5 Germany 4,199
6 Russia 4,016
7 Indonesia 3,250
8 Brazil 3,248
9 United Kingdom 2,925
10 France 2,856
11 Mexico 2,463
12 Italy 2,317
13 Turkey 2,186
14 South Korea 2,035
15 Spain 1,778
16 Saudi Arabia 1,775
17 Canada 1,774
18 Iran 1,640
19 Australia 1,248
20 Thailand 1,236

China and the US are easily the two largest economies. But the US, well used to global leadership, has—apparently—wearied of the task. In brief, experience is strong, but motivation is weak. By contrast, China in recent centuries has been unused to global leadership, but is driven by a strong sense of entitlement, as compensation for the century of humiliation. Experience weak, motivation strong.

They’re followed, in third place, by India, which economically is about half the size of the US; its continuing aversion to alliances and recent reluctance to sign up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership suggest a country still hesitant to spread its wings. Moreover, it’s dogged by a plethora of domestic problems and fundamental security challenges that impede aspirations of global leadership.

While New Delhi has made several rhetorical claims to leadership in the past, they were mostly designed around third-world activism. India’s emergence as a rising economic and military power sits uncomfortably with its former self-identity as a leader of the underdeveloped world. Experience, motivation and—perhaps—ability are thus all lacking.

Japan and Germany come fourth and fifth, but they were two of the Axis powers in World War II and have actively shunned the security spotlight for over 70 years. Even today, both countries tread carefully in terms of strategic policy, each perfectly aware that its neighbours might be uneasy about any move it might make to embrace power-projection capabilities or nuclear weapons.

Russia is sixth, economically just a shadow of its former Soviet self. President Vladimir Putin plays a weak hand adroitly, keen to maintain the perception of Russia as a global player, and hopeful that the Sino-Russian strategic partnership implies a degree of strategic equivalence between Moscow and Beijing. It doesn’t.

Indonesia, seventh, has never had any experience in running the world, and is probably surprised to find itself ranked in that position.

Brazil, eighth, is a regional power rather than a global one.

The UK, ninth, is busy disembowelling itself over Brexit.

France rounds out the top 10. It would love to run the world, but a GDP of under US$3 trillion doesn’t provide it with sufficient clout to do so.

The rungs 11 to 20 on the ladder are occupied by a range of countries we might best call ‘middle powers’. Each can exercise regional clout on specific issues for relatively short bursts of time—as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are doing now. And that they are doing so now underlines what’s happening: we’re seeing a more contested global order at the top levels of the ladder and, simultaneously, an increasing regionalisation of that order, within which regional powers with a barrow to push feel themselves free to do so.

Old patterns still stand out: for example, the durability of US post-war alliance structures. In the top 10, we find the US itself and four of its allies: Japan, Germany, the UK and France. In the middle-power rungs, seven of the 10 are US allies: Italy, Turkey, South Korea, Spain, Canada, Australia and Thailand. But it’s not clear just how much we should read into that. The alliances were all built in an age of US pre-eminence; their durability doesn’t necessarily imply such pre-eminence persists today.

Similarly, the Anglosphere’s still visible. The US, the UK, Canada and Australia are all there in the top 20, suggesting the Five-Eyes arrangements remain important leadership assets. But even there, the US and UK are distracted by domestic priorities, political division and leadership challenges.

Global leadership isn’t just great-power ambition writ large. It’s about designing, constructing and maintaining an order within which others have a sense of ownership and meaning. The Cold War ended almost 30 years ago. But looking back on that period, it’s remarkable to recall just what a diverse collection of allies Washington managed to pull together to oppose the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners. It would be wrong to think of all those allies as strategic equals. Not only were some more powerful than others, some were more entitled to lead than others.

One important fracture line was between the winners and losers of World War II. The US alliance system drew together the major power ‘winners’ (the US, Britain and France) and the major power ‘losers’ (West Germany, Japan and Italy). But the two groups made different contributions to the broader Western goals. Team A, the winners, all had permanent seats on the UN Security Council. And they had aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, ballistic missiles and—most importantly of all—nuclear weapons.

Team B had none of those things. They were the allies of Team A; West Germany and Italy as members of NATO, Japan as part of the US hub-and-spokes alliance arrangements in Asia. But their roles and responsibilities fell more into the areas of civil and economic power. Their hard-power strategic assets were defensive, not offensive. Today, Team A is weary. Still, Team B would find it hard to pick up the strategic slack, even if it sensed it had the mandate to do so.

At the top level of the international system, China presses for greater influence. India, Indonesia and Brazil are under pressure to do more, and to assume leadership roles befitting their larger economies. And at the secondary level, a range of regional middle powers press forward into the vacuum of the US’s contracting leadership role.

It’s possible that the US might yet resume that role under a different president. But at the moment we seem to be sliding into an acephalous world. What would that look like? Well, order typically arises from both power and law. A leaderless world would have less of both. It’s likely to be a more disordered world—without a shared vision, with lower levels of international cooperation to manage common challenges, and with fewer public goods.



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[1] purchasing power parity measure of national economies: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/208rank.html

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