Do we risk facing a global leadership vacuum?

We don’t know yet whether the existing order will
collect itself before it is too late. If it ceases to operate
as it has done with increasing interconnectedness in
recent decades, Mauritius might need to brace itself up for a steep uphill climb

During the colonial period, Britain “ruled the waves”. It kept increasing its global reach. Its empire stretched from New Zealand and Australia in Oceania, on the one side, to America and Canada in North America, on the other. Moreover it went on to colonise nearly the whole of Africa and numerous countries in Asia. Given its extensive global presence, it set comprehensive new standards of administration almost all over the world. The extensive British dominance of global politics continued even after Britain’s colonial rule came to an end.

After the Second World War, America rose to pre-eminence in the world. The transition was not harsh. The spread of democracy and a liberal world order continued in the declining phase of European colonialism as from the mid-20th Century. The US dollar became the most important currency in global exchange. It still is. It is mostly around the US dollar and American values, such as democracy and free markets, that the post-colonial world has been shaped. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the world order became even more centred upon the central role of America in global issues.

International institutions like the UN, the ILO, the World Bank and the IMF are offshoots of this new world order. They were entrusted with the onerous task of bringing economic and other reforms to numerous economies – of which Mauritius is one – coming out into the new global evolution. Thus, many countries which could not have stood on their feet in the aftermath of decolonisation, were given the appropriate support to enable them face their independent destinies. The assumption always was – and still is – that were a catastrophic situation to visit any one country in this new world order, one or other among the numerous international bodies set up under the UN would salvage it.

For example, Mauritius faced a dire economic condition in the early 1970s with unemployment soaring and a dearth of foreign exchange with which to pay for our essential imports. Both the IMF and the World Bank stepped in to provide us with Stand-by Arrangements and Structural Adjustment Loans to put us back on track. Numerous African and Asia economies faced a similar predicament. The international system lifted them, to the degree possible, by carrying out required reforms. International solidarity worked.

Thus, an idea of a responsible “global government” emerged. It was tasked to oversee the situation of single countries facing exceptional conditions from time to time. In brief, there has come a global mechanism which ensures that epidemics do not spread, that markets are properly regulated, that conflicts are managed, that international trade is conducted under globally accepted rules, that international boundaries are not violated,  etc. The western countries were largely in charge of implementing all of this, but so were the other members of the international community sharing views about the common international liberal order.

This cooperative system has worked well. Mauritius has benefited and continues to benefit from its participation in this framework. With the recent British and American elections, however, doubts have been cast whether it will still hold together for the benefit of all. This is because of the emergence on the international scene of leaders who no longer show a commitment to the rest of the world; their countries’ concerns come first, no matter if old allies are abandoned to themselves.

Thus, if NATO were to go, Russia will have even more freedom to dictate its terms to others. The problem is Russia, as it stands today, doesn’t have a cohesive program about holding the free world together. China, another global heavy weight, hasn’t displayed a commitment beyond its immediate neighbourhood, despite having gone out to invest its surpluses in far-away countries. The risk is that the mutually supporting global agenda which has held countries together so far might meet with a no-fallback situation for individual countries.

We stand today on the edge of such a risk. History shows that global orders do collapse. The more they were unexpected, the more havoc they wreaked. For example, there were two destructive world wars along with the ruin that followed all over. Now, seven decades after World War II, the US appears to be relinquishing its cohesive leadership role of the free world, over domestic concerns.

A world divided between two extremes might emerge out of this. One would be led by the hard right which advocates pure nationalism (Marine le Pen’s Front National, etc.) and the other by the hard left (Putin’s Russia out to undermine the West, etc.) with the support of specific masses. If so, the moderates, who have given the international community a sense of togetherness and purpose, will cease giving countries like ours the assurance and stability needed to be able to sustain themselves.

The international connectedness, which has given countries like Mauritius a part to play, may yield to a vacuum in global leadership. The world will no doubt re-shape itself (over how many years?).  We don’t know yet whether the existing order will collect itself before it is too late. If it ceases to operate as it has done with increasing interconnectedness in recent decades, Mauritius might need to brace itself up for a steep uphill climb.

Anil Gujadhur

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