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U.S. can't be world's only problem solver

Vlad Sambaiew
The Des Moines Register
December 2010

Recent United Nations talks in Cancun brought welcome steps forward on the climate change challenge and highlight a key feature of 21st-century international politics: Leadership in tackling global problems will depend increasingly on cooperation with rising powers and developing nations. Mexico deserves special credit both for hosting a well-organized conference and skillfully shepherding many different national views toward a successful outcome. The contrast with the bitterly divisive 2009 Copenhagen climate change meeting could not be clearer.

The point is that international affairs leadership is no longer the preserve of longtime world powers, such as the United States, Western European nations, and sometimes Russia. While all eyes are now focused on China and its rapidly growing role in a whole host of issues, China itself is part of a larger changing global landscape. Mexico is a prime illustration. Most Americans think of Mexico in terms of drugs, violence and illegal immigration, but do not realize that Mexico is a regional power with a growing middle class and significant influence in key international bodies such as the United Nations. Brazil is another regional power with growing international clout. It has South America's largest economy, longtime ambitions for a more prominent world role, and a highly professional diplomatic service to promote its perspectives.

Two phrases help explain today's leadership context: the "G-20" and "responsible stakeholdership." Nations that make up the G-20 represent more than 80 percent of the world's population and economic output. Since the first summit in November 2008 hosted by then-President George Bush in Washington, the leaders of 19 nations plus the European Union have met four times to deal with the world's continuing economic and financial difficulties. The early November Seoul G-20 summit was the first time the group met outside North America and Europe.

As the crisis phase of the global economic downturn passes, the G-20 grouping faces questions about its longer-term role - not just for its mandate of economic diplomacy, but for international cooperation more broadly. The strength of the G-20 is that it represents a solid cross section of today's leading nations. Unlike the U.N. Security Council, the G-20 includes six representatives from Asia alone (Australia, China, Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea) and includes leading nations from all world regions.

The gradual inclusion of issues beyond economic policy at these top-level gatherings seems a natural step. Given the global challenges, it would be a missed opportunity to bring heads of state together from all world regions and then artificially limit what they can discuss or decide.

Here is where the term "responsible stakeholdership" enters the picture. Originally coined by World Bank President Robert Zoellick with respect to China and its role in the world system, the essential point is that powerful nations must help to maintain that system. Put another way, the standard should be that leaders on all continents act and think about how best to respond to shared global challenges. Progress on climate change is certainly an important step, but there are many other areas deserving top-level attention: Nuclear nonproliferation, better security of dangerous nuclear materials, basic human rights, and increased anti-terrorism cooperation are just a few.

In sum, we are all now part of a highly globalized world in which newly influential nations, important international organizations and many nongovernmental groups play a much greater role. Clearly, the United States is a central and great power, but it cannot solve the world's problems alone. It is up to leaders' groups such as the G-20 to build and use the structures that can work to our overall benefit in the dynamic and complex 21st-century world.
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