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Something New May Rise From Group of Eight's Ashes

James Traub
The Des Moines Register
July 2009

More than 60 years ago, the abject inability of the League of Nations to prevent World War II, as well as the failure of central bankers to foresee the Great Depression, provoked a round of anguished introspection that led to the establishment of the global institutions we live with today—the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization.

Today we stand at the threshold of another spasm of invention—"Creation 2.0," as it has been called. Not a war this time, but a global financial crisis, the development of novel and interconnected transnational problems and the swift rise of a new cohort of powerful states have exposed the limits of the post-war institutions, even rendered them obsolete.

Even the most hardened realists have come to accept this imperative. "We've got a new world now," says Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush's national security adviser. "But we still have habits of mind of the 20th century and the Cold War, and all the institutions we have were built for a world which has disappeared."

One fundamental difference with the post-war moment is that the great powers now have a club of their own—the so-called G-8, which consists of the leading Western democracies and Russia. And that's a problem, because the West no longer has the monopoly on power, especially on economic power, which it enjoyed in the years after the war. Since 2007, the G-8 has extended to China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa a kind of ex officio status. But the global financial crisis has made this arrangement not only vaguely insulting but untenable. Last November, President George W. Bush, no friend of multilateral institutions or of emerging powers, convened a meeting of an expanded G-20. The 20 leaders met again in London in April, and are scheduled to convene once again in Rome in the coming days, alongside the G-8.

Just as a select group of Western countries can no longer set the world's economic agenda, neither can they establish the rules going forward on trade, or on climate change. A recent Brookings Institution report argued that, in addition to the current financial crisis, "future G-20 summits should also drive the reform of the international financial institutions and address other major global concerns—climate change, poverty and health, and energy among others." This "global apex forum" would operate not as an executive, decision-making body, as the U.N. Security Council is, but rather as an instrument to shape consensus on major transnational issues.

The membership roles, and rules, of the Creation 1.0 institutions have also become obsolete. Look at the Security Council, whose five permanent members—the most exclusive club of all—represent the winning side of World War II. France and England belong to the "P-5," but Germany, Japan, India and Brazil don't. The same is true of the IMF, where Belgium currently enjoys the same voting power as China. Europe holds one-third of the 24 seats on the IMF board and by tradition names the president of the IMF. The United States has the same privilege with the World Bank. The financial crisis has given the IMF a new centrality in global financial decision-making. But the Fund can scarcely serve as the central instrument for overseeing the global economy if the new Asian powerhouses are not fully dealt into the game.

Creating something from nothing may prove much easier than changing the power structure of existing institutions. It takes immense political will to overcome the inertia that inheres in institutions—and even more, in the distribution of power within those institutions.

That political will must come, as it did 60 years ago, largely, though not exclusively, from Washington. The Obama administration is very much preoccupied by crisis management just now. Nevertheless, there are real grounds for optimism. Unlike his predecessor, President Barack Obama believes in multilateral institutions, including the United Nations. In his first major foreign-policy speech as a candidate, Obama spoke of the post-war institutions, noting that "leaders like Harry Truman and George Marshall knew that instead of constraining our power, these institutions magnified it."

But commitment from Washington is only a prerequisite for change; all major states, including the new powers now taking their place at the global table, will have to accept that they have a stake in a new global order. Institutions work only if states accept that they magnify, rather than constrain, their power.

James Traub writes for The New York Times Magazine and is director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. For the Stanley Foundation, he wrote the Policy Analysis Brief titled At the World’s Summit: How Will Leading Nations Lead?
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