A Superpower takes its leave and what comes next?

Already President Obama withdrew from the role of the
USA as the world’s policeman, but he did not
fundamentally question the existing international order
and its rules. Trump by contrast has upped the ante with
his slogan “America first” and his approach to challenge
the existing international order and the rules with
numerous provocations. These provocations are meant to
obtain “better deals” for the USA. But will they? It is too
early to see or anticipate all the changes which Trump’s
political approach will yield. The only result, which is
quite visible already, is that the USA as a political
superpower is gone. Equally visible is, in my view that the
emerging international order will function without a
superpower. Even potential candidates like China, Russia,
the EU, India have so many political, economic and
military weaknesses, that none of them will possibly be
able to replace the USA. Nor does any of them have the
political will to step forward and assume the role of a
superpower. Not even the G20 will be able to assume this
role. Is this bad?

A World without a superpower

What the world with superpowers produced is a fierce
fight with often missionary zeal for the creation, some
would say the imposition, of a particular societal model
on the world. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the
“victory” of the market economy (capitalism) and the
global adoption of the Western model of democracy
appeared to be only a matter of course and time. Any
problems on the way to this new global order were either
ignored or assumed to go away, once the world would no
longer know poverty and hunger, and new generations
would be engaged in a peaceful competition for a
brighter future for all. Higher degrees of political
participation, empowerment and self-determination
would ensure that the competition would stay on track.
In other words, liberalism was the winning philosophy, in
the paradigm of neo-liberalism.
But even the most optimistic liberals had occasionally
lingering doubts that the road into a brighter future
would be that straightforward and easy to travel. But
they did not know how to overcome the stumbling blocks
on the road, they just sidestepped them. By now, we
know that through this negligence we lost a good part of
our societies and never won others over to the liberal
view of the world, namely a global market economy, an
ever growing digitalization of all aspects of our lives, a
high degree of personal mobility to seek opportunities for
a better life, even beyond national borders, when it was
not in the offing at the traditional place of residence. The
accompanying growing income disparities appeared
acceptable, as long as the bottom of the income level
rose. But we continued to have persistent structural
poverty, hunger, social marginalization and ethnic
discrimination, uncontrolled and uncontrollable
corporate power of banks and multinational corporations,
which on several occasions brought the world economy
to the brink of collapse or influenced political decisions
(i.e.Cambridge Analytica in the case of BREXIT).
Governments had to intervene with public funding to
stabilize companies and economies. While in the US such
government funding was repaid by the private
companies, in Europe most of this money was lost. A fact
which is still little known and not explained. The unethical
intervention by a data processing company in the
decision-making process of the BREXIT referendum was
exposed after the fact, but the revelations did not lead to
invalidate the outcome of the referendum.
On the fringes of the society religious and ideological
extremism developed which governments either ignored
or attempted to control with police interventions.
Eventually, after the turn of the century, conservative
political parties were formed in the West, which had no
qualms to use the extreme fringes of the society to gain
political influence and votes. In non- Western countries
like China and Russia, authoritarian traditions gained
coinage, and in all continents a nationalist outlook on the
world grew.

Nationalism as a response to the weaknesses of
the neoliberal order

Current leaders are grappling to find solutions to the
problems we ignored in the past decades. Those, who
feel left out of the globalised and digitalized world, are
opposing wholesale what exists. They support politicians
who question everything which has been created, and
want to lead the world back to the past (example BREXIT).
These politicians are vocal, aggressive, operating with half
truths and questionable values, but they succeed to put
liberal leaders on the defensive. Young politicians like
Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau stand their
ground, and in some ways so does Angela Merkel. But
they are invariably outmaneuvered in the public attention
by the outrageous tweets by Donald Trump or statements
by Boris Johnson and their likes. Leaders like Putin
emulate past Western power games and do not shy away
from interventions through cyber attacks in the affairs of
other countries. It is partially a mirror action of the
interventions of Western political leaders to strengthen
civil society organizations in non-Western countries.
While Western countries claim for their interventions the
moral high ground of human rights protection, the non-
Western leaders are mostly silent on their motives, and
so the only one which shines through is self-defense of
their traditions and culture.

Nation states, nationalism and global challenges

Economic globalization has accelerated the pace with
which global challenges have arisen and advance, such as
climate change, loss in biodiversity, pollution of air, water
and soil, illegal migration, spread of hitherto uncommon
diseases (Ebola). Nationalism, which in most cases wants
to shut borders, minds, and international connectivity is
ill placed to address these challenges. In fact, they
distract attention in the general public from these issues,
which is thus left to bureaucrats and experts to solve.
Although both these groups are important in defining
solutions to these global problems, they are not
sufficiently powerful as drivers of the needed change in
the society, the economy, and the culture of our
countries. While we do not have to question the existing
international order, we can and we should question and
alter some of the existing rules and procedures within the
international order; to do that is the mandate of
Nationalism is an aberration in today’s world; the nation
state is not. It is for better or worse the entity which has
political legitimacy. As long as national governments and
administrations are trusted by the people of a given
country, they are the only legitimate representative of
the people. Such trust, however, has to be based on
constitutional principles, ethical values and a clearly
defined control system of checks and balances on political
power. In other words, politicians who lead governments
and manage administrations are the key to finding our
way into the future provided they respect their countries’
constitution or its equivalent and work on that basis,
rather than on popular thinking and gut feelings.

A strategic path into the future of the world

Solving problems of the past by going forward is a
strategic approach, which so far only few politicians
muster. Most politicians are driven by balancing the
various interests in the society. Invariably with this
approach, the interests of the economically powerful,
who can pay for a skillful articulation of their interests,
win disproportionately in this political balancing act.
Scientific knowledge, ethical standards, and needs of the
poorer segments of the society will always be in a
disadvantageous position in a political landscape which is
determined by the interplay between interest groups.
Lately the influence of civil society organizations has
grown in Western societies and of social and other
scientists in Non-Western societies, which has brought
some countervailing forces into play against corporate
and oligarchic interests. Last but not least, an
independent justice system strengthens the checks and
balances on public and private power holders. But in
many countries, the judiciary is weak and not always
politically neutral or independent. In other countries,
populist politics are gaining momentum and are no longer
held in check. There should be freedom of opinion, but if
opinions violate e.g. the value of non-discrimination on
the basis of sex and race, then political and legal
measures need to be taken to prohibit actions on the
basis of such views.
Still, if one focuses attention on our political problems of
today without being distracted by nationalism and the
extreme fringes in the political spectrum, one can detect
little sprouts of a more equal, fairer, more peaceful future
of the global society. As of today, I would not say that the
glass is half full. But it is also not half empty. In fact, we
haven’t yet found the source of knowledge, ethics,
political will and energy which fills the glass with more
than a mere trickle.
Nevertheless a weak trickle of hope exists: The current
leadership of the German Green Party is fairly close to
defining a strategic path. But they are just as strong in the
polls as the ultra-conservative AFD at about 15%, and
thus they are far away from determining policies for the
country. They will have to form coalitions with stronger
parties, but this will demand compromises which will be
very difficult to obtain and to convey to the general
public. Fortunately the ultra-right is not acceptable to the
established parties as a potential partner (at least for the
moment), which will make some of their followers more
aggressive verbally and violent in the street, but politically
irrelevant. In other countries, too, there are politicians
who wish to chart a new course. Regrettably, the
established media are more focused on nationalistic
leaders such as Orban in Hungary rather than on Trudeau.
A world map of nationalist and globalized leaders may
well show an almost equal balance between the two
Apart from comparing the actual political leaders of the
world, it may be more helpful to draw a balance sheet
between those elements which will help us to address the
global challenges successfully, and those, which we are
What do we have: human rights, a global agenda (Agenda
2030) with 17 sustainable development goals, peacekeeping
and peace-making mechanisms, international
cooperation, trade and investments, cultural and social
diversity, flourishing science and technology, a vast
majority of functioning nation states with the capacity to
address economic, social and ecological problems which
have global dimensions.
What do we lack: A lively debate on balancing individual
and communal human rights, and thus an evolution of
the human rights canon and its enforcement; a
monitoring system on the implementation of the 17
sustainable development goals, which leads to corrective
action when goals are not achieved; international
cooperation which fulfills the demands of the 0.7 GNI
target by all wealthy countries; fairer international trade
and investment patterns; effective peace-keeping and
peace-making mechanisms with enforcement powers;
unfailing respect for cultural and social diversity; science
and technology development, which is supported through
increased public and private funding to address
sustainability policies; an acceptance that democracy and
good governance are necessary, but that there is no “one
size fits all” democracy model.
In fact we should create an independent international
review mechanism, which would review in regular
intervals the governance situation in all countries. As
yardsticks the 5 dimensions of a democratic system,
namely transparency, accountability, participation,
fairness and justice, and equity can be used. As a result
we may find that there are varying ways to observe these
principles. It may also help to respect the differences
between countries, but not to be immobilized by them or
an incorrect understanding of national sovereignty. The
principle that the protection of human rights is a higher
legal value than national sovereignty is today widely
accepted. Thus monitoring national governance systems
and an early determination of international interventions
could forestall that crises developed, as we have seen
them in the recent past, e.g. in Syria, Yemen, Venezuela.

How to get on the strategic path

Some strategically important elements are already in
place, others we lack:
What we have is a collective system through the United
Nations to establish with the involvement of multiple
stakeholders global programmes for action. The Agenda
2030 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change are two
of the more recent examples. All these programmes need
to be implemented nationally or in the context of regional
groupings such as the European Union. Nothing can thus
replace in the foreseeable future the nation state. But
what we can foresee in the near future, or rather, what
we should demand, is a collective system of nation states
which enforces the adherence to global programmes
once they are adopted. A reformed security council as
well as a possibly re-constituted trusteeship council
would be linchpins in such a more vigorous collective
We have on all continents regional groupings. Mostly
they are formed around economic interests. It is
perceivable that they also function as guarantors for
regional security and peace. The Security Council could
base the enforcement of its decisions on the active
involvement of such regional alliances. At the same time,
competing alliances without any Security Council
mandate, such as the ones in Yemen and Syria, would
then be unacceptable.

The Status Quo is not enough

The current UN secretary-general and the permanent
members of the UN Security Council are at present taking
small steps in this direction. But we need bold and quick
action. We need a consensus of the member states how
we want the UN to function in today’s world and give the
UN system the wherewithal to do so effectively. Sooner
or later a general conference of all member states
according to article 109 of the UN Charter should be
convened to map out a way towards a UN which can
ensure that all governments adhere to the principles of
the UN Charter. Such a conference was foreseen to be
held every 10 years, but so far it never was convened.
Part of such a reformed UN system would have to make
the Security Council truly representative of today’s
assembly of nation states and to give the Council the
means to enforce its decisions. Eventually the UN may
have to abolish the consensus principle and opt for a
weighed majority vote (i.e. at least half of all member
states plus one representing at least 51% of the world’s
This is a tall order. But nothing less will get us to a world
where we can all live in peace and with a living standard
which allows everyone a decent life. Time is not on our
side. Civil society therefore needs to put pressure on
political leaders to act. We all need to engage and
participate. We need to think out of the box, radical, but
not extreme. And we need to try to bring those, who
have run astray back to the mainstream. Everybody
counts in this endeavour to make the world a better place
for us all. We also need to be aware that the need for
adjustments will never be ending. Changes solve one
set of problems and create new ones.
If we take decisions in good time and with the right mix of
understanding and empathy for those who resist change,
we can succeed.

Autor: Kerstin Leitner

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