While the demand for international cooperation on specific issues from climate change to internet governance is growing, so far no single country, group of countries, region or idea has shown itself capable of leading the way to new forms of global order. Should countries adjust to a leaderless world mitigated by ad hoc cooperation, keep trying to redesign existing institutions or design new ones?


Video highlight


‘Don’t count the Americans out yet.’

Joseph S Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

‘China is trying to learn from the failures of the US.’

Dr WU Xinbo, Director, Center for American Studies, and Executive Dean, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University


Key discussion points

The global role of the United States is in flux. The world’s leading superpower is struggling to come to terms with the rise of China and other sources of global leadership, and its domestic political deadlock has hampered its long-term strategic planning. At the same time, the US still plays a leading and essential role in international crises, such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the humanitarian crisis in Nepal after the earthquake earlier this year, and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. While it remains the strongest power, it cannot accomplish its objectives unilaterally.

The enduring lesson of the financial crisis is that global cooperation is possible. The formation of the G20, the development of what was then a very unorthodox fiscal and monetary policy and China’s contribution to world economic stimulus with $600 billion dollars show that bold and inclusive decisions can be taken. This kind of cooperation and the revival of the ‘multilateral system’ could help tackle the other structural challenges of climate change and extremism.

But there is not full consensus on multilateralism as a way forward. Russia in particular views the world from more state-based and geopolitical perspective, and the possible emergence of different international groupings – such as a US-led grouping based around TTIP/TPP and a ‘Greater Eurasia’ of led by Russia, China, India and Iran – could see more multipolarity without necessarily greater international cooperation.

As a rising power, China must not free-ride on global public goods as the United States did in the 1920s and 1930s. Global public goods, such as monetary stability, reversing the effects of climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and fighting against global pandemics, continue to be under produced. China is already beginning to contribute in helping to stabilize Afghanistan and in worldwide infrastructure development, and has an opportunity to learn from US mistakes – but it will continue to balance provision of public goods with its own national interest. In addition, issues considered public goods by some states, such as human rights and anti-corruption, do not have international consensus.

China is becoming more assertive militarily, but would still not consider US-style interventions. In addition to heightened development of potential military assets in the South China Sea, a new counter-terrorism law, the presence of soldiers in South Sudan and talk of a military base in Djibouti point to a broadening of China’s use of military power. But it, for the moment, continues to exercise ‘strategic prudence’ and would be unlikely to embark on broader operations.

Attempts at excluding China from international organizations are doomed to backfire. The formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank highlights that if China believes itself to be excluded, it will simply create its own ‘playing-field’. 

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