Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim El-Mashat

Curtain falls on the one-man show

Who will lead the international system? Not the US, or at least not alone, writes Abdel-Moneim El-Mashat *

There is no doubt that the international system will witness major changes. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 it has been dominated -- almost directed -- by the United States. Between 1992-2009 the system relentlessly changed from a bilateral into a unilateral one. The second decade of the 21st century, however, will witness the emergence of a conciliatory multilateral system. The US will be joined at the helm by China, the EU, Japan and Russia. Together they will dominate and lead the international system.

US military failure in both Iraq and Afghanistan and its inability to withdraw its troops from Iraq without some form of coordination and understanding with Iran have already facilitated the process of change, as has Washington's inability to pressure Israel into entering serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Both have damaged the credibility of American claims to be the sole leader of the international system. Add to this the financial crisis and the collapse of leading US financial institutions, the zero growth rate of the American economy and the historical deficit in its balance of trade, and the damage to Washington's image and status in the world looks terminal.

The transformation of the international system from one order to another will depend on structural, functional and ideological changes. All three are currently taking shape.

Evolution of the system into a multilateral one is confirmed by the emergence of China, Russia, the EU and Japan as major actors, alongside the US. The Chinese economy is growing by at least 8.5 per cent. The Russian and European economies are still registering positive growth rates while the Japanese economy is likely to overcome the crisis faster than the American economy. The functions of the international systems, limited, under US leadership, to the war against international terrorism, have been expanded to include economic recovery, environmental protection, food security and a host of other issues. We are witnessing, too, a major change in the ideology guiding capitalism, a shift away from the value system that has dominated the past two decades. The collapse of the international financial system sounded the death knell of unbridled capitalism and the marginalised state. Demands are growing to empower the role of the state as the regulator of financial interactions and the referee among different economic actors. Corporate governance, transparency and accountability are increasingly posited as the prerequisites of economic recovery.

These changes lead inexorably to greater multilateralism. Strategic decisions, whether in the United Nations or outside, now require a conciliatory spirit among the five leading powers. The new flexible multilateralism is founded on negotiation, a give and take strategy as well as the use of soft power rather than military force. Most nations, including the five leading powers, will seek to promote their interests through cross-cultural dialogue, opening up channels between North and South, East and West, that will give greater space for manoeuvre to small and medium powers. It has become the fashion for world leaders to present their ideas to developing countries from locations within these countries, witness President Obama's address to the Islamic World from Cairo University in June 2009, and the Chinese prime minister's address to Arab and African Nations from the Arab League in Cairo in November 2009.

In the next 10 years we can expect the five major powers to take the lead on the basic issues confronting humanity, on top of which are poverty abolition and control of nuclear power. We will also see a more active role for central regional powers such as India, Pakistan, Egypt, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil.

In fact the positive international economic growth nowadays is mainly due to the performance of such economies, in addition of course to China. Traditionally these central regional powers used to play a fundamental centripetal role in their respective regions through which an environment is susceptible to conflict management and cooperation. It was only during the unipolar system under the US domination that such powers lost, to great extent, that role. Hence, we have witnessed during the course of the last two decades an exacerbation and acceleration of regional tensions and conflicts coupled with internal racial and ethnic conflicts.

Certainly, there will be a shift away from the violent order created by George W Bush and the neoconservatives. Unfortunately, however, we would observe more arrogance and fanaticism by occupying powers in areas of protracted social conflicts.

The new international order, as multilateral and as flexible as it will be, would allow non-state actors, civil society organisations, NGOs both national and international, as well as global activists to play the soft power role. However, such a role as important as it is, requires for its success a commitment from different countries to opt for soft power instead of military force in their international interactions. Beyond such cooperative and peaceful interactions, there will be rogue countries such as Israel which continues its military occupation of Arab lands and Palestinian territories. It also continues its oppressive and aggressive actions against innocent civilian Palestinians. Hence, Israel defies the rules and customs of the international system and utilises a military arrogance against its neighbours in the Middle East. Such a country would sabotage global efforts against extremism, fanaticism and the arrogance of power.

Its rigidity will prove the exception in a world of growing flexibility.

* Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Future University.

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