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The Great Global Power Vacuum

In January 2020, the world was engulfed by a novel pathogen, Covid 19. This invisible and invincible enemy annihilated human lives and economies across borders regardless of citizenship and race. The pandemic proved to be a test of global leadership and accountability, where the majority of world leaders failed. This was evident in how big powers like China and the U.S. dealt with it. We saw 'blame aversion' and 'blame-shifting' strategies from both sides. China delayed reporting the outbreak of the virus to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and world leaders didn't formulate a definite plan of action in time, which eventually led to the virus becoming a part of our lives. In contrast, a global pandemic should have involved inclusive cooperation, coordination and transparency between nation-states. Let's analyse if the international leadership has stood up to the pending crises or is there a vacuum in global leadership.

The story of global leadership cooperation traces back to 1865 when countries established international organisations like International Telecommunications Union (now U.N. specialised agency-International Telegraph Union) to cooperate on specific matters. In 1899, International Peace Conference was held in The Hague to set up mechanisms to settle crises peacefully, prevent wars and structure the rules of cooperation into code. It adopted the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes and established the Permanent Court of Arbitration which started its operations in 1902. Later as the world fought the First World War and with the mandate of the victors of the war, the League of Nations was born in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles "to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security." Despite some early successes, the League of Nations could neither prevent the annexation of Manchuria by Japan nor the occupation of Ethiopia by Italy in 1936, nor that of Austria by Hitler in 1938. The helplessness of the League of Nations to avoid another devastating World War led to its downfall.

The League of Nations was replaced by the organisation United Nations in 1946 with the founding principles of maintaining world peace and security. Undoubtedly, the U.N. has helped nation-states across the globe in different social, cultural, and economic spheres. However, the relevance of the U.N. in handling warfare, humanitarian or democratic crises has been questioned. Recently, the Burmese Military Junta overthrew the democratically-elected government after the December 2020 elections. More than 1,800 people have been killed, 13,000 arrested, and almost 700,000 people forced to flee their homes, according to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Though the U.N. Security Council expressed its deep concerns and strongly condemned Myanmar's military for violence against peaceful protesters and imposing restrictions on medical personnel, civil society and media workers, no comprehensive concerted action has been taken to restore the democratic processes in the country. Unlike ASEAN, which initiated dialogue with the military leadership, no such concrete step was seen on the part of the U.N.

However, since a "global government" is not established, global governance today is contingent on the cooperation of more than 200 nations. Sovereign governments voluntarily join international bodies, become signatories to international agreements, and abide by international procedures. Albeit, this cooperation is confronted with three contemporary problems; the inefficacy of multilateral organisations, the declining role of the U.S. in global governance and the tussle between global governance and national sovereignty.

Inefficacy of multilateral organisations-

The United Nations, which was a direct consequence of the conviction that collective cooperation is the only way forward to prevent the outbreak of another war, has notoriously failed to live up to its expectations to maintain peace in some respects. For instance, WHO, whose objective is 'to be the directing and coordinating authority among member countries in health emergencies', has reacted late to the pandemic. As per reports, it has come under scrutiny for its alleged incompetence.

Multilateral organisations are trapped in a dilemma. If they comprise fewer member nations, there is greater efficacy in decision-making since it's easy to arrive at a consensus, but benefits are accrued to only selected nations. However, as membership increases with heterogeneous representation, the decision-making processes become increasingly cumbersome, impacting the multilateral institutions' overall efficiency.

The declining role of the U.S.A. in global governance-

As experts point out, the wave of deglobalization is hitting hard, particularly in the pandemic. The rise of right-wing nationalism as a guiding political ideology, particularly in the U.S. after Trump was elected as the President, triggered the withdrawal of the U.S. from global governance, which Joe Biden has revived to a certain degree.

Under Trump, Washington withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords (rejoined), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.N. Human Rights Council (rejoined) and UNESCO and ditched the Iran-Nuclear deal. The regime also rendered the Appellate Body of the W.T.O. (WTOAB) non-functional by blocking the appointment of new panels.

Experts point out that an ambitious China seeks to fill the vacuum in international leadership created by the withdrawal of the United States from global forums during the Trump administration. While the Biden administration has challenged this, we must underline a few facts that illustrate China's role as a potential world leader. Chinese officials head four of the 15 U.N. agencies, i.e. Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, International Telecommunications Union & International Civil Aviation Organisation. It is dominating the world economy since it became the only major economy to grow positively during the pandemic. China has also formed its own multilateral institutions, including Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and its Belt and Road Initiative, an envious infrastructural project involving highways, sea routes and land corridors.

The tussle between global governance and national sovereignty-

National sovereignty is considered to be of supreme importance, and non-interference with other's domestic affairs is the basic principle of international exchanges. However, to strengthen global governance, limiting national sovereignty and interference in domestic affairs is inevitable. Albeit, given the increasing assertion of national sovereignty, surrendering to global governance isn't easy. This was proven by the event of Brexit, which marked the rejection of multilateralism, international treaties and governance. Brexit and the shying away of the U.S. from being the leader in globalization are clear demonstrations of conflict between national sovereignty and global governance.


Indeed, the pandemic has made the world take cognizance of the adverse impacts of the absence of global leadership and international cooperation. World leaders should strive for a multi-polar governance system by pumping vitality into the existing global governance mechanisms. We need to revisit the very essence of international cooperation. Multilateralism and inclusive participation are crucial for ensuring that policies are adjusted to nations' interests and human standards of decency. International leadership should ideally be guided by the philosophy of "power with others", not "power over others".

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