The post-1945 world order has been disintegrating for some time. George W. Bush dealt it a major blow with his decision to invade Iraq without United Nations Security Council approval. Barack Obama did his best to repair the torn international legal fabric but often declined to provide the kind of muscular, skin-in-the-game leadership on international crises that U.S. allies ― and adversaries ― had come to expect, thus feeding a narrative of U.S. decline and withdrawal.
On the economic side, the failure of multilateral trade negotiations since the Uruguay Round (1986-1994) and the proliferation of plurilateral and bilateral agreements have had international trade lawyers worried for almost two decades. The rise of new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and the New Development Bank (formerly known as the BRICS Bank), as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, have essentially put the West on notice that rising and returning powers will not wait for their place at the global table.
Donald Trump has declared that U.S. global leadership is a costly and unnecessary expense, except where U.S. interests are directly involved. His missile strike in response to the Syrian chemical attack was an act to uphold the Chemical Weapons Convention, a global norm, but it was not part of a defined strategy. Similarly, his administration’s effort to intimidate North Korea into genuine concessions on its nuclear program and to cajole and bully China into applying more pressure on the North Korean government is upholding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, but only in the context of a direct threat to U.S. security. Would Trump do the same if North Korea were not building intercontinental missiles capable of hitting the U.S.?
Rising and returning powers will not wait for their place at the global table.
Ask yourself what would happen if Iraq invaded Kuwait tomorrow, as it did in 1991, or if any non-nuclear country invaded another with the express goal of taking over its government. Can we really imagine Trump leading a global coalition to push the aggressors back and punish them? As Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini warned in 2011, a “G-Zero world,” with no one state at the global helm, is a scary place.
So what is to be done? Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization, recently reflected on this problem at a meeting held by the Berggruen Institute. He asked whether global governance must shift from the concept of multilateral to “poly-lateral” arrangements that involve not only official governing institutions but also global corporations and civil society groups. More specifically, Lamy invoked a suggestion by Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, regarding the formation of new “coalitions of the willing” of subnational actors — states, provinces and cities around the world — on climate change.
The world is actually already there. As I wrote in my new book, The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, Bloomberg Philanthropies has played a leading role in creating and funding international climate change networks and in mobilizing mayors and other web actors in thousands of cities to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. Those mayors and many of the corporations who work in their cities are all part of the Paris Agreement on climate change, recognized as “non-party stakeholders.”
Viewed from another perspective, California is the sixth-largest economy in the world and, with almost 40 million people, is larger than most members of the European Union. Around the world, the mayors of many cities govern more citizens than many heads of state. And the largest global corporations have a market capitalization that is many times the GDP of smaller nations.
It is time to connect non-state actors in networks designed to accomplish specific purposes, like building resilience, stabilizing fragile societies and fostering innovation.
These actors are already enmeshed in webs of global relationships. It is time to connect them to one another and to governments in networks that are strategically designed to accomplish specific purposes: building resilience, stabilizing fragile societies, responding to crises, fostering innovation, cumulating knowledge and effort and bringing solutions to scale.
The designers and leaders of these networks may be working out of foreign ministries, but they are equally likely to be found in corporate suites, foundation headquarters, churches, charities, universities and start-ups. They will need a new set of mapping and management tools: networks cannot be commanded the way hierarchies can. Indeed, the most important network leadership skills are curation, connection, cross-fertilization, cultivation and catalysis.
The good news, however, is that the opportunities for trying, failing, learning and succeeding with strategies of connection is vast. “Webcraft” is far more accessible and adaptable than statecraft. Chessboard crises and negotiations will remain, from arms races to trade wars. They require time-tested strategies of conflict and cooperation. But for so many problems — climate change, terrorism, arms and drug trafficking, fragile states, migrants and refugees, youth employment and many more — we need new strategies of connection.