After the G20: America, Obama, the world

Godfrey Hodgson
6 April 2009

It is too soon to say whether the Group of Twenty summit in London on 2 April 2009 has brought closer the world economic crisis closer to an end. The effect of the unimaginably vast sums of money (or at least figures) that were declared available to lubricate a blocked credit system will be an early sign. No one knows too whether the plan of United States treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to clear up the vast toxic assets remaining in the system will work. The potential for further damage is ever-present.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the G20:

Larry Elliott, "From G8 to G20: the end of exclusion" (16 November 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)

Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" (26 March 2009)

Will Hutton, "The G20 deal: power bends to protest" (29 March 2009)

Daniele Archibugi, "The 20 ought to be increased to 6 billion" (31 March 2009)

Stephen Browne, "The G20 summit: a transition moment" (1 April 2009)

Saskia Sassen, "Too big to save: the end of financial capitalism" (1 April 2009)

David Hayes, "The G20 and the post crisis world" (3 April 2009) - with contributions by Paul Kingsnorth, Susan George, Duncan Green, David Mepham, and Ann Pettifor

There is more clarity about the statement by Gordon Brown that the G20  meeting was the beginning of a "new world order" of progressive cooperation. The British prime minister is at least halfway right. This is indeed the start of a new world in international relations, and it is time to look closely at its architecture.

The two-step illusion

What happened in London was in one sense a great step towards a new realism: that is, replacing a G7/G8 that reflects the economic realities of at best the 1970s (if not of Bretton Woods) with a G20 that can claim to represent four-fifths of the world's gross global product and  well over half its population. Even more, this creates a process that almost inevitably entails further moves towards greater "representativity".

It is long overdue. The process of rethinking the distribution of power in leading international institutions is a belated acknowledgment of the changing global balance. China is at its heart. The Beijing leadership wants its country's "peaceful rise" - including a decade and more of 10% annual growth - to be recognised and rewarded. If the Chinese are to make a major contribution to the greatly increased capital of the International Monetary Fund, for example, it will be hard to resist their claim for more than 4% of the IMF's voting rights.

A key question is whether the process of change will be gradual or sudden. It has become modish in some diplomatic and journalistic circles to speak of a G2 - the United States and China - as a future steering-committee within the G20. This is unrealistic, as well as undesirable. After all, the American economy is now slightly smaller than that of the European Union, and it has long lost the dominance of the immediate post-1945 era. Moreover, China's own economy is now in aggregate roughly the size of Germany's - but the disparity in populations means that it delivers an average income per head around 10% of most western European countries.

In any case, the relationship between China and the United States is very different from a traditional great-power competition, in a way that limits the potential to forge a "duumvirate". It is neither a traditional commercial rivalry nor a military contest, but a novel and in some ways very strange relationship: China is creditor, investor, supplier of cheap consumer goods, ideological and diplomatic competitor. Chinese economic growth has been heavily dependent on exports to the United States (and even more to the European Union).

In addition, neither power has any territorial claims or ambitions of a traditional kind on the other; though in Africa and perhaps elsewhere China aspires to a sphere of influence that challenges American hegemony. China cannot yet remotely threaten American military dominance, though there are signs that the Chinese government is intent on building up its military (including naval) capacity.

There may come a time when the world is divided between Chinese and American alliances, and strategic changes in world politics do tend to come faster than anyone expects. But for the foreseeable future, China will not be a superpower in the way that the United States has been since the implosion of the Soviet Union.

An end to "number one"?

But if the "multipolar world" - long discussed in academic seminars and journals of international relations - is now becoming a reality, what will be the effect on the world's networks of influence?

The United States is in a class of its own in military power. But other countries and groups of countries  - China, India, the European Union, Russia, perhaps some alignments of the Islamic world - are able to resist or divert American power in various ways, or are in a position to help Washington achieve some goals it cannot achieve alone.

The United States now needs help in international affairs. It cannot save its own environment without cooperation. It cannot rescue its own economy without help from Europe and China. It is no longer self-sufficient in energy. Its irresistibly great military power is not in practice much use.

The signs are that President Obama understands this, at least on one level. He has sent clear signals that he wants to leave behind the unwise arrogance of the George W Bush administration and its more intransigent figures - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton; and to seek more cooperative relationships.

But there is a catch. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union the preferred model of the world in the United States - among conservatives and liberals, among politicians and military officers, journalists, policy-makers and a clear majority of citizens - has not been a G7/G8 one or a G20-type one; it is most unlikely to be a G2 one. It has been a G1 model.

Most Americans in these two decades came proudly to embrace the image of their country as the lone superpower. Barack Obama speaks of a new, more tactful and more subtle style of leadership. But he is still an "American exceptionalist". He still takes his country's leadership in the world for granted - even if his speeches during his European tour (in London, at the Nato summit, in Prague, and in Turkey) have been artful in their restraint and appeals to cooperation. The American people too expect him to be what American journalists have long called the president of their country: the "leader of the free world".

This is not an elected title - or if it is, it is a title awarded by an electorate amounting to less than 5% of the world's population. Yet until recently it did represent a reality, one acknowledged by many and perhaps most of the world's other leaders. When Madeleine Albright called her country the "indispensable nation", she was not boasting. She was expressing a perception that was widely, indeed almost universally accepted.

It was not just that no other nation had the strength to compete for leadership with the United States. No other nation then wanted the burdens of leadership. Now this too may - may - have begun to change. Perhaps Americans, while happy to be number one, are now longer willing (even if they are able, which is a big "if" in the middle of an economic recession) to carry the burden of leadership.

A new narrative

In 1999 I wrote an article in which I spoke of the "grand narrative" of what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "short 20th century". The breakdown of the uneasy diplomatic equilibrium of the 19th century in 1914 had led to world war and economic catastrophe. That in turn led to fascism, to another world war, to genocide and to the division of the world between an American and a communist power-bloc. That led to the cold war, and in the end to the collapse of European communism.

I connected the end of that grand narrative to "the death of news". Because the citizens of the United States and western Europe were no longer frightened of war, they had turned away from the affairs of the rest of the world and concerned themselves with their own preoccupations and fears: of poverty, failure, loneliness, ill health and death. War, they imagined, was something that happened in "faraway places of which we know little".

It is interesting to ask whether the attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001 would have happened if news organisations in America and western Europe had not sharply cut back their coverage of international affairs.  However that may be, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the crisis in Pakistan and the stalemate in Palestine, and now the economic disaster resulting from the crimes and follies of "Anglo-Saxon capitalism", have the public's full attention.

They sound like the ominous overture to a new and potentially dangerous world in which the United States still sees itself as G1, but may be less able and less willing to carry the responsibilities of a world leadership that is more heavy and difficult than ever.

Can Washington, given its apparently unshakable attachment to Israel's interests, solve the problem of Palestine? Can it repair (or "reset") the breach with that testy and ambitious rival, Russia? Can it save Pakistan for democracy? Bring Iran into the comity of nations? Feed Africa? Halt climate change? Rebuild Wall Street or Detroit?

No American president has started with more personal ability, or more sheer goodwill from around the world, than Barack Obama. But a successful tour of Europe has if anything highlighted the scale of the tasks he faces, and the problems he may have in bringing the American people along with him in the effort.

A new narrative is unfolding. A lot depends on whether the world is nearer the end (1991), middle (1945) or beginning (1914) of the "short 20th century". The plot is still open.


Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

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