For Multilateralism, Is This the Dark Moment Before the Dawn?

Let's hope so.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Remember when "leading from behind" was an insult? Right now, it would be a masterstroke.

We have gone in a matter of not too many months from a golden moment of optimism about multilateralism to grappling with the dark frustrations of aimless muddlelateralism.   Hope is now the thing we are trying scrape off the bottoms of our shoes while Europe, the Middle East, and our entire global ecosystem shudder from the after-effects of a world that seems to be lacking effective global institutions.

Was it only in 2008 that George W. Bush, at the height of the financial crisis, invited the G-20 to get involved as the leading mechanism for coordinating an international response? Was it only months later that new President Barack Obama spoke of seeking multilateral solutions, of trying to create an international system that reflected the new global power structure? Wasn't it not too much after that when Libya was offered up as an example of a new model for how America and its allies would work together to get things done?

Yet now, evidence is everywhere that the promise of those moments has been undone.  Look at the still festering eurocrisis, at bleeding Syria, at the one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, at the low hopes for material progress at the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, and at the perplexing spectacle of Rio+20 that I am now attending, an event that is likely to be both one of the largest and least consequential in the history of the United Nations.

This certainly does seem to be a G-Zero moment, to borrow a phrase from the Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer. But will it lead to a period of protracted global rudderlessness? Or will this depressing panoply of multilateral misfires be precisely what we need to trigger the even deeper crises that will finally deliver home the message that we need better global governance sooner? (That one's for you, silver lining fans.)

One reason today's seeming global power void is so frustrating is that we actually live at or near the moment of the world's greatest aggregate wealth, a time when more nations possess more engines and instruments of real power than ever before.

Our problem is not that the biggest powers are incapable of action to address current problems. It's that just when the promise of a new post-Cold War, post-single-superpower era of collaboration among nations seemed to be greatest, many of the big powers have revealed themselves to be unwilling to assume the responsibilities of true global leadership -- of motivating, cajoling, inspiring, intimidating, confronting or blocking actions by other powers. It's not so much that we are in a G-Zero world as it is that most of our leaders are zeroes.

A few of those bear special responsibility for taking the bloom off the multilateral rose. Angela Merkel has steered a course for Germany that has alienated much of Europe and put the European experiment at risk. She has implicitly suggested that Europe exists to serve the interests of Germany and, more disturbingly, that the middle and lower classes of the struggling countries at Europe's periphery deserve to work for the next decade or so to ensure that Europe's bankers don't suffer their consequences of their irresponsible lending practices. Russia and China have blocked action in Syria on the premise that pushing out Bashar al-Assad would likely open the door to worse. They fully realize that their own governments might one day be targets of the kind of uprisings facing the regime in Damascus and they want to reserve their sovereign right to rough up their people however they may choose.

Obama has engaged with virtually all of these situations to little effect, offering much rhetoric but not much shoulder. He may well be appropriately focused on economic issues at home, but there is no denying that at the G-20, in the UN, at the world's international financial institutions, and confronting key challenges, no one is touting the transformational presence of Obama the multilateralist as they did a couple of years ago.

One sign of this is the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos this week, which has an official agenda that is almost laughably remote from the big issues of the day. In the past year, the group has played a much smaller role than was envisioned at the height of the financial crisis -- a reality that will be underscored as the reactive, last-minute agenda to address Europe's continuing crisis dominates the meeting, mostly through a flurry of bilateral leader conversations on the perimeter of the official event. There will be strong language, lectures to Europeans and pushback from them, signs of the deepening tensions between the United States and Russia, and a few essentially meaningless gestures that will do little to resolve anything ... and then will shift the main venue for addressing the global economic crisis back to the G-7, the European Union itself, and the other fora that have supplanted the unwieldy G-20 over the past three years.

Still another sign of the problem is that the U.N. meetings here in Brazil will draw more than 50,000 people and more than 100 heads of state, but many of the most important ones will be missing -- including Obama. The process for producing its primary communiqué was described to me by one senior U.S. official as a "hopeless clusterfuck." (And speaking of signs, one that seemed to hit the nail on the head could be found stuck into the beach along the sidewalk in Copacabana. It said: "Rio+20, to decide to not decide is the worst decision of all. You are putting not only nature, but lives at risk.") Failure to address the climate issues here in Rio will almost certainly be seen by history as the single greatest failure of the current multilateral system and today's leaders -- far outstripping the issues currently dominating the headlines, from Greece to Egypt, the eurozone to Syria.

The general sense of the drift away from the stronger multilateral institutions we so clearly need to manage our climate or regulate global markets or take on international threats like proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has been going on for months. The crisis in Europe has fed it. The lost hopes of the Arab Spring fed it. The fact that Libya was so deliberately sui generis and that Syria proved it has fed it. The U.S. hypocrisy in clinging to an antiquated system of choosing the next leaders of the IMF and the World Bank fed it. And the ineffectiveness of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the Iranians has fed it.

Nor are the momentarily encouraging Greek election results, despite shoot-from-the-lip cable TV pronouncements declaring them a victory for Europe and the eurozone, a sign that multilateralism is making a comeback. Market reactions demonstrated that. And besides, Greece is -- shock headlines aside -- a side show. Much larger debt crises in Spain and Italy (and perhaps France) loom ominously. But the real problem is with the European banking system itself, which is plagued, top to bottom, by bad debts -- starting with the lousy home loans made by Spanish cajas and extending up to the European Central Bank's asset base, much of which is comprised of loans that have yet to truly be marked to their diminished market value.

My instinct is that the Greek result will in any case be seen as a harbinger. Neither the EU nor the eurozone is going away. More likely, both will be stronger as public recognition that they are needed and must be further strengthened through addition of fiscal union and tougher banking regulations grows amid the long, slow gaze into the abyss that would be created by their potential absence. (As for Greece, it may leave the eurozone, but it will leave a eurozone stronger for the circumstances of its departure.)

Similarly, whether it is the failure to stop Iran's nuclear march or the failure to stop Assad in Syria or the inability of the World Bank to stabilize economies and help create jobs, or whether it is the inevitable recognition that our planet actually demands cooperation among all nations to preserve its climate, I continue to believe that circumstances will be more effective than our current weak crowd of leaders at persuading the world that we need the strong global governance that seemed closer two years ago than it does today.

In other words, it will get worse before it gets better. What we are seeing today is the kind of failure of leadership likely to produce consequences so disturbing that ultimately they will help move us past the multilateral rhetoric of idealists to the urgency that comes of clear-eyed realism about what works, what doesn't, and what we really need.  Multilateralism will ultimately flourish not because it is more equitable but because we cannot solve global problems without it. Today's leaders -- through their inaction and missteps -- may inadvertently be doing more to ensure cooperation among their successors than they did when they actually seemed to care about such issues earlier in their careers.

David Rothkopf

David Rothkopf

Obama's Debacle

The president has protected his right flank for now, but history won’t be so kind.

He cut out the generals. He cut out the secretary of defense. He cut out the secretary of state. And in the end, he produced a schizophrenic policy that will almost certainly go down as the greatest foreign-policy debacle of his administration.

Afghanistan may not be Barack Obama's Vietnam, but that is only because it has failed to stir national tensions in the way the war in Southeast Asia did. He may therefore get away with his errors in judgment and his victimization by circumstance to a degree that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could not. But it is impossible to read accounts like David Sanger's in the New York Times this weekend without concluding that the primary drivers behind U.S. AfPak policy for the past three years have been politics, naivete, and intellectual dishonesty. It also clear that on this issue, the White House's self-imposed distance from the rest of the president's cabinet and the military may have kept the United States from making even more egregious errors and suffering even greater losses in this latest tragic round of the distant region's great game.

The question remains whether, as it scuttles for the door in Afghanistan, the United States will intentionally or inadvertently usher in forces that could leave the region more dangerous. The charade of the NATO summit wrapping up in Chicago does not bode well in that respect. While President Obama and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai posed for cameras and spoke warmly of their shared vision for the country after the U.S. departure, what they offered up was a kind of joint hallucination -- a better-functioning, more democratic, more stable Afghanistan that is patently impossible if it continues to be ruled by the weak and corrupt Karzai, if the country remains as fragmented as it is, if its neighbors continue to meddle in its affairs (as they will), if we deal in the Taliban as if somehow they were now changed men, if we turn our backs on the undoubtedly worsening plight of Afghan women, and if we ignore the fact that the single most successful U.S. agricultural development program in history was the restoration of Afghanistan's heroin industry.

That the United States and Pakistan, a country the Obama team acknowledged, according to Sanger, as the region's primary threat from its first days in office, had yet another public diplomatic tiff on the edges of the Chicago conference only shows that every inch of the fabric of America's policies in the region seems to be fraying simultaneously. That the tiff was over the reopening of Pakistani supply lines into Afghanistan illustrates the confounding circularity of U.S. problems in the region: To reach al Qaeda in Afghanistan we needed Pakistan's assistance, so we dialed back the pressure over Pakistan's nuclear program and ignored the fact that its intelligence services were key supporters of al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. We also started pouring in aid, which enabled the Pakistanis to expand their nuclear stockpiles and their military. Once we went in to Afghanistan to get al Qaeda and the Taliban, they fled to Pakistan. When we pursued them, it inflamed the Pakistanis. But we failed to effectively pressure them to act against the militants for fear that the country might fracture irreparably. And now, after more than a decade of this, we are willing to cut a deal with anyone to paper over the problem in our eagerness to get out of Afghanistan and declare "mission accomplished" even if it includes the not persuasively rehabilitated Taliban we were after in the first place.

As Sanger's story reveals, the president opposed his own policy of sending in more troops to stabilize Afghanistan from the moment he approved it after months and months of messy internal wrangling. So why did he do it? The answer is that that Obama was leaving Iraq and could not afford to look weak in Afghanistan at the same time or he would come under political attack from the right. Getting out faster might also alienate the military to the point that public discord would damage the president. Although White House-military relations were strained from the beginning of his administration, Obama's team worked hard to keep a lid on tensions. So they swallowed their doubts about the military judgments they were getting about a conflict they were increasingly sure was unwinnable.

The result was a strategy straight out of the Wizard of Oz: As the scarecrow informed Dorothy when she reached a fork in the Yellow Brick Road, "Of course, some people do go both ways." The United States would increase its troops but only as a prelude to getting them out. Sanger's reporting suggests that this was not a confused policy, but rather an intellectually dishonest one. Obama's plan from the beginning was to cover his tracks to the exits with the Afghan "surge."

"I think he hated the idea from the beginning," Sanger quotes one of the president's advisors as saying about his boss. "[T]he military was ‘all in,' as they say, and Obama wasn't."

Within just over a year of the announcement of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the president ordered his advisers to start making plans for a U.S. exit. "This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks," according to Sanger. In other words, the planning process would be left to those who agreed with the president. Dissenters were not invited. It's hardly the picture of a harmonious policy process or a "tough-guy" leader in sync with the military that the White House was eager to sell around the moves against villains like Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, or Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The process is troubling, but in the final analysis, Obama's biggest error was in not trusting his judgment earlier. His White House team -- from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon -- were Afghan skeptics from Day 1. And frankly, they were right about the situation even while many in the Pentagon were calling for much deeper involvement. Perhaps the president felt he had no choice, defending himself with those 30,000 troops not so much against AfPak enemies as against political opponents on the right. Perhaps he was right that this approach produced the swiftest, least acrimonious exit.

Still, the whole thing leaves a bad taste. In handling the matter as he did, the president has now assured that when the post-conflict mess in Afghanistan and Pakistan grows uglier still, he will own those results. He may have protected himself against attacks from the right for a brief while, but the judgment of history may prove harsh.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images