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.