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Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani envoy to the US and UK.

The world faces a leadership crisis

An overwhelming majority is calling for new structures for global governance.

A dominant theme at the recent World Economic Forum summit was the return of geopolitics, which together with turbulence and volatility, was shaping today's fraught strategic environment. As the eruption of crisis and tensions in the Middle East, Ukraine and East Asia have demonstrated, 2014 has been a year of political and economic turmoil and instability. Intensifying competition between the major powers seems to mark a revival of older patterns of behaviour, even as it has assumed newer forms and is being accentuated by a surge in nationalist sentiment. Billed as the world's largest brainstorming event, which gathers over a thousand experts from 80 countries, this year's WEF summit on the Global Agenda in Dubai took up a range of diverse and pressing issues. In many sessions, participants agreed that 2014 had been an unprecedented year because of the confluence of challenges at a time when the institutions of global governance were at their weakest. In previous times, pockets of instability did not seem to impede the world's march to progress.

But today an array of urgent challenges seems to be holding the world back. The session on the challenges of geoeconomics produced a lively debate, which highlighted the theme of the return of geopolitics.

According to one speaker, geopolitics was increasingly "interfering with and unravelling" the globalisation of the economy and producing a retreat to nationalism. This reinforced a key point made by Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015, WEF's flagship annual publication. This underscored that nationalist ideologies, opposed to globalisation, were creating "new flash points and uncertainty in long dormant ones", as the recent experience of the European Union also testified.

Economic interdependence, said another speaker, was supposed to yield cooperation and defuse geopolitical tensions. Instead, economic warfare is becoming more pronounced while conflict between the major powers is also assuming economic forms. Geoeconomics, it was argued, was now dividing, not uniting, the world. Fierce competition between regional multilateral projects was, for example, at the root of the crisis over Ukraine. Although geoeconomic interdependence was still a reality, economic competition was playing a role that garrisons once did in geopolitical power plays.

Participants in this session and elsewhere identified a number of global trends or traits. The international geopolitical environment is much more strained now than at any point in the post Cold-War period.

Multipolarity has altered the landscape, but in the absence of effective global institutions or leadership, this is a source of confusion and disorder.

The world is moving from globalisation to "glocalisation", with local issues becoming global in their impact. Old approaches are still being applied to a complex new interconnected world, which are proving inadequate. Nationalist sentiment and separatists forces are growing. This is in part a reaction to the disruptive economic and social effects of globalisation.

Globalisation is increasingly becoming a "gated" phenomenon as nations relapse into protectionism.

Competition for resources is overshadowing cooperation and also exposing nations to becoming "new colonies" for states able to exploit them.

Asian powers are also "pivoting" to Asia, as indicated, for example, by growing Sino-Russian cooperation, cemented by the latest energy deal.

The decline of Bretton Woods institutions (IMF and the World Bank) is being accompanied by the emergence of new institutions backed by the rising economic powers. A prime example is the plan for a New Development Bank.

What seems to straddle many of these trends and other key characteristics of the international landscape is the absence of global leadership at a time of rising geostrategic competition. In fact, these two trends are identified among the top ten trends for 2015 by the WEF report. The annual report relies on a survey that polls WEF members. This found that 86% felt the world today is facing a leadership crisis. This lack of confidence in leaders is expressed both at the national and international levels and this has grown in recent years.

At the international level, the inadequacy of global governance institutions to cope with the complexity and profusion of challenges has long been the subject of international debate. Not surprisingly, the survey found an overwhelming majority calling for new structures for global governance. The report also urges the need for major powers — old and new — to "learn to be partners in this new, more decentralised world".

This of course is prudent counsel. But until the strategic adjustments underway in several regions of the world — some violent, others not so — play themselves out, it is hard to see how such partnerships will be built. Without such cooperative endeavours, new global governance architecture is unlikely to emerge.

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