Cannes, France, is a Riviera playground best known for sun, sea, and celebrities. Not the sort of place where big historical stuff generally happens. But this schmoozing site for film stars and other glitterati—along with, less dramatically but more consequentially, the leaders of the G-20 nations last November—may well hold the distinction of marking a major moment in the post-Cold War world. You might call Cannes the place where American dominance finally came to an end, by consensus.
The Germans, the strongest power on the Continent, considered President Obama’s appearance at Cannes last fall to be a “disaster,” in the words of one senior German official. The president spent most of his camera time blaming the Europeans (read: Berlin) for the euro crisis that could cost him his presidency. “Who did he think he was?” the official asked. “We don’t lecture you about your budget problems.” Who indeed. The Harvard-educated Nobel Peace Prize winner was no longer—in that overused Cold War appellation—“the leader of the free world.” He was just another poor player with his own parochial concerns.
The Cannes conclave was hardly the first evidence that the American president has become just one of many G-20 leaders who come and go without getting what they want. At the summit in Seoul, South Korea, a year earlier, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had proposed a plan to limit the trade deficits and surpluses of G-20 nations. Not only did participants contemptuously swat down Geithner’s idea, but some also said that it set back the discussion—at least until South Korea, a nation that was once little more than an American protectorate, swooped in with a milder set of unenforceable “indicative guidelines.” The outcome delayed, yet again, any serious decisions on trade imbalances, but at least it preserved the appearance of consensus.
Welcome to the future. What we are witnessing, at G-20 meetings and elsewhere, is the emergence of a leaderless world that is dangerously adrift. Often foretold in books such as Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, the phenomenon is now occurring on the ground. And not just in the economic realm: NATO’s recent intervention in Libya was the alliance’s first major military effort conceived and led by Europeans. Meanwhile, troops are leaving Iraq, the last large-scale unilateral exercise of American hard power that the world is likely to see for a long time, if ever again. A campaign that began wishfully as “shock and awe,” a demonstration of America’s righteous might, had little impact abroad. (The Arab Spring took inspiration from a self-immolating fruit seller, not a democratically elected Iraqi parliament.) The United States remains, technically, the world’s only superpower. But in the past decade, we have spent trillions of dollars deploying this vast military superiority—and to what end? Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan offers a clear victory.
Mostly what has been achieved, it seems, is to expose our economic and military vulnerabilities. The success of insurgents in both countries demystified U.S. power in the eyes of the world. “Whatever Washington thought it wanted when it invaded Iraq in 2003, it was not the establishment of Shia religious parties with links to Iran in power in Baghdad,” wrote one British critic, Patrick Cockburn of The Independent, this month. “Similarly, in Afghanistan, a surge in U.S. troop numbers and the expenditure of $100 billion a year has not led to the defeat of 25,000 mostly untrained Taliban fighters,” he wrote. “Great powers depend on a reputation for invincibility and are wise not to put this too often to the test. The British Empire never quite recovered in the eyes of the world from the gargantuan effort it had to make to defeat a few tens of thousand Boer farmers.”
The problem is much bigger than the United States. If Washington is no longer the agenda-setter it once was, can a leaderless world continue to enjoy peace and stability? Can the “international system” as we know it today survive without its father in the driver’s seat? The question is as important for America’s future as, say, détente versus confrontation was during the Cold War, or isolationism versus engagement during the rise of fascism. “I don’t know how this is going to play out over time,” says a senior U.S. official who helps direct the U.S. agenda at G-20 meetings. “The Europeans have quite adroitly used the relative international diminution of stature of the U.S. in this crisis as way to get themselves back in the driver’s seat.” But Europe has its own existential crisis, which means that it, too, is unlikely to lead.
If history is any guide, a global system of open trade and peaceful relations cannot survive under such conditions. Through most of recorded history, and in every region of the globe, an international power vacuum has meant a ruthless jostling for military might, empire- and alliance-building, and sometimes worse. The fall of Rome ushered in the Dark Ages. The Congress of Vienna that imposed European order after the Napoleonic wars broke down in terrible conflicts by the late 19th century. The end of European empire precipitated World War I.
The G-20 was created in 1999 and ignored for a decade. It won a battlefield promotion during the financial crisis.
This article appears in the December 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.