The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Gaza, instability in Pakistan and the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran would have been more than enough to crowd out any thought of long-range planning. Now the Middle East is in flames again. And yet a wide range of foreign policy experts are urging the new president to look beyond the smoke and the bloodshed - indeed, to leverage the pervasive sense of crisis - to reshape the world's governing structures.
Those structures - the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others - date from World War II's end, when the victors enjoyed a monopoly on economic and political power, and the state system seemed impregnable. We no longer live in such a world. Vivid proof that we don't came in November, when President Bush, no dreamer of multilateral dreams, convened the "G-20" to deal with the financial crisis.
Until then, the planet's executive board had been known since it first assembled in 1975 as the Group of 7, or G-7(G-8, when Russia attended). Robert Hormats, a former Treasury and State Department official present that first meeting, notes that for a long time the Western powers "could manage the global economy among themselves." Now, he says, "it's inconceivable."
China is by far the United States' biggest creditor; emerging nations like China, India, Brazil and Indonesia now account for most of the world's economic growth. The G-20 will meet again in April. By the time the G-8 convenes in Rome two months later, it may be all but defunct; Italy, this year's host, is considering whether to throw open the meeting to new members.
Reinvention is in the air. Last January, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain delivered a major speech in New Delhi in which he observed that globalization had brought new powers - like India - to the fore; he called for a new "creation" moment that would include changes in the composition of the postwar institutions and new mechanisms to deal with climate change, poverty, energy and nuclear nonproliferation.
Many major diplomatic figures from both parties have been linked to such calls. Mr. Hormats, who served in the Reagan administration, was co-host of a recent event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "Present at the Creation 2.0: How Reinventing the International System Could Become One of the Central Legacies of the Obama Administration." Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to George H. W. Bush, says, "We ought to have institutions that reflect the world we live in." It's the new realism.
Indeed, the postwar institutions look increasingly like the Social Register, full of yesterday's great names. It's not just Italy in the G-8. Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium all have seats on the I.M.F. board (where they also represent other nations); Singapore and South Africa do not. China does, but it has barely more votes than Canada. Far more provocative to the developing world is the composition of the United Nations Security Council, whose roster of veto-bearing permanent members has not changed since inception; the West still holds three of the five permanent seats.
Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, views the United Nations as an essential instrument of American foreign policy, but he may find his initiatives blocked by third-world bitterness at the West's outsize influence. United Nations experts say he would win himself enormous good will if he openly supported Security Council seats for the current aspirants: India, Brazil, Germany, Japan and perhaps South Africa. Would an enlarged Security Council help President Obama cut the Gordian knot in the Middle East? Alas, no. The United Nations plays only a marginal role now in adjudicating between Israel and Palestine, for whom the White House and select Middle Eastern powers will continue to be the interlocutors of choice. Nor could a new Security Council resolve tensions created by one of its permanent members, like an increasingly restive and bellicose Russia.
Another problem is the zero-sum nature of power. In a recent editorial, Sebastian Mallaby, an international economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that the best way to persuade China to stop promoting exports by undervaluing its currency would be to give China "a much bigger voice" in the I.M.F. But, he noted, European countries have been reluctant to accept a smaller voice.
I.M.F. reform will look like a walk in the park compared to the Security Council. The last time the United Nations made a serious run at expanding the council, in 2005, every candidate had its own sworn enemy - generally a neighbor. Some advocates have suggested that Washington focus first on limiting the use of the veto and only later on inducting new members. Even that, however, would require an enormous diplomatic effort.
What's more, making an organization more representative does not necessarily make it more effective. The financial crisis has demonstrated the need for new global regulatory mechanisms. These will now be assembled according to instructions from developing-world finance ministers as well as those from the West. Will that make them more sound? Given the resistance last November of many G-20 members to stricter accounting standards, the answer is, "Not necessarily." And since India, Brazil and South Africa, though thriving democracies, typically vote with the autocracies of the "nonaligned movement" on human rights, it's easy to imagine that the wished-for Security Council could be more "legitimate" but less effective even than the currently not-very-effective version.
Still, what's the alternative? The West wants China, Russia and the emerging economies to view themselves as responsible global players. That means giving them a stake in the system, and hoping that having stakes will make them better stakeholders.
The advocates of reinvention seem to have the merits on their side. But the central issue for an incoming administration is less, "Is it right?" than, "How much effort is it worth?" How important is it to create and reform these new structures, compared to crisis management? Transition officials were asked that question, and declined to comment.
Of course, the United Nations can wait, while peace in the Middle East can't. But there is also another way of looking at the question: an administration that wants to work through institutions, as opposed to "coalitions of the willing," will have to choose between reforming those institutions and watching them decline into irrelevance.
In other words, change is coming willy-nilly. The question, says David Rothkopf, a national security expert and consultant who is an apostle of reinvention, is: "Do we allow it to happen at its own pace, uncoordinated, incrementally, or do we see this as an opportunity and produce a new vision for an international system that advances U.S. interests in the same way that the post-World War II vision did for 60 years?"
From: James Traub, Shaking Up the Boardroom at World Government Inc., New York Times, Jan. 3, 2009