For the first time in seven decades, we live in a world without global leadership. In the United States, endless partisan combat and mounting federal debt have stoked fears that America's best days are done. Across the Atlantic, a debt crisis cripples confidence in Europe, its institutions and its future. In Japan, recovery from a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown has proven far easier than ending more than two decades of political and economic malaise. A generation ago, these were the world's powerhouses. With Canada, they made up the G7, the group of free-market democracies that powered the global economy. Today, they struggle just to find their footing.
Not to worry, say those who herald the "rise of the rest." As established powers sink into late middle age, a new generation of emerging states will create a rising tide that lifts all nations. According to a much-talked-about report published by London-based Standard Chartered Bank in November 2010, the global economy has entered a "new ‘super-cycle' driven by the industrialization and urbanization of emerging markets and global trade." New technologies and America's emergence lifted the global economy between 1870 and the onset of World War I. America's leadership, Europe's reconstruction, cheap oil and the rise of Asian exports drove growth from the end of World War II into the 1970s. And we can count on increasingly dynamic markets in China, India, Brazil, Turkey and other emerging nations to fuel the world's economic engine for many years to come. Americans and Europeans can take comfort, we're told, that other states will do a larger share of the heavy lifting as our own economic engines rattle forward at a slower pace.
But in a world where so many challenges transcend borders - from the stability of the global economy and climate change to cyberattacks, terrorism and the security of food and water - the need for international cooperation has never been greater. Cooperation demands leadership. Leaders have the leverage to coordinate multinational responses to transnational problems. They have the wealth and power to persuade governments to take actions they wouldn't otherwise pursue. They pick up the checks that others can't afford and provide services no one else will pay for. On issue after issue, they set the international agenda. These are responsibilities that America is increasingly unwilling, and incapable, of assuming. At the same time, the rising powers aren't yet ready to take up the slack, because their governments must focus on managing the next critical stages of their own economic development.
Nor are we likely to see leadership from global institutions. At the height of the financial crisis in November 2008, political leaders of the world's most influential established and emerging countries gathered in Washington under the banner of the G-20. The forum helped limit the damage, but the sense of collective crisis soon lifted, cooperation quickly evaporated, and G-20 summits have since produced virtually nothing of substance. Institutions like the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are unlikely to provide real leadership because they no longer reflect the world's true balance of political and economic power.
If not the West, the rest or the institutions where they come together, who will lead? The answer is no one - neither the once-dominant G-7 nor the unworkable G-20. We have entered the G-Zero.
This new global era is not simply about the decline of the West. America and Europe have overcome adversity before and are well equipped over the long run to do it again. Nor is this a book about the rise of China and other emerging-market players. Their governments stand on the verge of tremendous tests at home. Not all of them will continue to rise, and it will take longer than most expect for those that emerge to prove their staying power. This leaves us with a world in tumultuous transition, one that is especially vulnerable to crises that appear suddenly and from unexpected directions. Nature still hates a vacuum, and the G-Zero won't last forever. But over the next decade and perhaps longer, a world without leaders will undermine our ability to keep the peace, to expand opportunity, to reverse the impact of climate change and to feed growing populations. The effects will be felt in every region of the world - and even in cyberspace.
The world has entered a period of transition and remarkable upheaval. For those who would lead nations and institutions through this volatile moment, the G-Zero will demand more than great power or deep pockets. It will require agility, adaptability and the skill to manage crises - especially those that come from unexpected directions.