Time to Realign the World's Great Powers

Coauthor Carlos Pascual, former ambassador to Ukraine, talks with U.S. News about a new book.

By + More

From climate change to a global famine, the international system cannot respond to 21st-century threats, Bruce Jones of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, Carlos Pascual of the Brookings Institution, and Stephen John Stedman, a former United Nations official who is now at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, write in their new book, Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threats. Pascual, a former ambassador to Ukraine, recently spoke with U.S. News about the problems the United States faces abroad and why reforming international institutions should be the first step in any solution. Excerpts:

What will surprise readers?

That international cooperation isn't just idealism, but it's a new kind of international realism. That we live in a world now where problems don't know borders or boundaries, where no one nation can fix problems on its own, where you can't isolate yourself from these problems. For many people, the sense of building international relations and partnerships was sort of a lofty ideal. Now it has become fundamental to the conduct of international security policy. And if we don't get that right, we can't succeed in either protecting our own people or becoming more prosperous in the future. Should President Obama read your book?

I hope he does read the book. I think what he would find in there—not necessarily learn but find in a way that's reaffirming—is that the rule of law is fundamental to achieving those understandings, that we need a rule-based system to achieve predictability and stability in the international system. I think the other thing he would see that's important is that you need to invest in institutions if you're going to draw on them and if they're going to be effective. The third thing he would find is that to succeed in the current environment, you need an alignment among major powers. It isn't sufficient any longer for just the old G-8 or the old major powers to work with one another. We need to bring in the emerging powers like China and India and Brazil and Mexico and South Africa. If we don't get the right powers around the table working with us, then we're not going to get successful outcomes. Isn't that what we're doing with the G-20?

The G-20 is the beginning of a move in that direction. But there are complications. The group is too Eurocentric in its orientation. It also has become ironically unwieldy. Trying to operate on major international issues with that many countries in one sitting becomes cumbersome. The irony is that we're going to have to come back to some smaller grouping. Why is reform so hard to implement?

There are a number who agree in principle but, when it comes back to the point of translating it into practice, are hesitant to do it because reform implies restraints on national behavior. In today's current financial environment, you'll see a general acceptance or understanding that there needs to be greater scrutiny and transparency in how countries regulate their financial systems, their banking systems, and manage their fiscal policies. Yet if one asks the question "Which country is the first that wants to subject itself to that kind of international scrutiny?" we're certainly not the first to volunteer. We have to find a way to get to a common understanding that we're all going to be better off if we're willing to negotiate the rules for how you can get financial institutions to operate across borders [and] how we can deal with climate change. What's the first step Obama should take?

In order to restore its credibility internationally, the United States has to make clear that it's willing to abide by the rule of law, and it has to take action on some things that are particularly symbolic to the international community, hence the need for closing Guantánamo, adhering to the Geneva Conventions and the convention on torture. The fact that the president did that was an important sign. Another thing which is going to be critical is establishing clarity on two things related to the international economic crisis that haven't been fully addressed. One is on the impact of the economic crisis on the poor. And it's going to take leadership to say that if there's a need to address the most vulnerable in any society during times of economic stress, then we need to think about that on a global and international basis. The other issue is protectionism. All of the major leaders have said the right things about protectionism—not letting us be sucked into the trap of 1920 and 1930 and the beggar-thy-neighbor policies that countries took. But in reality, we're not moving away; we're not taking action on the kinds of policies that would be constructive. Access to global markets for goods and services and technology and capital and access to be able to sell goods and services internationally have really lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And if we don't resuscitate that, there's little we're going to be able to do to lift much of Africa out of the poverty it faces today.