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The Stanley Foundation: At the World's Summit: How Will Leading Nations Lead?

Author: James Traub
June 2009

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James Traub examines how vital the G8 and other post-World War II international institutions are today, and which aspects of the G8 are most in need of reform.

The implosion of the European system of alliances which produced World War I convinced the statesmen of that era that global security had to be governed by a new system, embodied in a new institution-the League of Nations. The subsequent calamities of the Great Depression and pitiful failure of the league to deter the Axis powers prompted another round of anguished introspection and a new generation of institutions- the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Bank, and The World Trade Organization. Now, sixty years later, we stand, or so it is widely said, at the threshold of another burst of invention-"Creation 2.0," as it has been called. Rather than a war, the ferment this time comes from a global financial crisis, the emergence of novel and interconnected transnational problems, and the swift rise of a new cohort of powerful states, all of which have exposed the limits of the post-war institutions, and perhaps rendered them obsolete. Even hardshell realists have become converts. "We've got a new world now," says Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush's national security advisor. "But we still have habits of mind of the 20th century and the Cold War, and all the institutions we have were built for a world which has disappeared."

And so we have reached a kind of Darwinian pivot- adapt or die. Or have we? It takes a crisis of immense proportions to overcome the inertia which inheres in institutions-and even more, in the distribution of power within those institutions. There is surely no more glaring example of institutional archaism than the UN Security Council (UNSC), which affords permanent membership to the five states which emerged victorious from World War II, and excludes the losers, Germany and Japan, as well as such rising powers as India and Brazil. Yet an alliance of incumbents and second-tier powers has defeated all attempts at change.

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