Who runs the world? Qui mène ici?

Wrestling for influence

Jul 3rd 2008
From The Economist print edition

The post-war global institutions have largely worked well. But rising countries and growing threats are challenging their pre-eminence

THE powerful, like the victorious, do not just write history. They grab the seats at the top tables, from the United Nations Security Council to the boards of the big international economic and financial institutions. They collude behind closed doors. They decide who can join their cosy clubs and expect the rest of the world to obey the instructions they hand down.

That is how many outsiders, not just in the poor world, will see the summit that takes place from July 7th to 9th of the G8, the closest the world has to an informal (ie, self-appointed) steering group. Leaders of seven of the world’s richest democracies, plus oil-and gas-fired Russia, gather this year in Toyako, on Hokkaido in northern Japan, to ruminate on climate change, rising food and energy prices, and the best way to combat global scourges from disease to nuclear proliferation.

But in an age when people, money and goods move around as never before, this little group no longer commands the heights of the global economy and the world’s financial system as the core G7 used to do when their small, purposeful gatherings of the democratic world’s consenting capitalists first got going in the 1970s. Nowadays summits produce mostly lengthy communiqués and photo-opportunities. And Russia’s slide from democracy into state-directed capitalism has lowered the club’s political tone.

In an effort to show that the G8 is still up with the times, Japan, like Germany last year, has invited along for a brief chat leaders from five “outreach” countries: Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Yet this handshake between those who did best out of the 20th century and some potential shapers of the 21st leaves hanging the question of how the old world order should be adapting to the new.

Might the world be better managed by such a G13? Or a G15 or G16, to include a couple of weighty Islamic states too? Or, to preserve the group’s original globe-steering purpose, by a G12 of the world’s biggest economies? Meanwhile, the global institutions set up after the second world war are also having to look hard at their own futures. Unlike the G7/8, which takes on a bit of everything, these institutions basically divide into two sorts: economic and financial, and political.

At the pinnacle of world political management, but looking increasingly anachronistic, is the UN Security Council. Of its 15 members, ten rotate at the whim of the various UN regional groupings. The other five, which wield vetoes and are permanent, are America, Russia, China, Britain and France, roughly speaking the victors of the last long-ago world war. Alongside them is a secretary-general (currently Ban Ki-Moon from South Korea; this job, too, tends to go by regional turn), a vast bureaucracy at UN headquarters in New York, and hundreds of specialised agencies and offshoots (see table).

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