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The Straits Times says

Addressing crisis of global leadership

The forebodings of a leaderless world were realised, in the eyes of many, when the United States started pivoting into itself this year. Its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the US once championed assiduously for the good of all, was seen as the start of a new phase of American unilateralism captured by the Trumpian soundbite, "America First". The lowest point so far has been its abandoning of the Paris climate agreement, despite appeals by the staunchest allies of the US.

The disillusionment with America's global leadership, especially where the environment is concerned, is running as deep within the US itself as it is in many parts of the globe. Over 1,400 American states, cities, companies and institutions have already defiantly declared their intention to honour the climate pact. In denouncing the White House's decision, a group of Fortune 500 businesses described it as "a grave mistake".

Similar scepticism among America's partners in Europe bubbled to the surface during President Donald Trump's visit there late last month. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe's de facto leader, voiced the disenchantment succinctly when she told her fellow citizens: "The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over." Europe, she said, "really must take our fate into our own hands."

This is a far cry from the post-World War II period when the US took the lead in shaping a new world order, within which even small states, like Singapore, could claim sovereign equality and benefit from an umbrella of collective security. Under US primacy, multilateral institutions promoted the rule of law, free trade, global cooperation and democracy. As a result, the world became a safer place, paving the path for decades of growth. Now, it is a more unpredictable place, in no small part because the sole superpower, once the "international trump card", is now a wildcard, as political scientist Ian Bremmer notes.

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Prospects for world stability will be dim if America's allies across the world start to hedge and chart their own paths in an increasingly unreliable world. Any weakening of the West might then embolden major powers, like Russia, to test the stabilising institutions, rules and conventions which the US helped to shape. And rogue states, like North Korea, might well exploit geopolitical shifts to further its nuclear and ballistic programmes. Much will depend now on how the US is able to work closely with China to address issues with far-reaching repercussions, and to what extent both are prepared to shoulder the burdens of global leadership. Where Mr Trump is concerned, a crucial difference he could make is by broadening his campaign slogan of making America great to encompass making America's place in the world great again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline 'Addressing crisis of global leadership'. Print Edition | Subscribe