International Leadership after the Demise of the Last Superpower: System Structure and Stewardship

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Who will take care of what global challenges – and why not? Does the international system have an emerging pattern of leadership, or does system structure either preclude leadership as such or prevent prediction of any systematic form hereof?

It is widely agreed among scholars and practitioners alike that the ‘structure’ of the international system in some broad sense, and most often with an emphasis on the distribution of power (polarity), circumscribes the conditions for cooperation and joint action. So this paper will first discuss the proper designation of the emerging structure, then what implications this has for conflict and cooperation and thirdly on this basis: who will take what kinds of leadership roles especially in relation to the management and confrontation of global challenges and dangers?

A number of diagnoses of the current and emerging structure appear to be largely in synch, however placing their emphasis on slightly different points or doing so differently: multipolarity, no one’s world, a world without superpowers, G-Zero, New World Disorder, etc. The first part of the paper, compares and systematices these different conceptions of system structure. The paper argues why seemingly minor differences in conception might make a substantial difference as to expectations and interpretations of patterns of cooperation and conflict in the system. The emerging structure is one of no superpowers and with the main great powers nested in different regions. This points towards a pattern of conflict and cooperation that is basically de-centered – not a focused competition for world power or for leadership as an aim in its own right. Leadership will therefore vary from issue-area to issue-area and sometimes case to case. Does this mean that we just have to wait and see – and despair? Or is it possible, at least to some limited extent, to predict when what powers will step forward and thereby who will be the main players in what kind of constellations in different domains?
Original languageEnglish
JournalChinese Political Science Review
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)452-476
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2017

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