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Can Anyone Manage the World?

Solving world crises is difficult in an age of rising domestic politics and tight global financial ties.

By Jonathan S. LandayPeter Ford, and Judith Matloff, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998



WASHINGTON, BONN, GERMANY AND MOSCOW

As Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin ended their summit, the embattled leaders' dour expressions said more than their words about the outcome.

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Official declarations aside, there were no major arms-control accords or resolutions of foreign-policy differences. More critically, Mr. Clinton's exhortations to Russia to stay the course of free-market reform did nothing to ease mounting uncertainty over the future economic and political stability of a nation armed with more than 20,000 nuclear warheads.

Perhaps the overriding lesson of this distracted two-day conclave is the limited ability of the United States and other major powers to influence the direction of the crisis in Russia and the growing menu of other threats to international order. With financial troubles in Russia and East Asia fueling fears of a global downturn and new political and social turmoil, some experts say leading powers are finding themselves increasingly constrained and overstretched in confronting world challenges. Among the reasons they cite:

* The limited abilities of governments to guide and influence globalization and the massive amounts of capital that flow around the globe at the click of a mouse, unhinging or bolstering markets daily.

* The end of the cold war balance of power in which the interests of most nations were guided by whether they aligned with the US or the former Soviet Union. Now many governments are more concerned with gearing their foreign policies to domestic political and economic priorities, often putting long-term allies at odds.

* Increased national self-interest, which is undermining the ability of major powers to forge coalitions to confront international problems. Moreover, national concerns appear to be restricting the ability of the US to persuade Russia, Japan, and other financially struggling nations to adopt Western-style economic reforms.

* Constraints on major powers' unilateral use of military power imposed by the prospect of international isolation and censure. Such considerations have played significant roles in the Clinton administration's retreat from threats to use force to compel Iraq to allow a resumption of UN weapons inspections.

"You need a large number of coalition partners, economic or military, to deal with these increasingly complex issues," says Hans Binnendijk, director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think tank. "But that is much harder to do when you have coalition partners doing their own thing and following their own national interests."

Adding to these concerns are the weak leaderships at the helms of the world's three leading economic engines. In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl faces a tough reelection fight. Japan's new prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, is floundering in addressing his country's financial straits.

Meanwhile, Clinton's authority and credibility are being questioned because of his personal problems, constraining his ability to forcefully advance US interests, experts say. "We have a very unfortunate conjuncture of a lot of different forces...," says Charles William Maynes, a former senior State Department official at the Washington-based Eurasia Foundation.

A popular Moscow view: a summit of 'lame ducks'

Mr. Yeltsin began his summit with Clinton with a bear hug, enveloping him in an exuberant welcome. But many of the country's 147 million citizens wondered why the American leader had come at all.