The Monitor's View

Can America still lead?

The collapse of the Doha trade talks reveals a clash of giants over how to run the world.

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Just days after Barack Obama spoke in Europe of world citizenship, the world let him down. Global trade talks to open closed markets collapsed last week after big nations chose to protect their farmers. The collapse was about more than food, however. It may also mark the end of American leadership.

The specific cause for the failure of the so-called Doha talks was a dispute over how much each nation may respond to sudden surges in food imports. China and India ganged up to insist they be able to raise high walls against surges. The United States saw this as a step backward from previous deals.

This end to seven years of trade negotiations reveals a clash of old and new giants with different ideas of how to run the world. It also shows how much poorer nations are eager to throw off that word "developing" because it implies they must merely follow the "developed" world, or the West.

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The irony in Doha's end is how much these emerging countries have benefited from leadership from the US since World War II to open its own markets and to persuade others to expand free trade. Now that these countries have tasted the fruits of this trade freedom, they want to control its future course to their own ends.

The easy response is to say that a superpower, super-idealist America must now learn to live in a "multipolar" world. But that assumes the Lilliputians have a master plan once they rise up and tie down Gulliver. America's ideals on trade and other issues more often than not have been universal, a result of its founding on ideals. But the US doesn't have the clout anymore to carry the banner on issues such as free trade. In Doha, it was clearly every country for itself.

Not since the 1930s have global trade talks broken down the way they did last week in Geneva. The chances of their revival are slim as protectionist pressures are building in key countries.

Mr. Obama, for instance, wants to slap hard conditions on bilateral trade deals. India's ruling Congress party, which relies on rural farmers for support, faces elections next year. France keeps the European Union from reducing farm supports. And China fears more uprisings if peasants are forced to face global competition.

Global trade deals impose more openness and benefit more people than regional and bilateral ones. But America, frustrated at slow progress in expanding worldwide trade, has resorted to the latter in recent years, hoping to force global deals. Instead, the Brazils and Chinas are now doing the same.

The world is splintering into nationalist camps on many issues, such as nuclear proliferation, global warming, and human rights. Old global agreements still stand, but Doha's demise may be a historic pivot away from a brief moment during the latter half of the 20th century in which America tried to lead the world toward shared goals, values, and responsibilities.

The time may now be ripe for the US to create a new grouping of nations dedicated to both free trade and democracy, excluding countries that reject a commitment to freedom. There are risks in keeping the Russias and Chinas out of such a tent. But if Doha's tent can't be mended soon, America may need to start a new type of leadership, one that is still universal but less global for now.

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