President Barack Obama has played a key, visible role at recent summits: defusing divergent viewpoints between China and France on tax havens at the London G20 summit in April 2009; co-chairing a session on climate change financing at the G8 summit last July in L'Aquila, Italy; hosting the third G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September; and, this past April, convening the nuclear security summit of 47 nations in Washington.

So, yes, the US still considers itself to be a leader, even the leader in summits and in the world.  Why not?  Just because a unilateralist US president viewed the world as his oyster for eight years and assumed the role of “decider,” forging a new profile for US exceptionalism, does not mean that today, the US under a very different president, must recoil in a corner, plead repentance and pretend it is a shrunken violet — far from it. The world should be glad that the US still thinks of itself as a leader, albeit a different sort of leader.

Number One Among Many

The fact that the US is still the world’s hegemon on many matters does not mean it is basing its leadership on the notion of being “Number One.” The US is now a number one among many, a leader among other leaders, a country seeking common ground, rather than only the higher ground for it to stand on.  The Obama administration seems committed to what we might call “embedded multilateralism,” where US leadership is embedded in the varied mechanisms, formal institutions, “Gs” and other informal arrangements in which the US works with others. 

Whereas the idea of “Number One” was central to the Bush administration, the idea of singularity is anathema to the current administration led by Obama.  The idea of duopoly, that the US and China are the two superpowers who will decide everything — a notion more popular in the press than in policy — is as unappealing in official circles in Beijing as it is in Washington.  China and the US are fully aware of their respective scale, power and importance, but precisely because of the immense lead that these two countries have in most metrics of power, they both find it more useful to engage in embedded multilateralism than to flaunt their weight, visibly exercise their power and appear hegemonic. 

The G20 and Embedded Multilateralism

The G20 grouping of countries is an illustration of the value of embedded multilateralism for the US and for China. The G8, with four Western European countries, two North American nations and Russia and Japan, embodies and symbolizes the polarization in global politics between “the West and the Rest” rather than resolves it.  The G8+5 (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) entailed G8 “enlargement” rather than replacement, and failed to convince the five that they were on equal footing with the eight.  The G8+5 was anything but a G13 — not at all. 

By contrast, the G20, building off the finance ministers’ grouping created amid the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, had 10 years’ experience meeting at the  ministerial level when called upon in late 2008 to meet at leaders’' level.  The G20 was, and is, a free standing group with a decade of history behind it.  No one thinks of the G20 as a G8+12. 

From a hegemon’s point of view, the G20 at the leaders’ level — an L20 as The Centre for International Governance Innovation called it even before it came into existence — is an excellent vessel for embedded multilateralism.

The G20 has: six Asian countries while there is only one in the G8; three Islamic countries instead of none in the G8 +5; and several mid-powers whose foreign policy hallmarks are multilateralism — Australia, Canada, South Korea and South Africa, to name a few. Think of the advantages of such a diverse group from the vantage point of the most powerful countries. The outcomes that powerful countries are working toward are “embedded” in a broader, more inclusive, more pluralistic setting in which big power politics are contextualized and socialized by the presence of systemically significant countries from all corners of the earth. 

The G1 is respected and other participating leaders are aware of US vital interests, but can deal with differences of views and perspectives with the hegemon in the company of others with similar concerns.  The G2 dancing duo can work through global imbalances, trade disputes and investment conflicts in a pluralistic setting.  There is something more acceptable about doing bilateral business in a forum in which other major countries with interests in the outcomes are present and participating, rather than uninvolved and waiting in their capitals for the news of great power decisions to come down. 

Being “Number One” in a multipolar, multicultural, multilateral world is uncomfortable.  Being a G2 in such a world is not appealing either.  In a twenty-first century world with a global financial meltdown, the threat of planetary burnout, and half the world still poor, the world is really “Number One.”  If the global hegemon (for now) or the two great powers play monopoly or duopoly games in the pluralistic world of today, resentment will build, pushback will gain momentum and global leadership will be wrought with conflicts.

If the US is comfortable enough with its continuing status as “Number One” on many matters to not need to assert itself as such, and China is more comfortable, as it seems to be, in working through its relations with the US in a broader setting, then embedded multilateralism would seem to fit the interests of both countries and the world as a whole as well.   

This is one of those rare questions where the right answer is really "yes" and "no" at the same time.

Colin I. Bradford Jr. is a senior fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.