Changing the guard
Musical chairs in global leadership game
THE TOP TABLE in big-league global political-economic forum will see several longfamiliar faces gone in a couple of years.
They will necessarily be replaced by a new band of leaders.
But how important will this be, potentially, to the world economy?
Or will this transition ultimately have only a marginal effect at most?
Also, are those who are set progressively to leave the centre stage, fortuitously quitting at just the right time personally? Or will the departures, of some at least, already be too late to escape a thumbs-down verdict from history?
Let’s start with those still in office now, but for whom the clock is counting down. • The spotlight is trained most acutely on Republican President George W Bush of the United States. He will be out of the White House by the end of 2008, completing a maximum eightyear spell.
It’s odds on that he’ll be succeeded by a Democrat. What’s much less certain now than only two months ago is who that Democrat will be.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York’s junior senator and wife of former President Bill Clinton, seemed to have her party’s nomination effectively secured.
Today that can’t be taken anywhere so easily for granted.
Ms Clinton has always aroused a great deal of animosity as well as much admiration, and that seems to apply now among a great many Democrats.
So a major challenge is being mounted, the polls say, by senator Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and white American mother.
There’s also the sometimes forgotten “third man” – John Edwards, former senator and the vice-presidential candidate for the Democrats in the losing 2004 election.
This nomination contest will unfold over coming months, and it will surely have profound influence on the economic policy proposals that the successful Democrat eventually lays out against her/his Republican rival.
Hillary Clinton has, until recently, broadly followed the pro-free-trade stance that her husband mostly pursued.
True, Bill Clinton sold out at the notorious 1999 Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation, but that was because he desperately needed full backing from anti-freetrade Democrats to fight off demands for his impeachment.
But hostility to free trade has been mounting fast in the US.
Vitally, the current account trade deficit steadily soars while imports from China – widely believed in the US to be deliberately maintaining an artificially cheap currency, the yuan – keep surging upwards.
This is Edwards’s best bet. He has long been one of the most uncompromising protectionists in America.
Obama, sensing the wind, has moved strongly that way.
Clinton, determined not to leave herself possibly greatly vulnerable in this key area, has also shifted significantly, in the protectionist direction.
The Republican choice appears to be between former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and senator John McCain. Both are instinctively receptive to free trade – but they might also change stance in a presidential election where the going will be uphill anyway. • And what of other countries?
In France the great sleaze-master, Jacques Chirac, is finally having to step down from the presidency there.
The fight for succession is, at present, between Nicolas Sarkozy on the centre-right and socialist Segolene Royal.
Sarkozy was very much a free marketeer, but he’s trimming his sails to suit traditional French statist attitudes.
Royal started campaigning on a moderate programme but has now embraced old-style leftist populism.
Sarkozy is favourite and, if he wins, might try to nudge the European Union towards freer trade, even in agriculture. But don’t bet on that.
Chirac was also supposedly right-wing, but he hopped left whenever it seemed expedient.
Also, almost all French politicians are fiercely protective of agriculture – which leaves little practical hope for getting the WTO Doha free-trade round back on any realistic programme of implementation. • Tony Blair has at last agreed to step down as British premier, his reputation having crashed over the last 12 months or so. Chancellor Gordon Brown is expected to succeed him, though extraordinary upturns can no longer be ruled out.
But Brown’s claim to be the great master of the UK economy has tumbled (the International Monetary Fund has steadily moved his rating from great success to increasing incidence of failure).
So Brown could lose the election to the great unknown, UK Tory leader David Cameron, or form a coalition with the left-of-centre Liberal Democrats headed by Menzies Campbell.
In any outcome, the UK would be pushing for Doha and other free-trade initiatives.
But even with the probable backing of Angela Merkel’s coalition government in Germany, this wouldn’t get far in the face of French opposition.
The favourite is under pressure as race pace picks up. Hillary Clinton
Captain Sleaze is bowing out so far undefeated. Jacques Chirac