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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.

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.

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