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IMAGINE SOMEONE HAD TOLD YOU in early 2008 that the U.S. stood on the verge of a financial market meltdown of   historic proportion and the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s. Would you have believed it? What if you were told that the euro zone’s very survival would soon become a subject of front-page debate? Or that a wave of unrest would soon sweep the Middle East, toppling autocrats across the region, forcing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak into prison and plunging Syria into civil war?

Would you have believed that all of those things would happen within five years?

Recent news appears more encouraging. The U.S. economy looks to be slowly regaining its footing, and equity markets have climbed to new heights. Europe, despite continued queasiness, appears headed toward calmer waters. The upheaval in the Arab world has so far generated limited global market impact. Yet the convulsions of the past five years arose from structural faults — financial, economic and political — that have not been fully resolved. And there are new worries. Economic growth among leading emerging markets has slowed considerably as much-needed reforms have been postponed. In particular, China — on track to become the world’s largest economy while still a poor country — has lately behaved in erratic ways on the international stage. Talk of a “peaceful rise” rings increasingly hollow for many of China’s neighbors as its military picks fights with Japan in the East China Sea; with Vietnam, the Philippines and others in the South China Sea; and with India along the Line of Actual Control that has divided the two states since 1962. A wave of cyberattacks on U.S. companies and government agencies traced to the Chinese military creates more friction. But the biggest longer-term worry is that China’s new leadership faces the most ambitious economic reform process in history as its unstable, unbalanced and ultimately unsustainable development model must be rebuilt to shift wealth from politically connected elites and state-run companies toward an increasingly plugged-in and demanding middle class.

Adding to the volatility, we’re living in a G-Zero world, in which no single power or working alliance of powers has both the muscle and the appetite to provide global leadership. That’s important, because the world needs leaders that are willing and able to accept the costs and risks of establishing and maintaining a coherent global order — putting out fires, writing the checks others can’t afford and imposing compromise to prevent conflict.