Global Policy Forum

Every Nation for Itself: Six Questions for Ian Bremmer

The G7 group of industrialized nations can function, but does not reflect the global balance of power, while the G-20 group of “major economies” is representative, but cannot function. Ian Bremmer coined the term “G-Zero” to describe the current situation in which no country or group of countries can take the lead in solving the world’s most pressing problems, like climate change, food and water scarcity, nuclear proliferation, and international security. The US has the world’s largest economy and military, but it is unable to provide effective global leadership to tackle such problems. The result is a situation in which every nation focuses solely on its own interests, rather than global concerns.  

By Scott Horton

May 5, 2012

The world is quickly being reshaped, writes political economist Ian Bremmer. America established itself as the paramount power following the collapse of Communism, but the emerging system is one in which no nation or group of nations stands out as its leader. What will this mean for the global economy and for conflict in the near future? In Every Nation for Itself, Bremmer looks at the world forming now and sees glimmers of hope, but a somber future. I put six questions to him about his new book.

1. We have the G–7, the G–8, and the G–20—explain how you came up with the idea of the G-Zero?

Simply put, the G–7 and the G–20 no longer reflect the world we live in—each for their own reasons. After the financial crisis of 2008, it was clear that the G–7 was too narrow to solve the problem—the United States and its allies alone could not stem a crisis that was impacting so much of the world. The result was an empowered G–20, in which a lot more players with a lot more voices briefly came together to provide global leadership. This moment of coordination proved to be fleeting—the G–20’s component nations only worked together as long as there was a looming crisis that affected them to a similar degree, and for a similar duration.

When the dust settled, we saw the fundamental shift occurring today: the West is riddled with debt and less capable of providing global leadership, while emerging markets like China have proven resilient and increasingly important on a global scale. Yet those markets remain unwilling to set an international agenda as they focus, first and foremost, on the domestic growing pains that come with development.

So if the G–7 can function but doesn’t reflect the global balance of power, and the G–20 is representative but cannot function, what do we have left? I call it the G–Zero: a volatile period during which no country or group of countries can set the global agenda and solve the world’s most pressing problems. We need answers on global concerns like climate change, the availability of food and water, nuclear proliferation, and international security. In the G–Zero, we’re not going to get them.

2. The notion that the United States is stuck in a period of “decline” following a decade or more of “triumphalism” seems to be in vogue right now, though you say it’s narcissistic. On the other hand, John Lloyd wrote in a recent Financial Times review of your book that America’s “days as a superpower are over”—is his summary of where you stand correct?

It’s true: recently, the big foreign policy debate has revolved around American decline, as academics and “thought leaders” line up for and against the notion. While this makes for good theater, it’s the wrong question altogether.

America’s “days as a superpower” are certainly not over, whether it’s in decline or not. Even if the United States is destined to fade into oblivion—which I strongly doubt—we can’t ignore its indispensability today. America is and will remain the world’s only superpower for some time still. It has residual strengths that make it the most important player on the global stage. It still boasts the world’s largest economy and its largest military. The American dollar is still the global reserve currency and the undisputed safe haven when volatility strikes.

Here are the two irreconcilable facts that shape the United States’ role in foreign policy: first, it is the world’s most powerful and indispensable nation, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, whether or not it is in decline; and second, the United States is unwilling to provide global leadership as it used to, because of domestic economic concerns and war fatigue stemming from two long campaigns in the Middle East.

This is where narcissism comes in. Focusing on the question of American decline is problematic because it means we’re applying an American lens to global problems. Whether or not the United States is in decline, the important thing is that in today’s environment, America is the last best hope for global leadership, which it is unwilling and unable to provide. The United States will not intervene on behalf of the Syrian people. It will not bail out Europe. It will not bomb Iran. These are the facts, decline or not.

Today’s problems will be solved or ignored by today’s leaders. The question isn’t whether America is in decline. It’s who will lead if our only superpower can’t. In the G–Zero, we don’t have an answer.

3. Some of your book turns on the idea of “creative destruction.” What do you mean by this expression, and what role do you see for it in the coming generation?

Creative destruction generally refers to evolution in the marketplace. It happens all the time. We see a product that can’t keep up with an ever-changing environment, and companies have to adapt or die out. We saw this as independent bookstores lost out to the Barnes & Nobles and Borders of the world, only to see Amazon threaten that business model as it took bookselling online. It’s a system of constant growing pains, success, and failure—but it’s productive and progressive.

Creative destruction doesn’t happen nearly as frequently in geopolitics. Institutions are slow to adapt to shifting circumstances. The last major period of geopolitical creative destruction was after World War II, when the United States built up the Bretton Woods system to provide global governance. The American-led “G7” institutions that it built—the IMF, World Bank, the UN—have been drivers of globalization ever since, as everyone benefited from developing states bringing their labor and goods closer to the developed world.

But now, for the first time in seven decades, we are witnessing political creative destruction once more. The underlying balance of power has been shifting, whether it’s between the United States and China, developed democracies and emerging markets, or debtor and creditor nations. As the marketplace changed, the product didn’t keep up: we saw a reality that was no longer reflected in the America-centric agenda, institutions, and values that still defined the global order.

But political institutions need a big shock if they’re to be broken to pieces. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 wasn’t big enough; 9/11 didn’t cut it either. The financial crisis of 2008 proved to be the catalyst. So the question is, what comes next? Until the answer emerges, we are stuck with G–Zero—a transition period as the old order crumbles but nothing has yet replaced it.

4. What does the lingering euro crisis tell you about the international failure of leadership? By one narrative, of course, it has revealed Germany’s position of almost unquestioned supremacy on the European continent—something Germany arguably struggled to obtain from 1870 forward, but now doesn’t really want. Is G–Zero about natural leaders rejecting the burdens of leadership as much as about the absence of ability?

Yes, this is absolutely the case. In the G–Zero, we see a combination of unwilling and unable leaders. The United States is dropping the baton of global leadership—and no one is willing to pick it up.

In the Eurozone, Germany is a slightly different story—cultural reasons in play since World War II precluded it from pushing for supremacy before now. But the sovereign debt crisis is playing out in a G–Zero environment, in which no outsiders are going to step in to prop up the Eurozone and ensure that the experiment works. We won’t see a new Marshall Plan for Europe; in fact, the United States refused even to contribute to the most recent round of IMF fundraising. China is not going to bail out Europe when it’s busy trying to bring its own citizens out of poverty through sustained growth. So we’re seeing a situation in which Germany’s indispensability is outweighing its unwillingness to take the lead. German leadership is much better than no leadership at all—but it still comes with drawbacks and question marks. Germany is forcing other countries into painful austerity in return for its assistance. Will this bring the region back to growth? Can Europe solve its problems on its own? Unfortunately, with no one else stepping in to help, we’ll get the chance to find out.

This is the trouble of G–Zero leadership. It is piecemeal and local, and leaves every nation focused on its own interests. The global picture falls by the wayside.

5. You offer an intriguing vision of a near-future in which America pivots to China, with a Sino-American entente forming the basis for peace and prosperity. How do you reconcile this prospect with the realities of American domestic politics, as reflected in the recent Republican presidential debates?

A G-2 entente, in which China and America work relatively harmoniously to provide global leadership, is possible. It would require China to rebalance its economy effectively, and the United States to maintain an internationalist perspective as it shifted power and responsibility to China. Unfortunately, it’s an unlikely scenario; the relationship between the two countries will probably become more and more strained. This, however, has nothing to do with anti-China rhetoric uttered by Republican and Democratic politicians alike. It has everything to do with conflicting fundamentals and the scale of the challenges in play. China will have to rebalance its economy as its labor force shrinks and its population ages. It will have to shed a state-capitalist system that has been useful in the past but will prove increasingly problematic in the future. The United States has its own domestic worries to deal with. It needs to address its growing deficit, political gridlock, and wealth disparity. Even if both countries are successful in addressing these issues, they are poised for conflict in many areas: American access to the Chinese market, intellectual property, cybersecurity, defense.

6. One of the most influential of Dick Cheney’s ideas, as revealed to us by Paul O’Neill, is that “deficits don’t matter.” Can an America that embraces Cheneyite economics survive in a G–Zero world?

America can absolutely survive with a huge deficit in the G–Zero. In fact, the uncertain economic climate makes debt all the more manageable: the United States has growth and resilience on its side, which draws in countries seeking shelter from volatility. While this benefits the United States, it won’t last forever. The danger is if the G–Zero lets U.S. policy-makers think they’ve got plenty of time to fix America’s long-term challenges. If they begin to imagine that “deficits don’t matter” in a post-G–Zero world, they will be sorely mistaken—and it could prove catastrophic for the country. The world’s faith in the dollar and the United States when things are uncertain buys us time we cannot afford to squander. The post-G–Zero world comes with no guarantees about the role of the dollar, the importance of the free market, the leadership capacity of the United States, and the prominence of values like human rights and democracy. This is why we need to start investing in the future now. We need to reinvest in our infrastructure and education systems, work on the deficit, and reform our immigration policies, so we remain in a position to shape the world that comes next.


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