By Yelena Niazyan
“Show of hands,” Ian Bremmer urges, “how many people here think America is in decline?” In the Upper East Side living room where the World Policy Institute is holding its Political Salon, the event’s attendees talk over one another, asking relative to what and whom. Bremmer, a World Policy Institute fellow and the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, clarifies, counts votes, and steamrolls past the results.
The point, he says, is that the “whole decline debate is narcissistic.” From his position sunk deep into a white couch cushion, Bremmer continues: “whether or not you put your hands up” there will be no modern day Marshall Plan, no removing Assad from power, no U.S.-led global climate trade, no bombing of Iran. What matters isn’t decline, but willingness.
Ian Bremmer’s newest book, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (Penguin), isn’t out to refute America’s decline, or, for that matter, to herald or bemoan China’s ascendency. Rather, it outlines the universal difficulties inherent in our current global reality. We live, Bremmer argues, in a G-zero world—which is to say a “world order in which no single country or durable alliance of countries can meet the challenges of global leadership.” Today’s world is one in which the G7 is history and the G20 is more “aspiration than organization.” Crises of global consequence—climate change, trans-border cyber-terrorism, food shortages, and lack of access to clean water are inevitable and increasingly difficult to coordinate solutions for. Every Nation for Itself details how we got here and what, given the potential end-points of the current global transformation, we can do about it.
Bremmer gave five reasons at the Political Salon for how we’ve come to find ourselves in a G-zero world. First off, there are more countries at the table than ever before. And the more interlocutors you have in a conversation, the harder it is to agree on anything. The problem isn’t the “rise of the rest,” but “the rise of the different,” says Bremmer. Developing countries do not have the same priorities developed countries do, nor should they. Clearly, this makes consensus difficult.
Then there is the issue of experience; the rest of the world simply does not have the kind of experience the U.S., EU, and Japan have at running things on a global scale. Fourth on the list is the aforementioned lack of willingness. Americans no longer want America to be the leader of the free world with the same enthusiasm as before. Many of the nation’s citizens no longer believe the country is benefiting from all this leading. Finally, America’s allies are consumed with their own domestic affairs and unwilling to pick up some of the superpower’s slack.
The end result is a world in which “everyone is waiting for someone else to put out the fire.” The new and “different” countries don’t just want a seat at the table; they want to remake the rules. Yet, they are unable or unwilling to “assume the risks and burdens that come with a share of global leadership.” This leaves all of us squabbling over everything from basic necessities to human rights standards. As global issues become more complicated—involving a greater number of countries and complex technologies that lack an established international code of ethics—the problems will only continue to mount and muddle. Bremmer’s vision is often bleak. He forecasts unmitigated famines ravaging Africa, terrorists bringing airplanes down because of a lack of agreement in international airport safety standards, and cyber-wars between powers great and small.
This isn’t to say that G-zero will be disastrous for everyone. In this fragmented world those countries that can “build profitable relationships with multiple other countries without becoming overly reliant on any one of them,” will be the ones most likely to profit. Pivot states like Turkey, Singapore, and Brazil are poised to do well. Those dependent on a neighboring power or the United States will be less lucky. Luckiest of all may be entities smaller than the nation-state. Though he didn’t mention plutocrats in Every Nation, Bremmer believes they may be the greatest winners while G-zero persists. Flexible individuals with no single domicile have the most to gain from a volatile world order.
This all may sound like chaos—a leaderless, conflict-ridden world of rogue actors forging and breaking alliances as best suites their momentary needs. But Bremmer isn’t forecasting a complete breakdown of the world as we know it. For one thing, G-zero won’t last forever.
If increased regional collaboration and inter-regional conflict is to be the new norm, then “the great,” Bremmer emphasized at the Salon, “should not be the enemy of the good”—that is an inability to coordinate the cooperation of 20 states should not preclude the beneficial cooperation of five. Smaller working groups may be the way to sort through modern international problems.
However the global order looks at the other end of G-zero and there’s one thing that Bremmer wants us to take away from the lessons G-zero has to teach: adaptability. A G-zero world requires innovation and flexibility—a willingness to see a situation for what it is and to change accordingly. “Winners accept the world as it is,” writes Bremmer, and that means seeing things clearly.
This, for Bremmer, does not mean seeing America as on the descent. Whatever Rush Limbaugh might say, Bremmer is not a declinist. Relativity is an essential concept for the author. Much of the world still wants the U.S. to continue to lend a helping hand and America remains the strongest player on the board. In many ways the U.S. is better prepared to meet a leaderless world than any one else. The country’s treasuries remain the safest bet in today’s market. China may have the second largest economy and a growing array of trade ties that come with that, but most of its allies are wary ones—often preferring American intervention to Chinese might.
Finally, there’s no discounting American innovation. The U.S. is still the home of the best universities in the world, Silicon Valley, and a heap of willing venture capitalists. America can adapt to the realities of a G-zero world, if it is willing. As Bremmer puts it: “There are always second acts in American life.”
Yelena Niazyan is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.