By Emily Ericksen
Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis and consulting firm, addressed a crowd at the Japan Society March 28 on the future role of the U.S. on the world stage. Bremmer has coined the term “G-Zero” to describe the current state of international affairs in which there is no hegemon to provide a sort of global governance. While the U.S. is widely regarded as the world’s only current superpower—with the role and impact of China being both carefully watched and hotly debated—Bremmer argues that the influence of the U.S. in international politics is in decline, though he is quick to note that does not imply America itself is in decline.
He credits this decline to, among other things, the unsuccessful wars in Middle East, the energy revolution that is making America less dependent on foreign oil, President Barack Obama’s lack of inclination toward foreign policy, and ambivalent support for U.S. foreign policy among allies. Bremmer admits that he finds this decline problematic; he also cedes that there are many Americans who do not. Of course, America’s foreign policy has been marked by successes over the past eight years, and Bremmer notes that relations between the U.S. and Latin American countries have greatly improved during Obama’s watch. He also credits Obama for securing a nuclear deal with Iran and advocating for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Bremmer points to the disconnect between political elites and the average American citizen. He states the TPP is the important legacy of the Obama administration because, over the long term, it will allow the U.S. to continue to lead international standards and cause the Chinese “to want to reform more over time, engage, and align with America and its allies.”
He went on to comment on the unilateralism of America, arguing, “We’re less interested in promoting our values as universal values. We’re less interested in supporting our allies to make longstanding commitments that are great for them but are maybe not tactically as great for us.” Bremmer does say the U.S. seems to have an increased interest in being interventionist through the use of drones or sanctions, even on allies. This, combined with a lack of willingness to support allies, has left many American-friendly heads of state asking whether or not the U.S. would actually stand by its security commitments.
The challenges to creating effective foreign policy may not be as dire as they seem, as policy is no longer made exclusively in capitals. Bremmer gives the example of multiple CEOs gathering in Paris in December 2015 to address climate change, going so far as to say that the summit occurred not because of governments’ interest in addressing the issue, but because of non-state actors. Bremmer claims this is a result of living in a G-Zero world, and that actions of non-government entities will play an ever-increasing role in international affairs.
While global cohesiveness may slowly begin to rely on non-state actors, the U.S. will still, of course, have foreign policy goals. According to Bremmer, navigating a somewhat tricky relationship with Asia is top priority. He explains that the U.S. will continue to be the dominant security power on the continent, but will discover increased tension with the dominant economic power, China.
Bremmer praised the political capital in Asia, meaning that many of the state leaders in the region are not facing domestic threats, and they are therefore able to focus on the future of their state in the long term. He claims that because of this ability provided state leaders to work strategically and with future goals in mind, the tension in the South China Sea will be contained and the economic relations among countries like China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States will remain strong.
With the relationship between the U.S. and Asia growing and shaping, the region maintains an interest in the ongoing American presidential election. Bremmer claims that the Chinese initially were not eager to work with Hillary Clinton as president, due to her hawkish positions and the perception that she is “pro-containment” in regards to Chinese power expansion. As of late, however, Bremmer notes with a touch of comedy, the Chinese opinion may have shifted. Ultimately, the Asian powerhouse is interested in stability because it feels pretty strong, growing its military and, despite recent trouble, expanding its economic sphere of influence. Bremmer says the Chinese attitude is such that they would say, “Give us a good operating environment, we’ll make incremental gains as we build our military, but don’t rock the boat as we fix our economy.”
In order to do this, he claims the Chinese will “squeeze” the inefficient private sectors and use government stimulus spending on the consumers. Of course, the government still faces the challenge of extending the benefits of economic growth beyond city dwellers to the vast numbers of rural poor.
The strength of China in the long term will also play a strong role in shaping Japan’s future relationship with the U.S. Bremmer states that there may be future disaster in China’s labor market if automation and technology replace human labor at a rate that leaves many Chinese jobless. In this scenario, he argues that the Japanese-U.S. relationship will grow stronger, and the Japanese will want to support the security provided by the U.S. However, if the Chinese do not face a dire labor-overabundance scenario, and successfully develop the whole of the country, they will look to the Japanese as the model for health care, infrastructure, and services, all without posing a threat as a trade competitor. In this scenario, it would behoove the Japanese to move away from the U.S. and develop ties with China.
Bremmer seemed optimistic about the future of international affairs. Of course, as power shifts and countries rise or decline, relationships among them will inevitably change; in a G-Zero world, these shifts bring uncertainties. As the U.S. has learned in the post-World War II world, maintaining a strong global presence is exhausting. Many Americans have called for a reassessment of the nation’s foreign commitments, with shifts toward international cooperation on climate change and trade seeming to be the order of business. In the coming years, the relationship between the United States and East Asia will be closely watched and hopefully nurtured. Economically, the two are intertwined, affirming their desire to work together through the development of the TPP. Testing the waters of the exclusive club known as “global superpowers,” China will continue to balance domestic initiatives with international posturing, placing the rest of Asia in a delicate position between the world’s two largest economies.
Emily Ericksen is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of the White House]