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Living in the G-Zero

G-8 leaders chat at a summit in 2010, but are such gatherings increasingly irrelevant?
The future of the international order is certainly not a new topic; it has arguably become the staple of gatherings such as Davos, think-tank reports, and geopoltical analysts. Ian Bremmer’s latest book adds a depth and dimension to these debates, especially in light of the 2008 financial crisis.

Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World

By Ian Bremmer
Portfolio Penguin, 2012

Discussion of a world without US global leadership is certainly not new. Noted historian Paul Kennedy’s 1987 classic, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers began this discussion, but unfortunately it came two years before the revolutions that swept Europe bringing the end of the Cold War. Following this, debates on American power and the new international order were held at bay as the US celebrated its brief unipolar moment for a little over a decade. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History captured this optimism and the perceived triumph of American liberal values and democracy over the destructive forces of nationalism, totalitarianism, and communism which had plagued the 20th century and made it one of the most violent centuries in human history.

American policymakers were so confident of the rise of a new American century that noted Republican policymakers Robert Kagan and William Kristol spoke of American power as an eternal resource that could be employed to reshape international politics into purely an American-led enterprise, fulfilling America’s manifest destiny. This optimism began to be shaken when a non-state actor, Al-Qaeda, attacked the United States on 11 September 2001. It remains the single largest attack on US soil since Pearl Harbour. This catalytic and cathartic moment hit the United States when it felt both vulnerable and immeasurably powerful at the same time.

Bremmer convincingly argues that the greatest shock to America was not the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11, but rather the global financial crisis of 2008. It highlighted the deep constraints of America’s present position in the international system in light of the rise of the rest—especially Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS)—to create a new global order where no single power has the ability to exercise global leadership. Mocking the ineffectiveness of the G-20, Bremmer calls this new order the “G-Zero” where every nation must act for itself.

These ideas are hardly new—they were discussed by authors such as Fareed Zakaria even before the financial crisis. Bremmer brings very little of his own original research to the issues raised in his sweeping macro-level study of global politics. From China to the Middle East to climate change, he largely leaves the focussed analysis to other writers. Coming from the president of a leading geopolitical risk firm, it was surprising to not see more original empirical analysis to compliment his wider points.

Instead, Bremmer’s strength and contribution though comes from his wider conceptual grasp of geopolitics and synthesis of other writers’ works. In that sense, his work contributes more than others to conceptualizing the wider geopolitical order of our times. Importantly, he breaks from the purely American debates on the future of US power, which tend to circle around similar points and obscure the wider changes in the international system. At the same time, Bremmer distances himself from works that focus solely on the rise of non-Western countries and the growing irrelevancy and decline of the United States. He also brings a measure of caution to the debates on China, which often define China’s rise as either peaceful or threatening without providing any real nuance.

Bremmer has developed his own vocabulary for this new order: pivot states, rogues with powerful friends, adapters, protectors, cheaters, referees, exposed states, shadow states, dinosaurs, and other words that are quite catching and may influence public discourse. He also blends issues of geopolitics with economics, and underscores how the G-Zero is a world where economics and politics shape one another, and how leadership in this leaderless era must harness both to have any success in a G-Zero world.

Bremmer strives to chart the future of international politics as well. His training as a political scientist comes across clearly as he makes the systemic argument that a G-Zero, this vacuum in hegemony, will not last, and a new order is bound to replace it.

He sees a new order emerging, with three main likely scenarios: a form of accommodation or conflict between China and the US, a world where regions predominate, or a sub-G-Zero world where the state is no longer relevant.

Reflecting his own pessimism about the return of global leadership, Bremmer sees a world of regions as the most likely order to replace the G-Zero. Such a world order will allow a certain degree of international cooperation on particular issues. The lack of global leadership and global public goods raises the question whether such a new world order will be any different from the G-Zero except for more wisdom and experience of dealing with and adapting to a multi-polar world. It’s hard to see how global challenges such as climate change could be solved in this world. Bremmer provides few answers to how to overcome these collective action problems.

His work ends on a largely optimistic note about the future of America’s role in the world. Bremmer asserts that if the US addresses its fiscal crisis, the US would be in a better position than others to play a leading role in a post-G-Zero world, even if it means its once predominant global leadership is over. Interestingly, he notes that America’s leadership in global trade will offer it the best path to securing an important and relevant role in the future. In his final chapter, however, the author notes that this future success will depend on the decisions the US makes in the G-Zero. At the present moment, with such deep and caustic political divisions in the US, it is hard to see how the America can address the challenges facing it.

Overall, Bremmer’s work is a sophisticated and timely assessment of international politics in the 21st century. It should read be read by anyone seeking to understand this post-unipolar world, and the challenges states, companies, and citizens will face in the G-Zero.

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Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen is Scholar for the Middle East at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He regularly writes, teaches and consults on Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy. His work primarily focuses on the regional and international politics of the Levant, but he frequently comments on the international relations of the Gulf and American national security policy. Follow Andrew on Twitter @abowen17

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