The Middle East in a G-Zero World

Ian Bremmer (photo © Jason Alden)

Ian Bremmer is the founder and President of the Eurasia Group, a leading geopolitical risk advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University and was the youngest national fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is an author of several books including, The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?, and The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall, which was selected by The Economist as one of the best books of 2006. Bremmer is a contributor for the Financial Times A-List and, and writes "The Call" blog on His newest work is Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.

The Majalla: Your new work revolves around the idea of the absence of global leadership and its implications. Terming it “the G-Zero” you argue that “the world rests on the absence of one country or group of countries exercising global leadership.” What is the main implication of a G-Zero world?

We have been living in a world for more than half a century where there has been global leadership. It’s not always been effective and certainly not always the preference of everyone out there, but it existed. It was the world order, it was US-led globalization. It’s now gone. We will no longer see US-led global institutions or architecture. We will no longer see US global leadership. We will either see US leadership that is not global, or we will see some global institutions that are not US-led that will eventually emerge, or we will see neither. But right now this G-Zero period is very much not the next new world order; it’s not sustainable. Nature abhors a vacuum and geopolitics does too, but it is where we are right now. We don’t have global leadership right now. That is the way we should think about global solutions and how the world functions.

Q: How long have we been living in a G-Zero world?

The G-Zero was born in 2008. It was conceived before that if you want to torture the analogy. We have lived in a US-led world in terms of all our major institutions and architecture and the world economy since World War II. But, you can say that really started to shift with first the rise of OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] and then, much more structurally with the rise of the emerging markets from the 1970s, notably China and the other BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa]. You have a group of emerging countries that do not share fundamental values—and in many cases political and economic systems and priorities—with that of the United States, or its allies among the advanced industrial democracies. So for a period of 30 years, you have had this underlying shift from the countries that were leading the world and its institutions and defining the world standards and the actual balance of power globally. That is the context in which the G-Zero came into fruition. But, in order for the G-Zero to be born, you needed a shock that would break down and shake to its roots the old institutions and systems. While the world experiences shocks all the time: the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the Asian currency crises, the peso and Rouble crises, it was really only the 2008 financial crisis that was large enough and hit when the balance of power had shifted sufficiently that we saw the G-Zero created.

Q: How does the Middle East fare in a G-Zero world? Who are the winners and losers?

It’s interesting because in the Middle East you have both the Arab Spring, that has buffeted so many of these countries internally, but you also have the G-Zero which matters immensely externally. It’s very clear we should not just focus on what these global populations want, but also the fact that international players who have been historically so dominant in determining outcomes across different Middle Eastern conflicts will have much less of a role. The US is of course out of Iraq and not about to put troops back in if the situation deteriorates. Qadhafi was removed from power in Libya but there is no interest in having troops on the ground to rebuild that country. It’s largely a limited UN endeavor. You can talk about [a similar situation in]Yemen, Syria, and Egypt. The US, Russia, China, these are all takers in terms of foreign policy but are not makers of foreign policy in the Middle East. They will not lead outcomes.

The most important players are increasingly local players. Unlike Europe where Germany is the dominant player, in the Middle East there are several dominant players, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. Egypt would be one too but they are very distracted by their domestic instability and transition. The challenge is that these states all support different outcomes. The Saudis support more integration in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], largely Sunni Arab monarchies, and stability and the status quo. The Iranians are the opposite of the Saudis on every issue across the Middle East. Qadhafi is almost unique in that both the Saudis and the Iranians disliked him. The Iranians support largely disenfranchised Sunni populations, which puts them [Saudi Arabia and Iran] on opposite sides in these conflicts. The Turks are probably closer to the Saudis but nonetheless have a very different perspective in terms of their secularized democracy, urban middle classes, and more economic and political reforms. Well, if those are the countries that will play the most significant role, we will clearly see much more sectarianism, fragmentation, and much more conflict in the Middle East. The G-Zero is not kind to the Middle East.

Of course, the biggest loser in the Middle East in the G-Zero is Israel. Because with the absence of a very strong role for the United States, who is going to be supporting the Israelis? They have lost their relatively decent relations with the Turks, the Egyptians, and are in the process of having a much more fractious relationship with the Jordanians. Israel is searching really hard for friends and feeling much more isolated in this environment.

Q: Do you see Egypt playing a role in the G-Zero?

Clearly, Egypt is constrained right now and they are constrained in part because they have no money. Egypt always had problems with its budget in the best of times. Tourism has fallen off the cliff. It’s 30 percent of their GDP. Who’s going to Egypt right now? Most of the country is pretty stable in terms of the economy and the ability of people to get work. But, they had an enormous economic hit. Yes, the Saudis are prepared to provide economic support—and other countries are as well—but it’s a very difficult transition. There is obviously still a very significant level of tension between the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. A lot of young people feel that the revolution has not benefited them. I see challenges on all these fronts.

Q: In the absence of global leadership, is there any way to manage the crisis with Iran?

I certainly think that there is a lot of international desire to stop the Iranians from developing nuclear capacity. There is willingness to have a negotiated settlement but that requires a level of transparency and commitment from the Iranian regime and a level of consistency from the leadership that is very difficult to envision. Also, the Iranians have some leverage nowadays with the global economic recovery rebound being anemic; the concept of high oil prices is one that is very problematic for most of the Western leaders that are trying to press the Iranians. There are plenty countries of willing to breach the sanctions [imposed on Iran]. They are willing to support continued economic relations with Iran, since it has significant internal wealth and significant ability to be useful to these countries. Obviously, I am talking about countries like China, Russia, and even, India. When I put that all together, it makes it hard to believe there is going to be a breakthrough. I don’t happen to believe that the Americans will bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities. Even though the Israelis are much more concerned about [Iran’s nuclear threat], I think it is highly unlikely that they would either, it’s not impossible but it’s unlikely. I suspect that there will be fits and starts on diplomacy but the Iranians will continue to develop break-out nuclear capacity and ultimately we will learn to live with it just as we have with the North Koreans and the Pakistanis.

Q: Can Russia play a more crucial role in the resolution of the nuclear issue?

It’s not clear how much of a role the Russians are prepared to play. The Russians usually want to be paid for it if they have leverage. I have seen now a series of [US] secretaries of state that have said “well the Russians have the same interests on Iran as the Americans do” but that is not true. It’s not how the Russians perceive their self-interest. They see it more narrowly. It’s not that the Russians don’t want the Iranians to develop nukes but the Russians find utility in having influence with Middle Eastern countries that will support them or will be a thorn in the West’s side on a whole bunch of international issues. The Iranians of course support the Syrians and Syria is important for the Russians in terms of military bases in the region and buying arms. Historically, the Iranians have engaged in economic cooperation with the Russians on ballistic missile technology, on civilian nuclear energy, and maybe, not so civilian energy. So, it’s very hard to say the Russians are aligned [with the US]. On most issues, the Russians have different priorities and in many cases different values from the advanced industrial countries that comprise the G8. I think that is an important point to always keep in mind.

Q: What will likely come next after the G-Zero? Will it be the return of US global leadership or a new Cold War between China and the US? Or, will it be a world order more regional than global?

We have been in the G-Zero now for four years since the financial crisis. If you look at what has been emerging in a nascent fashion in those four years, the US-China relationship has been deteriorating and will likely to continue to do so. Other countries are playing a larger role on the world stage, such as Brazil, India, Turkey—in part because they are coming into their own—but also the US and China are continuing to be reluctant to play a dominant role, and in China’s case incapable of doing so. The world likely to replace the G-Zero is a world of regions which does not have global leadership but instead has very different types of integration in different parts of the world. Europe is much more focused on political and economic integration and shared values; in the Middle East, you see different countries with different models and much more sectarianism; Eurasia is dominated by Russia through security and energy ties to the Russians. Asia will be trickier: economic ties drive [countries in the region] towards China but the security drives [them] towards the United States.

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