Ian Bremmer is a force of nature. He has built a successful global consulting business called the Eurasia Group. He is a respected writer and commentator. He blogs. He tweets. He globe-trots. And his latest book, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, is already deservedly making a major impact. He is an intense guy with a probing mind and an easy laugh. I like him. And part of the reason I like him is that one can disagree with him and still be his friend. He is an enthusiastic debater. In fact, he thrives on the give-and-take, and he welcomes having his theories tested and finding ways to nuance them. This is the sign of the best, most secure minds. It is also essential if your business is forecasting global developments, because the business of anticipating outcomes in international affairs is a great deal more like impressionism than it is physics. There are facts, to be sure, but there are so many and they recombine into so many possibilities that the end product produced by even the sharpest observers is often more about perspective and context than immutable laws and pure patterns of facts.
His new book is well-written, pithy, and full of great insights. I also agree with his central thesis that we are at a moment of ineffective global institutions, inward-looking major powers, and weakened international leadership. But his conclusion that this implies a "G-Zero" outcome is, in my mind, a step too far. My view is more that the current turbulence will result in a return to the kind of balance of power world we have seen for most of history. And I think the United States will continue to frequently lead the prevailing international coalition. However, we will also increasingly see a coalition of emerging powers play an important role in shaping key outcomes (as it already has on global trade, climate change, and important regional issues.) We also differ on the United States and China: Ian thinks the two are more likely to be rivals than allies. I think the relationship is more likely to be more complex, interdependent, and difficult to characterize in traditional terms. Then again, these are the kind of differences that make a conversation like the one I had with Ian about his book so interesting and fun. Excerpts follow.
FOREIGN POLICY: Let's start with the thesis. You talk about Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. What do you really mean by a G-Zero world? At first glance the term "G-Zero" means no leadership. Is that what you mean?
IAN BREMMER: No. What I mean is that for the time being, we have no global leadership. After World War II was over, we had a fairly long period of globalization that was clearly U.S.-led -- driven by American vision, priorities, capital, and institutions. That was certainly the case when we talked about the G-7, the World Bank, the IMF, and the Security Council.
I believe we are now experiencing a period of creative destruction in the geopolitical environment and that going forward there will be no more U.S.-led global institutions. We will have either U.S.-led institutions that aren't global, or global institutions that aren't U.S.-led. Or conceivably we'll have neither if actors continue to keep their focus overwhelmingly on domestic affairs much more than is normal, as they have been since the 2008 financial crisis.
We put the G-20 together, which is a legitimately important concept, but it remains almost entirely aspirational. It hasn't produced significant movement on global agreements on trade, financial regulation, currency, or any of the other issues that the world needs. We are in the G-Zero.
FP: Let's break this down into a couple components of the thesis. One of them is no more U.S.-led institutions. Why not? What has changed for the United States?
IB: We can certainly have U.S.-led institutions. I think it's going to be very interesting to see to what extent the United States decides that it wants to move towards true U.S.-led institutions that aren't global. On trade you can make the argument that the United States has already given up on U.S. global leadership. The beginnings of the TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- show a recognition that while we're not going to be able to get a lot of countries on board that really don't agree with us about some fundamental economic and political values, we can bring a smaller group of like-minded countries and players.
We haven't done that yet with the World Bank. On the World Bank we're still basically saying, "We want the organization to run more or less the way it used to." We want global participation in principle, but we're clearly dragging our feet on giving other countries much more influence. We certainly want the Americans to still run it. That's a recipe for ineffectiveness. So the question will be: Do we want to actually have a truly global bank that the U.S. will play a lesser role in, or do we want to kick countries out and have a U.S. bank with some allies that won't in any way represent the world? We haven't decided that yet.
I don't think this is about decline. I personally don't believe the United States is a "declining power." But I also think it's an irrelevant question. Whether or not you think the U.S. is in decline, the U.S. is not going to bail out Europe. Whether or not the U.S. is in decline, the U.S. is not going to forcibly remove Assad from power in Syria right now. Or take the lead on a global climate deal. Or, in my view, bomb Iran. This has less to do with America's ability to project power than it does with the prioritization of what's happening domestically in the United States coupled with what's changing around the rest of the world. American decline is a convenient, narcissistic formulation -- that it must all be about us. But in reality the G-Zero is much more complicated than that.