Recently, there have been perturbations in the wonkosphere. While the trembles are so slight that they wouldn't show up on the Richter Scale of a real human being, they have generated blog headlines and conversations at conferences full of people with advanced degrees and too much time on their hands. The stir has been caused by the assertion that we now live in something that big idea branding experts are trying to characterize as a "G-Zero" world.
In the words of one of the term's proponents, Ian Bremmer, the term refers to the assertion that we now live in a world in which "no country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage to drive an international agenda." Bremmer, and another supporter of the idea, NYU's Nouriel Roubini, have been explaining the notion and have done so compellingly enough that after it came up at this year's World Economic Forum gabfest in the Swiss Alps, the New York Times called it the event's "buzziest buzzword."
Buzz words are important in the wonkosphere because people are very busy going from conference to conference, periodically stopping to Tweet about who they bumped into and how they influenced them, and they have very little time to really think about anything. So if you can take an idea, reduce it to a couple of key, easily digestible, tasty ingredients, and wrap into a piece of shiny gold foil you have ... a Reese's Pieces Mini. Well, actually, you have something just like it, but not quite as tasty; you have a candidate for buzz-term of the moment.
Sometimes, it must be said, that even the fizziest of the buzziest actually contain a core idea of real value. Take a stroll down foreign policy nerd memory lane and savor past hits like "illiberal democracy" or "the world is flat" or "clash of civilizations" or "the end of history." Agree with the core notion of the idea or not (the delicious peanut butter center), you have to admit these ideas performed a useful purpose, captured a zeitgeist, and got the conversation going. Some, like "the end of history," were both widely misunderstood and, when understood correctly, wrong. But it was a compelling idea thoughtfully arrived at.
This G-Zero thing, not so much. The idea, of course, plays on all the discussion that has swirled around recent international summits as the attendance lists changed and the labels were altered accordingly. We went from the G-8 to the G-20 and then, keen observers, eager to build their own bit of buzz in the pundit-hive, pondered whether we weren't really seeing a case of a G-18 wrapped around a G-2 (the United States and China.) The Chinese didn't much like this and wished pundits would leave their g-darned labels off of them.
Bremmer and Roubini and company make the case that the United States and the Europeans and the Japanese are too deeply under economic water, and the emerging powers like China and India are too busy developing all the time for anybody to be able to step up and drive the international agenda. And while I know and like Ian and think both he and Roubini are smart guys, this is as an idea that looks like what it is: not much built around a big zero.
First, of all, the United States is incomparably more powerful than any nation on earth at the moment. Its economy is by far the biggest and, China, the next runner up is a developing country that is home to 100 million people living in absolute poverty, perhaps 200 - 300 million unemployed and a host of problems that will certainly limit any challenge it may pose to the United States for a long time. The United States is the only country capable of projecting force anywhere in the world from space, air, land or sea. We spend roughly as much on defense as every other significant nation put together. And our economy, battered as it is, seems to be stirring back to life. What's more, as the rest of the world falters, investors buy dollars and seek opportunities in the United States because we offer the best combination of reduced risk and stable growth anywhere in the developed world. As a consequence not only is our power intact and our influence still great, but we are actively using it, leading coalitions and, where needed, acting independently around the world. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not. (But back when we were one of two undisputed superpowers you may recall some of our initiatives were unsuccessful and very often even our closest allies did not go along with us. In fact, that happened quite often.)
Next, China, despite the problems associated with developing, China is both powerful today and rapidly growing more powerful. It has put on a three decades-long growth spurt which is almost unrivaled in human history. China is home to a vast, talented, and hard-working population that is driving an economic miracle. China is building its own military capabilities and is playing a much defter, more assertive role on the international stage.
The European Union is a bigger market than the United States and China's top trading partner. Several of its component nations, Germany, France, and Britain, are still exceptionally influential, prosperous and empowered in their own right. Russia still has enough nuclear weapons to blow up several good sized planets and is atop the energy-producer league tables. Japan, after all its economic struggles of late, is still one of the world's great economies. India is also growing rapidly, will in the not-too-distant future be the world's most populous country, and like, Brazil is starting to exert its influence both globally and regionally in new ways.
So, it is hard to say that relative to the rest of the world there are no countries that are actually positioned to lead. Yes, the United States, the EU, and Japan have big debt problems at the moment, but let's remember that after the Napoleonic Wars England's debt was 200 percent of GDP and the country was about to embark on a century of unprecedented growth and world leadership.
If then, there are countries that are positioned to lead, then the G-Zero must be based on the idea that these countries are unwilling or incapable of leading. And this would be a thought-provoking notion if there were one shred of evidence to support and there were not a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Varying coalitions and collections of these most powerful countries have done everything from driving the management of the response to the last economic crisis to responding to proliferation threats from North Korea and Iran. They mobilized the United Nation's Security Council to impose sanctions on Libya. NATO was mobilized for the mission in Afghanistan. Russia and the United States have worked together on arms reduction. Sometimes, members of this group of countries are at odds with each other but even then coalitions form and leadership happens. The Brazilians and Indians played a vital role in reshaping the tenor of global trade talks. The Doha Round may be dead, but so too is the old way of the developed world imposing its views on everyone else and thus new approaches must be found. The Chinese, the Indians, and others played a similar role in Copenhagen. And at the moment that the United States and China are able to reach a deal, and bring along the EU and the Indians on climate or on trade, does anyone doubt that the rest of the world will be forced to go along? Does anyone truly believe that if the United States, China, or the EU refuses to go along on major issues that they cannot derail or divert discussions?
Surely, the proponents of the G-Zero idea do not believe that a G-something would be full of countries that agreed on everything; that has never happened in human history. What we have are what has existed at most points in human history but not really for the past six-five years or so when we saw this oddity of a bi-polar and then an allegedly unipolar world. We have major powers, at least one of which is greater than the others and will be for quite some time, that must work together to get things done. Sometimes that means the solution will be a G-2, sometimes it will be a G-8, sometimes it will be a G-3.5 (depending on how the schizophrenic EU splits).
In fact, the reality is we live in a G-X world with x being a variable that is filled in to suit the occasion and the national interests of the major powers involved. The coalitions will change but the fact that a few nations will continue to lead the world as has always been the case will not.
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