Since when has G-anything run the world?

By Bill Emmott
May 1, 2012

This is part of a series of responses to Ian Bremmer’s excerpt of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.

Ian Bremmer has, as always, made a perceptive and provocative observation about the state of the world. Where I would respectfully differ from him is over the true significance of this observation.

It really comes down to what is meant by “global leadership,” on the one hand, and “global governance,” on the other. It is conventional to call for more of the former and to bewail the weaknesses of the latter. And with Bremmer I would accept that there is a shortage of such leadership and that global governance is patchy at best. The world is certainly not being run by the G-20, or by a G-anything else.

But the question we should ask is: “So what?” Or, by way of extension: “So what’s new?”

For a start, I do not recall a time during my working life of, so far, 32 years, when the world was truly being run by G-anything. I remember being more than a little excited when in 1982, as a cub reporter at the Economist, I was sent to cover the Williamsburg Summit of the G-7. I felt flattered to be sent, until I realized that nothing really happened at these summits beyond the slight editing of a banal communiqué.

The important thing about these summits, and about the G-20 summits of today, is not the meeting itself but the process that leads up to it. Governments are forced to take part in the sharing of information and ideas and some semblance of cooperation; and, just as crucially, for a brief period before the summit, international affairs break through the normal domestic preoccupations of national leaders. Furthermore, the global scrutiny generated by summits builds at least some sort of a barrier against non-cooperative, even aggressive, behavior – especially trade protectionism, but probably on security issues as well.

In a world in which power is more widely dispersed than ever before, thanks to what Fareed Zakaria pertinently called “the rise of the rest,” that process of cooperative discussion and mutual restraint is, it seems to me, the best that we should hope for from global governance. Since the Lehman shock of 2008, this process has worked passably well: There has been no substantial retreat from globalization, no big resort to beggar-my-neighbor policies, no naked attempt to exploit the economic weakness of America or Europe.

The one governance area where arguably too little progress has been made is that of the environment, or rather climate change. This is because, unlike finance, trade, and even security, the environment requires positive, often-costly actions rather than mere restraint or coordination. If anything substantial were to be done, it would require “top-down” actions rather than the “bottom-up” sort, which would be difficult, especially as so many countries with such disparate circumstances are involved and the problem is a very long-term one.

Yet this brings us to the question of leadership. The reason why climate-change negotiations have not borne big, ripe fruit is arguably because there has been too much leadership, not too little. Both the United States and China have, in effect, exercised vetoes.

Bremmer’s concern about a lack of leadership is most convincing in the traditional arena of geopolitical concern, namely defense and security. He argues that if there is a prolonged vacuum of leadership, rogue countries will exploit it and cause trouble. That would indeed be potentially dangerous. But I would again ask: Is this new? And further: Is it real?

There have been plenty of times during the past few decades when it seemed that America had become unwilling or unable to exercise security leadership. Sometimes, as after the fall of Saigon, this was misleading: By the end of the 1970s, the U.S. proved quick to intervene covertly in Afghanistan to counter the Soviet occupation. Yes, as that shows, there was a Cold War on, so the U.S. had a prime motive to exercise leadership, and its allies knew that in a pinch the Americans could be relied upon to act.

During the 1990s, when there was no longer a Cold War, there were again periods of American reluctance to act as a global policeman, essentially between the 1992-93 failure in Somalia and the delayed intervention in the former Yugoslavia in 1995.

Now, we are back to the 1990s. Everyone knows that the Americans have little or no stomach for further military intervention overseas. But again, so what? There is currently no Cold War and no global-level crisis. Afghanistan and Iraq have confirmed the long-understood limitations of military intervention, the reasons why George W. Bush said during his 2000 election campaign that America should be “humble but strong” and his adviser Condoleezza Rice said that foreign policy should not be social work.

Look at the crises that we do have. Would more leadership or G-something make a difference in Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Or North Korea? Or the Syrian civil war? On all three there is international cooperation, though hardly complete cooperation, alongside a recognition that the outside world can do fairly little beyond containment. On a more positive note, at least none of the world’s great powers appears actively to be exploiting one of these crises to bolster its own position or weaken that of the United States.

So we are left with a final, important, pair of questions. The first is whether this world that Bremmer calls G-Zero is raising the likelihood of conflict or very serious friction between the U.S. and China. I cannot see that it is. The second is whether in a true global crisis, of either security or economics-cum-finance, leadership would still be exercised, by the U.S., with support from its allies. I believe that it would.

But I hope the question does not soon have to be answered.

892 comments

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