Why G-Zero is a good thing

By Zachary Karabell
May 2, 2012

This is the second in a series of responses to Ian Bremmer’s excerpt of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. The first response can be read here.

It’s said that predictions are risky business, especially those about the future. No one knows that better than Ian Bremmer, who in addition to his multiple books has created one of the more successful risk analysis organizations. Being in the business of highlighting risks, he has for the past few years focused on the breakdown of the world order most of us grew up with, whether a 20th century world of great-power struggles or an early 21st century world of American economic and military preponderance. Now, says Bremmer, those systems are finished and in their stead we have… nothing.

It’s a compelling, alarming and yet exhilarating vision – though few probably embrace that last adjective. Compelling because it admits that most of the models we use to predict what will be are based on a world that no longer exists and hence are likely to be wrong. Alarming because it leaves us with a tabula rasa whose outcomes are utterly uncertain. Yet exhilarating because it offers the promise of a brave new world that may go in any direction, including more productive and positive ones than many observers currently assume.

Bremmer extrapolates from current trends about what this world might look like, and tends to focus on the dangers that lurk rather than the diamonds in the rough. He sees tough times for China, whose model, he predicts, will be less able to adapt to a world of increased competition for natural resources and more state capitalism that competes directly with the Chinese. He sees hard roads for weak states and troubled societies, with Syria’s grinding civil war and lack of international action just a harbinger. He sees a United States constrained by debt and a public looking inward, and a euro zone mired in years of crisis. And while he does acknowledge that even a G-Zero world will have winners such as Brazil and Turkey, he sees the emerging vacuum as more of a challenge than an opportunity.

As a description of the world we are entering, it is trenchant. Yes, the United States will remain the world’s largest economy for a while to come and its most dominant military power for a generation. But the coercive power of those assets is and will be ever more muted. Fewer societies around the world believe that the American model is the one to copy, and a large military can preserve security but not prosperity. Multiple states around the globe have the confidence, the leadership and the means to chart their own way and refuse to bow to the will of any other nation. And as the 20th century mechanisms for handling all sorts of international affairs decay, unpredictable crises and unforeseeable outcomes will become more common.

But that doesn’t mean that the international system will be less stable or that prosperity and security will not proliferate. There is, in fact, a risk that peace will break out, rendering the traditional tools of states less useful. It’s clear already that global companies are reaping astonishing benefits from the growth of a global middle class and from a largely anarchic but effective flow of commerce and capital that seems to be working brilliantly almost everywhere except in its 20th century heartlands of Europe and the United States.

In essence, if the G-Zero idea is pushed further, you could be left with a world that truly doesn’t look like the 20th century, or like most centuries. It could be a world where the absence of great-power conflict – the rivalry of China and the United States notwithstanding – leads not to chaos and anarchy but to stability and, at most, low-level armed conflicts. You could be in a world where the dominant theme is the churning and rapid transition of billions of people from agrarian and urban poverty into a middle class that consumes apartments, white goods, food, clothing and entertainment. And you could be in a world where tension is ubiquitous, uncertainty constant, but actual lethal and society-destroying conflict preciously rare.

A G-Zero world might bring the host of risks Bremmer suggests, but the old model was marked by lethal conflict, enhanced by technology. That is not a model whose passing any of us should mourn. The future may be fraught but the past…well, good riddance.

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