This is the third 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 and the second here.
Ian Bremmer is launching his new book with an eye-opening observation above the uncertain future of global order. This time he is warning us of the dangers of having a world with no clear leader. In his view, the United States and Europe are in a weak position to sustain any hegemonic position. In particular, their focus on austerity measures can complicate their role as military leaders of the world (e.g., NATO’s role). Moreover, multilateral organizations, such as the G7 or the G20, will not do the trick either. The G7 is in the middle of the worst crisis in almost a century, and the G20 has members with preferences that are hard to aggregate. BRICS, the organization supposedly coordinating the efforts of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is too young and preoccupied with other issues to act as the new hegemon. What, then? Where is the world going? Who will emerge as the new leader?
The obvious candidate is China. I have not read the entire book, so I do not know precisely what Bremmer’s position is on China. But because the book’s argument is that there is no real global leader now, I assume he believes China will not be taking that role in the future either. I want to argue, in contrast, that China has begun to play that role and has the potential to become a hegemon. Yet, if China rises to be the global leader, there will be major tensions in the institutional foundations of global capitalism as we know them today. As China’s leadership role grows, the global institutions that have ruled the world in the last 20 or so years will have to change.
Bremmer argues that the most important tools for establishing global power and leadership today are the traditional economic levers and the cyber-capacity to conduct industrial espionage and protect or control information and communication across borders. I would argue that China’s proven track record in both of these areas makes it an ideal candidate for world leader. It is the champion of cyber-censorship and the only country that has tamed large global corporations, compelling them to share user information with the government. Moreover, any major company doing business in China already has bent over backwards to share information and intellectual property with its “forced” local partners (i.e., partners that are the product of mandatory joint ventures dictated by the government of Beijing or any of the Chinese provinces).
China is champion when it comes to using economic tools to impose global discipline, induce countries to do what it wants, and change global conditions. China indirectly determined interest rates in the United States for years, acting as the largest buyers of Treasury bonds. It also uses conditional loans to get African governments to do what it wants, including favoring Chinese companies over locals or Western companies. Furthermore, China has increased its power within the IMF and other multilateral organizations and has been sought after by the EU to participate in its bailout fund.