Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The world’s year of reckoning

By Ian Bremmer
January 30, 2012

DAVOS–If 2011 was the year of the protestor, 2012, at least where the World Economic Forum is concerned, is the year of the reckoning. Through the events of the Arab Spring, major power vacuums have been created in countries all over the Middle East. More governments, such as Syria’s, are likely to topple. But the time to start thinking about what’s next for countries like Egypt is already here.

The thing is, it’s coming at an inconvenient time for Western democracy. Having long held themselves as the global models for governance and economic structure, Western Europe and the U.S. have in recent years shown their warts as never before. That has opened the door for state capitalist models — like China’s — to take the stage. And the simple fact that new models for how countries and economies should work are even being considered is a blow to the Western world’s power and prestige. Obviously, well before the G-7 system broke down, China was already on a path of state capitalism, and that has turned out to be a successful course for that country to chart. But here’s the problem: While it has led to wealth and a rise in living standards for the Chinese, it hasn’t led to more democracy.

Here at Davos, and in capitals around the world, the paths countries should chart for themselves in the future is always topic A, and what we’ve learned over these last years is that transforming those countries and indeed the world is about a lot more than simply swapping out the players who legislate and lead. Look at the precarious situation in Egypt. Consider Putin’s long hold on power in Russia. For that matter, look at the situations in many countries on the euro zone periphery. Going down that list, nations that have simply replaced one power-grabbing leader with another are in trouble. (In Russia’s case, that leader has simply replaced himself.) Countries that have revolved leadership without addressing deeper institutional weaknesses are not setting themselves up for success in the long run.

That’s why changing not just the leaders at the table but the system by which the country is governed is such a real and important goal — it reconfigures the country’s “end result” trajectory. When countries like China and Russia become economically important, they of course support the models that made them powerful: strong authoritarianism and state capitalism. Specifically as China gains more and more economic power, it continues to improve its bargaining position with the West — that is, it can get away with bargaining less and less. And China’s ability to eschew compromise will only grow as its position in the world continues to get stronger — so why would the Chinese negotiate about anything? When their growth starts to level off or their cost structures begin to match the West’s — a change that will be measured in decades, not years — they’ll be willing to cooperate more. But not before.

If you believe in the values of Western democracy — equality, fairness, opportunity and freedom — that’s precisely why the West must rise to the occasion and continue to challenge state capitalism and press Arab Spring countries to fight for democratic institutions in their new national orders. Otherwise the fate of the West will be to represent an important but diminishing subset of the global economy — and to have almost no sway over a group of countries whose economic fortunes are on the rise. And that’s not just about prestige — those are the countries with weaker values. For example, the New York Times has published a devastating series on the Foxconn factories that assemble Apple products, highlighting worker abuses, deaths and practices that would have been outdated in the U.S. even a century ago. Those workers might be making state-of-the-art products, but they live as though they are indentured servants, or worse. It would be naive to think Foxconn is an isolated incident. In China, Foxconn is a success story of state-directed capitalism. Will the West tolerate Foxconn? And if so, how many more Foxconns will it tolerate?

It’s pointless to worry about China stealing U.S. manufacturing jobs — China has taken far more jobs from Mexico than it has from the U.S., by some measures. What the West should worry about is the manner in which those jobs are performed and what our tolerance of that says to the parts of the world that are today at a crossroads.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

Comments
22 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I agree that Foxconn is deplorable. You extend Foxconn twice, once to justify that China has medieval labor rights, and twice, to say that the “west” has better “values,” and this is where I disagree.

I live in Oakland, California, deep in the heart of the west, and I’ve borne witness to atrocious police brutality… Beating activists senseless, for no reason, people just happened to be demonstrating in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I can’t speak for “the west,” but I definitely speak for Oakland in saying that we vastly over-estimate our own freedom – you must rattle your chains before you know they exist, and you must know they exist before you can break free.

You overstep when you say the “west” has stronger “values.”

Posted by pythagoreanism | Report as abusive
 

Having no intention to justify the oppressive nature of the Chinese and other Oriental models of governance, it seems to me that the West not only tolerates but encourages and has even assisted to the creation of many Foxconns. Prof David Harvey’s remark that “capitalism” (a constituting principle of the western democratic model) 2does not resolve its contradictions and crises, but merely “moves them around geographically” is highly relevant here. The bitter truth is that we were ready to turn a blind eye to the plight of workers in faraway places for the sake of profit and it was indeed only too convenient to put the blame for such inhumane circumstances on non-democratic governments.

Posted by AnastasiaKat | Report as abusive
 

Why this year for “reckoning”. Couldn’t it also be a process measured in “decades, not years”?

A quick reckoning would almost be a mercy.

Why nor one hundred years of screaming nightmare and dissolution until mankind itself is nearly extinct? What gives mankind the right to hope that it has a dispensation from the rising tide of species extinctions?

I haven’t been a cheerful optimist for over 15 years.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

@pythagoreanism,

You confuse tolerance of dissent with tolerance with anarchy. They are quite different. State/city governments tolerated civil siege warfare for some four months before declaring “ENOUGH”. There is zero tolerance for anarchists.

People and “movements are known by the company they keep. Subsequent analysis has shown as much as a third of OWC tents were occupied by homeless people and another third by persons mentally ill, each group attracted more by the free food and relative freedom from harassment than intellectual solidarity.

The remaining third, when not swelled by union “support”, was mostly frustrated youth and the occasional “mature displaced worker” no longer of value in the labor marketplace. About what is “normal” for BAD TIMES.

America has GENERATIONS that have NEVER experienced a major downturn the economic cycles of commerce. Welcome to the real world.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

Capitalism is dead, the whole system is set up to reward those with money and thus power. The whole system is unsustainable. Soon it will run into Democracy and democracy trumps capitalism. The king of France can surely attest to that!

Posted by Dyota | Report as abusive
 

Yes, Mr. Bremmer needs a little reality check about what is going on in the so-called democracies such as the UK and the US, for example. To hold either of these to the light of the so-called “western” ideal of democracy as it now manifests itself in these two countries is revealing. These two states are merely emerging police states. Wealth covers many sins and that is steadily eroding in the US as far as the general population is concerned. The electoral process as well as the legislative process in archaic, arcane and certainly not democratic.

Historically, there has been an expansion, with much struggle by the disenfranchised, of democracy in the US. But that is clearly waning and has been for at least 30 years. It is not a stretch to imagine that the Chinese and American systems of government and finance, lifestyle and values are actually starting to resemble each other.

Posted by G.D.Wymer | Report as abusive
 

The problem with China is that it works for them including the workers. It’s part of their culture. They live in a different way than us. When a family needs help they work for their family because of culture. They’ve been around for longer than us so how can we erase their system or even argue our points. I don’t think they fit. As far as the Chinese economy goes like you say it is state sponsored – so who we are dealing with is a government that wants what they have acheived and grown to. With what I think their view is that the nation is a singular body so the casualties are justified in the long run. The people we have to talk to are the leaders on our end. We have to stand up for what we believe in and stop our addiction to their supply or we will remain subservient.

Posted by society | Report as abusive
 

OOTYS – I can say that all I’ve experienced since I got out of college were bad times. Graduation always coincided with a recession. I can think of at least three since then.

You are like so many of the self righteous and smug. I warned you once before that there OWS movement is the ground breaking up under your (our) feet. The world only appears stable.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

I would say:
United States year of bul..it.
Come on, we all know it is about: Libya – oil, Egypt – really bad political analysis, Syria – Russian sphere of influence, Iran – oil traded not in US dollars, China – new rival in world geopolitics.

But i will believe in all that bulls… and MUCH, MUCH
more the day after free polls in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Quatar or at least a day after any woman can drive a car in Saudi Arabia not risking being stoned to death.
Saudi

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive
 

BTW, I prefer years of that US centric propaganda served in tons daily than one minute of living in China-Russia tandem ruled world. It is obvious.
When I enter Reuters web-page I just Wantunbiasednews and opinions.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive
 

Why does Reuters post oldest comments first? That is backwards. No interaction. Maybe Rueters tries to avoid controversy? That’s not the real world.

Posted by myownexperience | Report as abusive
 

Western Europe is hardly a shining example of democracy at the moment.

The 27 EU states have not allowed their own people a vote on whether or not they actually want to be part of the EU or the Euro. And the chance of a vote looks slimmer by the day.

Greece and Italy are run by officials who have not been democratically elected and the EU are taking a democratically elected government to court in Hungary.

The recent EU Fiscal Compact looks like taking sovereign rights away from member states too.

Let’s NOT say that Western Europe or the EU are good examples of democracy when they clearly are not. The people of the EU need their own ‘Arab Spring’ moment soon.

Posted by SCSCSC | Report as abusive
 

“If you believe in the values of Western democracy — equality, fairness, opportunity and freedom.” This is silly. You can believe in these all you want, but it just isn’t real. There is no fairness, equality, freedom or opportunity. Only a certain number of people will be stupid enough to believe this. Sure, you can find a bunch of suck ups hoping to get their cut who will attest to this loonacy, but no one with a brain buys it. So, the only ones who will publicly confirm these ridiculous rantings will be the corrupt and the moronic.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive
 

@OneOfTheSheep

“You confuse tolerance of dissent with tolerance with anarchy.”

Perhaps it is you that is confused and no longer understands what dissent even means. Nor do you seem to grasp how civil liberties have steadily eroded in America. In that you are part of the problem, purposefully blind.

@pythagoreanism

I have to apologize for the likes of Sheep. His ilk have no problem with seeing people get bludgeoned, beaten, shot with tear gas and pepper sprayed by police. If they happen to be youth, all the better. They seem particularly disdainful of the youth and considering Sheep’s admitted age, it’s not surprising. Those darn kids! They no longer take the First Amendment seriously. They seem to have their own definitions of what civil liberties and rights are. Being able to shop freely at Wal-Mart for example, now that is the type of freedom they take very seriously. If you disagree with their views, you’re an anarchist!

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive
 

@TheUSofA,

If anyone is genuinely confused, it is those of any age whose parents have not successfully conveyed the difference between behaviors acceptable and unacceptable in civil society. When lines of civility are crossed, all bets are off.

Our Constitution sets forth the “rules” of dissent. Once “audience” has been granted and no petition presented within a reasonable time, it’s time to disperse voluntarily and civilly.

To continue public “siege warfare” thereafter is antisocial behavior that, at some point, must end with a “judgment call”. Only after FOUR MONTHS did the police use only the force and methods they deemed necessary to clear the area and then keep it clear.

Look at the recent sudden transition from dissent into mob destruction in Oakland City Hall. Does any thinking person genuinely believe the sequential and escalating acts of those people was not anarchy? Any lingering patience on the part of a great majority of Americans with the original mirage of OWS “promise” was fully consumed with the American flag they burned.

In Syria the people assemble at great risk and publicly state “We want the resignation of the regime”. They have no meaningful ability to “formally petition” Assad. Whenever and wherever they assemble they are bludgeoned, beaten, hit with tear gas and or killed by soldiers. THOSE people have my sympathy, and many are also young. I hope the Arab League and the UN manage to better support their rights and human dignity.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

@OOTs – unless the internet is a customized tissue of lies – my internet homepage (TDS) just two days ago stated that the Oakland riots were noted for not having any destruction of property – only some graffiti on buildings.

I haven’t had cable news or normal TV reception for almost eight years because I don;t want to have and really can’t afford to pay for propaganda. I try to get all my information from respected news sources.

Perhaps there are no respected and re;liable news sources? You may have notices that this tread has been significantly cropped during the past few days? It has also been years since I had any respect for the political process in the country. I am quite certain it is all “showtime”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

As of Feb. 3rd, after midnight CST there are ten comments (click “Comments RSS”).

Why the “comment haircut” several days ago? Technical glitch or censorship? Those messages were NOT deleted a moderator insofar as can be ascertained.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

As of 5:56am EST – Friday morning Feb 3 – there are 15. I suspect the computer can make customized “realities”. I’m sure it happens at the user end (by what we tend to read) and wonder if it can happen at the server’s end as well? I’m not looking at the RSS comments but only the regular comments.

I also notice that comments to Freeland’s, and a few other articles never go in until someone approves them first. A few of mine were held for up to 24 hours. The time posted isn’t accurate. But Hadas is immediate. On news articles, I usually see a moderator’s message saying “comment pending approval”.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

I think the first two comments sum it up quite nicely…having lived in Russia for several years, the West (UK) all my life and studied politics at Uni (only to end up in finance)…I can say that we definitely over estimate our own freedoms which are being eroded on a daily basis. Furthermore, the “Arab spring”, as it is optimistically dubbed, has brought NO benefits to its participants to date. You have more instability, civil wars that are not talked about and disparity/tension that keeps rising. A question to ponder is what will be the western reaction to Arab democracies decisions that they don’t want to participate in our “global order”? Will we force our values on them as we have tried in the past…the bottom line is what you and me want has nothing to do what someone else wants. You are not right and neither am I…both of us can only speak for ourselves and from our own perspectives. Never have the ideas of freedom and democracy been perverted to the degree they have been today as we mask our interventions that are governed by self interest before all else in cloaks of freedom and democracy. All of this is a new mask for our imperialism and a clash of civilisations.

Posted by Pablito | Report as abusive
 

All this talk of the relative merits of democracy, communism or any other social organization type is beside the point.
The significant fact is that of human nature. If in any social system you create positions of power, then individuals who seek power will move to those positions. It is human nature for such individuals to abuse that power.
What to do? First, seek to avoid concentraton of power. Second,ring the positions of power with countervailing restrictions. The most important of those restrictions should be aimed at preventing expansion of power by the person in the position.

Posted by LouVignates | Report as abusive
 

Interesting Op-Ed piece… Yet it is terribly outdated…

“What the West should worry about is the manner in which those jobs are performed and what our tolerance of that says to the parts of the world that are today at a crossroads.”

“Will the West tolerate Foxconn?”

Great lines, but the clear fact is that the West already does tolerate Foxconn, and those crossroads are only a dim image in our rear view mirror….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive
 

Interest Op-Ed and in general I agree, with Mr. Bremmer’s comments. However there are some problems with the Foxconn example he used, actually 2 very LARGE problems. 1) Foxconn is NOT a Chinese stateowned company but it is actually the brand name for Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd of Taiwan and the last I check Taiwan is democratic; and 2) some of the issues regarding how workers in China are treated have some similarities with another age that has been documented in passing in a 19th century novel, the title Oliver Twist. If Mr. Bremmer was even more careful with his research he may discover that Karl Marx formulated Communism not for China or Russia but for England due to the extremely bad working conditions of the proletariat there at the time. Which leads obviously to the question: Is the West exporting it’s bad labour practices to poor countries indirectly? If Mr. Bremmer’s article is an attempt to show China in a bad light unfortunately he’s not done it very well, he may want to try again, but this time do a little more thorough research and thinking before you try desiminate questionable morals.

Posted by P-chan | Report as abusive
 

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