Who’s in charge of the world? No one

April 30, 2012

This is an excerpt from Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, published this week by Portfolio.

Is the U.S. really in decline? Can China become a superpower? Can Europe rebuild? How fast can the rest rise? These are interesting issues, but today’s world faces a more urgent and important question: While we’re figuring all that out, who will lead? Unfortunately, the answer is no one. In this G-Zero era, no one is driving the bus.

The United States and its European allies can no longer drive the global political and economic agenda. The scramble to produce a coordinated and effective multinational response to the 2008 financial crisis made that clear, but the growing leverage of emerging states like China, India, Brazil, Russia and others was apparent years before U.S. financial institutions began melting down and the Eurozone descended into crisis.

Yes, America remains the most powerful and influential country on Earth – and will for the foreseeable future. Its economy is still the world’s largest. No single nation can compete with its cultural influence, and only America can project military power in every region. But in coming years mounting federal debt and the domestic political attention now focused on this issue will force the architects of U.S. foreign policy to become more sensitive to costs and risks when making potentially expensive strategic choices.

At home, it will be harder for presidents to persuade taxpayers and lawmakers that bolstering the stability of countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is worth a bloody, costly fight. That means decoupling support for a “strong military,” an always popular position, from security guarantees for countries that no longer meet a narrowing definition of vital U.S. interests. Abroad, questions will arise about America’s commitment to the security of particular regions, encouraging local players to test U.S. resolve and to exploit any weakness they think they’ve found. Few want a global policeman, but some will have second thoughts when they realize they lack protection against a neighborhood bully.

Yet, other countries aren’t exactly lining up to fill this vacuum. The ongoing battle to bolster the Eurozone will discourage European leaders from searching abroad for new ways to extend the influence of their governments, and leading developing states have too many challenges at home and foreign-policy plans for their immediate neighborhoods to embrace the risks and burdens that come with a larger share of global leadership. China’s leaders, in particular, already have their hands full. They have already acknowledged that their country’s growth model is “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable,” and they know that their ability to guide the country through the next stage of its development is far from certain. India, Brazil, and Turkey can continue to grow for the next ten years with the same basic formula that triggered growth during the past ten. The United States, Europe, and Japan can reinvest in economic systems that have a long history of success. But China must undertake enormously complex and ambitious political and economic reforms if it is to continue its drive to become a modern, middle-class power.

China faces the added complication that today’s international environment is fast becoming less friendly to China’s expansion. Higher prices for the oil, gas, metals and minerals needed to fuel China’s expansion will weigh on growth. The rise of other emerging powers will add to the upward pressure on food and other commodity prices, undermining public confidence in government, the most important source of China’s social stability. In addition, as state-backed Chinese companies draw their government into the political and economic lives of so many other countries, they face the same backlash from local companies and workers that plagues so many other foreign firms doing business far from home. And because the Chinese government has such a direct stake in the success of these companies, Beijing will be drawn into conflicts it has never coped with before.

We can’t know what the future holds for the United States, China, or any of these countries. There are good reasons to bet on U.S. resilience, but that will depend on the ability and willingness of American leaders to rebuild the country’s strength from within. Europe has advantages that will reinforce the strength of its markets, and for all Japan’s problems, it is still the world’s third-largest economy. Most emerging powers will continue to emerge, but some will have more staying power than others.


We now live in a world without global leadership. The need to prevent conflict, grow the global economy, manage growing demand for energy, implement far-sighted trade and investment policies, and counter transnational risks to public health demands leaders who are willing and able to shoulder burdens and enforce compromise. Leaders have the leverage to coordinate multinational responses. They have the wealth and power to persuade other governments to take actions they wouldn’t otherwise take. They pick up the checks that others can’t afford, and provide services no one else will pay for. There are many countries now strong enough to block international action, but none has the power to remake the status quo.

We can’t expect global institutions to take up the slack. The G7 group of industrialized democracies has become an anachronism, but the expanded G20 doesn’t work either, because there are too many players with too broad a range of interests and values seated around its negotiating table to produce agreement on anything more demanding than high-minded declarations of principle. Deep-pocketed emerging powers can’t decide whether to push for more power within existing institutions like the IMF and World Bank or to try to build new ones.

In short, we are now living with a G-Zero order, one in which no single power or alliance of powers has the muscle, the means and the will to provide the leadership needed to tackle a growing list of transnational threats.


What does this mean for relations among nations and the future of the global economy? In the world’s hotspots, regions where the United States has long helped to maintain a delicate balance of power, problems are now more likely than at any time since the end of World War II to become crises. For traditional powers, the issues start at home.

U.S. and European elected officials know that voters tend to support costly, extended military commitments only when they believe that vital national interests are at stake. That’s why, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda and Sudan to Syria, they tend to remain on the sidelines for as long as possible. Given the current demand for austerity on both sides of the Atlantic, we are likely to see both a larger number of local conflicts and an even deeper Western reluctance to engage – particularly in the increasingly complicated and volatile Middle East. In years to come, the NATO intervention in Libya will look more like the exception, and the hands-off approach to Syria’s civil war will be the rule.

But conventional conflict is not the only source of trouble. Given the market volatility of the past four years, governments of both established and leading emerging powers are more worried than ever about ensuring they have the means to create jobs and boost growth. That’s why the most important instruments of power and influence in coming years will be economic tools like market access, investment rules, and currency policies. In a variety of ways, governments will slow (in some cases reverse) the free flow of ideas, information, people, money, goods and services that we call globalization.

Expect great power competition in cyberspace as state-supported industrial espionage becomes a more widely used weapon in competition for natural resources and market share. Some authoritarian emerging players will find new ways to reestablish state control over information and communication, both across and within borders. Add the shared problem of climate change, the risk of food price shocks, threats to public health and other transnational worries, and the world will lack leadership just at the moment it needs it most.

Winners and Losers

This state of affairs won’t be bad news for everyone, because the G-Zero will produce its share of winners as well as losers. Over the past 30 years, those states that best adapted to the processes of globalization thrived, but in an international order in which no single country can afford to lead, those who still operate as if borders are opening, barriers are falling, and the world is becoming a single market will find themselves reacting to events they don’t understand. In years to come, governments that can build profitable commercial and security relationships with multiple partners without becoming overly reliant on any one of them will weather storms more effectively than those that cannot or will not.

For example, Brazil has built solid political ties and lucrative economic relations with the United States, China and a growing number of other emerging market countries. Its economy continues to enjoy access to U.S. consumers, but ties with China, now its largest trade partner, ensure that it isn’t overly dependent on U.S. purchasing power for growth. A serious downturn in the U.S. will still take a heavy toll on Mexico. That’s less true for Brazil, which emerged from the 2008 financial crisis and 2009 U.S. recession with much less damage than many other U.S. trade partners. A set of countries as diverse as Turkey, Vietnam, Canada, and Kazakhstan are actively developing this strategy to suit their own circumstances.

This G-Zero era of transition will pose a unique set of challenges for U.S. policymakers. America will have to learn to do something it doesn’t do very well these days: Invest in the future. In a country where political leaders focus so much of their energies on winning the next news cycle, and business leaders privilege quarterly profits at the expense of long-term reinvestment, Americans need to look beyond the horizon. Anyone who believes that American decline is inevitable has chosen to ignore the entire history of the United States and its people. For the time being, Washington can’t lead as it did during the second half of the 20th century. The balance of political and economic power has changed profoundly since 1945 – even since 1990.

But the G-Zero cannot last indefinitely, because tomorrow’s most important powers, whoever they turn out to be, won’t be able to allow it to continue. They will have to put out the fires that have begun to spread across borders. If Americans can rebuild for the future, the country’s underlying strengths – its hard power capacities and its democratic, entrepreneurial values – will ensure that U.S. leadership can again prove indispensable for international security and prosperity. The capacity to lead in a post-G-Zero world should guide both America’s foreign and domestic policies in years to come.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Why is open source software the greatest thing ever while open source government is bad? By the “People for the People” is not, and never will be, a concept that needs revision.

Posted by GLK | Report as abusive

a world without leaders? good!

Posted by the_italian_guy | Report as abusive

The “chaos”-focused parts of this analysis is correct. The study of the processes of the G-Zero, the working of its feedback loops, and the in-built stabilizers of the complex dynamics of the emerging multi-polar world are faulty. Yes, America will still be number one in the “new, multi-polar world order” even if it will no longer be the sole superpower. But, precisely for that reason, any analysis that is premised in the wrong notion that America has to be the main stabilizer (the main “strange attractor” to use the language of complexity theory), as Bremmer’s argument does, is bound to be wrong. Order arises autonomously from chaos under certain conditions, the main ones among these being the nature of the “stabilizing parameters” and the dynamics of the processes. The stabilizing parameters are our international security institutions (UNSC,NATO but also the emerging SCO — Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the GCC — Gulf Cooperation Council, OAS — Organization of American States, etc.), the multilateral financial institutions (IMF, WB, WTO,BIS, but also ASEAN+3, etc), and international economic, trade and other governance institutions, including environmental/climate change governance institutions. These institutions will have to be reformed to give the BRICS and other regional groupings of countries greater influence in collective decision making. Only when such global democracy is embraced will order emerge from the apparent chaos that the G-Zero seems to be heralding. The sooner American and Europe wake up to that reality, the better it will be for humanity.

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

I think the writer and the commentors have been smoking too much opium. Treating people and cultures like nuts and bolts is true madness. Enjoy the ride, you soon will be just another daisy pusher.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

i keep my world very simple, the rest of the world is out of my hands, it was spinning before i got here

Posted by running | Report as abusive

I agree with this

Posted by klubovi | Report as abusive

I agree with Fred5407. What we need are practical solutions to problems, which include the setting aside of intellectual ego and an ability to understand that solving problems has little to do with political theory, heady analysis, or talk, but actually listening to what people are telling you on the ground and planning and acting accordingly. This doesn’t happen when what they are telling you goes against your business, political, or professional interests, and can result in decent people being put in jail or worse, all somehow intellectually defensible.

Of course, reflection is important, but trying to make the world conform to a model in your mind is something else entirely and may be worse than useless. As anti-business as it may be, we could also do with some realizations and lessons on the damage caused by materialism. That’s an ad campaign I somehow doubt you’ll ever see, but it is largely the root of the problem.

As for who runs the planet, is it even human beings anyway? Haven’t we merely been put into the position of privileged caretakers of an amazing and wonderful place we are continually damaging and making less hospitable? Can we pay off the planet for the damage we cause her?

Posted by LeonBreaux | Report as abusive

Who is in charge of the world? We need to make sure it remains no one. “No one” is better than “Someone”!

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive