The global vacuum of power is expanding

May 3, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Korea? Or Syria? Or the euro zone? Or climate change?

Don’t look to Washington. The United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation for years to come, but the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers are now focused on debt, immigration, guns and growth. A war-weary, under-employed American public wants results at home, leaving U.S. officials to look for allies willing to share costs and risks abroad.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to build and sustain alliances in a world where America can’t afford its traditional share of the heavy lifting. No wonder then that the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy successes haven’t depended on such alliances. Withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t require consensus among the world’s powers. President Barack Obama’s single indisputable foreign policy triumph, the killing of Osama bin Laden, needed buy-in only from the members of Seal Team 6.

Nor should we look to Europe for help. Its leaders are still hard at work duct-taping the euro zone, and cash-strapped governments consider an activist European foreign policy prohibitively expensive. Nor will next-wave powers look to shoulder new burdens. Economic slowdowns in China, India and Brazil remind us that not every emerging market will fully emerge, much less accept the costs and risks that come with a share of global leadership.

In this G-Zero world, where no single government or alliance can lead others toward compromise, solutions to transnational problems range from ad hoc to beyond reach. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the U.N.’s Conference on Sustainable Development last June with a warning: This gathering is too big to fail. But for Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, the event was simply too big to attend. None of them has the muscle, individually or together, to force compromise on the policies that fuel climate change — and they know it.

This leadership vacuum continues to expand. The risk of confrontation in Asia has grown — between China and Japan (the world’s second- and third-largest economies) in the East China Sea, and between China and several Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea. Making matters even more dangerous, the U.S. transition toward a sharper foreign policy focus on Asia, progress toward a massive U.S.-led transpacific trade deal that excludes China and conflict in the under-governed expanse of cyberspace are worsening tensions between Washington and Beijing. Fights over commercial and investment rules and the clash between the state-driven and free-market varieties of capitalism have gathered momentum. In years to come, no ties will be more important for global peace and prosperity than those that bind America and China, the world’s most powerful developed and developing states, and no development would more quickly exacerbate the G-Zero dilemma than a dramatic worsening of relations between them.

In the Middle East, Syria’s civil war grinds on with worrisome implications for Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Russia. Sectarian tensions are again stoking violence in Iraq. Attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets in Libya, Egypt and Yemen have heightened Washington’s aversion to direct involvement in the region’s conflicts. This is another region in which a lack of global leadership and rivalries among local heavyweights ensure that pain will get worse before real progress can be made.

Ironically, the nation most likely to fill the leadership vacuum left by America the Vulnerable is America the Resilient. A technology-driven U.S. energy boom has begun to create jobs, revitalize U.S. manufacturing and offer Washington the chance to use exports of natural gas, technology and knowhow to reverse the decline in U.S. international influence.

Over the longer term, Washington will have to address the growing imbalances on U.S. books, but as the financial crisis reminded us, when volatility and fear are the order of the day, safety becomes the world’s most valuable commodity. That’s why the United States remains the world’s investment safe haven — and why, for better and worse, not even ratings agency downgrades can make it more difficult for America’s government to borrow money, at least for the moment.

Nor is it inevitable that America and China will collide. Washington and Beijing seem at times destined for conflict, a dispute more likely to be fought in financial markets and in cyberspace than on more familiar battlegrounds. Yet heavy volumes of bilateral trade and investment ensure that neither side has much to gain from the other’s weakness.

The two countries can’t afford a zero-sum, Cold War-style confrontation, and both governments know it. It remains to be seen, however, if Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping have the vision and political will to build the sort of pragmatic partnership that might finally bring the G-Zero era to an end.

For more on this theme, Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World, by Ian Bremmer, is now available in paperback.

PHOTO: Leaders of the G20 nations gather for a group photo at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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“Yet heavy volumes of bilateral trade and investment ensure that neither side has much to gain from the other’s weakness.”

Go and read some of the press coverage in Europe in July 1914. People were convinced that the level of trade and investment was too great for the powers to risk losing them in a war.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

“A technology-driven U.S. energy boom has begun to create jobs, revitalize U.S. manufacturing and offer Washington the chance to use exports of natural gas, technology and knowhow to reverse the decline in U.S. international influence.” “…the United States remains the world’s investment safe haven…”.

Our cup remains more than half full for most Americans. At a time when every country’s economy is “unsustainable” America remains the best place to be and from which to invest. I can live with that.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Then everything is proceeding accord to plan. YOU voted for this!!

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

After you get done waving the flag, how about answering this question. Who the hell elected the US to become the world’s policeman, and who wants to emulate a POS country like this that is wracked with internal divisions and rampant greed?

The “dirty little secret” this POS government will NEVER admit is that that many other countries are far better off than we are in just about any category you care you mention.

As they say “ignorance is bliss” and the American people are “blissful beyond belief”.

By the way, the ONLY reason this nation is viewed as the best place to invest — the truth of which I question, since our economy is in a “death spiral” at the the moment — is SOLELY because we are the least worst option in the world.

Now there’s a “title” to make every American justly proud of his country and how great it is!

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive


Not “waving the flag”, just trying to point out a bit of perspective most seem to lose. There has seldom, if ever, been the increase in the standard of living that Americans have experienced since the 1940s.

Nonetheless, some bitch and moan that it hasn’t been steady, it hasn’t been “equal”, there is still hunger and poverty and prejudice in America, GET USED TO IT because such is the “natural order of the world and man”.

That doesn’t mean we should not do that which is possible and practical to nudge “the system” to further reduce genuine injustice. I think we shoot ourselves in the foot by paying people to not work for YEARS and by making “welfare” type programs raise families economically further than working at the level of their knowledge and skill can provide. The trouble with “common sense” is that it isn’t as “common” as it once was.

There is NO country “better off” than America, presuming you exclude those whose “economies” are merely spending the revenue from exhausting their nonrenewable “natural resources”. There are historical examples of how THAT ends.

There ARE countries that have achieved an illusion of being “better off”, mostly in Europe, where it remains to be seen whether the Euro itself survives. There is also more than a little suspicion as to whether national productivity of the various sovereign nations can support the lavish benefits they have bestowed on one and all.

Yes, the American economy is caught up in these same forces. If our “headwinds” reduce us to the “least worst” option, that is still a position of indefinite advantage compared to EVERY OTHER COUNTRY. I may not be “proud” of that distinction, but I DO understand and appreciate it (considering the other available options).

Like it or not, the United States is STILL utterly dependent upon foreign oil, which is the life’s blood of our economy and standard of living. We either defend our access to that energy (and the rest of the world’s) or we lose it and VERY rapidly decline and become more nationally vulnerable to those, always waiting in the wings, with dreams (nightmares?) of WORLD DOMINATION. So, for the foreseeable future, we’re the “Sheriff”.

Simultaneously we must never lose sight of the fact that our “POS government” has traditionally been less than “forward leaning” and slow to react. It was DESIGNED that way specifically to minimize the damage possible for a few to inflict in a short time. That’s not a “bug”. That’s a FEATURE!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Interesting we are discussing global leadership vacuum when Obama is President and the “leader” of the free world. What does this suggest?

Posted by Globalman | Report as abusive