When I write about our new G-Zero world, I am describing an international phenomenon: a global environment in which no power or group of powers can sustainably set an international agenda. The global community, used to orienting itself around a collection of U.S.-led powers, has fallen victim to a widening leadership vacuum, what with the United States disengaging from foreign affairs and Europe too busy with its own crisis. Emerging powers like China have grown large enough to undermine a Western-led global agenda — but not yet developed enough to prioritize their own international role over their domestic concerns.
Every major power is too busy watching out for its own needs to focus on the bigger picture. As a result, the international community has been unable to make any progress on pressing crises like global warming, a civil war in Syria, or the rise of cyber warfare. A vacuum of leadership has led to a dearth of mutually beneficial planning.
What I did not expect was to see the G-Zero mentality bleed its way into American domestic politics. As we all breathe a sigh of relief in response to the U.S. averting self-destruction with an 11th hour budget deal, it’s important to put this “success” in context. First of all, how did things get so dire to begin with? Second, how likely are we to experience a sickening bout of déjà vu when the punted deadlines once again draw near?
Unfortunately, Washington simply isn’t built for long-term thinking. Instead, each actor in Washington focuses on his or her own individual constituency — just like the international community. In a country this polarized, there are no potential consequences back at home that would impel enough stakeholders to do anything different.
That’s the crux of this current crisis: society’s polarization has eroded politicians’ use for bipartisanship. In 1995-1996, the last time the U.S. had a government shutdown, more than 33 percent of Congressional Republicans came from districts that had voted for Bill Clinton in the previous presidential election. Today, only 7 percent of Congressional Republicans hail from districts that voted for Obama last year. When the electorate is this segregated, it’s no wonder the politicians they elect are interested in placating, not legislating.