Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The countries not letting a crisis go to waste

Ian Bremmer
Jul 25, 2013 14:57 UTC

In 2008, before the financial crisis had even reached its nadir, Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s quote became the conventional wisdom for crisis management, even if the idea is age-old: John F. Kennedy Jr. famously pointed out that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity. 

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, we can now look at the world’s major powers and assess how well they’ve responded to their various crises. Three categories emerge. Who took advantage of crisis? Who never really had a true crisis? And who is letting crisis go to waste?

A crisis unwasted: Japan and the Euro zone

Let’s begin with Europe, which experienced a real and urgent crisis. Remember that as little as 18 months ago, the media and bond markets had the euro zone pegged for imminent fracture, when the debts of its member countries and the untenable divide between its core countries and those on the periphery threatened to overwhelm the political unity and economic cohesion that the bloc enjoyed. A lack of fiscal coordination, political and monetary dexterity, and balance between strong and weak states pushed the world’s largest economic bloc into existential crisis.

But with the help of Germany, bolder monetary policy from the European Central Bank, and some very painful budget-control measures, Europe has emerged on sounder footing, and the prospect of collapse is firmly behind it. There has been a fundamental restructuring, and now Europe is on the mend. The looming crisis itself helped affect structural change. Without market pressure and alarm bells, the periphery would not have been shaken from complacency, nor would the ECB have taken a bolder stance to put a floor under the crisis.

Japan had a very different crisis than Europe did. Two “lost decades” didn’t spur the Japanese into action. Japan went through nearly 20 years of stagnation, stuck in a whirlpool of deflationlow growth and rising public debt that prevented the country from competing as the rest of the world’s powers modernized their economic approaches. What shook Japan out of its malaise? In part, it was an increasingly acrimonious challenge from China, which has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. Japanese voters’ economic and security fears from the regional superpower prompted them to give Shinzo Abe another crack at the prime minister post. He’s used it to create an economic plan heavy on stimulus, join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact negotiations, and work toward making all “three arrows” (monetary easing, government spending and structural reform) of his economic plan take flight. It’s still unclear whether Abe’s ambitious plans will succeed, but there is no question that Japan has converted its slow-motion crisis into a remarkable opportunity.

What does G-Zero mean for the world?

Reuters Staff
Apr 27, 2012 17:38 UTC
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A generation ago, the United States, Europe and Japan were the world’s powerhouses. Now, according to Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, we’re living in a world where everyone – and anyone – can set the agenda. So, what does G-Zero mean for the world?

Europe’s necessary creative destruction

Ian Bremmer
Nov 11, 2011 18:44 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

What we’re seeing in Europe — in rising Italian borrowing costs and the felling of two prime ministers — is the growing impatience of the markets for a resolution to the euro zone crisis. To put a finer point on it, the hive mind of the markets has decided it is not going to give Europe enough time to get its act together. The big institutions that drive the world’s economies are sitting on huge amounts of cash — enough to solve many of these problems overnight. But they have lost confidence in the ability of the European political system to deliver solutions that will work.

In a G-Zero world, where there is no strong global leader to direct the course of events, no one is interested in taking a flier on helping the Europeans get out of their mess. As the abortive G-20 conference showed last week, there is no backstop for any country or institution that makes an error in today’s environment, whether it’s tiny MF Global or the Chinese sovereign debt fund. In the postwar era, the Marshall Plan was the very definition of global security — it was a huge commitment by the U.S. to rebuild Europe into the economic force (and not incidentally, trading partner) that the world needed. Today, there is no Marshall plan for Europe, from within or without.

That’s the high-level view of the Europe situation. The question everyone wants answered is this: what happens next? Start with Greece: the best possible outcome for that country has happened with Papandreou’s resignation and the selection of economist Lucas Papademos as Prime Minister of an emergency government. Papademos is committed to remaining in the euro and accepting the terms of the Greek bailout package. Despite the roller coaster ride Papandreou took his country and the euro zone on, Greece has now moved closer to the Spanish and Portuguese models for avoiding the debt crisis drama. In Greece, a resolution is starting to be reached. It’s not the beginning of the end, but maybe this is the end of the beginning.

Slaughtering the PIIGS

Ian Bremmer
Sep 14, 2011 18:34 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nobody likes to be called PIIGS. For years, Europe’s so-called peripheral countries — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — have complained about this acronym, but the euro zone’s sovereign debt problems have only entrenched it further. Yet, it’s time to acknowledge that the PIIGS have a point. They don’t deserve to be lumped together. Their actions and their circumstances have sharply diverged over the past three years.

Some of the PIIGS, let’s call them peripherals, have accepted the need for painful austerity measures. Spain’s government beat its deficit reduction targets last year. That’s a result that should impress outsiders, including powerhouse Germany, where lawmakers have worked hard to persuade voters that profligate countries won’t be bailed out until they have proven they can mend their spendthrift ways. Protests against the belt-tightening have been limited and surprisingly peaceful given Spain 21% unemployment rate.

The conservative People’s Party, which has already pledged its commitment to both austerity and the euro zone, looks headed for a win in Spain’s November elections. That’s in part because Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero has pushed hard to implement so many of the plans called for by Germany and European institutions over the objections of his party’s political base, including a plan to amend Spain’s constitution to legally require both the central government and autonomous communities to meet deficit targets that go beyond the levels set by the EU.

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