Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The selfishness in Congress is far from over

Ian Bremmer
Oct 17, 2013 19:41 UTC

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.

End the foreign policy shutdown

Ian Bremmer
Oct 11, 2013 16:55 UTC

Ever since the government shutdown began, various federal departments have been forced to furlough nonessential personnel. The specter of the United States’ first default in history has become a bargaining chip for American politicians. That has rankled the international community, and it only compounds the backlash we’ve seen recently in response to Obama’s flip-flopping on a Syria strike and the NSA surveillance revelations. It’s clear that international consternation is not enough of an incentive for the United States to change its behavior. As I wrote recently in this column, foreign policy simply isn’t a priority for the Obama administration.

Buffeted by the shutdown crisis and leery of the coming debt ceiling fight, Barack Obama canceled his trip to Asia last week, where he would have attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. Obama sent John Kerry in his stead to shake hands, dress in funny outfits, and engage in all the other usual hallmarks of a foreign convention of leaders. Obama was right to think that had he attended himself, the optics wouldn’t have worked in his favor. He would have looked distant and overly-casual to the crises at home if he were in Bali glad-handing with foreign leaders. But the point is not whether Obama made the right decision to cancel — he did — but whether he made the best decision possible. He could have done more, which we’ll get to in a bit. But instead of thinking creatively, the administration checked down to the obvious decision and simply sent Kerry.

What’s at stake at the APEC conference? The validity of America’s “pivot to Asia,” a hallmark of the administration’s first term, and a strategy that was beginning to succeed in the region. As the New York Times wrote earlier this week, without the U.S. at the APEC conference, it’s China’s stage. And that’s a problem when the United States is in the middle of trying to negotiate and complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is the most important trade agreement on the world agenda right now; should all the countries in discussions join, its members would constitute almost 40 percent of world GDP — a coalition of more than a dozen of the most important Pacific powers. The deal would liberalize trade, foster more market access for U.S. firms in the region, and serve a deeper geopolitical purpose: it would give the U.S. a larger stake in regional stability. In other words, the agreement would put American skin in the game and confirm the Asia pivot, as likeminded countries try to hedge against the rise of a Chinese-led system that is not in accordance with their norms and standards.

In pursuit of American humility

Ian Bremmer
Oct 4, 2013 16:43 UTC

This week, as Washington navel-gazed its way into a shutdown, its actions didn’t go unnoticed abroad. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, took the opportunity to gloat about the U.S.’s refusal to pay its federal workers, many of whom are on furlough because of the shutdown. “We are now witnessing the crisis in the U.S. We have never been a government that could not pay its personnel,” Erdogan said.

This is how America’s dysfunction at home is undermining its credibility abroad. The latest development: Obama’s desire to maintain laser focus on the Republicans for political gain has prompted him to cancel a pivotal trip to Asia to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. But it’s not just the shutdown: it is a series of issues over the past decade, chief among them the financial crisis. For decades the U.S. had been espousing the virtues of free market capitalism, urging other countries to adopt the model. America’s exceptional economic success, the thinking went, allowed it to give advice about how other countries should build their own economies.

And then the bottom fell out. The crisis, spurred by lax regulations that were manipulated by the big banks, started in the United States, before its impact spread globally. An unemployment and debt crisis soon followed. So did a rush to rethink the way countries handle their economies. With the free-market system no longer sacrosanct, countries with other approaches were happy to second-guess the system. China’s state capitalist model became a viable alternative as it navigated the financial crisis much better than most. I’ll never forget my meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei in 2009, when he asked me outright, “Now that the free market has failed, what do you think is the proper role for the state in the economy?” The financial crisis was an opportunity to reopen the debate surrounding perceived global values — and to kick the U.S. system while it was down.

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