January 1, 2015 1:00 pm JST
The world post-G-Zero

US, China Cold War possible, says Ian Bremmer

U.S. political scientist Ian Bremmer

NEW YORK -- It has been 25 years since the Cold War ended yet the world has not been able to find a new order. What went wrong in the past quarter of a century? What will happen in the coming years? Ian Bremmer, president of U.S. risk consultancy Eurasia Group who coined the term "G-Zero" for a world without a leader, predicts the U.S. and China may move into different blocks in five or 10 years' time. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: There was a lot of optimism when the Cold War finished. But the triumph of capitalism and democracy looks to be fading. What do you think went wrong? 

A: I think there are lots of things you can point to. One is that the U.S., as a model for democracy and as a model of free markets, has been somewhat disappointing for a lot of people. The ability and the willingness of the U.S. to lead by example has been compromised. There are so many things you can point to. You can talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can talk about the rise of inequality in the U.S. and in the developed world, the Bush-Gore election determined by a partisan vote of the Supreme Court [and] the financial crisis.

     A second point is that the Chinese model -- which is a radically different political and economic model -- continues, at least as of today, to be quite successful. In fact, I would say that the Chinese are happier with the Chinese government on balance than Americans are with the American government.

Q: How would you describe the current state of the world ?

A: I do believe that we are now entering into a period of what I like to call "geopolitical creative destruction," where the old order no longer holds, but the new order hasn't been created yet. And that's true not just for the G-Zero but it's also true at the individual level, at the individual country level. And that's why we don't see the kind of everybody embracing liberalism that you might otherwise expect.

Q: What does this new order look like?

A: At a country level, this one trend, which is people are getting more powerful, is leading to three different types of responses. In developed states, the advanced industrial democracies and also in some consolidated democracies among the poorer countries, the response of governments to greater demands from the people is decentralization.

     In the U.S., we just had an election. Washington is still broken. There's no legislation getting passed. But much legislation is getting passed at the state level and at the municipal level, on immigration, energy, trade, drug legalization, same-sex marriage.

     I think that's even true in India and Indonesia, where you have a chief minister from Gujarat now prime minister. You have the governor of Jakarta now president of Indonesia. And in both cases they're going to have a hard time reforming the national system, but they will inspire other local leaders to become more effective at grassroots.

     But there's another big trend. In countries that are authoritarian and relatively strong, the response to people making greater demands has been the consolidation of power in the center and we see that in China, where there is an economic reform process, but there's no political liberalization. You clearly see that in Russia, where all power is increasingly in the hands of one individual and a few cronies around him. 

     And in that third case you see states and state governments that are really turning inward and they're focusing only on the part of their citizenship that is much more loyal and so that means that parts of those countries are increasingly not governed; they're becoming failed states. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen. Look at Mali and the Central African Republic. 

     So you have decentralization, consolidation and then entrenchment. I would say what is most interesting about the fact that these trends are competing is that it is probably going to drive further apart the liberal democracies from the authoritarian states. So we do not see a convergence of China and Russia and of the U.S., Europe and Japan. We actually see those systems going farther apart. That's a worrying trend.

Q: Will that, in turn, affect Western democracy? Do you think Japan or the U.S. will adopt elements of state capitalistic nations, looking at China's success?

A: I don't think it's looking at China's success, but I do think that China getting larger and having those rules, does make it harder for the United States to establish a free market rule set, globally, because China can say no. And that does mean that America and other countries might respond in ways that also look more strategic that start to look more like industrial policy.

     This is not new to Japan. Japan, of course, initially industrialized in that way and in the United States much less so. But if you look at the way the U.S. is treating the IT sector and the NSA (National Security Agency), engagement with Yahoo or Google or companies like this, clearly the United States is saying that this is a strategically important sector to the U.S. government. 

     So it's not as if you have free markets on one side and state capitalism on the other side, and a chasm between. It is a spectrum, and the spectrum depends not only on the country but also on the sector.

Q: You called international order without a leader "G-Zero." What are your thoughts on today's world?

 A: I think that there are three major reasons for the G-Zero. The first set has to do with the United States. The second set has to do with American allies. And the third set has to do with the emerging markets.

     As for the U.S. piece, some of it is self-inflicted in a bad way. The United States has made mistakes internationally, which has made countries question America's commitment. For example, the foreign policy debacle over Syria's use of chemical weapon and the U.S.'s inability to follow through on its word "red line" posed the question: Is the U.S. really standing up for you? Also, there were concerns in Japan about America's response to the air defense identification zone, when it was first announced by the Chinese. These kinds of things.

     It's true that [U.S. President Barack] Obama is not really interested in foreign policy, having a fairly weak second-term team, not very coherent. But some of it is actually much more thoughtful on the part of the U.S. There is hangover from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which were unsuccessful, and America is not wanting to get stuck in these morasses that are expensive and don't really accomplish very much. The energy revolution makes Americans less interested, because they're making it at home. So, all of that is on the U.S. side.

     Then you have America's allies, particularly in Europe. But they're much harder for the Americans to work with. The Germans look at the world commercially. When the U.S. talks about China, it's much more holistic, it involves geopolitics and security. The Germans really look at China in a very narrow way, at their own bilateral commercial interests. The French are a more natural ally for the United States, but the French government is more unpopular than any French government since World War II.

     And then the third point is that the emerging markets are more powerful than they were five, 10, 20 years ago and these emerging markets very clearly do not share American priorities and preferences and values. In the case of China, they're actively looking for ways to say no to requests being made by the United States, for the Chinese to be responsible stakeholders.

     I think we're just at the beginning of the G-Zero period right now. China's getting bigger. And Europe is under much more pressure, economically and politically. The United States is still very uninterested, and you still have two more years of Obama.

Q: The world looks more unstable than in the Cold War era. What kind of risks are you anticipating?

A: It's obvious that it's not a safer world. Certainly, a U.S.-led hegemonic world is a safer world. The Cold War was unsafe at the margins. During the Cuban missile crisis there was this very small chance that we were going to have a nuclear Armageddon. But, if you avoided that, it was a fairly safe world.

     The G-Zero world is one that is generally much more unstable. There will not be great power fighting in the G-Zero world. We're not on the precipice of World War III.

     But, having said that, there's so much more fighting going on and there are so many more refugees and there's so much more radicalism. And rogue states have more room to operate. Dictators have more room to operate. And so where do those risks come from? They come from Russia. They come from the Middle East. They come from terrorists organizations, such as radical Islam.

Q: How long do you think the G-Zero world will continue and what will come after that?   

A: The G-Zero is not a permanent world order. In the sense that the Cold War could have persisted for decades and decades, the G-Zero will not persist for decades and decades. But I think it will likely persist for at least another five years, maybe 10, before we start to see what comes after. 

Q: And what does it take to change this G-Zero world? 

A: It takes one of two things. It will happen, but when it will happen is a question. There are two ways for it to happen. The first way is evolutionary, where, over time, China gets bigger and stronger, U.S. leadership becomes more comfortable with a new set of rules, some of which it creates and some of which are created by others and proactively, either just the two of them or with other countries, they start creating institutions that make more sense, that more reflect the new world order.

     The second way it could happen is until we get that order, the geopolitical crises in the world will grow in the Middle East, Iraq, Syria -- and Asia. It could be something small like Hong Kong. It could be the South China Sea fight. It could be anything.

     If one of them gets big enough or more than one of them gets big enough, so big that the international community, or some members of the international community, are forced to respond and have to create some kind of order, "or else" -- and that could be climate. It could be a climate-related disaster of spectacular size. If Ebola had been 10 or a hundred times worse, which could have happened, that could be one. 

Q: Mikhail Gorbachev said there is going to be a new Cold War. What is your opinion?

A: He did say that. He's wrong. A lot of people are saying it. [Henry] Kissinger said we could head into a new Cold War. [British Prime Minister David] Cameron is concerned about it. 

     Let me tell you why we're not heading to a new Cold War. The first reason is because Russia is not powerful enough. The second reason is that the Europeans don't really support the U.S. position, because their economy is very weak. The Europeans are very diffuse. And they're very negatively impacted by a fight with Russia.

     The third reason is because the United States doesn't really care. We just don't want to fight with them. [Vladimir] Putin wants a Cold War, that is true. But the United States does not. We are not prepared to fight over Ukraine. 

     And then the fourth reason is that the Chinese will act to moderate some of Putin's excesses. I think that they do not want the Russians to actively antagonize the Americans all over the world.

Q: Why doesn't China want Russia to fight with the West? 

A: I think you have to understand that China is patient. China is growing. China has 1.3 billion people. The world will come to China. If China waits, China will have more power, more influence and be able to determine outcomes to their favor, without war, without conflict. They can just use their influence.

     The Russians, of course, are declining and so Russian power is greater today than it will be in five or 10 years' time. If you're China, you really don't want the Russians to "rock the boat" too much in the near term. Causing problems for the U.S. is fine, but you don't want them to become a pariah state for everyone else. 

Q: Is there a possibility of a Cold War between the U.S. and China?

A: Longer term, that is a bigger concern. It's not a concern today. But if you asked me in five or 10 years' time, one of the potential scenarios of post-G-Zero is that the United States and China fundamentally move into different blocks. It's possible.

Q: Will China become a big power, as big as the U.S?

A: No. The future is a long time, but if you ask me in 10 years' time, China will probably be the largest economy, but their military will be a tiny fraction of that of the United States. Their technological capacity will be a tiny fraction of the U.S. Their energy production capacity will be a tiny fraction of the United States. Their diplomatic capabilities will be a tiny fraction of the United States. Their soft power will be a tiny fraction of the United States. Their cultural power will be a tiny fraction of the United States. Their universities will be so much worse. They will be a superpower, looking purely in terms of their economic might and they will not be a superpower in any other way. 

Interviewed by Nikkei senior staff writer Hiroyuki Nishimura

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