The Power of Crisis (Ian Bremmer) – How Three Threats and our Response Will Change the World

04-08-22

Dear Partners in Thought,

Ian Bremmer, founder and CEO of Eurasia Group—a New York-based global research and consulting firm—and G-Zero—a media company providing coverage on international affairs via its Signal newsletter—wrote a new book (from a “measured” American vantage point) on the three threats facing the world. The three global threats are i) deadly viruses similar to Covid-19 as experienced globally since early 2020; ii) climate change and; iii) the unexpected impact of new disruptive technologies (seen as the greatest threat of all as they impact mind and behavior. This is, incidentally, a threat that I wrote about in previous Interludes as a source of self-harm today in Western society. In doing so, and perhaps due to the timing of his publishing that coincided with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ian Bremmer is not listing among major threats the large traditional wars, all the more within or close to the West, that belonged to a forgone era—before Putin’s Russia brought them back into the limelight. He does mention, however, this tragic example of a return to old times in an Addendum. Incidentally, Bremmer likes the number three, as shown with his 2015 “Superpower” opus, where he stresses the three choices America could make for its role in the world

While having identified the three threats, Ian Bremmer emphasizes the poor level of preparedness to fight them due to two key factors. One is the state of domestic politics in America where consensus has disappeared and he rightly calls (with a degree of irony) a state of “uncivil war” that weakens the still-sole-superpower’s ability today to manage key problems for itself and the world. It is for Bremmer the only nation able to project multi-faceted power into every region of the world, while being at war with itself through a lack of unity on essential socio-political themes. All worsened by hardened partisan politics, and a rise of extremism, vividly seen among elected officials since the Trump era. Bremmer also sees America as a nation of contradictions, with Texans at times struggling without electricity, while NASA is landing on Mars. He provides a sound review of what is wrong with America today, and how it goes against its own interests and that of the West—and to a great extent the world. The key domestic dysfunctional drivers, at times combined, would be according to Bremmer i) the widening wealth gap; ii) the veneration of the private sector, leading to the neglect of American workers, this enhanced by; iii) the importance of money in politics, and the dependence trap of elected officials given the expected returns on investment of donors (see with the NRA); iv) the discredited societally-dividing formal and social media; and v) the embedded structural racism still pervading society (this, I would humbly add, in spite of much visible progress in many walks of American public and private life). He could have added more starkly, mass-shootings and politicized Supreme court disconnections with American society. Ever the pragmatic one, Bremmer then comes up with solutions to fix the American dysfunctionality, many of which may seem hard to reach today—or any time soon.

The other factor is the gradually-rising “new cold war,” far worse than the first one, between the US and China—two powers that should be rationally inter-dependent in our globalized set-up, which could eventually hamper the world’s collective future. Bremmer actually sees it as a more guaranteed way to the MAD scenario (Mutually Assured Destruction) of old. As of 2017 in Davos, Xi Jinping made it clear that China’s time had come to change history, following his plans for China’s global supremacy in AI, quantum computing, robotics and other tech segments—an initiative led by the state, and thus communist party, (whatever the latter means today in relation to its roots)—all in a globalized, inter-dependent world. Nine months later, Xi switched his official message from being a member and co-reformer of the international system, to leading it in providing the “Chinese solution” to the world’s problems. China has since then wanted to expand its control of the South China Sea, controlled Hong Kong further, and pushed Taiwan to “rejoin” (when not demonstrating aggressive military strength when top US officials visit the island nation). Beijing became externally more assertive in creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that invests globally, and developed its (now struggling) Belt and Road Initiative further with more ports, roads and bridges—especially in Africa and Asia. All while Americans increasingly want the White House to focus on domestic problems, as gas price at the pump and inflation are rising today. As a key side-show, Covid-19 created more opportunities for Beijing to develop authoritarian solutions to control the disease, such as recently seen in Shanghai with its strange Zero-Covid policy, potentially and unexpectedly bearing the roots of key domestic middle-class dissent.

Bremmer’s G-Zero, a third issue of a permanent nature the world deals with, is rooted in a world once run by the G7 from 1975 to 2009. At that time of the global financial crisis the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada, who shared political values, led the world economy. By 2005 other countries like China, India, South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and Mexico started rising to more preeminence and independence from the West. This led to the G20 that regrouped key players with different views on democracy and free market economics. They all worked during the financial crisis (as they did post-9-11) to defeat the common enemy, but did not agree on much afterwards—hence Bremmer’s quasi-humorous G-Zero as the world entered an era of “geopolitical recession” which is ongoing, if not worsening. The Trump presidency had a major role in making the US more inward-looking and less globally-focused, with doubts about key organizations like NATO or the withdrawals from trade agreements, climate accords and the World Trade Organization. This G-Zero geopolitical recession in turn emboldened populist leaders (Gideon Rachman’s “Strongmen”) who were focused on easy answers to complex issues with a narrow nationalist focus. Bremmer therefore argues that global crises should enhance global cooperation in their fight and de facto that we actually need them for the world to work “together” in spite of rivalries, and to reset a failing world governance. Bremmer sees the hard-won nuclear reductions of the past as having been much easier to reach collectively, than creating a new “global public health system”, managing climate change fallout, or dealing with the destructive aspects of disruptive new technologies. Global cooperation will be all the harder in wealthy countries, as the non-college educated struggle to be part of a secure middle class, while in poorer countries the many have-nots now have a clearer and frustrating view of those who are more fortunate at home and globally. And a return to an “America First” in 2024 with Trump or one of his copycats would kill global cooperation. Bremmer however favors cooperation between rivals, even enemies.

Bremmer stresses that the US dysfunctionality and confrontation with China hurt the world’s response to Covid-19, a type of virus which was not only predictable but was indeed predicted by George W. Bush (2005), Barack Obama (2014) or Bill Gates, who actively led his foundation to focus on this matter. Both the dysfunctional US and autocratic China harmed the global response to Covid-19, that grew from one Chinese death to one million infections globally in three months. China, in particular, initially tried to silence doctors who wanted to share information on the virus, or avoided smooth global cooperation on finding its origins. This in turn leading to a more authoritarian stance on Chinese activism, more control on Hong Kong, and stronger views on Taiwan. Bremmer goes through the few real successes in global cooperation, and the many failures to be learned from, as Covid-19 (still persisting even if in a milder form after two-and-a-half years) should be one of many such threats arising in the future. Investing and cooperating early are the two simple recipes that are hard to achieve in a cold war environment among the two world leaders (all the more today, in the new context resulting from the invasion of Ukraine and its multiple impacts). Successful efforts against future pandemics will demand investment, moral imagination and political will in the context of a “Global Covax” in a cooperative context, involving rivals that will stay politically different.

Climate change does not care about borders and political tribes. It threatens the collective future of humanity on a larger and longer scale than pandemics, while affecting countries at all levels. Such a mega-threat requires cooperation on climate policy among direct competitors facing a direct enemy (in a wink to that scenario, Bremmer tells us of Reagan, a sci-fi movie lover, asking Gorbachev the first time they met in 1985 whether the US and the Soviet Union would cooperate if the earth was attacked by someone from outer-space. The quick answer was yes, perhaps paving the way for another world). Climate change has created famines that played roles in unrests and civil wars that led to displacements of populations, leading to backlashes as seen in Europe in the mid-2010s, with consequences favoring unforeseen political developments like Brexit. The section on climate change provides a very useful way for readers to understand its stakes and how to fight it, again in a global cooperation mode. Bremmer proposes a “Green Marshall Plan,” taken from the original post-WWII American design that involved rebuilding Europe—not the US—and was only enabled due to the Soviet threat in Europe. The American population had not been keen on it initially, preferring focusing back on domestic matters after years of fighting in Europe and Asia. Bremmer’s “Green Marshall Plan” would involve multinational investment in renewable energy and green jobs, and a global agreement to help resettle people displaced by climate change.

Tech has been front and center of news in the West via Big Tech, as the US (and more so the EU) have tried to regulate it as it gradually became omnipresent and thus increasingly powerful. Tech, like Aesop’s tongue, has been the best and the worst of things. The threat of rapid and disruptive technology is not new, and was always there in history. It is just far more rapid and more disruptive than ever, even if not always unleashing bad outcomes for mankind—far from it. Covid-19 started a war nobody won, but tech and the makers of disruptive tech were among those benefitting from it. Covid-19 showed that tech, in spite of having a chaotic virus to deal with, enabled a better management of the crisis through a better monitoring of the virus evolution, a vaccine development and, crucially, efficient remote working. The rapid, and the biggest threat of all—according to Bremmer—is, however, very real and deep when looking at the impact, not all positive, of lethal autonomous drones, cyberwarfare, biotechnology, Artificial Intelligence or the algorithms that replace people with machines in the workplace. These technologies have been rapidly shifting the relationship of individuals between themselves and with institutions in the West, while China gradually controlled the internet at home. In stark contrast to the message of 20 years ago, that the internet revolution would empower individuals and spread democracy, the reliance from too many on tech-based social media, often hate dissemination conduits of fake news, conspiracy theories and tools of oppression and violence, has been heavily damaging societally. These new media pushing clear agendas have curtailed independent thinking from individuals primarily seeking confirmation of their opinions, and have been highly damaging behaviorally also (my take) when combined with what seems a parallel declining focus on the quality of basic formal educational standards in the West. Lastly, communications tech, even “neutral” in nature, gave more exposure of inequalities to the have-nots globally, giving rise to massive anger and social disruption with direct attacks on institutions and their leaders. This section also gives us a very useful exposure to the race between China and the US to dominate quantum computing, which is another source of conflict, even if it should lead to more cooperation. Bremmer stresses the need to work together and set up the right framework, and indeed entity, to deal with the key issues related to tech.

Bremmer uses a quote from French scientist Louis Pasteur summarizing what is needed going forward and why: “Chance favors the prepared mind” or as Napoleon said and I like: “To govern is to foresee.” This, of course, is a rather basic fact, though not easy to implement in the context of a conflictual world, both domestically and globally. While we live in times of extraordinary opportunities, built over the last 50 years, when billions have comforts and opportunities far beyond the reach of medieval kings, we also face rising catastrophes in a context where world leaders fail to work together on common threats. Bremmer advocates “practical cooperation” among democracies and dictatorships, rich and poor countries that share common aspirations like security, dignity and prosperity, and need to work together on managing global threats. Bremmer offers several paths forward (ideally combined) like a “Global Covax”, a “Green Marshall Plan” and a “World Data Organization” all with roots in the then post-1945 UN-driven “new world in the making,” and based on the concept of international cooperation. Bremmer is also keen on not only outsourcing human crisis management to the private sector and ensuring governments also directly help those less fortunate in their countries, with the likes of strengthened social safety nets and guaranteed basic income.

In his short Addendum at publishing time, Bremmer touches upon the Russian “imperial” invasion of Ukraine in the context of the three threats and feels that, in spite of tragedies on the battlefield, and harm globally due to sanctions, and food and energy shortages, it helped unify the West, without creating too strong a Russia-China axis—whatever tactical approach is taken by the latter. Bremmer even thinks that Xi might restrain Putin’s imperial efforts and globalization destroying features, as not being to the advantage of a China that still needs clear borders, a behaving neighbor, and even more so globalization. This new cold war is also not like the old one, as Russia does not have the clout of the Soviet Union globally, even if the nuclear factor saving it from military irrelevance, in case of a wider conflict, is real. Bremmer, admittedly optimistic, feels that this type of conflict from another age, while “complicating things” and disrupting a world with less efficiency and more impunity at play, should not substantially derail the collective ability to manage global responses to the three key global threats he focused on —assuming the right steps are taken. He may indeed be too optimistic.

While “The Power of Crisis” is focused on key issues, threats and solutions, it is also a book full of details and nuances as to what is happening today and why, as well as how the world could fix problems that a Book Note could not give credit for. “The Power of Crisis” is certainly a book looking forward with hope, that is worth reading and reflecting upon.

Warmest regards,

Serge

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