Features | Politics | East Asia

Coping with a G-Zero World

Ian Bremmer speaks with The Diplomat about a “G-Zero World,” China’s rise and why no single nation can fill the global power vacuum.

In your latest book Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, in many respects what you describe is a massive global power vacuum with no nation able to fill it. What do you mean by a G-Zero World? And in the Asia-Pacific, what does this mean for China?

A G-Zero World is one in which no single power or alliance of powers is willing and able to provide consistent global leadership. Not the United States or Europe. Not an emerging power like China or a bloc of emerging powers. Not the G-8 or the G-20. Each of these countries is preoccupied with challenges and risks at home, and each of these institutions produces a less coherent agenda as a result.

That said, though the United States, still the world’s most powerful country by far, will have to do more with less, bolstering the U.S. presence in Asia has become the top U.S. foreign policy priority. This will continue to be the case no matter who wins the presidential election in November. The motive is two-fold. First, Washington wants to use the fear that China’s rise generates among its neighbors to improve existing security ties with current allies (like Japan and South Korea) and to build partnerships with new ones (like India and Indonesia). Second, the U.S. hopes to profit from a broader and deeper commercial presence in the region that is most likely to provide the global economy with most of its dynamism over the next several years. Washington’s push to join and broaden the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement designed to liberalize the economies of members on both sides of the Pacific, is evidence of this trend. Negotiations over this pact don’t include China.

For the moment, the U.S. strategy in Asia isn’t to contain China, but merely to hedge against its growing political and economic clout. That could change, however, if U.S.-Chinese relations worsen significantly.

In a G-Zero World, will America be able to “pivot” to the Pacific with presumably less resources and available military power than in years past? Can the U.S. be successful in implementing its new strategy?

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There are no guarantees that this strategy will work. On the one hand, America’s military power remains undiminished. The United States still spends as much on its military as the next 17 largest military spenders combined, and this hard power advantage won’t disappear anytime soon. But a number of Asian countries may find over time that if relations between the global superpower and the regional heavyweight sharply deteriorate, it will become increasingly difficult for them to maintain strong security ties with America while continuing to expand trade ties with China. They are more likely to be forced into taking sides.

The pivot will work more effectively if the United States is able to deepen its economic ties to the region. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a priority idea, but without the participation of heavyweights like Japan and Canada, it won’t provide the U.S. with many advantages it doesn’t already have. And it will take time to develop even if it is eventually a boost for trade flows. The U.S. can also coordinate with like-minded Asian governments on developing defenses against cyber-attack, on monetary policy, counter-terrorism, and technology development, etc.

What would you say are the main factors that have given rise to a G-Zero World? America’s damaged balance sheet from the global financial crisis? Twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The rise of other powers such as China?

There are two major factors. First, there are the various problems and anxieties which have forced U.S. and European policymakers to downsize the ambitions that animate their foreign policies. An America divided over government spending and entitlement reforms coupled with a Europe that is deeply entangled in a multiyear bid to save the Eurozone creates an era in which elected officials in the world’s most powerful countries cannot afford to commit the time, energy and cash needed to try to export their political values and to put out fires in faraway lands. Second, there’s the “rise of the different,” the emergence in international politics of powerful new players who, unlike Cold War U.S. allies like West Germany and Japan, don’t share America’s political values and don’t accept U.S. leadership or U.S.-inspired rules of the road for international governance. Countries like China, Russia, India, Gulf Arab states and others lack the power to set an international agenda, but they are more than wealthy/powerful enough to obstruct U.S. plans.

In the cases of Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, social media played a major role in transmitting information globally as well as expressing the viewpoints of Chinese citizens. The Arab Spring movement in many nations was spurred on by social media such as Twitter and Facebook. You are also very active on social media. In a G-Zero World, what role will social media play?

Before we get to 21st century social media, let’s remember that one of the most important drivers of the Arab Spring was good old-fashioned Al-Jazeera. That’s where the wave began. Before Facebook and Twitter, the domain mainly of the young, an Al-Jazeera reporter uncovered the terrible story of Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose act of despair ignited so much public anger. His plight reached satellite dishes across the region. Then came the new technology.

As for Asia, let’s also remember that Chinese and Americans aren’t navigating the same Internet. China has its own uniquely, wonderfully, terrifyingly Chinese online world – and it doesn’t include Facebook. Renren, yes. Facebook, no.

People now get much of their news from social media, and they tend to search out the stories they like and find interesting. What you see and read depend on who you are, how much money you have, where you live, etc.  This isn’t a global village. Different people are seeing different versions of the same story told in many cases to reinforce different existing prejudices.

Certainly, social media empower people. People are freer to communicate with one another across internal and external borders. But this is only a democratizing experience if those who use it want democracy. Some people don’t. Some want entertainment. Or security. Or vengeance. Or titillation. Or to go shopping. Anti-government activists use these tools to recruit, organize and express themselves. Some governments use it to spy on those they consider a threat and to collect data they can use to attack opponents. Other users explicitly oppose democracy as a kind of foreign virus that breeds fear and chaos.

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In other words, all tools of communication, the traditional and the more modern, are simply tools. How those tools are used makes all the difference.

Does the international makeup of a G-Zero World in your view push Iran to seek nuclear weapons?  In your estimate, what advantages would there be for Iran to hold nuclear weapons or only seek nuclear technology for purely domestic energy consumption?

Iran has been developing a nuclear program since the reign of the Shah. As added motivation to speed the process of enriching material to weapons grade, the toppling of Saddam Hussein was crucial. In 2003, North Korea is believed to have had nuclear weapons, Iraq didn’t, and Iran could see the difference in U.S. policy toward the two regimes. Far from intimidating Tehran away from nuclear development, the war on Saddam encouraged Iran to speed toward the finish line to give itself a permanent deterrent against U.S. invasion.

The program is expensive for Iran in all kinds of ways, and its usefulness in rallying popular support within the country for an otherwise unpopular government may be more limited that the mullahs hope. But the G-Zero’s impact is in making it easier to reach the finish line. Sanctions have taken a heavy toll, but they’ll be more difficult to sustain over time, because the West will have less leverage to ensure compliance with sanctions from non-Western governments, and because the threat of military action that often gives sanctions their appeal just isn’t credible – and won’t be for the next few years.

More likely than not, Iran will either test a weapon or come close enough to the finish line that everyone knows they could weaponize on short notice. That’s not a good thing. It’s not something we want. But it’s something we’ll likely learn to live with, as in Pakistan and North Korea.

Recently in Australia, there has been an ongoing debate over whether its interests are served by a strong U.S.-Australia alliance. Many point to the rise of China and that Australia’s largest trading partner is now the People’s Republic. U.S. Sen. John McCain argued in a recent op-ed for The Diplomat that the nations of the Asia-Pacific are looking for more U.S. leadership, not less. In a G-Zero World, will other nations question their alliance structures with the United States?

Many nations will question them, but far fewer in Asia than in other parts of the world. There are two reasons. First, the United States will be there. Washington recognizes the opportunity that China’s rise offers to strengthen ties with Asian allies. Two, the alternative, China, isn’t appealing for most. Australia will increasingly share commercial interests with China, but when will the two countries share basic political values? That’s important, because security partnerships are based largely on trust, and trust, real trust, is based largely on shared values. The U.S. and Australia have them. Australia and China don’t. What’s true for Australia is also true to varying degrees for democracies like Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. It’s also true for some of China’s traditional rivals, like Vietnam. Even Burma is reaching out to the West to better balance its political and commercial partnerships. That’s a very interesting signal of the neighbors’ reaction to China’s trajectory.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. This interview was conducted by Assistant Editor Harry Kazianis.