Ian Bremmer: What Happens When The World's Superpower No Longer Wants To Lead?

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 16, 2018 11:53 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Big Five.

About Ian Bremmer's TED Talk

Political instability is on the rise. Political scientist Ian Bremmer argues it's because the United States is abandoning it's leadership role in global institutions, creating a power vacuum.

About Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer is the founder and president of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm. He also teaches and researches political risk at New York University. Bremmer is credited with bringing the analysis of political risk to financial markets, having created Wall Street's first global political risk index (GPRI).

Bremmer has published nine books. His latest book is Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World. He is also a regular columnist for Time Magazine and the Financial Times.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show, The Big Five - the biggest challenges we all face and whether they can be solved. And another one of those challenges - political instability.

IAN BREMMER: I think that's right. And one of the reasons why this geopolitical period is going to be so uncertain is because we don't yet have the answers of what comes next.

RAZ: This is Ian Bremmer. He's a political scientist.

BREMMER: The comparative stability of the geopolitical environment led by the United States was a long cycle. It started after World War II. Obviously, the Cold War was a big part of it. But still, the U.S. had driven all of the architecture - the WTO, the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank. I mean, all of these global institutions - those are now unwinding.

RAZ: And Ian says these institutions are unwinding because the United States is abandoning its leadership role in the world.

BREMMER: No one's in charge now. The U.S. is still the world's only superpower, but it's absolutely not leading the world.

RAZ: Ian Bremmer explains how we got here from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BREMMER: Well, we're here because the United States - right? - I mean, we spent $2 trillion on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were failed. We don't want to do that anymore. We have large numbers of middle and working classes that feel like they've not benefited from promises of globalization, so they don't want to see it particularly. The Americans don't want to be the global sheriff for security or the architect of global trade. The Americans don't want to even be the cheerleader of global values. Well, then you look to Europe, and the most important alliance in the world has been the transatlantic relationship. But it is now weaker than it has been at any point since World War II.

China does want to do more leadership. They do, but only in the economic sphere. And they want their own values, standards, currency in competition with that of the U.S. The Russians want to do more leadership. You see that in Ukraine, in the Baltic States, in the Middle East but not with the Americans. They want their own preferences in order. That's why we are where we are. The G-20 doesn't work. The G-7, all of our friends, that's history. And it's not - the problem is it's not a G-20. The problem is it's a G-0 world that we live in, a world order where there is no single country or alliance that can meet the challenges of global leadership.

So what happens going forward? Let's start easy with the Middle East. The three reasons why the Middle East has had stability such as it is - one is because there was a willingness to provide some level of military security by the U.S. and allies. No. 2, it was easy to take a lot of cheap money out of the ground because oil was expensive. And No. 3 was no matter how bad the leaders were, the populations were relatively quiescent. Well, all three of those things are increasingly not true and so failed states, terrorism, refugees and the rest.

OK. How about a lot of people have said, it's going to be Africa's decade finally in a G-0 world. It is absolutely an amazing time for a few African countries, those governed well with a lot of urbanization, a lot of smart people, women really getting into the workforce, entrepreneurship taking off. But for most of the countries in Africa, it's going to be a lot more dicey - extreme climate conditions, radicalism both from Islam and also Christianity, very poor governance, borders you can't defend, lots of forced migration. Those countries can fall off the map.

OK. Let's turn to Europe. Europe does look a little scared in this environment. So much of what's happening in the Middle East is washing up quite literally onto European shores. You see Brexit, and you see the concerns of populism across all of the European states. Core Europe around Germany and France and others will still work, be functional, stable, wealthy, integrated. But the periphery countries like Greece and Turkey and others will not look that good at all.

RAZ: So if you're looking ahead at, you know, in the next sort of 10 or 20 years, how do we get to a place where we - you know, whether there will be more stability, where there will be strong governance?

BREMMER: Well, I think there are a few possibilities. One is that we end up with a really big crisis that's so large that everybody responds and creates something new and requires big leadership.

RAZ: And those crises could be what?

BREMMER: I mean, there could be a massive cyberattack that, you know, undermines critical infrastructure of major economies. And so you're, you know, driven into a global depression. And I think we'll find leadership, I mean, you know. A second one, I mean, a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that engulfs the entire Middle East and really spikes energy prices before the energy revolution becomes global. That would be another one that would force the Americans, the Chinese, the Russians, others to actually work together, right? A third possibility is that central governments keep getting weaker.

And then it's not going to be about states then, the future is going to be much more decentralized. And you see a constellation of cities and corporations and super wealthy individuals that work together to start cobbling together solutions to problems such as they exist. Now, that last solution is probably one that has a much more unequal world than what we are used to right now but, you know, not necessarily more unequal than some periods of human history.

RAZ: So basically, there are no good options?

BREMMER: That's right. It's volatile.

RAZ: In all your time analyzing global risk, do you think that this is the most challenging time that you've seen and analyzed from here in the U.S.?

BREMMER: Absolutely, it absolutely is. I mean, I wasn't around during the Cuban missile crisis, so maybe that would have felt worse. But, I mean, I think that the existential threat to humanity today is vastly greater than at any point since I've been alive. But, you know, the way - I just think that that infuses our lives with more purpose. It means that we've got to - we're going to have to do more. You know, humanity at our most creative, we have technologies today - if you look at improvements in food technology and how much we can produce on a hectare of land, if you look at, you know, the extraordinary gains we've made in renewable energy - we only show our best when we're really challenged. I think that anyone that really takes a look at that, he needs to be optimistic.

RAZ: Political scientist Ian Bremmer. You can see his entire talk at ted.com On the show today, ideas about The Big Five. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.