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27 September, 2012  ▪  Bohdan Tsioupine

World Without Leaders

American political scientist Ian Bremmer talks about why the global structure is becoming less manageable

In the 1970s, it was known as the Library Group because the leaders of half a dozen major world powers held their unofficial meetings at the White House library. Later, the meetings transformed into official summits, the first one held in France in 1975. At that point, it was a Group of Six or G6, joined by Canada the next year, turning it into the G7. The name was changed to “G7+1” in 1997 when Russia was admitted to the group in an effort to support what then seemed to be Boris Yeltsin’s pro-democratic policies. The plus was later dropped and Russia became simply a member of the G8, a club of countries considered to be the major powers in the world. In May 2012, Vladimir Putin as Russia’s newly elected president refused to attend the G8 summit. Why has Moscow, once so eager to get a seat at the prestigious table, now rejected the group? Does this signal the decline of the G8?

American political scientist Ian Bremmer agrees with this assumption and believes that the power of other international organizations such as the UN and NATO is declining, coupled with the narrowing leadership of the US worldwide. He presents his opinion in his new book titled Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World along with the warning that the world will become less and less predictable from now on.

UW: Why is the world growing more regionalized despite globalization?

I think that there are two important reasons for this. One is that we’ve experienced an enormous shift in geopolitical and economic power and it’s not just the “rise of the rest” as Fareed Zakaria likes to say. It’s the rise of the different – the countries and emerging markets which are poor, more politically unstable and more domestically focused. And some of them have very different economic and political systems. One is China, a country with an authoritarian regime politically and state capitalism economically. We’ve experienced the “rise of the rest” before, when the Europeans and the Japanese rose after WWII. It wasn’t a challenge to the United States, even though some were concerned, particularly about Japan. It was a group of allies that worked together very closely, and occasionally they had their differences, but that didn’t change the structure created by the US and the West. Now, G20, global climate deals and global trade deals require a meeting of the minds not just between a lot more countries but between countries that really don’t agree on much of anything. They don’t share the same values and priorities. It doesn’t make emerging markets wrong, it’s just that we won’t see clear leadership in the world.

The second reason is the decreased willingness to provide this leadership, with the Europeans and Japanese currently caught up in their own domestic struggles. And there is no one remotely electable in the US right now to talk about a Marshall Plan in Europe. The US is not prepared to remove Bashar Assad from power in Syria or lead a global climate deal. It’s the underlying balance of power and the nature of the countries that comprise it, but also the willingness of the US and its allies to play that role.

UW: There are other countries that are willing to increase their international impact. President Putin is an ambitious leader but he did not come to the latest G8 summit. Do you see this as validation of your analysis?

Certainly. The truth is that it was much easier for that conversation to happen with the Russians absent. They talked about bailing out the Eurozone, about Syria and Iran. The issues that are dominant on the G7+1 agenda are the issues Russia is either not interested in or is on the opposite side of. If Putin and Obama had had a direct bilateral meeting, it would probably have been bad enough to derail the conversations on normalizing trade status that are going on in Congress. [The US Congress is considering lifting the restrictions on trade with Russia established by the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment inherited from the Cold War – ed.] Remember how we used to call it the G7+1 before it became the G8? Well, +1’s don’t usually work.

UW: You wrote that Ukraine “does not pivot” in your book. What did you mean by that?

In this world, the G-zero world, you clearly want options. You want to have lost of countries finding you an attractive place to invest. But when Angela Merkel calls a country a dictatorship it makes it harder for the country to work closely with Europe. Historically Ukrainians have expressed a lot of interest in EU accession, being part of the European Customs Union and building closer trade ties. Unfortunately, for many reasons, that has not been possible in terms of Ukrainian political and economic systems. In reality, Ukraine does not have a lot of options. It is fundamentally tied to Russia. And a lot of Ukrainians, including some officials, aren’t happy about that. We see that in the problems with gas delivery that Ukraine has nearly every winter. But the reality is that the Russians are more than happy to use that political and economic privilege over Ukraine to limit its opportunities. And the political system in Ukraine also does some damage. So, Ukraine does not have that pivot at all.

I hope that my analysis will be useful to those Ukrainians that are pushing for better opportunities. And I’m not talking about the Orange Revolution or democracy. Instead, I’m talking about a more attractive economic and investment environment, transparency, rule of law, lack of corruption – all kinds of things that would make the Europeans feel that Ukraine could once again be a bread basket and an important area for partnership. The Europeans don’t feel that way at all right now.

But things change over time, everything does. Russia could change. It has been deteriorating into dictatorship over the course of the last 10 years. Their ability to attract FDI outside of the energy sector has been very limited. You see the opposition on the streets in Russia and you see the budgetary situation: how they need to price oil up to make the budget work. But that doesn’t mean that Russia can’t change. We hope that it will.

UW: Zbigniew Brzezinski once said that Russia will not become a normal country as long as it tries to keep Ukraine under its control, because it continues to be an empire by subduing Ukrainians. Do you agree with him here?

It’s much more about state capitalism and economic influence than about direct military subjugation. But certainly Russians are using political influence to keep Ukrainians acquiescent. I do think that that undermines Russia’s ability to be a normalized international player.

UW: How pragmatic is Mr. Putin when he says that the USSR collapse was the biggest disaster of the 20th century? Don’t Russia’s actions against Georgia hint at Moscow’s policy being guided by imperialistic ideology?

This certainly implies that he is willing to use populism and nationalism for his own ends. But ultimately all these leaders can be very pragmatic—brutally pragmatic—when they look at issues such as how to maintain power.

UW: Is your book just good reading for people interested in geopolitics or can it be helpful to politicians in choosing their direction for the future?

A lot of government officials have been calling me. I don’t think that my book necessarily tells politicians “here is what you have to do.” A lot of it has to do with their own preferences and their understanding of how much risk they are willing to tolerate. What I hope it does do, though, is make it a little bit clearer for them just how different the geopolitical environment we’re looking at today is from what we’ve experienced over the past half century.


Ian Bremmer was born in 1969. He attended Tulane University and Stanford, and presently teaches at Columbia University. Bremmer is the founder and president of Eurasia Group, a leading global political risk research and consulting firm. He has authored eight books, including the best-selling Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World and The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?

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