Every Nation for Itself, by Ian Bremmer

Review published on February 27, 2013.Reviewed by JJ Redfearn

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My interpretation of Bremmer’s thesis runs like this.

At the end of the second world war the United States was the only player left standing. It had become wealthy by stepping back from the conflict for several years whilst arming and supplying powers hostile to Nazi Germany and its allies, and built up its industrial power and munitions industries with that wealth. By 1945 Europe, Russia and the far east’s cities and towns had been flattened, millions were dead, huge numbers of people in every nation were homeless, agricultural production had halved, industry had almost been wiped out and the wealth was gone. Recovery would take years and it took the rest of the century for the UK to pay-off its materiel costs to the US.

The US stepped-up to fill the power-vacuum and became the world’s leader and policeman, taking on the role the UK had fulfilled since Napoleonic times. In that role it acted as a benign leader, using its wealth to increase its powerbase and further its own goals whilst as a side-effect bringing generally greater peace, stability and wealth. Legitimacy came with the UN, the Security Council and the G-x’s, accepting the benefits of re-creating the world in the US’s image. But today’s world no longer wants to be made in the US’s image and the US no longer wants to be the leader or paymaster.

Anyone going into a meeting knows that the bigger the meeting the less decisions are made. Every participant thinks itself a leader. Every participant has to make its position known, have its red-lines accepted, be seen to be no-one’s poodle, be seen to have won. There has to be a crisis threatening the common interest for anything substantive to be decided by big meetings. This applies to all meetings, including those of entities like G7, G8, G20 or G-whatever. The bigger the number the worse it gets. Big numbers mean there’s no overall leader, no-one charismatic enough, powerful enough, wealthy enough or persuasive enough to be acknowledged as the trend setter, the one to follow, the Leader. Big numbers only happen when no-one wants to lead, to take ownership, take responsibility. The upshot of big numbers is behind the scenes meetings and power-blocs that confront each other, leading to stalemate and confusion.

Bremmer lucidly and succinctly draws all this out leading to the observation that with severe financial and debt crises in the EU and the US those regions are withdrawing from their historic positions as world policemen, withdrawing from their positions in growing and spreading wealth, peace and security, re-focussing on getting their internal houses in order and leaving others to get on with things for themselves. China and Russia meantime are sorting out their own internal governance and growing their spheres of interest wider and firmer. Self-interest is reasserting itself and those heading into G-whatever or EC summit meetings as takers are finding the traditional givers aren’t playing any more. Free-Trade agreements are the order of the day, with the definition of free-trade clear for all to see: I’m free to trade with you on my terms, and you’re free to trade with me on my own terms, take it or leave it. That’s the leaderless G-Zero world.

Bremmer concludes with a set of five scenarios for possible futures. These are not predictions of how things will turn out but insights into what might happen and what might be the consequences for nations and corporations in each potential future. The question that remains is what decisions should leaders take now in the G-Zero world best to position themselves and their nations to thrive no matter how things pan out. But I’m not holding my breath for any sensible decisions – worthwhile leaders are, by definition, few and far between in a G-Zero world.


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