Ian Bremmer’s Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World (2012/2013 new preface) shows why even seasoned observers of international politics and trends might have a hard time in the book publishing business. (I bought my copy at a remainder store). Events outrun the ability of their books to keep up. History, in contrast, deals with the past and allows reality to create the future. But for prognosticators like Bremmer, attempting to discern how current circumstances will affect tomorrow’s headlines is a very iffy business.
But having said this, Bremmer’s primary point, that we have no one single nation currently dominant on the world stage, is undoubtedly true and will remain so for some time in the future. The U.S. remains the single most powerful nation, but its position is no longer as predominant as it was at the end of the Cold War. Bremmer doesn’t posit this as a matter of absolute decline but as a matter of the realization of limits generated by internal political realities (a sharply polarized electorate and elites) and concerns about spending limits. In recognizing America’s relative decline, he sounds much like Fareed Zakaria in The Post-American World: Release 2.0 (International Edition) (2011), who emphasizes changing circumstances and not an absolute decline of the U.S. But here’s where I think that Bremmer’s analysis shows signs of instant aging. His emphasis on debt—remember he first publishes around 2012—seems much less imperative today. Of course, the U.S. must mind its financial house and avoid mounting indebtedness, but (relatively) strong economic growth has at least taken the edge off of financial limits to American power. What I hope is a more important reason for increasing American hesitation is a sense of the dangers of imperial (or hegemonic, if you prefer) overreach. President Obama’s sense of limits and attempts to avoid unnecessary or entangling engagements are the embodiment of what may be a coming of age of American sensibilities (whatever the merits of any one decision, such as Syria). Of course, part of a growing American forbearance is a general fatigue and reluctance on the part of the voting public to go deeper into foreign engagements, especially military. The negative flip side of this attitude, however, is a growing willingness to walk away from trade agreements and other forms of international cooperation. These factors, much more than debt, seem to me to drive current U.S. reluctance and limits concerning international leadership.
The other factor that Bremmer identifies---and that remains important—is the limited ability of any other nation to step up as a dominant leader. China continues to grow in power and prestige, but the leadership’s concern with internal issues and a lingering Chinese reluctance to venture too far abroad remain substantial impediments to China taking a more aggressive leadership role on the international stage. Russia, on the other hand, seeks a restoration of its past role, but Putin’s aggressive stances are now constrained by weak oil prices and a sagging economy, not to mention a limited popular appeal (Donald Trump, excepted, of course). The Soviet Union was able to gain some traction on the world stage as the embodiment of a utopian ideal, although that patina faded as the truth came out over the drip of time. But Putin’s Russia holds no allure as a model, except for aspiring dictators. The EU, another possible player, remains reeling from its failure to recover from the 2008 economic crash, the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, Islamic terrorism, and now Brexit. The EU was never much of a coherent foreign affairs presence (outside of trade considerations), but now it must focus all of its energy on attempting to retain internal coherence.
Bremmer also notes that some regional powers, like Brazil and Turkey, might step up to prestige and power, but this shows the perils of his endeavor. Since publication, both nations have encountered serious political instability and retain a strong potential for unrest. Brazil has just impeached their president. After having survived a coup attempt, President Erdogan of Turkey has taken the opportunity to consolidate his power, to the long-term detriment of Turkey.
Another area that Bremmer failed to foresee is the uptick in terrorism in Europe, and how that will affect the political balance there. The increasing votes that right-wing parties are garnering reflect anxieties arising from economic stagnation, immigration worries, and terrorism. Of course, some threats, like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, bring nations together (e.g., Allied Powers, NATO), but others, such a trade and immigration, can pull them apart. All of these factors are important in the U.S., too. Who wants to make any prediction about the future course of U.S. policy and conduct if (Heaven forbid!) Donald Trump is elected president?
What Bremmer has produced here, as others like him do, is a snapshot of our current state of affairs, and a fairly accurate one, I think. But imagine a snapshot of the world taken in 1909 (and perhaps Norman Angell’s The Grand Illusion might serve as such a snapshot). Then look at the world after the gunshot in Sarajevo fired on 28 June 1914. That one, almost random event, turned the Eurasian landmass (and beyond) into a great battlefield between 1914 and 1945 (with no real resolution until 1989). Of course, some predicted war, in contrast to Angell, but they may have been more lucky than prescient. (If “lucky” is an appropriate about such a macabre topic.) Society—the everyday world in which we live—is a complex system in which seemingly random, Black Swan events, even those of seemingly little consequence, can send the world careening into an abyss of violence. The snapshot is useful, but to make decisions, it’s best to consult the long panorama of history.