Looking Beyond a G-Zero World

06/27/2012 10:05 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2012

Political analyst Ian Bremmer hit the news after coining a year ago with economist Nouriel Roubini what they together called a "G-zero world", i.e. a world in which no single country, however big and powerful it is, can set the global agenda and enforce global order. The G-zero world is a refutation of a US-led world, but it is also a refutation of the G-20 oligarchic order -- or pseudo-order -- that emerged in 2008-2009, as a response to the global economic and financial crisis. Indeed, the G-20 summits that were organized at that time included the world's twenty largest mature and emerging powers, accounting altogether for 85% of the world GDP.

These early summits, in Washington in November 2008 and in London in April 2009, achieved some success in the area of global policy coordination and financial regulation in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but they fell short from creating a new global institutional order, in contrast with what the Bretton Woods conference achieved in 1944. Hence, this explains the widely mediatized "G-20 bashing" that followed in 2010-2012, leveraging on the growing popular anger and discontent toward the ruling economic and political elites. Together with the stalemate of the WTO trade negotiation process -- the so-called Doha Round -- the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change (and subsequent conferences on this subject in Cancun, Johannesburg and Rio), and the incapacity of the major world powers to impose a strict nuclear non-proliferation regime, this leads us straight to the "G-zero world" that Ian Bremmer and others describe.

However, what Bremmer extrapolates as a radically new situation, and something akin to a paradigm shift in international relations, is merely an acknowledgment that the superpower that laid down the foundations of globalization, namely the United States, has progressively lost its geopolitical clout and economic primacy since WWII. This relative decline can be explained by the fast rise of Chinese manufacturing capabilities in the 1990s, and by the lax monetary policy applied in the United States -- the Goldilocks economy -- that financed the purchase of cheap Chinese goods by US and European consumers. This brought a systemic transformation that supported the rise of many other emerging and developing countries, by supporting the demand for their commodities and industrial goods while relaxing the financial pressure on their fiscal and external balances. Some analysts like Robert Keohane asked, as early as in the early 1980s, whether the liberal order that the United States and their western allies forged in the post-war period would survive in a context of declining US hegemony. Keohane concluded that this liberal order would still prevail, thanks to the increased inter-dependence -- or reciprocal, albeit asymmetrical, dependence -- between the declining global leader and its rising contenders.

But this is not the whole story. As Bremmer focused on the analysis of the ever-changing geopolitical re-compositions poised to happen in a leaderless world, he has stuck to an old style westphalian "balance of power" paradigm. His argumentation remains that of a traditional Realist, a representative of a school of thought that views States as the first and foremost sources of power and legitimacy, and as the sole relevant players on the global geopolitical stage. He neglects to a great extent the secular, technological, and ideological transformations that enabled the rise of non-state actors (private corporations and financial markets, NGOs, diasporas, ideologically driven transnational movements, cultural values), and the empowerment of grassroots movements which can now very quickly self-organize and mobilize their members through mobile phones and Internet-based social networks. The political dynamics initiated by the Arab Spring in the Middle East, the Occupy Wall street movement, and the huge protests in Russia against the return to power of Vladimir Putin, all prove that the capacity of the masses to organize and to generate change has never been so strong. It is a fallacy to think that a top-down "G-something" can rule the world, regardless of what happens on the ground. It is equally a fallacy to underestimate the power of these grassroots movements and organizations that taken together constitute a global civil society in the making.

As a matter of fact, Ian Bremmer's vision of a G-zero world remains deeply ingrained in an old view of the world. He fails to propose a satisfying solution to regulate a world that is both ultra-connected and hyper-fragmented. His thesis on the lack of leadership is caught in a circular logic. He underestimates the impact that bottom-up transformations can have on the global geopolitical landscape. His vision of "pivot States," described as those that can best thrive in a G-zero world by leveraging on their connections with more than one established regional powers, is not much more relevant or new on an analytical basis than the idea of "buffer states" described by the late Samuel Huntington in his landmark essay, "The clash of civilizations." Neither does Bremmer consider the homogenizing effect of global rules and norms that bind together large and small powers and temperate the asymmetries between them.The idea of interdependence that is at the core of forward-looking geopolitical thinking in a post-cold war era deserves little attention in his Weltanshauung. The "G-zero world" is a sober account of the current leaderless world, but it barely carries any heuristic or normative value to help us define what will come next.