Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Coming Anarchy?

. Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ian Bremmer sounds the alarm:

Here are the two irreconcilable facts that shape the United States’ role in foreign policy: first, it is the world’s most powerful and indispensable nation, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, whether or not it is in decline; and second, the United States is unwilling to provide global leadership as it used to, because of domestic economic concerns and war fatigue stemming from two long campaigns in the Middle East.

This is where narcissism comes in. Focusing on the question of American decline is problematic because it means we’re applying an American lens to global problems. Whether or not the United States is in decline, the important thing is that in today’s environment, America is the last best hope for global leadership, which it is unwilling and unable to provide. The United States will not intervene on behalf of the Syrian people. It will not bail out Europe. It will not bomb Iran. These are the facts, decline or not.
This is, of course, a reference to Kindleberger's famous maxim of how the world descended into chaos during the period in between World Wars I and II: the British were unable to lead and the U.S. was unwilling to do so. The resulting anarchy was therefore a unnecessary tragedy which, according to Ikenberry, the U.S. learned from and was determined not to replicate following WWII.

Bremmer believes that that consensus within the U.S. has eroded and that there is no other global actor is ready/willing to step up to the plate. Here's Bremmer again:
Yes, this is absolutely the case. In the G–Zero, we see a combination of unwilling and unable leaders. The United States is dropping the baton of global leadership—and no one is willing to pick it up.
The implication is that, if this continues, calamity is likely in our future.

I'm in broad agreement with Bremmer in theoretical terms, but I don't see as much U.S. retrenchment as he does. The Obama administration may be many things but isolationist is not one of them. The foreign policy orientation of the party challenging Obama is not either. And while "there will be no Marshall Plan for Europe" this time, there is also less need for one. The Federal Reserve has taken many important actions to stabilize the global financial system, and it is not at all clear to me that intervening in Syria or bombing Iran would make the Middle East more stable rather than less. Nor is it clear to me that those options are truly off the table.

In other words, I think the last four years demonstrate that the current global order is actually remarkably durable. More durable than many believed. Global financial and security institutions have worked pretty well, or at least as well as they had previously. I see no reason to expect that to change in the next few years.

Partially because I think Bremmer gets the following wrong, even if I think he's thinking in the correct terms:
But political institutions need a big shock if they’re to be broken to pieces. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 wasn’t big enough; 9/11 didn’t cut it either. The financial crisis of 2008 proved to be the catalyst. So the question is, what comes next? Until the answer emerges, we are stuck with G–Zero—a transition period as the old order crumbles but nothing has yet replaced it.
I'm not actually sure the financial crisis was a catalyst for "creative destruction" (Bremmer's term, via Schumpeter) of the global order. It was a body blow, to be sure, but the structure of the system seems to have held. We haven't descended into anarchy yet, even if the residual effects are still percolating through. Moreover, the U.S. looks better positioned to remain central to the international system now than at any point since 2007 (or perhaps even earlier). So yes, there was a shock, but the center held, and now appears to be reinforcing itself. The wave appears to have crested, broken, and is now rolling back. So I don't expect to see the major changes that Bremmer does.


LFC said...

it is not at all clear to me that ... bombing Iran would make the Middle East more stable rather than less.

I think you should submit this phrase for the Blogging Understatement of the Year Prize.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Is there any prize money associated with that?

LFC said...

No, just fame and glory. ;)

The Coming Anarchy?




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