A new dystopia: America the Flaccid

Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, by Ian Bremmer, Portfolio Penguin, RRP£14.99

Dystopias in the past often featured Amerika (with a “k’” to reveal its true, fascistic nature) as a ravening hyperpower, firing off cruise missiles at guerrillas, and Tom Cruise in a succession of “Mission Impossibles” at everyone else. This year, three dystopian “issue” books have featured America the Flaccid, an enervated, impoverished, introverted dwarf of an ex-superpower. And where the last country to fit that bill – the UK after the second world war – could pass the burden to the US, the US can pass it to ... no one.

Americans have written all three books. Robert Kagan’s The World America Made thinks declinism overhyped but accepts that if it is true, then the vacuum will be both abhorrent and unfillable. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is, in his Strategic Vision, surer of decline and also thinks it will be a disaster if the world is shorn of a sheriff. He warns his country to shape up its fat, lazy state and do what only it can: police, regulate and save the world.

Ian Bremmer, a prodigy in the US global commentariat, is surest of decline. Indeed, he begins by claiming that the US’s days as a superpower are over (though later he implicitly hedges his bets on this); and foresees a “G-Zero” world – with the G7 (or 8) discarded, the G20 too big for coherence or decisive action and no other G of any kind presently available.

No international organisation has the capacity or the mandate to fill more than a small part of the vacuum. Nor can any single state, or concert of states. India is preoccupied by the twin border threats of Pakistan and (less urgently) China; Russia, though with alarmingly revived neo-imperial ambitions, is too dependent on oil and gas revenues, has a rackety military and a growing democratic protest movement. And Europe ... well, poor old Europe. More in contempt than sorrow, Mr Bremmer predicts “we can expect to see a lot more near-term conflict ... and a lot less willingness in Europe to take on outside challenges”.

But of course there is China – cultured and powerful for centuries in its Middle Kingdom while the rest of us were savages not worth the conquering, treacherously attacked and weakened in the 19th and 20th centuries by western powers and, much more grievously, Japan; now for the first time a truly global power in embryo.

Amid the many differing dystopic versions that Mr Bremmer, sadistic to his readers, deploys, there is one ray of hope: that the US can muster enough force and resource to share global power with China and create a Pax SinoAmericana, a G2. Mr Brzezinski, as Mr Bremmer acknowledges, has proposed this too, seeing it as “a mission worthy of the two countries with the most extraordinary potential for shaping our collective future”. Both believe that “one of the greatest threats to our wellbeing in the 21st century would come from China’s failure, not its success”.

However, Bremmer is too much in thrall to pessimism to believe long in a vision of a benign partnership. China’s leaders would have to “decide that China can afford to behave as a developed state” – and they have repeatedly said they won’t. The US must cut its bloated debt and overcome the bitterly partisan politics that gridlocks reform and poisons debate – and no one is holding their breath, especially after the spectacle of the Republican primaries.

So fears, distrust, ideology and habit are likely to prove too formidable to overcome. China and the US both have too many complex problems: the latter will struggle to retain the greatness it achieved, and the former will refuse to have global greatness thrust upon it.

Nor is it likely that a “concert” of second rank nations or regional groupings will emerge: they are too different in political make-up, too distrustful of each other, too prone to be dragged into fights over energy, food and water to agree on anything beyond declarations. The meeting of the Brics countries in March was a vivid example of just that, among states who, on first sight, would seem to have much to gain from joint action. In fact, all they had in common was a desire to be heard.

Mr Bremmer says America must accept limits on its budget and on its global power; it must deepen its alliances and forge new ones. A G-Zero world is too dangerous to tolerate. There is no alternative: America must remake itself to remain “indispensable for the world that comes next”.

It is hard for Europeans to accept this, easy to reach for some jibe about the ugliness of American arrogance. But it is harder still to imagine a world in which, absent the US, a relatively liberal order is maintained. Mr Bremmer’s rehearsal of the consequences should make us all wise up.

The writer is an FT contributing editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.