It’s not you; global politics really have been going haywire lately. And while each geopolitical story has its own set of actors and circumstances that are driving their respective drama, the thread that unites them is an absence of global leadership out there to keep things in geopolitical check. The world has moved on from the “Pax Americana” era of global history – one in which the US used both its economic and military heft to ensure a basic level of global stability and to coordinate global responses to global problems among like-minded allies – into a “geopolitical recession,” an unwinding of the old global order.
Looking back at the last 30 years, there have been four crucial turning points that have driven the world to its current state of political dysfunction.
The first tipping point was the West’s inadequate response to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After decades of being locked in fierce ideological battle with the Soviets, Western democracies celebrated their victory, welcomed the former USSR into the fold of democratic capitalism, and then effectively left it to fend for itself. There was no Marshall Plan for the former Soviet Union like there was for Europe after the devastation of World War II; in retrospect, post-Soviet states – and specifically Russia – needed much more attention and help from the West than they received. The result was critical industries captured by special interests and oligarchs, ushering in a political leadership that’s overarching geopolitical aim in 2019 is destabilizing Western democracies with disinformation campaigns and tactically provocative moves on the geopolitical stage.
The second turning point was the 9/11 attacks, and the West’s overreaction by launching two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the war against Afghanistan was understandable at the time given the clear link between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the US decision to pursue war against Saddam Hussein on spurious grounds remains unforgivable to many around the world and forever tarnished the global leadership image of the US; both wars also led to two failed states that continue to present the region with serious security challenges. The extraordinary costs of both wars – trillions spent and thousands of lives lost – have the US and its allies wary of repeating the same mistake again, and far less interested in playing the role of global policeman.
The third turning point was the 2008 financial crisis. The global response to addressing the imminent collapse of the world’s financial architecture was the last time we saw true American leadership and genuine cooperation among the world’s advanced industrial democracies to address a global crisis that threatened all. In fact, it’s the one time the G7 really worked as one, and it also ushered in the first – and most functional – G20 meeting to date.
But the manner in which the financial system was saved – bailing out big banks and financial institutions using taxpayer money – fueled the perception that those making political decisions were irrevocably out of touch with the people who were electing them, and raised serious questions about how Western-style capitalism was delivering on the social contract in the 21st century. China, in the midst of its meteoric economic rise, became much more confident that it needed to maintain a different political/economic structure to avoid a similar fate. Movements like Occupy Wall Street came and went in the West, but the issue went fundamentally unaddressed.
That led to the fourth turning point – the populist surge of 2015/16, a polarized political environment that eventually produced the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump, both decisions that fractured the domestic politics of their respective countries as well as global cooperation more broadly. It was the final signal to the world that the American-led global order was finished, leading to a broad embrace of an “every nation for itself” ethos that’s been gaining popularity across the world’s democracies ever since. Combined with an ambitious and opportunistic China that is building a set of alternative international architecture to compete with the West, global politics haven’t been this volatile since World War II.
The “geopolitical recession” we are currently living in won’t last forever, but the end of Pax Americana is clear. The question is what comes next.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.