Who runs the world?
Our Common Future
[ by Ian Bremmer ]
Amsterdam, Jan1st 2024 — It used to be an easy question to answer. If you’re over 45 like me, you grew up in a world that was dominated by two giants. The United States called the shots on one side of the Wall, the Soviets set the rules on the other. And that was a bipolar world. It’s very simple.
If you’re under 45, you grew up when the Soviet Union had already collapsed, and that left the United States as the sole superpower, dominating global institutions and also exerting raw power. And that was a unipolar world.
And then about 15 years ago, things got a little more complicated. The United States increasingly didn’t want to be the world’s policeman or the architect of global trade or even the cheerleader for global values. Other countries were becoming more powerful, and they could increasingly ignore many of the rules they didn’t like, sometimes even setting new rules themselves.
What happened? Three things. Number one, Russia was not integrated into Western institutions. A former great power now in very serious decline and they are angry about it. We can argue about whose fault that is, but we are where we are. Number two, China was integrated into US-led institutions on the presumption that as they got wealthier and more powerful,they would become Americans. Turns out, they’re still Chinese.
And the United States is not particularly comfortable with that. Number three, tens of millions of citizens in the United Statesand other wealthy democracies felt left behind by globalization. This has been ignored for decades. But as a consequence, they felt that their governments and their leaders were more illegitimate.
Now if you look at all the headlines in the world today, driving all of this geopolitical tension and conflict, over 90 percent of them are because of these three reasons. And that’s why today we live in a leaderless world. But as we know, that’s not going to be with us for long.
So what comes next? What kind of a world order might we expect over the next ten years? Some of what I might say I think will surprise you. Because we’re not going to have a bipolar or a unipolar or even a multipolar world. If we don’t have one or two superpowers, we don’t have a single global order. No, instead, we will have three different orders, a little overlapping, and the third will have immense importance for how we live, what we think, what we want, and what we’re prepared to do to get it.
But first things first. Today, we have a global security order. And as you see from the map, the United States and its allies are the most powerful players on it. The US is the only country in the world that can send its soldiers and its sailors and its military equipment to every corner of that world. No one else is close. China is growing in its military capabilities in Asia,though nowhere else. Lots of American allies in Asia are concerned about that. And as a consequence, they’re becoming more dependent on the United States for a security umbrella. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, US allies in Europe are becoming more concerned and dependent on the United States and a US-led NATO.
The Russian military, of course, has been a greater global concern, much less so today, especially as they’ve lost over 200,000 troops and all of that equipment and with sanctions making it extremely hard for them to rebuild. Now, Russia and China and others have nuclear weapons, but thank God it is still suicide to use them. And as a consequence, our security order is a unipolar order and it is likely to remain so for the next decade.
Now at the same time that there’s a security order, there’s also a global economic order. And here, power is shared. The United States is still a very robust global economy. But the US can’t use its dominant position militarily to tell other countries what to do economically. The United States and China are enormously economically interdependent and so they can’t control each other. You may be surprised to hear this, but today US-China trade relations are actually at their highest level in history.
Now, other countries in the world, a lot of them want access to US military muscle, but they also want access to the Chinese market, soon, by 2030, likely to be the largest in the world.And you can’t very well have a cold war if the US and the Chinese are the only two that are prepared to fight it. Yes? Yes.
So the European Union has the largest common market and they set the rules. And if you want to do profitable business there, you listen to those rules. India is playing a greater role economically on the global stage. Japan still matters, too. And over the next ten years, there will be a rise and fall of the relative capacities of these economies. But the global economic order is and will remain a multipolar order.
Now, between these two orders are tensions because the United States will use its power in national security to try to bring more of the world’s economies towards it. And we already see this starting to happen in semiconductors and in critical minerals and maybe soon in TikTok. The Chinese are trying to use their dominant commercial position to align more of the world diplomatically. And Japan and Europe and India and everyone else will do their damnedest to ensure that neither of these two orders dominate the other. And they will mostly succeed.
Now, so far I have spoken with you about the two world orders we already see, but there’s a third that is coming soon that’s even more important. And that is the digital order. And the digital order is not run by governments but by technology companies.
We all know how much military support NATO countries have provided Ukraine during the war. But it’s technology companies that provided the tools allowing Ukraine to defend itself from Russian cyber attack. It’s technology companies that gave the Ukrainian leaders the ability to speak with their generals and their soldiers on the front lines. If it wasn’t for those technology companies, Ukraine would have been fully offline within weeks of the war. And I don’t believe President Zelensky would still be there today.
Technology companies determine whether Donald Trump is able, in real time and without filter, to speak with hundreds of millions of people as he runs again for the presidency. It’s social media platforms and their ability to promote disinformation and conspiracy theory. Without them, we do not have riots in the Capitol on January 6. We do not have trucker riots in Ottawa. We do not have a January 8 insurrection in Brazil.
Technology companies increasingly determine our identities.When I was growing up, it’s nature or nurture. I mean, my deep and abiding emotional problems either come from how I was raised Or some genetic failure. Could be both.
But today, our identities are determined by nature and nurtureand algorithms.
If you want to challenge the system, you can’t just question authority, as we were all told when we were growing up. Today, you have to question the algorithm, and that is a staggering amount of power in the hands of these technology companies. What are they going to do with that power? And that depends on who they want to be when they grow up.
So if China and the United States work to exert much more power over the digital world and technology companies in those countries align with those governments, we will end up in a technology cold war. And that means the digital order will be split in two.
If, on the other hand technology companies persist with global business models, and we retain competition between the digital and physical worlds, we will have a new globalization, a digital global order.
Or if the digital order becomes increasingly dominant and governments erode in their capacity to govern, and we’ve already seen the beginning of this, technology companies will become the dominant actors on the global stage in every way and we will have a techno-polar order. And that will determine whether we have a world of limitless opportunity or a world without freedom.
Now at this point in my speech, I’m supposed to talk about the good news.
But those of you that have heard this know that that is not coming.
There is no pause button on these explosive and disruptive technologies. I don’t know if you know this, there are over 100 people in the world today with the knowledge and the technology to create a new smallpox virus.
Honestly, I don’t have answers, but I have a few questions for the people that do. Because these technology companies are not just Fortune 50 and 100 actors. These technology titans are not just men worth 50 or 100 billion dollars or more. They are increasingly the most powerful people on the planet with influence over our futures. And we need to know, are they going to act accountably as they release new and powerful artificial intelligence? What are they going to do with this unprecedented amount of data that they are collecting on us and our environment? And the one that I think should concern us all right now the most: Will they persist with these advertising models driving so much revenues that are turning citizens into products and driving hate and misinformation and ripping apart our society?
When I was a student back in 1989, and the Wall fell, the United States was the principal exporter of democracy in the world. Not always successfully. Often hypocritically. But number one, nonetheless. Today, the United States has become the principal exporter of tools that destroy democracy. The technology leaders who create and control these tools, are they OK with that? Or are they going to do something about it? We need to know.
By Ian Bremmer
He advises and helps business leaders, policymakers and the general public make sense of the world around them.