A leaderless world is here to stay

Mr Donald Trump's decision last week to remove the US from the Paris Agreement on climate sent a crystal clear signal that we're now living in a G-zero world, a world without consistent leadership.

Who is leader of the free world today? Not Mr Trump, the first US president since the 1930s who does not believe that international leadership is in the country's national interest. For Mr Trump, everything is a transaction. He sees the world not as a community - sometimes cooperative, sometimes contentious - but as an arena in which strong leaders fight for dominance. This view appeals to him personally, and he knows his loyal supporters like it too.

Are Europeans now leading the free world? Not exactly. The transatlantic alliance has been gradually hollowing out for many years, and the election of Mr Trump has veteran leaders like Germany's Angela Merkel and new ones like France's Emmanuel Macron scrambling for new strategies.

The Americans are sceptical of Nato, the British are leaving the European Union, and anti-EU political parties continue to make gains, even if they aren't yet winning elections. Dr Merkel and Mr Macron don't appear to agree on Europe's best course forward, and if Europe's leaders fail to meet the demands of their people for change, the populist forces that have transformed European politics in recent years will continue to rise.

The ground is also shifting in the Middle East. Mr Trump may have better relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu than former US president Barack Obama did, but that brings no new order to a still-volatile region. On Syria's battlefields, the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel have distinctly different interests - and none of them is strong enough to impose its will.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will lose the little ground it has left, but it will continue to use social media to inspire followers, imitators and the emotionally disturbed. The main G-zero terrorism problem is that mutual suspicion, not the acknowledged need to share information among the world's intelligence agencies, is now cyberspace's defining feature. Nowhere is the G-zero more obvious.

Who now carries the standard for free trade? The United States, long its champion, has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Despite the best efforts of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the US looks likely to remain outside the deal for at least as long as Mr Trump is in office. But this isn't simply about Mr Trump. Remember that Democrats Hillary Clinton (reluctantly) and Bernie Sanders (resolutely) opposed TPP, as well.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel with US President Donald Trump during a joint news conference at the White House on March 17. The writer says the election of Mr Trump has Europe's leaders like Dr Merkel and France's Mr Emmanuel Macron scrambling for new strategies. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Trump has also made clear he wants to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. A mega-deal with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, now lies buried beneath the weight of opposition in multiple countries. There are still genuinely ambitious multilateral trade deals taking shape, notably Canada's new agreement with the EU. But this is an exception.

The number of global flashpoints and "problems without borders" continues to grow, and there are no credible cooperative plans to manage them, much less to solve the problems that have created them.

Is China the new leader on trade? Not quite. President Xi Jinping made headlines earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos with a rousing defence of global commerce. "Pursuing protectionism," he warned, "is like locking oneself in a dark room. Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so is light and air." But the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a deal composed of the 10 Asean countries plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, involves much less genuine market integration than the more ambitious TPP. It says little about investment, intellectual property and competition policy.

Then there is China's "One Belt One Road" project, an ambitious plan to direct massive investment towards south and central Asia to create new paths for commerce between Asia and Europe.

If wisely executed, this project could provide a historic economic boost for China, the EU and many poor countries between them. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that money will be invested for economic rather than political reasons. Corruption and incompetence may well delay progress, dampen ambitions and stoke political conflict. Nor is China ready to offer credible leadership on security questions, and the inability of China and the US to work together to resolve the North Korea problem suggests that conflict might trump commerce, even in East Asia.

In short, the number of global flashpoints and "problems without borders" continues to grow, and there are no credible cooperative plans to manage them, much less to solve the problems that have created them. For now, the G-zero order looks here to stay.

  • Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices For America's Role In The World. His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'A leaderless world is here to stay'. Print Edition | Subscribe