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17 May 2020

Covid-19 might prove a “Goldilocks crisis” forcing the world to confront its problems

Geopolitics guru Ian Bremmer offers an optimistic scenario for the coming years.

By Jeremy Cliffe

One might expect Ian Bremmer to be straightforwardly pessimistic in the current crisis. For one thing, the president of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy is used to zipping around the world to meet business and political leaders. Now he is grounded and reckons any sort of new normal will take a very long time to emerge. “It’s weird,” he tells me down the phone from New York City. “I wasn’t prepared to put my life on hold for three years.” The US of all places is a gloomy spot at the moment, with more Covid-19 deaths than any other country and an increasingly ugly political mood ahead of November’s elections.

Pessimism, of a sort, has been a good bet for Bremmer in the past. In 2011 he predicted a “G-Zero” world, an emerging power vacuum in international politics. The prediction has been borne out, he notes, both by trends evident at the time (a rising China reluctant to align with the West, a more self-contained US and a truculent Russia) and by others (technology driving populism, US energy independence, and the inequality bequeathed by the financial crisis) that have fully unfolded since.

“They have made the geopolitical recession much deeper,” says Bremmer. “Now it’s like that Warren Buffett quote about only seeing who is swimming naked when the tide goes out. People are saying: ‘we don’t have leaders; no one is leading us!’ But that was the case before. The pandemic has just demonstrated it.” Yet precisely now, with the global order seemingly at its most fragile and unfixable, the geopolitical guru is tentatively offering a more optimistic take.

Yes, he says, Covid-19 might take the world to a very dark place indeed: G-Zero but much more so. “The US could come out of this in a Cold War with the Chinese,” he warns: “A Cold War not just in tech but economically and militarily too.” That would be a world divided between Chinese and US spheres of influence, and of intense antagonism over subjects like technology, climate change and indeed the race for a vaccine. Such a world would be “just a Cuban Missile Crisis away from blowing up”, suggests Bremmer, though he adds that the 2020s equivalent of 1962 would probably involve cyberwarfare rather than nuclear weapons. “It would be just so ugly,” he shudders: “… a world we never wanted our children to see.”

But he also considers it possible – and here’s the optimistic bit – that Covid-19 will prove a turning point. The coiner of “G-Zero world” has a knack for catchy phrases and he seems to be trialling a new one: “the Goldilocks crisis”. The basic idea is that the pandemic might prove “not so small that we ignore the deeper lessons to adapt and reform our institutions, not so big that we’re overwhelmed by the damage and can’t move on”. The financial crisis, say, or the swine flu outbreak were too small to force a reckoning with the world’s problems. Covid-19 could prove too big, if it creates the gloomy scenario mentioned above. Or it might, Bremmer reckons, sit in the sweet spot between the two.

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What would that sweet spot look like? It would require certain things to go right in the coming months. Mature and science-based leadership would have to prevail at the global level. Europe would have to avoid disintegration. The US would have to get through a social crisis (caring for the 25 per cent of the population at risk of huge personal dislocation from the pandemic) and a possible political crisis (by avoiding an election result considered illegitimate by 50 per cent of the country). Technology companies would have to work with governments to solve the new problems that emerge. And ultimately the virus would have to prove tameable through a vaccine or anti-viral drugs.

But if these things do happen, Bremmer believes there is a chance to confront what wasn’t confronted before. To take on social divides and make progress towards life-long learning and universal basic income principles. To make the powerful more democratically and environmentally accountable and to reboot the global alliance of democracies. All that, of course, would require US re-engagement, though insofar as that depends on the country rediscovering its strengths he is counterintuitively positive here too: “If you ask me where I’d want to be coming out of this crisis, I’d say: the US.”

In other commentators, such glints of hope in the current darkness might seem like an indulgence. But as his G-Zero prediction shows, Bremmer is not given to sugar-coating his analyses. His vision, fundamentally, is not innately boosterish or pessimistic but cyclical: that geopolitics has been in a long “recession” since its post-Cold War boom. And the thing with cycles is that they do eventually turn.

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