SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Ian Bremmer wasn’t looking to bum everyone out with his new book, “Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.” Though, as he admitted at a Maryland Smith event this week, it’s not a cheerful read.
“It’s a depressing book,” said Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.
Bummer or no, the book offers a glimpse into the sources of anger and disenfranchisement spreading across the globe. At the Center for Global Business Annual Forum at University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business this week, Bremmer described why he wrote the book, explained why he believes the world is entering a "geopolitical recession," and offered advice for future business leaders.
He said he first felt the pull to write the book in 2009. It was during the financial crisis, and living in New York, he saw up close how angry people were, at bankers, at ratings agencies, at insurance companies like AIG, at regulators. They were angry about predatory lending practices, incompetent oversight.
“We saw Occupy Wall Street. And I thought to myself, you know, there are a lot of people who think that the system is rigged. There are a lot of people who feel they’ve been lied to. I need to write this book,” Bremmer recalled.
But he didn’t. Not then, anyway.
“I thought, it’s people like me that are complicit because they allowed their countries to get as rigged as they have,” he said. “It’s people like me that were going to Davos and were making money from the CEOs and the banks, and not writing books like this.”
When that feeling he had in 2009 came back, after the 2016 elections that would put Trump in the White House and put the U.K. on path to leaving the European Union, he began to write the book.
He said he began to see how that anger and resentment planted seeds for the rise of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Brexit in the U.K., the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in France.
“It’s a depressing book,” he says, adding. “And I’m an upbeat guy. For me, this book feels like the book I would have written 30 years ago about the climate if I were a climatologist.”
It’s a book, he says, continuing the analogy, that would lay out the scientific evidence, discuss the role that alternative energy might play in creating solutions, and ignite a conversation. It would identify a problem and get people focused on it.
“And that’s kind of where we are now with the failure of globalism right now. It’s kind of where we are with ‘us versus them’ right now. It’s a big problem, but people are not paying attention. Instead they are paying attention to how much they hate the Democrats, or hate the Republicans. They are anti-Trump, or never-Trump, or always-Trump, or ‘Make America Great Again,’ and it’s the same thing in all these other countries. But we are not yet to the point where we can talk about what the potential solutions are.”
It’s not the kind of book he enjoys writing, he says. “This one is less a call to action, and much more a call to understanding, a call to engagement,” he said.
Globalism vs. globalization
“I’m a big fan of globalization,” Bremmer said, calling it “an extraordinary success.”
In the past two decades, globalization has lifted 1 billion people out of extreme poverty. It has resulted in life-saving immunizations for 90% of the world’s infants. Because of globalization, a child born on the planet today has an average life expectancy of 70. Women and girls are being educated at unprecedented rates. “This is astonishing and it’s about globalization,” Bremmer said.
Globalism, on the other hand, the topic of his book, is far less uplifting.
It is the political notion which holds that “by supporting open borders and free trade and America as the global sheriff, that it is going to be good for people inside the United States and these other advanced industrialized democracies, that they should support that politically because they will be taken care of,” he said. “And that’s a lie.”
Bremmer illustrates in his book how governments have failed to be accountable and responsible to the people inside their own systems who are displaced by globalization. “And that failure of globalism is what we are seeing now with the extraordinary anger and polarization, and increasingly the erosion of legitimacy of the political institutions in almost every advanced industrial economy today,” he said.
Scanning the world’s advanced industrialized countries, Bremmer identified four drivers of the current disenfranchisement: economic inequality, anti-immigration sentiment, sacrifices made in a series of failed wars, and the weaponization of this discontent in the social media space, “where people only follow folks they agree with.”
“When you put those four reasons together,” he said, “I think you get an explanation for why this is happening, for why globalism is failing despite the benefits of globalization.”
What can reverse it? Throughout history, he said, there have been few great levelers. “Famine or pandemic, state collapse or revolution, or war,” he says, pausing, and repeating, “It’s a pretty depressing book.”
Message to business students
Bremmer said he doesn’t see the United States as being in decline, and said he’s not a pessimist. “I am not someone who looks at a problem and says we cannot deal with this.” To the audience of public policy and business students, he said his book is meant to be instructive.
“We are used to living in a world where the United States is able to determine the rules of the road in the global economy and the rules of the road for global technology,” he said. “We are not in that world anymore.”
Instead, he says, we are nearing a geopolitical recession, he said, the end of the U.S.-led global order. What replaces it, he said, is unknown.
He pointed to China, where 800 million internet users lack access to sites such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. “That’s not a global free market,” he said. And it’s a warning.
“If we don’t pay more attention to what’s happening in our own economy and political system and the global economy, if we are not not leading by example anymore, and other countries are big enough that they can rules-set, all of us in business have a smaller pie to share.”
The Center for Global Business Annual Forum brings together distinguished voices from the academic, policy, diplomatic, and business communities to speak on a particular theme. The forum is supported in part by CIBE, a Title VI Grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
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