Us vs. Them: The Failures of Globalism. Ian Bremmer. New York, NY: Portfolio, 2018.
For many years, the world hummed a sweet, optimistic tune about the benefits of globalization. Pundits like the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted the cascading advantages of an increasingly interconnected world with little appreciation for its uneven benefits. Only recently have a few prominent politicians and scholars in the West flagrantly voiced their opposition to the siren song of globalism. Despite living in a world evermore interwoven, the growing divides between globalization’s winners and losers are expanding. These so-called losers are becoming more vocal, especially now that it significantly impacts the developed world. Now everyone is beginning to sound the refrain from P!nk’s recent release “What About Us?” They’re asking, “What about us? What about all the plans that ended in disaster?”
Recognizing these cries are the result of built-up fear and frustration about social, economic, and political insecurities, Ian Bremmer acknowledges the losers of globalism. In his new book, Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, he tells the tale of those who are left behind by the creative destruction built into a fast-paced global economy.
Bremmer had every reason to grow up believing in globalism. As a young boy he was told, "If you want to be successful, you just have to study hard and work hard. It's totally up to you." So he did. Raised by a single mother, he went on to receive a PhD and launch his own company, the Eurasia Group. His work with risk analysis and past books embraced the globalist system. What changed for Bremmer? What swayed his optimism to globalism?
“What about us? What about all the broken happy ever afters?”
Just as Dani Rodrik, the Turkish economist has recently noted, Bremmer argues globalism is not inherently bad but needs to be redirected since it “contains the seeds of its own destruction.” Bremmer acknowledges the inherent inequalities between classes, ethnicities, and nationalities by recognizing the amplifying anger of those who feel abandoned, lied to, or that their hard work and dedication will never be enough. Repeating a theme from his prior books, Bremmer perceives numerous warning signs, describes how globalism’s creation of winners and losers heightens many us vs. them mentalities, encouraging the formation of many kinds of defensive walls.
Instead of instigating a trade war or rashly replying with purely protectionist rhetoric, Bremmer encourages readers to think about the anxieties and instabilities such actions create for the losers of globalism. Despite agreeing these issues foster protectionism and nationalism, Bremmer describes the current global situation from a more neutral, albeit worried, stance. He recognizes that in terms of future global stability and security, the benefits for a few are outweighed by losses for the many.
Bremmer warns that new workplace developments—the introduction of artificial intelligence or automation, for example—are daunting for everyone, but especially for the developing world. He points out that, in developed nations, globalism harms generations-old small businesses as lower prices are offered by corporations with access to lower-wage foreign employees. Globally, unemployment insecurities develop in parallel with technological improvements fostered by globalism that are expected to lead to factory workers losing their jobs to machines or because they lack the necessary technical education. Furthermore, globalism encourages the movement of people across great distances, thereby shifting the cultural makeup of communities. Anxieties about identity loss due to changing racial and ethnic compositions have incited nationalistic or protectionist movements in the United States and elsewhere.
As this new wave of populist nationalism crashes over the United States and Europe, Bremmer sees a more powerful demonstration of globalism’s failure on the horizon: the vulnerable divisions within a number of key developing countries. These political, social, and economic gaps are widening as a result of globalism’s divergent effects. Confrontation between these winners and losers reinforces the creation of an us separate from them.
The Great Divides
In Us vs. Them, Bremmer discusses the divisions or fault lines between us and them by nation rather than by category. To demonstrate the destructive powers of globalism, Bremmer highlights the growing divides within the twelve “largest and most important developing countries: China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and South Africa.”
Although not explicit, Bremmer uses eight fault lines that are exacerbated by globalism in the chosen developing countries: cultural exchange, foreign interference, geography, religion, economic inequality, political governance, race, and age. Based on an analysis of the national descriptions, Bremmer designates economic inequality and political governance as the most prevalent fault lines. These two factors will be the principal factors either in recovering from globalism’s flaws or in exacerbating its demise. As such, they require a detailed review.
In several of these developing nations, Bremmer demonstrates how globalism encourages resentment and distrust as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. While Bremmer notes some see economic improvements, as globalism creates winners and losers, a larger percentage do not benefit from the overall economic growth. High unemployment and growing inequality, especially as many developing economies are dependent on oil prices and export, anger domestic populations. As large state-spending promises are forgotten or abandoned, animosity continues to heighten. This discontentment strengthens the divide between political elite and the average citizen.
Bremmer highlights the lack of trust in government in the majority of the twelve developing countries. In fact, he explicitly mentioned dissatisfaction with political governance for eleven of the twelve; India is the only state examined where this divide is not prominent. Bremmer emphasizes how globalism leaves developing nations in the dust, continually outpaced by stronger, more developed nations. These governments fail to respond to economic downturns or reduce poverty and unemployment as they struggle to compete globally. The necessity for additional education and technical capabilities grows as a result of globalism. Bremmer argues inability or unwillingness to fulfil these basic needs fosters resentment for political elites. The prevalence of political corruption, party privilege, and the expulsion of the opposition further strengthens these divides.
But where else are these fault lines prevalent? In choosing to highlight the most influential developing countries, Bremmer discounts the development of these fault lines in other areas of the world, and he fails to properly acknowledge the failures of globalism beyond developing countries. For example, the widening cultural and economic divides in Europe have altered political dynamics, often not in a direction other nations support. Divergent responses to the financial crisis threaten European unity. The influx of refugees, growing Muslim populations, and fears of terrorist attacks scare governments into retreat. Simply listing recent attacks and migration statistics, however, fails to properly illuminate these perceived security threats and falls short of adequately addressing how these events represent negative repercussions of globalism.
Walls of Division
Bremmer emphasizes the rise of physical and economic protectionism as a consequence of globalism. The flight of refugees and immigrants induced the creation physical barriers in each of Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. Economic measures are also a barrier to change. Throughout its history, the United States has implemented tariffs to safeguard citizens and stabilize special interests. While the United States’ history of trade relations suggests there are long-term downsides to protectionism, Bremmer feels the need to point out that we should not expect "that other countries would remain passive" and protectionist measures are often contagious.
Bremmer extends his concern about the growth of new kinds of walls, such as a biometric identification system in India or a social credit system in China. Both these developing systems take advantage of digital advancements to identify citizens and store personal information. While acknowledging the potential benefits, Bremmer highlights the potential for soft coercion and intrusion on billions of lives. Will the creation of these types of walls strengthen national unity or further the divide between the disgruntled citizen and political elite?
These voters simply wanted change; they were not interested in the unkept promises of politicians or the profession of universal ideals seemingly valued more than American workers.
Like many scholars, journalists, and citizens today, Bremmer worries for the future of the United States. He asserts President Trump is a symptom of the eroding democracy, but not a cause. In an non-partisan way, Bremmer asserts Trump was not elected by uneducated, mean-spirited people. These voters simply wanted change; they were not interested in the unkept promises of politicians or the profession of universal ideals seemingly valued more than American workers. While blame for the populist uprising and loss of civility now falls upon the president, the socio-economic divide between us and them expands and the various walls are politically easier to build than they are to tear down.
But are all the divisions and walls purely a result of globalism as Bremmer claims? He attributes the instigation of issues such as the 2011 Arab Spring to frustrations with globalism, ignoring historical precedents and local forces that spurred the conflicts. Corruption, economic hardship, and oppression were prevalent in many cases before prolific global influence. While there is undoubtedly global influence on internal affairs, unique domestic situations must be addressed concurrently.
Does Bremmer believe that globalism is in retreat as others claim? Despite agreeing on the harsh effects of globalism, he suggests that it is here to stay. More along the lines of Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Bremmer argues the future of globalism needs to look different in the future than it did in the past.
Providing a dim light at the end of the tunnel, Bremmer believes the failures of globalism will be corrected if the social contracts between governments and their citizens are rewritten. What would it take to correct these contracts? What would this new world look like? Even Bremmer doesn’t seem to know. He has crafted a compact book that provides insights into the obvious symptoms, but it leaves a strong desire for the necessary treatments. Nor does he describe the path to future prosperity for developing countries. As social contract revision is unlikely in many of the twelve countries examined, divisive tendencies will only intensify, walls will grow and extend, and globalism will continue to erode and, perhaps, fail.
So what will it take to revise their social contracts? What will it take for the walls to crumble? What will it take to bridge the divide between us and them? At the end of the day, the proponents of globalism must answer the questions posed in P!nk’s closing lyrics:
“What about us? What about all the times you said you had the answers? What about us? What about all the broken happy ever afters?”
Molly Dinneen is a Research Intern at the Institute for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and is also a senior at the College of William and Mary. This review reflects her own views and does not represent the official position of the National Defense University or the U.S. government.
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