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The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – and Our Response – Will Change the World

The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – and Our Response – Will Change the World PDF

Author: Ian Bremmer

Publisher: Simon & Schuster


Publish Date: May 17, 2022

ISBN-10: 1982167505

Pages: 272

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

Away from the cameras and warmed by the fire, Ronald Reagan opened his first private conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev with a startling question: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev didn’t hesitate. “No doubt about it,” he replied. “We would too,” Reagan assured him. That moment took place in a cabin in Geneva on November 19, 1985, but it wasn’t publicly known until Gorbachev told the story in front of a live audience at the Rainbow Room in New York City in March 2009. Only Reagan, Gorbachev, and their interpreters were present when that first exchange took place.

Gorbachev’s revelation made news for all the wrong reasons. Discussion began anew about whether Reagan, who had died nearly five years before Gorbachev shared this story, had been soft in the head. Smirking pundits speculated over which of Reagan’s favorite Hollywood sci-fi movies had inspired the question. (Historical consensus has settled on The Day the Earth Stood Still.) The anecdote embarrassed many of Reagan’s admirers.

I open with this story for two reasons.

First, Gorbachev has said that their first private chat was an important moment for relations between the two men, leaders of the world’s two superpowers. It certainly didn’t guarantee peace or remake the Cold War. There was plenty for Reagan, Gorbachev, and their negotiators to fight over in the following years, and the Cold War ended not with a grand bargain but with Soviet implosion. But by sowing the seeds of trust and goodwill, Reagan’s question and Gorbachev’s answer laid the foundation for a working relationship that had never before existed between US and Soviet leaders, one that created the possibility of cooperation, even coordination, between hostile, nuclear-armed enemies on questions of vital importance for both countries and the world. At various times, leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union had persuaded themselves and each other that the two Cold War powers were on a collision course. Reagan and Gorbachev understood the need to take them off that path—and that shift allowed for the progress toward more widely shared security and prosperity that the world has enjoyed since the Cold War’s end.

Second, world leaders really do face threats to the survival of those they govern. We can start with a global pandemic that inflicted damage and pain that will be felt for decades, especially in the developing world. COVID-19 started a war, and nobody won. Many governments made critical mistakes, almost every country lost too many lives, and every country suffered a sharp economic slowdown and saddled itself with new debt. Political finger-pointing within and across borders made things worse by shutting down the flow of vital information and resources that would have limited the damage for all of us.

In the coming decade, we will face much greater risks. To survive the challenges detailed in this book, we must all learn the lessons the pandemic can teach us, even if world leaders aren’t ready to agree on them. US, Chinese, and other governments will continue to compete, both openly and secretly, over hundreds of political, security, and economic issues they don’t, and will never, agree on. But on the big risks that menace us all at the same time, we can share responsibility, information, burdens, blame, and credit as we learn from past mistakes.

Unless leaders of the world’s most important countries can build enough trust to work together on the threats we share, we will all suffer catastrophes that sci-fi fan Ronald Reagan never imagined.


Two years after the worst global health crisis in a century, the world still struggles to regain its footing, but our future is now coming into focus. Let’s first face two facts. One, domestic politics inside the United States, still the world’s sole superpower, is broken. Two, the relationship between the United States and China, which will matter more than any other for the world’s collective future, is headed in the wrong direction. Both of these realities make it difficult to respond to global crises as they occur.

We face three such crises today. The world is still struggling to shake off the economic, political, and social effects of COVID-19, and more deadly viruses will inevitably plague us. Climate change will upend the lives of billions of people and threaten the sustainability of life on the planet. The greatest threat of all to our collective future will come from the unexpected impact of new technologies that change the way we live, think, and interact with other people and will determine our future as a species.

America’s broken politics and the intensifying US-China rivalry imperil our ability to build the international trust needed to meet the great crises of our time.


Americans no longer look abroad for their most dangerous enemies. They find them across state lines, across the street, across the hall. They see members of the other political party, neighbors, and even relatives as hateful, ignorant enemies who must be checked. Voters on the left and right deliberately seek out information (and misinformation and disinformation) about the world from sources they know will confirm their biases and make them fighting mad. Government—federal, state, and local—increasingly reflects these distortions in frightening ways. Even on issues where Americans of left and right sometimes agree—on the need to stand up to a rising China, for example—they don’t agree on what the problems are or what to do about them. It’s difficult for citizens of other countries and their governments to see the United States as a source of solutions to global problems when tens of millions of Americans consider tens of millions of other Americans to be violent radicals or irredeemable fascists. I’ll say more about that—and its dire consequences for the US and the world—in chapter 1.


On several fronts, the US and China will engage in a new conflict whose consequences could well be more dire than those of the first Cold War. Neither side is seriously engaging the other to meet the global goals the two countries share. This rivalry had been building for years when new animosities created by COVID hardened attitudes in both China and America. Washington and Beijing have legitimate disagreements and grievances. They will continue to fight over many issues. But America and China are far more interdependent than the US and the USSR ever were, and the leaders of both countries have set themselves on a new collision course—and at a time when there’s no Berlin Wall to protect them from each other.

There is only so much either can do to separate their national fates, no way to hide from the rest of the world’s problems, and no chance that one will thrive without the other. Given the links between their economies and the scale and imminence of today’s threats, a new Cold War would cost both countries—and the rest of the world—far too much. A new Cold War would itself be a form of mutually assured destruction.

The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China won’t become allies anytime soon, but they can step off the current collision course to become pragmatic partners. As we’ll see, their leaders can work on shared threats to both countries and the world. Beginning in the early 1970s, a time when only Nixon could go to China and only a man as powerful as Mao Zedong could have steered China onto a new course, the two countries worked together to end the Cold War. As a direct result, their economic interdependence of the past quarter century created an era of global prosperity without precedent in human history. That historic accomplishment is now at risk, as I’ll detail in the second half of chapter 1.


In chapter 2, we’ll look at the many ways that US dysfunction and US-China confrontation have crippled the world’s ability to respond more effectively to the global pandemic. The COVID emergency wasn’t just predictable. It was predicted, including by world leaders with the power to prepare us all to avoid its worst effects. And we know that there will be a next novel coronavirus, possibly one both more transmissible and more deadly than COVID-19.

But the COVID-19 experience has also provided us with lessons: genuine success stories in global cooperation and more than a few deadly failures that are relevant to our approach to other global challenges. To respond more effectively to future emergencies, we need to understand both.


In chapter 3, we’ll turn to the climate crisis. Like Ronald Reagan’s alien invaders, and like COVID-19, climate change doesn’t care about borders or distinguish among political tribes. It has already destroyed millions of lives and livelihoods and will upend many more. If the pandemic was the biggest global challenge of our lifetime, climate change threatens our collective future on a larger and longer scale—by creating turmoil within the home all humans share, by making unprecedented economic demands on governments, by stoking political turmoil, by increasing inequality within and among countries, and by pushing more desperate people across borders than any war ever did.

To meet the many challenges climate change will pose, governments that don’t trust one another, and whose peoples share no political or cultural values, must cooperate and coordinate on climate policy even as they compete in a dozen other arenas. As in the past, governments, private companies, and individual citizens must work together as if they were at war with a common enemy. Because they are.


In chapter 4, we’ll turn to the greatest threat that faces our species: the unchecked introduction of profoundly disruptive technologies. We’ll look closely at the many ways in which new digital-age tools can and will improve certain aspects of our lives. But having survived COVID, we’re as aware as ever that new drugs with potentially dangerous side effects must be tested before they’re injected into the global bloodstream. That’s a commonsense safety precaution. We’re inventing new tools, new toys, and new weapons that are changing our lives and societies faster than we can track, study, and understand their effect on us.

Throughout history, innovation has strengthened and enriched us, and we can’t expect people—or their governments—to agree completely on how new technologies should be used. But lethal autonomous drones, cyberwarfare, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence (AI) are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Nor is the shock that comes with algorithms that teach machines to replace people in the workplace. These technologies are shifting the relationship between the citizen and the state—and between us and our fellow humans—in ways difficult to predict. In the process, they’re changing what it means to be human.


Anyone watching the news during the pandemic’s early days can be forgiven for thinking that COVID-19 created all the chaos now roiling the international system. The United States, the world’s most powerful nation, and China, the rising challenger, could have set aside their many differences to collaborate on containing the crisis, developing a vaccine, and helping to heal the wounds the pandemic inflicted worldwide. Instead, they traded accusations. We might have seen the US, China, and Europe join together to develop the technologies needed to safely reopen economies everywhere. It didn’t happen. Finger-pointing became the norm. Even the world’s central banks, which did a lot to cushion the economic and social fallout for wealthier countries, were working in the same direction but not together.

Yet COVID-19 didn’t create the rivalries and suspicions that blocked cooperation. The international system has been broken for years. In 2012, I wrote a book called Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. The story goes like this: Once upon a time (1975–2009), we lived in a world run mainly by the leaders of the so-called Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries—the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada. Their shared political values and share of the global economy gave these seven countries the power to make rules that other democracies and many developing countries lived by. In those days, the Communist bloc posed a military threat but lacked the economic clout to match the West’s global influence.

By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, things began to change. Countries including India, South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, and especially China had emerged from earlier crises and built economies that gave them more independence from the rulemaking power of the wealthy West and new international influence. Russia, rather than joining Western clubs, tried to play spoiler, assembling a new, if smaller, empire. The formal end to the G7’s dominance arrived with the global financial crisis (2008–2010), an emergency that made clear that no global problem could be solved without China and others at the table. It was the expanded Group of 20 (G20) that coordinated the crisis response.

But the G20 is a large, diverse group of countries that don’t share common views on democracy and free-market economics. They worked together effectively during the global financial shock, when each government accepted that it had the same loaded gun pointed at its head at exactly the same moment. But once that crisis had lifted, they couldn’t agree on much else. I coined the term “G-Zero” to describe this new reality, a world that lacks leaders willing or able to break up fights and force compromise on expensive and dangerous problems in the name of global stability and shared benefit. The world entered a kind of geopolitical recession, a bust cycle for relations among governments that occurs whenever the global balance of power changes much more quickly than the multinational architecture that helps govern the international system. Alliances, institutions, and the values that bind them together have been unraveling for the past twenty years. Geopolitical recessions don’t come along nearly as often as economic recessions, but they are tremendously destabilizing when they do.

Then came COVID. Just as an earthquake shows us which buildings stand on shaky foundations, the coronavirus revealed the accumulated damage of a decades-long political neglect of growing problems and the inability of world leaders to solve them together. Both the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the global financial crisis encouraged some multinational cooperation against a perceived common threat. Not so with the pandemic. Among world leaders, accusations flew, tensions grew, blame was cast, and borders were hardened. The pandemic created the first true global test of the G-Zero era, and by failing to cooperate effectively for the common good, governments around the world failed it.

The geopolitical recession has shaken the international system to its foundation. It’s a historic moment when more than seventy million people have been forced from their homes and many more have been pushed back into poverty by COVID’s economic impact. Most multinational institutions no longer represent today’s balance of international power. Elected leaders who run on a “country-first” platform are much less likely to support spending on international organizations, including the United Nations (UN), that help displaced people around the world and coordinate action to fight climate change. Three decades after the Cold War’s end, growing transatlantic divisions over both interests and values leave ever-larger numbers of people questioning the purpose and utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Former US president Donald Trump showed populists everywhere how easy it is to withdraw from major trade agreements, climate accords, and the World Health Organization (WHO)… even in the middle of a pandemic. The inevitable consequence is a world that’s more unpredictable, less safe, and less prepared than ever to build new agreements and institutions to meet twenty-first-century challenges. G-Zero is still the defining feature of our time.


So what can we do now? Faced with dysfunction at the heart of American politics, poisoned relations between America and China, and a broken global system, and with vitally important questions to answer, what is the way forward? What will it take to get our political leaders—people who spend much more time thinking about tactical approaches to this week’s petty problems than they do about strategic plans to tackle long-term global challenges—to invest in cross-border cooperation on the questions that must be answered?

History says we need a crisis.

To check the growing power of the expansionist racist nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s, to force construction of a new international system that recognized global interdependence for the first time in history, and to build new forms of multinational cooperation, the world needed World War II. It took dread of Communism to persuade Americans to support the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe. It took the near-death experience of the Cuban missile crisis to persuade US and Soviet leaders to install the nuclear “hotline,” the teletype and telegraph terminals they could use to communicate securely when the stakes were highest. It’s human nature; we need fear to help us overcome inertia and address the risks we’ve allowed to become deadly. But the unprecedented interdependence of all nations and the destructive power of today’s technologies ensure that the human race can’t survive a new world war, and we can’t afford a US-China Cold War that will make effective global cooperation impossible.

That’s why we must use the crises already breaking around us—the lessons of COVID, the destructive potential of climate change, and the existential threat posed by rapid technological developments we don’t understand—to create a new international system that’s built for today’s, and tomorrow’s, purpose.

We need crises scary enough to make us forge a new international system that promotes effective cooperation on a few crucial questions. The nations of the world don’t have to become friends or even partners on every project; global competition can still power human progress. But we need enough collaboration to survive the potential catastrophes to come. We need crises big enough to terrify us, not ones so grave that they destroy our ability to change.


Solving the largest and most complex problems takes vision, stamina, and a leap of faith. As I’ll detail in coming chapters, today’s dangers are greater than those facing Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985. They have a life and momentum of their own. Surviving them isn’t simply a matter of shaking hands and dismantling some weapons stockpiles. Hard as it was to work toward nuclear reductions, it will be much tougher and more complicated to create a new global public health system, reinvent the way energy is produced and delivered, manage the massive fallout from climate change, and ensure that new technologies don’t destroy our common future.

In truth, there’s no guarantee our world will survive the next fifty years. We share the universe with an unimaginably large number of other planets, and yet we’ve found no evidence of intelligent life. Is that because our planet is the only one that can sustain life? The odds of that are infinitely small. But maybe we’re alone for now because there’s a limited amount of time between the moment life begins to form and the moment “intelligent” life destroys the environment that sustains it. Maybe the window of time that opens when a civilization is first able to send a detectable signal into space and closes when that civilization destroys itself is much narrower than we think. Surely life has existed, and will exist, throughout the universe, but perhaps only for the cosmological blink of an eye.

That’s what world leaders should be thinking about—and not just the leaders of China and the United States. These are now the two most powerful countries on our planet, in military, economic, and technological terms. But cooperation must extend far beyond them. It must be global. Europe, as I’ll discuss in coming pages, remains a central piece of this puzzle, and many other countries and non-state actors in every region of the world can offer much-needed leadership. COVID, unfortunately, has pushed us further apart, but we can still hope that lessons learned from the pandemic will guide our first steps toward a new international system of crisis response, one based on the need to identify dangers and agree on carefully planned and coordinated solutions before our problems become too big to contain.

Now for a bold prediction—Europe and the United States, China, and other countries, institutions, and people WILL work together on these common challenges. But will they work hard enough, quickly enough, and effectively enough to build the new international system we need? The global pandemic made clear that the biggest twenty-first-century threats don’t give a damn about borders. An “every nation for itself” approach won’t help us meet the challenges described in this book. The race to create and distribute a coronavirus vaccine proved yet again that smart and committed people of goodwill can solve new problems at record speed. Human ingenuity is in ample supply. But we’ll need much more compromise, cooperation, and coordination than COVID was able to create.

Globalism has failed over the past four decades, mainly because it has been global in name only. In wealthy countries, people without a college education lost the ability to build a secure middle-class life on top of a manufacturing job. In poorer countries, those who weren’t benefiting from the rise of a new middle class got the closest view they’d ever had of those more fortunate. Inequality hit new heights. Too many people in every country have been excluded from globalization’s historic rewards, and we’ve seen the result in public rage worldwide and the rise of next-generation populists eager to exploit it. In coming years, more people will question whether their leaders can help them achieve the security and prosperity they expect from their government. They’ll ask whether life will be better for their children. Their leaders had better have good answers.

The next decade will see US-China confrontation, a future pandemic, unchecked climate change, and life-altering technologies, each of which might do more damage to our species than any other crisis in history. I will illustrate the threats they pose and how they will change the world’s balance of power, and I’ll point to potential solutions, many of which history has already shown to be far more workable than we may think. By working together and sharing responsibility for the dangers that loom over all of us, European, Chinese, American, African, Japanese, Indian, and other world leaders can construct a new international system, one that can effectively address all global crises.

Ronald Reagan asked the question, and Mikhail Gorbachev answered it. If we face threats that are bigger than all of us, can we work together? “No doubt about it,” said the Soviet leader.

That’s the right answer.

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