It Takes a Crisis to Solve a Crisis
At my core I’m an optimist. Not to be confused with a Pollyanna. I try to stay open to ideas and sources of inspiration and innovation that could lead us to a better place – no easy feat.
Which is why I enjoyed (or more accurately, had the enriching experience of) reading Ian Bremmer’s book, The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – And Our Response – Will Change the World. I personally would have amended Bremmer’s title to read: How Three Threats – And Our Response – Will Change the World. OR WON’T.
Bremmer, a renowned political scientist and author, with a focus on global political risk, is the President and Founder of Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm. He’s also a founder of the digital media firm GZERO Media. Bremmer serves as a foreign affairs columnist and Editor at Large for Time Magazine and teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
In his New York Times best-selling book, which is unnerving but not without glimmers of hope, Bremmer presents, in the starkest of terms, how domestic and international conflicts leave us unprepared for three looming crises unfolding over the next decade; crises from which we might never come back: global pandemics, transformative climate change, and the disruptive technologies that come with the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution.
Here’s the real problem: Americans have arrived at a moment when we can’t seem to reach consensus on any significant political issue; and U.S. and Chinese leaders, at the helm of two leading world powers, are behaving like they’re locked in a new Cold War.
But we have multiple opponents, not the least of which is ourselves. The result being that we are squandering opportunities to meet the challenges that will soon confront us all. What we need, according to Bremmer, is “a crisis scary enough to make us forge a new international system that promotes effective cooperation on a few crucial questions.”
“G-Zero” is the term Bremmer uses to describe the world in which we find ourselves, where we lack leaders willing or able to break up fights and force compromise even in the name of global stability, shared benefit, and indeed human survival. And unfortunately, we see the same thing in our domestic politics even when our lives and those of our children and grandchildren depend on such cooperation. “In truth,” Bremmer says, “there’s no guarantee our world will survive the next fifty years.”
Even for perennial optimists, that’s terrifying. The author’s entirely reasonable solutions involve such basic things (we all should have learned in grade school) like government action, self-sacrifice, and tolerance of opposing opinions, all of which are in short supply at the moment. I wondered what gives Bremmer, one of the greatest minds exploring international affairs, hope that this can change given the deep divisions that exist between the U.S. and its adversaries, like China and Russia and Iran; not to mention deepening political divisions within our own country with a growing call for a more nationalistic agenda.
Bremmer does deliver some good news, however. Like that some farsighted political leaders, decision-makers, and individual citizens are hard at work collaborating to tackle the crises. What keeps me awake, what should keep all of us awake, is whether they will work well enough and quickly enough to navigate us toward a better world before it’s too late?
Bremmer is deeply engaged in this important work and on a world tour for his best-selling book. Which is why I was given the opportunity to ask just one question.
What I wanted to ask: How could I possibly ask just one question when you’re saying the world is at risk of ending in the next 50 years?
My Question: The us vs. them mentality between the U.S. and China (regarding technological competition) in many ways mirrors the us vs. them mentality seen in our deep political divisions. You say that finding and sharing accurate information can be the difference between life and death. Do you see any way of establishing an agreed upon set of facts and a shared understanding of what’s at stake for our world so that countries like the U.S. and China can begin to collaborate at least toward finding solutions?
Bremmer’s answer: You are right that the us vs. them mentality (unfortunately) translates to and epitomizes the world’s two largest economies as well as domestic politics in the United States. The unprecedented technological advances of the last decade have only exacerbated this process of alienation. However, that was not always the case. Rapid expansion of social media, online presence among developing and even least developed societies, and accessibility to internet in real time by individuals virtually across the globe some 15-20 years ago, initially brought a wave of optimism. Accountability, almost instant flow of information, and rallying of bottom up, grassroots movements enabled democracy promotion thanks to the emerging technologies such as fast internet, smartphones, and social media. It also helped pave the way out of poverty to millions, on every continent.
Soon, nondemocratic and hybrid regimes caught up, adapted, and started using these technological advances, binding them to highly controlled and censored environments, and influencing and mobilizing largest amounts of people. To your question, we do have to ensure the technological advances don’t come back to bite us. Fact checking, listening to, and engaging in a respectful debate with the other side, breaking the echo-chambers, are some of the ways that we can enhance our online experience. And this individual behavior can indeed save us a lot of friendships, nerves, and lives. But that’s just one variable, a part of the solution.
The second variable lies within the institutions, again – domestic and international. From regulating the big technological firms – the European Union is on the forefront of this process – to creating an international body that would address disruptive technologies. Here, reaching a consensus that we have a problem with disruptive tech on a global scale is necessary but not sufficient. Similar to the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – also known as the Conference of the Parties, or simply COP – we need to establish a World Data Organization that would define the problem, reach a consensus on the issues at stake, and then start a long (and yes, necessarily bureaucratic) process of finding the way forward.
Only through such an international format can the U.S., China, the E.U. (as the three most important actors), along with other state and nonstate actors (including the technology firms as stakeholders), ensure that the world safely advances the benefits of one of the greatest achievements of humankind.
Of course, I had more questions. Here are some that Bremmer will likely touch on in his upcoming presentation on November 10 at 7:30 pm at the Granada Theatre, as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Thematic Learning Initiative this season: Leadership and Vision.
MJ: You say the greatest threat to America arises from its own failings: its hyper polarized politics, widening inequity, and deepening mistrust of political institutions and the media. How much of this, if any, has been intentionally orchestrated by other countries to sow divisions, like Russia and China and Iran, through cyber warfare?
MJ: Algorithms are fast replacing humans in the workplace. You write that these technologies are shifting the relationship not only between the citizen and the state, but between us and our fellow humans. That they’re “changing what it means to be human.” What do you mean by that?
MJ: In your chapter about Pandemic Politics, you call out ways that the private sector can play a crucial role in what you call “shock absorption.” Has the private sector stepped up enough to provide this? Universities?
MJ: You write that “solutions to our most pressing problems are enormously disruptive, politically, economically, and socially.” And yet, Americans have proven that we don’t want to be inconvenienced, even if it means saving our own lives. How can we create a greater perceived self-interest to help us, for example in the case of our climate crisis, to reach net-zero targeting?
MJ: Drawing on strategies from The Marshall Plan to The Green New Deal, you provide something of a roadmap for surviving – even thriving in – the 21st century, with governments, corporations, and concerned citizens. Can we use these coming crises to create what 20th-century globalism promised but failed to deliver? And how is that possible when there seems to be so little political will (internationally and domestically) to get us there? What incentives can we create to alter this reality?
MJ: What role will quantum computing play in helping to find solutions to the world’s more vexing questions?
MJ: With the growing “digital divide,” there is a strong need for global investment in narrowing these gaps in the form of regulations of businesses that have been, heretofore, unwilling to shift business models that profit by dividing opinions and people. When corporations have so much power, and there’s such a strong push for even greater deregulation, what’s the answer?
MJ: You call out nations’ capacities to shut down another country’s critical infrastructure – its national nervous system. Are there steps we can take to limit such potentially imminent and devastating risks?
MJ: How can we find what you call “moral imagination” to solve our most vexing and existentially threatening problems?
Do yourself a favor: go hear Ian Bremmer speak about what are undoubtedly some of the most existentially important and vexing issues of our lifetime. And you will likely have the chance to ask some of your own questions. Or, if you’d prefer, feel free to ask any of mine.