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The Power of Crisis: Book Review

The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change The World (2022), Ian Bremmer. Bremmer talks about five or so crisis and collapses them down to three: 1) red versus blue America, 2) The US versus China, 3) pandemics and other health emergencies, 4) climate change, and 5) disruptive new technologies. Whatever the number, people reasonably well read and keeping up with the news will consider much of the coverage a basic review. He also spends a good deal of time on what he calls solutions, which would be useful but often seem unlikely. He has multiple interesting points throughout.

Just as the book was about to go to press, Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24. This became an Afterword. This is an area of the world Bremmer has particular expertise, but too late for his analysis.

The first crisis is the disaster that is US domestic politics. Voters (and activists) seek information (or misinformation) promoting their points of view. Distorted views are picked up to varying degrees by all levels of government. [This is not equal on both sides, which is somewhat downplayed. Dana Milbank is coming out with a book on the last 25 years of horrific Republican politics.]

Bremmer combines this with the threats from the US and China heading in the wrong direction. The two are economically interdependent, not a bad thing for the Chinese middle class, but Xi Jing Ping likely will be president (basically, dictator) for life and China expands as a police state.

Covid-19 was not considered one of the crises but interacted with the other topics in mainly negative ways. This was an obvious area where the world should have come together in a multitude of interactive ways.

The climate crisis is obvious and seems to get worse day-by-day, with heat records, flooding, droughts, and fires. The news provides daily reminders.

The one crisis area that’s relatively new to me is disruptive tech: the potential for cyber warfare, biotech, artificial intelligence. Plus, algorithms resulting in machines replacing people, autonomous drones, personal information accumulated by companies and countries. In the US it’s tech companies at the forefront. Europe does a better job of regulating them. China, on the other hand, has the central government gathering and controlling information and regulating habit of its citizens, at the forefront for all dictatorships.

Bremmer talks about the broken international system using the term G-Zero World. The concept of the decline of the Group of Seven (US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada) influencing the world and other powerful groups like the G20, European Union, NATO, WTO, WHO, and so on. These are all functioning, but Bremmer sees them as less effective since the financial crisis of 2008-10. [I’m a bit more optimistic on these organizations. NATO proved reasonably effective against Russia, for example, but this happened after the book was published.] An important point is the relative power of nations and other organizations relative to the economic power of trillion-dollar global corporations. Four years of Trump disrupted considerable government action, not only in the US but across the globe.

“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. … The next decade will see US-China confrontation, a future pandemic, unchecked climate change, and life-altering technologies, each of which do more damage to our species than any other crisis in history” (p. 12-4).

Chapter 1: Two Collisions—US vs. Them, At Home and Abroad. The US does great at innovation, but politics is broken. “The United States remains the only nation that can project political, economic, cultural, and military power into every region of the world. And it’s at war with itself” (p. 16). There are widening wealth gaps [one measure is the Gini coefficient (.434 for the US, a spectacularly high number when .2-.3 represents reasonable equality)]. The top 1% do well even during pandemics, while the working class stays flat. American capitalism is under-regulated, great for executive and shareholders, bad for workers. Money in politics makes matters worse.

“Fake news” is real, but real news is called fake. The media has been much discredited. [My biggest gripe is the focus on sensationalism rather than important information. Of course, I can tolerate boring, complex analysis. Critical thinking skills and the ability to corroborate whatever is presented also is required.] There are “cultural wars,” prompted by politics. “In US politics today, candidates … make outrageous statements and take extreme positions to seize the spotlight. Social media trends have taught them that anger drives attention, therefore money, and therefore success” (p. 21). People receive news to confirm their worldview and biases.

“Those who dismiss the importance of race in American life argue that slavery, segregation, and other forms of discrimination bear no relation to current events” (p. 22). Then the corporate capture of government (a corporation is a ‘person’) is made through the influence of money. “Democrats make economic appeals to the sense of self-interest (to working families), while Republicans make cultural appeals to tribal solidarity” (p. 25).

China became an economic power, then created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It created a regional free-trade zone. The Belt and Road Initiative builds infrastructure across many countries. China is one of the few countries with a long-term global strategy. The Thucydides Trap explained why established power Sparta attacked emerging power Athens. China may rewrite the rules initially established after WWII and the Cold War. But there are mutual economic ties that provided profit opportunities for American companies for cheap labor then a large consumer market. China lacks rule of law, violates intellectual property rights, and limits its markets. Trump instituted large tariffs on Chinese products, resulting in a trade war. “The US and China are now ‘decoupling’ each side’s economic, financial, and technological dependence on the other” (p. 39). Failure and deception transformed COVID from a Chinese problem into a global pandemic. Trump did little and damaged European attitudes on the US.

“The American tech ecosystem is built by the private sector and (loosely) regulated by the government. The Chinese system is dominated by the state; so too is the collection of big data, the development of AI, the rollout of 5G technology, and defense and retaliation against cyberattacks” (p. 44). The US military intervened repeatedly in other countries, often with fiascos (e.g., Central America, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan). Democracies by and large have accepted refugees, but China refuses. China is a “fear society, not a free society” and a police state; citizens are treated as potential criminals including monitoring with a social credit score. Area of difference will continue to be Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea.

Chapter 2: Pandemic Politics. Health systems were overwhelmed by COVID, in part because of a lack of resilience and relying on Asia for vital supplies. This crisis was not the answer to a crisis that would unite the world in cooperation. The Trump team did not heed public health warnings or prepare for an emergency. The balance should have been containment versus maintaining economic activity. Beijing covered up the initial crisis and arguably caused the global pandemic. Cooperation did not follow. Trump and China were key reasons. They were on the lookout for scapegoats. Scientists and vaccine creators did a commendable job.

“Europe, the world’s largest common market, lacks game-changing technology firms, a strong military, strong banks, abundant natural resources, and a global reserve currency. And consensus among members on anything requiring sacrifice and compromise will never come easy” (p. 85).

There are plenty of pathogens to cause the next pandemic, like monkey pox for example. Unsanitary factory farming creates risks as do migratory birds. Local public health agencies have been underfunded. Universities typically do basic research. Of course, the public health answer is to prepare for the next pandemic.

Chapter 3. Climate Emergency. Drought in the Middle East led to Arab Spring in 2011, civil war in Syria, and millions of refugees. Drought hit Central America, adding to the migration to the US. As climate change worsens, populations will rise in Africa, South Asia, and Central America. Globalization increased incomes of billions, but at the cost of exploiting natural resources. The percent of the globe too hot to support life will increase from 1% to 20% by 2070. Fossil fuels, cattle, environmental destruction will make climate change worse. Drought and flood will increase simultaneously. Rising oceans make coastal cities vulnerable. North Africa and the Middle East will be particularly vulnerable. Developed countries will fare better than developing. Money will be directed away from fossil fuels to ESG (environmental, social, and governance), hopefully with action rather than slogans.

Chapter 4. Disruptive Technologies. “European governments led a so-called techlash against the American tech powerhouses, which they accused of violating their customers’ privacy. … Companies survived the pandemic only by allowing wired workers to log in from home. Consumers avoided possible infection by shopping online. … AI played a crucial role in vaccine development by absorbing all available medical literature to identify links between the generic properties of the virus and the chemical composition and effects of existing drugs” (p. 127). There are long-term technological changes in the workplace. Robots allow more home-country factories. This will particularly affect low-income workers. One result of the digital age is fragmenting of sources of news and other information, including “the filter bubble.” Politicians feed on their versions of reality. Tyrants use communication as a political weapon. Tech increases the power of institutions by collecting and controlling personal data (“surveillance capitalism”), especially China’s social credit system. China transfers this technology to other countries. 5G will expand the availability of AI.

Intelligent weapons allow war with autonomous weapons like drones. Cyberwar also is increasing. Both state-sponsored and criminal ransomware. State sponsors can steal secrets. “Artificial intelligence is a catchall term for the set of tools that allow humans to automate a process that requires ‘intelligence,’ like planning, learning, reasoning through problems, and predicting the future. … Artificial general intelligence: bringing machines to a much wider range of jobs than robots that are programmed to perform a small set of physical tasks well” (p. 157). “The greatest risk that AI presents is the possibility that one country will develop an insurmountable lead in its development, an achievement that would allow it monopolistic control over the world order” (p. 159). Chinese companies along with the government, less so in the US. Data privacy and government surveillance becomes a bigger problem with new technologies.

Conclusions. Security, dignity, and prosperity are three fundamental aspirations. Then food and water, rule of law, potential to earn a living. How do crises affect these? Bremmer indicates the world need a goldilocks crisis that brings the world together. It turned out Covid was not that crisis. The Russian attack on Ukraine did bring the US, NATO and other together, against a common enemy. He suggests a Green Marshall Plan and a World Data Organization.

The US should regulate data like Europe. Bremmer points out that tech blocked Trump from access after January 6, but the net impact of that date has yet to be determined. “The ability of tech companies to work with government … will depend on whether they’re driven by goals that are globalist, techno-utopian, or nationalist” (p. 196).

Addendum. Russia attacks Ukraine after the book goes to press, indicating a new Cold War. The US and Russia have rough parity in cyber-capabilities, plus the unspeakable nuclear weapons. NATO now has significant importance.


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