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Today, we have a leadership vacuum unprecedented since the aftermath of World War II. Europe’s leaders have their hands full with a severe crisis of confidence, US policymakers are grappling with politically complicated long-term fiscal challenges, and Japan is on its 16th prime minister in the past 23 years. Emerging markets have their own distractions. China’s next generation of leaders will contend with the largest and most complex economic reform process in history, one intended to reconfigure a development model that premier Wen Jiabao has called “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” The Arab world continues to work through a drastic transition. The Indian and Brazilian economies have lost considerable steam. None of these countries is eager to assume a larger share of the costs and risks that come with global leadership.

Welcome to the G-Zero—a world where no country or group of countries is willing and able to set the international agenda. There are two primary reasons why there is no longer a workable framework for global governance: there are simply too many important players at the negotiating table and these players are too different from one another. The G-20 is comprised of nations in starkly different stages of development with a host of conflicting priorities. With different values comes lowest common denominator governance: to persuade everyone to shake hands, agreements must be made broader and shallower. The G-20 members can work together toward substantive progress only when each influential member feels equally threatened by a common problem.

Unfortunately, the G-Zero means that governments will make scant progress on the progressive goals outlined in Bright Blue’s list of core causes. Whether in providing opportunities for the most deprived, establishing the institutions and incentives needed for positive global change, or empowering environmentally and socially responsible industries and individuals, don’t expect a collaborative, broadly adopted approach. When nations are forced to prioritize—and their priorities differ drastically—little can be accomplished on the global stage. This means that many critical progressive causes will not receive the attention they deserve. We may see piecemeal approaches among “coalitions of the willing and able,” but don’t expect truly global coordination. Take climate change, where it is now sadly clear that we won’t see the developed and developing world come together to accept the need for common sacrifice to sharply reduce carbon emissions.

It’s not that there aren’t encouraging signs of progress. In recent years, we’ve seen global poverty levels fall dramatically: according to the World Bank, 22% of developing world citizens now live on less than $1.25 per day, less than half the number from 1990. The problem remains staggering in scope, but this positive trend is likely to continue.

But this progress will come largely irrespective—or in spite—of the efforts of the world’s governments. When nations cannot or will not work together to meet common challenges, it’s harder to agree on new rules and standards—and harder to enforce those rules already in place. This trend creates opportunities for non-governmental actors to play a more active role, offering both risks and opportunities to nations, corporations, NGOs, and individuals alike. In this G-Zero environment, an organization like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is all the more vital for progress—and will play a larger role in providing direction that cannot come from lowest common denominator geopolitics.

Unfortunately, actors with a less progressive agenda may also find new opportunities. Thus, some aspects of the G-Zero will empower a wealthy, highly mobile cosmopolitan elite at the expense of those with less consistent access to new ideas, information, and capital. Nations that channel their wealth to favor the few will do so with more impunity and less oversight.

That said, an individual’s role in addressing progressive issues—as a citizen or as part of an organization—is all the more vital when the world’s governments cannot effectively come together to resolve them.

That’s why, in a G-Zero order, the essential element for success is individual initiative.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World

Follow Ian on Twitter: @ianbremmer

Listen to Bright Blue blog editor Jonathan Algar in conversation with Ian at the Royal Institute of International Affairs:


The guest blog is published every Friday and views held by contributors are not necessarily those of Bright Blue, as good as they often are.

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