The Unstable Globe

American political scientist, Ian Bremmer, joined Internet pioneer and PCI co-founder, Vint Cerf for an inaugural “virtual fireside chat” to discussed today’s evolving geopolitical and technological landscape.

The two explored how our increasingly interconnected world is changing dynamics among countries, challenging international institutions, and (at least temporarily) benefitting authoritarian regimes. The globe faces challenges — including shifts in the influence of superpowers, polarization resulting from social media, and pandemics — that require a new technological, political, social and institutional coherence that has yet to manifest.

Some highlights, insights and soundbites from the conversation:

Social media that originally benefitted liberal democracy has now shifted the advantage to authoritarian regimes

“In the last 10 years, technology has moved from being a principal driver in undermining authoritarian regimes — the communications revolution — and strengthening liberal democracies, to being one that strengthens data-empowered authoritarian regimes, and fragments and polarizes democracies,”Ian said.

This changes the J Curve, Ian’s model for how economic shock affects authoritarian countries

The J-Curve today looks more like a “U,” Ian said. On the left is an authoritarian regime that loses stability after an economic shock then curves and moves up toward democratic stability. “It is in this environment increasingly unclear if there is a significant structural advantage in stability to being an open, liberal democracy as there is to being a data-empowered authoritarian regime. The curve itself is changing.”

G-Zero: Every country for itself

Ian’s G-Zero theory, published in his 2012 book Every Nation for Itself, suggests that associations of international bodies — e.g., G7, G8, G20 — are disintegrating. Today, “if anything, the depth of G-Zero — the geopolitical boom-and-bust cycle or recession is even greater than when I would have anticipated when I wrote about it coming about a decade ago,” Ian said. He cited three reasons, summarized below):

  1. Geopolitical: Some countries, China in particular, are not adapting to the Western models as they become wealthier. They may be adapting economically, but not politically to the Western architecture historically at the core of the international bodies. Meanwhile, Russia is in decline, angry, blaming the U.S. and wants to delegitimize U.S. institutions and disrupt international associations. These factors contribute to a geopolitical recession deeper and broader than expected.
  2. Domestic: More and more people, including within democracies, feel their system is delegitimized, and their social contract is not holding. Ian cited Brexit, Trump, Bernie Sanders, France, Philippines, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, India, the Five Star movement in Italy and the Alternatives for Deutschland in Germany. “This is a big structural shift and it’s happening in part because of growing economic inequality and in part because of animosity toward immigration, trends in part because of anger toward failed wars by U.S. and their allies largely on the back of these same classes of people and in part because of social media and people only digesting information that they like, polarizing society.”
  3. Institutional framework: Our international architecture reflects the geopolitical environment, power balance, values, preferences of the time they were created. Geopolitics drift and institutions usually do not. We are beginning to see that NATO. IMF, WTO are broken. “We have a series of international institutions and architectures that have eroded to the point that to they increasingly really don’t function…that gets you into trouble when you have a crisis, like financial crisis, terrorist act or pandemic.”

What can we expect around the globe and in cyber space?

Vint posed a pressing question about the future, that contained some cautionary words about the Internet. “Is it your sense that as these international institutions-and I include in that the EU as an international institution — are all beginning to fracture, is there any apparent direction that we should be expecting to go toward, or that you recommend we should be advocating in order to rebuild more coherence into our international institutions? In the absence of that, there are lot of risk factors, not the least of which is in the Internet environment. Cyber attacks take place across international boundaries because the network is unaware of the crossing of that traffic. Is there any hope or are we waiting for a new generation of leadership?”

Financial capital and human capital: the reason to hope

“There is hope because even though the institutions are broken, after 75 years of globalization, the world has a lot more capital and has a lot more human capital…even if it’s not well governed, and well organized to respond to challenges. There is more resilience baked into the individuals and the wealth. The U.S. may not be very well governed today, compared to what you’d want under a social democracy, but the U.S. can respond much better to a pandemic than, say, Iran, and can respond better to discontent — say like we had it with the Occupy Wall Street movement — than could than say, Tunisia,” Ian said. He added that rising levels of education in developing countries is another reason for hope.

The Belt and Road initiative is building influence for China

Ian cited international Chinese architecture as a source of hope for the future. “If the Chinese build a port in Sri Lanka or a railway in Nigeria, maybe we’d rather it be built by the U.S., but the Americans are not in the business of building ports… what the Chinese are doing are creating more capacity for more development and anyone can use it,” he said. He added that another reason for hope is that the Chinese are participating heavily in peace-keeping missions in places like Equatorial Africa where Americans and Europeans are not spending much money and China is the largest source of cash. Later in the discussion, he said that that China is gaining international strength as a superpower a time when the U.S. is losing influence. “China is building Belt and Road and we have no Marshall Plan,” he said.

Multi-lateral architecture and trust are required for governance of areas that need it, including cyberspace

Ian said that we must build multi-lateral — not unilateral — architecture, working with likeminded countries. For example, he said that the Americans have the corporations and the Europeans have the regulatory expertise and they should work together but that is not happening partly because the U.S. government is in a “unilateral moment” and because there is not a lot of trust, post Snowden, post NSA.

A bumpy road ahead for 5G in the geopolitical context

Vint described the concerns about Fifth generation wireless (5G) , particularly that because of the rapid development in China that could disrupt the American market with lower prices and — some worry — equipment with built-in data manipulation. Another issue, he said, is that if the U.S. focuses on on higher frequencies, the result might be losing the market for lower frequencies, while the Chinese are enabling 5G at 6 GHz and below in their new equipment.

Hidden Impacts of the Coronavirus

Ian anticipated 1.1 to 1.2 million cases but that internationally we “can’t trust data” about the virus. He described some potential volatilities politically, such as the west placing blame on China, and economically, as western corporations can blame the virus for withdrawing more workers home from Asia. “Iran is the country to watch,” he said based on indications they have under-reported the spread on the virus and has no control over its borders.

Anti-Democracy trend to speed up

Aided by social media, autocratic governments are likely to gain traction internationally over the next 5 years, Ian said. The reason? He said the right wing is more effective at tapping into nationalism at a time when many people are feeling disenfranchised.

“Ghost work” leads to social damage

An exponential growth in non-permanent labor is creating a society where people do not function well, Ian said. The social damage to these ghost workers is much greater than to traditionally employed workers in a volatile international economy.

Japan is leading the way to Society 3.0

Ian said the major question for institutions today is how to create a sustainable social model in the post-industrial world. “The road is about sustainability, not growth,” he said. Japan, he said, is the country most focused and equipped for the challenge of developing new social, political, and economic norms that will be sustainable in Society 3.0

Posted in Policy & Governing, Vint Cerf and tagged .

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  1. Pingback: March Update: Message from Mei Lin – People-Centered Internet

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