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Who runs the world?

Ian Bremmer during his TED Talk
Gilberto Tadday / TED

That’s the subject of my just-released TED Talk. And, believe it or not, it used to be an easy question to answer.

Editor's Note: The following is adapted from this TED Talk. Another version of this appears on the Foreign Policy site.

If you’re over 45, like me, you grew up in a world dominated by two superpowers. The United States and its allies set the rules on one side of the Berlin Wall, while the Soviet Union called the shots on the other. Nearly every other country had to align its political, economic, and security systems with one side or the other. That was a bipolar world.

If you’re under 45, you came of age after the Soviet Union collapsed. The US became the world’s sole superpower, dictating outcomes both through its dominant role in international organizations and also by exerting raw power. That was a unipolar world.

About 15 years ago, the world changed again – and it got a lot more complicated. The United States became less interested in being the world’s policeman, the architect of global trade, and even the cheerleader of global values. And lots of other countries grew powerful enough to ignore rules they didn’t like and, occasionally, to set some themselves. That’s the G-Zero world order I named my media company after and constantly write about – a leaderless world.

Three things happened to cause this “geopolitical recession” – when the global architecture no longer lines up with the underlying balance of power.

First, the US didn’t bring Russia into the US-led international order. Now a former great power in serious decline, Russia has become extremely angry and sees the US as its primary adversary on the global stage. We can argue about who is most to blame for this, but the fact is we are where we are.

Second, the US did bring China into US-led institutions – but on the presumption that as the Chinese grew more integrated, wealthy, and powerful, they would also become American (i.e., a free-market democracy willing to play by the rules without wanting to change them). As it turns out, they’re still Chinese – and the US is not ready to accept that.

And third, the US and its allies ignored the tens of millions of their own citizens who felt left behind by globalization. After decades of benign neglect, most of these citizens have grown fundamentally mistrustful of their governments and of democracy itself, in turn making their leaders less able or willing to lead.

All the geopolitical crises you see in the headlines every day? Over 90% of them trace back directly or indirectly to these three issues.

Yet for better or worse, geopolitical recessions don’t last forever. After all, nature abhors a (power) vacuum. And the coming global order is something very, very different from what we’ve become used to.

Where we are now

We no longer live in a unipolar or bipolar or multipolar world. Why? Because we no longer have superpowers – as in, countries that exert global power in every domain. That’s right, the US and China are not superpowers today. And no superpowers means no single global order. Instead, what we have today is multiple world orders, separate but interconnected.

First, we have a unipolar security order. The US is the only country that can send soldiers, sailors, and military hardware to every corner of the world. Nobody else comes close. America’s role in the security order today is more essential – and indeed more dominant – than it was a decade ago.

China is rapidly growing its military capabilities in Asia, but nowhere else in a significant way. That’s increasingly concerning to America’s Indo-Pacific allies, who now rely on the US security umbrella more than before. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has similarly made Europe the most dependent on US-led NATO it has been in decades. Meanwhile, Russia’s military has been weakened by the loss of over 200,000 troops and much of its critical materiel in Ukraine, all of which it’ll find hard to rebuild in the face of Western sanctions.

Yes, China, Russia, and others have nuclear weapons, but actually using them is still suicide. The US is the world’s sole security superpower – and will remain so for at least the next decade.

We also have a multipolar economic order. There, global power is more widely shared. The US has a robust and dynamic economy, still the world’s largest. But military might doesn’t allow Washington to set the rules for the global economy.

Despite all the talk about a new cold war, the US and China are far too economically interdependent to decouple from each other. Bilateral trade between the two keeps making new highs, and other countries want access to both American muscle and the Chinese market (soon to become the world’s largest). You can’t have an economic cold war if there’s no one willing to fight it.

Meanwhile, the European Union is the world’s largest common market, and it’s able to set rules and standards that the Americans, Chinese, and others have to accept as the price of doing business with it. Japan is still a global economic power, if barely. India’s economy is growing rapidly, and with it, so is its influence on the global stage.

The relative importance of these and other economies will continue to shift over the coming decade, but what’s certain is that the global economic order is and will remain a multipolar order.

Where we’re going

So far, I’ve written about the two world orders we already see. But there’s a third, rapidly emerging order where we find the most uncertainty … and the greatest changes to the world we know: the digital order. There, unlike every other geopolitical order past and present, the dominant actors setting rules and exerting power aren’t governments but technology companies.

You’ve heard how NATO weapons, intelligence, and training have helped Ukrainians defend their land. But if Western tech companies hadn’t quickly come to the rescue in the early days of the invasion – fending off Russian cyberattacks and allowing Ukrainian leaders to communicate with their soldiers on the front lines – Russia would have knocked Ukraine completely offline within weeks, effectively ending (and winning) the war. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say President Zelensky probably wouldn’t be in power today if not for tech companies and their power in the new digital order.

Tech companies decide whether Donald Trump can speak without filters and in real time to hundreds of millions of people as he runs for president again. Without social media and its ability to mass market conspiracy theories, there is no January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, no trucker riots in Ottawa, no January 8 revolt in Brazil.

Tech companies even define our identities. We used to wonder whether human behavior was primarily the result of nature or nurture. No longer – today, it’s nature, nurture, and algorithm. The digital order is becoming a critical determinant of how we live, what we believe in, what we want … and what we’re willing to do to get it.

That’s a staggering amount of power that tech companies have amassed. And it leads to the biggest question for all of us: How will technology companies use their power? The answer depends largely on what they want to be when they grow up. I see three possible scenarios.

If American and Chinese political leaders continue to assert themselves ever more forcefully in the digital space, and if the tech companies then line up with their home governments, then we’ll end up in a technology cold war between the US and China. The digital world will be split in two, other countries will be forced to choose sides, and globalization will fragment to a degree unprecedented in the last several decades.

If the tech companies stick with global growth strategies, refusing to align with governments and preserving the existing divide between the physical and digital fields of competition, then we’ll see a new globalization – a globalized digital order. Tech companies will remain sovereign in the digital space, competing largely with each other for profits – and with governments for geopolitical power much in the same way that major state actors presently jockey for influence in the space where the economic and security orders overlap.

But if the digital space itself becomes the most important arena of great power competition, with the power of governments continuing to erode relative to the power of tech companies, then the digital order itself will become the dominant global order. If that happens, we’ll have a post-Westphalian world – a technopolar order dominated by tech companies as the central players in 21st-century geopolitics.

All three of these scenarios strike me as wholly plausible. Much depends on how the explosive nature of artificial intelligence drives changes in existing power structures, whether or not governments are able and willing to regulate tech companies, and – most critically – how tech leaders decide they want to use their newfound power.

These questions will determine whether we have a brighter future or a world without freedom.


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