The Decade of Disruption

The Decade of Disruption

Ten years ago tomorrow, Lehman Brothers, the financial services behemoth, collapsed. It was a crucial moment in what became the most severe global financial crisis since the 1930s. US banks teetered. European markets shuddered. Growth slowed in Asia. China’s diminished demand for oil, gas, metals, and minerals hit emerging markets in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.


Crises radicalize voters, say the political scientists, and the decade since the fall of Lehman has provided plenty of new evidence. The US financial market meltdown didn’t directly trigger all the remarkable political events that followed, but the anger and fear of the future it provoked have effects that reverberate still.

  • The US financial crisis triggered a global recession and a European sovereign debt crisis severe enough to call the survival of the Eurozone into question.

  • A wave of unrest swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia’s government fell. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak went to prison. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was executed in the street. Yemen exploded into violence. Syria sank into a civil war that has killed or displaced half the country’s population.

  • Middle East unrest triggered a new crisis in Europe, as more than two million migrants made their way north, transforming European politics. Angry, fearful voters began to reject establishment political parties.

  • In 2016, faced with a choice between continued membership in the European Union and a leap into the unknown, Britons chose Brexit.

  • In the United States, voters chose a brash celebrity businessman who had never run for office over a rival who epitomized the political establishment.

  • In 2017, the long-dominant political parties of center-right and center-left were swept aside in France in favor of another candidate making his very first run for office. Emmanuel Macron led a party he had created from nothing just one year before.

  • German voters re-elected Angela Merkel to a fourth term, but her center-right party and its center-left coalition partner posted their lowest share of the vote in decades. A party of the far-right won seats in the Bundestag for the first time since 1945. It is now the largest opposition party in Germany.

  • In 2018, Italian voters pushed aside long-established parties to elevate a movement founded nine years ago by a professional comedian and a rebranded separatist party from the country’s north.

  • In Mexico, voters elected the first leftist president since the 1930s, a man leading a political party he created just four years prior.

  • In Pakistan, voters rejected the long-dominant Bhutto and Sharif dynasties in favor of a man who became famous as captain of the country’s 1992 World Cup-winning cricket team.

  • In Brazil, voters go to the polls next month to cast ballots in a wide-open election.

These events represent rejection of the known and a lunge toward the brand new. This has become a world of profound political disruption.

There’s no reason to believe this turbulence is nearing an end.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Do we spend too much time thinking about our own carbon footprints and not enough time thinking about bigger factors? Climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert acknowledges it's necessary for individuals to make changes in the way they live, but that isn't the number one priority.

"What would you do to try to move this battleship in a new direction? It requires public policy levers. And it requires … some pretty serious legislation." Ian Bremmer spoke with Kolbert, an award-winning journalist and author and staff writer at The New Yorker, on a new episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television.

Watch the episode: Can We Fix the Planet the Same Way We Broke It?

Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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