G-zero: the new world order

October 10-11, 2015| FT | Gillian Tett

A few weeks ago, as grim news tumbled out of Syria, I travelled to a pleasant American holiday resort to participate in a conference of (mostly western) political and corporate leaders. Unsurprisingly, geopolitics topped the agenda: for several hours, the delegates debated the Middle East, the antics of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the health of China and so on. As the night drew on, the assembled crowd flopped on to sofas with popcorn and ice cream for "light" entertainment: a screening of the new Steven Spielberg cold war thriller Bridge of Spies.

It tells the story of an American civilian lawyer, John Donovan, who improbably orchestrated a deal in 1962 to swap a captured Russian spy for two US prisoners, including Gary Powers, the U2 spy-plane pilot captured by the Soviets. As movies go, it was entertaining. It is also pretty accurate - at least according to some of the western military leaders who were, somewhat surreally, sitting on the sofa that night.

As I watched the film, I was hit by a sense of poignant regret - although not for reasons that the producers might expect. In the early 1960s, as Bridge of Spies illustrates, the world was gripped by a profound sense of fear: the populations of the USSR and the United States both knew that nuclear bombs could wipe out their nations.

It was also a time when fear was exacerbated by an information fog: since nobody had mobile phones or internet access, it was hard for anyone - including diplomats - to be sure of what was really going on. It is little wonder, then, that when today's ageing foreign policy leaders recall that era, they present it as a high-stakes, nerve-racking game of geopolitical chess - prisoner swaps were the easy part.

But while the era illustrated by Bridge of Spies felt terrifying to anyone living through those chess games, what is more alarming is that most of the western leaders who watched the film that night would probably prefer to be back in those times - rather than grappling with the nightmares stalking the geopolitical landscape today.

During the cold war, it was at least clear where the "sides" stood in that diplomatic chess game. Deals could be discussed between two governments, and sometimes get done. But the terrible problem today, as one seasoned western military official observed watching Bridge of Spies, is that the major powers are now "playing eight-dimensional chess".

Yes, the US and Russia are, once again, jostling for power (and nobody should forget that "Russia and America control 95 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons", as another intelligence official tartly observed). But they are no longer the only "sides" in the Middle East, since numerous other ethnic and religious interests are now involved - as well as the rise of Islamic extremism. Occasionally, this kaleidoscope produces patterns. One hot topic for debate in foreign policy circles today, for example, is the fact that the US is now mostly aligned with Sunni interests (excluding the Islamist militants Isis); and Russia with Shia groups. But no sooner does one "pattern" emerge, then something else arises to confuse that chessboard or add another dimension - and not just in the Middle East.

Is China a threat, or a potential ally against North Korea? What about Pakistan? "People used to say that my enemy's enemy is my friend," one of America's most seasoned diplomats recently observed in New York. "But you can't say that now - your enemy's enemy is an enemy too."

Meanwhile, the concept of a "state" is unravelling as well. Back in the 1960s, deals were cut - and wars fought- between governments. Today, however, states are fragmenting across the Middle East. We no longer live in a world shaped by two superpowers, or the Group of Seven leading nations, or the G20, or G2 (namely, China and the US). Instead, according to political analyst Ian Bremmer, we are in "G-zero": a place where nobody is able to orchestrate a balance of power on the chessboard.

Of course, if you take a long historical view, G-zero is not that odd. The modern nation state is, after all, a relatively recent invention, and most of human history is a tale of messy distrust and violent small wars. But that is no comfort for today's western elite. Nor for the voters. "The real problem is that there is not a narrative arc [in foreign policy] any more," one Hollywood producer sighed. You could turn the Bridge of Spies tale into a film because there were goodies and baddies and "sides". The mess in Syria defies explanation, let alone resolution, in a movie or anywhere else. Therein lies the tragedy of 2015 - and the horrific challenge that haunts our modern political stage.

last updated november 2015