'Us Vs. Them': Inside Globalism

Apr 26, 2018

With Meghna Chakrabarti

He was a booster for globalism. Now Ian Bremmer says it’s failed — and he sees trouble ahead. We speak with the author about his new book, “Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.

Guest

Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group, and Editor-at-Large and Global Affairs Columnist for TIME. His new book is called “Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. (@ianbremmer)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Us Vs. Them” by Ian Bremmer

Why do Palestinians throw rocks? To attract attention? To improve their lives? To make progress toward creation of a Palestinian state? They throw rocks because they want others to see that they’ve had enough, that they can’t be ignored, and that they can break things. Voting isn’t helping them. Outsiders don’t care. Where are the opportunities to bring about change? There is nothing left but to throw rocks.

In that sense, there will soon be Palestinians all over the world. Workers everywhere fear lost jobs and wages as a shifting global economy and technological change leave them behind. Citizens fear surging waves of strangers who alter the face and voice of the country they know. They fear terrorists and criminals who kill for reasons no one can understand. They fear that government cannot or will not protect them. Gripped by anxiety, they get angry. To make themselves seen, heard, and felt, they start to throw rocks.

Then the call for help is answered. Donald Trump tells an excited overflow crowd that he sees them, that he sees their enemies, and that only he can take them (back) to the promised land. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders tell cheering fans that big corporations and Wall Street banks are robbing them blind. Champions of Brexit tell voters they must reclaim Britain’s borders and reject laws and rules imposed by Europeans. European populists tell followers they will lead the charge of patriots against foreigners and globalists.

These leaders aren’t arguing that government should be bigger or smaller, that it should tax less or spend more. They’re challenging the right of “elites” to make the rules that govern our lives. They tell citizens they’ve been cheated of their chance to succeed, and that the media is in on it. They promise to comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and burn down the houses of power.

We can attack these populists, mock them, or dismiss them, but they know something important about the people they’re talking to, and they understand that many people believe that “globalism” and “globalization” have failed them. These would‑be leaders have a talent for drawing boundaries between people. They offer a compelling vision of division, of “us vs. them,” of the worthy citizen fighting for his rights against the entitled or grasping thief. Depending on the country and the moment, “them” may mean rich people or poor people, foreigners or religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. It can mean supporters of a rival political party or people who live in a different part of the country. It can mean politicians, bankers, or reporters. However applied, it’s a tried- and- true political tool.

This book is not about the rocks or the damage they do on impact. Rocks are expressions of frustration. They don’t solve problems. Instead, we must look more closely at the deeper sources of these frustrations, at how governments around the world are likely to respond to them, and how political leaders, institutions, companies, schools, and citizens can work together to make things better.

There was no wealth where I grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but from my childhood street you could see it in Boston’s green and gold skyline. I had no idea what went on inside those towers, but they had my attention. How do you get from here to there, I wondered? When my high school offered a program called “Teach a Kid How America Works,” I leaped at the chance to join. We junior achievers put on our coats and ties, headed downtown, up the crowded streets, past the men in suits, through the tall glass doors, up the quiet elevator before gliding to a silent stop, waiting, and stepping into the place where the executives worked. I think it was a bank. It had the deepest carpet I’d ever seen.

Then we were ushered in for an audience with Tim, a man who seemed genuinely glad to meet us. He had a strong handshake, and he looked at me like he was really looking at me. “Would you like to work here?” he asked the group. One of us said yes and the rest nodded in agreement. “Nobody’s stopping you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you want to be successful, you just have to study hard and work hard. It’s totally up to you.” He believed it, so I did too.

He was right. From the projects, I earned a college scholarship and then a PhD, got an idea, launched a company, made money, got on TV, and wrote books. A kid born on the hard edge of a great American city, the child of a single mother (my dad died when I was four) who, with uncommon singleness of purpose, walked two boys past every trap and pushed us toward success. One small example of the American dream.

As a young adult, the American dream came wrapped in a package of “globalism,” a belief in universal interdependence and international exchange that seemed to provide paths to prosperity for both the poor boy I was and the successful man I hoped to become. Globalism seemed a generous choice; it’s the game everyone can win. Embrace capitalism, lower the walls, hire, build, and expand. People who’ve made it, or who believe they’ll get a fair shot, are drawn to globalism. I devoted my professional life to it. Why not? The system worked for me, and it has lifted hundreds of millions around the world from poverty. Why can’t it one day work for everyone?

It didn’t, and it hasn’t. An early counterexample came with the rioting at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization, where what began as a peaceful, well-organized, pro-labor protest became a magnet for anticorporate, antinuclear, anti-what-else‑ya‑got anarchist street theater, and then a running battle between kids dodging rubber bullets and cops dodging rocks. Globalists didn’t pay much attention. In retrospect, it was a warning sign.

In 2008, years of deregulation, bad bets, and bad faith brought down some of the world’s biggest banks, sending shock waves around the world. Next came the Occupy Wall Street movement, leaving bankers worried that the vagrants might get violent. The World Economic Forum at Davos that year was fascinating. No one knew how bad things would get for the global economy or what would happen next. But then came the bailouts for banks, which stabilized the markets. China’s leaders injected billions to keep China’s economic engine humming, the world’s elites went back to business, and Wall Street’s occupiers went home.

The Arab world’s aborted revolutions got our attention, and the refugee crises it triggered brought them closer to home, but it wasn’t until Britain voted to leave the European Union that the indictment of globalism became unavoidably obvious. Then Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States.

Today, the watchword is inequality. We have always known the world remained an unfair place, but most of the world’s elites believed, with plenty of evidence, that globalism was the solution, not the problem. But while the elites convene for debate, more people are getting frustrated.

Back in Chelsea, in my old neighborhood, people are angry. They no longer believe that hard work and education are enough. They don’t see a path, and they feel they’ve been lied to. For decades. My brother voted for Donald Trump, and if my mother were alive, I bet she would have too. She certainly wouldn’t have voted for anyone who has spent any time in Washington over the past thirty years. The anger is becoming more obvious—in Appalachia, in Gaza, in Latin America, in North Africa, and in Eastern Europe.

Excerpted from US VS. THEM by Ian Bremmer, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ian Bremmer, 2018.

Ian Bremmer admits he’s a globalist. He believed in capitalism, free trade, open borders. But his message for his fellow champions of globalization — that ideology has failed. The populist backlash of the past few years isn’t ebbing. The French President may chide the U.S. Congress about isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism, but Bremmer says it’s foolish to believe that Americans will revert to supporting the establishment. But the world is interconnected. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. So what to do about it?

This hour, On Point: Ian Bremmer on the failures of globalism.

 — Meghna Chakrabarti

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.