Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, Ian Bremmer, Portfolio, 208 pages

If there were a Pollyanna Prize for books on the state of the world, the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker would be the odds-on favorite to win it. Pinker, the public intellectual, long ago ventured beyond his academic specialization and, in bestselling books (most recently Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress), sought to demolish pessimists by proving that rationality and scientific advancements continue to make life in all its aspects steadily better for all. Those who find, as David Runciman does in a recent review, that Pinker is “so smug, so condescending, so sure that he’s on the right side of history,” may wish to try Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. If there were an annual Eeyore Prize for nonfiction, Bremmer’s book would be a prime contender this year. In contrast to Pinker, Bremmer wants you to know that the world is in trouble and that things will get worse because the gales of the grassroots anger whipped up by globalism’s multiple failures have yet to gain their full force.

Bremmer, a wunderkind, had a brief foray into academe and then, still in his thirties, built from scratch the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, turning it into an international brand name—and becoming wealthy while he was at it. Yet he evinces deep sympathy for those who have been mistreated by globalism. He wants readers to know that though he’s part of the elite that the folks with pitchforks will come after, a straight-out Davos man he’s not. He was “born on the hard edge of an American city,” was raised by a single mother, attended college on a scholarship, and then earned a doctorate—a poor boy who succeeded the hard way. His brother voted for Donald Trump, and his late mother would have also. He understands what it’s like to lack means and to struggle, even though he became a public intellectual and joined the minority that globalization made rich and famous. Early in the book, then, Bremmer is at pains to establish his street cred.

Us vs. Them offers a brief, breezy survey chock-full of anecdotes and on-point examples that highlight the worldwide backlash against globalism. There are no caveats. Bremmer paints in black and white, not for him the color gray. His central point is that a widening economic and cultural divide has emerged in the world. A minority has gained enormous power and wealth from globalization, but the masses have been left out in the cold. The losers, Bremmer warns, are mad as hell, and no amount of standard globalization-lifts-all-boats punditry from the Davos crowd will shake their belief that they have been snookered. They done being seduced by politicians’ speeches inspired by Thomas Friedman’s breathless, and once-ubiquitous, paean to globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Same with follow-ons to more thoughtful books, including Financial Times economic columnist Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works and Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization. People shortchanged by globalism have, Bremmer tells us, realized that its oracles, safely ensconced in plush apartments or suburban swanky homes or large corner offices or Ivy League campuses, have never experienced their quotidian difficulties and anxieties, and never will. They are all theory and no practice. Take that, Steven Pinker.

The tidal wave of anti-globalist rage that Bremmer describes was artfully mobilized by Donald Trump and, in Europe, produced the likes of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Matteo Salvini, and other xenophobes, while also boosting various right-wing populist parties and movements. Bremmer argues that the revolt against globalism owes to three developments: the lowering of barriers to international trade and production, which created hardship for millions of people; the porosity of borders that enabled rising immigration (legal and not) into the West and stoked fears about the erosion of national culture and identity; and growing anxiety about terrorism and the state’s capacity to provide protection.

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He opens with the intensified competition—which has been under way for several decades—from imports made in countries where wages are a small fraction of what they are in wealthy countries. That kept wages down in the West and also put people out of work; those at the lower rungs of the income ladder were hit the hardest. Industries that had employed millions and nourished a solid middle class either shut down or decamped to low-wage countries to survive in an increasingly competitive international marketplace.

The same thing has happened to millions employed in service sector jobs: paralegals, attorneys, computer programmers, and accountants. True, workers in poorer countries are less productive, but companies have been able to teach them the basics. While their output per person is lower than Western workers’, their wages are much lower. On top of this, automation has been increasingly supplanting human labor, and not just in manufacturing. The full effects have not registered because artificial intelligence has yet to demonstrate all the wonders it can perform while making employees superfluous. The poorer parts of the world will, Bremmer says, be hit even harder by labor-replacing technologies. Western companies that moved production to these places to reap the advantages of dirt-cheap labor will increasingly make goods and provide services from home thanks to automation, worsening inequality and unemployment in the West as well as the non-West.

Those who hype the so-called skill premium call for creating a workforce with the skills suited to the new economic era, but Bremmer doesn’t buy it. The same politicians who have pushed for economic globalization—easing barriers to trade, foreign direct investment, and outsourcing—have cut funds for programs that run apprenticeships or retrain those who have lost their jobs. Besides, he notes, economic models in which middle-aged steel workers reinvent themselves and land jobs in leading-edge economic sectors look neat and tidy in macroeconomic textbooks but don’t work nearly as well in real life. People unemployed by the dislocations endemic to globalization will more likely end up with jobs that pay less than the ones they lost—or hold multiple, and temporary, jobs in the so-called gig economy. Bremmer also predicts that higher education, the standard path to upward mobility, will become less affordable as tuition costs increase faster than earnings.

The resentment over globalism’s ill effects cannot, Bremmer maintains in building the leg of his argument, be reduced to economics. It also has cultural sources that can be traced to the surge in south-to-north immigration. Globalism has made national borders more permeable, enabling people seeking a better future to move to Western countries in increasing numbers. Some arrive legally, others illegally; some seek to improve their standard of living and to provide their kids a better future; others are refugees fleeing vicious or unraveled regimes or brutal civil wars. Undocumented immigrants and refugees are helped by another manifestation of globalism: worldwide human trafficking.

Contrary to multiculturalism’s champions, says Bremmer, growing immigration has not produced a serene blooming of flowers of various hues or harmony amidst diversity. The influx of the “other” has instead yielded resentment and fear. Though some of this sentiment has to do with economics (anxiety about increased competition for jobs and greater claims on already-stressed social services), the cultural element has proved far more potent.

Westerners worry, Bremmer avers, about an influx of newcomers whose religions, customs, and habits of mind they consider alien and who, moreover, are not interested in melding into the mainstream. They begin to feel like strangers in their own countries. If immigrants find comfort through in-group solidarity, the rest of society, Bremmer observes, also increasingly engages in “self-sorting” based on religion, culture, class, political views, and other markers. Rather than promoting communication and social intercourse across the divides, social media has strengthened this tribalism.

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According to Bremmer, white Europeans and Americans ask, in effect, “What’s happening to the country I knew?” Economists may insist that immigration provides a net benefit to society and is even a necessity for rich societies in which an increasing proportion of people are in retirement or approaching it. Sociologists may praise cultural pluralism or prophesy assimilation. But such ideas just aren’t persuasive to ordinary people because, as Bremmer argues, the privileged and powerful don’t experience the direct consequences of immigration any more than they do the economic disruptions of Thomas Friedman’s flat world. They may write and lecture about them—for eye-popping fees—but that’s about it.

Bremmer offers several examples of the culturally rooted resistance to the increased immigration produced by globalism. The popularity of nativist movements and parties in Europe was boosted by the supranational European Union’s plans to assign refugee quotas to member states. Several governments balked as well, particularly in East-Central Europe. Likewise, populists’ apocalyptic warnings about the Islamic tide’s threat to a Christian Europe have registered, no matter the high degree of secularism among Europeans. Bremmer also regards Brexit and the mounting opposition to the Schengen Agreement, which essentially abolished internal border checks among EU nations, as reflections of rising cultural nationalism. Demagogues like Trump and Le Pen, or parties like Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), didn’t manufacture this resentment, according to Bremmer; they were produced by it. (It’s not clear why he thinks it must be one or the other.)

The third leg of Bremmer’s thesis concerns the widespread anxiety in the West over the growing threat of terrorism. This sentiment doesn’t reduce itself to economic or cultural grievances; it’s about physical safety. Bremmer lists various terrorist attacks in Europe to substantiate his claim that terrorism has produced a primal fear about personal security that feeds the disenchantment with globalism and works to the advantage of right-wing populists who play on the trepidation.

The anti-globalist backlash Bremmer portrays gets plenty of coverage these days, given the consternation over Trump’s election, the strength of European populism, and angst about democracy’s future. But the problems produced by globalization have been examined closely ever since the term became ubiquitous—actually much earlier, if you count Karl Polanyi’s profound 1944 book, The Great Transformation, which laid bare the disruptions that markets create when they are unmoored from societies and cultures. Several books published in the 1990s addressed directly the downsides of globalization. They include treatises by Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Kuttner, William Greider, Benjamin Barber, James Mittelman, and Dani Rodrik.

This does not mean that a brief reprise and update of the sort Bremmer provides serves no purpose. He’s onto something important. Not long ago, prominent thinkers and influential leaders touted globalization as the path to peace and prosperity. That was long the dominant view. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction: protection, populism, resistance to immigration—these now grab the headlines. Bremmer also provides apposite examples that illustrate the complex workings of today’s international economy, some of which the studies of the 1990s could only dimly foresee. Still, the stop-the-presses ethos and prophetic pretensions of Us vs. Them are a bit much. Analyses of the pushback against globalization are now commonplace.

Furthermore, Bremmer fails to engage the work of specialists on economic globalization, such as Dartmouth’s Douglas Irwin or Columbia’s Bhagwati, who make a strong case that, on balance, it has been beneficial, and not just for the elite, and that the alternatives will prove far worse. One also wonders how Bremmer would, in a debate, respond to Pinker, who rejects the very premise that things are getting worse and that a reckoning awaits—and offers lots of evidence to support his sunny conclusions. Bremmer also does not describe the better world he envisions or explain how it would operate. Would he stop globalization and immigration? If so, what would be the consequences? Does he favor reform? If so, what? Silence.

Bremmer crams more into the container of globalism than it can reasonably accommodate. Thus in discussing the 2011 Arab Spring—an eruption no expert anticipated—he implies that it stemmed from discontent with globalism. In fact, that revolt represented a boiling over of long-simmering resentments about the repression, corruption, and economic failure of Middle Eastern regimes. Besides, societies’ exposure to globalism in this part of the world varies considerably, and except for Bahrain, the Gulf monarchies, which are most closely entwined with it, escaped the rebellion. We don’t know why the uprisings occurred when they did, why they spread like wildfire, or why the outcome differed from place to place. But this much is clear: Bremmer’s trifecta of anti-globalist forces weren’t important. The causes were local.

Bremmer is also on shaky ground in presenting leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, India’s Narendra Modi, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin as examples of charismatic and authoritarian leaders who have mobilized public antipathy toward globalism. Modi’s Hindutva project has been a longtime obsession of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and originated with the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (National Volunteer Society), a Hindu nationalist movement that serves as the BJP’s ideological inspiration and arose in 1925. Furthermore, India’s economy has grown at an average rate of just over 7 percent annually under Modi (compared to nearly 8 percent in the preceding decade), and he has accelerated the liberalization of India’s economy and its openness to globalization, which began in the early 1990s. His slogan, “Make in India,” beckons foreign investment.

For Putin’s Russia, globalism has been good and bad. Russia’s overwhelming dependence on energy for export earnings has led some to sneer that it is a petrostate. However, high oil prices provided the money Putin used to rebuild a shattered Russian military and also produced rapid rates of economic growth. Russia’s GDP grew by 7 percent per year on average between 2000 and 2007, before the global financial crisis precipitated a nosedive that lasted till 2009, when the economy contracted by nearly 8 percent. Yet the seven-year growth spurt pulled Russia out of the doldrums of the 1990s, a decade in which its economy shrank by about 40 percent, its future as a great power was in peril, and demoralization seized its citizenry. Now, few question Russia’s resurgence, and many fret about the consequences. Putin’s popularity at home owes to his success in reviving Russian power, not anti-globalism.

Russia’s heavy reliance on energy exports certainly exposes it to external shocks, as witness the economic downturn that followed the collapse in oil prices between 2008 and 2009. But Putin’s appeal, the authoritarian polity he has built, and the problems he could encounter are at best tenuously tied to globalism. Putin has certainly mobilized Russian nationalism, but Bremmer’s depiction of him as a populist who exploits anti-globalist wrath just isn’t convincing. Globalism has opened up the world to millions of Russians, who travel, shop, and study abroad, to say nothing of the tycoons who have bought pricey flats in Knightsbridge and stashed piles of money in havens like the Cayman Islands. The sources of Russian nationalism are internal: Russian history, the trauma of the 1990s, and Putin’s persona and professional background.

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The weakest part of Bremmer’s argument is the effort to link terrorism to globalism. He lists various instances of terrorism—and then leaves it at that. He doesn’t demonstrate that a rising terrorist trend has claimed an increasing number of lives. That’s because neither has occurred. Between 2000 and 2016 the average number of fatalities from terrorism in France was 16.1. There were none in 10 of those years, and 162 deaths in 2015 and 95 in 2016 skew the average. In Germany, the average was 2.4; there were no fatalities in eight of those years and two or fewer in 18 of them. In Italy, where populist, anti-immigrant parties made big gains in the 2018 elections, the average was 0.2. In the Netherlands, home to Geert Wilders, it was 0.6. Spain’s average, 14.8, was the highest, overwhelmingly accounted for by the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people. Yet compared to their French, German, Italian, and Dutch counterparts, Spanish far-right movements have been notably unsuccessful in garnering public support. If you’re looking for off-the-charts terrorism, turn your gaze away from Europe and America. Look to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

If in fact Europeans are consumed by fears of terrorism, Bremmer offers no evidence of it. Nor does he reckon with studies, such as those of John Mueller, that marshal data to demonstrate that an individual in the West has a far greater chance of being killed by lightning (to say nothing of a car crash) or drowning in a bathtub than of dying in a terrorist attack. It may be that such statistics (the meaningfulness of which some have questioned) are cold comfort to Europeans. But Bremmer fails to show that there has been a steady rise in Europeans’ fear about terrorism, let alone that they are “gripped by anxiety.” Given the openness of democratic societies and the array of undefended targets that exist as a result, one would have expected a surge in terrorist attacks in Europe if, as Bremmer implies, terrorism and immigration are conjoined.

As for the United States, despite post-9/11 fears that another massive attack was all but inevitable, there has not been one, let alone an upsurge in terrorism. The average number of fatalities between 2002 and 2016 was 12.7. The absence of an upswing may owe to dumb luck or savvy counterterrorism, but it matters that immigrant communities in America do not lionize terrorists as freedom fighters or heroes, let alone role models. Immigrants, especially the Muslims among them, fear that the public anger and punitive governmental policies following a major terrorist attack could upend their lives. In the main, they, like everyone else, just want to live their lives. Pace Islamophobes, their preoccupations are the same as other Americans’ and center on their jobs and health and the wellbeing of their families.

The point is not that terrorism’s significance can be captured by numbers alone, that it hasn’t made any political difference in Europe and the United States, that the lives of those killed by terrorists don’t matter so long as the numbers remain small, or that Bremmer is wrong to discuss the threat terrorism poses. It’s that his treatment of it lacks context and historical perspective and is therefore incomplete and misleading. He neither explicates the connection between terrorism and globalism systematically nor substantiates it effectively. Instead, he sensationalizes it.

Bremmer has chosen a big topic and, Jackson Pollack-like, paints on a capacious canvas, with big splashes. This audacity, while admirable, lands him in difficulties. The whistle-stop tour of 12 countries (among them China, India, and Russia) in a single chapter that’s all of 40 pages, in large type, leads to dubious interpretations and oversimplifications and displays a shallow understanding of complex countries. In addition, the book starts big and ends small. At the outset, it warns of an epochal crisis, but then offers solutions—each in a few paragraphs—that are bromides: improve infrastructure and education, strengthen the social contract, and so on. What’s more, these fixes seem unworkable given the barriers apparent in the rest of the book. Yet it offers no suggestions for surmounting them. It concludes that “things have to become much worse, especially for the winners” before globalism can become more just. Well, how bad? And just what would have to happen? Supposedly, the outrage of the masses will shake the elite out of their complacency. But the book provides no reason to believe that the rich and powerful, who possess formidable resources for self-protection, lie awake at night fearing impending doom. In short, Us vs. Them combines brevity with breadth but lacks nuance and depth. Yet in today’s marketplace of ideas, that could prove to be an advantage.  

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the City College of New York/City University of New York and Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford, 2016).