A growing number of Europeans appear increasingly less willing to undergo pain for someone else's gain. Last weekend, voters in France, Greece, and even Germany sent their leaders a clear message: "Global and regional problems are less important than those we face here at home."
In France, the otherwise uninspiring Francois Hollande toppled incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy with a "France first" anti-austerity campaign that struck a chord with both left and right. Sarkozy responded by talking up protectionism and new barriers at France's borders, but it was too little too late. In the end, he couldn't distance himself from the role he played in promising to coordinate France's decisions on spending and taxes with those of other European governments.
In Greece, New Democracy and PASOK, the two parties committed to swallowing the bitter medicine of sustained austerity to earn financial help from the so-called troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF), suffered a stinging defeat. Together, they won less than one-third of all votes cast, and a clear majority of voters backed parties that oppose the concessions and belt-tightening that creditors insist on.
The only good news from Greece is that anti-austerity parties are too sharply divided on other issues to form a government. The bad news is that this is a recipe for paralysis in the European country that can least afford it. Greece may soon be headed for another round of elections with a caretaker government that cannot enact the changes needed to secure the next round of funding that allows its government to meet its obligations and remain in the eurozone. More worrisome still, Greek voters may use the next election to reject austerity even more decisively.
Even in Germany, where many taxpayers who are angry at bailouts for other governments welcome austerity measures, local elections in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein improved the standing of opposition Social Democrats and their skepticism of coordinated European fiscal policy. Another vote this weekend in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, will probably continue this trend.
The Eurozone isn't on the verge of collapse, but as the debt crisis continues, public patience with austerity is clearly on the wane. Politicians ignore these signals at their peril: France's Sarkozy is now the eleventh European leader ousted by voters since the onset of the financial crisis in September 2008.
Our concerns should extend well beyond Europe. After all, if the most cooperative and well-coordinated region in the world begins to adopt an "every nation for itself" approach to policy, what does this signal for the rest of us? Americans are already far more focused on jobs and debt than on foreign policy questions, and it's no secret that rising regional powers like China, India, the Gulf Arab states, and Brazil are far too busy with domestic development challenges to take on the costs and risks that come with a larger share of global leadership.
At a time when so many problems span borders—from the need to re-energize the global economy, manage conflict in the world's hotspots, cooperate on development of new energy technologies, contain terrorist threats, and limit the longer-term damage of climate change—leadership matters. Leaders have the wealth and power to persuade governments to take actions they wouldn't otherwise take. They pick up the checks that others can't afford and provide services no one else will pay for. On issue after issue, they set the international agenda.
The United States will continue to offer this sort of leadership on many issues, but a growing number of nations now have the political and economic leverage to resist change, and a debt-burdened, war-weary American public will insist that, at least for the time being, those who make US foreign policy must learn to do more with less.
If even the Europeans are looking out for number one, the world's lack of leadership can only get worse.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of the newly-released Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (Portfolio, 2012). Follow him on Twitter at: @ianbremmer.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of ABC News or its parent company.