Top Risks and Ethical Decisions 2018 with Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer
This event took place on Thursday, January 11, 2018
DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Ian Bremmer. He is president of the Eurasia Group here in New York. Today we are speaking about Eurasia Group's top ten political risks for 2018 and their ethical implications.
Ian, so good to have you back. Now it is the tenth anniversary of this little show that we have done, ten times in a row, ten years.
IAN BREMMER: The only other person we have done ten years in a row for is Brian Lehrer, and it was quite something to realize that it has been—you do something for ten years, you have to be doing something right, right? Look, at the end of the day I'm glad to be here.
DEVIN STEWART: It is so good to see you, Ian, and a good friend of Carnegie Council.
So, another anniversary. Eurasia Group has turned 20 years old. Happy birthday to Eurasia Group, and it is a milestone.
Looking back on 20 years of running a political risk company, what is the biggest takeaway that you have reflected on?
IAN BREMMER: Twenty years does feel like a long time. If you had told me 20 years ago this is what I would be doing and that it would be where it is today, I am not sure I would have really bought that. But I can honestly tell you in 2018 I am happier and more excited about what I am doing in the world and what we are doing as an organization than I ever have been before, and I think there are two reasons for that.
The first is that as you build an organization and you learn what you are good at and what you are not good at, what you like and what you don't like, you actually should be taking some lessons away and getting that done. I think you know I have a CEO; I don't run the company. I have no interest in running a big consulting firm. That is never why I started. I am a political scientist.
Over time, you make decisions that allow you to get there. And also, not only is the world getting more complicated and more volatile—and we will talk about that—but also it is getting more challenging to understand what is happening in the world. The impact is growing.
We all know that you only operate at a high level when something is challenging, when something reflects the work and the expertise you have done, but also you are motivated to—it is what they call "flow state." If you are playing against someone who is going to kill you or you are playing sports against someone who is no good, you are not trying, but when you need to have that stretch goal it works. I think that where we are today and the kinds of challenges that the world puts in front of us really allows us to operate at a pretty high level most of the time.
DEVIN STEWART: Political risk is your avenue to a flow state?
IAN BREMMER: I think trying to understand the world and trying to bring some of that knowledge to a broader global public, which is frankly not so different from what we do here at the Carnegie Council, is absolutely what I—I wouldn't call myself a consultant, I think I'm a political scientist.
DEVIN STEWART: That's good.
After 20 years, your new report, 2018 Top Risks Report, is saying some pretty dramatic stuff. You are saying it is probably the most dangerous geopolitical environment you have ever seen in those 20 years. You also say that globally our luck may be running out for world stability, a big crisis is possible this year, and you have warned of a geopolitical depression, which is different from a recession.
Why are you so alarmed, and what would a geopolitical depression look like? What would cause it?
IAN BREMMER: Let me give you some good news before I answer that. Before you read my report we know that the Dow is at 25,000 and new records every day, we know that unemployment is relatively low; we like American growth, we like global growth, and actually 2018 looks like it is exceeding earlier International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates in most parts of the world. That is fantastic.
DEVIN STEWART: And the markets and the geopolitics—
IAN BREMMER: Are separate, and they should be.
DEVIN STEWART: They don't talk to each other?
IAN BREMMER: They talk to each other, but they do not necessarily listen to each other. And the cycles—
DEVIN STEWART: They're married, but they don't talk.
IAN BREMMER: Well, they are not necessarily married. The geopolitical and geo-economic cycles are different.
The last time we had a horrible economic crisis was ten years ago, the 2008 financial crisis, and if you were to ask me back when we did the 2009 political risk report, the global risk report, we thought the politics looked pretty good. In fact, I would say that in 2009 the principal leaders of the world's most important economies were more aligned to get us out of that recession than they have been at any point since.
So no, the politics and the economics are not always moving in concert. Frequently they are not.
That is the good news. The good news is that all of this geopolitical concern is happening absent an economic meltdown. In fact, it is happening in a period of comparative economic robustness.
DEVIN STEWART: And you think that will be maintained?
IAN BREMMER: Not clear because of the nature of potential crises. If the crisis gets bad enough—we already know that oil prices have bumped up toward $70 in the last week, and that is clearly geopolitically driven on the back of Iran instability, crackdown, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, and Trump's response effectively supporting regime change on the ground in Tehran. Now, if that gets worse, then energy prices could go up. Great for Saudi Arabia, not good for the global economy, clearly.
And if we were to incinerate a few million Koreans—and the possibility of that in 2018 is higher than at any other point that you and I have spoken—I promise you the markets are going to go down. That is not our principal concern. Our principal concern is that you are incinerating a few million Koreans. But yes, the markets would definitely be impacted by that.
The thing is that the markets—when I say that there is a heightened chance of crisis, indeed a crisis looks increasingly likely, because when you are in a recession, whether it is an economic or a political recession, you either have to work to fix it or it is likely to get worse. I have to tell you, sitting here in 2018 and looking at the geopolitical recession, it is much more likely that we are not going to fix it and that it is going to get worse. When you look at Trump, Theresa May, constellation of Europeans, Putin, Xi Jinping, non-state actors, we do not have the formula, the desire, the political will, or the political capacity to get us out of this geopolitical recession for the foreseeable future.
Given the number of things that could go wrong, that really implies to me that we are going to have a crisis or two. So when I look at 2018 from a geopolitical lens, I am actually filled with some foreboding, yes.
DEVIN STEWART: If we are in a geopolitical depression, how do we know we are in one? What are the signs?
IAN BREMMER: Major wars—trade war, tech war, war war. And certainly, there are a lot of people writing about Thucydides's trap, the fact that the United States and China might end up at loggerheads with each other. I do not believe a military war is in any way likely, but I think a technology war between the two is increasingly likely, and I think that has a big impact on the world. [Editor's note: For more on this, don't miss Graham Allison's recent Carnegie Council talk.]
DEVIN STEWART: All of those are on your risks, which we will get to in a couple of minutes.
Before we get to your risks, though, I wanted to check in with you on the White House, what you think about the White House.
You had a very dramatic statement last year when we met. When we met last year, I asked you to tell me about your assessment of eight years of the Obama administration. Your description was that it was a moral failure, ethical failure. Pretty stark.
Now, in moral terms, what would you make of the first year of the Trump White House, the Trump presidency? Do you agree that it is a "values-free" administration, as some people have called it?
IAN BREMMER: There clearly are values.
DEVIN STEWART: What are they?
IAN BREMMER: The big difference between Trump and really any president that we have seen in the modern era, including Nixon, is that Trump is primarily thinking, almost completely, about his personal legacy and the legacy of his family, or at least much of his family, and not the legacy of the country. I think that when you line that up with that of other political leaders around the world, particularly of major economies, it is enormously problematic for the maintenance and the sustenance of American influence globally.
The lack of interest, the indifference, of President Trump to liberal democratic institutions, to the architecture globally that has been built by the United States, to rule of law, to separation of powers, to a free and open media—we have never seen anything like that before.
It is kind of interesting. As you know, I believe we are living, we are passing through a G-Zero world, with an absence of leadership. But it is instructive to note that in a world that has so little leadership, where so few things bring the world together, one of the few things that we have found that can bring the world together in 2018 is Trump.
If you talk about him pulling out of the Paris climate deal, literally every other country in the world supports the Paris climate deal. He was literally able to bring the entire world together. That is hard to do.
Pulling out of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), he literally drove the rest of the world together.
Iran: With the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel, maybe the Emiratis, he has literally brought the entire world together in opposing what he is saying and in principle what he is trying to do.
If you want to talk about the potential for further dramatic erosion of American influence in the world, you would be hard pressed to find a president who would be better suited than Donald Trump to accomplish that.
DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned at the beginning of your answer that Trump does have some values that he is promoting. I am hearing what you are saying is the values that he is promoting are himself.
IAN BREMMER: Yes, sure.
DEVIN STEWART: Are there other values, loyalty or compliance or anything else, that you feel that the administration, which values he—his people claim to be true realists, right?
IAN BREMMER: More pragmatic realists.
DEVIN STEWART: Is that true?
IAN BREMMER: Pragmatic realism is what they have written about.
Well, if you are asking me about Trump, you are getting a different answer than the administration, and I think it is smarter to ask about the administration because the U.S. government is not just one person, never has been. He is massively constrained in what he can and cannot accomplish, and that is true for even very strong presidents, and Trump is not a very strong president.
When I look at the constellation of the National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, when I look at the Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, I look at the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, I look at the head of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, these are all people who I believe do think of themselves as pragmatic realists. They do believe that Henry Kissinger is kind of iconic in helping to think about how America should move in the world. They do believe the United States can be overly constrained and played by its allies if it is not looking out for its own interests more directly and more consistently.
I do believe that this administration as a whole is more tactical than strategic, in that many of the important international institutions that the Americans have signed up for, or tried to sign up for, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are pragmatically realistic if you think about the long term.
The big problem that Americans have, both politically and in our marketplace, is that we tend to focus on short-termism—quarterly returns for a CEO, five years at best to be stewarding a major multinational organization; election cycles every two years for the House of Representatives, every four for the president, and the election takes one-and-a-half to two years. You have a six-month window to really get things done in many of these cases.
I do think that when you couple that with a number of people around Trump who are trying to do a good job for the American national interest but are really thinking narrowly, when you are up against the Chinese in particular, who actually see a much broader sweep of history, do not have to worry about these elections, do not have separation of powers, it does cede to them an awful lot of ground, and I think that is an enormous concern in 2018.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's get to your top ten risks for 2018. I would like to talk about at least five of them, given the time.
Let's start with risk number five. You put U.S.-Iran relations as risk number five for 2018. I get the sense from your report that you and your team believe that maybe Trump has it out for Iran. Why is it that Trump seems to have something like a vendetta against Iran? Is it the hangover from the Carter years or is it—
IAN BREMMER: No, no. He doesn't think about the Carter years. I have never heard him once mention Carter in a tweet—I mean, maybe he did once, but generally no. [Editor's note: Trump mentioned President Carter at least three times in tweets.]
DEVIN STEWART: It seems like he gets a lot of his ideas from the 1970s and the 1980s, so I was just wondering if it is something from before.
IAN BREMMER: I think he gets a lot of things from the 1970s and 1980s, but that is a different story. Certainly the design sense of Trump properties is from the 1970s and 1980s.
When I think about Iran, I think there are two really relevant points here. The first is that Obama did a deal on Iran, which Trump has been critical of. Trump has done his damnedest to try to unwind much of what the Obama administration has done—Obamacare, a very big piece of this internationally. Iran has probably been the most significant piece that he wants to unwind.
Secondarily, and quite unusually, uniquely, President Trump's first visit outside of the United States as president was first to Riyadh and then to Tel Aviv. Of course, we are now talking about a president who cares a great deal and has developed better relations than Obama—maybe even better relations than Hillary Clinton might have—with the Saudis and the Israelis. Yes, two important American allies in the region, but obviously the primary enemies of Iran globally. Add to that Jared Kushner's personal views on Israel, personal sense of enmity toward Iran, I think that gets you at least 90 percent toward understanding where Trump has been on Iran. But again, he is being advised by a constellation of fairly intelligent to quite intelligent people on the national security front, who have been telling him tactically—pragmatic realism—"Hey, do not kill this nuclear deal, whatever you say about it, because we'll be all by ourselves."
So far—and I expect this to continue, though there are no guarantees—I think he is going to continue to be reluctant to solely rip up that deal. He has instead been punting it to Congress, and Congress has shown no inclination to take any further responsibility.
DEVIN STEWART: So you think that, despite his antagonism toward Iran, the deal could survive?
IAN BREMMER: I hope so, because the alternative is much worse. I think, again, there is a heightened risk that the deal goes under from what it was a year ago, before Trump. Part of that is Trump, part of that is Iranian demonstrations and hardline response to crush them over the last two weeks, which they have been successfully doing, and part of it is the more challenging environment for the Iranians economically because there are still a lot of sanctions that have been maintained, and in the region because they are fighting a lot of proxy wars against the Saudis and others.
The potential for proxy wars to expand, for a confrontation between the United States and Iran to become more dramatic, I think is clearly escalated in 2018, and the potential for the Iranian nuclear deal to be ripped up by the Americans, and maybe the Iranians to restart their nuclear programs. Then we are talking by the end of the year about Israeli strikes, American strikes—that is also very real.
For all of those reasons—U.S.-Iran was not number one, it was not number two, but you started with number five. Yes, it deserves to be number five.
DEVIN STEWART: What do you make of the protests in Iran? It is all over the country. The press is attributing it to resentment against corruption, disappointment since the nuclear deal. Are there any other factors there that are driving these protests?
IAN BREMMER: Yes. There is one more, which is that the Saudi government has been reforming, or attempting to reform, quite a bit to open up its society. The Iranians have always been very proud that they are civilized, that they have a lot of diversity, that women have rights, and that the Saudis are a backwater oil monarchy. So, to the extent that you now have a young, charismatic crown prince in Saudi Arabia who is saying, "We're going to reform Islam, we're going to give women the ability to drive, we're going to improve our educational system," a lot of Iranians are looking at their own government, which they see to be more kleptocratic, they are getting more transparency around that process, and they are saying, "We want more."
But you are still talking about a grassroots movement with thousands of people; 1,000 arrested. In 2009, the Green Revolution, you were talking about millions of people with a leader. There are leaders of the opposition in Iran, but if they get found out, they are going to be executed.
So it is really hard to move the needle to create instability against the Iranian regime at this point, whatever the Americans say notwithstanding.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's go to risk number four, Ian. I believe risk number four is Mexico.
IAN BREMMER: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the sort of centerpiece there. If NAFTA cannot be renegotiated, it only adds to uncertainty around the presidential election taking place.
IAN BREMMER: The Canadian government said today that they think it is more likely than not that Trump triggers the six-month withdrawal countdown on NAFTA. They still do not think that the United States withdraws, but that is a very negative sign. And obviously in line with what we had to say in the report, I am deeply concerned about the implications of that trigger. The United States has never left a multilateral trade deal before.
Many in Congress and outside Congress will argue and will litigate that the president does not have the legal right to make that decision unilaterally. As you know, when lawyers get involved in the United States things get very messy, a lot of uncertainty.
And all this is happening as the Mexicans are gearing up for elections where López Obrador, who is no fan of the United States, has a damn good shot of winning, and has a better shot of winning if NAFTA looks problematic because of Trump. If the wall or some piece of it is getting built and Trump still says they have to pay for it, the rise of anti-Americanism in Mexico will be a very big deal.
In 20 years, we have never considered Mexico to be a top risk before. This is the first time.
DEVIN STEWART: The Canadians also are in the process of filing a World Trade Organization (WTO) lawsuit against the United States about using tariffs against dumping accusations. There is a lot of tension between the three members of NAFTA.
IAN BREMMER: The Trump-Trudeau personal relationship is actually pretty good. I think that, despite the fact that the first trade actual move against any other country that Trump took was against Canada, the softwood lumber tariff, which targeted small—there were a lot of Democrats who actually agreed with the underlying statement there—but still that is interesting.
Then, of course, more recently you have the Bombardier case, also very big tariffs being put against them which will affect their business model.
But the U.S.-Canada political relationship all the way through the bureaucracy and at the top levels is still pretty darn functional. That is why we did not say Canada and Mexico. We said Mexico. This is really a Mexico problem.
DEVIN STEWART: If Obrador is elected, what should we expect?
IAN BREMMER: I think it is pretty likely he will win at this point. I would probably say it is more than 50 percent. In many countries, you have a two-round system, so if you have some guy who is a bit of a wingnut, he can get into the second round, but then all of the moderates consolidate against whoever won from the other side and the moderate wins.
In Mexico, it is a one-round system, which means that López Obrador can get 25 percent and as long as he beats everybody else he is president. This is a nearly ideal political context for López Obrador to be running.
DEVIN STEWART: Thanks to Trump in part.
IAN BREMMER: In part. There are other things as well. Certainly, President Peña Nieto in Mexico has big problems with corruption, big problems with security, murders, kidnapping rates, the rest, all going up across Mexico.
There was a wonderful piece—not wonderful—dystopian piece on the front page of The New York Times just a week ago about how three different towns in Mexico have effectively gone off the political grid and are governing themselves, one with a new party system, one with a corporatist environment—they are paying for their policing, doing their own social contracts—because the government and the police and the militia cannot be trusted and cannot get anything done. That is disturbing in a country directly to the south of our border, and that is the kind of environment where a much more anti-establishment candidate is more likely to win.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's go to risk three, Ian. You point to a very important topic that has been actually described in several Capitol Hill hearings recently. You are calling it a "Global Tech Cold War."
IAN BREMMER: Correct.
DEVIN STEWART: It is between the United States and China. Those are the combatants, if you will.
The difference—and you point this out in some of your reports—between China and the United States is that the technology sector, whether it is artificial intelligence (AI) or robotics or cybersecurity, those things are backed by the state in China and in the United States it is backed by the private sector. That means they have different goals and different interests.
IAN BREMMER: One is unified, one is fragmented.
DEVIN STEWART: One is fragmented, and the private sector might not necessarily sympathize with the government, especially Silicon Valley.
IAN BREMMER: Or even with the country. Ultimately, if you are a Chinese corporation, you are patriotic. If you are an American corporation and you can get a better tax deal someplace else, you move, unless you are stopped.
I think that one thing that is very important about this risk is that in 2018 I really think that we can say that China is a tech superpower. They really are. They are a global tech superpower, and they were not five years ago. If you look at the 500 top supercomputers in the world, more are Chinese than American. If you look at what China is doing with big data and how much more of it they have, not only given the size of the population but also given the scale of state intrusion into their lives, it is greater. They are dominant in drone technology. They are dominant in industrial robotics.
America has better AI scientists, we have better universities, we are more entrepreneurial. There are other areas that we are clearly leading. But it is a fight and it is not clear who is going to win.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a bet, though, as to who is going to win?
IAN BREMMER: No, I don't. I will get to that in a second.
On the military side, the Chinese are only regional. There is no war. They will get crushed.
On the economic side, we are completely interlinked, so if we really start hitting each other, we are both going to get huge black eyes.
On the tech side, we are actually truly competitors and we are not interlinked. The systems are increasingly separate. There is zero sum. So who is going to win? I don't know what the answer to that is, but I will tell you what will inform the answer.
By the way, this is probably the most important question in the world. Vladimir Putin and Elon Musk do not agree on much, but they both believe that whoever dominates AI is going to dominate the global system.
DEVIN STEWART: Sounds right.
IAN BREMMER: So we need to know who is going to win this war. There are really only two combatants: it is Silicon Valley, and it is Beijing.
If it turns out that AI is more like the Manhattan Project—in other words, is it really just about computing power and people working on that issue—then I think the Chinese will win because they will be able to devote the most resources at one big moon shot.
If it turns out that AI is more like how you fix climate change—a lot of dead-ends, cold fusion doesn't work, solar kind of does, we don't know about battery technology—then I think the Americans win because we are just much better at creative destruction.
I do not think we know where the ultimate AI breakthrough is going to come from, but I think that we do increasingly agree, all the scientists—80-90 percent of the scientists—really believe that over the course of the next generation or so we are going to have fundamental breakthroughs in AI that will change the global power environment.
DEVIN STEWART: You are a little circumspect about what China can actually do with this technology. For example, is it going to promote non-interference or authoritarian values? Aside from going to cyberwar, what can China do with this technology to affect the game?
IAN BREMMER: I don't know that they are going to promote authoritarianism, but they are going to show that authoritarianism works more effectively. There will be an awful lot of people around the world that find that compelling. If you have a government that is able to incent certain types of behavior incredibly effectively, because everybody is online and everyone wants to ensure that they get goodies from the state and do not get punished, that creates an enormous capacity to ensure political stability without providing liberties that are threatening to a one-party state.
DEVIN STEWART: Like the social credit system.
IAN BREMMER: For example, very compellingly, and I think that is a concern.
DEVIN STEWART: It occurred to me that reading your list you could have described the Soviet Union and the United States as also being in a tech Cold War as well, it was just different types of technologies that were at stake—satellites and nuclear weapons. It is interesting how history does kind of rhyme a little bit like that.
IAN BREMMER: It is true, although to be clear, when we were talking about the Americans and the Soviets, we were talking about technologies that were housed clearly within the military-industrial complex, where when we are talking about technology and AI, at least so far that is not true.
Now, it may be that in 20 years there is a military-technology complex which is completely different and is focused on AI. I have my doubts that the Americans will be able to do that.
DEVIN STEWART: Risk number two, Ian, is accidents, broadly speaking. That is almost the epitome of a risk, an accident. My understanding is that what is different now is that there is no one to manage the flare-ups. There is, as you said, a G-Zero world, it is a leaderless world. As you put it, there are no "guardrails" to sort of manage the accidents.
Then you write that—let's talk about North Korea—war with North Korea is "more thinkable today than it has ever been." You might have moderated that view—I am not sure—but let's talk about the accident that is possible with North Korea.
As you know, the South and the North Koreans are talking about competing with one another in the Winter Olympics, they have reestablished the hotline, and they are talking it seems very cordially now over the demilitarized zone (DMZ). What do you make of this current version of the rapprochement between those two countries? We have seen this happen before. Some of the press is acting like this is the first time this has ever happened, but this happens every ten or so years.
IAN BREMMER: Yes, but it is a big deal, and Trump deserves both some credit and some blame for it; some credit because sanctions are tougher now against North Korea, and Trump did push that effectively with the Chinese.
DEVIN STEWART: And Moon gave him credit.
IAN BREMMER: Yes. But also problematically because why did North Korea start testing the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) so quickly? Because they want to respond with a strong deterrent against Trump. So you can go both ways.
The way I talked about this before the top risk piece came out was that we had an environment on North Korea where the status quo was pretty stable but it was getting incrementally worse every year. Now we have a situation where the status quo is considerably less stable and there is a greater chance of a breakthrough and a diplomatic resolution than there was. There is also a greater chance of war. I do not know which of those scenarios you prefer—the status quo ante that is changing or the risk of breakthrough or war—but, clearly, the reason why many presidents have addressed this and decided, "You know what? I'm going to leave this one for another president," is because of the perceived downside of escalating the disaster scenario, no one thought was worth it. Trump thinks it is worth it.
I do not think that Trump's advisors are seriously considering a preemptive strike, but I think they are seriously preparing that war gaming, the punch in the nose, where you do not do a decapitation strike but you hit them and they know that if they hit you back that they are completely gone.
But I think the potential of you having that kind of strike on the basis of miscalculations from an ICBM test that the Americans shoot down, or that sort of disintegrates and hits a boat or hits Japanese over the mainland—or you name it—those things are vastly more dangerous now. I do not feel that that downside is adequately mitigated by the fact that the South and North Koreans are going to be meeting together in a few weeks' time at the Olympics.
DEVIN STEWART: What about the scenario of a sort of equilibrium where the United States and North Korea reach a peaceful nuclear deterrence? Is that possible?
IAN BREMMER: Of course it is possible. Again, I would consider that close to a breakthrough. If you could basically say: "Look, stop testing. We'll stop our military exercises with the South Koreans, the 'freeze for freeze' that the Chinese talk about. We will tolerate the fact that you're a nuclear power. We're going to reduce your sanctions, you're going to allow an inspections regime." That sounds like an Iranian deal. It ain't denuclearization, it is not a path to denuclearization—the North Koreans will have functioning ICBMs at that point. That would be a breakthrough.
Again, Trump's willingness to completely pivot 180 from whatever he said before, if something useful is in front of him that he can take credit for, that makes this possible, and the fact that Trump does not care about human rights. So he is not going to have the hang-ups over meeting with Kim Jong-un for a cheeseburger the way that other presidents would, so it makes it more likely. But the potential that he gets into a meeting and he says something or tweets something or gets angry and the whole thing blows up is also real.
So again, it is the uncertainty, it is the volatility, it is the fact that very few people around the world consider this presidency to be one that they can trust, that they can rely on, makes the likelihood of a lot of these risks considerably more problematic.
DEVIN STEWART: If a nuclear deterrence sort of equilibrium was achieved, we do not know what the North Koreans would want to do with it. That is the other problem.
IAN BREMMER: I think we kind of know that they want to be treated in a more esteemed way, so the fact that they would be a recognized nuclear power, the fact that they would no longer be in a state of war with—
DEVIN STEWART: You think they would want to force reunification?
IAN BREMMER: No. I don't think that a reunification in this environment is plausible. The costs and the governance issues make that really a moon shot, and I do not mean of the South Korean variety.
I still think the most likely outcome over North Korea is a deteriorating status quo, but I think it is much more likely than it was that we go to war. If it was 1 percent, it is now 10 percent or 20 percent. And that is not just true in North Korea, that is true in Iran, that is true with all of the combatants around Syria.
It is also true that in reaction to a terrorist attack against Americans the United States will not rally around the flag. It will be much more divisive. It will be much more targeted against Muslim citizens in the United States. Same thing with cyberattacks. The divisiveness in the United States, the lack of guardrails, the lack of resilience, means that when crises occur that are political, they are likely to have much greater impact on the geopolitical balance than they would have had five years ago, ten years ago, even one year ago.
DEVIN STEWART: Your top risk for 2018 is "China Loves A Vacuum"—like outer space, not the appliance. What you mean by that is that as Trump sort of accelerates a G-Zero world and a leadership vacuum, China is more and more willing to step into the void. I think Xi Jinping's speech at the 19th Party Congress, which was a high-profile speech, is evidence of a change of mindset at least, right?
What do you think China wants to do with this new ambition for a global role?
IAN BREMMER: Clearly, the most important thing is he wants to create standards, align countries more with Chinese standards, that gives them influence and allows them to promote their commercial interests more effectively.
The Chinese government has talked about the fact that there are three different types of corporations: you have corporations that create products at the lowest level, corporations that create brands at the medium level, and the corporations that create standards are the highest level. That is clearly true of governance as well.
China is getting bigger and their leader is getting stronger, but they still would have waited to have the public willingness to accept leadership and responsibility if it was not for Trump. They understand that even though in five or ten years they will be stronger, there is never going to be a global opportunity for having a much bigger footprint without pushback as there is right now with "America First," because this is the time when other countries, even major American allies, are looking at the United States and saying: "Whoa. Maybe we need to look at Beijing more. Whoa. We can't count on these guys. This is really dangerous."
That clearly plays out—when Trump says no to the TPP and Trump pulls out of Paris and Trump does what he does in all of these other areas, the Chinese get to be the responsible, pro-status-quo-ish power, as long as you do what Beijing wants, and doing what Beijing wants is very different than historically doing what the United States wants, particularly on the economic side. I think that that is the biggest game changer.
In my life there have been two speeches that are game changers geopolitically. One was when Gorbachev declared the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the second was Xi Jinping's 19th Party plenary speech.
What I think is so interesting about the latter is that it was not recognized as such here in the United States. It was everywhere else, but not in the United States. The Americans are still like, "La la la, we're still in charge." And the problem is Trump. In America we think the problem is Trump: "Get rid of Trump, our leadership is coming back." No. Pax Americana is over. It is not coming back. I am not saying that China is going to be the global leader. I do not necessarily believe that. I certainly hope that is not the case. But we will not return to American indispensability and exceptionalism. That is not going to happen, and that is clear after one year of Trump, never mind four or eight. So this is a pretty dramatic sea change in the way we think about the world.
I think that in 10 or 20 years—let's assume that we are still doing this in another 10 years' time, we will look back on that speech as the tipping point, as pivotal toward the emergence of a different post-American world order. I think so.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk real quickly about things that did not make the list. These are things that probably make up at least 60 percent of American media coverage.
IAN BREMMER: Like?
DEVIN STEWART: Trump's tweets.
IAN BREMMER: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: White House intrigue.
IAN BREMMER: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: Russia investigation, as illuminated by a book I just finished reading and you just read, too.
IAN BREMMER: Fire and Fury. Love it.
DEVIN STEWART: By Michael Wolff, who is a neighbor of yours.
IAN BREMMER: He is a neighbor of mine.
DEVIN STEWART: I just finished it yesterday.
Collectively are we paying attention to the wrong stuff? Is this all a distraction? Is this entertainment, while we should be looking at things like the things that are on your list?
IAN BREMMER: It depends on who is "we." As my mother would say, "Do you have a rat in your pocket?" I mean "we."
The average American feels that politics is not useful to them, and if they are watching, it is meant as entertainment or as supporting their own pre-baked convictions. In that regard, the fact that what we are consuming are headlines that are completely ephemeral, they go away in a day, but they make me say "love Trump" or they make me say "what an *******," that is what we are oriented toward.
DEVIN STEWART: Like sports.
IAN BREMMER: It is like sports. It is absolutely like sports. It is as meaningless as sports. Trump's tweets are almost as meaningless as sports. They are used by people for their own political purposes in a way that sports are not. I am not talking about World Cup stuff.
DEVIN STEWART: The National Football League (NFL), which was used . . .
IAN BREMMER: That is true. He is using sports, and effectively for his base. That was one of the smarter things he did from a narrow political perspective: 70 percent black players, mostly white fans, "how dare these millionaires that we allow to make money desecrate our national anthem." The identity politics stuff there was very clear and put a lot of pressure on the NFL, frankly. So he knows how to manipulate that stuff.
But if you ask me, "Do the tweets matter for policy, do they really create greater risk?"—look, Fire and Fury has sold over a million copies. It will be the most sold and talked-about book of any presidency in history. Yet, all it basically says is "Trump is not fit to be president and here are a whole bunch of people who say that." We all knew that when we voted for him or not.
DEVIN STEWART: Is it credible? Do you think it is a credible account?
IAN BREMMER: Eighty percent to 90 percent I think is probably right, on the basis of the people I talk to in the White House and outside, sure.
But the point is we knew all of this. All this is is more grist for a mainstream media mill that is trying at all times to put out stuff that makes Trump look like a two-year-old. I did not spend any time in our top risk report trying to make Trump look like a two-year-old because I do not think that is relevant.
We know that the American president only matters so much, that the administration matters a lot more. We know that most of the reason we are in a G-Zero has very little to do with the president and that most of it that has to do with Trump, Trump is symptomatic of something structural that has been going on in the United States for a long time. It is much more important to understand how it was that someone like Trump could be elected given that we knew everything about Fire and Fury before we elected him.
This guy was one of the most open books, one of the most talked-about characters, one of the most reviled and disputed and litigated-against characters in American history—
DEVIN STEWART: For decades.
IAN BREMMER: —for decades, and suddenly Fire and Fury is like, "Oh, my god! He's not fit to be president! Shocking!"
DEVIN STEWART: News flash, yeah.
IAN BREMMER: Shocking. "There's gambling happening in that casino"—shocking.
It is not news. God bless Michael Wolff for understanding the zeitgeist of the American public and profiting off it personally. It does show that anyone with an idea and the right space in America can make it big—it is true; and that "if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere"—true.
But in terms of actual impact on policy, no. This is about branding, this is about entertainment. This is a case study for how to work a system to promote yourself, which a lot of people today are very interested in.
DEVIN STEWART: That is true. Narcissism.
IAN BREMMER: Narcissism. When you look at Michael Wolff and Donald Trump together and then add Steve Bannon to the mix, it is an extraordinary cocktail of narcissism. It is virtually unprecedented.
DEVIN STEWART: Speaking of great books, Ian—and we can conclude with this, and it has been wonderful speaking with you—you have yet another book coming out.
IAN BREMMER: The greatest book ever. It is going to be the biggest brand. Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.
DEVIN STEWART: The Failure of Globalism. Wonderful. And it is going to be more fiery and more fury than ever.
IAN BREMMER: It won't be as Fire and Fury or as gossipy as Michael Wolff.
DEVIN STEWART: But I love the title Us Vs. Them. I get it.
IAN BREMMER: It bothers me. I am someone who fundamentally believes that I and we have more in common with people from all over the world than not and that what unites us is humanity, not nation, not government, not the randomness of having been born in one place or to one religion. I fundamentally believe that. If that is globalism, so be it.
But I absolutely see that the people who have promoted an ideology of globalism in the past decades and the organizations that have failed miserably so many of their citizens are not going to do anything about it, and that is what this book is about.
DEVIN STEWART: Very important and timely topic again.
IAN BREMMER: We'll see.
DEVIN STEWART: We just finished a project here that ended up producing a book called Ordinary Virtues by Michael Ignatieff that came to a very similar conclusion. I think you are really tapping into something. I really look forward to seeing it. That is later this spring, right?
IAN BREMMER: April 24th is the landing date, the drop date, though if Trump tweets about it, we might push it a couple of days.
DEVIN STEWART: I can't wait to read it.
IAN BREMMER: I want the cease-and-desist order. If someone can tell me how to figure that out, I swear to god I'm there.
DEVIN STEWART: I will put one out there for you.
IAN BREMMER: Please do.
DEVIN STEWART: Ian, thanks so much for today. Wonderful discussion. Happy 2018.
IAN BREMMER: You too, man.
DEVIN STEWART: Thanks.