Top Risks and Ethical Decisions 2019, with Ian Bremmer

January 14, 2019

Devin Stewart and Ian Bremmer. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni.

This interview has been lightly edited to omit some of the asides.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Ian Bremmer. He is president of the Eurasia Group here in New York, and today we're speaking about his company's top ten political risks around the world for 2019 and their ethical implications.

Ian, so good to have you back for the 11th year in a row.

IAN BREMMER: Eleven years.

DEVIN STEWART: Eleven years. This is the second decade.

IAN BREMMER: Apparently last year I saw from you that our podcast was one of the most popular for the whole year for Carnegie. So people, tell your friends.

DEVIN STEWART: Mostly about the socks I think, though.

IAN BREMMER: The socks are always helpful.

DEVIN STEWART: So, all day today you've been talking about your fantastic book. You were there on Morning Joe this morning talking about Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. It's an excellent book, Ian. I'm going to ask you to sign this later on.

The last time you and I talked was about this book. How is your book holding up? It came out in April. How has it been received, and what is the main message here?

IAN BREMMER: I'm surprised I'm talking about it, to be honest with you, because usually you do it for your four weeks and then it goes away. And it's coming back. And it's coming back I think in part just because people are getting more worried. When the book came out, for example, I think there was more of a belief that Angela Merkel was still kind of holding down the fort, and Macron of course had won in France and was quite popular. It was clear to me—I think the structural factors that were supporting this rise of populism and nationalism across democracies all over the world was not going to go away, but I think there was a hope on the part of the foreign policy establishment and a lot of elites that maybe we had seen the high peak, that the wave had crested.

Now, you have Merkel having stepped down and Macron at 23 percent approval and massive demonstrations on the streets. And meanwhile, you see the wheels continue to wobble more sharply in the United States. Yes, Trump got hit pretty hard in a proxy vote in the House in 2018, but you also see that on the Democratic side the real excitement is on the progressive left; it's the anti-establishment message.

DEVIN STEWART: The progressive left is a kind of populist response? Is that what you're getting at?

IAN BREMMER: Yes, sure, in the sense that you see people going after the bankers, people going after the markets, people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) here in New York, who certainly is extraordinarily charismatic.

DEVIN STEWART: Just the initials. That's all you need.

IAN BREMMER: But came from nowhere, right? Came from nowhere and suddenly has almost two-and-a-half million [Twitter] followers, dominating the interactions on social media in the last week.

DEVIN STEWART: Number two, right.

IAN BREMMER: More than anyone but Trump.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you tweeted that.

IAN BREMMER: I did, I did, and yet no one saw it compared to the people talking about AOC directly—you gotta ride that wave.

There is no question. Whether you like this or you don't like this is kind of irrelevant. The fact is, it's growing, and it's growing at a time when the global economy is doing well.

There are good stories out there. There are Americans who were out of the market who are over 50 years old who are now coming back in. They're getting hired, they're getting retrained. But that's a great story.

DEVIN STEWART: That's the way it's supposed to work. That's how globalization is supposed to work.

IAN BREMMER: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: There's supposed to be support for displacement.

IAN BREMMER: For people who get displaced. Whether it's from free trade or from robots taking your job, we have to have some level of responsibility for that. And yet, I would say larger and larger numbers of people in these economies, including our own, are increasingly forgotten, feel forgotten and displaced.

Here's how the book relates to the top risks this year. It's a very simple thing, which is that if you and I look back at the last crises that were truly bolts from the blue, global crises, there are two: There was 9/11 and there was the 2008 financial crisis. People didn't see them coming. They were completely unexpected. They were very, very serious.

But in response to both of those crises we came together. Americans came together, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and presidents, and the world came together. Our allies supported us, and even after 9/11 Russia supported us. After the 2008 financial crisis, the Chinese supported us.

I don't know what the next crisis is. I don't know if it's Ebola spreading from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or it's another Russian major cyberattack that gets much bigger. I don't know if it's another major terrorist attack, or, perhaps most likely, if it's some other major global economic downturn. But what I know is that the politics are nowhere close to the level of resilience we had after 9/11 and 2008. Our ability to come together at home or internationally just isn't there, and it's getting worse. It's getting worse all through 2019, and that should unnerve us.

DEVIN STEWART: So it has become more fragile.

IAN BREMMER: Vastly more fragile.

DEVIN STEWART: And that's what we're going to get to later on, which you're calling "Bad Seeds."

IAN BREMMER: Bad Seeds.

DEVIN STEWART: In your two, not gloomy but they can be, related to political risks, your two big concepts are "Us Versus Them," which is sort of this primordial competitiveness—I would describe it that way—and then your other one which you've named your media company after, is "G-Zero," which is a kind of apolarity in international politics. It's a politics of self-help rather than cooperation.

So you have G-Zero and you have Us Versus Them. I think that those two things pretty much capture where we are in 2019 today.

IAN BREMMER: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this situation inherently unstable, or can you have a sort of a realpolitik peace?

IAN BREMMER: I'm really glad that you asked it that way because think about it: the G-Zero is about the unwind of the global order top-down.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

IAN BREMMER: The U.S.-led global order, and now you see these pieces pulling apart. The most important piece of that, of course, the most disruptive, being the rise of China with a different model. You and I have talked about that many times over the past 11 years.

DEVIN STEWART: Yes, major theme.

IAN BREMMER: The second piece is inside the advanced industrial democracies in particular, the us-versus-them that is eroding the legitimacy of these leaders, the institutions, and all the rest.

The reason why it is important to look at both sides of that coin is because the resolution of those problems drives you in different directions.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

IAN BREMMER: Because if you want to respond to the G-Zero, what do you need? You need—

DEVIN STEWART: Cooperation.

IAN BREMMER: —stronger Europe. You need stronger multilateral cooperation. You need more American commitment to allies.

DEVIN STEWART: Alliances, yes.

IAN BREMMER: You need the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), you need all this kind of stuff.

DEVIN STEWART: Big projects.

IAN BREMMER: Right. And yet, those are exactly the things that you can't do when you have this rising populism and nationalism saying: "You guys are selling us out to the globalists, and that's no good. We want closed borders. We want tariffs and an end to free trade," even on the technology front.

You can see the tensions between saying, "Well, if we want to beat on the Chinese, we need industrial policy to support these big tech companies as our most strategic sector." But if you're talking about us-versus-them, it's populist tech-lash against these corporations that are undermining democracy. So it makes it so much harder. At least after 9/11 we knew what we were doing; we were all fighting al-Qaeda. After 2008, we knew what we were doing; we were all trying to get out of this economic recession.

When you've got us-versus-them and the G-Zero, your responses are pulling you in two completely different directions. And let's face it: The people who are talking about the geopolitical disorder are not the same people who are talking about the populist/nationalist problem.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. They're missing half the equation.

IAN BREMMER: They're two completely different constituencies.

DEVIN STEWART: Yes. Before we get to your report, which we'll do very quickly, we're now at the midpoint of the Trump administration, so let's do maybe a quick review of what you think.

What kind of grade would you give him, and do you see any kind of norms being displayed? We're Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Are there values to this administration?

I know he talks about "reciprocity" a lot. That's one of his favorite words apparently. Do you see that? Do you see a strategy emerging in foreign policy?

IAN BREMMER: I think reciprocity is hard because he obviously believes that rules do not apply to him, so he is one of the least-reciprocal leaders I personally have ever encountered. I do believe the transactionalism, I do believe unilateralism.

I've said before that I feel like his foreign policy is very Chinese in many ways. It's not long term and strategic, but certainly he doesn't care about the human rights, he doesn't care about the—sovereignty really matters to him. He doesn't want to be constrained by multilateralism. He's the big guy, so he wants to be one-on-one dealmaking. That's the way the Chinese heretofore have actually done a lot of their foreign policy.

What kind of a grade do I give him? The cheap thing to say is incomplete.

DEVIN STEWART: Midterm exams.

IAN BREMMER: The cheap thing to say is incomplete, absent for a lot of stuff.

DEVIN STEWART: But you're not cheap.

IAN BREMMER: I can be cheap.

The mainstream media gives him an F-minus. Rachel Maddow every night going, "Oh, my god," and the hair is on fire.

DEVIN STEWART: Exhausting.

IAN BREMMER: It's exhausting. I think it is more interesting to recognize that there are two very different ways to grade Trump. The first way to grade Trump is to understand that his actual policy impacts are both pretty aligned with what Republicans in many cases historically would have argued for domestically.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure, sure.

IAN BREMMER: His judicial appointments, his Fed appointments, his regulatory rollback, his selective enforcement, his tax policy, all of this stuff. And on foreign policy, he has talked a huge game, and the needle just hasn't moved much. He has left Paris, the climate accord, but actually you can't physically leave until 2021, so if he doesn't win a second term, nothing happens. Most of the key American constituents are still adhering to it anyway. He pulled out of TPP, but everyone else that was in TPP actually still did the deal, so a future American president can go in. He pulled out of the Iranian deal, but the Iranians are still holding up their end of the bargain, as is everyone else, and they're trying to run out the clock on what they hope will be a one-term Trump deal. Pompeo will tell you privately that if he doesn't get a second term, his Iran policy fails.

What else? You can look at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he says is the worst deal ever, and he ends up doing a deal that's a slight improvement at the margins from what NAFTA used to be.

He talks big on fire and fury with North Korea; now we're going to have a second summit. Incrementally, actually North Korea is behaving a little better than they used to, but there's no real movement there.

You look at that and you say, "What the hell are these people talking about on the media?" There's not much there there.

DEVIN STEWART: I agree.

IAN BREMMER: But then, you look at the erosion of U.S. leadership in the global order and the lack of capacity to respond to Belt and Road, which was already happening under Bush, already happening under Obama a little more, but now is happening much more under Trump because leaders around the world do not trust the United States as much, and clearly Trump is partially responsible for that.

So if you're going to grade him on leading by example, if you're going to grade him on some kind of defensive measure to try to prevent the G-Zero from becoming as nasty and dangerous as it can be, reducing and responding to the geopolitical recession, on that front you give him an F. On that front you give him an F.

But on the actual policies being implemented and the talk big and all the—eh. I just don't think it's remarkable.

DEVIN STEWART: So, tepid?

IAN BREMMER: Tepid, and on a couple of things—again, if you ask me about where we are with South Korea on trade right now, marginal improvement; where we are with North Korea, marginal improvement; where we are with NAFTA, marginal improvement; where we are with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), other countries are starting to spend a little bit more, marginal improvement. Maybe even a bit more than tepid, even a bit more, though he has broken some other stuff.

After a bad start on Yemen, for example, now that Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has been sort of really clipped back, we have a ceasefire in the Port of Hodeidah, which the United States has actually been useful on. Trump's public talk about MBS has been appalling and atrocious, and he was the guy who moved the embassy to Jerusalem, and the Israelis really liked that. Everyone said it was going to be a disaster. What was the impact of it? The Brazilians are doing the same thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Crickets.

IAN BREMMER: Zero. Crickets. It's hard for me to get that worked up on the policy side, but you take one big step back and look at where the world is heading—and again you and I have been talking about how we are heading into a very black geopolitical period—Trump is not helping that. Trump is hurting that. That is true.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's get right into the 2019 top risks report. The new report starts by saying: "The geopolitical environment is the most dangerous in decades," yet the global economy is pretty good, the markets are up and down, not too bad, and a lot of your risks are not urgent.

As you said in your report, "What is wrong with this picture?" Can you answer your own question? What is wrong with that picture?

IAN BREMMER: Not much is wrong with that picture if you're looking at 2019.

So here's the interesting thing. We've been doing this—I started Eurasia Group back in 1998, so we've been doing this work for a long time now.

DEVIN STEWART: Twenty-one years.

IAN BREMMER: Yet, when you put out a top risk report and you launch it and everyone's talking to you about it and it's a big deal, you have this big platform. And you want to tell people what you think the state of the world is. Yet, 2019 is this artificial 12-month period.

DEVIN STEWART: Completely arbitrary. I agree.

IAN BREMMER: I could very easily have presented the report and just said, "Guys, this is a pretty good year."

But you and I know—and the people watching us right now know—that geopolitically not only are things not good, but they're heading in a direction that is more problematic than any in our lifetimes. So for us not to talk about that—

But I think it is absolutely rational that the markets are not pricing this in particularly because I don't think in the near foreseeable future that we are heading for this kind of a disaster. There should be some hedging. There should be some "risk-off behavior," as they say in the markets. There definitely are some concerns around U.S.-China trade near term, although I don't think it will blow up at all. There are other things like that.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

IAN BREMMER: But as I mentioned before, the resilience. This is not sustainable. Right now, the geopolitical order is heading for cyberwar, trade war, tech war, war war. We are. And at some point we have to start fixing these things or a lot of people are going to die. That's really what it amounts to.

The word this year was "geopolitical climate change."

DEVIN STEWART: Climate change. Do you want to explain that now?

IAN BREMMER: You can.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you better explain it because you came up with it. My interpretation of geopolitical climate change is it's a risk that's inevitably going to come, but it's very difficult to harness collective action, if you will.

IAN BREMMER: It is very hard to harness collective action. And yet, the science is very clear.

In other words, 30-40 years ago, you go and talk to climatologists, there was not a lot of uncertainty that climate change was happening. They were uncertain on details and on speed, but everyone recognized that if we don't address this a lot of people are going to die. It's going to be a very suboptimal outcome for the world. And yet, because of the collective action problem that you just talked about, here we are. Look at insurance companies and look at Bangladesh and look at the Maldives and all of these things that were utterly predictable. You didn't need a crystal ball. We are now experiencing that geopolitically.

The major problem is the geopolitics, we're not talking about 30 years like climate change; more like 30 months. This isn't going to last 30 years. The wheels are going to come off before then. And it is really obvious that we've got a collective action problem. We can't respond to it effectively. We won't respond to it effectively, so it's going to get worse before we start to really address the issue.

DEVIN STEWART: We're going to start at risk five and count up to the top, not down. It's not a countdown. So, counting up, risk number five is The United States at Home.

For the first time, your report has U.S. domestic politics on the list of top risks.

IAN BREMMER: Never before, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you think is in the realm of the possible in terms of worst case, in between possible and worst?

IAN BREMMER: Because last year it was a red herring. The U.S. had always said that, no matter what it does—

DEVIN STEWART: And you were correct about that.

IAN BREMMER: Absolutely. That was on target, and again, a lot of people didn't like that because people said: "What do you mean? How can Trump be a red herring? Look at the horrible things." This year he makes the list. But he's number five.

IAN BREMMER: The reason it's number five and it does really matter is because this is the year that the investigation reports come out, not just Mueller but also here in New York and others. And they're going to go after Trump's organization, his family, and his person. And we know that Trump's response to that is going to be escalation, so I think we have to be honest that American political institutions will be tested as they have never been tested before in our lifetimes.

I believe that they will stand up or mostly stand up to that test, which is why this is only risk number five and not number two or number one. I don't think the United States comes out of 2019 looking like Hungary, but we have to recognize that there is a danger. We have to recognize that Trump has the potential to try to use American institutions in ways that would exceed traditional norms of executive power and that to some degree the media, Congress, and even the judiciary comes out damaged. That is I think what the risk is.

DEVIN STEWART: But so far they've been resilient. They've been standing up.

IAN BREMMER: Completely.

DEVIN STEWART: Okay.

IAN BREMMER: Completely, but they have not been tested the way they will be in 2019.

DEVIN STEWART: Got it.

IAN BREMMER: So I think we have to be honest with the audience that it's a real risk.

DEVIN STEWART: Okay. You mentioned Hungary, so that actually is a good segue to number four, right? I just read this biography of Viktor Orbán in New Yorker magazine. They're talking about how his party would like to sort of reinvent itself as Christian Democrats. Sounds really nice, right?

Your risk number four is European Populism. Your report says "2019 will show that populists and protest movements are stronger than ever," so my question is: Which countries are you worried about? I suppose Hungary, maybe Italy. Perhaps Germany is on the list, but which countries, and what do these populist parties want?

IAN BREMMER: In 2019 I'm actually not very worried about individual European countries. Again, we're out of the recession, the wheels aren't falling off. Macron has a lot of problems, but you're not getting rid of him, and he does actually have all the power in France as the president in a way that, say, the UK prime minister is just elected directly by her or his own constituency, and in the United States you've got Congress separate from the Executive. In France it all does kind of come together, so there's a lot more opposition to him, which is interesting to think about.

The problem in Europe is this year we have European parliamentary elections, and the European Parliament, we think the populists are set to get almost 40 percent total in that vote, which is a huge pickup from where they were before, which means the European Parliament and the bureaucrats are suddenly going to be really divided between pro-Europe and Euroskeptic.

That is one more thing that makes Europe less relevant, harder to manage, harder to govern, harder to respond to the next crisis when it hits, harder to be an effective partner with the United States when we're ready to be an effective partner ourselves, harder to negotiate effectively with Brexit as it goes through. That's the single biggest thing in 2019, though you have the Italians with challenging negotiations with Brussels on budget; you have the French now massively shooting through their fiscal constraints, and that undermines the ability to do better governance and fiscal consolidation.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's mostly weakening Europe.

IAN BREMMER: It's mostly weakening Europe on the back of this continuing expansion of populism, yes. I'm less worried about Germany, by the way.

DEVIN STEWART: Going back to Orbán and Hungary. It gets to your themes of us versus them and a G-Zero world. How do you assess the intellectual and moral argument that these parties want to defend Christian traditions or European traditions? How do you sort of pick that apart? What do you make of it? Does it have validity?

IAN BREMMER: There is a question that deserves to be discussed as to whether the tribalism, the ethnonationalism, and the religious nationalism that the reactionary right, the populist right, embraces to get the support of the disenfranchised. Is that somehow more attractive and more powerful than the class identity politics from the populist left? Is it stickier? Is it easier to pick up the disenfranchised? Certainly Marx and Lenin ultimately figured that out. It's hard to get the proletarians of the world to actually unite. They fly under their more tribal flags when they get really pissed off.

But there has been Third Way politics in Europe. Syriza has been the biggest pickup opportunistically from what was a real depression in Greece that they're still going through, and that's not Euroskeptic at all. It's pro-Europe, it's pro-euro, and it's working within existing institutions. Podemos in Spain, same thing.

Even though Trump is president in the United States, we mentioned AOC already. You look at Bernie Sanders. Bernie could be president if it wasn't for the fact that the Democratic leadership controlled the nomination process of what was a very opaque and nondemocratic process.

It's unclear to me how much we want to rest on the argument that people are getting really pissed off in democracies and therefore the far right is going to be the unique beneficiary. It's not clear to me. That needs data. That needs more exploration.

I am certainly sympathetic to a lot of people who feel like the system has been rigged against them turning to people who promise they're going to break those vested elites. I'm not very sympathetic to Christian Nationalism, especially because, let's face it, so much of—I like separation of church and state. I like a more ecumenical view. I happen to be a Christian. I happen to believe in God, but my view of what God is is pretty ecumenical, and I really don't like it when other people tell me that their view of God is better than mine, and I expect that that is true of most people.

DEVIN STEWART: You should be a Unitarian.

IAN BREMMER: Yes. No. I like more smells and bells than Unitarians, and I was raised Catholic, so I have a little bit of pushback personally.

But I think that we'd be better off if more governments recognized that Unitarianism is safer. You just don't want to govern people with strong religious beliefs because it's too exclusionary. It's problematic.

And the Hungarians—let's face it; it's great if you're us; it sucks if you're them. And that's—why has Trump done so well with his base? He does so well with his base because he tells you that they are bad and that our country will not be—we won't even recognize our country if we can't build a wall. Why? To keep them out. Right? That's a strong message. It's not one I happen to embrace, but it's a strong message.

DEVIN STEWART: Was his tweet something about a country you will not even recognize or something?

IAN BREMMER: We'll be unrecognizable, something like that. I don't memorize the tweets when they come out. They just pass over, they wash over me.

DEVIN STEWART: Good. That's the correct attitude.

So, risk number three, Ian, is also a threat to probably the future of democracies, I suppose. It's Cyber Gloves Off. "Hackers have grown more sophisticated while societies have become heavily dependent on digital services." Which countries are you concerned about, and what are the goals of using this technique in statecraft?

IAN BREMMER: It's both statecraft and non-statecraft. A lot of non-state actors are also developing more capabilities on cyber. A lot of state actors that we don't think of as very powerful nonetheless have robust cyber capabilities—North Korea, Iran. Certainly the biggest danger has to be Russia because they are not only largely at parity with the United States on offensive capabilities, but they're also very risk-acceptant, and they are led by one guy.

So when I see the Americans starting to think about a more robust cyberdeterrent that could even lead to preemptive strikes against bad actors, for me that doesn't mean deterrence is coming, that means dangers of escalation are growing. When I see the Mueller investigation coming down and probably going to finger a lot of individuals who are just one or two people from Putin, I say, "Wow, they could react against that," and those are cyberattacks that could hit us and hit our critical infrastructure.

So I do think that the risk of sudden cyberattacks even in a year like 2019 where the political risk environment is not actually that problematic, that's one that I would focus on.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you of the school of thought like Yuval Harari, who points to artificial intelligence (AI) as potentially one of the most dangerous threats in the future to democracy?

IAN BREMMER: Sure.

DEVIN STEWART: You're in agreement with that?

IAN BREMMER: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that last year. That's why I bring it up.

IAN BREMMER: Yes. Certainly. I've read Homo Deus and his most recent essays, which aren't as interesting, but he's a brilliant guy. Obviously, he gives a lot of thought to these issues.

I think that when you talk about artificial intelligence, when you talk about algorithms that you are developing that clearly are coming up with answers from pattern recognition and deep learning that are correct but that we don't understand—for example, the ability of AI to identify physical features that determine your sexual preference is vastly greater than any human being on the planet, and yet we don't know how AI does it. We don't know what it is.

When you unleash technologies like that, you clearly facilitate bad actors. Good action comes from thoughtfulness. As we say as political scientists, "Garbage in, garbage out." If your model is putting in garbage data, you get garbage out. It's only when you have people—technology and science is value-neutral, and it needs custodians. It needs curators. It needs people who ultimately care about humanity that are running it.

DEVIN STEWART: It needs restraint.

IAN BREMMER: It needs values. And AI by itself is becoming more valueless because we, as the human beings who are creating it, increasingly don't understand it. Obviously, that is a fundamental threat to humanity.

DEVIN STEWART: Relates to risk number two, which is U.S.-China. Your report says, "We remain concerned about the world's most important bilateral relationship."

You mentioned earlier in this interview that you're not too worried about the trade war going crazy.

IAN BREMMER: Not this year.

DEVIN STEWART: What area is the most dangerous between the United States and China?

IAN BREMMER: What's most dangerous is that we are going to have on March 1 or thereabouts—March 1 is a deadline imposed by Trump—some sort of announcement that says we've made huge progress between Xi Jinping and Trump, both for different reasons but aligned. We are going to say no move to 25 percent tariffs, and they're going to buy more American soybean, and the trade deficit's not going to be as bad, and things are awesome.

And yet it's a bad patch job on a house that's falling down. What we know is that on every major structural issue, whether it's big architecture like One Belt, One Road, or whether it's Taiwan or the South China Sea or the East China Sea, or whether it's intellectual property theft, or whether it's technology and AI and their treatment of those companies and American firms that can't invest in China and don't have access to the market, Chinese companies that are getting hit in the United States, Huawei and all the rest, or the rollout of 5G, all of this are the two largest countries in the world coming to loggerheads.

So again, 2019 doesn't necessarily feel—at least the beginning of 2019 can feel good, but it's going to become increasingly obvious that we are on a very dangerous path.

DEVIN STEWART: Ian, I'm sure you're well aware of a new attitude in Washington, DC toward China.

IAN BREMMER: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: It has been described in dozens of articles. In a nutshell, it's more confrontational.

IAN BREMMER: Much more hawkish.

DEVIN STEWART: Less engagement, more conflictive.

IAN BREMMER: It's Peter Navarro, it's Michael Pillsbury.

DEVIN STEWART: Pillsbury is an intellectual.

IAN BREMMER: Yes. I was just with him a week ago. Clearly he believes that China is going to take over the world, and they mean to take it from us.

DEVIN STEWART: Zero-sum.

IAN BREMMER: Very zero-sum. And trade is the non-zero-sum piece of the U.S.-China relationship right now, though it's becoming more zero-sum if you believe that supply chains are becoming shorter. With the post-industrial, Fourth Industrial Revolution, if you don't need labor for capital—and Chinese labor is getting more expensive—then why would you build all of your stuff in China? I can even imagine that the U.S.-China trade relationship is going to become somewhat more zero-sum than it has been.

But in technology, where the Chinese are developing their own tech standards and tech companies that are separate from ours, zero-sum; defense, obviously zero-sum; security dilemma. Increasingly architecture. We thought the Chinese were going to align with our architecture, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and instead they start building their own, becoming more zero-sum.

So the major aspects of Chinese and American power that interact with each other are becoming more zero-sum, and we know that the way you avoid conflict is by interdependency, by being too big to fail, by people needing you.

DEVIN STEWART: That's the liberal idea.

IAN BREMMER: It's not just the liberal idea. Realpolitik people understand that. It's also interdependence theory. It's both.

But no matter how you look at it ideologically, whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing that the United States is becoming more confrontational toward China, and the Chinese are becoming more assertive globally, it is clear that the relationship overall—and it's the most important relationship in the world—is heading toward confrontation. The announcements coming in the next couple of months, which will be positive, should fool nobody.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm suspecting it might be a little bit superficial.

Getting to risk number one, Bad Seeds, as we alluded to at the beginning. Your report says, "The wide array of issues we follow at the Eurasia Group, more than 90 percent of them are now headed in the wrong direction." What are those seeds, and who planted them?

IAN BREMMER: They've been planted for a long time, but if you think about it, you look at all the major international relations in the world, so U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, U.S.-Europe, U.S.-Canada, U.S.-Mexico, intra-Middle East, intra-Europe, all of those international relations are trending in a more confrontational, less sustainable way. That's number one.

Then, number two is the fact that inside democracies, with the notable exception of Japan, you have this significant erosion of leadership, legitimacy, weakening of institutions, and polarization. You and I have never seen an environment like that.

So those are the bad seeds that are being planted, and they're being planted for very different reasons—and I talk about some of that in my book—none of which have urgency, none of which require us to respond to them now, especially because the United States is more insulated.

We are the one country that can do the most to respond to these challenges, and yet we are one of the most insulated from them in the near term. Our geopolitical environment in the Western Hemisphere is very stable, there's no local arms race, we don't have refugees coming over, we're the largest oil producer, we're the largest food producer. We're just not going to feel it. Particularly powerful Americans are just not going to feel it.

As a consequence, the lead risk for 2019—it is possible that we could have some massive sudden shock in 2019 that none of us is expecting, like a cyberattack, for example, and we really fail; 2019 could be the year that the world is suddenly like before and after—where were you when? I don't think that is true, but I think it would be irresponsible of us to talk about top risks for 2019 and take a blinkered view and not recognize that over the course of this year the bad seeds that we are going to continue to plant are going to yield a very bitter harvest over the course of the next few years.

DEVIN STEWART: Ian, unfortunately we have to wrap up pretty soon because we're going to continue your debate with Tom Nichols from this morning—

IAN BREMMER: Which will be a lot of fun.

DEVIN STEWART: —on Morning Joe, and also CNN is waiting at the door there to interview you between these two events.

Just to wrap up—and you're welcome to say no—can you describe sort of a political science perspective of the world today, the international system, where all the elements you described today actually can maintain somewhat of a stable peace, something like the late 1800s or something like that, or is that just completely farfetched?

IAN BREMMER: I think that for the near future the best we can hope for are responsible and accountable actors inside the system recognizing that it's getting worse and playing defense, the Germanys, the Canadas, the Japans, individual mayors, governors, and CEOs, doing what they can to build resilience while the global system unwinds.

This is not the right time to say, "What is the next system?" That is not where we're heading. We're not heading in the next one, two, or three years toward building the next system; we're heading to the unwind, and in that environment you need to say what can we do to make sure that this doesn't get much worse. That should be the focus.

DEVIN STEWART: Ian, thank you so much for coming by, and I'll see you against next year.

IAN BREMMER: Yes, you will. Absolutely.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you.

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