Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The hope and beauty of a North Korean stalemate

Ian Bremmer
Mar 30, 2012 15:40 UTC

President Obama’s recent trip to South Korea may have gained attention for his “open mic” slipup with outgoing Russian President Medvedev over missile defense, but that’s just a media distraction from the importance of Obama’s visit to the Korean peninsula. After Kim Jong Il’s death in December, the U.S. took an early lead in negotiations with North Korea doing so because Obama and his team thought it could be an easy diplomatic win. With the promise of aid and food, the U.S. could let new leader Kim Jong-un quietly drop the consistently belligerent stance the country has taken in what passes for its foreign policy.

It’s now clear that easy win is not going to happen. Despite Kim’s titular status, we still don’t really know who is in charge in North Korea. While there have been no major coups, protests, or blowups, there have been plenty of smaller events, like military executions due to insubordination, that point to a high likelihood of purges happening in the regime. Now factor in that North Korea has gotten decidedly more, rather than less, militant on the nuclear arms front. Its announcement of a satellite test is a thinly veiled attempt to launch a long-range ICBM. The global community is perceiving it as such with South Korea threatening to shoot the missile down. The vitriol coming out of the North Korean propaganda machine is as hardline and aggressive as we’ve seen in many years.

Several months into the Kim Jong-un regime, there’s little cause for optimism. There’s much cause to be on heightened alert, though, because other than belligerent press releases, the new regime has not shown any ability to deliver on its promises. The South Koreans recently held live-fire exercises on five islands near the disputed Yellow Sea boundary with North Korea; their angry neighbors, despite loudly promising a response, did nothing. As much as we can be glad there was no international incident as a result, it’s not a good sign if the reason the North Koreans didn’t follow through on their threats was that the Kim Jong-un regime was unable to control the military well enough to direct it to do so. The regime change, in other words, has not yet stabilized.

There are two countries right now China and the United States that could contain North Korea, which remains among the poorest and most totalitarian countries in the world. China, in the middle of its own transition of power, which has been peaceful but not without intrigue, hardly has the capacity to fully engage on North Korea. Obama has learned that there is no quick win to be had in North Korea and if he is telling the Russians he doesn’t want to deal with issues surrounding missile bases before the November election, we can imagine he has no desire whatsoever to contend with an entire rogue country, especially one as bizarre as North Korea.

While the U.S. would love China to step up here, that’s not going to happen. As has been said, a good analogy would be that China would sure like it if the U.S. could step up on Iran already. To put it simply, what everyone would most like is for North Korea to stay quiet for much of the next year. That way China can get its transition under way, and Obama and the Republican nominee can talk tough on North Korea without actually having to do anything about it.

Video: Syria is moving toward full-blown civil war

Reuters Staff
Mar 24, 2012 14:08 UTC
YouTube Preview Image

 

The world’s great powers don’t have enough incentive to intervene in Syria, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tells Chrystia Freeland.

Chinese capitalism is just another knockoff

Ian Bremmer
Mar 21, 2012 19:12 UTC

Is China’s system of capitalism better than that of the United States? That depends — do pigs fly? While I have no question in my mind that the U.S. is still the paragon of success when it comes to the capitalist system, lately a strange coalition of think-tankers, investors and politicians have been advancing the idea that China is eating our lunch when it comes to deploying capitalism.

More specifically, this bunch claims that China’s unique brand of centrally planned capitalism is working better than the U.S.’s overregulated, bloated, inefficient and slow-growing economy. They say that our capitalism has been so bogged down by our developed-nation cost structure that we’ll never again be a competitive center of investment for the great global pools of money in search of a safe investment out of which to make a parking spot.

Baloney.

China has indeed grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. That’s a huge credit to a country that has modernized and industrialized on a previously unseen scale. And because of its 1.3 billion citizens, China has quite a bit of growth (read: catching up) still to come. China’s style of governance leaves the country light on regulation. However, it’s also light on rule of law, transparency, freedom of speech and several other key features that make the U.S. economy go ’round. Just because the Chinese government can move a village and build a road without holding a single hearing doesn’t mean the free market has taken hold. Indeed, it shows the opposite: China’s economy is largely state-planned, state-owned and state-run. The government uses capitalism only as a tool to reach its ends, not as a true expression of a free market.

Video: Israel is painting President Obama into a corner on Iran

Reuters Staff
Mar 19, 2012 21:21 UTC

Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship is leaving President Obama with few options: push Iran too hard, and energy prices rise. Do too little, and leave Israel in danger. Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer explains how the U.S. can contain the Iran threat. Part 2.

  YouTube Preview Image

Video: President Obama’s flawed Iran policy

Reuters Staff
Mar 16, 2012 14:55 UTC

Iran’s taunting the West, Israel’s rattling its sword, and gas prices are rising. All that puts President Obama’s future at risk, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tells Chrystia Freeland. Part 1: YouTube Preview Image

Obama’s Iran dilemma could be a game changer

Ian Bremmer
Mar 9, 2012 18:30 UTC

Could it be that the international sanctions against Iran are hurting the Obama administration more than Iran itself? The argument over whether sanctions ever work is an age-old and never-ending debate, and to be clear, that’s not the one I’m trying to have in this column. But I do think it’s worth examining the negatives of Obama’s Iran policy, especially because it is likely to play out during this election season.

Let’s start with the background: Iran’s recent parliamentary elections went off without a hitch. No major protests (see: Russia), no violence, barely a blip in the Western media. Turnout on voting day was surprisingly high, even for the Islamist republic. That has a little to do with the fact that government is actually quite factionalized in Iran — Khamenei versus Ahmadinejad, yes, but also all sorts of high and midlevel bureaucrats — and each faction worked hard to drive turnout, to be able to pass the hot potato of blame should the election have gone poorly. Well, the election didn’t go poorly at all, and suddenly Iran’s government looks more legitimate, internally and externally, than it has in years. Reformists in Iran also picked up a large number of seats, and Iran has everything it did before the election — real economic wealth, a social safety net and huge oil resources that it can sell to every country that doesn’t adhere to the sanctions, of which there are plenty.

That’s the country Barack Obama has to keep in a box to win the election, which is to say one that doesn’t exactly look deplorable to large parts of the global community — like Russia, China, nearly all of Africa and even much of the Middle East. The Iranians won’t be easy to demonize, and to get the sanctions lifted, they are even making concessions to the Europeans, suggesting in talks they’d be amenable to restarting inspections. They’ll play the razor’s edge, even as the uncertainty in the oil market and fear of a shock — like an attack by the U.S. or Israel — steadily drives up the price of oil around the globe.

  •