Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Four Debate Questions for Obama and Romney

Ian Bremmer
Oct 22, 2012 01:22 UTC

There will always be a wide gap between what candidates promise and what they deliver once elected, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. After all, this is an area where U.S. presidents have less control than either candidate will ever admit near a microphone. But this year, there are contradictions that cut straight to the heart of debates over American power and how it should be used. With that in mind, here are the questions I would like to see each candidate answer.

THE CHINA CONUNDRUM

    President Obama, given how much money the United States borrows from China each day, how can your administration expect to persuade the Chinese government to do anything it wouldn’t otherwise do? Governor Romney, you have pledged that, if elected, you will formally label China a “currency manipulator” on day one of your presidency. This decision would surely provoke a sharp response from China. Are you risking a trade war, and how could the United States win a trade war with China?

China-bashing has figured into many a U.S. presidential campaign. As China’s economy and geopolitical importance has grown — and as U.S. manufacturing jobs have moved from U.S. swing states to China and other foreign countries — both sides have tried to score points by promising to “get tough” with Beijing. Given the economic interdependence of the two countries and continued Chinese willingness to loan money to the United States, voters are right to wonder how seriously they should take all this anti-Chinese rhetoric.

SYRIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST

    President Obama, does the United States have a moral responsibility to protect Syrians from their government? Governor Romney, if we were to see large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, similar to those we saw last year in Cairo, would your administration side with the Saudi citizens demanding democracy? Or would you side with their government, a key U.S. ally?

President Obama cited moral concerns for the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya. Syria is a much more politically and logistically complicated problem for outsiders contemplating involvement, but the moral imperative — protecting citizens who are being killed by their government — appears the same. Where is the line in U.S. foreign policy between pragmatism and moral concerns?

Governor Romney has two principle criticisms of the Obama Middle East policy: The White House has refused to stand with U.S. allies in the region and has refused to stand with those who demand freedom. There are many ways to highlight the contradiction in these critiques, but the most efficient is to ask about Romney’s attitude toward the potential for pro-democracy demonstrations inside an authoritarian state that is also a crucial U.S. ally and the world’s leading producer of crude oil.

THE GLOBALIZED ECONOMY

    President Obama, how can the U.S. government work with American corporations to ensure that they can effectively compete against state-owned corporations, like those in China, that benefit from the financial and political backing of their home governments? Governor Romney, is an economically-sound Europe good for America’s national security? If so, what, if anything, would your administration do to strengthen Europe in this moment of crisis?

Beyond the basic question of what role government should play in promoting U.S. business abroad, the next president will have to consider how U.S. companies can succeed on a global competitive playing field distorted by governments like China’s that use state-owned companies to achieve goals that are ultimately political.

Romney’s only path forward: Back the way he came

Ian Bremmer
Oct 3, 2012 15:27 UTC

Six months ago, the U.S. election was about the economy, and little else. Nearly everyone agreed that for Mitt Romney to win, he’d have to exploit Barack Obama’s glaring weakness: an economy that was as stubborn as the Congress that refused to rescue it. Unemployment was high, Europe’s future was uncertain and the markets were volatile. Not coincidentally, polls showed the two men neck and neck.

But now Mitt Romney has kicked off the week of the first presidential debate – which is focused on domestic policy – with a foreign policy op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Noting the recent protests over the Innocence of Muslims video and the Iranian nuclear program, Romney writes: “These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere ‘bumps in the road.’ They are major issues that put our security at risk.” Obama’s now just as vulnerable on foreign policy as on the economy, and Romney seems to realize it. So what’s the problem? Voters are still basing their decision overwhelmingly on the economy. Romney has flipped the electoral script, but it’s not a winning strategy. He would be wise to get back on message before it’s too late (which it already may be).

Over the past few months, the global and domestic economies have averted the double-dip disaster that seemed so imminent. The Europeans have made significant strides toward a stronger union, the Supreme Court upheld the Democrats’ healthcare law, Ben Bernanke moved forward with a new round of quantitative easing, the housing sector appears to be growing again, and consumer confidence is at its highest in the last four months. That unemployment remains high and GDP remains weak means that 81 percent of voters still think that the economy is “not so good” or “poor,” according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. And yet that and other polls show that there’s an even split on which candidate voters think is best equipped to handle the economy.

Getting away with it while the world’s cop is off duty

Ian Bremmer
Oct 1, 2012 13:30 UTC

As the world convened at the U.N. General Assembly last week, the willingness of the Obama administration to risk blood and treasure promoting democracy abroad was on full display: Barack Obama gave a stirring speech defending American values and asking other democracies to adopt them. But Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t deliver his speech until after an appearance on a daytime chat show, in obvious support of his re-election campaign.

Many foreign policy experts have criticized Obama for wasting time with Barbara and Whoopi on The View when he could’ve been engaging with foreign leaders on the East Side of Manhattan. But the experts’ takeaway from Obama’s priorities last week is no different than it has been from the administration’s response to months of civil war in Syria, the teeter-tottering of Libya, the reluctance to pose a credible military threat for Iran and the refusal to engage in the Middle East peace process.

The U.S. is willing to do less on the world stage than it has since the onset of World War Two. In the long term, this reset of foreign policy and military initiatives may yield the country a peace dividend. In the short term, there are three international issues where the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and where, in the past, a U.S. president might have intervened. Let’s look at them:

Goodbye Department of Commerce, hello Department of Economic Statecraft

Ian Bremmer
Aug 22, 2012 16:03 UTC

Whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney who wins the next election, there is already a vacancy to fill in the president’s Cabinet. With the resignation of John Bryson in June, thanks to a hit-and-run accident apparently caused by a medical issue, the Department of Commerce is being led by an acting secretary, Rebecca Blank. Yet after the initial scandalmongering about Bryson’s departure died down, nary a peep has been uttered in the media about the department’s fate or future.

In other words, the Department of Commerce’s real problem is not a lack of leadership, but a lack of mission-a weakness that means Commerce isn’t making the most of its roughly $10 billion budget. In today’s world, everything – geopolitics, national security, foreign policy – is increasingly being viewed through the lens of our economic interests. The United States has a powerful bureaucracy devoted to international diplomacy and a gargantuan one devoted to national defense, but a near-total vacuum when it comes to global economics.

For a long time now, as conservatives have tried to scale back the size of the government, they’ve also argued that America’s businesses need to be unencumbered from government regulation. They worry about how the government’s intrusion into business will harm our competitiveness abroad. However, the idea that’s been neglected is that the government, through industrial policy, can protect and advance the interests of the private sector abroad, too. The global, U.S.-led economic institutions that arose from the ashes of World War Two have truly become global. Thus they’ve stopped protecting America’s interests abroad. Structurally, our business sector has little to no support from the government when it comes to finding customers outside of our borders. To remain competitive, especially with the state-run economy of China, that has to change.

National candidate’s European vacation: Why Mitt should’ve stayed home

Ian Bremmer
Aug 7, 2012 16:18 UTC

Poor Mitt. Despite the listless U.S. economy, the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the abyss the euro zone still faces, his campaign is showing the world that it’s hard to go up against an incumbent, even one who is as potentially vulnerable as President Obama. Team Romney had to hope that the jobs report that came out on Friday would be very bad, so it could continue to pin the country’s economic malaise on Obama’s policies. Instead it got a mixed report – good hiring, but an uptick in the unemployment rate – that made it hard for Republicans to present a clear message to the American people.

Of course, what we’re seeing in this campaign is that Romney hardly needs the Department of Labor’s help when it comes to presenting mixed messages. If Romney were a smarter candidate, or had a smarter team around him, he’d absolutely hammer Obama on the economy, to the exclusion of any other issue. That’s right – no talk about healthcare, immigration, gay marriage, contraception in Catholic hospitals or Osama bin Laden. Romney’s campaign, if he wants to win, should be all economy, all the time.

Any college kid getting a poli sci degree could tell Romney that. So why on earth did his campaign just waste a week in the UK, Israel and Poland? Those three countries are American allies, to be sure, but they also don’t matter nearly as much as they used to. As such, leaving aside his constant stream of gaffes while on his tour, he didn’t get much out of his trip. Sure, Poland and the UK were happy to flatter him (to the extent that they could, given the foot he had in his mouth about the London Olympics and his shutting out of the press throughout the trip, especially in Warsaw). His stop in Warsaw may have had some impact on Polish-American swing-state voters, while Israel was important to large chunks of his American constituency, especially super PAC funder and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

In a G-Zero world, Syria’s civil war will drag on and on

Ian Bremmer
Jul 27, 2012 17:55 UTC

“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:

1. China’s and Russia’s vetoes

The two countries vetoed the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have authorized sanctions against Assad’s government as a result of its repeated failures to adhere to promises to bring peace to the nation. While the result is disappointing for the Syrian people, the effect of the vetoes of China and Russia is twofold. First, the U.N. obviously has been robbed of one of the tools it uses to protect citizens of oppressive regimes. But second, the impact of the veto, coming from two countries that have up-and-down relationships with the U.S., serves to turn any American interventionism into an international incident.

Let’s be clear: This is playing politics on a global, humanitarian scale. We always knew that Russia and China would not support a U.S. intervention in Syria, not even in the way they grudgingly did when it came to Libya. But ultimately, the bloodshed there is not just on their hands. While Obama has cover for his hands-off foreign policy thanks to the veto, U.N. resolutions have hardly stopped or even influenced U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially when it mattered.

Are state-led economies better?

Ian Bremmer
Jul 3, 2012 16:16 UTC

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

As Europe’s leaders struggle to restore confidence in the single currency and America’s economy limps ahead at a painfully slow pace, China’s economy continues to power forward at its now characteristically strong clip. For the past three decades, China has been the world’s fastest growing economy—and within the next several years, the People’s Republic will overtake the United States as the world’s largest. Some economists have even argued that, measured by purchasing-power parity, China has already pulled ahead. Such prognostications, accurate or not, have led to dire warnings that liberal capitalism’s best days are behind it, that the future lies with authoritarian market managers who are able to relocate populations and move mountains by decree. For the moment, at least, state-managed capitalism appears to be triumphant.

Such appearances, however, are misleading. The appeal of state capitalism lies in its ability to withstand the occasional crises that afflict market systems, thus shielding the general population from politically inconvenient disruptions. It is a system in which the state uses state-owned enterprises, national champion firms, sovereign wealth funds, and politically loyal banks to dominate the process of domestic wealth creation. To be sure, this is not communism; significant segments of state capitalist economies are in private hands. But the state plays the largest role in ensuring that market forces serve political ends—by ensuring that, profitable or not, businesses invest in projects that bolster social stability and protect the ruling elite’s political control.

China is not the only state capitalist economy producing impressive results. As the Arab world continues to contend with the risks of political turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stockpiled the cash they need to maintain stability by controlling much of the wealth produced by national oil companies. Even some emerging democracies have begun to flirt with limited forms of managed capitalism. Brazil’s private sector remains crucial for the country’s expansion, but its government leans on state-owned energy firm Petrobras and privately owned mining champion Vale to help create jobs. President Dilma Rousseff’s government won’t milk cash from these firms as President Hugo Chávez has done with state-owned oil company PDVSA in Venezuela, but Petrobras is already at risk of becoming a much larger, less efficient, and thus less profitable company.

Democracy doesn’t make miracles for Greece or Egypt

Ian Bremmer
Jun 27, 2012 15:25 UTC

For months now, the world has been waiting for the results of the momentous elections in Greece and in Egypt. In Greece, it was hoped that citizens would reject candidates who called for the breakup of the euro zone, or a Greek exit. In Egypt, the stakes were simpler, but larger: It was hoped that the election itself wouldn’t be a sham and that the country’s people would get their first true taste of the power of democracy.

It felt like everyone was holding their breath for the results in these two troubled countries, but it turns out neither country had the “disaster election” that some pundits feared. No, what both countries had was a “kick the can” election: For very different reasons, neither Greece nor Egypt is going to transform into a flourishing, liberal, fiscally sound nation overnight. And the task of governing in either country, therefore, is no big prize to either Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras or Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi. A lot of chips have to fall in their favor before they can even begin to get beyond the basic duties of simply showing up to work in the morning and keeping the lights on in government. But again, each country’s situation is different and bears a different explanation of the reality on the ground. Let’s take Egypt, with its internal threats to stability, first.

While the election of Mursi, the incoming Egyptian president, is a signal achievement that goes a long way toward instituting a tradition of civil rather than military rule, he alone will not get the economy to stand on its feet. The Egyptian tourism industry, its most important, has been absolutely crushed. The economy is in a shambles as the thread that was holding it together – Mubarak’s dictatorship – has been pulled from the fabric of Egypt, and the country is a long way from convincing anyone that it has recovered. While Mursi was the better choice for Egypt, he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, basically a civic organization with no experience or expertise in macroeconomic management. The brotherhood is an important social organization: It’s a lot of things to a lot of people in Egypt, but it’s not an incubator of technocratic economic thinking or governance. That’s what the country will need to get back on its fiscal feet.

The good, the bad and the global economy

Ian Bremmer
Jun 18, 2012 12:37 UTC

Everyone knows the world’s economies are becoming ever more intertwined, but we’re only just starting to understand the ripple effects.

Welcome to the new global economy: One guy sneezes, and someone else gets a cold. That’s what we’re seeing in the slowdown now happening in the U.S., in Europe and in emerging market countries all around the world. Barring some kind of radical decoupling, the tight correlation in fates between these economic titans is a phenomenon we had better get used to, and understand, because it’s not going away. Indeed, this fact by itself – that our world is operating more and more like one big system every day – is not all bad news. However, a word of caution: Where interconnectedness yields benefits, it also creates pitfalls. Let’s look at a few examples of how this global system is actually working in our favor.

First, take the recent drop in U.S. Treasury yields. This is the more important macroeconomic story in America right now. Can any politician, with a straight face, continue to claim that getting the Simpson-Bowles recommendations passed into law was any kind of imperative for Congress or the president? The continual driving down of lending costs for the U.S. has made a mockery of credit-rating agency warnings and any perceived threat that a downgrade once held for the U.S. economy. Indeed, it takes some of the air out of the big debt-ceiling showdown that is set to take place between Democrats and Republicans in January 2013, when the $110 billion-dollar budget reduction is set to take automatic effect. It becomes increasingly hard to argue that reducing the deficit is priority number one to getting the country back on track when the cost of lending is so incredibly cheap and when the world’s investors are telling the U.S. they want more, not less of it.

Egyptian democracy’s predictable unpredictability

Ian Bremmer
Jun 6, 2012 16:55 UTC

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill

In a little less than two weeks, Egyptians will choose their first new president since Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981. Before we talk about the contenders as selected by Egyptians in the first round of voting in May, let’s pause to consider how far Egypt has come in an incredibly short period of time.

Egypt has seen its thousands of years on the planet pass by without a democracy. Then, over the course of 18 days, it found itself with a revolution partly fueled by digital tools like Twitter that deposed a president (since sentenced to life in jail). Objects of the world’s attention, the protesters found themselves splashed across the pages of Time magazine, a symbol of the power of change that even oppressed citizens can have when they make the most of their moment and refuse to give up. So why the recent disappointment?

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