Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Japan’s year of resilience

Ian Bremmer
Feb 15, 2012 18:34 UTC

Almost a year on from a devastating earthquake and tsunami that left the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in its wake, it’s fair to say Japan has experienced a crisis unlike any other since the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War Two.

Over 13,000 people died from the quake, many from drowning. The final death toll, which will include those who were unable to receive proper medical care during the disaster, will be even higher. An estimated 100,000 children were uprooted from their homes after the quake, along with some 400,000 adults. And in the areas affected by fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, cleanup work is really just beginning. With all of this coming in the teeth of the global economic crisis and Japan’s national industrial slowdown, the densely populated main island of Japan has not seen anything like this in decades.

Now Japan has to contend with the fact that its primary power supply, nuclear energy, is effectively verboten in the country. How will it rebuild its power infrastructure when the very idea of a new nuclear power plant is dismissed nearly out of hand? How will it rebuild when its costs for construction have skyrocketed thanks to the setbacks its industries have faced this year? How will it continue taking care of the thousands who have yet to return home, many of whom are living in fallout zones and may never even have the option to do so? The challenges facing the country are serious.

Yet Japan’s response to tragedy has been nothing but remarkable. The Japanese are diligently rebuilding their infrastructure. That deserves our admiration. So does the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who reflected in public that he wasn’t meant to be a “shiny goldfish,” but rather a mudfish or catfish — a leader who gets down in the muck but gets the job done. To that end, Noda has mobilized the country’s military and his civilian bureaucracy in service of rebuilding, and is, based on conversations I have had, winning plaudits from Japan’s business community for his work.

In fact, Japan’s business leaders are more upbeat than I have seen them in years. That says several things about their state of mind in a world that has become accustomed to global shocks (whether oil spikes, natural disasters or unforeseen geopolitical events). Because we’re going to see much more instability in the years ahead, Japan knows it’s in a good position — it’s a country that prepares for the worst. Its economy focuses on quality and attention to detail, and Japanese society takes care of its young and old and has incredible longevity, even for a developed nation. Having just gone through a huge test, there is a sense of security among Japan’s leaders as its ability to withstand shocks has been proven.

The truth about Israel’s rumored strike on Iran

Ian Bremmer
Feb 9, 2012 17:39 UTC

At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.

But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.

According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.’s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.

Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union’s gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.

The world’s year of reckoning

Ian Bremmer
Jan 30, 2012 17:11 UTC

DAVOS–If 2011 was the year of the protestor, 2012, at least where the World Economic Forum is concerned, is the year of the reckoning. Through the events of the Arab Spring, major power vacuums have been created in countries all over the Middle East. More governments, such as Syria’s, are likely to topple. But the time to start thinking about what’s next for countries like Egypt is already here.

The thing is, it’s coming at an inconvenient time for Western democracy. Having long held themselves as the global models for governance and economic structure, Western Europe and the U.S. have in recent years shown their warts as never before. That has opened the door for state capitalist models — like China’s — to take the stage. And the simple fact that new models for how countries and economies should work are even being considered is a blow to the Western world’s power and prestige. Obviously, well before the G-7 system broke down, China was already on a path of state capitalism, and that has turned out to be a successful course for that country to chart. But here’s the problem: While it has led to wealth and a rise in living standards for the Chinese, it hasn’t led to more democracy.

Here at Davos, and in capitals around the world, the paths countries should chart for themselves in the future is always topic A, and what we’ve learned over these last years is that transforming those countries and indeed the world is about a lot more than simply swapping out the players who legislate and lead. Look at the precarious situation in Egypt. Consider Putin’s long hold on power in Russia. For that matter, look at the situations in many countries on the euro zone periphery. Going down that list, nations that have simply replaced one power-grabbing leader with another are in trouble. (In Russia’s case, that leader has simply replaced himself.) Countries that have revolved leadership without addressing deeper institutional weaknesses are not setting themselves up for success in the long run.

A Davos winter talk on Russian Spring with Ian Bremmer, Susan Glasser and Gideon Rose

Ian Bremmer
Jan 27, 2012 16:19 UTC

A Russian Spring grows as the prospects of Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency loom. Ian Bremmer, Susan Glasser and Gideon Rose talk with Thomson Reuters Digital Editor Chrystia Freeland about the prospects of an uprising in Russia similar to what we’ve seen in the Arab world.

  YouTube Preview Image

About Mitt

Ian Bremmer
Jan 11, 2012 22:35 UTC

The media can’t help themselves when it comes to presidential politics, and that’s never been more in evidence than in the current Republican nomination battle. For the press, campaign season is its Olympics, the time when reporters’ bosses open their wallets to send them to far off places like Dixville Notch, New Hampshire and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and correspondents can make a career on how well they report on the race. Except this year, there is no race. Mitt Romney will be the nominee, and that’s been clear for months.

Yet here’s the lead from today’s Wall Street Journal recap of yesterdays New Hampshire primary: “Mitt Romney is a long way from claiming the Republican nomination, but he leaves New Hampshire with significant advantages in a field where no single opponent seems well-positioned to stop him or become the obvious alternative to him.” While the reporter may merely be acknowledging the mathematics of the delegates Romney still has to win in primaries across the country, the hedging on Romney’s inevitable victory, to anyone who follows the day-to-day stories in the campaign, rings hollow at best.

With Gingrich, then Santorum, and Bachmann and Cain before them, news stories always turned to polls to explain the latest in the “anyone but Romney” vote. But the story the media should be telling is that polls during campaign seasons historically change the most and matter the least. Flawed methodology and small sample sizes make even the most rigorous polling little more than a one-day snapshot of popular sentiment, yet poll results are often reported as if they were all but recorded in the county clerk’s election rolls.

G-zero and the end of the 9/11 era top 2012 risks

Ian Bremmer
Jan 5, 2012 20:04 UTC

In a video for Reuters, Ian Bremmer discusses the biggest risks facing the markets in 2012 and says the next phase in the Middle East and the post-9/11 environment pose the greatest uncertainty:

Top Risks of 2012

As we begin 2012, political risks dominate global headlines in a way we’ve not experienced in decades. Everywhere you look in today’s global economy, concerns over insular, gridlocked, or fractured politics affecting markets stare back at you. Continuation of the politically driven crisis in the eurozone appears virtually guaranteed. There is profound instability across the Middle East. Grassroots opposition to entrenched governments is spreading to countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan that were thought more insulated. Nuclear powers North Korea and Pakistan (and soon Iran?) face unprecedented internal political pressure… Read the full top risks report here.

Fallout is just beginning in North Korea

Ian Bremmer
Dec 21, 2011 17:31 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.

While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side — and a promotion to four star general — is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.

That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring — for real or for show — anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.

Prokhorov’s presidential chances are not the point

Ian Bremmer
Dec 13, 2011 14:15 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

After a week full of anti-government and pro-government protests, Russians woke up on Monday to big news. Mikhail Prokhorov, a political novice with billions of dollars—and the New Jersey Nets— to his name, announced his Presidential bid.  Alexei Kudrin, a longtime bureaucratic infighter, also declared his plans to re-enter the political arena. These developments were even more significant considering both were ousted in rather public quarrels with the powers that be just months ago. Kudrin said he would support and aid a pro-reform liberal party that would stand as a counterweight to the incumbent United Russia. Prokhorov intends to challenge Putin for the presidency in March 2012 on a platform that would appeal to Russia’s “disenchanted middle class.”

No matter what Kudrin and Prokhorov say in public, they both represent the same thing to Russia and the world: Vladimir Putin’s iron grip on power. As I’ve written before, Putin is the most powerful individual on the planet. To think that either man would risk his freedom or his fortune to oppose Putin’s Kremlin, no matter what their stated reasons are, is just wrong. That said, there are reasons to watch this “race” as it will give some insight into Putin’s inevitable third term as president.

Putin has had to deal with a growing sense of dissatisfaction in Russia as of late.  Growth and living standards are stagnating, while economic inequality persists. It is unclear whose pockets are being lined with the wealth generated by Russia’s massive natural resources. The lack of freedom of the press, centralized control over economic opportunity, and pervasive corruption that makes a mockery of the justice and security systems and other institutions, are Putin’s levers of power– and also the focal points for protesters. The protestors’ complaints crystallized last week over United Russia, Putin’s party, winning a smaller but still strong majority in the parliamentary elections. Accusations of election fraud were widespread and tens of thousands took to the streets in protest over the course of last week. Putin has not been in a position to crack down on these protests — they’re too visible and too widespread — but be sure that the oligarchs and ruling classes in Russia are on Putin’s side. While his tactics for retaining power have had to change, the outcome is the same.

Euro zone pain: hurts so good

Ian Bremmer
Dec 8, 2011 19:02 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.


It seems every Monday morning, the U.S. newspapers greet their readers with the latest news of the euro zone’s painful sovereign debt negotiations, not to mention all the politics, institutions and personalities wrapped therein. The tick-tock accounts of every phone call and meeting are important and fascinating reading, but they’re not as important as the real news coming out of this crisis: Europe is changing — painfully and haltingly, but for the better.

The Continent is moving to a point where increased fiscal coordination will redefine the nature of sovereignty for euro zone member states. Economists have long been saying that it’s going to take an extraordinary amount of pain to right the wrongs of the euro zone’s finances. Europe has already suffered through a lot: liquidity crunches in the banks (see today’s ECB rate drop), recession, riots and technocratic governments taking over the peripheral states. But what must be noted is that Europe would never be where it is today — on the verge of a sounder fiscal path forward — but for all this pain. It has all been necessary, in order to right the course of a euro zone that was, like the U.S., on an unsustainable path.

This may sound like strong medicine, so strong that it may cure the disease but kill the patient, but ask yourself this: Would any of the austerity and return to fiscal sanity have happened in Europe if Germany had simply cut the debtor nations a fat check one and a half years ago, when this crisis came to light? Would the problems of Europe have been solved? The answers to both are, of course, no.

  •