Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Why is Hillary Clinton in Myanmar?

Ian Bremmer
Dec 1, 2011 19:50 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

As Syria’s Assad faces civil war, Egypt struggles to elect a new government, Iranian students storm the British embassy, and Israel’s Netanyahu worries over what it all means, it’s remarkable that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just touched down in Myanmar. Rather than sending his chief diplomat off to the Middle East to fight fires and broker deals, President Obama appears intent on minimizing US exposure there and concentrating his attention elsewhere.

Clinton becomes just the second U.S. official of her rank to visit Myanmar, once known as Burma, a country run by an isolated, paranoid military regime that represses its people from a fortified enclave in the middle of the jungle. Clinton made the trip knowing that the Obama administration and her State Department might face accusations at home, from both left and right, that she is endorsing that country’s leaders. But in fact, Clinton’s boldness has proven to be a strength for the administration. And Obama’s foreign policy savvy benefits him politically relative the lack of a coherent Republican view of US foreign policy. (See Herman Cain’s newly published map of the world or my recent column on the lack of serious foreign policy in the GOP debates.)

The visit is all the more noteworthy because, following President Obama’s recent Pacific tour, it highlights just how much time the Obama team is devoting to Asia.

Obama sees an important new opening. For years, Asia’s powers have aligned their policies according to the moment’s defining trends: Cold War rivalries or opportunities for trade liberalization. Those debates are decided. Here is the region’s new defining question: What does China’s rise mean for everyone else? Anxiety is growing among the neighbors. Chinese officials were surely taken aback by widespread complaints from its neighbors during the recent ASEAN conference about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. From India to South Korea and Indonesia to Vietnam, Washington now has a chance to revive old friendships and build a few new ones.

It won’t be easy. Shifting public opinion and political calculations inside these countries will remind US officials that they are welcome as valued allies, not as saviors. But the key variable in Asia’s future—and for America’s future in Asia—is the fate of Beijing’s profoundly ambitious economic reform plans. Some economists argue that China’s economy is headed for a hard landing. The country’s coming leadership transition makes matters especially unpredictable.

Why the U.S. is not—and never will be—Japan

Ian Bremmer
Nov 18, 2011 20:23 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Though I’ve already written about the recent Munk debate in Toronto elsewhere, it’s worth taking some space to expand on my position, and why the U.S. truly is not going to experience a Japan-style lost decade of economic stagnation.

(The debate was on this resolution: Be it resolved North America faces a Japan-style era of economic stagnation. I joined Larry Summers in arguing the Con side against Paul Krugman and David Rosenberg.)

Let’s start with the political realities: Japan experienced 50 years of single-party rule. In the last 22 years, the country has had 17 prime ministers. Recently, the Democratic party there defeated the long-time incumbents, the Liberal Democrats, only to find that they had no idea how to govern the nation. They had no idea how the ministries worked, no relationships with industrialists or financial institutions, no grasp on the levers of power in society, and no strong policy apparatus. If the U.S.’s political situation looks bleak, consider that alternative.

Europe’s necessary creative destruction

Ian Bremmer
Nov 11, 2011 18:44 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

What we’re seeing in Europe — in rising Italian borrowing costs and the felling of two prime ministers — is the growing impatience of the markets for a resolution to the euro zone crisis. To put a finer point on it, the hive mind of the markets has decided it is not going to give Europe enough time to get its act together. The big institutions that drive the world’s economies are sitting on huge amounts of cash — enough to solve many of these problems overnight. But they have lost confidence in the ability of the European political system to deliver solutions that will work.

In a G-Zero world, where there is no strong global leader to direct the course of events, no one is interested in taking a flier on helping the Europeans get out of their mess. As the abortive G-20 conference showed last week, there is no backstop for any country or institution that makes an error in today’s environment, whether it’s tiny MF Global or the Chinese sovereign debt fund. In the postwar era, the Marshall Plan was the very definition of global security — it was a huge commitment by the U.S. to rebuild Europe into the economic force (and not incidentally, trading partner) that the world needed. Today, there is no Marshall plan for Europe, from within or without.

That’s the high-level view of the Europe situation. The question everyone wants answered is this: what happens next? Start with Greece: the best possible outcome for that country has happened with Papandreou’s resignation and the selection of economist Lucas Papademos as Prime Minister of an emergency government. Papademos is committed to remaining in the euro and accepting the terms of the Greek bailout package. Despite the roller coaster ride Papandreou took his country and the euro zone on, Greece has now moved closer to the Spanish and Portuguese models for avoiding the debt crisis drama. In Greece, a resolution is starting to be reached. It’s not the beginning of the end, but maybe this is the end of the beginning.

The secret to China’s boom: state capitalism

Ian Bremmer
Nov 4, 2011 18:45 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the world since the 2008 financial crisis can be summed up in one sentence: Security is no longer the primary driver of geopolitical developments; economics is. Think about this in terms of the United States and its shifting place as the superpower of the world. Since World War II, the U.S.’s highly developed Department of Defense has ensured the security of the country and indeed, much of the free world. The private sector was, well, the private sector. In a free market economy, companies manage their own affairs, perhaps with government regulation, but not with government direction. More than sixty years on, perhaps that’s why our military is the most technologically advanced in the world while our domestic economy fails to create enough jobs and opportunities for the U.S. population.

Contrast the U.S. and its free market economy with China’s system.  For years now, that country has experienced double digit growth. Many observers would say that China’s embrace of capitalism since 1978, and especially since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, has been responsible for its boom. They would be mostly wrong. In fact, a new study prepared for the U.S. government says it’s not capitalism that’s powering China, but state capitalism — China’s massive, centrally directed industrial policy, where the government positions huge amounts of capital and labor in economic sectors it intends to nurture. The study, prepared by consultants Capital Trade for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reads in part:

In a world in which central planning has been so utterly discredited, it would be natural to conclude that the Chinese government and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party have been abandoning the institutions associated with the communist economic system, such as reliance on state‐owned enterprises (SOEs), as fast as possible. Such conclusion would be wrong.

New world, new rules

Oct 26, 2011 20:27 UTC

By Paul Smalera

Welcome to the new world of volatility, globalization and a host of emerging markets. Merrill Lynch Chief Investment Officer Lisa Shalett and Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tell me, Reuters’ Deputy Opinion editor Paul Smalera, their views on how best to navigate today’s economy. To learn more about the report, including Bremmer’s analysis of debtor nations and creditor nations, and the tremendous GDP growth among developing world nations in recent years, watch the video below. To read the entire report, check out ML.com.

Romney’s foreign policy: Reagan redux

Ian Bremmer
Oct 13, 2011 15:55 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

After yet another GOP debate where foreign policy took a near-total backseat to economic and domestic policy, Mitt Romney is in the catbird seat for the nomination. He even locked up the endorsement of Tea Party AND Republican machine favorite, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Romney’s only problem: it’s October 2011. Not one primary has yet taken place. Romney will have to return to his foreign policy platform to expand it, should he be fortunate enough to make it to the general election. And based on the speech he gave at The Citadel, we can already see that Mitt Romney intends to return to the American exceptionalism of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush eras.

For Romney, as for many politicians of both parties in decades past, the United States is not just a big and powerful country. Rather, it is the only country in the world that deserves superpower status. What’s unfortunate for Mitt and his all-star, Bush-heavy foreign policy team is that, these days, that line of thinking is more nostalgic than realistic. (By the way, though Romney was almost bombastic at times, calling Iran’s leaders “suicidal fanatics,” his actual policies are unlikely to reflect or adopt that tone — at least not with his foreign policy team as constituted now.) The idea of the U.S. as the leader of the free world is at a post-WWII nadir. However, that’s not because some other country, like China, has risen to fill the vacuum. No, the fault is wholly our own.

In fact, right now there’s a global debate about whether the U.S. really deserves its superpower mantle, given the political and economic issues of recent years that have unquestionably eroded its leadership position. It’s helpful to compare the two camps:

Why the GOP is punting on foreign policy

Ian Bremmer
Oct 5, 2011 21:05 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Three years ago in the presidential primary debates, it would’ve been stunning if practically the only mention of foreign policy had come when a candidate suggested sending troops to Mexico to help fight the drug war. Yet in this year’s contentious Republican debate season, that’s exactly what’s happened, with Texas Governor Rick Perry being the one to float the lead trial balloon.

The surprise here isn’t that Republican candidates’ views on foreign policy are both underdeveloped and unimportant to their base — more on both of those points later — but how dramatically our world has changed in the past three years, largely due to the global financial crisis and recession.

Let’s think back even further, to 2000, when another Texas Governor, George W. Bush, promised America that he wouldn’t engage in Clintonian “nation-building” if elected. Needless to say, the shock of 9/11 changed the international calculus, forcing the Bush administration to develop a response that involved two wars and intense diplomacy with nearly every global power and international institution in existence. But the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has provided a symbolic moment of closure. More importantly, President Obama has largely kept his promise to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, outlining a plan more in line with opinion polls than General Petraeus’ guidance.   (Sadly, the withdrawal doesn’t mean Afghanistan won’t face quagmire — it just means U.S. forces won’t be the ones bogged down.)

The Kremlin has castled and Putin is still king

Ian Bremmer
Sep 28, 2011 19:54 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Long live the king? You can’t hold it against the Russian people for wondering just how long Vladimir Putin intends to remain in power with the recent announcement that he plans to return himself to the presidency and swap his partner Dmitri Medvedev into the prime minister slot. The electoral game Putin is playing is being compared to “castling” in chess– a rook and a king swapping places, in order to shore up the defense.

There might be defense at the heart of the strategy, but Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, despite some recent murmurings, is still the only game in Moscow. Which is to say that Vladimir Putin is by all reckoning the most powerful man in the world. What other leader, leaving aside third-world strongmen, has so completely consolidated his rule over a country, as Putin has? His success is all the more venerable when one considers that Putin is leader of a country of nearly 150 million people — and at the helm of the one of the world’s most important economies. Attention must be paid to him. Sure, other leaders around the world may have more people or even larger economies, but they don’t have as full a grip on the reins of power as Putin. (And few have ever been reverently photographed riding horseback shirtless, petting a tiger, or playing piano in tux and tails.)

Even with this switcheroo, little will change about Russia’s, which is to say Putin’s, stance on foreign or domestic affairs. Despite years of inspired reformist speechifying from President Medvedev, little has changed in the ossified Russian bureaucracy. That speaks to his true, limited, authority. The civil service system he declaims remain inefficient and antiquated, and presents ample opportunity for the kind of low-level corruption that greases the wheels of local politics across the world. Medvedev has been a friendly face for the Western world, someone who says the right things on its grand stages; but he has had little influence, as president, over the country’s true direction. As the prime minister in waiting, look for that trend to continue.

Turkey ascendant, Palestine in tow. Whither Israel and the U.S.?

Ian Bremmer
Sep 21, 2011 14:46 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

If President Obama thinks he’s having a tough month, he’s got nothing on Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu. In Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the cost of living. In New York, the Palestinians are readying a statehood resolution at the United Nations. In Ankara, the Turkish government has expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country. And in Cairo, an Egyptian crowd is taking the job on themselves, attacking the Israeli embassy.

Of all of these events, though, Turkey is the biggest worry. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has steadily escalated an anti-Israel tack for over a year now, most recently by accusing Israel of behaving like a “spoiled child.” More directly, Erdogan has also proclaimed that the Turkish navy will stop the planned start of gas drilling explorations off the Cyprus coast by an Israel-Cypriot consortium. That’s tantamount to threatening armed conflict. Why is Turkey so ascendant in Middle East politics, to Israel’s dismay? There are three very good reasons:

1. The U.S. is playing less of a role in the Middle East.

Under President Obama, the U.S. has become a “taker” not a “maker” of foreign policy there. Simply put, this Administration has spent less time on the Middle East peace question than any other since the creation of the Israeli state. With all the issues facing Obama at home — joblessness, a tanking economy and his own re-election, to name a few — and all the more pressing international issues, like winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and dealing with the euro zone and China — Israel has taken a political backseat. As NATO allies like Turkey fill the void and create their own regional strategies, Israel, being in the most unnatural geopolitical position there, has had the hardest time establishing its own power center.

Slaughtering the PIIGS

Ian Bremmer
Sep 14, 2011 18:34 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nobody likes to be called PIIGS. For years, Europe’s so-called peripheral countries — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — have complained about this acronym, but the euro zone’s sovereign debt problems have only entrenched it further. Yet, it’s time to acknowledge that the PIIGS have a point. They don’t deserve to be lumped together. Their actions and their circumstances have sharply diverged over the past three years.

Some of the PIIGS, let’s call them peripherals, have accepted the need for painful austerity measures. Spain’s government beat its deficit reduction targets last year. That’s a result that should impress outsiders, including powerhouse Germany, where lawmakers have worked hard to persuade voters that profligate countries won’t be bailed out until they have proven they can mend their spendthrift ways. Protests against the belt-tightening have been limited and surprisingly peaceful given Spain 21% unemployment rate.

The conservative People’s Party, which has already pledged its commitment to both austerity and the euro zone, looks headed for a win in Spain’s November elections. That’s in part because Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero has pushed hard to implement so many of the plans called for by Germany and European institutions over the objections of his party’s political base, including a plan to amend Spain’s constitution to legally require both the central government and autonomous communities to meet deficit targets that go beyond the levels set by the EU.

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