Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Obama’s vacuum doctrine

Ian Bremmer
Sep 25, 2013 14:43 UTC

In President Barack Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, he made the case for sustained American engagement in the Middle East:

“The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim World, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe that would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it.”

When we look at Obama’s speech, the two biggest trends in American foreign policy are conspicuous by their absence. First, while Obama describes the need for sustained American engagement in the Middle East, the opposite is already on full display today — and Obama has contributed to this disengagement at almost every turn. In the 2012 election, only 5 percent of voters dubbed foreign policy as their priority. You needn’t look further than Obama’s decision to punt on Syria strikes in the face of withering domestic support. The failed G20 summit in St. Petersburg made it painfully clear that “a vacuum of leadership” is already the reality in our G-Zero world. The United States’ ability and leverage to drive outcomes in the Middle East is increasingly limited.

Second, the United States’ interest in redirecting that leverage from the Middle East towards Asia was nowhere to be found in the speech. Obama’s address was completely at odds with broader U.S. foreign policy as outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Obama’s first term. The Hillary Doctrine involved a pivot to Asia, with an emphasis on engagement with China and its neighbors, as well as a push for economic statecraft: the utilization of economic policy to drive political outcomes. At the U.N., all of this was swept under the rug. Obama issued a clarion call for the global community to engage on the deepest Middle East security issues, discussing Iran at length (25 mentions), as well as Syria and its civil war (20) and the conflict between Israel and Palestine (15 and 11, respectively). Meanwhile, China was only mentioned once — and that was with regard to Iran — and no other East Asian nation was mentioned at all.

For as long as Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, her Asia-oriented doctrine filled the vacuum of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama adopting her doctrine was the closest he has yet come to establishing one of his own.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Sep 20, 2013 18:38 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

China Finds Resistance to Oil Deals in Africa” – Adam Nossiter, The New York Times

Many African governments have begun fighting back against lopsided oil contracts with that Chinese that were often locked in by corrupt former regimes.

Putin is winning on Snowden, Syria and Sochi… but so what?

Ian Bremmer
Sep 19, 2013 15:01 UTC

Vladimir Putin’s having a hell of a summer. Before writing the most talked-about New York Times op-ed in months, he embarrassed his chief rival, the United States, by harboring its most high-profile dissident, Edward Snowden. He then came out ahead on negotiations over what to do about Syria’s chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 people. The general consensus is that Putin and Russia are winning.

But what, exactly, are they winning? Russia’s prize for conquering the summer isn’t power — it’s constriction. In defending Assad, harboring Snowden, and preparing for the Sochi Olympics, Putin is actually just inviting more complications. This has been a summer of shallow wins for Putin as he puts his ego and personal quest for international legitimacy over his country’s best interests.

On Syria, it’s certainly true that Putin has made Barack Obama look bad. Russia has taken the lead on negotiations, minimized America’s military motivation, and undermined Obama’s foreign policy standing. All that’s great if you’re looking at it through the lens of a power ranking of the global elite. After all, I firmly believe that nobody has consolidated more power than Vladimir Putin.

Politicak risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Sep 13, 2013 19:34 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer. 

Must-reads

Russia to invest $1 bln in rare earths to cut dependence on China” – Gleb Stolyarov, Reuters

With China currently producing 90 percent of the world’s rare earth supplies, Russia has announced its desire to get involved too. After all, Russia’s rare earths consumption is expected to quadruple by 2020.

The vote on Syria hardly matters

Ian Bremmer
Sep 10, 2013 21:30 UTC

The details of American involvement in Syria seem to change every minute. First the Obama administration was going to launch a “limited, narrow” attack, with international backing, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a punitive response to chemical weapons use. Then the administration was going to do it more or less alone. A week and a half ago, Obama punted on the issue, asking for congressional backing (but all the while stressing he could strike without Congress’ permission). And now, thanks to gaffe diplomacy, it’s possible that America won’t strike Syria at all, as the administration is willing to delay a vote in favor of pursuing a diplomatic solution — like Russia’s proposal that Syria hands over its chemical weapons to the international community. That Russia’s plan is likely aimed more at scuttling strikes than at actually rounding up Assad’s chemical arsenal seems beside the point.

For more than a week, the prospect of a strike has dominated headlines, with a vote billed as the all-important variable. Here’s what all that hype is missing: While Obama’s decision to punt to Congress had far-reaching implications, at this point whether the U.S. actually strikes hardly matters. Whether the vote goes through, goes down, or never happens, it doesn’t have a huge impact on Obama, Syria, or America’s underlying priority in the region — Iran.

If the decision to strike Syria mattered overwhelmingly to President Obama, he wouldn’t have gone to Congress in the first place. Obama knows that, in this decade, elections are not won and lost on foreign policy. Only 5 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election said their top issue was foreign policy. By punting to Congress, Obama made clear that he values the political cover it provides more than the actual issue at hand — to strike or not to strike. If the strike gets voted down, the defeat would only have limited domestic impact for Obama, as most of the damage is already done. And if the vote is delayed indefinitely — as a result of exploring Russia’s proposal, for example — then the fallout for Obama is even less severe.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Sep 9, 2013 15:06 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads

The New Isolationism: Why the World’s Richest Countries Can’t Work Together

Mohamed El-Erian, The Atlantic

What does America’s inability to form a coalition for action against Syria say about the state of global leadership? What are the economic implications in a world where developed countries cannot coordinate?

Iran is America’s real Middle East priority

Ian Bremmer
Sep 6, 2013 19:18 UTC

While we’ve been distracted by a flurry of intelligence releases on Syria’s chemical weapons strikes — and the ongoing saga over the United States’ response — many have overlooked another intelligence report pertaining to weapons of mass destruction with severe implications for America’s red lines and credibility in the Middle East.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, reported that “Iran plans to test about 1,000 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges it has completed installing.” As Iran’s enrichment capabilities increase, its breakout time — how long Iran would need to rapidly amass enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon — is dropping considerably. In the next year or two, Iran’s breakout time could drop to about 10 days: too short of a window for the United States to reliably respond before Iran could secure enough material for a bomb.

America’s next step in Syria is inextricably linked to the situation in Iran. The U.S. government’s biggest national security concern in the region is an Iranian regime with potential access to nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the region, shock oil prices, and threaten U.S. allies. Longer term, it’s harder to map out the implications, but they aren’t pretty. A nuclear Iran could trigger a domino effect among Middle Eastern countries; should another Arab Spring occur, a failed state with a nuclear weapons cache is a frightening prospect.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Aug 30, 2013 15:15 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads 

Why Bo Stole the Show” – Minxin Pei, Project Syndicate

Day One of the Bo Xilai trial was jarringly transparent; it’s hard to believe it was China’s attempt at upholding rule of law and judicial integrity. After all, Beijing clamped down from the second day onward. So how did Bo Xilai get a chance to speak his mind so openly and dramatically? What impact might it have?

Mutually Insured Destruction” – Maggie Koerth-Baker, New York Times

Can predictive algorithms used by reinsurance companies successfully measure the economic impact of climate change?

Can the U.S.’s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 27, 2013 21:44 UTC

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Aug 23, 2013 13:11 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads

Getting Serious: An End to the Russia-Japan Dispute?” – J. Berkshire Miller, The Diplomat

Russia and Japan have not yet formally signed a peace treaty to end their World War II hostilities. Could things really be looking up for their bilateral relationship?

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