Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The three 2012 themes that matter most

Ian Bremmer
Dec 27, 2012 15:47 UTC

2012 – the year of the primary, the election, the Diamond Jubilee, the superstorm, the flying dictator, the escaped dissident, the embassy attack, the empty chair, the tech protest, the Olympics, and dozens of other stories already forgotten. It was a busy year and a terribly volatile one, too. Which of these stories will actually matter five years from now? By my count, three:

1)     China rising

2)     The Middle East in turmoil

3)     Europe muddling along

They’re the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2012.

The Good: For the sake of our listless global economy, thank goodness for China’s rise. The country’s Commerce Minister is promising that China will hit its GDP growth target of 7.5 percent for the year. (In the first three quarters of 2012, it grew 7.7 percent.) China’s ability to power through the financial crisis provided global markets with much-needed energy, and its momentum, despite the crisis in the Eurozone, a key trade partner, has helped limit the damage. If it wasn’t for the resilience of the world’s second-largest economy, we’d all be a lot worse off.

The Bad: In 2012, almost every key story in the Middle East has gotten more complicated and more dangerous. Syria, Israel, Gaza, Iran, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt. Israel has become increasingly isolated within the region, facing Palestinian rockets, a nuclear-driven Iran, and the prime minister of a former ally dubbing it ‘a terrorist state’. Egypt’s president pulled off a power play, and the Syrian nightmare deepened. Iraqis struggled to build a new society in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, and (supposedly allied) Afghans killed a record number of U.S. troops before they could reach the exits. When the Arab Spring first began to take shape, many observers hoped it would be just that – a rebirth. But you can’t spin it now. It’s bad and getting worse.

The Ugly: Europe was a mess in 2012. Reform of the euro area is moving in the right direction, but the halting progress that European leaders made in crafting a new eurozone could not avert record unemployment rates and a return to recession. The term ‘Grexit’ was coined in response to the persistent threat of Greece leaving the euro. Widespread protests against tough austerity measures, the rise of nationalist political parties, and huge governance and implementation challenges have compounded the problems of a continent still groping for credible, lasting solutions. In 2012, we’ve seen moderate progress — and a whole lot of ugly.

What do these three trends mean for the next five years?

In the Middle East, the various emerging conflicts are too expensive, too intractable, and too risky for outsiders to try to manage. Regional powers will have to manage these problems on their own. The bad will remain bad.

Rocking the vote may not rock the boat

Ian Bremmer
Nov 6, 2012 19:59 UTC

This week — chads willing — Americans will finally put an end to four years’ worth of electoral Sturm und Drang. Only then can the country begin to ask the question that matters much more than who will win: Will anything change? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is, for the most part, no.

Likewise, this week — politburo willing — the Chinese will finally put an end to a year of bureaucratic angst. The powers that be hope that once a new president is installed, the Communist Party can put months of scandal behind it (Bo Xilai’s trial and Wen Jiabao’s family fortune, to name just a couple) and start to answer the question they’re most eager to put to bed: Will anything change in a new regime? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is — you guessed it — for the most part, no.

In a volatile world, American and Chinese foreign policies appear, at least for the next few years, set in stone.

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?

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:

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.

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