Opinion

Ian Bremmer

China is the elephant in the situation room

Ian Bremmer
Dec 24, 2012 17:21 UTC

Earlier this month the National Intelligence Council released its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report — a document that comes out once per presidential administration — mapping out likely geopolitical trends over the next two decades or so. As usual, it’s a must-read, offering comprehensive analysis of the disparate factors that will drive global politics through 2030.

Further, the NIC took bold steps to correct some previous weaknesses in past reports. In the past the report nailed the “what” more often than the “when.” That is particularly the case with its treatment of the United States, for which “past works assumed U.S. centrality.” This time around the NIC sets an increasingly “multi-polar world” — which I call the G-Zero — as the backdrop of its report, acknowledging that the lack of global leadership has accelerated in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-09. America’s status as a “hegemonic power” is eroding, and no country is likely to take its place.

This multipolar world is the foundation for the rest of the NIC’s predictions. The report is organized around subsections that range in probability: There are the megatrends that are sure to have an effect, the game-changers that could go a number of ways, and the four potential worlds of 2030.

In my opinion, when it comes to probabilities for the future global order, the single biggest variable — both in terms of its importance and its potential variance — is China’s rise or lack thereof. If there are twin “gigatrends” that supersede all else, they are China’s trajectory and the multipolar world in which it is playing out.

China is mentioned more than 300 times in the report, and the NIC’s assertion that “the US-China relationship is perhaps the most important bilateral tie shaping the future” is dead on (though I’d cut the word “perhaps”). But despite China’s implicit impact on the report, the NIC doesn’t establish it as the twin pillar alongside the multipolar world it vividly describes. Nor do we get a full sense of how a host of negative China surprises could fundamentally alter the world of 2030 as we imagine it.

In a year of big elections, Japan’s was Godzilla

Ian Bremmer
Dec 20, 2012 05:14 UTC

Entering 2012, we were staring at a host of critical elections and transitions in countries that represent about half the world’s gross domestic product. You would think those elections and political handovers would have been some of the most important events of 2012. Yet they were largely red herrings.

In China, the consensus view is that even with a change of leadership, China is largely the same as it was; if anything, the Chinese leadership has doubled down on the approaches of its former government. In Russia, Vladimir Putin went from running the country as prime minister to running the country as president. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy was voted out and a socialist, François Hollande, voted in, but that hasn’t changed France’s stance toward the European Union, its most important relationship. And in the U.S., Barack Obama swatted aside Mitt Romney while Congress remained divided, making four more years of the status quo likely.

Yet in one major economy an election really did matter, and really will change the way a country behaves in the global arena. That place was … Japan.

What do we know about China’s new leadership?

Ian Bremmer
Nov 28, 2012 21:19 UTC

As China obsessives know, it is tough to read tea leaves when the water is as opaque as that surrounding China’s Politburo. In the wake of the Chinese leadership transition, we’re left to sift through the news in search of answers. There is plenty we do not know about the process or what its outcome will bring, but when it comes to underlying themes we can understand, it is possible to make some predictions.

Start with solidarity. In the most telling example of Chinese political unity, the Politburo, the elite political body that makes all of China’s major decisions, went from nine people to seven to consolidate control of the political process. The Communist Party is now more unified than before and is less likely to tolerate dissent from within. The stability of the Communist Party is paramount. All else will fall in line.

Note what happens to those who don’t. If the Bo Xilai incident demonstrated anything, it’s that, in China, nails that stick up will be hammered down. There is no room for leaders who stray from the party platform.

In Syria, a rare Chinese foray into foreign policy

Ian Bremmer
Nov 20, 2012 15:14 UTC

This month, a curious thing happened in the annals of diplomacy. A country offered up a peace plan to put an end to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. This country was not one of the usual foreign policy suspects — it was not the United States, it was not in Europe, and it wasn’t Syria’s neighbor. It was a country that has no real experience in playing the world’s policeman. But, seeing a world filled with retired officers, it decided to try on the uniform for itself. China has taken another step into the spotlight of the world stage.

This is what happens in a G-Zero world — a world without any specific country or bloc of countries in charge. China has long been content to watch world events play out and then react, trusting that another country would step in to put volatile situations to rest. But that’s not happening with the Syrian conflict and its spillover into the broader Middle East. Americans feel that the issue doesn’t affect them enough to intervene. Europeans, as a Union, don’t seem to be particularly interested, even if some smaller countries are. And with those powers on the sidelines, suddenly the Chinese have a much bigger problem — a civil war that could metastasize into regional instability. The Chinese have far too much at stake in Iraq and Iran for that to happen: 11 percent of China’s oil imports come from Iran, and it is on track to be the chief importer of Iraqi oil by 2030.

And so China stepped in, offering a peace plan. The details — cease-fire, a committee that negotiates a political solution to the war, etc. — are not as important as the plan’s mere existence. It’s symptomatic of China’s new approach, one that Hu Jintao hinted at in one of his final addresses as Chinese president. He said China would “get more actively involved in international affairs, (and) play its due role of a major responsible country.” In the wake of downturns in the West, there is a new diplomatic structure emerging. China is determined to be one of its architects.

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.

America’s way or Huawei

Ian Bremmer
Oct 26, 2012 22:05 UTC

If you watched the third presidential debate this week, you got the sense that in the U.S.-China relationship, there are only good guys and bad guys, and all the bad guys are in China. The Americans are the valiant defenders of well-paying jobs; the Chinese are the ones who make tires so cheap it hurts the Americans. The Americans have a currency so free it’s the envy of the world; China’s is so manipulated it stunts competition the world over. But the squabbling isn’t limited to what you heard at the debate or just the two governments. It’s also happening between governments and private companies.

For years, Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant, has been trying to break into the U.S. market. Huawei wants to provide communication infrastructure to the U.S., but the U.S. wants to make sure Huawei, founded by former members of the People’s Liberation Army, isn’t actually a spy organization. Huawei claims to be just like any other Silicon Valley tech giant. U.S. intelligence agencies, despite finding no evidence of spying, view Huawei’s technology as too vulnerable to hackers. The House Intelligence Committee classified Huawei as a national security threat. State capitalism and the challenge it poses have expanded enough that the government is officially worried about them.

The U.S. appears to be coordinating with the Canadians to resist Huawei’s advances. Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, called his country’s relationship with China “complex” and acknowledged that there’s a national security dimension to its dealings with Huawei. In the midst of investing in cyber security, the Canadian government is also considering whether to allow Huawei to bid on building a new national email system.

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?

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.

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.

An unstable world doesn’t necessarily mean a declining America

Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2012 20:15 UTC

Who says America is in decline?

Not me. But, if you listened to a recent Rush Limbaugh show, you might’ve heard him dismiss my new book, Every Nation for Itself, as a “declinist” tract that says America’s time as leader of the world is “over.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s an inordinate amount of concern out there that writers who are trying to understand the seismic shifts the world has undergone in recent years are in fact doomsayers – wonks who are convinced the U.S. is no longer a superpower and has lost its swagger. On the other side of this false dichotomy is the camp that tries to pretend all the upheaval of recent years has changed absolutely nothing about America’s objective standing on the world stage.

The split is playing out right now, in fact, in the presidential campaign, with the GOP accusing President Obama of being a declinist, while Obama counters that he is merely being a realist and that the Romney camp doesn’t understand the complexities of foreign affairs in the world today. Here’s the thing – not only is that irrelevant, but the very way the debate is being framed for the public is misleading, at best.

Here’s a simple way to think of it: If you’re camping and suddenly find yourself being chased by a bear in the woods, you really don’t need to outrun the bear – you need to outrun the other guys who are in the woods with you. And so far, the U.S. is doing a fine job staying ahead of the pack.

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