Opinion

Ian Bremmer

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.

This doesn’t mean China necessarily knows what it’s doing. Diplomacy is new for the Chinese, who have really only interjected themselves in regional politics and through economic investment abroad. Intervening in other countries’ affairs is a tricky thing for a Chinese government that so resolutely believes sovereignty is supreme, even if human rights are being trampled. Beijing tries not to infringe on other countries’ sovereignty because it would not allow others to infringe on its own. The one other time in recent years that the Chinese government has pushed for peace was in Sudan’s dispute with South Sudan. But even then, when Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir visited Beijing, Hu Jintao said: “The Chinese side has always respected the will and choice of the Sudanese people.” It’s difficult to affect change when you’re not sure if you even have the right to be affecting it.

The likelihood that China’s plan is actually going to accomplish anything in Syria is basically zero. But just making an overture, as China has done, carries little risk. It pushes back at some of the scorn China’s received, along with Russia, for vetoing U.N. Security Council sanctions on the Syrian government. If the Syrian situation doesn’t improve, China has done no better than the West. If it does, China can perhaps claim a part, and, more importantly, ensure that its investments in Iraqi and Iranian oil are safe.

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.

Chinese capitalism is just another knockoff

Ian Bremmer
Mar 21, 2012 19:12 UTC

Is China’s system of capitalism better than that of the United States? That depends — do pigs fly? While I have no question in my mind that the U.S. is still the paragon of success when it comes to the capitalist system, lately a strange coalition of think-tankers, investors and politicians have been advancing the idea that China is eating our lunch when it comes to deploying capitalism.

More specifically, this bunch claims that China’s unique brand of centrally planned capitalism is working better than the U.S.’s overregulated, bloated, inefficient and slow-growing economy. They say that our capitalism has been so bogged down by our developed-nation cost structure that we’ll never again be a competitive center of investment for the great global pools of money in search of a safe investment out of which to make a parking spot.

Baloney.

China has indeed grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. That’s a huge credit to a country that has modernized and industrialized on a previously unseen scale. And because of its 1.3 billion citizens, China has quite a bit of growth (read: catching up) still to come. China’s style of governance leaves the country light on regulation. However, it’s also light on rule of law, transparency, freedom of speech and several other key features that make the U.S. economy go ’round. Just because the Chinese government can move a village and build a road without holding a single hearing doesn’t mean the free market has taken hold. Indeed, it shows the opposite: China’s economy is largely state-planned, state-owned and state-run. The government uses capitalism only as a tool to reach its ends, not as a true expression of a free market.

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.

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