Opinion

Ian Bremmer

In search of self-aware diplomacy

Ian Bremmer
Nov 26, 2013 16:11 UTC

In 2005, Karen Hughes became George W. Bush’s undersecretary of public diplomacy. Her charge, both poorly defined and ill-timed, was to improve America’s international image in the years after the country had launched two wars. Other countries will side with us and do what we want if only we better explain our point of view, the thinking went, and make them see us as we see ourselves. By the time Hughes left office in 2007, international opinion of the U.S. was no higher than it was when she arrived, according to polls.

And yet, this kind of if-we-say-it-clearly-enough-they-will-listen diplomacy is not exclusive to the Bush administration. It has carried over into the Obama White House. So when an Obama administration official says that Washington welcomes a “strong, responsible, and prosperous China” that plays a “constructive” role in regional and global institutions, Chinese officials are left to wonder who gets to decide what the words “responsible” and “constructive” mean for China’s foreign policy. Responsible and constructive for whom?

And when senior U.S. officials describe their relationship with Iran as “marked by open hostilities since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran,” they are insulting the intelligence of the men they’ve been negotiating with. From the Iranian perspective, bad relations with the U.S. didn’t begin in 1979. They started back in 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Teddy, led a CIA-backed coup to remove an Iranian prime minister — proving that Americans would violate Iran’s sovereignty to ensure its favored politician ruled the country.

This dissonance between what’s presented and what’s perceived is a problem, especially in a new world order that lacks order. More than ever, the U.S. needs help and cooperation from other countries to manage challenges like Syria, Libya, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — but its diplomacy is outdated. Americans have never been willing to understand how their actions are received by others and to accept the consequences of those actions. The country was once powerful enough to get away with that myopia. It’s not anymore.

Take, for example, the repeated suggestion that China become a “responsible stakeholder” in international politics, a phrase made famous by then-Deputy Secretary of State (later World Bank President) Robert Zoellick during the Bush years. The Obama administration has embraced this view — but Beijing sees itself differently. Beijing wants international institutions capable of seeing the world from a Chinese point of view. It feels like it’s in a different position than the U.S., still radically poor per capita and therefore not responsible for expensive heavy-lifting in the world at large, as we saw last week with its meager response to Typhoon Haiyan. When the U.S. demands that China behave like the superpower it’s becoming, it fails to recognize how China regards itself.

The selfishness in Congress is far from over

Ian Bremmer
Oct 17, 2013 19:41 UTC

When I write about our new G-Zero world, I am describing an international phenomenon: a global environment in which no power or group of powers can sustainably set an international agenda. The global community, used to orienting itself around a collection of U.S.-led powers, has fallen victim to a widening leadership vacuum, what with the United States disengaging from foreign affairs and Europe too busy with its own crisis. Emerging powers like China have grown large enough to undermine a Western-led global agenda — but not yet developed enough to prioritize their own international role over their domestic concerns.

Every major power is too busy watching out for its own needs to focus on the bigger picture. As a result, the international community has been unable to make any progress on pressing crises like global warming, a civil war in Syria, or the rise of cyber warfare. A vacuum of leadership has led to a dearth of mutually beneficial planning.

What I did not expect was to see the G-Zero mentality bleed its way into American domestic politics. As we all breathe a sigh of relief in response to the U.S. averting self-destruction with an 11th hour budget deal, it’s important to put this “success” in context. First of all, how did things get so dire to begin with? Second, how likely are we to experience a sickening bout of déjà vu when the punted deadlines once again draw near?

On Syria, it’s time for Obama to decide

Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2013 18:46 UTC

Through two years of Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has cautiously dragged its feet as the United States is further enmeshed in the conflict. That’s a sensible platform at home, with opinion polls showing that Americans don’t think the country has a responsibility to intervene. It has strategic merit, too, given that intervention against Bashar al-Assad is an implicit endorsement of a largely unknown opposition force with radical, sectarian factions. 

But the status quo in Syria is breaking down, and Obama’s worst option is to kick the can as the United States inexorably gets dragged deeper into the conflict. It may be politically painful, but it’s time to make a choice: Go all in with a no fly zone — or avoid anything more than diplomatic intervention and humanitarian/non-lethal aid. Here’s why.

Until recently, Obama’s strategy of hesitance and risk aversion was commendable and well executed. As the situation worsened, the United States took minimal, reactionary steps. First, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put together a formal — and reasonably liberal — Syrian political opposition, but it quickly fragmented because it had no workable ties to the actual rebels doing the actual fighting. Then the United States turned to non-lethal aid for the rebels (including defensive military equipment) as well as supporting Qatar and other countries through intelligence and logistics. Furthermore, in August 2012, Obama drew a “red line” at “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the regime. At the time, it seemed unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

The global vacuum of power is expanding

Ian Bremmer
May 3, 2013 12:04 UTC

How do you solve a problem like Korea? Or Syria? Or the euro zone? Or climate change?

Don’t look to Washington. The United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation for years to come, but the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers are now focused on debt, immigration, guns and growth. A war-weary, under-employed American public wants results at home, leaving U.S. officials to look for allies willing to share costs and risks abroad.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to build and sustain alliances in a world where America can’t afford its traditional share of the heavy lifting. No wonder then that the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy successes haven’t depended on such alliances. Withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t require consensus among the world’s powers. President Barack Obama’s single indisputable foreign policy triumph, the killing of Osama bin Laden, needed buy-in only from the members of Seal Team 6.

C’est Mali: Intervention in a G-Zero world

Ian Bremmer
Feb 8, 2013 17:13 UTC

I’ve just come back from a trip to France last week, where French officials told me that come 2014, they expect there will still be a significant number of French forces in the north of Mali.

That, however, does not make Mali “Afrighanistan,” no matter what The Economist might say. Unlike the American invasion of Afghanistan, the French military operation is a small intervention ‑ France says it has 4,000 troops in Mali ‑ by a country that has no appetite to do any more. There will be no state-building by the French; there will be no great mission to democratize its people and its values (partly because democracy already has a hold in Mali). There are few densely packed urban areas for rebels to stage hard-to-detect insurgent attacks.

In recent days, French officials have been trying to make this as clear as possible. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pledged, “France has no intention of remaining in Mali,” explaining it’s up to “the Africans and the Malians themselves to guarantee security.” The number of troops in Mali should begin to fall in March, he added.

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.

In a G-Zero world, Syria’s civil war will drag on and on

Ian Bremmer
Jul 27, 2012 17:55 UTC

“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:

1. China’s and Russia’s vetoes

The two countries vetoed the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have authorized sanctions against Assad’s government as a result of its repeated failures to adhere to promises to bring peace to the nation. While the result is disappointing for the Syrian people, the effect of the vetoes of China and Russia is twofold. First, the U.N. obviously has been robbed of one of the tools it uses to protect citizens of oppressive regimes. But second, the impact of the veto, coming from two countries that have up-and-down relationships with the U.S., serves to turn any American interventionism into an international incident.

Let’s be clear: This is playing politics on a global, humanitarian scale. We always knew that Russia and China would not support a U.S. intervention in Syria, not even in the way they grudgingly did when it came to Libya. But ultimately, the bloodshed there is not just on their hands. While Obama has cover for his hands-off foreign policy thanks to the veto, U.N. resolutions have hardly stopped or even influenced U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially when it mattered.

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.

Who’s in charge of the world? No one

Ian Bremmer
Apr 30, 2012 16:09 UTC

This is an excerpt from Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, published this week by Portfolio.

Is the U.S. really in decline? Can China become a superpower? Can Europe rebuild? How fast can the rest rise? These are interesting issues, but today’s world faces a more urgent and important question: While we’re figuring all that out, who will lead? Unfortunately, the answer is no one. In this G-Zero era, no one is driving the bus.

The United States and its European allies can no longer drive the global political and economic agenda. The scramble to produce a coordinated and effective multinational response to the 2008 financial crisis made that clear, but the growing leverage of emerging states like China, India, Brazil, Russia and others was apparent years before U.S. financial institutions began melting down and the Eurozone descended into crisis.

What does G-Zero mean for the world?

Reuters Staff
Apr 27, 2012 17:38 UTC
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A generation ago, the United States, Europe and Japan were the world’s powerhouses. Now, according to Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, we’re living in a world where everyone – and anyone – can set the agenda. So, what does G-Zero mean for the world?

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