Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Obama isn’t the only one with a passive-aggressive foreign policy

Ian Bremmer
Jun 19, 2014 14:36 UTC

 China's President Xi speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Obama, on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit, in The Hague

America and China are the world’s two major powers, with the largest economies and militaries. The stakes are high for them to practice what they preach on foreign policy: their words and actions influence the global economy, as well as the behavior of allies and enemies.

The problem: Xi Jinping and Barack Obama want to have their foreign policy cake and eat it, too. For both leaders, international engagement isn’t top of mind: they want to downplay their global leadership roles in order to focus on more pressing concerns at home.

But at the same time, they have certain priorities that they’re willing to pursue unilaterally and aggressively abroad. This inconsistency gets them both in hot water. It leaves other countries guessing, it undermines global collaboration, and it allows crises like Ukraine and Iraq to burn hotter, for longer, more often.

The closest thing that Obama has to a foreign policy doctrine is the consistent lack thereof. In his recent speech at West Point, he argued against engaging in conflicts that are not core interests. He emphasized buy-in from a coalition of other partners and the use of the military option only as a last resort. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.

A soldier carries an anti-U.S. drone booklet as people chant slogans against U.S. drone strikes outside the Yemeni House of Representatives in SanaaBut when it comes to unconventional engagement, Obama hasn’t hesitated to wield the hammer; in fact, he’s been more assertive than his predecessor by a long shot. It’s estimated that thousands of people have died at the hands of drone strikes on his watch; these strikes have consistently breached the territorial sovereignty of other countries.

Chinese reform is coming, but not the political kind

Ian Bremmer
Nov 1, 2013 16:00 UTC

In a western democracy like the United States, we assume that the best time for a leader to accomplish something is in the first year of his first term. The election has just ended, the opposition is still scattered, and the legislative mandate is intact. Everybody still talks about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 Days for a reason.

In authoritarian governments, like China’s, it’s supposed to be different. Steering such a large bureaucracy takes time, as all the moving pieces catch up with one another. What matters is minimizing risk surrounding the transfer of power, and then engaging in a slow buildup of consensus. And yet, Xi Jinping is proving the conventional wisdom wrong. After just six months at the helm, Xi is already clearly on track to accomplish far more than his predecessor Hu Jintao.

The constellation of China’s leadership left Xi Jinping with more room to maneuver upon taking office: the Politburo Standing Committee, the top brass in China’s government, was consolidated from nine members to seven. Over the next few months, Xi built up a track record of successful reforms. He has worked at overhauling the banking system and shaking out its bad loans. Through his anti-corruption efforts, he has increased the accountability for the leaders of state-owned enterprises and provincial leaders. He improved product safety and the environment by changing the reward structure for the people in charge and implementing air pollution regulations. We’ve also seen the establishment of a free trade zone in Shanghai.

The world leaders who are actually leading

Ian Bremmer
Aug 15, 2013 15:33 UTC

Earlier this summer, as I watched the Pope attract millions as he toured Brazil, I noticed how rare the scene was. Here was a man in control of an embattled institution, and he had somehow rallied his troops. By going back to the basics of Catholic belief—embracing humility, supporting the downtrodden, asking for sacrifice— as well as pushing the envelope (with his more progressive stance on homosexuality, for example), Pope Francis had begun to rehabilitate the church. It was viable leadership: the kind that motivates, inspires, and unites.

This is becoming increasingly rare. We live in a world where no single country or group of countries can provide dominant, sustainable global leadership—G-Zero, as I call it—and that’s in large part because so many countries lack solid leadership at home. As I look around the world, I see only three leaders of major countries that, like the pope, are managing to squelch opposition, carve out a more impactful role for themselves, and undertake difficult reforms, all while leveraging their popularity and consolidating their strength.

In Japan, Shinzo Abe, the country’s former and also new prime minister, has enjoyed extraordinary popularity since reemerging as a national leader last year. Abe, who had a disappointing stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, has come back with force, promoting a namesake economics plan that has Japan shedding its “lost decades” and inspiring Japanese citizens. So far, “Abenomics” is producing some impressive results. Profits among major Japanese companies in the 2nd quarter of this year were double the figure a year ago. Private consumption in the same period increased 3.8 percent on an annualized basis. The Nikkei stock average is up over 30 percent this year.

The countries not letting a crisis go to waste

Ian Bremmer
Jul 25, 2013 14:57 UTC

In 2008, before the financial crisis had even reached its nadir, Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s quote became the conventional wisdom for crisis management, even if the idea is age-old: John F. Kennedy Jr. famously pointed out that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity. 

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, we can now look at the world’s major powers and assess how well they’ve responded to their various crises. Three categories emerge. Who took advantage of crisis? Who never really had a true crisis? And who is letting crisis go to waste?

A crisis unwasted: Japan and the Euro zone

Let’s begin with Europe, which experienced a real and urgent crisis. Remember that as little as 18 months ago, the media and bond markets had the euro zone pegged for imminent fracture, when the debts of its member countries and the untenable divide between its core countries and those on the periphery threatened to overwhelm the political unity and economic cohesion that the bloc enjoyed. A lack of fiscal coordination, political and monetary dexterity, and balance between strong and weak states pushed the world’s largest economic bloc into existential crisis.

Will China’s slowing growth lead to unrest?

Ian Bremmer
Jul 19, 2013 19:04 UTC

Recently, it seems no developing country is safe from sudden, unexpected protests. In Brazil and Turkey, empowered middle classes pushed back against perceived governmental injustice; protests erupted, and leaders’ approval ratings dropped precipitously. In Egypt, the economic picture was as ugly as the political one, and the military’s ouster of President Mursi has fomented conflict and instability.

China may look like a candidate for the type of protests currently sweeping the developing world. Not only is a newly empowered middle class demanding better services and more accountability from government — growth has also tapered off in recent quarters. Don’t hold your breath. At least for the time being, China is well-positioned to navigate such challenges far better than its emerging market competitors.

Let’s start with the economy. For years pundits, and many Chinese government officials, thought that if China’s GDP growth rate ever fell below 8 percent, it would set off an unemployment crisis that would raise the risk of social and political instability in the country. Well, China’s finance minister was in Washington last week and said that the Chinese economy could handle 7 percent or even 6.5 percent growth — a lower rate than China has experienced in 23 years.

China and America’s related, but inverse, dilemmas

Ian Bremmer
Jul 3, 2013 19:45 UTC

As protests sweep the developing world and Europe struggles through an austerity hangover, China and the U.S., relative to their peers, look like the best in class. They are both comfortable with their modest growth rates (compared to their norms of the past decade), and insulated from the kind of social unrest we are seeing in Egypt, Turkey or Brazil. But both countries have a deeper intractable challenge that will, in the longer-term, get worse. What’s interesting is that they’re the inverse of each other: in the U.S., wealth and private sector interests capture the political system. In China, politicians capture the private sector and the wealth that comes with it.

The U.S.’s struggles with lobbying, pork-barrel spending, and the corporate sector’s general overlord status in Washington are well documented. Campaign finance reform is long past. Corporate personhood is well-entrenched. Super PACs are ascendant. A representative democracy is being crowded out by a capitalist one.

The cycle is hard to break. Politicians’ interests become aligned with those of the corporations that help them get elected. But even more troubling is that so many American politicians are gearing up to join the lobbying machine after they retire from government. In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, the figure stands at half of senators, and 42 percent of the House.

Xi dreamed a dream of China’s rise…

Ian Bremmer
Mar 20, 2013 20:35 UTC

China’s new president, Xi Jinping, gave his big inaugural address last week, talking at length about the “Chinese Dream.” He said: “We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

All that talk of ‘great this’ and ‘great that’ should sound familiar to Americans—it’s the same exceptionalism that their leaders espouse during any major national address. Both the American Dream and the Chinese Dream are patriotism without the isolationism—clarion calls for the nation as well as the individual. For America, it’s about holding on (or reasserting) its claim as the world’s foremost nation. For China, it’s about wresting that title away—or at least providing an alternative prototype that other nations can follow.

If China wants to become the world’s foremost country, it’ll mean jettisoning its more isolationist approach to foreign affairs. For 10 years we’ve heard Chinese officials say that they can’t intervene. We’re too poor; we’re still developing. In 2007, then-president Wen Jiabao described China’s economic growth as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” But now that the financial crisis has exposed cracks in the Western capitalist model and China appears destined to one day overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, China can’t stay on the sidelines anymore. It needs to secure its economic interests in every corner of the globe—and that will mean sometimes getting its hands dirty.

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.

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.

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