Risky Business

An Interview with Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer helped invent the concept of political risk. The author, commentator, and founder of the Eurasia Group is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the subject — one with urgent relevance to today’s seemingly fragmented world. We spoke with Bremmer about the global risk profile, Trump, Russia, North Korea, and major issues currently off the general radar.

Trump has changed the tail risks on North Korea, says Ian Bremmer.

Trump has changed the tail risks on North Korea, says Ian Bremmer.

Octavian Report: What's your view of political risk around the world? Does the age of Trump have the highest levels you've seen since you've started analyzing it?

Ian Bremmer: When I started the company, which was 20 years ago -- 19 and a half, if you want to be precise -- political risk was mostly about country risk. It was mostly in emerging markets. It was strategic sectors. It was some cross-border confrontation. But you wouldn't say that there was significant macro-political risk in the marketplace.

I think that today, this year, for the first time in my career, the primary uncertainty facing the global economy in the medium to long term is political. It's not economic. I think that we've entered a geopolitical recession, and they don't happen very often.

There's clearly a much higher likelihood of direct military confrontation now between the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. and Iran. The U.S. and North Korea. North Korea and its neighbors. Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those are major, and there's also a much greater likelihood of cyber attacks from both state and non-state actors globally.

U.S./Russia is clearly the most dangerous. It's absolutely plausible. With North Korea, there's a greater likelihood of breakthrough than there has been in any point in the last 20 years. There's also a much greater likelihood of either regime collapse, having been pushed by the Americans or the Chinese, or direct military confrontation.

In some ways, the U.S./China relationship -- which is the one that traditional political scientists and IR theorists would tell you that is the place where war is most likely to break out because of the Thucydides Trap; the idea that when you have a rising power and a declining power, it's not handled well and most of the time, it leads to war -- is the one I'm probably least concerned about in the near to medium term, simply because the Chinese are patient. They don't have the military capabilities, and they see the world as moving towards them. They're much more in favor of stabilization than lots of other countries in the world today. Including the U.S.

OR: Do you think Trump lasts through his first term?

Bremmer: Look, he's 71 years old. He's obese. He's massively stressed out. And there is also greater political extremism and discontent and propensity towards violence in the U.S. than we've seen for a very long time.

So if you put those two things together, the likelihood that he finishes his term is clearly high, but it is less high than it would've been for any other president in recent memory. Age, health, and propensity for political violence give you a less negligible likelihood that he doesn't make it to the end of his term.

I think that the likelihood of impeachment is lower than all of those things. It's there. It's certainly a possibility, I don't think it's a plausibility. I think that the bar on impeachment has very little to do with obstruction of justice. It has to do with half of a House of Representatives -- which the President needs to be in the hands of his own party -- which is, for good and for bad, mostly completely loyal to him. At least when it counts. And two-thirds of the Senate, which would require a significant number of Republicans to turn against him. I still wouldn't put it into my basic risk assessment.

OR: Do you think Trump could stumble into a war with Russia?

Bremmer: Not intentionally. I don't think this is like the pre-World War II environment, it's much more like the pre-World War I environment. Where despite the intentions of lots of countries, the environment made it such that accidents were more likely to spiral out of control. The guardrails were eroded and you were traversing a difficult road. And I think that that is true now. The depth and breadth of communication between major powers is no longer what it was. The trust is not what it was. And the architecture has eroded: the institutions, the values, the standards have eroded.

Let's face it: since Trump's inauguration, we have not, so far, had any crises. The global environment has actually been shockingly stable. To the extent there have been things that you would consider crises they have mostly been self-imposed. But I don't think that Trump's going to get four years of that. So what happens when there is a crisis? When there is a big mistake?

Now, I think specifically on Russia, the United States has been warned by the Russians on several occasions now that Assad is a sovereign power that the Russians are supporting and that it is a breach of international law for the Americans to be going in and shooting down their planes or bombing their airstrips. What the Americans have done is comparatively small-ball in terms of military engagement. It's the kind of thing we've seen from Israel before and there's not been any particular response, but that was when the Russians were not as militarily engaged. There was less at stake.

Despite all the things the Russians have done or are alleged to have done against American national interests, Trump's willingness to speak out against Putin and against Russia has been virtually zero. And that's been consistent.

It's particularly surprising when you think of something like Syria and how much he's been taking on Assad. And he links Assad to Iran. Every time he does it. He never does with Russia. That's just strange. That's objectively the kind of thing that, if you knew nothing about what was going on, you would say, "Why is he doing that? What's the Russia/U.S. thing that I don't understand? Because I can't explain that."

OR: How stable do you think Putin is?

Bremmer: Very stable.

OR: What do you make of the recent protests against him?

Bremmer: He likes to be seen as magnanimous around opposition. He allows demonstrations. He had no problem when Alexei Navalny organized an opposition march and only then put him in jail for a short period of time, a matter of a month I believe, after Navalny at the last minute decided to move the demonstration to a place where he was not allowed to have it as opposed to one where he was given legal permission.