Risky Business

An Interview with Ian Bremmer

Khodorkovsky was allowed free. Didn't need to be let go. I think Putin likes to show that he's so powerful that he can make these individual decisions, that's he's not bothered by expressions of discontent. It allows for a more effective Potemkin democracy in Russia. And it also allows for the legitimate venting of some of this opposition.

For example, there's been this recent, obviously very corrupt decision taken by the mayor of Moscow to forcibly displace over one million Russians in creating new construction outside of the Moscow ring road. A lot of pensioners, in particular, are just up in arms about something that's really going to affect their lives. They've wanted to protest and Putin's allowed them to do so. Putin might even at the last moment -- you can imagine with parliamentary elections coming up -- come in and say he’s going to overturn this for the benefit of the people.

He does stuff like that. Like before, when he would go into supermarkets and say the price is too high on pork and would force the supermarket to come down. Or: “You're not treating these coal-workers right” -- and they'd be treated differently. There's no meaningful opposition in Russia. It's a wealthy country, the population is comparatively small for all their wealth.

I don't see any meaningful ability of anyone to take Putin down or really constrain his power in the near to medium term. And that means that to the extent that Putin is lashing out, he's lashing out because he feels disrespected internationally, because he feels like his global footprint is diminishing. As opposed to a feeling that he himself is under domestic siege in the way that Erdoğan, for example, has legitimately felt.

OR: What is your specific take on North Korea?

Bremmer: If you think about the risk environment in North Korea over the last 20 years, it started as a normal distribution, with the tails being a real diplomatic breakthrough and regime change or military confrontation and the status quo dominating the bell. We don't like the status quo, but our ability to affect this is relatively low. And if we touch this in a serious way, the likelihood of moving down the curve becomes higher. It's uncertain. So you just stick with it, right?

The only problem is that over the last 20 years, this risk profile has gone up and the tails have increased somewhat. Because they're developing greater ballistic missile capabilities, greater nuclear capabilities and arsenal. Kim Jong-un's regime is less transparent to the Chinese in particular. Most recently, they've developed greater offensive cyber capabilities.

Now you add to that Trump, and suddenly, you have a higher likelihood of a negotiated settlement and also a higher likelihood of direct confrontation. Trump has basically put the North Koreans and the Chinese on notice and effectively set a red line around North Korea developing a ballistic missile capability to hit the continental United States. If you talk to the Secretary of Homeland Security, he's much more concerned about the possibility of North Korea putting a nuke into a container into an American port than he is about ballistic missile capabilities. But nonetheless, this is where we've decided to put the red line. We've demanded Chinese support and help. The likelihood that Chinese would provide such is not great. They can do more, but would they do enough to actually, plausibly get the North Koreans to renegotiate? I think the answer is probably not. That does make the likelihood that U.S./China relationship, which right now between Xi Jinping and Trump looks pretty good, unlikely to stay good for very long.

But the greater issue is what does the U.S. do to North Korea? Are we willing to engage in preemptive strikes if we think they're getting close to this red line? Are we willing to escalate our military surveillance and maybe even set up some kind of blockade around the peninsula? Otherwise Trump has to back down, effectively. Which he can also do.

Trump has also said he would talk to Kim Jong-un directly. And there's no particular preconditions for that, right? And Trump doesn't really care about human rights. The Otto Warmbier issue makes it a little more difficult. But I still think that Trump could do a North Korea deal a la Iran, where North Korea keeps its nuclear arsenal but the Americans have a breakthrough of some sort.

I think it is conceivable that Trump could do a deal with North Korea. I wouldn't say it's a high likelihood, but I think it's conceivable. It's a higher likelihood than it would've been under any previous American president. If that happens, Trump deserves a Nobel.

OR: What does nuclear risk look like to you at the moment?

Bremmer: Clearly more nuclear proliferation is dangerous. And everything we could do to stop it is that's affordable, both politically and economically, is worth pursuing. But I happen to think that Iran is a greater cyber threat than nuclear threat.

If you look at their ability to reverse engineer the Stuxnet virus, they came within two or three hours of knocking Saudi Aramco offline completely and ending their production. And no one inside the U.S. believed that they had that capability at the time.

If you really wanted to deal with the Iran threat, you would've wanted to deal with their cyber capabilities. North Korea -- look at what they've done. Not just with Sony Pictures, but more recently with the Central Bank of Bangladesh, where they stole about $80 million but came within one human error of stealing about a billion. That would've been very meaningful. It looks like they developed the WannaCry cyber attacks as well.

The world knows how to respond to nuclear attack. You go to war with the perpetrators, do everything possible to destroy them. And collateral damage would be tolerated. You have this slippery slope on cyber attacks where identification is difficult. It's not immediate. And it's also very hard to know how you can effectively attack them to respond. We've seen that with the Russian attacks against the American elections, the Brexit referendum, and others.