Risky Business

An Interview with Ian Bremmer

In the United States, we tend to respond to the immediate risk that we've been hit by. So after 9/11 we made it incredibly costly for anyone to get on a plane with a box cutter. I would argue that that was a really bad use of resources. And I wish that we were able to be a little more strategic and foresightful.

OR: What are the chances of a major, successful, casualty-causing cyberattack against the U.S. in the medium term?

Bremmer: I don't think we know. I think it's vastly more likely than the idea of a nuclear attack or even a dirty bomb used by a rogue state or by a terrorist organization.

Look at the amount of information that is being stolen from individual citizens in the United States, as well as government employees -- the OPM hacks, for example, done by the Chinese government. There are likely many that we don't know about because corporations don't want to make it public unless they have to because it will affect their share prices in a negative way. These are meaningful attacks that have impacted the American economy.

Do I think there will be attacks that would lead to infrastructure failure? Or that would lead to people actually getting killed? Certainly when I saw the attacks on the Polish airlines and their air traffic control, those made me think we're getting closer to that type of destruction. I would think that's both the most proximate major danger from non-state actors and rogues and also it's one that seems to be growing pretty exponentially without a lot of defenses in place.

OR: Do you see an existential threat to Western-style democracy in the air at the moment?

Bremmer: Well, you've got so many people that have said for the last 35 years that the Chinese model doesn't work. And they might be right. But they would've missed a hell of a lot of upside.

And the world has changed. The world is changing. It will continue to change so much before we even get to the point where China's model is really tested. The biggest surprise for many people in the global marketplace in the last decade has been that there's been virtually zero political instability in China. In fact, they're consolidating. And the average Chinese today is happier with their political leader and their government than the average American is with the U.S. government. That's just a very unusual thing to say, given the fact that nobody voted for Xi Jinping.

Now, we know there can be illiberal democracies. Richard Haass tweeted in June that he thought the United States was becoming an illiberal democracy. I do not agree. I strongly disagree. I think that'll be a fun thing to debate. Look at American media, at American litigiousness and lawyers and the court system, at Congress, at the deep bureaucracy. There's many reasons why, despite having a president with illiberal tendencies and proclivities and maybe even preferences shared by some of his inner circle, that the U.S. is not an illiberal democracy.

But there are democracies that have become more illiberal recently. Turkey is, perhaps, the clearest example of one of that was moving towards Europe and is now moving towards the Middle East. Both conceptually and also geostrategically. You could make that argument for India. I'm not sure I would yet, but you could potentially. If you were kind of doing a big global Fukuyama index, he's looking worse these days. And he knows it. He's written some great books about that recently and I'm sure will continue to.

Yes, in the case of the United States and Japan and the fundamental leaders and founders of Europe, you absolutely see that larger parts of their franchises that feel that they are not participating in a functioning social contract than 30 or 40 years ago. But to be fair, 100 years ago, they weren't either. It's not like consolidated democracies had complete enfranchisement of all of their citizens from hour zero. There was always a question of: "Democracy applies to whom?" In the United States first it was only white male landowners. Then all white men. Then black men. Then women.

OR: Can you talk about the crisis in Qatar and how it relates to your concept of the G-Zero world, where powerful nations and international associations hold less sway over global affairs?

Bremmer: Well, it's very hard to find a role for the U.N. in the Qatar crisis because there's no one willing to take leadership. The U.N. can be supportive if there is a model for coordination, but instead you've got everybody saying, “Okay, we'll make a phone call. We'll help. We'll get on a plane.” But they're not coordinated in any way. And so instead what you have, effectively, defers to the powers in the region who have skin in the game and the most at stake.

I thought the G-Zero world was coming, I wrote about it for the first time about six years ago. I didn't think it was there, I thought it was coming. I was surprised by how quickly it came and I was surprised by how fast it's deteriorated. And I think that the two things that surprise me, the two things I didn't expect when I started writing about the G-Zero was, first, how quickly the energy revolution would undermine petro-states, in particularly the Middle East, and would make the United States the swaying producer globally and make the U.S. feel like it had much less at stake in providing the leadership in some parts of the world that were particularly naughty to deal with.

Also, of course, I was surprised -- as I think we all were -- by the election of Trump. Certainly a year ago I never would've expected that. And I think Trump's “America First” policy -- which proactively opposes the idea of America as the global policemen, as the architect of global trade, or even the cheerleader of global values -- is something you would not have seen under any other Republican among the 17 if they had won. Or certainly under Hilary. Or even Bernie Sanders, who would've moved some in that direction, but nowhere near as much. And I think that the implications of that sped up and made more precipitous the decline into the G-Zero that we otherwise would've seen over a longer period of time.