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Ian Bremmer on Russia, North Korea, and Trump

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.

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.

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.

OR: What’s your take on the background to the crisis?

Bremmer: The Qataris before, say, 1994, were basically subsidiaries of the Saudis. They followed what the Saudis wanted in the region, there was no problem. Then you have a new emir, then they created Al Jazeera, and they basically promoted an alternative model for the future of the region. Even though they are a monarchy themselves, they believed that the future was going to be more about religious revivalism among the Sunni. That, in other words, the Iranian regime, albeit Shia, was closer to what you would eventually see in among the Sunnis. Hence their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, hence their support for Hamas, and hence their taking a much more independent tack on their reporting of what was happening and what people wanted in all of these countries.

That grated against the Saudis significantly, coming as it did from this young, small, wealthy upstart. In 2014, that came a cropper and the Saudis cut the Qataris off diplomatically as did other countries. They came to an eventual deal that said that they would be more careful in the way Al Jazeera covered the region and terrorism and the like. And also that they would limit their support for the Muslim Brotherhood. That never really happened.

Then, Trump gets elected. Mohammad bin Salman, who was more risk-acceptant than others around him in Saudi Arabia and was also entangled in a war that was going badly for him in Yemen, is looking for his national bona fides. Trump comes to Saudi Arabia as his first trip outside of the United States, basically says, “I’m throwing Iran under the bus, I’m really going to work with you.” Meanwhile, Qatar’s also much more closely aligned with Iran than any of the other GCC states with the plausible exception of Oman. Iran is feeling resurgent: they’ve got the deal, they’ve produced some more oil, they’ve got some more cash. There’s no threats to their regime internally right now in the way that there are in some of these other countries like Egypt. So you put all of that together and I think the Saudis saw a golden opportunity being promoted by Trump himself — or at least tolerated, even if Trump didn’t really understand what was happening in the region. So the Saudis got their allies together and decided to cut the Qataris off.

Now, since then, Mattis and Tillerson have been trying to tell the Qataris: “We’ve got your back and we’re still going to work with you and don’t pay as much attention to what the president is saying and tweeting.” But that’s kind of tough if you’re Qatar. It’s not like Qatar has a lot of negotiating room, even though they host CENTCOM. But they do have enough leverage and support from the Americans — and they’re wealthy enough — that they don’t need to fold. So I think that we’re probably going to see this confrontation continue for some time.

OR: Do you think it was a mistake for the United States to leave CENTCOM in Qatar?

Bremmer: Not necessarily. We’ve got problems with the Qataris but we have problems with the Saudis too. One of the reasons I supported the Iran deal was because over the long term, I’m just not sure that America has anywhere near the same sort of equities in the Middle East that it’s had historically. The Americans have shown that you can get involved in undermining a deeply repressive regime and try to do nation and state building, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’ll fail. That you can try to get involved in getting rid of an incredibly oppressive regime and then be hands-off, as we did in Libya, and it’ll fail. You can ignore it and stay away because it’s just a vast hole that’s only going suck you in, as we did in Syria and Yemen, and it will fail.

There’s only one thing in common that these places have: being in a part of the world where the governance and the resources aren’t there. No one is prepared to put in the kind of leadership and resources over decades that would be required to really make a difference. So given that, my somewhat reluctant recommendation is that it’s not clear that the United States should continue to pour good money and bodies after bad. I think that we should do more with soft power. We should do more with literacy efforts. We should do more with supporting  entrepreneurship and training. And certainly I appreciate all of the money that the Americans spend, vastly more than any other country, to help with refugees.

But in terms of direct military engagement around these regimes — leaving aside the direct targeting of terrorists who are trying to attack the United States and our assets aboard — it’s not clear to me that we should be doing all of this work.

OR: Do you think the U.S. is on the verge of a major shakeup in its political system?

Bremmer: I’m not sure. One of the things that seems most obvious in the United States — and the reason why I disagree with Richard Haass that we’re moving towards an illiberal democracy — is that our intuitions are still actually very stable. We elected Trump and he’s certainly the least capable president that the U.S. has elected in modern history. Maybe ever. But we didn’t have any political violence to speak of as a consequence of it. It’s almost shocking how stable the country has been.

There were some demonstrations after the attempts to implement the initial ban on immigrants from Muslim countries. But they didn’t last. In the same way, the Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t last. So even though I think a large and growing number of Americans feel disaffected from the Republican and Democratic parties, and a surprising number of Americans didn’t vote in what was by far the most important election that we’ve ever had in our lifetimes, I don’t see a grassroots effort to create a new party that’s sustainable. The efforts to create parties in the past decades, like the Green Party on the left and the Tea Party movement on the right, both really only gained steam when they were integrated within the Democrat and the Republican parties. It seems to me that America is sufficiently wealthy and stable that this political disaffection can probably continue for some time.

It’s always good to look at the data. There are a lot of things about America right now where the data’s great. People are generally living longer lives; we’ve dealt with a lot of illnesses; access to information about the world is very high. The country is incredibly wealthy. Food prices are low. Energy prices are comparatively low. And there’s no reason to believe that technology is going to slow down. In fact, it’s likely to speed up.

But inequality is growing in the United States. A lot of Americans feel, I think rightfully, that they have not benefited from America being the global policemen and the wars that we’ve fought internationally. Or from the trade deals that we’ve pushed and which our elites have prospered from. Or from the immigration that we’ve allowed. I think a lot of Americans feel like they’ve been on the losing end of that — maybe even a majority of Americans. And I suspect that’s going to continue.

I think one of the reasons Hillbilly Elegy was such an effective book was because it represented the one guy that got out from his neighborhood, from his town in Kentucky. And he got out not because of the government, not because of the school system or the institutions. He got out in spite of them. He got out because his Memaw, his grandmother, did everything for him. And that really resonates with me, because I grew up in the projects with a single mother. My dad died when I was four. My brother and I got out, we were the only ones that really got out from those projects. And it was because of our mother — and that was it. And when I read that book — and I have very little personally in common with J.D. Vance — I thought: his grandmother and my mother were almost identical as people. Under-educated, street-fighting, very secretive, do everything possible for your kids — and don’t trust anyone. Because other people are lying to you.

My brother voted for Trump. I’m not surprised at all. He’s not a racist. He voted for Trump because for decades, he thinks the establishment’s been lying to people. And I think that’s a very legitimate reason to vote for someone like Trump. I wish it weren’t Trump, because all of the dysfunctions that are around him as an individual. But leaving that aside, a protest vote in this environment, I think, is a very legitimate thing to do.

And as someone whose grandmother came to Ellis Island from Aleppo, as an Armenian and Syrian Christian, I recognize that that path would not be open to her today, that she would not be welcomed, and that the Statue of Liberty does not belong in the United States anymore. By the way, that’s not just Trump: that was true under Obama. When Merkel said, “We’ll take all these refugees,” and Obama said, “That’s awesome — we’re not gonna do anything,” it pained me, as someone who grew up studying the Soviet Union. The first trip I made outside the U.S. was to the Soviet Union in 1986. And I saw that we beat the Soviets because of the power of leading by example. Because of our values and our ideals and because of what it meant to be a shining light for the world. That just is not true anymore.

When I travel around the world today, countries and citizens of those countries do not look up to us the way we used to. So in that regard, I think the United States is going through something that is historic and different.

But, again, do I think there is a domestic crisis in the United States right now? No. I think in some ways the fact that it’s not urgent is what’s truly sad about it. Because it means that you can look over the course of the next five to 10 years and you can say not much could change. It’s going to continue. That’s why it was so easy to predict the G-Zero, seven years ago: it wasn’t a crisis.

When something becomes a crisis, it’s actually quite hard to predict the outcomes. When something is just overwhelmingly coming because of structural forces, it’s very easy to predict those things. It’s very easy to predict that climate change is going to continue to come the next 20 years. And that’s the case for the G-Zero.

OR: Do you think the rules-based order is on its way out?

Bremmer: It think it’s being fundamentally fragmented. There’ll be other rules, but there won’t be one set of global rules the way there was in this weirdly ahistoric period that the United States dominated. Could be we end up with more regional systems. It could be thematic. And it also could be multi-stakeholder. It might not be even be driven primarily by central governments.

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