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Q&A with Ian Bremmer
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Ian Bremmer is an editor-at-large at TIME, president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and a Professor at NYU. His recent book is Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.
This Q&A took place between 6/16/15 and 6/25/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
16 questions
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
Mr. Bremmer -- thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A! What do you think about the implementation of financial sanctions by Western nations against rogue states (Iran, North Korea, etc) in attempt to twist their arms to behave? Is the weaponization of finance in this case an immoral or ineffective foreign policy strategy?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Each case of sanctions is different. As I argued in my book “The J Curve” a few years ago, sanctions won’t create much change in North Korea, because its government depends on the Western willingness to isolate that country to keep its people in the dark. Iran doesn’t mind the political isolation, but the economic impact of sanctions threatens, rather than protects, the regime over time. That’s why they’ve gone so far down the path toward a nuclear agreement. Russia is an entirely different case, because it’s far too big and too important for the global system to isolate it in the way that apartheid South Africa, Cuba, North Korea and Iran could be isolated. And they can be counter-productive in Russia because they allow Putin to blame the West--rather than his own economic mismanagement and the failure to diversify Russia’s economy away from deep reliance for revenue on energy exports--for Russia’s economic hardship. Putin’s approval ratings slumped in 2012-2013. The sense that Russia is facing down aggression from the big bad Americans, however silly that may sound to us, is directly responsible for his now sky-high popularity.

The other problem with sanctions is a practical one. Those who impose them hope that hardship will lead the people of country X, particularly the wealthy elite, to rise up in anger against their leaders and force change. In reality, sanctions often leave business leaders that much more dependent on their country’s political leaders to provide them with scarce capital and to protect their interests during hard times. In other words, sanctions can drive powerful people toward their government rather than away from it. Add another chapter to the encyclopedia of unintended foreign policy consequences.

As for the morality of sanctions, I’d say it certainly helps Western nations when they can target leaders rather than ordinary citizens. No one should be proud to impose suffering on those who have no control over policy. Yet, let’s not allow ourselves to believe that it’s virtuous to do nothing when a government violates agreed-upon international norms in ways that harm the citizens of other countries or their own. There are no easy choices here.
JD/MPA Candidate at Columbia Law and Harvard Kennedy School
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Mr. Bremmer.

To what extent is this new G-Zero world we now inhabit undermining our current diplomatic strategy of restricting access to capital markets? is coercive diplomacy becoming less effective as a result?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
It’s true that living in a G-zero world has made it more difficult to coordinate the “weaponization of finance” strategy with other governments, but when the best available alternatives are “risk war” and “do nothing,” it can still be very effective in some cases. And a lot of the weaponization can be done more or less unilaterally. Continued domination of the world’s financial architecture (at least for now) ensures that America maintains power and influence that extends well beyond its military might. It helps that nearly 80% of global financial transactions are still conducted in US dollars. That advantage won’t last forever, and the G-zero phenomenon may erode it faster than many of us think. The backlash has already begun. But the US still has a unique position in the global system. As long as US policymakers understand the limits of this (and other) tools, it can be effective in some cases as it has been in Iran.
Ian, in your book you describe three visions for American Power; Independent America which prefers to sharply curtail our involvement in foreign conflicts and invest at home, Moneyball America which prefers to limit intervention to defending our interests when they are threatened and Indespensible America which is the most internationalist/interventionist. How do you feel these competing ideas will influence the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
As I explain in the intro of my book, I think all three of these options have important strengths and weaknesses, but we have to choose one of them on which to build a set of organizing principals that help Washington develop a coherent foreign strategy. By trying to do a bit of all of them, we end up with the incoherence one would expect from dangerous, expensive improvisation. I hope (!) that laying out these paths will help the candidates better differentiate their own foreign policy views and express them more clearly. So far, no candidate has presented a comprehensive foreign policy approach (excluding Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham, but come on) and the clock is ticking. I also hope this discussion shows them that they actually need to have a clear foreign policy strategy, not just respond to different crises as they arise, which seems to have been Obama’s approach to dealing with ISIS, Russia, and other problems. America needs to do better.
Professor of Creative Writing @ USC - Author of Zealot
Mr. Bremmer. Do you believe the so-called BDS movement is an effective means of forcing the Israeli government to change its current policy regarding its occupation of Palestinian Territories? Why or why not?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Not particularly. Does BDS have potential to inflict some real damage? Sure. Rand recently estimated the impact of the movement to be in the billions of dollars, and there is considerable European support for BDS. But there’s little appetite to take any more economic hits at this point, especially with the blowback from Ukraine sanctions. Emerging markets are getting bigger, but they just don’t care enough to take on the added costs. And there is too little capacity for the same type of squeeze that the US coordinated against Iran. We are further from a Palestinian deal now than we have been in a while, largely because the Israeli population doesn’t feel a particular threat or sense of urgency, and I don’t see BDS changing that.
Doctoral candidate, University of Oxford
Thanks for taking the time for this.

Is there anything we can do (such as more dramatic financial actions against Russian individuals and institutions) that might realistically change Putin's current calculus? If so, how likely is it that any big change we effect would actually be the reverse of what we want, e.g. he is faced with the choice either of being deposed or sending little green men into the Baltics in order to rally support around the flag?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
The American response toward the crisis in Ukraine and its approach to Putin have probably been the most important mistakes of the Obama foreign policy. Ukraine is far too important to Russia for sanctions to change Putin’s calculus, and the sense of siege in Russia has strengthened Putin at home. He needed this, and we gave it to him. As I wrote above, the Kremlin can now blame Russia’s lousy economy, made worse by lower oil prices, on the West and evade charges of severe economic mismanagement. But Obama doesn’t want to look ineffectual, and Putin is an ideal Bond villain. Washington couldn’t resist taking a shot at him.

But it’s easy to criticize the president. Any president. Those of us who do it are duty-bound to explain what we would do differently. I believe we should focus on helping Ukraine rather than on punishing Russia. Want to stick it to the Kremlin? Help Ukraine survive this crisis and strengthen its ties with Europe. That’s what Putin fears most. More importantly, you’re doing right by the vast majority of Ukraine’s 43 million people. In truth, Washington needs to work with Europe and Russia behind the scenes to ensure that Ukraine can enjoy positive economic and political relations with both the EU and Russia without closing the door on either one. Admitting that sanctions aren’t the answer doesn’t mean turning your back on Ukraine. This solution won’t be easy, but I see no other way out of this cycle of violence.
Thank you, Mr. Bremmer!

I'm curious about the relationship between official development assistance (ODA) and foreign policy. Largely, I've seen two worldviews--the first one is that ODA should be allocated based on need and potential for effectiveness, and the second one is that ODA should be harnessed as a foreign policy tool.

To the best of my knowledge, we use a mixed approach--while the US does provide aid as an end-unto-itself, the US is deeply cognizant of the geopolitical consequences. However, this strategy has not always been the case; at previous points in history, the US has used ODA primarily to advance US interests abroad (e.g. the Marshall Plan).

What's your take? To what extent should ODA be politicized?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
The Marshall Plan remains the smartest US foreign policy investment in history as far as I can see. It helped contain the westward advance of communism. It revitalized the economies of America’s most important trade partners and opened new markets for US exports. It burnished America’s image as champion of the common good. Call it cynicism. Or idealism. It was grand strategy in action, and the policy’s self-evident success improved the lives of millions of people--on both sides of the Atlantic. It took vision and courage from President Truman, who demonstrated a pragmatism and selflessness all too rare in today’s political leaders by naming the plan for General Marshall rather than for himself.

Where has that vision gone? This kind of investment is now out of fashion in Washington, where Republicans have attacked all spending and government investment to paint Barack Obama as a reckless man bent on rolling up US debt and where Democrats treat trade as if it exists primarily to strip the working man of his job and help fat cats smoke fatter cigars. Meanwhile, China has certainly politicized its trade and investment policy, and this shrewd approach has paid dividends. I believe in trade and investment because, if negotiated properly, they can pay both economic and political dividends.

That said, a wealthy country like ours can also spend purely to help those who need help. As I wrote in my book, “aid directed toward fighting poverty is a much smaller part of federal spending than many Americans realize. Just 0.7 percent of the US federal budget was spent for that purpose in fiscal year 2014. That’s a total of $23.4 billion. Sound like a lot? According to Oxfam, an NGO, in 2014 the average American taxpayer spent about $80 on development assistance to foreign countries. He also spent $101 on candy, $126 on lawn care, and $204 on soft drinks. Even an isolationist can see that $80 a year is a small price to pay to help alleviate suffering and safeguard our security.” Americans spend more on pet costumes than on foreign aid.
Thanks for taking our questions. As a Canadian I'm flattered you think we are a good example of a pivot state but as a practitioner of international politics I can't see any interest in us ever pivoting away from the U.S. since we share and benefit from norms elaborated under an international system whose creation the U.S. brokered decades ago. Rather than pivoting shouldn't states like Canada redouble their efforts to adapt the international system so it can accommodate rising powers like China and protect what norms we can from violators such as Russia?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
I agree that reinforcing strong global norms and institutions is very much in Canada’s interest, and there are places where Canada can play an outsized role –the Arctic Council, for example—that should be a key part of Canada’s foreign policy strategy. But I also believe that Canada’s economic ties in Asia, beyond the promise of TPP and lucrative trade and investment relations with China, are important for Canada’s future. The United States and Canada are bound together by geography, history, language, and culture. But there’s no reason for Canada’s economy to remain quite so vulnerable to business cycles in the much-larger US economy. As a commodity exporter, Asian consumers offer Canada unique economic expansion opportunities. And Canada and the US should both be more involved in Chinese-led investment projects like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As these projects grow and become more important, it will be easier for Western developed nations to protect our shared values from within these organizations than from outside them.
Former US Senator from Nebraska - M.D. at Allen and Company
Thanks for doing this. Your ARE a brave man. If you were in the Congress, would you vote to give the President authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Great to hear from you Bob. I absolutely would vote for fast-track authority. But look, TPP is a mixed bag. It’s good for the US economy overall, though problematic for certain labor market sectors. But from a strategic perspective it’s critical for establishing a long-term economic foothold in East Asia, especially since China is beginning to develop new international economic institutions that directly challenge US-dominated institutional architecture. China has even launched its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in response, and that’s probably going ahead whether TPP passes or not. So we’re already in the game. As an aside, I’m disappointed that Hillary Clinton—a primary architect of TPP as part of Obama’s “pivot to Asia”—has chosen to distance herself from it as she runs for president. Then again, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care that I’m disappointed.
Corporate Lawyer; Libertarian; Enneagram 8; ETSJ
In light of the TPP being in large part secret, I am curious why you think you would vote for it. Do you know something about the contents of the TTP that the rest of us don't?
Secondly, I am troubled by what I view as an inherently arrogant perspective that if you were in a position to vote on a secret act, you would know what was good for the American people even if they didn't know themselves.
Mr. Bremmer: Where are we as a country dramatically overspending or underspending when addressing the foreign policy threats and opportunities we face?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
We are dramatically overspending in our response to terrorism, and I don’t just mean our money. Who has done the most damage to America since 9/11? We’ve done it to ourselves, via the excesses of the surveillance state. We spend way too much on military projects in the Middle East, a region we can barely cope with, let alone manage. We also spend too much money defending rich countries. About 70 percent of NATO’s budget comes from the United States. The rest from everybody else. And why are there still tens of thousands of American soldiers based in Germany and Japan? How does that make America safer? Isn’t it time, 70 years later, for these two now-wealthy nations to assume greater responsibility for their own security?

We are dramatically underspending on cyber security. This is the battlefield of the future, because there are countries out there that know they can’t compete with American hardware and will focus instead on the software. Our aircraft carriers are much less vulnerable than our critical infrastructure.
Founder, 10 TRAITS Leadership Institute; UN Virtual Mentor
Hi Ian, Thanks for answering our questions. Here's mine: In an article titled: The Importance of Sex, The Economist reported "More women in government could also boost economic growth: studies show that women are more likely to spend money on improving health, education, infrastructure and poverty and less likely to waste it on tanks and bombs." Do you agree with this statement, and if so, what countries come to mind?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
I hope that exceptionalism would play a less prominent role in policy rhetoric and action if there were more women in government. As to spending, there might be a shift away from “boys and their toys,” but it depends on a particular country’s political culture, the resilience of its interest groups, public perceptions of threat, and the number of women that might join government. It’s not enough to add a few female voices, even at the highest levels, because in some cases, in order to survive politically in some countries, women may believe they have to adjust to their country’s politics rather than adjusting the politics to reflect a new set of values.

On the question of which countries come to mind, there are too few countries where women play a role in government commensurate with their role in society. In Scandinavia, maybe, but these aren’t the countries most likely to over-invest in tanks and bombs. At the World Cup last year, we saw Dilma Rousseff, Christina Kirchner, and Angela Merkel together a few times. But I can’t say that these exceptional women have the power by themselves to “feminize” the political cultures of their countries. In the United States, Hillary Clinton might make history next year. But to really test this thesis it would be at least as important to elect a lot more women (of both parties) to the House and Senate.
There's a fantastic number of beliefs about who's running the show in America - the corporations, the military industrial complex, rich crooks to name a few but according to the constitution it should be the people. Who do you believe will make the choice about America's future role in the world?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Well, if we limit this question to foreign policy, the president and key appointees really do matter. As proof, think about how many decisions on the international front have been taken that are clearly at odds with what vested interests would want--Russia sanctions and staying out of the Eurozone crisis are the first ones that come to mind. It’s more issues like gun control where special interests are so entrenched that lots of policy options simply aren’t on the table, and makes you wonder who’s really running the show.
Research Fellow, MIGS, Concordia University, Montreal
I have a question about "soft power" and US-China relations:

In your opinion, what is the strongest "soft power item" China has in the United States? Is it the food? Chinese students at Ivy League Universities? What do you think?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
It’s Chinese people living in the United States. The Chinese are the largest immigrant population in the US—around 4 million—and they’ve made every bit as big an impact on US culture as those numbers suggest. And we’re not just talking about isolated communities--the Chinatowns found in large cities. Chinese people are fully integrating into US society, drawing from and adding to American culture like so many immigrant groups before them. And as in so many other countries, the entrepreneurial energy and creativity that Chinese people contribute--in business, the arts, and scientific fields of all kinds--speak for themselves.
Research Fellow, MIGS, Concordia University, Montreal
Thank you Mr. Bremmer for taking the time to answer my question!
By dodging history issues in East Asia and supporting unconditionally Shinzo Abe's constitutional reform, the US are de facto siding with an openly revisionist regime, and helping China get more influence on Korea. Wouldn't adding clear conditions to a support of a return to militarism in Japan strengthen US leadership across the region, and being on the good side of History?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
The real question, in my opinion, is how long Japan will want to act as America’s aircraft carrier in Asia, especially given the country’s shrinking demographics and aversion to militarism. Japan isn’t really a credible long-term threat to China—if anyone in Asia is likely to take on that role, it’s India. Given that, how long will it be before the US recognizes that Japan needs a new direction and helps push it that way?
Human Rights Foundation and Oslo Freedom Forum
Mr. Bremmer - do you think that increased foreign business interaction with the North Korean dictatorship will lead to a political opening? There is an intense debate right now about how ethical it is for companies to work in Pyongyang with the Kim regime. This extends to state-run tourism and even the AP news bureau. Some say that by partnering with the DPRK, we can trigger change. Others say the regime is simply using any new business to help solidify and whitewash its rule. I am interested to hear what you have to say.
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
It’s a double-edged sword. In the short term, you’re buttressing a sick regime. Over the longer term, however, you’re introducing a shaft of light into a country that the Kim family has kept in the dark for decades. Kim needs cash. But globalization is an enormous threat to the North Korean regime, from foreign investment to the internet to tourism. The regime knows that and will continue to try to control the process. I’d argue that the more interaction the better. Change can’t be worse than the status quo unless you believe the country might launch a real war. I don’t assume that. China doesn’t want a conflagration along its borders, and Beijing still has much more influence within that government than Washington ever will.
Mr Bremmer, thank you for being here. My question is perhaps slightly academic: Considering the actions of the South African government during the diamond rush, the concept of colonial mercantilism and the Japanese industrial policies, is state capitalism really such a new concept? Was capitalism ever separate from the state?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Capitalism has never been entirely separate from the state, but China in particular has embraced markets, state-owned companies, and state intervention on a scale we haven’t seen, and this is an economy that will soon be the largest in the world. In other words, I believe that just as 21st century globalization is a qualitatively different phenomenon than anything happening along the original silk road or within the Hanseatic League, so modern state capitalism has a direct impact on many more lives than the East India Company, South Africa’s diamond rush, or Japan’s industrial policy ever could have.
Ian, many thanks for joining us on here. Outside of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and Latin American drug cartels, what violent non-state actors/transnational criminal groups do you foresee posing significant geopolitical and human security threats between now and 2020?
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
Let’s broaden our definition of violence. On the high seas of cyber space, we see not only state-sponsored nuclear submarines but a pretty large group of pirates, as well. There are a lot of rogue actors developing skills in both espionage and sabotage for their own purposes: profit, anarchy, destruction, etc. These people could be inflicting real harm on the entire global system long after ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Zetas are at the bottom of the ocean with Osama bin Laden. (Did I just mix a lot of metaphors there? You be the judge.)

And then there are the actors in cyber space that some consider villains and others treat as heroes. Wikileaks and groups like Anonymous can do some good, but they can also do enormous damage. “Forced transparency,” particularly when it centers on unsubstantiated accusations and gossip, can needlessly damage relations between countries. There is a role for secrets in the world of international politics, and let’s remember that organizations like Anonymous and Wikileaks are not inherently honest and virtuous. They’re just as capable of publishing falsehoods, deliberately or not, as any disinformation department within a particular government’s intelligence community.

And these sensationalist revelations can be much harder on the stability of developing countries, particularly authoritarian ones, than on resilient democracies. Airing secrets about Washington can be embarrassing and set back relations with important partners like Germany, France, and Brazil. But when the targets of leaks are opaque authoritarian regimes, we’ll see real state instability over time--and the potential for violence that tends to go with it. China and Russia haven’t really faced this problem yet, but you better believe they will.