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In conversation: Ian Bremmer and Mosheh Oinounou on Putin’s mistakes, what Trump got right, and more

Ian Bremmer and Mosheh Oinounou on Putin’s mistakes, what Trump got right, and more

Ian Bremmer and Mosheh Oinounou on Putin’s mistakes, what Trump got right, and more

If you know me, you know I give a lot of interviews—on TV, radio, print, podcasts, etc.

Most of them don’t make it onto this newsletter, but today I’m making an exception for a great conversation I had last week with my fellow Bulletin writer Mosheh Oinounou, an award-winning executive producer who left the cable-news business during the pandemic to become independent after a 20-year-long career at networks like Fox News, Bloomberg, and (most recently) CBS.

Mosh’s Instagram account and newsletter, Mo News (which really should be called Mosh Pit), curate important (and entertaining) news headlines you need to know with a balanced perspective. We talked about why the Middle East gets so much (too much?) attention, how we are making progress on climate change, Putin's biggest mistakes, and why China and the U.S. are basically two divorced parents with joint custody over the world.

Want to understand the world a little better? Subscribe to GZERO Daily by Ian Bremmer for free and get new posts delivered to your inbox every week.

We covered a lot of ground, so the following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Mosheh Oinounou: In your new book you delve into what you deem are the three greatest threats as we move forward—the next pandemic, the climate emergency, and disruptive technology. But I also want to start with a few acute micro threats, if you will, before we delve into your macro threats.

Ian Bremmer: I like that more than micro aggressions. People get very excited about micro aggressions these days. I avoid those but we can talk about micro threats.

MO: Well, I call them micro threats, but they really dominate the headlines. Micro threats being Ukraine, Russia, what's going on in China, and then just the big bucket of the Middle East: energy, terrorism, regional conflict.

IB: All relevant to each other and relevant to the book.

MO: So let's start in Russia, Ukraine. We're now more than 100 days into the war there. The world seemed to get united in those first three months of the war, it's looking increasingly precarious, when it comes to kind of how united the West remains. And at the same time, Putin is controlling about 20% of Ukraine. Based on my rough math, it's roughly the size of New York State. How are things there right now? How might they end?

IB: Well, I mean, the world wasn't aligned to respond to the invasion back in February, the West was. The West's response was threefold. It was number one, the toughest sanctions that have ever been levied against an economy of this scale, ever. Secondly, an enormous amount of military support to the Ukrainian government. And three, a level of intelligence support and coordination on the disposition of Russian forces to better enable the Ukrainians to fight. Now 100 days in, there's still a Ukrainian government in place, democratically elected, and they control most of their territory, including the capital Kyiv. And, frankly, that is a testament of course, to the courageous fighting of the Ukrainians, but also to the effectiveness in the success of the West's policies. Putin failed. He failed to overthrow Zelensky, he failed to integrate Ukraine into a new Russian Empire. That was his intention. He had to withdraw those forces and redeploy them. He's also failed because his economy is in free fall. His international central bank assets have been frozen. His GDP has contracted this year looking at 10%, probably will continue apace in the coming years. And NATO, meanwhile, is expanding. It's becoming more coordinated, more consolidated, stronger, and it's about to include Finland and Sweden. So I mean, however you look at this, this is a massive loss for Putin. It is a misjudgment, a geopolitical misjudgment of greater scale than that of any leader I have seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is that big a deal.

But going forward, it is true that maintaining this level of coordinated support for Ukraine from the West is going to be harder, and maintaining a continued amount of punishment of Russia economically, as you start to hit bone. For some of the citizens living in Europe, and even the United States, given levels of inflation, gas prices and the rest, that's going to be more challenging too. I do think that Putin probably sees that there is more opportunity for him if he holds on to his present position, if he keeps fighting right now, in six, in 12 months' time, than there has been in the first three months.

The biggest point here is that NATO is stronger and more functional, the Europeans are spending money on national security and prioritizing it, the belief that you need to stand for the territorial integrity of a democracy is stronger today. All of those things on the back of and because of Putin's invasion. It is precisely the West's response to crises that gave the opportunity to reform and rebuild architecture that has been eroding for decades. And that's exactly what the book is all about.

MO: So ultimately, it sounds to me like the way the West reacted in the past few months can be viewed optimistically in regards to some of the upcoming crises and challenges that the globe faces.

IB: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, compared to what happened in Afghanistan, where the Americans were not even coordinated between two administrations, and certainly not committed, coordinated with their allies on that we're fighting with them since the 9/11 attacks.

Putin believed that Biden's weak, Afghanistan was a disaster, Merkel's gone and Macron is going his own way. He's got energy leverage. The Chinese are his buds. The Ukrainians aren't going to fight me. He believed that he could get away with it. So he could take Ukraine out and actually incorporate them into a greater Russian Empire, he could undo the collapse of the Soviet Union that he considered to be the greatest geopolitical debacle of the 20th century. He was deeply wrong. And I think that going forward, the Chinese are learning lessons from the fact that yeah, the West will come together, if we were to suddenly invade Taiwan, that there is risk around that for us that's more significant than we might have anticipated before, we might not want to make the kind of mistake that President Putin just made. And I think that that also limits how much the Chinese are willing to go to bat for their sort of limitless friend Vladimir Putin in Russia going forward.

MO: Even if this ends months from now, a year from now, with a greater portion of Ukraine annexed by Vladimir Putin ultimately, you see that as a victory for the West because of what the alternative could have been?

IB: I would have liked that victory absent such a crisis. I think that there were things the West could have done in response to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, or Ukraine in 2014. Or that they could have done in response to the Budapest Memorandum when the Ukrainians gave up their nuclear weapons in 1994. And the United States and the United Kingdom promised to defend their territorial integrity. There were many missed opportunities here. And I do not in any way want to minimize the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians that have been kidnapped, that are now in filtration camps in Russia, the 10s of 1000s of war crimes that have been perpetrated by the Russian regime against Ukrainian civilians on the ground, including women and children on the ground in Ukraine. So I mean, to say that there's good news that comes from this crisis, I want to be very, very clear that the Ukrainians are getting none of it. None of it. But in an environment that is as geopolitically fraught, as what I call the geopolitical recession we are in right now, where the leadership is so mistrusted, is so polarized. The fact is that frequently you need crises to get yourself out of that recession, and to build stronger institutions to reform the eroding and delegitimize institutions that you have. And this invasion of Ukraine by Russia has done precisely that precisely.

MO: You invoke China and how they're watching the conflict. How are the US and West approaching China as they continue their surge towards becoming the world's largest economy? Where does China stand right now: economically, militarily, technologically?

IB: China, unlike Russia, is not a country in decline. China is a country with robust political stability at home with strong economic growth that allows and affords it much greater international influence around the world. They're investing significantly in their education, in their military, in their technological capabilities. They are not the global superpower the United States is. But certainly China is on a pathway to becoming the largest economy in the world, likely in the next 10 years. Also, unlike Russia, the United States has a robust, interdependent economic relationship with China. And that relationship works both ways. The Americans like buying cheap goods from China. China likes exporting those goods to the United States, the Americans appreciate the Chinese lending money into US Treasuries, the Chinese see the US dollar as the safest large bet that they can make outside of China. And the fact that there is no trust in the relationship does not in any way obviate the reality that there is this enormous interdependence. And so the way I see the US-China relationship is kind of like two parents who live together and don't love each other anymore. But they have kids that they do both love. And those kids are young, and they're at home. And they're going to make sure that they keep the relationship functional so that the whole thing doesn't fall apart. That's kind of where we are. So we say all sorts of nasty things about each other. We're snippy with each other. We talk about our demands, how we want things to go differently, and we don't move the needle very much. And yet, we are not prepared to break the relationship, because it's too important for both of us. And we both understand that even if we don't say it very often.

So it's very interesting that despite all the posturing the Chinese have made in support of Russia, the Chinese are not doing anything to break US sanctions on Russia. They're not providing military support for Russia, because they know that that would cross a red line. The Americans talk a lot about support for Taiwan, but they're not changing US-Taiwan policy. The reality is that this economic relationship is, frankly, a level of Mutually Assured Destruction between the two countries that in some ways is analogous to the nuclear mutually assured destruction that helped ensure that the Americans and the Soviets didn't get into a hot war. Well, the mutually assured economic destruction that the US and China have helps to ensure that they don't get involved in a Cold War, as much as the language between the two countries actually does reflect a very hostile relationship.

MO: I want to jump here to the Middle East. Every time there's a sense of a pivot to Asia or pivot to more urgent issues, the Middle East tends to suddenly take center stage. What is your take on the larger state of the region, and how much time and attention it deserves?

IB: I mean it deserves less attention than it gets. I remember when [John] Kerry became Secretary of State for Obama, and he spent his first year and a half doing Israel-Palestine, which is the kind of thing that a Secretary of State used to cut their teeth on, but it was nowhere close to the priority that he was affording it at that point. And I thought that the Trump administration, their biggest success, they had some successes in foreign policy, they had a lot of failures, too. But their biggest success, of course, was in pivoting away from Israel, Palestine, and using a changed geopolitical reality to facilitate an opening and relations between Israel and a number of Arab states in the region, most notably the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and increasingly, we're close to an opening with Saudi Arabia as well. The Abraham Accords, that's a big deal, Biden has only leaned into that, frankly. And that's where the Americans should be going, they should be trying to have functional and strong relations with all of their allies in the region, just as they should in Asia, between the Japanese and South Koreans and try to make sure that they don't hate each other either. And there's some movement going there.

It's kind of interesting that the two most toxic sets of relations that the United States has between allies, South Korea and Japan, and then Israel and Saudi Arabia, are both actually on the precipice of significant resolution. That's actually a big deal, it's a big positive deal. People don't talk enough about it.

We also need to understand that this is the part of the world that is becoming less economically relevant globally over time, from the peak in the 70s, and the 80s, to a time when the Americans are energy independent. And when the world is quickly moving away from fossil fuels. By 2045, 20 years from now, one generation from now, a majority of the world's energy will no longer come from fossil fuels.

MO: So your sense is that the energy crisis, mini-crisis we're facing right now, is the last gasp of relevancy for that region?

IB: Oh no, it's not the last gasp. I mean, 20 years is a long time and prices will be cyclical, and the Saudis are going to mint money and a lot of people will want to go there for that reason. And I like seeing the economic reforms happening there, the UAE, other places, and they will produce other things that are valuable, don't get me wrong. But high energy prices only move you faster to the scale of renewables being affordable for everyone. And we have broken the back of that already. We have already proved the viability of solar at scale, we have proved the viability of next-generation nuclear at scale, we have proved the viability of electric vehicles and supply chain at scale, all of those things are going to move you faster away from fossil fuels now.

So the Russian invasion of Ukraine definitely means that energy producers in the Gulf have more money in the shorter term that they can use to both ensure that their citizens are not taking the brunt of the challenges of supply chain disruption, but also they can invest more into diversifying their economies faster. That's a good thing. That's absolutely a good thing. And hopefully they will do more of that. I expect they will, because the writing is on the wall. But it also means that the Europeans will move faster to efficiency, and faster to diversification towards more renewables, because the fossil fuel alternatives are just more expensive. All of this is long-term positive news for the planet. And again, hopefully, this means that the Middle East doesn't become irrelevant, but rather, it's a crisis that forces the Middle East to actually become more sustainable long term.

MO: One country that we haven't talked about a crisis related to just given their rhetoric and given their pursuit of nuclear weapons is Iran. And that hasn't come up yet in this conversation, as we talked about this neighborhood. Where do things stand there as far as the Iranians and their potential to distract the world from these larger crises?

IB: Well, they've got stockpiles now of enriched uranium from 20 to 60%, that are sufficient, if further enriched, to get them to two nuclear weapons. That's a breakout time of probably two weeks, and the Israelis and Americans probably can't stop them. So the fact that the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal, has moved the Iranians basically to become a nuclear threshold country, though not yet a nuclear weapons state. The Iranians are still under a lot of pressure. So they still could really use these sanctions to be removed or loosened by the United States and by going back into the deal. There has been a lot of inflation in Iran, there have been some demonstrations that have been violently repressed. So if you made me bet right now, I would still probably be slightly better than even that we go back into the deal.

MO: You don't foresee a 1998 Pakistan-like nuclear test moment for Iranian nukes in the coming years?

IB: No, I mean, I still think that for Iran to publicly test a nuclear weapon and announce that they are a nuclear state kind of really forces Israel's hand with a radically more advanced, both military and cyber capability, in ways that the Iranians don't necessarily want to test and press. We already saw that when Trump decided "no mas," I'm going to literally assassinate your most important military official. The response of Iran was nothing. It was crickets. Why? Because they don't actually have anything they can do to really raise the deterrent capacity of their own escalation. Their bluff was called. And so I mean the fact that Iran is in a much weaker position, look what Iran has in the region. What's really valuable to them is a bunch of proxies they have political influence over that afford them a level of geopolitical influence and the ability to destabilize countries around the Middle East. That's what they have, and they're not going to negotiate that away. And that makes them a problem, a problem for most of America's allies in the region. But that's not fundamentally a US problem. That is much more a regional problem.

MO: So let's talk existential threats. In this case, climate, pandemic and tech as you lay out in your book. I'm going to start with the pandemic, because we're coming off the last one. What lessons has the world learned from this and does it give you hope or the opposite when it comes to the next one?

IB: Oh it's mixed. It's very mixed. I mean, the easy way to be pessimistic is to say that the United States is more politically divided because of the pandemic. And that's true. And the US-China relationship is worse because of the pandemic, also true. Blaming each other, politicizing it, all this stuff. But in the early days, the United States actually responded very effectively, both in terms of Operation Warp Speed on the vaccines, and also everyone coming together to learn from the science. Dr. Fauci was lionized by the Dems and the Republicans in the early months. And you had Pelosi and Mnuchin get together for a multi-trillion dollar deal that actually built up a V-shaped recovery in the United States better than anyone expected they could do. And then you know what happened? Then we got complacent. Because then it looked like, 'Oh, we got vaccines. So we're okay. At least we're okay if we're not really old. And we don't have pre-existing conditions. And that in an electoral cycle, allowed for the politicization of the crisis. It wasn't a big enough crisis to force a continued unified response. China, same thing. China looked at the United States and Europe, saw they were failing. So we're locking down, we're tracking, we're tracing, we're surveilling. We've got this down, the pandemic changes, the Chinese were complacent. And so now they don't have their people vaccinated. They don't have the ability to have access to good vaccines that have worked for them or therapeutics that have worked for everyone. And so they're facing massive economic slowdowns, and rolling lockdowns, even in Shanghai three years in.

So unfortunately, we learned a lot of lessons in the pandemic and how not to respond to an effective crisis. The Europeans had a much better pandemic, not because they were much more effective in keeping people from dying, the numbers per capita are about the same as in the US. But they saw that the pandemic required a unified European response. But economically, the wealthy countries spent an enormous amount of money redistributing aid and cash and investment to the poorer countries. And that built a stronger EU. And they also took control of the vaccines at an EU level a power they didn't have before. And yeah, it took them longer, because they were bureaucratic, and they had to pay more over time. But once they got it, it was an EU process. And the Greeks believed in it, just as the Germans did. So different from the eurozone crisis in 2010. So politically, the EU comes out of the pandemic stronger because of the EU and populism in the EU is actually weaker, because of the pandemic. That, I think, is the most hopeful lesson.

MO: I look at the response this country the US had after 9/11, and frankly, I think we could agree that there's no way we would have that similar response, 20 years later, given there's going to be a finger-pointing and partisan press and everything the way it's evolved.

And I worry that some of the examples you cited—Fauci, Pelosi, Mnuchin, etc.—that we'll look back, when we have another one of these pandemics, and look at the 2020 response being like, 'Oh, those were the glory days when we could still accomplish things.'

IB: I hope not. But, you know, again, the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a country we don't care an awful lot about in a political environment that's every bit as the United States has been incredibly effective. And I promise you, Democrats and Republicans hate Putin more than they hate each other. That's clear. And I would argue that the climate response has also been considerably more effective in the United States. And that's because it's not primarily about Washington. That's because it's actually it's young people that are Democrats and Republicans, it's banks, and it's corporates. And it's everybody that says, 'My God, this is happening in a theater near you. And we really need to take it much more seriously.' So I think it is true that when the country is more divided, the size of the crisis you need to get yourself out of that is greater, but those crises exist.

MO: Let's talk climate here, threat number two. We seem to be not the worst-case scenario as you lay out in your book, but slightly less than worst-case scenario. The world has made a bunch of promises, some with goals 50 years from now, 40 years from now. Where are we on some sort of global Manhattan Project here? Do we need a more acute crisis for folks to really take this seriously?

IB: No. We're taking it seriously. So we have, first of all, we all identify and agree on the problem. We all agree, 195 countries now agree that there has been 1.2 centigrade degrees of warming so far. And that's not coming from cyclical features of nature, it is actually manmade, it is methane and carbon into the atmosphere. So unlike the pandemic, where it's like, do we want vaccines or they're bad? No, we all know that this has happened. We all agree. There's no more fake news around it. That's impressive now, doesn't mean that we all agree on what we should do to respond to it. But you can't fix a problem unless you can all agree on what the problem is. And we are actually in that environment. So first of all, that gives me tremendous hope.

MO: And you feel that we're there domestically here in the US as well, because it still like from the right, you hear a little bit ...

IB: Yes, without any question. Again, that doesn't mean you've got all sorts of people that are saying, 'Well, why would we spend money on this when the Indians are doing all this with coal? And why would we in West Virginia shut down our coal mines when we need these jobs?' Again, there are reasonable conversations going on about how one prioritizes resources being allocated in the context of this challenge. But there is no question about what's happening with climate, not in the US and not globally. And I think that's a big deal. Secondly, there is a massive amount of money that is being spent to redeploy investment towards renewables and towards infrastructure for renewables, so much so that we now see that we're not on a trajectory for three or four or five or six degrees of warming, as many activists believe we were even five years ago. Now, it's really about 1.2 degrees, or a 2.5 degree temperature increase, which is too high. And the difference between those are hundreds of trillions of dollars and hundreds of millions of people's lives. So it's a big deal. But it's incredible how much progress has already been made. And even when Trump pulls the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, it doesn't stop the progress. Because governors and mayors and CEOs and bankers and NGOs and young people across the country say no, we're still committed to that. No, we're still doing that. No, we're still investing in that. And they're investing it in California. And they're investing it in Texas, right? Everywhere.

MO: In order for us, though, to prevent the 2.5 degree scenario and trillions and being flooded, flooded Bangladesh, and cities, etc, what needs to happen? And how important is the role of the US federally, and China going to be in that process?

IB: Well, I mean, there are two big things that need to happen. One is that there has to be a massive amount of redistribution of wealth, just like the Europeans did between the rich and the poor. The world has to do that between the rich and the poor states. I mean, if you're Indian, and you're facing 120 degree Fahrenheit, temperatures in Delhi, and a billion people that can't work after 10am, because it's too fucking hot out. And literally, you know, dead birds are falling out of the sky because of that heat. And yet your per capita income is 5% of what the United States' is. You've not been responsible for why we're here, you're not prepared to accept rolling blackouts for your population. You're going to burn cheap coal, unless someone's going to pay you not to burn cheap coal. And the Brazilians feel the same way about deforestation in the Amazon. So the difference between 1.5 and 2.5, the single biggest thing that needs to happen is there has to be much more redistribution between the rich and the poor. There has to be an acceptance that just because people aren't Americans, doesn't mean they're not human beings.

MO: When you talk about redistribution, what are you talking about? Massive aid from the US? You're talking about, like hundreds of billions of dollars of aid going over there?

IB: Not just the US. The US and from Europe, but yes, more money. And that money can take very different forms. And it can also be in terms of massive investments into new technologies that will allow for faster transfer and distribution, it can be public-private partnerships, doesn't all have to be simply aid. But again, if you want to finish, if you want to get the pandemic resolved quickly, you needed everyone in the world vaccinated. And that doesn't just mean vaccines. That means they need infrastructure to deliver the vaccines into the arms when you don't give that you've got to vaccines in Africa that literally are spoiling? That's a serious problem. Well, I mean, what happens? Same situation with climate change playing out over decades, it is the same exact story.

MO: Okay, threat number three: disruptive technology. Layout for us the challenges there, and the opportunities there.

IB: So this is the challenge that's not quite in front of us yet, but soon is going to be and it's very simple to describe. We knew that we had nuclear weapons, we knew that if everyone had their hands on nuclear weapons, we were going to blow up the world. So we did our damnedest to try to make sure there was a small nuclear club and there wasn't proliferation of those technologies. And over 80 years, we've done a reasonably good job. Not in Pakistan, not in India, not North Korea, but generally speaking, most countries don't have them, and no non-state actors have them. We put a lot of effort into that.

There are now a large number of 21st-century disruptive technologies like lethal autonomous weapons, like offensive cyber capabilities, like disinformation algorithms that include deep fakes that you cannot literally tell the difference between them and another human being, that are incredibly dangerous, existentially dangerous when deployed at scale. And we literally do not have the beginnings of architecture to prevent their proliferation. So that is the challenge. And that is the opportunity. And I throw it forward as the last of the major crises in my book as something that I'm hoping we can start to move the needle on, at least, to start like with climate change, you got to identify the problem. So the first thing we need is an intergovernmental panel on artificial intelligence, where everyone gets together and said, Okay, here's what the challenge is so that we can start to resolve it.

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