Biden-Putin summit: US wants predictability; G7's strong COVID response

Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week:

What topics will be in focus at the G7 summit?

Well, most importantly is the collective response to coronavirus. 1 billion vaccines, repurposed, and tens of billions of dollars in financing from the G7 to lower income economies around the world. It is by far the most significant show of leadership displayed since the pandemic started and it's coming from the United States and its allies. That is meaningful, especially given the direction that the world has been heading, this G-Zero world over the course of the past decades. It's nice to see. Lots of other issues being discussed. It's only 60 seconds. I can't go that far.


What do you make of the EU joining the US in a push to investigate the origins of coronavirus?

Sure you don't want to go back to the G7? It's a much happier conversation. It means that the US-China relationship is getting more challenging. It means that the Chinese are going to be incredibly defensive about the fact that they have not provided access to the international community to investigate the origins of coronavirus. There are other countries around the world that are increasingly concerned about it. And if this becomes a really big flap, it is possible that we could start to see more formal Chinese decoupling from the West around issues of healthcare and epidemiology. I could imagine even the Chinese government leaving the World Health Organization, which would be very significant since that's where lots of the necessary transparency really is absent for the rest of the world. Anyway, we watch this space.

With Biden and Putin to meet next week, in Geneva, what does each want from the summit?

Biden's made very clear, he said it himself, and so has Jake Sullivan and Tony Blinken, they want a more predictable relationship between the US and Russia. In other words, the status quo is not great, but they'd like it to persist. That's the baseline. They don't want it to get worse. They don't want sudden crises, whether it's on hacking, whether it's around Belarus, whether it's around issues of human rights, they don't want to rock the boat unnecessarily when the US-China relationship is considered to be by far the top priority, the biggest challenge. In the case of the Russians, he wants to be treated with more respect and he's unhappy with the status quo. He thinks that the West needs to be more divided, both internally and as a transatlantic relationship. Hard to see a lot being accomplished between the two leaders. But I do think if it surprises, the meeting will surprise on the upside. We'll watch next week.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Good morning everybody and I hope everyone is okay this Monday. I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving, those of you that celebrate. Of course, pretty difficult news over the weekend, and even this morning, the World Health Organization, referring to the new variant omicron of COVID as a very high global risk. And when I hear those words, obviously we get moving at Eurasia Group, a firm very much concerned about that. And indeed, this is in terms of new news about this pandemic that we've all been living with now for almost two years, this is some of the most concerning new headlines that we've seen thus far.

There are some things we know and some things we don't know, there are three things we need to know, if you want to really assess what the omicron risk represents for us and for the world: rates of infection, sickness and mortality and vaccine effectiveness. We only have strong answers about the first, which is we know that this is a lot more infectious as a variant than Delta has been, which itself was much more infectious than the original virus. And that is a very serious problem. I've spoken with a lot of the epidemiologists we know about this over the weekend, they're all extremely concerned about that.

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Don’t jump out the omicron window

With cases, and fears, of the new omicron variant spreading rapidly around the world, we sat down with Eurasia Group’s top public health expert, Scott Rosenstein, for a little perspective on what to worry about, what not to, and whether the pandemic will ever actually end.

Scott, we appear to be in the age of omicron now. On the scale of mild concern to apocalyptic jump-out-the-window panic, how worried should we really be?

Go over to the window, open it, and repeat the following: WE DON’T KNOW YET, BUT VIGILANCE IS WARRANTED. The current signals, which are still early and vague, suggest this variant could be extremely transmissible and that it has mutations that could reduce – but not eliminate – the protection offered by current vaccines. In principle that means we have a variant that could cause a spike in cases and add to healthcare strains in places that thought the worst was behind them.

But don’t forget that delta is still formidable – other variants have come and gone over the last year, unable to out-compete it. That still could happen here, for virological or immunological reasons we don’t yet know. So, the standard public health advice still applies: try to strike a balance between panic and complacency.

Talk a little more about delta. Are we better positioned to deal with omicron than we were when delta first showed up?

This time around it feels like we’re in a better position to understand and manage the threat, in part because Botswana and South Africa have an excellent, proactive genomic surveillance infrastructure that was built up in response to HIV/AIDS, and also because we have gleaned a lot of knowledge from previous variants. Add better treatment, prevalent rapid tests, and much higher vaccination rates, and there are a lot of reasons we aren’t going back to square one because of omicron.

Ok, but it feels like there’s a caveat coming here...

Well, on the other side of the equation is pandemic fatigue, worsening political polarization about the pandemic, and an information environment dominated by some of the dumbest takes imaginable (I’m looking at you, Covid immunity parties). So in addition to possibly more formidable mutations, there are still plenty of obstacles to a sensible, society-wide response.

Looking ahead, are we going to be trapped in an endless Groundhog's Day of new variants? Is there ever really going to be a "post-COVID" world?

I know this is unsatisfying, but yes and no. This virus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future and new variants are inevitable. But repeated exposure to this virus, through vaccination and/or infection, will mean that most people will be at considerably lower risk as time goes on. When exactly? Unclear. All of the herd immunity hot takes from 2020 have proven woefully inaccurate, so speculating with any specificity is probably a fool’s errand.

But many people have already transitioned to “living with the virus” in a kind of “pre-post-Covid” world. For communities, the main question remains: when will this virus stop wreaking havoc on healthcare systems and causing disastrous spikes in mortality? We’re clearly not there yet. And we aren’t going to simply wake up one day and be there. The most likely scenario is that we gradually transition away from an emergency to a long-term disease management posture, with most of us living with the virus most of the time, occasionally having to adjust our behavior during spikes (i.e. boosters, masks, rapid testing, etc) while recognizing the threat to more vulnerable populations.

Anything else that you think is important about this story that isn’t being covered properly?

Public health policy is about tradeoffs. There is rarely a purely good option on the table, it’s almost always a question of making the least bad choice in a highly uncertain and fluid information environment. Omicron is a perfect example of this. We will learn more in the coming weeks. As we do, we’ll need to figure out the best approach to vaccination, travel, indoor congregation, etc., while recognizing that all of these decisions will have some adverse outcomes.

Societies will need to have difficult conversations about tradeoffs, whether they like it or not. Communities and leaders who recognize the challenges of a complex and uncertain environment will do best: they’ll have the fewest number of people either jumping out the window in panic, or otherwise listening to their uncle’s 5G shaman on 48-Chan telling them that snorting bath salts is actually the best COVID protection.

Again, it’s about tradeoffs.

Ok, noted on the bath salts, thanks Scott.


Scott Rosenstein is Eurasia Group's Special Advisor, Global Health.

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Also happening that week:

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

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NATO flag is seen during NATO enhanced Forward Presence battle group military exercise Silver Arrow in Adazi, Latvia October 5, 201

NATO looks to deter Russia, but how? With Russia having massed more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian frontier, NATO says it’s looking to deter the Kremlin from launching a potential attack. But how? Though both the EU and US back Ukraine economically and militarily, the country isn’t a NATO member – and won’t be soon – so there’s no automatic defense treaty in place. And while NATO’s toolkit includes options from increased defense operations, to cyber attacks on Russian targets, to the threat of retaliatory strikes on Russian forces, it has to play the deterrence game carefully: any consequences that it threatens must be both serious enough to scare Russia and credible. After all, Vladimir Putin loves to call bluffs, and it would be a massive fail for the world’s most powerful military alliance to draw a red line only to watch the Kremlin prove that NATO forces won’t defend it. Lastly, a NATO miscalculation could accidentally provoke the wider conflict everyone wants to avoid.

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Who’s politically vulnerable to omicron?

The new COVID variant, omicron, has likely already spread to every continent. Though there are more questions than answers about its characteristics, omicron is already spooking global leaders who had hoped that the era of snap lockdowns and travel bans was a thing of the past.

After almost two years of disruptions to lives and economies, the stakes for world leaders are very high. So, who’s vulnerable to the political fallout from new cases and costly precautions?

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What We're Watching: Omicron sparks fear and restrictions, Honduras' elections, Modi plays politics with farmers, EU calls for migrant pact with UK, Kyiv on alert

The omicron wars: Can we really afford to lock down again? In response to the new omicron variant first discovered by South African scientists, many countries have reintroduced pandemic travel restrictions that we thought were long behind us. Israel and Morocco have banned all foreign visitors, while tougher rules on quarantining and travel have also been enforced in the UK, Australia, Singapore and parts of Europe. Meanwhile, travelers from southern African countries have been banned from entering almost everywhere. Scientists say that it is still too early to say how infectious the new variant is, or how resistant it might be to vaccines. This disruption comes just as many economies were starting to reopen after more than 20-months of pandemic closures and chaos. The new restrictions are already triggering a fierce debate: some say that we are now in the endemic stage of the pandemic and that it is both unsustainable – and economically and psychologically harmful – to keep locking down every time a new variant surfaces. Others, like Israel's PM Naftali Bennett, say we are in the throes of a new "state of emergency," and that we can't afford to take any chances. What do you think?

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Don’t jump out the omicron window

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