Quick Take: US stimulus, vaccine rollout, & Russian cyber espionage

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. It's Christmas week. God, we need it. Great to see you and a little quick take to kick us off this last full week of 2020, getting through on fumes this most, most challenging year. First, obviously happy to finally see a deal come through almost a trillion dollars in relief that is desperately needed in the United States. People complaining that $600 checks aren't going to do very much. And I agree, it's kind of pathetic, especially in the context of what other advanced industrial democracies have been doing for their working populations around the world, but it's better than zero, which is where we were.

Look, my annoyance with all of this is that a trillion-dollar deal was doable three months ago, six months ago. The Republicans in power refused to make it larger when larger was necessary and doable. The Democrats, not in power, were unwilling to compromise or capitulate. And if you're in a weaker position, you need to be willing to bend more. As a consequence of both sides playing politics logically to improve their positions in the run-up to the election, the people that get screwed are the American voters, and particularly those that aren't doing well right now.

And that concerns me, especially because come January, assuming the Democrats don't take both seats in Georgia in the Senate, and it's possible they do, in which case you'll see a lot more stimulus, but if it doesn't, I think it's more the same. And that means you're going to have a working class in the US that's going to be in worse shape, in terms of trajectory, than in most of Western Europe, than in Canada, than in Japan. And for the wealthiest country in the world, the United States, with the markets just chugging along and the top 10% doing very well indeed, that's just not acceptable. And that, that kind of annoys me. So yeah, it's better than nothing, but it's not where we want to be.

Also, in terms of vaccines, we're seeing the rollout. I've seen an awful lot of criticism about all of these members of Congress that are getting their vaccines. I have no problem with the idea that for continuity of government purposes, that political leaders across the board, in the White House, top management in cabinet and in key departments, as well as all members of Congress, House and Senate should have access to the vaccine in the first tranche. I have no problem with that.

But I think leadership, if you are in one of those positions and clearly not vulnerable to the disease yourself, in other words, you're not old, you don't have pre-existing conditions, leadership is saying, "Everyone should take this vaccine. I'm waiting until my demographic comes up," which by the way is what the CEO of Pfizer did. And obviously he could have had a vaccine as soon as it was approved. He chose not to. That's leadership. And I don't like the idea that Marco Rubio or AOC or others have decided not to.

Now, by the way, I actually blame the Republicans more on this, not all Republicans, but those specifically that were unwilling to get tested when they should have, weren't wearing masks when they should have, it shows more hypocrisy. But what I want is not just an absence of hypocrisy, I want leadership and leadership is when you're out front leading by example. And I don't see very much of that in the United States right now on either of these points. I hate to bang on this, but here we are in the teeth of the worst crisis of our lifetimes and the United States is both the most economically unequal and also the most politically divided, and that's really not where you want to be.

The Russia hack is something that, as we learn more, continues to get worse. The technological sophistication that the Russians have in terms of cyber is very great indeed. Russia is not a country doing very well overall. They're nowhere in terms of private sector technology and artificial intelligence, the Americans and Chinese are both light-years ahead of them. Their major sources of strength and wealth are fossil fuels, which are going away, and conventional weapons and nuclear weapons capabilities, which the Chinese aren't investing much in, and that should tell you something about the future. But on cyber, the Russians have invested, and they are truly capable, and they are deploying that against the United States. The Americans are, of course, deploying that against the Russians as well. And the fact that we both engage in that kind of espionage against each other makes the world more dangerous, but also has to make you a little bit more cautious in terms of calling for, "We've got to hit them back. This is war."

It's not war. It would be war if the Americans were trying to actually break the critical infrastructure as they attack it, which is what they did, of course, in Ukraine with the NotPetya virus a few years ago, and which then actually extended well beyond Ukraine and caused billions and billions of dollars of damage. No, this is espionage. This is an intelligence operation. But the Americans need to invest in better defense. And the Americans also need to do a better job of degrading Russian capabilities. And in both cases, I suspect we'd not been quite where we want to be in the US. And that plus a risk acceptance on the part of the Russian government, where they feel like very little is going to be done to respond to them, whether it is their conventional activities in places like Syria or Ukraine, or even Belarus, or it's their cyber capabilities against the Americans against NATO, against American allies, that clearly makes Russia more of a risk than you'd like it to be.

China is still by far the most capable competitor of the United States and is growing in that capacity over time. Russia's capacity to undermine the global order is actually decreasing over time, but they're angry about it, and they blame the United States. And in the near term, that actually makes them a greater risk factor than you would otherwise expect.

So that's a little bit of where I'm thinking right now. Hope everyone is good. Hope you have a great Christmas this week. Be safe, avoid people. Talk to you soon.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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