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December 07, 2021
Are the United States and China now locked in a new form of Cold War? Their governments behave as if they are.
But Bremmer isn’t buying it. He’s not predicting that Washington and Beijing will become more cooperative with one another, but that both will be too preoccupied with historic challenges at home in coming years to wage a full-time international struggle.
In Washington, the main worry will be for America’s broken political system. US politics is becoming even more tribalized as TV and online media target politically like-minded consumers with hyperpartisan news coverage. Widening wealth inequality fuels the fire by separating white and non-white, urban and rural, and the more educated from the less educated. Deepening public mistrust of political institutions will fuel future fights over the legitimacy of US elections.
Beijing’s burden centers on how to extend decades of economic gains while moving away from a growth model that no longer works, as higher wages in China and more automation in factories elsewhere cut deeply into China’s manufacturing advantages. China is still a middle-income country. To reach the prosperity level of wealthy nations, it needs 6-7 percent growth for another 20 years.
But China must spend less in coming years to keep giant, deeply indebted companies afloat and more to care for the largest population of elderly people in history. And its leaders must accomplish this at a time when China’s people expect ever-rising levels of prosperity from their government.
The domestic distraction of US and Chinese leaders will create new opportunities for European, Japanese, Canadian, Indian and other political and business leaders to contribute toward international problem-solving. But other governments aren’t the only new players stepping into this power vacuum.
Technology companies are fast becoming important geopolitical actors. We’re entering a world in which economic winners and losers, election outcomes, and national security will depend on choices made by both governments and by the world’s big tech firms.
Bremmer calls this a “techno-polar moment.”
The idea is simple but transformative: Just as governments make the laws that determine what can happen in the physical world, tech companies have final authority in a digital world that’s becoming both more expansive and more immersive.
The biggest tech companies will establish sovereignty by defining the digital space and its boundaries, the algorithms that determine what happens within that space, and the “terms and conditions” that decide who gets to operate in this world.
For skeptics, Bremmer poses this question: Who will do more to influence the outcome of next year’s US midterm congressional elections: The President of the United States or the CEO of Meta? According to Bremmer, since the vote will be influenced by both real-world rules changes and the online flow of information, the answer isn’t obvious.
How will tech companies try to expand their power? Some will behave as “globalists” by trying to reach consumers and influence politics everywhere.
Others will act as “national champions” by aligning with individual governments and their goals.
Still, others will behave as “techno-utopians,” companies that expect historical forces and tech innovations to help them replace governments in important ways.
The relative success of these models over the next decade will decide how government and tech companies share power over the longer-term – and whether democracy or autocracy will have the upper hand.
What’s to be done? “Think adaptation, not surrender,” says Bremmer. Steps can be taken to limit the sometimes negative influence of tech companies in the political lives of democracies. But just as climate change can be limited but not avoided, so we must understand and adapt to a world in which governments and tech companies compete for influence over our lives.
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:
I want to talk about Russia. And you will, of course, be hearing all of the stories about Russia gearing up for a war with Ukraine, taking more territory. The Americans saying don't do it, but not setting up any clear red lines. What's actually going on here? Well, it's worth going back to the last that Biden and Putin met with each other. That was in Geneva back in mid-June. And you'll remember that Biden snapped at the end of the meeting and the press conference. He was asked by someone, "How come you trust Russia, you trust Putin?" And he said, "I don't trust Putin. We'll see what happens over the coming months." Now at that point, Ukraine was not the big topic that was being discussed.
This was on the back of the attacks, the cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline in the United States, clearly coming from criminal gangs in Russia, operating with the full knowledge of the Kremlin. And the big takeaway from the meeting, from the summit, from Biden was telling Putin, "look, you need to put a stop to this because if you don't, they're going to be direct consequences." A stop to what? A stop specifically to cyberattacks emanating from Russia, even if not directly from the Kremlin against critical infrastructure in the United States. Not espionage, which the United States does as well, of course. Not attacks, malware attacks against noncritical infrastructure, which is an annoyance, which the American would like to put an end to. But which Biden was not saying was a red line, but specifically critical infrastructure. And indeed, it's been several months now, almost six months and there has been movement. There has been some progress.
It's pretty clear that the Kremlin gave some form of instruction to these organizations. Let's hold off. Let's cool it on those sorts of attacks. And we indeed haven't seen them at the same degree at the same level that we did back in June. But now we're talking about something very different, which is Ukraine. And indeed the Russians have significantly expanded both their exercises as well as their troops in place across the Ukrainian border. And they've also given some notice to the United States directly and to NATO more broadly that the present status quo is unacceptable. They want some sort of an agreement between NATO and the Russians on what is and is not acceptable behavior. And indeed, tomorrow Biden and Putin are going to be meeting directly to talk about this. What's going to happen? Are we likely to see war between Russia and Ukraine breaking out?
I think no, but I also think there's a lot of danger short of that. There are a lot of other hybrid activities that Russians could indeed take. So why are the Russians doing this? I think there are two reasons.
The first is because indeed, even though Ukraine is not a member of NATO and will not become a member of NATO because the United States is unprepared and other NATO countries in Europe are unprepared to offer defense assurances, that they would protect Ukraine if their territorial integrity was breached indeed, as it already has been in 2014. But also there has been an increase of NATO support for Ukraine in recent months. We've seen more NATO training of Ukrainian troops on the ground. We've seen more extended exercises of NATO, as well as overflight, right up to the Ukrainian border, all sorts of ships going through the Black Sea.
And we've also seen Turkey, a NATO member providing significantly more military equipment to Ukraine, specifically drones. We're also seeing NATO countries talking about increasing ammunition available for the Ukrainians. All of which is sort of unacceptable for Russia. I mean, the same way that Iran is seen as a nuclear threshold state by the United States and Israel, they're deeply uncomfortable with it because it means they're getting closer to having nuke. Increasingly Russia sees Ukraine as a NATO threshold state. And they really want to put a stop to that right now. So that's one thing that's going on. The second thing that's going on is that Putin is in a stronger position right now. Energy prices are higher. Angela Merkel is leaving office. She's the one that was personally responsible for building the Minsk accords and helping to ensure that there was strong economic pushback against the Russians for the territory that they had taken through these little green men in southeast Ukraine. Olaf Scholz will not have the same personal responsibility for that.
Nord Stream 2, the pipeline's been completed. In principle that allows the Russians to bring gas from Russia to Europe and avoid bypassing Ukraine. So for all of those... And of course we've had the pullout in Afghanistan and a Biden administration that is not particularly interested in taking on global policeman roles for second and third order interests of the United States, of which Ukraine is obviously low priority. So that's why we are where we are right now.
What's going to happen tomorrow? Look, I think Putin's going to get the measure of Biden. Biden will probably talk specifically about the hard intelligence the US has about the Russians preparing for some kind of broader invasion, which the Russians will surely deny. And the Russians will demand some kind of guarantees that NATO is not trying to build up their influence in and with Ukraine. They want NATO backing off from the Russian borders.
We'll see if there's any willingness to engage in further diplomacy. I expect the outcome of the call will be in agreement of the two sides, whether it's just the US or whether it's more broadly with some NATO states to engage ongoing in talking about what the NATO-Russia relationship should look like, what is acceptable, what isn't acceptable. And that would certainly reduce tensions if it occurs.
If that doesn't occur, if the US and the Russians bluster at each other and just point fingers and they're deeply unsatisfied, but no additional diplomacy, then I think that there's much greater likelihood of further hybrid activities. Remember, the NotPetya cyberattacks against Ukraine that took 1% off of Ukrainian GDP. I could easily see the Russians doing much more of that, expanding disinformation campaigns. I could certainly see even the possibility of Russia formally recognizing the territories in southeast Ukraine that are presently breakaway and occupied by these little green men, these informal Russian forces that the Russians have denied any influence over, saying they have to provide direct protection for these territories.
What I don't think is going to happen is formal Russian intervention to take more territory in Ukraine for a few reasons. One, extremely difficult to hold. These are territories with Ukrainians that are much more opposed to Moscow rule than the territories that they've already taken. Number two, because there would be very significant economic retaliation from the Americans, from the Germans, from the EU, from the UK. You'd see sovereign debt sanctions. You would see the Nord Stream pipeline not become operative, none of which the Russians want. And then number three, it would be deeply unpopular in Russia itself.
The problem is there's no reason the Russians would engage in a full formal war/intervention into Ukrainian territory. That's not how they operate. They use hybrid warfare. They undermine other countries' sovereignties in ways that they can plausibly or even implausibly deny. Makes it harder for the Americans or NATO to establish red lines and say, well, now we have to respond because it's clear that the Russians did X, Y, and Z, especially in an environment where the Europeans are divided, where many Europeans have a lot of economic dependence on the Russians, others don't. The United States has very little interlinkage. It all makes it hard.
So tomorrow's discussions are actually quite important. They will have implications for the relationship between the two countries going forward. And indeed Ukraine's sovereignty has the potential to be more undermined than it has been even back in 2014, but war, actual war between the two sides, which is what's driving most of the headlines, that I don't see happening anytime soon.
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November 29, 2021
WATCH LIVE: Join us Dec 6 at 8 pm ET to hear Ian Bremmer's unique perspective on the most pressing geopolitical events shaping politics, business, and society in our "GZERO" world.
Ian's State of the World speech will examine:
- Are the US and China engaged in a cold war?
- How powerful have tech companies become on the global stage?
- Is there hope for the world to unite to fight climate change and other shared challenges?
A Q&A session with Ian follows, moderated by Julia Chatterley, anchor and correspondent at CNN International. Tweet your questions for Ian to @gzeromedia using the hashtag #SOTW.
Watch live at https://www.gzeromedia.com/stateoftheworld
Ian Bremmer: State of the World 2021
December 6, 2021 8 pm ET
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Click here to watch Ian Bremmer's State of the World 2020 speech.
Also happening that week:
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What We’re Watching: Biden and Putin chat, Scholz takes the reins in Germany, Remain in Mexico returns, Pécresse enters the French fray, Suu Kyi learns her fate
December 06, 2021
World War III or nah? US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to speak by phone on Tuesday, as the crisis surrounding Ukraine gets dicier by the day. Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops along its border with the country, and the US is warning that Putin is gearing up to invade soon, though the underlying intel isn’t public. No one is quite sure what Putin’s up to with this stunt. Is he trying to pressure Kyiv into moving ahead with the lopsided (but probably best possible) Minsk peace accords of 2015? Or is the Kremlin seeking a broader NATO commitment not to expand further? Or does Putin actually want to invade Ukraine? Either way, Biden has his work cut out for him. Putin is clearly more comfortable risking lives and money to preserve a sphere of influence in Ukraine than the West is, so the US president has to be careful: don’t set out any red lines that NATO isn’t willing to back, but also don’t push the situation into a broader war that no one (ideally) wants.
Exit Angela, enter omicron. Social Democrat Olaf Scholz will officially take over this week as German Chancellor, leading a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. His government has already laid out plans to accelerate Germany's transition to carbon neutrality, to bolster European sovereignty in the face of rising challenges from Russia and China, and to rein in fiscal spending – not only in Germany but across Europe – as the pandemic recedes. But one immediate challenge is that the pandemic isn't actually receding yet. Scholz will take office just as cases are surging. The current 7-day average of new cases in Germany is more than twice as high as the previous peak which was a year ago, before vaccines were rolled out. With the evidently more transmissible omicron variant already spreading, Scholz has said he favors making vaccines obligatory, even as blowback against mandates has been rising in Europe.
"Remain in Mexico" policy is back. The US and Mexico several days ago reached a deal to restart the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires that migrants seeking entry to the US wait south of the border while their asylum applications are processed. The policy has forced thousands of asylum-seekers to spend months – or even years – in rundown Mexican border towns where crime, rape, and kidnapping for ransom are rife. As part of the new deal, unaccompanied minors will be allowed to wait for asylum rulings in the US, and the Biden administration has agreed to improve human rights conditions at the border, including by providing migrants with COVID-19 vaccines. Upon coming into office, Biden pledged to take a more "humane" approach to migration than his predecessor, but in August the Supreme Court ruled that he had to follow “Remain in Mexico.” He has also been criticized by rights groups for failing to undo the Trump administration’s use of a public health rule to keep migrants out. The new agreement between Mexico and the US comes just days after Washington pledged to help Central America deal with the root causes of migration.
France’s right-leaning election. Valérie Pécresse, a minister in former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, won a primary on Saturday to lead France’s conservative Les Republicains party in next year’s presidential election. Pécresse is the first woman to head the party of Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac, and is hoping to reinvigorate a party that’s become mostly irrelevant in French politics as anti-establishment sentiment grips the electorate. But Pécresse – a mainstream conservative – has her work cut out for her in an election where far-right firebrands Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are holding their own in the polls. President Emmanuel Macron is still five points ahead of Le Pen, who is currently in second place, and would reap about a quarter of the vote if the April elections were held today. But Pécresse’s entry into the race could cause some trouble for Macron. He has tried to paint himself both as a political outsider and as a middle-of-the-road liberal but he is broadly seen as a wishy-washy ideological chameleon. Macron could now be forced to veer further to the right to attract voters who might resonate with Pécresse’s tough-on-immigration and pro-business agenda, particularly amid fears that the omicron variant could force Macron to re-impose unpopular lockdowns.
Suu Kyi's first verdict handed down. On Monday, a Myanmar court sentenced deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi to four years in prison for breaking COVID rules and incitement. Suu Kyi faces 11 charges in total, including corruption and leaking state secrets – which could land her in prison for more than 100 years. The UN has said the charges are a sham meant to secure the military junta’s hold on power. To date, the trial has been closed to the media, while Suu Kyi’s lawyers have also been banned from making public statements. Suu Kyi, who is seen by many in Myanmar as the only politician that can steer the country’s full democratic transition, has not been seen in public since the coup. Since then, the military has been accused of human rights violations for cracking down on peaceful anti-junta demonstrators, resulting in at least 1,200 deaths. Just this past weekend, the military rammed vehicles into a group of demonstrators, injuring dozens. The UN has warned that armed groups are training in jungles to overthrow the military, and that the country is on the cusp of full-blown civil war.
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December 06, 2021
US government reps will boycott Beijing Olympics. The US announced Monday that American government officials will not attend the Beijing Winter Olympics. China responded to reports of the diplomatic boycott by saying that the move is a “naked political provocation” and an affront to China’s 1.4 billion people. For months, the Biden administration has toyed with whether to skip the Beijing Games because of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Washington, however, has not banned US athletes from competing, which would be a major escalation at a time when US-China relations are at their lowest point in years. Still, from Beijing’s perspective, the move is humiliating and a blow to its prestige on the world stage, particularly if other countries follow suit and pull their representatives, too. Beijing vowed Monday to hit Washington with “countermeasures” if it goes ahead with the diplomatic boycott, though it’s unclear what the CCP might whip up as payback.
Is this the end for Juan Guaidó? Venezuela’s once-potent opposition coalition is on the verge of breaking up after Julio Borges, the leader of a prominent anti-regime faction, quit the group and is calling for new leadership. That means the bell is tolling for Juan Guaidó, who has led the opposition since January 2019 and is recognized as the country’s interim president by the US. But under Guaidó’s leadership, the opposition’s message has failed to resonate with ordinary Venezuelans, many of whom see the group as an infighting mess that hasn’t followed through on its promise of alleviating ordinary people’s economic hardships. Reports that they mismanaged state assets held abroad haven’t helped. Meanwhile, the regime of Nicolás Maduro has benefitted from opposition infighting, as demonstrated by gains made during recent local and regional elections.Is Syria becoming a narco-state? Powerful cronies of President Bashar al-Assad are raking in billions of dollars from selling captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine similar to speed that's being mass-produced by a division of the Syrian army for export to wealthy Gulf nations, Europe, and even faraway Southeast Asia. According to an exposé by the New York Times, the Syrians went Breaking Bad years ago in order to get cash as the civil war raged and sanctions piled up. But now captagon has become the country's top export, at a time when the amount of the drug captured globally has risen 18-fold over the past four years to more than 250 million pills. So, what can be done about Syria’s narco turn? Not much, it seems. The Syrian government is unlikely to crack down against itself or against Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group that helps smuggle captagon out of the country via Lebanon. (If you're interested in the history of the drug and its early links to ISIS, check out this insane episode of the Underworld Podcast.)
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A harrowing debt default, cinema-worthy corruption cases, and a controversial attempt to change the constitution all provided the backdrop for Hichilema Hakainde’s election as Zambia’s president earlier this year. Despite attempts by incumbent president Edgar Lungu to rig the vote, Hichilema won a landslide victory by promising to boost jobs and crush corruption. But does Hichilema, a businessman-turned-politician, have what it takes to fix the faltering fortunes of Africa’s second-largest copper producer, a country that was once one of the continent’s fastest growing economies?
We sat down with Eurasia Group analyst Connor Vasey to find out how things have gone during the new president’s first few months in office.
Who is Hichilema?
The self-described “cattle boy” grew up tending to his family’s livestock, won a scholarship to study at university, and then went on to have a successful career in business. He served as the head of the local units of multinational accounting firms Grant Thornton and Coopers & Lybrand and currently owns interests in some of the country’s largest ranches, beef suppliers, and tourism firms. Hichilema later turned his hand to politics and became the leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND) in 2006. Yet a lack of political experience, and his aloof demeanor, worked against him both in the party and with the public, and he failed in his first five attempts to win the presidency.
So, how did he win this time?
A slow process of alliance building and developing his political savvy helped Hichilema transform the UPND from a regional party from the south into a competitive player on the national stage. Following a particularly narrow loss by Hichilema in the 2016 presidential election, authorities arrested him on dubious charges of treason after his motorcade failed to give way to Lungu’s. He was jailed for four months, but the experience gave him the air of a political martyr, which he put to good use on the 2021 campaign trail. But many Zambians were already ready to support him, after six years of a Lungu government that had presided over slowing economic growth, massive kickback schemes, defaults, and growing authoritarianism. An attempt to amend the constitution to give more power to Lungu's party and family failed – but only narrowly.
What are the biggest challenges the new president faces?
The country’s economy was already dragged down by low international prices for copper and other commodities when the government began defaulting on its debts to foreign creditors last year. This took the country’s currency from K8/$1 when Lungu entered office to K22.6/$1 when he left it. Combined with the fallout of the pandemic, the economy shrunk by 2.8% in 2020.
So Hichilema must now walk a tightrope between creating an economic plan that reassures creditors – by cutting back on ‘unnecessary expenditures’ like popular fertilizer and power subsidies – but does not strain the goodwill of the voters who elected him. Unfortunately, his aloof demeanor has come to the fore once again and many Zambians lament the lack of communication from their president on the country’s direction. Many of his reforms will take time to bear fruit in the form of increased investment and business confidence that can improve standards of living in the country. Yet Hichilema faces the challenge of high expectations. He was elected on a platform of change and Zambians are hoping for a quick reversal of their economic fortunes.
What has he done so far?
Given his lack of experience in government, Hichilema has primarily been focused on understanding the scope of the problems he faces and on dismantling the patronage networks put in place by the former ruling Patriotic Front. Still, his appointment of respected economist Situmbeko Musokotwane as finance minister and steps taken to unblock talks with the IMF on a lending program and with international creditors on a debt restructuring program have helped to stabilize the country’s currency. He has also taken steps to improve relations with members of the business community who were alienated by the corruption and unpredictable policy making of the Lungu years, including the companies that operate the country’s all-important copper mines.
What are Zambians saying?
Efforts by the new president to appoint more women and representatives of different regions to important positions have won praise following the preference given to people from the North and East under Lungu. But grumbling has already started about a perceived lack of progress on Hichilema’s two most important campaign pledges of reviving the economy and putting an end to corruption.
In contrast to the hyperactive style of the previous administration, the new president has attempted to bring a slower, more deliberative approach to governance and decision-making. Though the president remains popular, he should keep in mind that many of his supporters in the last election embraced him more because of their disgruntlement with his predecessor. Zambia is a country known for closely fought democratic transitions – if Hichilema loses the country’s support he could be on the raw end of that arrangement in 2026.
Connor Vasey is an Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.
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Hard Numbers: Indian Kalashnikovs, Evergrande stock crashes, Gambian president re-elected, UK citizenship law
December 06, 2021
600,000: Russian President Vladimir Putin met Indian PM Narendra Modi in Delhi on Monday. The two leaders inked a few bilateral defense deals, including one for India to produce more than 600,000 Kalashnikovs to replace old local military rifles.
82.5 million: Evergrande missed a final deadline to pay some of its foreign investors $82.5 million on Monday, putting the ultra-indebted Chinese property developer at imminent risk of default. Authorities are scrambling to prevent the panic from spreading to the broader financial sector.
53: Adama Barrow was re-elected as president of The Gambia with 53 percent of the vote. The result is bad news for former strongman Yahya Jammeh, who was hoping to return from exile in Equatorial Guinea after refusing to concede defeat to Barrow four years ago.9: Under Clause 9 of its draft new Nationality and Borders Bill, the UK will be able to strip dual nationals of British citizenship without warning. The proposed law will also ban undocumented migrants from seeking asylum, and criminalize rescuing refugees in the English Channel.
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