Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week on World In :60:
Is Russia waging a gas war with Europe?
They certainly are. You have Nord Stream 1 back online after scheduled maintenance, and first was 40%, now 20% of normal volumes. Technical problem, that's what the Russians say. But of course, in reality it is because they know that the Europeans are moving to diversify away from Russian energy as fast as possible and the Russians are not letting them do it on their timeframe. Winter's coming and Russia's best opportunity to undermine European leaders and get a whole bunch of Europeans saying, "What are you doing? Why are you sanctioning the Russians, you're hurting us. We are the ones that are facing the economic pain as a consequence. We don't want you to." A bigger peace movement is if they make life impossible for the Europeans during winter this year. So, I mean, frankly, I'd be surprised if you have any Russian gas go into Germany, come winter this year. The Germans are aware of that possibility and they are very concerned about it. By the way, if the worse comes to worst you're talking about a 2a to 3% contraction of the EU economy. It's a big deal, but it's not a disaster. Next year will be easier for the Europeans.
Is the world prepared to combat the growing global monkeypox outbreak?
I wish we weren't talking about another major outbreak. We're talking about tens of thousands of cases already around the world, and we don't have enough vaccines, even though we do have vaccines for it. We don't have enough monitoring, even though we've just been through a global pandemic. The good news is the vaccine works. The good news is it's very rarely lethal, and it's not leading to huge numbers of hospitalization. So I'm not anywhere close to as worried about monkeypox as we have been about COVID. But still this is absolutely a serious disease and it is not one we are anywhere close to containing, hence the World Health Organization's statement over this week.
How is the UK race going to become the next prime minister?
Well, I mean, it's going in orderly fashion. No one is going to claim that it was rigged or that it's unfair or that you should stop the steal. No, one's saying that in the United Kingdom; no one said that in France during parliament elections. No one said that in Germany, when Scholz became chancellor. Only the United States among advanced industrial democracies; maybe we should learn something from that. But more importantly, we've got two serious contenders, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Rishi kind of more the technocrat and Liz Truss more the populist. She certainly would not be the favorite in terms of EU-UK relations, though she does have more of the conservative base on her side. Look, it's going to be a closely run event. Could go either way from my perspective at this point. But what we do know is that Boris Johnson very soon will be no more.
Yang Shen has lived in Shanghai for more than 10 years, but it wasn’t until recently that the 36-year-old writer noticed something very particular about the city: the birds.
While they sing freely outside Shen’s window, Shanghai’s 26 million human residents are still cooped up in their homes, part of the world’s largest COVID lockdown.
Most governments around the world have already relaxed their pandemic restrictions, but China has doubled down on its zero-COVID policy, using harsh lockdowns and quarantines to stifle even the smallest outbreaks. Dozens of Chinese cities are now under lockdown as omicron variants circulate. By some estimates, nearly half of China’s GDP is currently affected by some form of restriction.
That has sent shockwaves through the global economy, further tangling snarled global supply chains. But the effects are felt most keenly in China itself.
In Shanghai, the recent lockdown began in early April. At first Shen was optimistic.
“As a writer you have to stay at home and focus,” she says, “you need isolation. But it turns out there's a big difference between ‘I don't wanna go out’ and ‘I can't go out’.”
Most Shanghainese are permitted to leave their homes these days only for mandatory COVID tests, and those who test positive are whisked off to quarantine centers. Throughout China’s most populous city, residents compete for deliveries of food and other staples via wholesaler apps that only serve groups of 50 households or more.
The local economy, meanwhile, has been crushed. By one measure in April, a grand total of zero cars were sold — more than 26,000 fewer than in the same month last year. Across China, retail sales have plummeted, and factories have ground to a halt.
After more than six weeks of this, Shen says she and her husband’s biggest fear is something worse than getting sick.
“We're not scared of COVID, we're scared of starvation.”
That concern is shared by millions across the city, particularly in poorer neighborhoods that can’t compete with large residential compounds like Shen’s to buy food in bulk.
Even Shen and her husband have had to cut back on daily meals, and they’ve gone to daring lengths just to find little variety in what they eat. Every few days, Shen says, they steal down to the courtyard of their residential complex at dawn to swipe cherries from the trees in the garden. They use them to make bread and jams.
But flouting lockdown rules can cause trouble with nosy neighbors and the local Communist Party committees.
Birdsong and Stolen Cherries: Lockdown Life in Shanghai | GZERO Worldyoutu.be
Camilo Cadena, 33, a Colombian-American artist who has lived in Shanghai with his partner for the past five years, recently took a stroll in his compound’s courtyard during a brief period of looser restrictions. Within minutes, a neighbor had sent his partner a grainy photograph of him from a high-rise balcony, with a message: “Isn’t this your fiancé?”
Cadena, who works as a consultant for public art projects in Shanghai, has decided to leave the city. Doing so requires signing a pledge that he will not return to the compound where he lives. It also means saying goodbye to close friends remotely.
“There is a bit of survivor’s guilt,” he says, “knowing that leaving is not an option for many people.”
That’s because the government has recently banned foreign travel for most Chinese nationals in a bid to control the spread of the virus.
Public health experts question whether zero-COVID can even work. World Health Organization chief Tedros Ghebreyesus recently said the policy simply isn’t sustainable given how contagious omicron is.
So why is the Chinese government sticking to it, despite such immense social and economic costs?
Public health is one part of the story. Vaccination rates among the elderly — the most vulnerable to the disease — are low. Fewer than half of Chinese over the age of 70 have been fully vaccinated and boosted. And even for those who have, there are doubts about the effectiveness of China’s homegrown vaccines, which are the only option for most people.
A recent study in the journal Naturewarned that without any restrictions in place, China could run the risk of more than 1.5 million COVID deaths in the coming months.
So far, the government reports a grand total of fewer than 15,000 for the entire pandemic. That’s certainly an undercount, but it’s still far below the death rates in most Western countries.
But politics are also at play, according to Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He says that President Xi Jinping has a personal stake in ensuring the success of zero-COVID, especially as he prepares to be elected to an unprecedented third term as Communist Party boss this fall. That means local and regional officials all the way down the chain of command have an incentive to follow suit as well.
To back away from zero-COVID now, says Huang, “would be admitting policy failure” not only at home but globally. Beijing’s authoritarian approach is meant to compare favorably with the more disjointed strategies of Western democracies.
In recent days, Shanghai officials have said they aim to end the lockdown by June, now that the official case count has fallen to zero outside of the official quarantine centers.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the city will be able to hit that target, as even a brief resurgence of cases could lead to fresh lockdowns.
But for Shen Yang and her fellow Shanghainese, June can’t come soon enough.
“Every time I post anything on my social media, I say something like, ‘Okay, summer is coming. When can I get out of this prison?’"
This week, the head of the World Health Organization warned that China’s “zero-COVID” policy, which has left tens of millions of people locked inside their homes, is not “sustainable.” The Omicron variant is too transmissible to effectively isolate, and the cost of China’s lockdown strategy, for the country’s economy and the mental health of its people, is too high, warns the WHO.
But … also this week, a report from the peer-reviewed international scientific journal Nature Medicine warned that lifting the zero-COVID policy without taking a series of specific steps to mitigate the damage could create a COVID emergency on a scale the world hasn’t yet seen. More than 1.5 million would die within six months, according to the study, and demand for intensive care would be nearly 16 times greater than China’s hospitals can handle.
Limiting damage from a lifting of restrictions, according to the report, would demand the widespread availability of recently approved antivirals, more accurate testing, a lot more booster doses, and the vaccination of many more elderly people.
Analysts say a change in approach is highly unlikely. According to Michael Hirson, a China expert at Eurasia Group, China isn’t likely to take any major step away from a “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy of mass testing and strict quarantines to contain any outbreak of the virus. “For now, they’re more likely to tighten than to loosen,” says Hirson.
The stakes are growing, and not just for China. The uncertainty weighing on the entire global economy has many sources. Post-COVID damage to global supply chains and the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine on food and fuel prices are major contributors. But the effect of COVID lockdowns on the world’s second-largest economy, including on the more than 26 million people who live in Shanghai, the world’s busiest port, is also depressing growth expectations and stoking global inflation. By one estimate, dozens of cities responsible for about 30% of China’s economic output and a combined 290 million people (88% of the total US population) are currently under full or partial lockdown.
When measured strictly by the number of COVID deaths, China’s policy has been a big success. It has reported fewer than 14,000 COVID-related deaths. Even if the true number is significantly higher, that compares very well with the one million deaths that have now been reported in the US, a country with less than a quarter of China’s population. But the speed with which Omicron can move through a society that has no access to the world’s most effective vaccines and boosters – and little of the immunity that comes with much greater exposure to the virus – could generate an unprecedented emergency inside China over the next few months.
The economic, mental health, and potential political downside to sticking with an uncompromising lockdown strategy, however, comes at a cost. China’s government is encouraging already deeply indebted companies to continue borrowing to boost sagging economic growth, compounding a problem that can inflict long-lasting damage to China’s economy. The stresses of isolation are flooding mental health hotlines with calls. Angry messages are lighting up Chinese social media.
It’s all happening at a moment of historic political sensitivity in China. This fall, President Xi Jinping hopes to choreograph a Communist Party Congress that will set aside practices of the past to grant him an unprecedented third term as China’s leader. This week’s warnings make clear that Xi faces tough choices: stick with a policy that imposes pain on tens of millions of people and takes a large bite out of China’s economy or publicly shift course and adopt an uncertain new strategy.
China’s president is well aware that neither choice can guarantee that China avoids a health and economic crisis at the worst possible political moment.
This week, the World Health Organization’s governing body agreed to begin multinational negotiations on an agreement that would boost global preparedness to deal with future pandemics. The WHO hopes that its 194 member countries will sign a treaty that helps ensure that the global response to the next pandemic is better coordinated and fairer.
The specifics remain to be negotiated over the coming months – and maybe longer – but the stated goal of those who back this plan is a treaty that will commit member countries to share information, virus samples, and new technologies, and to ensure that poorer countries have much better access than they do now to vaccines and related technologies.
Crucially, backers of the treaty insist it must be “legally binding.”
Let’s start with the most obvious obstacles to success. While many European governments support this effort, the US and China will want to weaken its provisions, though for different reasons.
In Washington, ratification of any treaty depends on a vote of the US Senate, a body historically unsympathetic to any plan that requires a surrender of US sovereignty to an international body like the WHO.
In Beijing, China’s tense relations with the WHO over access to COVID-related information suggests that officials won’t commit to provide outsiders with unfettered access to suspected sites of outbreaks, to politically sensitive information, or to the Chinese citizens who have that information.
Neither government wants to look like THE obstacle to progress on pandemic preparedness, so both will participate. But Washington and Beijing will each work to produce an agreement that lacks the “teeth” that proponents insist a treaty will need.
Even if the US and China were to agree to a document that’s legally binding, how much confidence can anyone have that rules will be observed in an actual emergency or that those who resist can be held to account?
This problem surely sounds familiar. We live in a GZERO world, one in which the most powerful states don’t share political values or priorities.
Everyone can agree that cyber security is a common problem, but the major powers won’t accept a truly binding set of rules on the use of cyber-weapons.
Governments of the world’s leading economies agree on the need to reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” as quickly as possible, but the US, EU, China, India and others don’t agree on how to share the sacrifices needed to reach that common goal.
Add the historically large and growing number of refugees crossing boundaries in every region of the world. Few governments are willing to shoulder the economic costs and domestic political risks that come with accepting responsibility for their fate. The inability to manage borderless problems like climate change and global inequality of opportunity means the number of migrants will continue to grow in coming years.
Unfortunately, every country now faces these urgent threats that aren’t bound by borders.
None of this means that pandemic conventions and climate summits are a waste of time. Incremental progress toward multinational problem-solving is far better than none at all, and today’s failures can point governments toward more effective, and easier-to-reach, solutions next year.
These gatherings themselves add public pressure on governments to take actions they might not otherwise take. They also bring together private-sector leaders, scientists, activists and others who can offer solutions in some areas that governments won’t go.
The bottom-line: We should never expect grandiose political promises to be kept, but nor should we ignore the reality that incremental progress and new ideas can take on a life of their own.
World leaders are gathering this week in New York for the 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA) and Climate Week. This is the first time many leaders are seeing each other face-to-face since the Covid-19 pandemic began more than 18 months ago.
Top of the agenda is halting the spread of the pandemic amid rampant vaccine inequity as well as accelerating action to curb climate change, just six weeks before watershed climate negotiations are set to begin at COP26 in Glasgow—a summit described as the world’s “last chance” to avert climate catastrophe.
But while leaders are surely happy to travel and meet in person again (me too!), this year’s meetings are likely to be a wash. The challenges facing the world are daunting, with all signs pointing to continued deadlock on the most important fronts. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has noted:
The pandemic has demonstrated our collective failure to come together and make joint decisions for the common good, even in the face of an immediate, life-threatening global emergency. This paralysis extends far beyond COVID-19. From the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response has been too little, too late.
Ahead of this week’s convenings, I sat down with my good friend Antonio to discuss the state of the world for GZERO World. While he is hopeful for a renewal of global solidarity before it’s too late, he warned that countries are “sleepwalking” into an abyss when it comes to climate.
“In our biggest shared test since the Second World War, humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough,” he wrote. But judging by the (lack of) response to vaccine inequality, we may have already chosen—and not wisely.
Challenges cut from the same cloth
What does vaccination against Covid-19 have in common with greenhouse gas emission cuts?
Both help the whole world regardless of where they happen. Economists call these policies "global public goods." All countries are better off when every country does more, and the global benefits far outweigh the costs. No country can succeed on its own.
In the case of vaccines, because the virus knows no borders, immunization anywhere reduces the risk that dangerous vaccine-resistant variants will threaten even vaccinated populations everywhere. The world is only as safe from Covid as the least vaccinated country is. But many countries, mostly poorer ones, are unable to secure enough doses to vaccinate their populations.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrives at the podium to address the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly. (Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)
In the case of climate, no country can be excluded from the mitigation benefits of other countries’ emissions reductions, and no one country can limit climate change alone. This gives rise to a "free-rider problem": every country has an incentive to free-ride on other countries’ mitigation efforts, reaping the benefits without incurring the costs. And also from the standpoint of each individual country, doing more may only make sense only if all others are doing more, because its effort may be wasted otherwise. This results in a chronic undersupply of mitigation that leaves everyone worse off.
When it comes to vaccines, the solution is straightforward: rich countries can donate excess doses and money to countries that need them, making the world safer for everyone (including themselves). The IMF estimates that this would cost only $50 billion (less than 0.3 percent of US GDP), in exchange for roughly $9 trillion in benefits.
Climate change mitigation is trickier, because it depends on all major emitters being willing and able to change their own domestic practices, policies, laws, regulations, and investments. According to Guterres, it used to be that the US could solve most issues by itself, but that is not the case for climate change. Because of the growing share of emissions of China and emerging economies, US engagement is necessary but is no longer sufficient to solve the problem.While rich countries can afford to decarbonize and their emissions are actually declining, most developing nations (which account for two-thirds of global emissions but only responsible for about 20 percent of historical emissions) lack the fiscal space and access to long-term finance needed to meet the upfront costs of decarbonization.
The only solution is for rich countries to subsidize the transition to net-zero carbon in developing countries. This is not only mutually beneficial, but also fundamentally fair: since developed nations grew wealthy by polluting the world, why should they ask poorer countries to suppress their living standards to clean up a mess they created—and are still actively contributing to—without compensating them for their trouble. As Guterres told me, “We need [developing countries] to make an extra effort; but for that extra effort to be possible, we must have a lot of support from the developed world.”
Bottom line: The world can’t curb climate change without the help of developing countries, and developing countries can’t—and shouldn’t have to—do it without unprecedented financing from advanced economies.
Vaccine nationalism is a harbinger
Guterres called for increased “solidarity” to spur decisive action, and I agree that more solidarity would be great. But I’ll settle for enlightened self-interest. Paraphrasing Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the G7 that we should expect climate action, but from their own self-interest.
But if something as immediate and catastrophic as a deadly pandemic couldn’t get countries to take the long view for their own sake, what makes us think climate change will? After all, while decarbonizing the world is also a win-win for everyone, the immediate costs will be much larger than the $50 billion required to vaccinate developing countries—and we haven’t been willing to shell out even that.
The latest IPCC report stated that there’s still time to avoid the worst consequences of climate change if the world gets its act together immediately, but there’s little indication that the richest countries are willing to do what it takes. The United States still subsidizes its coal industry and continues to expand offshore drilling. China promised to stop building coal-fired power plants abroad but is still doing it at home. Perhaps most importantly, industrialized nations have thus far failed to deliver on their pledge to commit $100 billion a year for climate action in developing countries—itself an insufficient target. Despite Joe Biden's promise to double the US contribution, Boris Johnson puts the odds of meeting this promise by COP26 at 60 percent.
Biden and Guterres meet on the sidelines of #UNGA76.(Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Deep down, though, the binding constraint is not money. Studies show that rather than hurt growth and jobs, decarbonization would yield tens of trillions of dollars in direct economic gains. Amid exceptionally low interest rates, rich countries are able to tap into abundant pools of cheap long-term savings and channel them to productive investments. If they don’t, it’s not because they can’t.
Politics, politics, politics
So why do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot?
Guterres chalked it up to a “lack of trust” between developed and developing countries. Certainly, mistrust doesn’t help. But I disagree that this is the main culprit.
Rather, the hurdle is baked into the way our democracies work. Voters are short-sighted creatures who reward their leaders for immediate gains and punish them for immediate losses, ignoring the long-term net consequences of decisions—and indecision. Global policymaking is shaped by this incentive structure: world leaders intent on re-election choose climate inaction because the costs of mitigation are more immediate than the benefits, even when the latter are much larger. By the time the consequences of inaction materialize, they will be long gone from office.
As long as politicians optimize for re-election and human beings are, well, human, this problem will remain intractable. But leaders can alleviate it by frontloading the benefits of decarbonization (green jobs, shiny new infrastructure!), while ensuring the few but loud losers of a green transition are compensated (in the case of fossil fuel workers) or isolated politically (in the case of oil companies).
Only once large majorities of the public in rich countries buy into climate action will leaders have political capital to pay for “solidarity” abroad. Until then, we’ll keep sleepwalking (to the sweet sound of BTS).
Should people get COVID vaccine booster shots? Not yet, says the World Health Organization, which is pushing for rich nations or those with access to jabs to hold off until at least the end of September so all countries get to fully vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations before some jump ahead with boosters. But the WHO's call has fallen on deaf ears in nations like Israel, France, Germany and Russia, which are already planning to offer boosters, in part to better protect people against the more contagious delta variant. What's more, mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are recommending supplemental doses for the same reason. The problem is that, beyond the obvious moral imperative for equal access to vaccines, if the rich continue hoarding jabs while vaccination rates stay low elsewhere, the virus will continue to thrive — and mutate into new, potentially even more infectious variants that sooner or later will reach every corner of the planet.
Flareup on Israel-Lebanon border: On Wednesday, Israel launched airstrikes against militants in several Lebanese villages in response to a flurry of rockets fired this week from Lebanon into northern Israel. Hezbollah, Lebanon's powerful Iran-backed militia and political party, denied responsibility, and analysts said it was likely the work of smaller Lebanese-based Palestinian outfits. But then on Friday, Hezbollah got involved too, firing a barrage of rockets into northern Israel, and Israeli forces struck back, targeting "terrorist infrastructure." The exchange of fire is one of the biggest cross-border escalations in several years (Hezbollah and Israeli forces last fought an all-out war in 2006). Lebanese President Michel Aoun, for his part, said Israel's response had violated Lebanese sovereignty, while Israeli PM Naftali Bennett shot back that Israel would hold the Lebanese state responsible for any rockets launched from its territory, no matter who is firing them. The escalation came as Lebanon marked the one-year anniversary of the Beirut port explosions. Thousands of Lebanese flocked to the streets this week to demand justice for the victims of the blast and to vent their outrage over the country's deepening financial and economic crises.
Mexico takes on the gringo gunmakers: The Mexican government this week filed a lawsuit against US gun manufacturers, arguing that their commercial practices have contributed to Mexico's sky-high murder rate by making it easy for illegal weapons to flow south of the border. According to the suit, some 70 percent of weapons illegally trafficked into Mexico come from the US, and those firearms were involved in about half of the country's roughly 35,000 yearly murders. Mexico says US gunmakers' marketing campaigns designed to appeal to Mexican buyers are part of the problem, but the American gun lobby says the lawsuit is preposterous and that it's up to Mexico to keep guns from crossing its borders or falling into the wrong hands once they do. US gunmakers enjoy broad immunity from lawsuits like this within the US, but this is believed to be the first international suit of its kind. Mexico is seeking $10 billion in damages.
WhatsApp sues India: First it was TikTok. Then Facebook and Twitter. Now WhatsApp is the latest target of India's crackdown on online free speech. The social media messaging app, used by hundreds of millions of Indians daily, has filed a lawsuit against the Indian government to stop a new law that would require WhatsApp to trace users' encrypted messages. The law grants Delhi sweeping powers to block or remove any content that threatens national security, public order, or whatever the Indian government considers to be decency or morality. WhatsApp argues this would violate privacy rights, and is willing to fight it out in court. So far, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been successful in stifling online criticism of his government, especially over its handling of the country's ongoing COVID crisis. But WhatsApp's immense popularity among Indians gives the Facebook-owned tech firm considerable leverage, and at a moment when his approval rating has already hit all-time lows, Modi may fear a backlash if the messaging app suddenly goes offline.
Another COVID origins probe: Did it come from a bat or from a lab? The origins of COVID continue to perplex. But after the WSJreported earlier this week that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology got sick with COVID-like symptoms in November 2019, the Biden administration directed US intelligence agencies to re-investigate the origins of the disease. Barely three months ago, a joint China/WHO probe "concluded" that the virus was most likely transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, but it did not entirely rule out that it could have come from the Wuhan lab. Moreover, many countries questioned the findings because the report was co-written by the Chinese, who have an interest in deflecting blame. Will the new report establish more credibly whether the virus was in fact leaked — accidentally or on purpose — from the Wuhan lab? Biden's spooks have 90 days to find out.
Mob boss vs Turkish president: Sedat Peker, a convicted Turkish mobster who lives in exile, has threatened "all-out war" on the government of strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But it's not with guns, it's with... YouTube. Peker has recently racked up more than 30 million views with videos clips where he sits in what look like various Dubai hotel conference rooms — shirt open to the navel and gold chain blinging — methodically spilling the beans about all kinds of corruption, extra-marital affairs, murders, mob ties, drug trafficking, and other malfeasance by members of Turkey's ruling AKP party, government officials, and even Erdogan himself. The president has defended his officials, but Peker, who is planning to release several more videos, says: "A dog that doesn't know how to bark will call a wolf home." We have no idea what that means, but it sounds like he means business. Special bonus: can any readers tell us what's scribbled on the whiteboard behind Peker in this photo? Let us know here.
When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.