Ian Bremmer on the Geopolitical Recession
Yascha Mounk and Ian Bremmer discuss AI, Ukraine, climate change, and how to distinguish between friends and professional acquaintances.
Ian Bremmer, a renowned political scientist, is President and Founder of the Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. His latest book is The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change the World.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Ian Bremmer discuss why Russia’s war on Ukraine has become more difficult to follow, the opportunities that crises offer for global cooperation, and how today's problems are shaping the institutions of tomorrow.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: At the beginning of the crisis with Ukraine, a lot of people were making the point which I think is a fair point—that everybody cares about Ukraine, but people don't care at all about Syria anymore, as with other conflicts.
I always had the fear that this was partially an optical illusion, because in the beginning we did care about Syria, but at some point, way into a very protracted, horrible, bloody war, we stopped caring. Is the same starting to happen with Ukraine?
Ian Bremmer: I think so. But not equally and not everywhere. A couple of points. First, if you're Poland, and you're hosting a couple million Ukrainians in your homes, you feel incredibly connected with them. You feel that the Ukrainians are fighting so that you don't have to. This is existential for them. I think it's changed their worldview for a generation. I think the Germans have a fair amount of that as well—obviously, not as immediately or urgently as the Poles do. But still, it matters.
For the United States, it's very much as you just described it. We feel for the Ukrainians. We sort of identify with them. They look a little like Europeans. We kind of get it, for good and for bad. And we really don't like Putin. But we also like a winner—we like an underdog and we like a winner. You see it in March Madness all the time, we're always rooting for that 16 seed against the 1st. And when they win, we get really excited and we stick with them until they lose, and then we forget about them. And of course, part of this is not just that the war has gone on for a while, but also that the Ukrainians aren't doing quite as well. I think that those things, combined, are going to make it a lot harder for the Americans to continue to take the leadership role.
Let's face it: both militarily and economically, the United States has done the lion's share of the lifting here. And no one really would have expected that before February 24th. I'm very skeptical that the Americans will be able to maintain that kind of support for another 6-12 months, consistently. And the danger here is the opening of a gap between the Americans and Ukraine, and between Biden and Zelensky—that existed in a big way before February 24, when they suddenly got really aligned. And you can see, online, the Russians feeling out the narrative of “No, actually we're winning. Actually, no, we've got the Donbas. We've got the land bridge. We've got Crimea. Ukraine is not joining NATO. That's what we wanted.” There’s an enormous amount of fake news and disinformation in that. But you can feel them trying that on.
Mounk: In any case, the early assumption was that Kyiv would fall quickly. That turned out to be wrong. And as so often happens with conventional wisdom, the narrative flipped. People started to think, “Well, Ukraine is winning this war, and Russia can possibly take more territory, and it's going to be a long, protracted war, probably, but Ukraine is going to hold its own.” In the last days and weeks, that belief has started to crumble a little bit as well, because Russia does seem to be making significant advances. What do you think is a basic range of likely scenarios for coming months or years?
Bremmer: I think that the basic scenarios for the next few months, actually, are pretty easy to define. Because the Russians have not done a full mobilization (as many expected they were going to announce on Victory Day, May 9th) that means that the troops that they have in the field right now are pretty much it for the coming months. They have artillery dominance, for the time being. They certainly have air force dominance going forward. But their troops are picking up territory now because they have way scaled back their ambitions to the Donbas: Luhansk, which they've nearly taken, and Donetsk, which they've taken about two-thirds of at this point. They're gaining about a kilometer of additional territory roughly every day. That's really slow. The Ukrainians have some ability to engage in counter strikes. We've seen some of that in Kherson, which is the bottom of the land bridge, and which the Russians took very quickly. It was the first city they took because it's what allowed the Ukrainians to cut the water supply off from Crimea. It's unclear as to whether or not those counter strikes will be effective. But basically, what we're saying is over the next few months, the Russians will have significantly more territory than they had in Ukraine on February 23rd, but they are largely out of the surrounding regions of Kharkiv. They are not anywhere in terms of Kyiv and the surrounding regions. What they announced as this second phase of the special military operations, as they've described it, is the occupied territories of the Donbas-plus. And they are making moves to annex that formally, including things like who handles your Wi-Fi, using rubles, who licenses your car, even who gives you a passport—which, of course, is completely unacceptable in terms of international law and any potential negotiated settlement with Ukrainians.
That's where we are now, then you have the broader question of what that means going forward. Can we just declare a frozen conflict and go home? And here I am both much more uncertain, and also much more skeptical. I’m more uncertain because the Russians are on the backfoot economically, politically, and geostrategically. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO (the Turkish opposition notwithstanding; I think we get through that) and I think that they join forward deployments of all these NATO troops right along the Russian border across Eastern Europe. Also there is a massive expansion in German defense spending. The enormous level of military support and training and intelligence that the West—that the US—is providing for the Ukrainian government, was the big red line for Putin in the invasion to begin with: “You're not going to be a threshold state for NATO.” Well, they’re a lot closer to NATO now than they were before the invasion. Zelensky is this war hero who is roundly celebrated and visited by all of these leaders across the EU and North America. How is Putin going to be willing to tolerate that one, two, three years down the road? As they rebuild, are they going to take another bite of the apple, like they did in Chechnya? And then what about Russia versus NATO? Are we going to see a reemergence of cyber attacks, espionage, disinformation attacks against NATO countries by the Russians, especially when the Americans have about as many sanctions on Russia as one could put on Russia? Russia is today the most heavily sanctioned country in the world. The Europeans finally got to the sixth round of sanctions with an oil boycott that, by the end of 2022, will amount to 90% of all oil from Russia to the EU being cut off. What's stopping the Russians from now taking the fight more directly—certainly in asymmetric form—to NATO? I think they will.
As much as I could easily say, “We'll have a frozen conflict on the ground in Ukraine, because both sides will have exhausted each other. And there's just not that much more territory to play for in the near term”—I can make that call. But that does not feel to me like a sustainable equilibrium, even near term. I think this is going to get worse over time. I think this is a new Cold War, with elements of a hot war, between Russia and NATO. And it immediately rises to the top of everybody's security agenda. It's not fixable. And that's a big problem.
Mounk: One way of summarizing what you just said, is that it's not going to be a frozen conflict, it's going to be a kind of bubbling conflict where you never know whether an explosion might come out. Russia might take whatever territory it can in Ukraine and the most extreme forms of a hot war will stop. Then we enter this weird, unstable next phase of broader conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and Russia and NATO (with these other forms of warfare). If that’s one likely outcome, what are some of the alternatives?
Bremmer: I do think that's the likely outcome. It's an Iron Curtain. But this new Iron Curtain doesn't divide Europe; it unites Europe, on one side of it, because the other side of it is Belarus, some occupied territories in Ukraine, and Russia. That's about it. The Russians feel even more deeply aggrieved, humiliated, and angry. Putin is still very much in charge. His economy is the first time a G20 economy has ever been completely severed from the advanced industrial democracies. But it's not the end of Russia. We're not making Russia into North Korea. They're still selling to the Chinese, the largest consumer of Russian oil out there. They're still selling to emerging markets all over the world, and of course, Hungary and Serbia, a couple of, if you will, rogue or fairly isolated Europeans.
One less likely scenario is that the new support that the Americans and others are providing to the Ukrainians allow them to start taking back a lot more land and start allowing the Ukrainians even to shell more effectively Belgorod, inside Russia, for example, so that they are able to credibly say that they want to get back territories of the Donbas occupied since 2014. And the Russians, I think, would see that as completely unacceptable near-term, a profound loss of face. And that's when the Russians might consider using chemical weapons. Then gas gets cut off immediately from the Europeans, who are driven into a major recession. German industrials can't function very well. BASF is in bankruptcy. We've got a bigger crisis in the near term as a consequence of that. That's one scenario that I consider unlikely, but possible: more than 5%. It could definitely happen. There's an act of war going on. And you've got a lot of support for the Ukrainians to do more, to accomplish more. And by the way, I met with the entire Ukrainian delegation in Davos: the mayors, the governors, the Deputy Prime Minister, the ministers, a lot of parliamentarians. Every one of them wants to take back all the land that the Russians have taken. And if they have the military capability to do that, they will do it. But the Russians aren't going to let them win. The Russians have ten times the defense spend that the Ukrainians do on an ongoing basis and they have a lot of weapons that, so far, thankfully they haven't deployed into the field, but that doesn't mean they won't. It just means that they don't feel like they've had to. So let's keep in mind that the Russians so far haven't felt pushed into a corner. But that could easily happen.
A second scenario that I consider even less likely is that the Russians declare victory with their landbridge and their occupied territory, and literally say, “Great, we won. That's it. And now we're done.” And now we're going to work with China, the developing world, the Hungarians, and the Turks, and we don't really care that the West has pretended to beat us back because they haven't. We're living in our own disinformation bubble. Nothing about Putin makes me believe that that is plausible.
Mounk: If Putin for some reason ceases to be president of Russia—either because the rumors about his ill health turned out to be well-founded or there is some kind of palace coup—then his successor says, “I want to stabilize things domestically, and I'll declare victory and be done,” is that plausible?
Bremmer: It's more possible. But any successor would likely be someone or a group of someones from the Security Council, who met around the big table the day before the invasion, where Putin said, “How do you feel about the attack?” And they all said, “Yes, Mr. President, we support you,” except the one who said “I'm not so sure.” And Putin said, “You want to reconsider that because you have family, right?” And then he reconsidered.
These are all people who feel fundamentally aggrieved and angered by the West, and Russian nationalism is a very strongly motivating force. I think that the worldview of the next Russian president is likely to be very closely aligned with that of Putin. The risk acceptance may be different. But Putin's risk acceptance hasn't been super high: He just made a big mistake in judgment around this invasion. He thought he was taking a small risk. He was wrong. But once the Russians are already cut off, and you can't find a way to plug back in, then the risks that you're taking from additional fighting against NATO are less. I mean, that is the reality. We are not trying to remove Putin. In every step of this conflict, you have Biden saying, “I want to avoid steps that could create direct war between the Russians and NATO.” Now, I'm not saying that he's going to succeed in averting that. But he's made that clear. And that makes it easier for Putin's potential successors—again, I think it's quite unlikely Putin is going anywhere, but it's worth asking the question—to take a dramatically different position than they're actually taking right now.
Mounk: You have a new book out that I'd love to talk about, called The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change the World. What are those three main crises you're talking about and why should we be worried about them?
Bremmer: The three are the pandemic and pandemics, climate change, and the proliferation of disruptive technologies more broadly, but particularly artificial intelligence. Of course, the book had to be submitted to the press on February 26, which meant that I had about two solid days to also write about Russia and Ukraine. My work for the last decade has involved me talking about the world heading into “geopolitical recession”—a bust cycle where the institutions aren't working. They're becoming delegitimized both domestically and internationally.
This is the first book I've written that says, “Okay, so we're in this geopolitical recession that I've been warning about for ten years now. How do we get out of it?” So in a sense, this is the most hopeful book that I've ever written. But it's hopeful precisely because we're at that time in the geopolitical cycle where solutions should start to present themselves. Since things are starting to break, it's becoming increasingly obvious to all observers that we're not on a sustainable trajectory. We can't keep acting the way we've been acting. So what are we going to do about it?
Mounk: It would be nice to think that geopolitical relations are sort of like the cycle of economy, where we know that what goes down has to come up again. But at the same time, the divide between the West and Russia and China is deeper than it has been at any point since 1990. The polarization within democracies is so deep that, frankly, it's not clear that the United States, for example, is a very reliable partner, because whatever deal you make with Joe Biden may go out the window once Donald Trump could be back in office, in 2024.
Where does the confidence for cooperation come from? What reasons do we have to believe that just because things are really bad right now, they won’t get worse?
Bremmer: Let's stipulate that just because we are now in a geopolitical recession, that doesn't mean it won't become a geopolitical depression. But what I'm saying in this book is I actually see plausible ways to build architecture to come out of this. And I see examples where we're already doing it. But I want to be very clear: geopolitical cycles are long cycles. And the reason they're long, unlike economic cycles, is because the way they come about is that the architecture and the institutions that you've built both inside your country and globally no longer align with the priorities and the balance of power that exists. And the institutions are sticky. It takes a long time to recognize that and for it to play out. By the time you're in a geopolitical recession, and you recognize it, you're usually in fairly deep.
We might be heading into a global economic recession right now, and we have a lot of people very glibly saying it won't be that bad. They might be right. We do have them every seven years and some of them you barely notice. We know what the fiscal and monetary tools are to respond. Everyone kind of rows in the same direction. Geopolitically, that's not true. Furthermore, I write this book not as an idealist. I am suggesting that the United States is a very deeply divided and dysfunctional political system. And you and I can sit and have a conversation about what sorts of things would fix that, but I don't believe it's remotely fixable in the next 5-10 years. Secondly, that's also true for the most powerful geopolitical relationship in the world, US-China. I can talk all day about the things that would improve that relationship. But I don't believe it's plausible in the next 5-10 years that we are going to meaningfully fix the US-China relationship and make it a trusting, positive-sum relationship that both governments are actively trying to build up as opposed to tear down. I start with the assumption that those two things can't be fixed in the context of the timeframe I'm discussing in this book. And yet even given that, I believe that we are going to see different constellations of actors that are going to effectively have opportunities to respond and build new architecture and institutions that will allow the world to be more functional than it presently is. It’s a hopeful book. But it's realistically hopeful.
Mounk: That strikes me as right. And it's interesting that these two or three topics you focus on are ones in which, at least at a high enough level of abstraction, the global community really does have shared interests. This is not about geopolitical power competition. It's about how we make sure that we withstand the next pandemic, or how we make sure that we don't get into a global food shortage because of climate change? And so on.
Bremmer: I think it's also true of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, even though it has not been framed that way at all. It's very clear to me that this is a crisis in which key global actors around the world share basic equities and interests.
Mounk: Well, I certainly hope we all share the interest of not ending up in World War Three. But let's go through this point by point. Why are we at a point of crisis with the pandemic, and pandemics generally?
Bremmer: Well, we're not through COVID yet. It's quite possible that we're going to end up with a new variant that is more severe and leads to more mortality. And we don't yet have adequate tools to be able to respond to that, certainly not in a global way. The pandemic is the crisis that we are failing the most, but let's start with a bright spot. You mentioned before, and you're absolutely right, that in the early days, everyone focused on Syria. And the early days looked like we were going to make a real difference there. In the early days, the response to the pandemic in the United States was very strong, and coordinated. Dr. Fauci—whether you are Democrat or Republican—was a hero for everyone for a period of time. Furthermore, the economic response from the United States was so robust, so bipartisan, focusing not just on the elites and business interests, but on the average American worker and homemaker, that we ended up with an implausible, V-shaped recovery. That was a very positive thing. And, of course, Operation Warp Speed got us where we needed to be on vaccines.
But there was no global coordination. The US-China relationship became meaningfully worse because of COVID, because of the cover-up in China, and then because of the response from the Trump administration, even announcing they were leaving the WHO in the middle of a pandemic, which is pretty much an obscenity. But then the United States, as the election cycle is heating up, no longer thinks this is as big of a crisis. It starts getting politicized. And indeed, the United States is more divided politically because of the pandemic. Now, I would argue that the Europeans actually did take advantage of the pandemic by engaging in an internal Marshall Plan, with massive redistribution of wealth from wealthy countries to poor countries inside Europe. And they took on an EU-wide role in vaccine procurement and distribution that the EU didn't even have the power to do before the crisis hit. It took them longer than the Americans, but it was much more equitable. The EU actually comes out of the pandemic politically stronger and more consolidated than it went in. That’s a fairly big win. So we take away a very mixed set of lessons. But I liked starting with the pandemic, not only because it's our collective life experience over the last couple of years, but because it's so obvious where the opportunities were. It's so obvious that the Chinese did a great job (after admitting that they had a pandemic) in locking everything down, saw that the Americans and Europeans were failing, got way too complacent, and didn't actually take any lessons from how the pandemic and the virus was changing. And as a consequence, here we are in 2022, and now the Chinese have really big problems.
Of the crises in the book, the pandemic does not bring you to an optimistic place. Economically, the lessons are largely positive in the US and the EU. The special drawing rights provided through the IMF to the poorest countries in the world, reducing conditionality for their extended debt, were largely very strong measures. But on the health side, you look at the disinformation, the polarization of vaccine uptake, the failure to get necessary support for COVAX, the lack of infrastructure provided on the ground in Africa, where vaccines were spoiling because you couldn't get them into the arms of people. These are not good lessons.
I'm much more optimistic, as you see in the book, from our lessons from climate. I'm more optimistic from the lessons we've taken from Russia-Ukraine—so far, and then I'm more uncertain. Basically, if you want to put the book in a quick nutshell, you'd say there are these three big global crises that are in front of us right now: pandemic—largely wasted; climate—largely taking advantage of it; AI and disruptive technologies—still too soon to tell. But we better get our act together.
Mounk: Why do you think that we are largely taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the climate crisis? And if, in 25 or 50 years, we say, “Climate is one thing where we really rose to the occasion. In fact, the world is better, more prosperous, more peaceful, because we live on how to deal with the threat posed by climate,” what will that look like?
Bremmer: Climate is very much like Ukraine—it took longer to get there, but today, there's only one side of the argument, which is an extraordinary thing to say. You have 195 countries that come together every year and look at the state of climate change. And they all agree, we've had 1.2 degrees centigrade of warming. They all agree, it's anthropogenic; it's being driven by man, not by nature. It's not some cyclical thing that just happens. So first, there's only one side of the argument to be on.
And secondly, every news cycle is confirming our priors. It used to be the Maldives, “Save the Whales,” hug-the-trees—we pretend to care, but we don’t. But now it's California, Louisiana, Italy, Australia. And I mean, literally every day, there's more and bigger news that confirms our priors, making us feel it's more urgent. It really is the exact kind of crisis that creates the need for international response. And even if the Americans and Chinese don't trust each other—I mean, there's enormous competition happening between the US and China—but that competition is largely virtuous regarding climate change: we see that the Chinese are putting all this money into solar and into electric vehicles, supply chains for lithium and rare earths. And we're thinking, “We can't let them dominate post-carbon atoms, we have to do that! So we're going to invest more as well.” Everywhere you look, there's a motivation to do a hell of a lot more, and it's not just governments.
One of the things about this book that is particularly hopeful is that the post-G-Zero world order is increasingly a post-Westphalian world order. It's not just about governments. It's also about non-state actors as principal actors. The war in Ukraine actually started on February 23rd, because that's when the Russians engaged in cyber attacks against Ukraine. And the funny thing is, the Ukrainians didn't find out about it. Microsoft did. The first front of the invasion was in Redmond, Washington, and Microsoft, SpaceX with Starlink, and Google, I mean, these are literal belligerents in the war. They're primary actors supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia. When you talk about climate change, banks are moving trillions of dollars away from fossil fuels, away from thermal coal, away from oil and gas, and towards ESG-compliant industry. These are actors that have had a hell of a lot more impact in what the global outlook on climate will be than any government. When Donald Trump took the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, it did not matter, because corporate CEOs, and governors and mayors and Mike Bloomberg all were getting together and saying, “We're still going to stick with these commitments. So actually, Mr. President, you are not the primary driver of how power will be applied when we talk about the future of global energy.” All of that makes me feel that the institutional framework that we're building, not just the response on climate, but literally what the global order is going to look like in terms of energy in 20 years time, is going to be far more functional than what we have today. That makes me very hopeful.
Mounk: At some point, renewable energies and other technologies will just be better and cheaper than fossil fuels, and so there will be an extremely strong economic incentive to transition towards them. Is it really just that, in this particular universe, climate change is the crisis where the availability of better technology just makes a bigger difference? Is that what forms the core of hope for the future of our response?
Bremmer: No, I don't think that by itself gets you there. Again, I'm a political scientist; of course, I'm going to see these things in terms of where governance doesn't doesn't work. But the reason that we are now at a point where we can see the scale of technologies supplanting fossil fuels is because a whole bunch of actors decided that they were going to respond against decades of entrenched climate skepticism and climate denialism. We could have been investing at scale in those new technologies for decades; we chose not to. But the crisis got worse, and people paid attention to it. What's important is this is a crisis where the United States and China at a federal level didn't have the ability to call all the shots. If power was just in the hands of the Americans and the Chinese, we would be failing on climate to a much greater degree than we are now. So the diffusion of power to a much larger number of actors—some of whom have different time horizons, some of whom are less constrained and captured by near-term political interests—is a very, very important mechanism that allows you to break through this G-Zero order. Because, again, the political system in the most powerful country can't be fixed, and the relationship between the two most powerful can't be fixed. But these global crises are occurring in an environment where actually the multiplicity of actors is far more diffuse, and it gives you just much more traction to start turning those gears towards a faster solution. I have no doubt in my mind that, given the technologies of renewable energy, no matter what the power structure was, you would eventually get there—but with five or six degrees of warming and the planet would be cooked. That's not what we're now talking about. We're now talking about credible pathways between 1.5 and 2.5, maximum degrees centigrade of warming, that is better than any climate advocate would have expected, even five years ago.
Mounk: I think your contribution here is really to show it's not just about technology; it's technology plus governance. We've had improvements and changes on that that are even less widely known than the falling price of renewables, for example.
Let's make sure to get to the third crisis: what is the nature of the AI challenge? To me, it is not intuitive that there are very clearly shared interests, because the arms race on AI between China and the United States just seems to create competing incentives in a way that the race to build the best solar panels does not.
Bremmer: Let me frame it. When I was a kid, the equivalent crisis we had was the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We were all very worried that this could end the planet as we knew it. We did not want to see countries all over the world with nukes. And we sure as hell did not want non-state actors (terrorist organizations, and others like that) to achieve nukes. Even though the Americans and the Soviets didn't trust each other, and were pointing these weapons at each other, we knew that we needed a robust non-proliferation regime and 80 years later, we've done a pretty good job. Today, we have a range of new disruptive technologies that—whether it's biotech, or lethal, autonomous drones, or disinformation algorithms, cyber weaponry, or even quantum computing technology—I would argue are equally dangerous if they proliferate, as nuclear weapons have been. And yet, we haven’t even begun building the architecture to try to contain them.
In order to solve the problem, we first have to agree on identifying the problem—and we've done this in climate change by putting together an intergovernmental panel on climate change, the IPCC, which is a group of actors from countries all over the world that understand and agree on the ground facts and the science. You at least have to agree on the problem. We don't yet have that. We need an intergovernmental panel on artificial intelligence, and this also needs to be a multi-stakeholder group. Governments need to participate. You need public policy experts. You need engineers. But perhaps most importantly, you're going to need representatives from the technology companies. Because when it comes to disruptive technologies, the tech companies are in many ways more powerful than the governments. They are literally acting as sovereign in the digital space, and that creates a real opportunity, because it's not just about the United States and China and a new technology. These companies are actually creating the algorithms. They are aware of the cyber attacks in a way that the governments aren't. But they’re not used to participating in architecture like this. We have to create it from scratch. I've had extended conversations with [UN Secretary General] Antonio Gutierrez about the necessity of doing this, and he fully agrees that this is an important step to take. Then I think you move towards a global compact on AI. Then you put together an institution that would be the equivalent of the COP summits on climate, which addressed deforestation, methane emissions, biodiversity, and carbon emissions. I would expect you to do the same thing with AI: different challenges that you would identify, and you would create groups of intentional actors with both power and interest to police, deter, commit to not being a part of the problem, and build it out from there.
We are far from resolving this right now. But this is the time to address it, because it's going to get worse. I do believe that there are similarities with climate and Ukraine in the sense that the farther we go along, almost everybody will be on one side of the problem. We don't want this stuff proliferating. It's dangerous. And you're going to see far more headlines that are going to confirm your priors and push you in that direction: “Oh, my God, this is getting much more dangerous. Wow, that was a near miss. Oh, that just affected me.” I do believe that we have opportunities to respond to this crisis, but whether it's going to be adequate, sufficient, or fast enough—that's an open question.
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