Special Series: Interview With Ian Bremmer
Emmanuelle Cousin, Hamna Tariq, and Oliver Magnusson spoke with Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group and Founder of GZERO Media, on an array of topics impacting the international security landscape.
The transcript of our interview is below, which has been modified for clarity and publishing purposes.
OM: Do you think the invasion of Ukraine has changed China’s strategy on reunifying Taiwan?
IB: No, I don't think it has. I think there are two things that people are getting wrong about this crisis. First, the presumption that this has an impact on Taiwan. Second, the presumption that massive pressure on Russia means that Putin is likely to be forced out of power. Both of these are very, very unlikely events that have strong internal and intrinsic reasons for why they will not happen, at least not in the near term.
The United States and China have spent decades carefully and thoughtfully building the relationship over Taiwan. Of all the issues out there, it’s the one where the red lines are best understood. In recent discussions between Xi and Biden regarding Ukraine, Biden made it very clear that US policy regarding Taiwan has not changed.
There are some key differences between Russia and China. Putin is in charge of a country in decline, and he saw an opportunity with Ukraine, a moment where he could legitimately believe that he was better positioned to invade than at any other point going forward. He still made a huge mistake, but you can make the argument he's got the energy influence, which will now go down. He's dealing with a US President who led the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. The United States is focusing more on China. Merkel's out. Macron’s agitated about the Americans and AUKUS. For all these reasons, you can make the argument that Putin saw this as his best chance to invade.
In the case of China, the logic is completely different. China's a country that is actually ascendant, and it's just going to become much more powerful over time. It will be the largest economy in the world probably by 2030. It's militarily going to become much more powerful, especially in Asia and around Taiwan itself.The Chinese are way behind the West in terms of semiconductor production - probably two or three generations. And the destruction of Taiwan, or the risk of the destruction of Taiwan, would mean that China would have no access to critical components for all of their major technology sectors. So I think that the level of risk that the Chinese would be taking if they were to invade Taiwan, irrespective of what happened in Russia, would be so high that it would make an invasion very, very unlikely.
If you asked me in 2030 how they might feel, the situation may change. In 2025, Trump could reassume office as President and demonstrate he doesn’t care about foreign policy, or if the US is embroiled in a distracting constitutional crisis, Xi may be willing to take some risk, maybe. But the idea that on the back of this crisis, between Russia and Ukraine, that suddenly there's an opening for the Chinese on Taiwan, I think is really a red herring. I think it's not a significant risk.
OM: So you believe that the US policy of strategic ambiguity is still in place and is enough of a deterrent of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
IB: Very much so. And furthermore, everyone I know in the Biden administration believes what I’ve just told you. In other words, they aren’t worried that Taiwan is suddenly going to become an arena of active conflict between mainland China and Taiwan
OM: On the back of Russia’s increased and sudden isolation from the rest of the West, there's an opportunity for closer Russian-Chinese relations, not only economically but in the digital sphere. There’s talk now of this invasion speeding up the likelihood of the splinternet, where there are two coexisting internets containing vastly different information. Do you agree with this idea?
IB: Clearly, there is now a cold war against Russia, from the West, from the G7, and a little more broadly than that. I think that is a reality. And you are removing the Russians from international information flows.
They've shut down Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, CNN, the New York Times, and the BBC. And they shut down their own opposition in independent media. The move away from a world wide web, and hundreds of millions of Russians no longer have access to free and open information, is obviously negative and is fundamentally a move away from globalization. Russia is the 11th largest economy in the world. That's not huge, but it's not nothing. But that's different than saying that China is going to decouple or be decoupled from the global economy. I don't think that's in the cards. I think it's possible, but I wouldn't say that it's the most likely scenario.
I think that the Chinese have made clear, number one, that they have a very similar worldview to Russia, and that that alignment will prevent them from helping NATO bring the war to a close. Number two, they certainly won't pile on to US sanctions, which the Chinese government itself has said are extraordinary and excessive, and oppose them consistently. But the Chinese government also does not want to become the target of American sanctions. And so I think they will be careful to avoid actively and formally acting in contravention to American sanctions. I think following what Biden has said to Xi Jinping directly, I would be very surprised to see the Chinese government providing significant military capabilities to the Russians.
I still think that over time, the Chinese will welcome closer economic cooperation with Russia. That will include facilitating financial transactions, and will include building infrastructure and buying more commodities from Russia. And as long as they can do this without evading sanctions and bringing on American sanctions themselves, I think that will include providing a technological backstop, including chips, for the Russian military industrial complex and manufacturing production. So, I do think that the decision of the Russians to invade Ukraine will lead to a gravitational shift of Russia towards China.
But the final point I would make is that it's not just that the Chinese don't want to fall afoul of American financial superpower and clout. It's also that the Russian market very imperfectly lines up with the Chinese market. Russia does not have a large population, nor does it build infrastructure. It would take the Chinese a long time to develop that infrastructure even if they wanted to, and it's unclear to me if the Chinese want to.
So I think we have to understand that the principal impact of this invasion is not a realignment of Russia towards China. The principal impact is the devastation of the Russian economy. The principal impact is that Russia is withdrawing itself from the community of nations.
HT: A decade ago, the advent of social media and new technologies was framed as an ineluctable force towards emancipation and democratization, notably in the context of the Arab Spring. Does this still hold today, with the rise of AI and big data?
One of the biggest changes in the world order has been the evolving role of technology: during the communications revolution, technology represented a decentralizing political force while now with big data, AI and surveillance, it is becoming a centralizing force. The same force that was undermining authoritarian regimes and facilitating democratization revolution is now reinvigorating police states, particularly those that are technologically savvy and empowered. It does so by providing them with the ability to monitor their people, to control their communications and to project their own patriotic narrative. China’s idea behind the Great Firewall of China was that the internet disseminated information that could obviously be dangerous to the stability of the Communist Party and thus required active censorship and restrictions. Today, Chinese censorship still exists of course, but the way that they are using technology to leverage control is less about keeping information out and more about driving the conversation themselves, for example through the means of influencers who are aligned with, or part of, the state. By reaching to spheres of civil society, the Chinese government ensures political stability and patriotic behavior.
HT: What has India's role been in this increasingly bipolar world? India seems to have taken a neutral stance when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. India is economically aiding Ukraine, while sustaining cordial relations with Russia and leading QUAD initiatives. How long can India maintain this balancing act?
IB: I don't believe that we are in a bipolar world right now. I believe it's still very much a nonpolar world. It is true that if the Russian crisis were to expand, and if the Chinese government decides, in that environment, to go all in on the Russians, it is absolutely possible we end up in a Cold War with the West against Russia and China. That would be a bipolar world. That is world where the Indian government would feel very pressured to make a choice because they would have a hard time playing ball with everybody. That's not where we are right now.
Where we are right now is that the Indians have their problems with China, and they've shut off a whole bunch of apps, but they still do a lot of business with China. The Indians not part of Belt and Road, they've got security problems, and do massive business with the Russians. At the end of the day, no one's pushing them all that hard to choose a side. They're part of the QUAD. Everyone's happy with that.
I think that there are two big reasons why it is unlikely that we are moving towards a Cold War with China and Russia, which, again, if that were to happen, would fundamentally end globalization, lead to a splinternet, fragment the global economy, and force us versus them behavior everywhere.
There are two reasons why this is unlikely to happen, although it is possible. Firstly, the United States is itself less likely to persist in the view that Ukraine is an existential threat to democracy. The Europeans feel that the Russian invasion is actually a threat to democracy. This changes Europe's defense orientation, policy orientation, economic coupling, you name it. The Americans don't. The Americans see this as a problem for Ukraine. The Americans need to do something about it, but it's not entirely essential to them. So I look ahead to 2024. I think the Europeans will reflect a serious change in policy that will strengthen the EU, reduce populism, and decouple Europe from Russia.
I think the United States will still be supportive of NATO. However, the United States is going to be focused much more internally, much more on its own internal divides, its own challenges, its own populism, and other issues. And if that's true, especially if Trump is running again, I think there'll be a lot of people in Europe that look at the United States and say, I'm not sure that we can really count on a US-led global order for our future. The US is angry with Russia. We need to cut the Russians off, but we can't afford to have that kind of relationship with China. We need to work with the Chinese. So I think that a big part of the reason why a Cold War involving the Chinese is unlikely is because the transatlantic relationship is unlikely to be as cohesive and strong as it appears briefly right now in response to the Russian invasion.
The second reason is because the Chinese, as much as they are supportive of Putin, recognize that they are an economic superpower, they're not a military superpower, and they need access to global markets and they don't want their relationship with Russia to create a requirement for other countries to either side with China or not. That’s why they are more cautious about alienating the Americans, as much as they want to take advantage of a better relationship with Russia. They're not trying to force the Americans to put all sorts of sanctions on China. They don't want that fight.
I think those two things mitigate against the likelihood of two big blocks. If that's true, India's ability to continue to hedge how much of an act of geopolitical role they need to take will continue to exist.
EC: How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent rise in energy and oil prices impacted Iran’s desire to reach a new nuclear deal with the West? And more generally, how is the crisis affecting Iran’s geopolitical calculations?
The Iranians are more likely to want the deal, although they were already keen before the invasion. The ability to produce and export 700,000 barrels a day is significant for their economy. They also recognize that if they don't get back into a deal, they have to either stick where they are on the nuclear side or they have to move forward on their breakout capabilities. If they do the former, they just look weak and decredibilize their resolve, and threat, to acquire nuclear capabilities. If they do the latter, however, the potential likelihood that the Israelis engage in military strikes against them goes way up. Then, there's also the possibility that other powers in the region that have been actively contemplating acquiring their own nuclear programs, like the UAE, Saudi Arabia but also Turkey, decide that they want to move towards proliferation themselves. So, overall, I think that there are good reasons for the Iranians to want to get back into a deal. The fact is that the Biden administration is prepared to accept a deal that basically looks the same as the previous JCPOA, with the exception that it will be shorter, and not “longer and stronger”, as it had initially claimed. Now, the Russians did come in at the last moment and said that because they were being targeted by draconian sanctions, they were going to blow up the deal. This upsetted the Iranians, who recently asked the Russian government for clarification - without success. This goes to show that even if Iran has been a relatively decent ally for Russia, the fact is that the Russians ultimately don't really care when their own interests are suddenly at risk. I think that this alienated the Iranians and made them somewhat more interested in getting back into the deal. So, on balance, I would bet that the deal happens, but I wouldn't bet a lot because these are two governments that don't work easily together and the devil is still in the details.
EC: Over the past decade, Russia has deployed significant diplomatic and military resources in a series of theaters of war, including Syria, Libya and now Mali. Do you see Russia having to disengage from the MENA region in order to prioritize its war effort in Ukraine, where the likelihood of a long insurgency is looming?
Russia made lots of money by exporting large amounts of weapons to these war theaters. Remember that Russia may be the 11th largest economy in the world, but it is the second largest military exporter. It will be interesting to see if the supply chain challenges Russia faces, particularly with regards to semiconductors, mean that it will no longer be able to actually produce at levels that allow exportation. With much of their equipment getting blown up and damaged in Ukraine, combined with production shortfalls, weapon exportations are likely to be compromised - which would be a positive outcome globally! However, I don't have enough visibility into Russia’s military supply chains to make a strong call.