PS21 Report: A Conversation with Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer discusses the future of American foreign relations at a PS21 discussion in July.
Ian Bremmer discusses the future of American foreign relations at a PS21 discussion in July.

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  • American foreign policy too cautious and without a clear strategy
  • US overreaction to 9/11 means it will overreact to other events, but with a different global standing
  • Ultimately, foreign policy leaders must choose a path and stick to it
  • An independent America that is diplomatic but realistic seems the most logical option

On July 14, Project for Study of the 21st Century held a discussion with Ian Bremmer on the future of American foreign policy. Ian Bremmer is the president of political risk firm Eurasia Group and the author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.

Please feel free to quote from this report citing PS21. You can watch a video of the discussion here.

The United States has lacked a clear foreign policy strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, risk aversion and overreaction have dominated American attitudes towards overseas threats.

Bremmer: I still don’t think [the current administration] has a strategy. And I don’t blame just Obama for that. I think it’s really been since the end of the Cold War. I think we’ve been both risk averse, and then over-reactive. And if we had a strategy, it’s those two things. And I would argue that the single biggest damage that’s been done to the United States in terms of our opposition in the world, since the Soviet Union collapsed, has been our massive overreaction to 9/11. So it was self-inflicted.

When I travel around the world and I meet with the foreign ministers of all our allies, they all say, “we don’t know what you guys want. We don’t know if you’re committed to us, we don’t know if you’re engaged.” And that obviously is going to lead to an awful lot of hedging strategies.

Especially in the context of a changing international environment, the self-inflicted harm of massive overreaction may jeopardize U.S. global standing.

Bremmer: At least after 9/11, that massive overreaction which cost so many lives–our own and of course so many more outside the United States–it cost so much money, it was so counterproductive in so many ways, at least that happened in an environment where the United States was very strong, and where the transatlantic relationship was very strong, and Europe was pretty coherent, and the Russians were somewhat oriented to support us, and the Chinese were pretty small. And, most of those things don’t hold as much now. So, I’m very worried about the next thing that we massively overreact to.

And I’m not saying terrorism, it could be cyber, it could be climate, it could be anything, it could be MRSA, I mean who knows? But there will be something and we’ll massively overreact to it, but we’ll overreact to it in a radically different geopolitical position. And I worry that in the absence, in the continued absence of coherent foreign policy strategy, that that’s going to hurt. And it’s not just going to hurt for like a year. That could fundamentally damage the long-term position that we have in the world.

So it’s clear that U.S. strategy has to change. Bremmer offers three distinct foreign policy outlooks that the United States might adopt in an effort to improve its position on the world stage.

Bremmer: The first choice, Indispensable America, is the one that we’re most used to. It’s the idea that America may not want to be the world’s policeman, but if we do not lead, no one else will… Furthermore, it’s not just about that. It’s about assertively supporting American-led global institutions, American-led alliances, and promoting our values internationally.

The idea behind Moneyball is that…instead of focusing on American values, run America more like a corporation. Look at the value that you’re going to get for the American voter on the basis of what you extend internationally. So the U.S. will have a very assertive international policy, but it’s going to really spend the vast majority of its effort in the places where we’re going to get the biggest return.

And Independent America basically says, look. Those first two strategies sound great. But if you are not prepared to actually live up to them, don’t say them. In other words, don’t tell the Ukrainians you’re going to support them when you’re not. Don’t say that Assad must go when you have no actual policy to make it happen. Do not say that ISIS must be destroyed when all you plan on doing is containing it, because you’re going to lose a lot of credibility and you’re going to hurt your alliances. Instead, recognize that you’re going to use 21st century levers of coercive diplomacy, which are much more unilateral in their application.

Although he encourages readers (and politicians) to draw their own conclusions, Bremmer himself chooses Independent America, albeit reluctantly, as the most logical approach for U.S. foreign policy.

Bremmer: If I wanted to be really cute and cheap, and something I don’t say in the book because it’s too cute and too cheap, I would say sort of Indispensable America really appeals to your heart, Moneyball America really appeals to your wallet, and Independent America really appeals to your brain.

Ultimately, I chose Independent America, which I hate. It does not feel in any way attractive to me… [But] if you have to pick a strategy you’re really going to implement over the long-term, not just for two years or four years, Independent looks more feasible to work. Because you can’t just say that you like it, you have to say you’re actually going to adhere to it over time.

The other reason I picked it is a challenge to the people running, and to their advisors, to say “look guys, this is the best I think that you guys can do, please convince me you’re wrong.” And, at the very least, have conversations like this around the country and with the media and the rest, and say, this is our country. Please talk about this, debate. I don’t care which one you pick, I really don’t. I just want us to not refuse to have the conversation, as we have for a long time.

Independent America is not Isolationism.

Bremmer: It’s clear that millennials in this country have been turned off by and disgusted by the [political] process because they’re skeptical when a corporation tells them what to believe. But they don’t believe in a corporation. It’s a transactional thing–you buy a product, you don’t expect anything. But from America, millennials expect more. They believe that we’re citizens of this country and we want our politicians to do more than just sell us a product. We want our politicians to have a level of authenticity and we feel like they’re failing us. That’s the thing I think Independent America would really try to stand up for, and that’s one thing that makes Independent so different from Isolationism, frankly.

The relationship between Washington and Beijing will not have very much to do at all with U.S. policy, and the best we can hope for is that Chinese markets will become so deeply vested in the success of the American economy that alignment is inevitable.

Bremmer: No matter what the U.S. does over the next 10 years, the extent to which the Chinese succeed or fail, and the extent to which we have a problematic or more positive trajectory to the relationship, is overwhelmingly going to be determined on the basis of domestic dynamics in China, not by what we do.

When we say that we want the Chinese to play by our rules, we’re not saying we want them to play by our rules domestically in China because we don’t feel that we can really affect that. Here we go to Hillary Clinton in a classic Moneyball statement, which is, “It’s really hard to lecture your banker on human rights.” I thought when she said that as Secretary of State, that was immensely powerful. I can’t remember the last time a Secretary of State said something that I so intrinsically agree with.

The best way in that context to get the Chinese to really align would be to recognize that you really want the Chinese to be so freaking invested up to their necks in the U.S. that they desperately want us to succeed and like them. And that’s a really important thing, I mean it’s the age old economic–it’s not really new, it’s just an application–that if someone owes you a dollar, it’s their problem. If they owe you a billion dollars, it’s your problem. We really would like China to have it be their problem, that we want them so much at stake with the United States succeeding.

On Russia and Ukraine, Independent America would shoulder the heavy-lifting onto countries closer to the problem.

Bremmer: I think what an Independent view on Russia/Ukraine would be, this kind of sucks, but: it’s Ukraine. And ultimately, we are living in a world where we’re going to have to convince countries that are closer to these issues to do a lot more… Independent America would say, “your problem guys,” and we’ll still do unilateral stuff. If we find someone we can drone, our Special Forces will get rid of them, but ultimately if you want to destroy it, you’re going to have to deliver. The only way you’re going to convince them to really do it, if at all, is when they recognize the Americans aren’t going to do the heavy-lift here.

Despite the mistakes of the current administration, it is important to remember that foreign policy isn’t easy.

Bremmer: I always check myself when I find that people are doing a bad job because it’s really easy to just criticize. And I mean, I’ve got to tell you, when Kerry first came in, he wasn’t the first choice of Obama for Secretary of State. He thought he should be President himself, he did Israel-Palestine because he wanted to do something huge, not because it was doable. He wanted a Nobel for himself…

A lot of people who heard me as I was annoyed at mistakes he made on Egypt and on Syria, and in lack of communication with the administration around Russia and Ukraine, were really surprised when I came out and gave him as much credit as I have on Iran. And it’s because yeah, try to put yourself in this guy’s position. How many weeks was he spending in Vienna trying to get this done? He actually had an Omani minister working backchannel to get him with the Supreme Leader in Iran, which very few people could do. And I mean, at the end of the day, yeah I would’ve liked a few extra things for the Americans on the nuclear side. But, when you really try to put yourself in his shoes, and that’s incredibly hard for any of us to do–myself included–I have to say it seems a good deal done. It’s a win multilaterally, it’s useful geopolitically. And I have to applaud Kerry for doing it.

The absence of one huge-looming enemy could be what is responsible for some foreign policy failings that the U.S. has experienced.

Bremmer: You know, tremendous feeling of safety, and then suddenly having that shaken. The incredibly short time-horizon that we have, both as very individualist entrepreneurial Americans in the market cycle driven by capitalism—every quarter we want our returns, we never relax, right? Take it easy, more sustainable, more balanced, right? That’s got to be part of it. Part of it is an electoral cycle, as well, that makes it just more difficult in the absence of one huge-looming enemy, which we had the Soviet period. The Brits have much healthier response to how one deals with a terrorist threat. They have other problems. They have a panopticon that’s developed in their country and that’s an issue too. We’re getting there, but that’s technology, not just the U.S.

Bremmer also talks about his role as an American in highlighting political situations around the world.

Bremmer: I own, I don’t run it thankfully, the largest political risk outlet, right? And I think that being an American in that position is actually an active problem. It’s a challenge in that I’m trying to talk about the world, and I’m highly cognizant of the fact that that puts me in a cultural context of exceptionalism. It makes people around the world not trust that I’m actually saying things that are sort of politically “objective” analysis. Another Westerner that is going to tell us the way we should be running ourselves. So, I’m highly aware of that. And then I write this jingoistic claptrap… And I’m writing it because I’m concerned about the position that American foreign policy has.

Report by Rhea Menon. Transcript by Amanda Blair and Christopher Stephens.

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