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Candid Discussions: Ian Bremmer on a Disengaged U.S. Foreign Policy


Ian Bremmer

In a wide-ranging discussion with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association, Dr. Ian Bremmer discusses what he considers to be a disengaged foreign policy by the United States. On April 10, 2014 Dr. Bremmer will be speaking at the Foreign Policy Association on the world’s biggest political risks.  Dr. Ian Bremmer is the founder and president of Eurasia Group, world’s largest political risk consulting firm based in New York. He is also a global research professor at New York University.

You’ve been emphasizing what you believe to be a decline in U.S. foreign policy as Washington retreats from some of its traditional commitments to some of its key allies. Which countries do you think feel cast aside by a retreating U.S. foreign policy and what should they be expecting going forward?

Most of America’s allies around the world  are questioning the level of U.S. commitment — even America’s closest partners, countries like Japan, Canada, and Israel. But for this top tier of allies, their relationship with the U.S. is not going to change very much, which means that they don’t have many obvious places to turn.  In fact, it’s the next tier of allies that could shift the most: countries like Brazil, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and South Korea. These are countries with sufficient alternatives that allow them to change course in response to recent American policy.

In Germany, for example, the friction is largely due to the Snowden episode that has been a severe hit to the relationship.  South Korea has growing concerns that the U.S. is not spending as much time and focus on Asia, delaying the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). All of these allies have their unique reasons, but they all have to do with the perception that the United States is losing interest in pursuing a committed foreign policy.

I don’t think President Obama’s speech last week in Brussels is going to change that. After all, this was a foreign policy speech from a president that really doesn’t want to do foreign policy.  He understands that the American public prioritizes domestic policy. It was a speech that was not about the world order so much as it focused on democracy, history, and key points about Ukraine.

But Obama is having a hard time keeping the Europeans with him because they’re much more exposed to Russia. The Germans, the British, the French, the Austrians, and the Cypriots have a lot of exposure.  Accordingly, the Americans have had a hard time convincing the Europeans to spend on NATO and military support and adopt a tough line on Russia.

President Obama finished the speech with a much more broad brush, value-laden, almost philosophical approach. This was not a speech that laid out a grand plan, or a grand strategy for the United States in foreign policy — nor was it really organized and intended to ensure a strong level of support for American allies.

Shouldn’t the U.S. have a more dynamic and engaged foreign policy at a time of what appears to be a sustained economic recovery?

Well, there are lots of reasons that the U.S. does not want to be involved in foreign policy issues. As I’m sure you know, the foreign policy perspective of the U.S. right now is absolutely away from doing more. There was a recent poll from Pew research that showed the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since the poll began in 1964. The fact is, Americans are tired of expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that didn’t seem to benefit the U.S. very much.

The North American energy revolution means the U.S. increasingly doesn’t need the exposure to the Middle East. And American allies are not doing very much; the Europeans have said they don’t want to play a bigger role.  On top of this, many other countries around the world are more powerful today than they were before — China in particular. China, along with the other BRICS countries, abstained on the U.N. resolution regarding Crimea.

Obama says the international community voted with the U.S., but that’s not true, it’s advanced industrial democracies, though not as much as we’d prefer. The rest of the international community is not with the U.S. They want to sit on the sidelines. So all of this makes Americans wonder why they should have to lift an undue amount of the burden.

Given Russia’s sense of insecurity in Eurasia, should we expect pre-emptive measures by Moscow in Central Asia aimed at curbing Western influence, and could any Russian moves in this region be in coordination with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which would practically mean with Beijing’s approval?

As of now, the Chinese want to be on the sidelines, while the Russians have been very interested in using the SCO as a counterweight to NATO, which is not new. The Chinese are very reluctant to do that because they are working to develop a good relationship with the U.S. and keep an appropriate balance.

And it’s certainly possible that the Russians think they can use the Chinese. Putin doesn’t have many options here. We need to see how bad this gets, how much escalation occurs over Ukraine, how tough relations get between Russia and the U.S — and even between Europe and Russia. Certainly, I could imagine Russia-China relations getting interesting to watch, but for now I don’t see anything on that front. The United States has been effectively out of the Kyrgyz republic, closing shop on our base there.

The Russians are dominant in Kyrgyzstan. On Kazakhstan, the U.S. doesn’t have huge interests: it’s mostly the Russians and the Chinese—that holds true for much of Central Asia. Yes, many Russians live in northern Kazakhstan, but Nazarbayev has a perfectly functional relationship with Putin right now. And if you look at the Caucasus, the Armenians are largely supportive of Russia.

If there are places that are interesting, the most important of them by far is East Ukraine, beyond that would be Kiev, and beyond that we can start talking about the possibility of Russians being interested in places like northeast Estonia. But I still think that 90 percent of the game right now is really about Ukraine.

Do the developments in Ukraine suggest that the U.S. might be on the cusp of an about-face in its pivot to Asia? And regarding the developments in Ukraine you recently opined that “Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive.” What’s your take on the Western sanctions against Russia and their effectiveness in bringing about a change in Russia’s strategic calculus?

Well, the Administration has not publicly focused on the pivot to Asia since Kerry became Secretary of State. Kerry doesn’t focus on Asia — it’s not his background. The key figures that did — Timothy Geithner, Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell — are gone. So we don’t really have a foreign policy team that thinks Asia is where they want to spend all their time. Clearly, Kerry is prioritizing Middle East issues like Israel-Palestine and the Iran nuclear negotiations. As with the crisis over Ukraine, for all intents and purposes, you could say there’s not really a pivot to Asia anymore.

Hillary Clinton has come out publicly and increasingly distanced herself from the Obama administration on foreign policy, but that is clearly because she’s running for president in 2016 and she’s concerned that policy is not going well.  She also believes the Obama administration is not following through on her signature policy: economic statecraft. So I think that’s what we’re seeing there.

With regard to the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia, I don’t believe that there’s any possibility that sanctions are going to change Russia’s view of how important Ukraine is to them; if anything, tough sanctions by the Americans might lead Putin to take a harder line, because he believes that there ‘s no point in trying to cooperate. Clearly Putin’s popularity has only shot up in Russia — it’s over 80 percent right now because of the Ukrainian crisis.

The vast majority of Russians believe that the West has mistreated Russia on many issues, such as NATO enlargement, pipeline diversification, and now Ukraine — and Putin has been very effective at tapping into that sentiment. We’ve seen a lot of commentary recently from people like John McCain and Bob Gates that are critical of Obama, saying that we need to take a tough line and support Ukraine militarily, but the problem is that Obama has been setting these very tough policies that actually the vast majority of the American people are not prepared for and don’t want to stand up to.

I think the United States has clearly lost a lot of credibility on Ukraine. It is reminiscent of Syria, where the U.S. established a policy it was not prepared to follow on.  The U.S. has consistently said that our policy in Syria is that Assad must go. Well not only is Assad not going, but he’s actually winning the war, so the Americans were very ineffectual.

Now we set a policy in Ukraine, which is “Russia must leave Crimea.”  That is just not going to happen. Why does Washington continue to set policies that essentially say, “you’re not going to do this, or else”? That is not an effective way to engage in foreign policy. And remember, everyone’s a loser in Ukraine right now, with the exception of China and Iran, for different reasons. The Russians are losing influence in Ukraine, they’re taking steps that are going to hurt their economy and they’re hurting their capacity to influence Ukraine over the long term; the Americans lose massive credibility; the European economies take a hit; and of course the people who are hit the worst are the Ukrainians.

You’ve made the assertion that the current negotiations with Iran are one of the rare bright spots in Obama’s foreign policy. Do you think the P5 + 1 will reach a comprehensive agreement with Tehran before July? If they did, what would be its impact on regional dynamics?

I think there’s a good chance it’s going to get done, slightly over 50 percent, because the U.S. has built a broad coalition that supports it and even if the Russians are troublesome, everyone else wants it done. The sanctions have really hit the Iranian economy; the Iranian president definitely wants these sanctions lifted. Rouhani knows Iran has got huge opportunities in the region if they do. I do believe that thus far he has committed support from the Supreme Leader, who still might change his mind, it’s still risky because these are difficult negotiations with very serious issues. I think the U.S. deserves credit — the Obama administration and the Bush administration deserve credit. Kerry deserves credit. I think everyone’s done a good job here.

The real question is, what happens should a deal be completed? The big thing is that everyone wants to invest in Iran; the Iranian economy takes off like a shot. Here the Saudis are the losers; the oil price goes down as more Iranian oil comes online for international markets over the ensuing 12 to 18 months.  As oil prices go down, the Saudis face an Iran that is more powerful and directly opposes Saudi Arabia on every issue that matters to the Saudis such as Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen; an economically empowered Iran is horrible from the Saudi perspective. So that’s where we are there with Iran and where we could be, if a permanent deal is reached.

Recently the Government of Saudi Arabia, along with those of Bahrain and the UAE, withdrew its ambassador from Qatar over Doha’s regional support for the Muslim Brotherhood. What do you make of the apparent cracks within the GCC?  Does this suggest that the Saudis are feeling increasingly insecure?

For the Saudis, they need to get Qatar in line with their regional policies before there is a deal with Iran. But the Saudis have not cut their economic relations with Qatar, the Emirates have not cut their economic ties to Qatar, so all is fine from a business and trade perspective. But don’t get me wrong, there are cracks within the GCC, but the purpose of this was to show the Qataris that the GCC is serious about it; they want Qatar to shut Al-Jazeera and reduce its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the Qataris will pay attention and do something about it. And the Saudis are showing Obama that they’re serious about these regional matters.

In the face of revelations of the NSA infiltrating the networks of Huawei Technologies, the giant Chinese telecom equipment maker, could China and the U.S. reach a mutual understanding or an agreement on cybersecurity issues?

I hope there will be an agreement in this area. It’s more likely. Because of the NSA, the Americans will not be able to criticize the Chinese the way they had before, but having said that, you’ve got to understand that the Chinese are very much in an asymmetric battle; it’s mostly offense with very little defense. The Chinese are winning the war against the U.S. in the corporate sector, targeting the intellectual property of American companies.

The Americans don’t fight that effectively. The U.S. spies on Huawei, but the U.S. does not do that to promote American companies; on the other hand, the Chinese do similar corporate espionage to promote Chinese state enterprises. However, the U.S. does state-to-state cybersecurity and has the upper hand in this area; their capabilities are much greater. So it’s still very difficult to actually align those two together, but I think there will be more transparency and more willingness to talk between the two countries.

The U.S.-China relationship has improved in part because the U.S. economy is doing well and the Chinese are willing to bet more on it. The U.S. is certainly happy to have better relations with China and it’s putting a fair amount of effort into enhancing Michelle Obama’s trip. But on cyber, I think it goes to the core of national security interests and the Americans are not going to come out and say what they’re doing, so it’s going to be a bit difficult on that front.