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How Ian Bremmer Cultivates an Air of Expertise

How Ian Bremmer Cultivates an Air of Expertise

Less than a week into this century of disenchantment, a well-informed observer assessed the new acting president of the Russian Federation, one Vladimir Putin: “True, he is no liberal democrat, domestically or internationally. Under his leadership Russia will not become France. The government will, however, reflect the Russian people’s desire for a strong state, a functioning economy, and an end to tolerance for robber barons—in short, a ‘ruble stops here’ attitude.” Ian Bremmer’s conclusion was clear: “Russia could do considerably worse than have a leader with an unwavering commitment to the national interest.”

Bremmer was certainly on sure footing when he proffered this early Putin take. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University in 1994 with a dissertation titled, “The politics of ethnicity: Russians in the Ukraine.” On top of that, his co-author was Boris Nemtsov, a young, connected reformer with a bright political future in a Russia seemingly intent on liberalization. If Putin’s ascent promised good things for his nation, Nemtsov would know. But Nemtsov would morph into a prominent critic of the Russian president even as dissent proved increasingly dangerous. On February 27, 2015, he was shot several times in the back as he and his girlfriend crossed the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge after an evening out, the Kremlin watching impassively from the banks of the Moskva River. Putin condemned the murder, but his involvement has always been widely assumed.

The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change the World

by Ian Bremmer

Simon and Schuster, 272 pp., $28.00

It would be a cheap shot to fault Bremmer too much for holding a mostly favorable view of Putin over 20 years ago. Predictions are hard, and two decades is a very long time—especially these last two. The issue is that, while unfailingly projecting a learned assuredness, Bremmer has been wrong about so much ever since. As Aaron Timms put it in a blistering piece for The Baffler four years ago, Bremmer is “the man with his finger just off the pulse,” whose “only good predictions are the ones he’s perhaps most fond of: predictions with a 100 percent probability of success.” On podcasts and news shows where he is a frequent guest, Bremmer is treated as a sober oracle. In 1998, he founded the Eurasia Group, a prominent political risk consultancy firm. “We provide our clients with both qualitative and quantitative tools to anticipate and manage political risks, and to profit from them,” Eurasia’s website explains. “Figuring out how politics affects your business is what we do—all day, every day.” As the embodiment of the Eurasia Group’s consulting hive mind, Bremmer is an authority on all things.

But he doesn’t always know what he’s talking about. Days after far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated as president of Brazil, just over three years ago, Bremmer blithely asserted that Bolsonaro posed no institutional risk to Latin America’s largest nation. Since then, of course, Bolsonaro has repeatedly brought Brazil to the brink of constitutional crisis and is threatening not to recognize the results of the 2022 election should he lose—all things that Brazil-watchers warned about even before Bolsonaro’s victory. To support this sunny talk, Bremmer pointed to the presence of Judge Sergio Moro in the Bolsonaro administration. Bremmer described Moro as the “cleaner than clean … supreme court justice who actually impeached [former President Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva].” But Moro never served on Brazil’s supreme court—he was never even nominated—and Lula was never impeached. In fact, the supreme court is not the entity tasked by the Brazilian Constitution with removing a sitting president from office in the first place.

Without a handle on Brazil’s political culture, Bremmer got point after point completely wrong (I commented on it in horror at the time) but with such certainty that the uninformed listener is none the wiser. Bremmer does not give listeners a sense that Moro, in fact, was already a highly controversial figure in Brazil, having allied with Bolsonaro after overseeing the imprisonment of his chief rival on dubious grounds. Bremmer can’t honestly be expected to master Brazilian history, constitutional law, and its various ongoing political scandals. He is not, after all, an expert on Brazil. But that is exactly the problem: Bremmer weighs in on a wider range of subjects than anyone could master. Convincing his audience of his bottomless intellectual breadth is his stock-in-trade.

In his eleventh book, The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change the World, Bremmer is at it again. The question at the core of the book can be summed up like this: What if the shock doctrine, but good? The shock doctrine, of course, refers to Naomi Klein’s 2007 book about how powerful private interests exploited unexpected crises to impose neoliberal policies throughout the world beginning in the 1970s, treating “disasters as exciting market opportunities.” Klein writes, for instance, of how in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, public schools in New Orleans underwent a frenzy of privatization, driven by lobbyists and libertarian true-believers. This type of predatory policymaking, she argues, had a long history, from Argentina and Chile in the 1970s to China in 1989 and Russia in 1993—where natural and manmade disasters hastened a dive into the vagaries of free markets.

By contrast, Bremmer wonders if crises can spur governments to positive collective action. “Today, the nations and peoples of the world don’t face an alien menace; we confront common existential challenges we ourselves created. In that sense we are interdependent—and that is the foundation for the greatest opportunity in human history” (italics in original). Like Klein’s cast of diabolical neoliberals, Bremmer sees an opening in otherwise dispiriting circumstances. If the shrewd exploitation of crisis helped install the neoliberal global order that has wrought so much damage around the world in recent decades, as Klein argued, Bremmer hopes the preemptive recognition of crises to come can produce seismic changes in governance before it is too late.

The first of the titular transformational crises looming on the horizon in Bremmer’s telling is another global health emergency. Climate change is the second. The third is “the greatest threat that faces our species: the unchecked introduction of profoundly disruptive technologies” (the artificial intelligence revolution, for example).

These challenges will be especially difficult to confront, Bremmer argues, if “we”—a term he sometimes uses to refer to Americans, sometimes to all members of humankind—do not figure out how to steer clear of two crashes in the offing. The first is between “us,” Americans, driven to radical poles by the sheer force of mutual enmity. The other broad clash that Bremmer believes will make finding broad solutions impossible is one between the United States and China. At its core, this is another book about the dangers of multidirectional unintelligibility. We—among ourselves as Americans and among ourselves as denizens of Earth—cannot work together if we don’t understand each other, and if we don’t understand each other we risk extinction. Fair enough.

In his introduction, Bremmer offers a “bold prediction” but wraps it in a hedge: “Europe and the United States, China and other countries WILL work together on these common challenges. But will they work hard enough, quickly enough, and effectively enough to build the new international system we need?” Setting aside the fact that is not really a prediction since these countries already do work together on elements of all of these challenges, the fact that domestic political polarization and the rise of China will make it harder for leaders to come to terms on pressing policy matters is an excruciatingly safe bet. Bremmer, an inveterate glass-half-fuller, urges his reader to accentuate the positive—as Ronald Reagan did! He opens the book with a sunny, oft-repeated anecdote of Reagan’s first meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, in which both leaders supposedly committed to setting their differences aside and working together in the event of an alien invasion. The story could well be apocryphal since it is based on Gorbachev’s jokey retelling of it years after the fact, but the point, of course, is that crises clarify stakes and encourage us to re-sort our priorities (the AIDS crisis did so for Reagan only belatedly, but this does not keep Bremmer from using him as an example of commonsense statesmanship).

Bremmer offers putative solutions to several problems he identifies, many of them initially appealing. He says in passing, for example, that a public social media platform could “provide another source of information that isn’t structuring its content to compete for media market share.” Imagine a quieter, more civically minded social media. Sounds nice. Once one stops to think about these ideas, however, their implausibility is deflating. The idea that “the corporate and individual supporters” of PBS and NPR could take on Facebook to solve the interconnected problems of disinformation and the overheated exchange of political ideas is intriguing but utterly unconvincing.

He advocates also for the creation of a World Data Organization, or WDO, to oversee the delicate balance between privacy, intellectual property, sovereignty, and presumably—though it is left unsaid—the profitability of social media and artificial intelligence companies. Like the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which provides unbiased public information on the reality of global warming, he says, the WDO could do the same for the mining and use of personal data, itself now an extremely valuable commodity. But a new transnational bureaucracy cannot, by itself, solve the problem of unchecked financial power. The IPCC does not have the power, for example, to mandate that Shell or Exxon go green. Nor would a World Data Organization have the power to make the biggest tech companies in the world change their ways.

There are other glaring omissions in the book when it comes to how power is amassed and deployed. Bremmer calls, for example, for the creation of an international police force to prevent deforestation. “Just as international peacekeepers preserve order in many of the world’s conflict zones,” he muses, “a similar contingent can enforce laws designed to prevent deforestation, and to plant and protect new trees.” This too is a potentially interesting idea, but Bremmer introduces it and moves on before the reader has a chance to consider how it might actually work. What laws would the anti-deforestation squad enforce? Domestic legislation? Terms agreed to in international treaties? What if a country does not submit to the environmental tree-keeping force? Bremmer tosses proposals like this around frequently but rarely acknowledges their complexities. At other times he offers solutions that are by now past the point of convention yet still unrealized, such as pricing carbon. (“This isn’t a new idea” is a frequent refrain.) His own solutions, underdeveloped and unchallenged as they are, often read like hasty add-ons. By sprinkling them throughout the book, however, he succeeds in giving the impression that he is bursting with ideas—which may itself be the point.

In political terms, Bremmer is firmly within the mainstream. He pines for the consensus of the Cold War even as he gets some of the details of that era strangely wrong. “A US-China confrontation would be more dangerous than the Cold War between the US and the USSR,” he writes at one point, “because it would be waged with cyber- and other weapons that, as discussed, largely prevent either side from seeing the true balance of power, making escalation more likely.” But this can’t be what sets the budding cold war between the U.S. and China apart from the old. After all, Bremmer surely knows that Washington and Moscow were not always up to speed on each other’s hostile capabilities. This is what the Missile Gap controversy that partially defined the 1960 election was all about. The Cuban Missile Crisis came close to being the culminating episode of the reckless escalation Bremmer worries about in the near future. Tensions between the U.S. and China are certainly of a different nature than between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but it isn’t because we had a much firmer sense of Moscow’s capabilities at any given point or because China, unlike the Soviet Union, “isn’t exporting an ideology.”

The defining feature of Bremmer’s engagement with the three indisputably massive challenges he discusses in the book is his investment in a benign imperialism. “None of us has ever lived in a world where the largest economy is governed by authoritarians,” he writes of China. “But that’s where we’re headed.” This seems true enough, and I don’t necessarily want to live in that world either. However, Bremmer doesn’t consider the fact that for so much of the world, America’s rhetorical commitment to democracy, human rights, liberty, and equality is just that—talk. The relative decline of the U.S. isn’t just the product of internal resentments and the emergence of a powerful competitor in China. It’s also because the U.S. empire itself breeds distrust, anger, and disillusion abroad. “It will be much harder for China’s nationalists to argue that the US wants to stunt its growth if the US actually supports China’s development,” he writes, urging Washington to adhere to some Chinese-led institutions. But empires do not usually brook the emergence of plausible competitors.

Bremmer is better known today as the head of the Eurasia Group than as a scholar. A salesman of predictable profitability, Bremmer does not identify or challenge the most serious obstacles to structural change—namely, the corporations that have both openly and in secret captured so much decision-making power around the world. The consulting class isn’t here to give us real solutions but to traffic in the perception of studied authority. Bremmer’s book has more in common with a slick public relations campaign than the political call to arms it purports to be. Can the threat of crisis force us to work together to find collective solutions? We can, we sort of already do, we have to do more, we must, we will, or we’ll perish.

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