Americans should focus more on the EU, which has become a regulatory superpower, says Ian Bremmer in an interview with Tomáš Klvaňa.
Klvaňa: When looking at US presidential elections, is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Bremmer: Biden won by over six million votes. That’s significant but if you look at the swing states, I can get you a scenario where if you shift 65,000 votes, Trump wins. The Electoral College in the United States increasingly allows for a minority potentially coming to power, and that’s a problem. There are other ways to think about it. If coronavirus hadn’t come and certainly if the dates of the explosion of cases had been different, in other words, if the US looked like it was receding as opposed to being in the middle of this massive spike, with Trump getting sick and the White House super-spreader incident, I think Trump would have won.
It is important to understand that the American people easily could have returned Trump for a second term, just as it’s very easy to imagine that Hillary Clinton could have won in 2016. These are very close races, and what that tells you is, first, how incredibly divided the United States is politically, much more than any other advanced industrial democracy in the world today. And, also, how so many Americans have increasingly felt disenfranchised. It didn’t start with Trump. It’s been coming for decades. It’s about economic inequality, fairly robust immigration and a change in US demographics, where many Americans feel like no one is taking care of them. We have had wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the back of the people in the same community.
There are deep structural reasons why back in 2010 I thought the world was heading into a G-ZERO, a global power vacuum in which no country is willing and able to set the international agenda, and why I was concerned that the United States was not going to provide the same kind of leadership that we have had historically. The move from Trump to Biden, even though it obviously will be welcomed by most of America’s allies internationally, though not all, is not going to resolve by itself these deep challenges.
You do not then believe that the tandem Biden—Harris will be able to restore the American position in the world?
No, absolutely not. I think that there will be a honeymoon and a lot of countries will like them. If you look at the Pew Research polls, I think sentiment towards the US will rebound significantly, but America’s role in the world as the policeman or the architect of global trade or the promoter of global values… No. These things have been shifting over decades now, and that is not going to be changed by one person or one administration.
What do we have in store for the EU—US relationship?
You just saw John Kerry appointed as the global climate envoy. Frankly, it’s an easier issue for him to engage in than the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The Biden administration is going to be the greenest US administration in history. We see the same policies from the EU, so there will be a meeting of the minds. Biden’s economic orientation is more social democratic, more closely in line with the center in Germany or France, and these are the most important governments driving EU policy. Now that Biden won’t be able to pass much legislation, assuming the Republicans hold the Senate, you won’t see the same level of redistribution in the United States, but on regulation, he will be similar to what you see coming out of Brussels.
Biden’s economic orientation is more social democratic, more closely in line with the center in Germany or France, and these are the most important governments driving EU policy.
Because you asked me not about Germany or France, but the EU, I would like to say that Americans don’t understand it, not even the foreign policy establishment. They are more comfortable working with national governments where they have ministers serving in similar roles as secretaries in the US. They show up at the G7 and G20 meetings, they engage at Davos, and don’t necessarily get what a supranational institution with true sovereign capabilities in many areas like the EU is all about. Informally, I advise people like the new secretary of state and the new head of intelligence, and I’ve been pushing them not to forget Brussels to ensure that they really do reach out.
The importance of Brussels, in my view, is growing. Europe is not a military power, it’s not really much of a diplomatic power, but it really is a regulatory superpower, and that power resides largely in Brussels.
Will Biden try to implement any version of the controversial Green New Deal?
The Green New Deal is not really a policy, it’s more of a manifesto. Biden has made very clear that he doesn’t support that. Politically, it would be disastrous for him to do so. But as I said, this will be the greenest administration we’ve ever seen. That is shifting. There’s a lot to be done internationally. 2021 will be a breakout year. The Coronavirus has weakened oil-producing countries and oil companies and those in the infrastructure that rely on them. It makes it a lot easier to shift in a sustainable direction. Biden really believes that young people in the United States, independents and even some on the right support a greener set of policies. That’s why the things he said on moving away from oil, when he was running, were newsworthy and potentially made him more politically vulnerable.
Let me switch to China. Biden used to underestimate China. What can we expect with regards to RCEP? Can we realistically expect that the US might go back to some sort of TPP?
No. You’re right, early on in the campaign, Biden’s knowledge of China was kind of outdated, but he’s gotten up to speed. He’s getting the briefings now, his orientation on China is I would say much more contemporaneous with that of Trump. Look, I think the United States is hamstrung from doing a big global strategy. You mentioned RCEP, the biggest multilateral trade deal in the world. It doesn’t involve the United States and that’s a problem. Belt and Road, the biggest global infrastructure investment plan, doesn’t involve the United States or Japan. That’s a problem. I am glad they exist because they lead to more growth. The Chinese build a port, reduce tariffs and that creates more wealth, which in turn means that everyone benefits. I’d rather have those ports built than not built, but obviously it would be better for everyone if the Americans could join these initiatives, so they could have some influence there.
TPP was the most obvious setback. It wasn’t Trump’s problem. Obama failed in getting it done and then Trump killed it. I’m pretty clear that Biden will not go back to TPP. Even though he personally likes it.
And the Americans could drive their own initiatives. TPP was the most obvious setback. It wasn’t Trump’s problem. Obama failed in getting it done and then Trump killed it. I’m pretty clear that Biden will not go back to TPP. Even though he personally likes it, that would be a huge lift in a Democratic Party that mostly does not support free-trade pro-globalizing deals. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
What will happen in the US-China economic and strategic relationship?
The United States will coordinate more with allies. There will be fewer surprises from the United States and there are many countries that China has antagonized in the past year. You see, the relations they have with India and Australia are not great. Their heavy hand in Hong Kong and with Taiwan has alienated many countries around the world. Trump may have been a unilateralist in orientation, but when he told other countries don’t use Chinese 5G tech, so far 30 countries in the world have aligned with the US. This is probably the most multilateral outcome of any of Trump’s policies today, and I feel quite confident that Biden will continue that push. He will be more interested in getting input from the private sector in the US in addition to just from Homeland Security, NSA and the Defense Department, so these policies will be better thought out and more strategic.
Trump may have been a unilateralist in orientation, but when he told other countries don’t use Chinese 5G tech, so far 30 countries in the world have aligned with the US.
When I was at the Munich Security Conference back in February 2020, my last big trip before the pandemic locked everything down, there were a lot of people asking the Secretary of Defense: Hey, you say you don’t want us to use Huawei, so what’s the American plan? Well, there wasn’t one.
There is not yet an American-driven alternative, and I’m not sure how easy it’s going to be for Biden to do that. These are again challenges that are much deeper and structural than just who is President of the United States.
Will the US cooperate, or at least coordinate with the EU on China?
I know that Kerry will be very interested in trying to align the two on climate in the run-up to the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow next November which will be a breakthrough meeting. It’ll be enormously important, the most important climate meeting since Paris and certainly the Americans will be more aligned with the Europeans than they will be with the Chinese.
On tech, I do expect more alignment between the Americans and Europeans. On trade, I’m not sure how much alignment there will be, but I don’t think that Biden will try to fight wars on both fronts at the same time, which Trump was doing. There’s just not a lot of trust in this relationship broadly speaking, and I recognize you’re talking to me also about Eastern and Central Europe as well, not just Western Europe. There are a lot of countries in Eastern and Central Europe that benefit from Chinese investment, and they need that money. The Greek Prime Minister is a good friend of mine. They are members of Belt and Road. The jobs that have come from the investments in the port or Pireus are meaningful for an economy that no one was caring about until a year ago until the pandemic hit.
On tech, I do expect more alignment between the Americans and Europeans. On trade, I’m not sure how much alignment there will be, but I don’t think that Biden will try to fight wars on both fronts at the same time.
Now they’re getting a lot more support. I hope that the Hungarians and the Poles will be able to find a deal or compromise on rule of law issues and conditionality with other Europeans because we desperately need this money to ensure relief for all of the countries that have been economically devastated by coronavirus, especially because China is more than happy to pick off those poor countries to align more with them. We should not want that, that’s not anyone’s long-term interest.
Let’s talk about NATO. You could literally hear a sigh of relief here in some circles after Biden won. Some observers believed NATO itself was imperiled during Trump. There were talks of a breakup.
It wasn’t going to happen. No way. I don’t understand that. I talked with our allies a lot. I just spent an hour with the NATO Secretary General. It is true that Trump was pushing for increased defense expenditure on the part of the allies, especially those that are not pulling their weight given their commitments, Germany being the big outlier. But that was also true under Obama. I mean Trump did say before he became President that he thought NATO was obsolete, but that was one of the few things that I’ve ever seen Trump admit he was wrong. He just didn’t know anything about national security, and I agree that his absence of diplomacy made the summit meetings much less collegial and more nerve-wracking for American allies. But I think the honest to God outcome hasn’t been all that different.
Under Trump, the US defense spending has gone up a lot, US capabilities have gone up a lot… To keep up with that will probably become more challenging under Biden, especially given how much the deficit has increased. I’m not sure the Europeans will like that. And I’m not sure whether Biden will be interested in maintaining as much of a defense footprint broadly. Yes, Trump has pulled the troops out of Germany, but he moved them right to other countries.
Under Trump, the US defense spending has gone up a lot, US capabilities have gone up a lot… To keep up with that will probably become more challenging under Biden, especially given how much the deficit has increased.
I think the return to normal is good. Biden’s national security appointees are very well known to the Europeans. Anthony Blinken has been around; he was Deputy Secretary of State and advised on foreign policy to Biden when he was Vice President. Everyone is going to feel comfortable with these people but the general orientation of US policy – remember under Obama the allies were complaining that the US was leading from behind. America was not as willing to deploy US power on China, or on Russia with Ukraine, or whether it was Syria and the red line, I mean a lot of problems around that and I’m not sure that necessarily changes when Biden becomes President.
Biden’s success will also depend on the GOP. Do you believe that the party might eventually return to being a more reasonable political actor?
It is unclear. It depends on where Trump’s gonna be in a few months, and we really don’t know that.
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