As the latest political jousting plays out through the cycles of excitable media coverage of Trump’s latest hand-holding contest or a British cabinet resignation, occasionally you’ll hear a perspective which is able to cut through all the noise, providing us with a rare and refreshing moment of clarity.
Ian Bremmer, the US political and foreign policy commentator, who couples his unique style of American enthusiasm with a machine gun-clip delivery on global affairs, is one such person. From his vantage point in New York, Bremmer possesses (not unlike President Trump) the skill of instantly communicating his worldview with unshakable confidence. Bremmer issues a clarion call that globalisation has dramatically failed in his new book Us vs Them.
“This is a serious problem,” says Bremmer. “It’s not one that’s really being addressed by our governments right now, which is why now we are seeing such a tremendous backlash. In other words, here in the United States all we talk about is Trump. In the UK all you talk about is Brexit. Implying that if only we could somehow throw Trump out or reverse Brexit that things would get better. Us vs Them is not because of Trump or Brexit. Trump and Brexit are because of us vs them. It’s because of the failure of globalism and that’s really what I am truly trying to get at with the book.”
In what Bremmer describes as a rather personal book (his brother voted for Trump), he taps into the underlying current of public opinion that rejected decades of post-Cold War consensus and has had such geopolitical consequences. This highly charged, family-dividing, populist sentiment has now inescapably captured the political mainstream.
“In retrospect we’ve seen it coming for a while. For example, if you wanted to ask the question of how did we get in the geopolitical mess we’re in now? How we lost Pax America? You can really go back to the Soviet Union collapsing, which felt like a triumphant moment, but ask what’s the right thing to have done in retrospect? And it’s completely obvious that we needed a Marshall Plan of sorts to build up an integration with our former foes.”
The failure to do that, Bremmer says, has meant that conventional politicians have been blindsided.
“The divisions in society mean that either conventional leaders need to move to the extremes to capture the dynamics of these new constituents, which is happening in the US and UK, or they cling on to the political centre and their ideas while they get increasingly eaten by new political parties and movements that grow up to the left and the right… This is what we are seeing in Germany, France, Italy, Eastern Europe, Mexico and Brazil. It is remotely possible that this is a reflection of where we are at right now.”
A descendent of a migrant family from Armenia and raised in housing projects near Boston by a single mother, Bremmer lays claim to having realised something of the American Dream. With business clearly booming, the political risk consultancy he founded, Eurasia, now boasts a global constellation of expertise and clients, largely serving politically ignorant corporate and financial bosses with insight and analysis.
He is something of a ubiquitous presence in the US as a regular broadcaster, writer and author on foreign affairs. In addition to being foreign affairs columnist, Editor-at-Large for TIME Magazine and teaching at New York University, Bremmer also advances his reach with his own personal brand of political satire. He deploys a formidable Twitter game (which he mainly uses to troll President Trump) and his own American version of Spitting Image meets The Muppets in his online show ‘Puppet Regime’, complete with puppets of a tangoed Trump, shirtless Putin, an unimpressed Merkel and a jubilant Kim Jong Un rapping.
He also points out the irony that that despite all the anger, frustration, division and derision in the air, the sun is of course actually shining on the global economy.
“I was at the IMF annual meetings recently and everyone recognises that we are now in by far the best global economy since the 2008 financial crisis. We are expecting 3.9% global growth for the rest of 2018, 3.9% global growth next year.”
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The US budget is roaring away. As Bremmer observes, you would think it was the Democrats in office. “They are spending enormous amounts of money on everyone.”
There is a warning there, however. What happens when the economy next turns down?
“The fact that we feel this divided with challenges that feel this bad and this entrenched, with an economy doing this well. You tell me what is going to happen when the recession hits? You tell what is going to happen when suddenly we start actually saying no we can’t employ all these people, we can’t spend the money, we gotta pull back, when the bills start coming, when inflation goes up and we start tightening our belts. That should be obvious and I don’t see anyone saying it.”
So, if we’re all angry whilst not realising how good things actually are, we must ask ourselves, why is this the case? Given we now live in a world where the truth and information can become wildly distorted and spread instantly, everywhere, how does Bremmer see the prospects for the next phase of the intergalactic battle between politics, media and technology?
“I mean, here in America, technology is becoming a new religion. The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs believe that they will, and it will, resolve humanities problems,” he says.
“They are not very grounded in history and politics, as Zuckerberg has made abundantly clear in his Congressional testimony recently. They have a libertarian orientation, they generally want to avoid government and certainly think that government has no business in regulating them and wouldn’t know how to even if they tried. And they’re the ones who are driving the relationships with citizens as consumers. Which is very powerful for them and it’s very remunerative for them.
Of course, the major beneficiary of what Bremmer terms Us v Them politics is President Trump. He’s in his second year in office. His rallies major on shutting “them” out and his unorthodox foreign policy approach of lambasting his international opponents, has him being talked up by supporters as a Nobel Peace Prize contender. Are we entering something of a revisionist phase or reappraisal of the Trump-era?
“It’s pretty obvious that Trump lacks many of the capabilities that we see and value in a traditional President and it’s getting him into a lot of trouble. But Trump is not responsible for the broader problems I articulate in this book. In fact it is really a very natural conclusion of them.”
No-one is better than Trump at articulating that voter anger, says Bremmer.
“It’s the way he plays fake news and the media, it’s the way he plays his Twitter account, it’s the way he does his rallies, it’s the way he governs or chooses not to govern. Maybe Trump doesn’t care but he at least is prepared to articulate this on their behalf.”
Bremmer is upset by the Trumpian attitude to refugees in particular.
“We’ve got 11 Syrian refugees that came to the United States so far this year. 11. And when I posted that on social media last week, half of the responses were “too many”. That is not the country I grew up in, that’s not the one I want to live in, but because we have ignored these people for so long it’s a country that increasingly is outspoken.”
Critics of Brexit say that these ideas were seized upon by the Leave campaign triggering the Brexit process. Bremmer’s assessment is that Brexit is “obviously an enormous own goal” for the UK.
“The best possible overall outcome for the UK will be worse than the status quo ante,” he says. “Jobs will be lost and we’ve already seen a reduction in growth. It’s not so far been a disaster, I don’t expect it will be a disaster, as we are talking about wealthy countries that ultimately have a lot of talent, a lot of capital, a lot of infrastructure, and people will still want to live in them.”
But the bigger issue is that voters were angry at those in positions of power – the experts with the facts, that is business people, politicians, public intellectuals, the media, and the bureaucrats. “That’s not going away,” he says.
“That is why Jeremy Corbyn might well become the next Prime Minister of the UK. After Brexit happens, I think he’s going to say ‘ok you guys screwed this up. This is all on the Tories, now I’m ready.’ I mean, that’s the kind of thing you see happening all across the developed world.”
We end our conversation on an optimistic note. Bremmer’s rather cataclysmic assessment of world affairs leads to only one natural conclusion: perhaps Elon Musk’s interplanetary ambitions to colonise Mars aren’t as crazy as they appear on first take?
“In the United States, the reason why this country continues to persist as strongly as it does and that the dollar so strong, is that the people can believe in it, despite the fact that our political system can be so broken.”
Why should this be?
“It is because the individualist spirit in the United States facilitates, and the decentralisation of government, facilitates extraordinary entrepreneurs. I think that you’d be hard pressed to find any human being either in the US or in the world today with more audacious ideas about the future of humanity and the ability to implement on them.
Bremmer wishes Musk the best of luck with his mission. “I hope that somewhere in the school system the United States today that there are another thousand of him coming through.”