11/11/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ian Bremmer: Advice for Obama on Syria & Iran

What should President Obama do about Syria? What are the global implications of gridlock in Washington? Why are our world leaders failing to lead and who can hold them accountable? These are a few of the issues addressed here by Dr. Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group.


Bremmer established Eurasia Group in 1998 with just $25,000. The company is widely considered the leading global risk research and consulting firm, with offices in New York, Washington and London, as well as a network of experts and resources in 90 countries. Eurasia Group provides analysis for how political developments and national security dynamics move markets and shape investment environments across the globe.

Bremmer has authored several books including the national bestsellers The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? and most recently Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, which he discusses at length in this interview.


MONICA GRAY: You are the author of the highly acclaimed book "Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World." What is a "G-Zero World" and who are the winners and losers in it?

IAN BREMMER: A G-Zero World is one where we have an absence of global leadership. I think there are lots of reasons for it. The United States is less willing as we've seen to provide the guidance of the global economy and global security, it doesn't want to be the global policeman. We've heard that very clearly from President Obama. Doesn't want to be the lender of last resort. Doesn't want to bail out the Europeans. Doesn't want to lead globalization. It's just not popular.

At the same time a lot of America's allies are really distracted with their own domestic issues, particularly in Europe. And the leader of Europe today is not Britain, which has a very active geopolitical perspective, but Germany, which does not. Some of the countries that are becoming most important, including China, which will soon be the biggest economy in the world, have preferences and values that are not bad necessarily, but they're different from that of the United States and American allies among the advanced industrial democracies.

If you put those things together, what you get is not a G-7 or G-8 or G-20, I mean you can have those meetings, you can put people in chairs around nice circular tables, but they don't accomplish anything globally.

And so leadership breaks down. It either doesn't happen at all, or it has to happen at a local level or a sub local level, a regional level. That's what we're seeing on issues as diverse as trade and climate and the Internet and all the rest.

And winners are countries that are either really resilient and so look safe and stable in an environment of great volatility. So even with the US government shut down, the United States looks stable. And that's why the markets are doing well and people are piling into treasures.

But also countries look good that are flexible, countries that I call "pivot states." If you don't have one system and one leader that creates global standards you have to be able to be flexible between many different sorts of systems. Singapore is really good at this.

MG: Where else is a "pivot state?"

IB: Brazil is actually a pivot state. Turkey is a pivot state. Now some of those states have domestic governance problems which are different, but geopolitically this is a time where you either want to be big and stable or you want to be small and nimble, and if you're in between those two places, you have serious problems.

MG: In a G-Zero world, do you think existing international organizations like the United Nations become more or less important for solving problems and resolving international disputes?

IB: I think that the United Nations and the Security Council in particular is very clearly part of the problem. The G-20 should have learned from the Security Council that it's wasn't a great idea to put this organization together.

You put a bunch of countries around a table and say you need consensus to get something done. And there are too many of them and they're all focused internally and they don't agree on stuff.

That's not herding cats, which his hard. That's herding cats together with animals that don't like cats, which is not herding.

I love the United Nations as an organization. I think it's important to have countries get together and talk.

And I think there are many things the UN engages in which are incredibly important around the world. The World Health Organization, it's role with China has gotten them to be more accountable and transparent in the way they talk about infectious disease, for example, sort of post SARS type epidemiological incidents.

That's great. But that's not the Security Council. When we talk about the UN we usually talk about how ineffectual the Security Council is because they talk about all these things and they don't do anything.

You have countries all around the world saying "We must resolve Syria through the Security Council!"

The number of times that Ban Ki Moon stands up and denounces things, he deplores things, I think he must have an app on his iPhone that must come up with synonyms for the ways he can express his incredible distaste ineffectually for different things happening around the world. I'd really want to hurt myself if I was in that position because it's so depressing to formulaically continue to blather on about stuff that you know is not going to happen. The problem is that when you do enough of that, the international community tunes out. They don't listen to them anymore. They've lost legitimacy.

MG: How could the international community hold the Security Council accountable?

IB: They can't hold them accountable! When Obama comes out and says that Syria is really not his responsibility if it goes wrong, it's the responsibility of the international community, which is great, except who is this international community? I didn't know it existed. It would be great. We'd all like it. It doesn't exist.

This is the problem.

You've got a lot of really smart leaders around the world that are really good analytically but they don't want to lead. They're not prepared to deal with the accountabilities and responsibilities that actually come with international leadership.

As a consequence we have a G-Zero. That's not Obama's fault. That's much more structural than blaming. It would be just like the Americans to blame their president for all of the things happening in the world. We're too small for that. But we do deserve at least a piece of that responsibility.

MG: Do you believe that leadership can be taught?

IB: Of course it can. And more importantly I believe it can be taught by example. I believe it can be mentored and it should be mentored. Leadership is really about having a set of values that you communicate. It equates to a vision. You are then accountable for the implementation of that vision, and when you fail, you own it. You apologize when something goes wrong. It's on your watch. The buck stops with you. That is leadership.

I look at Congress today. I look at folks that Americans have elected. And they - the American people - deserve an apology. They deserve an apology. We deserve an apology because we've got a lot of smart people but we lack leadership.

If this were only a problem in the United States we'd be fine because the United States is very rich and the US is very stable and frankly most of us don't care that much about this stuff. But it really matters internationally.

It matters not just because other countries aren't displaying that leadership, it also matters because the United States has held itself up as the exceptional power, the indispensable nation. And to be a leader for other countries around the world doesn't mean sending your troops everywhere though sometimes there's a place for that. What it really means is that you have values, you communicate them to the rest of the world, and then you actually live up to them yourselves. And when you don't, you take that on. And you admit to it.

Does anyone in the world today following what we have seen with the NSA and Snowden; does anyone believe today with what we've seen with the government shutdown; does anyone believe today with what we've seen in Syria; that the United States is displaying leadership, mentorship by example? And the answer is unfortunately no.

MG: How would you characterize President Obama's foreign policy leadership style, and how does it compare to George W. Bush's foreign policy leadership style?

IB: They're clearly very different. I guess I would say that W displayed an awful lot of willingness to lead, but very little willingness to do analysis, and got himself into a lot of trouble. He said "I'm the decider! The buck stops with me." You never had a problem wondering who was in charge. A lot of people said Cheney was actually making the decisions. But Bush was out there, and if Cheney maybe had a bad decision, Bush owned it. And there were a lot of bad decisions, let's face it. Iraq ended up being kind of a disaster, and Afghanistan ended up being not much better. The US wasted a lot of money and killed a lot of America boys and girls, men and women, because of those mistakes.

Obama is really the polar opposite. He has an extraordinary analytic mind, he is incredibly intellectually capable, but he is very very risk-averse. He does not prioritize foreign policy. He has no experience in foreign policy, so what he therefore needs is a really good team, and in his first term he had a really good team. They listened to him. Secretary Clinton, Tom Donilon, he had an amazing ambassador to China, the most important country out there in terms of Jon Huntsman. You had Petraeus; I mean it was a strong group.

And this time around, it's a weaker group. It's not as cohesive a group, there's not as much trust, there's not as much direct access to the President, and I think that if you're not going to own it yourself, the people that are in charge better be really good, and I think right now you've got a little bit of, you know, neither here nor there. There's no question, Obama has just experienced some of his worst days in foreign policy of five years. Having said that, Obama's worst days in foreign policy aren't yet close to Bush's worst days in foreign policy. The bad new is Obama's still got a few more years to get there, so we'll see.

MG: If President Obama asked for your thoughts and advice on both Iran and Syria, what would you tell him?

IB: Well actually I think the President's doing a pretty good job on Iran. I think that in both cases the President has shown a great deal of enthusiasm for diplomacy.

The difference is in Iran the US has very strong position and leverage. In Syria, we don't.

In Iran, the sanctions that the US has built up over many years with strong multilateral support is crippling the Iranian economy and it has brought a new leadership into Iran. Now the Supreme Leader still runs the country but the President, interlocutors on nuclear policy, the cabinet, reflects a very different, and much more technocratic sensibility, because they desperately need the economy to improve.

We should want to engage the Iranians. We shouldn't want to get rid of sanctions. But you should engage and let's see what they're prepared to do. And let's be effusive.

Ok, so they miscommunicated on a handshake. But then the Iranian president came right back with a phone call. Why? Because they're in trouble. We've got all the leverage. As long as we don't suddenly say "fine let's get rid of sanctions," which we're not about to do, that policy has moved well.

Syria is a disaster. I mean there are so many ways it's been a disaster. What would you not have done? If you're going to set a red line on Syria, why would you set it by yourself? Why not get together with a few of your allies and say this is very important to us, and it's critical, and it won't be tolerated, and we will take action, even if you don't say what the action is. So that politically you have the support from the Saudis, the Brits, the French, the Canadians, if at any point that red line is breached.

Then of course it was a slippery slope. Which is "well it wasn't really a red line. Well we don't really want to get involved. Maybe we need some support from other countries."

When Obama then went finally back and said I'm going to go to Congress and said: "On the one hand this is absolutely critical. This is an international principal that we must stand for, but I need a vote in Congress." That really really disappointed America's key allies around the world.

Even if you believed that what you were going to do in Syria was not going to be very helpful. Even if you believed that the US should've taken action to prevent the deaths of all these people or should've stayed out.

Process matters. Process to leadership matters. And the fact that the White House has said "well maybe it un-artful." No. This was a policy failure. The fact that the Russians are now taking the lead on this issue, the fact that the United States has put itself in a corner and that they have basically said nothing can happen without a vote in Congress, has really undermined the US credibility on the issue. And also has shown what we care about a country of over 20 million people. And we shouldn't be in that position.

MG: Perhaps President Obama knows he's in a corner. What advice would you give him now? What can he do even if he's dug himself in a hole?

IB: I think on Syria it's too late, frankly. You've got over 100,000 dead. You've got millions of refugees. It is very clear that the rebels, large groups of the rebels have given up on the US and so they've severed their ties with the more secular opposition outside of Syria. They've embraced the Islamic radicals and Sharia at this point the enemy of our enemy is our enemy. There's very little we can do.

I think certainly as much as we can do to provide humanitarian aid is smart. I like the fact that the Swedish government came out and said that they were going to take large numbers of refugees. I think the United States could lead with allies a coalition to accept Syrian refugees. The Japanese, the Canadians - that's an area that we could take some leadership. I mean I know it's not a priority, I know most Americans care vastly more about what's happening in the US. But that's something we could do. It's an example.

But those examples are small potatoes compared to what's happening to the Syrian people and it's very obvious that that's not an area where we're prepared to take leadership on.

MG: Last question: What world leader do you wish could be eligible to run for high office in the US?

IB: Mark Carney. You know, the Brits took him as head of their Central Bank after he did a fantastic job in Canada. Everyone across the board thought he was capable, intelligent, engaging, global, strategic.

We've had Bernanke who had a pretty good run, given a lot of criticism for a number of years. He doesn't want to do it again.

Larry Summers, absolutely the brightest guy in the room, but clearly not possible for him to get through a nomination process. They're not happy with anybody else.

Boy would it be great for us if we could get Mark Carney in the room.


Interview conducted by DC-based video journalist Monica Gray. Video was originally published by the Diplomatic Courier magazine and has been republished with permission. Copyright 2006-2013 The Diplomatic Courier™. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.