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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Ian Bremmer

In this article:
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In this episode of Influencers, Andy speaks with Eurasia Group President, Ian Bremmer, about the U.S. decision to pull out of Afghanistan, implications for President Biden, and what it means for America’s standing as a global superpower.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANDY SERWER: For political scientist Ian Bremmer, solving the mysteries of international affairs is his life's work. Over the past 23 years, he's become the go-to foreign policy expert for CEOs, news organizations, and Wall Street alike, providing valuable insight and intelligence as we make sense of the world around us. In this episode of Influencers Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer joins me as we discuss the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan, implications for President Biden, and what it means for America's standing as a global superpower.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Influencers. I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest Ian Bremmer, president and founder of research firm Eurasia Group and the author of 10 books, as well as the forthcoming work, The Crises We Need, How to Confront the Three Greatest Dangers of Our Time. Ian, welcome.

IAN BREMMER: Good to see you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So how would you characterize what's going on in Afghanistan right now and what's likely to follow in the coming days and weeks?

IAN BREMMER: I mean, this is an extraordinary foreign policy crisis, by far the most important of the Biden administration and largely self-imposed. By the way, it's very clear that the strategic decision to end the US military presence in Afghanistan is one that was thoughtfully considered and on balance I agree with it. We can get into that, we can talk about that if you like. But that's very different from the execution of that policy, the implementation on the ground, which has been a disaster on pretty much every front.

And that is going to affect Biden's credibility domestically, and depending on what happens over the coming days, it might be critical for his presidency. And it's going to affect American credibility internationally. It makes it much harder to say that the United States is back, it makes it much harder for the Americans to maintain strong commitments that our allies really believe in around the world. So much of this was unilateral, and so much of this was badly handled on the part of the past few days.

And it's very painful for me to say that, especially as someone who knows most of the cabinet in the Biden administration. These are capable people, they're thoughtful people, they're experienced people, and we want to see them do well. I mean, you know, a lot of people would have expected that you would have this kind of mismanagement under the Trump presidency, given the kind of individual he was but you expected a lot better under Biden and they have really, really failed here.

ANDY SERWER: But I mean, where did they go wrong? It's so obvious, I mean, the Russians, the British, hundreds of years of failure here in terms of Western countries or in the case of Russia, Russia trying to impose their will and failing and who were we to think we'd be any different?

IAN BREMMER: Well, you can't blame Biden for that. You can't blame Biden for 20 years and $2 trillion of failure. That's just not on, right? I mean Bush, the Bush administration deserves truly the greatest level of responsibility for the decision and the way they pursued that war but as well as Obama for the failed surge, as well as Trump for the failed negotiations with the Taliban and drawing down US forces that were not condition-based at that point. And now Biden for the execution of the actual withdrawal. So everyone gets a piece of this.

But let's focus and because Biden is the president now and the buck stops with him for things that he can decide, what the hell did he do wrong? And I would focus, I think there are four different pieces of that. The first is the military and intelligence failure. The United States has indeed spent almost $90 billion in training an Afghan force that refused to fight. Again, that is on every administration since Bush but after 20 years of personally training Afghan forces on the ground, the Biden administration somehow didn't understand the morale and the capabilities of those forces. That is just unconscionable for them to get it that wrong.

I mean, literally, when Biden made the decision to push off, to forestall the May exit that Trump had said we would do and said instead it's going to be August, everyone out by September 11th, at that point, US intelligence agencies said that Kabul could hold off the Taliban for two to three years without the United States. Last weekend, it was two to three days. In my life, I have never seen, I have never seen an intelligence failure like that.

Then you have the coordination failure, Biden is the guy that's supposed to be engaged with the allies, we've been fighting with these allies on the ground for 20 years, 20 years. When we were attacked on 9/11 we asked NATO, come to our defense and they did and they fought bravely side-by-side with the Americans for all this time. And when we decided that we were going to leave, that was a policy decision that we made by ourselves, that Afghan policy review was done internally by the United States, nobody else was involved. I find that unconscionable.

And furthermore, I mean, it wasn't just about the decision to leave, it was also the ongoing decision of how are you coordinating with refugees, what are you doing with humanitarian aid? Even a simple thing, this weekend the American acting ambassador flees the country, the British ambassador is still there helping to try to get the Brits out. How could we not be coordinating this simple thing with our allies on the ground? We are the superpower here. So that's a big mistake.

Then you've got the planning failure, which is even if the intelligence is wrong, you know, you plan for bad scenarios. What if things don't go the way you hope they're going to. And especially because this is being done on our timeline and we clearly did not have the plans in place for the evacuation. We did not have the plans in place for what about not just our citizens but all of the people that have been supporting the US government on the ground in Afghanistan, many of which are now at risk and will die, they'll be killed by the Taliban. And we've got to suddenly scramble to send 6,000 troops in from the United States to defend the airport. I mean, again, an enormous failure on the ground.

And finally, and I mean, this isn't the most important but it does matter, the communications failure. The fact that President Biden came out weeks ago and actually said that it was highly unlikely for the Taliban to be overrunning everything and owning the whole country. He insisted and I quote here, "that there is going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the US embassy."

These predictions literally unraveled in real-time and the Biden administration had nothing to say. And so again, as someone who cares deeply about my country, sees myself as patriotic, this is one of the most painful things I've ever witnessed. And I think the implications are very-- they're significant, serious, and lasting.

ANDY SERWER: I want to get into those implications, Ian. And by the way, that is a really damning litany that you just went through. And I want to actually pick up on the first one, which was the training of the army because it reminds me of something, and I'm old enough to remember, you know where I'm going, Vietnamization. And a lot of people have drawn parallels, how parallel is this experience in American history to what happened in Vietnam?

IAN BREMMER: Look, I mean, the visuals are very similar, the chaos, the lack of planning is very similar but there are some big differences. One is the Taliban are not a well-coordinated fighting force. They're not a force that's going to be able to effectively govern Afghanistan on the ground so that is very different.

And secondly, the United States is not in the middle of a Cold War, there's not this overarching ideological struggle that the Americans have with the Soviets, right? That I mean, fundamentally an American loss was a Soviet win, it was our world view. And I mean, yes there's been Chinese state media that's saying oh, Taiwan, you better be paying attention because we're going to take you out now. I mean, seriously they are actually saying that.

That's not where we're going here. I mean, Afghanistan is a third-order American priority precisely because we're not in a Cold War, precisely because there are a lot of people that really care about Afghanistan falling apart but the Americans aren't one of them. And this was true for the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Independents.

I want to be clear, that the decision of Biden to end, the American intervention and not to expand to create a sustainable presence on the ground, actually expected this outcome for the Afghan people, they just thought it would take longer. They expected the Taliban was going to take over, over time.

So it's not like the United States was saying oh, we have a strategic priority, we must continue to protect these people, we must ensure that the rights of women, and journalists, and educators, are-- no, that was absolutely not the decision. And by the way, was absolutely not the decision for the Trump administration either. So that is not where I'm focusing my criticism here. I'm saying that once you make that decision you don't do it by yourself, you give yourself sort of outs in terms of scenarios and you plan effectively for it, that's the failure.

ANDY SERWER: So let's talk about those implications and maybe focusing a little bit on the economic ones but let me just throw it to you sort of broad brush, what are the places that will be affected in terms of America and its relationship with the rest of the world, Ian?

IAN BREMMER: Well, I mean, let's first recognize that if Afghanistan isn't Taiwan what is it? Afghanistan is Ukraine, Afghanistan is Georgia, Afghanistan is a part of the world that Americans, even though we've spent all of this money and all of these weapons and all these lives were lost, we don't consider them a priority.

And so I mean, kind of like Ukraine when they were begging to be brought into NATO and begging to be brought into the European Union. And the US, and the Germans, and others said, we just don't care. And that meant that they were stuck with Russia. And the people didn't like it and they revolted and Russia takes a bunch of their territory. Georgia situation, very similar on the ground. That's what this is.

So I mean, this is a very strong message and I'm the person who says that we're in a GZERO World, it's a very strong message that in a GZERO World that unless you are a high priority, a strategic priority of the United States, you're probably kind of screwed. And that is I mean, this is a US that has definitively rejected the idea that we are either the global policeman or the architect of global trade or the cheerleader for global values, right?

I mean, the decisions that we are making around these third-order priorities make it very clear that we are not systemic as a superpower, that we are focused on our priorities and our top allies. And that is a message to the Russians on the Baltics who are in NATO, it is a message to the Chinese on Taiwan, who understand that they are a principal, like top strategic priority of the United States, military operations, sales, all the rest. But if you're not them, it's a very different story. A lot more hedging going on in this kind of a world.

ANDY SERWER: What are the economic implications? I mean, there is things like Afghanistan's mineral reserves, worth supposedly $3 trillion, what does this mean for the oil markets? We see the stock market going down on Monday, those types of things?

IAN BREMMER: I mean, definitely spreads are going to widen on Pakistani bonds. And I think that there are like five people that are watching this right now that care about that, Uzbek bonds as well. But this is Afghanistan, this is not an economic priority. Those rare earth metals are in the ground it is hard to get to them. There is no infrastructure and there are major security issues.

You'll remember that back in the days before 9/11 when the Americans were talking to the Taliban there was this idea of a pipeline that was going to be built from Turkmenistan and through Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was the worst geopolitically-driven pipeline of my lifetime. It never went-- I think it was Unocal that was behind this at the time, right?

I mean, the Chinese are going to have similar sorts of problems. So even though they have interests in securing rare Earth metals as part of their supply chain for electric vehicle batteries and things like that, it is a very long time before Afghanistan becomes economically important for a country like China but China is the major power in the region that cares the most about Afghanistan not becoming a failed state because of the potential to spread into Pakistan, for example, which is an important strategic, increasing ally of China. And also because of the potential for Islamic extremism to be based out of Afghanistan that will hit China, particularly, around the Uyghurs for example, the East Turkestan independence movement, which have been implicated in an attack in Pakistan that killed a number of Chinese just in the last couple of weeks.

So the Chinese will become the most important proximate political and economic supporter of the Taliban. And to the extent that there are those inside Afghanistan that really don't like that, China will increasingly be a target for them. So I mean, we are kind of leaving China with holding the bag to a degree here.

Again, another mistake in my view of the Biden administration, as much as mistrust the Chinese, and it's mutual, why wouldn't you have asked China, at least engage, and say, hey, we want to get out but if you're willing to keep peacekeepers on the ground, maybe we would engage with some drone strikes because neither of us want this to fall apart. I mean, we're willing to talk to the Chinese on other issues that matter globally like climate change, even if it fails.

If you ask the Chinese that with the allies and they say no then you can say plausibly hey, we tried to create some stability with the Chinese. The Chinese don't care about you. And instead, what we did was we gave them sort of the ability to just point the finger at what-- if you're Biden, why would you possibly want to own any more of this than you absolutely have to own.

ANDY SERWER: So why all these screw-ups, Ian? I mean, you talk about this massive intelligence failure, the failure to communicate with the British, the Chinese, what were they thinking here, what happened?

IAN BREMMER: We're America and when you've got a whole bunch of people that have been fighting this for a long, long time and they know what the answer is. American exceptionalism and especially in the foreign policy establishment that we make the decisions and multilateralism is we inform our allies before we go public but after we've made the decision, multilateralism is not that we actually want their inputs to come with a compromise or maybe change our mind. So number one, that attitude is still pervasive inside the Beltway in the United States and it's a mistake.

But there are other issues at play here too. I think the United States I mean, to the extent that Biden has a foreign policy doctrine, that doctrine is a foreign policy for the middle class, for the American middle class. Jake Sullivan has articulated that fairly well, the National Security Advisor, and Afghanistan is the farthest thing possible, a US presence there in terms of supporting the middle class.

Biden is the person who came in saying we're not doing enough to make foreign policy relevant for the average American and I'm going to change that and I'm going to get out of Afghanistan. I want the average American to care and support what we're doing. And this war has been fought on the backs of underprivileged Americans for decades now. And while they see that their life expectancy is being reduced, while they see that they're the ones hit hardest by the pandemic.

So I get why Biden was completely committed to getting the hell out. But you still have to do it right. And I mean, I have to say that in my wildest imagination I would not have expected that they would have mishandled this decision this badly. I really wouldn't have.

ANDY SERWER: And it's so ironic that this was a policy decision that Donald Trump and Joe Biden agreed on.

IAN BREMMER: Right.

ANDY SERWER: And that you as you said, Ian, you might expect Donald Trump and his people to screw it up and it was Biden who screwed it up. So how much political capital can the Republicans really get out of this? You mentioned possible domestic political fallout.

IAN BREMMER: Well, they can gather some I mean, one of the things here is that Biden certainly knows that this is an environment that is incredibly toxic and you don't want to give your enemies any grist for them to attack you with and he's now given them-- he's given them months and months, right?

I mean, just playing Biden's July 8th speech saying this can't possibly happen and then it exactly happens. I mean, that is just going to be an election campaign line for anybody that's running against a Dem in midterms in 2022, why would you want that to happen? So they just didn't, they didn't hedge that risk at all and now they're going to take consequences.

But I do want to be clear, the average American is supportive of this policy broadly speaking. They wanted out, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents it was incredibly popular as a policy under Trump and under Biden. And if the only thing that happens is the debacle that we see on the ground affecting Afghans, then I'm not sure it has huge lasting effects on Biden. It makes him look more incompetent, it makes him look like he can't execute well but I don't see a lot of Americans voting on the back of leaving Afghanistan one way or the other, I really don't.

Having said that, there is now a proximate risk that this gets a lot worse. I mean, right now this is not the Iran crisis, the hostage crisis of '79, it's not but it could become that. I mean, there are a lot of Americans that we want to get out of there. What if we have a hostage crisis? What if we have a firefight? What if Americans get killed? What if we end up not being able to get all these Americans out? That destroys Biden's presidency. And there is a real chance of that happening. It's not a 50% chance, maybe it's a 5% chance but it is way higher than it should be.

And again, Biden now owns that. In other words, right now I still think you get $3.5 trillion through in terms of infrastructure and that's a big win for Biden and I don't think that anything that has happened in the last few days in Afghanistan changes my view on that but that could change in the next week, depending on what happens on the ground in Afghanistan. So we are not remotely out of the woods on this yet.

ANDY SERWER: Ian, what did you think about President Biden's speech about the pullout from Afghanistan?

IAN BREMMER: I think that there were two things the speech needed to do, he succeeded at one of them. He very credibly made the argument why he needed to continue with the full withdrawal of US forces and bringing the war to a conclusion. He made it clear where the Taliban actually sat from a power position when he became president, just how far down the troops had already been withdrawn from the United States. Also, the fact that the ceasefire was quickly coming to an end, it was expand or leave. I think he made that point credibly.

But what he did not do is take any responsibility for the failed execution on the ground. Listening to that speech, Andy, it was literally as if the events of the weekend had not occurred. That he says the buck stops here and it went faster than we thought it was going to but I mean, there is no circumstance under which you should have the Kabul airport swarmed by thousands of Afghan civilians, an American transport plane with Afghans hanging literally off the wheels and falling to their deaths.

I mean, if you're the President of the United States and that just happened under your watch, how do you not make reference to it? How do you not take questions from the audience, you can't handle that? This is the most important foreign policy speech this man has given in his life and he was not there for it in my view.

ANDY SERWER: I want to shift gears and talk about China, which we mentioned before, and talk about the relationship and where we stand with that right now. It's maybe surprising to some people that the relationship between the United States and China really hasn't improved during the Biden administration right, Ian?

IAN BREMMER: It doesn't surprise me at all. I mean, you may remember when Biden first became president, I said the thing that's going to surprise people is that Biden is going to be softer than Trump on Russia and he's going to be harder than Trump on China, which is exactly the opposite of what everyone was saying, Dem or Republican at that point. He's softer on Russia because even though Trump wanted to be the good guy for Putin, wanted to do a reset, he couldn't do it at all, couldn't do it because of his own cabinet, and because of the GOP in Congress, because he was just constrained massively from implementing.

Where for Biden, China is the big problem and so he doesn't want the Russia relationship to go off the rails farther than it has. And so you saw him with the immediate meeting in Switzerland and engaging on ransomware attacks for example, and trying to get a dialogue going. I mean, that wasn't happening under Trump, frankly.

On China, I mean, Biden sees it as the top priority as did Trump but Biden, much more interested in coordinating with allies on that China policy and thus far, more effective in part because China screwed a bunch of stuff up but this wolf warrior diplomacy plays badly in Australia, in Japan, in Canada, in the UK even in Germany.

And so I mean, for example, the EU-China investment deal, which went ahead when Trump was president, suddenly got suspended over the past few months. And Biden's diplomacy with the Europeans helped to make that happen. So the Chinese are actually less happy with Biden than they have been with Trump. They weren't happy with either but they see Biden as more problematic for them.

Now clearly, again, this debacle in Kabul is going to show to a lot of Chinese that are running laps saying the Americans are in decline. The reality is they're not happy about the United States leaving Afghanistan. They would have preferred us maintaining some level of baseline stability on the ground there and using our money and our troops and our allies to shore it up.

ANDY SERWER: Got to ask you about COVID, where do you think things stand right now in terms of fighting the pandemic and a recovery?

IAN BREMMER: The United States has by far the best position in terms of vaccines. That doesn't mean that we are able to get everyone to take them but still, our vaccines are-- we stockpiled a bunch of them early and they're the most effective, especially in terms of the Delta variant. And I think that makes a big difference. And that has helped the United States have a more robust recovery than a lot of other places in the world.

The third-largest port in the world right now in China is partially closed in part because they've got Delta variant and they have zero tolerance for cases, so they lock everything down. In part, that's the authoritarian Chinese system and risk aversion but in part, it's because Chinese vaccines really don't work well against Delta and that's what they have. So I mean, you've got a real problem.

Now, I mean, there's no question that we now have higher levels of kids under 17 in hospital with COVID than at any other point since the pandemic started and that's Delta variant, transmissible and problematic for kids in ways that really are bad news for all of us. And we haven't vaccinated those kids yet because we don't even have approval, emergency approval for the youngest. So that's going to slow down schools, there's no question.

There's huge politics on mask mandates, that's going to slow things down too but ultimately, I think the economic rebound in the developed world is going to continue to be very robust. The real problem here is lack of interest and support in getting vaccines out to the poor countries in the world and that means that they're going to get hit a lot worse economically. The gap between rich and poor nations on the back of COVID is only growing

ANDY SERWER: Ian, I got to ask you, how do you become, how does one become a foreign policy expert like yourself?

IAN BREMMER: So I started as a political scientist, I got a PhD, started working on it in 1989 on the former Soviet Union. And it was just as it was collapsing, so I spent five years truly immersed in the field and almost three living in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, traveling all over that part of the world, learned Russian. So I mean, that doesn't make me a foreign policy expert but that's what gave me the background in the research and methodology and understanding like how one learns about international affairs.

When I started my real job, which was creating Eurasia Group because political science, there wasn't really a company out there that hired political scientists per se, so I started one. That's been 23 years now and every year we've hired people and we've hired experts, and we've learned from them. And as I hired experts on Brazil I'd travel to Brazil, we'd go together and I'd get a better understanding of what the hell was going on.

I mean, over time, I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who says you put 10,000 hours into something and you get better at it. Well, not just that by itself but it's doing that with the resources, we've got 200 people at Eurasia Group now, and I mean, these include experts from all over the world on all of these countries, on all of these themes and topics and again, over time as you immerse yourself and engage with those people, you learn a lot more.

You've got to have the resources. I mean, I don't care how smart you are, I don't care how well-educated you are, if you don't have the people around you that are also credible and can tell you when you're wrong, and that you have a culture that really does beat each other up to get to analytic ground truth, you're not very useful as a foreign policy expert. And so first of all, it's exciting, it's hard to do that, especially in this environment.

But I'll tell you just this morning, we had on our morning call talking about what's happening in Afghanistan, over 90 people dialed in, in a firm of 200, in the middle of August, right, at the beginning of the day because everyone just wants to get a piece of what the hell's happening inside the firm. I love that culture. I find it very motivating, very energizing. And that, I mean, this 23 years in I'm more excited about what we do today and what I do today than at any point since I started the firm.

ANDY SERWER: That's great you're so engaged and energized obviously by all this. What about 20 years from now, Ian, where do you think you're going to be? Where is the firm going to be? What is the world of Ian Bremmer going to look like a couple of decades from now do you think?

IAN BREMMER: Well, I mean, I certainly wouldn't have imagined it would be at this scale today if you asked me 20 years ago. So I don't know. But I do know that I'm committed to it. And I do think that if I look at someone like Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum who just had his 50th anniversary, I mean, this is a guy who has built truly a unique global institution. And yeah, he's hardworking and he's smart, and he's well connected but part of it is he's been doing it for 50 years.

So I think like if you tell me I've been doing Eurasia Group, and GZERO Media and god knows what else, for 43 years, and attracting increasingly the world's best talent and we're expanding and we're you know, we're getting to know people that really matter. And a lot of alums from Eurasia Group are suddenly in positions that really matter and extrapolate that out, you know, it's not that every year is going to be a banner year, but over time you start to really matter globally. And so I'd like to say that the world of Eurasia Group and Ian Bremmer in 20 years time is one where if we see something or say something that we think really matters, that it makes a difference, that it moves the needle.

I mean, I'm not interested in creating the next McKinsey, I'm really not. I'm not interested in having the world's biggest consulting firm because I think look at what consulting firms do is to try to align companies to their mission to make them more efficient, make them make a little more money, right? That's not what I do.

What I'm interested in doing is aligning people around the world more with the way the world actually works. And OK, maybe that's only 10% or 5% or 2% but if I can do that, if we can do that with the people that are watching this right now, with the companies that engage with us, with the governments that engage with us, that's a real thing and over time maybe we can do more of it.

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ANDY SERWER: Ian Bremmer president and founder of Eurasia Group, thank you so much for your time, Ian.

IAN BREMMER: Always good to see you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching Influencers. I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you again soon.