COVID-19 and the Geopolitical Recession - by Ian Bremmer

/ Online Transmission - Zoom

American political scientist Ian Bremmer, one of the most respected experts on global macro policy and political risk, gave a low grade to the American response to the new coronavirus ('deserves a C to a D') in a webinar held after a week of anti-racism protests in the United States. Bremmer warned that the wealthiest country in the world is failing in the social aspect, a trend that worsened with the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

"More blacks than whites are dying from COVID-19, more blacks than whites are becoming unemployed, more blacks than whites suffer violence by the police, more blacks than whites fill the prison system," said the founder and president of Eurasia Group, a business consultancy with offices in several cities across the globe, including São Paulo, Brazil. Eurasia Group's Executive Director for the Americas, Christopher Garman, participated in the conversation, which was mediated by Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, former Brazilian ambassador to Beijing.

“Here in NY, for the past three months, all we heard were ambulance sirens day and night. Now, we hear police sirens and helicopters flying over protest-laden Manhattan. The same is true in other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. When African Americans saw the violence George Floyd suffered in Minneapolis, and nothing happened to the agent responsible for it, what could they have done other than take it to the streets, even in the midst of a serious pandemic? The United States is deeply split, and Trump does not act to unite the country. On the contrary, he deepens the division,” said Bremmer at the beginning of the webinar.

Despite criticism of American government officials – “Trump acted like a cheerleader by repeating 'don't worry, let's beat this virus,' but governors and mayors were also responsible for the slow pace in responding to the pandemic” – the analyst praised the economic response to COVID-19. “The President of the Federal Reserve, Jerome H. Powell (appointed by Trump but with an independent mandate), has done a fantastic job. In Congress, the Republican and Democratic parties collaborated to approve important measures. The stock market is reacting well, and the dollar will emerge from this crisis much stronger compared to other international currencies,” he said.

            'Big Techs are the only winners, and they are all American.'

Although the Trump administration adopts an isolationist stance towards the rest of the world, Bremmer believes that the U.S. will continue to play the cards on the global stage, mainly due to the strength of the large American technology companies. “No countries are victorious over the coronavirus. The only winners are the Big Techs, which have enabled the world economy to continue to function minimally and allow us to chat now, with over a thousand people watching us. And they are all American,” he said. 

“In the future, we will have more big data, more deep learning, more electronic surveillance, and also stronger monopolies by American companies. They will play an important role in preserving American economic and geopolitical power in the coming years and decades,” he continued. Also, according to the speaker, "Chinese technology companies are the only ones capable of challenging this monopoly. However, they will not be allowed to operate in the United States and other Western industrialized economies due to the technological cold war between Beijing and Washington D.C." 

            'G Zero: a world without global leadership'

For Bremmer, we will live in a period of “geopolitical recession” as a result of the United States' lack of appetite to continue to lead the world, a role that it has successfully played since the end of World War II (1945) until recently. With the election of Trump in 2016, the United States has adopted the slogan America First and is progressively abandoning multilateralism in favor of isolationism. “It's what I call G Zero, instead of G7 or G20, as in the past. The consequence of an absence of global leadership will be a more volatile world,” he said.

However, this geopolitical recession does bring positive news: “We will be forced to reflect on the erosion of the global governance system that has been in place until recently, which includes the UN, the WTO, the WHO, and other multilateral institutions such as NATO. They will have to be deeply reformed, or new institutions will be built from scratch,” he said.

         Beijing prefers Trump to Biden

According to the analyst, removing Washington D.C. from its traditional allies (in Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, etc.) makes room for Beijing to expand its area of influence not only in Asia but also in other continents. "If the United States intends to enter a real dispute with Beijing, the second-largest economy in the world, and the only other power with technology companies with the potential to challenge the American ones, it would be better to fight with our traditional allies on our side," he warned.

Bremmer reported that Chinese sources he spoke to recently prefer Trump's re-election more than a victory for Democrat Joe Biden in the November US elections this year. The reason would precisely be the growing American isolationism under the Republican leadership. “Both governments, Republican and Democrat, will adopt tough policies towards China. But according to the Chinese, Trump will continue to pull the U.S. out of major multilateral agreements and institutions and damage the nation's network of alliances across the world. Biden, if elected, will likely order the return of the US to the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership and prioritize forming a strong international alliance to contain Beijing,” he said.

           ‘A narcissist who takes no responsibility'

According to Ian Bremmer, who said he prefers to focus his analysis on institutions rather than people, Trump is commonly associated with three characteristics: “He certainly has an inclination towards authoritarianism, but the institutions have acted to contain it. There is no doubt that he acted unethically as a businessman and also as a politician on several occasions, but his administration shows no evidence of systemic corruption. The greatest potential to seriously harm the United States is presidential incompetence. Trump is a narcissist, listens to no one, and is not interested in taking responsibility. This is even more serious at a time when the US and the world are experiencing a major crisis,” he said.

An enthusiast of “North American exceptionalism” – the idea that the USA is a nation qualitatively different from the others and, for that reason, leads the world by example (and not only by weapons) – Bremmer said he no longer knows if this soft power is still in force. “For many decades, citizens around the world have admired American democracy and independent media, our companies, and universities. The USA was the land of opportunity and market capitalism, a model of development. With the decline of the middle class, the rise in unemployment (both structural and resulting from the pandemic), racial violence, and anti-immigration policies, does the American dream still make sense? How can we ask other peoples to follow us?” he concluded.

           Garman: 'Anti-system leaders are doing worse during the pandemic'

"Which world leaders are doing better or worse in responding to the coronavirus, according to public opinion?" Asked Christopher Garman. “We can already see a pattern emerging in both industrialized and emerging countries. The popularity of some heads of state or government has increased by 5 to 10 percentage points, or even more, after the governments they lead adopted strict measures of social isolation, mass testing, and effective monitoring of the evolution of the pandemic. It happened in Germany and South Korea, for instance. Other presidents, such as Trump, López Obrador (Mexico), and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), have seen their approval decrease, not increase. They all have strong histories of anti-system credentials in common. In the face of a serious threat, their instinct is to attack to try to get off the ropes instead of adopting rational science-based policies,” he said.

Eurasia Group's Executive Director for the Americas, Christopher Garman, said he believes there will be no impeachment or democratic breakdown in Brazil. However, Bolsonaro will be weakened, with the national Executive Branch holding less weight in the balance between the powers of Brazil's Republic. The consultant expressed concern about Brazil's fiscal situation and economic growth in the coming years, but said he believed “in the capacity of the Brazilian Congress to reduce the impact of the shock.”

“The current House and Senate leaders have very fresh in mind the memory of the lack of fiscal control created during the PT government (PT is a Brazilian political party, the Worker's Party), one of the reasons President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. I believe that Brazil's Congress will play a constructive role, and, while approving emergency funds to combat COVID-19, it will ensure that fiscal control mechanisms are not permanently compromised,” he said.

“When I look at what is happening in Brazil from a distance, I have no doubt that the Brazilian political system is not doing well. If this is any consolation, we Americans and Brazilians can be partners and experience this profound dysfunction together. Instead of America First (Trump's favorite slogan), why don't we adopt America & Brazil together?” Bremmer joked, in a rare moment when he referred directly to the situation in Brazil.


Otávio Dias, journalist, specialized in politics and international affairs, former correspondent for Folha in London and editor of the website. He is currently a content editor at Fundação FHC.

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations)

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