Outside the Box

Superpower

May 20, 2015

Ian Bremmer’s new book on the future of the US and geopolitics, Superpower, just hit the streets yesterday, and it’s already creating quite a buzz. It draws on Bremmer’s remarkable understanding of politics, America, and the world. I first ran into Ian at a conference about four years ago, where he was the after-dinner keynote speaker. It was one of those dinners where I had to go (I had spoken earlier), and I confess I had no knowledge of Ian other than his official bio. A professor of geopolitics. From New Yawk. So this Texas boy settled in while Ian walked on stage … and in three seconds I realized that this was an uber-nerd. Total geek. Seriously, when Hollywood wants to type cast a brilliant super-nerd, they should use Ian as the model. He hit all my stereotype buttons, and I of all people should know better.

Now I know, you’re saying it takes a nerd to know a nerd, and I do get that. But within five minutes, this nebbish professor was blowing me away. I was totally captivated. He took me on a trip through the geopolitical landscape as profound as any I had ever been on. I knew that I had to have him at my own conference, and he has been a featured speaker and crowd favorite there for the past three years.

Ian gave one of the most compelling presentations at our most recent Strategic Investment Conference. No fancy Powerpoint, just one machine-gun idea after another, strung together in what I now realize is his own carefully crafted style.

As I shared with you in Thoughts from the Frontline last week, Ian’s summary of the geopolitical situation and America’s role in managing it can be expressed in two words: it’s bad.

The US is not in decline, he asserts in today’s Outside the Box, citing “the strength of the dollar, US equity markets, employment levels and the economic rebound, the energy and food revolutions, and generation after generation of technological innovation”; but America’s foreign policy and international influence are most certainly in decline. Nevertheless, no other country can even come close to claiming superpower status, so the role the US chooses to play in the world remains of paramount importance.

For the past quarter-century, says Ian, our leaders have just been winging it:

From the fall of the Wall and Soviet collapse, US presidents of both parties have defined America’s mission in terms of tactics. US foreign policy has been reactive and improvisational for 25 years. And we can no longer identify a Democratic or Republican approach to foreign policy.

That’s where we, the American public, come in. We will have a national election in a year and a half, and our foreign policy needs to be front and center in the national conversation until then. To help us think about how we want to be in the world, in Superpower Ian offers three dramatically different foreign policy alternatives, which he outlines in today’s OTB. As I read Ian’s book, there was, I confess, an attraction to each elemental strategy.

I remember being at the Naval War College a few years ago, where Andrew Marshall of the Office of Net Assessment (the premier Defense Department think tank) assigned one group to split up intro three and adopt radically different views of what US strategy should be vis-à-vis China. These were serious thinkers from a wide variety of fields, and they spent over a week developing their arguments. Andy was kind enough to let me sit in on the final presentations and discussion at the end of the week. I found myself nodding as each presentation was rolled out, but at the conclusion I noticed that what I had thought was the most illogical position at the beginning (a nearly total military disengagement from Asia and a renewed focus on our borders and defense) made a great deal of sense. It gave me a great deal to think about.

That is the same feeling I had when I read Ian’s book. Each strategy will have its proponents, and all have their own logic; but that is why we need to have this national discussion. Rather than responding to events tactically, we need to have a national strategy. What is in the real interest of the world’s dominant power? Most of us can agree that the last 20 years has seen a mishmash of US actions that in hindsight we might want to change.

Which path forward does Ian prefer? He’s not going to tell us until the final chapter of the book, he says, but he makes as forceful a case as he can for each of the three choices, and he believes that each is viable. He adds, “I hope this book will help set the stage for a serious-minded, constructive debate among the candidates in 2016.”

Now, you can actually see this policy debate taking shape as the various candidates (on both sides) lay out their views of the future role of the US in the world.

I seriously urge you to get this book. Just like Ian’s speaking style, it is easy and mesmerizing. It is the opposite of nerdy. There is a reason that the company he founded, the Eurasia Group, is perhaps the largest geopolitical strategy think tank in the world and that his rather pricey service is subscribed to by Fortune 1000 companies and global funds. Ian is one of the most insider-connected guys I know. He literally got up from a dinner one night a few years ago with “the guys” in NYC, apologizing that he had to leave because Japanese President Abe was in town and wanted to see him. I am going to get together with him in a few weeks when I’m in NYC. I think I’ll ask who’s on his speed dial.

Get Superpower and read it. Click on the link if you are an online guy, or get to your bookstore. It will be there.

I am on yet another plane, flying from Raleigh to Atlanta to attend a board meeting for Galection Therapeutics (GALT) for the next day and a half before I head back to Dallas. I guess it’s geopolitical week for me, as my old friends George and Meredith Friedman will be over for dinner Friday night. George delivered his own power speech at my conference. I look forward to being able to get both George and Ian’s speeches up on the web for you as soon as possible.

I have spent four fabulous nights at the Umstead Hotel just outside of Raleigh. It’s one of the finest hotels I have been in anywhere. And even better was being with a group of friends and getting to have long serious conversations with Mark Yusko, Raoul Pal, and Kyle Bass and catching up with Dennis Gartman. Long days but really good ones.

And as I hit the send button – just so you’ll know that I don’t think being a nerd is a problem – let’s remember the answer to the old question: “What do you call a nerd after five years on the job?”

“Boss.”

And now, let’s enjoy Ian’s intro to his book that he sent to his clients this week.

Your proud of being a geek analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Superpower

By Ian Bremmer

President Obama hosts a Gulf security summit, and most Arab leaders decide not to attend. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to Washington to address Congress on Iran over protests from the president. Britain ignores pleas from the United States and becomes a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a potential competitor for the World Bank. The Obama administration gripes that the Brits are pandering…

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2 comments

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Comments

Fabien Hug

May 20, 9:13 a.m.

I’ll read the book when I find it but none of these options seem to be assessed through the budgetary lens. Money is the nerve of war as we say in French.

veritas.pacem@gmail.com

May 20, 8:17 a.m.

Wow, thank you again, John Mauldin, for bringing such a “big thinker” to my Inbox.

Dr. Bremmer succeeded in bringing me into his “though experiment” of some of the options that are open to the United States. While intriguing, at the end of the piece I was snapped back to reality with the thought, “Yeah, but they [the leaders] will never take hold of the rudder like this.”

At least “Moneyball” and “Indispensible” options require placing someone high in the decision-making organization who can identify current trends and respond to them. While such people certainly exist, IMHO it is a low probability (i.e., “a bad bet”) that they will be let anywhere near foreign policy. Furthermore, if such a person was in place, the broken decision process inside the beltline would make even the most insightful conclusions impossible to execute.

I’m glad Dr. Bremmer brought this to the national discussion—at just the right time. I am less than optimistic that the U.S. will diverge from its current path of being “reactive and improvisational”.

Thank you, John Mauldin and Ian Bremmer for bringing into such sharp focus just how poorly our country is being—and has been—led. I intend to be equally disparaging of both parties, and representative democracy, which is so easily swayed by a paltry few billions of dollars per year.