on with kara swisher

Ian Bremmer on How Putin, Xi, and Elon Musk Are Alike

Kara Swisher talks to the Eurasia Group president about global risks and strongman weaknesses.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Richard Jopson
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Richard Jopson

Things are a little crazy around the world right now with crises such as the never-ending war in Ukraine, climate change, China’s big COVID mess, the attempted insurrection in Brazil, the unrest in Iran, ongoing economic instability, and so forth. In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Kara talks to Eurasia Group president and global political-risk analyst Ian Bremmer, whose job it is to determine how various threats like these overlap and to predict what impact they could have on businesses.

The Eurasia Group recently published its annual “Top Risks” list, which forecasts the ten most significant political risks the world faces in 2023, including “Rogue Russia” (ranked as the top risk), “Weapons of Mass Disruption,” “Arrested Global Development,” the “Divided States of America,” and “Maximum Xi.” The report highlights an overarching concern: “A small group of individuals has amassed an extraordinary amount of power, making decisions of profound geopolitical consequence with limited information in opaque environments.”

In Swisher and Bremmer’s wide-ranging conversation, they go down the risk list, debate the value of attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, discuss the political impact of AI innovations like ChatGPT, and ponder whether TikTok is more like Twinkies or fentanyl. And it should come as absolutely no surprise that Elon Musk comes up several times. For the record, Bremmer believes Ukraine might not have survived Russia’s invasion if Musk hadn’t bestowed his Starlink satellite internet service upon the country. But in the below excerpts, he also explains to Kara why the tech billionaire’s ability to intervene should trouble everyone.

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Ian Bremmer: One thing that was really problematic is, after all of this good work that was being done with Starlink, suddenly you had Ukrainians in the front lines, in the occupied territories, trying to take their land back, and suddenly Starlink didn’t work. The Ukrainians didn’t know why. They thought it was a tech problem. The Americans didn’t know why. Ukrainians were getting killed. They had to pull back from some of those territories. And it’s because, after the Russians annexed them, Elon decided that Starlink needed to be —

Kara Swisher: Geofenced.

Ian Bremmer: Yeah, it needed to be geofenced, and that never should have been a decision that was being made. I mean, you can’t be in a situation where the only countries that are recognizing Russian annexation are the North Koreans, the Syrians, and Elon. Like, that’s not okay. Right.

I mean, Elon’s business model — on the one hand, you’ve got SpaceX, which is a U.S. national champion that gets contracts from the Pentagon and NASA. You’ve got Tesla, which finds China to be its most important future market, does AI development there, needs access to that data, all the rest. And then you’ve got Twitter, which is “free speech for everyone,” at least in the countries that we have some influence over. Like, it’s pretty clear that, geopolitically, those things do not work together.

Kara Swisher: No, they do not. I think the government got itself into trouble by not having options either with Starlink or with SpaceX. That’s the problem: He’s the option for many of these things.

Ian Bremmer: He’s the only option. I mean, there are Australian companies that are developing — they’re early stage, but there’s nowhere else to go that was anywhere close to as effective. And what I think should have happened is the Defense Department should have paid them for Starlink and the Defense Department should have been deciding who does and does not have geofencing. And Elon needs to have plausible deniability when the Russians and the Chinese are pressuring him, which they were. I mean, he needs to be able to say, “Hey, this is not me. I’m not the person,” and instead he’s inserting himself into the process. A very dangerous place to be.

Musk came up again later when Swisher and Bremmer’s discussion turned to the risk of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in China:

Kara Swisher: Xi Jinping himself is another — you call him a “modern-day emperor.” Talk a little bit about where he is now because obviously the “zero COVID” policy has not been good for him. And the economic performance, which he puts a lot of weight in — a lot of people in China do — are at odds with this policy. He can only stay emperor as long as he maintains economic growth. That’s my — control can only go so far with this country. But maybe you think differently.

Ian Bremmer: Look, I certainly think there are reserves of very significant stability in China. But I think that the risk list we do has the conceit of only looking at 12 months in the future. So if this wasn’t just 2023 but was the next five or ten years, then China would be No. 1. I mean, the only strange thing about “Maximum Xi” is that it’s only No. 2 on the list. I agree with that completely, but they’re very similar risks, and they shouldn’t be, because the fact is that Xi Jinping increasingly rules China the way that Putin rules Russia, the way that the supreme leader rules Iran, the way that Mark Zuckerberg and Elon rule their companies. And that’s where the risks are. The risks are —

Kara Swisher: They cannot be fired. They cannot be fired.

Ian Bremmer: They can’t be fired. They don’t get great inputs. There are a lot of yes men surrounding them. And, as a consequence, you can get really big, sudden mistakes that come out of them. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a colossal misjudgment. Xi Jinping’s decision to go from zero COVID to maximum COVID — there was no plan or preparation around that because he wasn’t getting good information. And so suddenly he just saw the demonstrations and he said, “Okay, that’s it! Let it rip!”

Kara Swisher: And now everybody has COVID.

Ian Bremmer: Everyone has COVID, and we are not gonna get information from China on new variants until they come to us — and that’s a horrible position for the world to be in.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Ian Bremmer on How Putin, Xi, and Elon Musk Are Alike