From Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine to persistent inflation almost everywhere, institutions and corporations will have to navigate an increasingly complicated world and economy in 2023.
These are just a few of the global risks highlighted by the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, in its annual “Top Risks” report for the new year. Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says that among the top risks are an increasingly rogue-minded Russia, and artificial intelligence.
“This list is very heavily concentrated [on] a small number of individuals with a lot of power that don’t have checks and balances and don’t have great inputs into the decision-making processes,” Bremmer said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio. “That’s true for people like Putin and Xi Jinping. But it’s also true for these technology companies and the individuals that control them.”
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: All right, two R’s here: rogue Russia. It’s an issue of life and death and war. It’s also an economic issue, right?
Ian Bremmer: Yeah, it certainly is. And I mean, it’s not that the Russians have any potential of winning on the battlefield. And that’s the good news. The bad news is they are not going anywhere. And the Russians have been decoupled economically from the Europeans. And those gas pipelines have to be built to go someplace else — that’ll take years. The Russians also have an expanded NATO to deal with and a very powerful Ukraine, and if they can’t win on the battlefield, but there’s no negotiation process, then what is Putin gonna do? And that’s what the risk’s about, is that really, this isn’t a war just with Ukraine; it’s a war with NATO. And increasingly, Russia is going to act like the world’s most powerful rogue state, where we see asymmetric attacks like cyber and fiber and pipelines and espionage against NATO frontline states. I don’t know how you don’t make that the number one risk. We’ve never dealt with anything like that before.
Brancaccio: I mean, we have these economic sanctions applied against Russia. Does Vladimir Putin and crew have anything more to lose if they were to escalate further?
Bremmer: Those sanctions are permanent, and you know, what’s interesting is that they’re hurting the Russians, of course, but not as much or as quickly as the West would like. Ukraine’s economy actually contracted by 40% because of the war last year. Russia’s — by 4%. And that means the average Russian is still very supportive of Putin even though they’re not happy about the way this war is going. It’s hard to see how you can force Putin to the table. And it’s hard to see the Americans with the Europeans doing much more than they’ve already done — nine rounds of sanctions now from Europe, all 27 countries voted unanimously for it, while they’re Americans are providing incredible amounts of military support to Ukraine, much more than anyone could have imagined. I mean, short of directly sending troops into Ukraine itself, sort of getting involved in a direct war with Russia, it’s hard to imagine what else the Americans or NATO could do.
Brancaccio: Back to the list of risks. Each year at this time, I find you losing sleep about advancing technology. I mean, I thought tech solves problems. But you worry the industry doesn’t worry enough about, I guess, consequences.
Bremmer: Yeah. And I also worry, kind of like with Putin, this list is very heavily concentrated [on] a small number of individuals with a lot of power that don’t have checks and balances and don’t have great inputs into the decision-making processes. That’s true for people like Putin and Xi Jinping. But it’s also true for these technology companies and the individuals that control them. The role that social media and artificial intelligence is playing in undermining democracies is something we’ve really never dealt with, historically. The United States back in ’89 when the [Berlin] Wall came down, we were the leading exporter of democracy around the world — sometimes for good sometimes for bad, sometimes, hypocritically, but it was still the U.S. 30 years later, the U.S. is the leading exporter of tools that destroy democracy. And that’s not intentional, it’s not the government doing it. But it’s the reality of these algorithms that are critical to the business models of these technology companies that are in the data space. And that’s clearly not going to change in 2023, it’s just going to become much more disruptive.
Brancaccio: But you could see greater moves toward regulation of the tech industry, certainly on antitrust grounds. And that could bleed over into these issues of privacy, and these issues of what tech does to democracy.
Bremmer: I think if we were doing the five or a 10-year view, we would focus on that. But usually, what happens is you need a big crisis before you actually mobilize a response, kind of like Russia-Ukraine. They invaded a little bit in 2014. No one really dealt with it. And then finally they made a big invasion, then NATO says we need to do something and they get stronger. On artificial intelligence, everyone’s complaining about it. Everyone has a different solution to the problem. No one’s actually going to launch an antitrust that’s going to break the monopolies these systems have these corporations have, no one’s going to fundamentally change the sovereignty that these technology companies have over the digital space, over the platforms they occupy, unless there’s a major crisis.
Brancaccio: If people listening feel they’re sleeping too well, as an antidote, they can read some more of your risks. But you do see some positive developments amid the risks. What’s this about younger people using their digital literacy to good ends?
Bremmer: Yes, the risk itself is called “Tik Tok Boom,” but it’s the fact that so many in the Tik Tok generation believe that activism really matters. And they feel that way far more than any other voting generation either now or at the time they were younger. And the fact that this is a much more globally oriented, a much more diverse group of people in the United States, in Europe, in all the advanced industrial democracies, it’s certainly a risk for industry leaders who have to respond to their demands. But it also is the sort of movement that leads to change. And it’s also why climate change has gotten the kind of global response, not just from governments, but also from financial institutions, from corporations, over the past years.
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