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'Trump has no endgame on N. Korea'

On his 100th day in the White House, President Donald Trump seems to have lost some of his bluster but none of his unpredictability, and seems to delight in keeping foes and friends alike guessing. His predecessor Barack Obama agonised over Syria but stayed clear of it. Mr Trump seems to have no qualms about the potential for things to go drastically wrong in North Korea, a much tougher problem, says New York-based geopolitical analyst Ian Bremmer. In a wide-ranging e-mail interview with The Straits Times, Mr Bremmer, president of the New York-based Eurasia Group, also sees challenges ahead for Mr Trump's relationship with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, despite the apparent warmth of their meeting earlier this month.

Q President Donald Trump says he will not leave North Korea for the next administration to resolve, unsubtly blaming previous administrations for kicking the can, or the nuclear football, down the road. What are you expecting to see him do?

A I expect him to keep pushing China, which he has already done with some success. But ultimately he has three choices: Work with China on a deal that North Korea could accept (as with the Iran deal), order extremely dangerous military strikes, or back down and live with a North Korea that can eventually reach mainland United States with a missile.

At this point, this is bluster but no strategy. Former president Barack Obama avoided involvement in Syria, after much agonising, because he knew there was no viable endgame that allowed for a good result. North Korea is a much tougher problem than Syria, but Mr Trump doesn't agonise. He's not worried about the endgame. But he'll have to come up with a coherent strategy.

Q After meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, Mr Trump seemed to hint at a special bond with the Chinese President that transcended the scripted tone of bilateral meetings with Chinese leaders. How much truth is there in this perception? Is personal diplomacy at all possible with a Chinese leader? Does Mr Trump's increased, direct pressure on China over North Korea augur well for China to play a more active role in solving longstanding world problems, what some see as China fulfilling its responsibility as a huge global power? How does this compare with his chemistry with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe?

A Mr Trump did go out of his way to keep things positive and professional with President Xi. He becomes a bit tamer when he recognises the importance of an occasion, as when he made his first visit to the Oval Office to meet Mr Obama during the transition period. The Mar-a-Lago meeting with Mr Xi could have gone very badly, and it's important that it didn't. Mr Trump did show seriousness on North Korea. He listened as well as spoke. China has responded to that, more than it did with Mr Obama's complaints about Pyongyang.


Mr Donald Trump being sworn in as US President in Washington on Jan 20, watched by (from left) his wife Melania and his children Barron, Ivanka, Eric and Tiffany. After 100 days in office, Mr Trump seems to have lost some of his bluster but none of his unpredictability. PHOTO: REUTERS

That said, I'm not as optimistic as your question implies because personal diplomacy won't get you very far. Mr Xi's speaking points are scripted in advance and cleared by the Politburo Standing Committee; there's only so much flexibility. You can nudge a discussion forwards or backwards, you can buy time to avoid unnecessary friction, but a breakthrough will remain out of reach because both their personal and national agendas lead them in different directions.

Mr Trump's personal chemistry with Mr Abe is much better than with Mr Xi. Mr Abe likes to golf; Mr Xi doesn't. Mr Abe is warmer, more spontaneous, more charismatic, and represents a country with interests more complementary to US interests, compared with China's.

Q Ms Ivanka Trump is reportedly popular in China. Has Mr Trump's appeal widened too? During the campaign, he was widely scorned and lampooned on social media in China. Has that changed now? Does a good working relationship with Mr Trump strengthen Mr Xi's hand in the important Chinese Communist Party congress at the year end?

A I don't think Mr Trump's appeal in China is particularly stronger than it was. When he was first elected, there was a view that he was a businessman with a transactional approach to relations who wouldn't focus on human rights. Beijing probably believed it could work with him. That confidence eroded when Mr Trump took China to task on trade issues. And it was badly damaged by the flap over Mr Trump's early comments on Taiwan. Things have improved in recent weeks, but trust is sharply limited on both sides.

Q In Mr Trump's first 100 days, are there signs Washington is taming him? He seems to have upset his conservative base, but has not won over centrists and liberals by demonstrating a willingness to provide global leadership. You criticised his "America first" policy, which you saw as disastrous as it would cause the US to cede leadership on international issues. How do you now see his actions on Syria and Afghanistan, and his statements on Iran and North Korea?

A He's somewhat normalising, yes. On Syria, he listened to military advisers, and the limited strikes were a success. Otherwise, he's not changing policy. On places where he's changing policy - Iran and North Korea - danger is growing.

Q Observers tend to dismiss Mr Trump as a man without ideology who is influenced by the last adviser to brief him, but he has arguably displayed an ability to define tough issues and apply an impolitic "whatever works" approach to them. During the campaign, he suggested that Japan and South Korea should get nuclear weapons. How much currency does this idea have with his national security team?

A Very little. Japan would be strongly opposed to that, and nuclearising South Korea would be tremendously destabilising. Mr Trump's defence and national security advisers understand this very well. It's not going to happen. It's a bit like Mr Trump's campaign comment that Nato is "obsolete". That was a political message he was testing, because he clearly felt he needed something striking to say. But then he arrived in the White House and realised just how useful Nato is. Nothing new here. Former president Bill Clinton was talking very differently about China in 1993 compared with presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

Q White House adviser Steve Bannon seems to be out of favour, and Mr Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner has emerged as the top administration and policy point man. What does Asia need to know about this smooth, young and liberal billionaire?

A Mr Bannon is a bit out of favour following much written-about personality clashes in the inner circle. It's not that his ideology is out of favour. Presidents need people they can trust, particularly when they arrive with few friends in Washington.

Mr Trump trusts family. Mr Jared Kushner and Ms Ivanka Trump are family. Mr Bannon is a valued strategist and adviser, but he is not family. That isn't going to change. German Chancellor Angela Merkel understands this well. That is why she immediately invited Ms Ivanka Trump to Berlin. This is a smart way to build a relationship with President Trump. Mr Kushner is untested, but he's smart and a calming influence on the President.

Q Has Mr Trump now "normalised" on trade, climbed down from extreme positions like imposing steep tariffs on Chinese products? Can Asian economies, which closely track the world's No.1 consumer, breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to a year in which growth prospects have unexpectedly brightened?

A No, I wouldn't say that. Mr Trump is still the guy who couldn't wait to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite support for it within his party. He's still talking about the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he just launched tariffs on softwood lumber from Canada. He's bought time with Mr Xi, and the new US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is now engaging. But he's hardly a globalisation cheerleader with China. That relationship is going to get more challenging.

Q On South China Sea territorial disputes, there is talk now of China sewing up a code of conduct with Asean nations to prevent the possibility of military flare-ups, do you see this as the triumph of Chinese diplomacy?

A They're making progress. But not with everyone - look at the backsliding with President Rodrigo Duterte and the Philippines. There's a lot more jostling going on there at the moment. China's military growth will stoke more resentment in the region, even given their growing economic importance.

Q In France, you have been predicting that right-wing leader Marine Le Pen would win, yet polls favour rival Emmanuel Macron now. Do you still see scope for Ms Le Pen's victory?

A I've never predicted she would win. I've said only that her chances are much, much higher than most others appear to believe. In fact, I've got a public bet going with The Economist about this because I put her chances at "close to a coin flip" while they put her at 1 per cent.

I do think a Le Pen victory is possible, though not likely. In France, anti-establishment forces are still strong. The traditional parties of power in France finished in third and fifth place in the first round of presidential voting. And while Mr Macron is an outsider who has never run for office before, nobody sees him that way. He served in French President Francois Hollande's (extremely unpopular) government. He's a banker. He's been endorsed by the European commission! That's not going to play well with some French voters.

The bigger question is how he will govern without anything close to a majority in the National Assembly. The true anti-establishment parties just gained record levels of support. They won't just disappear after Mr Macron wins.

Q After France, Britain will go to the polls. Do you expect Prime Minister Theresa May to be voted back in June with a strong mandate to carry out Brexit?

A Yes, she has made a smart bet. The Conservative Party will do well. It already has a big lead on the Labour Party, and Mrs May believes, probably correctly, that she can steal away Labour voters who supported Brexit. And her victory will strengthen her position at Brexit negotiations. It was an intelligent move, particularly for her domestic mandate. She will be strengthened relative to those within her party who would second-guess her every move.

Q In Iran, do you see President Hassan Rouhani coming back in the May 19 elections and ensuring Iran stays on the moderate path?

A Yes, that's very likely. His economic record is relatively strong after the pain of the sanctions years. We expect centrist/reformist voters to turn out in big numbers. One of his leading conservative challengers is little known, and the other has faced accusations of corruption. And many senior leaders want to keep the nuclear deal in place as Iran's economic prospects and geopolitical position improve. We've come a long way from the green revolution days of 2009.

Q You've been overall pessimistic on 2017, forecasting this as a year of "geopolitical recession". Has your view changed?

A Not at all. This is a broad call. It doesn't hit everywhere. Mr Trump continues to confuse allies, rivals and lots of Americans. Europe still has more than its share of problems. Brazil's future is unclear, Turkey's troubles have deepened, and things have gone very badly in South Africa. Yet, China remains solid, Russia is still stagnant, and India continues to do very well under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We still don't have viable solutions to big transnational problems like climate change, and cyberspace is becoming a much more dangerous place. The effects are uneven, but the geopolitical recession is very much with us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline ''Trump has no endgame on N. Korea''. Print Edition | Subscribe