Month: September 2021

Ben Rhodes: After the Fall – Democracy, Authoritarianism and America

Ben Rhodes was the Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama.

A foreign policy expert, he is the host of ‘Pod Save The World’ and appears on MSNBC. His latest book ‘After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made’ is a study of the rising tide of global authoritarianism, exploring why democracy did not prevail as expected after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Ben for a chinwag about his new book, including why the failure to punish bankers in the GFC helped fuel the global rise of authoritarianism, why democracy needs to materially deliver for people to believe in it, how obsession with profits is undermining the fight against the Chinese Communist Party, how democracy itself is becoming a partisan issue in the US, why social media must be regulated, how Biden was right about Afghanistan all along, what Obama is like a person, and how fighting for democracy in America should give confidence to global democratic activists fighting for their own.

TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Ben Rhodes, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ben Rhodes:

Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, super excited to have you here and want to talk about your new book, but I thought just to start us off for people that aren’t massive political or national security nerds in particular, I just wondered if maybe you’d give a quick brief rundown on your time in the Obama White House, and particularly when you were Deputy National Security Advisor. So what is that role and how does it participate in the security apparatus?

Ben Rhodes:

So I had a unique role. I was a speech writer on the Obama campaign and a Foreign Policy Advisor. And when I came into the White House, I was the senior speech writer on national security and foreign policy. And so I really was just doing speech writing and a little communications. But then in September 2009, so just a few months in the administration, I got promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor with a set of responsibilities. So I was responsible for all speech writing, all communications around foreign policy, national security. And that’s, what is the president saying? What is the State Department saying every day, how we’re responding to events. And it’s also our oversees public diplomacy and engagement programs. How do we engage with foreign public’s… Fulbright would be a part of that for instance, but then also as a Deputy National Security Advisor, I was a part of the National Security Council policy making process.

Ben Rhodes:

And what that means in the US is there’s something called the Deputies Committee where the Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy of Secretary Defense… You need to basically formulate policy options that then go up to the Cabinet for the president for approval. So you’re basically a part of the process on any issue where we’re developing a policy or where we’re responding to events. And so I participated in that. I also met with the president every morning when he got his presidential daily briefing and was a Senior Advisor to him basically as he made decisions on national security. And for me in my role, I also, because I was close to Obama, I would plan his foreign travel. Where’s he going to go?

Ben Rhodes:

What is he going to give speeches on? What messages is he trying to send with his foreign policy? And then I could take up particular projects that he was interested in. I negotiated the opening between the United States and Cuba because Obama wanted that done and it had to be discreet channel. So I had this job with specific functions around communications, participating in the policy making process, and then just advising Obama personally.

Misha Zelinsky:

Already an extremely cool job, mate. And we’ll come back to your time in the White House, but I do want to talk about your book because your time’s important, you’re here to plug things and now that I’m in America, [crosstalk 00:02:46] that’s selling, right? So, but your latest book After the Fall, you sort of chronicle the way the world has changed. And you sort of map out these pivot points. You sort of start with the end of the Cold War and the sort of end of history, then we have 9/11, we have the global financial crisis and then we more or less have what Trump brings it type event-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… and that populist uprising. And then why do you map these out as the key pivot points in modern history from then?

Ben Rhodes:

So I’ll do it quick, as quick as I can here, which is essentially I was trying to investigate in this book, why has there’ve been this rise of nationalist authoritarianism everywhere? And I really looked at the period after the Cold War. The period of time during which we thought you were going to have the spread of globalization, open markets and democracy. And that was the end of history. And I picked those events because first of all, in many ways, beginning with the end of the Cold War, that’s the starting gun for the world that we live in. And I looked at the US, I looked at China and how they were able to weather Tiananmen to get to where they are. I looked at Russia, why they went the way of Putinism and then Hungary, this country that started with all the hope of liberal democracy and within a couple of decades had moved to autocracy.

Ben Rhodes:

And I think the other events… 9/11 for me, I came to see as a time when the United States made its national purpose and project in the world, fighting terrorism in ways that I think have been corrosive to democracy in the US itself. It bred this kind of xenophobia, an us-versus-them brand of politics that morphed over time into Trumpism. And in other countries like the CCP or Russia, that framework of anti-terrorism was used to crack down on dissent and legitimize authoritarianism. Then I think the Iraq War is another key event in that it began to undermine confidence in America as the steward of a world order. And then I think the ’08 financial crisis is hugely important to the story I was telling, because that was the time at which if you look at Hungary, they were already building dissatisfaction with globalization and the inequality created by spreading markets, the corruption of political elites.

Ben Rhodes:

And then when the whole bottom falls out of the system in 2008, it really opened the door for say Hungary or right wing politician, like Viktor Orbán to come along and say, “Hey, this whole project is failing, globalization and liberal democracy. What I can offer you is the traditional nationalism,” right, “We’re the real Hungarians. And we oppose immigrants. We oppose foreign forces.” And then Putin could take the financial crisis and say, “See, look, the West is just as corrupt as anything here.” In fact, Navalny, Alexei Navalny, told me that that was a huge gift to Putin to essentially make the case that that everybody’s corrupt. So again, you might as well have a strong man who reflects your views. And I think for China, it was a pivot point where they went from deferring to American leadership to saying, “Well, we can challenge these guys.”

Ben Rhodes:

And I think you see the Chinese become steadily more assertive after ’08. So I obviously then come up through Trump and Obama, but I think that those events, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, the financial crisis were a trail that leads to a lot of the geopolitics we’re dealing with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

So then why did the Cold War project fail, the post Cold War project fail? I mean, this sort of history doesn’t end. You sort of have just before the GFC, you have this sort of unipolar moment of American Western Exceptionalism. And you’ve got Bill Clinton talking about just a sort of end of history sort of thesis, right? And then you have, fast-forward to today, you’ve got Joe Biden, essentially saying, “The question for the world is can democracy deliver for people in a meaningful way?” And so it’s staggering to think that in about 20 years, we’ve gone from that sort of complete confidence-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… to complete lack of confidence. One of the reasons I believe is that democracies have to deliver at home, if they’re going to deliver, you’re going to sort of shop them abroad, so to speak.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, is there anything that… What are the key sort of planks that you see as the reason why that project, that 30 year project after the fall of the Berlin Wall sort of failed, really?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, yeah. I mean, and first of all, I think it is important to say before I get negative in answering the question, look, a lot of good was done in those 30 years, right? I mean, standards of living around the world are improved. Hundreds of millions of people have been moved out of poverty. There hasn’t been a war between the great powers. So there are elements of that period that were progressed or made progress. I, in my book, I really focus on three factors that contributed to the failures of the last 30 years in terms of where we are politically. First was in capitalism. And I think the failure to effectively regulate markets and deal with inequality led to a really undermining of confidence in elites and in establishments around the world. That whether you’re blaming bureaucrats in Brussels or special interests in Washington, a lot of people around the world felt they were getting screwed and while a bunch of people are getting really rich.

Ben Rhodes:

And so I think, one is that unbridled American version of capitalism led to the GFC. The second, I think is the policy choices made after 9/11 by the United States. Look, in addition to what I said about the increased polarization and toxicity in our own politics, I think the post-9/11 mindset undermined aspects of American democracy from within. And in addition to the template that I think it offered the Russias and Chinas of this world to justify repression, I think it also attached concepts like democracy itself to the war in Iraq, right. I mean, that was used to justify the war in Iraq. I think it undermined the promotion of democratic values to have it so attached with post-9/11 wars that were not going well for the United States.

Ben Rhodes:

And then the third piece, if you have essentially capitalism and national security, post-9/11, the third piece is technology and the manner in which social media platforms in particular, they were thought to be these ultimate tools in empowerment and connecting people become the ultimate tools of disinformation say emanating from Russia or surveillance and control from the CCP. And so in a weird way, I describe in the book being in China and getting woken up at night and warned by Chinese officials that Obama, who I was traveling with in late 2017 after he was president, that Obama shouldn’t meet with the Dalai Lama on an upcoming trip to India. And in addition to it being strange to be woken up to be warned that, we hadn’t announced that meeting. I’d just been put in email contact with the Dalai Lama’s representative. So they were unsubtly letting me know they were monitoring somebody’s engagements.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yes, not subtle at all.

Ben Rhodes:

Not subtle. And so I walk outside and I’m looking at the Bund, the Shanghai skyline, and it looks like the future, right? There’s lights everywhere, people taking selfies with selfie sticks. And I thought to myself, if you took the last 30 years of American hegemony, the hyper capitalism, the national security focus and the technological advancement, and you just stripped all the democracy out of it, you would get basically what I was experiencing in China. So I think we have to see the ways in which it’s not… it shouldn’t be a surprise that the world evolved to that place, given the events in the last 30 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so just going back to your first point about inequality, I want to ask a question about the response to the GFC because I agree that that was a big pivot point in the economic model. And then there was people that perhaps caused this problem with it being the financial sector of the economy. And then people, the middle-class lost its savings and its wealth, particularly in United States and other parts of the world. And then bankers were seen to have gotten away and gone back to business as usual. So and at that time as well, you sort of saw the rise of two concurrent movements, grassroots movements. One was perhaps more grassroots than the other, but you had the Tea Party coming through and you had the Occupy Movement. One being perhaps extreme left, the other being more of extreme right-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… proposition, which is both a backlash against elite, so to speak. In the end Occupy, it may have found some expression in Sanders, et cetera, but the Tea Party has been highly successful in taking over the Republican party at a national level. So I suppose the question for you is, I mean, should the Obama administration have done more to punish the bankers? Obama covers this in his memoirs. It’s sort of, it’s easy to say now. And at the time, he was trying to get the economy going, et cetera, but do you think there is a case for there to have been more severe punishment because justice not only has to be done, but has to be seen to be done as well, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. So first of all, I agree with the premise. I look in the book at how the Tea Party movement in the US mirrored the rise of Orbán’s party in Hungary. But essentially you had a lot of angry disaffected people from rural areas, people that reflect the traditional Christian base of the Right in each country who were so angry at what had happened in their own lives. And so filled with grievance toward political elites, and then in the US it had the racialized component of a black president that they were very ripe for a right-wing populism that says, “Hey, here’s the traditional identity, put on the Jersey, “We’re the real Americans,” or, “We’re the real Hungarians.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Blood and soil type message, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Blood and soil nationals. Right. And I think that Obama, when I look back on that, there were two decisions to scrutinize. One is that he basically, in order to save the economy, he preserved the inequality in the economy because the method of saving the economy was essentially to pump trillions of dollars. It’s like a patient that was dying and you just pump it full of oxygen to come back to life. But that means it comes back to life with all of the same baked in inequalities. And so there’s an argument that he should have let the financial system collapse more in order to build something back that was different.

Ben Rhodes:

Then, he’s spoken to this in his memoir, and I’ve talked to him about this a lot. I mean, he still would say, “Hey, look. If the whole thing had collapsed, it’s not like I would have gotten reelected anyway.” And frankly, the anger at that could have produced something even worse, and there was a backlash, which I think is a reasonable. I do think that in retrospect, I wish we’d done more on inequality in those first two years because we lost congressional majorities after two years and basically couldn’t do anything.

Ben Rhodes:

So I think a lot of things that we presumed we’d have chance to do, we lost that chance. And then the second point is accountability. And I think you’re right. I just think people didn’t see a consequence being imposed on people that had brought down the whole global economy. And again, I think Obama would argue that it’s some of what they did was legal. And that was part of the problem. That there were… In fact, I’ll tell you, let you in on a secret, not secret anymore, taking about it in a podcast. But when Obama read my book, he took issue with me alluding to the fact that there should have been people prosecuted because he’s like, “The real scandal is, it was totally legal to have these financial schemes.” That said, I think if there’s any way to make more of an example of some people through enforcement, it would have at least made people less open to appeals from a Trump and Putin that everything is rigged.

Ben Rhodes:

And the funny thing is, again, something that Obama has explained to me, it’s a guy like Putin, and I’d say, Trump, too, doesn’t need to convince you that they’re not corrupt. They’re just trying to convince you that everybody’s corrupt.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

So it doesn’t matter that I am, right? And so that’s where I still think as difficult as it might have been, just a little more reckoning with the financial crisis could have been politically helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I mean, cynicism is just toxic in a democracy, right.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, that’s exactly what they’re trying to breed. So, your book… you look at this sort of globally connected movement towards right wing authoritarianism or ethno-nationalism, or whatever you want to call it. But you do talk also about growing up in the Cold War and the sort of confidence that America would win. And this confidence that the West had in itself and you use Rocky IV as your base case, which is awesome, really. I’ve seen that movie, I don’t know, 250 times.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

You could have put in Top Gun as well, and you really would have had me, mate, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… so, I mean, I suppose the question is now, are you this confident now that the West can prevail against the CCP and Russian authoritarianism that they’re trying to export around the world? Do you think that it feels as natural that the West will prevail in that struggle?

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I think that first of all, the Rocky IV point is actually relevant here in the sense that part of what I was getting at is that there was this national identity that Americans had that was tied up in the Cold War-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… and standing up for certain values. And we lost that at the end of the Cold War. But part of that is also to be thinking… So if you think about how that interacts with popular culture, you get movies like Rocky IV, which obviously, simplifications, but they’re about democracy versus autocracy, right? I mean, that’s what the fight is. And today a Rocky IV type movie about the Chinese Communist party couldn’t get made by Hollywood.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right. I mean that’s really an interesting point.

Ben Rhodes:

And not only are there not movies being made or TV shows that they made that are critical of the Chinese Communist party directly, they’re not even really movies that are made that are about democracy being the good guys, right? There’s… and I’m not saying there should be state pop culture propaganda, but I actually think the popular culture is a reflection of where the culture is. And in Cold War, the culture wanted to give expression to democracy, and what we were fighting for. Today, the culture is in pursuit of profit.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

And so the Chinese market is more important than advocating for the values of democracy or telling stories about Hong Kong protesters. So I think it’s weirdly emblematic of the fact that we as societies and I count Australia too, don’t prioritize democracy in the same way that we used to, relative to things like profit or traditional identity. And I think that relates to a piece of what this competition is between autocracy and democracy, which is that in some ways, the CCP is counting on the United States and other free societies to care so much more about their profit motive in China, that they won’t even engage in an ideological…. Will basically self censor on things that the CCP cares about.

Ben Rhodes:

And, so it’s an interesting test case. The day that we stop pursuing profit vis-a-vis China, because we care more about democracy is the first day in which we might be on our way to winning that contest as a way of answering your question. Because right now, the incentive structures in society are weirdly more aligned with the CCPs interests than with the interests of democracy. So I’m with Joe Biden when he says democracies have to deliver, we have to do big things. We have to build infrastructure and solve problems. But more intangibly, we also just have to care enough about democracy, that that’s really our top priority, both at home and abroad.

Misha Zelinsky:

It is an interesting question though, right? Because the Cold War was much cleaner in the sense that there was a clear line, there was an Iron Curtain and the systems were separated on an information basis, on a political basis and an economic basis. Now you’ve got economic integration, information system integration to an extent. They’ve closed their system-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… but ours is open and the political contest exists in this mess. And so you’re right. It’s become much more difficult. In Australia, we’re obviously suffering at the moment with trade coercion from the CCP. But we’re not alone. China routinely… But yeah, the NBA’s a famous example where-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… someone spoke up about Chinese domestic affairs and next thing you know, the NBA has been threatened with being denied access to billions of dollars in Chinese viewership and market access, et cetera.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how we flip that on a set, I think is the challenge. And I think the Hollywood example is great, but the question then is, how did we win this contest? Because if it’s… At the moment, the openness, I suppose, of democracies is being exploited in an asymmetric way, right. But how do you win an open closed system contest without losing what makes you special, right? I mean, you already talk about all the freedoms that we lost as a result of 9/11 and we’re probably a less free societies than we were 20 years ago. How do we prevail while still being true to our values, not losing, I suppose, what makes democracy special?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, I think that you want to go back to first principles and setting the best example of what, in the US case obviously, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy can do. And that’s the delivering part. Beyond that though, I think there are things that we can do to protect the health of our democracies that I don’t think are akin to pulling up drawbridges and closing society, but are logical steps taken in response to events. And so, take social media as an example, right? The way we currently regulate or don’t regulate social media is both incredibly corrosive to our democracies because it allows for the mass spread of disinformation, the creation of alternative realities, the radicalization of certainly the right wing. But it also is just this open space for Russia or China to influence our politics and our debates by [crosstalk 00:22:04] turbocharging algorithms and spreading disinformation.

Ben Rhodes:

And so to me, any effort to improve the health of our democracy will have to address the regulation of social media. So that algorithms are not written in a way to prioritize the spread of sensational information. So that there is responsibility on platforms to remove hate speech and disinformation in a way that will both make it harder for foreign adversaries to interfere in our politics. And also, I think in the long run, make our democracies healthier because there’s just less scaling up of people feeding on hatred and disinformation conspiracy theory. So I actually think the steps that we have to take to reform our own democracies… I also, for instance, think in the US we have huge problems with money in politics and how that’s distorted our politics.

Ben Rhodes:

That’s also a vehicle for foreign interference in our politics, too. Dark money in particular. So I think in the United States, the things that we would have to do to clean up our democracy and to better regulate social media would make us much stronger at home and also put us in a position to be more competitive with China or Russia without again, resorting to our own Iron Curtain here.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so what about the health of democracy at home? I mean, in the United States, polarization has been around us for a long time, but I mean, it’s most incredibly and horrifically sort of demonstrated in the insurrection at the Capitol on sixth January this year. What is the rest of the world to make of this event, I suppose. And secondly, I often put it in these terms that Australia, we’re formally aligned with the United States. For democracy, United States is the star player, right? And so if the star player is not on the field or the star player’s lost his confidence, or if the star player is injured, you’re less likely to win. Team democracy can’t hope to prevail. So if with this denialism of the result and the insurrection, is democracy in the United States now a partisan question? I mean, is this no longer a bi-partisan question? And what does that mean for democracy?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. That’s a central argument of my book. And I start with this anecdote of… I met with this Hungarian activist in Germany, and this is the beginning of me just trying to figure out, “Why is this happening everywhere?” And I asked him, “How did Hungary go from being a single party,” or, “How did it go from being a liberal democracy in 2010 to basically a single party autocracy in a decade?” And he said, “Well, that’s simple. Victor Orbán gets elected on a right wing, populist backlash to the financial crisis. He redraws parliamentary districts to entrench his party in power. Changes voting laws to make it easier for his party to vote. Enriches some cronies through corruption who then both finance his politics, but also buy up the media and turn it into a right wing propaganda machinery. Packed the courts with right wing judges and wrap it all up in a nationalist us-versus-them message. Us, the real Hungarians, against them, the immigrants, the Muslims, George Soros.”

Ben Rhodes:

And I mean, he was basically describing the playbook that the American Republican party has pursued. And again, I think that’s part of how you explain January 6th to the rest of the world. They’re like, “Actually, this is a version of what’s happening in a lot of countries where you essentially have one political party that has abandoned democracy.” And I think we have to accept that the Republican party is no longer a small-d democratic political party, because they’ve been trying to entrench minority rule of majority in this country through the same means as Orbán the last decade. And now they’re passing laws at the state level to literally give Republican officials the capacity to overturn the results of elections to do what Trump wanted to do after he lost the last election. And so we’re… You have to think of it as not polarization per se, but as one party just leaving the democratic field and choosing to pursue power through alternative means.

Ben Rhodes:

I think the answer to that in the United States, the only answer to that is for the foreseeable future, putting the biggest possible tent over everybody who doesn’t want that to happen and that’s progressive Democrats, that’s more centrist Democrats, that’s disaffected Republicans. It took all of those constituencies mobilizing together in the last election just to beat Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:

It was close.

Ben Rhodes:

In Hungary, it’s interesting, the opposition… It was close. It’s a little too close for comfort. In Hungary, the opposition is doing the same thing. All five parties have decided to band together and nominate one person in this next election in Hungary. But I think the lesson everywhere is that we’re in an existential period for democracy itself. And therefore, we need to have the biggest tent opposition to that. We can’t suffer internal divisions.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so how confident are you that this genie can be put back in the bottle in the United States? I mean, there’s been periods in the past where the United States had populous movements and nationalist movements, and there’s been far right candidates for presidents, et cetera, in the past, but the system has held and the system did hold on this occasion, but are you confident that this… Can the fever break, to put it into President Obama’s terminology?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think the fever is going to break and because I think it’s tied to the information question, the social media question that you’ve got like 40% of this country, that’s just been living in a different reality than me. And not my views, but did Donald Trump win the election? Is climate change real? Do masks help slow the spread of COVID. And so that means that we’re going to have a radical strain in American politics for some time now. But I think the system can hold. It did in the last election. Right now though, you see more worrying trends than at any time in my life in America, because I think quite simply, a good chunk of this country would be willing to give up on democracy, basically the Republican base.

Ben Rhodes:

And so it’s just going to take a pretty determined and vigilant effort to preserve that democracy. I think though the positive, and maybe I’m groping for positive here, but in that is the United States in some ways, has become more recognizable to a lot of countries, right? We can have the corrupt autocrat with the son-in-law down the hall. We can have the mob storming parliament. And I think if, instead of just issuing lectures about democracy from on high, if we in the next five, 10, 15 years can fight our way through this, I think that’s actually a more relevant example for other countries and hopefully can give momentum to a pendulum swinging back because I mean, usually the pendulum does swing back and I, for one, still think most people would rather live without a boot on their throat.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I think the counterpoint to the sort of rising authoritarianism is that you see the struggles for democracy in China itself, in Hong Kong, obviously Taiwan, which is what democratic China would look like. What I’m sort of… I’d be curious, you’re talking in your book about quite a bit about Xi Jinping, the man. Now we know about his policies and how he’s, I suppose, the world’s most famous autocrat, I’m outwardly projecting, but what was your impressions of him as a person? And what did it tell you about his politics and policies?

Ben Rhodes:

So what was interesting about Xi Jinping is that Hu Jintao, his predecessor, if you met with them, met with Hu and the Chinese, he basically seemed a first among equals. He also had very little personality. He was going to read… Obama used to joke with me that we’d be in these bilateral meetings where Hu would read a set of talking points and then the translator had the same points printed out and just read them. Point being, is it like Obama said, “Maybe we could just exchange the talking points.” This guy would never go off the party prepared script. After Xi Jinping took power, Obama invited him to the summit in Sunnylands, California, where for a couple of days they spent time informally together. And right away, you started to notice that interpreter is scribbling things down. Xi Jinping is not on the talking points and he’s much more assertive.

Ben Rhodes:

And he changed… The Chinese always talked about Taiwan and Tibet as core interests. Things that they saw as fundamental to their sovereignty. Xi was talking about the entire South China Sea like that. He brought to meet Obama… he brought some Chinese alcohol, the moonshine drink they have, and he’s doing shots at dinner. So this was a guy that was his own man. He’s not just a Communist party functionary. He was very assertive. He was expanding the definition of what China’s core interests were. And he would engage in these intellectual debates about collectivism and Confucianism versus individualism. And so he was a sea change from Hu Jintao. And the whole Chinese system has reflected since then this much more assertive personality. It infuses everything that the party has done since then.

Misha Zelinsky:

And before we just switch to some… I’m keen to get your feedback on some critiques of your… not my critiques, but the critics.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned in your book, and I’ve just got to ask you, you talk about being hacked by the Chinese personally. And you’ve given an example there where they’d read your emails, but then you talk about you were going to China and you were advised not to take your phone, take a burner phone and leave your laptop at home. And then you just decided, “No, bugger it. I’ll just go anywhere.” As a national security expert, I’m fascinated that you took that view and that you just went in and thought, “Well, I’ve got no secrets from the Chinese anyway.”

Ben Rhodes:

Well, that’s actually, you put your finger on it in the sense of the period of time I’m describing, right? 2018, 2019. I’m a private citizen so I don’t have anything particularly secret. Well, nothing on my devices that is sensitive other than it’s my own stuff. And then weirdly, maybe fatalistically, I think just because I’ve been in the public eye and I know I’ve been a public target of espionage and surveillance. You just weirdly are like, “The Chinese, the Russians maybe the Israelis, they’re likely read my comms.” And you try to operate like that, right. So you’re more careful about what you put on communications because you know that there’s no foolproof way to prevent those kinds of attacks. So to me, yeah, you can take issue with it and you can rightly expect higher cyber hygiene from people like me. I guess what I’m just trying to honestly portrays is the fatalism-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… of well, of course, they’re in my email, they’ve been trying to get in for 15 years. [crosstalk 00:33:32].

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:33:32] it’s two kinds of people, yeah. There’s people that have been hacked by the Chinese Communist Party, and people that will be hacked by the Chinese Communist Party.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, and to be clear, this doesn’t… I mean, I don’t want to overstate this because I’m very vigilant to not click on links. I’m very… I can spot things and try to avoid it. I’m very careful obviously, with networks that I’m on. That’s what got them in trouble in the Clinton campaign, then you’re bringing them into a whole network and stuff. So, again, I advise myself and everybody to be as vigilant as possible. I guess I was portraying in my own imperfection, my own mistake, even in that case, an honest portrayal of the mindset that we all have sometimes of like, “It’s inevitable.”

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, very interested in getting your take. So your book’s been very, I think, very well received and it’s smashing it in the sales, but the other side of politics will say that… I mean, you basically present your book in a really interesting way to me, which was that you’re an American traveling in the world that the US created.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So this is basically the world that since 1989, the United States has been shaping, setting the rules, enforcing the rules, et cetera. Free markets, consumerism. But others will say, “Well, there’s an American apologist type rhetoric in it.” That America shouldn’t be embarrassed of itself in this way. How do you respond to that critique?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, no, I get it all the time. And anything I do is never totally well received because you can count on one half of the debate to absolutely savage me, and it’s tied in this… So here’s my very simple answer to that. I think that it is an incredibly American thing, and is an expression of love for America to try to identify the ways in which America can get better. I mean, and this is why I settled in the book, this question of what does it mean to be an American? I think what it means to be an American is to recognize that America is always short of the aspiration we set, all people are created equal, everybody equal under the law.

Ben Rhodes:

And so the identification of where we’ve gone wrong is an expression of love for America because that’s what makes America great. It’s our capacity to get better, our capacity to improve. I always… It’s funny to me when I get cast as America hater, because as we’ve talked, I was a Rocky IV-

Misha Zelinsky:

It doesn’t get any more patriotic than that.

Ben Rhodes:

… patriot [crosstalk 00:36:11], right, and Obama was profoundly patriotic. I mean, we were talking about red states and blue states, and we’re talking about the capacity of America to change for the better. And so I think there’s a fundamental difference that I have with that aspect of the American Right on this question of American Exceptionalism. They seem to see American Exceptionalism as, “We can do whatever the hell we want because we’re American and it’s inherently the right thing to do because we’re doing it.”

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I know I’m simplifying, but when they say they don’t want any criticism or any apology, that’s the logic of that argument. I’m saying American Exceptionalism is America’s capacity to better itself. And that’s a difference in your view of the identity of the country, because the right wing definition is, “Make America great again. It’s a white Christian nation.” The progressive exceptionalism is one that says, “Hey, as we change demographically, that’s actually an expression of what’s great about America. Our multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy.” So underneath the sloganeering, it’s a pretty profound debate about national identity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I think you’re right to say that I think progressive’s like us, we’re too easy to just want to see anything around patriotism or that entire debate about national identity, we tend to shirk from it because we don’t like the way it manifests in the Right, in terms of jingoism, right? But my argument is always when we don’t contest it, jingoism is all that’s for sale, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so fundamentally, that is what tends to dominate. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on our side of things.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. And what Obama did, it was interesting is because the other piece of this is sometimes progressive critiques of society and progressive politics asks people to totally reject their past and their identity. It’s the criticism of who you are or the people that you grew up looking up to, you now have to reject as a means of going forward. And Obama would always frame progressive change, not as a rejection of the past, but as a validation of it because his point was, “Hey, look, America is so great that, we can evolve. We can evolve in a country that freed slaves and extends civil rights and extends workers’ rights. And when we… Each problem we identify, we solve.” And that’s almost like a validation of the American story. That capacity to improve. Whereas sometimes progressives can frame it as,” Hey, we have to junk everything,” or ,”All these people were bad.” And look, I just think even if you believe that, from a purely political perspective, it’s hard to when people support, when you’re asking them to reject core aspects of their identity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so what about the fact that a lot of the foreign policy analysis always tends to sit around, “Well, what has America done, and how has that played out? And what’s the response been?” And every… It sort of presupposes that all countries are responding to American action and have no agenda or agency of their own. So, I mean, how do you see that question or that, I suppose, concept in this because people say… Well, a little bit aligned to the American apologist piece, which is America’s not the only actor.

Ben Rhodes:

I would say, I mean, the big point I would make on this, having spent a bunch of time looking at the Cold War into this current period. I actually think America drew some wrong lessons from the end of the Cold War. And that we over interpreted it as a victory of our foreign policy. This defense spending and stronger rhetoric against the Soviets under Reagan tipped them over or something.

Misha Zelinsky:

Bankrupted them. Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, they think… When in fact, I think it ignores a more fundamental reality, which is that by the ’80s, it was pretty obvious if you lived in Russia or Hungary or Poland, that the other guys had a better system, that this is a better model. It wasn’t foreign policy. It was just we had a better system-

Misha Zelinsky:

I would say.

Ben Rhodes:

… and people were more prosperous and people were happier and they looked freer. And as it was increasingly impossible to shut that out when there’s television and there’s images that are traveling. It was just that was our trump card on the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, their own system was so sclerotic that that whole thing was a house of cards. It wasn’t defense spending that won it was just crappy Soviet economic policy and corruption for decades. So when the house of cards started to sway and everybody inside the Iron Curtain looks out and is like, “Well, those guys have it better,” then the whole thing just collapses. So the point for today is I think a lot of things, people, political elites, I believe make the mistake of, again, premise your question, thinking that it’s our foreign policy that is the barometer of our influence in the world.

Ben Rhodes:

I think it’s more, do we look like we have our act together. Right now, in recent years, China has looked like they had their act together and that this authoritarian capitalism is the shortcut to success. And so I think that foreign policy people need to have some humility about the correlation of events between whatever levers you’re pulling in Washington or in Canberra and what’s happening in the world.

Misha Zelinsky:

So speaking of looking like you’ve got your… putting it in Australian terms ‘shit in a pil’e, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is a policy area that you worked on quite a bit in your time in the Obama White House. And you talked quite a bit about [Forever Wars in your book, et cetera. And you’ve described them elsewhere, such as that. I suppose, there’s two parts to the question that I’m interested in is firstly, you describe yourself as a 9/11 generation and how profoundly that impacted on your world view. And so I suppose, how would the 9/11 generation feel about this withdrawal after 20 years of effort, 20 years of sacrifice. And then secondly, so much criticism, how hard is it to make these calls in government, right? Because you know, these calls are 51/49 calls and nothing ever goes perfectly. And so I was thinking if you give us some insight in those two questions?

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I think on the first point, it’s incredibly painful to watch what’s happening in Afghanistan. And yeah, I know a lot of people around my age who served in the military or served in the foreign service. It’s been a wrenching couple of weeks and we all tend to know Afghans who’ve been trying to get out and we’ve been frantically trying to get people on the planes. And yeah, it’s a tremendous amount of disappointment. And I’d say a degree of shame, right, at how this turned out. I mean, I think when you look at the post-9/11 period, there were two sides of the coin of the war on terror. One was to go and get the people who did this on 9/11 and to stop them from doing it again. And on that front, actually, we got the people who did it and there has not been another 9/11. But then what was supposed to be the affirmative part of that, clearly in the argument I make in my book, it just… We did, we tried to do things we weren’t capable of doing and should not have been doing.

Ben Rhodes:

We should not have been trying to nation build in Afghanistan. Obviously, should not have invaded and occupied Iraq, never mind the other excesses of the post-9/11 period. So I guess that leads to the second point on the Forever Wars, which is that I think that the people like me who came of age in the 9/11 period, I think we weren’t the decision makers at the outset of Afghanistan and Iraq. So we were less invested in those decisions. And so I think we’ve actually been more capable of stepping back and saying, “Hey, this isn’t working. America cannot do this, should not do this. Doesn’t have political support to have these open-ended nation building projects. It frankly… like the assumption that our military can do this in other countries overstates our control of events.” And so I think that all that mindset informed Biden’s decision to say, “This is not working. And at some point we just have to acknowledge that reality.”

Ben Rhodes:

I think it is fair to say that you could’ve managed the disengagement and withdrawal better. Doing evacuations before you’re out, for instance. But on this basic point, I think he decided that, “Look, if I do this, I’ll take some political heat.” It’s probably been worse than anticipated. “But in the long run, I want to be able to show in the four years I’m president.” And this may be why he did it at the beginning, right. “I want to show that we can begin to have a foreign policy that’s not dominated by the war on terrorism. And we can begin to focus on other issues and that we can absorb the defeat in order to move on from the war.” And I don’t know how else you end this.

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, unless we just stayed in Afghanistan in a larger presence than we even had indefinitely, which I don’t think had political support in the US and frankly, I don’t know it was helping Afghanistan. It was helping prevent this tragedy, but there was already deterioration there. And so it’s a hard decision, whenever you make a decision you know is going to bring about a lot of recrimination, a lot of opposition and is going to bring negative consequences.

Ben Rhodes:

It’s really tough to swallow. And that’s… The biggest thing is, I remember Obama having to make decisions where either decision is going to have definitely really negative consequences. That’s the kind of decision this was. And you just have to go with your absolute core instincts here. And I think Biden, he was a skeptic on Afghanistan from the moment I met him. So it doesn’t surprise me that he took that risk. But I think that whether it’s the right decision will almost be determined by what does he do with this? What does he do now? What are we going to be doing instead of Afghanistan? I mean, it was 15… When people say this is the end of Western civilization or something, it was 15 years after the Fall of Saigon, we won the Cold War.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Ben Rhodes:

These things can change.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, totally, totally. You touched on Biden being a skeptic. Robert Gates was Secretary at the time. He and Biden bumped up against one another. Biden was sort of the odd man out as I read the history. You were there, so you can maybe correct me, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… he was saying, “We shouldn’t do this. We should have a narrower mission, focused purely on counter-terrorism.” Robert Gates said, “Yeah, Biden’s been wrong about every decision in foreign policy for 30 or 40 years.” He’s now president. He just got to see, I suppose, 11 years on that nothing had really changed. He was probably getting the exact same briefings with the exact same strategy, 10 years on, telling him just one more year. Yeah, was Biden right in 2010?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think he was. I mean, because if you look at it, what the military was proposing in 2009, 2010 under Petraeus, McChrystal and Gates was essentially a counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan. A version of what they’d done in the surge in Iraq. They would essentially pacify Afghanistan and transition to the Afghan government. And what Biden was saying is, “Look, we can’t do that. It’s not going to work. There’s not going to be an open-ended blank check for this. Our interest is counter-terrorism, getting Al-Qaeda and preventing this from being a base for terrorists.” If you look at what’s been accomplished or what’s been happening in Afghanistan in the last decade, I think we’ve done the counter-terrorism mission. We… 09, 10, 11, where the three years in which we pretty much decimated Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, culminating in the Bin Laden operation.

Misha Zelinsky:

But the nation building in those 10 years is what we’ve seen collapse in recent weeks with the Afghan security forces and state being incapable of functioning, absent foreign support. And so, yeah, I think if you look back on that, either you have to determine that Gates was wrong and Biden was correct because the policy of counterinsurgency that Gates was sponsoring, did not… You can’t… I don’t know what you can point to as succeeding in the last decade in that regard.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, I mean, I think it’s ultimately history will be the judge and we sort of know how Afghanistan will completely play out. But I think as it stands, I think Biden, as messy as it’s been, and as you say, bad decisions on either side and staying in perpetuity is not an option. But the collapse within a week, I think is very telling after 20 years of effort, right?

Ben Rhodes:

It’s telling of effort. And again, I think the criticism to level is that there wasn’t enough… Precisely because I don’t know that you could have salvaged the Afghan government. That the thing that you had left to try to control was the humanitarian consequence of making that decision. And that would have involved, I think much more deliberate thought as to how to withdraw, timeline interacts with giving Afghans opportunity to leave and preventing the chaotic evacuation we saw. Because you would have been managing that humanitarian interest. But the strategic point about the Afghan government just can’t function without us, and we aren’t willing to stay forever. That tragically was on display.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I’ve got tons of listeners that are huge fans of president Obama. So I can’t… He’s been present in the conversation, but I can’t let you get away without asking some questions about him. Is he a man that’s clearly defined your professional life and a lot of your personal life. And reading his books, reading your books, it’s clear that you guys are very close. Maybe, but rather than reflecting on him as a president, what’s he like as a guy? Because I mean, in my reading of his book, but then as he appears in your book, he’s almost… He’s so incredibly analytical and insightful. He’s almost Buddha-like in his-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… in his assessment of the world. I mean, is that a fair assessment?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, one reason to buy the book, if you like Obama, he pops up as a character now and then [crosstalk 00:52:05]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Yeah, it’s great.

Ben Rhodes:

… and I think they are reflective of… these were snippets of conversations he and I have had over the years since he was in office. And there are a couple that stand out in my mind as Buddha-like, but also regular guy. I mean, that’s what’s so intriguing about Obama’s, he’s both analyzing the world from this other level of stepping back and examining it. But he’s also an incredibly normal guy, too. And that’s the alchemy of his politics. And two examples from the book are, one, he’s talking to me about Trump and he’s just like anybody else, right? Like anybody talking to their buddy, trying to make sense of Trump.

Ben Rhodes:

And he said that… He is describing the racial component. And he’s like… And why Trump doesn’t necessarily show that all white people are racist, but why it taps into something in the white psyche. And he’s like, “Yeah, maybe Trump is just for white people what OJ was for black people. You know it’s wrong, but it makes you feel good.” And he said that, it was a joke. I laughed at it. And I thought about it and I was like, “Huh, that’s a pretty good insight, actually. There’s something to that.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

You know it’s wrong on some level, but it makes you feel good. And then the other was, we were talking about politics and we were talking about the democratic campaigns and the primary and how there’s Biden had a good unifying message, but the critique of society, Sanders had that better.

Ben Rhodes:

And everybody had a piece of what you wanted, Pete had generational change, but something wasn’t all fitting together. And he said, he goes on this tangent about how he’d been asking his friends recently when they felt the most sense of meaning in their life. When were they happy during the course of the day? And he said, he has a buddy who’s a plant manager type guy that he went to high school with. And this guy said, “At the end of the day when I’ve worked hard all day and my family is in the background and I’m lighting the grill to cook them dinner. That’s when I feel like a sense of worth.” And Obama’s like, “Politics is supposed to lead people to that feeling. The feeling of belonging and satisfaction and productivity, but our politics is leading people to just their anger and their grievance,” right. And so I give those two examples, he makes these off-hand comments that you would… But then they had this other level of meaning that does have this Buddha quality to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so not to speak for him and he’s written things about it, but the 2016 result, right, in many ways was a rejection or a backlash against Obama and Obamaism. I mean, how did that impact on him in your assessment?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, first of all because I thought a lot about this, because it was always so peculiar to me that he was quite popular at the end of his presidency. I mean, he had some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, he probably would have run… won another term had he’d been able run.

Ben Rhodes:

If he could have run against Trump, I’ve no doubt he would’ve won. He was a more popular politician than Hillary. But the intensity of the backlash to Obama is what made the Republican party go so far off the deep end into Trumpism.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

And I think the difficulty with this and I write about this in the book is that even when I start to look and diagnose, “We should have done this in the financial crisis. We should have done this on economic policy or foreign policy.” The reality is the thing that created the backlash was that he was black. It wasn’t a policy. I mean, it wasn’t like a lot of people got that upset about our Afghanistan policy or our whatever. And so it’s, I find it wrong to blame him for that backlash because there’s nothing he could have done about.

Ben Rhodes:

In fact, if anything, he was pretty cautious on issues of race and asserting his black identity. So that, I think, that’s the awkward subtexts to whenever these questions come up. In terms of him personally… so I think for him personally, was what was distressing about Trump was less the rebuke of him personally, because I think he understands that racism is not something that is individualized, it’s projected. And I think what was difficult for him was what it said about the country.

Ben Rhodes:

That Obama’s message had basically fundamentally been, not that we’re in some post racial paradise, but that we’re moving forward. And that people are becoming more accepting of diversity. And to see the degree of that backlash and to see it get over the hump was not a rebuke of Obama, it was a rebuke of what Obama represented which in some ways is actually more difficult, right, because you can’t control that. I mean, Obama could spend eight years trying to be twice as careful and no scandals and all the rest of it, and still they’re going to make him out to be the antichrist. So, yeah, I think it affected him because more because of what it said about where the country was than it did on more what the country thought about him personally.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And so when you were working for him and he’s a very cool cat, cool customer. But Eric Schultz was on the show. He told us about having to front the boss to tell him that he’d stuffed up the health.gov website. Do you have any moments like that where you were like, “Man, I really don’t want to tell the boss about this and I’m going to have to.”

Ben Rhodes:

Yes. And I’m going to give a more serious one than Eric, but this gets more at what those jobs are like. I mean, I remember, and I wrote about this in my first book, my memoir, but when we were flying to Martha’s Vineyard for his vacation in August of 2014. And it’s been a tough year and suddenly, he’s going to get a break. And he was in the front of Air Force One with his daughter, Malia, and they were hanging out because they were getting ready to go on vacation. And I got a call to Air Force One as a traveling national security staffer that the first beheading had taken place by ISIS of James Foley. And I had to hang up the phone and go walk into the next room and look at them in a way like Malia is going to have to leave the room now.

Ben Rhodes:

And this guy who thought he was heading on… have a little break, I have to explain to him that Jim Foley has been killed, how he was killed. The fact that what they talked about was Obama bombing ISIS and that, I mean, so and it’s a very serious answer, but yeah, in the course of working-

Misha Zelinsky:

Nobody can [crosstalk 00:59:29].

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, I know.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, it’s-

Ben Rhodes:

In the course of working for him and national security, I had to tell him bad news a lot.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I’ll bet.

Ben Rhodes:

But in the year since I would often be the one to offer the dark humor about things because we’ve been through so much crap. But so yeah, that’s that levity, but I think it’s important to-

Misha Zelinsky:

That the job never stops, right?

Ben Rhodes:

The job never stops. That’s the main point, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And just… Yeah, we’ve got to get to the lame barbecue question and we’re running out of time and you do need to get going. But are you able to share any memories or insights? Australia, we think about Americans a lot. Americans like Australians, and we were obviously formally aligned, but I don’t think America thinks about Australia as much as we think about you guys. But you have any memories or insights about Australia or our politics during Obama’s time in office?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, first of all, Obama used to say that he thought Australians were more like Americans than anybody else, because there was this certain type of almost frontier mentality, right-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… that informs a national identity. And then there’s similar demons obviously, with indigenous peoples and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

…. so that always stuck in my head. And part of what I saw in the course of the eight years that was interesting is there was a similar realignment to some extent in Australia. When we come in, you have Kevin Rudd and he’s just a very well-respected on the world stage guy, but not the most populist guy right. A little more technocratic. And, but he’s an early partner in this technocratic response to the financial crisis and does quite well at that job.

Ben Rhodes:

And then he’s replaced by Julia Gillard, who Obama loves and she was tough and she was funny and she was normal. And she also got the China play that we were running. And I remember coming to Australia with Obama in 2011, in this trip where we met Julia Gillard and then we went out to Darwin and we had some Marines coming. But in a weird way, that was the high water mark for certain progressivism across the Pacific, in the sense that you’ve got a black man and a woman prime minister-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

… and they’re pretty progressive in their lives. And then we get Tony Abbott. And by the time Obama went to Australia for the G20, in 2014-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, right, the speech.

Ben Rhodes:

… he was deeply at odds with Tony Abbott and climate policy was the proxy, but it was also just Tony Abbott was like a Tea Party type Republican politician. And so Obama goes way off script in this speech to just start whacking away at the climate issue and Abbott. And I think the headline was, “Obama shirtfronts Abbott,” or something and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, because Abbott had talked about shirtfronting Putin over MH1 [crosstalk 01:02:43].

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, but I guess the point is that there were some similar currents moving around Australian politics, you go from the financial crisis happens and then the Left is in charge. So they have to make all these crappy decisions in ’09. And that’s when Rudd’s there. There’s also on the Left, this pathbreaking thing happening, and then Julia Gillard and Obama represent that. But then there’s this swing back to the populous Right. And Tony Abbott represents that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

And that ends up being out of step with Obama. But Abbott is very much in step with Brexit, obviously, and Trump, Trumpism, I think. And Scott Morrison’s a mini version of that, right? So, I’ve seen the cross pollination and the trends in both countries.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, there’s certainly a lot of coordination between the right wing parties in the Anglosphere, undoubtedly. And they take… Australia politicians like to borrow. We’re always about five years behind whatever trend’s emerging in the United States. Hopefully, we don’t have an insurrection of our own, but so just to [crosstalk 01:03:42]-

Ben Rhodes:

Well, and Malcolm, just quick, and Malcolm Turnbull is kind of a Never Trump Republican or something like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

He’s a guy who’s a reasonable conservative guy who’s just like, “Why are these people going insane?” I’m not saying… you guys shouldn’t think I say that about all Australian conservatives, but in the American context, that’s who Malcolm Turnbull is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we had him on the show. He certainly didn’t hold back on that entire process.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

But so just to dig in, so Abbott and Obama didn’t get on?

Ben Rhodes:

No, they did not get on. I mean, and I’m thinking… and Obama would say like, he just… I mean, he said to me personally that, “If Abbott was in the US, he’d be a Tea Party guy.” That was the… I mean, that was definitely… I mean, they could work together-

Misha Zelinsky:

There couldn’t be a more severe comment from President Obama, I imagine, to call someone [crosstalk 01:04:30]-

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, but they can work together in the sense of Abbott… The thing about conservatives in Australia, they have usually a pretty pro US foreign policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, it’s bi-partisan here.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, so they… it was fine from just the stuff we were doing together with Australia, but I think personal politics, right? He saw Abbott in that perspective, although obviously Stephen Harper in his own way was like that, too. I mean, there were… most of the major democracies were governed by center right when Obama was there.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Ben Rhodes:

So, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Now, could keep talking to you all night about Obama, mate, and I’m sure everyone’s enjoyed that part of the show quite a bit as they’re listening to it. But last bit, this lame question that we ask everyone here now. Before we started recording, you told me that you’re a fan of Australian politics. So mate, you need to get some hobbies or something, man. But the question I ask all foreign guests is there three Aussies at a barbecue. So three Aussies at a barbecue with Ben, who are they and why?

Ben Rhodes:

Oh, that’s an interesting question. So, number one would definitely be a Julia Gillard. I’ve gotten to know her a bit over the years and there’s very few politicians I’ve met who are totally normal human beings, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

Most are so strange, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You can just have a totally normal conversation with, but also be an incredibly interesting person in terms of [crosstalk 01:06:24] their worldview. So that’s number one. I guess, as… I don’t know, as a basketball fan, I want to know what’s up with Ben Simmons anyway, right. You know what I mean?

Misha Zelinsky:

You guys can have him.

Ben Rhodes:

Do you have any answers from Australia?

Misha Zelinsky:

You guys can have him, right. Patty Mills [crosstalk 01:06:43] but you can have Ben Simmons.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. And I was trying to go off the grain and I think that he… Such a mystifying performance.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

But then I guess, and I’m just going to be eccentric and play to type here because we had a Rocky IV conversation earlier. I mean, I was also a Crocodile Dundee kid, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, well. Fair enough.

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, so I think I just have to check that box, right, with Paul Hogan. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Fair enough. You know, what? Despite me always joking about it. No one’s ever actually cited Paul Hogan in the entire duration of the show. So you’re our first cab off the rank.

Ben Rhodes:

Just, yeah… because to me, this is less than dinner conversation and more just this weird experience of a cross-section of [crosstalk 01:07:37].

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you got a basketballer, a [crosstalk 01:07:39]-

Ben Rhodes:

I guess, Luc Longley instead of… but yeah, there are different directions you could go.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, that’s fantastic. Look, Ben Rhodes, thanks so much for coming on the show, it’s been a great

Ben Rhodes:

And the last thing I will say just to answer your question differently is, weirdly, over the years I’ve kept in touch with Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. And I actually think that would be a pretty interesting dinner.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’ll be tough!

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, I know for a lot of reasons, layers of reasons, right? So maybe actually my answer would be to just try to be the person who gets-

Misha Zelinsky:

Gets the those together.

Ben Rhodes:

… those three people in the room together-

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm-

Ben Rhodes:

… and ask them to sort out what’s going on between them and then gets their perspective on the world. Because they also each have a pretty unique… I’ve done some stuff with Rudd on China and Myanmar. Malcolm Turnbull’s very smart about Asia and China. And Julia Gillard does remarkable stuff on promoting women’s and girls’ empowerment around the world. So they have this complimentary set of skills. So maybe… I guess I’d go with those three.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now Malcolm and Kevin, funnily enough, despite being fierce rivals in politics have become teamed up as some duo to take down the Murdoch-

Ben Rhodes:

Rupert Murdoch-

Misha Zelinsky:

… empire.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. I follow that closely. I love that. I love that.

Misha Zelinsky:

. I think you’re more likely to get Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Rupert Murdoch in the room than you are to get Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in the room together.

Ben Rhodes:

I get it, man. I get it. That’s why it’s part of the reason why it’d be interesting.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely, mate.

Ben Rhodes:

That’s even better than the other.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I said alive or dead. But we don’t know who… Someone might be dead after that meeting, anyway, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah we don’t know who walked out. Maybe the point is that they all walk in and see who the first two are who walk out.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, mate, it’s been a brilliant chat.

Ben Rhodes:

It’s funny because I like both of them. So that’s what’s so weird is to look at it from afar.

Misha Zelinsky:

They both got their strengths, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, mate, thanks so much for coming on the show, mate. It’s been a pleasure.

Ben Rhodes:

Great. Take care.