ANZUS

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.

 

Chris Pyne – The Insider: Politics, Party and Parliament

Chris Pyne was the Federal Member for Sturt for 26 years.

He was Leader of the House and held a number of senior Cabinet ministries, including that of defence.

Pyne’s autobiography ‘The Insider’ is a fantastic account of life in the Canberra Bubble but also a deep dive into serious public policy and defence policy in particular.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Chris for a chinwag about his career in politics. They talk about his bruising preselection in his 20s, the politics of politics, the horror show that was the 43rd Parliament, the task of rebuilding Australia’s military capabilities, what’s holding back an Australian nuclear industry, dealing with a rising Chinese Communist Party superpower, how the west can address the Uighur challenge and why politics shouldn’t be personal.

Show notes:

@mishazelinsky @diplomates.show

Keep sending your questions through, we love reading and answering them!

We were in the top 15 shows in Australia last episode – so thanks for your ongoing support.

Please rate, review and share!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Chris Pyne, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Chris Pyne:

What’s it called?

Misha Zelinsky:

Diplomates, get it?

Chris Pyne:

Diplomates?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Chris Pyne:

Oh, that’s cool.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. It’s a pun.

Chris Pyne:

Indeed. Diplomates.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thank you for coming on.

Chris Pyne:

It’s a pleasure, Misha, thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh well, very excited to chat to you. So being through, we read your book recently and there’s many things we can talk about particularly around current affairs but I wanted to start at the beginning of your political career. I was quite struck, you’ve basically effectively blasted your way into parliament at a very young age.

Chris Pyne:

Yeah, it’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe I was just thinking, what was that like? And then upon reflection, how do you look back on that? I mean to go in there in the way that you did must have been quite an extraordinary experience.

Chris Pyne:

At the time it seemed like the most normal thing to do, which is very unusual. But I guess, I decided to go into parliament when I was in about year 10 and I was 15 and I thought, well, I’ll be the member for Sturt because all the power is shifting to Canberra and so I like state politics but not enough to go into it. I thought, well I’ll be the member for Sturt because I live in Sturt, and I’ll do that in about 10 years. I thought that seemed like a plan.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you set yourself that timetable?

Chris Pyne:

I did. And I left school and I joined the Liberal Party, the Burnside branch, the Young Liberals and the Liberal Students all in the same day in December 1984, which was the orientation day at Adelaide Uni. I became president of all of those things and by 1992, and ’91 really, I thought… Well, actually Ian Wilson, my predecessor who’d been in parliament for 20 something years, since 1966, and then he had a three year break. Another guy challenged him called Jim Durden in late 1991, and so I spent about a month ringing the opinion makers in the eastern suburbs of Adelaide in the Liberal Party saying, “If Jim Durden wins, there’s only two safe seats in Adelaide, Sturt and Boothby, and I don’t really have any claim on Boothby so maybe I should be running.”

Chris Pyne:

Because secretly I was planning always to be running. They all said, “Oh yes, you must give it a go.” So in January I nominated against Ian in 1992, and got preselected on April 28th 1992, and it was the most hideous preselection. When you say I blasted my way in, it was a record breaker for South Australian hideousness. We had two appeals to the Party Appeal Tribunal, we had QCs and barristers and lots of terrible media, an independent liberal ran against me, Michael Pratt was the independent liberal and there were no confidence motions at every meeting and it was just ghastly. But, on March the 13th I raised the trophy above my head and I had won. So yes, I did blast my way in and at the time it seemed kind of like this is what you’re supposed to do.

Misha Zelinsky:

And looking back on it now?

Chris Pyne:

Looking back at it now I think Misha, I must have been completely crackers to think that a 24 year old would end up in parliament and they should then be chosen soon after for the ministry. When I arrived in Canberra of course I was a bit like a fish on a bicycle. John Howard would have looked at me thinking what am I supposed to do with him? The first thing I’m going to do is keep him out of trouble because 25, I mean I’m not sure how old you are but when you’re 25 you think you know it all. Of course you don’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

You do. I’m 37 now but I certainly did at 25.

Chris Pyne:

And because you don’t know very much so I think I probably arrived with a lot of affront, and I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of people like Robert Hill and Amanda Vanstone and Steele Hall and David Joel and of course they quickly snapped me up and popped me in their house in Kingston, Hall, Joel and Hill. So they kept an eye on me and that’s the way it went. I stayed there for 26 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you mentioned John Howard.

Chris Pyne:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, your first term in ’93 through to ’96 was a pretty tumultuous term, there was a lot of leadership changes.

Chris Pyne:

It was, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

In your book you reflect on the fact that you famously chose to back a different horse in the leadership challenges up against, when John Howard was making his comeback to the leadership. Do you want to take us through that and how that impacted on your time in the Howard government, I suppose?

Chris Pyne:

Well, I made a kind of rather catastrophic choice in March 1993. John Howard ran against John Houston straight after the election so it was literally mid-March, and he came to see me and said he was seeking my support and we had quite a lot more in common than people probably thought, because I’m a small liberal South Australian, and he’s a conservative New South Welshmen, but he’s right about certain socially conservative issues like euthanasia and abortion and things like that, and stem cell research, I was always pretty conservative.

Chris Pyne:

So he asked for my support and I said, “Well of course, John, you’re yesterday’s man and we’re not going back to you and the best thing you could do really is probably get out of politics and find something else to do.” And remember he was 48, so I’m now 53 so I’m thinking to myself now what a complete fool he must have thought I was. I thought it was tremendous because I’d always been a peacock person, I was on the federal executive of the parties, a peacock person and state executive in South Australia as a peacock person and all of my general group were all peacock people. So I thought I’d really kind of nailed it. I went home and told everybody who were all speechless of course, and said, “You did what?”

Chris Pyne:

I told them and they said, “But you know, he’ll never forgive you.” I said, “I don’t care, he’ll never be the leader again. He’ll be gone.” They said, “Oh my goodness, but that’s shocking.” They said, “He’ll never get over it. And he might be the leader.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course we’re not going to elect John Howard.” I was the last person still trying to find a candidate to run against John Howard. Two years later we took over from Downer and actually he wrote in his book, Howard wrote in his book that I was still trying to find Peter Reith to run against him because I was so aghast of course that he’d come back, and he’d never forgiven me, understandably so, for being so rude, which it was, it was rude.

Chris Pyne:

He didn’t really forgive me for a long time. I think he also thought, well, I’ve got four cabinet ministers from South Australia, and McLaughlin and Hill and Vanstone and Downer and then Minchin, and he’s very young, so it’d be very sensible if we just let him kind of find his feet for a while. So I found my feet for 10 years, but luckily because I’d started so early I was only 35 when I finally had found my feet and became a minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

And you and John Howard’s relationship, did it recover over the years?

Chris Pyne:

Oh yeah, completely. Well, because obviously he was a very tremendous success, he was prime minister for 11 and a half years, so I think he’s a pretty happy fellow, and in his post political career he’s clearly a happy person in a good place, unlike some prime ministers.

Misha Zelinsky:

Not a miserable ghost.

Chris Pyne:

Not a miserable ghost. And I think over time, well he always thought I was good at attacking the labor party. So that counts for a lot, as you know, in politics. If you can swing the cudgel against your opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, against your own as well.

Chris Pyne:

And against your own side as well, I mean there’s a certain level of respect that you gain from being able to do that, and he knew I was pretty good at that. So he gave me that job of investigating the electoral fraud of the Queensland Labor Party in 2001, which I did, and John Faulkner and I became great mates. Not because he liked what I did but because he rather respected my complete lack of regard for the rules. And then after that, Howard appointed me to the Department of Secretaryship and then the ministry. So yeah, no, we definitely… And now when we catch up we always have a good chat, so there’s no problem with me and John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well it’s good to know.

Chris Pyne:

’93 is a long time ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s true, that’s true. So you make your way to the senior team by the time the Howard government loses in ’07, but then you become a very senior part of the Abbott opposition, once Abbott gets into the leadership. Now, that, the second term of the Labor government with Gillard as prime minister and it’s a minority government, was a pretty brutal time, it was remembered as a brutal time in Australian politics.

Chris Pyne:

It was.

Misha Zelinsky:

You were the leader of opposition business so you’re leading the opposition in parliament.

Chris Pyne:

I was the spear tip.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. So what are your reflections or observations of that time?

Chris Pyne:

It was messy and ugly. It was a really ugly period. The Liberal Party doesn’t like being in opposition because we regard ourselves as the managerial class, so managers need to make decisions and get things done. So the problem with opposition is it really goes against the grain of most liberals who go into politics.

Misha Zelinsky:

Labor doesn’t like being in opposition either, despite what you may-

Chris Pyne:

No but they’re good at it, they’ve done a lot of it. They’re very good at being in opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man.

Chris Pyne:

Whereas the liberals find it very hard. So whenever we’re in opposition it’s a terribly bad time for the Liberal Party, and we change leader constantly and one side’s always trying to take over from the other, and good people fall by the wayside, which is always a bit of a pity in life, not just politics. And you lose elections and people give up and think I’m going to get out because there’s no point in staying or sticking around here. So there’s a pretty unhappy kind of atmosphere when you’re in opposition in the Liberal Party. And if the leader doesn’t look like they’re going to win, the party has no compunction about cutting them down. Whereas Labor will stick with a loser leader forever, like they did for Arthur Calwell and people like that and Dr. Evatt. I’m not just talking about recently, I mean like a long time ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That was the history, certainly, before the [crosstalk 00:11:15]

Chris Pyne:

And they stuck with Gough and then they stuck with Gough right through to 1977.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Chris Pyne:

Because they couldn’t believe their luck.

Misha Zelinsky:

Changing it from Haden to Hawke was actually a big shift culturally for the party.

Chris Pyne:

Big shift, yeah, big shift. So opposition was awful and then in the 43rd parliament, of course, we felt like we’d won the election because we had more seats than Labor, which usually means you’ve won, and your party managed to suborn Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor of course, into supporting the Gillard government, which we found very galling because they were in two conservative seats, they had never voted Labor since federation. Yet they were both supporting a Labor government.

Chris Pyne:

So it was very difficult for people to get over that, and people think that the coalition used to attack Gillard all the time because she was a woman. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, it had with her having the job that we were supposed to have. Whether she had been a woman or a man didn’t make the slightest difference. We just felt that she shouldn’t be the prime minister because Tony Abbott should be, and that Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor should have supported us and logically, that’s pretty fair. Could you imagine the men before Wollongong and the men before Newcastle, supporting a Liberal government to stay in power and Labor thinking oh that’s fine, no problems with that. It’s not going to happen.

Chris Pyne:

So we didn’t feel that way, we felt very annoyed about it, and so therefore that came out a lot in the vindictiveness of the 43rd parliament, and then Peter Slipper became the speaker and it was taking one of our numbers off the floor which made it even worse. The whole Craig Thompson thing was really unpleasant, and of course if Gillard had had a… if the prime minister had had a majority to speak of, they would have asked Craig Thompson along before but they couldn’t so they were clinging to this politically very unattractive corpse, really. Not a corpse, but politically unattractive person, dragging it around for… It must have gone on for 18 months, the whole Craig Thompson saga.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I’m just trying to think. It certainly went for a while.

Chris Pyne:

Oh it was ghastly.

Misha Zelinsky:

It was a political millstone.

Chris Pyne:

Shocking. So that’s why the 43rd parliament was so unpleasant and as I write in my book, our view was since the Labor government has really stolen the election from us by taking-

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m not sure I can agree with that.

Chris Pyne:

No of course not, by taking Oakeshott and Windsor.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean they’re entitled to make decisions as parliamentarians.

Chris Pyne:

Of course, yeah. And we’re entitled not to like it. So we felt well it’ll be war on all fronts at all times, and that’s what we did, and I was the kind of field marshal. Which I’m not particularly proud of, by the way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you look on it as a time that you would take back or just you had to do a job so you did it.

Chris Pyne:

I had to do a job so I did it. Our job was to make the government’s life as unbearable as possible because they had done the wrong thing by democracy, is to give these tub thumping speeches about how it was the greatest crime against democracy since King Charles had arrested the speakers of the House of Commons.

Misha Zelinsky:

Engaging in a touch of hyperbole.

Chris Pyne:

But sometimes I used to have to get myself into a rage on the basis of not very much to go with. So getting into a bit of a hyperbole would probably be one of the few things that could fill the time, I think. [crosstalk 00:15:06] I opposed the sitting schedule once, things had got so crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well you guys also were denying pairs, as I recall, as well.

Chris Pyne:

Not really, we never denied a pair, there was talk of denying pairs, but we didn’t deny pairs at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

No? I’m trying to remember.

Chris Pyne:

We didn’t. There was a lot of talk about it but we didn’t do that. Not unless somebody was clearly trying to… People still get pairs refused if they haven’t got a good excuse. You can’t just hop in a bus and go on a picnic and ask for a pair. People need pairs because they’re sick or something or they’ve got some particular family thing that they’re doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

It makes it hard, though, right? I mean just reflecting, the government’s got tight numbers now, it does make it hard for ministers to do their jobs when they can’t sit on their toes around you’ve got to make a vote in house and it does give oppositions opportunity to wreak havoc, right?

Chris Pyne:

Yeah. But the parliament’s the parliament. This is what I always used to say to my colleagues when they say, “I want to go home, I want a pair to go home early.” So actually no, no. The parliament, everything other than the parliament is a bonus. You got elected to the House of Representatives and that’s your number one job.

Misha Zelinsky:

There 150 at the time, it’s not like there’s-

Chris Pyne:

And if you do anything else, that’s nice for you, and I happen to do other things besides being a member for 16 of my 26 years, but everything else is a bonus. So no, the parliament doesn’t exist for you to be happy, you have to be in the parliament as your number one responsibility.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now you mentioned your ministerial career. Now this is a foreign policy show so we could go through your whole career, but I think the defense portfolio is probably the area that I’d like to talk more about. Now, you spent a lot of time in your time in the portfolio, spending a lot of money but rebuilding a lot of capability. I’m kind of wanting to… Maybe you can explain very quickly, obviously it’s a huge area, but why was this necessary in your time and maybe you can give a sense of how big the scale of this project actually is. Because you’re talking hundreds of billions, now hundreds of billions are being spent through COVID, maybe it’s not such a big deal, people kind of lose sight of the numbers, but the scale of these projects is enormous.

Chris Pyne:

Well, I guess the best way to describe it is it’s the biggest buildup of our military capabilities since the second world war. And of course in the war, most of the budget’s turned over to the defense of the nation, so it’s a very big deal to have the largest buildup of our military capability in 75 years and it’s financially between now and 2030 about 270 billion. That’s just in capital expenditure, by the way, that’s not in running costs. When I was the minister it was 205 billion and so the extra 65 billion is those last three years between 2027 and 2030, because my period took that to 2027.

Chris Pyne:

Why is it necessary? It’s necessary because the world is a really dangerous place, and getting more dangerous. And it’s necessary because our great and powerful ally, the United States, has said very clearly to its allies we want allies not protectorates. The Abbott government, to its credit, and then the Turnbull and Morrison governments said, “Well, we agree with that.” It’s not fair to expect the United States to do all the heavy lifting in protecting our international rules based order and our values based foreign and defense policy. It’s not fair for candidates to spend less than a percent of their GDP on defense because they know that the Americans will always be standing alongside them. Nor for Germany to spend less than 1% or Great Britain.

Chris Pyne:

Countries that have held themselves out as the protectors of liberty and freedom around the world and then underspend in defense. So the Abbott government said, “We’ll spend 2% of GDP on defense.” That’s what the Americans asked us to do as allies, and they asked all of their allies to do that. Now I think at the time, when I left, we were about five out of the NATO plus allies countries were spending 2%. We are proudly one of those. Now it’s obviously well past 2% because of COVID. So it was necessary one, to be a good ally. It’s necessary two, because we live in a very turbulent world, and to break that down the Indo-Pacific is one of the most insecure places on the planet.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve said that there’s a prospect of war in the Indo-Pacific.

Chris Pyne:

I think there is a prospect of war in the Indo-Pacific. Of course there is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why is that?

Chris Pyne:

Well, what I said in my speech to the Adelaide University graduation ceremony was that five years ago I think the chances of war were less likely and now five years later they’re more likely than they were in 2015/16. So I haven’t said that there’s likely to be war in the next 5-10 years, which some of the less sophisticated media have reported, I said that the chances are more likely now than they were five years ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s probably true.

Chris Pyne:

That’s a statement of fact. The reason for that is probably primarily because China has discovered that it can press its claims over the South China Sea or Hong Kong or the Uyghur minority in western China and the consequences have not been dramatic. Sure they’ve faced some criticism around the world but nothing happened. So the next obvious place that China wants to unite with the mainland is Taiwan. Despite the fact that China has only governed Taiwan for four out of the last 100 years, 100 more actually, more than 100 years. The reality is they see it very much as part of China and it’s traditionally been a province of China and I think that that makes it a flashpoint.

Chris Pyne:

Do I think there will be a war in the Indo-Pacific? No, I don’t, but I think it’s more likely than it was five or six years ago and I think it would have been more likely if the Trump administration had been reelected, and I’m glad that the Biden administration was elected for that reason alone.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, they’ve got a different approach to allies, certainly, than the Trump administration did.

Chris Pyne:

And also Donald Trump had an unusual approach to foreign policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

To say the least.

Chris Pyne:

Well, unfortunately it’s so serious and it would be nice if it wasn’t, but like the Kurds, when he decided to throw the Kurds under the bus and allow the Turks to cross the border and reclaim that territory and we still don’t know what happened to all the Kurds in that area of course, that was really the end of it for me. I thought he’d done a good job on Iran and China, I think he’d done a poor job on North Korea, but that was the problem with Donald Trump, it wasn’t a coherent strategy. There were moments, flashes of great outcomes, possibly because the advisors that he had in those areas he agreed with, like John Bolton on Iran, for example.

Chris Pyne:

But these other really unusual decisions around the Middle East for example, I thought well he’s a dangerous person to have in the White House and that’s dangerous for us, because if China thinks they could unite Taiwan militarily without there being any significant consequences, I don’t think they’ll want to do that but they’re more likely to throw that dart if there was a Trump administration than if there was an orthodox administration in the White House, Republican or Democrat.

Chris Pyne:

So I think that was an important thing to change the government there, and obviously, as I said in my speech to the students, we have to work tirelessly to avoid a war in the Indo-Pacific because it’s not an academic exercise, it would be catastrophic and it would be catastrophic for Australia. So it has to be our number one priority in foreign and defense policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so we’ll get to China, I want to talk about in depth, you raised a lot of interesting points there, but sticking with the kit we’re buying, you were involved… Certainly there was some politics involved in it but the decision around the subs and whether or not we were going to go with the Japanese option or whether or not it was going to be built in Australia, the French sub won out. What is the reason why that is the superior choice for Australia? It’s a wonky question, we’re very interested and a lot of people who listen to the show are, and also probably a followup to that, is there a reason why Australia couldn’t have nuclear given that it has advantages in terms of its ability to stay under the surface of the water?

Chris Pyne:

Well, the French submarine won the contest because it came first in the competitive evaluation process, it’s as simple as that, so it was the best of the three offerings. Probably because the Japanese Sōryū class and the TKMS submarine were not designed for Australian conditions. Whereas the Barracuda class French submarine is of a size that suits Australia’s unique requirements, which in layman’s terms, basically we have two different seas and one is warm and one is cold, and we have a lot of coastline and a lot of sea to be responsible for, which means we need long range submarines and we therefore need to have large submarines and they need to be able to operate in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and the Barracuda class was probably more able to be adapted to an Australian version, which has now become the Attack class.

Chris Pyne:

So the reason the French won was there’s no great science to it, they simply won the competitive evaluation process and the Japanese didn’t. And that’s what competitions are about. In the military not everyone can get the first prize, it’s not like the egg and spoon race in grade three. So that’s why they won and why not nuclear? Well, because we don’t have any kind of nuclear industry.

Misha Zelinsky:

We don’t have a sub industry either, though, right?

Chris Pyne:

Well, we do.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we have the Collins class.

Chris Pyne:

We have the Collins class submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s still a decision of government to really build that up, I mean you could do nuclear if you really wanted to.

Chris Pyne:

You couldn’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because you’d never get a piece of legislation through an upper house in this country that would allow nuclear anything. We can’t even get a radioactive nuclear waste dump.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right, South Australian Weatherill government looked at that a few years ago.

Chris Pyne:

Weatherill government, Wran government, every government. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, is to have a low level nuclear waste dump in South Australia or the Northern Territory.

Misha Zelinsky:

Bob Hawke was a big proponent of that.

Chris Pyne:

Big supporter, and we can’t even get that up. We’re close to it, I think, but it’s still far away.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you think it’s a politics thing rather than a capability thing? Are we selling ourselves short militarily because we can’t get the politics to stack up or are you comfortable with the Barracuda class?

Chris Pyne:

The Attack class submarine will be the regionally superior submarine. So we’re not selling ourselves short in a military capability sense at all, and the chief of the navy and the chief of the defense force gave us very clear advice along all those things. What you’ll find an issue in defense and foreign policy defense is that every retired commodore, admiral, and air force marshal, leftenant general, is an expert on what the government should be doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the media will give them a run if they’ve got something to say.

Chris Pyne:

The media will always give them a run so they only need one person out of the many, many, many thousands of people that are available out there to say something different to what the government’s doing and they’ll get a run. So you’ll always have an audience of people who oppose the F-35As or the combat reconnaissance vehicles or the infantry fighting vehicle or the kind of missiles that we use or the submarines or the hunter class, whatever it might be. There’ll always be somebody. But government’s got to make decisions. And you get this thing about nuclear a lot in the eastern states and it’s because New South Wales, for example, is not a manufacturing state. So they’ll talk about… I mean, there manufacturing here, but the manufacturing states traditionally-

Misha Zelinsky:

There’s a nuclear reactor here.

Chris Pyne:

Yes, there is at Lucas Heights, but it’s in their culture of course, states like Victoria and South Australia. So it’s such a parlor game talking about nuclear submarines, and I always have to stop myself from getting worked up about it because there’s no nuclear engineers in Australia, there are no courses at university in nuclear science or nuclear engineering, there’s no legislative apparatus for nuclear anything in this country. The Greens would never allow anything to ever get through an upper house. Probably Labor wouldn’t either. Then you wouldn’t be able to maintain and sustain your submarines in Australia, you’d have to send them to somewhere like Guam, because we don’t have any nuclear capabilities for sustaining and maintaining a nuclear submarine.

Chris Pyne:

You would need to be able to convince the public the have nuclear submarines stationed in Sydney or Henderson in Perth, and we can’t even get a nuclear waste dump in the middle of the desert. And yet apparently, the public are going to embrace this idea of nuclear submarines. It’s just never going to happen. It’s like me willing myself to have blonde hair and blue eyes and no freckles as a child, and wondering why it can’t be. That there are some things that can and there are some things that can’t be, and nuclear submarines will never happen in this country and it’s an argument for doing nothing. It means that you wouldn’t have any submarines while we had a 50 year argument about it. Now, we should have had a nuclear industry from the ’50s like other advanced, developed countries. But we didn’t, and we haven’t got it so let’s just get over it and get on with it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Okay. Reasonable points. We could go on with this, but reasonable points.

Chris Pyne:

I could talk about that-

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, I’m sure we both could. But I wanted to get into China, the China challenge. It is the challenge, right, for modern Australia and future Australia. You were in parliament a quarter of a century, give or take.

Chris Pyne:

I know, 26 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

What as your observation of the way China changed during that time and the way the relationship evolved from perhaps it was not a great deal to a principle trading relationship to increasingly more strategic challenge.

Chris Pyne:

It’s an interesting question and it’s a good question and basically my political career traversed that period of change because Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980s, late ’70s, ’80s, he said China needed to hide its strength and bide its time. That really was the policy for 30 to 40 years, while China strengthened its middle class, its capabilities. People don’t realize, I think, that back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and then the ’80s, China was a terribly backward economy. You’d know that, because you study these kinds of things, but most people wouldn’t know. Very, very poor. And still going through famines and so on because of government policy and just because they hadn’t been developed as a developing nation like Australia or other countries like Australia.

Chris Pyne:

But in the last 40 years, that’s changed dramatically. I’ve forgotten the name of the town next to Guangzhou in the Guangdong province, but in 1981, the Chinese government decided to create a new city next to Guangzhou. It was a fishing village. Now there’s 23 million people there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, wow.

Chris Pyne:

And it’s the thriving financial center of what used to be the Cantonese part of China, which has now become much more multicultural. And over that last time, and in the time that I was a member of parliament, China quite rightly has taken its position as a first world superpower. It was always going to happen, by the way. China’s always been a superpower, except for those hideous 150 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

The so-called century of humiliation.

Chris Pyne:

Exactly. Which started with the opium wars and finished around the end of the second world war. Other than that period, which the Chinese feel very keenly and rightly so, China was a superpower and it’s a superpower again and there’s only two superpowers. Doesn’t matter what the Russians say or what anybody else says, the Russian’s economy is the same size as Australia. Slightly smaller sometimes and slightly bigger other times, probably because of iron ore prices are slightly smaller at the moment. China and America are the only superpowers in the world.

Chris Pyne:

So the west are talking about China as though it’s surprising, not quite right that China would want to flex its muscles, is a complete misunderstanding of the Chinese history and is extremely patronizing and suggests that people who say things like that still see China as the century of humiliation, whereas the Chinese see themselves, quite rightly, as an extremely sophisticated, intelligent group of people who are amongst the world’s leaders in the last several thousand years in new inventions and medicine and military hardware, writing and art and everything else as you’d expect, as a sophisticated civilization would be.

Chris Pyne:

So we have to get into that mindset. What we need to convince the Chinese of is it’s in their interests to support the international rules based order and it’s the international rules based order that has created the circumstances in which China can be a successful trading nation which is lifting its boats and lifting all its people out of poverty. It’s not a coincidence that that’s happened, it’s because of the west and China cooperating economically through the international rules based order.

Chris Pyne:

And that needs to flow through to the way they see their position in the world as a superpower, and that everybody can get along and everybody can keep lifting their people out of poverty and getting better educational health and housing outcomes, and that therefore military conflagration is in no one’s interests.

Misha Zelinsky:

It never is, though, right. You’ve painted the picture there almost, the old thesis of China’s going to rise economically and then become democratic and be integrated into the-

Chris Pyne:

I don’t know if it will or it won’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, evidence [crosstalk 00:35:19] Yeah, sorry. Evidence seems to suggest today on Xi Jinping that that’s not happening.

Chris Pyne:

Not happening, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how does the world deal with this challenge? Because the Chinese Communist Party is asserting its Chinese power and I think the world can reckon with a Chinese superpower but it struggles to reckon with an autocratic, outwardly projecting nation that doesn’t respect democratic neighbors, et cetera. So how do you actually reckon with that challenge?

Chris Pyne:

Well, 20 years ago I was definitely in the party of people that thought that the economic liberation of China would lead to political liberation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think most people were.

Chris Pyne:

I think most people were. And I think the west approached it that way with absolutely every goodwill and intention. What we’re facing now is a Chinese Communist Party that is quite happy to have the liberalization of the economy but doesn’t appear to have any great interest in the liberalization of the polity in which they live. Now, whether that will continue forever, I don’t know. China today is very different to the China of Mao Zedong, it’s different to the China of Deng Xiaoping. Will the China of the next regime be different to Xi Jinping’s? Probably.

Misha Zelinsky:

But we don’t know when that will be because Xi Jinping’s now the ruler for life, right? That in itself is a big shift.

Chris Pyne:

Well, that’s right. But time keeps moving regardless, and Walt Disney has been cryogenically frozen but I think he’s still waiting a bit to come back. Unfortunately, time moves on and there will be change. And look, I trace it back to Tiananmen Square actually, which most people don’t talk about of course because it’s quite a painful period in China’s history. I think before Tiananmen Square, China was definitely on a path to economic and political liberalization, and that Tiananmen Square was such a shock to the rulers of the Chinese Communist Party that they realized that democracy and the Chinese Communist Party probably couldn’t coexist.

Misha Zelinsky:

Not in the way that they understood it.

Chris Pyne:

Correct. So I think that all came to something of a shuddering halt. That said, if you travel in China, I don’t know if you’ve traveled much in China?

Misha Zelinsky:

I haven’t.

Chris Pyne:

I’ve traveled in China. It isn’t a monolithic, a homogenous CCP hard faced society. Like most major countries of the world, the capital is the most reflective of the government, so Beijing is clearly definitely a government town. But the further you get away from places like Beijing to the commercial places in China, like Shanghai and Guangzhou and so on, it is much more free than you would expect from what you read in the media.

Chris Pyne:

So I’m very optimistic about China. I don’t think there will be a war but I think we need to be extremely hard headed about what we want in the Indo-Pacific, and then we need to make sure China doesn’t misunderstand our position.

Misha Zelinsky:

So then how do we deal with… At the moment we find ourselves in the midst of Chinese trade punishment or coercion, however you want to frame it. You’ve also got enormous examples, certainly over the last few years, around foreign interference, gray

Misha Zelinsky:

type of tax. How do we actually push back on that in the way you’ve described? How do you actually explain to China that this is unacceptable in a way that is politically viable as well?

Chris Pyne:

Well, we’re fortunate Misha because we have economic resources. So a country like Australia can invest in its defensive capabilities, and we have, especially in the last five or six years. Even if there was a change of government, I think it would be hard for Labor to reverse a lot of that. I think some of the people in the-

Misha Zelinsky:

Labor’s very supportive, I mean the sub thing for example is largely bipartisan, I think, right?

Chris Pyne:

Yeah. But you’ve got a left who doesn’t really like that, and we don’t. So the last time-

Misha Zelinsky:

I love the left, those that are listening.

Chris Pyne:

The last time the Labor Party was in power they cut spending in defense dramatically in real terms by 19%, which was quite awful, and as we know got down to 1.56% of GDP. But I don’t think they could do that again, because one, there’s so many decisions are being made, and two I don’t think the people who fill the positions in Labor these days would see that that was a good thing to do. And as we already discussed, the foreign and defense structure that we currently face is different to what it was when the Gillard and the Rudd governments were in power.

Chris Pyne:

So we have to invest in those capabilities to defend us in the gray zone, in the cyber world. We have to make sure that, and we are doing this, and this is all bipartisan, things like the Australian Signals Directorate and ASIO and ASIS and the Office of National Intelligence are all properly funded and supported. The smartest people are being employed there that we are getting cutting edge capabilities and technologies for defensive and offensive cyber. Because that’s what other countries will understand, they will recognize that Australia is not running down its capabilities, in fact it’s doing the opposite, and that therefore our interests need to be taken seriously.

Chris Pyne:

And our interests are not, we’re not asking for territorial gains or anything, we want free and open markets, we want free movement in the sealanes of the Indo-Pacific and the air spaces, we want free movement of people and money, open trade. These are things that will actually be good for us all and that’s why I’m optimistic because the human condition is to want to do better. It’s not the human condition to want to go to war. It’s kind of the last thing anybody wants to do.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so there’s what we want and there’s what we can get. Australia by itself, we’re an important country, we’re a middle power, we’re a wealthy nation, but numerically small. We’ve got a good regional defense structure, et cetera. But do you see in terms of, you talked a lot about Indo-Pacific, which is a relatively new construct but the Quad, you know United States, Japan, India, and us. Do you see that as a big part of this architecture of keeping China honest in its interactions with the rules based order in the way you’ve described?

Chris Pyne:

I don’t see the Quadrilateral as a containment policy. I don’t think that would be in anybody’s interests. I think it’s a useful structure for four like-minded countries that see the Indo-Pacific in a similar way, Japan, India, Australia, and the US. I think it will become an important tool, if you like, in the shed of things we can use to do exactly what I said before, free and open markets, liberal trade policies, et cetera. It isn’t a military dialogue, it is a dialogue. Although the Malabar military exercises are, I guess, the extension of the Quad dialogue but it’s not formal, but it’s an important military exercise in the Indian Ocean.

Chris Pyne:

I don’t think it’s nearly as important as the Five Eyes, though. Because there’s nothing that separates the Five Eyes on any policy matters of significance. Obviously New Zealanders don’t like nuclear ships visiting them, the English ships don’t have to visit them. But the Five Eyes is probably… Well, it’s not probably, it is our most important defense relationship because the sharing of information and intelligence is the surest way to avoid mistakes.

Chris Pyne:

As the minister for defense and before that in the defense portfolio, I used to say I think the more intelligence everyone gathers from all sides, we don’t want to be spied on by anybody of course, but the reality of the world-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s happening.

Chris Pyne:

The reality of the world in which we live because of satellites and so forth, it’s hard to avoid. But more information leads to more considered decision making and removes misunderstandings. Wars in the past have started because of misunderstandings. The first world war is probably the most classic example of nations not being able to stop mobilization once mobilization had begun despite the fact they didn’t want to have a war, and all ending up for four years with the flower of Europe being slaughtered, which could have been avoided.

Chris Pyne:

So the good thing about intelligence gathering and therefore supporting our apparatus and agencies that do so is that it avoids misunderstandings. So I think we need to keep investing in that as an important priority, and we need to be able to defend our interests, but also we need to do that in concert with our friends and allies in the region. So ASEAN’s very important, the Five Eyes is very important because it’s an intelligence sharing structure, and obviously there are five anglophone countries and they all have a history, they all come from the same route, which I used to say to the English with that emphasis, as a republican.

Chris Pyne:

But the ASEAN nations, they really do rely on a country like Australia by the way. Because they know we’re a very reliable friend. We’re the first country outside ASEAN to be in ASEAN, by the way. To be ASEAN Plus. Very early in the piece, too. So those relationships are important with the Singaporeans, the Vietnamese, the Philippines and others. To make sure that they know they’re not alone and that we need to act together. There are two superpowers but there are 20 odd other countries in that region outside the South Pacific, there’s 40 plus if you include all the countries of the South Pacific, but certainly in the Asian corridor there’s 20 countries that together, in operating in concert, can make a difference. So I’m a multilateralist as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

That I think is critical for Australia. Now, one final question on China.

Chris Pyne:

And you’ve got to be able to do it all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, absolutely. Walk and chew gum.

Chris Pyne:

It’s not a binary choice. Which some governments in the past, without mentioning, sort of felt that you’re either a bilateralist or you’re a multilateralist. Well, actually you can’t be one or the other, you’ve got to be all of it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one final question on China relating to… A sort of ethical question for the west, but it also bumps up against politics, a question relating to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This is a bit of a diabolical challenge for a lot of western countries like Australia, other countries increasingly around the world, Australia have not done it yet, but are calling out what’s happening there as a form of genocide. How do you see the west’s responsibility, countries like Australia, dealing with this issue that’s occurring, these horrible reports we’re seeing, horrible reports about torture of Uyghurs et cetera. How do we handle that when China makes it clear that it’s a red line for its regime, of the Chinese Communist Party in particular.

Chris Pyne:

It’s very difficult. It’s a humanitarian policy area and I hesitate to say it’s hard to get to the truth. I mean clearly there is a truth about Uyghurs being clearly a put-upon minority in China. The Chinese regime, the Chinese government has a very clear view that they’re not a put-upon minority. So there’s an argument that they’re not agreed facts. Which makes it difficult for governments, doesn’t make it difficult for amnesty or for humanitarian organizations to call out the Uyghur minority situation but it does make it trickier for governments. So what you’ve got to do when you’re in government is you need to put those issues on the table and discuss them like adults and say, “We are concerned about reports about Chinese treatment of particular minorities.” The Chinese will counter with, “We’re concerned about the reports of the treatment of indigenous people in Australia.” And they’ll point to-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s about whataboutism though, right, isn’t it, in a way?

Chris Pyne:

Well of course, and it’s about they’ll point to indigenous deaths in custody and all these other things.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is shocking but nevertheless are reported and understood-

Chris Pyne:

I’m not putting them on the same level, of course not. But I’ll say that’s what the Chinese government will counter with, and we obviously have our houses well in order as any country can on these matters and always try and do better. There’s no suggestion that there’s any Australians persecuting minorities.

Chris Pyne:

But in diplomatic discussions and meetings with ministers of defense, do you stop the discussion about the Uyghurs and not move on to cooperation and South China Sea and Taiwan and Southeast Asia, or do you say right that’s our view on that and you know our view, and then you have to obviously move on to other matters. So you maintain your ethical values based foreign policy and defense policy, but we’re not Switzerland, we’re not Sweden. We do live in the Indo-Pacific. We do have to get along with our neighbors. And we do have to find ways to engage. We can’t decide that we’re not going to engage with Beijing because of the Uyghurs. So we just don’t have those choices. You have those choices if you’re a member of Greenpeace, but you don’t have that choice if you’re a member of the Australian government.

Misha Zelinsky:

You can see increasingly the world is taking the view that it’s prepared to call the CCP out on this question.

Chris Pyne:

They’re doing that, the world is doing that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Should Australia join them?

Chris Pyne:

We have done that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, we can probably talk about that a lot as well but we’ve got to keep moving along.

Chris Pyne:

It’s difficult to talk about genocide, because it’s too easily thrown about, this phrase genocide. And people are still arguing about the Armenian genocide because the Turks say that there wasn’t an Armenian genocide, and of course the Armenians go clearly the evidence is that there is, was.

Chris Pyne:

At the end of the day, how is it going to advance the interests of anyone to keep talking about semantics? About words like genocide or not genocide. Terrible things have happened to people throughout history, whether it’s the Armenians or the Jews, and we have to learn from those terrible mistakes, not debate them endlessly.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now I want to switch back for the last part of the show to your career. In your book-

Chris Pyne:

That’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Your favorite topic, no? In your book you talked about wanting to be prime minister throughout your career. In the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, as that was playing out, you reported that a colleague said to you, “You know it can’t be you.” As in you can’t be leader, you can’t be prime minister. How’d that feel, did that hurt?

Chris Pyne:

It didn’t hurt, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

How did it feel at the time, knowing that perhaps the ambition would never be fulfilled at that point?

Chris Pyne:

I thought that’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:

A politician who has self-awareness? No, come on mate, that can’t be right.

Chris Pyne:

I do have self-awareness. I’m a pragmatist, I thought to myself well of course it can’t be me because it can’t be Julie either. So I couldn’t be on the one hand saying that the moderates are going to have to back Scott Morrison because otherwise Peter Dutton will get elected, and as much as I like Peter Dutton, and I do, and we catch up a lot, and there’s nothing personal about my observations, I just thought that if he was the leader we wouldn’t win the election. Because I thought he would be popular in Queensland but not popular elsewhere. And I thought Scott Morrison will probably be able to straddle the different interests that support the coalition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which has proven out, I suppose.

Chris Pyne:

Which has been proven to be true, of course, I should get a medal for it. And I thought, well Julie, obviously Julie, as much as I like Julie very much and I would have liked her to have been the prime minister, I couldn’t on the one hand be saying Julie Bishop’s not going to beat Peter Dutton but say oh actually you should support me, when I was in exactly the same position. I wasn’t going to get elected leader because I come from South Australia, I’m from the moderate faction, I’m very clearly a smaller liberal. It would have been very hard for the party to unite under me, it did under Scott, much to his great credit.

Chris Pyne:

So look, it wasn’t said but it was a moment where I thought to myself, yeah, that’s right. That opportunity’s never going to present itself to me, and they’re moving to the next generation. It was certainly the time that I started thinking that this might be it for me, I might have had my run. Because they’re not going to go back to me now, they’ve moved on to Scott and Josh. Scott and Josh got elected in 2007 or 2004 I think, in Josh’s case. It might have been 2007. No, I think it was 2004. And I got elected in 1993, I’m a Howard era minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

You need a 25 year old first NMP to tell you you can never be leader, mate.

Chris Pyne:

Well, I didn’t need it, I had one of my older colleagues and good friends. And I thought well that’s true, they’re moving on to the next generation now and I can either stay here and serve for another 20 years, or I could do something else. At 51 I thought probably it’s time to do something else. So yes, it wasn’t sad, it was just kind of… It was a pivotal moment.

Misha Zelinsky:

Looking back on your career, you had a lot of ups and downs, but any regrets? And perhaps what’s your best day and your worst day? I’m always curious about people that have had a long career in politics.

Chris Pyne:

My worst day in politics was the day that Malcolm Turnbull was defeated as prime minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because Malcolm’s a star.

Misha Zelinsky:

He was a previous guest on this show. You just followed him.

Chris Pyne:

And Malcolm should have been prime minister for a long time and Malcolm was a change agent for the country.

Misha Zelinsky:

So why wasn’t he prime minister for a long time, if I can probe the…

Chris Pyne:

Because he wasn’t given the chance, really. He was always undermined by the people who he’d replaced on the first one. Not the people individually, but the-

Misha Zelinsky:

Group or…

Chris Pyne:

The group that was supplanted by Malcolm and his group never really gave Malcolm a chance. While they certainly didn’t initially undermine Malcolm, when Malcolm stumbled you can either protect the leader and help them or you can push them under the bus. And there were clearly a group of people in the party room who, whenever Malcolm wasn’t perfect or stumbled or made a slight error or caught the curb as he went around the corner, made sure that we knew about it.

Chris Pyne:

That made it hard, so it was a sad day because Malcolm Turnbull is the kind of person who should have been a longstanding successful prime minister, help changed the nation, moved it to another plane, and unfortunately he wasn’t given that chance to do so. Now his enemies of course, and his opponents will have a different take and they’re perfectly entitled to have a different opinion. My opinion was he was the kind of person that could be a great prime minister be he wasn’t given the opportunity, the free reign from some people that he should have been, and of course he made mistakes, we all make mistakes. Best day of my political career was April 28, 1992.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which was?

Chris Pyne:

The day I was preselected. I’ve never got over it. It was the greatest day of my political life.

Misha Zelinsky:

Given you said you went through a hell of a time it must have been a great victory, right?

Chris Pyne:

Oh yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

At a young age, too.

Chris Pyne:

I was 24. Obviously there were great days being sworn into the cabinet, the day I was sworn into the ministry with John Howard, that was a very memorable day because it was really just me and him because I’d replaced Santo Santoro if you remember. And so he and I went out to the government house together, and they had a certain poignancy given that 10 years before I’d cruelled my pitch. So there were other great days in politics, winning elections is always a great thing. But I won nine elections and I was cabinet minister and minister in different portfolios, so those days start to meld into one, whereas you only win one first preselection.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure, no, I can understand that. Now, culture. A lot of discussion about political culture at the moment. You’re someone that probably thrived in parliament, you enjoyed the theater of political combat it would be fair to say I think.

Chris Pyne:

Definitely.

Misha Zelinsky:

So what reflections do you have on the challenges that we’ve seen in 2021 about the political culture and what is the answers in terms of improving it?

Chris Pyne:

Well, I think one of the reasons I survived in politics and left it in relatively good order with most of my colleagues, both Liberal and Labor and Greens for that matter, is because I saw it as a debate. So it wasn’t a personal thing. So my job was to talk about my arguments, and hone those to the best possible level and find the holes in my opponents’ arguments and highlight those and tear down their position. It wasn’t to be personal.

Misha Zelinsky:

Unless Labor wins an election in a minority government, right?

Chris Pyne:

But it still wasn’t personal.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, I’m joking.

Chris Pyne:

So I’d give lots of speeches in the chamber railing against the hideousness of the Gillard government and their illegitimacy, but nobody ever used to think I’d crossed the boundaries into being personal. And you know, one day-

Misha Zelinsky:

So you can play it hard without playing it personal is what you’re saying.

Chris Pyne:

One day I made a mistake and I accused Greg Combet of having a slush fund because do you remember the AWU workers slush fund?

Misha Zelinsky:

I do.

Chris Pyne:

And he was so furious about it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Greg gets very upset if he’s-

Chris Pyne:

Maligned.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, if his integrity’s called in question.

Chris Pyne:

Totally. He was so furious about it, I thought goodness gracious I’ve obviously touched a raw nerve there, maybe I’ve made a mistake. Anyway, so I asked some of my labor friends if I’d got that wrong, and they said completely wrong. That’s exactly the opposite of what Greg Combet would have done. So I rang him after question time and I apologized and he was very good about it, but that’s very rare. Most people don’t apologize in politics when they’re wrong.

Chris Pyne:

So I think there’s a difference between playing the ball and trying to win for your team and personal vituperative behavior. And I hopefully didn’t fall into the second. The problem in the parliament at the moment of course is that the culture does need change and there aren’t enough women in politics, and Labor has a lot more women than the coalition does, and that needs to change.

Misha Zelinsky:

Shouldn’t there be quotas?

Chris Pyne:

I don’t support quotas but that’s because I think quotas work against women in a different way, which is that yes they might win, get into parliament, but they’re looked at always as not necessarily getting there because they’re on merit, which I think is wrong but I think it’s a perception of some people and the South Australian Liberal Party, for example, has just preselected three women out of four seats, and three saved seats. It can be done with the right attitude from the leadership and from the party membership, so I don’t think quotas are necessary, but if they end up with quotas I’m not going to be upset either, it’s not something that I’m passionate about. But some people are, I’m not.

Chris Pyne:

I think there needed to be more women. When I became leader of the house I changed the sitting hours, so that we ended every night by eight o’clock, the adjournment would start at 7:30 and parliament would start at about nine o’clock in the morning because I thought these mad late night sittings to 11:00 or 2:00 AM or 4:00 AM were all completely crackers. I think the public thought it was all crackers as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you can’t be making good decisions late at night.

Chris Pyne:

No, and everybody drinks too much because they’re stuck in the house and they can’t do anything and nobody wants to sit there at their desk working on a brief at 11 o’clock at night, so people would have a drink, so there’s too much of that culture. That’s dissipated a lot because the sitting hours changed. But it’s a funny hot house atmosphere. Have you ever worked in parliament house?

Misha Zelinsky:

Not in the federal parliament but I spent a fair bit of time there for work so I’m familiar with it.

Chris Pyne:

So it’s funny, 4000 people plus, all come together for 17 weeks a year, all away from year, and they’re there for a specific period of time, a specific job, and they’re all very similar people because they’re all political people. So it’s not like a village. Everyone calls it it’s like a village, it’s not like a village because in the village you’ve got the baker and the candlestick maker and the real estate agent and a whole bunch of people who don’t work and people who do work and kids who go to school.

Chris Pyne:

In that place, there’s 4000 people all very similar. And so it’s unusual. So it doesn’t surprise me that the culture is now being called out, I think it’s a good thing that it’s being called out. I do think that it needs to reset and I think the public want everyone to get back to governing and opposing, if you’re on the opposition, but I do think the solution to this problem is… I mean, the capital should have been in a major city. It should have been in Adelaide or Brisbane or-

Misha Zelinsky:

It was a deal, essentially, between Sydney and Melbourne that would have-

Chris Pyne:

It was a deal because the Sydneysiders didn’t want it in Melbourne and the Melbournians didn’t want it in Sydney, so they had to put it within 100 kilometers of the New South Wales Victorian border on the New South Wales side, so it kind of ended up being where it is and Canberra is a lovely city and I like Canberra, but it’s an entirely artificial community. It’s now become a proper city, to be fair. When I first got elected in 1993, when I first worked for Amanda Vanstone it was a bit artificial. But if it had been in a city like Adelaide or Brisbane, rather than Sydney or Melbourne, or if they’d been able to agree that it should be in Melbourne then of course it would have been different because people would have gone home. So they would have been working in parliament house but they would have gone home at night as opposed to motels or hotels or whatever, or share houses. So it would have been a different culture. Interesting if that would have made a difference to our politics. I think it would have.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, could pin you down, chat here for hours and hours but we’re getting towards the end. Now, I can’t let you go without answering the famous lame question of Diplomates.

Chris Pyne:

Diplomates. That’s the lame part.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, indeed. It’s a lame pun with a lame final question and a terrible segue.

Chris Pyne:

Good.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I’m keeping with tradition. Now, the question of course is you’re an Australian guest, foreign guests have to invite Australians, but you’re an Australian guest so you can invite foreigners. Three foreign guests to a barbecue at Chris Pyne’s, who are they and why?

Chris Pyne:

And they can be dead?

Misha Zelinsky:

They can be dead.

Chris Pyne:

I would have Alexander the Great, Constantine and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow, okay. Three big figures of history and a long way back. Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because I’d like to know what drove them to be such change agents. What made them think that they could take an army of a few ten thousands of Greeks and conquer the modern world and get all the way to India and think they could change the world in which they lived at the age of 20-something, and why Napoleon Bonaparte thought he could go to Egypt and create a new empire in the east and how he could think that he could transcend Islam and Christianity and create a new religion and a new civilization. It must take extraordinary self-belief. And Constantine changed the western world because once he initiated Christianity as the state religion of the empire, it was probably… I think it’d be too self-regarding to think you could have Jesus Christ over for a barbecue, so I would leave him out, but Constantine, he changed the world in which we live entirely because Christianity has been the greatest force for the shaping of the western world in our entire history. So I’d like to know why he thought that was a good idea.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, three outstanding guests at a barbecue, but you’ve been an outstanding guest on Diplomates so thank you for coming on the show and much appreciate it, Chris Pyne.

Chris Pyne:

Thanks Misha, thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Pleasure.

 

Malcolm Turnbull: A Bigger Picture – Politics, Leadership and Government

Malcolm Turnbull was Australia’s 29th Prime Minister.

Before entering Federal Parliament, Malcolm had a distinguished career as a Rhodes Scholar, in law, media, tech, finance and public advocacy.

He’s the author of several books, including his autobiography ‘A Bigger Picture’.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Malcolm Turnbull for a chinwag about his famous Spycatcher trial against the Thatcher Government, the failed ‘Republic’ Referendum vote in 1999, why Australia’s climate debate has been so bruising and who’s to blame for the inaction, his professional rivalry with Tony Abbott, why China’s bullying of Australia will prove to be unsuccessful, the problem with misinformation and lies in our public discourse, Australia’s attempts to bring big tech to heel, the art of leadership challenges, handling Donald Trump, fixing our political culture and why we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

As you can see, it’s a long and wide ranging chat and Malcolm is extremely generous with his time and insights – so we hope you enjoy it!

TRANSCRIPT: (Please note to check the audio against the transcript).

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Great to be with you, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously, lots of places we can start in a foreign policy chat with yourself, but I thought we might go right back a little to the beginning of your career, certainly in the public eye. Your first foray into foreign affairs is probably in the famous Circle Spycatcher trial. You were a lawyer taking on the British government about an author, former spy, looking to sort of publish his memoirs. I mean, I was wondering if you could detail us a little bit about your experience and what it taught you, I suppose, about taking on governments and foreign relations.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, Peter Wright, by the time I met him was in his 70s. He was old, he was frail, he was living in really impoverished conditions in sort of little farm just south of Hobart, a place called Cygnet, where he was trying to breed horses very unsuccessfully. He was living there with his wife, Lois, now basically living in a shack. Peter had been a MI5 officer, scientific officer, right through the Cold War. When he retired from MI5, the Brits doubted him on his pension or so he believed. He was not a public school boy, he was very much sort of working class kid who was just really brilliant at radio and he felt that the British establishment had never treated him like an equal. You know what, I think he was right. But Peter, had been convinced among other things, that I had one of the heads of the MI5, Roger Hollis, in the early 60s had in fact been a Soviet agent, like Burgess and Maclean, and Philby, and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

In that period was a time of enormous paranoia well described by one writer as the wilderness of mirrors. Wright had a equally paranoid counterpart in the CIA called James Jesus Angleton. The problem was that they did actually end up suspecting just about everyone else of being a Soviet agent but there were enough Soviet agents to mean that their suspicions were not entirely fantasy, so that was a bit of a problem. Anyway, Wright had written a book, a memoir, of his adventures called Spycatcher. He’d written it with the help of a television journalist called Paul Greengrass, who is now a very famous film director. He’s done many of the Bourne films and other great movies. Anyway, they’d decided to publish it in Australia because they didn’t want to get into an argument with the British over the Official Secrets Act. Anyway, the British, when they got wind of this promptly got an injunction in the Australian courts to stop the book being banned. Heinemann, who are the publishers, had been advised by their lawyers, a couple of big law firms, I think MinterEllison was one of them, and a lot of silks.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, just [Rodie Ma 00:03:51], Simon Shella, Jim Spigelman, the works, had all told them that they were not going to win, that their prospects were very, very bleak. They actually were going to give up the case and what happened was their London solicitor, who was this rather really charming guy called David Hooper, who was an old Etonian and honestly almost sometimes sounded as though he’d stepped out of a Bertie Wooster novel. He was very… he had amazing sort of British accent and was sort of affected a deliciously vague air about it. He was a bit of, I think to some extent, he was always slightly sending himself up. Anyway, Hooper had been recommended to come and see me by Jeff Robertson, who’d given them some advice in the UK. But I think Jeff’s view was also was that the case was a loser, but like a lot of lawyers on the left, I regret to say this, they often look to glorious defeats. Whereas, I’m interested in winning, whether gloriously or ingloriously.

Misha Zelinsky:

Chin up.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Anyway, I thought the case was a winner, as did Lucy, who was one of my legal partners at the time, as was my wife, of course, and we ended up agreeing to do the case for them for $20,000, it was a year’s work. I know it was a long time ago, but $20,000 is not a lot of money even in 1986. That was the only basis on which I’d do the case. Anyway, we took it on with our little team. Me and Lucy, with some help from David Hooper and some of the younger lawyers in my office. We basically took on the British government, they had securities up to the eyeballs, and they had one of the biggest law firms in Australia, they had the UK Treasury solicitor. We took them on and we won the case, then we won at trial, a court of appeal, and in the High Court. But it was a very interesting example of the hypocrisy of government, and in particular the hypocrisy of the British government. Because what became apparent was that, in fact the substance of Wright’s book had all been published before.

Malcolm Turnbull:

One of our defenses was to say, “Look, this is not confidential information. You can’t get an injunction to prevent the publication of something that’s in the public domain already.” But what was worse was that the Wright’s material had been published by a right-wing journalist called Chapman Pincher, in a book called Their Trade is Treachery. But we were able to establish that that publication had been enabled by Lord Victor Rothschild, absolute pillar of the British establishment, and that he had done so with the connivance of the British government who wanted Wright’s allegations about Hollis to get out into the public domain, but through the hands of a safely conservative journalist. It was the end… Anyway, the real problem was that the guy that Fischer sent out to Australia to give evidence, Robert Armstrong, got himself absolutely tangled up in the witness box. He was lying.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, I suppose he would argue that he wasn’t lying, because he thought what he was saying the first time, before he corrected himself, was true but you have to have a very generous view of human nature to believe that. But he ended up having to apologize to the court for misleading the court and you can imagine the humiliation this caused the British government. I mean, this was a massive political drama in London. I mean, it was a big story in the Australian media, but it was five times as big in the UK. But there was a wonderful moment, a sort of cross cultural moment, I might just leave it there, where on the question of truth. Because Armstrong had written a letter to a publisher which was asking for a copy of this book, Traders Treachery. And said, “Oh, you know, we’d like to review it before it hits the streets,” but in fact he had the copy, he had the manuscript. In fact, they had basically conspired to get the manuscript into the public domain.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I might say, since that trial… I’ll come back to this. Anyway, I said to Armstrong, “Well, you know, you were lying, weren’t you?” He said, “Oh, no, I wasn’t lying.” I said, “Well, you know, where you’re telling the truth?” “Oh, well, I was creating a misleading impression, you know?” “Well, what’s a misleading impression? Is that like a ventridis or a half truth?” Then he uttered this line that he thought was very funny. He said, “Oh, no, Mr. Turnbull, I was just being economical with the truth. Hahaha.” As he went hahaha, I thought to myself, “Boy, you have misjudged your environment here, because the one place you don’t make jokes about telling the truth is in a witness box when you’re under oath,” and it was downhill from there. But there’s a very interesting postscript to this.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Because the proposition I put to them and I put to the court was, that the British government had basically authorized all this stuff to go out into the public domain anyway, that what was inspired capture was a load of old cobblers who had been published, and so, the case was futile all along, baseless, and it demonstrated enormous hypocrisy on the part of the British. To which Armstrong said, “Oh, Mr. Turnbull, that’s a very ingenious conspiracy theory that utterly untrue.” Well, not only was it… It wasn’t utterly untrue, it was actually true because in Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biography written by Charles Moore, Armstrong actually admits that the decision to get Pincher to write this book with revelations about Hollis, was a decision taken in number 10 Downing Street with the prime minister’s knowledge and the book, Moore’s book, quotes Armstrong, quotes memos, documents from the Thatcher government.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Obviously, I imagine they probably felt Pincher’s book wasn’t entirely what they had wanted, but he was set on his mission by the British government, he was authorized, the connection with Rothschild was made with the British government, Rothschild made the connection with Wright. It was just mind boggling hypocrisy and it was very interesting. I mean, I hope an Australian government would never behave in that way, I don’t think it would. I’d say another thing too which is an interesting cross cultural thing. The British could not believe that Armstrong was not treated differentially in the Australian courts. Even as a very old man, few years ago, he just died recently, he was in the broadcast news and he was saying, “Oh, Mr. Turnbull did not behave the way a British barrister would have behaved,” which Paul Greengrass, who was on this broadcast with him, he said, “Yeah.” He said, “A British barrister would have been utterly groveling and deferential to you,” because that’s what they used to. The truth is that Armstrong was treated like any other witness, the court, the judge presided over the court with good humor, and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But it was absolute, he got the same treatment everybody else did. But that wasn’t how it worked. It was an interesting case, but ultimately the lesson, the principle, I think that then got across and it was a very historic case in the sense, that it made the British, and I think the Australians too, realize that these secret intelligence agencies have to be more accountable. They can’t pretend that everything is a secret as everything else, and the public are entitled to know. If you want something to be kept confidential, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that it is actually detrimental to national security were it to be published. It was a good blow for freedom of speech, and above all it was enormous fun. I’ve wrote a book about it, I think I’ve given you a copy of it. Which if you like to read courtroom dramas, it’s quite a good read I think.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we’ll obviously get a little bit more about Spycatcher once we get to your term in office as prime minister. But on the way there, dealing with the British government yet again and Australia’s relationship with the British government, you were of course, the head of the Australian Republican Movement. Now, of course… Well, it was unsuccessful in pursuit of that vote, the yes vote went down. I’m kind of curious about your reflections about why we lost and would you have done anything differently as a result?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, Misha, I mean, the first thing you’ve got to remember is that virtually all constitutional referendums fail, right? It’s very hard to get the constitution changed. It is my theory for that, which I think was originally suggested to me by Mary Gleason, actually, but I think it’s right. Is that in Australia, we have compulsory voting, which is a good thing, really good thing, but it has one bad consequence. In a referendum, where you make everyone vote, you will have a percentage of the population who don’t know, don’t care, aren’t interested, haven’t read up about it. If they are very vulnerable to that change right? Because if you don’t know the consequences of a change, you’re not going to vote for it. I mean, if I said to you, “You know, I’ve got this amazing new technology that’s produced incredible paint, and I just want to paint your room with it,” and you haven’t had time but you’ve got to make the decision now, you would be inclined to say, “Oh, look, the room’s okay, I’ll just leave it as it is.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

So there’s a sort of element of you don’t know but know. That’s a problem, which is why you need, in a referendum situation, you need to have really overwhelming support. The other problem that we had was… That’s a problem in every referendum, unless it is so boring, so administrative, and literally nobody opposes it. I mean, the last remotely controversial constitutional referendum that got up was in 1946, so it’s a long time ago. Okay, the other problem we had was that the model that we took was one where the president to replace the queen and the governor general would be chosen by a bipartisan two thirds majority of a joint sitting of parliament. You know, that’s obvious because the role is meant to be a ceremonial, a political figure. That’s what you want and that’s one way of delivering that. But there was a move to have direct election, which we did not support.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, Keating didn’t support it, there was hardly anyone on the non-Labor side of politics that supported it, apart from a few wreckers. But simply because you’re essentially using a highly politicized method of election to choose someone who you want to be non-political. Anyway, the direct electionists have also campaigned against the proposition. That was a classic example of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I mean, just-

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Malcolm Turnbull:

… just completely… Again, I mean, they weren’t all on the left, but it is a classic thing that the left do. I mean, not everyone on the left. I mean, the other great case in Australian history is the Greens voting against the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme at the end of 2009.

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, far out. I mean, if they had voted for that, they, together with the liberals that were still in the Senate that are still supporting me, would have been passed and an emissions trading scheme by now would have been so embedded, it would have been about as controversial as the GST. And every now and then people would say, “Oh, the rate should go up or down or sideways,” but it wouldn’t be this issue. And I was just staggered. The one thing if you can inscribe on every, I don’t know, pillowcase, at every would-be politician ever lays their head on, “Do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” It is such a… And its way of progressives, whatever character you want to describe them, so often screw up. Anyway, that’s basically why we lost. The question then is, what do you do now? My view is that you, firstly, timing and I think the timing will be when the queen’s reign ends.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But I think you need to first have a vote, which would be a plebiscite, it wouldn’t be a referendum per se. Where you put one method of election up against another and that presumably would be direct election versus parliamentary appointment and I think you just thrash that out. I mean, sure, I think you thrash that out for three months or whatever, uphill and downed out, and then you have a vote, then whichever model of election emerges, you say, “All right, we’ll now incorporate that in the formal Constitution Amendment Bill that will then go to the public in the referendum under the constitution.” Because I think you can’t fight on two fronts at once basically, that’s the problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve sort of said, “Look, we need to wait until Queen Elizabeth II passes.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, why is that? Because my sense of it is basically, look, in the 90s, I remember Keating arguing for a republican, it felt inevitable. I was really shocked when the result was a nightmare. Then we’re told, “Oh, don’t worry, there’ll be a vote in the not too distant future.” Here we are, 22-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not for me, Misha, I said these guys are lying. I mean, my conscious is clear. I said, “If you vote no, it means no for a very long time.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and here we are, right? I guess the question is, no one’s really arguing for a republic. I mean, why, when the queen passes, will they suddenly be supporting ponies dropping away? I don’t get a sense that there’s a ground swell for it unfortunately, because we’re not seeing that argument in the public. And the queen will pass, there’ll be King Charles and the show will roll on.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I think you’re wrong and I hope you’re wrong, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I hope I’m wrong too.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah. Okay, but here’s the proposition. Ultimately timing is just about everything in politics. You can’t breathe political life into an issue that no one has any interest in. Or maybe you can but you’ve got to use enormous amount of political capital to do so and leaders are not going to do that. There’s got to be a sense of its time. It’s time to deal with this issue. Now, in the lead up to the Centenary of Federation in the 90s, we did have that sense of this is time and there was a whole lot of things being done to review the constitution, so forth, all of which came to now, I might add but anyway. But nonetheless, there was a sense of that and I think when the queen’s reign ends, when she dies or abdicates, it will be just an enormous watershed. I mean, the reminder that she’s actually reigned for longer than this now, reminder of that old republican poet, Victor Daley, he used to write in the Bulletin in the 1880s and 90s.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Wrote a poem about Queen Victoria and he said, “60 years she’s reigned, holding up the sky, bringing around the seasons, hot and cold, and wet and dry. And all those years, she’s never done a deed deserving jail, so let joy bells ring out madly and delirium prevail,” et cetera, it’s a great poem. But the point is, just as the passing of Queen Victoria was a epochal moment, the end of Queen Elizabeth, the seconds reign, will be this gigantic watershed. I think after that people will say, “Okay, that’s amazing, we adore her, she is one of the great…” I mean, obviously very passive and she’s not a political leader, per se, but her continuity and dignity is one that has so many admirers. It’s why I always say morals of monarchists.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But I think that will be a moment, Misha. I think at that point, people will be asking, “Do we want to keep having the king or queen of the United Kingdom as our head of state?” I mean, there’s all sorts of fascinating constitutional implications by the way, because what the Constitution says… The Constitution refers to the queen throughout and that meaning Queen Victoria of course, but it says, in the Constitution Act, it says the Queen means Her Majesty and her heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. Which means, of course, that if Britain became a republic, the president of Britain would be head of state, which is like ludacris.

Misha Zelinsky:

Madness.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, ludicrous, right? But it also means, it’s also raises an interesting thing. If, for example, Scotland became independent, then the United Kingdom is no longer united, so that will pose some interesting questions. I mean, the Constitution itself is a very, very outdated document. I mean, it works but it works less because of what’s in it, but because of the way conventions have evolved. I mean, there is a still a provision in the constitution, for example, which says that the queen, which in the context of 1901 meant the British government, can disallow a law passed by the Australian Parliament and signed into law by the governor general within 12 months of its enactment. Theoretically, you could have an election and a new prime minister could come in and say, “Right, I am going to advise her majesty to disallow all of the laws passed by the parliament in the last 12 months.” There’s also a provision allowing the governor general to reserve laws for the queen’s consideration and that’s a provision called Reservation and Disallowance.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And why is that there? Well, that’s because in the days, 1901, when Australia was not a independent country at all, colonial constitutions had that power. Because it meant that the governor general or the governor, who was invariably a British official, could say, “Oh, gosh, you know, these colonials, I don’t particularly like this law, this might impact on British trade or investments. So I’ll just send that back to head office in London and see what they think of it.” The bottom line is that that constitution, you sometimes see people saying, “Oh, it’s the birth certificate for a nation.” That is nonsense, it was a colonial constitution for a country that was largely self-governing dependency of the British Empire, and our independence was acquired gradually. It’s actually an interesting question as to when? Is there a date and time when Australia became independent? There actually isn’t any one day, but we certainly obviously are and have been for many decades now.

Misha Zelinsky:

You mentioned already, the politics of climate change, I kind of want to get… It’s a big global challenge, it’s arguably defined your time in politics. I mean, we’ve lost a mark count four prime ministers to divisions over climate. Why did, to your mind, has just been so bruising from an Australian point of view? Because in 2007, Howard and Rudd both took ETS or competing emissions trading schemes to an election, Rupert was going to be bipartisan, you were the opposition leader. Rupert was going to be at… Of course the Greens voted it down. But why has it been so bruising particularly for the last decade of their politics?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I think what happened was that sort of beginning 2008/09, you got a effectively a coalition of the right political right, the product called the Populist Right in the Liberal and National parties, the Murdoch media in particular and of course the fossil fuel lobby. Who essentially combined to turn what should have been a debate about physics and economics and engineering into one of videology. I mean, George Pell, the Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop… I mean, Pell was a great advocate for climate change denialism. Obviously, Abbott was the guy who succeeded me in 2009 who then really weaponized it. I mean, sort of there are a few fatal errors at that time. I mean, I think the fatal error of the Greens was blocking the CPRS at the end of 2009 and then Kevin’s fatal error was not proceeding straight away to a double dissolution, which he would have won. But for some reason or other, he lost his nerve.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Because, you see, the Emissions Trading Scheme at that point it still united the Labor Movement or Labor Party anyway, perhaps not all of the unions, including your own. But it united the Labor Party but it divided the coalition. And why he blames Gillard, obviously, I mean… but everyone was staggered by that decision. Then, of course, Abbott sort of weaponized it. I mean, he weaponized it and of course then in the election that followed in 2010, Julia made the absolutely staggering issue, staggering mistake of saying that an emissions trading scheme was same as a carbon tax. I told him, I wouldn’t name him so I didn’t name him in the book because he’s a friend of mine. But one of the very senior Labor politicians, who is a great trade union leader, his theory was that Julia said that because she wanted to distinguish it from Kevin’s Emissions Trading Scheme, and it was just a devastating mistake. Because she had said, “There won’t be a carbon tax under any government I lead,” and a carbon tax is obviously a fixed price on carbon. It’s $20 a ton or $25 a ton.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Everyone understands that an emissions trading scheme is different to a carbon tax. When people talk about a carbon tax, they’re invariably talking about it in contradistinction to an emissions trading scheme, where you constrain the number of permits to not allow you to emit greenhouse gases. And obviously, depending on all the forces of supply and demand, the price of those permits can go up or down, that it’ll vary. But she essentially framed herself, she should have been saying, “I don’t care if you use red hot pincers to tear out my toenails, I’m not going to say an emissions trading scheme is a carbon tax.” That was the last thing she should ever have said and she would have been right in not saying it. Abbott, then was able to present her as lying and all that sorry history began. By the time I became prime minister, the chances of getting putting a price on carbon was just, from practical political terms, zero.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you see-

Malcolm Turnbull:

But the fundamental problem, Misha, is that what’s happened is that this combination of right-wing politics, right-wing media, and the fossil fuel lobby, have essentially taken what is a matter of physics, global warming, and turned it into a question of identity or values or belief. Now, I can understand someone saying, “I have a deeply held view about gay marriage,” for example. I can understand someone who says, “The Bible says only men and women should be married and I’m against it,” now obviously I vociferously disagree with that but that you can accept that as a question of values, that’s a question… And we obviously had a vote on that and decision was taken. But saying you believe or disbelieve in global warming, it’s like saying you believe or disbelieve in gravity. I mean, it’s literally barking mad and dangerously so.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. With the NEG, we talked a lot about the ETS and you’re one of the National Energy Guarantee which is your signature energy policy as prime minister. Without going into the ins and outs of it, do you think there might have been an opportunity just to force it all to vote and test the numbers-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Basically, the NEG had two parts to it. In some respects, the most important part from an immediate point of view, was the reliability mechanism, which has gone into effect. Which essentially meant a retailer of electricity needed to ensure that there was enough dispatchable power in their portfolio. In other words, the idea of that was so that you didn’t get a sort of a repeat of the South Australian situation where a huge amount of wind is built, that’s a good thing, and solar, but without the backup. Whether it’s batteries, or pumped hydro, or a gas peaker. But you’ve got to sort of get the right mix, okay? The other part, which is where the coalition blew up, was having essentially an emissions reduction element to it. And that was the part that had to go through the Federal Parliament to provide that the emissions intensity, if you like, of your portfolio generation declined in accordance with our Paris commitments.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Now, the question as to whether, I mean basically the position that I was faced with at the beginning of that sort of last week of my prime ministership was, there were so many people that were on our side that were going across the floor and voted against that, notwithstanding that it had gone through the party realm. Even looked like the Nats would vote against it. We discussed it in the cabinet, I’m going to describe all this in my book. We discussed it in the cabinet, and literally everyone said, “We’ve just got to put this on hold.” We didn’t abandon it, we’re very expressive about that. But the view was, I mean even my good supporters like Christopher and Julian and so forth, felt that the right we’re obviously planning to use this as a way to block the government, and what we needed to do was if you like, you could call it a tactical retreat or a pause, but maintain the policy, but just say, “We just got to handle this insurrection first and then we can come back to it.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

What happened of course then, events move much faster than I’d anticipated or I think most people had. They ended up being that coup and all of the chaos that followed and resulted in Morrison becoming prime minister. But look, I think it’s a… I know a lot of people on the Labor side have said, “Oh, you should have just put it to the vote.” Well truthfully, I don’t think it would have been very hard to do that for practical sense in a cabinet government, given the attitudes of my colleagues. The idea that Labor would have voted to pass it, I mean Bill was there, he could taste the prime ministership. He was so close, and he idea that he would have passed up the opportunity to defeat the government on the floor of the House, on an important bill like that and force an election is pretty naive. I mean, the part of the problem that I had was that there was a body of a group of people in the coalition and this was absolutely backed in by Murdoch, as he acknowledged. Murdoch acknowledged this and it’s pretty obvious, that wanted my government to lose an election.

Malcolm Turnbull:

They, as Rupert Murdoch said to Kerry Stokes, “Three years of Labor wouldn’t be so bad.” They were so determined to get rid of me, it’s amazing, I’m such a lovable character. But they were so determined to get rid of me and once again, get a prime minister that would do as he’s told., that they were prepared to put up with a Labor win. I mean this was Abbott’s crazy agenda, he-

Misha Zelinsky:

Heavens forbid a Labor government, Malcolm yeah?

Malcolm Turnbull:

What?

Misha Zelinsky:

Heaven forbid a Labor government-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, now I know. Well I mean, but normally internal insurrections, you don’t normally include as part of your plan, your own party being defeated. But that’s how insane it had gotten. You had Abbott’s agenda, which a lot of people at Newscorp, again as Murdoch knowledge supported. Abbott’s agenda was for the coalition to lose the election in 2019, whether it was led by me or someone else, and for him then to return as leader of the opposition and then lead the government back, in a sort of Churchillian comeback in 2022. Well, of course he lost his seat but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I ask you about, I mean your relationship with Tony Abbott and your careers in some ways, you look at it, you see almost two sides of one coin-

Malcolm Turnbull:

OH! don’t do that to me!

Misha Zelinsky:

Sydney Uni, Rhodes Scholars, you were the head of the Republican Movement, he’s the head of the Monarchists. Obviously, the leadership ballots, I mean what’s your reflections on those many years?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well I mean Abbott look, I mean we’re very different people. I mean, you see I don’t think… you see, it’s interesting. Each of us think the other shouldn’t be in the Liberal Party. Because he would say, “Oh, Malcolm’s always been on the left, he’s far too progressive.” All of that, and I agree with Peter Costello. Tony Abbott was the first DLP Prime Minister of Australia. I mean, he’s not a Liberal at all. But you see, unfortunately, what’s happened to the Liberal Party with a capital L, is that it has become increasingly dominated by people that are not remotely Liberal. I mean, if you want to look at craziness, I mean, consider this, Victoria is the most progressive, smaller liberal State in Australia, right? Without question. The Victorian division of the Liberal Party has been largely taken over by the religious right, and similar has happened in Western Australia. I mean, there’s one of the few remaining Liberal MPs in the State parliament, was making this point in the press just today.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Unfortunately, one of the Liberal Party’s great assets, which is that it is a grassroots membership organization, has meant that it is very… Because it no longer attracts naturally a mass membership of the sort of middle class, professional class, small business people, it has become very vulnerable to take over by extremes. Like, the ACT another example. The ACT is a very progressive jurisdiction. It actually voted for the Republic, it’s the Labor Party, and the Green is are the dominant parties there. The ACT division of the Liberal Party, is just as right wing as probably more right wing than the Victorian division. Now the question then is, from your side of politics would be why can’t Labor exploit that? Well, you’ve probably just written a book about that, I think but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookstores, yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, available in all good bookstores. But that’s a major problem. I mean, Andrew Lee has made this point, always sort of riffing off Lenin actually. Lenin actually criticizing the Australian and New Zealand Labor Party’s or Labor Movements, said they were just Liberals, with a small L. They weren’t sufficiently revolutionary. But Andrew’s argument is that the liberal tradition in Australian politics is really better embodied in the Labor Party. I think the truth is, it’s been embodied in both, but regrettably less and lesser on the capital L, Liberal side of politics and I think that is a major problem. I mean, you see evidence with the issues that we’re confronted with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just switching gears slightly to another big trend that occurred in your time in politics, during your time as Prime Minister was the strange relationship with China.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

The relationship arguably was perhaps changing, but once you became PM, you made some big decisions, banning Huawei from the 5G network, the foreign interference laws; a bit of a line in the sand. I mean, in your estimations, why was this relevant? Had Australia’s attitude changed? Had China changed? I mean, why were those decisions made, and why are they relevant to the sort of increasingly bellicose nature of the relationship that we’re seeing now?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look I think that the change really was from the China side. Xi Jinping, is a much more authoritarian leader domestically, and you see that whether it’s in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China, and he’s more assertive or belligerent, depending how you want to describe it internationally. The island building, unilateral militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea is one good example, but there are plenty others too. I think China has definitely changed, there’s no question about that, or it’s leadership has, and Australia has responded to that. Look obviously, I’m a Liberal with a small L and a Democrat, so I deplore authoritarianism anywhere. But speaking of their international policy, I think it is quite counterproductive. I mean, I’ve got a piece of the Nikkei Asian Review just today, which makes the point that their foreign policy is completely counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, the pressure that they’re putting on Australia, which is designed to get us to mend our ways, and punish Australia for daring to criticize human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong or expansionism in the South China Sea, what does it do? It has made Australian public opinion more adverse to China than it’s ever been, number one. It has made any changes or adjustments or nuances in government policy, impossible to affect and it alienates and creates enormous anxiety in other capitals. The object of foreign policy should be to win friends and influence people, and ideally do that without having to spend too much money, whether it is in grants or gifts or infrastructure on the one hand, or military hardware on the other. I mean, if you look around the region, around the world, where are China’s allies? I mean, it doesn’t have allies, it’s got clients. The United States, notwithstanding four years of Trump, still has enormous goodwill, and allies, and alliances and people with who, the countries who have shared values.

Malcolm Turnbull:

To be honest, I think that China blew an enormous opportunity with Trump. I mean, Trump’s erratic sort of conduct and his offending and alienating close allies and friends, sucking up to tyrants, all that stuff that he did, that was an enormous opportunity for China to be as unlike Trump as possible. That’s what they should have done. They should have appeared to be steady, accommodating, measured, all of the things Trump wasn’t. Instead they’ve become almost Trumpy in their sort of belligerence. I mean, I’ll give you a good example. The last year, Morrison said, there should be an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus. Now, look you can criticize him for saying that. You can say he didn’t need to say it. It was gratuitous, what was all that about? Was that just for the benefit of domestic public opinion in Australia? It would have been better off lining up a coalition to support it, even make all those criticisms, and let’s say for the sake of this discussion, that those criticisms are valid.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Nonetheless, the Chinese reaction was crazy. They should have let that one go through to the keeper. Absolutely, let it go through to the keeper or said yes, look we’ve noticed that but, we think the best body to handle this is the World Health Administration, which in fact, is what is doing. But instead they turned this into this huge issue. Why? It’s like somebody who does something to offend you, which even if it’s deliberate like a small thing, and you sort of declare to turn it into the biggest issue of all time, so it’s just so heavy handed and as I say, quite counterproductive. I mean, I think like most policy Misha, foreign policy included has to be judged on its outcomes. And I think that this sort of process of bullying Australia has been quite counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I think one of the reasons I was really delighted to see that four leaders of the quad, India, Japan, US and Australia meeting together was, as I say in the Nikkei Asian Review today, that those images look good in their respective capitals. But the capital where I believe it will have had the most impact is in Beijing, because it’s basically sending a message to China saying, Australia and its democratic partners and allies are sticking together. Hopefully, they will take a different approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, the other big challenge in the room, I suppose you got this sort of the China challenge. The other big challenge for democracy around the world, is this question of Big Tech, and whether or not governments can still prevail over these sort of essentially global monopoly platforms? I mean, in this big fight between Big Tech and big media, I mean who’s in the right here to your mind? How do we actually deal with these foreign owned tech platforms, and the impact they have on democracies?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, well look, I think that ultimately if government makes the law, then everyone has to comply with it, within that jurisdiction. The problem is that these platforms are transnational, they’re global. It’s often pitched as sort of government versus Big Tech, I think you’ve really got to focus on the particular issues. What is the problem that you’ve got? I mean, if for example, if you see what the media bargaining card here, I’m very uncomfortable with that. I mean, it does look to me and I think it looks to everyone, as though the government and the parliament have basically shaken down Google and Facebook to give money tot their people in the media, especially their friends at Newscorp. I would have preferred, I think a better approach would have been to have a tax on digital advertising revenues. Then rebate that to those companies that employ journalists, and as for those that don’t like Google and Facebook, take those proceeds and then distribute them to public interest journalism.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That would mean news outlets that actually complied with what we would require, whether it’s the Press Council standards, or there’s plenty of objective benchmarks of what is public interest journalism can be used. There is a reluctance though, frankly on the part of governments nowadays to make judgments about broadcasting or journalism. That wasn’t always the case. When I was a young lawyer working for Packer, television and broadcasting licenses were renewed every three years, and you had to prove you’re a fit and proper person, you had to demonstrate that the news reporting was balanced. America was out… It was Reagan that abolished that fairness doctrine in broadcast news in the US. We’ve got to… This is probably, we’re getting to the end of this podcast, but this is.. I mean, here is the big question. We have always assumed or justified free speech and the First Amendment, in the US context on the basis that in the contest of ideas, the truth will prevail, and yet we are drowning in lies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

You’ve seen that in America, I mean the biggest threat to the United States today is not international terrorism or Russia or China, the biggest threat is the internal political problems they face which are exacerbated in large part by the media, much of it owned by Rupert Murdoch. I mean, who could have imagined other than in some sort of apocalyptic novel or movie, the US Capitol being sacked by a mob as it was on the sixth of January, who had been told repeatedly by big media outlets, including Fox, that Biden had not won the election? If you think about it, if you had a large percentage of the Australian population, for example believing that the Labor Party had won the last election and not the coalition, who knows what you would get? I mean, people would get very angry and pissed off, there’s no doubt about that. The peddling of lies has consequences and it’s a big issue, again it’s probably too big to get into now, but I guess my punchline would be the freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility, and obviously, we have defamation laws and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But we’ve also got to take, we’ve got to be prepared to hold people to account, and that might mean, advertisers have got to hold them to account, readers and subscribers have got to hold them to account. But we do not want to get a repeat of… we don’t we don’t want our country to be as divided, and with so much hate turned inwards on itself and its people as they have in the US.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just turn to sort of modern events, the culture of parliament is being discussed a lot as it relates to the safety of women. In your book you talk about the brutality of politics and you give some reflections on how tough it is on politicians; you talk about dark moments you went through after losing the leadership in 2009. The question I want to ask is in two parts; how hard is politics – is it too hard? Are we too hard on our politicians? And turning to the shocking revelations of 2021 and the March for Justice movement we’ve seen from Australian women who are demanding change – how do we fix the culture of our parliament, how do we fix these cultural issues more broadly?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, look I think it is. I think you’ve got to have thick skin to get into politics. I mean, it’s not for the faint hearted, or the thin skinned, we’re probably are too hard on our politicians, but they’re pretty hard on each other too, so it’s a rough business. I suspect that’s always been the case. I mean, the thing that is the issue that’s being debated at the moment, is this whole issue of disrespect of women by men, or men’s disrespect of women, men’s violence against women and of course, this being a real issue inside parliament. The Brittany Higgins case, of course has been the most sort of notable lately, but I mean, I wrote him about this. I talked about this when I was prime minister, I made changes to the ministerial code and but my observation of Parliament, was that the culture there, the attitude had far too many men, towards women reminded me of the 1970s or 1980s, maybe in the corporate world. I mean, it’s way out of step with modern society.

Misha Zelinsky:

How do we fix it?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, okay I think there’s at least two things you’ve got to do. On one side, you’ve got to have, I think they should in effect, leverage off the reform I made with parliamentary expenses. I remember I set up an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Agency or Authority, and basically, there hasn’t been a parliamentary expenses problem since then, because it’s properly monitored and accountable and so forth. I think you need to have an independent agency, which may just be three or four people, who deal with HR and that is where people can confidentially complain about issues, and it is where they would manage training, and so if there was an issue of bullying in an office, they could go in and make sure that everyone from the minister or the member down, gets the right training, and you basically, you’ve got to have that mechanism and you’ve got have clear rules. For example, if there is a report of an assault, that particularly something as serious as rape, then that is something that should be dealt with by the police.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not may be that the victim says she doesn’t, or she most likely doesn’t want to proceed with it. But I think you’ve basically got to send a very clear message, that the full force of the law will come down on you, if you break the law, in particular in this context of men being violent or abusive to women. Now, that to some extent is having the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s important to have the ambulance there, but the important be ideally, people aren’t going to be falling off the cliff, so how do you change the culture? Well, I think you need… That ultimately is a question of leadership, and prime ministers and ministers have to lead by example, so they’ve got to be held accountable for their own conduct, for the conduct of their officers. If a minister has a chief of staff who is bullying, the minister has to take responsibility for that.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He or she is the boss, so they’ve got to take responsibility for that. When I dealt with the Barnaby Joyce issue, and I changed the ministerial code to say that ministers should not have sexual relations to their staff, which I mean looking back now people would say, “Gosh, why didn’t you go further? Why didn’t you say more?” That was so controversial at the time. Most of my colleagues, sort of-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Most of my colleagues thought it was an outrage, utterly unreasonable and, just an example of how old and out of touch I was. But I put in the foreword to those changes, language about respect, leading by example, values have to be lived and it’s worth. I mean, I’m sorry that Scott Morrison dropped all that, but because it is important, I mean that is, you basically do have lead from the top. I mean, because again that’s the only way you can change the culture. I’m sorry, it’s a simple answer, but the execution and delivery of it is complex, because you’re dealing with people, and people are complex, but there’s no other way to do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to ask you a question about your overall career. We could obviously talk about this cultural problem at length, whether or not actually while we’re on it. Do you support an inquiry or an independent inquiry into the allegations against the Attorney General?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look the answer is yes. I totally get the all the legal arguments, everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, burden of proof. I get all of that, I understand all of that. But what I said at the time, and I noticed that this was described as being very hostile to Porter, it wasn’t. I mean, Misha, I’ve actually been in this situation with Packer back in the 80’s, when Kerry was accused of all sorts of things initially.

Misha Zelinsky:

Atlanta.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, under a code name and all that stuff, and the only way you can deal with this in a political way is to step up, give a powerful rebuttal and set out your version of events powerfully and cogently, and I believe it would have been in Porter’s interest to say, “Look, I didn’t.” Invite the prime minister to appoint a suitably qualified person to review all this material and give their judgment on it. Now, he’s chosen to bring a defamation action, but the problem with that, is that the defamation action A, will take years and years and years and B, the truth of the allegations may never even be an issue. It depends what defenses the ABC chooses to run, but I mean they’re very likely to have a sort of a qualified privilege, issues of public interest type of line of argument. I mean again, I went through this with Packer too. At the time, their lawyers, very distinguished lawyers, much older than me, who were saying, “Oh, Kerry should sue for libel and do this.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

I remember saying, “Well, we don’t have enough time for that. We’ve got to deal with this here and now.” I think this could be resolved pretty quickly, and then Porter would be able to say, “Well, I rejected the allegations. I said, why rejected them. The distinguished retired Judge, X reviewed it and came to such and such a conclusion.”

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned Packer, there is a question I want to ask you about your career overall. I mean, you’ve dealt with some massive characters over the years, Packer, Murdoch, Rudd, Whitlam, Keating, Howard, Trump, Abbott, who was the hardest to handle out of these sort of characters, and why was is there a particular thing that makes them more similar?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, they’re all very different people, all the ones you’ve mentioned. I think probably the most difficult person to deal with was Trump, because he was the most powerful, and there was so much at stake. You’ve got to sort of… As an Australian Prime Minister, you’ve got to get on with whoever is the President of the United States, on the other hand, you’ve got to defend your national interest. There is a tendency for the professional diplomats to want to sort of go along quietly and not actually take up… They’re worried about a blow up, they’re very risk averse. But had I not gone toe to toe with Trump, we would not have maintained the refugee deal.

Malcolm Turnbull:

There’s a lot of people that are now settled and free in the US that would not be, had I not stuck to that, and equally, if you look at something like our steel industry, which I know, would be an industry many of your members would work in. Our steel industry was under real threat with Trump wanting to have a 25% tariff on Australian steel imports, as he was with a 10% tariff on Australian aluminium, and that was a very complex battle to keep tariffs and quotas off our exports.

Misha Zelinsky:

You have to handle him one on one in that situation?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Totally, it was absolutely one on one. I mean, look very often politics is a team sport and very often, as the leader you are backed up by a lot of people, often very much smarter than you who do all the groundwork. The problem with Trump was there was only one decision maker in the White House, and the staff in the White House kept on coming and going, going mostly. While I had some good input from Joe Hockey, the ambassador, and some other officials, and of course people in the steel sector, particularly, ultimately it just came down to me and Trump. Now that wouldn’t be the case with Biden, it wouldn’t have been the case with Obama. But Trump’s people, his key people, they did not want him to agree with me on the terms he did, they absolutely did not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He basically went, I mean, I persuaded him that his own advisors were wrong on this point, and that was in his interest to have no tariffs and no quotas on Australian steel and aluminium, and really, it was a very one to one thing, and I’m not bragging about that, it’s just that’s the way it was. I mean, that’s the way that was the issue with Trump, because ultimately as I said, there was only one decision maker in the White House and we had a couple of people there, who were very sympathetic to Australia, but there were others frankly, who were not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just the last couple of questions. You were saying your best day in politics, can you can you pinpoint those?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I probably work out. There were a lot of best days, or great days. I think legalizing same sex marriage was one of the best days. That’s a very big social reform. Well, one I probably the worst two days is losing the leadership I guess, on two occasions, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

On both occasions?

Malcolm Turnbull:

On both, yeah. It was worse losing the prime ministership, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Just on that, I mean, leadership challenges. I mean, talk about what goes through your mind and what’s the difference between the time, you’ve been in many. What’s the difference between the time when perhaps you’re seizing the leadership, versus when you’re playing defense and you’re on the verge of losing?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, it’s very different, it’s difficult and different. Yeah, I mean in each case, I’ve been involved in a lot of leadership struggles more than most people. Yeah, look it’s hard. I mean I they’re just very different, and you’ve got to be very careful, you got to think very clearly, you’ve obviously got to do your homework. But when you are a challenger, you’re in much more possession of the relevant facts than when you’re on defense, so the so the problem is, it’s always an advantage to have the initiative. The challenger always has that advantage, and particularly, where you are very vulnerable as a leader is if your challenger is reckless, and they actually don’t care whether they blow the joint up or not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And this is again one of the real flaws and problems right at the heart of the coalition, right in its DNA nowadays, is that you’ve got that right wing group, which is massively supported in the Murdoch press. I’m not trying to sort of echo Kevin, but what he says about Murdoch is right. But they back that in, and they actually don’t care if they blow the joint up, and so that is terrorism without guns and bombs, and it’s very dangerous. Now, I don’t think you’ve got quite the same problem in the LP. But, I’m not an expert on Labor Party-

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, leadership challenges are brutal on any side of politics.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, yeah and I mean the reality is that sometimes you do have to change the leadership. I mean, leadership changes that are driven just by personal ambition, can often be very damaging. But sometimes the leader just can’t deliver, and somebody else can do a better job, and there’s been plenty of cases of that. I mean, the interesting thing about the switch from… When I took over from Abbott, our numbers went through the roof, that was clearly from a political point of view, the right call. When I was overthrown, the coalition numbers went south and stayed south for a long time, but ultimately you can never underestimate people’s capacity to lose elections and Shorten lost that election, and part of it was personal, and part of it was as you know, some very misguided policies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I don’t think climate was a negative for you, I have to say but I think the franking credits stuff was just staggering. It was so out of touch, I mean I used to get lectures from people in the Labor Party, which basically describing why the tax breaks shouldn’t have been introduced in 2001, and let’s say I agree with you, but so what? There’s a bunch of things in the tax system that with the benefit of hindsight, you wouldn’t have done that. But that doesn’t mean you should think repealing them is going to go without opposition or resentment.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s been a very long conversation and thank you for your generosity, and I know you’ve been coughing and sneezing, so we hope that you’re right and you’ll-

Malcolm Turnbull:

I’ll survive, don’t worry.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now question I’ve got to ask you, this is the question I ask all guests. Is the clunky segue to the barbecue question of deeper mates, so three foreign guests at a barbecue at Malcolm’s. Who are they and why?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Three foreign guests, well I would have four foreign guests, and they would be my son, his wife and their two children.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man, you’re kidding. That’s a cheating answer.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Oh then they’re not really foreigners, they live in Singapore.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, three foreign friends. Well, let’s assume I’d also have their partners, so I would definitely have President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi of Indonesia. Who’s he and his wife Ariane, are just great friends and wonderful people and that’s such an important relationship.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Who else? Well, I would say the interestingly, the two French leaders that I got to know well, Emmanuel Macron, and his prime minister at the time, no longer his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, both really extraordinary people. I’ve not met Edouard Phelippe’s partner, but Bridgette, who is the wife of the President Emmanuel Macron is fabulous. Really great company, smart as you’d expect. I think France was very lucky to have them both together. I’m sorry that Eduard is no longer the PM there, but again I have to say that, I said I didn’t understand the internal machinations of the Labor Party. I have no idea or to understand the internal machinations of French politics, but they’d be some, I probably should nominate somebody from another country. Yeah, well I look a great person, a great human being and very good company and thoughtful as Shinzo Abe. Again, I’m sorry he’s no longer PM of Japan, and he retired for health reasons. But yeah, they would be among the people. But there’s some great characters, you can read about all of them in my book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookshops everywhere.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Available at good bookshops everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s right next to The Write Stuff.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That’s right, exactly. That’s right, often sold in a package deal.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a perfect place to leave this conversation, Malcolm Turnbull, thanks so much for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, see you mate.

 

Professor Rory Medcalf: Democracy v Autocracy – Friends, Rivals and Values

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. 

A journalist, intelligence agency analyst, diplomat, academic and thinker, Rory is one of the world’s leading experts on geopolitical strategy and his work has contributed to recent Australian government defence policy including the Defence White Paper of 2016. 

Rory is recognised as a thought leader internationally via his acclaimed 2020 book – Contest for the Indo-Pacific. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Rory for a chinwag about the US election and why the stakes are so high for Australia, whether the CCP or Russia might pull a move in the case of a litigated US election, how Australia should manage an assertive CCP, why democracies should be more confident, why minilaterialism is the new multilateralism and why its time Australia got serious about India and Indonesia.

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Rory Medcalf, welcome to Diplomates, mate. How are you?

Rory Medcalf:

Very well, thanks Misha. Great to be on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks for joining us. Now, always so many places we can start and it’s probably a topic that’s been done to death, but you almost can’t ignore it, it’s the elephant in the room, the US election. But I kind of want to approach it, I mean we could talk about the horse race all day, about who’s going to win, but I kind of wanted to approach it firstly, what are the stakes here? I mean, does it matter? Firstly, does it matter for Australia and then also what does it matter in a global context?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s hard to say anything particularly new and enlightening on this subject. Everyone seems to be a pundit on the US election or on its significance in world affairs. What I’d say is that of course it matters for Australia’s interests and security, and it matters perhaps more in an indirect way than in an immediate direct way. I mean, I do put a lot of weight on the importance of I guess American credibility in the world. I don’t think we have to think about American leadership quite in the way that we used to, and of course American leadership and credibility have both taken an enormous hit in the last few years for obvious reasons.

Rory Medcalf:

I think, though, that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential the United States still has to be a formidable player in world affairs. I see this election really as a chance to firstly arrest the damage, arrest the decline. Secondly to begin the very big repair job that needs to take place, and thirdly to also take I guess any … Salvage any positives out of the past few years. The main positive I talk about there, despite all of the harm that Trump personally and his administration have done, is the bipartisan awareness in the United States about the China challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s if you like, the one positive, or in fact the second positive, being the reawakening of the importance of democratic participation in so much of the American population. I think salvage those things, begin the repair job. Either way, this matters profoundly for Australia and for our Indo-Pacific region.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked a bit about US leadership, or US credibility. One thing I wanted to … And you’re right, there’s a lot of pundits out there, so we’ll focus on perhaps your subject areas of expertise, but one of the things that’s been tossed up is what happens if there’s a contentious election? What happens if for a period, maybe like in 2000 when it went on and on, there was recounts, it was contested, or it was a particularly contentious election with litigation?

Misha Zelinsky:

Peter Jennings from ASPI has been on this show before, he’s floated potentially you could see some aggression from the Chinese Communist Party in respect to Hong Kong or Taiwan. You might see Russia aggressive in Europe. I mean, how do you see something like that in a lame duck scenario, where the US is internally focused and not able to externally focus on its security guarantees around the world?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s obviously a risk. I also worry about what that internal crisis might look like inside America, because of course, in many ways the … And I’ll take sides here. I mean, I would prefer to see a Biden victory, but in many ways a downside of a Biden victory, unless it’s really decisive and really clear upfront is the way in which Trump or parts of Trump’s base could really exploit the situation internally over a few months, and you could see some very significant unrest moving within the United States.

Rory Medcalf:

As to the external foreign exploitation of that situation, I tend to think that even when China is at its most opportunistic and its most adventurous under the current leadership, I think there’s still a recognition that there would be a lot of risk in, for example, seizing this as the moment to take Taiwan by force, seizing this at the moment for some other aggressive action internationally. On balance, I think the Chinese aren’t going to be quite that crazy. Russia’s a different kettle of fish, of course, because I think Russia has made something of a constant of its interference in American processes over the past few years.

Rory Medcalf:

I tend to think that Russia thinks or the Russia leadership operates quite a bit more tactically than the Chinese. So I think the possibility or the potential for some kind of Russian exploitation of the situation is there. It’s probably happening already.

Misha Zelinsky:

What would that look like? What would a Russian aggression look like?

Rory Medcalf:

I guess what I’m referring to is an attempt to magnify and amplify the differences internally in the United States. I don’t see, if you like, some new sudden act of continental aggression by Russia, because in many ways at the moment Russia has most of what it wants and needs, and can handle. It’s certainly yet more pushing the envelope in cyber, particularly, and … Really it’s a continuation but with the United States that’s even less capable for that window of meeting any kind of concerted push back.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you’re talking about that perhaps driving wedges into the United States’ discourse by using Facebook and other social media channels and misinformation?

Rory Medcalf:

Oh, absolutely. As Russia has quite definitively done for more than four years now, going back to actually pretty early in 2016.

Misha Zelinsky:

You talked about the China challenge and that bipartisan, I suppose the way that the United States is now treating China as a strategic competitor. Turning I suppose to our neck of the woods here and how it impacts on Australia, how concerned should we be that we’ve got a rise of authoritarian regime, which is going to at least challenge the United States militarily, and certainly economically? How concerning is that just by of itself?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, the risk factor in China’s rise has become much starker, much clearer to Australian policymakers over the past few years. I think there’s now a growing awareness in the public, in the political community, even in the business community about that. That would be the case regardless of whether Trump was in the White House or anyone else. In some ways, despite the recklessness and the confrontationalism of Trump, there’s also, as I said, been that awakening in the United States recently, which is a good thing.

Rory Medcalf:

Either way, whatever happens in America next week, the China challenge isn’t going to go away. Australia faces it more starkly as not only a developed country in the Indo-Pacific region, and a very proud democracy, but a country that also is deeply enmeshed in so many ways with China economically, at a societal level, and so forth. And so much of that interaction has been over the years, a net positive for Australia. We’re now focusing on the risk factor, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

Look, I think that we really need to understand Australia’s journey on this. Almost really on Australia’s terms, in terms of actually quite an independent assertion of Australian interests, values, and identity over the past four years, and not as some commentators have claimed, as some kind of proxy for our loyalty to America, or some kind of deputy sheriff role. I think the good news is that there are senior policy thinkers, senior voices on both sides of politics across the political spectrum in Australia, who recognize the necessity of Australia really adopting this quite assertive position of its own.

Rory Medcalf:

That said, we’ve now reached a point, I’d love to go into this in the conversation, if you want to, Misha. We’ve now reached a point, we’ve got to understand what a sustainable new normal looks like in the relationship with China, and with Australia’s relationship with China in the context of all the other regional relationships in the Indo-Pacific. Because so much of Asia is not China, and I think a lot of commentators conveniently overlook that sometimes.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s a really good point. I certainly want to dig into engagement in the region more generally, but just sticking with China, the Chinese Communist Party. One of the things that gets discussed quite a bit is Australia’s relationship, so much of it’s focused on trade. We’ve said to split the trade relationship out, along with the defense component, or the strategic concerns. I mean, firstly, is that possible? Can we even separate the two anymore, given the way we’re seeing the Chinese Communist Party weaponizing trade, increasingly against Australia and others? And secondly, should we be worried about upsetting China and the Chinese Communist Party? I mean, so many people in the business community tend to say, “Well, we need to just keep the dollars flowing.” I mean, how do we handle those two components?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll start with the second half of your question and go to the whole thing of the whole idea of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, as we’re sometimes accused of doing, and then go to the trade question. Look, I think the paramount consideration every time an Australian government looks at what to do in foreign relations, whether it’s to do with China or any other country, is Australia’s interests, values, and indeed I’d even use a term like national identity. Who are we as a country? A liberal democracy, proudly multicultural.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re a status as a pretty dynamic middle power, as related to our identity in the world. Those things I think should be starting points for policy and diplomacy is not contrary to what some would suggest about at no costs hurting the feelings of the other country that you’re dealing with. Because in the end, so much of the hurt feelings you encounter in diplomacy is really something of a confection of outrage that countries will come up with for I guess negotiating advantage.

Rory Medcalf:

China has a thicker skin than the Communist Party sometimes like us to believe. There is a lot of diplomatic game playing that goes on, and I think in many cases, especially if you look at the way nationalism has been fostered in China over the past 30 years by the party, through hardcore patriotic education, those sensitivities are deliberately cultivated so that our room for maneuver is less. That’s a long winded way of saying of course we don’t want to cause gratuitous offense.

Rory Medcalf:

We don’t want to go out of our way to poke any country or political system in the eye, but I don’t think that the protestations of outrage by Chinese diplomats need to be the barometer for policy. Importantly, if you were to map, let’s say the last 4-5 years, and map for example, our trade patterns in I guess in the context of Australia standing up for a rules based order in the region, in the South China Sea or elsewhere, Australia strengthening its own domestic infrastructure against foreign interference, as we’ve done with various laws over the last few years.

Rory Medcalf:

In fact, in many instances and in the macro sense, trade has actually increased. For most of that time, it is not as if there was a correlation between our independent policy stance and being punished in a trade sense. Now, that may be a different story this year, if we can go to the coercion that’s being used, by at the moment China hasn’t pulled the really big levers, partly because it’s operating in a global context where it knows, its leadership knows that acting so coercively against one country is going to send a signal to others, not to be frightened but to actually accelerate their own diversification away from China.

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll come to your second point in a moment if you like, about trade per se. Because just in a nutshell, I think it’s great that Australia has a very substantial trading relationship with China as we should. It’s also great that we have a whole range of growing trade and investment relationships. It’s important to separate trade and investment in this regard, and I think most Australians do not realize that Australia is not heavily dependent on China for the foreign investment, and it’s probably not going to become heavily dependent on China for investment, and that’s fine.

Rory Medcalf:

Investment I think is much more a reflection of trust, whereas trade is a reflection of transaction. Yes, we have a major trading relationship by an order of magnitude, focused heavily on the iron ore trade. Australia is actually a less trade dependent country, however, than many other developed countries in the region and around the world. Trade as a proportion of GDP is actually less than most of us realize. Doesn’t mean China can’t hurt us if it wants to. Imperative now, nothing new or original to say here, really Misha, but the imperative is diversification.

Rory Medcalf:

Not excluding China, but very much China plus and keeping in mind the question, what do we want Australia to look like 20-25 years from now? Do we still want to be a country that relies for so much of its export income on essentially iron ore trade with Australia? I see that was a pretty unsustainable, one dimensional policy in the long run.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think COVID-19 is a bit of a wake up call in terms of our exposure on supply chains and over reliance perhaps on a commodities trade with one major country?

Rory Medcalf:

No question. I think it’s a wake up call on so many fronts, and for all of the damage that it’s done, and all of the distress that it’s brought, it’s also an opportunity for government now to build a much more united national approach, dare I call it a united front, with the industry, with civil society, to begin a conversation about what does the resilient Australia we want for the next generation actually look like?

Rory Medcalf:

At what point do we, if you like, start to focus more on security and less on the factors of efficiency and cost that have just been allowed to be so paramount for the past few decades?

Misha Zelinsky:

So look, we talked a bit about I suppose specific nations. One of the things that the big emerging challenges that we’re seeing now is return to systems competition, democracy with I suppose liberal economics has been the dominant ideology for the last 30 or 40 years. Now we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism. Democracy’s certainly not expanding, on the slide around the world. Perhaps is on the slide in some nations that have been democratic for a very long time. How concerned are you about this systems competition? Do you think it’s a function of may the best system win, or do you think that democracies need to get their houses in order to a degree?

Rory Medcalf:

Well, you can say both of those things if you like. I think democracies have had and are having a very rude wake up call. Those of us who believe very firmly not only in democracy or liberal democracy really as a system under which we like to live, and really which in so many ways makes life worth living, but also who recognize that this is not exclusively some kind of resting system. That in fact human societies all around the world have the right to the kinds of freedoms that let’s face it, are there in the UN Charter or various UN declarations in the hopeful post-Second World War era.

Rory Medcalf:

In other words, democracy has a home in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, in Africa and so much of the world other than just the so-called West. It’s a time when we really have to take stock and think much harder about what is worth defending and how to defend it. I would say that like the French Revolution, it’s a bit too early to tell whether democracy is actually in decline. I mean, if you look at the sentiment on streets of Hong Kong, the streets of Minsk, the streets of Bangkok, if you look at really the movements of people power over the last really 12-24 months in the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East, that appetite for some kind of basic dignity through civil freedoms has not gone away.

Rory Medcalf:

Through participation and essentially choice about how you will be ruled and who rules you. And I would add, also incidentally, the exceptional we’ve seen of Taiwan this year. Both in its resistance to interference in its democratic election at the start of the year, and the way in which it succeeded in setting the global standard for dealing with a pandemic within a democratic framework. So, I certainly think we need to play the long game in protection and advancement of democracy. In a country like Australia, we need to do that with humility, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re not aggressively proselytizing and nor should we, but we shouldn’t feel insecure or unconfident about it, either. I think if we look over the next 10-20 years, democracy is going to adapt and we just have to find ways to help that adaptation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I agree with you about the universality about democracy, and I think the protests in Hong Kong and the incredible election result in Taiwan was certainly affirming that people … There’s universal rights that everyone hopes. It’s not a Western conceit that people like to say, “Oh, well these nations have no history of democracy. Therefore they don’t want it.” Which I think is a nonsense. But you’ve touched on it a bit, we talked about Russia and its interference in the United States, we’ve talked about CCP interference in Taiwan. Obviously we’ve had quite a bit in Australia. I mean, how concerned are you about foreign interference and the concept of political warfare more generally?

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is I suppose the weaponization of all elements of society. We’ve got this total integration now of our systems where once upon a time perhaps in Cold War, there was competing systems but they were very much separate. Now they’re woven into one another. Makes it hard to grapple with all the different ways that you’ve got touchpoints which are also leverage points. How concerned are you about that, in terms of democracies being able to maintain their integrity?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah look, there obviously is … Look, there’s a degree of attack, but also there’s a degree of now waking up to the fact that we’ve been under attack for a long time. If you look at the, for example, I think very credible reports about CCP interference, but also influence operations in Australia over many years, and I should hazing to add, that influence isn’t necessarily a criminal thing. I mean, diplomats do influence as part of their job. It’s when it spills over into interference involving particularly corrupting conduct or coercive or clandestine conduct, that we’ve got a different situation.

Rory Medcalf:

I think there’s much greater awareness of these issues now. There’s much greater vigilance. I think the challenge we’ve got ahead is to ensure that this is not simply a government thing. This is not simply security agencies telling people they have a problem, telling parliamentarians they have a problem, and almost compelling them to do something about it. It’s got to be a much more inclusive and voluntary thing about cherishing what we’ve got. I think there are some positive signs there, and I do think that the more we can encourage bipartisanship on this, the better.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that these are issues that actually have to be owned by the center of Australian politics and owned by the moderate center of Australian politics. But I think for example, the more that we see communities cherishing that right to not only mobilize but participate in the democratic process and elections, but also apply scrutiny to voices within their own ranks, who take certain views. And apply scrutiny not in a kind of ASIO way, but in a much more free contest of ideas, media investigation.

Rory Medcalf:

Then I think we’re going to get through this. I worry a little bit about … In fact, I worry quite a lot about the risk of stigmatizing parts of the Australian population, and certainly stigmatizing some people in Chinese Australian communities, and they will take that personally. I think that unhelpful intervention by Senator Abetz on this the other week. I think in many ways the center in the debate has already shifted sufficiently that the scene is going to be set for communities to start, if you like, scrutinizing themselves and for media to take a continued interested.

Rory Medcalf:

Again, I’m moderately positive about our ability to get through this. However, if we see a hard partisan polarization on these issues, for example one side of politics saying we’re the side of politics that’s in favor, we have a good relationship with China, this other side is not, accusations of racism on either side. Anything that mirrors the kind of talking points we hear coming out of Beijing or echoed in the Chinese state propaganda, that’s when we’re going to have a challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

One last point, though I’ll make, Misha, and that is about the Australian electoral process, as well. One area where we’ve seen I think exploitation within the United States and elsewhere by foreign actors of the democratic process, is by amplifying any kind of criticism of the process itself by one side or other politics. Anything that undermines the credibility of the institutions themselves, the credibility of electoral systems. That’s a convoluted way of saying that I hope that in the Australian system, where we do have such a professional and impartial, credible electoral commission, I hope to see in future elections in Australia this continued restraint on the part of Australian political parties, so that whatever they do, they don’t cast the integrity of the electoral process in doubt. Because that is one of the vectors through which foreign interference operations will then, if you like, seek to magnify and cause harm.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you mean in the sense … Yeah, I completely agree. You certainly don’t want to delegitimize your own system and it’s certainly quite stark what we’re seeing in the United States, in terms of the Russians certainly couldn’t hope for so much propaganda about the failures of the voting system in the United States. And unfortunately coming from the US president at the moment is quite extraordinary.

Rory Medcalf:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to dig in a little bit into … I certainly share your concerns about the demonization of Chinese Australians or even Chinese people that are Chinese citizens studying in Australia, et cetera. How do you balance off the challenge where you know that … This is particular to the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party, which itself deems the Chinese diaspora, not just in Australia, but around the world, to be part of its I suppose domain. They certainly exert a lot of pressure and are highly active, basically a United Front Works Department in those communities. How do we balance off that activity as well as making sure that we’re not demonizing and using I suppose improper rhetoric when discussing this challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s firstly where I think the quality of a lot of Australian investigative journalism has really been a major national asset. It’s almost been a contribution we’ve made to friends and partners overseas, to the Five Eyes and other democracies, as a early warning system. I think it has shifted public perception. I think that the greater public awareness that you need to question the … Not accuse, but seek clarity on the motives of certain interventions in Australian politics or certain interventions in community affairs, I think is quite reasonable.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that the proper resourcing of government agencies to conduct outreach to civil society, to business, even to universities, is going to be a really important part of the solution. Because what you want in the end is civil society, business, universities, all of these other players, basically being proactive and demonstrating the integrity of their systems, so that we can avoid and minimize anything that looks like taking I guess a much more forceful approach. Sooner or later, there are likely to be prosecutions, for example, under the foreign interference laws. But we don’t want that to become the norm. We want that to be the exception.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I mean, just to round this part of the conversation out, I mean, one of the things I think so the big challenge is lack of reciprocity between the systems. We’ve essentially seen a weaponization of the openness of Western liberal societies, and our openness of our systems, our discourse, the economics, all these things have been shifted. I mean, how do open systems beat closed systems? Because the thesis before was that closed systems are brittle, and they collapse. Now it seems that because they’re so open to so many vectors, a concentrated effort from a regime that means you harm can be quite challenging to deal with. I mean, how do you see that challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. Look, I think reciprocity’s important. I think we certainly have to be careful about anything that looks like, if you like, threatening some kind of interference in other societies. I don’t think that it’s a sane or sensible policy to be saying, for example, to the Chinese Communist Party, “Well, the more that we see you active in our system, we reserve the right to sow discord and dissent on your soil.” That’s going to be a losing game.

Rory Medcalf:

But simply by protecting the sanctuary within our own systems for dissenting voices, but making it absolutely clear that we’re not going to allow, for example, free expression to be shut down in parts of our society by a foreign actor, as has been attempted I think by the CCP occasionally in diaspora communities in Australia and elsewhere. We’re actually taking a defensive measure that I think is quite sustainable. I guess it’s about setting limits. It’s not about achieving any kind of absolute victory. It’s just about demonstrating that our system will survive, will be resilient, and that we will not be afraid of, if you like, attributing, pointing out what’s occurring. But also setting limits.

Rory Medcalf:

I don’t think there’s a guaranteed win for authoritarianism here. I’ve sort of meandered on this a little bit, but you might want to also think about time frame. Because in many ways, there’s now this new myth that time is on the side of authoritarian states, and of course, 15-20 years ago as we were saying, there was this naive belief that the internet, for example, would be this magic bullet for democratic freedoms everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

As Bill Clinton said.

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. But we’ve swung around now to this idea that time is automatically on the side of authoritarian systems. It’s really up to democracies, whether it’s Australia, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in America, whether it’s in Asia, to demonstrate their own adaptability and I’d say if you … I see this as a 10-20 year long contest. In some ways, the playing field could look quite different. Especially in a decade or so from now, and especially, and this is a missing link, especially if you can build greater solidarity among the democracies and how they push back.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re seeing the kernel of that solidarity already. There’s no end of discussions now among evolving groupings, the quad in the Indo-Pacific, obviously the Five Eyes intelligence partners now widening their scope. But even institutions like so-called D10 of democracies. Not a formal government to government relationship, but a so-called 1.5 track arrangement of 10 of the world’s leading democracies, where policymakers and experts and commentators get together quite regularly now to exchange notes on how to manage the authoritarian challenge. I think we’ll see a lot more of that and we will begin to see concerted not so much push back, but concerted setting of limitations by these countries. Whether it’s on issues like hostage diplomacy as Australia and Canada have suffered.

Rory Medcalf:

Whether it’s on issues like how to build best practice in limiting foreign interference, whether it’s on issues like building alternative supply chains in areas such as critical minerals. There are a whole lot of areas where if we stay the course over about the next 5-10 years or beyond, the democracies will end up I think in a sufficiently strong and stable position, and a lot of the contradictions within authoritarian countries are likely to become more difficult for them to manage.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. You’ve stumbled into the next question that I wanted to ask you, which is about you’ve talking a lot about this concept of minilateralism. So, essentially small groupings getting together, like-minded nations, more than just bilateral. But do you see essentially things, true multilateralism, is that basically dead do you think in a modern context? Or are we going to have to rely on things like a D10 or the Five Eyes, a deeper Five Eyes, or things of that nature?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s certainly too soon to say that multilateralism is dead. The inclusive multilateralism of the United Nations, or big regional organizations where simply by being part of the region, you’re almost automatically entitled to membership. Of course we have all of the ASEAN centric institutions here in the Indo-Pacific. We have the EU, we have organizations that have built up over time to accommodate the widest possible range of interests.

Rory Medcalf:

Minilateralism, and for the benefit of your listeners, it’s small, self-selecting groups of three or more countries. Bigger than bilateral, but smaller than multilateral. I think that is the trend of the times, and we’re seeing that in everything from the trilaterals and the quadrilateral security dialog, right through to the way in which small groups are getting together to share best practice on COVID response, the way in which the Five Eyes intelligence partners are expanding to a whole geoeconomic agenda now.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s because it’s easiest, or it’s most effective for small groups to select one another on the basis of having interests in common, having capabilities that they can bring to the table, and having the political will to work together. But all of these layers of diplomacy will keep working I think in a loose kind of concert. I would call time on I guess the international rules based order, or the multilateral system, if you had essentially a wholesale defection. Whatever China and Russia are doing, we haven’t yet had the equivalent of an imperial Japan walking out of the League of Nations, as it did in 1933.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, what does that red line look like to your mind?

Rory Medcalf:

Of course, some would say that in fact the country that’s been calling on multilateralism has been the United States under Trump, rather than the Russians or the Chinese, even though so much of what Russia and China does is about double standards and about saying one thing and doing another. Look, I think a lot of it would relate to a comprehensive act of international aggression where major powers essentially either took sides or took that as a final warning that they would have to greatly reduce their exposure to one another.

Rory Medcalf:

So, a fully fledged attack on Taiwan, a fully fledged outbreak of hostilities between China and another major country. Not necessarily China and the United States, but for example China and India, China and Japan. I’d see those as pretty clear breakpoints. Likewise, overt Russian aggression against European countries. I think we’ve seen something beyond the grayzone that we’ve seen in Ukraine and elsewhere. I think we’re still not at that point. I think there’s a real possibility in the next 10 years that we’ll get to that point, but it’s not at all inevitable, and I guess I’d like to think that the US election in the next week or two could be the beginning of a point towards stemming that risk, especially if we see the United States begin to show a bit more respect for the system that it established in the first place.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’ve talked about minilateralism. One of the ones that gets focused on a lot, or is getting more attention now, is the so called quad, which is Australia, United States, India, and Japan. China’s very displeased about this arrangement. I mean, what sort of hopes do you have for the quad? Do you think it can be a significant player in addressing these challenges we’ve talked about?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ve written quite a bit about the quad. Recent article in Australian Foreign Affairs and the quad features pretty heavily in my book on the Indo-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s it called, mate? Feel free to plug it.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ll do that. We’ll get there, I’m sure. The quad is not what its critics often claim it to be. Some critics say that its problem is that it’s going to become an Asian NATO. In other words, it’s an alliance, it’s the basis of a formal alliance that will “contain China and provoke China” into all sorts of things like military modernization, assertiveness and so forth. Things incidentally that China’s already doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say, they’re already happening.

Rory Medcalf:

Sort of since the last 15 years proves, if you like, or the 13 years since the quad that was originally conceived, proves that in the quad’s absence, from 2008 to 2017 there was no quad, in the quad’s absence, pretty much all of the troubling things that the quad was supposed to provoke have actually taken place. The quad is not now or in the foreseeable future, a hard alliance. On the other hand, nor is it a flimsy, meaningless conversation. Critics also say, “Well, what’s the point of this?” Since when the chips are down for countries with somewhat disparate interests as America, Japan, India, and Australia are not going to take fundamental risks on one another’s behalf. They’re not going to be true allies, so what’s the point?

Rory Medcalf:

However, most of what happens in statecraft and diplomacy happens in between the extremes of golden peace and total war. There’s lots of assertiveness and coercion and negotiation, and second guessing that takes place. And the quad, and other minilateral institutions provides I think a really flexible vehicle for all of those issues in between, where you want to start showing gradations of solidarity, gradations of resolve. You want to demonstrate to a country like China that the more it throws its weight around against individual states in the Indo-Pacific, the more it’s going to encourage states to trust one another far more than they will trust China.

Rory Medcalf:

As for practical cooperation, we’re really only at the very beginning. We’ve seen in the last two or three years, not only the rebirth of the quad going very quickly to a ministerial level dialogue, now to military exercises, the Malabar naval exercise that Australia’s been admitted to. But there appears to be lots of behind the scenes and actually fairly upfront diplomacy occurring on issues like supply chain security, COVID response, critical minerals, cyber, critical technologies. In other words, the quad’s creating a new infrastructure of trust for the next 10 years or more, and it’s sending a signal I think to other countries in the region that it’s possible to build these new coalitions of trust.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d like to see the quad build its own additional relationships with, for example, South East Asian countries like Vietnam or Indonesia, that have a lot at stake and a lot to offer. Maybe with European partners, France and Britain, who are playing back into the Indo-Pacific in a big way. Let’s see where we can get with this thing. I don’t think the Indians and the Indians are critical in this, are under any illusion that were a conflict to flare up on the border with China again tomorrow, that the quad would be parachuting troops in from its member countries to hold the line.

Rory Medcalf:

But at the same time, I think increasingly you’ll see intelligence sharing, geoeconomic support for one another on supply chains, on resilient infrastructure, on cyber, that will actually help individual countries like India build their capability to protect themselves, protect their sovereignty, and that’s enough, in my view.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about India. Switching back to bilateralism. It’s probably a country that I know you’ve talked about it quite a bit, increasingly others are talking about it. There was a report commissioned by the government a couple of years ago about looking at deepening economic ties with India. What’s your view? I mean, are we underdone in the relationship from a strategic point of view? How could we deepen it? Why does it matter?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, India matters, and I think what I’m pleased about with the way the strategic dialogues have evolved in the last few years is that no one in Australia really questions anymore that India’s important. It’s just that we have trouble still quite coming to terms with it, quite knowing the right line of engagement. Because India is big, it is complex, it’s untidy. That’s no surprise for anyone.

Rory Medcalf:

I think one of the reasons why I’ve actually got a certain respect for India’s achievements over the past 70 years or more really, is that when you think of all India’s problems, you’ve also got to think of what an extraordinary challenge it is to manage such a large and diverse society within a single democratic framework. If you were to take the entire American content and Europe and a good chunk of the Middle East, and treat that as one federated democracy, that would be less diverse than India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow.

Rory Medcalf:

Certainly linguistically or culturally, and roughly the same population. That’s the political challenge, and that’s actually the political achievement that India has demonstrated. Yes, its democracy is imperfect, yes I’m worried a bit about the illiberal turn that parts of the Indian polity have taken in the past few years, but India has enormous resilience. It’s a very antifragile country in a way, and I’m reasonably confident that it will chart its own path. We want to think really about India over again, over a generational time frame.

Rory Medcalf:

A large proportion of the world’s youth in India, the future workforce, the future unemployed, however you want to see it. We want to help India achieve as much of its potential as we can, while respecting its democratic institutions and traditions. And without placing I think unrealistic expectations such as that India and Australia are going to become formal treaty allies anytime soon, and we shouldn’t … I’ll pause on this point. We shouldn’t project on India the mythology that somehow it’s going to be the next China, that it will have within the next number of years, as spectacular an economic rise as China had in recent decades.

Rory Medcalf:

Because democracy means, and the nature of Indian democracy means in a sense, India fails every day, but it keeps going. Whereas I’d say that in China, we’ve seen a spectacular achievement at enormous cost to human rights, and if China in some way fails, it’s going to do so spectacularly. That’s how I’d see India. We’ve got to be patient. We’ve started on this journey. We’ve got many years to go.

Misha Zelinsky:

So just quickly, one last point on India and China, because you talked about demography there in India. I mean, one of the things that China is struggling with is its demographic destiny, with the one child policy. It’s going to be old before it gets rich. Do you think India has inbuilt advantages on that basis?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it does, but there’s potential for an extraordinary demographic dividend or something of a demographic disaster, as well. It really is about employment, education, and dignity for this extraordinary Indian youth demographic. I would say that on balance, the creativity that we’ve seen over many years now among younger generations of Indians, not only in India but in diaspora communities all around the world, is going to provide India with a pretty significant advantage. But it is going to take further reform, economically. It’s going to take pretty high degrees of mutual respect and tolerance inside the Indian political system.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s where the role of decision and leadership is going to matter in the years ahead, and that’s where it’s going to be important firstly, for India to reinvigorate its democracy, to have a more effective opposition if you like, because one reason that Modi has done so well is that the Congress Party, which has now become the main party of opposition, used to be the natural part of government, really hasn’t reinvigorated itself. Hasn’t got beyond its dynastic dependence on the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ve also seen I think a lot of the talent of young Indians go into the private sector and that’s a good thing, but we now need to see the Indian state and the Indian private sector work more closely together within the democratic framework. Lots of uncertainties there, but I think Australia is absolutely right to be investing in the relationship, as long as we keep our expectations tempered.

Misha Zelinsky:

One last regional scan around the place. I mean, and we’ll have to keep it short because I know your time is precious, but Indonesia, again, probably a nation-state that is massively unders in its discussion in Australia, other than perhaps Bali trips. How do you see that relationship and what’s its relevance to Australia, and also to the region?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll link Indonesia and India in this sentence, if you like, because there’s obviously certain things they have in common that aren’t respected enough in Australia beyond the policy class. I would actually say that our policymakers, particularly our diplomats, generally get India and Indonesia now. I used to despair that 20 years ago our diplomats generally didn’t appreciate India’s potential, but our officials have always known that Indonesia is important.

Rory Medcalf:

What we need to do, though, is to get that awareness beyond Canberra and beyond the bureaucratic and diplomatic and indeed political elite. And India has the advantage in a way, because there is now such a strong people to people link, such a strong societal connection between India and Australia, or between really South Asia and Australia, that a cultural understanding of what India is and where it’s going is becoming I think pretty grounded in Australia society.

Rory Medcalf:

The same has not happened for Indonesia, and in fact, there are still other South East Asian societies, or South East Asian diaspora communities that are very established in Australia such as from Vietnam, for example. But we don’t have the same popular perception of what Indonesia is or what it can be. There is hard work for government and business still ahead on this, and I would say that that really needs to be a priority because Indonesia is at the center of our region. I mean, I’ll plug my book here, Misha, if you don’t mind.

Misha Zelinsky:

Please do.

Rory Medcalf:

My argument in the book Contest For The Indo-Pacific, is not as some people would argue, it’s not that all of the region’s problems are about China, or that India is the magical solution. It’s a much more nuanced argument than that, but I do make the argument that middle powers and middle players, countries that are not China and not the United States, are working together, are going to really provide the best hope of holding the line while either the United States gets its house in order, or we work through the next 20 years or so and China discovers the limits of its own ambition.

Rory Medcalf:

Indonesia is going to be important in that game because geographically it’s at the crossroads of this maritime region, the Indo-Pacific. So much of the trade and commerce that all of our nations depend on, even now because deglobalization is only going to be ever a partial thing. Maritime trade this year has actually increased, despite COVID, which I found fascinating. Indonesia is at that crossroads, and secondly Indonesia as a democracy, and as actually a pretty multicultural democracy, with the Muslim majority, Indonesia has the potential to be a leader and the natural leader in South East Asia, and occasionally is showing signs that it’s willing to do that.

Rory Medcalf:

So, diplomatically we should work with Indonesia, at least as much as we do and probably more so, but the missing link is still finding that societal and cultural connection, and really encouraging our business community to bet on Indonesia and bet on Indonesia’s own youth dividend that it has just like India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Rory, I could go all day with this, as you well know, and everyone that listens to my podcast know that I can go all day on these things. But now it’s time for one of my famous clunky segues to the fun part of the show, and I know you can’t wait to answer these questions, but a barbecue at Rory’s where you’re plugging your book, three foreigners coming along, I’m sure … I’m quite interested in your answer actually. There’s three foreigners, alive or dead, come to a barbecue at yours. Who are they, and why?

Rory Medcalf:

I’d be curious to know what answers you got out of others for that rather fascinating, contrived question.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Americans can be a bit hit and miss depending. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying that. Sometimes they say Russell Crowe, which I have to always point out to them, is a Kiwi.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s right. He’s a foreigner. No look, for a start, because we’re talking about international attendance at my special barbecue, it’s going to be probably a halal barbecue with vegetarian options, to respect that cultural diversity. And most of the people I’d love to have the conversation with that I can’t have, are people who aren’t with us anymore. There’s a few famous or forgotten names, particularly from the 20th century, who I’d love to see at my barbecue. I’d certainly want a few thinkers, a few big thinkers there. People like Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin, who are some of the great anti-totalitarian thinkers of the 20th century.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d love to have a couple of great statesman, or leaders from the 20th century. Particularly those who we’re not always quite so aware of. For example, Gustaf Mannerheim, who was really the great leader of independent Finland in the early 20th century. And apart from anything else, not only led many aspects of Finnish independence, but fought the Winter War against the Russians. Someone who I guess a bit like Lee Kuan Yew, in a somewhat more democratic setting, really helped a small country to make its way in the world.

Rory Medcalf:

And then finally I think it’d be great to connect with some voices from our region, from Indonesia or India in particular, and I’d enjoy seeing for example, three generations of I think the most accomplished Indian families. So, the current Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar. His son, Dhruva, who’s a great Indian security thinker, and in fact Dhruva’s late grandfather, K. Subrahmanyam, who was a great thinker in India’s strategic journey from the 1970s onwards. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a man as learned as yourself.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s the conversation I’d love to have about really how do you advance the interests of your country in a really contested world while staying true to your values?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think there’s certainly plenty to teach us based on the conversation we’ve just had, so I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. Rory Medcalf, thank you so much for joining us Diplomates.

Rory Medcalf:

Thank you.

 

Eric Schultz: Hope v Fear? Obama, Authenticity and Election 2020

Eric Schultz, is the founder of the Schultz Group and is currently a senior advisor to former President Barack Obama. He served in the White House as the Principal Deputy Press Secretary and Special Assistant to the president. 

Recognized by Politico as the strategist “White House officials turn to in a crisis to handle communications,” Schultz advised the president, spoke on behalf of the Administration on Air Force One and in the White House briefing room, and helped manage the Administration’s proactive messaging and news-of-the-day responses. 

Schultz is a veteran of numerous statewide and national campaigns. Before joining the White House, Schultz served as communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he became “well-known among Washington reporters for his aggressive, behind-the-scenes approach,” as noted by Politico. Schultz spent several years on Capitol Hill working for key U.S. senators, including now Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. Schultz, who most recently advised Netflix’s reboot of Designated Survivor, currently provides strategic communications guidance to clients in the political, financial, technology and entertainment sectors.

Misha Zelinsky aught up with Eric for a chinwag about life in the Obama White House, how to manage a crisis, the three secret words of communications, what the Situation Room is actually like, Election 2020, why politicians must be authentic, whether Hope beats Fear and what Obama is really like off camera.

It’s a really fun chat and we hope you enjoy it. Eric is super generous with his time.

If you’re enjoying the show, jump on twitter and instagram @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow and let us know what you think. Plenty of you are heckling us there already; and we are happy to dive deeper into things we chat about.

Also 5 star reviews are appreciated. They game the algorithm and help push us above Putin. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Eric Schultz, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Thank you. Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now as ever, there’s so many places to start with someone who’s had such a big career like yourself. But given we’re heading into election season, I thought I might take you back in time just quickly. Back to 2016, the night of the last presidential election. How surprised, I suppose, were you at this result? And what were your feelings on the night?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. When I agreed to do this conversation, I wasn’t sure we had to relive that night. But I’m happy to indulge. The question is, was I surprised? And yes, absolutely. I don’t think stunned, flabbergasted, bowled over do it justice. I think that all of us in the country, but also in the White House, were anticipating that Secretary Clinton was going to prevail on election night. So to say we were stunned is a bit of an understatement.

Eric Schultz:

But I will say that President Obama gathered all of us the next morning, Wednesday morning, as many of us trudged into work having stayed up the entire night and were exhausted and emotionally drained and empty inside and a whole whirlwind of emotions and thoughts going through our head. He was the one who called us into the Oval Office early that Wednesday morning and said, “Look, the story line of history is that it zigs and it zags, and it doesn’t always go in a straight direction.” And that as public servants, and as the keepers of democracy at that moment, our job was to follow through with a peaceful transition of power. He wanted to send a signal that morning that the sun is going to rise and that the foundations of our country and the values and the democratic small-D institutions that we have are strong enough to withstand any particular, any singular election result.

Eric Schultz:

And so it was under his direction that we sent that message loudly and clearly on Wednesday morning, and then spent the next two or three months providing for a real peaceful transition of power. And that meant, at the principle level, in terms of President Obama and president-elect Trump, convening. But down to the staff level, making sure that his team knew as much as possible going into this, when you land a new job in a new building in a new weird place, that they had as much knowledge and support on the front end of that as possible. And I certainly communicated with my counterpart who was going to replace me, and I said, “Look,” we met once. I can’t remember if that was December or January, or November. But I said, “Look, I’m happy to be available to you. We can meet in private, we can meet in public, we can email, talk. Whatever you want to do.” And that was based on the directive from the President to be as helpful as possible to the incoming team.

Misha Zelinsky:

We will talk probably a little bit about the Trump White House. I’d like to talk about your time in the Obama White House. You were in a position advising him on communications. First, I suppose, it’s a position of high levels of trust. How did you earn President Obama’s trust? And then how were you able to, I suppose, advise him around his expectations of his comms team?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, so I started in the White House in the spring of 2011, which is when Republicans had taken over the House of Representatives, one chamber of the US Congress. And they vowed all of this congressional oversight into the administration, a whole bunch of investigations. And the White House smartly decided to hire a bunch of outside people to help manage the response to those investigations. So I hired mostly lawyers, but some researchers, some communications people. And so, for my early years in the White House, that was the scope of my portfolio was managing the response to those investigations.

Eric Schultz:

My purview broadened from there. And then when Jay Carney left and Josh Earnest became the Press Secretary in 2014, he asked me to be his deputy. And I tell people it’s a little bit like being… I usually say Miss America runner-up, right? When Josh couldn’t perform his duties, they roll me out and I’d try to do the best job that I could. And it was really from that perch where I developed a relationship with President Obama. And the truth of the matter is, a lot of that relationship was nourished playing cards with the President. Just on long trips, what he does to clear his mind, to just relax, is to play cards. And so we, on a lot of plane rides-

Misha Zelinsky:

What was the game?

Eric Schultz:

Spades. And I was terrible, and he is super competitive, but he’s also mentoring. And so as a cruel joke, I was on his team, which is the worst case scenario because he’s dependent on you. And so not only is he competitive, he’s thankfully very forgiving. And so that’s where we developed a personal relationship.

Eric Schultz:

And then obviously in the middle of these trips, there’s a lot of communications and messaging judgment calls and conversations we would have in order for him to, again, learn to trust me. I did not work on the President’s 2008 campaign, so I was not part of that team that worked with him to get to the White House. So I consider myself very lucky that, even as an outsider, I was able to develop a relationship with him.

Misha Zelinsky:

What are some of your best and worst moments in the White House then? Given that you’ve sort of clearly had a good relationship with the President, I imagine it wasn’t always all sunshine and rainbows, it’s a tough environment, it’s a high pressure, high stakes environment.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. I don’t know if this made international headlines, but the President’s signature domestic legislative accomplishment in the first term was universal healthcare, what we call the Affordable Care Act, which later became known as Obamacare. And this is something that, again, presidents I think dating back to Teddy Roosevelt had tried to do and tried to get done and President Obama got this done in 2009 in his first year in office. And it was a very complicated piece of business, but it required sort of transforming… I think one sixth of the US economy is healthcare based. And so it was going to be moving a lot of different pieces.

Eric Schultz:

We had until 2014 to prepare to implement it and over the course of those years that meant putting pen to paper and getting all of the infrastructure in place. And we, again, given that it was the President’s signature domestic accomplishment, we wanted to make sure nothing could go wrong. But it was going to require a whole bunch of buy-in and support from everyone under the sun. The hospitals, the drug makers, patients, healthcare providers, insurers, politicians, civic leaders, businesses. Everyone under the sun sort of had to be bought into this in order to make it work. And we put in a lot of years of work to get ready for the launch. And, again I don’t know if this was an international affair, but we did launch and everything that we put into it didn’t work because the website flopped.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’d like to say that we didn’t hear about that, mate, but unfortunately as you’re telling that story I was saying, “I hope this isn’t about the website.”

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, this is about the website. You asked for my worst time in the White House and it was 100% the healthcare.gov flailing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that couldn’t have been a fun time. But sorry, keep going.

Eric Schultz:

It was terrible. And to the President’s credit, he understood that this wasn’t a communications problem, this was just a problem. And he understood that until the website got fixed the breathless, non-stop, around the clock coverage of this failure wasn’t going to change. And so, again, we stood up a task force and surged our Department of Health and Human Services with resources and Silicon Valley experts and a whole bunch of assets to sort of redo that website and get it up and running as soon as humanly possible.

Eric Schultz:

As a communicator it’s a story about… I don’t want to say damage control because there wasn’t really a way to control that damage, but in terms of being open and transparent with reporters and the country about what we were doing to fix the problem and I think we had something like a weekly, or maybe even more frequent than that, conference call where we would talk through in a very technical level what specifications we were fixing that day, what our estimates were for people being able to get through and sign up. Eventually we got a website that worked and a program that insured 20 million new Americans.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re someone that goes and stands at the lectern, or did, in terms of preparation that goes into something like that, how difficult is it to get totally across all the information that you got to have, be briefed on, but then you are briefing the media on? I mean, it’s an extraordinarily challenging task for one person to do. Maybe give us a sense of that.

Eric Schultz:

Right. So this is one of those that I can only speak to my experience in the Obama White House, and others may judge it as a contrast with our current White House, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Slightly

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. My understanding is that our processes track closely our predecessors, so the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. And essentially, when the press secretary speaks from the podium we’re not just shooting from the hip. The reason we go out with a thick binder of talking points and guidance is because we understand that we are speaking for not just president, but for the United States of America on the world stage.

Eric Schultz:

And I think that in politics a lot of us get ridiculed for being so careful in our language and there’s political speak and we can get sort of mocked for being very generic or very vague. But the reason we do that is important. When you’re speaking for the White House your words carry enormous weight and you can move stock markets, you can alienate allies, you can mobilize armies, you can annoy your friends. So what we try to do is make sure that when Josh or myself or Robert gives, or Jay Carney, whoever was speaking for the administration on any given day, was fully prepared with guidance that represented the 360 degree viewpoint of the US government.

Eric Schultz:

And so sometimes that’s complicated. Sometimes if we’re talking about the Iran nuclear negotiations that is a process that involves the state departments, Secretary Kerry was the lead negotiator, that involves the department of energy, the department of interior, that involves our office of legislative affairs to make sure congress is looped, our office of public engagement to make sure some of the climate and energy activists are comfortable with what we’re saying, that includes our White House councils office to make sure that legally we’re in the right lanes.

Eric Schultz:

So when we speak, again it wasn’t just what the press people want to say, it’s language that we know has to be carefully vetted throughout all the different components of the administration.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s an extraordinary difficult challenge. You can understand why it does sometimes sound a little, for lack of a better word, nuanced or more like a UN resolution.

Eric Schultz:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

The current president, he watches press conferences very closely of his press secretaries. Was there ever a moment where you got off and thought, “Well, that’s it. I’m fired. This went that badly. I really hope I don’t see the president in the next 24 hours.”?

Eric Schultz:

Thank goodness, no. And that’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, I make plenty. But the three hardest words I had to learn when briefing the press were, “I don’t know.” And that is not an instinct that comes naturally. You sort of want to flub your way through and find some space to give an answer. But I think at the end of the day, reporters will respect you more if you’re willing to acknowledge that you don’t have the answer at your fingertips and you’ll follow up with them and get them the best answer you can.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good lesson. In terms of, you’ve talked about all the things going on, what’s one of the biggest crises you dealt with at the White House and how do you go about communicating that? And I suppose as a comms specialist, what are the key principles of crisis communications? Because a lot of people in politics listen to this show, big audience in political circles. I heard everyone lean in a little as I said that. I’m kind of curious for your take.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. I was thinking about this question and I was thinking back to the G20 summit in 2016 in Hangzhou, China and this was sort of at the end of the presidency and it was a moment where we were trying to sort of wrap up and make some sort of endgame progress on a lot of the president’s priorities. And I think we had negotiated a pretty strong deal with President Xi on greenhouse gas emissions, we had made some progress on cyber, on a whole host of other issues, at the time dealing with Syria and dealing with refugees were both very hot ticket items and President Obama had worked closely with a bunch of other foreign leaders to make progress on those issues. But the thing that dominated the coverage of that G20 was that the Chinese officials at the airport used the wrong stairs for when President Obama descended the aircraft. And this was something that dominated three or four days worth of coverage back here in the United States.

Misha Zelinsky:

Big issue.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, exactly. It was read as this big Chinese snub of the American president and a veracious appetite to cover the optics of the stairs versus the actual substance of what we were trying to accomplish on the ground as part of the summit. As much as we could cajole reporters into focusing on issues that actually mattered and not the circumstances which surrounded which staircase the president used to descend the aircraft on arriving in China, we had mixed success.

Eric Schultz:

And eventually, at one of the press briefings they asked President Obama about it and he said, “Look, I wouldn’t over-crank this. The truth is,” I remember this, “There was a mix-up at the airport, it was a smaller airport, and they just didn’t have the right driver of the right stairs,” so it was a very technical staffing bureaucratic stuff. But again, it got ballooned into this international affair of outsized proportion. And again, we just tried our best to focus reporters on substance and what work was actually unfolding on the ground, as opposed to that sort of stuff.

Misha Zelinsky:

It must be frustrating though, right? Trying to get people to focus on the substance rather than the triviality. I mean, that’s a bigger problem that no single press secretary’s going to solve on their own. But in terms of broadening out a little bit more to just generally politics and good communication, what do you think the biggest mistakes you observe people trying to communicate in noisy environments and what’s the best way to cut through in that sense?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I think that’s a profound question. It’s sort of the biggest challenge we face. In the White House we had a saying that our strategy was to find audiences where they are at and that was sort of our guiding principle. So I’ll give you a few examples.

Eric Schultz:

When the United States was negotiating the Paris climate accord in 2015 we wanted a way to sell this to the American public in a way that was outside the typical political conversation. The president went to visit the Arctic, he was a first sitting president to visit the Arctic and we didn’t at the time when developing a media strategy, we decided we weren’t going to sit down with 60 Minutes or the Washington Post or New York Times, we sat down with Bear Grylls. Who I don’t know if you all know, he’s an outdoorsman, he’s got a couple of shows.

Misha Zelinsky:

Kind of like Steve Irwin was, right?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. An outdoorsman who thrives in natural environments. And we wanted to be able to breakthrough to an audience that, again, doesn’t follow the day to day of the Paris negotiations or what’s happening in the house subcommittee on interior, but rather just appreciates clean air, clean water, wants their kids to grow up in a world that’s healthy.

Eric Schultz:

And so we did an hour long primetime special with Bear Grylls where President Obama and him, it was a beautiful set, where they sort of wandered outside and I think they caught raw fish with their bare hands and all that stuff. And it was a really nice setting in order to, again, just breakthrough what we were doing, why we were doing it, but to an audience that wasn’t necessarily attuned to the politics.

Misha Zelinsky:

It is hard. It’s increasingly hard to find new audiences, right? People are very much in their bubbles. It is hard to cut through to people that aren’t just probably like you or I, or listeners to this podcast, addicts to the political news cycle, so it is challenging. That’s an interesting way that you guys did it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, just switching up to 2020 or at least to present day. One of the things I’m actually curious about before we talk about the election and President Trump more generally, you’re still advising President Obama, he intervenes very rarely I suppose into politics, like most former presidents. How do you make an assessment when that should be, on which topic, in which way? Because former president’s words carry a particular weight, particularly the predecessor, and I think particularly when you consider the relationship between the current president and the former president.

Eric Schultz:

Yup. That’s a great question. I think much like many chapters of President Obama’s public life, this is the first post-presidency of its kind. I don’t think any other former US president has had to face what President Obama has. And look, the truth is President Obama believes deeply in this American principle of one president at a time. He believes that for a couple of reasons. One is, he’s mindful and respectful and grateful for the latitude that his predecessor gave to him while he was serving in office. And again, that was after a 2008 presidential campaign where President Obama was quite aggressive towards President Bush and his policies.

Eric Schultz:

But mostly it is because President Obama believes that in order for the democratic party here in the US to move on, that the next generation of leaders need to step up. And that if he gets outsized attention for when he speaks out and if he is always soaking up the limelight and soaking up the oxygen, that really limits the ability for the next wave of leaders to step up and take hold. And he’s been very careful to makes sure that he will speak out when he feels American values are threatened, and we have on a whole host of issues. But in the whole, he wants to make sure that the next wave of democratic leaders is able to command the spotlight and grow into their roles as national leaders.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. It must be very difficult at times to bite his tongue given, it seems, he’s got an administration that wants to bait him at every opportunity. If not at the podium, via Twitter or other challenges, and then also you got a very noisy media environment in the conservative media space.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, on a personal level, as someone that’s been behind the press podium, what goes through your head when you’ve watched the press briefings throughout the duration of the Trump administration thus far? Do you ever feel a little bit sorry for the person at the time? Like they go up there and take a beating. You’re shaking your head for those watching at home.

Eric Schultz:

No. I mean, look, because I still work for President Obama I’m sort of constrained in how much I can talk about the current administration. I will say though, that for me, I do get this a lot, which is, “How can you stand to watch the press briefings?” Like, how can you stand to watch the press briefing? It’s pretty cringe-worthy for anyone. I will just say as a top line that credibility matters and it doesn’t just matter I think it’s everything.

Eric Schultz:

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of combative conversations and exchanges I had with reporters and we always put our best spin on the ball and aggressively made our strongest argument and wanted to make sure that that was presented to the press. But, and I think reporters would back us up, we never knowingly lied. We never knowingly mislead anyone. And if we did, it was sort of an errant one-off mistake that we owned up to.

Eric Schultz:

And so I just think as a communicator, again whether you’re representing the president of the United States, a foreign leader, a state senator, a member of congress, a business leader, whoever, that you have to be straight with people. I mean, it’s probably a good personal rule of thumb even if you’re not a communicator. But that once you undermine your own credibility it is virtually impossible to regain it. We’re going through a few new cycles here where the White House is having to contend with other anonymous sources and other reports and other things where if they had had credibility over the past four years, they’d have more standing to make effective arguments and to be more persuasive. But because there’s sort of a pattern of not telling the truth, they are in a weaker position to make their case.

Eric Schultz:

That’s my biggest takeaway. And again, it doesn’t just pertain to the White House. I think whenever you’re speaking for someone or a company or a group or a candidate or a public official, whatever, that if the person on the other side of the conversation doesn’t believe that you’re telling the truth, then you’re not doing your job.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a really well-made point. I think that’s exactly right. You can say whatever you want, but if there’s zero credibility behind it, it makes it very difficult to spin. Though it is hard to spin, I imagine, 18 separate recordings of interviews with Bob Woodward. There’s only so much one can spin on that. Were you shocked that the president had given 18 on the record interviews to the person that took down Nixon?

Eric Schultz:

There’s a funny rule of thumb in Washington, the only thing worse than not engaging Bob Woodward when working on a book is engaging Bob Woodward when he’s working on a book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I guess President Trump’s about to find that out. Because there was fear where they didn’t engage and now there’s rage where they have engaged

Eric Schultz:

Look, I don’t want to comment on their strategy. We had plenty of critical books written about President Obama and sometimes they are hard to navigate. Reporters are not novices, they know how to start from the outside, people who might be less informed and work their way up. And so we had to navigate plenty of books, plenty of them were not particularly complimentary about President Obama.

Eric Schultz:

I think Woodward is obviously one of the legendary journalists of our time, but given the track record of this White House in contravening their own comments, that he was very shrewd to get tapes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. Now switching up to, we are I’m not sure how many days out, not a great number of days out, probably 50 days out from the election. What’s your take on this years election? What can we expect? This is probably going to be a wild ride. I mean, clearly most of us in the game, and I’ve said this on this podcast before, I was horrendously wrong on 2016 and the outcome. What’s your take on it thus far on the matchup between former Vice President Biden and President Trump?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, your caveats well taken. I think we were all tremendously wrong about 2016, so take that for what it’s worth, audience. But look, I think President Trump has tremendous advantages on his side, but he’s got a lot of crosswinds too. Our country’s suffering from a health pandemic that in many other corners of the world has been much better managed and other racial injustice challenges that he has not calmed but rather has stoked and an economy that is in a really challenging spot. And so it’s up to Vice President Biden to make the case that he can get us to a better path. I think that a lot of the data suggests that people are clamoring for precisely Vice President Biden’s message of unifying the country and bringing us together and restoring basic competency back to the administration.

Eric Schultz:

And so I think you’re right, I think it’s going to be a dog fight for the next 50 days. Both of our conventions, the Republican and Democratic Conventions, are now over. And so obviously Vice President Biden has selected his running mate, so the next three big moments for our domestic political calendar are the three debates. And so President Trump and Vice President Biden will face off in three debates. The first one is at the end of September, and then the two others are in October. And so those will be big moments that get a lot of attention.

Eric Schultz:

But other than that, there’s just a lot of back and forth between the two camps. But I think that clearly in our primary process and now in our general election there is a yearning for a return to steady, strong, capable leadership. The type of vision that people associate with Vice President Biden. Vice President Biden’s been around for a long time. He obviously was President Obama’s Vice President for eight years, but before that served in the senate for a while and he’s a known commodity. People know his story, they respect him, they know that he’s a good, decent public servant, in it for the right reasons.

Eric Schultz:

Like a lot of voters in Australia people aren’t necessarily digging into the white papers and all the policy sheets, but they’re going to vote based on their values and if they feel that Vice President Biden animates them and is consistent with the character and principle of what they want to see in the White House. And I think he’s going to win.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’re a messaging guy, you work for one of the most legendary presidents who ran on a positive message, a hope message, and you’ve got a president now who very much prosecutes the antithesis of that. It’s a fear message. In this election now, does hope beat fear or does fear beat hope? Because both candidates are painting very different, you look at the way the conventions went, they’re painting very different… Your point about competency I think is well-made. I think people certainly are yearning for that. But how do you see that messaging battle playing out? And which one typically wins in your assessment?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, it’s a great question and since I still work for President Obama I’m going to be an optimist.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Our country’s going through a very painful time and there is protest, there is unrest, there’s unimaginable death and pain and sickness and illness, and there’s job loss, there’s rising poverty. And I think that people really are hungry for a better path and I think that Vice President Biden has been very precise in how he’s presented his alternative to the current scenario and that if people want to go back to a basic approach where government is on your side and just trying to make things better, we don’t have all the solutions and we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers to get out of this, but that we return to a government that respects the rule of law, respects the freedom of the press, respects scientists, respects democratic institutions.

Eric Schultz:

I think that is why the Vice President gained traction in the primary and that’s why I think he’s doing well right now. I don’t think that people want more of the same chaos and division and fear that President Trump stokes and that’s why I’m optimistic.

Misha Zelinsky:

You mentioned you’re still working for President Obama, so noting that you’re still on the payroll we might have to discount this answer slightly, I thought maybe you might just give us a sense, a lot of us we watch people on TV, you make an assessment of what sort of person they are. I think current president you get a pretty good sense of what sort of person he is. I always thought as well with President Obama that he would be very similar to the way he presented in public, in long form interviews et cetera, he seemed like, frankly, a pretty cool guy. Can you maybe give us… And I’m sure he’s listening to this and so obviously you’ll need to catch your remarks, mate. But maybe if you could just give us a little bit of insight there if you mind.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, the bummer is you’re right, I am still on the payroll so I get paid to say this, but it is the truth. Which is the guy you have seen on the world stage for the past 10 or 12 years is the guy I talk to in person. He’s as worldly and as smart as you’d think, but just as down to earth as you’d hope. And I don’t think that’s an accident. In other words, I think that we now live in a media environment that you have a real intimacy with your public officials. This isn’t a time where politics are happening distantly and you watch the news at 6:30 at night and get a report. You are constantly in their space, they are in your space.

Eric Schultz:

And the reason why President Obama was so successful and effective is because there was an authenticity to him and that voters have a really good whiff that if you’re being fake that’s a red flag. And I think that is a newer phenomenon that you could sort of get away with a façade or a public persona that’s different than who you are personally. But I don’t know that works anymore. And so I think that that’s largely one of the reasons why he’s been so successful is he is who he is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. It’s very difficult to survive the glare of so many cameras and social media and the consistent cut through. Now, you talked about things being as they are, you’re the consultant on the hit TV show Designated Survivor-

Eric Schultz:

Yes!

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:37:13] your comments you talked about the fact that Hollywood’s portrayal of the White House is not what it’s like to work there in terms of its salubriousness or otherwise. Maybe you could just quickly give us a rundown of that, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I worked on the show Designated Survivor for the third season, Netflix rebooted it, and it was a blast to work on. It was an experience for me because you had a bunch of writers out in Los Angeles who have never, I mean I’m sure some of them have been to Washington, but none of them had worked in government and most of them had not been inside the White House. So they’re writing 60 minutes worth of content about a setting and environment they’d never been in.

Eric Schultz:

And so it was a great opportunity for me to walk them through what’s realistic inside the White House. And again, not all of my suggestions were taken, but it was a fun moment to connect what they wanted their Hollywood storyline to still have some realism. And yeah, the pictures of the situation room that people hear a lot about are much more glamorous than what they actually are, which is sort of a couple of cavernous conference rooms with some wall clocks and TV screens that have telecommunications capabilities.

Misha Zelinsky:

Careful, mate, Putin might be listening. You don’t want to give the game away.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I know. I know, I know. One of the storylines that the writers did like was we had problems with mice pretty frequently and in order to address the problem with mice it wasn’t just one phone call, it was sort of a bureaucratic process of our general services administration and who can call who and get what apparatus over the building to address the very acute problem that there’s rodents at my feet. So as writers they had fun with that. But yeah, I think that how Hollywood portrays Washington, it’s obviously fun entertainment, but I do think this is how a lot of people get their information and a lot of people’s understanding of government, the White House, how Washington works, is often derived from popular culture.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, there’s one final question before you go now. Typically, because we’re a heavy foreign policy show, it’s very difficult to get in anything approaching a non-clumsy segue, but we are talking about mice and rodents in the White House so it’s a little bit easier to switch up to barbecues at Eric’s place. Now, you are an American guest so you have to have three Australians. We’ve already mentioned Steve Irwin so he’s out, but three Aussies to barbecue at Eric’s and why?

Eric Schultz:

I know, so I was planning to do a lot of homework to research this question of authors, civic leaders, Aussies who have been impressive on the world stage. I did none of that homework. One of my dreams is to come to the Australian Open so I was looking at Australian tennis players, I was really trying to roll up my sleeves and get you good guidance. But I think I’m just going to fall back on the answers I’m sure all of your American guests give you of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Hugh Jackman.

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

What’s that?

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

I think they’re going to be my three. I don’t know if the show-

Misha Zelinsky:

I don’t know if they’re friends. We should probably check that, but I guess they are. I don’t know. There might be some-

Eric Schultz:

That would be very convenient. Yeah, exactly. I want to make this easy for them.

Misha Zelinsky:

They all can come in the same car. I don’t know if Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman get along, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a rivalry between them.

Eric Schultz:

Well, they were both in Les Misérables together, the film of that. So I’m happy to web diagram the connections.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’ll give you these, even though Russell Crowe strictly speaking is a New Zealander.

Eric Schultz:

Oh, shoot.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s fine, mate.

Eric Schultz:

I’ve never met him. But from what I know from his reputation I’m not surprised you want to distance yourself from him.

Misha Zelinsky:

As I always say, we have a very popular trope in Australia where all New Zealanders who are successful on the world stage become Australians, so he was gratefully adopted, but when he gets into trouble he became New Zealander, Russell Crowe. But he’s a very popular guy in Australia, owns a football team, seems like a good bloke to have a beer with. So he’d be a good guy to have at a barbecue.

Misha Zelinsky:

Anyway, look, Eric, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been a fantastic chat and I really appreciate your time, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Of course. Great to be here.

 

Richard Marles: Going Big – Navigating Australia’s foreign policy in a post COVID-19 world.

Richard Marles is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about how COVID-19 has accelerated history’s timeline, the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, why the US is still a force for a good, how Australia’s record defence procurement program can rebuild our manufacturing sector, the choices facing Australia as it seeks to carve out an independent foreign policy,  why sovereign capability is the new black, how Australia must do more with its key pacific partners, and why – in order to figure out our place in the world – Australia must play big.

 

Misha Zelinsky:

All right, Richard Marles, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Richard Marles:

It’s great to be here, Misha. Looking forward to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, look. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to start any conversation these days without the C-word. COVID-19, now. This is a foreign policy podcast. You’re obviously Labor’s defence shadow. To your mind, what do you think is the single biggest … ? So many changes have come from COVID-19, but what do you think is the biggest single foreign policy challenge that’s come from the crisis?

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good question. I suppose what I think is ultimately, I think it’s an accelerant if I was to identify anything. I think that the sort of trends that we had seen out there probably go faster, but part of the world we’re in was one that was much more difficult to predict and obviously challenging for Australia. We use lines like this was the most challenging set of strategic circumstances that we had faced since the second World War, and we were saying that before COVID-19 took hold.

Richard Marles:

I think this has made that much more so. Kind of multiple times so, and so the breadth of possibilities for us and the unknowns for us, all of those, are much bigger, and ultimately where you get to is not being able to answer more questions about COVID-19 means, but you do realize these are really challenging strategic circumstances for us as a nation, and so the need for us to be able to take care of ourselves has probably never been as important, or as important as the second World War.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s right, and certainly you can feel the way that things, the compression of history, and the pulling forward of things.

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good term.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things you just mentioned is looking after ourselves, now. I think a lot of Australians were shocked by some of the shortages that we saw in terms of PPE, health and safety equipment. Sovereign capability’s now become a bit of a new theme. Something that I’m very interested in. But given the exposure to just in time supply chains, and given the sense now that we don’t necessarily produce enough of the things that we need, in a defence context, what are the must haves for Australia? What are the things that we really need to produce here, to your mind?

Richard Marles:

Again, this is a really good example of where it’s changed thinking, or perhaps really clarified thinking. If you’d said to me back this time last year that the making of surgical masks was a thing that was essential to Australian security, I would’ve laughed, and yet earlier this year we had members of the Australian Army at a factory in Sheffield, I think, helping to churn out masks because we didn’t have enough of them.

Richard Marles:

If something as kind of simple, really, as a surgical mask, can be seen or become central to our own security, then what else? And it raises a whole lot of questions about that. From a defence point of view, I think the traditional answer to this question is that in an environment where the kind of platforms that you are part of are incredibly complex, and you take the joint strike fighter as an example. This is a fighter plane which has been made in and by numerous countries, and there are absolutely global supply chains in place there, the notion that going back to the second World War where we saw the making of fighter aircraft as part of our sovereign capability, that’s kind of not going to be the case now, but where people have got to in their thinking now is we at least may be able to maintain and sustain the platforms that we use here in Australia.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly that. I think, though, there does need to be something of an audit of all the defence capabilities that we have, inputs that we have, and then over and above that traditional setting we clearly do need to be able to sustain and maintain the equipment that we use, but our best certain things in addition to that or as part of that that are absolutely critical. And I’d have to format some of that, but I think a much broader assessment of what’s in that basket, we will come to see as being what defines sovereign capability going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously there’s the what of sovereign capability, i.e. the things that you get. What are the things that we need to have here, what are the things we need to store? But in terms of, also, the wear, the Henry Jackson Society did a study which showed that of the Five Isles nations that Australia was most exposed of all nations to the Chinese Communist Party in terms of key production areas. They identified 535 areas including 30 that were critical to future economic innovations. Should we care about the regime that supplies the goods as well as the goods themselves?

Richard Marles:

That’s a good question. Answered not specifically in relation to China but in the abstract, of course we need to be thinking about the places from which we import material and the places that we in effect do business with, and historically that’s been the case, and we do that. We do that right now. We would say, in relation to Iran and North Korea for example, that our ability to do business with those countries is significantly curtailed. In that spectrum, where’s China fit? I mean, we’re not … in a defence context, obviously, there’s not a lot of interaction in terms of defence supply chains, and I can understand that.

Richard Marles:

I think it is important, while China raises a whole lot of challenges in terms of Australia, it is a country with whom we’ve had a relationship for going back to the Wippen government. I don’t put China in the same category as countries like Iran or North Korea. I certainly don’t put China in the same category as the Soviet Union. I don’t think that’s who we’re talking about, and I think that the economic relationship that we have with China is appropriate. Now, in saying that, we want to make sure as a country that we have a diverse set of trading relationships around the world.

Richard Marles:

That’s just prudent. It’s, in a sense, the equivalent of having a balanced financial portfolio. We need to have a diverse set of trading relationships, and particularly as a country which is reliant on trade. But I do think that we have had an ongoing trading relationship with China, I think that is fair enough, and I’m comfortable with that going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of, you talked about the speeding up of history, so to speak, and a contested Indo-Pacific is something that is going to be an inevitable feature of Australia’s foreign policy settings now. In terms of defence procurement and new kit, Australia, we’ve made this sort of commitment, I think it’s a bipartisan commitment, to 2% of GDP, which is around give or take 40 billion a year. Do you think given the challenges that we’re seeing and the speed of which this is going, is it enough in terms of a broad commitment?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s important that we determine our spending in relation to defence based on the strategic challenges that we face. That’s kind of, when you think about it, a matter of logic. If a country’s strategic circumstances are very predictable and certain, and it can’t get away without spending a lot, countries which find themselves in a precarious position spend more, but the rational act here is to be spending in proportion to what our strategic circumstances dictate, and I said, too, earlier, that what I know is they’ve become a whole lot more complicated rather than more simple as a result of COVID, but even prior to COVID they were as complex as they’ve been for a long time.

Richard Marles:

That’s got to be the guide in terms of what we’re doing. The second point is that, whilst 2% of GDP is a good benchmark, I do think that ultimately what’s important in terms of defence spending is that you have an absolute amount. In other words, that it’s not a functional GDP, because you need certainty in relation to programs over a very long period of time, which, if spending kind of fluctuates as a function of how GDP fluctuates, it’s going to make it hard to deliver those programs.

Richard Marles:

You look at submarines for example. This is a program which is going to be delivered over decades. There needs to be a predictable funding stream over that period of time, so I guess I make that point in the context where we’re in a recession for the first time in the better part of 30 years. If you measure defence spending as a proportion of GDP, that has implications there, and I think we need to be mindful of that, and the final point I make is that it’s really important that our defence force is dense, by which I mean there is a risk in having a wholeness about your defence force if you don’t have the wherewithal to ultimately use the critical platforms that you have.

Richard Marles:

We are purchasing, and I think appropriately so, some pretty significant platforms in terms of the naval ship building program, but also Lam400 and we mentioned earlier the joint strike fighter. Across the three services, you’re seeing an appropriate modernization of equipment, but it’s really important that we have the brunt behind that to make sure that we can use all of those, that we’ve got enough people, for example, that if we have the better part of 100 fighter planes we can use 100 fighter planes. If you’ve got 100 fighter planes, but you’ve only got the personnel to actually, effectively, operate a small part of that, then you don’t have 100 fighter planes because you can’t use them.

Richard Marles:

That’s what I mean in terms of there being, we’ve got to guard against the highness in the way in which we have a defence force, and a number of serious observers have made that observation about where we’re at at the moment, so we need to make sure that in terms of our spending we’re the opposite of that, which is why I say we need to have an ADF which is robust and dense, the opposite of being hollow, and I think that’s a very important thought in terms of how we set our budget. Ultimately, we face a really challenging world.

Richard Marles:

We face a challenging world where we have an assertive China, which is doing what great powers do, so I don’t really even say this with judgment. China is seeking to shape the world around it, but that does raise challenges for us, and our alliance with the United States is profoundly important and I think is as important as it has ever been going forward, and from where I sit, the more we have America engaged in East Asia, the better, but it’s also true to say that we have an American president who would regard unpredictability as being a virtue, and I can understand that, but it makes life difficult for allies.

Richard Marles:

And so I think with all, you put those things together, and what that means is we’ve got to make sure we’re in a position to be able to look after ourselves and that’s why our defence spending at this moment in time really matters.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and I want to dig into the questions about US-China relations and what it means for Australian policy, but before we get off procurement, getting the amount of money that we’re spending on new kit, they’re big programs we’re talking about here, can we do more? In terms of innovation policy, what’s the role that the defence procurement program can play in sort of driving Australia up the innovation chain? And how can we make it to make a more complex Australian economy in terms of its manufacturing and innovation capability?

Richard Marles:

Defence industry, I think, plays a really important role there, and has done with a number of countries. If you have a place like Israel, they will say that so much of their being a country where innovation is very central to their economic character that at the heart of that is defence industry, and the kind of innovation that you see in defence industry, and partly that’s because defence equipment is about as high tech equipment as you get. It is literally at the very cutting edge of innovation and science, so if you’re in the business of making high end defence capability, then what you are is in the defence of making high end manufactured product, and for a first world nation that’s central to the ability to engage in manufacturing.

Richard Marles:

Successful first world economies that have export manufacturing as part of their economy do so at the highest end of the value chain, and defence industry can play an important role in getting you there. Having said that, it’s important that we understand how you get defence industry. When you look at countries that do it, they didn’t start off doing it because they thought, “Well, if we do a defence industry, that will lead the rest of the economy.” They’ve done it because they’ve had a strategic reason to be engaged in it.

Richard Marles:

Israel is a very obvious example, given the threats that have surrounded it for most of its existence, but you can take a country like Sweden which has a really strong defence-industrial base through a company like Saab, and at the heart of that is strategic decisions as well. Sweden was not a part of NATO, was really right there next to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, and so needed to be in a position where it was able to look after itself, and needed to have a capacity to do defence manufacturing within its borders.

Richard Marles:

If Sweden hadn’t been a part of NATO, I’m not sure, for example, that Saab would exist in quite the way that it exists today, so strategic circumstances and strategic decisions that countries make which end up leading to successful defence industries, and then the benefit that can have for the general economy becomes a spinoff. One of my criticisms about where the government is at is that thinking through the ecosystem of defence industry hasn’t been their strong suit, and so there’s never really been a proper strategic rationale which has been put forward by the government for why we would have a defence industry.

Richard Marles:

There has been, I think most observers would say, that this government, having seen the car industry leave our shores on its watch, was looking for some answer to industry policy, and so has leapt upon defence industry as a proxy for a general industry policy. Well, okay, if that’s what they’ve done, is there an example anywhere in the world where that’s worked? And I think there is one. Strong defence industries come about through a strategic decision about having them in the first place.

Richard Marles:

I actually think there is a strategic rationale for us having a defence industry but you just never hear this government seem to articulate it. I think at the heart of what would be a strategic purpose for us having a defence industry is the fact that defence exports and defence partnerships around industry really go to a core of a nation’s interests and trusts. If you think of the situation we’re now in with France, with the building of our submarines, that has dramatically changed and upgraded our bilateral relationship.

Richard Marles:

France now is critically important as a bilateral partner to us as a nation because they’re involved in the building of our submarines. Well, actually, there’s the opportunity for us, in terms of the way in which we engage in defence industry, to start partnering with a whole lot of countries within our region, and if we did that I think defence industry could play a really important role in helping Australia be taken more seriously within the region and within the world, and that’s really important for us for a whole range of reasons, in terms of our shaping our strategic circumstances, and putting us in a much better position.

Richard Marles:

And I think defence industry, we can do it, and can play a really important role there, but you need to actually make that argument. And it’s not just that you need to make the argument to the Australian people. I think you need to make that argument to the defence establishment, and I frankly think this government haven’t even thought about the argument let alone made it, and so as a result you’re kind of seeing all of the hoopla that surrounded their claims around defence industry when Christopher Pine was defence industry minister, and in defence that’s all just gone by the wayside now. There is just a barren silence, and there is a real question about whether defence industry is actually made to, by this government, now, or not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Turning to US-China relations, at the moment it just seems a day doesn’t go past without some kind of an escalation between both sides, and certainly rhetoric, and also in diplomatic action, and Australia has likewise found itself in a similar situation. How should Australia handle these increasingly tense relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and the principal trading relationship on one hand, and as you said our absolute critical security alliance that’s our longstanding relationship there? How do we navigate and triangulate this, or can we?

Richard Marles:

Well, look, it’s a really good question. I suppose the starting point is I think the world feels a lot safer and more secure and more predictable when China and America are talking with each other, so it’s in our interest that that relationship be as best as it can be, and if it’s in our interests for the relationship between America and China to be in the best possible shape, then it actually stands to reason that it’s in our interests for our own relationship with China to be in the best possible shape, and so we do need to think about that, and that actually requires the adults in the room when it comes to this government playing a part in determining Australian foreign policy, and right now the adults, such as they are, I think are pretty silent.

Richard Marles:

We don’t hear a lot from our foreign ministry about a pretty fundamental issue in terms of our relationship with China. We don’t hear that much from our prime minister, to be honest, either, and the space tends to get filled by all the fringe developments on the part of our government ranks, and I don’t think that helps, and I think the second point is we need to have a kind of underlying philosophy. What are the guiding principles that we seek to put in place in terms of our relationship with China?

Richard Marles:

The guiding principles in terms of our relationship with the United States are clear. They’re our alliance partner. We have shared values, and we often use that phrase. That really means we’re both democracies, we both respect the rule of law at home, but importantly we both seek to create a global rules based to order, and we’ve been parties in seeking to do that really since the aftermath of the second World War, and we see that global rules based order where issues and contest is determined by rules rather than power as being central to a stable and prosperous global environment, which really is the way you would characterize the environment in East Asia for most of the period since the second World War, with the obvious kind of exceptions of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Richard Marles:

But those aside, we have seen a high degree of stability in that period, which has allowed East Asia to be a part of the world which has been an economic powerhouse, and that’s been of enormous advantage to Australia. But they are the shared values, and so what we’re about in our relationship with the United States is clear. What is the guiding principle behind our relationship with China? What are we trying to do here? And so I think the first thing is we don’t really ever get an answer to that question from this government. I think getting a government minister to try and have a crack at even answering that, you’d be hard pressed, and so often it feels to me like what you get is you get to irreconcilable propositions, or two propositions which they don’t seek to reconcile is perhaps the way to put it.

Richard Marles:

Yes, China’s a great country to deal with. On the other hand, China creates anxiety as the government would describe it. I would say that that’s not particularly helpful in terms of having a way forward. For me, and it’s just my view, but what I think matters is the theories of view, but my view, I think the starting point is in our relationship with China that actually we make clear we’re in alliance with the United States, and that that is fundamental to our worldview and to our national security, but from the place of being in an alliance with the United States, we value the relationship with China and we seek to build the best relationship that we can.

Richard Marles:

One which is robust enough that we’re able to express our national interests when that differs from Chinese action. One where we can raise questions of human rights but we do so in a manner which also acknowledges human rights achievements, and there are human rights achievements in China which we should acknowledge. It is important to speak on behalf of the Uyghurs, for example. It’s also important, if we’re being fair, to acknowledge that China is responsible for the single biggest delineation out of poverty in human history. It’s important to say both sides of that equation.

Richard Marles:

And we also need to submit ourselves to judgment. Part of the global order is that, and what we seek to do since the second World War with something like the human rights commission, is to place stock in the international community’s judgment of individual countries, and that means we’re not immune from that judgment. In a sense, we come to this with humility, but we will participate in judgment, and it’s important that we do that, and from that place we do seek to do all of those things but build the relationship and trade is the critical part of that.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that can be done, but it does actually require articulating some kind of underlying set of principles which both try to do, and then it requires doing decent diplomacy. I mean, there needs to be personal relationships between senior figures in the Australian government and senior figures in the Chinese government. I don’t actually think there is one. I mean, I literally don’t think there is a single relationship that exists between a senior member of this government and a member of the Chinese government. I find that astonishing, and I find it astonishing in the context of how significant the relationship is, both in terms of its challenges and its opportunities, for our nation.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly under previous governments there were personal relationships which were able to mediate the difficult moments, but right now there is just nothing, and I think that’s a real issue. I think we’ve got to do our foreign relations with the nation a whole lot better. I think we’ve got to have a set of guiding principles. I think we’ve got to do our diplomacy well. This isn’t rocket science; this is just saying we’ve got to actually do foreign policy like a grownup nation that we should be, and I think that would go a long way to helping us navigate what is the difficult terrain.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, it goes without saying that currently, we’re not in the good books of the Chinese Communist Party, and you talked a lot about striking the balance there. The business community basically goes into a tizz every time the relationships gets into any choppy water, saying essentially we should just acquiesce for the benefit of letting the good times roll on. In terms of the decisions that sort of earn the ire, if you look at foreign interference laws, if you look at decisions relating to Huawei and 5G, if you look around calling out of misinformation, if you look at South China Sea in terms of the adherence to international law, perhaps even more recently around Hong Kong although we tend to not really talk a great deal to be honest about domestic affairs in China as a country.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which of these things would you say that we’ve got it wrong on? Because an issue is approached, we’ve taken a decision, and it’s a sovereign decision of Australia which has seemed to earn the ire of the Chinese Community Party, so it’s very difficult to understand how you can navigate it in a way that protects sovereignty without stirring them up in that sense.

Richard Marles:

I guess the answer to that question is what I’ve given. I don’t think we’re doing our diplomacy very well. I don’t think we’ve got those relationships in place.

Misha Zelinsky:

But do you think you can make those decisions, but do them in a way that doesn’t, I suppose, upset the Chinese in the same way? Or … ?

Richard Marles:

I think you can build balance in a relationship so that there’s at least a chance that you can move forward in a context where we exercise our own voice. Now, let me be clear. It’s really important that we exercise our own voice. That is not something that can be compromised, but it needs to be the voice of the nation, and that’s what I’ve said before. We have a significant interest in the South China Sea. Most of our trade goes through the South China Sea. The UN convention on the law of the sea, which if you like is the rules of the road for that part of the world, for the high seas which includes that part of the world, is fundamentally important to us as an island trading nation.

Richard Marles:

And so we need to be able to exercise our voice in respect of our national interests when it comes to what’s going on in the high seas around the world, and in asserting the UN convention on the law of sea, specifically in the South China Sea. We must do that. As I said earlier, I think as a nation which seeks to contribute to a civilized world, it’s important that we are exercising our voice in relation to human rights issues such as Uyghurs, noting that we need to do it in a way where we submit ourselves to the same judgment, and where we acknowledge other treatments.

Richard Marles:

But that architecture only works if countries are willing to speak out on behalf of people around the world who it seems as being the subject of difficulty, and that certainly would understate for what was going on for the Uighur population in China. We need to be able to do those things and they’re not matters on which you should compromise. Having said that, we’ve seen government members write articles which use ham fisted analogies between China and the rise of Nazi Germany. Well, I mean, I don’t think that’s helpful at all. I don’t remotely think that that’s what China is.

Richard Marles:

And then I can understand why China gets upset about it. You have George Christians en up here using astonishing language in the context of COVID-19, which is not helping, and we don’t have a foreign minister or a prime minister who is articulating a clear voice on behalf of the nation in respect of what we need to be saying in terms of our national interests, what we should be saying in respect of China, while these voices are going on, and so they occupy the space in a way that those things are gratuitous, and I don’t think it is possible to defend those sorts of comments, and we’re talking about a relationship which matters deeply which is the basis on which a whole lot of people in Australia is employed, and that is a reasonable thing to be thinking about as well.

Richard Marles:

And then underlying all of that is a complete absence of any personal relationships which can help navigate through difficult waters. There are going to be difficult waters with China. China does raise challenges. No one’s suggesting that it doesn’t, and it is really important that we’re able to exercise our national voice in respect of those challenges. All the more reason, then, to get our diplomacy right, and to be doing it in a more smart way. Now, it is possible that we could have the best diplomacy in place, the best personal relationships that exist, but the need to say these things means that China would still act in the same way.

Richard Marles:

But wouldn’t it be nice to try that experiment? To actually see how it would go if we did diplomacy well. And I frankly think on a governmental level, I should say, I don’t think that this government is actually doing it, and let me also just be a little bit clear in terms of clarifying this. I think our professional diplomats do an excellent job, and I think our professional diplomats in Beijing do an excellent job, and I know a number of them, and they’re very highly regarded.

Richard Marles:

But at the end of the day, at a political level, you need critical relationships with countries that are critical to us, and right now this government has been an abject failure, really, in developing those relationships, and I’m not sure why anyone would think that that’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you talked about doing diplomacy well, so turning to the other side of the coin, President Trump, the US has become somewhat more of a capricious actor under Trump and has more of a go it alone, it’s even been actively hostile, to be honest, to alliances, or even multilateral institutions. What’s the implications for a middle power like Australia, and how can we shore up some of these things? For example, would you support Australia joining an expanded G7, something like a G10 with South Korea and other countries joining? Do you see a way that Australia can play a balancing role against US capriciousness, in that sense?

Richard Marles:

Well, I’d be careful about using that tone in respect to the US. I mean, firstly, I still fundamentally believe that the US is a force for enormous good within the world, and I think that our relationship with the United States, which has been there for a long time, is very deep. It is not just with one person and never has been. It’s at a commercial level, at a military level, at a scientific level, at a cultural level. It is very deep, and that depth is really important right now, and actually that relationship has been and in many ways continues to be highly predictable. I think the one thing with President Trump, as I said earlier, is he would see his own unpredictability as a virtue.

Richard Marles:

And I think that that makes life challenging for an ally. We would obviously prefer to have a more predictable line of sight about what the president’s actions are going to be, but that’s not who he is and so that’s just where it’s at, but I think it is really important that we understand, that we not completely judge America by one person. I mean, the president is clearly relevant, highly relevant, to the running of America, but America is a big place and it’s a very deep relationship and it’s a relationship that will be in place, say, five years from now, irrespective of who wins the presidential election this year.

Richard Marles:

But in a world post-Donald Trump, whenever that world is, we will still be in a very strong alliance with the United States, and they still maintain all the core values that we hold, and I think that’s really important in terms of how we view our relationship with America going forward. I think it’s about putting it all in context and understanding that, and I still come back to the point

Richard Marles:

I think what we need to be doing is making sure that we are able to take care of ourselves to the extent that we can, that we need to have more of an eye on that, and perhaps the other thing is that we need to contribute to the burden of strategic thought within our region. We need not just to be a dependable, solid ally, but a country which has ideas and views about our region which actually I think America is hungry to receive for us.

Richard Marles:

I think sometimes we underplay what we can contribute in that sense. It’s probably all a long way of saying I think now’s the time for Australian leadership, and I think leadership within our region, but leadership within the alliance as well, and I think that’s probably the best way of making sure that we keep the alliance in the best possible shape at this moment in time.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of Australian leadership, then, do you think that we should seek a seat at the table at some of these major diplomatic groupings? Obviously, under Rudd, Labor was very set true in creating the G20 for the GFC response which is still an important institution, but should we be seeking to deepen and expand our influence in things like an expanded G7 or something like that?

Richard Marles:

I think the more tables we’re at, the better, to be honest, and I think that would obviously be a fantastic opportunity for Australia were that to eventuate, and the G20 is a really important forum for Australia, and Australia helping to shape, for example, the East Asian Summit, is really important. Australia’s pivotal role back during the Horton Keen governments in the creation of APEC is important.

Richard Marles:

I think these are important bodies for us to be a part of, and I think the reasoning goes a bit like this. We have a real premium on being taken seriously. That might seem like an obvious and trite thing to say, but it really stems from the fact that, along with New Zealand, our two countries have pretty unique sets of strategic circumstances. Yes, we’re in an alliance with the United States, but that’s a country much bigger than our own with a capital on the Atlantic Sea board, and how in the northern hemisphere, and how they see the world is very different to the way we see it as a country of 25 million people in the southern hemisphere in the East Asian timezone.

Richard Marles:

We’re not part of, to use a Labor party analogy, in a sense, we’re not part of a faction. We’re not a European country in the European Union. We’re not an African country in the African Union. We have to navigate our way, in a large part, on our own, and that means we actually need to play bigger rather than smaller when it comes to foreign policy because we have to figure this stuff out for ourselves. Sharing the burden of strategic thought about our circumstances, we can do it with New Zealand, but beyond New Zealand and ourselves we really need to be figuring this out for ourselves, and that means we need to play big.

Richard Marles:

Play big is not just about a kind of misplaced sense of the extent to which we can shape the world. It’s actually about so that we learn. Being at these tables helps us to learn and to understand the way the world works, and we have a premium on that more than most, and if we’re going to be able to navigate our own way through, then actually we’ve got to be out there being in these forums, understanding the way the world’s going to work so that we can part our path because there’s not really going to be anybody else getting us there. Now, that’s actually very different to being a European nation, which can talk to other European nations, or as I said, an African nation which can share notes with those other countries in the African Union.

Richard Marles:

We’ve really got to work this stuff out for ourselves, so in many ways I’ll often say that we’ve got a bigger premium on playing big and on being taken seriously than almost any other country in the world, and I genuinely think that’s right, and so being present in these places, making sure that we are there at the G20, I think taking our place on the UN security council periodically; these are really important things for us to do because they help us understand how the world’s working, and we really need to understand it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and so we’ve talked a lot about, I suppose, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Southeast Asia, but drawing it right down to our backyard, our real backyard, and I know you’re someone who talks a lot about this, but the Pacific. You know, I mean, to put it bluntly, we’ve had the step up here from the government, but it somewhere we’ve dropped the ball, because China’s now actively contesting the region. It’s traditionally an area where it’s been Australia’s domain in terms of its diplomatic relationships. Do you think we have dropped the ball here, and are we doing enough?

Richard Marles:

I think over the journey it’s been as big a blind spot in terms of our strategic framework, in terms of our national security, as any. I welcome the step up, but the step up needs to be more than rhetoric. It’s got to be real and it’s got to be noticed by countries in the Pacific, and it’s got to be reflected in a fairly changed attitude from people in Australia. A point I’ve made a number of times is there’s 10 countries in the world who would probably identify their critical, number one bilateral relationship as not being with the United States or not being with China but with us, but go out there and ask anyone to name the 10 countries.

Richard Marles:

And it’s just something about our kind of psyche. You would think if you’re a practitioner in this space you would realize countries off in an instant, because the countries which see us as being completely central to their world necessarily has to define a space in which we is important as any, and yet by and large we tend not to think about this nearly enough in the way that we should. There is huge opportunity, I think, for us to play better and more impactfully within the Pacific in a way which will change positively the lives of those who live in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

But we’ve really got to commit to that, and we can’t do this on the basis of being worried about what others might do in the Pacific in the sense that, if our reason for engaging with the Pacific is because of what someone else might do, then we’re getting it wrong in the start. Our call to action in the Pacific, I think, should be really clear. The millennium development goals, which were a relative measure of progress around a range of social indicators between the years 2000 and 2015, had the Pacific performing worse than any region on the planet.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that has something to do with us, that that is, as you say, the region most proximate to us. It’s the part of the world where we can make the most difference. What that says is that, at a point in time, if we don’t change that trajectory, then the pacific will end up the least developed part of the globe, and that’s patently unacceptable. That will be reflected in maternal mortality rates, in short life expectancy, in low education, and a rage of other social indicators.

Richard Marles:

That would be the clearing call. We ought to be listening to that and saying that’s not acceptable in a part of the world where we have an ability to have a big impact, and so let’s really unpack the issues around that and try and affect meaningful change in relation to that, and that’s the way we will become the natural partner of choice for the countries of the pacific, by demonstrating to them that central to our interest is not any other country, but them. But that does require us to, I think, have a significant sea change in the way that we think about this, and ultimately that goes to who we are as a people.

Richard Marles:

That becomes a statement about how we see the significance of Australia as a polity in the world, positively impacting the world, and so I feel that Australian leadership, which is so central in terms of helping shape our strategic circumstances on the big questions that we’ve been talking about, the relationship with the United States, the challenges that are posed by China. Australian leadership is critical in terms of, as best we can, shape those strategic circumstances, but that Australian leadership in my view begins in the Pacific. That’s where we find it, and so it really does require us to think very deeply about it, and I do think there has been more attention in relation to the Pacific over the last couple years, but I don’t think nearly enough to turn around what I think has been a blind spot for this country for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky:

You spoke in a very positive context there, but I mean, there is a flip side there where there’s some systems competition underway. How concerned are you about things like debt book diplomacy, and China seeking to basically rope in the Pacific nations into the BRI program, and the prospect there of critical assets falling into control potentially of a more assertive China? Is that something we should be worried about? You know, there was a talk about Vanuatu potentially being a base for Chinese military assets. How worried should we be about that kind of sort of hard projection of power into our region?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s in Australia’s national interest for us to be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific. I think that’s the point here, and I think we get there by focusing on the countries of the pacific themselves, and I think if we get worried about what other countries are doing, and certainly if we start lecturing the Pacific about who they can have relationships with, then we’re not on a pathway to success here. Success lies in us focusing on the relationship that we have with the Pacific and getting it right, and that at its heart is about making sure that we place the interests and the fortunes of the people of the Pacific at the center of what we seek to be doing in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

Now, we can do all that, and we are in a position where we can be a natural partner of choice, and I feel very confident about that, but I also don’t think that that’s inevitable. I don’t think that that happens by us just being here, and I think it does in large measure define circumstances at the moment but I don’t think it necessarily always will, but I think it’s within our power if we get our relationship right with the Pacific to make sure that that is the enduring characterization of our relationship to the Pacific, and that’s in our national interest, but that’s in the interest of the people in the Pacific, and it’s what we should do.

Richard Marles:

It’s who we should be as a people. But I know that if we are really focused on the plight of those in the Pacific, and in a sense the outrageousness of in some places life expectancy for them ending in their 50s, and that we really seek with our heart but with the best brain that we can bring into this equation as well to change that, then that’s all that’s going to matter. The rest is actually going to take care of itself. It really will.

Richard Marles:

But that’s the place that we’ve got to get to, and you know, what frustrates me at times is that … let me sort of declare, I love the pacific and I’ve completely fallen in love with it, but it frustrates me that not enough of us understand it and see its importance, but also see the cultural wonder that represents, and I’ve opened up hearts to how incredible a part of the world it is, and how lucky we are to really live as part of it, and to have the opportunity that we have to contribute to it.

Richard Marles:

That’s where we’ve got to go. There’s kind of an emotional connection which I think that we’ve got to get to. It’s interesting comparing us with New Zealand in respect of this. New Zealand do, I think, identify in a deeper way with the Pacific, for a whole lot of reasons that make sense. I mean, Auckland is a much more Pacific city than any city that exists in Australia. New Zealand is part of Polynesia, so you can see why it happens, and maybe it is a tall order to ask Australia to sort of have that same cultural connection, but actually we have a lot more presence in the Pacific than New Zealand. Much, much more.

Richard Marles:

And if we could back it up with just a bit of that kind of connection then I think that working alongside New Zealand would go a long way to securing the kind of interests that we need to in terms of the relationships that we should be building with the countries of the Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a huge responsibility.

Richard Marles:

It is.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s great to hear you talk about it so passionately. Switching gears slightly, I think the profound change, and we could do a whole podcast about this so you’ll probably have to do this at a reasonably brief level, but I mean, open and closed systems. Open and closed systems, and political warfare, this seems to be, I think, the preeminent challenge of the 21st century, and one of the things that worries me as someone, and I think you obviously share my view of the world in this sense, is that we’re both passionate about democracies, passionate about open societies, but autocracies seem to be gaining our openness in a way that is very difficult for us to resist, and at the same time closing themselves off to, I suppose, the virtues of openness that we would see in terms of interacting with open societies.

Misha Zelinsky:

How can open societies prevail, and how can they beat closed systems, and do you think they can?

Richard Marles:

Well, I certainly hope that human progress and prosperity lies with human rights and with democratic thoughts and democratic freedoms, because that’s what I passionately believe in. I think over the long run innovative thought both in terms of the evolution of society in a social sense, but also in a technological sense, in terms of size, have performed better in open societies where there is freedom of expression and freedom of debate, and I think that that is still going to be the case going forward. I do think that there are real challenges in relation to the evolution of technology which present themselves, and I understand the point that you’re making that in closed systems there might be ways in which closed systems can deal with the development of technology around IT.

Richard Marles:

But ultimately I think this has got a fair way around and I do passionately believe in the power of government of the people by the people for the people. I think putting the people central to the equation is still the best recipe going forward, and so I don’t take democracy for granted. I think it is something that needs to be continually worked at, but I am as strong a believer in it at this point in my life and at this point in time as I have ever been, and I think that is still fundamentally critical to the future of a more civilized world.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, a very uplifting place than the more formal part of the proceedings. I know that you’ve been dying to get to this part and the audience can’t wait to hear your answer about my trademark clunky segue to my incredibly hokey and lame part of the show, the fun part of the show. Now, you’re a very worldly man, Richard. Who are the three people, foreign guests, that would come alive or dead that would be brought along to a barbecue with you up there in Dulong? It might be difficult to get them there even if they are alive, with the COVID restrictions made, but it’s fantasy football so we can do our best.

Misha Zelinsky:

But who are they and why, mate?

Richard Marles:

Okay, so I’m answering this in a political way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you are a politician, mate. I can’t-

Richard Marles:

Exactly. There’d be a sporting version of this where I would love to meet Ty Woods, and I’d probably like to meet Bobby Jones, and you could kind of throw in Shane Warne. Also I kind of-

Misha Zelinsky:

We’re going to get together, mate. If Warnie is coming I’m definitely coming over, so yeah.

Richard Marles:

I also think, though, I mean, they’re all I’m sure great people. I love their efforts on the sporting field and I kind of have a bit of a rule. I don’t know whether you want to get to know your sporting heroes. I just enjoy what they do on the sporting field.

Misha Zelinsky:

Exactly. You’ve always got to be careful meeting your heroes, they do say.

Richard Marles:

Let me answer the question in a political way, though. None of them are alive. Abraham Lincoln for sure is definitely my great political hero, but I would love to have him at a barbecue because by all accounts he was a raconteur. He was funny. He was self-deprecating. He had a kind of certain melancholy, but a warm kind of charm about him which I would love to experience firsthand, and he is the great man.

Richard Marles:

Churchill would be there as well. I mean, Churchill, whatever else, he would be fun. There would certainly be no shortage of drinks if he was there, and you get the sense that a guy who routinely was in the bath, as I understand it, sipping alcohol throughout the entirety of the second World War, not that he was in the bath throughout the entirety, but he was there on many days, I mean, that is pretty amazing. He is going to be fun at a dinner party, and again, it is the defining moment of modern history and he is the central character to it, and if anyone won the second World War, I mean obviously not one person, but the person who had the most influence on it was Winston Churchill, so it would be great to have him there.

Richard Marles:

And the third goes back a bit deeper in history. I think it would be fascinating to speak to Queen Elizabeth the First. She really, I think, is probably the great English monarch, and when you think about how does the British Empire come to its preeminence, I think the seeds are there in her reign, and she comes to power, you know, father is Henry the Eighth. There is a kind of tussle for power which she was probably unlikely to win and yet does.

Richard Marles:

I doubt there has been anyone in history who has been more underestimated in terms of their ability to do the job. People were desperate for her to find a partner because they felt that there needed to be a male presence around, and she resolutely refused to that, and then becomes the greatest of them all. That’s somebody I reckon would be fascinating to meet. Her kind of desire to plot her own path and do what she was going to go, and not conform to what just about every voice around her wanted her to do, that would be a force of nature I’d like to meet.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s three good ones, there, mate. Kicking the ass of slave owners, kicking the ass of the Nazis, and kicking the ass of the Irish and the Scots, mate, so it’s a good list. Well, look, we’ll leave it there. Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fantastic chat, and we’ll catch up soon.

Richard Marles:

Thanks, Misha.

 

Laura Rosenberger: Open v Closed? Securing democracy from misinformation and foreign interference

Laura Rosenberger is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Laura is a global expert in foreign interference and misinformation campaigns.

Before she joined GMF, Luara was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America where she coordinated national security and strategy for Secretary Clinton.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Laura for a chinwag about the escalating threat of foreign interference, whether social media giants are doing enough to prevent misinformation, if Tiktok should be banned, what democracies must do to defend themselves and how they can turn the tables on autocracies, the crucial roles that alliances play in defending liberal society and why democracies must renew themselves internally if they want to project themselves to the world.

Misha and Laura get into some real mind bending conundrums and really dive into the practical as well as the philosophical challenges presented by autocratic misinformation and social media manipulation.

If you’re interested in the work of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and misinformation campaigns, please check ot the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard. It’s an incredible resource that details narratives being pushed by autocratic regimes such as the Russian Federation and the Chinese Communist Party.

https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/hamilton-dashboard/

Please be sure to rate and review the episode! And thanks to the German Marshall Fund of the United States for supplying this image of Laura.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Laura Rosenberger, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Laura Rosenberger:

Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, for the benefits of this recording, you’re of course in the East Coast of the United States, in the morning. I’m on the East Coast of Australia in the evening, but we’re brought together by the magic of the internet. So, first question, a good place to start, for those who in Australia may not know the Alliance for Securing Democracy. What’s the mission of the ASD?

Laura Rosenberger:

Well thanks, Misha, and thanks again for having me on for this conversation. The program I run, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, it’s about a three year old program housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The mission of the program is to better understand, analyze and develop the means to counter the tools and tactics that authoritarian regimes use to undermine and interfere in democracies. And I think this is a topic that becomes more salient by the day, and one where we find that the breadth of the issues we’re looking at, whether it’s from information operations, and cyber intrusions, to belying financial influence, corruption, economic coercion, subversion political groups. A wide range of tactics that are used here, and the number of threat actors that are using these kinds of tools to weaken democracies and democratic institutions just continue to grow as well. So a lot of ground that we cover on our team.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I’m curious here. And this is a bit of a personal issue for you. I mean, why did you decide to build program focused on these issues in particular?

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah, thanks, Misha. So, maybe I’ll rewind the tape actually just a little bit to how I even got into National Security in the first place. I’ll sort of date myself here, people can do some math. I was a senior in college on 911. And I had been studying all kinds of issues of public policy, and knew I wanted to go into the public policy space. Had a lot of interest on both the domestic and foreign policy side. And felt really conflicted about needing to choose between domestic and foreign policy. And when you’re a senior in college, September of your senior year you’re thinking about what the next steps are. Started thinking about applications for various things. On September 12th, the morning after that horrible day, but I started to see my way clear of just the anguish. Realized that I felt the need to dedicate my career focus to doing my small part to see that that sort of attack never happened again.

Laura Rosenberger:

So I pursued a career in foreign policy and National Security, and went into this space. But it was really that attack on America that for me was an animating focus. A feeling that we had failed in a number of ways. And of course the 911 Commission really looked this, we had failed in so many ways to prevent and foresee that attack, and to halt the forces that were aligning against the US and our allies. And so, I spent quite a while in government and moved through a number of different issue areas. But towards the end of my time in government, one of the things I was working heavily on was Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and all that it was doing there. And getting to understand the tools and tactics that Russia was using there as well as elsewhere on it’s periphery.

Laura Rosenberger:

And had a feeling that in government and in National Security we didn’t really have the tools we needed to be able to both understand and analyze, as well as respond to this asymmetric tool kit, if you want to think of it that way, right? These pieces that some people talk about is the gray zone, but they’re short of war, they’re non-conventional. They challenge our typical responses, and in many cases they put Democracies in quite a bind. Because they would push us to close off often as the easiest response, sort of respond tit for tat. But that I think is not the right course of action. So I had this feeling that we really didn’t have the toolkit that we needed. I left government, and I went to work for Hillary Clinton on her 2016 Presidential Campaign as her foreign-policy advisor. And of course from that vantage point got an even more personal and front row seat to the kinds of tactics that Russia was using to interfere in American Democracy.

Laura Rosenberger:

I think we had been a little it naïve perhaps that, a lot of assumptions were made who might be using these kind of tactics on his periphery. But you know, we have this vast big ocean here between us and Russia. And so somehow that makes us more protected. And in fact what we found in 2016 was that was not at all the case. And so once again, really felt that as a National Security community, we didn’t have the kind of tools and tactics that we needed to contend with these asymmetric tools that were being used to attack our democracy, and felt very much like I did actually… When it became clear, when it kind of came into focus in summer of 2016 probably just about four years ago the breadth of what was happening in Russia’s interference in the US.

Laura Rosenberger:

Really felt actually like I did after 911, that sense that America was under attack, that we had failed, and that I needed to do my small part to help prevent that kind of thing from happening in the future. So that’s basically the sort of personal version of the story of why I decided to build a program focused around these issues.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, well I mean, certainly an extraordinary set of events in 2016. We’ve talked about the election there. And in the washout I mean, it’s been relatively well-established now that there was a high degree of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. How concerning in your mind is lack of bipartisanship in the United States, and sort of countering foreign interference? And what did you say more broadly about US Democracy and the state of democracy in the US?

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah. One of the things I should have said about the program, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, is in fact that it is a bipartisan program. And I felt very strongly when we were launching this and building this program, that countering foreign interference could not be undertaken as a partisan mission. That our democracy and threats to it have be a unifying thing across the political spectrum. And in fact, that because so many of the foreign interference tactics that we see, seek to exploit partisan divides, or other sorts of divides in our society, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Rosenberger:

Many different fissures are used in these kinds of operations. One of the most important things that can be done to make ourselves more resilient to foreign interference tactics is in fact, to come together across these divides. And that politicizing or allowing these issues to become partisan ones, in fact plays directly into the hands of our adversaries. So for me, I think the degree to which I’d hoped for bipartisanship three years ago, and then comparing that to what we’ve seen materialize in terms of actual bipartisanship is pretty disappointing. I don’t want to sound completely pessimistic. There’s been a few bright spots. So, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been leading bipartisan investigation for several years. It’s released four or five volumes of it’s report on that investigation. We’re expecting the fifth to come very soon. And there has been some small bits of hope out there on the bipartisanship piece.

Laura Rosenberger:

However, I think we have seen unfortunately, a situation in which not only has there been a failure to come together for instance in congress to pass many of the pieces of legislation that have been proposed actually, proposed on a bipartisan basis, but have not been passed. Many of which would just do basic things, a closing off and knowing vulnerabilities and our democratic institutions that have been exploited. And beyond that, one of the most concerning things to me is that we’ve actually seen the questions of foreign interference being weaponized for political purposes. And that to me is deeply concerning. Because it’s basically doing our adversary’s… It’s not just playing into our adversary’s hands, it’s doing our adversary’s work for them.

Laura Rosenberger:

So I truly believe that if we’re going to be able to counter these sorts of tools and tactics, we’ve got to be able to come together across the political spectrum. And you know, Australia is actually a great case study for this. I mean, not that they’re a sort of unified perspective across every individual within the Australian political system on these issues. But in Australia we really have seen a remarkable degree of cross partisan cooperation and unity on these issues. I think it’s one of the reasons that Australia has been successful in what it’s done far. Not that… There’s a lot more work to do to counter these issues from Australia. But I do think that some of the stuff that have been taken there, they are things I often point US policymakers to. Because it demonstrates that in fact you can come together across the political spectrum of these issues.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now it certainly is… Well, to take your point, it’s not complete anonymity, but it is relatively bipartisan, and certainly the responses thus far at the last sort of few years particularly. But we sort of talk a lot about interference and conceptualize it around elections. One thing I talk about a lot on the podcast, and certainly I know the ASD is looking at it, is the more the geopolitical contest behind authoritarian regimes and democracies. How does interference fit in within that broader context? And what are the other ones, all that kind of interference, and what’s it’s goal I suppose is the… What’s the assistance approach to this rather than just trying to make mischief?

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah, absolutely. I have to laugh on the side for one second. It’s so funny. Whenever I have conversations with Australian colleagues and I hear ASD said in an Australian accent, I always feel the need to clarify, that your ASD it’s the different…

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s true.

Laura Rosenberger:

Our acronym similarity there. But anyway-

Misha Zelinsky:

And there’s so many acronyms to go around. And Australians are acronym obsessed in fairness as well. We’ve never met an acronym that we don’t like.

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah, yeah. But back to your question. I mean, I think it’s a really important one. So I think there’s like a couple different layers there maybe for me to unpack. So the first is, your point that a lot of the conversation I think particularly in the US about foreign interference is framed around elections. And I think that that’s frankly unhelpful for a couple of reasons. I mean, I think it’s both unhelpful and inaccurate I guess I should say. I think number one, it’s unhelpful because really and to our last discussion there, I think that seeing it primarily through election focus actually reinforces or plays into the politicization of the issues, right? Elections are naturally where everybody gets into their most partisan corners.

Laura Rosenberger:

And the more that we frame this issue around election outcomes in particular, I think it just drives people more naturally to partisan positions. It’s not an excuse for that, I think it’s just a dynamic occurs. But I think, as I said as well from a sort of analytic perspective, I also think it’s inaccurate. And one of my colleagues had the phrase that I have abused religiously, which is that, elections are not a starting point or an end point for these operations, they are flashpoints. And I think that that’s a really, really good way of thinking about it. In the sense that, if we just take the US 2016, the Russian campaign aimed at the 2016 election, there’s a few things that we know about that. One, it started at least as early as 2014, 2013, there’s even some social media data that indicates it could have been as early as 2012. So a lot of work that was done several years in advance to lay the groundwork for the operation, again, in particular on social media.

Laura Rosenberger:

Number two, that in fact, not only did these operations start well before, but the operations actually continued and increased. Again, if we want to talk specifically about the social media operations which was just one piece of it, but they actually increased after the 2016 election. So, the amount of activity we saw from this sort of internet, Russian internet research agency, fake accounts, fake pages, all that, they really ramped up after the election. Really seeking to exploit the anger of many Americans on the left, to gin up emotion, to sow dissension, to create chaos. And that was actually even more obvious in the year and a half after the election before a lot of this contact was finally taken down by the social media platforms.

Laura Rosenberger:

So, you have it starting well before an election, continuing well after an election. And then I think the third piece is to understand what the goals of these operations are, right? So while I do think that in some instances, and certainly the US Intelligence community has concluded that one of Russia’s goals in 2016 was to help Donald Trump, to help his election chances. The Russians had two other goals. One was to discredit American Democracy, and the other was to hurt Hillary Clinton in the thinking of, not just as a candidate, but assuming if she won that she would be a weakened president. But to me that first piece, the discrediting of American Democracy is really the overarching piece of what… at least in our analysis, we see from Russia’s operations.

Laura Rosenberger:

But also I think it’s an area where we see some overlap with the Chinese Party-State’s intentions, which we can talk about a little bit. But, I think China’s… The goals of the CCP are different than Russia’s in terms of long-term goals. But there is some intersection. And in particular this discrediting and weakening of democracy is an area where there’s some intersection. And I think that relates then to your larger question, which is interference as one piece of this broader competition between authoritarian and democratic systems. And in that sense, I think interference is one line of effort that we see from regimes like Russia an China. I think that again, they probably take a even bigger share of what we seen from a country like Russia that’s a declining state, right? You know, Russia’s objectively declining economically, geopolitically, other ways, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Demographically, yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah, exactly. So the sort of range of options that Putin has in front of him to actually gain power or leverage are more limited. And the interference piece is a big one. I think from the CCP perspective there’s a broader range of tools. And it has I think a bigger interest in shaping rules and norms, and things like future information architecture, aero technology, and other pieces of that. And I think that the interference piece for both of them, is one piece that’s brought our effort to make the world more favorable to autocrats. And weakening democracies had the big piece of that. So interfering in democracies and undermining them is one set of tools that are used there.

Laura Rosenberger:

But there is also a broader competition and effort to try to shape the rules based order in a way that is less favorable to democracies and more favorable to autocrats. And I think for me, we could talk about this in particular dimensions, but I think this is particularly important to bear in mind when we talk about things like information manipulation. And I think we have a tendency to think about that issue in very tactical terms. People are very focused on specific disinformation campaigns, or even down to the bots and trolls and all that, which really is just a small part of what we see in these operations. But in thinking about the responses to information operations, I think it’s really important to pull back the lens a little bit and understand that, that’s a tactic that autocrats use to actually enable a more authoritarian friendly information environment that is defined by control and manipulation.

Laura Rosenberger:

Autocracies and democracies see it for rich and very, very differently. And that bigger picture frame of what autocrats are trying to achieve in the information space is really important to understand, and fundamentally at odds with the democratic information system.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s right. One of the things that I think is difficult to grapple with if you’re a person who lives in a democracy and used to being in a democracy, authoritarian regimes pose some kind of threat to democracies. But democracies through their very existence are enormous threats to authoritarian regimes. So, just by exiting and not touching an authoritarian regime, the very existence proves that there’s another way of doing. Which you can understand why if you’re an authoritarian regime, you may want to discredit it. Now just want to dive in a little more into misinformation campaigns. Thinking about your 911 example and why that shocking set of events occurred. No one really conceived that planes could be used in the way that they were in weaponization.

Misha Zelinsky:

Social medial in many ways was relatively, and still is relatively new. But it was a fun thing, right? The 2016 election was… People started to see problems with social media, for the first time seeing perhaps the weaponization of social media, and this sort of open access to Western society’s provided by these platforms. I mean, since the election, do you think social media companies are doing enough to stop misinformation of this kind?

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah, you know, I think the analogy is right. That just as we didn’t anticipate airplanes could become weapons, we didn’t see social media becoming weaponized in the way it has been. Obviously there was some sense of that around the way that ISIS for instance was using-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s true.

Laura Rosenberger:

… social media for radicalization and recruitment purposes, right? And so there was a sense that indeed there was a downside risk to some of these platforms. But I think it was seen in pretty narrow terms. So, I think that you’re absolutely right that this is something that we didn’t really anticipate in the more sort of geopolitical competition space that we should have. On the question of what the companies are doing, I think there’s a couple of ways of thinking about this. And of course, we just here in the US, we’re speaking on July 30th. Just yesterday we had these big tech hearings in Congress-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Laura Rosenberger:

… with several of the large social media and Allied Information Platform heads testifying. And it wasn’t really focused on disinformation issues per se. But of course it came up. And you know, it’s very interesting to me to look at how these leaders are framing themselves in the roles of their platforms. I thin that, look, the platforms in general… And I should say that while I’m talking sort of generically about the platforms, it’s important to acknowledge that they are not all created equal either in their role in this ecosystem, nor are they equally taking steps to address it. So, I wanted to just like be very clear on that point upfront. I do think that we’ve seen progress by most of the platforms. So there’s no question that… In late 2016 Mark Zuckerberg thought it was ludicrous the idea that somehow Facebook could have been used to influence the election.

Laura Rosenberger:

Which is ridiculous that he would have ever thought that, given how much they had built infrastructure to support political campaigns using the platform. Clearly this is something that they knew. But, putting that to the side. We’ve gone from a basic rejection to the premise that this even happened, to an acknowledgement, to investigations, to marginal steps being taken to address some of the abuse of the platforms. Twitter similarly has taken action, and I’ve actually suggested, especially over the past six months, Twitter has become far more aggressive and assertive in going after a wider range of different kinds of activity that we see. I think one of the challenges… well, several challenges here, a few. Well, I think in so many ways the platforms have not gone far enough. I’d also do acknowledge that they face some difficult challenges here.

Laura Rosenberger:

I mean, my own view is, as I mentioned earlier, that needing to understand the sort of information environment that authoritarians want to create, one that’s controlled and manipulated… I do think it’s really important that in responding to these kinds of information operations, governments and platforms ensure that they’re not taking steps that actually help create that sort of controlled information environment, right? I think the tendency here is to want to just remove all content that we don’t like and really lockdown the systems. And I think that that’s the wrong instinct. Because I think it’s fundamentally undemocratic, and it will actually… I think a lot of that is what autocrats would like to see.

Laura Rosenberger:

They’d like us to become less democratic. And so, I don’t think in every instance there are easy answers for some of these platforms. A lot of us in this community that work on these issues have really come to the view that behavioral and actor-based interventions are the most appropriate and effective ones, versus content-based interventions, right? That it’s not so much that [crosstalk 00:25:13].

Misha Zelinsky:

And what do they want that, sorry?

Laura Rosenberger:

Sure. So, I think in some places there’s still a sense that a lot of what we’ve seen happening in the online information space is about purely false information. And that somehow if you get rid of the false information, then you’ve taken care of the problem. And of course, one of the things we knew about what the Russians did in 2016, as we see China getting much more into the online information manipulation game on Western platforms, we see similarly that the vast majority of this is not about content that is demonstrably false. Now, there are other aspects of the mis and disinformation problem where we do see that. So, antivax kind of content, and all the stuff about different cures, supposed cures for COVID. There are in certain spaces more of a problem that does have to do with the false information. But in a lot of cases, this is not either demonstrably false information. Sometimes it’s more opinion-based-

Misha Zelinsky:

Opinion, yes.

Laura Rosenberger:

… for a lot of times. A lot of what we saw from the Russians in 2016 and afterwards was memetic work there. The use of memes and other kinds of more pictorial kind of things that actually have much more emotional resonance, to kind of gin people up. But you can’t say like this is false. And there’s a whole different… We could go through different categories of content. But I think for me, the harm is not necessarily the content in most cases. Again, there are some exceptions to that. But in a lot of cases it’s the behavioral manipulation of the platforms, right? It’s the use of computational strategies. It’s the use of swarming. It’s the use of Astroturfing. It’s the use of all these different kinds of tactics that are used in order to manipulate algorithms, manipulate individuals, manipulate groups.

Laura Rosenberger:

The use of false personas, all that kind of stuff, we see all that as well. But to me then, when we want to talk about how the platform’s done enough, part of the problem with that is that, if you’re thinking about behavioral interventions, and you’re thinking about the approaches that actually get at the systemic aspects of a problem. And a lot of those actually begin to bleed into solutions that would really challenge the business model of some of these companies. Where you had algorithms that have been trained to promote virality, to promote content that makes people angry. To promote-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, outright [crosstalk 00:28:15].

Laura Rosenberger:

… content that pulls people to extremes, right? And so to me, honestly, that’s where we need to be getting at in a more systematic way to address this problem. It feels at the moment like a lot of what we do is play Whac-A-Mole, and that does not seem to me to be sustainable.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s an incredibly challenging kind of philosophical and technological problem as you start to unpack a bit. We sort of focus a lot on the role of I suppose US tech platforms in the global democratic discourse. What about, the big discussion point at the moment is around Chinese platforms, specifically TikTok. Personally, I mean, do you think there’s a case to ban TikTok? And then secondly, shouldn’t we be taking a closer look at things that are state-owned Chinese Communist Party tech, like Kwai, like other platforms such as that. I mean, is there a case for looking more deep with them, given their links to the party-state?

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah. I think it’s one of the most important and challenging questions that we’re going to be seeing right now. And you know, look, I’ll be candid. I don’t think I totally feel like I know what the answer is to TikTok and to similar platforms. I will say that I have a lot of trepidation about the idea of banning TikTok. And the reason that I say that is that, again, if we look at what the Chinese Party-State has done with it’s own information environment, and the way that it bans or blocks platforms. The way that it tries to close off it’s information environment to one that it can control, I think that when we start talking about systematically banning platforms from other countries, I have a little bit of a concern that we are starting to head down a path that looks very similar to the sort of cyber sovereignty, information sovereignty doctrine that the CCP has advanced.

Laura Rosenberger:

Now, I completely take the point that the reasons that the CCP does that are fundamentally different than the reasons for which democracies are talking about banning TikTok. But that’s the reason that it gives me some significant pause. I have similar concerns for instance about talk of banning for instance Chinese Government officials and party officials from platforms like Twitter. Twitter is the platform that’s banned in China, or blocked in China. And there’s been some discussion about, now that these officials have become much more aggressive in using that platform as a way of weaponizing information against democratic audiences, given the asymmetry there, should we ban them? And again, I just worry that at the end of the day that ends up leading us down a path for creating an information space that looks a lot less democratic and a lot more authoritarian. That-

Misha Zelinsky:

Is the… yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

Go ahead.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no. Because these are… I mean, one of the biggest challenges here, you’ve sort of zeroed right in on it. It’s these challenges within authoritarian democracy, but open closed systems. And so, at the moment you’ve got this lack of reciprocity where essentially you’ve got the great firewall of China, you’ve got the Russians essentially disconnecting their incident in part. And then the openness and permissiveness of Western society, the Western information systems, it feels almost like closed systems are winning. And you just wonder, how ca open systems prevail without losing it’s sense of self.

Misha Zelinsky:

But you’ve identified all the right areas. You know, we want things to be open, we want discourse to be free, we want things to be contestable. And yet, the closed system doesn’t permit that. And so, we’re allowing, on one rating of it, you’re allowing this sort of gaming of your system without a reciprocal relationship on the other side. It’s very difficult. How can we win that battle as Western open societies?

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah. I mean, I think that’s exactly right. The asymmetries here are profound, and they are significant challenges. I think there’s a couple of things that we need to do, right? One of the things that goes alongside with openness in democratic systems needs to be transparency. And I think a lot of times we have moved away, in a lot of different areas, we’ve moved away from transparency as a guiding principle in our systems. And so, whether that’s around financial flows coming into politics, or into lobbying spaces, or political campaigns, or business deals or whatever. I think there’s challenges there. I think in the information space, there’s lack of transparency about how algorithms work, why do we see information, where information is coming from originally?

Laura Rosenberger:

I mean, and I should stipulate on that, that I think the ability to be anonymous online is really important, especially in closed spaces. So I think again, there’s transparency in figuring out where information comes from while preserving some ability to be genuinely anonymous. But that’s sort of a small but important point in my mind. But I think the transparency piece here is huge for me. Now, there’s limits to it, I grant that and acknowledge that, and there’s a lot of literature around that. But I think that the problem with seeing this just in terms of reciprocity… I mean, you’re right in terms of analyzing the problem in terms of the lack of reciprocity.

Laura Rosenberger:

My problem with seeing reciprocity necessarily at the answer, is that if we’re playing on reciprocal terms to autocrats, definitionally we are going to end up being more closed off. Because we’re letting them pace set, right? We’re letting them set the terms that the status quo is a closed system. And we’re reciprocating in a way that will close us off more. And I think that that fundamentally weakens us. It’s great this is just like a values question of, we need to be principled on these things. It’s actually that I think it fundamentally weakens us, and that we… The source of our strength really is our democratic values and principles with openness and transparency, and civil liberties, and all these different pieces.

Laura Rosenberger:

And so, I think one of the pieces that we need to do is actually look inside our own depth democracies. The US for sure faces a lot of challenges at the moment with living up to our democratic principles. And that’s not just a recent thing. We’ve had challenges for quite some time in our democratic institutions that we’ve left unaddressed. And that makes us more weak an vulnerable, and open to exploitation. I think again, we can look at a lot of what Australia’s done in some of the steps it’s taken to respond to CCP interference tactics.

Laura Rosenberger:

And a lot of those have focused on a variety of transparency regimes, other kinds of disclosures, et cetera. So I think that’s a big piece of it. But think the there piece of it for me is that, as I look at this competition right now, this broader competition we talked about earlier between autocratic and democratic systems, is democracies right now are very focused on responding to autocratic advances, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

We are looking at this primarily through a framework of countering what autocracies are doing. And of course that’s got to be part of it. But, that framing is fundamentally defensive and reactive. And it’s not actually enabling democracies to articulate an affirmative vision of what they are trying to achieve. And I’ve done some writing for instance, around again the information space. And in that area, democracies need to acknowledge some of the ways in which the free and open internet that we envisioned 20 years ago is falling short. The rise of surveillance capitalism and all these ways that we just talked about, that the online information platforms we’ve designed are falling short of democratic principles. We’ve got to acknowledge that. But we can’t just focus on countering what autocrats are doing in this space. We’ve got to figure out our affirmative plan of what we’re trying to achieve. I think that’s how open systems prevail.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how do we do that? I mean, yeah, if you think about the last time they had genuine systems competition was the cold war, and the West was pretty bolshie so to speak, in how it projected it’s values. I mean, how could, in this contest, how can we turn the tables? You’re right, because it does feel like one-way traffic, that’s how I describe it. It’s all one-way traffic at the moment with the West trying to play catch-up. I mean, how can we turn the tables in a way that… What are the tools we can use the same or different tactics against autocrats to make their lives a little more difficult so to speak?

Laura Rosenberger:

You know, I wish I could give you a concise and easy answer on that.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a podcast, so you can take as long as you want, but you know…

Laura Rosenberger:

You know, this is a… I think that’s a huge question. I think it’s the right question. It’s a question that I’ve been doing a good bit of work around. And I don’t think I fully have all the answers yet. I think, I guess I would sort of bucket it into a few categories. The first is that it starts I think where I was noting before, that we can’t just… The tendency in these kinds of competitions is to look outward, and to focus the competition in that outward space. And that’s certainly a part of it. But, I think that democracies first of all just really need to get their own houses in order. I mentioned in my sort of personal story at the beginning that when I was back in college, before 911 feeling really conflicted choosing between domestic policy and foreign policy.

Laura Rosenberger:

And at the time it felt like this artificial thing to me. But career track wise you have to choose, right? And 20 years later I feel like I’ve come full circle on that. And in the sense that, I still think that the distinction between domestic and foreign policy is pretty artificial. And I fact, it’s partly what is hindering our ability to compete in this contest effectively is that we don’t necessarily see the way that these spaces are integrated, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Rosenberger:

So that’s one piece of it, but that’s, I mean [crosstalk 00:40:12].

Misha Zelinsky:

And this is kind of like… It’s a JFK thing, right? Like we don’t need to build a wall to keep our people in.

Laura Rosenberger:

Right, right. Yeah, exactly. But I think beyond that, there’s a couple of things. Two is like, we need to focus on where our advantages are, and do a much better job at harnessing that. So obviously in the US despite advances by the PRC, we still have the strongest economy in the world. We have a lot of challenges to our economy, and COVID is certainly exacerbating those. But we need to be better about figuring out how do we harness our economic strength in a strategic way? And I think a lot of that relates to technology. Where again, I think we still have a huge technological edge in a lot of areas. I think we are at risk of losing it or falling behind.

Laura Rosenberger:

But I think if we actually do a much better job of partnering with our democratic partners and allies in a systematic way to leverage our collective strengths, both in a technology space and the economic space and more broadly. We can do a much better job at thinking about how to actually effectively leverage one another and build that collective strength. I mean, I think that if we think about where… I mean, the vast majority of the US alliances are with countries with whom we deeply share democratic values, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yep.

Laura Rosenberger:

But the formal parts of those alliances have all been built around the military dimensions of our strength.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

And you know, the challenge is that, it’s not that the military domain does not remain an important one, it certainly does. But so much in this competition is playing out in the spaces that are non-military. And so-

Misha Zelinsky:

We haven’t military at all up until now, and it’s all been highly contested, right? So you’re completely correct.

Laura Rosenberger:

Right. Right, exactly. So, I think we need to do a much better job at thinking systematically about how do we build out our alliances in more formal ways to compete in those non-military spaces? And to build that tissue. I have to other things I would say on this. One is that, with the US retreat from multilateral institutions has been deeply, deeply damaging. And it’s just created huge space for Beijing and Moscow in particular to really, really gain traction in those institutions, and to manipulate them in a way, or influence them I should say, in a way that’s it’s more favorable to them. And there’s no question that these institutions have problems. And there’s no question that they need to be reformed and updated.

Laura Rosenberger:

But the US and our democratic allies should be driving that process of reform and update. Not seeding it to the autocrats. And right now that’s the position that we’re in. So that’s a huge problem. And we’ve got to engage there. And then I think the last piece I would say is, again, this goes back to this question of, where is this competition taking place? And there’s actually going to be a lot of areas where government is not the right actor to be leading the charge. Given how much of this competition is playing out on private sector terrain or civilians are the targets, and all this. You know, there are places where government can lead the charge. But government should not necessarily be in the driver’s seat on all these areas. Especially when it touches on issues of civil liberties, or the free market, or all that.

Laura Rosenberger:

So what we need to do… But we can’t completely say, okay, well governments hands off, somebody else is going to sort it out either, right? And so the challenge is to figure out, how do we build meaningful cross-sectoral cooperation on these issues? Again, not in a way that ends looking like the CCP where government is heavily intervening with private companies to direct where they go, and all this stuff, right? But we need to figure out meaningful ways of cooperation. It’s become really trite to talk about these issues, the whole of society problem, requiring whole of society solutions. That’s great. What does that mean, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Laura Rosenberger:

Let’s actually build the mechanisms that facilitate that kind of cooperation. So, I don’t think that at all satisfactorily answers the question that you posed of, what does it look like of democracies to articulate this affirmative vision? But I think those are some of the means to do it. Actually, one last point, sorry. This is an important one. We forget sometimes that autocracies have a lot of weaknesses. And again, there’s no question that many of them are very effectively leveraging their strengths, and prosecuting our weaknesses. We need to be much better about systematically prosecuting and going after autocratic weaknesses. And most of the ways that we would do that I think are leaning into democratic strengths. I mean, I am not all suggesting, and I do not believe that we should be adopting the tactics that autocrats are using. I think that’s a race to the bottom in which democracy loses.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s what I think.

Laura Rosenberger:

But I do think that harnessing democratic values an institutions is very much a way that we can help go on offense if you will. To your point earlier about the existence of democracies posing a threat. Our free press is not at all looked up on favorably in most of these closed spaces. And there’s a lot more we can be doing in some of these areas to enable that kind of approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, it’s important too. But though I told you you’d get there with a podcast answer. But in terms of, jumping forward now, a little bit forward, it’s kind of scary to think, we’re kind of less than 100 days to the US election. I mean, how worried should we all be about 2020 election and potential foreign interference from Russia or others, CCP or others? I mean, people would have looked at the playbook from 2016. And should we be worried about it, is it going on now? Give me a positive picture or not.

Laura Rosenberger:

So, we should be worried about it. It is going on now. But this again, I think goes back a little bit to your important point about, how we see a lot of this through an election lens, but that may not always be the right lens. I don’t think any of these activities ever stopped after 2016, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

It’s not like it’s stopped and then it restarted. These are ongoing operations. And not all of it’s aimed at the election. That doesn’t mean it won’t affect the election in one way or another. But I think, I have a sort of variety of concerns, and I’ll just kind of quickly summarize. I will note that an official, and the Director of National Intelligence last week released a statement talking about 100 days out and the concern from China, from Russia and from Iran. Now, they all had… They were characterized differently in terms of what their goals are. And in my view, so far what I’ve seen from the PRC is that, it’s effort largely remains still at cultivating friendly voices, cultivating narrative space that is favorable to the CCP, and discrediting democracy.

Laura Rosenberger:

But I really don’t think that we are going to see, or that we are seeing anything from the PRC that looks like what Russia has done in the US, election context, right? I just don’t think that’s in Beijing’s interest per se. And I think they’re playing a slightly different game. You know, with Russia, Russia’s the chaos agent. Putin’s Russia is a chaos agent, right? And so I think we see the same thing going on. Four years ago, so much of what we saw in the space of chaos was exploiting issues and party-system in the United States. And of course those issues have really come back to the fore here. But interestingly enough, a lot of what we’re seeing at the moment, and there’s been some recent reporting on this, is information operations that are really around the coronavirus. Which has of course become a very politicized issue in the United States.

Laura Rosenberger:

And seeking to exploit that is a means of undermining people’s faith in the process in the institution. Not about reelection per se, but it’s about persistent pulling Americans apart from one another and pitting them against each other. So I think that, I am concerned about that. Your Iran I think is a sort of much smaller player here that does have potential to do some things, we’ve seen them do some things. I think their goals are largely similar to Russia’s, and that sort of chaos agent space. But I think, honestly my biggest concern is, especially coupled with the domestic challenges we’re facing here in the US, all the challenges that we’re going to face in the voting process with coronavirus. And changes that are having to be made is in fact that, we’ll sort of get to the immediate aftermath of election day, election night, next day, and start to have a lot of information operations that are basically aimed at discrediting the process itself.

Laura Rosenberger:

Whether or not there’s any evidence to back that up. And I certainly see directions could play heavily in that. And I think that we’re a little bit primed right now frankly, to question the integrity of the process. And so, that to me is actually one of the most concerning scenarios. Not necessarily that there’s interference in the actual voting process, but that doubt is cast on the outcome itself. And elections are an institution that are based on trust, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Rosenberger:

And so, if that’s thrown into doubts and people start to… don’t believe it he legitimacy of the outcome, that could throw the US into a real crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Particularly if say, you have a long process of counting postal ballots or mail-in votes over a period of days, that would certainly… You could imagine that would create a window of chaos. Now, I could obviously go all night my time, or morning your time, but I’m sure it’s very early where you are, and I’m sure you’re desperate to get some coffee. But I can’t let you go, Laura, without asking the trademark Diplomates hokey Australian lame question as part of the seque from heavy foreign policy misinformation campaign leads to very boring trite questions about barbecues and people. But I’m here at Laura’s, three Australians, who’s coming along and why?

Laura Rosenberger:

Now, it’s a tough question. It’s a very tough question.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s the toughest one of the night, so far, so yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

So many to choose from.

Misha Zelinsky:

Crocodile Dundee and many others.

Laura Rosenberger:

Yeah. I promise you, I won’t go down that path. So I think, my first would be Cate Blanchett, who’s amazing for so many reasons. But in particular having earlier in the pandemic binge watch Mrs. America, and watch her play Phyllis Schlafly who for anybody in Australia who’s not familiar, was a very conservative anti-feminist activist in the US who I actually had the chance to meet when I was in college. I was a very, very active feminist on campus. And Phyllis Schlafly came to speak. And I remember it very vividly. And so watching Cate Blanchett sort of transform herself into Phyllis Schlafly was quite the amazing thing.

Laura Rosenberger:

So really, really appreciated her in that role. And I think that story of the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, and this very virulent anti-feminist movement is something that I think a lot of people don’t really know. And so I was really glad to have that story told. The second, I will confess to have consulted with my sister on this question, having gotten a slight heads-up from you to expect this.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, you can’t listen to [crosstalk 00:53:45] on how this is done. You’ve ruined the entire premise of the show.

Laura Rosenberger:

Oh no!

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m joking. I’m joking, joking. Yes folks, I do give the questions in advance, there it is. Anyway, so keep going, you and your sister…

Laura Rosenberger:

My sister tells me that Hugh Jackman, I cannot leave Hugh Jackman off my list. She thinks he’s the ultimate showman, and I think of course this is also very, very true. And I think the last one I would say is from a very different angle. Penny Wong, Senator Penny Wong. I just think she’s been such a powerful voice on these issues that we’ve talked about today in this conversation, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely.

Laura Rosenberger:

These challenges that we face as democracies from autocrats, and I just really admire the way in which she has approached these issues, and her principle commitment to them. So that would be my third sort of curve ball example there, or invitation there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, I think Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman will have their work cut out keeping up to a Penny Wong cross examination. But it’s up to them. We can just sit and watch. But look, Laura Rosenberger, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a fascinating chat. And I look forward to catching up again soon.

Laura Rosenberger:

Wonderful. Well, thank you. Thank you so much, Misha. This was great fun. I really enjoyed it.

Misha Zelinsky:

See you next time. Cheers.

 

Tarun Chhabra – The China Card: How progressives should deal with an assertive Chinese Communist Party

Tarun Chhabra is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and also with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. His current research focuses on U.S. grand strategy, U.S.-China relations, and U.S. alliances. Tarun is a global expert on the implications of China’s growing political and international influence.

 

A Harvard, Oxford and Stanford graduate, Tarun has served on the White House National Security Council and worked in the Pentagon as a speech writer.

 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Tarun for a chinwag and asked whether the US and China are already in a Cold War, how the US political system is responding to the China challenge, why democracies must work together to resist political warfare efforts from autocrats, why technology is so critical to geostrategy and how the left should – in Tarun’s words – ‘play the China card’.

Misha Zelinsky:

Tarun, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you on, mate.

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks for having me, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I’ll just say, for the purposes of the recording, you are in Washington D.C., I’m in Sydney. We’re doing this via Zoom. So, appreciate having you on and giving us your time.

Tarun Chhabra:

Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I thought a good place to start, it’s a big conversation we could have, but we’re talking a lot about the US China relationship globally. Curious about your take on what it’s caused a hardening of US attitudes to China. I mean, previously the view was that China was very much an engagement strategy, there’d be a peaceful rise. And now very much it’s seen, certainly by the Trump administration, that China is a strategic rival. Curious for your take on that journey, over the last five years in particular.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, thanks, Misha. So, I think there’s several components to it. The first, in my view, has been a reckoning with China’s integration into WTO policy that was introduced here in the nineties, and when it was introduced, as you may recall, the promise was really that we would export goods and no jobs, quote unquote. And that was kind of a bipartisan commitment to the American people. And then fast forward to where we are now and you have economists who estimate that anywhere between 2 and 4 million jobs were lost, mainly in manufacturing, in the United States, over that period, attributable to giving China permanent normal trading relations with the United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so I think that has really driven a lot of it, and it’s not just the jobs lost, but it’s what happened in the communities that were built around a lot of those companies manufacturing, particularly in the Midwest, and, as we all saw in 2016, this was a top line message by then-candidate Trump.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think the second is the more assertive nature of Chinese authoritarian regime. There’s some debate about how much of this is really about Xi Jinping and how much of it is really about the character of the party, Xi just being the latest manifestation in the trajectory of the party. But, you know, in my view, China’s willingness to be somewhat flexible in the way it operates, I’ve called it kind of a authoritarianism abroad, is in some ways more challenging than I think the ideological challenge posed by the Soviet Union, where the model was to adopt exactly the regime type in Moscow, in many cases. And the ability to co-opt elites, the ability to corrupt institutions, I think, in many ways is a more daunting challenge.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we add to that the technology of mass surveillance it’s now available where China is a leading exporter of safe cities, surveillance technology where the demand in many cases is there for a variety of reasons, but once you have it, it’s going to be very hard to let it go. And you layer onto that, China exporting it’s 5G infrastructure through Huawei.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I think the totality of the challenge has become clear, and then as Australia has seen, China’s willingness to weaponize dependents on the Chinese economy, has become more and more clear.

Tarun Chhabra:

You all have seen it, the Norwegians have seen it, certainly Korea and Japan have seen it, and just in the last week we’ve seen now threats against the UK after its recent turn at reconsidering its Huawei contracts for 5G now that the threat that any sort of cooperation, even on the nuclear side around transportation, would be threatened as a result. So, that kind of weaponization of interdependence, censoring free speech, in many cases, has all kind of come to a head. And I think we’re seeing the kind of apotheosis of it now in the COVID era, but you can look back at their record and see that this was long coming.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you just touched on COVID, you’ve sort of detailed all the different areas of competition there, the strategic competition. Be it, technological, economic, cultural system of governance based competition. How do you see, because clearly the tensions are much higher now post COVID-19 outbreak, firstly, how do you expect those to play out? And secondly, who or which country’s system’s more likely to benefit most from the disruption?

Misha Zelinsky:

Because, I mean, from an outsider observers’ point of view, we’ve seen that this is the first time that a global challenge hasn’t been centrally led by the United States, and Donald Trump has deliberately chosen not to do that.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, and that’s a pity. I think there was a lot of debate early on in the crisis here. Some arguing that China was really poised to take a leading role in the global order in the midst of COVID. Some people suggested this was kind of a Suez moment, even. And it’s certainly possible that that could’ve happened in some ways, but as you know, China’s conduct over the last couple of months has totally alienated many populations and governments, where there might have been a real opportunity, actually, for them to claim the mantle of leadership and show some even fleeting beneficence, but there’s really been no sign of that.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, over the long term I think the key question really is how are economies emerge from this crisis. We continue not to really have a lot of fidelity on real growth and the record in the Chinese economy, to some degree, so it’s often kind of hard to predict that trajectory right now. But we certainly have our challenges right now. So, I think the ball’s really in the air right now and there’s some key decisions we, the United States, need to make, many of our allies need to make, and that China’s going to make, that could really make a big difference as to how we all emerge from this crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, turning to the domestic political debate on the China question. You’ve made the argument that the left should play the China card, in your words. Firstly, what do you mean by that? And why should the left do that? Because it’s a vexed question for progressives on how to handle the rise of China, more so, perhaps, than it is for those that are more of the right.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah. So, I had a chance to work on this argument with a couple of co-authors, and our view is that in general there’s been reluctance, often a well-grounded reluctance, for the left to frame arguments in terms of geopolitical competition. And I think that comes from a concern that when you do that you might lose control, basically, of the narrative and the politics that are related, in that you may risk both militarizing competition, spending more money on defense than you might’ve wanted to otherwise, and that you risk inflaming xenophobia.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, those are kind of the key concerns from some folks on the left. And we see that now in some of the debate around how the democratic presidential nominee now, Vice President Biden, should handle China in the course of the campaign.

Tarun Chhabra:

But our view has been that, and I guess that kind of turns onto some degree what your assumptions are about the default politics, at least in the United States, and our view is that there’s kind of a default libertarianism, and that historically the United States has tended to be more unequal, more divided, at times, when there has not been a geopolitical competitor. And manages to make hard decisions and actually do things that progressives generally want, in terms of national investment and civil rights, when geopolitical competition requires it. We can dislike that, but we think it’s an empirical reality.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, our argument is that progressives should embrace this strain, because many of the things that the United States needs to do, when it comes to investment in education and infrastructure, to really adopt major reforms, whether it comes to policing, which we’re talking about now, and other things on civil rights and restoration of our democratic fabric. All of that we might be able to do and build a bipartisan coalition for, if we talk about these things based on concern about competition with China.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we look to some, basically a change of heart on the part of some conservatives, particularly when it comes to economic thinking, where you have conservatives now who are saying, “Maybe the United States does need an industrial policy in order to compete with China in certain sectors,” which is really counter to conservative orthodoxy. And one would hope that we could build a coalition that would really broaden the scope of domestic renewal and reform.

Tarun Chhabra:

On the question about xenophobia, which is a really important one. Our view there is that if progressives simply seed the ground to conservatives in the United States, and it’s only one side that really owns the debate, that in many ways the risk is even greater that xenophobic sentiments get inflamed. And our view is that progressives should be able to own this debate and ensure that that does not happen, build credibility with the American public, that they are more than capable and, probably, even more capable in many cases of taking on China as a geopolitical competitor, and that we can do it while uniting the country and not dividing it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’re sort of talking there about the means and the ends, but one of the things that has become quite challenging in this debate with people, is whether or not democracies are capable now of delivering for people on domestic agendas, and China now holds up its model, and the Chinese communist party holds up its model, saying, “Our system has lifted X hundred million people out of poverty. The United States is incapable of providing healthcare to its people.” How can democracy and progressives unite those arguments to make sure that systemically people have faith in that argument?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think that really is the case. Misha, you just stated the case for progressive reform and why we should be talking about it in terms related to competition with China. As progressives are going to continue to make the arguments we have been making for a long time about why democracy needs to work for all of our citizens, and not just those at the top. But the reality is that those arguments have not worked, certainly in the United States, for decades, which is why we find ourselves in this situation.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, if what it takes to get those who’ve opposed these kinds of reforms on board, is to say the alternative is China championing its model around the world and showing that that system just works for more people than democracy. If that’s what it takes to get them on board then we should be willing to make that argument.

Misha Zelinsky:

And also I think it’s important to critique the regime and critique the regime for the behaviors that it displays, be it repression of people at home, be it breaking its word in the South China Sea, be it through coercive trade behavior. I think it’s very important, to your point, that it would be a nonsense to not be able to critique the Chinese Communist Party, because of the fact that it is Chinese, and rather it’s a critique of the behavior. And I think it’s very important for progressives to own that. So I completely agree with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one of the things, it may not be relevant in the China piece, but it’s certainly a question to the bipartisan piece in US politics. Your thesis that requires there’s a willing partner, so perhaps, you’ve provided some examples where you’ll get a policy outcome, Democrats might be doing it for a leftist ideal, Republicans are doing it for a conservative ideal, but the outcome is the outcome and it’s good for the system, but is the Republican party in it’s current iteration capable of reaching that kind of consensus?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think about the way that foreign policy’s been politicized, either during the 2016 election, the collusion and interference, or even during the impeachment. I mean, what’s your view there? Do you have a hopeful case for that or a slightly more pessimistic case?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s a split right now within the Republican party. There’s broad consensus at a the top level about the need to confront China on a lot of issues, and that sentiment is shared also by a lot of Democrats. Where I think on the right in the United States the breakdown happens, is you still do have a lot of folks who are faithful to conservative orthodoxy and believe that government is always the enemy, and really should not have a role, particularly in economic issues.

Tarun Chhabra:

And my view is that this kind of ignores a lot of history about innovation and technology development, in the United States in particular. If you read a book like Margaret O’Mara’s about the birth of Silicon Valley, the role of the US government and just the Defense Department is enormous, and even if you look at through the 1980s the largest employer was Lockheed Martin, it was not Apple or others, even at that stage.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think that debate is roiling right now within the Republican Party, and it’s only roiling because of China, it’s only roiling because they see that we don’t have a US competitor who can integrate a 5G network, and that we have to look abroad and we have to build a coalition now. And the reason that happened is that as China was ramping up support for its own industry, just to take 5G for example, and providing finance from its policy bank so that Huawei would be adopted around the world, US and other Western companies were basically withering on the vine in the face of that massive subsidy, essentially.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think that debate continues. I’m hopeful, though, that there are enough people in the Republican Party who could join progressives in the kind of agenda that we’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be the whole party, but there needs to be a caucus and a coalition.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, turning to the Democratic Party, curious to your take on where it currently sits on the China question. Because I think some people seem to take the view, I mean, there’s a lot of bipartisanship when it comes to this strategic competition piece, but a lot of people seem to think Trump’s issues with behaviors that have been undertaken, for all the ones you have listed, by the Chinese Communist Party are correct, but his mechanism of dealing with it are incorrect.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, I mean, I’m kind of curious for your take on that. So, for example, had Hillary Clinton have won the election, which she’d have been just as tough, even if a little more, I suppose, conventional in her approach.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think a turn was inevitable. And even if you go back and look at the last couple years of the Obama administration, particularly the last year, worked on artificial intelligence, on semi conductors, there was really a turn that was already happening. Would a Clinton administration have looked just like a Trump administration on China policy? No. I don’t think that we would’ve seen the trade war unfold as it has.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s a key question that often goes under-noticed about assumptions that we make about the Chinese economy. And so, in some ways, you could argue that what Trump has done is, while it appears to be discontinuous with some of his predecessors because of the tariffs. On the other hand, the underlying theory of the case for Trump is that we would go from phase one, which was about, basically, purchases, and mainly of agriculture in the United States, to phase two where we would get the Chinese to implement meaningful structural reform of their economy.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, essentially, his argument and his administration’s argument was, “We can get China to change. We can get them to change the way they subsidize their businesses, we can get them to change the way they’ve done forced technology transfer and IP theft for decades.” And I think that’s just a wrong assumption. And I think the better assumption, really, is that they’re not going to change any time soon, because it’s worked too well for them. And the key question for us is what are we going to do in terms of domestic investment and cooperation with our allies to respond to it?

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, I think a change was coming, but frankly that assumption needed to really change, and it hasn’t under the Trump administration.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. So, one of the things I’m curious about, is one of the critiques, in tends to come from progressive people in politics, but it also from the business community, certainly in Australia, is it possible to be more cooperative with the Chinese Communist Party?

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, some people say, “Well, if only the US was nicer in the way it approached matters,” or, “If Australia didn’t make comments about a COVID-19 investigation,” or, “If we allowed China to invest in our 5G network that the relationship would be fine.” Essentially, that the offense caused is always on the European side or the American side or the other Asian nation sides that are in the South China Sea debate.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, is it possible to cooperate, or do you think that’s a forced construct?

Tarun Chhabra:

Well, I think that the way that it’s sometimes framed is not productive. So I think that the traditional framing of this kind of interdependence fostering more stable relations, I think doesn’t hold up now. We’ve seen that’s not the way that Beijing sees this. The way Beijing sees it is dependence fostering ways to enhance their coercive power.

Tarun Chhabra:

And, in some ways, I think we need to think about interdependence needing to line up with some symmetry of interest. And to the degree that those interests diverge, I think too much interdependence actually makes the relationship much more unstable.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, yes, there certainly will be areas where we’ll find opportunities and we’ll need to cooperate with the Chinese. We’re not going to be able to deal with climate change unless there’s some sort of more meaningful action by China. We could’ve seen a world in which pandemic response was done in a more cooperative fashion, and we’re not yet at the vaccine stage so we’ll see how this goes. But it’s not looking like that’s going to be a particularly enterprise at this stage, given the way this is unfolding right now.

Tarun Chhabra:

But I think what we need to think about is what are the mechanisms by which we get to some sort of cooperation. And I think too often when we say cooperation we think that means there’ll be some sort of comedy. I think, instead, we may get “cooperation” when we think about a much broader toolkit, including deterrents, stop doing things, and some degree of coercion in some cases, to get China to cooperate on a certain set of issues.So I think we need to kind of disentangle and sift through what we mean by cooperation in particular spheres.

Tarun Chhabra:

The one thing I think we really have to be careful about, and I think we saw this a little bit during the Obama administration, was when there were areas where we felt we needed or wanted Chinese cooperation on transnational issues, whether that was climate change or nonproliferation issues. But often Beijing saw that as an opportunity for leverage, an opportunity to get us to do other things, or at least be silent when they were doing other things.

Tarun Chhabra:

So if you look at that period toward the end of the Obama administration, we saw the entire human rights bar of lawyers in China totally dissimilated. We saw the beginnings of what was beginning to happen in Xinjiang right now. So this turn I think really began…

Misha Zelinsky:

You mean with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is that what you mean?

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly. The internment of more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities there. But Beijing, I think believing in order to get them to cooperate on climate, in order to get them to go with the Iran deal, that they could essentially buy America’s silence, and that of many other countries, as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, what we have to do, I think, is to be very clear that we’re not going to be trading these things off. We’re going to have to separate these issues. And if China doesn’t want to take meaningful steps on climate to the degree that we really need to do it, which is another issue that progressives are leaders on and rightly care about a lot, we’re going to need to think about ways to put pressure on the regime to get them to do the right thing on climate.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we’ve done this in micro fashion where the US embassy was advertising the air quality in Beijing, but we need to make the case to the Chinese people about the delta between what China’s doing now on climate and where that’s going to go, what that’s going to mean for China’s coastal cities, for example. We should be leading the charge on making that case clear on why China needs to do more.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you sort of touched on the debate internment, I’m curious about where you see the debate currently playing out in the Democratic Party, and then firstly how did it play out in the primaries? Because clearly President Trump wants to make this an election issue, and he’s targeting the presumptive candidate in Biden on this. So, what do you see the politics of that, firstly within the Democratic Party, and how do you see this playing out in the general?

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think you’re seeing, just as we’ve discussed, some of the debate in the Republican Party. We’ve got debate within the Democratic Party too, and it’s unfolding on the op-ed pages now of the Washington Post and the New York Times, and one line of the debate is whether Vice President Biden should make a tough position on China a central tenent of his campaign. He has decided to do so, I think for good reasons.

Tarun Chhabra:

But you have some democrats, and some of the lean democrat, basically arguing that that is dangerous. The basis for their argument ranges from, “That will induce xenophobia,” that’s certainly one. Another is that this shouldn’t be the subject of democratic and political debate. I find this one a little bit hard to understand because it’s such a critical issue I think it should be front and center for democratic deliberation. But, essentially, that it’s too sensitive or it will box in a Biden administration. Again, I find that one hard to understand.

Tarun Chhabra:

And then again others who say that this will lead to a militarization frame and, again, defense spending or commitments to US force aboard that they find unsustainable, or potentially risking conflict.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I think that’s a healthy debate to have, we should have it. It’s certainly a healthy debate in terms of thinking about where we should be investing in longterm competition with China and the degree to which I know we should be focusing on technology and economics as kind of the locusts of competition, to some degree.

Tarun Chhabra:

But I think the Vice President seems to have made a decision already on this question, and so we’ll see to what degree. I think those who have not liked that message find ways to, as we were talking about earlier, latch onto the argument to support some of the progressive causes that they do support. So I hope that we can mend some of that and build a coalition within the Democratic Party, but then also with republicans as well, on some of the reforms and investments that we desperately need.

Misha Zelinsky:

Any fair minded observer would assume that strategic competition at a minimum, irrespective of whichever party is in control of the White House or the houses of congress, is here to stay. But are we at the point now, some people have said that it’s a new Cold War, some people have said it’s like a 1.5 Cold War, it’s not the Cold War 2.0. But Vice President gave a speech a little over a year or two ago, essentially some people concluded that that was the beginning of a new Cold War. What’s your view? Are we in one? Is it inevitable that there will be one?

Tarun Chhabra:

You know, this is it a Cold War, is it not a Cold War, has become I think kind of a shibboleth for a separate debate about to what degree we should pursue competition and to what degree we should try to maintain some degree of engagement. So in the Cold War question per se I think we should be looking to the Cold War for some lessons because it was the last time we, the United States, was engaged in strategic competition with another great power. So there are things that we can learn from the Cold War that are applicable. But it’s obviously different in many other ways because we didn’t have the degree of commerce that we do have with China, nor did US allies have that degree of commerce with the Soviet Union, as they do today. So we have to account for that, obviously.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I think in general I don’t have the allergy that I think a lot of people have to talking about the Cold War in this context because there are really important lessons. Just in the last few months, because I mainly now work on technology competition, the lessons from some Cold War export controls still remain, I think, pretty valid. The alliance management challenges that we face today, together with our allies, I think some of those remain relevant as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

But again, I think in some ways, as we were discussing earlier, some aspects of competition with China are going to be more intense than they were with the Soviet Union, and I think that’s particularly the case on the ideological front, for some of the reasons we talked about. Whether it’s China being more flexible, or the technology and surveillance component to this competition.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, again, I think, “Is it a Cold War, or is it not a Cold War?” I think is less helpful than, “What lessons can be learn from the Cold War, and what’s different about this competition?”

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’ve talked a lot about competition, and one of the phrases now that’s in vogue is this concept of decoupling, and essentially which is to what degree should countries be sovereign in the supply chain integrity. Particularly when you talk about technology, and China’s notorious for its IP theft, in some instances. Well, certainly in its aggressive approach to IP transfers and its trade practices. But how can the US and other democracies structure their economies and their technological investments to compete with a much more monolithic structure in the Chinese state. But, at the same time, it’s more of a hybrid than what we saw with the Soviet Union, which didn’t have the same economic firepower that the West had in the previous Cold War.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah. So, yeah, in the current context obviously concerns about the medical supply chain and pandemic resilience are driving some push toward decoupling/reshoring. We’ve also had, in the US, an ongoing review by the Pentagon about defense supply chains and concerns there about resilience in the event of, not just conflict, but some sort of spat that results in China cutting off certain supply chains as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, that’s certainly there and those concerns are going to persist. But I think that we often don’t pay enough attention to is that the biggest driver of decoupling is China. It’s China’s own decoupling drive. So, if you look at China’s ambitions when it comes to artificial intelligence, or you look at the main 2025 plan, if you look at their 2035 standards plan, and you can say some of this, or at least that push for decoupling by China’s being driven, to some degree, by export controls that we’ve put in place, as well, certainly have been accelerated, that’s probably fair to say.

Tarun Chhabra:

But that’s the major driver here. Is China’s own, what they call, indigenization drive, when it comes to key technologies. China does not want to be intradependent with the United States or other countries when it comes to key technologies, in particular.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think we need to, to some degree, really focus on China’s drive toward decoupling, and figure out what we, the United States, and we as an alliance, want to do in this window, which I think really is a window because it’s a window in which the CCP has clearly stated their intentions, they’re clearly making massive investments in talent in technological and industrial capacity. But they still don’t have the ability to achieve all of those, I’d say somewhere on the order of 10 to 20 years.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, what do we want to do in that window? What are our strategic objectives? And can we come up with a plan as an alliance to handle that? And I think some of the navel-gazing over, “Shall we decouple or shall we not?” I think is beside the point. It’s really not fully comprehending where China is headed and how we have to respond to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a role for allied supply chains? Some people have written about this concept that… Because I think people have framed this debate now as essentially you either produce domestically, or you rely on global supply chains, which are, a vast majority product currently, and certainly industrial production, occurs in the PRC. Is there a role for allied supply chains or trusted partners in that context?

Tarun Chhabra:

Absolutely. I think there has to be. There will be some industries that the United States will want to reshore to the United States, and I think that’s going to be the case, I think, with a lot of counties when it comes to medical supply chains, because I think the degree to which we’re totally dependent on some emergency supplies, I think, wasn’t clear. Especially to a lot of politicians and legislators until the COVID pandemic.

Tarun Chhabra:

So some of that will be reshored to the United States, and many counties I think will be doing the same thing. But more broadly on technology issues, if you look at the semiconductor industry, for example, the United States cannot do this, and should not do it, alone. There is news of a new fab potentially built by TSMC, Taiwan’s major semiconductor manufacturing company, moving to Arizona. But if you look at the broader supply chains around semiconductors, in Japan and Korea, the Netherlands, are all key players here. And I think we not only do we need to accept that reality and embrace it, but also think about ways of embedding allied supply chains as also strengthening alliance ties, which I think are going to be critical because we need them not just when it comes to technology, but we need them on a broader array of economic issues, and we need them on defending human rights and protecting free speech.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so I think the deeper that these ties can be the better. So we should think about this in the context of a broader alliance management and really focus on in particular sectors where, again, Beijing’s ambitions intent are very clear, what is our long term plan? And particularly, what is our plan in this window before China can actually achieve in a domestic capacity?

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you sort of touched a lot there on working together. One of the distinctions, perhaps distinction might the wrong way of putting it, but one of the certain characteristics of the Trump presidency has been, I suppose, apart from the Chinese Community Party, pulling autocrats closer and pushing away friends and allies, in what’s traditionally been a position of US leadership in multilateral institutions. Do you think it’s possible that we’re going to see a world that no longer has coordinating institutions? We’ve seen attacks on the World Health Organization, certainly the UN is not nearly as effective in settling disputes as it was. China has made it clear it doesn’t respect rulings from The Hague. How do you see the role of coordinating institutions in this more ideologically competitive world?

Tarun Chhabra:

We need them and I think that the way that the US should be thinking about these institutions is that they’re another forum in which the US has got to compete, hopefully together, with its allies against China. Because that’s certainly the way that China sees them. So the WHO is a good example here, particularly as COVID impacts developing countries, and countries that don’t have the health systems that the United States or Australia and many other allied countries have, we desperately need a functioning WHO. But we need one that is independent and that has integrity and is not pushed around by China.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I think the right way to handle the early days of this crisis would’ve been to be actively engaged with the WHO doing a lot of the diplomacy with international organizations, that we’ve been doing across parties for decades, where you are vigorously engaged and ensuring that no one is pushing their particular country’s interests over our own. And I think there could’ve been a different path for the WHO in this if there had been much more vigorous engagement with the WHO, pushing them not to do what they did, which was parrot some lines out of Beijing about human-to-human transmission, for example, or how well Beijing was doing in the early days. And as we’ve seen with some great investigative reporting over the last just week or so, there was a lot of concern internally at the WHO and I think a lot of them were probably looking for allies, who didn’t necessarily want to do what China was pushing them to do.

Tarun Chhabra:

I just bring that up because that’s obviously a very live example, but this is across the board. And I think, to some degree in the United States, particularly on the right, there’s this ideological baggage from the 1990s when multilateral organizations were seen to be purely a constraint on American power, and really not doing much else. Obviously the historical legacy then ambivalence toward multilateralism goes back even further with the United States, through to the 20th Century. But I think that period of the 1990s, this kind of ideological antagonism toward international institutions was really hardened. And you would think that it would be updated in the context of competition with China, because China’s seen this is an opening, where the US pulls out, China goes in, and exercises a very different kind of influence. And our allies’, obviously very frustrated by it, understandably.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I would hope that whatever happens in 2016 that we have much more vigorous engagement with multilateral institutions and that we build coalitions again with out allies to push back on some of the more malign Chinese influence in these places.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you talked a lot about allies, democracies working together. An idea that’s certainly getting some currency now. It seems that around the world, gradually, most democratic nations are starting to realize that there’s a competition here between systems, between the Chinese Communist Party’s model of autocratic technocracy and technological monolithic approach to things at home, and then increasingly that domestic tension between trading with China and being friendly with China is very difficult to manage. Do you see any currency in this idea being pushed of a so called D10, which has come out of this… Britain somewhat belatedly has now decided they don’t want Huawei participating, it would seem, in their 5G roll out. And, I’m kind of curious, they’ve been now pushing this idea of D10, of the world’s top 10 democracies coordinating actions together. Is there a role for that, or is that too overt?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s definitely room for that sort of mechanism. I generally think that we’re going to have to be flexible in the kinds of arrangements that we have, and that there may be a variety of coalitions of democracies on different issues. And that might make it easier for some countries that are reluctant to be seen as participating in a “anti-China coalition.” But if we meet together where we, in one format, focus on 5G issues, and we meet in a different one to focus on semiconductors, and we meet in another context to push back on China’s done to the human rights regime globally. I think that’s all healthy, and we should be doing it.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think that’s the right way of thinking about the problem. But in terms of whether that’s going to be the sole institution or not, I’m less sure. And I’m guess I’m trying to be realistic about it because we’ve seen this with the quad, and you know this better than anybody else, getting the various countries to show up to a quad meeting and selling the agenda, can often be challenging because of the perception that by doing that it’s explicitly some sort of anti-China coalition, so…

Misha Zelinsky:

Containing Japan, India, Australia, and United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly, exactly. Whereas if you are meeting in multiple fora and just engaging in your business there may be less concern about that. I think the issue is less about whether there is this one discreet forum and more about whether we build a worldview, build a consensus about what the basic things are that we need to be doing together.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I guess I’m maybe too hopeful, but I see signs, particularly because China’s behaved so badly during the COVID crisis, of that turn really happening now. We see it building constituencies in parliament, we have this new interparliamentary working group on China issues, we push back to some of China’s behavior, kind of developing more of a domestic political valence. So I think the opportunities to do this are actually much better than they were. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if Xi Jinping had decided to hide and bide a little bit longer, if they’d not gone on the offensive they’d gone on, over the last several years and particularly over the COVID outbreak. I think we could really be up the creek.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I hope we can see some of the momentum and channel it into some productive and affirmative cooperation among allies.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I share your views there. Certainly for those that are critics of the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve certainly been validating, all of those critics over the last few years, certainly. So, just on that topic, the real big challenge, and I’m curious to get your take on this, it’s been autocracies and democracies, but it’s also between open and closed systems. I’m very much curious about how, what was different about the Cold War was that the systems work in competition, but they were separate. When we have this co-dependence, this interrelationship, and what it’s done is created a number of areas where foreign interference can occur and so called gray zone interference because there are so many different leverage points that exist and so many touch points that exist between both systems. But there’s no reciprocity. And what I mean by that, of course, is autocratic regimes, due to the openness of the democratic can meddle through the various different ways, through information or through finance or through trade, or what have you, in a way that you just can’t do. You can’t even Google the Tienanmen Square massacre if you’re in mainland China.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, how can open systems prevail in that context? Because traditionally the view is openness would win. You know, Bill Clinton said, “Good luck controlling the internet,” famously. Like nailing jello to a wall, I think he said. But it seems that they are winning at this point in that struggle.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think in the trajectory of that doesn’t look bright, in that sense that with the export of a lot of Chinese technology now, surveillance technology, and potentially the synergy between that and having Huawei as your 5G network, would suggest that the potential for control, kind of visual authoritarianism as it’s been called, has only intensified and is being exported around the world.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think we have to focus on our strengths as open societies. We’ve got to be able to show through example what our society’s about, and that’s what’s so troubling about what’s happening in the United States right now, as we certainly are not demonstrating anything by example right now, whether it’s in the administration’s response to the protest movement, or the response to COVID. But I think we can, again, and I don’t think necessarily that authoritarian societies, or the CCP even, has fully thought through what all the implications are of following through on their ambitions for surveillance.

Tarun Chhabra:

One could imagine a lot of situations in which those systems could go wrong and they could go sideways, in a lot of ways that could generate a lot of public discontent and potentially unrest. Just imagine a social credit system, basically blocking an entire class of people from accessing vital services, for example. So one could imagine a lot of ways in which it could go sideways, that I don’t think they’ve fully thought through.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I guess I don’t see this as a binary where the question has been decided. I think it’s going to be a competitive experiment here where the authoritarian vision for technology and surveillance is being adopted widely in many cases now, but we haven’t really seen it fully roll out, and seen all the potential vulnerabilities that are inherent to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a case for democracies to be more assertive in their responses to interference efforts? So, over the last few years it’s tended to be one-way traffic, even if it’s from the Russians meddling with the United States election, or with Brexit and other European elections, or if it’s with the Chinese Communist Party interfering with various democracies around the world, including Australia. Is there a case for more assertive foreign policy approach to responding to that?

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, I think there has to be. It was reported that the administration in the United States took some measures against internet research agency in Russia, probably led by US cyber command to kind of disable for a period of time in response to some of the political interference. And I think that’s been, General Nakasone who runs cyber command, and I know security agencies talked about this as a policy of “persistent engagement.” And I think that is the kind of way that we’re going to need to engage some of these operations.

Tarun Chhabra:

I would be surprised if we didn’t see similar reactions to some of the Chinese disinformation around COVID, and then potentially some of the protests even, as well. Because I think for those who’ve been seeing Chinese information operations around Taiwan, around countries in their region, I think many of us have believed it was only a matter of time before that started coming to the United States as well, and hitting other allies. I think it’s happening now, and I don’t think it’s going to be going anywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we could talk about this for a very long time, but I know that your time is short, so I’ll, as ever, make my very clunky segue to the final question. The much beloved, stupid question that I ask all my guests about barbecues and who you’d have and why. It’s always interesting to me, so I ask it. But, you know, Australia and the United States clearly have a very long and deep relationship, and I was wondering who the three Australians, alive or dead, would be at a barbecue at Tarun’s. They all can’t be Crocodile Dundee, mate, I’m sure you’ll be madly googling.

Tarun Chhabra:

All right, let me see. Well, you know, when I was just out of college I had a chance to work at the UN on a commission, I was a junior staffer for this commission of very important people. And one of them was Gareth Evans, actually, so I’m very fond of Gareth, so I’d put…

Misha Zelinsky:

Our former Australian foreign minister in the Labor government.

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly, exactly. So Gareth is always a great barbecue dinner companion, so I’d put Gareth there. Thinking a lot about the protest movement going on right now, I recall I had a grade school teacher who taught us about civil rights movements around the world, and so I’ve always admired your civil rights leader, Faith Bandler, who was involved in your 1967 referendum, and a key player there. And I’m a big fan of Australian wine, so maybe we could add Max Schubert, your master wine maker.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s how you know who’s bringing the booze, I suppose, to the barbecue. All right, well, mate, thank you so much for your time, Tarun, and look forward to catching up with you in the future, mate.

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks, Misha, for having me. It was great to chat with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers.

 

Richard McGregor: The war within the war on COVID-19

Richard McGregor is an internationally recognized expert on the Chinese political system and a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

McGregor’s book, The Party, on the inner-workings of the Chinese Communist Party is considered the pre-eminent text for understanding the CCP and was called a “masterpiece” by The Economist and a must read” by the Washington Post.

A former Bureau Chief for the Financial Times in Beijing and Washington D.C., Richard has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. He is also a regular commentator on the ABC, CNBC and Bloomberg TV.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about the COVID-19 crisis and what this means for the world, including the escalated US-China rivalry and who is winning, how Xi Jinping is using the crisis to his advantage, how fake news is making the problems worse in the west, how democracies are struggling under the weight of the challenge and losing soft power, the pivotal battle underway in the pacific and why its critical we engage the Chinese diaspora in western values.

Episode Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Welcome to Diplomates I’m your host, Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Richard McGregor. Richard, are you there?

Richard McGregor:

I’m here. Thanks for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Thanks for joining us. Of course, we’re doing this live from both of our socially distant bunkers, vice the beauty of Skype, which everyone’s now very acquainted with over the last couple of weeks working from home, those who are. But thanks for joining us and obviously your expertise is in foreign policy and in particular the Chinese communist party. But given we had been talking about all things COVID, I thought an interesting place to start. You’re an expert in the CCP and you’ve written a book about the workings of the party. What does the handling of the virus tell us about the way the party does or does not function? And how did that impact on the, I suppose early stages of the outbreak in the Wuhan province.

Richard McGregor:

Well let me start at what might sound like an old place. But there’s a phrase in the US politics, it’s called the permanent campaign and that comes from the late 60s when politics basically got out of the old ways and old boroughs and things like that. Got into the hands of professionals and politics became a permanent occupation. Parties were running for election permanently in many respects. And I think that’s a good way to explain how the communist party in China works. And it’s one reason by the way, that why Western countries struggle to keep up with it. They are like a political organization running for election 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. And so they’ve got remarkable skills and faults. We’ll come back to that as a result of that. So look at the COVID crisis is a bit of a classic case.

Richard McGregor:

The start of this, China mishandled it, however you want to put it. They lied. It was the virus in its early stage was covered up. This is not just Western propaganda, it’s all on the record in China. The outbreak and the spread of the virus would not have been nearly as bad in China and then to the rest of the world if it hadn’t been covered up in Wuhan initially. But look what happened, once they acknowledged it. They basically locked down first a city of 11 million people, Wuhan. Then they locked down a province of about 50 million people in Hubei. And after that they locked down the country.

Richard McGregor:

One of the funny things about this is, we’ve all come to know a lot of epidemiologists on TV and radio and the like, and they’ve become household names and none of them said, quarantining the source of the disease is basically a textbook way to handle it. But I guess, the textbook didn’t quite envisage quarantining about 760 million people, which was probably had the idea of a medieval village in France, but the CCP had the capacity to do it.

 

 

Richard McGregor:

Because they don’t just have a strong central government when they get their act together, they were able to exercise their power right down to every neighborhood committee and street and keep people indoors. So that’s state in genuine power state capacity. The second point on this is look how quickly they’re able to turn on a dime. We can come back to the issue about whether the latest Chinese figures are right on that, but once the Chinese got the spread of the disease under control and there were much fewer new infections.

Richard McGregor:

It is just amazing to me how quickly they turned on a dime and then their focus was outward propaganda. In other words, we want to tell the world not how we covered up the virus, but how we beat the virus. And we are now in this process now where China is running an incredible global campaign as a good global citizen to underpin public health. And you can only do that if you’ve got a political organization which is both top-heavy but flexible and fleet of foot, not bound by any law, can turn on a dime and that’s what we’re witnessing at the moment. So that’s what I mean by the sort of the permanent campaign.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Now that’s actually a perfect way to turn to I suppose the war within the war. I mean, we’ve got the war against the virus itself, but there’s this I suppose the contest that’s underway and it’s perhaps another front for a contest that’s already been underway between the United States and China. Do you think that this is going to be a decisive battle between the U.S and China or is this just a skirmish of a broader play? Because there’s a real big focus now in the United States about blaming China, then China is now of course putting out misinformation suggesting that the disease came from the United States military. How do you see that war within the war at the moment between two superpowers?

Richard McGregor:

Now I think just about everything is a contest between the U.S and China in many respects. There’s very little cooperation at all and it’s not just a contest between two countries, it’s a contest between two systems. Because China benchmarks itself against democracies, for its own citizens it demonizes democratic system. What’s the most important democratic system in the world? And that’s the United States which sadly at the moment it’s doing very poorly in handling this crisis. Now, as you and I know there’s many different democracies and there’s many different types of democracies.

Richard McGregor:

And many democracies in the world Taiwan, South Korea, Japan to some extent, Singapore, which we might call a guided democracy. Maybe Australia we’ll see how we go there have handled this crisis in a very different fashion and relatively speaking, touch wood successfully. Not the U.S though, so China is focused on the U.S. Both sides have stepped back a little from the rhetorical war, but it was only about two weeks ago that an official Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as you alluded to, started tweeting out that this virus had probably not originated in China but it had probably been bought to China by a U.S military serviceman, a woman actually.

Richard McGregor:

There’s no basis to this, it’s the product of fettered conspiracy sites, one in Canada, some in America, all around the world. And this was quite a remarkable thing for the foreign ministry to do. Now I think there’s been a split in China within the foreign ministry over these tactics. But nonetheless, the fact that an official foreign ministry spokesman was authorized to do this tells you that the system in China is hardening up against the U.S. They wouldn’t have done this 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have done it five years ago but they are feeling pretty confident now and pretty involved in and pretty assertive and aggressive all under Xi Jinping. And so they are willing to take on the U.S in any form possible and that includes spreading fake news almost from the very top of the system.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I’m curious just to dig into that about this total campaign or this information war by China and the Chinese Communist Party. I mean, one of the things that I think the difficulty there is that the system tended to reward, or at least at the beginning was that misinformation or managing perceptions rather than truth. Where people in Wuhan doctors were arrested and journalists were arrested for reporting on it almost at the beginning for political reasons. I mean, is it possible do you think that China is going to be able to position itself as a savior globally, and can we really believe the narratives of the infection rates, the mortality rates out of China? And is that something that’s going to be effective for them?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah. Well the jury is still out on that. I would say not completely effective, but there might… I’d say two things. It might be more effective than we think or would like, and remember all this propaganda is also internally directed to the Chinese people themselves. The Chinese people have just gone through an absolutely brutal experience with a really tough quarantine. You think of yourself how much you might be sort of champing at the bit at the moment, after a few weeks-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I’m climbing the walls here mate.

Richard McGregor:

Well, right. You think of Wuhan you weren’t allowed out at all, if you were you were severely punished, people were dying all around you and like. So there’s been a lot of civil unrest in China since then at various different places, you can see it on the internet. They were for example, outside the provincial headquarters, sorry the city headquarters of party organization this week. There was a massive protest calling for rent relief, something that people in Australia are going to be sort of angst that they will be very familiar with very soon. So going back to the start as you alluded in Wuhan and the origins of this and whether that really undermines China’s claims to soft power.

Richard McGregor:

I mean, I think it does overseas but let’s see how it plays out. For example I think one of the major battlegrounds right now is Europe. We’ve got terrible situations in Spain and Italy to France and also the UK, and China has been making extremely high profile air lifts of masks and protective equipment and gowns and that sort of thing for the use of medical professionals. And this has really caused quite a stir. If you look at Macron, president Macron from France recently he’s had to make very statement saying well, “Look, we’ve given as much to other countries in Europe as China has, stop this propaganda.”

Richard McGregor:

So it might work in a superficial way at the start, but I think it really alerts the leaders of other country like Macron who’s been thinking deeply about China. That they’ve really got to wake up to themselves and just see the attention and focus of what China is doing and they have to respond. We’ve been through this same debate in Australia, so the coronavirus has been important in that respect. I should say one other thing though, that on the figures you mentioned. Look, the quarantine was brutal in China but there’s no doubt it worked to a degree. Now, is it true, as they were saying a week or two ago that there were no new cases in China? Obviously that’s not true.

Richard McGregor:

Is it true that the death rate in Wuhan was as low as they suggested a few thousand? I think there’s no doubt that under counts the death rate. But having said that, I treat the Chinese figures to a degree like I treat Chinese GDP figures. They’re not right to the decimal point, but they’re broadly right as to the trends because I think with the virus, it’s something you simply you can’t sort of cover up for good. And another way of judging it is an old thing with China, don’t watch what they say, watch what they do. Now Xi Jinping has been out and about, he was into Zhejiang yesterday the province near Shanghai. He’s been to Wuhan. There’s no way they would put Xi Jinping out in public unless they were pretty confident that they’d made massive progress in containing the virus.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. So just turning to Xi Jinping, your essay recently the backlash essay, you’ve written that Xi was under pressure internally and that perhaps China isn’t an unstoppable monolith that we sometimes perceive it to be. What to your knowledge has been the response in China by Chinese people? Are they buying the narrative from the government that things have been well handled by the Chinese Communist Party? And is this information war, you mentioned some of it’s being projected externally for soft power reasons to manipulate the global narrative, but a lot of it is for the domestic audience. How much is that of confidence as how much is that of fear in your mind?

Richard McGregor:

Yes, that’s a very good question and hard to be definitive in answering it. Before the coronavirus I had a very simple crude rule of thumb and emphasis on crude, and that was that the people, the citizenry liked Xi Jinping, the elite disliked him. Now why would I say that? Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is highly popular amongst people because that’s something that people have been angry about in China for a long time. Saying public officials get rich at their expense so bringing these people down works for him. The elite it’s a bit different. There’s a lot of criticism of him for his management of the economy, favoring the state over the private sector.

Richard McGregor:

You obviously upset a lot of powerful people with an anti-corruption campaign. Most of all I think the elite technocrats are absolutely furious with him about making himself president or leader in perpetuity, that was really the turning point. I don’t see at the moment, there’s no way at the moment Xi Jinping has his hands firmly on the levers of a power in every sector, nobody’s going to knock him off or anything that. It’s very hard to mobilize even elite opinion against him because you can’t. If you form a group to criticize him or a ginger group against him you’ll be shut down, you might be arrested and the like. Look at what’s happened in recent weeks after Wuhan.

Richard McGregor:

In the initial stages of the virus in Wuhan, we had an extraordinary display of public opinion on the internet criticizing the government, mourning the death of doctors who tried to speak out and like. Citizen journalists going around giving us fresh reports daily about what was happening on the ground. Well, that’s all stopped. The system’s got his act together, those citizen journalists are basically in detention. Other people who criticize Xi recently, most famously a big time Beijing property developer who was always a bit of a rat bag commentator but he was well-connected. He’s been detained.

Richard McGregor:

So anytime there’s any outbreak of criticism against Xi before it can take grip, before it can gain an audience at the top, before it can embolden people, he shuts it down and that’s what’s happening now. Whether the impact on Chinese people, people in China haven’t gone through a deep recession before, they probably about to go through one now. So we’ll see. The system will be tested but the propaganda system will also be working over time to convince people that they did the right thing with a lockdown. China did better than other countries, particularly America and they should stick with Xi and they should stick with the CCP.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah, that’s interesting. You sort of touched earlier on the contest between systems and that’s very much evident now. I mean, it was emerging before, but we’ve now got a full blown struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And we talked about the limitations around why the authoritarian regime might’ve led to a cover up at the beginning, but the ability to turn on a dime as you said. I mean, what is the response to the crisis tell us about democracies struggling to get the balance right between I suppose, the repression of people and rights of individuals and the suppression of the illness?

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And the other thing I think is perhaps troubling people that are in favor of democracies as I am. When you look at the United States response to some other democracies in Europe, basic competence appears to be in question here. I mean when you look at the United States, a lot of their soft power came from being the country that put the man on the moon and being the global leader. They’re certainly not stepping up in a global leadership capacity, but also in basic competence capacity there’s certain question marks there.

Richard McGregor:

Well that’s right. When you let the state wither, and when you attack the state for decades, and when you load them up with all sorts of things that the bureaucracy in America is loaded up with by Congress, you undermine the effectiveness of the state. Whatever you say about China, they’ve got enormous state capacity. They can mobilize resources, they can mobilize people, they have a extraordinary ability, logistical ability to get suppliers here or there. That sort of thing has been corroded over many years in the U.S. We could go on about that about that tribal political culture. You’ve seen a bit of sclerotic democracies in Europe as well struggling at the same time.

Richard McGregor:

And this is all grist for the Chinese mill. I mean, the context for the Chinese is, the turning point of the Chinese confidence in their system compared to America was obviously first of all in the global financial crisis in 2008. The Americans had been coming over and lecturing the Chinese about how to run a modern financial system and the like. Then of course, we had the GFC and the Chinese saw okay, thanks America no more lectures from you on how to run banks and the like, we’ll do that ourselves. After that, that was the start of Chinese hubris after that under Obama and American made a bit of a comeback. You can criticize Obama, but the economy did start to recover and that Chinese notice that.

Richard McGregor:

I think this second point of Chinese hubris was the election of Donald Trump. The Chinese have always said we’re meritocracy and look you’ve just selected as your new president, a real estate celebrity developer from New York. So thanks very much, we’ll stick with our meritocracy. Now, I think that came off again because Trump in his initial stages really destabilize the Chinese, they didn’t know how to handle him. I think they got a better grip on him as of about last year. But now I think we’re getting maybe to a third point of Chinese hubris. In other words, if America really suffers and it looks they’re going to from this virus, both economically, societally and the like.

Richard McGregor:

All the holes in the health system, all the impact on poor people and the like in U.S. The way that the rich will be able to protect themselves in the U.S and poor people won’t. Well, that’s going to be another high point of Chinese hubris and this is at a time when compared to 2008, they’re a really powerful country. Their economy 2/3 the size America’s, their military I think they’ve got a bigger Navy these days than America’s, untested obviously. So we’re getting to a point where China will feel even more assertive and they’ll feel their able to be more assertive because the U.S more so than in 2008, will be really turning inward angrily. We hope not, but that’s the direction it’s heading in.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And so just turning to you mentioned I suppose, China in the context of its military and forward projecting foreign policy. How worried should we be about the Pacific during the pandemic? I mean every country at the moment is grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve gone through a big focus where we’ve done the Pacific step up because we took the view, we’d taken our eyes off the prize with our Pacific partners. And China had been doing a lot of soft power, a lot of debt diplomacy through it’s a belt and road initiative there. I mean, how worried are we generally right now about the Pacific? And should we be more worried about China’s activities there during the COVID-19 situation?

Richard McGregor:

Well, I think we’re worried about it. To be fair we are focused on it, whether we’ve got the capacity to remain competitive it remains to be seen. But let me give you one story. About three weeks ago I was actually in Papua New Guinea giving talks on China and the like and this was just when the situation was starting to turn in China, in other words they thought they were getting on top of the virus. And at that point the Chinese convened a teleconference with the entire cabinet of P and G and I think the Solomon Islands, to give them a talk about how to handle COVID-19. And I thought that was just remarkable. They were so fast, they’d barely drawn breath from battling back the virus and they’re on the front foot in this propaganda campaign.

Richard McGregor:

And it was obviously a global campaign because the Pacific Islands are important, but they’re not the biggest front for China’s global push. And there they were convening the entire cabinet and the Solomon Islands to in an exercise of what we might call soft power, teaching them about the virus. Now since then, for example Solomon Islands tests for the virus where were having to be sent to Australia. The Chinese said, “Oh, we’ll come and do them for you.” As a response to that, Australia has actually sent the Solomons their own test kits so that they can be done there. So, yeah there’s definitely a contest going on. In Port Moresby you can see Chinese construction sites everywhere, that they look just the construction sites I used to see Beijing.

Richard McGregor:

For good reason they’ve got the exact same signs outside them, the same companies, the same sort of safety signs in Chinese and bad English. And of course, Chinese workers were drawn and imported at the expense of the locals. I asked many of the Papua New Guinea friends up there why do you allow this? What about you’ve got massive underemployment in your country. And they said that well, the Chinese just insisted on it. So yeah, it’s a big contest in the Pacific and fundamental one for Australia. I think the federal government has done the right thing to focus on it. The problem with Australia I think often is we have excellent well-meaning policies, but then the execution falls away. And China isn’t going away from the Pacific so we’ve got to stick with it for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

No I think it’s absolutely critical, it’s one area hopefully that there’s bipartisan support. I mean the Pacific essentially is Australia’s geopolitical neighborhood so it’s something that we need to keep an eye on. I’m curious about your take on criticism of the CCP regime by those in the West. Clearly at the moment Donald Trump for the reasons we’ve already discussed, that Macron story but also he’s domestic political reasons he’s been calling COVID-19 coronavirus and calling it the China virus. I mean, where do you see the differences between criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, China as a nation state? What’s fair and what delves into racism? Because often you have a situation where the regime, the CCP very quickly come out and say any criticism amounts to racism. Which is clearly untrue, but where is the line there and how do we manage that when we’re looking at both our domestic politics but also geopolitically in this contest between democracy and autocracy?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, it’s a bloody hard question. In Australia, we have a very sort of racist history in Australia at the gimps, that’s obvious to anybody. We had an anti color bar in immigration till about ’65 or ’73 or however you decide to define it. Since then I think we’ve opened up remarkably and I’m sort of a glass half full on all this, but we’re being tested right now. I guess there’s two things to mention here. It’s very painful to see all the headlines in papers in Australia now about Chinese profiteers on masks and this, that and the other as though the only carpetbaggers in the world are Chinese and not of any other race or color.

Richard McGregor:

I have some sympathy for the Chinese companies in Australia, which sort of bought up all the masks and the PPE equipment in January and sent to China. Well, there was an emergency then, they’re now bringing it back here. I don’t know whether they’re price gouging or not, and if they are price gouging then something should be done about them. But it’s just seems a really easy, cheap, free kick in the tabloid and newspapers and maybe sort of you know prodded on from his sick bed by Peter Dutton. And I think we have to be really careful about that because we end up with people of Asian descent no matter where they’re from, being screamed at on the streets and the like and that’s bad all round.

Richard McGregor:

On the issue of the so called China virus, Chinese virus or Wuhan virus now look, I would never call it that and I don’t know whether it’s racist on not I mean. But I’m a little bit reluctant to allow the Chinese to play the victim card on this account. We have Japanese encephalitis, that’s what it’s called in Chinese newspapers. We had the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, We had Spanish flu, which by the way started in Kansas in America, not in Spain.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It is that right? That’s interesting.

Richard McGregor:

Yes it is. It was only sort of came up and was reported in Spain. But the WHO I think because the Japanese complained about Japanese encephalitis I think tried to encourage people as of a few years ago, not to attach geographical names to diseases and fair enough. I think. But it is funny or interesting I should say, not funny. If you look at Chinese papers from say five weeks ago The Global Times, some of the headlines there talked about the Wuhan virus. And guess what? They’ve gone back in recent weeks and changed the headlines on the online stories and they are no longer calling it the Wuhan virus.

Richard McGregor:

But personally, we should speak truthfully don’t shy away from the fact about where this started and the problems of the initial cover up. That’s all fair game, but trying to use this as some sort of political cajole as U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did recently at the G7 meeting. He wouldn’t agree to a communique until the word Wuhan virus was in there and of course there wasn’t a communique as a result. I think that’s pointless and not the main game and unnecessarily stigmatizing.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I mean, one of the things I think we’re grappling with here. I mean, traditionally people sending I suppose goods back to their homeland probably not an uncommon event in Australia’s history. The difference I suppose here is we’ve never had a situation where we’ve had an authoritarian regime which seeks to control its diaspora in other nations. So I mean, I’ll be curious to get your take on how worried we should be by CCP interference in Australia’s institutions, the United Works Front Department which is the propaganda wing of the CCP. How worried should we be about that when you’ve got former ASIO head saying look, “Essentially we’re being overwhelmed.” I mean, how concerned are you about things that? And then how do they play into things where you have seemingly China on a global scale, not just from Australia using its it’s diaspora networks to essentially source goods from beneath the nation states.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well once again, it’s a really difficult issue. On the issue of diaspora network sourcing goods, sometimes that can be great for trade. I mean, people have complained, I’m sitting in Sydney as I talk to you and Michelle and I listened to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley in the morning, the shock jocks, and they’re often complaining about the so called diagos the people who grab milk powder off the shelves here and send it back to China knowing that they’re getting a higher price. Now that’s no good price gouging but the other way of looking at it, these people have established what could be a lucrative trade for Australia.

Richard McGregor:

So instead of sort of demonizing why don’t we take them over? Why don’t we use it? Why don’t we make ourselves a base for which the Chinese would be dependent on to buy these things? So I kind of think in some respects we approach it the wrong way. Now onto your bigger point of how we handle the diaspora issue, it’s a really difficult issue. A lot of Chinese in Australia feel singled out over a lot of heavy press reporting in recent years about overseas Chinese and infiltrating the Labor Party and the Liberal Party of course.

Richard McGregor:

And not being loyal to Australia and that’s extremely hurtful thing to be told. But the truth is the problem starts in many respects in China, in the CCP with Xi Jinping because they’re very experienced at this kind of work. Saying that to these people your Chinese, your first loyalty should be to China. So how do we respond to that? It muddies the waters, it makes it very difficult for Australian institutions to manage when the CCP is quite openly targeting these people to support China. So it’s a day to day proposition and a very hard one to get right on every single day.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

The other difficulty of course is essentially the CCP has been very good at infiltrating all the I suppose the ethnic groups, the Chinese ethnic groups and taking control of those institutions. I mean, how do we push back on the independence of those institutions including things the Chinese language media in Australia, which a lot of it is a mouthpiece straight from the party? How do you see that challenge?

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well the Chinese community in Australia is actually extremely diverse, some have been here for decades. The 70s we got a lot of people after the Beijing crackdown in 1989, we’ve had waves in more recent years. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, a lot of the Chinese middle class as well, very varied. A lot of the evangelical Christians and the like. So it’s a diverse community but as you say, the community groups which represent them and the newspapers which speak to them are not diverse. They are almost entirely pro PRC and the newspapers in fact basically censor themselves along PRC lines. Now, I want to make an important distinction here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of China’s success since 1980, that’s quite natural.

Richard McGregor:

That doesn’t make you a CCP student and we’ve got to be careful about that. But nonetheless as you say, the control of the key groups or the mollifying of them if you like, is really striking. So we’ve got to be very aware of that. Where it’s a problem, we’ve got to be very open about it, sunlight helps. Everybody needs to understand how the Chinese political system works so we can get a bit of, a hate to say this, nuance into the debate. We can make judgments about whether something is in the interests of Australia and whether it’s not. But don’t target the entire community with a single brush because the community is diverse and we would like them to stay diverse in both their political opinion, especially I would say in the political outlook.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I think that’s a really critical point. I mean, I think one of the mistakes we make in the debate is treating “the Chinese community” as a monolithic group. So I think it is very important, but it is also kind of that challenge between that pointy end that seems to be controlled by the CCP and how we navigate around that. The other question I want to ask you and sort of going back to some of the things we were talking about earlier relating to a repression and use of information in this total campaigning both globally and domestically. How do you see technology now seemingly… Once upon a time we thought technology and information was going to favor democracies. Now it seems democracy is being overrun now by misinformation, challenging of sources, impossibility of working out what truth is. The Chinese are very good at it, the Russians are excellent at it. I mean, how do you see that challenge and how do democracies push back against that?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, very good question because you can make sure that the Chinese are pushing on all fronts. They’ve got their domestic internet locked down. They want to at the same time I would say transform or reform in their words, their global internet governance. They’ve got this thing called cyber sovereignty. In other words, they resent the fact that the internet having been set up mainly by the U.S and Western countries has been sort of governed by NGOs set up by those countries at the time. China wants to change that.

Richard McGregor:

Twitter is a great example of how China has it both ways. Inside China Twitter is banned outside China the Chinese government through its various ambassadors use Twitter remorselessly to promote their cause and spread all sorts of information. That same kind of access to Chinese citizens on Chinese social media, on Weibo and things that, the Twitter equivalent is not available. One of the big things you touched on there of course is Western countries being awash with misinformation and not much of it comes from China and Russia.

Richard McGregor:

And I think one of the big tasks is particularly to if not reform ourselves, is to get better ourselves. To make sure our institutions are protected and resilient, that we have a free and open media that is both sort of independent and healthy. In other words, that should, not entirely help crowd out as much misinformation as possible. And if we’re successful our rivals will be less successful. That applies particularly to America, but it certainly applies to Australia as well.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. I wanted to get your take on… I mean, China and the CCP will have to focus a lot of the debate when in discussions about the economic benefits to relationship with the Chinese state. I mean, how critical do you think the issue of human rights is? It’s dropped away now with COVID-19, but the way your issue was certainly getting a lot more attention probably in 2019. How do you see the importance of continuing to challenge China’s human rights record? A lot of countries shy away from it. Do you think it’s important that we continue to step up in that space?

Richard McGregor:

Well, it’s certainly important, but I do think Australia’s ability to lead on this is limited. Unless other bigger Western countries are taking the lead, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to do that. The Chinese don’t even bother to have the bilateral dialogue with Australia on human rights, which we conducted for a number of years. They steadily downgraded the level of representatives they would send to it, now they don’t bother with it at all. In the case of the Uyghurs for example, yes we should continue to pursue that, particularly in where Australian citizen involve, we should continue to publicize it.

Richard McGregor:

The media should continue to write about it. Think tanks like mine should continue to have events about it as well. But we don’t want to have too much expectations about what we will be able to achieve other than keeping it on the agenda. Now I may sound a little bit not as tough as some people would like, but this is not a new issue. China when it was much weaker and poorer didn’t respond very much to what pressure we were able to mount then and what pressure of course the U.S was able to amount then. And I’d say that’s even more the case now.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

But certainly, I mean and I think it’s really troubling that use of the technology in repression of Uyghurs in particular with at least one million people locked away it’s something I think we need to keep striving to draw attention to. But you’re right, it is extraordinarily difficult certainly from Australia on its own, but even from a global coordinated effort. Lastly, I just want to ask your opinion. I mean, we’ve got this big contest, you’re an expert in the CCP and its workings and it appears like this perhaps and it’s of their narrative to project themselves as a irrepressible monolith. But are you confident or an optimist when it comes to democracy prevailing in this contest or are you bearish at the moment in terms of us getting our act together and prevailing?

Richard McGregor:

I’m a little bearish. I do think China’s going to have many more problems than people appreciate or not every… For example, demographics. They’re going to get old very rapidly before they’re rich in a per capita basis. They’ve got enormous environmental problems particularly with water. The economy will not grow even at 6% a year for too much longer. So they’ve got enormous problems, but they’ve had enormous problems for years and they keep exceeding expectations in their ability to manage them. So in that respect, I don’t underestimate them and I think we shouldn’t underestimate them. So then it comes back to your question, can we get our act together?

Richard McGregor:

Well, if the U.S doesn’t get its act together, then it’s a whole new world. We’re already sort of part way down there in Australia by trying to establish much more regional multi-lateral partnerships, tighter relationships with Europe perhaps as well. That is going to be a whole new ball game once the Ex-Americana doesn’t so much fall off the cliff, but no longer becomes the dominant force in the region. This is a once in a two or three generational change in our foreign policy situation, and this it’s going to be a tough struggle I think some decades to come. So I just hope Australians can step up to the mark really and be prepared for it.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Do you see the election in 2020 in the U.S in November as critical to that then? Given that second Trump term could really lock in a lot of those trends you just discussed?

Richard McGregor:

I totally do. I’m sorry to say, but if Trump is re-elected that is a disaster. I’m not saying everything he’s done is bad, but he’s just corrosive for U.S institutions, the importance of at least some level of truth and transparency in a democracy, in stability, in using expert advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. I’ve always thought he’s going to lose actually because I think there’s so many Americans, you can look at all sorts of elections which have taken place, the democratic primaries, the midterms two years ago. So many people want to vote him out, it’s just a matter of the candidate who the Democrats field on the day, most likely Joe Biden we’ll see can get those people out. But I think you won’t undo the damage that Trump has done quickly and I should also say of course, Trump might be a symptom as much as a cause. He didn’t land in American politics a spaceship, the circumstances, the soil had been tilled for many years making way for him. But if he gets another four years then I think that will be devastating for global democracies.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, Richard on that very happy note, I’m going to switch to our final question that I ask every diplomates and I was trying to find something positive to switch us to, but you’ve defeated me. But I’ll get across there in an enormously clunky Segway, but three people coming to a barbecue or foreign guests coming to a barbecue at Richard’s place in Sydney. You’ve noted that you’re in Sydney, so who would they be and why mate?

Richard McGregor:

Okay. I guess we want a Chinese guest. Let’s get Deng Xiaoping along with an interpreter because of his sheer sense, the arc of history of his life is quite remarkable. I think he would be terrific. I would like, and this is by the way I’m not saying all these three people would get along. I’m just telling the people I think-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It might make it more interesting-

Richard McGregor:

More interesting. I think this is a great man of the old elite foreign policy, but a great thinker was a Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson who was pivotal in setting up the post war world. And a third person who I think might be a good peace maker amongst those or somebody who could step in when the conversation froze would be the late Kofi Annan from the UN, a great African diplomat. Many people would criticize him over many different things. He was in a job where he was never going to please everybody, but I think he also had a fantastic career as well. So he’d be my third guest.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, they’ll be fascinating conversations around that table. So we’d love to get a podcast of that one mate so make sure you record it if you do happen to get everyone on.

Richard McGregor:

That’s true, yeah. I’m sorry to sound so gloomy, I’m really sounding gloomy these days and maybe it’s been locked up inside and I can’t exercise enough.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

What is that? In fairness Richard, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so you are entitled to be a little gloomy right now in mate.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well, next time I’ll be happier, I hope.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Indeed. But look, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve given a lot to think about and I really appreciate the chat. So thank you so much.

Richard McGregor:

Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.

 

 

 

Dr Michael Fullilove: Why middle powers matter – managing China in an era of Trump.

Dr Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. An adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Rhodes Scholar and renowned foreign affairs expert, Dr Fullilove is a widely published author and a much sought after global commentator.

Misha Zelinsky up with Michael for a chinwag about how Australia should interact with a rising China under Xi Jinping,  the madness of US politics and what a second Trump term might look like, how open systems of government still have the upper hand, why the world might be one elected leader away from a new sense of calm, and why – despite everything – Michael remains an unabashed optimist about the future. Be sure to listen to Michael’s special shout out to the ‘Deep State’!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Michael, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you for joining us.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank you for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, pleasure’s all mine and listeners. Now, so many places to start obviously, but you’re a noted internationalist and probably a tough time to be an internationalist with global politics being as they are. There’s so many reasons to be pessimistic.

Michael Fullilove:          Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talk a lot about being pessimistic, would you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist about the future of our foreign policy and the world more generally?

Michael Fullilove:          I’m an optimist by instinct and by nature. I think there’s lots of reasons to feel down at the moment because you’ve got a leader of the free world who doesn’t believe in the free world and doesn’t want to leave it. You have a West that is stepping back from its traditional role, you have non democracies up on their hind legs, you have an international organization in the UN that’s sort of unable to solve the global problems that we it tasked with solving.

Michael Fullilove:          So there are a confluence of factors that make one pessimistic, but as against that, I never underestimate the genius of humanity to get its act together and solve problems when they come into focus. And also never underestimate the role of individuals because I think structures matter, structural reason, the world changes for vast impersonal reasons, but also because of individual decisions that individual leaders make.

Michael Fullilove:          If Donald Trump, for example, I’m sure we’ll come to him later, if Donald Trump is not reelected president, if a Democrat of any stripe really is a reelected president, I think that would be a burst of adrenaline for the international system. I think a lot of the world would say, “Wow, maybe we’re getting back on track.” Maybe they’d be more impetus to solve some of these bigger global problems.

Michael Fullilove:          Similarly, if we go to the UK, I don’t think Brexit would have happened. You can’t explain Brexit without the role of one or two individuals, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. If Hillary Clinton had won the election four years ago rather than Donald Trump, then we’d probably be living in a different world. So we are at… the sort of pendulum is swinging in a bad way at the moment, but I always believe the pendulum will come back.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think though, this period that we’ve had, this 30 year period that people seem to want to hark back to around the liberal world order, is that an anomaly though? Are we just going back to the way things always have been, which is big power politics and big strategy or strategic role rather than the world harmoniously operated by one hyper power?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that it’s all to be played for. We don’t know the answer to that. It’s obvious that power politics is rushing back, and if America is considering America first, then it’s natural for other countries to do that. But I do think that the benefits that were provided by the liberal international order that existed came into being sort of after the second World War were incredible in terms of economic growth.

Michael Fullilove:          There were so many wonderful things that were achieved in that period that I’m not ready to write it off and say, “No, we’re out of the garden, went back in the jungle.” I think we can get back to the garden, it’s all to be played for. but there are a few big decision points coming up and one of them is the U.S. election.

Michael Fullilove:          I think if Donald Trump is reelected, I think it becomes much harder to maintain that garden. Suddenly the world will adapt to that, they will start to say the United States, which is in the cockpit of the world order has really changed, it’s a different country from what we thought it was, and that will have all sorts of flow on effects.

Misha Zelinsky:             Let’s talk about us politics. Politics has gone a little bit mad in United States. You heard the Iowa result, one result, we’ve had the president recently acquitted by the Senate, Republican Senate of largely partisan basis apart from Mitt Romney. What do we make of the madness of U.S. politics leaving aside global politics? And how does that flow into… Because you’ve painted the positive picture, but let’s talk about the negative picture?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s very hard for an America far like me. Bear in mind that I spent a lot of my life reading about the U.S. politics and the U.S. role in the world. I wrote a book on Franklin Roosevelt who helped to establish the international order that we see crumbling in front of us.

Michael Fullilove:          So for me to go through even just the last week or two, the incredible incompetence of the Democrats in Iowa, the sort of partisan acquittal of the president really after really atrocious behavior in relation to Ukraine. And then the state of the union, the garishness, the grotesque circus-

Misha Zelinsky:             Is almost like an Oprah Winfrey TV special.

Michael Fullilove:          And I don’t acquit the other side either. I thought-

Misha Zelinsky:             Tearing up the space?

Michael Fullilove:          … Pelosi’s bit tearing up the space. The whole thing, it feels like the country’s coming apart at the seams, doesn’t it? So look, voters of New Hampshire, we look to you to restore some order.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, you’re an avowed Americanist, everyone knows that. How does the world operate without its traditional leader? Or can it operate without its traditional leader?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s hard and it’s a challenge that we have been trying to come to terms with really since the second half of the Bush administration, I would say. I think in the first administration of George W. Bush, the first term they overreached, and then in the second term they started to step back.

Michael Fullilove:          Obama for all his qualities had a much more limited view of America’s role in the world and he hoped that as America did less, other countries would do more. You remember that was the sort of the hope that in the middle East that the Europeans and someone would step up as Americans tried to lead from behind.

Michael Fullilove:          And what actually happened was that as America did less, everyone else did less too. So this is the problem, it’s hard… I think middle powers like Australia should do more with other middle powers.

Michael Fullilove:          I think we should do our best to hold the system together until the fever passes in Washington, but it’s hard because middle powers don’t make the international system great powers, super powers make the international system. The international system tends to acquire some of the features of the most important powers.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t know the answer to your question, Misha, we’re living through an experiment. I think all of us have to do what we can to hold the system together and hope that America returns to some form of normalcy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you’re absolutely right, history is governed by events that are these pivot points, Brexit, which we’ll come to, the 2016 election is perhaps one of the most classic in contemporary politics, but let’s fast… And you’ve painted a rosy picture potentially of what a democratic presidency could do for America, but the global mood so to speak, but let’s fast forward to a second term of a Trump presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:             Strikes me that much of Trump’s worst do you think have been largely contained by the institutions? May be almost struggling to the point now he’s busting out against them. Can the institutions survive a second term of Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s the big question and having just come back from the United States, it feels like we’re probably more likely than not to have to grapple with that question. Look, the glass half-full view says that as you say, “The institutions have more or less held together the free press, the U.S. civil service to some extent, the deep state [crosstalk 00:08:24]”-

Misha Zelinsky:             The national security systems.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank God for the deep state.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m going to end up with a lot of [ATMS] from some interesting people on Twitter, but anyway.

Michael Fullilove:          Bring it on, bring it on. So that’s the positive view, and of course… I’ve said to my American friends, “Don’t forget halfway through a second term, a president tends to enter the lame duck phase and event start to move on, and often the most important changes that a president brings in happen in the first term.” So that’s the glass half-full.

Michael Fullilove:          The glass half empty version says that we will have Trump unleashed, the deep state will wither away. It will be impossible to… We’ve already seen him come back at issues again and again like free trade, and alliances, and other things and this time he will overcome the resistance. I suppose we also have to think, even if he limits himself to two terms and you’d have to say based on everything you see about him, I don’t know why he would think the constitutional limitation should apply to him.

Michael Fullilove:          What happens after Trump? Does the Make America Great Again movement survive Trump? Does someone else called Trump run for president in four years time? What does that do to the democratic party? This is the fear that if you have two terms of Mr. Trump, does that really knock the country off course? And does it start to spiral away like Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter? No.

Misha Zelinsky:             He goes from being an anomaly to systemic-

Michael Fullilove:          Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             … force.

Michael Fullilove:          The new normal.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right. And so that I think is an interesting question to pose. We could probably talk about Trump all day and we will return to U.S. politics in a global context. Jumping across the pond as a word to the UK, Brexit. It’s now done. One of the things that people feared was that the UK leaving Europe would be the first of a domino effect. Next would come in France after that might come Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think there’s more to come in Europe? And what’s the net impact of Brexit on Britain, but also on the European union, which is critical to the liberal world order? It’s a sleeping giant in many ways.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the good news is that Brexit has been such a shamble that no one in Europe wants to follow the Brits. And so you remember after the Brexit vote, people were talking about Frexit, and Grexit, and Spexit, and all the rest of it. But now I don’t think… I think everyone looks at that and says, “No, we don’t want that.”

Michael Fullilove:          Now, one possible wrinkle on that is Scotland where suddenly you’ve got a country in a nation in Scotland that is in a very different place on Europe and many other issues from England, so that’s a caveat. I don’t think Brexit will break up Europe, but I think what Brexit will do is first of all, it will make Britain poorer and more distracted than it would otherwise have been.

Michael Fullilove:          And as you say, we’ve historically relied on Britain to be one of the tent poles of the international order, the most internationally focused European country, the one with the greatest, with big economy and outward-looking economy, trade dependent, strong military and intelligence services, and it has been blown off course, it’s been heavily distracted for five years and it will continue to be that way.

Michael Fullilove:          I’m not a total bear when it comes to Britain’s future, I think Britain’s got a great future, but I think it’s going to be less than what it would have been if it had stayed in Europe. And to come to the other bit of your question, I think Brexit will make the EU smaller by definition, weaker, poorer, less liberal, more statist, less pro American, less willing to stand up to Russia.

Michael Fullilove:          So I think the net effect of all this is to benefit enemies of the West, adversaries of the West in the Kremlin or [Xiao Nan Hai 00:12:48] and elsewhere.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think a Scottish independence vote is likely? It’s interesting question, isn’t it? Because the Scots voted to stay perhaps principally because they want to stay in the EU and then their friends down South have now taken them out of EU, it’s interesting problem politically.

Michael Fullilove:          I hope it doesn’t. Look, I hope it doesn’t because all the… I just think Scotland adds so much to the United Kingdom that… My people are from Ireland and England, not from Scotland, but I just think it would be a shame for Britain as a country, but also again, it would further distract, it would be more lead in the saddles for Britain.

Michael Fullilove:          And really someone like me wants a Britain that gets over this, that does get Brexit done and gets over Brexit and comes back to playing a confident outward looking role in the world. We need that. And another extended debate about Scotland and the impoverishment of the country that would come from Scotland, exiting can only be bad news for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you mentioned the Kremlin and Russia, and clearly they had a hand in Brexit, and they had a hand in the 2016 election famously, and there’s talk that they might have a hand in the 2020 election. But I want to talk a little bit about open and closed systems because this seems to be the big trend we’re heading towards is that for a long time we had a globalization led by United States and more democracy and there’s going to be integration, et cetera.

Misha Zelinsky:             And what we now have is two worlds, one that’s characterized by a liberal openness of information, of people, of exchanged and increasing closed essentially autocratic systems. Traditional theory has been the open systems would win. Bill Clinton nailing jello to a wall, good luck with that. If you want to control the incentive, of course, it appears to be the case that the closed systems are winning and using the openness against them.

Misha Zelinsky:             Why do you think that is the case and what’s the way for democracies to guard against that without losing the closing themselves?

Michael Fullilove:          I think in the end, open systems work better, and I think to return to the metaphor of the pendulum, the last 12 months or 24 months, we’ve gone through this period of the strong men where we were worried by the rise of the strong men. But if you look at how countries like Russia and China are doing now, would you say that closed systems are working when you look at Russia’s economy, the fact that it’s in a demographic death spiral?

Michael Fullilove:          Russia has an economy not much larger than Australia’s.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, Mr. Putin plays a poor hand well, and he invests heavily in his military, in his ability to cause problems and cause mayhem elsewhere. But in terms of delivering economic growth, and happiness, and good health to the Russian people, that system is a failure. If you look at China, it’s a different story I think.

Michael Fullilove:          You have to acknowledge the success of the Chinese system in the last few decades as it opened up, but if you look at coronavirus and you look at the reporting now about how Chinese bureaucracy has refused to come clean quickly, you can see that that closed system to come to answer your question, doesn’t respond well to these shocks. An open system that is open to science and open to transparency will work better in the long run.

Michael Fullilove:          So I believe in our system and I sometimes I want to shake people in the West stop, and shake them out of their topper and say, “Don’t underestimate the system that our fathers and mothers fought for and our system is better than their system.” And I’ll tell you what, if we could elect a couple of leaders in big Western countries that would change the psychology.

Michael Fullilove:          To come back to the structural versus individual, don’t underestimate that the fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States, the fact that Merkel who was so impressive for a long time is fading out of the picture, there’s not that many big Western leaders that you can look to and say that they’re really impressive.

Michael Fullilove:          Whereas as I said, say Putin seems to play weekend well, Xi Jinping is obviously sort of a world historic figure. I admire Macron in many ways, and I think if we could get a couple of other Western leaders out there that might change the psychology a little bit.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting though, isn’t it? How much do you think the crisis of confidence within the West, not just in the leadership, but almost in the system itself? You look at polling, which says, “Younger people have concerns or they don’t think democracy is the best system.”

Misha Zelinsky:             Or just generally that the West doesn’t seem to have the swagger it once did maybe in the Cold War days where literally believed in the system and self-evidently projected in that way. Do you think there’s something to that? So that may happen?

Michael Fullilove:          I do. I think that… What’s happened is first of all, the forever wars that disenfranchised a whole generation of people around the West who didn’t believe in those wars, and also who not only thought the wars were wrong, but then watched as the Wars were not won. And their system seemed unable in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere to win those wars.

Michael Fullilove:          And then the global financial crisis I think was the second blow of the hammer and the ongoing effects of that’s had, inequality. I think these are the problems that these have shaken our faith in the system. Now, it’s interesting when you mention that polling.

Michael Fullilove:          The Lowy Institute polling for a number of years has found those concerning results among younger Australians that they don’t necessarily believe that democracy is the best system, but what’s interesting is that we dove deeper a couple of years ago and did qualitative polling as well to try to work out why we were getting those quite shocking results.

Michael Fullilove:          And younger Australians didn’t say that they necessarily believe that authoritarian government is better, it was more to do with disillusionment about how Australian democracy is working. So concerns that the parties were not different from each other, or the politicians were only in it for themselves, or that the system seemed to be broken.

Michael Fullilove:          I think there’s a grain of hope there. I don’t think young Australians want an authoritarian system, but they want our system to work better, and so do I. I would like to have politics in Australia and around the world that is solving the problems rather than being concerned with their own position in the hierarchy.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve spoken a couple of times about inspiring leaders. Are there any leaders that you can see on the horizon you think that man or woman is someone that get us to this place?

Michael Fullilove:          Well, I mentioned Macron. I love the audacity of Macron, I love saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             Starting a party from nowhere and just-

Michael Fullilove:          Incredible, amazing. Imagine that in the Australian context, not just becoming president under the age of 40 have a nuclear power, but shattering the old parties hold on the political system. Buttigieg is showing similar-

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, he’s interesting.

Michael Fullilove:          … audacity in a way. But I think it’s too soon to put our hopes in him. So I like Macron, I like the fact that he thinks big, he thinks about these big issues. I would also say I wouldn’t again, at the risk of getting mobbed on Twitter, I have much more time for Boris Johnson than the many people, and I think that I disagree with Boris on Brexit completely and I think Brexit was totally wrong headed for the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          But I think Boris is more of a liberal, cosmopolitan leader than many people think. I think his instincts on immigration and questions like that are much more liberal than people think. I think there’s a glimmer of hope there and just to offer a third leader if I can. For some years I’ve had an eye on Keir Starmer who seems to be the front runner at the moment to lead the labor party in the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          Starmer is someone of real… who had a distinguished career as a prosecutor, someone who’s a sort of fully formed human being with a hinterland. Very interesting guy, and I’ll tell you, if he could… To go from Corban to Starmer, that would be a big battlefield promotion, so fingers crossed.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay. You’re clearly passionate about democracy and someone believes in heavily. How concerned you about this notion of political warfare and the border [Kratz] dabbling in Western democracy using social media or weaponizing institutions against Western liberal democracy? How concerned are you about that advent because it’s reasonably new, but it seems to be getting worse not better?

Michael Fullilove:          It is concerning, but here’s the good news story is that Australia has responded. The whole Australian system has responded to attempts by foreign interference, especially from the Chinese party state in the last couple of years in a way that’s very interesting. People overseas often talk about Australia as the canary in the coal mine, but I say to them, “Some canary.”

Michael Fullilove:          The problem with that is a canary has no agency, does it? It’s just a bird in a cage and it either dies or it doesn’t die. Whereas actually what Australia has done is stood up for itself, and that’s partly policy changes at a government level. It’s partly the political class on both sides coming up with a new bipartisan approach. It’s also the media.

Michael Fullilove:          There are probably half a dozen journalists in Australia whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning, but it’s the scoops that they have led, especially in the old Fairfax press actually and in the ABC, not exclusively, but especially there that has thrown light on some of the problems in the system.

Michael Fullilove:          So if you ever thought that an individual can’t make a difference in society, that’s not true because those stories forced the political class to focus on it first, forced all of us to focus on it. And now a lot of countries abroad are saying, “Okay, Australia seems to have done a few things right here.”

Michael Fullilove:          And you start with transparency and throwing some light on what other countries are trying to do, how they’re trying to get their hands in the stuff of our soul.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’re absolutely correct about the press. I think we are critical of the press and its role at times, but I think they’ve done an outstanding job in that context. Now, switching to China and the critical nature of the Chinese relationship to Australia’s future. How do you see Australia managing its relationship?

Misha Zelinsky:             Is our relationship with the U.S. central to this? Because a lot of people say, “We don’t have to choose between the economic trade relationship and our security relationship.” But increasingly those two countries are choosing at least strategic rivalry for not shifting towards some kind of cold war. What is our position within that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think on China, I think our policy is properly a mix of engaging with them battles so hedging, and it has to be an intelligent mix of those two, and you’ve got to work out when you engage and when you hedge. I think we should cooperate with China where our interests overlap, and sometimes our interests will require us to say yes to China even when the United States says no to China.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t think we should look at China always through an alliance prism. I think we should be ambitious when we see opportunities to pursue our interests. But I think when our interests diverged from China’s interests, we have to be very tough minded and very clear and consistent about why we’re doing something, we’re going in a different direction.

Michael Fullilove:          And that’s very hard to do, especially when your own politics is as fragile as ours. We’re not in the freezer with China, but we’re kind of in the bar fridge where they’re not that happy with us, and that’s fine. We’ve stood up for ourselves, but Beijing hasn’t really put the weights on us in the way that it has put the weights on the South Koreans and a couple of other countries. So it will be interesting to see how we respond if they ever do.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the other thing is to say that the U.S. matters because like most Asian countries, we want a U.S. engaged in the region because it helps to provide some balance to the force if you like to go back to the Star Wars metaphor. And it’s easier to maintain our freedom of movement and independence when there’s at least two big States in the region.

Michael Fullilove:          And the other thing that I think is important for us to think about when we think about China is not to shrink Asia to the dimensions of China. And not to forget that there are a number of other big Asian countries including Japan, and South Korea, and Indonesia and Vietnam, and others, and we need not focus on China both in positive and negative ways to the exclusion of those other countries.

Michael Fullilove:          We need to thicken those countries and have a sort of a balanced Asia relationship and not too focused on China.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because one of the things undercooked is clear relationship with India. Certainly, our relationship with Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, but do you think there’s a case for deeper links between the democracies of the Asian and Southeast Asian region and working together, not necessarily as an avert way to the Chinese Communist Party, but just as a way of promoting democracy in the region?

Michael Fullilove:          Yes, I do. I think that it’s totally legitimate for democracies to get together and to work out where their interests overlap, and if we believe in our system, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying that. I would also say though that there are some countries that are not democracies but are not necessarily in the China camp as it were.

Michael Fullilove:          And it’s useful for us also to thicken our links with those countries, so yes, I think we should be… I think India is a big opportunity for us, but I’d also like us to do more with a country like Vietnam that’s certainly not a democracy, but that has different interests from China’s.

Michael Fullilove:          And the more we can thicken those connections, the more we can complicate the region, the harder it is for any one state to dominate the rest of us. And that’s what all of us want, we all want the freedom to make our own way. None of us want to live in another big State’s shadow.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a really interesting point. Speaking of big States and in the shadow, what’s your take on the Pacific in the way there’s been the Pacific step up, which is arguably Australia has been a little bit of sleep slip of the wheel given our importance in that region, but China has been exceptionally assertive in that area.

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned are you about that in that particular context?

Michael Fullilove:          I think we’ve got a lot of equities in the Pacific and I don’t think we should get jumpy about China. I do think it would be inimical to our interests if a country like China were to establish a military base in the Pacific, and we need to be very nimble about how Pacific Island States are relating to Beijing.

Michael Fullilove:          But let’s not underestimate the strength of our connection to the Pacific, and one of the research products the institutes put out recently that I’m very proud of is the Pacific Aid Map where we tracked all of the aid to the Pacific from all the donors around the world, including China.

Michael Fullilove:          And one of the highlights from that index… from that map, I should say, is that Australia provides 45% of total aid to the Pacific, and if you add the Kiwis, it’s 55%. But if you read the papers, you think China’s aiding our lunch in the Pacific, but actually more than half of the aid comes from Australia and New Zealand.

Michael Fullilove:          And we still have these very thick person ties to China, and most Pacific elites know that sure there’s money to be had, there are commercial opportunities with China, but that in the end, Australia is a better longterm bet. Again, to go back to what we were discussing earlier, we have to be confident in ourselves, confident in our history and confident in what we bring to these other States.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just circling back to United States and Trump in the context of Pacific and Asia Pacific politics. One of the things that is notable about the Trump presidency is how transactional in nature it is. How concerned should we be about the nature of the alliance given the isolation, tendencies of the Trump presidency, given the transactional nature?

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned should we be about the formality of the [inaudible] alliance in that context? Is it bankable? Can we take it to the bank or is it ultimately going to be another deal to be made or broken by Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s a very good question. You’d have to say that the relationship between the Trump administration, the Morrison government is very strong really. So we’re not at risk in the way… The Eye of Sauron is not on us. But having said that, the truth is that Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in alliances and he’s said that consistently for 30 years.

Michael Fullilove:          Let me put it this way, it’s hard to think of a less reliable Alliance partner if your country was in trouble, someone who is less disposed to risking American lives and spending American blood and treasure in defense of an ally on the other side of the world.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, of course, you can’t shrink the American system to the president, and in extremists there’d be lots of people around the president saying this is important.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the links are deeper than the presidency.

Michael Fullilove:          The links are very deep and the deep state, again, thank goodness for the deep state and the deep states, but it has to be admitted that I think… Of course, every country, there’s like an Abacus in the capital and they’re constantly assessing other capitals in terms of reliability, and an intention, and capability and all that.

Michael Fullilove:          And of course, allies around the world are looking at the United States and looking at the president’s instincts and it doesn’t us more confident. That’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:             One thing that’s been very consistent about the Trump presidency has been his approach to the Chinese Communist Party, particularly the Chinese Communist Party under Xi. It’s a very different beast, modern China to even to China of five, 10 years ago. Do you think the world was naive about the rise of China and wasn’t live to the changes under Xi’s regime?

Misha Zelinsky:             Or have we been asleep at the wheel and say that the South trying to see, should we have been Sterner there? Could some of these sudsiness we’re seeing now had been dealt with by being a bit stronger earlier on? How do you see that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that Obama for example, could have been firmer with China definitely, and I think Obama had unrealistic expectations. And I remember this because I was in Washington when he came into office and he really felt that the United States and China could form a group of two at G2 and they together solve all the problems. And I don’t-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is funny, he was an optimist about these things.

Michael Fullilove:          He was. He was an optimist, yeah. But I think that was too optimistic. Yes, I think we misread it, and a lot of analysts misread Xi Jinping in particular, a lot of analysts. Most China analysts thought he would be a steady as he goes leader and not a transformational leader. So I think that’s true.

Michael Fullilove:          The question is now how do we deal with this new China under Xi Jinping where more and more power is being concentrated in the person of the president, where the country has great strengths as we see in military expenditure, and confidence and so on, but also has great weaknesses as we’re seeing in the coronavirus.

Michael Fullilove:          This is the big challenge for leaders, getting the mix of hard and soft, standing up where we feel that China is overstepping the appropriate bounds for a sovereign country, but on the other hand, not squeezing China and not acknowledging that. Of course, it’s a great power and it deserves certain progressives and it deserves respect. The mix of hard and soft is very difficult one to get.

Michael Fullilove:          And on Trump, I don’t really know what Trump’s settling point on China is because he’s very tough on China when it comes to trade, but I don’t think he really cares about security issues when it comes to China. Very hard to imagine Trump caring about half submerge water features in the South China sea. So let’s see where he comes down.

Michael Fullilove:          Today, he’s been tough on trade but not on other [crosstalk 00:35:54]-

Misha Zelinsky:             He’s been tough on 5G though, on techno nationalism, but arguably that’s a trade that he sees it as but.

Michael Fullilove:          There was that tweet, remember when he kind of hinted that if Xi Jinping gave him a good trade deal, maybe Huawei could get it back in. To go to your earlier question, the problem is everything is transactional for Mr. Trump. Everything is a deal waiting to be had.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so what would that mean for something let’s say Taiwan or Hong Kong? He was reasonably firm on Hong Kong, but do you think Hong… sorry, Taiwan is as big a red line for the United States as it is used to be under Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          That’s a very good question. That’s a very good question. I would defer to specialists on it because there’s so many different angles to it, but starting from first principles, not withstanding the vibrancy of Taiwanese democracy and the legitimacy in my view of Taiwan playing an important part in the role in the world, I think if it came down to a sort of a crisis and Mr. Trump had a 3:00 AM moment, I think he’s much more attracted by the idea of doing deals with Xi Jinping, the leader of a giant superpower than he is about defending a scrappy, tiny democracy.

Michael Fullilove:          That’s sort of from the first principles, but of course, as you know, the relationship between the militaries of Taiwan and the United States are very deep as well, so it has a lot of support in Congress in the media. So it’s a complicated question, but I don’t think Trump’s instincts play well for the Taiwanese.

Misha Zelinsky:             A sobering point to leave the formal part of our conversations, but we’ll now switch to the real meat of the debate, the thing that everyone’s been waiting for is barbecue of Michael’s three guests, alive or dead, but they’ve got to be foreign, they can’t be yours. I’m sorry to say [inaudible] but who would you have and why?

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I like the fact that you do it as a barbe because everyone has who do you want to invite to a dinner party or whatever? And barbes are more fun than dinner parties anyway.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s true. There’s more beer.

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I would have to have FDR because I spent years writing about FDR, first of all for my Master’s thesis, then my PhD, then a book. And when you spend so long thinking about someone, you wonder always what would the guy be like, what would actually be like to meet. So that would answer that question for me.

Michael Fullilove:          I would have a strong hypothesis, which would be that he would be great fun because he always mixed the drinks in the oval office at about 5:00. He’d mix the martinis and have everyone in for cocktail hour. And he was just a charming personality, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about him.

Michael Fullilove:          In fact, Winston Churchill said of FDR that meeting him for the first time was like opening your first bottle of Champagne.

Misha Zelinsky:             That is a hell of a rap.

Michael Fullilove:          Now of course we’re going to serve beer at our barbecue, but having someone who has a bit of bubbly to his personality would be good. Secondly, I would probably invite Grace Kelly because I’m a big Hitchcock fan and I loved her. She was such a charming, interesting, intelligent figure with such a crazy life story, and I love that period of all Hollywood. I love Hitchcock movies, and Billy Wilder movies and stuff like that.

Michael Fullilove:          And thirdly, to round it out because we’d need someone to entertain us, I’d have Bruce Springsteen because-

Misha Zelinsky:             Boss.

Michael Fullilove:          … I’m a big longterm fan of the boss. Love his sentimental blue collar view of American democracy, I love his love songs. He’s such an authentic character that I think he would ground this otherwise highfalutin barbecue, and I think he’d be the kind of guy who’d be fun when you’ve got a couple of beers into him. So that’d be my barbe.

Misha Zelinsky:             Or Champagne as it were, but that sounds fantastic. Look, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Michael Fullilove:          Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s been a fantastic chat and good luck with everything [crosstalk 00:40:38]-

Michael Fullilove:          It was a lot of fun. Thanks.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.