Liberalism

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.

 

Benedict Hugosson: Still the heartland? How social democrats can fight back in Sweden, Europe and the world.

Sweden is often considered to be the heartland of social democracy – but that may no longer be the case.

Benedict Hugosson is a global expert in political campaigning.

He has lead national field campaigns for the Social Democrats in Sweden and is a leading thinker in political engagement strategies and tactics.

An Australian born Harvard graduate, Ben has trained activists in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

I caught up with Ben for a chinwag about the fall in support for the historically dominant Swedish Social Democratic party, the rise of right wing nationalists in Sweden, why party membership is critical to voting patterns, how face to face conversations are still better than digital campaign tools, and what the future holds for mainstream European political parties of both the left and right.

It’s a fascinating, in-depth insight into what is happening right throughout Europe. It also uncovers the important role that membership and organising plays in electoral outcomes.

As ever, if you’re enjoying the show – please rate and review!

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Ben, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us here in Australia.

Ben Hugosson:              Thank you very much.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, we might start with a little of your background because I think this is somewhat curious one. How does an Ozzie end up in Swedish politics because, one I’m curious to know about and to how do I get the job?

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. Like you said, I didn’t grow up in Sweden. I grew up on the far North Coast of New South Wales. I think that the reason why I ended up in politics has a lot to do with my background here in Australia. When I was about 12 years old, my mother passed away with cancer and my dad was pensioned, he got sick and couldn’t run the family farm. When, we grew up there was a recurring theme of not having much money. There was one night in particular that I remember, it was a very hot day and Australia’s great in that respects, I love the warm weather. But what I love is when, of an afternoon, the temperature just drops and then you get these fantastic thunderstorms that come in and you get these fork lightning and it’s just such a spectacular light show.

Ben Hugosson:              On this night I’m lying in bed and we’re just about to go to sleep and a storm is raging outside and all of a sudden the whole roof blows off our house. Me and my twin brother, we get out of there and the family, we spend the whole night in the bathroom because that’s the safest place in the house. The next day I remember, workers coming and climbing up over our house and they basically had this bird’s eye view of my room and where I sleep, my bed. I remember looking at my bed and just seeing it very tattered and broken and I was embarrassed. I wasn’t only embarrassed, I felt so powerless. I never really got involved in politics in Australia, for me that was something that other people did.

Ben Hugosson:              When I got to Sweden, there was a lot of people talking about a politician called Olof Palme, and he was the prime minister’s Sweden. People seemed to love this guy and I had no idea who he was. One day, I looked up on, on Wikipedia, I looked up who he was, and I started to read. Down the bottom of Wikipedia there’s a lot of different links and I click on one of these links and I go into a website, which is Olof Palme International Center. Which is the aid organization for the labor movement in Sweden and I see pictures of people that are held back by structures, that basically may mean that people are powerless to affect their own situations. I see them and I see other people that are helping to remove these structures. So, people do feel empowered and oftentimes these people are the same people. And I could see myself in the people that were held down by structures, but I could also see myself in those people that helped remove those structures. That for me was really inspiring. There, and then I basically signed up to the party.

Misha Zelinsky:             The social Democrats.

Ben Hugosson:              The Social Democrats, exactly. After that, I went to an education to a training that they had for aid projects. Despite the fact I could not speak the language, I didn’t have a project, I didn’t have anything, they welcomed me with open arms. When you get there, there is such a focus on people’s movements, on getting people involved and when I was there, I met people and they just dragged me along to a meeting. All of a sudden you sit there and you start seeing how people are writing motions and they’re sending them through the party and it’s becoming party politics. You get this taste of democracy and you want more of it. That’s why I got involved with the party and why I have been involved with the party since then.

Misha Zelinsky:             For those that listening, and may not completely understand the situation currently in Sweden. Maybe you can just quickly cover that off, I always joke that most of the political parties in Sweden are all to the left of the labor party. But currently the Social Democrats are in government, but they were a minority government. Maybe you could just quickly cover that off before we dive into, what else is happening.

Ben Hugosson:              I can begin by saying the Swedish Social Democrats have been the most successful democratic political party in the history of the world. They have pretty much-

Misha Zelinsky:             I think the Labor Party, we also claim that. But we can arm wrestle for it.

Ben Hugosson:              Basically since the 1920s, 1930s the Social Democrats had been in power in Sweden, pretty much unbroken. What’s been happening recently is that that hegemony has been changing, has been loosening up. What we find now is that we have gone from a party that’s been about 45% and that’s great because we could, we could govern on 45% because we had. And left this party to the left of us that would just accept everything that we wanted to do. Just slowly but surely going down in getting smaller and smaller election results and then having to start bringing in other parties into our coalition. We started with the greens, but our share of the vote has sunk so much now that in the last election we were very, very lucky to form government. It took three months for us to form government. What we’ve had to do is actually start negotiating with some of the neo liberalist parties.

Ben Hugosson:              The reason why we can negotiate with these, is that there has been a dramatic increase in right wing populism in Sweden. We’ve had a, traditionally there are the Moderates who have been out our opposition who have basically now been dwarfed by a far right party. This far right party in the last week has actually become the largest political party in polls in Sweden. For us, that’s a bit of a defeat because we’ve always been that party. We’re sitting there now with a progressive block this has to negotiate with a neo liberalist block to hold out the conservative block. This conservative block hasn’t existed in Swedish politics for a long time, but they are becoming the most powerful block in Swedish politics. What is happening then is that now that we’re having to negotiate with neo liberalist, we’re having to negotiate away a lot of things that we went to the election on that are very, very dear to us as a political party. But, it’s becoming a solution that we have to have if we do not want a far right government.

Misha Zelinsky:             This increasingly is a challenge for a lot of… Social democratic parties globally been in decline of course, we lost the election here in 2019. But this is a challenge throughout Europe with the traditional center-right parties in many cases disappearing or being cannibalized by far right parties. What’s driving it in Sweden in particular, is there a particular issue that’s driving this populism that you can see?

Ben Hugosson:              You can look at this on many levels. Firstly, I think that the narrative that the far right is using, is built on the narrative of the right wing parties. To break down the social democratic hegemony that has been in Sweden, the right wing party, the Moderates, when they were looking to attack us back in the early two thousands. They looked at the welfare system and we’re looking at the amount of people that were actually cheating the welfare system. One of the first things that they did was they hired a right wing think tank to do a study and it came out in the newspapers and the title of the newspaper was. Or the article in the newspaper was two out of 10 people cheat or know somebody who was cheated the welfare system or something like that. It makes it sound like there’s a lot of people cheating the welfare system. But in reality, if we’re 10 people and everybody knows one of those people, then you can say 100% of people know somebody that’s cheating the welfare system.

Misha Zelinsky:             Lies, damned lies and statistics.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. What it did is it painted that picture that there were people cheating the welfare system.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is this a new thing in Sweden or it’s always been bipartisan support for welfare’s an attack of that nature, a new phenomenon?

Ben Hugosson:              The righters always attack the welfare system, but there has been such a large acceptance for the welfare system. Mainly because our welfare system it’s not means tested. It’s something that is general for everybody. So, if you are getting some government rebate, we don’t test if you have a low paying job or a high paying job, everybody gets it. That for us has been very, very important because what it’s done is it created a broad acceptance for welfare in the country. But, these attacks on these democratic systems were then use by the far right. Basically when you have the Moderates coming in and saying that, “There’s a lot of people cheating the welfare system.” Then you get the far right coming in and saying, “Okay, yes, we established that fact that people are cheating the welfare. They add that we know who was cheating the welfare system.”

Ben Hugosson:              They run ads where they say that our budget, it’s a competition between, pensioners that that wants a decent living standard and immigrants that are coming in and cheating the welfare system. They build up that tension, but we have to say that, that narrative that they have formed is actually on the back of neoliberalism. What they did when they created this mistrust of the welfare system, they created and an arena for the far right to come in and actually create conflicts in between groups in society.

Ben Hugosson:              I think that that is an important thing to see that the right wing and neo-liberalism has broken down a lot of the support for our democratic institutions. But I think that it goes a lot further than that as well. I think that when they have come in and they’ve broken down support for democratic institutions. They have broken down and privatized and hollowed out, democratic structures as well. One of the things that we have done is we’ve looked at the role of engagement in this crisis and one of the things that we see is that self-governing organizations have been basically the playground for where people have engaged. There’ve been the default mode of engagement for very many people. Since the 70s these institutions have started to lose members, so there’s a narrative that it’s political party, that are losing members but this is definitely not the case. It’s all-

Misha Zelinsky:             People don’t join anymore.

Ben Hugosson:              People don’t join anymore. We’re not a nation of joiners basically, and this is a problem both for the union movement or for political parties, but all-

Misha Zelinsky:             Churches.

Ben Hugosson:              Forming clubs, churches, you name it. What’s happening is that people aren’t experiencing democracy on an everyday basis or in these self-governing organizations. They’re not experiencing democracy and when they don’t experience democracy as a lived experience on an everyday basis. Of course, they’re not going to start thinking that democratic institutions can actually provide solutions to our pressing problems because they haven’t experienced it before. I think that there is a big connection there between what is happening now and the distrust in political process and the way that we engage. One of the things that we also did was look at what is the effect of party membership on election results.

Ben Hugosson:              In the 90s the Social Democrats had 260,000 members, which was roughly four percent of everybody that voted and when we had four percent of everybody that voted, we also got 45% in the elections. Since then, that figure has dropped, we’ve lost about 160,000 members and we’re down to about 1.2% of the voting population as a member of our party. We’ve also done the worst elections in our history and this is basically a straight line down. It pegs the loss of members. Another thing that we’ve also looked at is, what is the role of party membership in personification. Personification it comes from the Greek political party Pasok and when they basically disappeared overnight. Other examples of this are the socialists in France.

Misha Zelinsky:             France.

Ben Hugosson:              We’ve had Netherlands also being pasokified, Labor in Scotland. When we look at this, when we look at what are the organization, what are the political parties that are being pasokified. We see that they basically do not have members and there seems to be a critical role for members in this crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:             What is the key then to turn around this decline in membership, if you say that there’s this a causative relationship. How can parties encourage people to join, because we have the same problem here with the Labor party. Membership has declined as percentage of the population overall and certainly our primary vote has declined. What is the answer there?

Ben Hugosson:              I think that what we have to do is, we have to look at nature of engagement. There are many people that are saying, and I don’t know if it’s the narrative here, but it’s definitely the narrative in Sweden. That these, these old political structures and these old political parties have got old methods of engagement.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is in having a say in what the party does and its structures.

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah. Or just getting involved in a political party is not a modern way of engaging. But the problem with this is that the way that people engage now is a new way of engaging and our political parties are also engaging that same way. We’ve made a shift from engaging with people to engaging with content. When we like something on Facebook, we’re engaging with content and the thing about that is that you can do it by yourself. When we engage with people, we’re doing totally different things and this is basically how self-governing organizations have been built up. They haven’t been built up on engaging with content they’re being built up on engaging with people. That might be that, we sit round us in a local club and decide what we’re going to do, which issues we’re going to push.

Ben Hugosson:              But it is a discussion between people, we sit around and we talk about doing a campaign and this is the relation of organizing that. We see that it is coming up more and more where we’re actually rediscovering the old methods of engagement. I think that is really important, the innovative stuff that is being done today within the realm of engagement is actually a lot of the stuff that has been forgotten. Since the 70s I mentioned before that self-governing organizations have lost members since the 70s is that, what’s happened is that we’ve had TV, radio, email, social media. All these mediums come that have basically been mobilizing mediums and we’ve seen them as the new default mode of engaging with people and they’re the ones that have dominated. During this period of time, when we have been predominantly mobilizing people, not organizing people. We have lost leadership capacity within our organizations.

Ben Hugosson:              A lot of this memory of how you actually organize people and how you engage people with other people, we have lost. This is one of the biggest challenges that we have is that we have to relearn a lot of this stuff and not only relearn it for ourselves, but teach it to a lot of different people as well. It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to be a very hard road, but it’s a road we have to travel and we have to stop now.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talked about this disappearing acts of some of these great parties on the left and right. We’re talking specifically about the left in that example, but I’m curious about whether or not it’s caused it, even certainly correlated. The refugee crisis that existed as a result of the civil war in Syria and the flow on effect in Europe. What was the impact, certainly gets debated a lot and it’s been used by a lot of far right parties, particularly those who’ve got in to power in Eastern Europe and Hungary and others. What has been the impact of immigration on the political discourse in Sweden?

Ben Hugosson:              That is the number one most discussed political issue at the moment. Like I said, a lot of these narratives are built off the neo liberalist narratives. They use immigration as a way of, dividing Sweden up and putting people against people and it has been a tough issue for us to deal with. Absolutely, and when we had this immigration crisis in Sweden, we had very many people trying to come to Sweden. During a period of time we had this massive spike of people landing in Sweden and wanting to seek refuge. We didn’t have the organizational capacities at the time to be able to bring that many people into to Sweden. And to make sure that we integrate them into Swedish society by making sure that they have a job, that they have a place to stay. Just basic things that we all really, really take for granted. This was a a period of time that the right, they tried to blame us for it and they always are bringing up this period of time and of course, it was a very extreme period of time.

Ben Hugosson:              It meant that we had to take extreme measures to make sure that we could handle this. It was cold at the time, but we had to make sure that we had a place for people to stay. We had to basically look at every single building in the whole of Sweden and make sure that we had a place for them to stay. Some people, we had to make sure that the military maybe had tents to house people. So, it was a very big thing for Sweden and very tumultuous for a lot of people and a lot of people felt that things were, were spiraling out of control, absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m curious about this, because there’s a debate that exists and migration has always been a fixed problem in Australia, which I’m sure you’re aware of. It has been politically difficult for Labor, particularly in the refugee question, although there’s been more favorable attitudes towards permanent migration. But Europe is a little bit unique in that it has more of a borderlines about it. People are free to move around though they’re, Sweden’s a little bit different but largely participates in that. Has bought or corroded support for democracy, do you think? I mean, it’s a big factor in the Brexit debate, taking back control. How does that impact, because I know, look at the Danes are probably one example, where the labor party’s done well there. But they had a rather conservative position on immigration that they took the election. I’m curious about your take on this borderless, this question and whether or not it’s consistent with democracy.

Ben Hugosson:              Democracy works when people feel that they can actually influence democracy and even before this debating immigration, there was always a debate about how democratic the EU actually is. The immigration is a way for people to maybe express that feeling of disjointedness of not being able to influence, but it’s probably not some of the root causes. Not being engaged in your local society, if we can fix that and give people a place in society, I think that a lot of these issues will fade away. Because people will see that they do have a place that they can actually influence their local societies and they will feel empowered.

Ben Hugosson:              I talked earlier about the Olof Palme and he has a great speech about industrial society’s problem. He begins to speech by talking about, how much room you have, he calls it, elbow room and he says that when that starts to shrink, people will try to escape to their own private economy and I think that, that’s the case. Our job as Social Democrats is to make sure that people actually feel that they can influence their societies. We can have borderless societies, but as long as you feel that you can influence your society and where you live, then I don’t think that, that’s going to be a huge problem.

Misha Zelinsky:             What about, you talked about economics there. One of the things that’s so scary is I think as a Social Democrat is that, the country you would instinctively point to where Social Democracy has flourished traditionally and could flourish ongoing basis, is Sweden, the Scandinavian countries. A lot of people say, “Oh, that model can’t work.” I always joke that, Sweden’s not a theory, it’s a place you can fly to, you can literally go there, it’s not Narnia. But, what is it that… Is there an inequality emerging within Swedish society economically? Is that regional city divide emerging as well and are there people being felt, looked at economically. Is that impacting and is that creating a space for the far right to try to get in and sell populous message?

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah, most definitely. I think that inequality… Absolutely during the time of the Social Democrats. I don’t think that we should feel that, we’ve always done the right thing. But definitely when the right wing took over Moderates, then took over after 2006 that inequality started to shoot through the roof.

Misha Zelinsky:             Right around the time of the global financial crisis.

Ben Hugosson:              Absolutely. They took over just before, but I think that they probably used the global financial crisis as a way of actually forcing through some economic policies. That basically weakened the labor movement that made employment a lot more precarious and I think that people are feeling the effects of that. Things like, having to wait for an SMS to know that you have worked that day and these are problems that we shouldn’t have in a wealthy society like Sweden. These economic problems are actually starting to creep up and starting to become a problem. We see that in all unequal societies you’ll start to have people that have things and those that don’t have things. I think that this is one of the big problems that we have to actually start to address.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things that I find, I think a lot of social democrats globally are struggling with, is the theory with inequality increasing theoretically that should be good conditions for a social democratic government to come to power. For whatever reason, social democratic parties throughout the world or center left parties are really struggling to connect with people and the concerns that they have. May have, some policy solutions for them but it seems that whatever it is that we’re selling people aren’t buying it. And this precariousness or anxiety they feel we’re not connecting with them in fact, perhaps is that were being portrayed that way. But change seems scary when you have so little you only you’re afraid to lose even that little, bit. A risk on a social democratic party becomes more difficult. What do you think is the answer to make people have faith that we have the answers for them?

Ben Hugosson:              Actually there was one part of your question that I didn’t answer before about the divide between-

Misha Zelinsky:             Other regional areas.

Ben Hugosson:              The Regional areas and because I think this actually ties in a little into what we are talking about. If you go and have a look in the Swedish Social Democrats, we sing a lot of songs. Yeah. So we have our work of songs and when you look at a lot of these songs, they are stories about people moving from the country. Who often are the good people moving to the city and being exploited by the bad people. There is, even in our old songs, there is this divide and that I think stays, when I grew up, there were films like City Slickers. City Slickers is a derogative term for people that live in the city. This divide, it’s always really been there and it has been used like in our songs of workers to portray what some injustices are there. This is still there and it’s still a problem.

Ben Hugosson:              But for the Social Democrats, we have been those that have been able to bring these diverse groups together. One of the things that we have brought together and being like this big party that’s conformed government is that we have brought together progressive people but also conservative people. People that want some welfare or security system and those that value security. We’ve been this amalgamation of these two value groups and we’ve been able to talk across almost value sets but actually land in a set of progressive policies.

Ben Hugosson:              This is one of the keys to actually getting back into talking to some of these people is that, we can’t also divide up our country as well and say, “These are those people that think this and we think this, we’re progressive’s and we’re Social Democrats. We need to actually… How we’ve done it before is to go in and be really, really embedded in our societies and actually get these people to start talking together. Social democracy has never been a set of policies, it’s been a promise of democracy. It’s been a promise that together we can actually go together and influence our situation. I think that that’s what we have to do.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting you’ve talked about this conservative element of social democracy. Increasingly it’s been overlooked, I think one of the problems that we have are attitudinal and we tend to hector people that are a bit more conservative. People that might be economically progressive as you said, but have more socially conservative views. What do you think the role for people perhaps that are religious or have more socially conservative views. What is the role for them to play in social democratic parties? Because increasingly they’re looking at parties such as ours and saying, well that party, I don’t feel at home there anymore. The labor party traditionally had a large Catholic element, which is I think still of our fabric, but an increasingly minimized fabric. I’m curious about your take on that from a European perspective.

Ben Hugosson:              Sweden is a lot more secularized than what Australia is.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because a lot of people say Australia is quite secularized.

Ben Hugosson:              We have the Swedish church and up until the 90s everybody was born directly into the Swedish church. In fact one of the largest elections outside of political elections or the largest selection outside of political elections is the Swedish church and it’s a big thing. That’s actually traditionally how the right wing in Sweden have come and gained power. Because, what they’ve done is they’ve won in the Swedish church election and because they get money and they a position in the society.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s a platform.

Ben Hugosson:              It’s a platform to run other elections. But for us, we don’t have large diverse groups of different religious groups, that is increasing, absolutely because of the immigration that has happened in Sweden. But religion generally does not play a role in, in Swedish politics. But, if you start thinking about say conservative and conservative values and their role, we traditionally have not had a large conservative block. This is something that is very, very new in Sweden, but it doesn’t mean that those conservative views haven’t been there. I think that this is largely because the Social Democrats have been able to sew together and to do it on this idea that, we want some security, we want unemployment insurance. We want a welfare state or health care that when we get sick we can actually be taken care of and it not break the bank. We’ve been able to amalgamate these groups and I think that we have to say that if we’re going to move forward, power is through the electoral system.

Ben Hugosson:              And, in the electoral system you need 50% plus one. We can’t just be talking to one value group, we have to be talking to multiple value groups and to make sure that we have the majority that we need to win. Our electoral system is geographically based so, we have to say, “Okay, well who are the people that exist in my neighborhood.” We have to go out and talk to these people and people that have progressive views and those that have conservative views, there is a possibility that they can land in the same policy platform. That’s traditionally what social Democrats have shown, but at the moment these more conservative people, these are the people that were leading to the right wing parties.

Ben Hugosson:              We have to start talking to them and start bringing them back in and make sure we have some common consensus about what we want. It’s not just us giving to them, it’s them giving to us as well. But, we have to see that our power is based on each other because the alternative is more right-wing ideologies that are more individualized. That see people as sometimes a commodity within a system, but also people that follow a powerful leader. There’s not much power in that for these people and like I said, we need to make people feel empowered. We have to start talking to them and we have to create arenas for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things I think is becoming difficult in a lot of democracies is this, either a winner takes all approach to the governing. No longer having mutual toleration and maybe the way Trump has approached governing, which is basically winner takes all. Or increasingly people just not accepting the outcome of elections or not perceiving elections to be the best way to get things done. I think of something like maybe the extinction rebellion, which is a bit of a global phenomenon, but people being extremist in their activists but also authoritarian in their approach to whatever issue or change they’re seeking. How do you think we can still make sure that people think that the town square or politics is the actual way to get things done. And that there’s an art of compromise there as compared to the, cancel culture in the left or the right wing populism on the right. What is the answer?

Ben Hugosson:              We can’t deny that we have very large and pressing problems and a lot of the problems that we face will require large and urgent action. I think that, that’s what organizations like the Extinction Rebellion are talking about. They’re saying that we need large and urgent action and we’re fed up with the inaction, we need to do something. I think that there is a lot of inaction and politicians might have to take some blame for that, but we also have to see that we need to create the prerequisites for actually being able to tackle these urgent problems. We have to create space for innovation, absolutely. For innovating in the climate movement. We can’t have the situation where we are, where we can only present incremental politics. Because, that incremental politics is not going to solve the environmental crisis.

Ben Hugosson:              The only option for us is to start talking to other people, is to start talking in society and creating a dialogue on what this is going to take. Because people, when you aggregate their opinions, that is vastly different. That aggregation, what you end up being is vastly different to when you get people to sit down in a group and to actually come to some consensus. When people sit and they start talking to other people, they start to empathize and they start to be able to give up things. That they didn’t think that they could give up before, mainly because they’ve empathized with other people and they see that it’s for the greater good. I think this was actually what was happening in the civil society and that’s why engagement is so important. We need to start talking to our neighbors and mix up.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mix in.

Ben Hugosson:              Once we start doing that, then I fully believe that we will be able to enact the policies that we need to be able to tackle these crisis. We do have large and pressing problems and we too need to solve them very, very quick. In some ways, these organizations are totally right, like Extinction Rebellion, we need to act now. We do, but we also need to create a dialogue and that dialogue will create the space for us to attack these problems.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a challenge, I don’t think there’s much of a dialogue when you turn up and shut down cities and make people whose lives are already difficult, more difficult. I’m not sure that’s the way of getting it done but the thing actually is, you’re a party machine man and one of the challenges of seeing to this discourse question is this information bubble that we all live in now. You basically see it on Facebook or any other social media and be served up your own opinions of things that you agree with, in an increasingly specified manner. The right seem to have weaponized these in a particular way that is confounding social democrats globally. Are you seeing that in Sweden and secondly, how can we make sure that these social media channels, and have 50% of people now get the majority of their news from social media. How do we make those things work for us and how do we push back against these advent of fake news and this toxi fication of social media.

Ben Hugosson:              It is a very big problem and again, I think a lot of this comes back to how we engage with others. If we are to… There’s a researcher called Erica Chenowith and one of the things that she has proven is that no social movement that has been able to mobilize 3.5% of the population has failed. So, if you can mobilize 3.5% of the population, you’ll probably succeed.

Misha Zelinsky:             What is define and mobilize.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. To get people involved in some action. I think that, that’s a very good statistic because it goes to show that, we probably don’t need to get everybody involved, but we do need to get a certain percentage of the population involved. Another thing is, is that if we’re going to get to that level, a lot of people that aren’t interested in politics today is going to have to be involved in this. The way that people generally get involved in movements is not that they see something on Facebook feel very, very inspired and then sign themselves up. That’s not how people get involved on that level. There was a guy called… I forget his name, but he wrote, he wrote a book called The Making of Pro-life Activists, and he basically followed people into the pro life movement.

Ben Hugosson:              These people became leaders after a while and so he could ask them, “Why did you join the movement? And they said, because I feel really passionate about this and I wanted to make a difference.” But he had followed the means, we knew full well why they actually joined the movement to begin with. A lot of them joined the movement because a friend had taken them to a meeting. I think that if we are going to get to that 3.5% then we need to start bringing friends to meetings. It’s about going through our contacts in our telephone and actually saying, who are these people that we can get involved? Who are these people do I want to bring to a meeting and to start experiencing some politics on an everyday basis basically.

Misha Zelinsky:             You say don’t rely on digital, get human to human contact.

Ben Hugosson:              These digital tools are just tools. I’m going to be using them to contact my friends, but I think that we do need to see that there is people to people relationships. They are the most important thing in what we’re doing and these people to people relationships are something that exist in real life. And, if we are using digital tools to actually communicate between us, then that’s great and then digital tools do play a role but we can talk to other people as well, ring them up, bring them to meetings. I think that we need to start bringing people in. People that are 100% interested in politics today, people that may be vaguely share our values but probably haven’t really been able to work out very clearly for themselves. Where they stand on issues but they need to be exposed to them basically and they need to come into our organization.

Ben Hugosson:              As an organization as well dealing with this, we need to basically, create activities that we can systematically make sure that our activists are bringing new people into our organizations. That can be done with online work tools, absolutely they make the process a lot smoother. But just like in door knocking, it’s the most effective method because it is face to face and I think that we need to see that value in being face to face. Even though it might seem like a long hard slog, it is actually the most effective way of getting people involved.

Misha Zelinsky:             People power, it’s old fashioned but it works, right?

Ben Hugosson:              People power, it all comes down to that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just to share a quick story, I remember I was studying in London recently and they had the guy who led Macron’s campaign and he came in and said, “We had this secret weapon.” I leaned in because I was curious, because it was a party that came up out of nowhere and he said, “Door-knocking.” I was like, Oh, wow. Something that every young activists gets taught right from the beginning, but they used it. Perhaps that they hadn’t really used it much in France, apparently it’s not a really fresh thing to do. But I thought it was fascinating that person or persons still the way to get it done.

Ben Hugosson:              Absolutely. The guy that was leading Macron’s campaign, he was educated by Marshall Ganz who is the lead community organizer in the world. They used that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, people power it’s interesting because I’m always have a clunky chinwag at the end of these things, right. The question I always ask everyone is, if you’re a foreigner, you got to invite three Ozzies to a barbecue. But if you’re an Ozzie, you’ve got to invite three foreigners. I’m not sure where quite sit here, I’ll let you cheat. But, three people, who would they be at your barbecue and why?

Ben Hugosson:              I can’t say anybody else, but Olof Palme, I would really, really love to meet that guy. He was amazing and if you can listen to his speeches, they are fantastic. I would invite him, I’d without a doubt invite my wife.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ll assume she’s there, right.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly, she’s the one keeping me in Sweden.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good, very good.

Ben Hugosson:              I think that I would invite, who would I invite the last person, I don’t quite know at the moment, but it might be somebody from the film world.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, right.

Ben Hugosson:              I’ve got a keen interest in films. I really like film, it’s interesting what’s happening in the film world at the moment. We’ve got this massive serialization of films and maybe I’d invite one of the Marvel guys and then we talk about that. How they envisioned that going and how they have succeeded at doing that.

Misha Zelinsky:             A superhero, a politician, and your wife. You got all the important ones in there, right. But look, Ben, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure having you here in Australia. Good luck in the upcoming elections in Sweden.

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure being here.

 

Chris Bowen: Reasons to be optimistic and the future of progressive politics and liberalism

Chris Bowen is the Member for McMahon in the Australian Parliament. In his time in public office, he has served as Treasurer, Minister for Human Services, Minister for Immigration, Minister for Financial Services, Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy.

As the author of the books of ‘Hearts and Minds’ and ‘The Money Men’, Chris is a noted public policy thinker and expert. 

Chris joined Misha Zelinsky for a chinwag about the future of democracy and liberalism including the threat to democracy posed by inequality, the role of faith in politics, how Australia can properly engage with India and Indonesia, what the future holds on Australia’s China policy, why we should be much more worried about global debt and how progressive parties can rebuild trust with the public. 

Misha Zelinsky:             Chris Bowen, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Chris Bowen:                Long time listener, first time caller. Good to be here Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’d be one of our very, very few listeners that have become calls so it’s very pleased to hear that.

Chris Bowen:                I did get on early, so it’s a great listen. Well done.

Misha Zelinsky:             Thank you so much for that plug, we’ll make sure that we’re putting that out in the socials. There’s so many places we could start obviously, but one of the places I thought we could start was interesting recently leading into the G20 we had Vladimir Putin come out and say that liberalism was dead, is a dead project, that the West effectively had lost the post Cold War era. I mean, what do you make of those comments firstly, and secondly what does it say about the state of the world given that perhaps ten years ago that would have been laughed off, now it’s a serious point?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s a good way if putting it. I’m more optimistic than that, I think we have to be more optimistic than that. We can’t accept that as being the statement of fact, we have to fight back against that. But the fact that a world leader could even say that with some credibility tells you where the debate’s at. The one thing we know is that the Francis Fukuyama theorem of, “History has ended, liberalism has won”, is not how things have panned out. For a long time we thought he was wrong because Islamic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism was a challenge to liberalism and that remains an issue.

Chris Bowen:                But also, authoritarianism has become a much more accepted framework in many countries of the world to some degree or other, whether we’re looking at what’s happening in Turkey or Hungary, but the United States is on a different part of the continuum. The trend is all to populism/some form of authoritarianism and at the other end of the spectrum, whereas say twenty years ago we might have been having the discussion, will the rise of China and the economic growth of China lead to China becoming a liberal democracy? Well in fact, if anything we’ve seen Chinese authoritarianism increase, not become more of a liberal country.

Chris Bowen:                The fact that we’re having this conversation tells you that the world’s not in a great state, but I’m an optimist about liberalism. Some people question whether democracy is under challenge.

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ll get to that.

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                And that’s a legitimate question to be asking, and then I guess to subsidize smaller liberalism under challenge, or liberalism as a world view in the international context. It is under challenge, but I think we have to think of ways to ensure that it’s not only survives, but prospers.

Misha Zelinsky:             So what are the reasons to be optimistic about it? It’s so obvious to give all the counter examples about the insurgence of autocracies and all the crisis of confidence in the liberal democratic order. So, what are the reasons to be optimistic? Very easy to point out the problems.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. Well, just looking around the world a lot of the defeats of, if you like, liberalism or, in some senses, progressivism, have been narrow. Trump didn’t actually win by much, as you know he lost the popular vote, and actually a swing of not many votes in key states would’ve changed that result.

Chris Bowen:                UK politics is highly contested. We may or may not get into the inner workings of the British labor party.

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ve got a bit of time! Cover all sorts.

Chris Bowen:                The two party system is pretty closely contested in the United Kingdom. You’d be a brave person to predict the result of the next UK election. Macron in France now, we all have our criticisms of Macron perhaps, but he’s a force of centralist liberalism, maybe slightly to the left. Trudeau in Canada, he’s had a few challenges, but he’s got one good election win and will probably win another election in the next twelve months. So, you can look at those places, and of course New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern didn’t win an election, she won a parliamentary majority, but I don’t think there’s much question that she’d win an election now.

Chris Bowen:                So there are some bright spots. And, the fact that the forces of progressivism are being challenged means that we do need to think about what our answers are. I think we are doing that, thinking around the world, parties of the center left, to some degree of success or otherwise. Or at least asking the right questions. And I’m an optimist because we have to be, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, that we will come up with the right answers.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things that troubles me, is this intersection of economics and politics, right?

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the consistent things everyone talks about from a public policy point of view is this level of inequality that you’re seeing, both within and between countries. Can you have an increase in equality, where people feel more disenfranchised, particularly when you look at the pattern of that inequality where it seems to be regional areas, where regions that are distressed tend to become less hopeful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Are democracies and healthy democracies consistent with inequality, or do we have to address one to address the other, where you’re addressing them isolation?

Chris Bowen:                Well we should address inequality, one, because it’s the right thing to do, and two, because it is leading to this populism. You can look at inequality through any number of frameworks or spectra, but I think the most useful one for this conversation is the one that you’ve given a nod to, pointed to, which is geographic inequality. If you look at this challenge to the forces of the center left or liberalism, progressivism, what ever you want to call it around the world, it is very much a geographic divide.

Chris Bowen:                Brexit one outside London. If it was up to the people of London, they’d be very firmly in the EU. Trump one in rural America. Not in the cities. If it was up to the people of California or New York, Hilary Clinton would be preparing for re-election. Macron won in Paris. He lost in the region of France to Le Pen. And, if you look here to our recent kick the guts election defeat, we had swings to us in the city, in wealthy areas, in both safe labor and safe liberal seats, the inner ring. We had swings against us in outer metropolitan areas, particularly in Sydney, which we weren’t necessarily expecting. And big swings against us in regional particularly in Queensland.

Chris Bowen:                Now these are people, in my view, who say in the Australian context, twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, give me break. I don’t see it. My kid can’t get a job, I’m maybe forty-five and I’ve been unemployed for two years. You go down the main street of Mchale or Gladstone, or Gladstone’s a bit different, it’s going better than some regional centers. Mchale, or Bowen, or Rocky, and things aren’t feeling too great. They’re saying what about us? And the straight, center-right message of, “We care about inequality”, has not appealed to them. It’s our challenge to make sure that we do put it in ways which does appeal to them, when we ensure that the product is the right one for them, and two we are expressing it in a way which speaks to their views about inequality. Because they are, if you like, victims of inequality, they are falling behind in our society.

Chris Bowen:                Obviously our message of, “We care about you and care about inequality.”, has not resonated.

Misha Zelinsky:             It is a bizarre thing when you look at the traditional, I guess, areas that social democrats care about globally, and the regional inequality that we’re seeing somehow, whether it’s message, whether it’s policies. I think there’s an element of attitude and tone about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             But, how is it that we’re just misaligned, we’re not connecting somehow?

Chris Bowen:                This is not a new challenge in some ways, it’s more intense and more acute than it has been. But it is also not a new challenge. Do you remember fifteen or twenty years ago Thomas Frank wrote the book, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”, which was about this very matter. In some countries it was published as, “What’s the matter with America?”, but the real title is, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”. And he spoke about these issues, the people of Kansas, Alabama and Arkansas, and those states are doing it tough or falling behind, subject to inequality, have been left behind by the elites. And the democrats have all these wonderful policies to deal with that, and they are turning up on the first Tuesday of November and letting some old Republican. What is going on here?

Chris Bowen:                And he put it down to cultural issues, lack of empathy with the cultural concerns of people in those states. And I think there is still something to that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you raise that recently, talking about whether or not people of religious faiths feel at home.

Chris Bowen:                Yes. Which is, I think, an existential problem.

Chris Bowen:                If you look at the United States, the single biggest indicator of voting intension is faith. Not income, not ethnicity, not geography, it’s faith. What ever faith. Even if you’re of Islamic faith, that’s the best indicator that you’ll vote Republican, if you are of very solid faith.

Chris Bowen:                Again, I think we have a real challenge here in Australia about this. Now, we’re a progressive party of course, we believe in equality. I voted for major equality, I’m very proud of that. But, we need to ensure we are also having lines of communication to people who are economically progressive, and who believe in social justice. And some instances believe in social justice because of the ethos that they were brought up in, in their church.

Chris Bowen:                But also have some concerns about their social conservative. Now, I’m not suggesting for one second we need to not continue with the progressive project, but I am suggesting that we need to think about how we talk to people of faith, how we bring people of faith with us, ensure that they know they have a role in our party, that they can be treated with respect by the party, and have their views considered, both within the party processes and by the party in government. And we have not done that. To be frank, we have neglected that as a movement and as a party, and we have paid a price.

Chris Bowen:                I think a big part of the swing against us in western Sydney and probably in some regional areas, was the concern of people of faith, that the labor party has lost touch with their concerns and their issues going forward. People who say to me, “We just want to know that you’ll listen to us. We may have voted against marriage equality, but we accept the result, but we want to know we’ve got a place at the table going forward.” I think, collectively, the party and parties of the left, need to ensure that there is a role for people of faith. Again, many faiths teach social-

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                Social justice.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s not antithetical-

Chris Bowen:                No, that’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:             The tenants of religion are in no way an antithetical decision. Obviously, love thy neighbor, looking after one another, there’s plenty within the-

Chris Bowen:                Quite the contrary! Quite the contrary!

Chris Bowen:                I mean, in most religions as you say, preach love, and respect, and tolerance and understanding, and justice. We might use different words, but it’s what we’re about as well. But we’ve lost the connection with people of faith, and we must get it back. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I regard it as an existential crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s that. Certainly putting it at a high level.

Misha Zelinsky:             This narrowness, how do progressives, and this a global problem. You look at it globally, rightfully identified progressive parties, social democratic parties have either been marginalized or disappeared in some countries, you’ve got France.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah. Well there’s the French socialist party effectively no longer exists.

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, as you say, the existential threat, Macron’s essentially co-opted that group and other parts of the center-right. Globally this retreat for the regions, this retreat from the suburbs even, this retreat from, as you say, more conservative social values, how do, rather than narrowing, how do progressive parties broaden? How do we become broader?

Chris Bowen:                Well, there’s no one thing Misha. It’s got to be part of a tableau, an embroidery of our party. It’s as simple as making sure that we’re in touch. We’re in touch with the regions, we’re in touch with people of faith, we’re in touch with people who maybe at least open to the argument that’s put by the populists, that the answer to your problem is less trade and less immigration. Now you know, and I know that’s the antithesis of what the answer is. We have to say to people who have been spoken to, in the Australian context, by one nation or even Parma, or the liberals in their own cunning way, to say look, the answer to your problem is less immigration, less trade. We have to show that the answer is not less immigration, less trade. But, we cannot dismiss the question or the issues that we come back to, moving our faith back down to the regions.

Chris Bowen:                If you’re in Mchale, or Bowen, or Townsville, and the economies not doing too great, we cannot say you’re wrong. We have to say, you’re right! But the answer to your problem is not Pauline Hanson. We have the answers. Now the essential key to those we have to have the answers, otherwise we can’t give it.

Misha Zelinsky:             But we do tend to jump to say, you don’t get it, you don’t understand the data, you don’t understand the policies.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, what are you talking about? We’ve got twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, and unemployment’s low, and interests rate.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the macro numbers don’t tell the micro story, right?

Chris Bowen:                They certainly do not.

Chris Bowen:                When I was shadow treasurer I used to say this, I used to do a lot of board rooms with the countries most senior business people. I used to say to them respectively, because they used to say to me, “Oh well, the labor party is wrong about this and that, and everything’s going-”, well I said, “You don’t get it. With respect, you don’t get it.”

Chris Bowen:                Things look good from here. We’re sitting in a board room in Sydney, we can see the Opera house, the Harbor bridge, the unemployment rate in Sydney has a three in front of it, or sometimes a two in front. There’s no vacant shops, everything’s bustling. Come out with me. Come to Mchale and walk down the main street. Come to Emerald! Inland Queensland. Things don’t feel too great out there. We collectively, not just political parties, but the establishment, if you want to use that word, economic establishment, the political establishment, the business community, the elites, need to get it.

Chris Bowen:                Far too much, collectively, we haven’t got it. Or, haven’t communicated that we do get it anywhere near effectively enough. The door has opened for that Charlottetown [clark parma 00:15:42] and the populist Pauline Hanson, and we have to close the door by being more responsive to the concerns of people who say this twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, I think, is bullshit.

Misha Zelinsky:             Quote that!

Chris Bowen:                You don’t beep out on this podcast?

Misha Zelinsky:             No, no, that’s all right. I’m not too sure too many kids are interested in geopolitics and social democracy globally. But for those that do, close your ears.

Misha Zelinsky:             So look, that was really interesting. One of the things I was keen to talk to you about, and we started with Putin and liberalism, and we’ve talked about social democracy, but the question of liberalism, the United States being the typical guarantor. They’ve underpinned the global system-

Chris Bowen:                Shining hope of the world!

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Chris Bowen:                Last hope.

Misha Zelinsky:             This trade war with China, they’ve now appeared to be retreating from their own system. Firstly, what do you make of that? And secondly, what’s the implications of that war between the US and China for Australia?

Chris Bowen:                The trade war will be sorted. There will be a truce. The only question is when and how? Why do I say that? The alternative is unthinkable, because the only alternative to the trade war being sorted is in effect decoupling. Saying the United States and China will decouple from each other and not have tradings.

Misha Zelinsky:             And some people argue for that, increasing national security grounds.

Chris Bowen:                Well that’s about unthinkable as men and women decoupling. Because we need each other, right?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                China and the United States need each other. And the idea that you could have a two polers in the world, two poles of the world economy with very little to do with each other is just… The world doesn’t work like that. The production chains don’t work like that. Half the things that are made in America, the components are made in China. And that’s not about to change.

Chris Bowen:                Now, there’s an easy way and a hard way, and that’s the only question open to president Trump and president Xi is, do we take the easy way or the hard way? I hope very much they take the easy way. But even if they take the hard way, either they or their successors will sort it. It’s true to say that in the United States this is not just Trump, it is a broader concern in the political elite, including the Democrats, that China has not been playing fair in the world trading system. And it’s also true to say that in some elements they have poy. President Trump is not always wrong. And he does have some legitimate concerns about the world trading system and China’s place in it. But the trade war is very much not the answer.

Chris Bowen:                Now I’m hopeful that they’ll choose the easy way. Either they will choose the easy way, or if there’s a new president next year, but I hope it doesn’t take that long because the implications of a worsening trade war, I mean, you don’t really need us to spend much time on, because they’re pretty self evident. They’re pretty bad. They’re pretty bad for the world economy, they’re pretty bad for us as a trading nation, pretty bad for our region. Even more than the direct implications of the trade war, because you can do all the modeling, and you’ll have this impact, this flow into Australia, and all that’s legitimate. But, I think the bigger problem is just the blow to confidence around the world, just the uncertainty created by the trade war, and the general blow to confidence is terrible for a country like Australia.

Chris Bowen:                I tend to be on the more optimistic side of what will happen in the world economy and the political system, but I’m also a nice, open realist as to the implications if I’m wrong, and that they choose the hard way, and it’s not pleasant.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, it’s interesting, because pretty much the only by-part [inaudible 00:19:34] that you can find in Washington is the attitude to China. The peace arises, you described before, China’s getting rich, China’s going to get democratic, peace will now be, perhaps… Has not eventuated-

Chris Bowen:                Well it has been peaceful, but there’s been no move towards greater democratic freedom

Misha Zelinsky:             And so we’re seeing increasing authoritarianism. The question, to your point, it’s unthinkable to decouple economically, but there’s a real push to decouple on the national security elements. How do those two things sit together when you consider the techno nationalism around Warway, and the security of data and that element of the debate? And then all the economic points that you’ve made. They seem to be completely pulling against one another.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, it’s really hard. I know I don’t underestimate the difficulty for any government in the western world. I think the liberal national government here has made mistakes in that space over the last six years, but I’m not overly critical of them because I don’t underestimate the size of the task, or the degree of complexity of the task in navigating that. Now what you need is a national strategy. The problem Misha, I think you’re really making this point, is that in many countries, including Australia, the economic establishment and the national security establishment shout at each other.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                And the national security establishment shouts, “China’s terrible, have nothing to do with them.” And the economic establishment shouts, “They’re our largest trading partner, we’re buggered without them!”. Both sides have some evidence to their cases, the trouble is that far to often, it’s just the shouting. In the cabinet, and I’ve served in both, there’s the Expenditure Review Committee, which is in effect the Economic Policy Committee, and you’ve got the National Security Committee, the cabinet, I’ve served on both for some years. What you really need is probably a National Strategy Committee. To get the intelligence agencies and the economic agencies in the same room and say, what are we going to do about it then? How are we going to navigate this?

Chris Bowen:                Some countries are doing it differently, but we’re all faced with similar conundrums. Prime minister Trudeau is dealing with this very acutely in Canada. Prime minister May, they’ve dealt with their own Warway issue in a different way to many other countries. And they’ve obviously weighed up the evidence. And you know I’ve seen the briefings, not the classified briefings, but I’ve seen the public briefings about Warway, and there are some issues, and our position is the same as the government on Warway.

Chris Bowen:                These are tough issues and we’ve got to stop shouting at each other about them.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things, to your point about China is the oscillating between greed and fear, but I think actually we don’t oscillate that much, as you say, to people that are national security minded tend to be hawkish and people who are economically minded tend to be doveish.

Chris Bowen:                We have tribes.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Hilary Clinton said you can’t argue with your banker. I think we have situation where it’s difficult to argue with our best customer. China touches up a little around coal exports, I mean, certainly the coal or oil type situation with the Canadians, as you alluded to there. But is there a case on national security grounds, or even just on a diversification basis, for Australia to build deeper links into other parts of the regional, global economy?

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely. This is the key question. I think you correctly put Misha. We can talk about China and how we handle it, and obviously I have views about that, but what we’re not doing as a country is deepening our links to the region. More broadly, the Indo-Pacific. Every country is important, but the two key countries for us are India and Indonesia. We’re doing a little more in India than Indonesia-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which we don’t talk about much at all.

Chris Bowen:                No, no. But, by and large we’re not very much.

Chris Bowen:                Both of those countries have been bedeviled, in terms of our bilateral relations with different but similar problems in that in both cases the relationships have been transactional. Indonesia in particular, our relationship with Indonesia is transactional, it’s not deep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Going to Bali.

Chris Bowen:                Going to Bali or, from a government-government level, we’ve got a problem with boats, can you help us? Or live exports, it’s all about a transaction. And with India it’s a related but slightly different problem, is that it’s stop start. So there’s been good intentions by prime minsters, etc., and there’s been bilateral visits, and it disputes-

Misha Zelinsky:             You would’ve thought it’s easier, perhaps on a language basis and a cultural basis. There’s cultural alignment around sport, there’s language alignment-

Chris Bowen:                Curry, cricket, and Commonwealth. That’s what they say about India. Well let’s just step back for minute Misha. In each case, let’s look at why both countries are vital for us, and then look at why we need do better, or what we could do better.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Chris Bowen:                So, let’s just take India, the fastest growing major economy in the world. Probably will be the second biggest economy in the world by 2050, probably, on track. It will overtake China as the largest, most populous country in the world. OK. You’d think that means they’re pretty strategically and economically important for us. And, they absolutely are. But, again, it’s been stop start.

Chris Bowen:                I’m hopeful though that perhaps we’ve turned the corner with India because the biggest thing we’ve got going for us with India, is that they are now, pretty consistently, our largest source of permanent migrants. So we have a critical mass of permanent ambassadors, from us to them, and them to us. Those Australian-Indians or Indian heritage who now make Australia home, are very entrepreneurial, active in business, and hopefully will help us cement that relationship and stop it being about curry, cricket, and Commonwealth, but actually deepen it.

Chris Bowen:                There are a few things we can do for India. Firstly, we should be actively, not just say we agree, but we should, in my view, very actively promote India joining APEC. APEC’s an Australian invention-

Misha Zelinsky:             Forgot institution largely.

Chris Bowen:                It’s fallen off the tree a bit-

Misha Zelinsky:             Keith talked about it a lot, obviously.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah. See when APEC started, it was the main game in town-

Misha Zelinsky:             G20.

Chris Bowen:                Now you’ve got G20, you’ve got East Asia Forum. Summit season’s a busy time. And APEC tends to now be the forgotten cousin.

Chris Bowen:                Well one, Australia should promote invigoration of APEC, in my view, for all sorts of reasons. And two, we should welcome India to APEC. It’s an anomaly that they’re not in APEC. They’ve been trying to join since 1994. And the concern about India is, it’s a legitimate concern by some of our colleague countries in APEC, that India is generally not a globalized, generally not pro-free trade, and would be a blocker in APEC. Well my answer to that is we have to bring them in.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                You can’t pretend to exist. They are going to be the world’s second biggest economy. Let’s bring them in. We’ve got to give more support to those people in then Indian system arguing for openness. Now the proportion of trade in the Indian economy has doubled. Their exports have doubled over the last period. So, they are being more openly focused. Prime minister Modi’s instincts generally on the economy are more free trade and global in their approach. It’s still a very different economic system to ours. But there is cause for hope. So we’ve got to try to build our institutional, bilateral links with India much more, and we should try to bring them into regional architecture.

Chris Bowen:                On Indonesia. Now, Indonesia is the most stable country, basically in the world, when it comes to economic growth. They just continue to grow. China does, but Indonesia’s growth rate has been, if anything, even more stable. They’re just consistent, quiet achievers when it comes to economic growth-

Misha Zelinsky:             Quarter of a billion people!

Chris Bowen:                Yes! And so much so that they will be the world’s seventh biggest economy probably, by 2030, and fourth biggest economy by 2050. They’ll overtake us, Germany, the UK, everybody.

Chris Bowen:                Guess what? Their next door to us, and they’re not in our top trading partners. I think, hello? Are we getting something wrong here?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well it’s certainly…

Chris Bowen:                Yeah! And, again, as I said, our relation’s transactional. We don’t talk to each other.

Chris Bowen:                Here in Australia, more Australian school students study parts of Indonesia in 1972 than they do today. University campus after university campus is closing their Indonesian faculty, because they don’t have enough students.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is that an emphasis question? Why is that happening? You’ve learnt the language.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, because I decided that, for a couple of reasons, I couldn’t talk the talk, without walking the walk, and talk about Indonesia about how important it was, for example, that we left out Indonesia literacy, if I’m a middle-aged Anglo-Celtic, middle class guy, lecturing the country and young people that we need to do this, if I wasn’t prepared to do it myself.

Chris Bowen:                So, I took myself off at age forty-two, when I started, and got myself a degree in Indonesian language.

Misha Zelinsky:             Old dog, new tricks mate!

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                People say Indonesian’s an easy language, I say, no it’s not. There’s no such thing as an easy language to learn.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

Chris Bowen:                There are just some that are easier than others. And Indonesian’s at the easier end of the scale. It’s still very bloody hard.

Misha Zelinsky:             Other languages are always challenging.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah.

Chris Bowen:                But it can be done. And it can be done at middle age, mid-career. But language is important because one, it shows respect. Well I’m going to Chicago, and my language skills aren’t as good as I’d like them to be, I’m constantly working to improve them. But I can start a meeting with an Indonesian finance company, for example, in Indonesian. They often fall off their chair in surprise that a western politician can speak Indonesian. I don’t finish the meeting in Indonesian in case I agree to something I didn’t mean to.

Chris Bowen:                The fact that you show the respect, and often when I’m there the meetings flow in and out of Indonesian and English, because they can’t half speak English, and if I can speak Indonesian we show each other respect of floating in and out of each other’s language, to make sure we understand each other. It just changes completely the tone of the meeting. If you’re just speaking English, and often it’s pro-former, it’s formulaic, it’s a lot of, “Here you are.”, and “Thanks for your visit.”, “And stay as a good friend.” It’s bullshit.

Chris Bowen:                If you actually show the respect that you’ve learnt their language, it changes the tone of the meeting. And also, because we’re getting more young people learning Indonesian, or any other Asian language, Indonesian’s what I chose because you can’t learn them all. Any Asian language. You almost inevitably are engendering and interesting the country, and their background and their history. Part of my Indonesian degree was two compulsory subjects, the history of Indonesian language, and Indonesian contemporary culture.

Chris Bowen:                But even at school. When I was school I had the choice between Italian, and French, and German.

Misha Zelinsky:             Same.

Chris Bowen:                But they also taught us about the culture as they were teaching us language. The same with Indonesian, or Mandarin, or Hindi. We talked about India, but how many schools are teaching Hindi? None.

Chris Bowen:                And recently ABC fact checked me, and I’m glad they did, because I had said in a speech, going back to China for second, but it’s about Asian languages, I said in a speech Australian’s have non-Chinese heritage who can speak Mandarin to a level of business competence. The number is one-hundred and thirty.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ve heard stat, it’s an extraordinary stat.

Chris Bowen:                It’s extraordinary!

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s actually quite damning in a way.

Chris Bowen:                It is. And sometimes when I say to the speech people shake their head and say that can’t be true. One friend of mine slammed a pencil on the table and said, “That can’t be right!”. As I said, fact checked found that essentially it was right. So it was an educated guess, but even if it’s double that, even if it’s two-hundred and sixty! [crosstalk 00:32:21]

Misha Zelinsky:             Two fifty.

Chris Bowen:                Out of twenty-four million, that’s a pretty poor figure.

Chris Bowen:                Now, Mandarin skills aren’t bad, because of immigration.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Chris Bowen:                But that’s not going to get us there. Education is to get us there as well. So, we’ve got a massive step change to undertake, in terms of our engagement with the region. Because, to get back to your essential point, yes, we can’t put all our eggs in the China basket, share politically, economically, interest of the world, we’ve got to be lifting engagement with India, Indonesia, as young and in the entire region in particular.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah. Going back to the Indian question, because people look at India, look at China, now China has an economic miracle, and India tends to get forgotten. India’s mess here is democratic. I’m so curious on your take of, what’s the future for democracy, open markets, and mesial liberalism versus the Chinese model of state capitalism, state owned enterprises? At this point a lot of people are pointing saying, “Well, that model appears to be delivering, bringing people out of poverty.” Now it’s a convergence, it’s easier to catch up than it is to go forward, but is there legitimate case to stay that the state owned enterprise model, the central control model, is the way forward? Or do you still think the Indian model can prevail in the long term?

Chris Bowen:                No, the Indian model’s getting there. It’s a unique Indian model. It’s not what you recommend as a starting point with a tradition of protectionism and heavy state, very heavy handed regulations and anti-foreign investment. But they’re getting there.

Chris Bowen:                They now have a national GST, for example. It’s got seven different levels, depending on the product you’re buying, which is not necessarily how you design it from scratch in a perfect world, but it’s what they had to do to get it through, because up until then-

Misha Zelinsky:             John Howard did a deal here on the early exclusions. I mean, these things happen in politics, right?

Chris Bowen:                Well up until recently, every states had its own GST, and I’ve seen it, I’ve traveled through India and the trucks get stopped on the state borders to check the goods. That’s all gone. And they’re getting there with retail and land reform, etc. And their growth rates are strong. As I said, they’re the fasted growing major economy in the world, and probably on track to overtake the United States and become the world’s second largest economy at some point when you and I are still on the workforce Misha.

Chris Bowen:                That’s a big turnaround. So they’re getting there, and of course they’re a very robust, strong democracy. They just had an election. It’s a remarkable feat and logistical feat, the Indian election, as is an Indonesian election. But there’s two examples, India and Indonesia, two recent elections, all by and large comparatively smooth and straight forward, and democratic, and both engaged in pro-market reforms and continuing to grow.

Misha Zelinsky:             Does that give you hope for democracy in the region? Obviously, similar outcomes in Indonesia, very complex acapella go style elections-

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely!

Misha Zelinsky:             Very difficult to run them. And India’s also complex. A lot of people say, “Well, democracies on the way. China’s being more assertive. The Russian’s are being more assertive. The traditional democracies have lost their swagger. Brexit, Trump, etc.” Does that give you hope for the region?

Chris Bowen:                It does, and of course democratic change in Malaysia. An economy of similar size to us, similar population to us. I know Malaysia pretty well, I didn’t necessarily think I’d see a change of government in my lifetime, from the all-know government. I don’t think many Malaysians did either. They certainly had elections for a long time, but one party happened to win them every time, until this time. So, we shouldn’t discount that either. I’m not commenting on the details of Malaysian politics, but there’s been a change in government, which was unexpected.

Misha Zelinsky:             A peaceful change as well.

Chris Bowen:                They had a peaceful change, yeah!

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is always the test.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah.

Chris Bowen:                And you could not have guaranteed that a few years ago, if there was a change of government, that it would be peaceful. As I said, they tend to be forgotten, but they’re a significant economy roughly. A roughly comparable economy in terms of middle power, and there’s another example.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things I wanted to get your take on, former treasurer of Australia, you had the portfolio a long time in opposition, one thing that gets overlooked a lot in the debate is this question of debt, global debt. Since the GFC effectively money around the world has been effectively, if not free, subsidized, and we’ve just cut our own straights yet again here in Australia to 1% levels, unthinkable even five years ago. How concerned should we be about one more generally, what it’s doing to the global economy, and how concerning is debt when you look at the debt loans that individuals and countries are carrying? Big question.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, it worries me. It wouldn’t worry me if I was currently serving as treasurer of Australia. If you look at the global debt levels, it’s about 234% of GDP at the moment. Pre GFC it was 208%. So we have higher exposure than we had pre-GFC in the globe.

Chris Bowen:                Now, then you’ve got to look underneath it and say, what’s driven that? Now the good news is, is that a lot of that is driven by states, sovereign states. About eleven trillion has been handed by the United States. About five trillion has been added by China. Debt created by a sovereign government has its issues, but in terms of economic [stability around the world, it’s probably one of the less ‘badish’ types of debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             Owing it to yourself in your own currency.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

Chris Bowen:                Some comes from corporate in United States. And some comes from corporate in China, which is perhaps a cause for instability, if, because there are concerns about the opaqueness of some of that debt. If there is a downturn or a problem, it could be that, that is the cause of it. I don’t want to be too alarming, but you have to be realistic about where the shock could come from, and that is one.

Chris Bowen:                And some is household debt, which is a concern, and that’s our problem.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                Australia and Canada, household debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             World champions in that dubious area, right?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. Second highest in the developed world. Not a record we should be looking for. And that does expose us. If there was an international downturn, whether it be caused by Chinese debt crisis, whether it be caused by a US recession, which the markets would indicate. Possible/likely.

Misha Zelinsky:             Not to get in a super wonk-ish discussion, but inverted yield curves.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly. Exactly right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Predicting a US recession in twelve months, or so.

Chris Bowen:                Exactly right.

Chris Bowen:                And there is some rushing after that. Or it’s caused by an elongated, worsening trade war, or it’s caused by Europe/Brexit. Europe’s hasn’t been in a great state. Germany’s narrowly avoided a recession. Italy’s bouncing along the bottom. Greece continues to be Greece. Europe’s not in a great state, so from somewhere you could see the makings of an international downturn from one of the above. And if that happens, one of our exposes is our very high household debt.

Chris Bowen:                I think most households can cope with an increase in interest rate, obviously they’re going down at the moment, but even if they did start to move up, most households have factored in some buffer. What you can’t cope with is unemployment. And that’s where, if there is a downturn, and we’ve got very high household debt, we are in-

Misha Zelinsky:             The assumption is you’ve still got your job.

Chris Bowen:                Correct.

Chris Bowen:                Debt does worry me.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of government? Because one of the things that troubles me, it’s a global question, going right back to basic economics, cheaper money means businesses borrow, means they invest, households borrow to an extent they can consume, but largely, we want to see this investment piece. Now, the rate of capital formation. So, i.e. people borrowing money to invest in new things to build. New factories, new businesses, etc., is on the way. You’re seeing largely this subsidized money being driven into asset markets, property shares and other forms of equity.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is there a role there to make sure that we actually, well, if we’re going to subsidize money, it goes into job creation, or into things that are going to create economic activity?

Chris Bowen:                Well, ideally.

Chris Bowen:                I don’t want to go through the war, but that was one of the policy rationales for our negative gearing reforms, for example. Obviously the pay will go through a process of revising our policies. But one of the things that drove us on negative gearing reform was that we have the most generous property tax concessions in the world. I mean it’s almost irrational not to be a property investor in Australia.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well the tax system tells you to do it, right? You can watch my essay on this, but I find it crazy for every ten dollars that’s borrowed in Australia, six bucks go in the property market.

Chris Bowen:                Because we provide such incentives to do for the tax system.

Misha Zelinsky:             People go with incentives like water goes down hill.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

Chris Bowen:                And so, that’s one of the reasons why we have the second highest household debt in the world. It’s because our tax system encourages it. Now, again, as I stress, the party has got to go through the process of a review, but that was the number of rationales for that reform, one of them was housing affordability, one of them was budget repair, and the other one was financial stability and high household debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the way forward here, in terms of actually getting consumption going? Because 60% of the economy is driven by consumption. So the focus tends to lead largely on supplies, so let’s get monetary policy-

Chris Bowen:                Well the reserve bank governors made it clear they can only do so much, right?

Chris Bowen:                Again, it’s a bit hard to avoid the recent election, but we had policies on the investment guarantee to encourage businesses to invest. But we also, unapologetically said, well you can’t expect people to consume when the wage is going backwards. And so we did have some, you might call them radical, but strong policies on the living wage, on penalty rates, because unless we get wages growth going, and it did require a degree of intervention because the systems not sorting it. And this is an international problem, I don’t hold this government entirely responsible for all of it, but I hold them responsible for the lack response, and for saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             And incoherence in the policy, cutting penalty rates-

Chris Bowen:                Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:             Demand for consumption.

Chris Bowen:                Well we can argue about the way it’ll increase wages, but I think we could probably agree the way to increase wages is not to cut them on weekends.

Chris Bowen:                We saw wages growth as being pretty important for social justice and fairness, and equality, but a pretty important economic stimulus as well. Unless there is a solution found through those mechanisms or others, we are going to continue to bounce on the bottom of consumption. And the economy will continue to be anaemic. In my view.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I could probably pick your brain all day, but you’re a very busy man with a lot of things to do. But, before you go, and one of my classic clunky segues into the lamest of all questions, Chris Bowen’s barbecue, three international guests, three international shows, so who are the international guests alive or dead that you’d have at a barbecue at Bowen’s? It’s got alliteration, so already-

Chris Bowen:                There you go, I could get an apron printed or something.

Chris Bowen:                Three international guests! Well, and they can be dead? Well first-

Misha Zelinsky:             Might be less fun.

Chris Bowen:                Well, OK, to show my pure [wonkiness 00:44:15], in the fantasy football world, and they could be dead, Winston Churchill. I was born eight years after he died, so never walked the planet with him, but I’ve read basically everything you can read about him, an enormous, remarkable figure. And then you’d put Clem Attlee in. You’d see those to be in the same room as those two. Being a bit more realistic around the world, pretty interested in the US presidential race at the moment. I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of hours with Pete Buttigieg.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, I met Pete, he’s really a compelling guy isn’t he?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah! Yeah, I’d have him over for a barbecue. I’d have Ruth Bader Ginsburg over as well, if she could make it. Very admirably figure, powerful intellectual, extraordinary figure.

Chris Bowen:                And then just to mix it up completely, I’d probably have, this guy is actually a friend of mine, I’ve come to know him, I’d have, just to mix it up a bit, a guy who I think is probably the best, in my view, the best living novelist in the world, I’m bias, is John Boyne. He’s an Irish novelist. He wrote the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and he wrote The Absolutist, which I highly recommend. A compelling read. I’ve come to know him, he’s a good fella. An Irishman, an Irish novelist. He loves Australia! He comes to Australia at every opportunity, that’s how we got to know each other.

Misha Zelinsky:             [crosstalk 00:45:48] I think Churchill might have an interesting discussion.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah! That’s right. I don’t think Churchill’s appeared directly in any of his novels. He certainly has written about the issues of the day. So I’d have John over as well.

Misha Zelinsky:             So we’ve got a novelist, a former British prime minster-

Chris Bowen:                And the nearest south bender [crosstalk 00:46:08]-

Chris Bowen:                I added one.

Misha Zelinsky:             And that’s right, a former president of Australia. So that would be a great barbecue, I’d definitely like to be a fly on the wall with that one. Chris Bowen, thanks for joining us, I really appreciate your time mate.

Chris Bowen:                Been a lot of fun Misha. Good on you.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.