Dr Charles Edel is a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre.
He was the Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, advised the Secretary of State John Kerry on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific and was a Henry Luce scholar at Peking University. Charles is the co-author of
‘The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019)’ and his editorials regularly appear in The New York Times and other publications.
Misha Zelinsky caught up with Charlie for a chinwag about Mike Pompeo’s visit to Australia, ongoing US China tensions, whether we are seeing the repeat of the gathering storm of the 1930s, the brave protesters of Hong Kong, how democracy can revitalise itself, the dangerous polices of the Chinese Communist Party, and why it’s so important that we learn from historic tragedy. It was a wide ranging chat and I hope you enjoy it!
Misha: Charles Edel, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?
Charles Edel: I’m great. Thanks very much for having me on Misha.
Misha: Pleasure’s all mine. I appreciate having you on. So for the audience now obviously have given you, lifting the lid on the white podcast. Look, you’ve got the great intro about with your bio, et cetera, that I thought would be interesting, how does a person who worked for a secretary of state Kerry foreign policy expert, how do you end up in Sydney, Australia?
Charles Edel: With a lot of luck, and a ton of skill by being married to the right person.
Charles Edel: So when I was working for a secretary Kerry in policy planning office of the State Department I was looking at and advising him on political insecurity matters for what we used to call the Asia Pacific. Now it’s been brought into the Indo-Pacific, but Australia was clearly a very important part of that. Remit I got to travel out here when I was in government.
Charles Edel: But after I left government in January of 2017, my wife who is a diplomat, said “Well it’s time we go abroad again how he feel about Australia.”
Charles Edel: And I said, “I feel pretty damn good.” So I’m just here as a traveling spouse and it was the best decision I ever made. Yes, clearly being married to her, but coming out here to Sydney.
Misha: Second best decision.
Charles Edel: Second best … Well, look, we say we won the jackpot twice, because it’s not only Australia, but it’s Sydney. We apologize to Canberra and Melbourne and everywhere else.
Misha: Now you are opening up a whole heap of how dangerous. I just lost all my three listeners in Melbourne. So anyway, so normally sort of talk about things in a more general sense, but been some news this week we’ve had a visit from Secretary of State Pompeo and I thought I’d just get your take on a few things. I mean, one of the things that caused a bit of a fuss was this question of missile deployment, foreign missile deployment by the United States. You know, there was no … In the end, prime minister Morrison ruled it out, but it took a few days. What’s your take firstly on the question of foreign missile deployment and what would that do to the balance of regional power? If Australia chose to partake in that?
Charles Edel: So first of all, I’m not sure I am in agreement with your assessment that Prime Minister Morrison has fundamentally ruled it out. I think the conversation in the commentary has really gotten ahead of what the quotes actually were. And so my read of it at least, is that a hot on the heels of the United States withdrawing from the INF the intermediate range nuclear forces agreement, which is only binding on the United States and the Soviet Union, then the United States and Russia, right.
Charles Edel: That they wouldn’t develop or deploy land-based missiles either conventional or nuclear. Right after the U.S. withdrew from this on Friday, the new secretary, the U.S. Secretary of defense, Mike Asper when he touched down here in Australia said that we are looking for more sites in Asia to potentially deploy U.S. land-based missiles. That’s the backdrop to all of this.
Charles Edel: And again, what I heard was then the followup questions. Well did he ask Canberra to deploy them? And no, he did not ask. And I drew a line under it is what Morrison said. To me that’s actually an ambiguous statement. But it’s true that he didn’t ask because A, those conventional assets haven’t yet been developed. The type of things that they’re talking about. But this is the beginning of a conversation about whether or not they can be developed, if they should be developed and where they are deployed for what effect.
Charles Edel: So sorry to give you the long backdrop, but to me the reason that you can see the U.S. withdrawing from this is if you are a Europeanist, if you’re a Russian hand, this looks disastrous, right? Because for a long time it was arms control, strategic stability between the Soviet Union. Then Russia and the U.S. Well, the argument that was made, which I think has a fair amount of weight behind it, is why would you be party to this if only one side is abiding by it only the United States because the Russians have consistently been cheating on this and on what they’re developing, what they’re deploying forward. But even if you could bring the Russians kicking and dragging into compliance a big if there, it was never binding on what happened out in Asia. And so the Chinese over the last 20 plus years have literally been developing thousands of missiles, conventional and nuclear that range across the entire region and that are specifically designed to prevent the United States and certainly deeply complicated its access to project power into the region.
Charles Edel: Now, one of the ways that you would offset that to have a countervailing strategy is to have land-based cruise missiles that would potentially target and range things within China. Now that sounds very scary, but it’s also how you do deterrence classically. So that is the basis of the conversation. That is where we are on. And the attempt is, it’s a good discussion to say, well, would assets in Australia matter? Do you need them closer to China? Does that simply spiral up tensions or does that in fact create deterrence by one side balancing off against other, that’s where we’re at in the conversation.
Misha: And so an interesting point because part of the visit from Secretary Pompeo, saying we’re here to stay, we’re friends, et cetera. In this discussion with this a hundred years of mate ship, one of the issues that’s discussed at length now in the discourse within Australia is how dependable is the U.S. guarantee via ANZUS
Misha: Does the guarantee mean anything in that sense? Or is something like missile foreign deployment something a way to underwrite that guarantee? Or do they or they linked at all? I mean, I think it’s an interesting question because we had Jim Mattis who was a Secretary Defense quit on the basis of the Trump administration’s treatment of allies. And it’s sort of that capriciousness. So kind of curious about the dependability of the United States as a partner in that context.
Charles Edel: So you’ve actually asked about 15 different questions wrapped up into one. Let me see if I can pull apart some of those with some randomized thoughts for Misha.
Charles Edel: So first of all, I think that what Pompeo was saying, I’m not going to try to translate it.
Charles Edel: Is something that I believe at least is fundamentally true, that the United States is a Pacific power. It has been for the last 230 plus years.
Charles Edel: If you look at America’s strategic and economic and commercial interests, they are all in this region. That is the bet that’s successive U.S. administrations have made. So I don’t think that’s going away. The United States wants to be deeply anchored in the Pacific. Second point, the United States is a Pacific power comma predicated on those in the Pacific wanting it to be one because of the tyranny of distance. Now, there are certain us territories, a certain US states in the Pacific, but to remain a balancer, an offshore balancer in the Pacific that has to be acceptable to those in the region, which again is not something that the U.S. can impose unilaterally. It has to work with allies, friends and partners.
Charles Edel: A third point when I say a balancer that is the United States preferred role, I would argue not to Lord it over everyone and not to have hegemonic abilities you know, but simply to make sure, and this has been consistent U.S. American grand strategy and I would say both Europe and in Asia, but over the past 200 plus years that it is a driving mode of force of America and American strategic thought that they’re … They want there to be a balance of power in Asia when there is a lop side, when there is no balance of power.
Charles Edel: When you have one power dominating others, that has tended to not only affect American prosperity by closing off certain parts of Asia, but also has been a direct security threat to America. And so it’s important to recognize that without the United States in Asia, there is no balance of power. So part of this absolutely as you’ve asked, is a hard power question that as the balance of power, the relative balance of power has shifted over the last 20 years because of astronomical Chinese economic growth, which they’ve then poured it into the acquisition of military assets, which have been meant to coerce neighboring states, but also make it harder for the United States to remain in and protect power into the Western Pacific. Again, this is something that the U.S. has to play catch up with along with its allies and partners. So I don’t know, I think that’s like three parts of your 15 part question.
Misha: Well, we’ll get through the rest. We’ll get through the remaining 12 parts. That was the taste a bit. You’ve talked to sort of the long history of this issue. Of course an author, you’ve written a book, Lessons of Tragedy. I think it’s caused a bit of buzz in Canberra. I understand, I saw a tweet about Martin Parkinson referencing that … Who’s Secretary Prime Minister in cabinet saying everyone should read these book. So it’s available in all good bookstores. You can give it a plug now if you want. But the Lessons of Tragedy, it seems, it’s kind of like a counterintuitive sort of title in that it’s sort of meant to be uplifting, but at the same time with a counterintuitive title. What do you mean by this, firstly? And then we’ll dig into, the message within it.
Charles Edel: So you’ve nailed the paradox within my book. First of all, that it’s a bestseller that has sold like two books, such as a lot of someone who’s trained as an academic. But the point here is I think then my coauthor Hal Brands and I wrote an optimistic if sobering book, but the title is The Lessons of Tragedy, which doesn’t look or sound particularly optimistic. And the basic argument, which we can unpack a little bit, Misha if you want, is that we have lost our ability to think tragically about how bad things could happen. And I don’t mean personal tragedies, I don’t even mean societal tragedies.
Charles Edel: When we say tragedy, the ones that we’re talking about in this book are full-scale bucklings of the international order, complete with great power, not competition, but war and massive human suffering unfolding globally. And because we have lost the ability to think that that is actually a possibility and one that we argue is becoming more possible by the day because we are so far from the last time this happened, 75 plus years, we’re 30 years out from the last time America and its allies had a serious geopolitical, no less ideological challenger.
Charles Edel: The logic of what we have done for so long seems to make less sense. And it’s making less sense just as the warning signs are beginning to flair in multiple directions. So again, I don’t think that this is simply a pessimistic book because the point is, and the reason we use the lessons of tragedy, the reason we can’t hold up the book here in the studio, but it’s got two ancient Greek warriors on the cover, is because when we think about the Athenians and amazingly creative people and amazingly powerful people. People who created the world’s first democratic system in many ways that we still honor today. A prosperous people whose empire kind of span the known world. There’s this paradox because they were seemingly obsessed with the concept of tragedy every year they made their citizens go watch those plays that you and I either read or forgot to read or never chose to read in high school-[crosstalk 00:11:12] that too.
Charles Edel: But the point was the Athenians even in their achievements wanted to keep council with their worst fears. And they did that by putting them up on stage, but they used it communally as a prompt to think about how bad things could spin out of control, what the repercussions of that would be and to prompt the discussions and debates within their society about how to take some profoundly unnatural actions in peacetime.
Misha: And so in your book you sort of talk about the consequences of forgetting, and you go through a historic take on a number of different configurations. But the question I have is what is the … Do you think we are forgetting lessons? I mean we, the most probably direct lesson of tragedy would be the World War II. A lot of that generation is now sadly passing on. Is that lesson now being forgotten and that hard work that was done to build a more peaceful world order after World War II and that sort of never again, is that now fading into obscurity? Is that your concern or is it something else?
Charles Edel: Yes, I mean straight up. Yes. Because again, I just said this, that the logic of what America and other democratic states did. Made sense at the time when you were directly on the heels of coming out of World War II, right? So the idea was essentially preventative, right? That you would pay some costs and now so you didn’t have to pay enormous costs later that you would tend the garden, that you would look what were happening so that you didn’t have to wait till after things had collapsed. But again, there are some pretty natural questions that have come up in American political debate, in Australian debate too, although they take on different hues in the American context, there are questions like, why should America station military hardware and men and women around the world? Why should Americans care about far away places like the South China Sea and Ukraine? Why should Americans care to open their economy to others who don’t open theirs? And they’ve come at the short, medium and sometimes even longterm costs to American workers in certain industries.
Charles Edel: They’re really good answers for those because it tends to be, what happens when America has not played that role, and we’ve run that experiment twice during the 20th century. But as the distance has grown and as the visceral experience seems to have drained the logic of why we have done those things. Seems to have faded from memory, and it’s fading at the worst possible time.
Misha: So how do you make the argument for that? I mean people talk about, it’s popular in maybe wonky circles, the liberal world order, but then it’s almost a cliche, what does it actually mean and what’s involved in defending that and how do you make that case? Because to your point, once upon a time, President Kennedy pay any price, bear any burden and doesn’t seem to have that same level of guarantee. And as a result, that lack of confidence in that U.S. guarantee democracy sort of is retreating off the back of it. So I mean, how do you talk about it in a way that makes sense to people?
Charles Edel: Well look, this book, it represents an experiment to see if the language of Greek tragedy might be helpful here. And I, you know, we can talk about whether it’s more helpful or less helpful because simply saying things like the international liberal order or the rules based order or the American led order convinces no one of anything. And let me point out too that I’m as guilty as anyone else on this because when I was working in government, we would say we have to do this to defend the rules based system.
Charles Edel: And if you explain that to anyone who doesn’t work in the narrow circles of national security, that means what exactly? And the point is that the rules based order sounds really abstract and really theoretical, but it has real world effects because when it goes away, we’re actually talking about things like preventing states from coercing other states, like making sure that their rules for freedom of navigation, like making sure that their rules that other states can interfere in other states, businesses. Like making sure that there’s a global trading order that we all play by the rules and play fairly by them. So again, if you say rules-based order, got it. It’s short hand and it encompasses a lot, but I think we have to get better in our vocabulary, all of us, about what this actually means and why it affects normal citizens.
Charles Edel: Because when it goes away, when you have the reversion to yes, great power war, I mean people understand what that is, but when you have the reversion to not a rules based order, but a spheres of influence world, where the biggest dogs rule the most important areas. What does that mean? Well, it means that states can only trade with certain states based on the political conditions that the big dogs set. It means that states bump up against each other militarily and things become more fraught and are less stable than they might seem. That’s the alternative to this system. So again, this book is an attempt, one attempt to say, well, what does this mean? Why is it worth preserving? And are there better ways that we can talk about? But it’s not the only attempt, and it shouldn’t be.
Misha: And so you’ve talked to them about great power competition, largely that’s the United States relationship with China. In your book, you sort of touch on the similarities between the 1930s where we had a great depression, rise of extremist ideologies in Europe, which then led to world war II. I mean, is that, are there parallels that you see now when you look at the global financial crosses followed by we’re seeing populism, sweeping around the world, authoritarianism returning to Europe, authoritarians being elected around the world. Are there parallels or should we be careful about drawing parallels that are too close?
Charles Edel: Yes to both your questions. There are parallels and we should be careful about overdrawing analogies and only looking at one set of analogies. So in terms of the 1930s, the parallels are there and they’re real. Populists on the march, democracies in disarray, revisionist powers. So powers who want to change the status of power and how much they have kind of poking, prodding, nibbling around the edges.
Charles Edel: Some proxy wars breaking out on the side where states tests new found technologies. Take a look at Syria for instance. Take a look in Ukraine. The analogies are real. But it’s not the only analogy that we can think about. So actually, my coauthor, Hal Brands and I from this book, we wrote another article a while ago where we asked, look, is this the darkening storm, right? That we see coming towards us. Or is this the darkness before the light? And so we looked at the 1930s, but we also looked at the 1970s where you had a similar set of withdrawal by America after the Vietnam War. A real questioning of America’s international role. You had violence on the streets more so than we see today. And the question is, is that a better analogy because of course-
Misha: The collapse of the Bretton Woods system.
Charles Edel: Well, that’s exactly right. Right, because capitalism itself looked to under strain. But of course if you look at the 70s and then you look at the 1980s, in some way American power comes roaring back because the structural drivers of longterm strength of the American economy, the demographic profile of the United States, some of the policy decisions that were taken by both the Carter administrations, it’s kind of strange to say. And the Reagan administration teed up a more assertive set of policies that kind of made sure that American power was reinvigorated. And so the truth of the matter is that both of those analogies work, but in different strokes. And so if I would argue that if the right policy choices are made to reinvest in American power to grow the kind of, the economic prosperity of America to begin to play smarter bets on the strategic sense to make sure that the American people, which you can begin to see are tipping away from, we are living in a placid environment.
Charles Edel: To me this augers a very different future than the 1930s, but that’s only if those policy decisions are made because if they’re not, then we could very well see it tipping to a much darker future.
Misha: And so, this question of the U.S. China Relationship looms large in Australia, We’ll get to I suppose how Australia navigates that. But I’m curious, what’s changed in the United site’s perception of China because it seems that it’s been what was sort of a strategic, sort of a closeness has now become a strategic rivalry and that it’s almost like the U.S. suddenly woke up to this challenge overnight. How has that relationship changed? And why?
Charles Edel: So it’s a great question, right? That the China debate in Australia, no less in America seems to have changed so quickly that it’s really been confounding. And why has it changed so profoundly and moved so quickly? That’s a great question.
Charles Edel: And I would say that obviously it’s different in Australia as it is in America, but for the U.S., the engagement thesis that if you engage, if you choose to engage with China and Chinese leaders and CCP leaders, they will norm themselves to the rules of the international system and they will grow more prosperous and more secure for it.
Misha: And then more democratic.
Charles Edel: And more democratic ultimately. So that was the basis for the past 30 years of American engagement with China. And I think what’s happened and what’s happened seemingly quickly, although it’s been building for a long time, is that there’s a new emerging consensus that, that was potentially the right bet to have placed at the time, but hasn’t held up. And the thesis, that engagement, would as you say, democratize China.
Charles Edel: That has clearly not happened because it’s moved in the opposite direction. They would make them a more stabilizing force. Well that hasn’t happened either. And that would make them make economic choices that would reform an open up their economy as Dung Joe Ping seem to indicate was the future direction for them. While under Xi Jinping they’ve gone in the exact opposite direction. So there’s been this question of … Look in America, you always have your hawks right, who have always said you need to hedge against China’s rise. Certainly the more troubling aspects of it. But you also had the business community and the NGO community cheering on engagement. Well over the last two to three, if not three to five years. China has lost both of those constituencies within the U.S. because of the actions that they have taken on stealing IP, on forcing tech transfers on not living up to the deals and the agreements that they agreed to play by in 2000 when they joined the World Trade Organization.
Charles Edel: And frankly, if you look at the repressive turn within China by the CCP under Xi Jinping, all of those advocating for more people to people ties, for more civil society groups, for more a rule of law groups, have been kicked out of China at this point. So they’re not cheering on, no one’s cheering on this hard and turn, but it’s a realization that what had worked in the past is actually not going to work in the future. So a new set of assumptions need to undergird what you as policy is moving forward.
Misha: I think one of the interesting questions about this, and you sort of talk to the Chinese Communist Party, it’s important I think to separate the Chinese people from their government. And I think everyone doesn’t want to be defined by the government of the country at any particular one time.
Charles Edel: As an American. That’s true. I can say that. It’s true.
Misha: So the domestic policies. So we can talk … We’ll get to the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party. But the domestic policies, I mean, what we’re seeing in Hong Kong, how troubling do you think that is for rules based order. This was a thriving liberal rule of law country well, part of China that was handed over from British colonial rule to China. What we’re seeing now is demonstrations in the streets as China’s increasingly trying to crush that liberalism there. How worried should we be about the Hong Kong situation?
Charles Edel: Well, two things. I think, first of all, we should be profoundly inspired by what is happening. Every day when I turn on the news, when I read, it is, you know, sometimes in democratic societies it’s hard to get people to focus, to be inspired by things.
Charles Edel: You have a seven point two million person population in Hong Kong. Now for basically three months, continuously out on the street protesting with protests as large as 2 million people out there.
Misha: It’s incredibly brave.
Charles Edel: It’s incredibly brave and under threat of force. Beatings by a CCP linked organizations. The threat of potential invasion. And I think it’s very clear to me the most powerful statement that I’ve read in some ways is that the Chinese artists, the dissident artists, Ai Weiwei, who was of course … For producing dissident art was in prison, was tortured, was beaten in Beijing. He wrote a fabulous op-ed in the New York Times saying that the young people who are out on the streets who have information to what China is and to what the rest of the world offers, they’ve made their choice and they made a long time ago. And we should be inspired by that because they have the information and they are saying what they want.
Charles Edel: And in fact, this is a test case for whether or not people choosing their own system of government can be crushed by authoritarians. So on the one hand, this is where we can get into the ins and outs of U.S. policy at some point. One of the most counterproductive statements that came out of Washington and that actually is setting the bar really, really high these days, was saying that this was a clash of civilizations. The U.S. was now embarked upon between the U.S. and China with racial overtones because the first time the U.S. has faced this against a non-Caucasian people, which is first of all, fundamentally and historically inaccurate, comma, see World War II in the Pacific. But too, as you point out, this is not about the Chinese people and Western people and they’re different. All people want the same thing. And if you don’t believe that, simply look at what’s happening in Hong Kong.
Charles Edel: So I wanted to take a step back from your question about how worried we should be because this is truly inspiring stuff potentially when we can’t even see people who live in an open democratic systems coming out to vote. And you have millions of people on the ground demonstrating for this. Now the flip side of your question, how worried should we should be? We should be pretty worried here. I think in unmistakable terms Beijing is making noises that they are willing to, if not crushed this in the way that they crushed a similar uprising in Tienanmen Square 30 years ago with five to 10,000 deaths at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army against their own citizens. If not quite that comma or not that yet. Well, we’ll go after protesters. We’ll use terrorism. We’ll hire the triad thugs employed by the Chinese to beat people.
Charles Edel: There’s a video that I was watching out this morning where you can see the Hong Kong police on the second they switch off duties switching into both black and white shirts. There’s footage of this right. So that they could both insight the protesters and then beat them down afterwards. So this is amazingly troubling, but even more so for that. And I’ll take one step back here, Misha. It’s Hong Kong has always been a special place. And the Chinese knew this. This is what they negotiated with the British in the 1994 SAS courts when the British handed it back over to them. That it would be one country but two systems, semi-autonomous region. And the point was that this was supposed to be a model that for 50 years Beijing would not interfere in or force any decisions on Hong Kong. Well, that is clearly not true.
Charles Edel: And the people of Taiwan are watching this extremely carefully. In fact, Tsai Ing-wen the president of Taiwan who is doing not so well in the polls leading up to this coming January’s elections, in reaction to what’s happened in Hong Kong has seen her fortunes rise. Because we now know that when the Chinese say, and again, I’ll be careful with my words, when the Chinese government says, “One country, two systems.” They don’t mean it. And so there’s a real credibility problem at this point, that no matter what Beijing and the Chinese leaderships offer, be it one country, two systems, be it peaceful conditions in a harmonious rise, be it not militarizing the south China Sea, be it joining the WTO and agreeing to play by the rules. That there’s a real credibility problem that’s emerging.
Misha: And so you just touched on the South China Sea. Of course, China constructed some fake islands and then promise not to militarize those to President Obama. And then of course militarize them. How concerning firstly is that annexation and what does it mean for the area? Having that annexation occur and then, and secondly, what message is China trying to send by doing that?
Charles Edel: They’re trying to send the message that we are the most powerful country in the region and we can intimidate and coerce other countries and that those that don’t agree to our political demands, no less our diplomatic demands, i.e, hierarchical system with China. At the middle, we talked about a sphere of influence. This is what we’re talking about are going to be leaned on very hard. And that’s been the experience of the Philippines. That’s been the experience of the Vietnamese even this week. You know, the South China Sea is the rocks, reefs, and atolls. The really, really plentiful fishing grounds that you have in there that feed, you know, like 10, 15% of some of these countries populations, the natural resources that are potentially under the ground, gas and oil that have, you know amazing wealth that they might offer to the countries around.
Charles Edel: This is a disputed territory, right? That six different countries lay claim to, but what the Chinese have done and said this is ours based on historical claims. When that was invalidated by an international court at The Hague. The American policy decision, I can talk about that because I was in government, was to give that a little time and space so that things might cool off and then we can kind of peacefully work with things. But that’s not what happened. That was the bet that was placed. But the Chinese lorded their claims over and have continued not only with their naval vessels, not only with their enormous coast guard vessels, but increasingly with a maritime militia, right. With thousands of fishing boats that are equipped and resourced by the central government to go out and intimidate coerce and use acts of violence against Philippine fishermen, Vietnamese fishermen and others.
Charles Edel: This is a really large challenge. Now what does this mean, is what you asked? That’s the message I think that it sent. That it’s ours and good luck contending with us because there’ll be violence meted out against you or the threat of violence or even economic pressure applied to your economies if you dare push back against us.
Charles Edel: In terms of what that means. Well, the South China Sea as enormous waterway, is in some ways the most vital one of maybe two of the most vital waterways in the world. When we think about the amount of commerce that passes through this, when we think of kind of commercial trading routes and freedom of the seas, freedom to transit through these unimpeded in international waterways has been a long standing precept and bedrock principle of that nebulous thing, that rules-based order. And so when countries have the ability to unilaterally close this down, what does that mean?
Charles Edel: Well, that has enormous ramifications for commodities, for insurance pricing, for global prosperity. And what we are seeing here is a test about when the Chinese move to assert their de facto control over this waterway, whether or not they’re allowed to have it or not.
Misha: And so what’s interesting is that China tends to prefer to deal with foreign countries on a bilateral basis, not a multilateral basis. And that you sort of talked about the coercive behavior, the bullying. What about the question of interference and the sort of more insidious ways that China tries to influence, it’s neighbors either through hacking or through the BRI, the belt and road initiative where there’s soft money coming in, in the form of loans that can’t be paid back, which China then seizes control of particular assets. I mean, how worrying is that like up against some sort of the bullying and the brute force that we’re seeing that you just described.
Charles Edel: It’s worrying, but not all of these things are equally worrying and we have to think about that and kind of smart ways because BRI has troubling aspects to it, but there are also attractive aspects to that. So I don’t want to paint with a blanket here but in the new report that I wrote with John Lee an Australian colleague about kind of what does the future of the U.S., Australian look like as things heat up here in this region. We said, let’s be clear that it is Beijing’s intentions to undermine the alliances, the American alliances in the region. But the way that they go about doing this takes many different forms.
Charles Edel: So one form is coercion, violence, force, or the threat of those. But there’s another series of tools that they have, inducements, right, that the reward is going to be well worth it even if you have to at times give up your independent political decision making.
Charles Edel: And alternatively, occasionally building alternative institutional arrangements some of which are very much warranted, but others of which are meant to lock in Beijing’s advantages. So there’s a number of different toolkits that I think they go about this.
Charles Edel: Now you asked how worried particularly on the influence and interference. And the answer is I think quite worried because for a democratic state and talking about Australia, but this applies to the United States, it applies to New Zealand, certainly and others. We are open systems. That is how we are designed. It is a source in many ways of our great strength, right? We have con testability anyone can enter into them, anyone can influence or talk to their leaders because our leaders work for us. Not the other way around. That is our strength, but it also creates some vulnerabilities because we’re not the only ones that get to talk to our leaders or influence them or pay them or put them on corporate boards or suggest that maybe there’s a different way, an alternative way of thinking about things.
Charles Edel: So I have to say, having been in Australia for the past two years, it’s been fascinating to watch this debate here because the debate has gotten so hot here and so quickly. And I have to say one of the ways when I go back to Washington and I’m always asked, “Well, how has the influence and interference debate playing out in Australia?” That I think that the debate has evolved in very helpful ways here, is that we have to delineate that which we find acceptable in an open society and that which we find unacceptable. And I think that the broad parameters of that strategy are being conducted and carried about pretty well in the public debate here. We can debate certain policies, but the broad contours of that debate are, look, if we’re competing in terms of brand, in terms of cultural affinity, game on. We don’t box countries out.
Charles Edel: If you want to make an argument for why a communist linden a state is better, go for it. If you want to make an argument for why democracies don’t deliver goods as well as again, game on. That’s okay and that’s allowable, but anything, and this is what I see in the debate here, that is coercive, corrupting or clandestine is not okay. And we’re going to legislate against that and we’re going to make sure that we prosecuted against that as well.
Misha: Bringing this to Australia now directly, I mean the trade war, now is heating up increasingly between the United States and China and Australia, I think rightly concerned about being caught in the crossfire there and being pulled between us security relationship with the United States and other alliances. And then of course, how important trade relationship with China and the disruption potentially caused by these trade wars. I mean, you can understand the concern that-
Charles Edel: Absolutely.
Misha: That brings to Australia. How do we have a productive discussion about this? Because often, criticism of China or Chinese government behavior is often said, “Well, don’t upset the apple cart.” And then on the other hand the United States will ask Australia to be more assertive in the South China Sea, and China’s sort of square that circle is a very, very difficult thing for policymakers. So then how do you see that as a representative or a citizen of the United States observing this debate?
Charles Edel: So three things that I would say in response to that. The first is, and I think you’ve rightly caged this, that the way that you often hear the debate framed here, but frankly around Southeast Asia as well, is there are two partners and their partners of choice for different things, for security and for trade.
Charles Edel: But of course, trade is not prosperity. It’s one component, part of it and a very important part. But so too is investment. So too, is job creation and again, I actually think it’s, it’s a very character black and white debate here that yes Australia has enormous trade flows with China its most important trading partner, 33% of your outbound exports go up north to Beijing when they’re let off the docks and into the Chinese markets. That’s a big if. But again, the United States is the number one investor into Australia in terms of foreign direct investment. And by the way, that’s also true of Australian commerce into America. And there’s more investment put into America by Australian firms than there is into China, into the Middle East or then into Latin America. When we think of job creation, when we think of aggregate prosperity and taxable dollars put into your economy and for your government, there’s no comparison.
Charles Edel: I mean the amount of FDI that the U.S. puts in and by the U.S., I simply mean the private sector is out weights China’s by a degree of 10 to 1. Now, I’m not making the argument that therefore choose A or B, you want to choose both to some degree, but it’s a false dichotomy in some ways to say, it trade equals prosperity because that’s not actually what the real numbers look like.
Charles Edel: Second Point if you don’t mind me. I’m getting rolling here.
Misha: Keep going.
Charles Edel: Is that in this report that John and I put out, we say that the economic edge of this debate is going to evolve because of changing circumstances, but it’s going to evolve probably differently in the United States as opposed to Australia. So in the United States, the word on the cusp of everyone’s lips is decoupling whether or not the United States and the Chinese economies are going to pull apart, dis-aggregate because they’re deeply intertwined.
Charles Edel: And of course then the next question is, well, are we talking about smart decoupling or dumb decoupling? And we’re at the beginning of that debate, but I actually think it’s almost inevitable that, that’s going to happen to some degree because there are certain sectors that the United States and China frankly needs to and wants to protect.
Misha: Tech for example, telecommunications.
Charles Edel: Exactly, that’s right. I mean, [crosstalk 00:39:25] if you ask anyone in China, I lived in China for a number of years, would you allow the United States or would you allow an Australian Telco to build your internet architecture? You couldn’t even get those words out before you got laughed out of the room because the answer is obviously no. Which then begs the question, why is this debate happening here? Although frankly, this debate is happening here only to a minor degree because Australia was the first mover on the Huawei question.
Charles Edel: But again, if that’s the question and the debate in America, the question and the debate in Australia, I imagine needs to be a different set of questions. It’s how do you smartly diversify your trading partners? You’re not going to stop trading with China. You might want to think about which things you’re selling to them and which things you’re allowing them to invest in. Critical infrastructure. We talked about dual use technologies or another, but in terms of agricultural food stuffs, in terms of wine, those are things that you will want to continue selling. And the question though becomes if Australia is the most developed economy, is the country of advanced economies that is most dependent on the China market of all advanced democracies in the world. That has the potential to create real political leverage where at least a case of the slows on other issues like security that we were talking about.
Charles Edel: So the question becomes not selling them things, but how do you decrease that political leverage? And the answer is very obvious. It’s diversification of trading partners. In fact, you’re a government commissioned, Pierre [Vargace 00:40:58] to write a report on India. Yeah, that’s like a 400 page report with 120 recommendations about how Australia and India grow links. But it’s not only India, right? I mean his report was only India. The answer is Southeast Asia as well, which we know is going to represent kind of the hot emerging market in the years to come. So the diversification question should be one that should be sought not only by business people, but also by the government. And frankly, the political risk conversation in the corporate sector here, is immature because all the time businesses do you know, cost benefit analysis, do risk allocations but very infrequently are political factors put in terms of those.
Charles Edel: But if we look at what’s happened even over the last six months with coal, with wheat, with wine staying on the docks. Not for any real official reason, but just because I don’t know what exactly, because the Chinese government is displeased, that Australia’s decided to stand up for its own sovereign interests.
Misha: The Canadians had a similar experience with canola oil.
Charles Edel: And continue to have one. That is a decision that needs to be factored into corporate decisions because it’s a risk factor. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but you have to weight things perhaps differently than they’ve been weighted before.
Charles Edel: The final point I would make is how can we assert ourselves? Well you don’t do it dumbly. It’s actually called diplomacy right. Because when we assert our interests, there’s this kind of false narrative, this false binary that China reacts in one of two ways, thermo nuclear war or nothing.
Charles Edel: And that’s just false.
Charles Edel: And in fact, if we look at smaller states and how they have reacted to instances of Chinese economic coercion, South Korea for instance we can look at India, not a smaller state particularly, but Vietnam certainly. In all those instances you did not have war. We can go through the examples of them, but the point is when they pushed back, it reframed the terms of the debate more conducive to their interests. And in some places like in South Korea, like with Vietnam, Beijing had to not admit mistakes, but reset the frame of the debate.
Misha: And what about the role of multilaterals? I mean that with countries working together, as I said, China prefers that bilateral deal. We’ll deal with the on one-on-one basis. And they tried to pick countries off one-on-one. Can Australia work more closely with regional partners on a multilateral basis to deal with or make the Chinese government play by the rules, of the rules base order, if we can fall back on that cliche.
Charles Edel: Yes. They can, I mean, there’s great strength in numbers, but only if those numbers are brought to bear. And there’s another false narrative that I would say is out there that, China doesn’t care about this stuff. I mean, look at its national power. What does it matter if it gets criticized, and on certain aspects that’s true. But on other aspects, Chinese government goes through great lengths to avoid being criticized, to avoid being seen as the bully. If you look at the politics, for instance, of ASEAN on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 10 members. The preferred approach is always to play it off as you have said one on one, because it’s easier to pick members off ASEAN as a consensus based group. So if you want to make sure that they have no joint statements, that the South China Sea needs to remain open and is not China’s. All you have to do is pick off Cambodia, which is very easy to do these days or Lau.
Charles Edel: But you can also look at the enormous lengths that the Chinese have gone to scuttle individual statements or anything that has a whiff of collective resolve. So when we move the gaze away from ASEAN, but about Australia’s relationships with its neighbors, with Japan, with ASEAN, with India, the more that can be done collectively not to escalate tensions, but simply to say, these are the rules that we’re willing to engage on. The more effect I would argue that it probably has.
Misha: And so, one of the things I wanted to get your perspective on is this question of a democracy. Democracy is under … Probably the first time it’s been challenged in a generation as certainly since the supposed end of history with the collapse of Soviet Union, is democracy is still the best system because Vladimir Putin’s basically said, “It looks all over, dust your hands, see you later.”
Misha: I mean, firstly, is that a legitimate position and why can he say something like that? And then secondly, has the U.S. … Does the U.S. still believe in the projection of democracy around the world?
Charles Edel: So first part of the question is why did Vladimir Putin make this statement? And was he right? So like someone who’s trying to murder the system, you shouldn’t really believe them and why they take it. However, why did he say, well, because-
Misha: Well it’s not something he could have said, I think 10 years ago with any level credibility.
Charles Edel: Right, because it has more credibility now. That the democratic system … Look, democracies have always been predicated on two things, right? The Winston Churchill quote, that it’s the best system of government except for all the rest or the reverse of that rather. Right?
Charles Edel: But also, and fundamentally, democratic systems are based on, it delivers the best type of goods for its citizens, and responsive to their needs. And we can say that democracy, liberal democracy, liberal capitalistic democracy has had some real growing pains and real stumbling problems, particularly over the last 10 years. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it doesn’t look like a perfect model. When we look at globalization and what it has delivered, enormous goods, right? Globalization took millions of people, billions of people if we look at China’s case out of poverty, but also affected people unevenly. And particularly in advanced Western democracies, left a lot of people behind. So are there problems with it? Yes. The best part of our system is that it has the ability to self correct and honestly self-correct, but we’re not there yet.
Charles Edel: And that’s why I think, why you see so much populism and kind of push back against this. So is there some truth in what Putin has said that the system is underdressed? Yes. I mean if you just looked at the numbers, right. The number of democracies in the world hit a high point in 2000 and I believe six and has been on an ebb tide ever since.
Charles Edel: Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian states has increased, so we are really seeing a contest of systems emerge about what is better, able to offer prosperity to people around the world and there’s one system that makes an argument that is simply political control and order and non democratic choice that will lead its way to prosperity and the other stuff doesn’t matter quite as much. I would say kind of circling back to Hong Kong, I’m not sure if that argument has a lot of staying power because even when people become prosperous, they don’t stop caring about that other stuff. This is why Hong Kong is such a great challenge. No less Taiwan for Beijing because it puts lie I think to the fundamental argument that they have.
Charles Edel: But to say that democracy is great and then all of our citizens are being taken care of, I think is fundamentally to misread what’s happened around the world and in Western elections over the last 5 to 10 years.
Misha: I think what’s interesting there, and you did right off and say, it wasn’t as though people got to 1989 and then they read a bunch of Jeffersonian literature and read a bunch of Marx’s and said, “You know what, Jefferson’s a much more beautiful argument.” They looked at was delivering for people and a communist Soviet Union. Russia at the time was not able to deliver for people on a living standard basis, so people yearn for that. What’s interesting in this last decade, is essentially plan … There’s been this enormous prosperity in this sort of autocratic capitalists approach to the world that has been led by China.
Misha: And so young people, I mean when you look a lot of the polling, increasingly young people are sort of questioning whether or not democracy is the best system up against other systems and how worried should we be about that? Or is that just young people being contrarian with?
Charles Edel: Well, so it’s a little bit of both. We should be concerned and as young people being contrarian, but it’s also young people being offered a false choice in those polls. And then an abstract question, do you like democracy or not? How necessary is it? Look, when you look at those polls that have come out in Australia, the Lowy institutes, but a really good polling numbers on this in America, you’ve seen a lot of this poll into all around the Western world. The numbers are to the question, how important, how necessary do you find it as a young person? If we slice and dice the demographics. How important is it that you live in a democracy? And the answer is mah. It’s kind of important, but it’s not the most important thing.
Charles Edel: And the numbers are falling too. Now that is deeply disturbing to a lot of people, particularly to older people. But I actually think that with this one, I’m not as pessimistic as the polls might put out there. Although on the policy discussions I have bigger questions so I’ll return to that in a second.
Charles Edel: But if you actually spend any time talking with young people, high school students, university students, this is a great virtue of my job because I lecture to university students. I get to talk with high school students all the time. And if you don’t ask them, how important is democracy to you? But if you rather say, how important is it that you live in a place that respects individuals? How important is it that you live in a country where human rights, protection and promotion is important? How important is it that you don’t have your own government scanning your face, deciding every action that you make or don’t make fits into a credit system and the government that gets to decide if you’re a trustworthy or an untrustworthy citizen. How important is that when you go to university that you get to learn new ideas and when you find things that are appealing or unappealing and you protest them peacefully, that you’re not bulldozed by violence?
Charles Edel: Well, the conversation shifts really markedly and very quickly.
Misha: From the abstract to the practical.
Charles Edel: From the abstract to the practical. And when you ask young people, how important is it that you live in a society like that? It’s not like 50% and falling, it’s more like 90% and rising.
Misha: I mean, people, it’s often politicians mixed into the question about democracy and what they see on TV and how politicians, act versus the actual system itself compared to what an autocratic system truly is, or is there an element of that do you think?
Charles Edel: Well, there is a little bit of that. But it’s also because, you know, I think we’ve gotten lazy that you kind of referenced 1989 you know, with Jeffersonian versus Marx’s thinking, but really it was Francis Fukuyama who wrote the end of history, i.e. history was over, there was no more argument in history. Liberal Democratic capitalism had one game over argument over. And because the Soviet Union had gone the way of the Dodo at that time or the Tasmanian Tiger right there, extinct too.
Misha: Oh, local reference, well done, bonus points.
Charles Edel: Thank you. I love Tasmania. I can make that reference now. But because they had gone that way, democracy didn’t have to compete against anything else. It didn’t have to make the arguments. So I actually think that our political leaders have gotten pretty lazy about talking about why democracy matters in practical terms, why it’s better than the alternative because there is an alternative and it is back with a lot of strength behind it.
Misha: Well, it’s interesting to touch on that. So what’s troubling I think as well is not just the challenge to the liberal world order, to democracies, but the increasing coordination we’re seeing by autocratic nations. Can you expand a little bit about that level coordination that we’re seeing between countries like Russia and China, but in the Middle East as well with Iran and what the challenge that represents. And secondly, should democracies be working closer together to offset that?
Charles Edel: There is growing coordination, if not out, and out, alliances between the world’s largest autocracies with the intent of undermining the system and growing both of their power and weakening democratic powers. And is there more that democracies can do to coordinate their actions? Yes, absolutely. It’s necessary. But the question becomes what will prompt us to do so? Because again, just looking at the numbers if you begin to look at you know, you’ll often hear that America’s in decline and some of our leaders statements will make you think that that is invariably coming true.
Charles Edel: However, if you look at it, and this goes back to our conversation about the 30s versus the 70s, if you look at aggregate U.S. GDP in 2016, it was about 22% of world output. That is not that far off the high point post war in the early 1970s. When you add in partner and allies, we’re talking about more than 60% of global GDP and military outlays that is far greater than any competitor has.
Charles Edel: The question is not necessarily one of resources. It’s willingness to use them. And again, a reason that how, and I decided to write this book is because for a democratic society, which always has more than just security on its mind, it has to, it has to be responsive to its own citizens. To get it to act in ways that can forestall things getting worse, particularly in the security and prosperity realms, but also in the values realm. What will prompt them to do so? And if you look at history, the answers are not great. Because it’s generally after something horrible happens. Generally after something blows up that we decide, whoa, we weren’t paying enough attention. It’s time to ramp up big time. And I simply say, as a historian, no less someone who’s interested in policy and occasionally works on it. That cannot be a good enough answer because we can’t wait for things to get horrible in order to develop the right set of policies.
Charles Edel: So the question becomes, what can we as democratic societies do on our own, but collectively together that stop the trends that we see happening in the world right now.
Misha: And in your book you talked about these historic political analysis and that, it had said gets discussed a bit, the Thucydides Trap. The one great power being displaced by a new great power, often or inevitably it’s a trap. The trap being the-
Charles Edel: It’s a trap Jim. No, sorry, go on.
Misha: Inevitably, those two great powers go to war and there are numerous examples in history of that happening. When we look at it in the U.S., China context is very easy to say, “Well that’s the inevitable conflict there.” But are you an optimist or pessimist about whether or not that can be avoided? Can we avoid the trap and how do we avoid the trap?
Charles Edel: Yeah, yeah we can avoid the trap based on decisions that we make, but it’s not clear that we’ll make those decisions. But let me step back and put my cards on the table because we have to kind of dig into what assumptions and am I carrying into this. So if you bring the assumption to bear that rising powers jostling for their place in the sun are inevitably going to create some friction. And anything that kind of the status quo power does will inevitably create spirals of escalation. That they do something you push back and voila, you were in World War III with nuclear weapons, right? That is one frame of reference. That is the Thucydides Trap. That is the World War I frame of reference. Then the policy outcome is pretty clear. Don’t push back because who the hell wants to be a World War III?
Charles Edel: However, if you take a different analogy that pushing back doesn’t necessarily, as long as it has done smartly, creates spirals of escalation but rather deters problematic behavior and stabilizes very problematic situations, albeit in ways that feel uncomfortable, i.e. the Cold War. That’s a different set of policy outcomes that you’re lied to. So again, this is the situation we find ourselves in is different than both of those historical analogies, but depends which way you read things. And if you read pushback as inherently destabilizing or one that feels uneasy, none of us like the world that we’re moving towards, but it also can stabilize uneasy situations. That aligns your policy choices.
Misha: Well, this has been very illuminating. Now Charles, I couldn’t talk about this all day, but you’ve got a job to do kids to teach. I’ve got … I can’t entertain my five listeners forever but-
Charles Edel: Well, I think I knocked it down to three. Right, because we knocked Melbourne out of the conversation.
Misha: Well, that’s right. So that’s, right. So you’ve got two sales, I’ve got two listeners. We’re very popular bunch. There’s four between us, but I’m now, heavy duty conversation. Now we’re going to lighten it up with my super fun, happy, amazing question. Super non clunky segue into a barbecue, Charlie Edel’s three Aussie’s alive or dead who’s coming and why?
Charles Edel: Very easy choices. One, Ned Kelly and or Peter Carey, because I love his, a historical fiction version. The True History of the Kelly Gang. Just a great read.
Charles Edel: Two-
Misha: Isn’t it Kelly in the suit or not?
Charles Edel: The armored suit?
Charles Edel: Well I hope if he is, he’s not standing too close to the barbecue that won’t work out so well for him. Two, because we’ve been having this high-minded abstract talk, which I hope is not only abstract, we have to invite Hedly Bull, academic, Aussie born, lived in England who talked about issues of order versus issues of disorder. That all the time the international environment is these two forces contending and that the rules, those who seek to create an order prompt rules and discussions.
Charles Edel: And in fact he’s informed a lot of my own thinking. So a great Aussie, who I’d love to have more conversations with over a sizzle.
Charles Edel: And then third, without a doubt, Rebel Wilson, because she has to be in any conversation I think. And by any conversation, I mean I would be quiet and just listen to what it is that she had to say.
Misha: So we’ve got, well an outlaw, a comedian and an academic and a barbecue.
Charles Edel: Yeah. A fill in the blank on the joke, I guess.
Misha: Well that would be one to be in attendance at. But thank you so much for joining us and Charlie, and I hope everyone enjoyed the episode.
Charles Edel: Well, thanks very much for having me on Misha. I appreciate it.
Misha: Cheers, mate.