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.


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


Misha Zelinsky:

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

Ben Rhodes:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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 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:


Ben Rhodes:

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

Misha Zelinsky:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


Misha Zelinsky:

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

Ben Rhodes:

Great. Take care.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s true.

Laura Rosenberger:

Our acronym similarity there. But anyway-

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Demographically, yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s true.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

And what do they want that, sorry?

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Opinion, yes.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Is the… yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

Go ahead.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:


Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:


Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s what I think.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:


Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

So many to choose from.

Misha Zelinsky:

Crocodile Dundee and many others.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

Oh no!

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:


Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

See you next time. Cheers.


Max Bergmann: Center for American Progress

Foreign Interference and Russia 2016 Election Special.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow and director of the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on European security and Russia policy. Previously he served in the U.S. Department of State where he focused on political-military affairs, arms control and international security. He was also speechwriter to Secretary of State John Kerry. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Max joined Misha Zelinsky to discuss foreign interference in democracy, what the Mueller Report uncovered about the US 2016 election, whether the Congress should impeach the President, how Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum, and how democracies can fight back against hostile actors. 

Misha Zelinsky:             So, Max, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Max Bergmann:            Good, how are you?

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m well, and we are obviously doing this by the miracle of the internet. I think it’s about the end of the day in DC and the start of the day here in Australia, so welcome to the show.

Max Bergmann:            Thanks so much for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, I was thinking about the best place to start. Now your background is foreign interference. You have a background in the US State Department and you’re working in foreign interference at the Center for American Progress. I suppose firstly, before we get into the specifics, why does foreign interference matter at all? Why would we at all be concerned about this?

Max Bergmann:            Well, I think it matters even more now than it has in the past and it’s partly because of how our politics work now. It’s how people get their information, how the Internet has transformed people’s lives, has made, I think modern societies particularly vulnerable to foreign interference in a way that wasn’t really the case, I think, in previous eras, at least not to the same degree. Partly because, now, it’s very easy to reach people to connect with people, to influence different segments of the population and so, the way foreign governments are interfering, I think is particularly important because for our Democratic politics, both in Australia and the United States and everywhere there’s a democratic country, it’s important that that be an internal conversation. It’s always going to be influenced in some ways by the broader world, by broader dynamics, but when you start having foreign governments saying, “We are going to deliberately get involved and find a way to tip the balance, put our thumb on the scale in a particular direction,” where you start undermining the very legitimacy of democratic politics. And the way we live now with this modern network society, it’s increasingly easy and available to foreign countries to try to put their thumb on the scale.

Max Bergmann:            And so, I think it’s a particularly pernicious threat to open societies, to open liberal democratic countries where our openness is our big great advantage and what these foreign governments are trying to do is really undermine that and take advantage of it. And so I think it’s a real worry, it’s a real threat and a real concern and something that all democratic societies now really have to pay attention to.

Misha Zelinsky:             And, of course, the most famous example, there are other examples we could get into, the most famous example that’s been debated lately is the 2016 US presidential election and the interference of the Russians there. Before we get into the Mueller report and the political dimensions of all this, what do we know specifically? What are the uncontested facts in this space?

Max Bergmann:            Well, so there’s a lot, actually of uncontested facts and Mueller’s 400+ page report I think, most of that, almost all of that, is largely uncontested. But I think when it comes to the foreign interference dimension, in particular, now I think the way the Mueller report has been interpreted, I think, particularly outside of America and abroad is, well it didn’t quite have the smoking gun to nail Trump. I don’t actually think that’s quite true, but the more important part of the Mueller report for foreign countries, for foreign democracies, is the first 50 some odd pages where he outlines a Russian conspiracy against the United States. We forget that Mueller has brought all these criminal charges and what Mueller effectively identifies in Volume I, in the first 50 pages, are two distinct Russian lines of effort to influence American politics. And they’re quite successful in 2016.

Max Bergmann:            And that first line of effort was to social media, through the creation of the Internet Research Agency. This is sort of a pseudo-private oligarch funded operation in St. Petersburg. And what does it do? It was trying to influence American, the political discussion on social media, facebook, on Twitter, this is where we hear about the troll farms, the bots, which are automated accounts. And what the Russians effectively figured out is how to game the American debate, how to game the social media companies by, if you amplify content, if everyone’s retweeting the same thing, if you create automated bots that is all retweeting racist content, some of that racist content gets amplified. Lots of people then look at it. He gets promoted. And so that was one major line of effort. Where the Russians were trying to interfere both to sow discord in American politics, basically amplify our racial divisions, amplify aspects of American political debate that they wanted to promote, and then the other aspect was to simply promote Donald Trump. There were a lot of Russian accounts that were promoting Donald Trump. And this was not a Mickey Mouse sized operation. It had roughly 80 people devoted just to the United States, just to the 2016 election with a multimillion dollar budget.

Max Bergmann:            Now if you look at the Clinton campaign’s digital operation, this is the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, she had roughly 80 people devoted to digital. So you see what is, in effect, a Russian online campaign, digital campaign, devoted to influencing American politics. And probably, it’s not going to be as effective as the Clinton digital campaign, but, on the other hand, this is the campaign, on the Russian side, willing to say things that normal political campaigns wouldn’t do, push certain messages, attack candidates in ways that people that were had to be true to who they were, had to represent themselves wouldn’t say.

Max Bergmann:            And so the second line of effort, so the first line is the social media campaign that Mueller outlined. The second line of effort is the hacking. Now this is basic intelligence operations. A Russian military intelligence unit within the Russian GRU that was devoted, not to hacking the State Department or hacking a diplomat’s phone, but to hacking an actual political campaign. And hacking the personal email accounts of John Podesta, who is the cofounder of Center for American Progress, who I should disclose the place that I work at, but also, penetrating the Democratic Party, which they were able to successfully do.

Max Bergmann:            When we think about political campaigns, political campaigns, especially in the American context, are basically like small start up companies that suddenly balloon overnight and have all these young twentysomethings working for them. And so they are quite actually easy in some ways to penetrate or should be. Actually, the Clinton campaign took cybersecurity incredibly seriously. So the Clinton campaign actually wasn’t breached. It was a personal email account of Podesta and it was the Democratic Party. But so the Russians broke in, stole tens of thousands of emails from both the Democratic Party and from John Podesta. And not only that, they also stole a lot of stuff, like their field operations research, basically their battle plans for the campaign, and we don’t know what they did with that. We know that they release the emails into different waves through Wikileaks, which was an online transparency organization that felt no bones about releasing content that was given to them by Russian intel and release that right before the Democratic convention in July, which was the first release. And then the second release, which came in October was sort of the October surprise of the election.

Max Bergmann:            And so it had a huge impact on the race, in a race that was so close there is no doubt that when you look at the impact of both those lines of effort, it definitely swung the election, tilted the election in Donald Trump’s favor. So that’s in the Mueller report and I think it’s something that all countries, that all democratic societies should look at those, especially the first 50 pages, to learn about, hey, if this could happen in the United States, how could this also happen here in our country?

Misha Zelinsky:             And I suppose I should apologize on behalf of the Australian people for the role that Julian Assange played in Wikileaks. We won’t get into that too much, but that was a really good run down of the 400 page report and a two-year investigation, but I think you’re right. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is that, you’re right, the question of the smoking gun that if Mueller wasn’t able to find a recording between Vladimir Putin and either Donald Trump himself or someone in the Trump organization, campaign, that this was all going to be a farce of an investigation, that it wasn’t going to be that… One of the things that I think would be good for you to unpack would be all the people in the Trump campaign, that worked on the campaign, that have since been indicted and arrested and charged, and in some cases, imprisoned. So if you could give us some idea, a quick rundown of the rap sheet, I think that would be interesting.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, no sure. The Mueller investigation was probably the most successful special counsel investigation that we’ve ever had in the United States. And the report that he produced is the most damning thing ever written, most damaging official document ever written about a President of the United States. And as you mentioned, the Mueller investigation has led to guilty pleas of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates; his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; his first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn; as well as a Foreign Policy Advisor, a guy name George Papadopoulos. It has produced a tremendous amount of indictments and charges also against Russians and Russian affiliated individuals. So this was an investigation that found a lot of lawbreaking, found a lot of crime.

Max Bergmann:            I think when it comes to Donald Trump, what we see here is, in fact, a classic counterintelligence investigation, that what Mueller found was a lot of smoking guns. What he didn’t find was Donald Trump pulling the trigger. When we think about famous, if we go back to the Cold War era or post-Cold War era, where the US was busting a lot of Russian or KGB agents that were embedded in the CIA, the FBI, we have the famous Aldrich Ames case and the famous Robert Hanson case, what happened in both of those, the FBI caught them at the dead drop. They got them in the act of committing this crime. In this case, Mueller was only appointed to investigate a year after the election almost and what seems pretty clear is the FBI was very slow on the uptake in terms of Russian interference during the actual election. Some of this was actually the fault of the Obama administration not being super focused on the threat of Russian interference at the time. It caught everyone off guard. And so that gave people a lot of time to delete messages, to delete emails, to erase things on their phone and coordinate stories.

Max Bergmann:            So what we see in the Volume II of the Mueller report is the crime, is the crime that implicates the President of the United States, his obstruction of justice. And we have the famous story here in the US of Al Capone who was this famous mobster during the prohibition era in the 1920s and how did Al Capone go down? Well, of tax evasion. No one says that Al Capone wasn’t this famed mobster, he was avoiding taxes because he was this famed mobster. But it was the tax evasion that got him. And I think what we see here is Robert Mueller, the reason why there’s 198 pages of Volume I devoted to Trump’s Russian contacts, the Russian contacts with Donald Trump in the Trump campaign with Russia is because Mueller was describing a story, a story of something that Donald Trump wanted to hide, wanted to conceal, wanted to obstruct from the investigators that were looking into it.

Max Bergmann:            And I think in some cases Donald Trump was successful. But there’s also a lot of smoking guns. Maybe I’ll just run through them quickly. One, they have the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort meeting with someone who the FBI believes is a Russian intelligence agent. But it’s not only the FBI, it’s also Paul Manafort and his deputy, also believe this individual Konstantin Kilimnik is connected to Russian intelligence. And they meet with him on August 2 in the midst of this campaign. Throughout the election, they’re sharing polling data, internal polling data from the campaign. This is sort of the crown jewels of the Trump campaign. This is confidential information about how their polling numbers, the messages they’re looking to push, and they also shared the campaign battle plan, the states they’re looking to focus on. And they’re sharing it with Konstantin Kilimnik, who they know is sharing it with Oleg Deripaska, Who is this Putin connected oligarch who’s been sanctioned by the United States. And why to they want it shared with Deripaska? I think it’s fairly clear that they knew Deripaska was sharing that with the Kremlin more broadly.

Max Bergmann:            So we have a very unique chain of events to Russian intel from the trunk campaign to Russian intel with very few actors in between. Now Mueller identified all that. His problem was Paul Manafort was a cooperating witness, decided to not cooperate about why he was providing that information to Konstantin Kilimnik. And so Mueller withdrew the cooperation agreement, Manafort’s now going to jail for a very long time and the question is why did Manafort not want to disclose that information? And I think the conclusion is pretty clear. It’s because he was sharing that information with the intent that it was going to get to the Russian government.

Max Bergmann:            Now there’s other examples of Donald Trump’s advanced knowledge and awareness of the WikiLeaks releases. In fact, not only that, instructing his campaign to establish a back channel to WikiLeaks knowing that WikiLeaks was getting the content for the releases from Russian intel. And why did they know that? And this is the other bombshell, because the Trump campaign was told about it. The Trump campaign was informed by this Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud, in London that the Russians had “dirt on Hillary Clinton” that they had thousands of emails. And this was in April and May before it was known to the world.

Max Bergmann:            So what we see are all these sort of… this awareness on the part of the Trump campaign about what the Russians were doing, this willingness to share internal Trump campaign data and information that would be very useful to the Russian campaign that they were running, that I mentioned earlier. And so Trump’s awareness of this crime, Russia was doing and his willingness to say go out, collude, connect, meet with the Russians. The Trump campaign effectively ran toward the crime. And that’s what Mueller outlines.

Max Bergmann:            Now he says, I wasn’t able to find any tangible agreement, tacit or expressed, that could amount to a conspiracy between the Russian efforts and the Trump efforts, but he did find a lot of collusion and then he found a lot of obstruction of justice in the Volume II.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, I’m keen to turn to, I suppose, where this goes from here. But just going back a step, you talk about, you outlined a very concerning and alarming series of facts, the concerning part, I think, is some of this was known. The Obama administration certainly knew. The FBI had some concerns. Why was there no red flag going up before the election? Why was this, in effect, sat on and we didn’t hear about it until after the fact?

Max Bergmann:            So I think there’s a few reasons and it’s a great question. I think, one, I think everyone was just caught off guard. We’re the United States of America, no one messes with our internal democratic politics. It’s just not a threat that we expected or anticipated, partly because we can deter foreign actors from doing that by the very nature of us being the world’s largest superpower. And so I think there was a little bit of just lack of imagination that occurs in every major intelligence failure, whether it’s 9/11, whether it’s Pearl Harbor, of just not anticipating how a foreign actor would actually go about attacking you.

Max Bergmann:            When the DNC, the Democratic Party was hacked, and it became known on June 14, 2016, it was actually reported in the Washington Post that day, the initial response from US government or thought process was that, well, this is happened before. It’s not unusual for foreign countries to want to hack a political party, political campaign. Barack Obama’s campaign was hacked by the Chinese in 2008. Lots of Washington think tanks are hacked all the time by China, by Russia. And so it was sort of viewed as this was traditional intelligence gathering, this wasn’t about influencing events, it was about, you know that the Russians wanted to know where the Clinton campaign may be going or where the Democratic Party may be going on certain issues. You could very quickly scratch the surface there and say, well that didn’t quite add up based on what they were doing. I think that was the basic sense at the time.

Max Bergmann:            That all changed on July 22 when the Russians, through WikiLeaks, release the DNC emails right before the Democratic convention. This was a huge deal. This resulted in the resignation of the head of the Democratic party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at the time, it left a massive rift between the Clinton and Bernie supporters. And so suddenly, at that moment, there is a realization in the US government that they have a problem.

Max Bergmann:            After this point where the FBI, who had sort of been slow on the uptake of conducting counterintelligence investigation gets information from a good Australian diplomat in London who had actually had drinks with George Papadopoulos in early May where Papadopoulos who’s a foreign policy advisor to Trump, told him that the Russians had this dirt and were going to release it. This information is passed to the FBI. The FBI opens a counterintelligence investigation. But then what we see… Donald Trump’s stance during the election was problematic. Because he was saying, dismissing the notion that Russia was involved, it meant that if President Obama got involved and said the Russians were doing this, they were worried it would be seen as partisan, they were worried it would be seen as tipping the scale on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

Max Bergmann:            And so what we saw, in September and October, was the Obama White House going to the Republicans in Congress, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who were the two leaders in Congress, and saying, “Hey, let’s issue a bipartisan statement.” And both of them turned it down and said no. We think this would be partisan. And so what we saw was actually a breakdown, I think, it wasn’t just a failing on the Obama administration, it was also a failure on behalf of the Republican Party. We have political parties to act as guardrails for our democracy and here was a Republican Party failing to step up.

Max Bergmann:            Now that being said, there’s no doubt that the Obama administration’s response was way too weak, was way too timid. They should have gone out and spoke out more loudly than they did. When they did try to speak out, well, there was two things that happened. One, they tried to pick up the red phone and tell the Russians, the red phone was used during the Cold War to avert a nuclear crisis, this was actually picked up where John Brennan, the head of the CIA, told his counterpart, “Cut it out. We know you’re doing this.” And Obama told Putin at the G 20 summit, I believe in China.

Max Bergmann:            The second thing that happened was they decided to go public. On October 7 about noon, this was a Friday they released from the head of the Department of Homeland Security the head of the director of national intelligence, a statement about Russian interference. Then a few hours later the biggest bombshell of the election happens, which is Trump’s Access Hollywood tape comes out and this is where Donald Trump is basically bragging about committing sexual assault on a hot mic. And then 29 minutes after that tape is released, we have this good Australian, Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, releasing at 4:32 PM on the Friday on October 7, the John Podesta emails. And so, suddenly announcing to the public that yes, Russia was doing this just got completely buried in the news cycle and no one paid any attention.

Max Bergmann:            So I think what we have is a failure of imagination, slow in how to respond and how to react, being hamstrung by Republicans, and finally acting and then it getting consumed in the broader news environment. So that’s a pretty long answer to the simple question, but I think anyone in the Obama administration who says they would do it exactly the same as they did it is lying. I think everyone looks back, and also has the assumption… The last thing I should say is everyone assumed she was going to win. So it’s easier not to do something. It’s always easier not to act than to act, especially when you could say well she’s going to win it.

Misha Zelinsky:             They certainly weren’t alone in predicting that Hillary was going to win. I was certainly on board with that prediction as well. So I think… Thank you for that really concise answer.

Misha Zelinsky:             So I suppose she sort of touched on a bit of the politics. I think it’s a good time, because this has now become political but first there is a National Security element discuss, but there’s a political dimension to this.

Misha Zelinsky:             The Mueller report itself has become politicized. So I’m curious of your take, the Republicans are effectively now saying through the Attorney General William bar put out a summary of the report, effectively saying that case closed. The president is saying he’s exonerated. Some Democrats think it’s time to move on. Is it time to move on from this in your opinion?

Max Bergmann:            No. As you and your listeners could probably tell, I’m fairly committed to this topic. No, I think it’s the exact opposite. I think the last few months of inaction on the Democratic side of the house, the stonewalling from the White House, have been a real disservice. I think there’s a real need to act. I think what’s broadly happened here is, to step back for a minute, the last two years the Democrats were in kind of a tough spot actually. They were wanting to let the process play out, not prejudge an ongoing criminal investigation. Now Donald Trump was not doing that. Donald Trump was working the rest. Donald Trump was basically running, for the last two years a campaign against being impeached. He was telling the American people there’s nothing there, this is all a hoax, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this. And so he sent a very clear message while the Democrats’ message has been where basically protect the Mueller investigation, wait for Mueller, which isn’t really a clear message.

Max Bergmann:            And I think that continued after the Mueller report where what you now have is, I think a Democratic Party that wasn’t prepared for the Mueller report to be as damaging as it was. And so, partly because of that, they’ve also had to view this through a more political lens of is this a smart political step to move forward with impeachment because, perhaps if we move forward on impeachment, then Donald Trump will be able to say that we’re just obsessed with impeaching him and the public will view us as not really focused on their interest but focused on just getting a Donald Trump.

Max Bergmann:            I don’t really view it that way. I think that what this is… That impeachment is bad, that being impeached is bad. It’s not something anyone wants. It’s fairly simple and that if the Democrats in the house move forward on impeachment, that will send a real signal to the public that Donald Trump’s actions have been unacceptable. I think they’re walking… There’s all these other competing domestic political issues as well, but I think that’s the basic thrust here is that it is important for House Democrats to hold Donald Trump accountable for the action that’s outlined in the Mueller report, because failure to do so, I think essentially means that what the Mueller report then will become is, that sort of a new guide, it’s a new precedent for how you can actually collude with the foreign intelligence service in running a political campaign and get away with it. And I think that’s a terrible precedent to set, especially getting into a 2020 election cycle.

Misha Zelinsky:             So what about the facts. Not to make the arguments for the House Democrats, because you’re certainly more plugged into the Democratic Party than I could hope to be, but the argument seems to be, yes the House could impeach Donald Trump now that there’s a majority since the midterms. Then the Republican Senate would likely exonerate, given the way that you require a super majority to remove a president and the Senate to find him guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. So is that a relevant point? Do you think that’s relevant? And would that make the case for exoneration greater?

Max Bergmann:            No, I think that’s a very relevant point. And that’s the argument that House Democrats are making saying that this is a symbolic exercise. Here’s the thing, is that every piece of live legislation that Democrats in the House are passing as well is a symbolic exercise because there’s this roadblock called Mitch McConnell who runs the Senate and is the Republican leader and is not going to pass any legislation that goes forward and actually impeaching… My counterargument would be, look, Republicans in the Senate have been like frightened turtles over the last two years. They haven’t wanted to talk about this. It has been something that they are very glad not to have to be confronted with. The problem, I think… I think that if Democrats were to move forward and actually impeach and then move it forward to the Senate and there would be a trial in the Senate. That has happened very rarely in American history. Bill Clinton, it happened in 1999. Richard Nixon, we never got to that point because he resigned. And then it happened in 1866, I believe, with Andrew Johnson, after Abraham Lincoln.

Max Bergmann:            So this would send, I think, a big signal to the country. It would be treated very seriously in the press. And then you’d be forcing Republicans in the Senate to stand up and to defend the actions and conduct as outlined in the Mueller report. And I think where it makes sense for me to do this is I think you’ll actually get some Republicans to join forces with Democrats. No I don’t think you’re going to get the two thirds majority to remove Donald Trump, but I think you could see a real strong bipartisan rebuke. And that will also be very useful for a Democratic candidate opposing Donald Trump in 2020 that can then run on the argument that Donald Trump is, in fact, a criminal and should be going to jail. That strikes me as a strong argument to make in 2020.

Max Bergmann:            And if you get the 2020, and it doesn’t poll well, you can always just run on other issues. But, to me, the conduct outlined in the Mueller report just cannot stand, and I think the political calculation here, the political machinations don’t make a lot of sense to me, number one. Number two, even if they did, I think there’s a duty on the part of members that took an oath to uphold our Constitution to act. We’re not a parliamentary system. We only have one way to remove a leader and that is through the impeachment process And the impeachment process-

Misha Zelinsky:             As an Australian, mate, I should probably say that removing leaders is not without its problems, but sorry not to cut you off.

Max Bergmann:            That is a good flag. On the other hand, not removing leaders that are hugely problematic, having to sit out and wait for four years, is also a problem. And the designers of our Constitution back in 1770s, 1780s, put this in there for a reason. And they put it in there for a guy like Donald Trump who is basically used corrupt means to gain the office, who has committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office in the obstruction of office. So if you’re not going to use it now, then when? And I think not acting just sets an incredibly terrible precedent for the future of our democracy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you talked about Watergate. The Clinton comparison, I mean I think it’s an interesting one given when you consider the relative conduct, I think it speaks for itself, but the Watergate ones more instructive because that was a Republican president in the end who while was not impeached, was removed because the Republicans Senate abandoned him or the Republican senators. Do you have any confidence that that’s the case given where the Republican Party is at now? And is it not relevant political calculus? You’ve talked about some may be coming over, but is that enough, really, in the…

Max Bergmann:            So the Nixon example, I think is one that we… in America’s not been totally internalized. It’s viewed through this, All the President’s Men movie with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman where, aha, Woodward and Bernstein got it and then Nixon resigned fairly quickly. But it was a two-year process. It was very similar. It was the slow burn of information that came out. It wasn’t until the very end that political support for Nixon collapsed. Nixon’s approval ratings had gone down throughout the process and Watergate helped push them down, but Republicans actually stood by his side up until the very end. And suddenly the dam broke and it broke completely and Nixon saw that there was no future. And so I think the… Here’s what I would tell the Democrats in the modern age is that you don’t know unless you try. You don’t know unless you push forward.

Max Bergmann:            And why did Nixon’s support collapse? Because House Democrats were moving forward with an impeachment inquiry. It was the impeachment inquiry which then elicited new information, get more information out there, the tape broke, but it was that that was the forcing function that put pressure on Republicans to justify it. And the political results through the Democratic Party in the 1974 election, it was the biggest wave election, I think, in modern history where Democrats won by 17% and two thirds majority in the house. And then, the only Democrat to win in the period between 1968 and 1992 was Jimmy Carter in 1976. And why did he win? Partly on this backlash, this anti-Watergate backlash.

Max Bergmann:            And so I think, if I were the Democrats, I would look at that example as the high-end. Nixon resigning essentially confirmed everything that everyone was saying about him. And then you’d look at the ’98, ’99 Clinton scandal. And what happened in ’98 was Republicans lost five seats in the house. This wasn’t this huge backlash against Republicans for pushing it, for pushing impeachment. And then George W. Bush won in 2000 based off of basically restoring honor and integrity back to the White House. He ran against Bill Clinton’s image.

Max Bergmann:            If the Clinton case is the backlash example of pursuing an unjustified impeachment process and it only, the backlash is that minimal, losing five seats, having George W. Bush sneak through in the controversial election in 2000, okay. And then you look at the 1974 and if that’s the high-end, where we are, at the very least, with the Mueller investigation, why I think it’s a bigger scandal than Watergate, the political dynamics are different. We’re much more in the Watergate space than we are in the Clinton space. And I think if Democrats push this and pursued it and actually made this a big political issue, I think it would bear political fruit for them, but they’re very reticent to do so.

Max Bergmann:            And I think there’s a number of reasons for that that go beyond there’s a larger psychology here. Democrats don’t like to run a scandal. While the Republicans, their whole, what drives them when they run political campaigns is to search for political scandal, for Clinton emails, for some sort of Obama-ish scandal that they could make a big deal out of. The Democrats like to talk about policy and are very wonky in some ways lovable and sort of boring in that sense. And that’s, I think, really hurting them here.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point. The progressives don’t tend to dial up the outrage on those types of things, they like to make it about the issues. We’re often outraged about the issues but it’s a really valid point. The 2020 election is anyone talking about this to your mind? We just had the debates, do you think this is getting enough air time because there’s been significantly a pivot to perhaps the issues health education, etc. Do you think that this is getting enough air time or are the candidates still mind waiting to see what that House does and see if there’s a tailwind there?

Max Bergmann:            Well actually the Democratic political candidates have led on this. I think Elizabeth Warren, in particular, was the first major political figure to come out in favor of impeachment. She was then followed by a number of other Democratic presidential candidates. And most of the top-tier candidates have all come out calling for Donald Trump to be impeached and for the House to move to an impeachment inquiry. So I think they’ve actually led. The debates that occurred, I was sort of surprised that there weren’t more questions related to impeachment. There was one on the first night, not on the second, in that this hasn’t played a bigger role in the questioning.

Max Bergmann:            Some of that is because it’s a lot of the folks agree internally, but I am a little surprised it’s hasn’t been a bigger issue. I think it’s now been a few months since the Mueller report has dropped. It shows that how if you don’t react and if there’s no outrage, the outrage will decline over time, people’s attention spans are short especially with Donald Trump in the White House and there’s a scandal every 15 minutes. But we’re about to have a big thing happen in a couple weeks where Robert Mueller is going to testify, or is scheduled to testify, and I think that’s going to put this back into the news. I think it’s going to put more pressure on House Democrats. And what we’ve been seeing is this trickle of more and more House Democrats are coming out for impeachment. So the numbers are sort of ticking up and I think the big question is…

Max Bergmann:            August is sort of this mythical month actually in American politics where there’s no news, boring eras, like the 1990s, August will be dominated by news of shark attacks and other things. But it’s also a month that because it’s a limited new cycle there’s not much happening that one issue could sort of dominate and perhaps the one issue to dominate might be Russia, and I think that’s one of the big, the Russian investigation. In 2009, it was the Tea Party movement sort of developed then. Two years ago it was Charlottesville. It was Donald Trump’s racism dominated. So we’ll see what sort of drives the news in August. And if it drives the news, this investigation drives the news, I think you could see House members coming back from that long recess, having been home speaking to their constituents, and say okay, I can’t look my constituents in the eye and not move forward on this. We’ll see.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’re right, I think Mueller testifying will be interesting because in his report, as I understand it, he’s effectively said, you can’t indict a sitting president and the mechanism for that as you pointed out is an impeachment through the Constitution. So that case might come out and that evidence as well.

Misha Zelinsky:             We talked a lot about US, there are obviously other democracies in the world and quite a bit of interference, particularly in the European context. What sort of work are you doing looking at the level of Russian interference or foreign interference in the European elections or particularly in the Brexit election? How concerning is that, given that you talked about driving to those schisms that exist within societies?

Max Bergmann:            Been doing a significant amount of work looking into those. I think one of the things that when we think about, at least in the Russian case, Russian interference, is that they look to exploit the gaps that our domestic politics make available to them. In the United States there’s lots of gaps in terms of the financing of campaigns of money… And the Russians were able to identify those gaps. I think in the Brexit case, for example, we see a lot of the same similarities. So a lot of the things happening in the United States were happening in the UK.

Max Bergmann:            I think one of the things that’s most troubling about Brexit is that while we’ve had this two-year long investigation and discussion and focus on Russian interference that has resulted in the Mueller report, and the one thing the United States can firmly say is we know Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The one thing that you still cannot say about Brexit, or at least that is not accepted in UK politics, I think you can say it, but is not accepted as conventional wisdom in UK politics is that Russia interfered in the Brexit Referendum. And to me, there’s very little doubt that that occurred. And you just have to look at the way Aaron Banks, who is the main financier of one of the Leave campaigns, what we see is exactly the same thing that was happening with Donald Trump. Almost exactly at the same time.

Max Bergmann:            Donald Trump was being offered this Trump Tower in Moscow, this too good to be true business deal and at the same time he was then running for office in which, and Donald Trump was using his pro-Russian statements throughout the campaign as a way to advance his business deal that involved working with the Russian bank, involved coordinating with the Kremlin. And we see the same thing with Aaron Banks, where he essentially he’s being offered this too good to be true deal to take to run the merger of these gold mines in Russia, something that would be well beyond his depths. It would be incredibly lucrative. He’s having meetings with the UK and the Russian ambassador with in the UK. He’s in talks with a Russian bank and so you see very similar, a lot of similarities. You also see the Russian online social media arm, the Internet Research Agency didn’t just start operating in 2016. It started years before that. And Brexit would be something that the Russians would have definitely worked to promote. There’s a lot of digital, computer scientists that have looked at the Brexit referendum and have seen the same sorts of social media activity in the UK during that period that we saw in the United States.

Max Bergmann:            But the UK has not conducted a similar sort of investigation. And when they have, when the Parliament did, it found a lot of there there, referred Aaron Banks to the National Crime Agency, the FBI equivalent, and it raised a lot of questions about some of the digital campaigns, one being digital companies, Cambridge Analytica, who worked on the Trump campaign who is now out of business because of the practices that it used. And so, I think that is a particularly worrying case of lack of actual energy and resolve on behalf of British authorities to actually protect their politics from Russian interference.

Misha Zelinsky:             It would be a significant win for for Vladimir Putin and Russia to split apart the EU. That’s a foreign-policy aim of the Russian government.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, I think particularly, one of the things that occurred, I think, after 2014 is pre-2014, so pre the Ukraine crisis, the EU was seen in Russia as a second-tier thing. NATO was the major focus. But what the Ukraine, the Maidan Revolution was about, which then resulted in the collapse of the pro-Russian, pro-Kremlin government of Viktor Yanukovych, It was about whether Ukraine was going to have an economic agreement with the EU. And Russia was offering an economic agreement with Russia, the Eurasian union as they described it. And Yanukovych decided to go with Russia. It led to mass protests in the streets, which then an occupation of Maidan Square, which lasted for months. And so here was a revolution started, essentially by EU bureaucrats, not realizing, basically, how far they were going and offering Association agreements with the EU. And the power of the EU that countries like Georgia and Ukraine wanted to be part of the European Union. They looked at countries like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, their neighbors, that were part of the EU and said we want that.

Max Bergmann:            And so, think after 2014, you see a particular Russian focus on how do we undermine the European Union. One of the ways, you cultivate and you build up and you amplify the far right leaders of Europe and seek exits, Brexit. Brexit would totally be in Russian interests, but then you also see it in France with Marine Le Pen. This is probably a much clearer example Marine Le Pen’s National Front party was funded by a Czech Russian bank, they got around €10 million to operate. There was lots of online social media support from Marine Le Pen’s campaign and attacks against Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 election. And then, of course, what did the Russians do? They also hacked Macron’s campaign and released the emails a la the same thing we saw in 2016. And Marine Le Pen was running on an anti-EU, anti-NATO, pro-Russian platform.

Max Bergmann:            And we’re seeing it now in Italy with Matteo Salvini government where he’s potentially a recipient of millions of dollars from Russia, or at least his party is. And so the playbook is very straightforward. It’s the idea that you can corrupt politicians. And so why not corrupt Democratic politicians, especially those on the far right who, in fact, seem more corruptible than those on the left and seek to cultivate them and amplify them and try to promote their candidacies. It’s been particularly effective and I think it’s one thing that I think were seeing in Europe, one positive, is that there’s been a strong backlash actually against Brexit and so the EU seems, in some ways, more solid than it was a few years ago in 2016.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things you talked about and I think is relevant to basically all these issues that were having with foreign interference is this question of openness versus closed systems. Up until now, the theory’s been that openness wins liberalism wins markets, tends to win, democracy wins. As you said, they’re driving, foreign interference creates schisms in society. They’re already pre-existing but the openness And messiness of democracy and the openness of the media, the openness of social media, in particular, seems to now being a tool used against liberal democracies in the West and Europe and other parts of the world. And so how do democracies guard against that, that openness, without losing a sense of self?

Max Bergmann:            It’s a great question. I think it’s in some ways the question of our age. Now I think step one is to have a degree of confidence in the success of open systems. I think in some ways close systems are more afraid of us then we should be of them. There’s a reason why Vladimir Putin, in particular, is striking back at the West. It’s because he is incredibly nervous of a color revolution, of a liberal uprising happening within Russia. Why would that happen? It’s because Russian citizens decide they want to have more of a democratic society. They want to be more open, more like us. And so Putin needs to make, and I think China as well, democratic societies seem unattractive. And so, I think it’s one where we need to have a degree of confidence.

Max Bergmann:            The second thing is, I think we need to be aware of this challenge, of this threat, of the fact that we done all this business, we need to pivot, reassess that after the 1990s we assumed that if we opened our economies and opened our societies to autocratic governments it would change them, and it wouldn’t change us. And, to a degree, we were right. It has changed autocratic societies, but it hasn’t changed them to the degree we thought it would. In this glide path to democratization, I think we have to reassess. And in some ways it’s also changed us. So it doesn’t meet that we need to close off an autocratic societies, but I think we need to be more guarded. We need to have a real focus on transparency within our democratic politics, really focus on our rules and legislation, foreign interference, foreign registration, other areas where how do we make sure that yes, we can have foreigners here in our society, but they can’t covertly influence our politics. So that remains, I think, a critical challenge.

Max Bergmann:            I think the other larger aspect is that it means that we need to go back and look at our democratic allies and partners and value them much more and work together much more closely, look to have our economies of democratic societies linked together more closely. As opposed to having it be just generally open, we should focus on like-minded partners, democracies. And so, I think that is both a broader challenge in terms of… And also protecting ourselves in our political systems.

Max Bergmann:            And the third component is that I think we do need to go on offense a bit more. There does need to be a bit more of pushing public diplomacy of competing more with autocratic states, particularly in areas like the Balkans and areas in Asia and Africa where authoritarian countries are moving in, offering lots of resources, working to corrupt those countries and turn them away from liberal democracy. And we need to counter that.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the other areas, and we talked a lot about safeguarding systems and making sure that the institutions themselves are safe, but I think one of the areas that we need to address as societies are the schisms that you’re seeing between rural and urban, between educated and uneducated, between the economic uplift that people are experiencing or not experiencing, these are relatively present in most advanced economies and advanced democratic societies. And I think there’s probably a need for us to address the schisms themselves. We can stop them from being exploited but the best way to stop them being exploited is to probably try to remove them as best we can. I’m sure you probably agree with that.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, no I think that’s dead on. And I think one of the ways that foreign interference works is that it can tap into discontented populations within society. And it’s particularly problematic when a large portion of your democratic population is extremely discontent. A lot of the discontent is over the different economic inequalities, economic setbacks that have occurred, divergence between urban and rural areas I think is particularly something we see very strongly here in the United States. We used to talk about red states, blue states, but now it’s really blue cities, red country. The dynamic is very clear. And so part of that is because, and part of the resentment of globalization that were seeing, resentment of liberalism is that from rural areas where economic growth in the United States has flat-lined over the last 20 years and, in particular, were particularly hard-hit by the great recession. Cities like Washington DC have thrived, actually in the past 20 years and have become super expensive, have become plugged into the global economy, to the global intellectual architecture, the hub of ideas that are flowing around the world. And I think there’s a resentment of that and a willingness on the part of large parts of the population to vote for anyone that will change the system, that will break the system.

Max Bergmann:            So one immediate remedy for addressing foreign interference, and it’s complicated, but is to try to address that broader discontent. And if your public is not as discontent about the current situation, then democratic societies will thrive, you’ll create less space for foreign interference. And so I think that is a major focus, should be a major focus of policymakers. I think one good thing we’re seeing here in the Democratic political discussion is a lot of focus on that in a way that hasn’t actually occurred in modern memory.

Misha Zelinsky:             I completely agree. Democracy needs to deliver. It’s not purely just of voting process of itself. They need to deliver for people. If it delivers for people than the rest takes care of itself. The one thing I was curious to take you on, we talked a lot about Russia. There’s been an enormous focus from the administration on the question of China and the use of Huawei potentially moving liberal democracies and the concerns about its links to the Chinese Communist Party and whether or not… It’s a company in Australia that’s been banned from joining the 5G network. Do you see perhaps… Is China the main game when it comes to interference? We talk about it a lot in Australia. It’s tended to dominate the discourse a little bit in the US, but from a public policy point of view, how do you see the threat posed by the use of Huawei and the use of Chinese interference?

Max Bergmann:            I think it’s a really significant threat. I think it’s one where… Sometimes the Trump administration isn’t wrong. And the problem is we’re used to them just being wrong all the time that when they’re right it becomes a little bit… It can fall on deaf ears. But I think this is super problematic because if you control the broader telecommunications architecture of a democratic society and that’s being controlled by an autocratic government that has its own political designs and intentions, I think that the potential for abuse is huge. Now, we’ve worried in the past about Russians hacking into the communications links of sea cables under the sea, of satellites of intercepting all sorts of communication. And so if you basically allowed China to control your information technology backbone structure, I think you’re potentially exposing yourself, not just from a potential foreign interference, China’s potential ability to observe and monitor Australian society or whatever society they’re in, but in a national security contingency, in an event where there’s a conflict or if something were to happen, then you’re already compromised and how to combat that threat and challenge.

Max Bergmann:            And so I think one thing for countries to assess, especially if you’re Australia, is what is the potential contingency like? What side would you want to be on, and I hope that would be, I think as we see the new sort of geopolitics of the day, it’s clear that the US and China are, I think, hopefully will always avoid conflict, but they’re going to be two competitors and I think the alliance between the US and Australia, and I saw this at the end of the Obama administration, has sadly actually come to supplant the special relationship with the UK and its importance. That’s partly because of the UK’s own actions of austerity, of Brexit, but it’s also because Australia’s now pivotal role in a pivotal region. It’s also Australia’s partnership throughout the years with the United States. And I think part of that is our democratic values that are so closely aligned. We speak the same language, we have similar forms of government, we’re democracies. And I hope, and I think that is something that… So if Australia when it’s making a geopolitical decision here, sees that as the trend line to be with the United States or to make a choice, I don’t think China’s the right bet.

Max Bergmann:            Now it’s hard to make that case when we have Donald Trump in the White House, someone who, I think, is not quite an attractive figure and makes America, I think embarrasses the country a lot, but we are a democracy. We’ll have an election next year and hopefully, at least from my perspective that will pivot. I think having a Chinese company control something so vital is something to really be wary of.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve ended on an uplifting message there. And as one of my famous clunky sort of segues, you managed to bring it back to the Australian American alliance So I can pivot out of that to say, the last question I ask every guest, foreign guests, who are the three Australians that you might reluctantly, perhaps there’s not enough of us, but that you would bring to a barbecue at Max Bergmann’s place? I should give you up the fact that you were desperately googling famous Australians so I’m curious to see who you came up with in the top three Google searches?

Max Bergmann:            No, the problem is I got distracted. And I wasn’t really able to go through it. I think so… Famous Australians. Well I mean I think I would have to have dinner with the former Australian ambassador to the UK, Ambassador Downer, who met with Papadopoulos. So I think that’s a no-brainer given my role. I’m sort of friends with another Australian ambassador who used to be posted here in the United States who would also get me drunk quite frequently, but I won’t say his name because I don’t want to get him in trouble… So the famous Australian NBA player Bogarts would be one. And then, oh Tim Cahill of soccer, also played for the New York Red Bulls, who’s not my team, I’m a DC United supporter, but Tim Cahill seems like a great guy. So I think that’s, that’s three.

Misha Zelinsky:             Alexander downer, Tim Cahill, and Chris Bogut at and an unnamed ambassador who would be bringing the booze, I assume. So that sounds like a good barbecue.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah… Often times Americans are bad at dissecting American accents, often times from our movie stars were all be like that person’s not American? Or that person is not British? So I know there’s more Australians among us that should be brought to the dinner party.

Misha Zelinsky:             Will there’s a whole heap of Australians that are actually New Zealanders that we claim, like Russell Crowe. So there’s a whole system in place where if you become famous your Australian, if you’re notorious you become a Kiwi right?

Max Bergmann:            Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             Anyway, look thank you so much for joining the show, Max, it’s been a pleasure. And thank you for your time.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, my pleasure, thanks for having me.



Peter Jennings

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. As a leading global expert on defence and security policy, Peter has held senior roles in the Department of Defence and was a key advisor to Prime Minister John Howard.

Peter joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the US-China rivalry, how Australia should manage its changing relationship with the Chinese government, the importance of cyber-security in future 5G networks, how democracies should respond to threats posed by hostile state actors, and the rise of right-wing terrorism at home and abroad.



Misha Zelinsky                    Peter Jennings welcome to Diplomates.

Peter Jennings:                  Thank you very much.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, it’s always difficult to know where to start, and it seems foreign affairs is a big space, but naturally when you talk about Australia’s foreign affairs policy, you think about big powers and the influence upon on them on Australia. United States and China is obviously on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You recently wrote an article saying that 2019 was a turning point in the world’s relationship with China. Can you just tell us about that a bit?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, we’ve seen this coming for some few years. And I think historians will look back and say 2012 was a very significant year because that was when Xi Jinping came to power. And really the importance of that was I think she decided for his own leadership and for the country that the time of sort of hiding China’s power was was passed, and he was going to take China out more assertively onto the world stage. And we’ve been watching that ever since, including in areas like, for example, China’s military annexation of the South China Sea, which really happened between 2014 and 2016.

Peter Jennings:                  So I think 2019 becomes important because we’re now seeing a lot of countries in the developed democracies start to push back against China, seeking to gain too much influence in their societies. And one of those really big decisions has been around whether or not countries will allow Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei into the 5G network. Now, it all sounds a bit complicated measure, I guess. But 5G is going to become the most critical backbone of national infrastructure in every country. Everything is going to run over it from driverless vehicles, to new medical technology, to electricity, to gas. It’s going to be absolutely vital.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The so-called Internet of Things, right?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, that’s right. And quite a few countries, Australia included, have decided that it’s just not safe. It’s not secure to allow Chinese companies, Chinese telcos to actually run that critical infrastructure. And so I think Australia was quite literally the first country to formally decided that it was not going to allow Chinese companies into 5G. And then Japan and New Zealand, interestingly enough, and the United States followed suit. You’ve now got the Americans, and the Canadians, and the Brits, and a few others considering what they will do. I think that we’ll look back on 2019 as the year where a much more observable divide started to become clear in the world, which was China on the one hand, and the developed democracies on the other. And this is very significant.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Just going back to the question of Huawei, because this has caused a lot of angst for the Chinese government, why is it that our security agencies in particular and others within the Five Eyes network in particular taking such an issue with it, a Chinese telco. I mean, something, so, well, it’s just a company. They make good stuff. They do it cheaper than some of their competitors. Why is it a concern for them to be developing the 5G network?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, because capitalism in China is different. There is no such thing as a Chinese company, particularly a large Chinese company doing business overseas. There’s no such thing as that type of company being able to operate independent from the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party. So Huawei has had such success internationally precisely because it’s had the backing of the party, the funding from Chinese banks to go out around the world and to produce at remarkably low cost, sometimes lower than the cost of production, telecommunications infrastructure for many countries.

Peter Jennings:                  Why this is significant is because I think Huawei’s close connections to the Chinese Communist Party means that it’s really not in a position to say no if Chinese state intelligence comes knocking and says to Huawei, “Hey, we’d like you to facilitate our access to a particular communication system. Or we’d like you to make it possible to help us put some malware into a piece of critical infrastructure.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  Once overseas.

Peter Jennings:                  One that’s overseas indeed. And Huawei, of course, denies as you would expect it to. They say, “No, we operate independent of the Chinese state.” But back in 2017, the Communist Party passed a law called the National Security Law, which says that every individual and every company in China must support the work of the intelligence services if they’re asked to do so. And that was, I think, a clear factor behind the Australian government’s decision. In fact, the government said, “Look, we’re not going to let any company bid into 5G if we have concerns that it might at times follow the bidding of a foreign government. And so I think that’s why there’s been this concern, because if you’re designing the technology in China, and you’re manufacturing key parts of the technology in China, and you have the Chinese Ministry of State Security looking over your shoulder, that is the best possible intelligence gathering partnership that you could imagine if you believe that China might have an interest in tapping into your information technology.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting because there’s sort of a global race now on in 5G. And it’s one thing for Australia to say we’re not going to have Huawei here. But is there a issue globally with through the Belt and Road Initiative and the way that China is rolling out its network in other parts of the world, across Africa, parts of Asia, central Asia particular about the contest between standards and which standards are adopted, because if the Chinese standard is adopted, does that have implications for security globally as well?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we’re going to see a world that’s divided into essentially two types of 5G networks. And they will be Chinese supply will be one type, and there will be Western supplied will be another. Yet I think it’s a great shame that the developed democracies have not found it possible in the last decade to sort of create an industrial situation where an obvious 5G supplier can become a champion for the democracies in providing those 5G networks. But what I am pretty sure about is that the market will meet that need if enough governments conclude that they’re not going to allow Chinese suppliers into their networks. And of course we are talking about technology that in the first place came from companies like Ericsson and Nokia. And so I think that the technology is there.

Peter Jennings:                  And unfortunately, for a number of developing countries across Africa, for example, Huawei has been able put a price case for adopting their technology, which has been impossible to ignore. But the question we should be asking ourselves is why is it so cheap? Why has China of all countries found it to be strategically valuable to try and lock down as much IT infrastructure around the world as they possibly can and actually do so at uncompetitive prices?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, it’s because they see a strategic value for themselves to own global telecommunications. And I think that it’s never too late to kind of push back against that type of strategic positioning. And that’s what the democracies have to do now.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So you sort of touched there on Chinese want to dominate strategic industries. There’s so-called the 2025 plan that China announced just recently. It caused a lot of alarm, the United States in particular, with China saying, “We’re going to dominate these 10 key industries.” Firstly, is it a concern that China wants to do that? And secondly, if it is a concern, how should worldview respond to that. Is this the beginning, are we seeing the beginnings of a cold war, or is this something that’s perhaps not as considered because they’re looking to tech up?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we are at risk of finding ourselves in a new type of cold war with China, and quite frankly we’re probably in an industrial cold war, you might say, because China’s objectives both in the 2025 plan and in earlier five-year plans that they’ve produced will often become the sort of box-checking list for Chinese intelligence agencies to actually see, “Well, what technology can we go out and steal, or legally acquire, or force from Western companies that want to do business in China if we’re having trouble developing that technology ourselves?”

Peter Jennings:                  And the 2025 plan is a very good indicator of where Chinese intelligence activities are pointed in terms of industrial espionage to steal the technology that they can’t develop themselves. That’s been a pattern of Chinese behavior for years. I think on top of that, we’d have to also acknowledge a reality, which is that China is building its own in-house capabilities very quickly and becoming extremely good in some areas like artificial intelligence, for example.

Peter Jennings:                  But a lot of that, at least to begin with, has been done on the off-back of intellectual property theft. And we have to wise up to that. We have to understand that our businesses and our universities are being attacked regularly by Chinese intelligence, precisely to try and sweep up all of the interesting tech that we might be producing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was described by a prominent member of the US security agencies or defense establishment that this Chinese property theft was the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. So there’s the obvious grounds that you want the commercial benefit of white people. What does it mean in a contest between perhaps democracies and the traditional sort of alliance structure versus a Chinese government-led approach to it, which is being tech advantaged? Does that lead to being defense or offense capability advantaged as well?

Peter Jennings:                  Look, it’s a tricky one. I think that democracies are always going to be less efficient than autocracies in terms of their ability to harness industry or to protect intellectual property because we are sort of messier systems that actually place a lot of value on giving people freedom from being directed to do things be a government, and happily so. That’s entirely the right kind of system, from my point of view. But it is a weakness compared to the ability of the Chinese state to simply direct industry, for example, to say, “Right. This is a particular type of technology we want. Got to develop it or steal it,” and to compel individuals to actually support the work of China’s intelligence apparatus.

Peter Jennings:                  So in some senses I think we’re behind the play and probably always will be against what a powerful authoritarian government can do. But on the other hand, there is still a sense that democracies produce I think better types of innovation. So it remains the case that it’s the democracies, the Americans, the Europeans, even Australia in some niche areas of technology which are producing the best types of stealth technology, the best types of artificial intelligence technology. How long we can rely on that sort of innovative advantage, I don’t know. But my sense is that, and an authoritarian state like the People’s Republic of China is going to struggle at that very fine edge of the best innovation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting, though, that, I mean, you sort of said Western governments struggle. There is a precedent for this in that the Americans were caught flat-footed in the ’50s and ’60s when the Russians sort of had the so-called Sputnik moment, where they launched a satellite into space. And then Kennedy of course said, “We’re going to go to the moon.” And they did shortly thereafter.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So if the political world is there, so do you think perhaps going back to your 2019 example, the United States now very clearly, and Pence said that in a speech not too long ago, very clearly now sees Chinese or China as a strategic rival, could that be sort of the impetus to drive that level of sort of innovation and perhaps government-led innovation rather than relying on the private sector just to do it entirely?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, I think there is now probably more consensus in the United States around the risks presented by China than I’ve ever seen. And there is some ironies in that, Misha, when you think about it because it’s not a country that’s known for consensus under the leadership of Donald Trump. And indeed I think the one point of weakness I see in Washington is how personally Trump might be signed up to this consensus view. There’s quite a fear amongst a lot of people in Europe and well indeed in the United States that feel that Trump might try to cut a deal over trade with Xi Jinping. And that could lead to turning a blind eye on some of the intellectual property protection that I think is really the core of America’s concerns about China.

Peter Jennings:                  But putting Trump to one side across the national security community, across mainstream Republicans and Democrats, Congress, the American System will generally, there is now a very strong view that the number one strategic problem the Americans face is a powerful China, especially a China which is becoming more authoritarian. And this is something that will have consequences for America’s allies and for how America kind of operates in the world in coming years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So it’s interesting. One of the things I think often gets raised, and it’s quite difficult in the Australian political context at times where I think you see globally in that this pushback you’re seeing, critics of that pushback will say, “Well, this is really xenophobia. This is kind of the Anglosphere not being comfortable with the rising East, or being replaced, or being strategically rivaled by another country that wants to do well.” Is this, do you think that that argument has merit, or is this something specific to the Chinese government and the way it conducts itself? I’m just curious about your thoughts around that question?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, I think it’s a great way to muddy the waters in a strategic discussion for some people, and we see them in Australia, that are determined to say that this is ultimately a debate about race. And therefore if you are expressing concerns about China, that must mean that in some way you’re going to be a xenophobe. The point I’d like to make is that it is not racist to be concerned about the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. And I think we’re going to have to work very hard to be clear in the language we use. For example, we often say China as a kind of a shorthand, when most of the time, what I’m really talking about is the role of the Communist Party.

Peter Jennings:                  I do believe that this is almost a debating tactic that a lot of PRCs supporters use. I have seen what a democratic China looks like, and it’s called Taiwan. So I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the people of the mainland of China could operate very effectively in a democratic system. And in fact in many ways, it’s the nature of the party status, it’s called, the Communist Party, which is the biggest risk factor that we have to deal with. So I completely reject any sense that this is racist or xenophobic—it’s not. It’s about what types of political systems do we want to live under and how much pressure in a country like Australia should we be prepared to accept from the Communist Party of China in trying to dictate how the Asia-Pacific is going to run.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so bringing it back to Australia, I mean, some of the things that I think have shifted the debate here, I mean, has been China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its claim of it as being strategic interest. Does that matter? Should we be concerned about this sort of the building of islands in the South China Sea and the increase creep of what China considers to be its spheres of influence? Is that something we should be concerned about or is it up, as the Chinese would contend, “It’s called South China Seas. So leave it to us”?

Peter Jennings:                  Look, I think we should be concerned. The last time the world was at war, at least in the Pacific was in dealing with the maritime ambitions of a Japan, which was determined to try to control its trade roots all the way down into the South China and through Southeast Asia. So we’re talking about a strategically vital bit of territory. The South China Sea is itself about the size of the Mediterranean. So it’s not a small area. And the fact that a country like China has come in the space of about 24 months, annexed it in much the same way that the Russians annexed the Crimea, I think it’s something that the entire world should really be outraged about. And this is I think very much a problem for Australia.

Peter Jennings:                  So perhaps another dimension to add just to that point, though, is that was the wake-up call. I think for a lot of people that might’ve said, “Well, we’ve never seen China behave in a hostile military way. Frankly, that’s a bit of a myth, but it’s a line that you often hear. But I think this has become a wake-up call for people to realize that in Xi Jinping and in the People’s Republic, what we have is a country which is now trying to militarily dominate the region. And for countries like Australia, Japan, and most others, that’s simply unacceptable.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So the question then becomes, how should Australia respond to this? Because you had traditionally maritime disputes that dealt with, through maritime law international courts, a ruling came down very clearly that did not rule in favor of China and its claim in the South China Sea. Basically got ignored. And increasingly what we’re now seeing is kind of payback from the Chinese government or countries that displease it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Really good example recently is the Canadian arrests of the prominent Huawei CFO. And now you’re seeing these hostage diplomacy with those several individuals arrested in China, and then of course the banning of Canola oil or Canola seeds is imports from the Canadian economy. So, I mean, how concerned should we be about that kind of belligerent approach to independent foreign policy decision-making?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, firstly, I mean, the first point to make is so much for Huawei’s claim that they operate completely independently from the Communist Party because the party has been savage in its application of bullying tactics towards Canada over the arrest of Mrs. Meng. And, again, I think that begins to be a bit of an eye-opener, that we are dealing with a country that is quite prepared to go beyond legal barriers to promote its interests where we can.

Peter Jennings:                  My view is, to sort of answer the broader part of the question, how do we deal with this, I think firstly we’ve got to be very clear-minded in terms of our own thinking about what is strategically important to Australia. I’m perfectly happy, for example, for us to have a very successful trading relationship with China. That doesn’t bother me in the least. We win from that. The Chinese win from that. I’m much more concerned, though, about seeing Chinese ownership of Australian critical infrastructure.

Peter Jennings:                  So, for example, the fact that China owns of the electricity and gas distribution and transmission assets in Australia today is not something that I feel comfortable about from a strategic point of view. So where those types of issues come up, I think we’ve got to be very clear about where our strategic interests lie. And we should then be prepared to push back against Chinese opportunism either of an economic sort or indeed of a military type that we’ve seen in the South China Sea.

Peter Jennings:                  Then the second element to that is what can we do with allies and like-minded friends? And I think frankly the world has really failed to actually think about what is a type of concerted response that’s necessary to stop Chinese takeover of the South China Sea and a more assertive and outward-looking Chinese military posture. We’ve allowed China to kind of like split and stop the Southeast Asian countries from being able to develop sort of a shared position on the South China Sea.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, they want to do it on an individual basis.

Peter Jennings:                  Yep. And that’s a very obvious Chinese tactic is, “We’ll deal with the countries bilaterally.” And through the sort of, the bullying that you see, where they can hint that maybe your exports are not going to be received, or that they can stop students from coming, or they can stop tourists, it’s led to a whole bunch of countries that really should know better just kind of looking the other way in the interest of maintaining economic relations with China.

Peter Jennings:                  Now, I just think that that’s going to continue to be a problem for us; we’re going to see more and more examples of this come up. We governments will have to make hard decisions between making money on the one hand but looking after national security on the other. And this is going to be hard for whatever party’s in power in this country for years to come.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s a tricky question, though, when 30% of our trade is with China. It used to be 50% was with Britain. Then it was 25% with Japan. We’ve never had a situation like this before. I mean, do you think, is there a case to be made for trade diversity, diversification of Australia’s trading relationships, not withstanding we should continue to trade with China obviously. I mean, there’s a lot of mutual benefit there for everyone.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But that threat now that they … Well, it’s not really a threat. You’re seeing it being used against the Canadians and others. Is there a case for Australia to look to other avenues for its export relationships in order to limit the impact of those kind of things, for example, the coal that we’re seeing now being held up in Chinese ports for various reasons?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we desperately need to try and diversify our sources of wealth creation. And there’s an interesting question to ask. And our successors will look back and say, “How was it that policymakers over a generation allowed such a level of dependency to be created on a country which is so alien to the values and political system that we operate in?”

Peter Jennings:                  And indeed I think that we made some really quite terrible policy mistakes along that journey. So, for example, there was a time when there was a very aggressive sort of push inside the Australian public service to say, “Well, we are an Asian country.” And part of that demonstration of being an Asian country meant that we were reducing our ties with Europe. And we weren’t bothering to build ties in Latin America, say, or Africa.

Peter Jennings:                  And so if you look at the shape of Australia’s international relations, it is heavily skewed, particularly on the economic front to a handful of countries in North Asia. And I think that by definition that’s risky. So developing alternative markets, rediscovering Europe, looking, if you take a 30- or 40-year-perspective at what 900 million African consumers can do for the Australian economy, looking at Latin America, which is almost a closed book as far as Australia is concerned, I think there’s lots of things we can do to reduce our dependence on one country, namely China.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. We’ve sort of talked a bit there about the trading relationship. The question, then, is also about moral leadership and the difference between … The Western liberal democracies, they’ve always seen themselves to be custodians of morality globally. The Chinese government has got a pretty questionable record of human rights violations. There’s a million Uyghurs locked up in detention, which gets very little discussion. Is this scenario where countries like Australia, first, we should call out this behavior, but also use it as a way to assert morality as a values-based projection of Australian leadership globally?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. So I think we talk quite a big game about individual human rights. We say in the 2017 foreign policy whitepaper that we have a foreign policy ultimately based on values. And yet I really don’t see much in the way of a practical demonstration of that. I think what we have is a foreign policy that’s ultimately shaped around pragmatism and trying to facilitate making money. Not that I’m opposed to making money, but I do think that I personally would like to see a stronger Australian foreign policy approach, which emphasized individual human rights as articulated in the UN charter as being something which really should be a sort of a guiding point for how we think about our role in the world.

Peter Jennings:                  We’re always going to be dealing with countries that perhaps have a poorer record on human rights than we do. And I would not say that it’s smart to kind of like boycott those in those countries and say we will have nothing to do with them, because if we were to do that, we’d have a pretty lonely existence talking maybe to New Zealand, and that would be about it. That’s not sensible. But nor should we shy away from the reality that, for example, in China we appear to have over a million people in Xinjiang Province, the Uyghurs, now in essentially reeducation camps. This is just unacceptable. And to sort of just kind of like meekly accept a Beijing line that what this is is sort of like school education is just fatuous. So, yes, I think a strong stand on individual human rights is a natural part of what should be a principled Australian approach of standing up for our strategic interest.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so one of the important things about values of democracy is the integrity of elections. Increasingly globally we’ve seen a lot of foreign interference from hostile state actors. You’ve got very well-documented Russian interference in the 2016 election. There’s hints of Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Recently we had a hack of our Parliament but also our major political parties by a sophisticated state actor, which it could only be a few. How concerned should we be about this type of sort of hostile attempts to interfere with democratic institutions by foreign state actors that are not democracies?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, we can’t afford to imagine that it somehow doesn’t relate to us. I think we do have to be concerned about it. I think the Russians and the Chinese probably have different objectives when it comes to the types of interference that they’ve engaged in. When I look at Russia’s actions in the US and in some European elections, I think broadly I would say that there’s a kind of a wrecking objective, which is to create a sense that the democracies frankly are as bad as we are. So what does it matter? How could anyone kind of put a democracy forward as being in some way inherently superior to the type of system that exists in Moscow under Putin?

Peter Jennings:                  I think the Chinese probably have a different set of objectives than that, which would be to engage in doing their best to try to produce outcomes in elections, which suit Beijing’s interests more than other outcomes. And here something that I think is going to become a bigger issue in Australia than we’ve seen at the moment is whether or not there is a sort of attempts on the part of the mainland to influence the voting behavior of Australians of Chinese ethnicity.

Peter Jennings:                  One thing we know is that for a certain group within that community of Australians with Chinese ethnicity, there’s this strong reliance on getting their information from Chinese language newspapers, which in this country are almost all owned by mainland interests. And there’s a strong capacity to shape how voters might behave through WeChat and other forms of Chinese language social media that is pretty much impenetrable to non-Chinese speakers.

Peter Jennings:                  And I think this is something that we’re going to have to look at very closely just to make sure that Chinese Australians are not having their democratic choices interfered with by people from the mainland that have an interest in trying to shape election outcomes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So what’s the future, then? You kind of sort of touched on it earlier, talking about this splitting of standards, but what’s the future? I mean, the West, and the Internet have always been priding themselves on the openness of the systems, the openness of the political process, the transparency. The openness of the Internet is fundamentally information should be liberally and freely available, and that will conquer all.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You know, I’ve got a very deliberate situation where autocratic regimes are having closed systems. So we got a contest now not so much between nations as much as we have one between an open and closed system, and the Russians very deliberately recently have attempted to basically disconnect the Internet, if I can put it in very … I’m not a … In the words of our former prime minister, I’m not a tech head, but they are deliberately unplugging themselves from the rest of the world because they don’t want their domestic population to be influenced by information flows from the open Internet, and whereas we have a pretty much a hands-off approach. How do you see that future? Can Western liberal democracies remain open and remain their integrity, or if they close themselves, almost lose something that’s inherent to them as well? So it’s a really difficult one to grasp.

Peter Jennings:                  It sure is. And I don’t have a solution for you. I mean, I find both ends of the spectrum pretty scary. It’s obvious that what we’re seeing in China and quite a number of more authoritarian regimes is that in fact the Internet and everything that comes with the Internet of Things and 5G technology is a tremendous mechanism for authoritarian control of populations. It means that you can control what people know. You can see and understand what people are reading to a degree that no one could’ve anticipated when George Orwell was writing 1984. And that’s deeply scary.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. I mean, you can change history in a way. If you just Google Tiananmen Square in China, it’ll just tell you that Tiananmen Square is a lovely place to visit, and you’ll never know that there was a horrible-

Peter Jennings:                  That’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  … suppression and killing of domestic citizens.

Peter Jennings:                  In fact, most Chinese under 30, mainland Chinese, would have almost no knowledge of what happened in Tiananmen. On the other hand, you come into the democracies and you’ve got a sort of almost like a Wild West of badness at the extreme edges of the Internet.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Nothing’s true. Everything’s true. Your opinion is as good as my fact.

Peter Jennings:                  That’s exactly right. And I had the experience after the Christchurch shooting of writing a newspaper article about the murderer and doing some research was literally within about 10 seconds of starting to see what was on the Net, watching this guy’s shooting video inside the mosques, which is just dreadful. Normal citizens of our countries have not up until the last 10 years had such open access to such violent imagery. It’s the sort of thing that combat veterans might be aware of, but almost no one else. And that scares the living daylights out of me as well. I just think that that sheer openness of our system is one which is almost causing a sort of brutalizing of how people think about how they should interact with the fellow citizens.

Peter Jennings:                  So I don’t know what the solution is to this, other than we should probably spend less time on social media, all of us for our mental health. But at the end of the day, if I have to choose between those alternatives, I think there’s more to be said for an open system that’s less controlled than what we see emerging in China and indeed a few other authoritarian states.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So you’ve touched on the incident in Christchurch and the horrible events there. You wrote in that article about the dangers of right-wing extremism, and effectively you’ve said we’ve paid a lot of attention to the threat of Islamic extremism, but this threat of right-wing extremism, which is bubbled away in the dark corners of the Internet, as you say, and in plain sight in some instances with social media and other extremists in the political discourse. How concerned should we be about right-wing extremism?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we should. It has always been there, frankly. Before 9/11 probably that had been more of a focus of our intelligence agencies than Islamic extremism. But I do know that in the UK and in a number of European countries, there’s actually deep concern in police and intelligence services about the rise of the extreme violent right. And it’s here in Australia too. So that Internet that we’ve just been talking about is a way of actually connecting all of these groups. It’s a way of making people like that feel that they are actually part of a global social network and able to sort of radicalize each other.

Peter Jennings:                  And I think we are going to have to find ways to put more control and observation over that in order to prevent further attacks of the type that we saw in Christchurch. People have said to some extent correctly that New Zealand’s more open gun laws than Australia made it easier for Tarrant to access those weapons legally, which he did. But we would be fooling ourselves if we were to pretend that something like that couldn’t happen in Australia.

Peter Jennings:                  There’s intelligence research available publicly that says it’s about a quarter of a million long-arms weapons, so that’s to say rifles, and shotguns, and some military-style semiautomatic weapons that are illicitly out in the Australian population. So if someone’s desperate enough to acquire those types of weapons, they will be able to do so. And we know that there are Australians that have at least tendencies towards that kind of extremist ideology that presents a threat.

Peter Jennings:                  So, yeah, I do think this is a new problem. And I think we’re going to have to work amongst the Five Eyes intelligence partners, European partners to sort of collectively get a stronger grip over this extremist far-right movement to make sure that it never is anything more than just an absolute fringe part of our politics.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The thing about the incident, right, is that you could stand up in a crowded room and say something ridiculous. And most people would just call you out as being a nut. If you come and say the moon landing was fake or some other conspiracy theory of that nature, most people are going to just … But on the Internet, very quickly you can find people that agree with you and perhaps sell you something even more crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So how do you grapple with the fact that it’s not just Australians coordinating with Australians, but it’s Australians coordinating with these right-wing groups globally and these global extremists that seem to export that into our domestic discourse?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. Well, it’s true, and I think in the case of Tarrant, most of his radicalization took place in Europe and actually reading European-sourced sort of radical commentary. And I don’t say that to try and say it has nothing to do with Australia. Very clearly it did. He’s an Australian citizen. But now you can be a part, you can be a nut in rural New South Wales and be part of a global group of like-minded nuts. And what’s the solution? Well, probably working more closely with European countries where I think has been a bigger and sharper problem for a number of years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And more embedded in their political discourse as well, right?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. Well, there’s a history there, of course, and these countries are under pressure. And at the end of the day, those of us who aren’t nuts, we’ve got to kind of like I think reenergize the sensible center, if I could put it that way, to remind people that there are better alternatives. And mostly those alternatives are around robust democracy of the type that we have in Australia, thankfully. But, again, one of the regrettable points of the Internet is that it mutes sort of balanced, sensible, centered-type views, and it amplifies extremist radical views. And I think-

Misha Zelinsky:                  False balance almost.

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, that’s right. And it’s we’ve just got to look at how we educate our kids and do a whole range of things that kind of damps down those extremes and sort of puts more emphasis on the sensible center.

Misha Zelinsky:                  One of the things I think a lot of people are concerned about just recently with, and you’ve talked about gun laws and the amount of … Everyone likes to think that there are no guns in Australia. It’s not true. But how concerned are you, some of the things about these things about attempts that would seem to infiltrate Australia’s political systems by far-right groups in the United States and the gun law be attempted? Because the world looks to Australia as the kind of the prime example of how you can go from having guns to not. How concerned are you about that attempt? Because I think that surprised a lot of people.

Peter Jennings:                  Well, it was appallingly misjudged. And I think it’s to the eternal criticism of those fools that felt that it was a smart ideal to go to Washington, D.C. to talk to the NRA to ask for money. It’s not a defense to say that they got a bit sloshed and started talking, because they certainly were sober enough when they were planning their trip, and they knew pretty clearly what they were doing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was a hell of a bender otherwise.

Peter Jennings:                  Otherwise it was a hell of a bender. But I think something that’s not been clear from those Al Jazeera programs is did the NRA or the Koch brothers at any stage ever think that it was a smart idea to offer money to these people? I don’t know that they did. And maybe that tells you that even those, that that American institution has got more sense than we might give them credit for for not handing over money to those folks.

Peter Jennings:                  I was part of the Howard government in the days when Martin Bryant was engaged in that appalling killing spree in Port Arthur in Tasmania. I recall very directly the pressure that Howard was under to compromise on the gun laws that he brought in. And I think that it was one of his best moments as prime minister to actually stick with it because it was actually quite a strong lobby that didn’t want to see as tough arrange of controls over automatic weapons that Howard put in place.

Peter Jennings:                  But we are, 20 years later, we are surely a better country for that decision having taken place. And I don’t, except at the fringes of Australian politics, I don’t see many people saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sort of go easy on the gun laws to make ownership of semiautomatic weapons more accessible?” So I thought that you really would have to say that the attempts of those individuals that went to the US to ask for money was about as ill-considered a political move as I’ve seen in my fairly lengthy career now of watching politics in Canberra.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So I always look for a segue on this, but it’s going super clunky on this one, but now I have a very lame hokey title called Diplomates. And I like to finish the interviews saying, well, three international guests got asked, who would you bring of three Aussies to a barbecue? But you get go pick three international guests. So who are three international guests coming to a Peter Jennings’ place for a barbecue?

Peter Jennings:                  Ooh, gosh, that’s an interesting one. Can they be political figures or could they be-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, anyone you like.

Peter Jennings:                  Anyone I like. Who would I like to talk to? Well, I’ll tell you three people who I absolutely admire. One of them I know reasonably well, that’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former president of Indonesia, who I actually as a young defense official escorted through Canberra on a trip, probably 25 years ago when he was a general, very fine individual. I admire him greatly. So I’d have him, Jim Mattis, former US Secretary of Defense, who I think was a fine general, someone who knew Australian fighting forces very well and who did for at least two years probably one of the toughest jobs in Washington, D.C., which was to be the defense advisor to Donald Trump as commander-in-chief.

Misha Zelinsky:                  He’s got some stories to tell, no doubt?

Peter Jennings:                  And he did, and a man that’s sort of much admired in Australian defense system. And I feel as though I should come up with a sort of quirky and different choice for you for-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Only if you feel quirky and different, man-

Peter Jennings:                  Quirky or different. I honestly don’t know. Seeing as I spend so much of my time traveling overseas, I think the person I’d most like to be able to see at a relaxed thing like a barbecue would be my wife, actually, who hears lots of stories about all of these fine people what I’m able to meet. So I’ll go for those two guys of great high standing and my own wife.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Most importantly, you’ve definitely got the right answer in the last one. But, look, thanks so much for your time.

Peter Jennings:                  [crosstalk 00:45:33].

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s been a great chat, and I really appreciate it.

Peter Jennings:                  Thanks, Misha. It’s my pleasure to talk.

Speaker 2:                              You were just listening to Diplomates, A Geopolitical Chinwag. For more episodes, visit or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or through any of your favorite podcasts channels.

Announcer:                           This podcast is brought to you by Minimal Productions.


Bonita Mersiades

Bonita Mersiades is one of the most famous whistleblowers in world sport.

She is the author of ’Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way’ – a book that details the massive corruption inside the bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup including Australia’s role in the shady process. 

Bonita joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the intersection of sport and politics, why when it comes to cheating its easier to punish individuals than nation states, the role that money plays in the corruption of sport and why it’s just so scary being a whistleblower. 


Misha Zelinsky:                  Bonita Mersiades Mersiades, welcome to the show.

Bonita Mersiades:           Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Slightly different change of pace for what we typically have on Diplomates. You’ve got a very heavy sports background, but sports and politics are never too far apart. I thought, with your experience, let’s start right at the beginning. Why do people care so much about sport? Why do people care so much about men and women running around on a field kicking a ball or throwing a ball?

Bonita Mersiades:           There’s many reasons. I guess one of them would be that we’ve all done it, or most of us have don’t it, at some stage in our lives. The other thing is I think almost more than anything, perhaps music is the only other thing, is that it’s something which is part of a culture that goes through generations. Particularly in something like football, regardless of which code of football it is, the love of that and a love of the team for example can pass down from generation to generation. I think from an individual perspective, that’s why we love sport.

Bonita Mersiades:           From a bigger picture perspective, of society, it absolutely does reflect society and the values that we find important and the values that we like to instill for example in our children, of fair play and team work and perseverance and determination and integrity. For all of those reasons, it’s important.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, people often say, sports, it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that. It’s also seen as an extension of the nation state. Do you see, in your experience, how much is sport an extension of not just communities but of the country itself? Do you think that that is an important part of sport, as well, the national identity?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah, especially for a country like our own. We’re very much tied up, our national identity is very much tied up with sport, even if not so much with ourselves. It is for other people. Having traveled a lot for work not just in sport, but in previous work in government, one of the things that people will often throw at you as a curtain raiser conversation is about the cricket team or the football team or whatever. It is pretty much part of our identity.

Bonita Mersiades:           I think, though, increasingly, too, is that a lot of nations are getting into sport and investing so much in sport because it is obviously a way of exercising soft diplomatic power. Along with arts and culture and fashion and food and all sorts of other ways in which soft power is exercised, sport is also very important to that.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting you touch on that soft power, because it’s that murky bit between politics, business, passionate community interest. It strikes me sometimes what makes sport so special is what makes it inherently corruptible. What is it that we see with this questionable behavior from players, obviously, but administrators, high level bureaucrats? How is it that it gets so easily corrupted, something that is so pure when you start as a kid?

Bonita Mersiades:           I think a lot of the administrators in sport, particularly at high level, they forget what sport was about in the first place. My experience, for example, of FIFA is such that, whereas most of the people involved at a high level would have started off in the game as a kid once upon a time and came through the ranks as a volunteer and all of those sorts of things, they lost sight of that when they could see just how powerful that particular sport is, football … I’m talking soccer when I talk football … and the doors it opens for them. For example, if the FIFA president came to visit a country such as Australia, he would get a green light corridor which is reserved for heads of state. He would get to meet anyone that he wants to meet. The president of FIFA has, it doesn’t matter who it is, the president of the United States or the prime minister of the UK. They juggle about who they’re going to sit next to at state dinners. They are treated like a head of state and they see themselves as a head of state. In fact, they even refer to the FIFA congress, which has 212 member nations, more than the United Nations, as their parliament.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s really interesting. We’ll come back to that a little bit later on, about the way that sports globally govern themselves. You of course, you touched on FIFA. You’re the author of a book called Whatever it Takes, which is The Inside Story of the FIFA Way, but also particularly Australia’s failed bid for the World Cup in 2022.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Firstly, I suppose, why did Australia bid for this event? Why is it important to put taxpayer money … We put in $50 million, I think it was. Why do countries put money behind these kind of events?

Bonita Mersiades:           I think the number one reason is the one that we touched on earlier about soft power. If you look at Australia’s history with major world events, whether it be the ’56 Olympics, the 2000 Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, although that’s not as large, and things like that, Australia has leveraged those events to give it more power and more of a, I guess, credibility and notoriety, and I say that in a positive way, every time there’s been one of those major world events. That’s why nations use them. If you look at who won out of that 2018, 2022 process, and we’ve already experienced the 2018 World Cup, there is absolutely no doubt that Vladimir Putin and Russia used that to try and soften their image when everything else that was going on in their country would probably be a negative for most.

Bonita Mersiades:           Why did we bid? One, there was that. Two, I think from a football perspective, at the time and probably still, we have always seen it necessary to turbo charge our sport to realize its potential. This is what I’m really passionate about, is that football is a way in Australia for Australia to be closer to the world and the world to be closer to Australia. Yet, we’ve never really taken great advantage of that. Hosting a World Cup would have been a way to do that, as well as putting our sport onto another level financially. That was one of the reasons from a football perspective, as well as whatever legacy it may have left for the sport within our country. They were the three major reasons. There was a national reason, there was a football legacy perspective, and there was a football financial perspective.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. In your book, you talk about the fact that … Famously, for those who … I’ll just quickly recap. There was two bids for the 2018, 2022. Australia was reasonably confident they were going to do well with that process. We then finished last. We got one vote. $50 million dollars for one vote. That vote was from the now disgraced Sepp Blatter who basically told us he voted us, I mean, effectively out of sympathy. Otherwise, we would have got zero votes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The thing that you talk about in your book, and I’d like for you to unpack this, at the time of the vote we knew we were going to lose, and yet nobody told the government. Can you expand on that a little bit, about that process of the vote itself?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. I think that was … People have also asked me what really got me to the point where I was so unhappy with working through this. There was a lot of things, but that was one of them. We were standing in the lobby of the FIFA headquarters in Zurich after Kevin Rudd had been to visit. Kevin Rudd was a master politician and master showman. Put him up with Sepp Blatter and it was really a contest to see who was going to be smiling the most and being in front of the camera the most. Kevin Rudd was great on that visit, but after he left we were told point blank we wouldn’t win it because we would never be commercially competitive.

Bonita Mersiades:           From my perspective then, we should have at least as a minimum told the government that that was the case. The government may well have said, “That’s fine. There are other objectives we’re pursuing with this,” because after all, just by being a bidder we’re out there in the global community getting noticed. That’s not a bad objective as long as the government is able to make that decision, in my view. They were also bidding at the time for a security council seat at the United Nations, so there was that double act going on as well. But we didn’t. We didn’t do any of that.

Bonita Mersiades:           I think, when you come back to what happened at the very end of the whole bidding process and the fact that I revealed in my book, that Qatar, through what was then Al Jazeera, paid a $100 million what they call production contribution if the World Cup was held in Qatar, I think it’s fairly clear that Qatar were also given the same information, i.e. you won’t be competitive commercially. In other words, their meaning against the United States, who was one of the other bidders for 2022. Qatar dealt with that because they had the state owned resources to be able to deal with it. They came up with some might say it was a clever way of doing it, and some might say it was sneaky. Nonetheless, it worked for them, from an organizational perspective. We didn’t do any of that. Instead, what we did was, oh, we’ll get a consulting company to do a report on why Asia is the next big growth area in football. My question to that was, there’s three other Asian nations bidding so why us rather than the other three.

Bonita Mersiades:           There was always this view that no one would want those other three, they’ll want us in Asia, not the other three. I think there was this sense that while we would host a great World Cup … We do all of that stuff really well … and it’d have been fantastic to have, there was never any sense, realistic view of what else was going on. At least publicly there wasn’t a realistic view of what was going on.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You’ve sort of touched on this process. A lot of people wouldn’t know that when they’re deciding a World Cup, there’s only 22 votes, as I understood it.

Bonita Mersiades:           At that time, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. Can you give a sense of some of the dirty trick … You touched on the Qataris have put up $100 million. You talk in your book and at other speeches around some of the examples from the then French president Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin in Cyprus. Can you give some examples of some of the stuff that other countries were doing in other to secure it? Given that the Russians won 2018 and Qatar won 2022, I think it’s important to think about exactly what went on.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. Not just during the bidding process, but afterwards as well if you track some of these things. I think it’s important, too, because so many people have talked about Qatar and put it down to the traditional brown paper bag stuff. There may well have been some of that that went on, but there are also this other much more sophisticated and strategic interventions.

Bonita Mersiades:           I mentioned the $100 million production contribution. Not long before the vote, the person who is now the emir of Qatar went to France, had dinner with Nicholas Sarkozy, and Michel Platini who was then the FIFA vice president and one of the most powerful people in football, was invited along. Basically, it was put upon him that he and the people, his votes that he could manage, should vote for Qatar and in return for which Qatar would look after a number of things.

Bonita Mersiades:           The following year at the Dubai Air Show, Qatar Airways bought … I haven’t got the numbers absolutely correct, but certainly a proportion … bought approximately 80 Airbus aircraft and two Boeing aircraft. The following year, Michel Platini’s son ended up with a job with Qatar. The following year, Qatar, and they still owned, Paris Saint Germain, the most successful and the biggest football club in Paris. All of these things sort of went on both at the time and subsequent to secure those votes. That’s one example.

Bonita Mersiades:           In terms of Russia, I tracked this through a Greek newspaper, or through a relative who sent it to me actually. Vladimir Putin visited Cyprus in September 2010. This was about two months before the vote or six weeks before the vote. In a speech about anti ballistic missile technology, he said, “We Russia are going to share our technology with you,” which in itself is a huge issue and quite big, “But by the way we’re also bidding for the 2018 World Cup and we’d really love to have your vote.” Sitting in the audience is the man who’s going to vote. Now, was that you must vote for us or else or just the type of typical government to government deal or negotiating or trading that goes on during these things? That’s why I say there’s a lot of sophisticated and strategic interventions from countries and nation states around that whole bidding process and the voting process.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was quite successful when you look at it, right? You look at the fact that there was a lot of concern at the time, certainly for the last decade, around Russia’s behavior globally, when you look at invasion of Georgia and so on and so forth, the annexation of Crimea. They bid quite high as you describe and then there was a tremendous soft power success for the Putin regime in Russia last year in the 2018 World Cup. Qatar, which is a tiny country, I think everyone was shocked that they won it. They’ve come under enormous pressure for some of the abuses of human rights and labor rights subsequently. They’re two really concerning examples.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Australia’s bid. I’m kind of curious. What about us? We spent $50 million of taxpayers’ money. Was our bid clean or not?

Bonita Mersiades:           It depends what you mean by clean. Is it clean in that anyone is being indicted or arrested yet? It was clean in that respect because no one has been. Was it clean in terms of using, as I’ve termed it, or in fact as the former attorney general of the United States termed it, the FIFA way? Yeah, we absolutely did. For example, we gave four million dollars to the Oceania Football Confederation, that’s based in the Pacific, for a really good project, that is to help kids in the Pacific play sport with better facilities. No one can doubt that that’s a good cause, but it was only given because we were bidding. I sat in the meeting. It’s not a question of I’ve read this somewhere and i think this is what happened. I sat in the meeting with the director general of [inaudible 00:14:59] on more than one occasion, what was then [inaudible 00:15:02], more than one occasion in which he talked about how he would require additionality from the federal budget in order to fund this. There is no doubt about that.

Bonita Mersiades:           We, when I say we, Australia, the Football Federation of Australia, got an award from the Asian Football Confederation for a five million dollar donation, five million dollar donation that wasn’t particularly allocated to anything but we donated it. We gave half a million US dollars to Jack Warner, probably the most notorious of all of the characters, if I can call them that, around FIFA and world football. He wanted that to upgrade a stadium in his home country of Trinidad and Tobago. What they didn’t bother to do in terms of due diligence was to find out that the land on which the stadium was … Sorry, the stadium was built by FIFA money. The club concerned was owned by the Warner family. The land on which the stadium and the facilities were built was owned by the Warner family. Where did that US half a million dollars end up? In Jack Warner’s personal back account.

Bonita Mersiades:           Now, what Football Federation Australia officials or former officials have said in relation to that, “Well, we didn’t know that was happening.” Even if they didn’t know that was happening, they should have been able to figure out what was going on and they should have done better due diligence. Not only that, they shouldn’t have made a payment of US half a million dollars to one of the most powerful people in world football and a voter some six weeks before that vote, because it smells. There is no other word for it. It smells.

Misha Zelinsky:                  In any other context, if these people were elected, it’d be a corruption. Because again this murkiness of sport, it becomes less … There’s no proper oversight, no proper democratic oversight. Just going back slightly from the bid, we lose the bid quite badly, but ten months before that event you lost your job. Your book is largely about being a whistleblower. I was kind of curious. You called out some of the problems. Next thing you find yourself on the out. Can you maybe explain what caused you firstly to blow the whistle on this, so to speak, internally? Then why did you find yourself shown the door do you think?

Bonita Mersiades:           I kept raising questions while I was in the job. It’s worth bearing in mind that I was a very senior executive. I reported to the CEO, I had close contact with the chairman amongst the bid group. I was also doing my other work at FFA as well, which was the ordinary communications and PR and corporate affairs type stuff. I would ask questions about why were we doing this, why were we spending money here. I would call out … We employed three notorious, two of them especially, notorious international consultants. In my eyes, [crosstalk 00:18:05]-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Who specialize in the area of thief of bidding?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yes. That’s all they do basically.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Bonita Mersiades:           Having worked with consultants for years and years and years, having been in government and elsewhere, I knew that they were not ordinary consultants. They were getting paid $15 million between them. They weren’t like ordinary consultants who would provide reports or provide you feedback or have any … Except for one of them, they had no deliverables in particular. I kept asking questions about this. As I mentioned, we were told that we wouldn’t win and we didn’t tell the government. As far as I’m aware, we didn’t tell the government. Certainly from a management perspective, we didn’t. I just got more and more uncomfortable. After a while, I guess, I think it was just simpler for my CEO at the time because he had the consultants in one ear sort of complaining about me and me in the other ear complaining about them. I think he thought what price piece will get rid of her?

Misha Zelinsky:                  Like a lot of whistleblowers, you came under an enormous amount of personal pressure. Can you explain that the attempts to discredit you? There was a report done that deliberately targeted you and one other person. Can you sort of take us through that process? You’ve made the complaint and then you’ve then largely been left as the problem.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. To this day, I’m still seen as a problem, even though there’s been a change of executive management [inaudible 00:19:35] at FFA. I think someone said I was an agitator and therefore I shouldn’t really be someone they talk to.

Bonita Mersiades:           The first thing they did was try to make out that the reason I was sacked was for reasons that were just not accurate. A little bit like what’s happened to the Matilda’s coach more recently. They would say, for instance, it was because I was responsible for relationships with the state governments and they weren’t going well. Actually, it wasn’t my responsibility. That was all about stadiums and that wasn’t my responsibility. There were those sorts of things. That was just the immediate aftermath.

Bonita Mersiades:           It became much bigger than that. There was sort of a fatwa put out against me by Football Federation Australia in terms of warning people not to have any contact with me, not to talk to me, not to take any notice, saying that I was bitter and twisted, saying the usual stuff when there’s a whistleblower. They do everything to discredit you and say that you’re only saying things because you’ve lost your job. Some people didn’t believe that because they had known me. I didn’t just go and work in football because I wanted a job. I worked in football because I love football and have done all my life. I grew up with it.

Bonita Mersiades:           Then it sort of elevated. When I started talking about governance, when I put it all together, I wrote it all down. I wrote everything down. I started putting together and I realized that what this really was was a governance issue at a much bigger level, at a FIFA level. I started talking about that, both here in Australia and also internationally. I actually coined the phrase the FIFA way back in 2011 and in fact I’m delighted to say that Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, picked up on it.

Bonita Mersiades:           They then started a review of the 2018, 2022 bidding process by a person who is now a judge in the New York Court of Appeals. He was a paid consultant to FIFA. He interviewed approximately 75 people for his report, which took approximately two years to do. He got paid about ten million US dollars for it. In his report, he singled out two people to criticize. First of all, he said the decision was fine, there was nothing wrong with Qatar and Russia being selected. He did say that there was some dodgy things about the Australian bid and some dodgy things about the UK bid, but he singled out two people and identified them. That was me and another whistleblower, a woman. Of all people in the entire world of football that were seen as being a problem for football, it was the two whistleblowers and two women, and two quite vulnerable people.

Bonita Mersiades:           One of the impacts of having been a whistleblower, especially in a relatively small community in Australia, is it’s very hard to get a job when you’re up against one of the most powerful men in the country, i.e. Frank Lowy. For the other whistleblower, she was an American born Arab woman who … She has found it difficult to I guess really gain the employment that she would like to, just as I have. You continue and get on with life and do other things, but life changes a lot when that happens to you.

Bonita Mersiades:           I guess one of the telling things about all of that was that you do learn who your friends are and you do learn about people who say they stand for something and that they don’t actually stand for anything when it comes to it. Because they’ve never bothered to pick up the phone and ask you how you are or any of those sorts of things. I guess I’m glossing over it to some extent, because it doesn’t sound that bad, that it was just written in a report, but it was much worse than that in that this was global news. This wasn’t just something that happened in little old Australia. It was global news.

Bonita Mersiades:           When this report came out, I was in Perth doing some work. A friend of mine, a journalist in England, contacted me and he said, “You really need to look at the Garcia report straight away.” By the time I’d got back to the hotel to log onto the computer and have a look at it, I was inundated with calls. It changes your life. It’s one thing to have been sacked from my job and had to sort of reinvent myself after that. It was quite another to have this man who should know better, a lawyer, who had been the US attorney general for the Southern District of New York, so a prosecutor, he should have known better than to break the confidence of two women whistleblowers. It was just outrageous treatment and says more about him than it does about us.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You sort of detailed I suppose there the enormous pressure you came under. It’s quite a curious … A lot of people might have just gone underground. You’ve probably taken even more prominence since then. How did you go about fighting back against a very, very, very powerful not just in Australia, but global outfit?

Bonita Mersiades:           There were two options, and one was to sort of, and what they wanted us to do, was to get into a corner and curl up and die. Neither of us did that, I’m pleased to say. Certainly for the other whistleblower, her preference was not to bring any more attention to herself because she had some other issues that she needed to deal with. From my perspective, I thought I’m just not going to take this. I’m not the person who did anything wrong. I’m the person who’s brought attention to all of this. I’m just not going to take it.

Bonita Mersiades:           Fortunately, someone put me in touch with an MP in the House of Commons, Damien Collins, who is now the chairman of the Culture, Media, Digital, and Sport Committee at the House of Commons, and also an Australian businessman who is living overseas who is very interested in sports governance issues. We formed, in conjunction with a couple of members of the European Parliament, a group called New FIFA Now, campaign group. Soon after that, we turned up in the Brussels parliament and European Parliament and had I think about 250-300 people at a gathering in which we called for reform of FIFA. We called for basically an overthrow of FIFA as we knew it then and said that there was something terribly wrong going on, when that report had come out, when the two whistleblowers were shamed and disparaged the way they were, yet their whole decision making regime and rationale was not questioned whatsoever.

Bonita Mersiades:           Now that was before the May 2015 arrests.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, I’d like to … Let’s go to that now. This dodgy process happens. You lose your job. You come under a lot of pressure, start fighting back. FIFA are kind of largely sweeping things under the rug as perhaps they’ve done in the past. Then, of course, there are an enormous amount of arrests, huge worldwide press, that of Jack Warner, the soccer club that you just described, the $500,000 from Australia for the stadium upgrade that never happened, and then Sepp Blatter who was the head of FIFA and the person that voted for us but did so in a manner that was relatively back handed. Tell us a little bit about that and also how validating it might have been. Was it validating after everything?

Bonita Mersiades:           It was quite incredible. As part of our New FIFA Now campaign activity, there was actually a FIFA presidential election coming up in 2015. Sepp Blatter was standing yet again and he was up against at the time Prince Ali of Jordan. We had, as part of a campaign activity, we had organized something with Amnesty International and with [inaudible 00:27:55] to happen in Zurich. We also have put together this sort of fake newspaper, which we were handing out in the streets of Zurich.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Not fakes news, though.

Bonita Mersiades:           No, no, not fake news. Fake newspaper.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Okay.

Bonita Mersiades:           With stories about FIFA corruption basically. Sharon Burrow and Jamie Fuller and others were …

Misha Zelinsky:                  Sharon Barrow is of course the global head of the union movement. An Australian, former head of the ACTU.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. Former head of the ACTU. They were in the streets of Zurich handing out this fake newspaper with the real news when all of the sudden the news came through that there’d been these arrests at the Baur au Lauc Hotel. That was yet another media onslaught. It was quite incredible. In a sense, Jamie and Sharon were sort of Johnny and Jenny on the spot in Zurich. Even again here, there was a lot of media interest in what went on.

Bonita Mersiades:           Did I feel vindicated? Not straightaway. It took a while for that to happen. It was certainly the case though that it was pleasing to see and to have confirmed that the FBI and the IRS were looking into these issues. I had known about it for some time that they were. It was pleasing to see that they’d got to the point where they’d made these arrests. After that, to learn that other things subsequently happened, such as the Swiss government started looking at it, the French government and the UK. I guess over time that has become vindicating. Even more so, I guess when the full Garcia report was released some three years after that summary report, which-

Misha Zelinsky:                  This is the report that named you as the …

Bonita Mersiades:           Which named me and the other woman. Almost three years after it was first released as a summary report, when that came out, everything that was in it in relation to Australia in which he had pointed the finger and said there’s something that needs to be looked into in relation to Australia, everything had come from me, which made it even more absurd what he had said. Because on the one hand, he’s saying this happened, that happened, this happened in relation to Australia. The person who had told him all that, he then said, “You can’t really take any notice of her because she’s a whistleblower.” I think that probably for me was really the point of vindication.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s a big decision to make, whistle blowing. Do you think it was worth it knowing that journey you’ve been on? Maybe you can’t answer that, I’m not sure. At huge personal cost, obviously, but seeing that whole house of cards come tumbling down, does it feel worth it in the end?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yes, it does fundamentally. Does it change your life? Yes, it does. Is it worth it? Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s a very brave thing to do, to stand up to power.

Bonita Mersiades:           Thanks.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Turning to money in sport, we’ve talked a little bit about much money there is in sport. You talked about FIFA more generally in the sense that they’re an international body, they’re not government run, but they’re these quasi international bodies with sort of no democratic oversight, at least from people, democratically elected people. Given how much money they’re in control of, and these are multi, multi, multi billion dollar enterprises, but also receive billions and billions of dollars from governments, from taxpayers, what do we do about overseeing these entities? What’s the role of culture and governance and how do you actually bring these institutions to their heel? The FBI raiding them and investigating and arresting people is one thing, but you want to see good governance more fundamentally like you would in an ordinary government. What’s the role of governance and culture?

Bonita Mersiades:           It’s a really interesting question, and especially at the moment when you can see what’s happened since 2016 in particular. What happened then is we got a new FIFA president. He brought in a CEO who was a senior bureaucrat in the United Nations. Now, United Nations has had its own governance and financial management problems, but what she has done is introduce a lot of good process and good reporting. I would say that where there’s an issue of process versus culture, culture wins every time. What they haven’t addressed, and I don’t think anyone who’s in the game could address it, they haven’t addressed the culture of FIFA and they haven’t addressed the culture of world football.

Bonita Mersiades:           You’ve got to go back to what the FBI said, I think it was James Comey at that very first media release, sorry, media conference, after the arrests, where James Comey and Loretta Lynch was there. James Comey was still the director of the FBI and he said, “This is a mafia style organization.” I was at a conference not long after that where one of the FBI investigators was speaking. He actually explained what a mafia organization looks like. You take one person out, e.g. Jack Warner, and you put another person in.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The show rolls on.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah, the show rolls on. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the Caribbean. Jack Warner came out, the next person came in, and he’s since been arrested as well.

Bonita Mersiades:           What do you do in terms of governance and culture? One of the things that we called for at New FIFA Now is that there needed to be … It was like being a company. You needed to treat it like a company, an administration, that you would bring in an outsider who had an absolute [inaudible 00:33:47] to make the necessary policy and operational and cultural change and force that through. That takes a generational thing. That isn’t what’s happened. What is clear, though, is that the whole circus keeps rolling on.

Bonita Mersiades:           FIFA’s financial statements came out I think yesterday or the day before, and they showed that their cash reserves have increased to $2.6 billion, their revenues over four years have increased to around about, I’m talking US dollars here too, seven billion dollars. Despite, when you consider that those four years to 2018 includes 2015, despite all of that and despite a 100 million US dollar legal bill, sponsors are still putting money into the game. The question is, where is that sponsorship coming from nowadays. This is the big issue for sport, I reckon. It’s coming from Russia. It’s coming from China. It’s coming from the Middle East. There’s still some money coming from the US, but it is less so as a proportion of all the money. There’s a real pivot happening in world sport. That could just reflect society in general, where the world is going in geopolitical terms. Going back to the very first question is how the sport reflects society, I think it’s worthwhile looking at where the big money in sport is coming from.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting. I didn’t really link the concept of sponsorship, soft power, and the control of those institutions, but there’s actually … My next question just goes to this point. There’s this issue of national systematic cheating going on in sport. You’ve seen the Russians with Sochi, then the question of the nation states interfering in the bidding process. We’ve seen some pretty severe penalties for Sepp Blatter, for Jack Warner, but the penalties seem to be on the individuals and on the nations less so. Why? Is that about power? Is it about money? It seems to be the World Cup, the 2018, the 2022 fiasco, Putin would be the center of it and he’s gotten away with it scot free and put on a triumph of soft power in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in his home country. What is it that you can actually … How are we going to stop countries getting away with this rather than the individuals?

Bonita Mersiades:           That’s a really good question. As to why, it’s much more difficult to I guess get at a world leader in that respect than it is to get at a recipient or someone who may be a recipient of a corrupt payment for example. That’s what’s interesting about what’s happening with FIFA so far, too. Most of the people they’ve arrested, indicted, charged, or have been sentenced have been those who have been in receipt of the payments, not those who have made the payments. I think that’s a really interesting issue because it’s not always that companies have made the payments, it’s been individuals as well. Yet, every single indictment so far has been around an individual. It hasn’t gone beyond that. How you stop that, I don’t know. I think it’s a big issue for the world. It goes beyond sport, but of course it gets back to the fact that sport reflects that very much so.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s definitely a challenge, though. These countries and these individuals, sorry, companies and countries, when you look at countries like Russia, countries like China, the distinction between a company, an individual, and the nation state is incredible blurred.

Bonita Mersiades:           Very.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That-

Bonita Mersiades:           [crosstalk 00:37:24]

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s right. Exactly. The top down pressure and the top down influence is enormous. To say these are just rogue actors is to a fair minded person, I think, relatively heroic kind of way of framing it. What’s the answer? Is there cause for hope in this? Ultimately, sport … Sport is a funny thing because it relies on you and I putting importance on 11 women or men running around on a field kicking a piece of leather around wearing different color shirts and giving import to that so people can make billions of dollars out of it. It matters. Once you puncture that myth, sport kind of dies. These things chip away at it. Is there hope for sport in the longterm, do you think?

Bonita Mersiades:           I think there’s hope for sport in the longterm. I would have perhaps three and a half years ago we were at a tipping point where things may change more quickly than they have. I think what an organization like FIFA in particular has done very well is manage the crisis they’re in quite well. I would argue, as I said earlier, that the culture hasn’t changed though. One of the things we have to bear in mind is that the FBI and the IRS and the Swiss and all of them keep saying this is an ongoing investigation. They haven’t gone beyond North and South America yet. They haven’t looked at Asia. They haven’t looked at Oceania. They haven’t looked at Africa or Europe. That’s, I would think, is still to come.

Bonita Mersiades:           What can sport do? I think the other potential is in the general changes we see in society where younger people in particular are not taking crap like this. My generation, obviously there are exceptions, but my generation has tended to sort of play within the system a bit more. Whereas I think younger people, don’t classify it necessarily as an age thing, but they are calling out this sort of behavior and they don’t want it. I am hopeful that that will have an impact over time.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You’ve talked about the age of idea. Another important [inaudible 00:39:41], it’s something that has been a certain movement in this area as well, gender, the Me Too movement and calling out bad behavior and power. Role of gender in sport, you took on basically the ultimate boy’s club arguably in FIFA. What was the role of gender in this?

Bonita Mersiades:           For the two of us, the two women involved, it was huge, but I’m going to say there’s not one woman in power in football, including in this country, who ever bothered to pick up the phone and say, “Are you okay?” Not one. I find that unforgivable because in fact the other woman whistleblower, she actually sort of came to my attention as being in a spot of bother quite a while before that. My first reaction, having met her once, was I must reach out to her and see that she’s okay because there’s obviously something going on there. I did that. That’s what I think I would do for almost anyone in that situation.

Bonita Mersiades:           There’s no doubt that because we were women, they saw us easy targets. She was even a more junior woman than I was in the whole setup. They saw us easy targets, thought we’d be people who would probably keep quiet. They certainly looked for areas, things where we were both vulnerable and found them, and that’s one of the reasons in fact why she has chosen not to be public about these things. Yet, there was no support from a gender perspective. That’s despite the fact on the FIFA executive committee at the time, sitting in the room, discussing these issues, was an Austrian woman, who’s gone on to get awards for being so wonderful on gender diversity in football, yet she didn’t once reach out to either of the two women who were absolutely treated appallingly by the male machine that was FIFA.

Misha Zelinsky:                  What do you think the reason for that was? Is that something that’s systemic as a problem in the sport itself, that it’s hard for women to support other women, the interests of the individuals involved? Is there anything in particular you could put it down to?

Bonita Mersiades:           I don’t think it’s the sport itself. It’s the sport itself in that I think one of the things I always characterize those who have got to the top of FIFA and in fact in football in Australia as well, they get to the point where they’ve forgotten why they are there. They’re more concerned about what football can do for them than rather what they can do for football. Therefore, if there is a line between right and wrong and good and bad and all of those things, they are quite happy to sort of dip their big toe over to the other side and dismiss anyone … This is true of any sort of whistleblower type situation … dismiss anyone who’s making a noise, a bit of an agitator as I said earlier, or a bit of an activist and say, “I’m not having to do with them because that won’t help me.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, we’ve talked a lot about all the negatives of sport. We kind of touched on the positives at the beginning. One of the things, you can sometimes get depressed about the state of the world. This podcast often deals with a lot of the bad things that are happening in the world. Sport can be harnessed for good. We saw recently the issue in relation to Hakeem Al-Araibi, the entire soccer football community coming together, although the union movement globally coming together, and the players union movement supporting him and the incredible work of Craig Foster. Do you see that there are other avenues for sport to be that lightning rod for good? We’ve talked about the problems, but can it still be a force for good?

Bonita Mersiades:           Absolutely. That’s what it should be for. The Hakeem Al-Araibi situation is a good one. I first met Hakeem back in 2016 because the FIFA presidential election was on. One of the front runners for that was Sheik Salman of Bahrain and Hakeem was then living in Australia. He didn’t have refugee status, but he was brave enough to speak out against Sheik Salman. Hardly anyone in Australia took any notice of it, including Craig Foster and the UPFA, but nonetheless internationally it was a big story because the FIFA presidency was a big story. Hakeem did the right thing then and he’s continued to do so. It was a great example of the positive power of sport and the potential of sport. What we recently saw with Craig is the public face of that Save Hakeem campaign.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was a great story and it’s very good to see him back safely at home here in Australia. The last question I like to ask all my guests … We could talk all day about sport, frankly. I could talk about sport nonstop. We need to put some kind of limit on it. .

Misha Zelinsky:                   Of course, the last hokey question that I have at the end of a very serious discussion about sport is about … It’s called Diplomates. Who are the three foreign mates you would invite to a barbecue at Bonita Mersiades’s? Who would they be?

Bonita Mersiades:           Three foreign mates or three foreign people who have-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Or three foreign people that you’d like to be their mates. I’d like to pretend that all these people that I talk to are my mates. You can have anyone you want.

Bonita Mersiades:           Okay, all right. The first I would suggest would be Vitaly Mutko. He is the deputy prime minister in Russia. He was the Russian sports minister. He was president of Russian Football Federation. He was the president of [inaudible 00:48:35] St. Petersburg. He is part of the St. Petersburg clique of Russia. He, of course, was the sports minister who was in charge when all of the doping issues were going on. He sanctioned it. He has lost all of his positions in world football and in the Olympics. I think he would be worthwhile having a chat to. Just to see if he’s ready to be a whistleblower.

Bonita Mersiades:           The other one would be, and this is terrible, I’m going to sit on the fence, either of the Obama’s would be fine with me. I’m a great admirer of Barack Obama and a great admirer of Michelle Obama-

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’ll let you have both. It’s your barbecue, so you can have them both. Is there a last one?

Bonita Mersiades:           Last, and I would like to say but not least, but this is a really different reason, I think it’d be fascinating to meet one of the people who controls a lot of the world, especially a lot of the world in our language, and that’s Rupert Murdoch.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Certainly does.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Rupert Murdoch, a Russian politician, and the Obama’s. That’d be quite an interesting affair. Look, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks so much for being so open and honest and brave. Congratulations on your fight so far and appreciate it.

Bonita Mersiades:           Thank you.


Professor Simon Hix

Professor Simon Hix is the pro-Director for research at the London School of Economics and is the chair of Vote Watch Europe. 

Professor Hix is a globally renowned expert on EU politics, democratic institutions, parliamentary voting behaviour, political parties and elections – and to prove it he is the author of over 100 books and papers on these topics. 

We had a fascinating discussion about Brexit, where to for Britain as the deadline for a deal approaches, what drove the Leave vote itself as well as the worrying rise of right wing nationalism in Europe.



Misha Zelinsky:                  So, Simon Hix, welcome to Diplomates, thank you for joining me.

Simon Hix:                              You’re welcome.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And I should say, for the recording, that we’re in your rather salubrious offices here in the London School of Economics. So thank you for having me along.

But given that we are in London and this is a political podcast, what better place to start than Brexit. So, as an Australian to a Brit, what the hell is going on? Because back home it looks kind of crazy. Is it as crazy as it seems?

Simon Hix:                              It is crazy. You know, I was away for a period over Christmas and came back and it’s the same old, same old, in the sense that we still don’t know where we’re heading. So, we’ve got a vote next week in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And that vote is for … ?

Simon Hix:                              This vote is for Theresa May’s deal. So she’s done a deal with the EU which is called a withdrawal agreement. It’s an agreement that sets the terms of the UK leaving the EU and the terms are, essentially, how much money do we still owe as part of the divorce deal? What are the rights of the citizens in the UK and UK citizens on the continent? What happens to the Irish border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Republic, of course, is going to stay in the EU, Northern Ireland in the UK, of course is going to leave the EU. And then a transition arrangement for two years while we negotiate the long term deal.

So she signed the deal which is more or less the deal that we knew was going to be signed. It has to be ratified by the House of Commons for us to be able to leave on the 29th of March. So the 29th of March is the deadline bias.

So if they don’t pass it through the House of Commons, we leave on the 29th of March without a deal.

Misha Zelinsky:                  A hard Brexit, so to speak. Yeah.

Simon Hix:                              A hardest of hard Brexit. So, leaving without a deal has potentially enormous consequences. We’ve got one wing of the conservative party saying, No, leaving without a deal is fine. We’ll be fine. A lot of them are very Libertarian. They have a view that this is about creative destruction. Bring it on. And we’ve gotten to the point where you’ve got this left wing of the Labour party saying, Actually a no deal would be a good thing because it would be a crisis of capitalism and then they’ll be a collapse of the government. And then Labour will get elected and we’ll be able to implement socialism. And then we’ve got the right wing and the Tory party saying, No deal will be a good thing because there will be a crisis of socialism and then we’ll be able to slash and burn the British state and they’ll be this new Singapore-on-Thames Nirvana that we’ve wanted.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s almost horseshoe politics with the extreme left and the extreme right, both agreeing on the outcome.

Simon Hix:                              They can’t both be right, obviously, right?

But either way, they think there’s potential disaster. Most people accept that without a deal, it will be end of Just-In-Time production supply chains which could be the collapse of manufacturing. Tariffs and quotas on agriculture, most of our agriculture produce is exported to the European market.

So I think the planes will not be able to take off and land. You know, they’ll be a tail backs at Dover. They estimate a 10 minute delay on every truck going through Dover within an hour, leaves to a 30 mile tail back. So you can imagine what that cumulatively…

That super market shelves will start to empty out. The NHS is worrying about running out of drugs because their main supplier is in Holland. A no deal scenario is a disaster. Most people accept that. Most economists, most people who work in the supply chains will tell you that. All the business interests will tell you that.

What does it mean for the citizens rights? Nobody really knows.

So, it’s potentially disastrous if we leave without any kind of deal. But the right wing or the Tory party are using this as a threat because they don’t like the deal that she’s done. They feel the EU has got a better arrangements out of this. So we still don’t know where we’re headed. If they kick out the deal next Tuesday, which they probably will, all bets are off. We have no idea what’s going to happen after that. And the EU is willing to say, Bring it on. If there’s a no deal, you guys are going to suffer more than us.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting because this sort of concept that Europe would get a better deal, why would they? I mean, there’s no incentive for Europe to encourage other countries to leave, I should think, right? So if you’re the European Union, you want to make it as hard as possible I would have thought.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah. So there’s kind of two sides of it. So one side, I don’t think it’s the EU wants to be seen to be punishing Britain, although there are definitely voices that say that. Particularly you hear that on the left in France or the left in Germany, where they blame the Anglo-Saxon bankers for the financial crisis. And so they say, It’s about time the Brits got their comeuppance. Sort of thing.

But the general view on the continent is they don’t want Britain to leave. We’re a major economy. We’re important for exports and imports.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Defense.

Simon Hix:                              Defense. For the whole credibility of the European project globally. The EU project in general is weakened if Britain leaves. So there’s a general sense of it’s a shame that the UK is leaving. So they don’t want to punish Britain, but equally, they’re saying, why should we give Britain a particularly good deal? You chose to leave. We have to protect our interests and our interests are the continuity of the single market that we’ve worked our butt off to create a continental scale single market with free movers and good services and capital within it. Why would we undermine that? Just because you guys want to cherry pick the good bits of this and not be responsible for some of the obligations that come with being part of this single market? Why should we give that to you? We don’t give that to anybody else?

So it’s not about punishing Britain, it’s about maintaining the credibility of the EU and holding the EU together. And of course, for the economic relationship between Britain and the EU 27 is pretty asymmetric. In London, these politicians here are very arrogant about Britain. We’re the fifth largest economy in the world. We’re this great global trading power. English language is the lingua-Franco globally. London is the world capital of the world services sector. Yada, yada, yada.

50% of our trade is with the EU 27. 15% of their trade is with us. That British trade with the EU 27 is worth about 20% of our GDP. Their trade with us is worth about 2% of their GDP.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right. That’s interesting.

Simon Hix:                              And if you talk to trade economists here at LSC, they’ll tell you that those kind of asymmetries ultimately will predict what kind of bargain you get in a trade deal. The EU’s got far less to lose from failing to agree to a deal than the UK has.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting.

Simon Hix:                              So the UK, the deal that gets done is bound to favor the EU. So, I remember a former student of mine is in South Korea, she’s in the Korean diplomatic academy and she’s one of their experts on Europe. And I said to her, hey, Wun, how’s Brexit look from east asia? She says, well, Simon -”

Misha Zelinsky:                  About as good as it looks from Australia, I’d assume.

Simon Hix:                              Right. Exactly. So it’s kind of interesting for an Australian audience to hear her say, she said, look, it doesn’t matter if you’re the fifth largest economy or the 10th largest economy, like Korea, or the 15th or the 20th, if you’re not the US, the EU or China, you’re a regulation taker. Those three markets make up 50% of the global GDP. 50% of global trade and goods and services. And they’re bargaining deal with any… It’s a reason why none of the three of them have got deals with each other in trade. They’ve all got bilateral deals with everyone else in the world. Because they say, ‘You want access to our market? Here’s the set of rules. Take it or leave it. You don’t want to accept these rules? You don’t have access.

And so that’s the way the US negotiates trade deals. That’s the way the EU negotiates trade deals. Why would it be any different if you’re the fifth?

So, Japan is the largest economy that’s accepted that kind of an arrangement. Canada, South Korea, those three countries. So Canada and South Korea both have trade deals with the EU and with the US. And the deals they have are essentially agreeing to apply European or American rules.

So for example, Canadian beef farmers have two fields. One field with cows destined for the US market and one field with cows destined to the European market.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting.

Simon Hix:                              And the cows destined to the American market are pumped full of hormones, so you get these big fat cows destined to the American market. And the kind of skinny, vegan cows destined for the European market. You know, have to follow European Phytosanitary standards. So they’re regulation takers.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. So, the Brexiteers are probably going to get mugged by reality then in the end.

Simon Hix:                              Of course they are.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But so, leaving aside whether or not you get a better deal, there’s a deal on the table. They’re talking through the politics of it with it going to a vote, it’s interesting to me a lot of the discussion is around May versus the Brexiteers within her own party. And the Parliament is bigger than one party or bigger than one faction.

Simon Hix:                              Well yeah. And she doesn’t have a majority.

Misha Zelinsky:                  No.

Simon Hix:                              Because [crosstalk 00:08:48]have majority.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But there’s not a lot of discussion about Labour in all of this and Corbyn. So I’m curious to get your take in all of that.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah so Labour, like the conservatives, Labour is also split on this. It’s split into three groups. One group are the very pro-European group that would like to cause as much problems with this ratification as possible. With the hope that there’s a second referendum and they overturn and stop Brexit altogether.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And these are the sort of Blair-ite types.

Simon Hix:                              They’re the kind of Blair-right wing of the party.

Then there’s another group, which is a more radical left group. They call them the Lexiteers. The left wing Brexiteers.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Simon Hix:                              Who have never liked the EU. They saw it as a kind of capitalist project. They want us to get out of the EU so they can have a sort of socialism in one country. Pull up the drawbridge. British jobs for British workers. Subsidized British industry. You know, they’re living in some kind of…

Misha Zelinsky:                  The old socialized, left, yeah.

Simon Hix:                              So, in a sense, I like to describe the two radical versions of Brexit are the Tory radical version of the Brexit as the Singapore-Thames. And the Labour radical version of Brexit is Venezuela on trend.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s good.

Simon Hix:                              That kind of epitomizes where they think they’d like to take us. Most sensible people don’t want either of those outcomes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah.

Simon Hix:                              And Corbyn comes intellectually from that wing of the party. He’s never liked the EU. He thinks that we want to leave. To give these guys a bit of credit, though, a lot of people who did vote for Brexit in the North of England, you know, a lot of these cities in industrial decline are former Labour voters. So a lot of Labour seats have big let it, leave majorities in them. And the Brexit voting coalition in the referendum were two groups. It was kind of wealthy rural southerners who were just centerphobes who never liked Europe because they want Britain to go back to Empire.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah.

Simon Hix:                              Empire 2.0 is what they want. And cities in industrial decline. Post industrial cities, very angry voters who are really angry at the ruling elites in the south, in the establishment. And they’ve never liked… In a sense, voting’s really the EU’s symbolic vote against what has happened in those communities.

So I’ll give you an example. So in Sutherland in the Northeast of England, the major employer in Sutherland is the Nissan car factory. Employs about 300,000 people. It’s the largest car employer in the UK. 70 something percent of their production goes to the EU single market. Just-In-Time supply chains, meaning that any delay in their supply chains will massively increase costs. So Brexit will increase those costs because they’ll be customs checks and stuff. Sutherland voted to leave the EU and the majority of those car workers in Sutherland voted to leave the EU.

So Lisa Nandy is a Labour politician and she tells a story about being asked during the Brexit campaign, being asked by the management of the car factory to come and talk to the shop floor workers because the management was saying, we’re totally opposed to Brexit because of the risks to the factory. Can you come and explain to them that if they vote for Brexit, they could all lose their jobs.

So she stands up and she tells the story to a packed room full of production line workers, saying, you do realize that Just-In-Time production will end. They’ll be tariffs and quotas on your cars. So, Nissan, which is a global company, will probably decide to end production here and move the factory to France or Slovakia or somewhere else. And you guys could all be out a job. And she says, one guy put up his hand and he said, we’re not stupid. I’ve been working here for 20 years. Don’t you think I know how Just-In-Time production lines work? Don’t you think I know where our cars are going? He said, you know, with new technology coming along we’re not expecting to have this factory here in 20 years anyway. It’ll be robots doing this stuff. We’re not voting for Brexit for our jobs. We’re voting for Brexit for our kids and our grandkids. And to send you guys a signal that you’re not listening to what has been happening around here in the Northeast of England.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting.

Simon Hix:                              And that’s a real challenge for the center left. And so there’s an element wing of the Labour party which is very sensitive to the fact that although the kind of cosmopolitan youth, younger voters, the Londoners, are opposed to Brexit, a lot of their core voters are saying, you’ve got to deliver this.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. So we’ll get to the vote itself because I want to pick up on some of the things you’re talking about but just to stay with the Labour party, just very quickly, so Corbyn, one of the things that I find interesting is that there’s a real enthusiasm for Corbyn amongst young people. The so called Corbynistas.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:                  They would be remain people.

Simon Hix:                              They’re all remainers. In fact-

Misha Zelinsky:                  How is he getting away with being probably a Brexiteer in disguise whilst-

Simon Hix:                              It’s really difficult. And I think he can get away with it because they’re in opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah.

Simon Hix:                              And so he’s able to oppose anything the government proposes. So in a sense, what he’s asking for, if you actually look at what he’s asked for from Brexit, what he wants is the UK to carry on applying EU social regulation standards, EU environment standards, frictionless trade, to try employment first Brexit, he calls it. So you want to keep as much manufacturing as you can in the country. But that’s exactly what May’s deal is. You can’t put a piece of paper between the deal that she’s negotiated and what actually Labour are asking for.

So they’re really only voting against this symbolically, to try and create a crisis. To try and bring down the government in the hope that there could be a general election.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right. But is there any way, I mean, if you’re May, just to put on your sort of… Is there a way for her to turn the focus onto Labour in the vote and I mean, far be it from me to give advice to the Tory party, but it just seems interesting to me that rather taking all these seating internally, if there’s a way to force the opposition-

Simon Hix:                              But with the government’s opposition dynamics of British politics…

Misha Zelinsky:                  Government always owns the result, right?

Simon Hix:                              Yeah. And the opposition, nobody’s going to blame the opposition if this fails. They will blame the government, blame Theresa May. So they can get away with playing these kind of games. And if we end up with a no deal Brexit and that is a disaster for Britain, and it could be absolutely disastrous. There’s kind of a typical British sense of, oh, it will be alright on the night. People will figure it out. People come to their senses. There’ll be a managed no deal. People will just figure it out. The French aren’t going to be crazy enough to stop lories going through the tunnel. And the Dutch are still going to be sending us medicines for the NHS. Come on, people will still allow British airlines to land in Paris and Berlin or whatever. It’ll be all right on the night. That’s the sort of general attitude of the British public.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Big gamble.

Simon Hix:                              I think it’s a very big gamble.

Misha Zelinsky:                  While I speak of gambling, let’s talk about the vote. And correct me if I’m wrong, you were given the rather difficult task of being an advocate for the remain voters. You went around the country. There were a bunch of experts who went around as the go would say, so called experts. Maybe you’re one of the so called experts people speak of.

Simon Hix:                              I was, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Tell us about that.

Simon Hix:                              So no, I was part of a group of about 14 academics, political scientists, economists, lawyers, historians, who were funded by the British Economic and Social Research Counsel, so the main funding of the social science body in the UK, to be experts. We were meant to be neutral. We weren’t advocates on one side or the other. We were meant to be able to, you know, media could call on us and we’d go on TV or the radio or go on public platforms in local communities to referee debates or to be someone there who could correct facts, this kind of stuff.

And it was modeled on what had happened during the Scottish referendum campaign. They had this program for the Scottish referendum campaign and the perception was that it worked really well. They’d had a bunch of academics who could come on and sort of neutralize the craziness of some of the claims people were making.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And the remain sort of came from behind in that situation to remind of that.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, exactly. So, we’d go to different parts of the country and it was a real eye opener going to places. I remember going to Spalding in Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire, east coast of England, very agricultural community. Lots of new Polish and Lithuanian fruit pickers and agricultural labor going into that town.

We were called by the local newspaper, can we come for a town hall meeting on Brexit. Can they send some experts? So three or four of us went out there. Difficult place to get to in the middle of nowhere on the east coast of England. We went London to Peterborough, a bus and a train and anyway. It was hours together. Just a sense of how isolated this place is. You know Britain’s a small country, it’s a really isolated place out there.

And the local town is sort of boarded up and the only places open are these Polish shops and very flat agricultural land. And, you know, about 150 people show up at this town hall meeting and it’s about 80% pro-Brexit. And we’re standing on the platform and whatever we say, they ask questions, and whatever we say goes down like a lead balloon.

So, you know, one guy said, well why do you guys think Brexit will be bad for the British economy? And my economist friend says, well, you know, 50% of trades for the year, about 20% of our GDP, 20% of the whole size of our economy. If there’s a reduction in trade that’s a reduction in the size of our economy. And no matter how different people mold it in different ways, the estimate is it will be between 2 and 8% of our GDP. A reduction of between 2 and 8% of the size of our economy. And the guy said, that’s your fucking GDP not mine. What should I care?

My initial thought was well that’s a stupid thing to say but then I thought actually, no, that’s actually a really clever-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Wouldn’t change the economy of that town for brief-

Simon Hix:                              Really! And what he’s saying is, it’s been shit here for a long time, you guys are gonna take the hit for this.

And someone else said, I’m a farm laborer and since all these polls have been coming over, my wages have gone down every year for the past three years and I bet you lot have had rise haven’t you? And it went round like that.

And then someone else said, I’ve been waiting for a counsel house and it used to be a four month waiting list and now it’s a two year waiting list.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Because the immigrants.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah. And someone else said, you know, my daughter’s at one primary school and my younger son was gonna go to the same primary school but now there’s no places left in the school so I’ve got to drop my daughter off in this school drive ten minutes to drop my son off at this other school and then I’m late for work and that’s cause all this, and all the places are full of the bloody Lithuanian Polish kids!

And we’re on the platform going, this isn’t EU’s fault. This isn’t, you know, these are choices the British government has made about not investing in public services in areas where there’s been large immigrant populations and they’d say yeah but no one’s gonna listen to us. Doesn’t matter whether we vote Labour or whether we vote conservative, you guys are not gonna listen to us, but you’re bloody gonna listen to us if we vote for Brexit.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting. So out of this experience did you think the Leave vote would succeed? We’re asking ourselves after the fact now obvious, but on the night did you, after that experience did you think it was gonna go that way?

Simon Hix:                              Yeah I did. So the opinion polls are really tight actually and most people weren’t trusting the polls. The opinion polls have been so wrong in the 2015 general election-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah that’s right.

Simon Hix:                              Nobody-

Misha Zelinsky:                  They predicted Labour was gonna win.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, exactly and so nobody was trusting them in 2016 and so everyone was saying the opinion polls are obviously wrong and so then they were making up their own version of what they thought was gonna happen. So most people thought the remain was gonna win easily, the betting markets, the currency markets, the prediction models, everyone-

Misha Zelinsky:                  For the record I also said it wouldn’t happen so…

Simon Hix:                              Yeah so I was doing some consulting in various different places and I was showing opinion poll data to say this is too close to call. It really could go either way. And my experience of going ’round to different parts of the country suggested that was the case. So it didn’t surprise me on the night.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, okay. That vote itself had kind of, Brexit kind of reset the map for politics and we’ve seen a lot of things happen since like Trump. What does it tell us more generally, you’re a political scientist, what does it tell us more generally about politics?

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, I think we are seeing a lot of advanced democracies, a realignment with politics. A realignment away from… for a long time politics in the post-war period was pretty simple straightforward. Lower income people voted for the left. Left wing parties wanted redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, creation of public services. Higher income people voted for people on the right. Right wing parties wanted to cut taxes, cut public spending, liberalize markets, and so on. And that was the sort of standard politics for most of democracies for much of the post second world war period.

We’re now facing the situation where it’s largely an education divide and an urban rural divide. It’s much more geography driving it than anything else. So you’ve got cities that are globalizing cities. They’re creating growth in financial services and creative industries, film, fashion, art, design, media, tourism, higher education, and so on.

The returns you get on education are massive so the economic divide is really driven by whether or not you’ve got a degree or not so getting university education massively increases your economic opportunities. And the economic opportunities gap between those who have university certification verse those who’ve not has grown massively and the economic opportunity gap has grown between cities that are growing, that is fast growing cities, and other cities in industrial decline and then aging rural populations.

So you’re getting a kind of anti-establishment feeling which is a coalition of these aging rural populations feeling like what is happening to my country? It’s not the country I remember or the country I grew up in.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. Sort of pathos nostalgia.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, exactly, and often that’s around race and ethnicity and immigration and a backlash against gender equality. For example, interestingly, after the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations in France-

Misha Zelinsky:                  We’ll get to those.

Simon Hix:                              They set up a bunch of citizens assemblists out of the Gilets Jaunes and you know what the very first demand that came from those citizens assemblies was? Abolish gay marriage.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So that was them… interesting.

Simon Hix:                              Which is more kind of symbolic politics about the kind of rolling back, nostalgia, world’s moving too fast and so there’s that aging rural population.

And then you’ve got cities in industrial decline and there’s very angry, and sometimes this is young people, sometimes it’s older people, particularly men who used to be in industry, collapse in industry, decline in industry, and that coaliltion, that antiestablishment coaliltion is a new force that’s very much drawing support for populous parties and as far as they’re concerned mainstream centre parties are basically the same. They represent different postcodes of the capital city. So the Tory party, pre Theresa May, represented Notting Hill and Notting Hill set and the Labour party represent isn’t. And if in France the French socialists represent the Left bank and the French conservatives represent the Right bank of Paris. That’s what it felt like to the rest of the country.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And it’s just consensus around free trade, open markets, free movement of capital.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, open liberal immigration policies-

Misha Zelinsky:                  And there’s some differences on the margin around how you sort of dice up the pie and that type of stuff?

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, exactly and whereas mainstream center right leans a bit more towards financial service interest and big business interest and the mainstream center left leans a bit more towards creatives industries and the new economy and higher education interest and this kind of stuff but neither of them really care about rural populations. Neither of them really care about cities in industrial decline.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting that this sort of rural urban divide and the question of people being told what’s in their best interest and I think that’s interesting about the way that economists and people that are in the political game for the last 30 years are probably looked at the macro stories and look how good it is, right? But the thing about trade is it destroys and distributes unevenly.

Simon Hix:                              Trade and immigration. Both have distributional consequences. So in aggregate we know that trade is good for the economy in terms of increasing GDP, increasing opportunities, and so on. But you don’t look at what the local consequences of that are. So there’s loads of research now that looks at the China shock where you can locally, what has been the effect of globalization.

Misha Zelinsky:                  China between the WO in 2001.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, exactly. David Autor is an american economist and a bunch of European political scientists, what they’ve done is for every region, for every local region, they’ve worked out what is the employment in each sector, what percentage employment is there in each sector in that region, and what is the exposure to global trade of that sector. And so you can work out what has been the globalization effect regionally. And what we know is that the bigger the globalization, the bigger the negative globalization effect regionally, the bigger the vote for populous parties.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting, isn’t it.

Simon Hix:                              And the bigger the vote for Trump. The bigger the vote for Brexit in the UK and the bigger the vote for Le Pen in France, for the populous in Italy and so on and so on.

So that’s one. The other one is this distributional consequences of immigration. Again we know that immigration is great for the economy. It makes… new skills, new ideas, new resources, cheaper public goods, cheaper public services. On average immigrants our net contributors to the economy, they’re not recipients of money. The usual story.

Misha Zelinsky:                  All the facts.

Simon Hix:                              All the aggregate level facts. But increasingly what we know is that there’s local distributional consequences in two senses. One is an economic one, one’s a cultural.

The economic one is in certain sectors of the economy, wages have fallen dramatically as a result of immigration. In the UK for example, it’s agricultural labor and the building trades. Why? Because they’re cash.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yep, hard to regulate.

Simon Hix:                              They’re cash-based economies. All the sectors where there’s a minimum wage and the minimum wage is enforced, immigration has had no effect on wages. But it’s had a huge effect on agricultural labor in the building trade.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting.

Simon Hix:                              Everyone’s got a Polish plumber and everyone’s got a Lithuanian fruit picker.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And they’re rural areas as well.

Simon Hix:                              And they’re rural areas. That’s where there’s been real wage competition.

And the other one, then, is competition for public services and that’s usually disproportionate. Cities of where there’s immigration being sucked into cities, public services are being cranked out and a lot of these rural areas nobody’s thinking about increasing school capacity. Nobody’s thinking about building another classroom in a primary school or you’ve got to provide more surgery spaces in the local doctor surgery. Nobody’s thinking like that. So the local population feels the squeeze in public services.

And then, of course, there’s the cultural aspect. A lot of these places have never seen immigrants before and that takes time. That’s a legacy. We forget too quickly… So my grandmother grew up in Northwest London and where she grew up in Northwest London it was very white at that time and then it became very big Indian population immigration in the 1950s and 60s.

Misha Zelinsky:                  How quickly did it happen?

Simon Hix:                              It happened in the space of about a decade.

Misha Zelinsky:                  They say the speeds often effective, right?

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, the speed. But at that time there was really vehement… I remember my grandmother being very racist, you know. Ugh they’re all moving into, why are they moving into my neighborhood type thing. And now of course we’re in London and nobody thinks twice about it, right? So we forget very quickly our own recent experience of what it was like with being whites with new immigrants.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Oh it’s a similar story in Australia as well. So before we get off Brexit because I want to step into Europe but there’s a lot of talk about second vote. I’m quite nervous about the consequence of second vote because after everything that we’ve just covered about the anger and telling people what’s what, there’s a sense to me that you didn’t quite get it right and we’re gonna give you another shot at it and I would be very concerned, and I’m curious to get your take of it, seems to be very concerning to suddenly flip and be 52/48 remain. It’s almost like it’s been stolen from people.

Simon Hix:                              I absolutely agree with you. I mean I agree with you for two main reasons. One, the call for second referendum ignores, actually, the history of Britain’s relationship with the EU which is that we’ve always had a semi-detached relationship. We’ve always been reluctant members. We weren’t members of the single currency, we weren’t members of the Schengen border-free zone, we were always semi-detached.

Misha Zelinsky:                  We had a deal.

Simon Hix:                              You know, and sooner or later we were gonna have to make a choice as the process of European integration is moving forward. Sooner or later we’re going to have to make a choice. Are we inside it or are we outside. So it made sense to have a referendum on this and the referendum was going to make the decision so you can’t pretend that history is now fundamentally changed so now we really want to stay and we want to sign up to the whole thing. Of course we don’t. So that’s the first thing we’ve noticed.

The second thing is, you’re right, it’s incredibly condescending so I get annoyed with someone of my arch remainer friends who seem to think that going around and telling people you’re stupid and you’re a racist and you’ve made the wrong decision and you’re a xenophobe and you were bought by Russians. You think that’s gonna persuade people to change their mind?

Misha Zelinsky:                  Hasn’t really worked in human history so far.

Simon Hix:                              The third thing is it would get really, really nasty and I do really worry about what the consequence is. I’m genuinely worried about violence, political assassination even. I mean we had a murder in British politics, Jo Cox was murdered in the 2015 general election campaign by a radical right extremist. The Labour MP in the north of England. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have that kind of thing again. It’s not to say that we should be scared about, it’s more the, there’s a legitimate angle which is that this was an antiestablishment anti-elite vote. It’s very dangerous in democracies to fuel an antiestablishment anti-elite movement. That’s when you really can get very dangerous types of things happening and I don’t want to fuel that and I do think there was legitimate reasons for people to vote for this.

I think my experience of traveling around the country, people were not thinking about this lightly, people were massively mobilized. They thought about this very carefully. And a lot of people say, well they weren’t considering the economic interest. Well whenever people have elections and make choices in elections, there’s lots of things that go into their mind when they walk into the ballot box. For some people it’s symbolic, for some people it’s careful economical interest of their family or their personally, for some people it’s national identity. There’s lots of things that go into what influences why people put the x where they do on a ballot paper and so that’s no different in a referendum. Why would we think it should be any different in a referendum? And it’s completely legitimate.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, talking about that nationalism, and you’ve got another hat, you’re the chair, I believe, of Vote Watch. It’s a European project so you’re very, obviously, across European politics. Kind of want to get your take about how loudly are you about what we’re seeing other countries across, you know, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, not in Europe but peripheral to Europe, obviously, and now Italy. More and more, sort of right wing-

Simon Hix:                              France.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, yeah. Like you said, more of these National upsurge but not only in opposition. They’ve taken control of governments and dismantling democracies.

Simon Hix:                              That’s right. What we’re seeing it-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Is this 1929 to 39 all over again or is a bit more complex?

Simon Hix:                              Too early to tell in that sense. So it’s true that what we’ve seen is part of this realignment of politics, it’s the rise in support for these populous parties and the populous coalition is the same coalition we’ve been talking about behind Brexit.

And almost every country in Europe now has a populous movement of some kind. Some of them a bit more radical than others but no matter what country you talk about there’s a party where it’s… I don’t throw around populism lightly so what I mean by populism is a party that says that we represent the voice of the people against the establishment. And it’s very antiestablishment type view, very simplistic policy responses. A classic mainstream party moderate their promises because they know that there’s certain things that it’s difficult to deliver on and you can’t promise this and promise that. Where as populous have no constraints so the populous will say we’ll shut down immigration. Populous will say we’ll stop globalization.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Simple responses to complex problems.

Simon Hix:                              In Italy, the populous parties say we’re gonna have a flat tax and introduce universal basic income.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, increasing spending and lower taxes.

Simon Hix:                              Right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Great plan if you can pull it off.

Simon Hix:                              It’s that kind of pub politics, I think of it, and it’s very attractive at the moment, particularly post economic crisis and we’re growing in equality, people saying, well what the hell. Let’s just try this. Let’s just go for these guys. And it’s a wakeup call for the establishment.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But once they get control of the-

Simon Hix:                              So here’s the real test. The real test is in ten years time when we look back, there’s two possible outcomes. One outcome is you get, you know, democracy is a safety valve. If there are deep divisions in society surely Democratic institutions and elections are vehicles through which these things get thrown up and then we as mainstream establishment, we have to address this stuff.

One version is mainstream parties respond, we come up with new policy responses, there’s big infrastructure investment, we try to address some of these regional and individual inequalities that’s developed, we try and think about how to create new sectors of the economy, try to think about what do we do to address these inequalities that have come out of globalization. How do we address issues of social integration of immigration. If those things get addressed then they’ll be a restabalization of politics.

Another alternative world is these populous come to power and instead of just addressing these things they start to dismantle democratic institutions.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And you’re seeing that in Poland.

Simon Hix:                              And they say we represent the will of the people and you get a narrative which is popular in Hungary which is I’m not a liberal democrat I’m a iliberal democrat because I represent the will of the people. The will of the people is the majority, why should you guys constrain what the people want? Why should you judges and you media and you other political parties, why should you constrain the will of the people?

Once you gauge that narrative that starts to get dangerously close to the types of politics we saw in the 1930s and so we don’t know yet how robust our institutions are to that because you’ve not seen it. These post-war institutions we’ve built, they’re pretty robust so far and they’re relatively new in centuries in Europe in Parliament in Hungary and that’s why I think the judiciary and the media are quite easy to be attacked. Italy is the test case. You’ve got the populists now in Italy. How robust are the Italian institutions to what will be? And Le Pen could win in France or Le Pen’s niece, she is the rising star.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Let’s talk about the French because I think, maybe it’s an arrogance of major Western countries that some of the Eastern European countries have been on the periphery and maybe they’ll never really develop democracies anyway and maybe they’re experiments, France is a serious economy, it’s a serious country, it’s a serious democratic history.

Simon Hix:                              Nuclear power, the rest of it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right. How worried are you about France? If France were to become a notably autocratic nationalist sort of nation, I mean that’s the European project almost over, right?

Simon Hix:                              It is over. Yeah. They were saying you can’t have France without Europe, you can’t have Europe without France.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Simon Hix:                              So Le Pen almost won. The Nationalists in France have been growing in support.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But doesn’t feel like they’re losing momentum.

Simon Hix:                              They’re not losing momentum, they’re gaining momentum. France is the epitome of the rotation of this politics. Macron represents the global elite, Le Pen represents the will of the people against the global elite. That’s the narrative.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And the concern I had when he came to power was that, didn’t strike me as the man for the times because the inequality story, the cultural disconnect story, he’s just want to double down on all the things that people are pissed off about.

Simon Hix:                              To be fair to him, France is a bit particular because France…

Misha Zelinsky:                  They always have this history of-

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, but not just that. The structure of the labor market in France is quite particular because they’ve got highly regulated markets and you have a whole insider outsider problem meaning that a lot of young people are priced out of jobs because highly regulated labor markets make it very difficult for companies to take on new people knowing they may not be able to keep them in place in 6 months or 12 months or 18 months. So you get very, very high youth unemployment in France and so that’s very different to… So a lot of young people actually were supporting Le Pen in this election.

So Macron in that sense was saying I want to liberalize the French economy in return for big infrastructure spending. In return for big spending on new technologies like digital environment, trying to shift the economy away to new technology so in a sense it wasn’t your classic doubling down of globalization it was more of a, we’re not gonna stop the world, we’re not gonna stop globalization, we’re not gonna save manufacturing in Europe. We need to think about a new economy. How are we gonna build this new economy. So in a sense, I saw his agenda of coming to power, his policy agenda and some of the people around him were really thinking creatively about how to think about what is going to be a new economy or a new society in a globalized world in an advanced democracy. That’s a step ahead and that’s exactly what I want mainstream politics to be thinking about doing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, absolutely. He had a lot of hope-

Simon Hix:                              The problem then is he only managed to get the liberalization stuff passed without the other stuff so then it just looks like he becomes a baby Thatcher. It looks like he’s doing what Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s. And it looks like, well, we’re going even more down that path and so then you get the Gilets Jaunes movement, you know, the yellow vest-

Misha Zelinsky:                  The yellow vest.

Simon Hix:                              And so these guys, again it’s an odd coaliltion, the bulk of the movement are rural small town suburban and rural areas, older voters, and small towns in decline, farmers, farm related producers, social conservatives, quite Catholic, and then a small wing are kind of angry, urban, militant, radical, left anarchists. They’re the guys smashing up the Arc de Triomphe and the shops in Paris but the bulk of the movement is this quite conservative movement so it’s a kind of…

Misha Zelinsky:                  People often get hijacked with movements.

Simon Hix:                              They do. And so the radical left has hijacked the movement but the movement itself is quite a socially conservative movement.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting. And one thing we haven’t talked about, we’ve touched around it, but Russia. Every nationalist movement you look at is Putin’s not too far away from it. What’s his game here?

Simon Hix:                              Yeah so Putin is trying to metal. I don’t buy the Putin is driving this but I do buy that Putin is benefiting from all this and so if there’s anything that he can do that makes life difficult for the mainstream establishments so for example Brexit. The allegation is that there’s Russian money that got into the leave campaign and there’s Russian data hackers that were used to try and identify who to target with the leave campaign and so on and so on and so on. With Brexit-

Misha Zelinsky:                  When these votes are so tight though, it’s interesting.

Simon Hix:                              It could make a difference but lots of things could make a different.

Why does he want Brexit? So there’s this sort of macro level thing, anything that destabilizes western Europe is good for Russia-

Simon Hix:                              Yeah. But there’s a micro level thing which is that Britain was the one country at the table in EU that was really pushing to maintain sanctions against Russia, right? With Britain off the table he reckons he’s got much more chance of getting the EU to back down on some of its sanctions. So there’s some really very concrete short term interests related to this. And so he’s playing both of those games. There’s often very concrete interests related to gas, relating to sanctions… The sanctions are hurting and with Europe staying together and the European Establishment have really held together with sanctions and those sanctions really are hurting Russia. So he really wants to try and loosen that so this is the game he’s playing which is not just the big geo-political one. It’s really concretial to economic interests.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, because he’s got the foot on the throat with these sanctions.

Simon Hix:                              Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting. One thing I want to get your take on, and we’re coming to the end now and you’ve been very generous with your time but right wing populous. I mean there’s this anger and very sort febrile political environment but why is it that the right wing populous are winning and you’re not seeing… in the 30s you had the communists popping up, the socialists, and all these social democrats, FDR, they’re nowhere and this ethnonationalism, this right wing populism is winning everywhere.

Simon Hix:                              And it’s interesting-

Misha Zelinsky:                  And inequalities there, I mean it’s there in the data.

Simon Hix:                              Similar circumstances in Latin America with the left wing populous so great, big impact of globalization, big economic inequalities between globalizing cities and rural populations. I think it’s largely to do with the fact that these are often middle-aged or older voters that are losing from these changes and so it’s not necessarily younger voters. So apart from what I’ve just said about France, younger voters tend to be the ones to be educated, younger voters and they seem to be the ones to support more radical left ideas. Whereas older, these are more socially conservative voters. They already got their protected interest. They’ve already got, you know, state pensions. Often they’ve got houses and they’ve paid off these debts and so this is largely driven by social values that they don’t share and so national identity.

In fact, 1930s when there was a major economic downturn and we saw votes shifting mainly to the radical right rather than to the radical left. In fact, throughout history of democracies, there’s a nice paper by simple economists looking back over from 1918 to the present looking at major economic downturns. Major economic downturns tend to lead to swing votes to the radical right or to the left and that’s what we’ve seen over the last ten years in Europe.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting.

Alright well one last question I ask of all my guests and this might not wash so well with a Brit but with Australian audience-

Misha Zelinsky:                  After the last series, I’m not sure we’ve even won a game. We’ll need some sandpaper. Australian gets asked who they’d love to invite as internationals to their barbecue. So for international audience I’d say, which three Australians would you invite to a barbecue. Alive or dead, I’ll give you that.

Simon Hix:                              Oh boy, that’s a good question. Well Misha, he’d have to be one of them.

Misha Zelinsky:                  No, no, you can’t count me. Even thought the show’s called Diplomates and I know you as a mate now, obviously, so I couldn’t tap into the cult of Simon Hix online but…

Simon Hix:                              That’s a good- I’ve never thought about that.

Pauline Hanson.

Misha Zelinsky:                  As a political scientist, no doubt on that one.

Simon Hix:                              As a political scientist.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, okay, she can make the fish and chips.

Simon Hix:                              Yeah, I think it’d be interesting to know what makes her tick.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah.

Simon Hix:                              Rudd, I think.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Kevin Rudd.

Simon Hix:                              This is getting interesting.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And the third one would probably… the swimmer with the huge feet. What was his name?

Simon Hix:                              Ian Thorpe.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Thorpe.

Simon Hix:                              So Simon Hix, Ian Thorpe, Kevin Rudd, and Pauline Hanson. Wow. I mean, people like trying to get Kevin to stop speaking but… that would be an interesting barbecue to say the very, very least.

Simon Hix, thank you so much for joining the podcast and it’s been fantastic and I look forward to chatting in the future.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Have a safe trip home, cheers. Bye.



Governor Kim Beazley

Kim Beazley is the Western Australian Governor.  Governor might be his current job, but he was also the Australian Ambassador to the United States, Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Deputy PM of Australia and also served as Defence Minister – quite a CV!

Governor Beazley joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about Trump, Putin, China and how Australia can navigate the global rivalries that are fast emerging between our strategic allies and our regional trading partners.

We apologise for the quality of this audio. It was done in Government House in Perth, which is currently under extensive renovation. 




Misha Zelinsky:                  Governor Kim Beazley, thank you for joining me on Diplomates. Now, I should note that we’re doing this in the rather salubrious surrounds of the Government House in Western Australia so thank you for having me along. Very lovely digs you have here.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, Governor, I thought it would be useful to start off here. You’re former ambassador to the United States. The U.S. under Trump, it seems to be picking fights with its friends in the European Union, it’s broken deals with the Iran Deal. Of course Australia was not immune in respect to the discussions around migration. The United States has been a very long term friend with Australia. Can we still count on the United States as a friend?

Kim Beazley:                         I’m going to separate Australia out from the rest. We’re unique. I suppose you could also include Israel in that uniqueness. We are not criticized by the U.S. in any way shape or form. That all the old verities were there and the language between us and the United States, all the old undertakings, all the old promises, they all still feature in the rhetoric of, not only the officials of the United States, but also President Trump. So it’s as though, excuse me, we’ve been frozen in aspic. The Australian relationship is carved out from the roiling of the rest of the U.S. relationships in the Western alliance. Most notable with NATO, but also, really, too, with Japan and South Korea and experiences that they have had. So there is no reason to say, in anything that has happened to this point, that Australia has been … had its relationship changed.

Kim Beazley:                         But the circumstances in which we conduct our own diplomacy in the region and further afield, yeah, that has been impacted. But that’s in a sense for us to work out how to handle it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So we’ve had, recently the foreign minister come out and say that the relationship perhaps is changing. We’ve had the Shadow Foreign Minister in Penny Wong also talk about perhaps a new paradigm emerging. The U.S. president seems to be very focused on deals. He says that NATO’s a bad deal. The Iran deal was a bad deal. Various trade relations are bad deals. Could ANZUS ever be a bad deal, do you think? In that context?

Kim Beazley:                         I think the problem that we have with the President and others, is related to how he sees the world. And basically, American statespersons have run the United States since World War II on the basis of the post World War II settlement. Liberal internationalism, multilateralism, rules of the road in so far as the global commons is concerned, open trading relationships as far as the WTO is concerned. It’s at the heart of the liberal internationalist project of the United States. Trump is the polar opposite. He is a nationalist. He is a unilateralist. He has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. He is an admirer of authoritarian rule. He sees essentially the paradigms that I described earlier on as essentially excuses for looting the United States. And in that position for a lengthy period of time.

Kim Beazley:                         He takes umbrage, therefore, at anything he thinks in past relationships with allies, in particular, as indicating that they’re users as a reason for him to bring them under a scalpel. And then he looks to Russia, probably in a quite unique way and we don’t know fully the reasons for that, but irrespective of his attitude to Russia, he is essentially not about an international order of liberal principles. He is about an international order of survival of the fittest, competitive and that order is ruled, not by rules, but by force de rigueur and the creation of facts.

Kim Beazley:                         Now that’s him. But his officials don’t agree with that. So you have these absurdities. You have the visit this month in July to Europe, Brussels, one or two other European capitals and then Helsinki with Putin, in which he exhibits all the, with NATO, all the facets of their changed ideological direction. But then the communique comes out. And there’s not a dime of difference between the communique from this NATO and any of the communiques in the past. And American officials are writing that.

Kim Beazley:                         He comes out with the picture I presented of nationalist unilateralism and his Defense Secretary, Mattis, personally writes the national defense strategy which is an enormous re-endorsement of the saliency of the American alliances.

Kim Beazley:                         So you’ve got the President out there with new directions. You’ve got the rest of his administration talking up the old storm, and most of Congress as well, doing the same. So this is, to say the least, a confusing time for Australian ministers.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Given the depth of relationship, I think it’s interesting because as you say the relationship is deep at a political level, it’s also deep at an institutional level. It sent us, for want of a better word, seems to be holding for now but given the extraordinary powers the president has, over foreign affairs in particular, can the relationship survive four years, potentially eight years of Trump? Can they potentially, given the importance of the U.S. relationship to Australia and it is, how do we maintain that relationship in the context of unilateralism and nationalism from a Trump administration?

Kim Beazley:                         If this was being pursued in an intelligent systematic way, based on our, what you’d call full court press of officials, and U.S. policy was proceeding with structure down the line that we’ve been talking about, the answer would be no to that question. But the essence of Trump’s administrative style is beyond the expression of an attitude. It’s impossible to develop a body. And so no one can really predict what’s going to come out of all of this, beyond volatility. And certainly there will be volatility and that volatility may produce crisis, particularly when they interact with other changes in the system.

Kim Beazley:                         See, I would say that Australia has more to think about in the much more rapidly changing distribution of power in our region, than simply Mr. Trump. And we do have to look very seriously at recasting the defense policy that we have.

Kim Beazley:                         And one of the things that Trump is doing, I think, inadvertently helpfully, and I put the helpfully in quotation marks because it’s not his intention, is that he’s forcing us to rethink the way we do force structure. And we put up global rules out there and global order up there and the relationships in the region as an equal force structure determinant with the defense of our approaches. That was a mistake when we did it and it’s now completely unsustainable. So we have to-

Misha Zelinsky:                  You mean the reliance on the U.S. underpinning security in the region?

Kim Beazley:                         Not reliance on the U.S. so much as the character of the region.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Kim Beazley:                         And the character of the region did not really reflect what we assumed of it and the fact that Mr. Trump is not actually prepared to pursue his side of some of the underpinnings means that what we should have done anyway, we absolutely have to do. We have to go to Plan B.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so let’s talk a little bit about Plan B. You mentioned the shifting of power and I think, effectively, that’s a shifting to a more multi-polar world with the rise of China and the reset of Russia. And you’ve got Putin and Xi actively challenging some of these structures that we have and the alliance system, it’s not being helped by perhaps uncertainty around the U.S.’s position on those alliances. But in the region, with Australia and our relationship with China, we’ve seen [inaudible 00:10:11] assertiveness in the region from China militarily. How concerned should we be about China under the Xi regime.

Kim Beazley:                         There’s no reason that we have to engage with China. We have to calculate what the Chinese are likely to do in the future. We have to see how they interact with other powers in the region, including the United States. But I’ll just say this about President Xi, he has shifted China a long way from the vision of Deng Xiaoping. And there’s a big area of risk here that people just simply don’t talk about and that is, how does he keep his legitimacy going now that they’ve essentially moved away from collective leadership? It moved away from the trend towards constitutionalism. It reinserted the Party processes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s right he was saying he’s a big reformer.

Kim Beazley:                         Yeah and everything. And they’ve done that. So you now have a totally different picture emerging from China. How does he keep legitimacy for what is a lifetime of leadership instead of the 10 years normally accorded. Well, he’ll run into trouble. All governments do run into trouble. The Chinese are not exempt from that. And when he does, people are going to start looking at him from a nationalist point of view and say things like, you made a big deal of re-incorporation of Taiwan. You made a big deal of enforcing our position in the South China and East China Seas. Why is nothing changed? Are you really the defender of the nation?

Kim Beazley:                         Now that’s not a question that would normally have been asked of any of his predecessors as president. It will be asked of him some time in the next 10 years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  What sort of event would ask that question?

Kim Beazley:                         The Chinese people are engaged. Yes, there’s oppression. Yes, there’s a failure to recognize rights, but there’s two things. One, they’re very courageous. Two, they’re very opinionated. And generally they’ve found out this, which is not a good thing, necessarily for the rest of us. They’ve found that if you go after the Communist Party from the right, you frighten them. If you go after them from the left, the super libertarian and the rest of it, you’re easily oppressed. And so-

Misha Zelinsky:                  So nationalism is the big threat to the regime.

Kim Beazley:                         Nationalism, you can always get them

Misha Zelinsky:                  Interesting.

Kim Beazley:                         And nationalism gets bound up in what we’ve just been talking about. So there’s that. There’s not just Trump out there on the landscape. There’s also these other changes and where on earth are we going to end up with North Korea is a further factor in this.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s right.

Kim Beazley:                         So what do we need to do? Well, we don’t need to move away from the United States for the very simple reason. In this more volatile region, where we have effectively a total focus on technological skills as our defense, staying ahead of the game technologically, we now only have one alternative and that is relationship with the United States. They are the only people really in the game, in technological enhancements, in capacity in weapons systems, military tactics, all the things that are associated with the next generation of military technologies.

Kim Beazley:                         The only other people in the game are the Russians and the Chinese. The Europeans are on the outskirts. So for us, if we want to survive in this zone, in the long term, we have no choice but to associate with the United States if we want to be anything.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Let’s talk about the United States, China, and the South China Sea. You’ve got the Chinese being very provocative, building manmade islands, taking ownership of other islands and then now militarizing those islands despite promises not to do so. The Americans are very keen for us to engage in the Freedom of Navigation exercises which is to go within the 12 nautical mile range of those sites. Australia has yet to do that. Should we be doing that? Should we be participating in those types of Freedom of Navigation exercises?

Kim Beazley:                         Well that’s a matter for the government. The government is quite clear on what it believes the legalities of the situation are. Also quite clear on what they believe the Chinese are already doing or not doing. Also quite clear on what the rights are of the states that have got counterclaims and the rest of the world in terms of movement of shipping, both civil and military through those areas. So there’s nothing you can complain about, I think, sensibly about Australian government policy and it’s quite reasonable for them to be presenting those policies to the Chinese in argument and discussion.

Kim Beazley:                         Before I became governor and was then less reticent about putting my views across about what government should be doing, what I used to say-

PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:15:04]

Kim Beazley:                         My views across about what the government should be doing. What I used to say was by and large, I think we should do these things on our own. That we have our own view about the legalities here and how these legalities ought to be pursued and we were pursuing it. The marginal zone about where we ought to operate in this regard is about island like features that are being created but do not attract island like legal rights. So that is when you take a rock and turn it into a base, that sort of thing, even when you’ve done that, that attracts no automatic rights to a territorial sea around it.

Kim Beazley:                         Most of what has been done has been turning features which do count as islands into bases. And the position of the Australian government over the years has always been that they treat those entities as though there was an owner because there is than owner. The question about who the owner is is to our mind not settled. But then we would observe the limits that would have been observed if an owner was in place.

Misha Zelinsky:                  How do we grapple with, as a democracy in Australia that we favor these rule based order, where you have contested claims in the South China Sea, they go to court, they’re ruling in one particular which is against China in that particular instance, and that has not subsequently been observed. If it does start to unstitch the entire system when countries don’t observe the outcomes of the great system, or the referee so to speak.

Kim Beazley:                         Well our view of course is they should. And hardly anyone can ever enforce its views on the rest of the globe. You basically have to simply influence folk or try to influence folk. Whether you do actually anything practical about it or not, at least when there is a discussion of these issues, you don’t back away from the principles that you evolved. So any argument that takes place you take the view of the legalities which we have supported for a very long period of time.

Kim Beazley:                         It’s not an embarrassment, I don’t think, for a country like Australia if the views we express are not entertained by others with whom we’re talking. We can’t force them to do anything. And in those circumstances, the best we can do is to articulate those concerns, keep doing so, give support to other people who are doing it who may be more directly effected than we are, and learning the maturity and toughness that comes with somebody or some nation that is prepared to stand up for what it believes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’d just like to just quickly talk about China’s relationship with some of the other players in the region. Some of the smaller countries of the Asian nations and also the Pacific in terms of this One Belt, One Road initiative. And we’ve seen initially it’s talked about one of the largest investment in human history to reestablish that trade route through sea and land.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But we’re also now seeing the so called debt book diplomacy where countries have signed dup for projects they don’t necessarily need at terms that aren’t that particularly favorable. Then when they can’t make the payment, that asset’s taken back. Most troubling-ly the example of Vanuatu it looked like there may have been a military lock base or Naval base being built there potentially. How concerned should we be about that the way that China’s asserting itself through trade or through debt in a region?

Kim Beazley:                         I think China might be concerned out it, not just us. International politics is pretty fluid. Reputational issues are very important. You start developing our reputation for using debt to essentially take over parts of other countries, if you start building installations which are of very little value to the country in which they’re built but a substantial value to yourself, if you start projects which can’t be paid for by their own intrinsic merits, or you can’t complete to the satisfaction of the folk concerned, you’re going to suffer immense reputational damage. And people will deal with it.

Kim Beazley:                         This is particularly so in the experience of countries in Africa, but also in Southeast Asia and South Asia. A lot of these things are self correcting. And China’s going to have to learn from that. and will learn from that as people respond. When you actually look at the completion rights of these projects, and then look at some others who engage the infrastructure of the region like the Japanese, at a much lower level the Japanese have a much higher success rate. And what the Japanese actually produce is something usually useful to the countries concern.

Kim Beazley:                         They don’t talk about belts and roads and endless highway of Japanese economic activity, but to all intensive purposes, when you look at the infrastructure projects they’re engaged in, they’re similarly geographically aligned to those which the Chinese do but with smaller amounts invested and better outcomes for the people that are concerned. It’s not just there, it’s Americans, it’s a lot of other people engaged in this.

Kim Beazley:                         But it is an opportunity for many countries, and there will be from time to time an intersection between what is fiscally sustainable and what is actually locally necessary. And that’s certainly, China’s a powerful country, it helps advance their influence. At the moment you’d say that the most impactful in political terms of these Chinese strategies is not so much on the region we inhabit but in Central Asia. And who loses out? In Central Asia, to those Chinese infrastructure initiatives, what? Russia.

Kim Beazley:                         So Russia has this relationship with China which sees Russia’s interests and influence effectively being subsumed.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting. So you think that … A lot of people are now seeing it perhaps it’s a Cold War sort of prison, but a lot of people are seeing it as an alignment of interests between Russia and China. But you’re suggesting perhaps there are tensions that will emerge at Eurasian crossover region as China seeks to build up it’s sphere influence. Because Putin’s very concerned about spheres of influence.

Kim Beazley:                         Look, there’s no conflict of interest between the two except perhaps in the challenge to what they think is objectionable features of the rules based order. But the truth is there’s no symmetry there either. Putin just totally rejects it, the Chinese don’t. The are may feature of rules based order which they absolutely agree with. There’s no symmetry between the two of them on that.

Kim Beazley:                         It’s convenient to have that relationship with China, but there are contradiction elements of it too. The Russians built up a lot of influence and Vietnam and a lot of influence in India and South Asia. And the performance of the Chinese is causing all of our lives to be quizzical about them. And there’s no activity which when analyzed in detail to engage in which Russia does not look to complete in theory.

Kim Beazley:                         Putin may have had a triumph with his conversations with Trump and made the American president look ridiculous or as a satrap. And all of the allies of the United Stares might have been embarrassed by it. But where does it get Putin? Has it got him a relief of sanctions? Has it got him a non-engagement with the NATO powers along his border? Has it got him an American recognition of where he stands in Ukraine? Has it got him anything that actually matters to him?

Kim Beazley:                         And when you look at Russia’s situation, an economy the size of Australia with about four or five times that number of people to look after as Australia with about two and a half times out spending on defense, there’s a few people in Russia who are beginning to start to say to Mr. Putin, “Enough already.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  With a very low life expectancy evidently as well.

Kim Beazley:                         Yeah. Except the Russians are pretty courageous people.

Misha Zelinsky:                  They’re stoic.

Kim Beazley:                         They’re stoic as you say, they’re cynical. They like the fact that they’ve seen him stand up proud, take over property and the rest of it. They also want to be fed. And at some point of time, where Putin stands at the moment means they’re not going to be. So he needs those changes. If I was a Russian I’d be saying of the old lad, I’d be saying, “Oh yeah, you did real well. You poisoned our relationship with the United States, you’ve interfered in their politics in a way beyond any interference they’ve done in ours, you’ve got yourself in your mind a president elected at your own behalf. What’s on my table as a result of that please?” And the answer of course is nothing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yes, well that’s interesting. So you talked about economics there, and I think in the old Cold War we had two separate systems that a lot of people now point to the economics being this, perhaps the destiny in terms of security. You have people that look at China’s projections in our region and then say well there’s no way the that US can compare against China’s GDP therefor game over. Some analysts will say that. Others will point to the quad. Now I’m curious to ask you about which is the alliance of Japan, India, the United States, Australia which is very nice and do you see that as a potential counterbalance in our region in terms of economic response and in security response?

Kim Beazley:                         No, I just see it as a useful engagement. We are moving. China’s not the only country rising economically. You’ll see the same set of statistics that you just quoted applied to India, show India in the second half of this century we’ll all be thoroughly dead, taking over that leadership position from China. And you’ll see a straight line projections are all terrific except there are human realities that intervene.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And India has a demographic advantage as well.

Kim Beazley:                         Yeah. That’s right. And at the moment there’s a writing America off which also doesn’t have population problems. It’s economy is going to expand. The relativities that work towards China are not based on collapsing the American position. It’s a the American position advances, US is now starting to compete in new technologies, having let it go to some degree. And they’ve just put humongous amounts of money into it. Another great triumph for Putin. Gets out the and boast about a bunch of hypersonic missiles and related technologies which he doesn’t possess. And threaten to incorporate nuclear weapons within technical strategies which he hasn’t arrived at. He may arrive at that.

Kim Beazley:                         But with his 78 billion a year that spends on defense, he just massively tweaked the tail of somebody spending 715 billion. Brilliant move. You really scored with that one. So what do the Americans say? Oh well, we better got on with the hypersonic, we better get on with a different technical nuclear weapon usable in the battlefields. We’d better get on with the lasers, we’d better get on with the Artificial Intelligence and the rest of it. He’s just invited competition for an outfit spending ten times what he’s spending on defense. Fled losers.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Which is exactly what happened in the 80s with Reagan handcrafting the Soviet Union.

Kim Beazley:                         Exactly. And we need to take a look at that. There’s an awful lot of what the Americans are doing with their massive new defense spending that I think is a bit unwise. They’re focused too much on platforms and personnel and not enough on the new technologies. Though they’re spending a lot on the new technologies. I think the objective of the 350 ship Navy works against the rapid incorporation within the platforms they do have which is about 280 of them, of some of the new technologies which they brought forward very substantially particularly in related to direct energy weapons like lasers.

Kim Beazley:                         Their demand to put another 100,000 men or whatever it is in the Army works against the Army’s clear preference for next generation technologies on the battlefield. So there’s that tension going on. But the amounts of money is so huge that they may well be able to sustain the apparently contradictory priorities.

Kim Beazley:                         So there’s all of that going on at the moment which gives absolutely no attention or focus here at all.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And Australia benefits from that because we use a lot of the same combat systems as the United States, is that right?

Kim Beazley:                         And also we are very adept in sitting down with the Americans and converting those technologies into things that are usable in our environment. And I notice for the recent meeting of OSMET that the American Defense Secretary was pointing out our membership of the industrial recognized, industrial and inventive capabilities that the US will want to partner with. So we have got the possibility of engaging a lot of these technologies given that we can’t any longer do that ourselves. Or count on getting it from anywhere else. At least we are now heavily engaged with the Americans on that front. And we have at our defense …

PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:30:04]

Kim Beazley:                         … the Americans on that front, and we have at our defense, science and technology organization exactly the sort of capabilities that we need to ensure that we prioritize those technologies rightly and incorporate them effectively. We’re on the verge of a [walk 00:30:18] in the next generation systems, but only on the verge of that because of the continuing relationship with the Americans and nothing Trump has done threatens that. Trump creates a difficult international environment for us. He has not created a difficult military development environment for us.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s very assuring. Just to bring it, we’ve talked a lot about international defense policy. I’m curious to get your views on some of the things that are happening at home in a foreign policy context. We’ve had Chinese interference in our domestic affairs, and all the debates between the so-called China Hawks or the Panda Huggers, how seriously should we be concerned about Chinese interference in our democracy with various financial interference into major parties, and how hard should we be pushing back on that?

Kim Beazley:                         Most countries, and this country is now included, but wasn’t, most countries extract themselves from the contribution of other countries and involvement in domestic politics. It doesn’t necessarily work regarding the subject of illegal penetration on the scale that you saw from the United States and Russia, but there are some protections there and the protections have come in here. I think we have to be very careful here in how we handle this. We do not want to make the many Chinese Australians uncomfortable in their own country.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Absolutely.

Kim Beazley:                         It is important that they feel welcome, that they are Australians like the rest of us. We have a blessed tendency in this country not to refer to ourselves as Italian Australians or Irish Australians or Chinese Australians or Indian Australians. The Americans do that.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yes.

Kim Beazley:                         We don’t.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yep.

Kim Beazley:                         We just talk about Australians and then we may get in the conversation go down the line to look at ethnic origins, but we assume that in the end they get absorbed by the great Australian, lovely cultural system.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Absolutely.

Kim Beazley:                         We’ve got to think about that. That means that when we have a disagreement with the Chinese, and we will from time to time and we do look at the sorts of issues that come up here, we need to be polite. We need to be firm, but we also need to be polite, and we need to avoid humiliation wherever we can. The debate that we had on these various issues at the time of Sam Dastyyari put out of the show late last year. I’m not defending him. I’m suggesting that he shouldn’t have gone, but it spiraled out of that into mutual insults, and there certainly is enough to go around in the political process about engagements of the past, in a way which I could understand why Chinese government would start to look at you sideways.

Kim Beazley:                         See, you’ve got to be sensib;e about it. The Americans are the biggest investor in this. The Chinese are our biggest trading partner. Chinese Australians are critical contributors to the stability of this country and its success. We need to bear all those things in mind and grab some maturity in handling it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  No, that’s interesting because I think there’s some difficulty in how to handle the relationship. You mentioned earlier about reputational concerns that the Chinese have, but also there is a, there seems to be a tension between calling out behavior from the Chinese, be it in island building in the South China Sea, or perhaps in meddling in democracy, but it seems to be the tone that is a concern rather than the … How would we be better to manage that?

Kim Beazley:                         Adopt a reasonable tone. You can make these points without getting hysterical. The points need to be made and you want to be able to incorporate those issues in your conversations without necessarily creating massive damage to your country while you do it. One of the problems is this, and this just doesn’t apply and this issue applies in any issue, if you go out of the top and you create a situation where you were tricked and you left worse off than before when you went over the top in your response. The point is, the object of your attention is no longer the issue. You are the issue.

Kim Beazley:                         Now, how do you deal with that? Well it’s a maturity and it also means too that there are a lot of areas of politics when you’re a nation like us, which is not all powerful, you need to actually learn to manage your words and manage your approaches. We’ve done it in the past. We now have to do it full time.

Misha Zelinsky:                  I was just curious just to peek a little bit about the tension that exists, and it’s kind of the elephant in the room where we say we don’t have to choose between our secured relationship with the United States and our trade relationship with China. Can you see, what are the potential triggers where a choice may need to be made? There’s a whole, Hilary Clinton famously said you can’t argue with your banker. How do we argue with our best customer at the same time as wanting to perhaps stick with our best friend in the United States?

Kim Beazley:                         A good start is not to ask the question, and to actually look at how governments handle issues and not the commentary. Commentary has to ask the questions because there’s nothing else to say. The government doesn’t operate like that.. We decided that it was in our interest to proceed with membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is a big deal, a far bigger deal than any of the things that we’ve been talking about so far.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The Americans didn’t want us to do it.

Kim Beazley:                         The Americans did not want us to do it, but we decided, particularly with the south east Asians who are very important to us, [inaudible 00:36:45] to us, wanted us to get involved. We decided to get involved, so what do we do then? We go around saying, “Well, we’ve chosen between the US and China and we’ve chosen China.” That would be the height of immaturity, stupidity, and factually wrong. We chose to be a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That’s what we chose. What we did with the Americans was to say to them, “Look, we think that we need to get into this.” I used to say to them, “You look at China through the prism of the geographic relationship, through Confucian societies, Indochina.” We look at China from a north south perspective. We go through a whole variety of other cultures before we arrive at the Confucian ones. They are important to us and we take some guidance from them. We take the view that we need to listen to what they want us to do and they said that they would feel much more comfortable in that bank if we are there, so we’re going to do it.

Kim Beazley:                         What we will do is we will firstly say that we’re going to try and make the government’s terms as close to the Asian Development Bank as we possibly can, and we are going to keep you advised on each step that we take. That’s how you handle those issues. We didn’t running around asking silly questions about whether or not we’re choosing between China and the US. You do what is in your national interest. That’s what you do.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting, so I would like to actually ask you a questions following on from that because you’ve talked a lot about the economic rise of China and the choices there. Australia has been at every war with the United States, certainly the twentieth century and twenty first century. Is that relationship too strong? Should we be more independent given that what we know now with the Iraq war and the subsequent knock on effects of that? Is there a situation where we can perhaps not necessarily go all the way with LBJ so to speak?

Kim Beazley:                         You make your own decisions. Every one of the wars you referred to we made our own decisions. There was always a factor in those decisions about, at least since World War II, about the character of the relationship we have with the United States is one of the issues that we thought through, but it was not the only issue. We thought through those issues from the perspective of our own national interest, particularly recently, our involvements in Afghanistan and our involvement in Iraq, not the original one. I would say that these are issues which we’ll have to keep on thinking about all the time. You always need to think about it from the point of view of understanding that we’re already deeply embedded in the American system, through the job facilities of which we’ve added another couple over the course of the last decade, in relation to another area of contest that need space, and therefore we’ll always making a substantial contribution to them. We need to work out whether or not we want to make more.

Kim Beazley:                         Tony Abbot, as I recollect at the time of his last latest engagement in Iraq was hardly influenced by American concerns at all. He was influenced by and trying to influence the Americans toward committing themselves because he believed that it would be fatal for the rest of us if that caliphate got underway and successfully ensconced itself in Syria or Iraq. I would have said that our engagement, and I was looking at it from the point of view of the point made in Washington while it was being discussed, not at my level. It was being discussed at other levels, but I was at least in there. It was virtually nothing to do with the alliance and virtually everything to do with the situation on the ground and our concern that the Iraqi government should survive.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That was in response to the ISIS sort of take over over parts of Syria and of Iraq, but the original decision in 2003, I’d like to ask, would you have handled that differently?

Kim Beazley:                         Yes I would have.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yep.

Kim Beazley:                         To be honest, I’m not quite sure where I would have ended up at the very, very last minute, but I can tell you what I would have been doing in the period of time when the British and the Americans and the rest of the world really was looking at what ought to be done about Saddam Hussein, and I’d be doing my damnedest to try to persuade the Americans not to do what they did because if you look at our speeches at the time, you will see that we knew exactly what was going to happen as a result of all of this. We understood of course that the Americans after 9/11, they’re pretty much a winded society, and there’s a lot of motivation around about punish one, educate a hundred.

Kim Beazley:                         We saw at the time that this was not a sensible way of doing that and that you were likely to get yourself into serious trouble if you persisted with it. I suspect that possibly at the end of the day, as the whites in their eyes time had been arrived at, probably would have redeployed the ships that were in the gulf anyway. That would have been a very last minute point, and that was after you’ve exhausted every capacity to persuade them not to. It would be a bit absurd had the ships sailing around there not engaged in what subsequently emerged.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Have been not perhaps as a starting player in the coalition of the willing, so to speak.

Kim Beazley:                         It would be a concluding point, not a starting point.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s a good place for us to finish up. Just as a final question we ask all of our guests on Diplomates, which is, and you’re a former ambassador, so with international guests like to ask them which Australians they’d invite to lunch, but as a former ambassador I might ask you three Americans to lunch with the governor, who are they and why?

Kim Beazley:                         Well, I would love to have ex-President Obama as one of those to lunch. I’d love to have Hilary Clinton, and I would be fascinated to have added to them Jim Mattis.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Oh wow. That would be an interesting group.

Kim Beazley:                         To see what they’ve got to say about contemporary affairs. I’ve got a huge amount of time for all of them and I think that they would make, because all three of them make excellent dinner companions.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That would be a lovely, to be a fly on the wall that would be great, but look, Governor Beazley, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fantastic conversation and all the best with the new year.

Kim Beazley:                         Thank you.