Social Democracy

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

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

 

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

 

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks for having me, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Containing Japan, India, Australia, and United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Our former Australian foreign minister in the Labor government.

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers.

 

Ambassador Jeff Bleich: Why trust matters in democracy and how we get it back

Jeff Bleich was US Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

A distinguished legal and political professional, he is the Chair of the Fulbright Scholarship Board and now heads up the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University in Australia

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Jeff for a chat about why the Trump Impeachment is bigger than the trial itself, how Mike Bloomberg could end up President, his friendship with President Obama, the attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to dominate global technology standards, why trust is central to democracy, why autocrats can never crush the human spirit and why the most recent hacking by Russian agents could impact the upcoming 2020 US election. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Jeff Bleich, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, glad to be here Misha. Thank you for inviting me.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, pleasure’s all mine. Now, a good place I thought to start might be US politics. Now, a little bit about yourself. You obviously were ambassador-

Jeff Bleich:                    A good place [crosstalk 00:00:18]-

Misha Zelinsky:             A good place to start, or an interesting place to start, at least, maybe not good. You of course were ambassador to Australia, but you’ve also been a political candidate. I’m curious about what you experienced as the main differences. That’s a big question, but if you could maybe just give us that kind of an insight to the differences in those two roles.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, they’re very different. I mean, I think when you’re a diplomat, particularly in a country that generally is on good terms with the United States, it’s not that people necessarily agree with you, but they’re not immediately hostile to you. They want to know what you have to say. Whereas when you’re a political candidate, half the state or half the country wants to kill you every day. It’s a little different in that sense. I thought it was more policy-oriented when you’re an ambassador. The expectation is that you put politics aside and it’s really focus on, how do we solve problems between our nations and also how can our nations work together to address problems around the world? Whereas when you’re a political candidate, it is 90% politics.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I think the third big difference is money. Just money is a very corrosive factor in politics today. Whereas when you’re US ambassador, a thousand roles will keep you away from ever touching anyone’s money, even your own. That keeps a lot of stress out of your life, and has you focused really on issues. They’re dramatically different roles.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I can imagine the role of money is certainly important one. Now, speaking of politics, I mean, whilst we can’t predict what’s going to happen as we record this, the US president is currently being impeached. I think we can probably figure out the likely outcomes. It’s unlikely that the Republican Senate will seek to convict and remove the president. But how concerned are you about, I suppose, the underlying aspects of the impeachment itself in respect to the politicization of foreign interference and how do you see that playing into the 2020 election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well I’m worried about the impeachment in a number of different ways. One thing is the fact that not enough people are paying attention to it. They’re treating it as though it’s a game and they already know the score, and so why should they watch? When in fact, this is an important statement about our values as a country and what we think matters and what we think doesn’t matter. If there were a moment when the public should be paying attention, regardless of their predisposition, I think now is one of them, so that matters.

Jeff Bleich:                    Another thing that matters to me about it is that there’s… the allegations go to the core of our democracy and if they don’t lead to some kind of sanction this time around, we’re setting a precedent for the future. The president’s accused of having used his position, the power of his office in order to obtain a personal benefit at the expense of our national interest. Namely, the personal benefit is getting dirt on a political opponent, and the national interest was congressionally approved funds being delivered to Ukraine in order for it to mount a defense against one of our adversaries. I mean, a very significant question. I used to teach constitutional law and that kind of an abuse was really the answer to my final exam question as to what’s impeachable conduct. It’s a serious offense if the Senate determines that he did engage in that behavior.

Jeff Bleich:                    What concerns me most is that so far no one has been prepared, on the Republican side, to stand up and say, “If this is true, he did a bad thing. I may not be prepared to remove him from office for it, but this is bad and it shouldn’t be done by any president under any circumstances.” The fact that you’re not hearing Republicans at least define the debate that way, the fact that the president’s defense says, “This is a perfect phone call.” The fact that the chief of staff to the president says, “We do this stuff all the time.” This should concern every American just about whether or not our system is reacting to issues that the framers considered core issues about our security.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I guess the last thing is your question, politicization. I don’t think interference is being politicized, but I think it’s being under-appreciated because we’re so focused on the impeachment, we’re not focusing on how serious this event was in terms of Russian interference and then other ways in which foreign governments could affect the outcome of one of our elections. Long answer. Sorry.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, that’s excellent, and I think it’s really enlightening. But I’m keen to return to the subject of foreign interference while I was just with US politics. One final point in parallel to the impeachment, which is an enormous story. We’ve got another big story which is the upcoming Iowa caucuses. How do you see the Democratic primary playing out? I might press you for a prediction though I won’t hold you to it. I’ve given up the prediction game after 2016, and also 2019 in Australia. But how do you see the Democratic primary playing out? But also how do you see the left right divide playing out in the primary system itself, but then more generally in the general election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well, we’ve narrowed the field of Democrats down from about 32 candidates to six. The six are Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg. Those are really the six who remain viable. I’d say some of the energy of the party is behind people with a very strong left bend who are moving for radical changes on some large scale programs. That would really be the Sanders and Warren camp. Then the other four who I think reflect more of the numbers within Democratic party are reformers, but they’re more pragmatic reformers. They’re not looking for a radical solution, radical change.

Jeff Bleich:                    I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, and I think a lot will depend on Iowa. If you think about the last few elections, everyone thought that Donald Trump’s candidacy was sort of a… they thought it was a joke candidacy for some people or they thought that he was doing it basically to raise his profile for his businesses. They didn’t think he actually thought he would win. But Iowa and other early primary showed where the energy was, and it was clearly with the people who were anti-establishment, and so it ended up being Cruz and Trump at the end.

Jeff Bleich:                    If you look at the last election for Democrats, Hillary was supposed to be in… it was supposed to be easy for her. In fact, she had to go off 50 States against Bernie Sanders because the energy was really with an anti-establishment vote. I would expect a lot of anti-establishment energy to be in the Democratic primary, but there is also going to be a lot of pro-Obama anti-Trump energy, which is focused more on a moderate. Those two are going to have to battle it out in Iowa. I think depending… it’s going to be very close at the top. But whether you win by 1% or lose by 2% can make a huge difference in how the narrative plays out and the momentum.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think this will be a defining moment for the Democrats and will really winnow the field potentially smaller. I’ll give you one prediction which is, if Sanders and Warren came out on top for example and Biden and Buttigieg were in third and fourth, there would probably be a lot of interest in Michael Bloomberg suddenly as someone who could have the resources to mount a strong campaign first against the hard left but also against Donald Trump. If on the other hand, Biden and Buttigieg came in first and second, then I think there you’re less likely to see Bloomberg emerging in the field because there’s a sense that there’s already a couple of candidates in that lane. I think most likely you’re probably going to see one moderate and one hard left candidate coming out in one, two, and everyone else bunched pretty tightly behind them, the other two. We’re in for a bit long bumpy ride.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think, irrespective of the outcome even if it comes down to a battle between say Sanders and Biden or Warren and Buttigieg, can the party bring itself together in a general election to… because I think one of the outcomes of the 2016 election was that some of the Sanders people stayed home and refused to campaign or vote for Clinton. I think that certainly impacted on her candidacy more generally.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I would expect it’ll be different this time, and I take some confidence in that from the midterm elections where Democrats turned out in numbers that they’ve never turned out in before, and they were pretty unanimous in their efforts to unseat house Republicans. I think this time around, Democrats do know how to come back together again. People thought that the Hillary Barack divide was so great that they’d never come together, they came together very well. My sense is that this time around, as well, it’s not a theoretical possibility that Donald Trump could be the president and advance policies that we disagree with as Democrats. I think it’s a certainty that he would be president if we don’t come together. I think Democrats will come together in much better fashion than they did last time around both because they know the consequences and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to do it before.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay, and just, well, I think that hopefully you’re right about that. Turning to your career as ambassador, you mentioned president Obama before, he of course appointed you as ambassador, but interesting factor about your career is that you tried to recruit him when he was a precocious young law student. I’m kind of curious about that story. Was it obvious that he was special then given you tried to recruit him or?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh yeah. No, no. The story was that we were trying to recruit him to clerk for the judge that I clerked for on the court just before the Supreme court. Then I was going on next year, and the judge said, I heard about a guy over at Harvard Law School, who’s the president of Law Review, Barack Obama. I said, “Yeah, he sounds great. I don’t really know him, but everyone says he’s terrific, but he doesn’t really want to clerk. I think he’s going to do something else.”

Jeff Bleich:                    The judge said, “Well, give him a call.” I called him up and I came back afterwards and went into the judge’s chambers and I had Obama’s resume with me. The good news is that he’s even better on the phone then he was on paper. I mean, he’s really, really special, and smart, funny, interesting. From Chicago, where the judge is from, you’d love him. The bad news is, he really doesn’t want to clerk. He wants to do something good for society. The judge said, “Well, give me his resume.”

Jeff Bleich:                    He takes it, comes back into my office a while later and he’s holding Obama’s resume. He looks at me, he goes, “Now this, this is the kind of guy I ought to be hiring.” I’m like, “You mean instead of me?” He goes, exactly, call him again. I called him again and tried to recruit him. I never did, but we formed a friendship and one thing led to another after that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Before we dig into the, maybe specific of the policies, what is it about the US Australia relationship that in your mind makes it so special and why is trust within that relationship so important?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, I think you put your finger on it, it’s about trust. There are a lot of alliances in the world that are transactional and so they’re about, “If you do this thing for me now, I will do something for you later.” But our alliance is beyond that, it’s a true partnership. It’s like a marriage. Where you’re not asking every time, “What do I get in return?” You know that the relationship itself makes both of you stronger and better and you’re always looking for ways to be helpful to each other. That’s the foundation on which our trust was based.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think the other thing is it’s very values-based. We’ve got, not just a similar set of political values in terms of free speech, and freedom of religion, and free markets, and free movement of people, and just that we think there’s also a can do ethic that’s unique to us. Australians say, “Should be right mate,” and we say, “It’ll be okay buddy,” but it’s the same message. We’re very optimistic people. We believe we can make the world a better place and then we work together and do it. Based on that, based on having been through a lot of tough situations that we volunteered for together, there’s a trust that allows us to do things that really no two other countries in the world can do together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, one of the big themes of your time as ambassador, certainly an ongoing theme, is the relationship between the US and China, but it’s very impactful on Australia’s geo-strategic positioning. One of the big signature policy initiatives of the Obama administration was the Asia Pivot. I mean, in your mind was this successful or do you think, in hindsight, the administration could have been a little tougher. I mean at the time the hope was the engagement process that China would become a responsible actor and that it will gradually liberalize. We obviously haven’t seen that now. I mean was, in hindsight 2020, or could the administration being tougher in the circumstances?

Jeff Bleich:                    I think that they were successful in a number of different ways. First, it was about integrating the region in a way where the major powers could all come to the table together and have honest conversations, not just about economics or about national security or one issue or another, but really about everything. Up until then there had been five or six different fora, but I think we really helped cement the East Asia summit as an opportunity for everyone to come together and have a honest and frank conversation about issues that mattered to the region and to fully integrate the US into those conversations. That I thought was significant on a diplomatic front.

Jeff Bleich:                    On the security front. Again, I think it was very successful with the rotational deployment of Marines up in Darwin, [some airfield dispersals and a number of other things that have happened since. Most significantly moving from a 50-50 split of our Navy between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to a 60-40 split where now we have our Navy assets and a real integration of our joint forces with partners throughout the region, including the Talisman Saber exercise, which is now the largest joint military exercise we do anywhere in the world, and we do it off the coast of Australia.

Jeff Bleich:                    In terms of diplomatic, military, and then economic, our main focus at the time was TPP because that was a very effective strategy of integrating our economies and, to some extent, counterbalancing any other economy which was going to try to unfairly leverage its power in the region, and China was clearly in people’s minds at the time. I don’t think that that was a failure at all. In fact, TPP, it was only with the election of president Trump where he unsigned TPP.

Jeff Bleich:                    If I were going to be critical of that decision, I thought it was a wrong decision myself, but the execution of it was even worse because at that point China did not want the US to be part of TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and president Trump had an opportunity to say, “Well, we will unsign it, but only if China you do the following seven things.” He didn’t, he just unsigned it without any preconditions or concessions by China, and then two years later began a trade dispute.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think at the time we were doing a pretty good job of holding the line on trade because of TPP. I think we were doing a good job of holding the line on Chinese espionage in the commercial sector after the Sunnylands Conference between President Xi and President Obama. I think we integrated ourselves more deeply into the region. I think the Pivot was successful and could have been more successful if we continued some of those efforts over the past couple of years.

Misha Zelinsky:             You sort of touched on that, I guess, the change in tone from the Trump administration, from the Obama administration. Earlier you talked about the fact that at least the ANZUS Alliance is not transactional, but president Trump would appear at least to be more transactional in the way he approaches foreign policy, often the way that seen to, at least from the outside, look like punishing friends and rewarding enemies. I mean, how would that challenge diplomats in the background in your experience?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well I think it’s very difficult to in the current system that we have with those principles. Because look, the way you treat family members is different from the way you treat business partners. Business partners, it can be purely transactional. It’s only if there’s something in it for you that you’re going to engage in business with them. Whereas with family members, you’re always finding a way to make things work, sometimes soothing over awkward situations as opposed to ignoring them completely or being too confrontational. You behave with family members, you behave with allies and partners in a different way than you would behave with others where it’s just purely a business or geopolitical relationship.

Jeff Bleich:                    We have allies and partners who continue to behave that way with us, expect us to do the same, people raised in the diplomatic corps understand the difference and then occasionally these directives come in which are at odds at those and it throws everyone else’s calculation off. We’re trying to solve problems by predicting each other’s behavior. When you’ve got an unpredictable actor, it makes everyone alter their calculation sometimes missing chances to agree and sometimes creating conflict where it was never necessary. That’s, I think, what diplomats are struggling with is the inconsistency and the unpredictability of policy in areas where we need to find an agreement because we’ve got much bigger things to work on together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, absolutely. Working together, kind of curious I mean, you were of course ambassador during Obama’s essentially his first term and the latter half of the then Rudd Gillard government. What was it like being an ambassador during a period where the labor government was essentially at war with itself regrettably? I mean, was that something that was awkward to manage?

Jeff Bleich:                    No. Nice things about being ambassador, and I should’ve mentioned this earlier, is it’s not zero sum, it’s not someone wins, someone loses, always this is a long-term relationship and you’re looking for opportunities to do good things together and so you develop friendships all across the political spectrum. I got along with all of the prime ministers with whom I worked and worked with the different factions within labor as well as the different factions within the coalition, and [crosstalk 00:22:40]-

Misha Zelinsky:             There’s no factions mate.

Jeff Bleich:                    Right. No factions at all. No, I think the… But I served with, If you count Kevin Rudd twice, I served with four prime ministers because I served with Prime Minister Rudd, then Prime Minister Gillard, then Prime Minister Rudd, and Prime Minister Abbott during the time I was there and found ways to work together with all of them, and really didn’t get drawn into their conflicts with one another. But it was helpful because I did get insights about their conflicts with one another and was able to make better predictions about how we could focus our energies on things that would get support across the aisle there as opposed to putting too much energy into things that we thought are hopeless at the moment. That’s part of why you want to have those relationships.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very diplomatically put ambassador, but that’s a period of time we try not to remember to fondly. But so, turning to, I suppose your post ambassadorial career, you focus a lot on foreign interference.

Jeff Bleich:                    One of my favorite stories with President Obama Yeah.] I’ve been gone for a few months and I had a… came back to see President Obama, we were in the Oval Office. He said, “You’ve got a lot going on down there. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been there for a few weeks and they sacked the opposition leader Malcolm Turbull a few months later sacked the prime minister. Prime minister Gillard has now called a special election and it looks like it’s going to be a minority coalition because this will be the first minority coalition government in last 70 years.” The president he goes, “What the hell are you doing down there Jeff? These people are our friends,” so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good. Just, since you’ve left your role as ambassador, you’ve focused a lot on foreign interference. You’ve set up the Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance at Flinders University, which is… First, it’s a hell of a title.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh thank. It’s a lot of words but they all have meaning, and the only word-

Misha Zelinsky:             Lets talk about that.

Jeff Bleich:                    … I would have taken out, the Jeff Bleich Center. That was a very nice thing that Flinders did where they put my name on it. But I was honored and surprised. But it’s given me extra incentive to make sure it does its job. I figure it’s a statement of confidence that even with a name like Bleich it can still be successful, so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             What are you hoping for the center, and firstly what are its aims? And secondly, why have you set up in Australia?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, the aim is really to focus on a set of challenges that are unique to democracies that are created by digital technology that asymmetrically hurt democracies versus authoritarian governments and how we can work together as countries with our closest partners to figure out solutions to these. Whether it just be ways in which we will combat them within our own countries, how we can combat them together, or how we can form treaties around the world that would help all nations that share our values and care about democracy and freedom to resist this movement towards digital abuse and authoritarianism. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a US alliance studies in digital technology, security, and governance and it’s all of those things. I’m happy to talk about specific examples if that’s helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, maybe if we… I mean, I think the most famous example of hacking or a successful hacking effort is the 2016 foreign interference into the US election. But I’m interested in talking to you about this new concept where they’re talking about political warfare in the so-called gray zones. Can you explain what those are and how they’re impacting on democracies?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, well you may use different terms for it in Australia. What do you mean by that, and then I’ll say if I mean the same thing?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, this attempt to bump up against institutions and corrupt the discourse or target certain people or basically try to royal democracies using their openness against them in a way that makes it more difficult for democracies to operate properly because they’re getting this static put through them in various different ways due to the interconnectedness of the world versus the closeness, I suppose, the autocratic systems and that challenge is presenting to us in the democratic free world.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. That was the most diabolical] Russian interference in the 2016 election. Look, hacking into DMC files and releasing those in a selective way to help one party versus the other. All bad. But at least you knew it was happening. What was going on with what you’re describing is this attempt to pit Americans against each other, to break down our trust in one another, and to dirty the information field in such a way that we didn’t know what to believe by the time we got to election day. That was the concept.

Jeff Bleich:                    They would use chat bots and others to identify extreme positions and then promote them aggressively to create the sense that the entire left and the entire right believed a particularly fringe idea and that that’s what they stood for. Or to find hot buttons that they knew would inflame a particular group and get them to start criticizing each other through really nasty terms that would just make it difficult for people to dial back and have a civil conversation about issues later.

Jeff Bleich:                    The whole idea of just putting [stories about nothing, but create just ridiculous false narratives was designed to make it so that people didn’t know what to trust. You had a bunch of people wondering, is Hillary Clinton, while she’s running for president in the United States, still finding time in the evenings to go run a child sex ring out of the basement of a in suburban Maryland? It seems absurd, but if people see it enough, they start to wonder, “Well maybe there’s some truth to it.” Enough so the one person actually showed up with a assault weapon to open fire on it. I mean, it’s these things that sound silly actually have dire and very dangerous real world consequences.

Jeff Bleich:                    The impact of all that was that at some point, if people don’t know what the truth is, they don’t know what to believe, they don’t know who to believe because we’ve broken down trust, then they either believe whatever accords with their own biases or they believe nothing at all and they just kind of abdicate to government to do whatever it was going to do. Both of those are absolutely destructive to democracy.

Jeff Bleich:                    Democracy is about all of us understanding the facts, being able to make our own informed choices, and being able to select representatives who will in fact represent our views on those. Once people don’t know what the facts are and they don’t know who to trust, and they can’t make effective choices in their elections, we stop looking like a democracy anymore.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’ve absolutely nailed the problem. What’s the solution? I mean, how do we actually deal with this question of trust information sources and digital communications? Because this openness that we have now, you can’t control your information, at least in Western democratic context. You can’t control information in your borders anymore, and you don’t have gatekeeping on information. Actually, how do we reverse this problem given that it’s so corrosive?

Jeff Bleich:                    Part of it is sophistication and hygiene. I think people start to learn after a while. I keep hearing from this particular website or this particular author, never turned out to be true, and in fact turns out that they’re wrong and dangerous. Over time, the public starts walking away from people like that. I think you’re probably going to come up with greater criticism of groups like that in the sense that people on the right will start criticizing far right views as damaging to their own brand and people in the moderate left will do the same thing to extreme and irresponsible new sources on the left. There’s human nature.

Jeff Bleich:                    We really depend on timely, reliable, accurate information in every aspect of our lives. At some point when we’re not getting in, we react and start behaving differently. I’m counting, to some extent, on human nature. I think the second thing that you count on is technology getting better and better at being able to detect lies and out them. One of the advantages of AI frankly, is in things that are demonstrably false. Well, we’ll be able to identify those in real time and start educating people to take a pause, check this site, and get the accurate information. At some point I think they’ll be able to.

Jeff Bleich:                    The problem of… I think Mark Twain said, “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on.” This goes back 100 years, but it’s at hyperspeed right now in the internet age. But we have some technological tools that will help us with that. I think you’re going to start to see crowdsourced information in the news, which will help people with that same challenge. I don’t despair that we’ve outfought ourselves and we can never fight back to accuracy again. I think we’ve always managed to do it in the past and I think we’ll do it again this time. It’s just going to be a challenging effort given the acceleration of technology issues.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of US social media companies in this, in being responsible actors given so many people now get their news from social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera. They have algorithms that essentially favor outrage, which then favors extremism, and then there’s a problem with fake accounts. I mean, what is their role in, I suppose, safeguarding democracy?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, they’re all certain to encounter a backlash which is referred to as the tech lash because of people’s frustration with the failure of these platforms to actually address the negative consequences. They insist that they are platforms that they’re not news sources, they’re not responsible for the news and that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as journalists, but at the same time, they’re now appreciating that in order for their brand to be respected and for people to actually trust their platforms, they need to do more fact-checking.

Jeff Bleich:                    Facebook has brought in, I think, journalists from the Washington Post to hire a number of other journalists checking on pieces that appear on their website and to either take down things that are demonstrably false or at least put up warnings in advance that there are questions about the accuracy of certain facts stated in the piece. You see Google and Twitter saying that they are not going to run political ads they contained false information. There’s a movement, in fact, I think they’d said take down all political ads simply because they didn’t want to be in a position where they had to make those fine determinations.

Jeff Bleich:                    But they’re all stepping up in different ways to address it in response to consumer demand and other political parties. That’s healthy. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just turning to the global challenge here, I mean, one of the things I think Australia and the US are in lock step on is this, I mean, it’s been described a sort of a Chinese communist party, techno-nationalism, the so called China 2025 plan where the regime wants to dominate a whole host of critical technologies including AI which you touched on earlier. I mean, do you think this is a new bipartisan position in the US and does the president, president Trump, have a point in the way he’s addressing this challenge?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I think there’s bipartisan support. In fact, if anything, the Democrats may be even stronger in their concerns about it. Perhaps in part because of the experience from 2016 where they were the victims of foreign interference and their appreciation that what they did is child’s play compared to what can be done in the future. The techno-nationalism that you’re describing really comes down in many ways to the architecture of the internet of things. If it’s connected through 5G systems that are controlled by China, there’s a real risk that those could be used to establish an effective surveillance state that would keep Chinese citizens and countries that are in the Chinese supply chain and orbit and strategic area in line.

Jeff Bleich:                    It would be used also as a check on efforts by the West to impose their own human rights values on China or other countries, and could also be used as an economic tool to advantage China over other countries. You could easily see a balkanization around the world of some countries that have surveillance States that use the internet of things in an authoritarian manner. Then other countries which are working to ensure that we maintain our freedoms. In those cases you have two completely different economic systems in competition again and really a digital iron curtain could fall if we don’t address this now.

Misha Zelinsky:             Essentially, yeah, this question of a digital iron curtain or a decoupling, how do you see… One of the things that I think is interesting or is puzzling in the debate at the moment, there seems to have been this split in the West even, about how to approach the question of 5G, particularly Chinese technology via Huawei. How do you see the British approach as a Five Eyes partner in the Five Eyes security alliance? How do you see their approach to Huawei where they’ve essentially not sought to introduce, or at this stage don’t want to introduce, a blanket ban in the way that Australia and the United States and New Zealand have?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well the UK didn’t follow an initial advice from the intelligence communities of other countries and even some of their own intelligence community, and went ahead with infrastructure that included Huawei equipment, but it was supposed to also have a monitoring system. The monitoring system has proven not to be workable, but now they’re stuck with a very big investment and being asked to tear it all out and start again is a major challenge for the country. Their softer position, I think, decisions that were made several years ago and ones that I think there is some apprehension about today.

Jeff Bleich:                    It also explains why it’s so important at this point to make these decisions strategically, and thoughtfully, and deliberately. Because once you’ve made the decision, you start going down a rabbit hole at a relatively fast pace and it’s much harder to climb back out afterward.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just on that, I mean, this debate it was not just contingent in Five Eyes, countries, Germany, and to a broader extent the broader European Union, are debating this question of 5G technology and the role of Huawei. Where do you think the debate will end up in Germany? Because again, they’re taking what would appear to be, at least, a bet each way at this point.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, I mean, a lot of others is that they don’t want to needlessly antagonize China. What they would like, and I think what we all like is to find a way in which we could have a robust trade relationship with all countries in the world, including in our digital space, but also have some assurances that it won’t be used to undermine our security or economic wellbeing down the road that we chose one system versus another. I think they want to, in that respect, and that’s why they’ve made a number of statements about keeping an open mind. But the fact that they have not embraced 5G technology and that Nokia and Ericsson and other European 5G manufacturers have been ramping up their efforts suggests to me that Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             This question about human rights and values and but also technology, I mean, how do you see that playing out? I mean, the Human Rights Watch group recently came in and essentially warned of a techno-dystopia emerging of Chinese technology and an autocratic regime comes to dominate global affairs. I mean, how concerned are you about something like that and what can democracies do about being more assertive in values about human values and their role in technology?

Jeff Bleich:                    Look, I mean, we’re at this point, and I think there’s a desire around the world for us to remain interdependent. It’s a good way of reducing the risk of conflict. The last thing we will want to move on is a failure to be creative on digital governance. I think, and China just as much as the United States is looking to increase the quality of life, and the length of life, and the wellbeing of its people and to do the same for its allies and friends around the world.

Jeff Bleich:                    We don’t have to go into a dystopian world. It’s not inevitable. It’s going to be a matter of choices. But we’re starting to make the decisions now. We’ll either make it much more likely that we’ll go into a dystopian future or much easier for us to avoid it. That’s why we have failed to take heed of warnings in areas like climate change and we’re paying a huge price for it right now. We don’t want to make the same mistake here on the digital space in terms of having security and governance in front of mind as we’re making these critical decisions.

Misha Zelinsky:             Given that we’re heading into an important election season in the United States, I think one of the things that would disturb a lot of people, the 2016 election, the Mueller Report, even the impeachment currently underway with arguable presidential interference into a potential rival candidate. How concerned are you about these reports of new Russian hacking into some of the electoral infrastructure of the US and has that got enough attention in your opinion?

Jeff Bleich:                    No, it hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Look, I’ve been saying for a while, whatever Russia did last time, they’re not just going to do that this time. They may figure, “Okay, we’ve taught the rest of the world how to do that. They’ll do it for us.” They’re going to do something different. We know that in the last election, Russia had hacked into voter rolls for 40 different States in the United States. It was only when they were called out by our intelligence agencies at the highest level and advised that we have countermeasures that would be much more painful to them that they backed off on what appeared to be a deliberate plan to hack into certain kinds of voting machines in order to change the outcome of elections.

Jeff Bleich:                    We also know that our voting machines are vulnerable and really can… in some cases, you could change a person’s vote and there’s no paper backup to ensure that people could audit it and determine whether or not a machine had been compromised. We have real vulnerabilities and it should be something that is front of mind for Americans and a major focus of law enforcement around the world and for our media to prepare people for demanding from their electoral officials paperback, every single vote, and an audit of every voting location. I mean, that should be standard. I am very worried about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             We use high tech paper and pencil in Australia, so it’s more difficult to hack at least. It’s one of the advantages of a low tech system but…

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, although it may be that you’re using scanners and other things, so hopefully you’re also doing audits afterwards to make sure that the scanners haven’t been compromised.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, one would hope, I mean, it’s certainly something that I think it requires enormous vigilance. The last question before we go to the really last hokey question. You’re someone who describes himself as an optimist. When I look at the world, it’s divided now into opened and closed. It used to be believed that openness would always prevail. Bill Clinton famously said, “Those who think they can control the internet, it’s like nailing jello to a wall. Good luck with that.” But it almost feels now that open systems assailed from all different directions and the closed systems don’t have these same vulnerabilities. How can that be reversed and how can openness become a virtue and not be a bit of a crutch as it currently is?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well look, I think we originally imagined digital technology proliferating openness and to some extent it did. If you look at the Arab Spring, that was really a reflection of the fact that social media was able to create an environment in which disorganized rebels could overthrow a dictator. I think the lesson that we learned from that period is that, we got a little bit out over our skis. We were so confident that digital technology could only be used for good that we forgot that dictators are watching the same thing. They were thinking, “Look, if the disorganized rebel can use this tool in order to accomplish this. Imagine what we can do with all the power of the government, and military force, and money, and organization behind us. Just think how much we could weaponize digital information.”

Jeff Bleich:                    They’ve demonstrated that over the last few years and it has strengthened the hand of authoritarians. But that doesn’t mean that this tool will only be used for bad going forward. I think we’ve gotten a wake up call that this technology really can promote open societies and bring us closer together as people, and reduce friction between countries, and increase our understanding of what is true, and allow us to solve massive global problems in a way and at a scale that we never would have been able to in the past. Whether that is contagions moving around the world, or whether it is climate change, or whether it is this issue itself, the digital structure itself.

Jeff Bleich:                    We’ll be able to do things that we could never have accomplished without this technology. I remain an optimist. I think there’s work to be done, but at the wake up call that we needed and now we just need the political will to put some real muscle behind it so that we can make tomorrow better than it’s been.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you take some confidence out of the courage you’ve seen in people of Hong Kong and the recent Taiwan elections where despite all the threats and pressure that have been placed upon people in those areas, that they still have voted for self-determination and freedom. I think that should give us all confidence, but how do you see that particular way that that’s played out for the CCP regime of 2019 into 2020?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, absolutely. You see it in Turkey, you see in Hong Kong, you see it around the world, and it’s because frankly, there’s an innate instinct in us as a species, as people. We want freedom, we want… Why on earth does a person stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Why does someone throw a minefield in the demilitarized zone? Why did people lose their lives trying to cross the Berlin Wall. It’s that impulse where at some level people say, “I would rather die than live without freedom,” and they are willing to do extraordinary things to accomplish it. I take great comfort from that impulse, that instinct in all of us that you see manifested in some of these elections and in individual acts of courage and heroism.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely. I think that’s a beautiful place to finish at. Now, of course I have one of my trademarks, clunky segues into the final question, which is… it’s a little, maybe a bit easier for you given your time in Australia. Sometimes this stumps some of my guests who can’t really name three Australians beyond Crocodile Dundee, but three Aussies alive or dead at ambassador Bleich’s place for a barbecue. Who’s coming and why?

Jeff Bleich:                    Let’s see, who’s coming to my barbecue? Well, everyone who’s left off this list will be angry. Let me pick just three iconic Australians. One of them would be Paul Keating, I just think he’s brilliant and his insights are invaluable. I think I’d pick Lindsay Fox because he is what every billionaire should aspire to be. Just generous, thoughtful, down to earth, and make your money the right way, fairly and honestly. Then the third one, probably Lisa Wilkinson, because after her long career in journalism and the courage she’s shown, she knows the dirt on everyone and she would tell it. So there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             So you have a journalist, a prime minister, and a billionaire at an ambassador’s barbecue. Sounds like a pretty good party.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Sounds… get a couple meat pies and some sausages. It’s a perfect night.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much ambassador Jeff Bleich and good luck in the upcoming primary season for the Democrats.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, thanks so much, Misha, and thanks for having me on Diplomates.

 

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

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

Benedict Hugosson is a global expert in political campaigning.

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

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

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

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

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

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

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

Ben Hugosson:              Thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The social Democrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Lies, damned lies and statistics.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             People don’t join anymore.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Churches.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Other regional areas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s a platform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Mix in.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             What is define and mobilize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good, very good.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, right.

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

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

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