Episodes posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

Thank you. Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

What was the game?

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Slightly

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Big issue.

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Kind of like Steve Irwin was, right?

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

Yes!

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

What’s that?

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

Oh, shoot.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s fine, mate.

Eric Schultz:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Eric Schultz:

Of course. Great to be here.

 

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

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

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

 

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good term.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a huge responsibility.

Richard Marles:

It is.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

But who are they and why, mate?

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Richard Marles:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Richard Marles:

Thanks, Misha.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s true.

Laura Rosenberger:

Our acronym similarity there. But anyway-

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Demographically, yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s true.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

And what do they want that, sorry?

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Opinion, yes.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Is the… yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

Go ahead.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yep.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s what I think.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, absolutely.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

So many to choose from.

Misha Zelinsky:

Crocodile Dundee and many others.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

Oh no!

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely.

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Laura Rosenberger:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

See you next time. Cheers.

 

Mike Murphy: Never Trump? The future of the Republican Party and Election 2020

Mike Murphy is a legendary political consultant and one of the Republican Party’s most successful ever campaigners.
Mike has handled media and strategy for more than 26 successful Republican campaigns including Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as leading John McCain’s historic presidential race in 2000. Mike has advised political leaders all over the world.

Mike is a prominent media personality, Hollywood writer and co-host of the hugely popular podcast, Hacks on Tap. As a leading ‘Never Trumper’, Mike heads up the ‘Republican Voters Against Trump’ (www.rvat.org) movement.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Mike for a chinwag about why he’s been against Trump since the 1990s, the Republican Voters Against Trump movement, President Trump’s first term in office, why Trump loves dictators so much, why trust has eroded so badly in politics, the future of the Republican Party, who Biden should pick as his VP candidate and what should keep Democratic strategists awake at night.

It’s a big chat and we hope you enjoy it! Please rate and review the episode, it really helps.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Mike Murphy, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us today, mate.

Mike Murphy:

Well, Misha, great to be here. Thanks for inviting me now.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, so many places we could start our thought. We’ll get to the current political situation in the U.S. shortly, but I thought a great place to start would be talking about November 8, 2016. You’re a very prominent never Trumper and you were a Never Trumper then. I was wondering if you might just take us through the thoughts running through your mind on election night.

Mike Murphy:

Well, it was a mix of shock and horror. I’ve been anti-Trump since 19, probably 93 only because I was working back then for the newly elected governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, and Trump was slippering around Atlantic city. So we had some unfortunate experiences with him, so I was no stranger to his character and his problems. Now, that said, like most people in my business, I was very surprised when he won because it was pretty obvious from the polling and just the normal rules of political gravity that he was going to get clobbered in the popular vote.

Mike Murphy:

And most of the time, almost all the time, it’s only happened five times in American history where the popular vote does not elect the president because of course we have the electoral college, which is old device from the original founders, kind of like the Senate where the smaller States have outsized power. California has two senators, little Rhode Island has two senators, so it works the same with electoral college.

Mike Murphy:

So he was able to draw the inside straight Michigan, Pennsylvania, my home state of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three States by the way that had not voted Republican and not been carried by the Republican Party in a presidential race since the 1980s. But narrowly 77,000 votes out of 13-and-a-half million, the three States all cast together, the margin was that small, but it was enough.

Mike Murphy:

I remember I was there with James Carville, we both worked for NBC News and he was getting texts, I was getting texts from friends of ours out in the field with just disbelief that Trump was showing this weird pattern. He did worse than Mitt Romney, our last Republican candidate in a lot of suburbs, but in what we call exsubs, which are farther out suburbs with cheaper housing, but a lot of middle class, lower middle class people. And then out in rural areas, he was blowing the doors off it.

Mike Murphy:

So it started to dawn on us that the polls were going to be wrong, they were going to predict the popular vote right. Hillary won by nearly three million votes, but in the distribution of the vote in those industrial Midwestern States and a few other places, he was going to come really close and maybe win the damn election, so it was just complete shock. Then when I got my pulse under control about that, because I was not excited about Hillary Clinton, but I thought Trump was a cheap demagogue, and a populist and not a conservative, and I thought, what is this guy going to do?

Mike Murphy:

Then for about a month, I’d started thinking, well, give him a chance, surround with staff. I saw Reince Priebus that night in the middle of the night at NBC and I knew him from the party. He had been our party chairman and he was rumored to go in as chief of staff. I remember I pulled him aside at 3:00 in the morning election night and I said, “Look, you got to take it. You got to surround this guy because…” And he’s like, “We know, we know. We’re going to build a cage. We’re on it.” Then it began.

Mike Murphy:

I also felt like an idiot because I… Sorry for the long answer, but I had done a podcast during the election called Radio Free GOP, a precursor to Hacks on Tap, was basically just me screaming about Trump and then interviewing operatives about how they got into politics and their stories. Still on iTunes if anybody cares. And so I had predicted with great certainty a thousand times he’d lose and then there he was winning, so I thought, oh, this is great. I’ll be eating crow here for a year, and I did.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I have to say, you’re not alone in predicting that Hillary would win. I’ve famously said that Hillary wouldn’t just win, but win well, that she’ll absolutely crash it. So you certainly not by yourself there, mate, consider that point in this podcast on a number of occasions.

Mike Murphy:

Well, she half did, that’s all I’ll say. Here’s a little bit of American political tribute, you know who… So the electoral college, and again, it’s happened five times in American history, never in the 20th century, twice the 21st, 2000 and 2016 where the electoral college has been different than the popular vote. You know who invented it? Alexander Hamilton. That’s the song that never made the musical.

Mike Murphy:

I came up with this stupid thing [inaudible 00:06:09], but yeah, and it’s here to stay, so we’ll see. This year looks a little more aligned, but we have a lot of campaign yet to happen.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, Mike, I’m curious for you take on Trump’s first term thus far. We’re coming up to the end of his first term. You’re obviously very bearish about his presidency overall as a Never Trumper, but how would you assess it? Has it been what you expected? A bit better? Worse? Care for your take.

Mike Murphy:

Worse. Yeah, I thought, all right, they’re going to put the training wheels on him. One of the things that is true about this, Trump didn’t think he was going to win, Trump’s people didn’t think he was going to win. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, I always call her Kellyanne Fitzpatrick because that was her original name when she started in politics, so my apologies it’s Conway, Kellyanne Conway, she was calling…

Mike Murphy:

There’s a thing in American politics, the media spend millions and millions, millions of dollars on exit polling, which is they do it as well as it can be done, but it’s shaky. Because you have to do two things; you intercept people at polls when they come out and say, “How did you vote?” And you try to get bellwether precincts, but it’s a big country, and again, we learned about you got to really understand the distribution of the vote with the electoral college.

Mike Murphy:

The other thing people forget is what about absentee voters? Well, you do a phone poll two days before the election. Then you put it on a computer and you predict. So during the day, the exit polling data comes in and waves, so the morning vote, plus the absentee, the afternoon vote and the evening vote. And there is a projection that the exit polling service at the three networks or the five networks, wherever they are now control sends out an hourly update where the number keeps moving, and that leaks.

Mike Murphy:

Some of us get it, other people leak, and it’s a big sport among politicals, “What are the exits?” Starting at about 3:00 in the afternoon really. So the exits were coming out and they’re bad for Trump. And so Kellyanne was on the phone calling all the national reporters. “This campaign was screwed up, if they’d only listen to me. I knew they were going to lose, that darn Reince Priebus.” And unbelievable because it’s the snake pit in their world and culture is set from the top.

Mike Murphy:

Then Trump is sitting there on election night and they’ve got the classic five TVs in the suite and they’re starting to predict he’s going to win and he doesn’t believe it. So he’s checking each channel, he think it’s a prank, it’s like it’s fake. Then the famous story, I wasn’t in the car, so I can’t say it’s absolutely true, but I believe it, and the people who also believe it were almost in the car. He turned to then PRA, Hope… God, it’s early here and I’m trying to remember. She left and came.

Mike Murphy:

Anyway, he turned to a PRA as they drove through the White House gates to begin the transition process and he looked at her and said, “All I was trying to do was increase ratings on the apprentice.” So he was more surprised than anybody, so I thought, okay. If the dog has caught the car, he’ll bring in some war horses and it’ll be a Jimmy Carter semi-competent buffoonish presidency, but he won’t actually try to be president other than ride around in the big plane and try to find the alien remains in Roswell out at the Air Force base in Nevada.

Mike Murphy:

It was like a movie of some kind of clown talk radio person got beamed up into the presidency, what would they do? Well, do I have a yacht? They’d get into the quality of life. I thought that would probably happen. Instead, he tried to be president and most of the serious people wouldn’t work for him because he has a bad style, he’s abusive and he won’t read anything. The military briefers and the intelligence people among themselves were all impressive career types would walk in there and they used to call the briefing story time like they were talking to a five-year-old because he wouldn’t read anything.

Mike Murphy:

So they learned to quickly do cartoons and charts. I used to joke, sock puppets were going to be next because he has zero attention span. What he likes to do is pace and talk about the election, and how they tried to steal it from him, and he only lost New Hampshire because they bused in union act and it’s crazy. In every campaign, sometimes you have to suffer foolish donors who give the party a fair amount of money.

Mike Murphy:

And they mean well, most of them are great, but you have a few who make their fortune and plastic coat hangers. And they give you a 30-minutes on how the wire coat hanger is a joke, and if hadn’t been for their genius and the plastic coat hanger, they wouldn’t have all this money. They could use that same insight to fix the entitlement budget problems, they’re blowhards. Well, it’s like a guy like that got elected and here we are.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, we’ve got to get a little on topic. This is of course a foreign policy show. I’m curious to get an insight from you. Trump’s first term, what’s been interesting is how in the few times that Trump’s ran into trouble with the house Republicans who have essentially backed him most of the way. The times he’s run into trouble with them or bumped up against them has been on foreign policy, be it what happened in Helsinki, some of the issues relating to NATO and other matters of that nature.

Misha Zelinsky:

How costly do you think it’s been for the U.S. in terms of Trump’s approach to our allies and alliances, including the Australia AND U.S. Alliance? And also what is it with Trump’s tendency to lord strong men and dictators? And why does he seem to push away his friends and get drawing closer people that in regimes that had essentially been enemies of the United States and these types of characters that are quite unsavory? He seems to cling on to them. What is it about him that does that?

Mike Murphy:

It is the question. I’m not enough of a psychiatrist to really go through it, other than his dad had a little deuce step in his behavior. They didn’t have a great relationship, he was an authoritarian. Look into Fred Trump. I always joke if there was a time machine in one trip, I would not go back and kill baby Hitler, I’d go back and tell Fred Trump to be less of an asshole to his kid because 45 years later would solve a lot of problems.

Mike Murphy:

He has shown a real hostility to the classic alliances, and I don’t think he understands geopolitics. A friend of mine, I don’t want to blow up his career, who was a very distinguished American career person in the foreign policy space went into the White House and was stunned to see that as bad as he thought it would be, and this person is no amateur. It was worse and Trump literally had a limited understanding of basic geography.

Mike Murphy:

So I think everything is transactional to Trump and it’s all very small time like what are we paying for Ramstein Air Base in Frankfurt, it’s high rent. He doesn’t understand the Atlantic Alliance, he’s hostile to it. Clearly, Australia is a critical ally of ours and increasingly geopolitically even more important one, linchpin in many ways of what ought to be our Asian network of alliances along with the Koreans and Japan, and he just seems to have an instant hostility.

Mike Murphy:

He doesn’t do protocol well. He has a hard time doing two-way conversations. He’s blowhard again so you’re sitting there, you’re the prime minister of Australia, you have to listen to this guy, ill informed whinge on and on. I’ll tell you a funny story. Erskine Bowles who had been a big leading Democrat, had been a White House Chief of Staff, good friend of mine. We both got a call cause in the U.S. if you’re known in politics, there’s a whole, and I’ll call it a racket because that’s somewhat accurate.

Mike Murphy:

Because I’m on cable TV bloviating a bit and Erskine of course is highly esteemed. You get called to do paid speeches, so you go to the outboard motor dealers and tour, you joke around or [inaudible 00:14:03] do it, or Carville or the gala, and you entertain the crowd, but it’s… And then they give you a big check, and dinner, and you go home. It’s easiest the dollars in the world.

Mike Murphy:

Well, we both got a call from the speakers bureau early in the Trump presidency, “Well, you want to go to London?” And I always want to go to London, but it’s going to take three or four days. “Well, paid trip or your fee. When are we leaving?” So Erskine and I wind up in an elite hotel there, and I got to be a little careful cause I think we’re under an NDA and there are only 12 people in the room, and they are 12 of the oldest, richest, private families in Europe; France, UK, Germany.

Mike Murphy:

Barnes Heineken was sitting there, big, big names, Rothschild. We had a very polite discussion, but their question was yours with a little more of an exclamation point, which is, “What the hell is going on? Don’t you idiots understand?” There was a German that was very persuasive. “Our largest trading partner is Russia, we don’t like them, they’re next door. And you guys are the metronome clock of the Atlantic Alliance and now all we hear are clown shoes tapping around and baby gurgles, and this is really bad and you clowns get it.”

Mike Murphy:

Now, we of course got it, but it was hard to explain that we’d had this eruption and we would have a clown president for a while. Long answer, to get to the meat of it, we have damaged our alliances, we’ve emboldened our enemies. We’ve taught every dictator in the world that bad behavior can be rewarded. Hell, we went out and legitimize Kim Jong-il for no trade. I came up in the foreign policy world and rule number one is you want to get an American president eyeball to eyeball, you earn that with behavior.

Mike Murphy:

Instead just out of vanity and ego, this guy shows up to arguably the worst regime in modern history in terms of what it’s done to its own people. It made Stalin look like amateur night and there he is. So the next president is… It’s going to be interesting and I’m sure there will be grins in Canberra, in Bonn, in London, and Paris because there will be relief that there’d be somebody back to normal, but they’re also going to get a price.

Mike Murphy:

We’re going to be paying some taxes here, making up for the egregious behavior of this guy, and that’s the way the world works. So it has been really damaging, I think to our position in the world and there’s less security now. There’s more instability.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because during the Trump presidency in his first term, what are the words to look into U.S. leadership and saying, “Well, there’s still a role for U.S. leadership and a craving for traditional U.S. leadership?”

Mike Murphy:

Right, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so whether or not the Trump presidency is a reorientation of U.S. policy or whether or not it’s an aberration is going to be decided in November and it’s a critical question for the world.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah. It reminds me of it’s like a jet airliner and the pilots died, and the copilot died, and they’re going passenger to passenger to see if anybody has a pilot’s license before a thousand miles. And luckily there are some pilots on the plane, they’re just in the back row and it’s going to take them five months to find one.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a chilling metaphor, mate. Now, we’ve talked a little bit about it, but the question of trust, I want to talk about trust in politics. Because Trump in many ways is the consequence of low trust, but he’s also the destructor of trust. A lot of people will say, “Should we trust Trump?” One of the things that’s interesting when you look at some [inaudible 00:17:37] on coronavirus, about 20% of Americans trust that the president of the United States on information about the coronavirus, which is about half of Trump’s approval rating.

Misha Zelinsky:

So half of the people that approve of Trump don’t trust him on coronavirus, which is peculiar to say the least. But what is low trust more generally tell us about politics? And should it worry us? And do you think trust can be restored in politics more importantly? Because it is a critical ingredient in democracy.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah, that’s a great question because the glue of the democracy is some trust like that. I think it’s working at several levels. I think when Trump first got elected, one of the problems we have in our culture, and I ran Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign for governor California, the second biggest job here. And Arnold was the first classic example since maybe governor George Murphy, no relation, back in California who came out of Hollywood and then later Ronald Reagan.

Mike Murphy:

But Arnold was a pop culture celebrity who just made a huge audacious leap sideways into national politics. But I can tell you, Arnold is very shrewd and he knew that he had to build a machine to be ready to govern. Arnold on movie sets would spend all this time in his trailer hanging around with political policy nerds to learn the business. He took it very seriously. Trump was also a move and pop culture, but he didn’t take it seriously, nor did he build a bunch of strong staff relationships.

Mike Murphy:

I think one of the things in the culture that happened when Trump moved from pop culture was people had become so cynical through political doublespeak and Washington’s arrogance, the gilded city that’s never felt a recession that the stakes of politics became low enough that your vote was a joke. You saw in Italy, they’re voting for baggy pants comedians, you’ve seen this before in other places. Well, your vote did mean to say, “Oh, I’ll give it to that guy who’s going to drain the swamp.”

Mike Murphy:

There was a combination of antipathy for institutions. We have a middle class that’s been squeezed by flat real wages for a long time, so the American dream is not working for them. They’re working harder and getting less. Then you’ve got the financial engineering class, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, though they’re of course more innovative, but people at the top corporate America, particularly Wall Street who when they win, they make billions, when they lose, we bail them out.

Mike Murphy:

And so there’s all this anger, and so here comes a guy who’s credentialed outside of politics because he’s on TV for 10 years on prime time being… Even if all he’s doing is firing comedians for not selling enough cotton candy at some… Remember, it’s all product placement. The whole thing is rigged. It’s a TV ad, is a TV show for products, they paid to be there. But Trump was the in-charge guy.

Mike Murphy:

When you did the data and it was all art of the deal. He’ll get things done, he’ll shake it up. And the risk of Trump was not really in the calculation because people hadn’t had real, real, real 20th century pain in a while. We’ve had wars, but wars with a volunteer army, not a draft. We had the great recession in 2007, but we hadn’t had a lot of economic pain, not real economic pain since then.

Mike Murphy:

So it was easy to take a flyer on Trump and laugh and it’s all entertainment. And then corona came and all of a sudden the stakes shot up. A lot of our political class, he was like, “Well, the Mueller report, the this, the that. Why doesn’t anybody abandon him?” Blah, blah, blah. Well, two things were going on. One, people were abandoning him. Trump has had crappy poll numbers since a month after he got elected, so I’ve been short his reelection ever since then, but they’ve gotten worse.

Mike Murphy:

But this Washington stuff looks like another Washington food fight. The Republicans say this and that. And you go to a focus group, somebody will say, “Yeah, he got dirt from the Russians about Hillary, but you know Hillary, she would’ve gotten dirt from the Russians about him and she could have done it. They’re all the same. They’re all corrupt.” Blah, blah, blah. A sign of institutional weakness, which ought to worry us because we used to hold presidents to a standard, which would force them to act the standard.

Mike Murphy:

So now with the coronavirus, it’s in your life. Your plan’s closing, you’re in economic pain, real economic pain. Your brother-in-law’s restaurant may never open. Your 62-year old uncle has it and he’s on a ventilator in a hospital, even money chance to live are worse. So a real crisis came and all of a sudden it is like the movie, Premise where the actor who plays a cop suddenly has to solve a real case and it all falls apart. And that’s what’s happened to Trump, and Trump’s method is the lie.

Mike Murphy:

You saw the exaggeration and superlatives, greatest ever. Swallow a Christmas tree light, drink a little Clorox. It’s just ripped them to pieces. It’s funny, most leaders, and this has happened with the American governors in most places until recently during the first wave of the virus, their polling goes up because it’s a crisis, they’re standing there, are five guys in state trooper uniforms and doctor outfits, and they got a plan. People want authority when they’re scared, so they cling to it.

Mike Murphy:

Fauci, the chief doctor in our world who’s highly respected, his polling now, 80% he’s a national celebrity. Trump’s gone down significantly, even among as you say, his own people where he’s got real problems, a third of them are more not buying in because he’s been so bad in the spotlight and all he’s done is lie and they know. So this has been the final neck breaker for him politically, which is why right now, Joe Biden, who was far from a perfect super formidable candidate, as far as candidate skills, he’s sitting on the count of numbers that looked like Nixon in ’72 or Reagan in ’84.

Mike Murphy:

Joe is going to be damn hard for Trump to beat because Trump has dug himself in such a horrible hole and he doesn’t seem to have any of the tools to get himself out of it through being president. Now, maybe he’ll have the tools to run a campaign and vilifies Biden, that’s in his wheelhouse and his comfort level, but it’s hard to run against the government when you are the government.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I’m super keen to dig into the 2020 campaign and Biden versus Trump, but before we get to that, just want to round out this point on trust. You talked about the food fight in Washington, how much of a problem is this blue team, red team approach? And how critical is it to have friendships across the aisle or even just relationships across the aisle? And you’re famously very close with David Axelrod who was Obama’s chief strategists and your cohost on the great podcast, Hacks on Tap.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a fantastic podcast, my favorite podcast, everyone should listen. There’s a plug there for you, mate.

Mike Murphy:

Thank you.

Misha Zelinsky:

But how critical is that?

Mike Murphy:

Well, it is a problem. So the ugly little secret is, and this is true in the Congress too. It used to be more true, but it’s still true is behind the food fight, most of them are friends. They get along pretty well. You will see on our television two members of Congress who are in the leadership cast, the top 60 people, they’re fighting on TV, calling each other names, and then you’re be in the Capitol building and they’re both on an elevator talking about, “Hey, you’re going to the barbecue tomorrow? We got a thing for the national association of plastic molding.”

Mike Murphy:

What has happened is there’s nowhere left for them to hide, be friends and get anything done. Part of it is the way our system works, and our house of representatives, we have 435 congressional seats that are normally all quarter million or 200,000 voters, maybe 700,000 people, and they’re all over the country. And there used to be between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat about 80 seats, kind of there.

Mike Murphy:

And there were about 80 seats that were what we would call swing seats that could go either way, so they had to build a coalition beyond just Republicans or Democrats to win that seat. But then redistricting took over where State legislatures, and governors, it’s a complicated process, but they drew the seats to be safe. So all you care about are your party voters. So now we only have about 20 of those seats and there are only three people between the most liberal Republican, most conserved Democrats.

Mike Murphy:

So it becomes you’re on a team and you don’t have any room to move, and the incentives are to fight. And then you’ve got the cable TV business where we got a channel for every point of view saying, “You’re right, you’re right. They’re terrible.” There was a Congressman, was a minister in Philadelphia who coined a great phrase that I steal all the time, Bill Gray, who said, “The problem is the formula has now become, I’m right, you’re evil.”

Mike Murphy:

And if the other side is evil, you can say anything about them or do anything. You’re a hero, you’re killing the devil. So that corrosiveness has trapped everybody and a lot of them hate it, into this world where it’s all worrying about your primary voters. Because you might have 700,000 people in your district and 195,000 voters, but because it’s a mostly Republican district and you’re going to win 90% of the time, unless something really crazy happens, all you really care about is the 35,000 voters in the primary who are generally driven by interest groups. Same thing on the Democratic side.

Mike Murphy:

I remember California, big Democratic State, used to be a swing State. I was working for Schwarzenegger, we would do the big budget negotiation at the very end of the process. After all the fighting, we’d put everybody in a room, be the governor and the two legislative leaders, the big five, and the Republicans were in the minority. They’d sit there and wonder what was for lunch, and the speaker of the house, the Democratic speaker could not order lunch or move a chair without calling the head of the Teacher’s Union or the head of the State Employee Union.

Mike Murphy:

So Arnold used to say, “Throw him out, get her in.” Because they were so powerful in primaries, you couldn’t buck them. So that has taken the lubrication out of the gears and frozen everything. And it’s bad because we’re teaching people that politics doesn’t solve anything, which means they lose faith in the system, which means they elect drags, they just fight. So it’s a compounding thing that’s really trouble.

Mike Murphy:

I have got one more plugin. When I’m not doing what I normally do, I also spent a lot of time at University of Southern California, USC, the center for the political future with Bob Schrum, who like David Axelrod is a Democrat consultant that I spent a career fighting in campaigns, but we’ve been friends. He’s wrong on everything, he’s got a iHeart Lennon tattoo, but he’s a good guy and he’s a patriot. So you can be opponents but not enemies. That’s the way politics used to work.

Mike Murphy:

Axe and I have a joke, we have run more Iowa governor races against each other, and we would go back and forth. And even though we’re killing each other in the campaign, we’d sneak off and have dinner in some small rural place where nobody would see us. It’s like pro wrestling, I’m the Russian assassin, he’s Captain America, and actually were cousins. But it’s not quite that cynical because he… I’m a conservative and I believe it. One of the reasons I hate Trump is I don’t think he’s a conservative at all, and Axelrod’s a good committed liberal. So we know we disagree on stuff, but we love the system.

Mike Murphy:

Having those relationships too, if a campaign really goes out of whack, you can have a little back channel knowing there’s no mercy in it, but there are rules, and there can be a little back channel to try to keep the thing on the playing field, not out in the stands hurting civilians.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now I just want to turn attention to your side of the show, the Republican Party. You are a very, very prominent Never Trumper, but I want to talk about the future of the Republican Party. Trump was even an outsider. He undertook a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, but it’s very much now fashioned in his image, there is a resistance. But I want to pose it a question to because a lot of people focus on 2020.

Misha Zelinsky:

If Trump wins, is that the end of the Republican Party? And does it have a future if Trump wins the election? Because it is important that mainstream politics does have a mainstream-

Mike Murphy:

Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:

… conservative party.

Mike Murphy:

Well, that is a great question. So it was a takeover and we’ve gone from being a, I’ll use the Australian example, we’re a small-l liberal party. We believed in free trade, and we believed in the Atlantic Alliance, we were fiscal conservatives, we were classic. Then Trump takes over and all of a sudden it’s Juan Peron. He doesn’t care anything about the budget or entitlements, blows up all the alliances. Runs a racket near criminal behavior with Confederates and people like that as a soft spot for the white supremacist movement, which was long dead. And he just sprinkled a little gasoline on the embers, see what he can do there.

Mike Murphy:

And he’s ruined the Republican brand, and Republican politicians with a few notable exceptions. I’ll give a salute to my old friend and client, Mitt Romney. Pretty much gone cynical and looked the other way, thinking, well, we won, we have power and, or I’m afraid… One Senator told me, “Look, I see you on cable TV screaming about Trump.” This was two years ago. “I would love to do that. I go home, give a fiery speech, he’s a moron. I’ve seen him in the White House, he can’t work at TV remote. The aide has to come do it.

Mike Murphy:

He’s an idiot. And my wife would be so happy, she’d talked to me again. It would be fantastic. And I’d give that fiery speech back in my State. A day later, I’d have a guy in an uncle Sam suit with an aluminum foil hat primarying me, and I’d be only one point ahead, and I probably lose. Then some socialists would take over or some Democrat and I’ve been in the trenches 30 years fighting that and Trump wouldn’t change at all. Trump will just be Trump, so we’re going to wait him out.”

Mike Murphy:

And I said, “Well, what if 10 of you guys came forward?” And he said, “Sign me up. I’m number three, tell me who the first two are.” That has been the problem, but as you say, he’s ruined the brand, and I think if Trump loses, we’re going to have a big civil war over what we are. Do we go back to the liberal party conservatism? Or do we stay in this populous madness? Now, the argument for a reversion to some modernized mean is political parties don’t like losing, and under Trump we’ve been wiped out.

Mike Murphy:

American politics is such a big country, is full of a lot of bullshit because there’s room for commentators, and pollsters, and it’s endless TV show. Guilty, I’m part of it, but most of them haven’t really done campaigns. Like hardheaded businessmen, one thing we know from doing campaigns here on both sides, the operatives know is like Wall Street, we have a thing called mark-to-market. What is it worth today?

Mike Murphy:

You have to sell your factory this week, there’s a price you get. Not going to be maybe the best price or maybe that week it will be, but there’s what it’s worth now. You mark it to market, take an asset, what is it worth today in cash? Not what in 10 years it’ll be worth. Well, in politics, mark-to-market is election day, we count the votes and the polls don’t matter, the predictions don’t matter, it’s just what is.

Mike Murphy:

So when every mark-to-market moments since Trump took the oath of office after being elected, problem part he’s got beat, and we’ve gotten beat either really bad, medium bad, or mediocre. There are no big wins where we would have a special election and a safe Republican seat, and we’d win it by 10 instead of the normal 20. And swing seats would generally gotten our clock cleaned.

Mike Murphy:

We’ve had the biggest wipe out in the Congress since Watergate, we’ve lost nine governorships, and right now we’re on our way to lose in the Senate, which is a shocker because to do that we’re going to have to lose some lean Republican States, and right now the pollings a disaster. Maybe there’ll be a big come back as possible, but it’ll be hanging on by one seat if we do it. So Trump has been anthrax. We are drinking Clorox politically.

Mike Murphy:

When the party regroups after that, I think the biggest We’re going to get tired of winning guy in America” becomes the biggest loser, wiped out our political power. And our legislators are all moving into smaller office and nobody calls them Mr. Chairman anymore. We have had a… One of the stats people don’t look at is since Trump was elected, almost half the serving Republican members of Congress or the Senate have retired or been beaten and left.

Mike Murphy:

So out of that rubble, we either decide this is 1946 and we’re Toyota, and we’re going to need some new modern factories here. Or we go with Trump Jr, or Trump tries again, or a Trump imitator, which will have strength in the party. There are diehards who will… It’s a cult, but I think it’ll be a much more fair fight and Trump will have none of that or lower the big winner who’s going to do anything because there’s going to be very little left.

Mike Murphy:

So my guess is we will lurch in a more normal direction, but the other part of the story is we have to modernize conservatism simply because the demography is against us. It used to be in American politics, ’88, then down to ’82, 80% of the vote was Caucasian and the Republicans won a majority of that vote. This election, we’ll see if we can get to 71% Caucasian. My guess is it’ll be more like 70.

Mike Murphy:

So we’ve been standing still retreating among white voters. Well, nonwhite voters where we can’t get arrested, no surprise, look at the way we act, especially lately have been exploding in size. So we’re in a demographic vice, so we need to modernize conservatives. Now, the good thing is there’s a market. Thank God for the Democrats because the loony left is getting stronger and stronger on their side and over time there’ll be a fatigue there.

Mike Murphy:

And we will have an opportunity to offer quite an alternative, but it’s up to us to figure out what that alternative is going to be.

Misha Zelinsky:

So who are the people to keep an eye out for? Who are the likely leaders of the future in the Republican Party, good and bad?

Mike Murphy:

Well, there’s always a casino game of who’s who and it’s always wrong, but the next generation, I’ll start, there’s former governor, Nikki Haley of South Carolina. She was two term governor there. She was Trump UN ambassador. She escaped the chains of Trump, but she was Trumpy when she had to be. I think she’s the most cynical person I’ve ever dealt with in American politics. So she’s very formidable, but I’d love to sprinkle a little holy water on her and see what happens.

Mike Murphy:

I’m not a big fan because I’ve dealt with her, but she is definitely a contender and again, she’ll make a deal with anybody to get the job. So you got to look at her. And she has been a droid at being right with Trump when it was in her interest and who Trump, huh? Lately. That cynicism may catch up with her, but she is formidable. Then in the Senate, you got a couple of junior Trumps, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton.

Mike Murphy:

Tom’s a veteran, does the veteran hero, Trumpian thing. I appreciated his service but as politics were demagogic, but hey, there’s some evidence to show there’s a ticket there. Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida is always humming hail to the chief. We’ll see, he ran before. Ben Sasse is a thoughtful conservative. He’s been gutless on Trump, but his other stuff has been very good from Nebraska. Doesn’t have a huge base, but attractive candidate. The Trump sons, particularly Don Jr. He’s openly talking about it, yeah.

Mike Murphy:

One of the problems is, this happened in Hollywood after Arnold got elected. Arnold was funny, a California governor is enough of a big figure. You have security issues, particularly of a super movie star like him. He’d run around Sacramento in a suburban with a chase car, but whenever Arnold was in Hollywood, he’d have them put on the full package two suburban sirens and motorcycle, it was ridiculous just to show his friends.

Mike Murphy:

And next thing you know, Rob Brian is thinking about running for governor, Rob Lowe, it caught on. Well, with Trump, every idiot with yacht is thinking, hey, can be me. So we can have a couple of those guys. And then the latest D.C. bubble, and again, I’ve been around this too long and most of the people, American TV pitches about politics never run a campaign. So I’m a little cynical about the conventional wisdom, but Tucker Carlson, who probably…

Mike Murphy:

I don’t know if he means anything over there, but he’s… Yeah, yeah. You’d know about him, but he’s very glib. He’s a big star on Fox. Old friend of mine before he went crazy. He used to be a respected journalist, but he’s the sharp acid tongue, but clever trumping guy in TV, so there’s a boom right now for Tucker. I think he would never make it and my guess is, he’s making too much money being a TV blowhard, but he’s being mentioned right now.

Mike Murphy:

I would tell my friends in Australia to tune in. I can finally admit it, I used to do a lot of work in Canada. They didn’t talk about it at the time and it was always fun with my Canadian friends. There’s probably a parallel kind of a Commonwealth thing with Australia, but the Canadians would always say, “Well, I’m a federal toy. I’m a provincial social credit voter and I’m an American Democrat.” Because they’d see so much of it, they’d adopt a party to root for it.

Mike Murphy:

So I would say if you like the theater of the absurd and it may… I think it may get better and become hopeful. And if Trump loses as he is likely, but not certain to keep an eye on the Republican primary because there’ll be no end of entertainment.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it certainly sounds like good theater, if nothing else. Of course, so for there to be a Republican primary, there’s got to be firstly, a Democratic victory, a Biden presidency. Biden at the moment, you look at the polling, he’s well ahead on national polls, double digit, leads in most national polls, he’s got good single digit leads in all the critical swing States.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re a strategist, you’re running Biden’s campaign, what’s keeping you up at night right now if you are in charge of that campaign?

Mike Murphy:

That nobody knows Joe Biden. It’s one of these things where they’re way ahead of their supply lines in the polling, and what I mean by that is that the country wants to fire Donald Trump. I’d argued they wanted that since 2017, which is why the Republican Party has taken a beating on every mark-to-market day of elections. Almost everywhere, almost all the time, almost always really bad. So fire Trump is what’s winning the election now, and that’s not uncommon. Generally our presidential elections are a referendum on the incumbent, keep him or lose him.

Mike Murphy:

But at some point in the campaign, they take a look at the challenger. Now, because the coronavirus, Joe’s been locked in his basement doing a few good things, but to political junkies, Biden is well known, has been around forever. To rank and file voters, they don’t know much about them at all other than old guy from D.C. who seems blue collar and seems like a good guy to have a beer with. They don’t know anything else.

Mike Murphy:

The Trump campaign is going to have a couple of hundred million to do what incumbents in trouble always do, which is beat the hell out of him, and that’s coming. And there’s been a lot of worry that the Biden fundraising operation has been anemic. His campaign started with a small staff, can he handle that? Well, the last two months he’s raised more money than Donald Trump, which is a very good sign. So the Biden folks are catching up fast.

Mike Murphy:

But Joe, I know him, I like him. I ideologically, I was for Buttigieg because I know him and I think he… And again, I’m a conservative, so yeah, yeah. All of this is painful for me because I’m probably seeing I’m not with many of them, but I want to get rid of Trump. I’m actually-

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, how much were you freaking out about Bernie Sanders who’s in the lead going to South Carolina and looked like he might win at one point?

Mike Murphy:

Oh God, my worst nightmare come to life. It’s unbelievable. I was on the phone trying to see if we can get a Neil Kinnock look alike to come over in primary. It’d be inch better. So I’m part of Republican voters against Trump, rvat.org if you’re curious and we’re running a big aggressive campaign. So as I like to say, I’m not buying Democrat, I’m leasing for four years to get rid of Trump.

Mike Murphy:

Here’s the Biden problem. Lets look at him, just like a product. So there’s the Iowa caucus. Now it’s a weird election, small turnout, Iowa, but it’s important and it’s the first test. Well, Biden starts 20 points ahead and he gets there because he’s known in the Democratic Party, liked, and all of a sudden there’s competition. So good soybean farmer in Iowa gets to start with Biden, but then, hey, there’s this Buttigieg guy. He’s really impressive.

Mike Murphy:

Wow, I like this Cory Booker, I like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a just North of here. And all of a sudden in a competitive market, Biden gets wiped out when people have other choices. And so then he goes to New Hampshire and he gets wiped out again. Well, bad sign. Then he gets to South Carolina, the first contest with a large African American population influential in it, which is true in the Southern Democratic primaries, and because of his connection to Obama, and because of earned affection in that community, and because the most powerful leader in the community was all for him, he wins.

Mike Murphy:

So he’s the turtle upon the fence post. He did not climb up there himself. Now, they then surf forward and beat everybody and came back from the dead, so I give him a big salute. But what that’s telling me is Biden is not a magic candidate, he needs that help. And right now what’s helping him is fire Trump, which I doubt will change. But Biden’s going to go through some bumpy times if they can manage that, particularly the big debates.

Mike Murphy:

Because the Trump campaign slogan has been, Biden’s a sleepy, crazy old man, and Biden’s had some bad moments on the trail. Part of it is Biden is a motor mouth and he gets tangled up and everything. I think Biden is smarter and sharper than Trump by a mile, but perception is reality of judicious editing, you get these moments. So Trump’s going to build that up, and if Biden has a sharp debate, it’ll be destroyed, it will be over.

Mike Murphy:

But if Biden has a bad debate because Joe was too busy calling other old politicians around the country and not going through grilling debate prep for the next five months, and doesn’t take it seriously. And in the past, Joe has not been a very disciplined campaigner. So if Joe can’t get into shape here, he will give Trump an opening.

Mike Murphy:

Now, my guess is, the country will still fire Trump, but let’s remember the Obama example. Obama had bad reelect numbers, not as bad as Trump but bad, and so they went out and they defined my friend Mitt Romney a lot better than Mitt defined himself, and they beat him. And it will be the same strategy for Trump with more ferocity.

Mike Murphy:

The other thing I worry about, and I’m not sending any angry emails to David Axelrod at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, dear listeners, but I’m a hardheaded politician, so I’m talking about the numbers. I worry a little, the Democrats have a fetish for identity. You go to the DNC website… See what we Republicans do and drives them crazy, but we try to pitch one big idea of room for everybody, Make America Great Again, which was originally a Reagan slogan, Shining City on a Hill.

Mike Murphy:

And so we tend to have one big vision whether you like it or not for where we’re going and put everybody in it. The Democrats tend to say, “New Englanders for Biden.” I have a yard sign in my basement where we record the podcast. I collect a lot of this political stuff over the years and I’ve got a native Americans for Al Gore yard sign of a big feather at it.

Mike Murphy:

Now, I have nothing against feathers, I have nothing against… In fact, I’m a fan of native American culture, but you go to the DMC page and it’s African Americans for Biden, Asian Americans… It’s 400 groups. And right now the theory in the conventional wisdom is African American voters are so important. We have to have an African American running mate because we’ve had this moment of awakening about systemic racism.

Mike Murphy:

And I agree with everything, but the African American running mate, why? Because the African American vote is the one thing Biden has. He has tons of it. And what he’s got to worry about are cranky white people who are suspicious of identity politics, and if there’s a racial undercurrent there, I would like to fix it after the election, after you get their damn votes and you have power.

Mike Murphy:

And if we nominate a Kamala Harris or something else to reinforce a vote you already have, you give Trump an opening. And Trump is a racist and a runner racist campaign. So going to the liberal African American left is scary to me. It adds risk to the Biden campaign and I don’t want risk. I want Trump in a box going out of the box of his papers being shoved out of the office. So they have to be careful about that.

Mike Murphy:

The theory is, oh, if you don’t do it, everybody will stay home. Nobody is going to stay home against Trump. Biden has respect in that community. They know his administration will be strongly of color. But pandering to… You see, one of the problems we have American politics now, and the media is bought into this is this narrative that your base voters are swing voters.

Mike Murphy:

No, base voters will vote for a box of horseshoes if it has an R or D on it, but you’ve got to win the election by making your base slightly uncomfortable and reaching out a little bit. And if the Biden people run an all base strategy, then we’re going to be debating Kamala Harris positions like cash reparations for former slaves, which I can tell you in the industrial suburbs where Trump rang the bell in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan is going to be much better for Trump than it is for Biden. So I don’t want to give Trump any of those tools. So I worry about the VP pick.

Mike Murphy:

Nobody in American politics votes for VP. It’s just a big Superbowl for the press, big contest where the voters learned something about the candidate for president based on who he or she picks. This whole election will come down to the suburbs. The Republicans under Trump have lost the suburbs, college educated white women, college educated white independents and males, and if Biden goes hard left or goes too racial, the suburbs are going to start going back to the safety of the GOP.

Mike Murphy:

So my advice to Biden and all these things about winning is take the risk out of it. Pick an Amy Klobuchar, though she took herself out, pick a Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island. Best democratic governor in the country. Pick a Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, key State, popular, smart, generational change. Pick governor Lujan even in of New Mexico. She’s impressive. But careful, careful, careful, careful with the identity stuff because their best skill is pulling the Democrats who are run by a coastal elite into culture wars.

Mike Murphy:

And in the Midwest, the Dems have lost. Whitmer knows what to do in Michigan, but they’ve lost the ability to really understand a Republican culture war attack. Look at Hillary, I know people in Michigan, well, I grew up around Detroit who on weekends, they’d come up in the auto industry, were making good money as trained machinists, the high skilled blue collar jobs. On weekends are being paid cash to dissemble 40 ton stamping presses and put them on freight cars to Mexico.

Mike Murphy:

And most of them are Democrats and they are listening to Hillary Clinton talk about gender rights and bathrooms. Now gender rights and bathroom are important, but if you’re a 52-year old auto worker who’s never going to learn how to code and you’re watching the machine your dad worked at and it gave you a middle class life being taken down into parts and putting on a freight car to Mexico, you got other problems.

Mike Murphy:

The Democrat, they don’t need to win that vote, but they need to be competitive there, and I’m worried their identity fetish, sorry, for the long answer, will steer them into a place where Trump will have a good September. That said, I think Joe wins. If I had to bet, I bet on Joe definitely.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, personally, I have a rule to never bet on elections ever again after the 2016 presidential election. Those who know me will understand why. I just want to switch gears a little. We’ve talked a lot about the current presidency, the upcoming election, talk about some previous elections and candidates you worked for and a little bit of politics in the pub, a bit of Ali versus Tyson.

Misha Zelinsky:

We talked about Schwarzenegger, but you worked for John McCain who’s a legendary Republican Senator, presidential candidate. The 2000 campaign that he lost to George Bush, do you think the Republican Party, do you think the world would have been different had McCain won that one?

Mike Murphy:

Oh sure. Yeah. We’ve got hacks at the pub here. I like it. Number one beer in Australia, Fosters?

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, definitely not a Fosters. It’s actually an export beer. Nobody in Australia drinks Fosters, believe it or not.

Mike Murphy:

What’s the best one? What do I order when I’m there?

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s go with the VB, mate.

Mike Murphy:

I see the advertising. That’s why I asked you. I didn’t want to go with the line, “Hand me a Fosters.” Got that. I’ll bet I’ll be wrong.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah. Well, if John had won the nomination, I worked a lot in 2000 with him. He was an amazing character, I’m very fond of him. We had an incredible time because it was a pure insurgency. We got to sneak around, blowing up bridges and everything. Then if they had called our bluff and actually made us the nominee, it would have been a bumpy general election candidate because McCain was always ready to get into a good fight with a third of his own party.

Mike Murphy:

But had we won, I think McCain would have been a great reformer in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition and it would have reclocked things a bit. It would have been bumpy, but it would have been, let’s put, I’m from Los Angeles, I also worked in show business, a writer and producer, and there’s a great old line about Jack Warner who built Warner brothers studio with his brother. And Jack was a very crusty guy.

Mike Murphy:

Albert Einstein once came to the studio and he said, “Hey Jack, this is Professor Einstein. He wrote the theory of relativity in Oregon city.” Warner said, “I got a theory too about relatives, don’t go into business with them.” Because he was always fighting his brother. But anyway, they asked him how hard it was to run a big movie studio in the golden age and he said, “Well, you got to make a choice. I don’t get heart attacks, I give them.”

Mike Murphy:

And McCain would have given a lot of heart attacks. He would have been on offense all the time. And I think he would have been a great president. I think he really would have. Then we would have had the bad second term probably and wouldn’t have been as good. But I think the party had become so corrupted by just keeping the perpetual power machine in D.C. And this stunned me, I thought most of the hacks would go wrong, but I know a lot of these Senators, I’ve worked for a bunch of them and Congressmen.

Mike Murphy:

I thought there’d be more pushback, and as you said, other than the Russian stuff, sanctions, a few things like that, occasionally China and a lot of eye rolling at the North Korea policy, there hasn’t been, they’ve been gutless. It’s funny, they get a federal paycheck, but it’s not like we’re asking them to land on Anzio Beach and get shot. We’re just asking them to give up Senate haircuts for two bucks if they lose a primary.

Mike Murphy:

But apparently, and that shook me. And my guess is the Democrats have so tested might be just as bad. It’s been very easy to be a Democrat because you get a free halo from Trump and you can say, “Oh, he’s horrible. He’s horrible.” And it’s not morally equivalent, but when Clinton was misbehaving in the White House and lying to the camera about it, all the strong feminist of the Democratic Party found comfort in silence.

Mike Murphy:

So it has scared me about the fines and patriotism of the kind of people we elect to Congress because I’m proud the Democrats have been tough on Trump, but it’s been easy. There’s no cost in it for them, it’s a winner.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, Mike, I could of course go on all day picking your brain on these topics, but it’s time for the [inaudible 00:53:40] fun part of the show where I do my trademark clunky segue from heavy foreign policy to talk to light chat. Now, of course, you’re an avid fan of Diplomates, so you know these questions coming your way, Mike.

Mike Murphy:

I have it on my subscription list, so I promise you, I will.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you’ve got to listen to this episode at least, mate. So that’s great because there’ll be two listeners, you and my mind. So barbecue at Mike Murphy’s, who are the three Aussies coming along and why?

Mike Murphy:

Oh, well, I’d love to meet an Australian prime minister, Mr. Morrison of the Liberal Party, would be interesting. And I’m also curious about all the nutty intrigue and all that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh you mean the [KU capital 00:54:25]?

Mike Murphy:

Yeah, yeah. No, no. It’s Game of Thrones down there, so I’m curious about that. Maybe I’d also invite opponent and watch them circle each other, but I want it to be a fun barbecue. I would call my wonderful friend of mine, we did for years named [Judof 00:54:42], who’s from Melbourne, grew up there. Not there now, she’s in New York, but she used to tell me great stories about various characters, so I give her one person to pick because I’ve heard all the names, but I’m going to get it wrong right now.

Mike Murphy:

I would probably do that, and boy, Australia in so many ways punches way above its weight and there are some tremendous film directors and actors that have come out of there. And based on my Hollywood life, I’d drag Sam Neill in, or maybe Hines, or one of the great Australian artists. There’s a lot. It would be a tough call, but probably somebody Judof would recommend to amaze me of her knowledge. Morrison or even a former prime minister, but somebody from the Liberal Part on right just because I’m curious about all the madness.

Mike Murphy:

And one of your leading film people, probably… We’ll start with Sam Neill just because he’s a truly great actor and he’s had an amazing career than any other stars.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m laughing Mike because you’ve stumbled into one of the great Australian ripoffs, which is that anyone who becomes famous from New Zealand globally immediately become stolen as an Australian citizen. So Sam Neill, believe it or not, is actually Kiwi, so you’ve gone and made unwittingly a host of enemies in New Zealand and I’ve got a huge following the on this show in New Zealand. So there you go, mate, enemies for life all over the shaky isles.

Mike Murphy:

You guys should just invade and solve that thing. I understand they don’t have an army, it wouldn’t take long. I don’t know how many Americans, they probably always say Paul Hogan, and I was definitely not going to go there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Crocodile Dundee obviously, mate-

Mike Murphy:

Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:

… or another Kiwi, Russell Crowe.

Mike Murphy:

Oh, I didn’t know that. I bumped into him once. I bumped into this guy and he turned around and I thought one, sorry… And he was nice. Sorry for bumping in and two, well, you’re not 6/4 like our movie stars. It was at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, long story. But anyway, Crowe would be… Guy Pearce is a tremendous actor. He would be high on my list. There’s an Australian television show I love where he’s a down and out lawyer detective.

Mike Murphy:

It airs here like two years later and it’s perfectly made, and it’s a great cast of Australian character actors. Use box office. Well, can I wrap up with a few plugs here real quick?

Mike Murphy:

Republican voters against Trump, we are doing a lot of cool vicious anti-Trump ads and stuff, so you got to check us out at our rvat, R-V-A-T.org. One of the things we’re doing is we’re having real Republicans just get online and do an ad into the camera. Very grassroots, we’ve done over 350 of them, and then we air them digitally in the key five States. And we got big news coming.

Mike Murphy:

In fact, appreciate this as a poll. We just did a dirty trick. We took a poll of Jacksonville, Florida, Duvall County, lean Republican, but an important County where Trump wants to have the convention. We found out they don’t want it. They don’t want to COVID convention. So we’re throwing a lot of bombs there, and if you’re curious about what’s going on in Republican civil war, they’re a good place to go.

Mike Murphy:

And then of course, Hacks on Tap and Radio Free GOP. We just did a special episode with Bill Kristol and a bunch of the other leaders of RVAT talking about our strategy. So when you listen to every Diplomate podcast twice, and after you’ve memorized it, and you want another one, check out one of those and hopefully you enjoy it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Of course, mate, I love Hacks on Tap and I encourage everyone to listen in, it’s fantastic show. And check out Radio GOP. There you go, I’m the Republican ads, mate. Just one supplementary question, if I could just.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah, of course.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked a bit about Never Trumping, what should people be doing if they are Republican in this election? Should they be voting for Biden? Should they stay at home? Should they split their ticket? What would you say to those people in this election?

Mike Murphy:

My argument is vote Biden. He’s not that bad, that’s my powerful slogan. I got to stop Trump, so participate but vote Biden. If he can’t stand that, participate, but skip, just don’t vote in the presidential. Or write in Ronald Reagan, nothing wrong with that. Write in John McCain. Write in Mitt Romney, write in whoever you believe in. So vote for president you want not the one you endure.

Mike Murphy:

But I encourage people to vote and down the ticket I’m really… This is the big fight in the Never Trump movement. Should we throw out the Republican Senate in-house to punish them for what they’ve done with Trump or is it still okay to vote for a gutless Republican Senator? And I’m really torn on this. I’m leaning toward, it’s still okay to vote for a gutless Republican Senator. I have a complicated argument which I’ll try to do very quickly.

Mike Murphy:

Biden’s big superpower in the Senate was he was the only guy on the Democratic side who could make a deal through Republicans because they trust him. He could go into a room with Mitch McConnell and they’d have a hell of a battle, but they respect each other, he’d come out with something. If the Democrats win the Senate, and the house, and the Biden presidency, Joe’s going to find himself boxed in by the left and Joe’s center is Democrat.

Mike Murphy:

And he’s going to be a little less powerful and ideologically a little more in the corner than he’s going to want to be, yet the Republicans still hold onto the Senate by a vote and have the majority there, and the Democrats have the house, which they will have. Then Biden’s got something to work with. He’s got a little counterforce where you can say, “I’m the only guy who can get this out of McConnell. I’m not going to be able to get your AOC agenda from the hard left, but I can get this, that, and the other thing I’ll trade them for that.”

Mike Murphy:

And the Republicans on the other hand will be hanging on by one vote and terrified and ready to deal. So there’s from Biden’s personal point of view, having a narrow one vote Senate lead, Biden’s got more power to operate. And ideologically would be a more centrist outcome than totally turning over the world to the Ds, where the Republicans in the Senate will just go into flame throwing opposition mode like a bunch of house guys.

Mike Murphy:

Will make the job of rebuilding the party harder too. So I’m for the one vote edge in the Senate, as mad as I am at him and I’m still working that through. So whatever it is, I tell everybody to vote. Don’t stay home, it a democracy. Do your duty.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do your duty, what a hopeful place in this conversation. Mike Murphy, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been fantastic.

Mike Murphy:

Thank you, Misha. Anytime. Take care. Let me know if you’re ever in the U.S.

Misha Zelinsky:

Hopefully not too far away. Cheers, mate. Take care.

Mike Murphy:

See you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Hey, everyone, before you go, a little bit of homework. Mike mentioned Hacks on Tap quite a bit. It’s fantastic podcast, so I encourage you to jump on, listen, subscribe. It’s one of the best U.S. and general political podcasts going around with some legendary and political analysts on there. And as ever, if you did enjoy the episode, jump on iTunes or your podcasting app, rate, review, and subscribe to the show, it helps get the word out there.

Misha Zelinsky:

I hope you’ve enjoyed the episode and see you next time.

Speaker 2:

You were just listening to Diplomates – A Geopolitical Chinwag. For more episodes, visit www.diplomates.show. Or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or through any of your favorite podcast channels.

Speaker 1:

This podcast is brought to you by Minimal Productions, Producer Jim Mintz.

 

Bonus Content: Kristina Keneally and Misha Zelinsky talk COVID-19, immigration and trade policy as panel guests

Bonus Content: Senator Kristina Keneally and Misha Zelinsky in panel discussion on COVID-19, immigration and trade policy.
 
This is a special content episode!
 
Senator Kristina Keneally is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration and Citizenship. Senator Keneally is Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate and also served as the first female premier of NSW.
 
Misha Zelinsky and Senator Keneally appeared as guests on a NSW Young Labor panel session discussing the future of immigration and trade in a post COVID-19 world.
 
This is a recording of that live panel session.
 
Senator Keneally gives some fascinating insights into the economic and migration challenges facing Australia, discusses the shocking fact that Australia has the second largest guest worker program in the OECD, tells us why Australia should always be a nation of permanent and generous migration and explains how COVID-19 gives us a chance for a policy reset.
 
Misha talks about the sovereign capability challenge facing the world and why Australia can no longer rely on just-in-time supply changes to deliver the things it needs when it needs them.
 
We apologise in advance for the BBQ question making its way into the program; don’t blame us!
 
Enjoy!
 
(We hope to have Senator Keneally on soon as a guest!)

 

TRANSCRIPT OF PANEL

Brandon Hale:

I’d like to firstly acknowledge that we’re meeting on the lands of the First Nations people and want to acknowledge any First Nations people emerging. So tonight, we’re joined by Kristina Keneally, the senator for New South Wales who is also the shadow home affairs minister, and was of course a former premiere of New South Wales. We’re also joined by Misha Zelinsky, who’s the assistant secretary of the Australian Workers Union, who also runs a podcast called Diplomates, which is a foreign policy podcast.

Brandon Hale:

Tonight, we’re going to be talking about immigration and trade policy. Kristina will be focusing on any questions about immigration policy and Misha will be focusing on any trade policy. So I’d like to just begin by just asking Senator Keneally how she thinks COVID-19 can change immigration policy first in Australia for the foreseeable future.

Kristina Keneally ::

Thanks, Brandon. Thanks everyone for being here. Thanks, Misha, as well, for joining the conversation. Clearly, COVID-19 is having a massive impact on immigration and migration, and that starts with the fact that the borders are closed. They’ve been closed now for almost two months. They look likely to remain closed for the next 12 months. There may be some small changes in that in certain ways to allow people in safely, if it’s safe to do so, but if you look at what is happening in the United States, in Indonesia, in India, in China, in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, in Western Europe, you only need to realize that Australia’s relative success in flattening the curve would be undone if we were to reopen the borders to the type of free movement, relatively free movement, of people that we had prior to COVID-19.

Kristina Keneally :

Now, this stoppage of migration means that at some point over the next 12 months, most likely, and we’re not entirely sure when yet, we will as a country do something we have never done before, which is restart a migration program from a standing stop. That gives us an opportunity right now to be asking, what kind of migration program do we want that to be? This is, I believe, an opportunity for the country to take stock of what’s been happening in the migration program for the past two decades and for us as a political movement, particularly one that is concerned about not only a progressive future for our country, but also the rights and conditions of working people, of all working people.

Kristina Keneally ::

This is an opportunity for us to argue, to reset a migration program, international interest, and when I say that, I mean in the interest of working people, in the interest of social cohesion, in the interest of economic growth, in the interest of the budget bottom line. Now, let me be clear. We are a country built on migration. You only need to think about the story of Australia, particularly since the war, since post-war Australia, were we have seen successive waves of migrants come here from every corner of the Earth, settle permanently, and build this country. Raise their families, build the infrastructure. Think of the Snowy Hydro scheme. Start small businesses, send their children to school, join their local churches, political parties, community groups, and become part of the fabric of this nation, which makes us the most successful multicultural nation on Earth.

Kristina Keneally ::

All of us, no matter how long or short ago, our ancestors came here. Unless we are First Australians, unless we are aboriginal or Torres Strait islander, we are all part of that immigrant story to this country. I also acknowledge that Australians celebrate that Australians are enthusiastic welcomers of new migrants, and I myself experienced that in the sense that I came here in 1994 as a permanent resident, as a migrant. We know that our national benefits when people come here and are able to join in, make that contribution, and become part of the story of Australia and have a stake in its future.

Kristina Keneally ::

Now, what this COVID-19 stoppage gives us a chance to examine in detail is really a case portfolio. Our full unifying idea, a nation built by migration, where people come here, settle down, and become part of the Australian community, is an idea that risks becoming nostalgia rather than our ongoing reality, and that is because since John Howard, we have seen a shift in our migration program, away from that pathway to permanency. And successive governments, including labor governments, but I really have to acknowledge that it’s been under liberal governments that these settings have been ramped up, we have seen the pathways to permanency narrow. We have seen temporary migration expand. We saw it come to almost its logical and perhaps almost absurd conclusion under Scott Morrison last year when he said he was capping permanent migration at 160,000 people per year.

Kristina Keneally ::

This was a congestion-busting measure. But yet he has allowed temporary migration to continue uncapped and be demand-driven, which means that really, the government towards migration policies, they’re not determining who comes to this country and the manner in which they come, to borrow a famous phrase. What we are really seeing is businesses, universities, state governments, and other forms of employers make that decision about who they’re going to allow into the country, and we are also seeing an expansion, a real significant expansion, of schemes like the Working Holiday Maker Program and the Seasonal Worker Program, and of course, international students and the work rights that they have.

Kristina Keneally ::

Now, all of these things might be useful, and there is a role for temporary migration in certain places and in certain contexts, things like seasonal work, fruit picking, where it is hard sometimes, quite often, to get Australians to take on a seasonal role in a regional area. There might be reasons, say, in cyber security, where we need a lot more people qualified in that area and we can train up quickly. And so temporary migration, skilled or unskilled, has a role to play in our economy and it always will. But, we are now, our island home, is now home to the second largest temporary… Excuse me, the second largest migrant workforce in the world, sorry, in the OECD, I apologize, behind the United States. So we’re the second largest migrant workforce in the OECD. We are right behind the United States.

Kristina Keneally ::

One of the largest groups within that is, of course, international students. There are over 600,000 young people from around the globe that come to study in Australia. The majority of those are in New South Wales, and what have we heard over the past few years? Example after example of wage theft and exploitation. We should remember that, the first serious case of wage theft that really brought this problem into prominence was 7-Eleven, did involve migrant workers, international students, temporary visa holders. What we know from the multiple consultations, reports that have been tabled in Parliament and the like, is that the temporary nature of these workers’ visa adds to their vulnerability, makes them vulnerable to exploitation, and creates the conditions whereby employers use that temporary status to drive down wages and to take advantage of their circumstances.

Kristina Keneally ::

While many of you may not think that this impacts you directly, although I acknowledge there may well be people on this Zoom meeting who are themselves international students, but many of you will be students or you will be of just left training or skills training or university, and I want to remind you that the treatment of younger workers has an impact on all workers. That is, if we are seeing, and we are seeing, exploitation occur, particularly amongst temporary visa holders, and quite serious as well, that starts to take hold across the economy and across employment. So when we have things like wages being undercut, people being told they have to work for cash in hand from below [award 00:10:46] rates, it is harder for every other young person in particular to get a good, well-paying, and secure job when that becomes the economic model.

Kristina Keneally ::

I would argue that in the name of lower wages and cheap labor, the government is risking a new and damaging form of social exclusion. We only need to look at COVID and the response to that to see how excluded these temporary visa holders are. The government has absolutely refused, and again today, in the COVID-centered hearing, the minister for finance, Mathias Cormann, made clear the government has absolutely no intention to provide any form of support to temporary visa holders who are trapped here during this pandemic. His only argument was, “If they can’t support themselves through a job, they should go home.” Never minding that some of them, their borders will be closed. Some of them can’t actually physically get a flight, and some of them will be on a path to permanency, not many, but some will, and that would mean they would actually have to forfeit that path to permanency.

Kristina Keneally ::

My concern has always been that we risk becoming a two-tiered society, where we have Australian citizens and permanent residents who are able to access rights, to assert their rights at work, to access services, to access support, and then we have another group of workers, guest workers, temporary migrant workers, who are locked out, locked out of those same rights, locked out of those same services, and locked out of having a stake in the future of our country. When we have a crisis like bushfires and again with COVID-19, we have seen how temporary migrant holders have been disproportionately impacted, and we talk about we’re all in this together, well, a virus doesn’t check your visa status before it infects you.

Kristina Keneally ::

We are not all in this together if we have some one million workers who live in Australia who are unable to access support and services during this time. No less than Peter Costello said back during his time in office that Australia will never become a guest worker nation. I’ve got news for Mr. Costello and the liberals, that is precisely what we are turning our country into, and I’ll end on this point. I think in this period, while the borders are closed, this is an opportunity for us to look at a range of policy settings, whether we have truly independent labor market testing, whether we are truly providing a pathway to skills and training for Australians to be able to work in these jobs.

Kristina Keneally ::

Workers don’t just pick fruit. One in five chefs, one in four cooks, one in six hospitality workers, one in 10 nursing and personal care support workers hold a temporary visa. Now, if the borders are going to be closed and we are going to have workforce shortages as the domestic economy reopens, this is the time to be saying, “How do we scale Australians up? How do we fill those skill shortages?” And do look at our skills and training systems so that we can provide pathways to employment, to good jobs, secure jobs, for Australians. But we should also think about when we reopen up migration, what do we want it to look like?

Kristina Keneally ::

I would argue that we would want it to provide more pathways to permanency, to encourage more higher skilled, younger workers to come here, settle permanently, establish families. They have the least impact on the budget, they have the greatest contributor to economic growth, they grow jobs and opportunity, and they help us build up again, that sense of a holistic society where we all have a contribution, we all have a go, we all get a fair go. I will end on that point. There’s a whole range of other things I could talk about in terms of some of the industrial relations policy settings that would help us drive down exploitation and particularly wage theft, but I will end on that point. I’m mindful there will be questions, and I know that Misha has things to say as well. So I’ll stop there, Brandon, but hopefully that gives people good context in terms of how I’m thinking and we here in Canberra in the federal opposition are thinking about these questions.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much, Kristina. I’ll pass onto Misha now. So Misha, how will COVID-19 change trade policy in Australia for the foreseeable future?

Misha Zelinsky ::

Well, I think what COVID-19 has done is shown how interconnected the world is. Clearly, trade is important, has always been important for Australia, and will always be important for Australia. Australia’s as a trading nation is a cliché. But trade is critical to our standard of living. But there’s probably four things that I think that are important when you think about the impacts in respect to trade policy and what’s happened with COVID-19. The first one I think is that it’s shown up the danger or how fraught these free nation states have been relied on just in terms of supply chains. So essentially, you can’t run a nation state like it’s a local service station. You can’t just have things turn up in the morning and be dropped off. It’s a far more complex enterprise than that.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Fundamentally, the basic principle of economic sovereignty and your basic expectation of citizens is that the country can produce the things and deliver the things it needs when we need them. The one that everyone’s focused on in this instance has been personal protective equipment, PPE. It just so happens that when the virus broke out in Wuhan, Wuhan’s essentially the world’s factory, so 90% of face masks are made in Wuhan, which is probably suboptimal when you need to have masks urgently for everyone around the world when you’re dealing with a respiratory illness. The other issue, and again, it was particular to this supply chain relating to health, but the number two place after Wuhan when it comes to ventilator manufacture is actually Northern Italy.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Now, it’s kind of peculiar that it happened that way, but it’s just very interesting that suddenly, you can very quickly find yourself not having the things you need when you need them. I think it’s something that’s been a real wake up call for Australians, and we actually commissioned some polling the other day, we literally asked that question, “Has COVID-19 been a wake up call for you as an Australian about Australia’s reliance on global supply chains?” And 90% of people responded yes to that, either strongly agree or agree. I think that principle, relying purely on just in time supply chains, I think is a critical change and one that we’ll see us have to make some serious decision about how we’re managing our supply chains.

Misha Zelinsky ::

PPE on this occasion, but with fuel security, for example. Australia only has 28 days of fuel. The 90 days is what the International Energy Agency mandates to have in storage. We have 28 maybe. In certain types of fuel, it’s as low as 18 days. Without fuel, you essentially can’t feed yourself, you can’t transport yourself, you can’t defend yourself. Again, on this occasion, it was health, but on other occasions, there are, and you can talk to experts in this area, but wouldn’t take much to think about the disruption that you would get throughout our fuel supply chain to very quickly Australia would be out of fuel and in dire straits really is the truth of the matter. It’s something that we need to urgently look at, but there are a whole host of other areas.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Which kind of brings me to the next point, which is that supply chains are sovereign, and what I mean by that is, look, economists talk about supply chains in high level manners over there, this kind of thing that exists above nation states. Ultimately, they are still controlled by nation states, not by corporations. And so countries make rational decisions, they make rational decisions in their own self-interest to fulfill the needs of domestic citizens before others. That’s completely okay, we would expect the same thing if there was an international shortage of a particular item and Australia was a prominent exporter of that good, we would expect that our government would say, “Hang on a minute. We got to sort out our domestic needs first before we’re going to sell this,” and that’s just the nature of things.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Nations trade in their self-interest, not doing other nations a favor. It’s done in the national interest or economic hard nosed way. So those two things in combination I think again have made a real wake up call for how the world actually works, and that globalization is not something that is beyond anyone’s control, and that the nation state is still powerful in the way that goods are exchanged internationally. The third point that I would make, it’s related to the first and the second, and it’s about whether the sticker price is the actual price. A lot of people when it comes to trade will say, “Well, you just take the lowest price that you can get.”

Misha Zelinsky ::

Now to use a wonky term, what we’ve now seen is that the risk premium adjustment for goods or more, to put it into kind of normal language, is that the real price is the price that you pay when you need it. When shit hits the fan, that’s the price. The price isn’t when there’s lots available. The price of a face mask, you could see what the price people were prepared to pay in the black market for these goods online and in other ways, and the desperation… Toilet paper, right? We laughed about it, but when that level of panic goes through communities, that’s the real price for the good. And so again, it’s about making an assessment of what are the things that we need when we need them? Who supplies them? How can we get them? And what are we prepared to pay for them? And not actually just looking beyond the sticker price to say, “No, well, the real price for this good is what we need to have in storage or in production and we need to have it when we need it.”

Misha Zelinsky ::

Those three things in combination, I think you’re going to have a profound, profound change in the way that countries trade with one another, the way that Australia trades with the world, and I think that when you used to have this debate within the labor party or within the broader public discourse, people used to think that it was kind of in the abstract, that yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s never going to happen sort of thing. So this national security augment or sovereign capability augment was dismissed as essentially a fortress Australia type thinking, scaremongering. We’re essentially ransacking, trying to promote domestic industries at the expense of the consumer.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Well, it’s shown up now, on this occasion we got relatively lucky. It was quite scary there for a period obviously, but I think the nature of the goods and the way that we’re able to respond worked out okay, but wouldn’t always. The fourth point I’d make, and this is the last point, but this is the foundational, critical point, it’s played out recently in some of our foreign policies, that it’s absolutely critical for Australia that a rules-based trading system is maintained. Australia can’t… We are a middle power. We are a rich trading nation. We benefit greatly from a rules-based trading system, whether it’s a grade set of rules, and those rules are enforced by an independent umpire and everyone observes the rules.

Misha Zelinsky ::

But we also don’t benefit. Australia can’t hope to exist in a situation or in an economic trading system where might is right. Essentially if the big dog wins, that’s a problem for Australia, given our relative size and given our reliance on trade internationally. So when we’re seeing things like trade being used in a form of foreign policy coercion, as we’re seeing from the Chinese Communist Party, or when it comes to dumping of goods into Australia, which essentially dumping is selling goods into another country with the express theme of destroying that market, so that way you can continue to sell, right? Those two things are not in our interest.

Misha Zelinsky ::

When you look at the question of barley, when it comes to the tariffs that have been placed onto barley by the Chinese Communist Party of 80%, they’re just not based in any sort of reality. Australia places zero tariffs on our barley. It’s the most competitive barley producers that come from Australia. We have zero tariffs on it. China, and other nations frankly, are notorious subsidizers of their agricultural sector. So when you look at that argument, you can see what it is. It’s Australia being punished for its foreign policy decisions, on this occasion, the decision to call for an independent inquiry into COVID-19 and the origin. But there are also other decisions that Australia has made that have been threatened, the 5G network with Huawei and other things of that nature.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Not having an independent umpire in place is a very, very dangerous place for Australia to be, and so we absolutely need to preserve a rules-based trading, because it’s good or Australia as a trading nation and it’s good for Australia as a middle power to have a well-supported, multilateral global system, not just for trade, but for all things. So I think trade’s absolutely critical for Australia, but we need to be a little bit more clear-eyed about exactly what is that we want our country to be, what are the things that we need it to have, what are the expectations of the things that we need to have at the pivotal moments, and as it all becomes more uncertain, that we are sovereignly capable in critical industries and in the things that we rightly expect to have when we need them.

Misha Zelinsky ::

So I’m happy to take questions, but I think that probably is a snapshot of where I think it’s heading. It’s heading into an area where I think Australia can actually leverage it to our advantage. We’ve got everything we need in Australia, yeah, to produce much more than we currently do. Currently, we trade a lot of primary produce, which is good in terms of mining and agriculture things, but we can definitely make a lot more finished product with everything we need from energy to raw materials to the people, apart from the vision. It’s not all doom and gloom. We can certainly use this time to retool our manufacturing sector, and in the process create lots and lots of jobs for average Aussies who can work in regional communities. So I’ll leave it at that, but happy to take questions, Brandon. Thanks.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much, Misha. We’re now going to move onto answering some questions that were submitted on the Google forum. Senator Keneally – how long should Australia’s international borders be closed during the pandemic, even after the numbers are heavily reduced, if not eradicated, by this year?

Kristina Keneally ::

That question that’s going to be determined by what’s happening in the rest of the world and safe for us to do. Yeah, we might want to open up borders for, say, a particular skill need. I mentioned cyber security earlier. Today, the ASIO director general made clear that we are at even greater risk of cyber security attacks and online manipulation, foreign interference, and it may be that we need to bring in more people in that particular skillset, with that particular skillset. And so do we do that with the two week quarantine? Who pays for it? Same thing with international students. There may come a time where we feel comfortable or we have a desire to facilitate the reentry of international students to universities, but again, how do you do it? How is it safely done? Who pays for it? Is that attractive to people?

Kristina Keneally ::

There may be the opportunity for somewhere like New Zealand, where people talk about this trans-Tasman bubble, that may be a possibility. But I think the question about how long our borders stay closed is really going to be determined by what’s going on in the rest of the world. It still remains the case that we have had community transmission, but a significant amount, and I need to go back and double check, but I believe it’s still the majority of our cases did come from an overseas, so we’re trying to make sure that does not spike again with the second wave.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much. Just to Misha, so what can the [AOP 00:29:08] do to support regional jobs in the rice industry and improve Australian trade in the face of China extorting countries that Australia export rice to?

Misha Zelinsky ::

Thank you for that question. It’s a very esoteric question. I should just note that I’m not an agricultural economist, but I’ll do my best to answer the question. I think going back to my comment about barley, look, Australia is an extraordinary competitive agricultural economy. Our farmers are the world’s most competitive, and we export to the world all sorts of produce, right? In terms of rice, I think there’ll be some ongoing challenges for Australia making sure that our farmers are able to access water when they need and we need to continue to be very innovative in our use of water for water-hungry crops like rice or cotton.

Misha Zelinsky ::

But certainly, the expectation would be that in a rules-based, going back to my comments about a rules-based trading system, if nobody is subsidizing rice, then Australia should be essentially the world’s rice bowl, to the extent that we can produce it, the world should be able to buy it. Now, from memory, and I’m just going off the top of my head, but China subsidizes agricultural sector quite significantly. I was looking at this recently, I’m pretty sure it’s about… I might have these numbers wrong, so for those listening on the tape and Googling, wanting to hang me on this, I’m pretty sure it’s about 25% that they subsidize their rice industry to that extent.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Again, if you don’t have an umpire in place to say, “Well, hang on a minute. You can’t subsidize your goods here and then use that subsidy to take market share off not just Australia, but other countries that are producing rice, or you use that 25% advantage to dump into another good.” So for example, let’s just say we had a situation with Chinese rice was subsidized, and then it was dumped into Australia below cost with that subsidy, so therefore, the domestic industry can’t compete and has to close down, and suddenly what was a completely competitive industry is now being closed through basically legal cheating. It’s effectively, and when you look at dumping, it’s the same way as using steroids at the Olympics. You’re using an unfair advantage to cheat.

Misha Zelinsky ::

There are ways to, in Olympics, we drug test. In trade, we put in place anti-dumping duties to basically say, “Well, you’re dumping. So you guys put 25% on a subsidy or you’ve undersold it for 25%, we’re going to whack that back on, and we’re going to equalize it back to where it’s supposed to be.” And then the World Trade Organization sits at the top of that, and enforces those rules. So really, back to the beginning, which is the way that we would do that is we would get a competitive industry. We support that with I should also say very good, strong labor laws in agriculture, because that’s an area that I’d like to see some improvement from our farmers. I think, unfortunately, there’s a lot of exploitation that occurs within the agricultural and the horticultural sector, particularly with migrant workers, as the senator talked about earlier, and it’s shocking actually.

Misha Zelinsky ::

But parking that, looking at the macro economic argument, we want to see a competitive industry here. We want to make sure that there’s a global system of rules in place, and that Australian farmers are able to compete, and then if we apply that to every other industry, Australia’s very well-placed to export all sorts of things, and so the critical piece here is countries not cheating and there being an umpire to enforce when they do cheat. Currently we’re getting to a stage where countries are cheating and they’re also just basically thumbing their nose at the umpire. That is not a game that we can win. And so whether it’s rice or anything else, it’s a big concern for Australia as a middle power trading nation if we don’t have the rule book enforced.

Brandon Hale:

Fantastic. Well, thank you. So I’ve got another question for Senator Keneally, just from Aden. So how do you see labor confronting anxiety immigration in broad electorates, particularly key seats?

Kristina Keneally ::

I think you froze a tiny bit on me there, which I mean, Parliament has-

Brandon Hale:

Oh, sorry.

Kristina Keneally ::

We have terrible… No, Parliament has this terrible connection, so I hope I’m coming through all right. Yeah, this is a really good question, because at one level, immigration becomes at times a political touchstone. I would recite that towards the end of last year, the Scanlon Foundation poured out their annual report, which really surveys the electorate across Australia on their attitudes towards a range of issues. Go and find it if you’re interested, it showed that there’s incredibly high support for migration, that overwhelmingly Australians celebrate our cultural diversity and multiculturalism, and think that it makes Australia a stronger place. What I do think a road support for migration is when we see that shift away from permanent migration to that two-tiered society that I spoke about earlier.

Kristina Keneally ::

But I do think we can take some comfort in the fact that Australia is not like our American or Western European cousins, where immigration has become what is blamed for a range of other ills or economic challenges. I think we start off in a positive space. I think we have to advocate for a positive view of migration. We have to articulate how it benefits the country economically and socially, and we have to in some sense appeal to people’s sense of pride and nostalgia on who we are and who we were and how we want to define ourselves into the future. I don’t like the notion of thinking about it just in terms of key seats, but I’m not naïve to the fact that it plays itself out differently in different communities.

Kristina Keneally ::

I would point to this, a lot of people might think that when we’re talking about regional communities that there might be an instant kind of resistance. In fact, if anything, regional communities very much seem to want migrants and permanent migrants to come and settle there. They help bolster the population, they create economic opportunity. Misha just mentioned the exploitation of farm workers. I went to a regional town, I went to Shepparton in Victoria, and visited there one of the biggest apple growers in the country. They were frustrated because all they can get in terms of labor is temporary migrants or undocumented workers that come from labor hire companies. They know the labor hire companies are exploiting them. There’s very little they can do about it.

Kristina Keneally ::

When I said, “What can we do to solve this?” They kept saying to me, “The Albanian solution,” and I had no idea what the Albanian solution was, except it turns out under the Fraser Government, there was a program to bring Albanians to allow them to come to Shepparton and to work in the orchards to learn skills, because there were some problems going on in Albania at the time. If they wanted to, they could settle down and stay, and many of them did, and they spoke glowingly about how these were the best thing that had happened to the town, that many of them stayed, started their own businesses.

Kristina Keneally ::

I think Australians understand the benefits of migration. I think where we get into dangerous territory is when we do see an erosion of wages, when we do see a lack of independent labor market testing, when we don’t have a robust industrial relations framework, when companies are making a choice, offering wages that they know that an Australian won’t work for or conditions they know won’t appeal to an Australian, so they can say, “Oh, we’ve done labor market testing and we’re going to now bring in a migrant to do this job.” That’s when we start to erode away support for multicultural communities and for migrant communities to come be part of us. So I think that’s what we have to safeguard.

Brandon Hale:

Absolutely. Thank you very much for that. So we’re going to move onto a bit of a fun section now. A lot of people in young labor have been following the US-

Kristina Keneally ::

[crosstalk 00:38:25] Oh, I was not told there would be a fun section, so I’m very excited.

Brandon Hale:

[crosstalk 00:38:28] quite a bit now.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Anything fun about politics [crosstalk 00:38:31].

Brandon Hale:

Yeah, so just going to ask Misha, just have a question from Dillon just about who Misha would have supported in the Democratic primaries and what he thinks the Democrats need to do to win in 2020.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Right, well, it’s an interesting question. As a faithful New South Wales right winger, I actually was on team Biden from the beginning. I’m going to be honest though, I thought they were going to sink him as the primary went on and those big stats on Biden. I quite liked Pete Buttigieg. I think he was a really interesting and exciting candidate. But I think they’ve… Look, I think this election’s important. Every election’s the most important election, but I think this election is a critical election in terms of the future of the United States, but also it’s profoundly important for Australia and the world in terms of US leadership of some of these things we’ve talked about, in terms of multilateralism.

Misha Zelinsky ::

I was in favor of Biden. I took a little Buttigieg, but I think he actually got a bit unlucky, too. I think the way Iowa played out I think was bad luck for him. He didn’t get that Iowa bounce into New Hampshire and then Klobuchar kind of touched him up in that debate. Anyway, so he very nearly could have jagged it, but he’s got about 40 years on his side as a competitor to Biden, so I’m sure he can have at least one or two more shots. It was third time the charm I think for Joe. So I think Biden is a good candidate. I think I was pleased to see that they went with a moderate candidate and didn’t go down the Sanders path or the Elizabeth Warren path, because I think that would’ve been very jarring and I actually think it would have become a referendum on the Democrats and not being a referendum on Trump, which I think is kind of critical here.

Misha Zelinsky ::

We could go, we could do an entire conversation on this, but I think what’s going to be critical, clearly the Rust Belt States, the question of trade’s going to be very important, how managing that issue. When you look at the states and the regions that swung to Trump, when you actually overlay trying a suspension to the World Trade Organization, they’re called the China Shock, which essentially was the loss of all the manufacturing work in those areas and they all become extraordinarily economically distressed. Trump promised, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not you believe he’s actually done any of these things, he promised people that he would stand up for them in their economic interests, and I think it’s critical that the Democrats have got a really good answer when it comes to manufacturing policy, industry policy, jobs policies for people in those swing states, and the Rust Belt States, the so-called blue wall that crumbled.

Misha Zelinsky ::

I should preface, well, not preface, but I predicted Hillary Clinton would win, so you can take all that with a grain of salt. Now we can perhaps defer to Senator Keneally, who’s probably a little closer to home to these matters than I am.

Kristina Keneally ::

Brandon, [crosstalk 00:41:53].

Brandon Hale:

… same question to Senator Keneally.

Kristina Keneally ::

All right.

Brandon Hale:

[crosstalk 00:41:58]

Kristina Keneally ::

In my fantasy football league, I would have gone for Elizabeth Warren, but I knew that was never going to win. I think Misha’s really covered it all well there.

Brandon Hale:

Absolutely. In terms of Australia’s immigration strategy, I’ve got another question. Can you see an Australian government, particularly a labor government, using immigration as a strategic tool to drive growth while bundling out the domestic labor market? If so, how?

Kristina Keneally ::

Yeah, look, I think we had seen under particularly this government since Malcolm Turnbull created the Department of Home Affairs, we have seen migration downgraded as a key economic tool. This government through the creation of the Department of Home Affairs has securitized migration. It talks about it in terms of the threats of people who might come in. It talks about it through a security lens. I’m not saying security isn’t important. It has always been an important part of migration. The immigration department has always been two sides of one coin, who we let in and who we don’t. On the who we let in, it has always been about why we let people in, how we integrate them in, what skills they bring in, how it grows the economy in our community.

Kristina Keneally ::

All out of that has just been so lost under the creation of the Department of Home Affairs where you’ve got a real security gloss that cuts across the whole department. You only need to look at the Department of Home Affairs to see it ranked 93rd out of 93rd in terms of morale. A third of the people who work there wish they worked somewhere else. It has had an exodus of people who understood how to use migration as an economic and community building tool. Anthony has created here in the Parliament a group, we’ve got some working groups that are working on policy as we go toward the next national platform.

Kristina Keneally ::

We are very much looking at migration as an economic tool, because this government has just… The immigration minister doesn’t even sit at the cabinet table. So nobody is really talking about immigration in that context. But that is a fundamental important part of why we have a migration program, is to grow the economy. I think you do remember that under Hawke and Keating in particular, we did rely on migration, and we did use it to grow the economy. We did use it to create a sense of successful multiculturalism in our community. That is there, and Australians are ready for that message, I believe. I think it can be done, but I think because we bring a real focus on skills, training, fixing up the vet system, investing in education, investing in public education.

Kristina Keneally ::

We had a whole range of policy settings at the last election that I think you will see similar or same variations are that the next one in terms of Australian skills authority, about labor market testing, about a national labor hire licensing scheme, and the like that I think will help us really promote the opportunities to grow the skills of Australians and yet argue for the importance of migration to grow the economy and create opportunity.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much, Kristina. I’ve just got just one final question for Misha. China allows the flaunting of intellectual property rules in order to allow Chinese industries to have unfairly competitive prices at a global stage. Is it ethical for Australia to buy these products? Should Australia do more to clamp down on this? And what does this say more broadly about China’s trade practice?

Misha Zelinsky ::

Yeah, you went out there a bit, but I think I understood the thrust of the question, that IP theft. Look, the question of… Technology is kind of critical to economic success, right? Every country strives to out compete other countries and to essentially have a tech advantage, and then economic advantage comes from tech, as does military advantage. So the Chinese Communist Party has made an absolute art form out of IP theft. It was described, I can’t remember who said it, but it was essentially described that the intellectual property theft by the Chinese Communist Party is the single greatest transfer of human wealth in human history.

Misha Zelinsky ::

The capacity to make intellectual advances and technological advances and protect that intellectual property, that’s critical to the way that we understand how the principles of economics work and that’s how it’s worked, and making those rights enforceable are critical to making sure that people spend their time and effort and energy investing into research, investing into innovation, investing into improvements. So again, not to go right into… You can spend a lot of time talking about the various strategies, for example, if you want to set up a business in China, they make you essentially force transfer your IP across to an adjunct venture partner, and then over time, once the domestic firm has worked out all your secrets, it should be often that they then deny you market access.

Misha Zelinsky ::

China, when it comes to IP, is extremely ruthless, and every country I think should be thinking about its own system and making sure it rigorously defends those from incursion and cyber incursion. Going right back to my original comment, the critical piece here for Australia, for everyone, is that we’ve got a rules-based system. So be it IP law, be it trade law, etc., that we respect one another’s sovereignty, that there’s a rule book in place, and that there’s an umpire, and that when the umpire makes a decision, we respect that decision. And so IP theft is a huge concern, it’s particularly a concern when it’s occurring auto credit regime, stealing text secrets, military secrets, and then using those to either further enhance its own military or repress its own people. I think that’s a further concern to what is already an economic concern.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you. With that, we’ll have to end, but we have one final two questions for both of you, just as Misha does with all his podcasts. If you were to choose three historical figures, international relations, who are dead or alive you could have at a barbecue?

Kristina Keneally ::

Are you going to me first? All right. Well, I have just finished watching Mrs. America on Foxtel, and Gloria Steinem, who I have met and have had lunch with, is from my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, and I did reflect after watching that show that I would love to have dinner with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. That’s just my moment, that’s where I’m at at the moment. I’m sure if you asked me at some other time, I’d have a whole ‘nother list. But they would be a rocking dinner party, as a child of the ’70s, I would love to do that.

Brandon Hale:

That’s a great lineup. And what would yours, Misha, be?

Misha Zelinsky ::

I should just point out that this is meant to be the fun section, and I painstakingly point out that this is the world’s lamest question in my podcast. So the fact that someone has decided to take me up on this is… Anyway, look, give yourself an uppercut, whoever’s written that question in. But look, so for me, funnily enough, I probably haven’t spent enough time thinking about this, notwithstanding that its my show. Winston Churchill would be someone that I would have on there. I think particularly one of the things that troubles me these days is that it doesn’t seem to be abundantly clear that the Nazis are the bad guys. So getting the guy that essentially kicked the Nazis’ ass back to the Stone Age I think would be a person that I would definitely love to hear from, and plus hearing a few of his witticisms would be great.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Another person would be Bobby Kennedy. I’d probably spend all the time asking him about JFK, but what I love about Bobby Kennedy particularly, I don’t know if any of you have seen it, but I’ve been thinking back quite a bit with his speech that he gave the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated, if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch it. It’s a very, very, very powerful speech, and I think particularly timely with things that we’re seeing at the moment with the protests in the United States and in Australia as well about race relations, and I think had Bobby not been assassinated in 1968, I think things might have been very different in the United States. I think he’d be a great person to have.

Misha Zelinsky ::

And probably lastly, I’m reading a lot of Ernest Hemingway at the moment, so I don’t know how much Bobby Kennedy drinks, but Hemingway and Churchill [crosstalk 00:52:20]-

Kristina Keneally ::

You’re saying this is an alcoholic dinner.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Well, he’s Irish, Irish-Catholic, so maybe he does drink as well. Look, yeah, and an Australia union official, so it’s definitely going to be we need to have a well-stocked bar. But they’re my three for the extraordinarily lame, not fun time question.

Brandon Hale:

Well, there you go. Well, we’ll have to leave it there, but thank you so much, Senator Kenneally and Misha, for coming.

 

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.

 

Professor Ross Garnaut: Bouncing back from COVID – how renewables can make Australia a manufacturing superpower.

Professor Ross Garnaut is one of Australia’s most distinguished economists and a global expert on climate change, trade and energy policy. He was Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s principal economic advisor and was Australia’s Ambassador to China. He’s lead many government reviews, including the seminal though ill fated Garnaut Climate Change Review into carbon emission reduction for the then Rudd Government. 

He is the author of many studies and books too numerous to mention, but his recent book – Superpower – details how Australlia can make the most of the economic benefits of the upcoming clean energy revolution.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Ross for a chinwag about the politics of climate change including why Kevin Rudd was unable to pass his emissions trading scheme in 2009 and who was to blame, why COVID-19 shouldn’t distract us from climate change action, why Australia should be the world’s smelter for aluminium and steel and how renewable power can make Australia a manufacturing powerhouse, what the decoupling between the US and China means for Australia’s security, and why we need coordinated global action more than ever.

Transcript of Episode:

Misha Zelinsky:

Hi everyone, welcome to the latest episode of Diplomates, I’m Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Professor Ross Garnaut. Ross, have I got you there?

Ross Garnaut:

Yes. Hello, Misha, good to be with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thank you very much for joining us. Now, of course, you are, as I understand it, in Queensland in Barcaldine, is that right?

Ross Garnaut:

Yeah. Barcaldine. Home of the AWU amongst other things.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. Indeed. The scene of the very famous 1891 Shearer Strike and where the Labor Party was formed under the Tree of Knowledge there. So it’s an auspicious place to be.

Ross Garnaut:

Yeah. That’s right, not a bad place to be during a pandemic, warm and isolated.

Misha Zelinsky:

Very good. I’m glad that you’re socially isolating. Now, you’ve touched on the COVID-19 crisis, you’ve been around and dealt with government policy for some time, dating right back to your work with the Hawke government. What are the similarities or differences to the crisis from the past that you see?

Ross Garnaut:

Well, we’ve been through a few. The deep recession of 1991, the Asian financial crisis of 98, the global financial crisis of 08/09 and this one. I must say this is bigger than any of those.

Ross Garnaut:

Almost anything that goes wrong can trigger an economic crisis. And then they take on a life of their own. And when this one’s all over, we’ll be very much aware that it was begun by a health event, the pandemic, but the economic collapse that followed took on a life of its own. And it was very damaging in ways that were not easily foreseen at the time the pandemic hit.

Ross Garnaut:

One big difference between this and those earlier crises is that we don’t have a coherent international system to deal with it now. You compare it with the GFC, which before this one was the biggest hit since the Great Depression, biggest hit to global economic stability. Back then you had an effective co-operation between the leadership of the US, China, Europe, Japan, Australia.

Ross Garnaut:

Kevin Rudd as prime minister used that episode really to create the G20 as a heads of government meeting. And a couple of meetings of heads of government, presidents and prime ministers during the GFC was very important to getting a coherent global response. A commitment not to respond in protectionist ways and beggar thy neighbor ways. A commitment to have simultaneous fiscal expansion and monetary expansion.

Ross Garnaut:

And under that rubric you did get a coordinated global effort that greatly diminished the damage that was done by the crisis. Well, that’s in contrast to the current situation where you’ve got incoherence in global leadership. Where you’ve got the world’s biggest economy run by a man who thinks that international cooperation is a bad thing. That created crises in relations not only with geo-strategic rivals, China and others, but with his allies in Europe.

Ross Garnaut:

So that incoherence in the global response to crisis is the big difference I think between this one and anything we’ve seen in our lifetime.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s an interesting point and a useful segue into, if you want to talk about global political incoherence, you’ve done a lot of work in the recent past, and the last decade certainly and beyond, in response to climate change. Now, it’s easy to forget, it seems it was only just yesterday that we were absolutely beside ourselves in Australia about the impacts of the summer from hell, the bush fires. Certainly now we find ourselves in a completely different situation with the covid-19 pandemic. Do you worry that the covid-19 response and the overall situation is a distraction from the efforts on climate change?

Ross Garnaut:

Well, inevitably it is a distraction. Just a fact of life. But this pandemic is a pretty serious thing, both in the health effects and the huge economic damage following it. But the pandemic and the economic collapse do not change the way carbon dioxide works, the physics of carbon dioxide just keeps on doing what it does. And the process of warming continues. And we’d be foolish not to keep that in mind.

Ross Garnaut:

It’s inevitable that we deal with the health crisis and the economic crisis as it comes. But wise leadership can deal with immediate things in ways that help rather than hurt progress in dealing with longer term issues.

Ross Garnaut:

We could manage the recovery from the economic crisis we’re going to go through with a strong focus on investment in the new economy. Or we could deal with it with a lot of ad hoc measures that increase short term employment and have no regard to what’s going to be sustainable in the long term. And that’s one of the most important choices that Australia and the international community will make in the period ahead.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, just turning to the so called summer from hell relating to the bush fires. And one of the things that was talked about, directly quoted from a report that you prepared for the Rudd government then, it was that fire seasons will start earlier and slightly later and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be more directly observable by 2020. That was very popularly shared, I think in sorrow, online. I mean, firstly, are you surprised how accurate that was?

Ross Garnaut:

Yeah. My report got that exactly right. And I should explain how I got it right. My report was very well resourced. I had a very strong group of people working with me, initially from all the state governments. My report was initially commissioned by the six states and two territories with an invitation for the Commonwealth to join. And the Commonwealth joined when Kevin Rudd became prime minister late in 2007.

Ross Garnaut:

And I had the resources to commission work from the very best atmospheric physics scientists in Australia. And I got a group in CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology to do that report on bush fires. And, as you say, my report got it right. All I did was honestly and accurately, put into my report what they reported to me and said.

Ross Garnaut:

Am I surprised that it was exactly right? Well, the fact that 2020 was mentioned might be a bit of a fluke. But all of the science that I commissioned, in ways that foretold how things would evolve in the impacts of climate change, turned out to be very sound.

Ross Garnaut:

What the work I published in my report said about sea level rise, about the warming effect of climate change, what would happen in Australia in the decade ahead, the drying of southern Australia. All of these things turned out pretty much as the science said they would.

Ross Garnaut:

All of the scientific work over the past dozen years since my report came out has broadly confirmed the accuracy of the scientific evidence as it came out in the work that I commissioned and which I published in my report in 2008. Bush fires is just one part of that. And getting the year exactly right might be a bit of a fluke, but the work was very sound. And like reports on other effects of climate change, it’s turning out to be, sadly, very much as predicted.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one of the things I’d be curious to get your take on, of course, you produced the Garnaut Report for the Rudd government. One of the things people talk about or believe when you look at the polling for support for action on climate change was that the support fell essentially after the millennium drought broke. So there was a belief at the time that the dams would be empty, that they would never fill again. There was a great degree of urgency. It then of course rained and we lost, I suppose, support for action. And then we had the climate wars under Gillard and then Abbott. Do you think the bush fires will be a turning point or is this the new millennium drought?

Ross Garnaut:

Misha, I don’t think you’ve got the history of the politics right there. A very simple reason why my recommendations weren’t implemented as the States and the Commonwealth had in mind in 2008, and that’s when the legislation to implement the central feature of my recommendations, the carbon price, went past the House of Representatives, the opposition had said it would support it in the Senate. And at the 11th hour, just days before the vote was to come in the Senate, Tony Abbott organized himself to depose Malcolm Turnbull as the leader of the Liberal Party. And the numbers were no longer in the Senate.

Ross Garnaut:

In those days, the government needed the support of the opposition to pass legislation. The Greens weren’t enough. So the reason why Rudd did that at the time was that Abbott rolled Turnbull in the Liberal Party party room.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the Greens also voted against it as I recall.

Ross Garnaut:

Yeah. But that was incidental. The Greens didn’t have the numbers to pass it.

Ross Garnaut:

Now, a couple of Liberal senators, who were supporters of Malcolm Turnbull, did support the legislation. But whether they would have actually supported it if the Greens were on the same side as them is a moot point. But certainly the Greens, with the Labor Party, didn’t have the numbers at the time.

Ross Garnaut:

Now, I don’t think that the end of the millennium drought had anything like the influence on public opinion that you’re talking about. What reduced support for action on climate change was the visceral attack waged by News Corp and Tony Abbott against action on climate change. Supported of course by elements of the business community that stood to lose. And organizations like the Business Council and Mining Industry Council tend to support the squeakiest wheels. And so they tend to support their coal miners and others opposed to anything being done about climate.

Ross Garnaut:

But it was the visceral attacks, especially by the opposition, but with support from the majority media, that led to the change of opinion. I think there’s lots of evidence in Australia when the leader of one of the major parties takes a very strong position, there’s a certain proportion of the Australian community that follows that lead. Whether it’s the Labor Party leader or Liberal Party leader taking that lead. And when Abbott started attacking any action on climate change, that moved the opinion polls a bit. But it never moved it against action on climate change. And I record this in my book, Superpower.

Ross Garnaut:

If you track the polls right through, sure, there was a dipping of support for action on climate change during the Abbott era. But there was never a majority support for Tony Abbott’s positions.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yes, that’s a really good prompt on the history, but also you mention your book, Superpower, recently released, available at all good bookshops. So I encourage people to read it, it’s a very interesting read. But you make the case for a renewable makeover of Australia. But essentially from more of an economic standpoint, clearly there’s a climate imperative to it. But you argue the case on an economic standpoint. Can you explain the benefits of how you see this renewable makeover? And should we have been aiming for these net zero emissions target? And what’s a realistic timeframe to get it done?

Ross Garnaut:

Yeah, well, in Superpower I talk about what’s changed since my two big reports. First of all for all the premiers and the prime minister back in 2008. And then the multi-party committee on climate change in the hung parliament chaired by Julia Gillard in 2011.

Ross Garnaut:

Now, the big thing that’s changed since then, there’s the cost of the alternative technologies, the zero emissions technologies, have fallen dramatically.

Ross Garnaut:

I said that I’d assumed in all my modeling that solar costs would come down by a few percent per annum. Well, they came down by 85% in the first decade. And they’re still coming down since then. So that means that in places with good solar and wind resources like Australia, the costs of renewable energy are now lower than the costs of new-build thermal energy, much lower. So if the economics run things there won’t be a new, coal-powered power station ever built again. And that’s different from the story as it looked a dozen years ago.

Ross Garnaut:

Now, with the whole world committing to going to zero emissions, as it did in Paris, that was the decision of the Paris Agreement 2015, there was a decision to hold temperature increases below two degrees and as close as possible to 1.5. Well, two degrees will require zero net emissions in the world as a whole by 2050.

Ross Garnaut:

If the whole world goes towards zero emissions, then everyone will be using zero emissions energy, renewable energy. Australia has by far the best combinations of renewable energy of all of the countries on earth. And very much better than other developed countries. And they are the main competitors for these very capital intensive forms of energy. And Australia therefore should be the lowest energy cost country in the zero emissions world economy.

Ross Garnaut:

Now, you need an awful lot of electricity, an awful lot of energy, to produce metals like aluminum or iron with zero emissions. Currently, Australia is quite a big exporter of aluminum using coal. But in the zero emissions industry of the future, you won’t be able to make aluminum that’s made from coal.

Ross Garnaut:

The Chief Executive of the two companies that make aluminum now in mainland Australia, Rio Tinto, which owns the Gladstone smelter and the Tomago smelter. And Alcoa which owns the Portland smelter, the Chief Executives of those two organizations have said they won’t be making aluminum with coal-based electricity in a couple of decades time. Plants will have to either be based on renewable energy or they’ll be closed.

Ross Garnaut:

And when all of the world is making aluminum with zero emissions, electricity will be the low cost way of doing it. Now, we’re already the world’s biggest exporter of aluminum oxide, aluminum ore as bauxite or turned into alumina, the alumina plants in Gladstone and in the south west of WA. If you’ve got the lowest cost electricity and you’ve already got the alumina, you are the natural place to turn it into aluminum.

Ross Garnaut:

So our strength in aluminum smelting will be much greater in the renewable energy world economy of the future than it was in the coal based electricity economy of the past. So shifting to renewable energy not only will give plants in Portland, Tomago and Gladstone a future. When currently using coal, they don’t have a future. These should be expanding industry, should become much bigger in Australia.

Ross Garnaut:

Iron is an even bigger possibility. Currently iron is made from iron ore mostly by putting in coke, from coal, in a blast furnace. Well, that’s a very emissions intensive process, 7% of all the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from blast furnaces turning iron ore into iron metal.

Ross Garnaut:

In the zero emissions economy to which we’re all committed in the future that will be made from hydrogen made from renewable energy. Again, we will have a tremendous advantage being the source of the iron ore and also the lowest cost source of renewable energy. The natural economic place to make iron metal will be Australia.

Ross Garnaut:

So we’d have to be real duds, real dimwits not to be a major iron producer with huge employment and income from iron production in the zero emissions economy of the future.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think that’d be very welcome news for all the AWU members that make steel now living in the country at the moment, and alumina and bauxite mining. But one of the things I was trying to get you take on, you talk about Australia as the world’s smelter. One of the challenges we have as an energy nation is that we want, unlike every other country in the world that exports gas, we are now the world’s largest gas exporter. We’ve been silly enough to not reserve any of that for ourselves. Every other gas exporting nation does that. I mean, how do you consider that policy, in light of the energy transition we need to make, and the role that gas should play in the energy transition?

Ross Garnaut:

I think you’re being rough on Australia. Not all Australians are tarred with that brush. West Australia is the biggest the gas state and that does have domestic reservation. And WA’s gas is the cheapest gas in the developed world now. So WA’s made itself a natural place for a lot of energy intensive industry and petrochemicals.

Ross Garnaut:

Eastern Australia is different. But don’t say that all Australia has that policy. WA didn’t. Certainly, we did ourselves economic damage by encouraging over investment in LNG plants in Gladstone. We actually put in more plants than we had gas. And that created a scarcity.

Ross Garnaut:

And we went, in Eastern Australia, from having the developed world’s cheapest gas, so that Melbourne, Geelong and Adelaide were all quite substantial cities for gas-based manufacturing. We killed our advantage in that. And in fact went from having the world’s lowest cost gas to amongst the highest cost gas in the world as a result of over investment in export in Gladstone.

Ross Garnaut:

I think this was simply a failure to think through analytically all of the implications of that over investment in Gladstone export capacity. If you like, we didn’t think it through. We were a bit dumb.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s a really good point. And the WA policy, of course, only extends as far as the WA waters, but it doesn’t capture the Commonwealth waters. So it’s an imperfect policy in WA, but still a much better policy than we have in the East Coast. So thank you for clarifying that.

Misha Zelinsky:

The other question I had, and you talk about this in your book, but I’m curious, maybe you could talk about the prospect of carbon farming and what exactly that means in terms of smarter land use? I mean, I know one of the things you talked about in the Garnaut Report was us becoming more reliant on kangaroo meat, for example, given the nature of Australia’s soil base. But can you talk about the smarter land use and carbon farming?

Ross Garnaut:

Yeah, on the kangaroo point, which was about one page of my 650 page report back in 2000, that got a lot of attention. But it is true that kangaroo’s a very healthy meat. And it is a zero emissions meat. And it’s the traditional meat of Australia. Australians lived on kangaroo for 60,000 years and we had more of that in our diet even if we fed more of it to our pets rather than using mutton or old beef. Then it would be helpful to emissions.

Ross Garnaut:

But on carbon farming, there’s more carbon in the top two meters of soil than there is in the whole of the atmosphere plus all of the living things, all of the living plants and animals on earth. So just incrementally increasing the carbon content of soils could have very big leverage over carbon in the atmosphere.

Ross Garnaut:

And the process is that living things are putting down roots, dying leaves, the residuals of plant matter, which can become long term additions to the carbon content of soils if you manage soils in different ways. And quite evidently this could be very big. And there’s certainly big opportunities for this in parts of Australia.

Ross Garnaut:

But there’s also opportunities for capturing more carbon in biomass. And in both my reports, and also in Superpower, I talked a little bit about some of the ways this can be done. But if you’ve got large parts of Australia, for example, the Valley country, the Mulga country, country with low productivity grazing, we don’t care very much about the vegetation on it. So then it’s carrying a lot less carbon and living plants than was there a long time ago. Carefully manage that in different ways and there can be a lot more carbon absorbed into the plants. Quantitatively, potentially very large. But you can also harvest that in a sustainable way. And more plant biomass can grow behind it. So you can harvest sustainably without diminishing the carbon stock. And then use that biomass as a basis for various industries, chemical industries, petrochemicals industries that currently use coal, gas and oil. And use of the biomass in those petrochemical industries, chemical industries will have zero emissions. Whereas use of coal, gas and oil has very high emissions. So that can be another path to the zero emissions economy.

Ross Garnaut:

And I mentioned in the book that Australia has got very big advantages in growing biomass, huge land area compared to our population. And it’s that opportunity that means that we can have a comparative advantage in biomass for industrial use just like we’ve got a comparative advantage in renewable energy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, that certainly paints a very positive picture about some of the economic benefits. One of the things I’d like to get your take on, just turning back to the covid-19 crisis, and we’ve certainly seen supply chains under stress. We’ve already seen China and the US engaging in what’s called a decoupling. As they sort of pull apart their supply chains on security grounds and also economic protectionist grounds. How do you see this impacting on Australia? And do you see, first, what are the risks? But also what’s the case for more domestic capability in light of the crisis?

Ross Garnaut:

Just on the general question, closing up global supply chains, that would make us poorer. Australia had a huge growth in wages and average living standards in the nineties through higher productivity. And a lot of that came through greater use of international trade, specializing more in the things we did best.

Ross Garnaut:

And we had another growth in incomes in the first decade of the century on the basis of the China boom and increased exports to China. So, let’s be clear, de-globalization means taking away the increases in living standards we had then. We’d have to have lower wages, lower incomes, if that process went very far.

Ross Garnaut:

Now, we may need to accept lower wages on security grounds. But I think we should not unquestionably accept reductions in living standards for security reasons. So we should question the basis for that. And only restrict trade where there’s a really good security reason for doing it.

Ross Garnaut:

Sometimes businesses that benefit from protection will argue for breaking up global supply chains and use security arguments, but they’re really just arguing their own book. And I don’t think we should accept lower wages from reduced trade just because someone says it’s important for our security.

Ross Garnaut:

Let’s analyze whether the particular restriction on trade really is important for our security. Some things might be. We might need an industry making surgical masks and other protective gear in the pandemic. And that might cost us more than relying on imports. But let’s not just accept what someone says about that because every restriction on trade will mean lower wages and a lower standard of living.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you see opportunities that could emerge, for example, China dominates rare earth metals, which is what people make batteries. Australia actually has quite a bit of it, though we’ve only got a small developing industry. Do you see there’s opportunities, as the world de-couples, that Australia could potentially use that to its advantage as well as maximize its security in the world security?

Ross Garnaut:

Well, if de-coupling goes far enough, then a lot of our rare earths will stay in the ground. Because de-coupling means America first and not relying on countries across the Pacific like Australia. So, I think we’ve got to be careful about that argument. We’ve got a wonderful endowment of a lot of minerals that are important in the new economy. A lot of the battery materials, processing those could be a huge source of growth in incomes. We could do that competitively with China or anyone else. And a healthy global trading system will make those industries bigger, will increase employment and incomes. De-globalization in the big countries on this earth though will get in the way of us taking advantage of those endowments.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Ross, I’m sure I could talk to you about this all day but you’ve got plenty of things to be doing up there in sunny Queensland. But thank you very much for joining us on Diplomates. And really appreciate the time and the insights.

Ross Garnaut:

And very good to talk to you, Misha, and all the best.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Episode Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

I’m here. Thanks for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

 

 

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I’m climbing the walls here mate.

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It is that right? That’s interesting.

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Richard McGregor:

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

Misha Zelinsky (host):

The other difficulty of course is essentially the CCP has been very good at infiltrating all the I suppose the ethnic groups, the Chinese ethnic groups and taking control of those institutions. I mean, how do we push back on the independence of those institutions including things the Chinese language media in Australia, which a lot of it is a mouthpiece straight from the party? How do you see that challenge?

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well the Chinese community in Australia is actually extremely diverse, some have been here for decades. The 70s we got a lot of people after the Beijing crackdown in 1989, we’ve had waves in more recent years. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, a lot of the Chinese middle class as well, very varied. A lot of the evangelical Christians and the like. So it’s a diverse community but as you say, the community groups which represent them and the newspapers which speak to them are not diverse. They are almost entirely pro PRC and the newspapers in fact basically censor themselves along PRC lines. Now, I want to make an important distinction here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of China’s success since 1980, that’s quite natural.

Richard McGregor:

That doesn’t make you a CCP student and we’ve got to be careful about that. But nonetheless as you say, the control of the key groups or the mollifying of them if you like, is really striking. So we’ve got to be very aware of that. Where it’s a problem, we’ve got to be very open about it, sunlight helps. Everybody needs to understand how the Chinese political system works so we can get a bit of, a hate to say this, nuance into the debate. We can make judgments about whether something is in the interests of Australia and whether it’s not. But don’t target the entire community with a single brush because the community is diverse and we would like them to stay diverse in both their political opinion, especially I would say in the political outlook.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I think that’s a really critical point. I mean, I think one of the mistakes we make in the debate is treating “the Chinese community” as a monolithic group. So I think it is very important, but it is also kind of that challenge between that pointy end that seems to be controlled by the CCP and how we navigate around that. The other question I want to ask you and sort of going back to some of the things we were talking about earlier relating to a repression and use of information in this total campaigning both globally and domestically. How do you see technology now seemingly… Once upon a time we thought technology and information was going to favor democracies. Now it seems democracy is being overrun now by misinformation, challenging of sources, impossibility of working out what truth is. The Chinese are very good at it, the Russians are excellent at it. I mean, how do you see that challenge and how do democracies push back against that?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, very good question because you can make sure that the Chinese are pushing on all fronts. They’ve got their domestic internet locked down. They want to at the same time I would say transform or reform in their words, their global internet governance. They’ve got this thing called cyber sovereignty. In other words, they resent the fact that the internet having been set up mainly by the U.S and Western countries has been sort of governed by NGOs set up by those countries at the time. China wants to change that.

Richard McGregor:

Twitter is a great example of how China has it both ways. Inside China Twitter is banned outside China the Chinese government through its various ambassadors use Twitter remorselessly to promote their cause and spread all sorts of information. That same kind of access to Chinese citizens on Chinese social media, on Weibo and things that, the Twitter equivalent is not available. One of the big things you touched on there of course is Western countries being awash with misinformation and not much of it comes from China and Russia.

Richard McGregor:

And I think one of the big tasks is particularly to if not reform ourselves, is to get better ourselves. To make sure our institutions are protected and resilient, that we have a free and open media that is both sort of independent and healthy. In other words, that should, not entirely help crowd out as much misinformation as possible. And if we’re successful our rivals will be less successful. That applies particularly to America, but it certainly applies to Australia as well.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. I wanted to get your take on… I mean, China and the CCP will have to focus a lot of the debate when in discussions about the economic benefits to relationship with the Chinese state. I mean, how critical do you think the issue of human rights is? It’s dropped away now with COVID-19, but the way your issue was certainly getting a lot more attention probably in 2019. How do you see the importance of continuing to challenge China’s human rights record? A lot of countries shy away from it. Do you think it’s important that we continue to step up in that space?

Richard McGregor:

Well, it’s certainly important, but I do think Australia’s ability to lead on this is limited. Unless other bigger Western countries are taking the lead, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to do that. The Chinese don’t even bother to have the bilateral dialogue with Australia on human rights, which we conducted for a number of years. They steadily downgraded the level of representatives they would send to it, now they don’t bother with it at all. In the case of the Uyghurs for example, yes we should continue to pursue that, particularly in where Australian citizen involve, we should continue to publicize it.

Richard McGregor:

The media should continue to write about it. Think tanks like mine should continue to have events about it as well. But we don’t want to have too much expectations about what we will be able to achieve other than keeping it on the agenda. Now I may sound a little bit not as tough as some people would like, but this is not a new issue. China when it was much weaker and poorer didn’t respond very much to what pressure we were able to mount then and what pressure of course the U.S was able to amount then. And I’d say that’s even more the case now.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

But certainly, I mean and I think it’s really troubling that use of the technology in repression of Uyghurs in particular with at least one million people locked away it’s something I think we need to keep striving to draw attention to. But you’re right, it is extraordinarily difficult certainly from Australia on its own, but even from a global coordinated effort. Lastly, I just want to ask your opinion. I mean, we’ve got this big contest, you’re an expert in the CCP and its workings and it appears like this perhaps and it’s of their narrative to project themselves as a irrepressible monolith. But are you confident or an optimist when it comes to democracy prevailing in this contest or are you bearish at the moment in terms of us getting our act together and prevailing?

Richard McGregor:

I’m a little bearish. I do think China’s going to have many more problems than people appreciate or not every… For example, demographics. They’re going to get old very rapidly before they’re rich in a per capita basis. They’ve got enormous environmental problems particularly with water. The economy will not grow even at 6% a year for too much longer. So they’ve got enormous problems, but they’ve had enormous problems for years and they keep exceeding expectations in their ability to manage them. So in that respect, I don’t underestimate them and I think we shouldn’t underestimate them. So then it comes back to your question, can we get our act together?

Richard McGregor:

Well, if the U.S doesn’t get its act together, then it’s a whole new world. We’re already sort of part way down there in Australia by trying to establish much more regional multi-lateral partnerships, tighter relationships with Europe perhaps as well. That is going to be a whole new ball game once the Ex-Americana doesn’t so much fall off the cliff, but no longer becomes the dominant force in the region. This is a once in a two or three generational change in our foreign policy situation, and this it’s going to be a tough struggle I think some decades to come. So I just hope Australians can step up to the mark really and be prepared for it.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Do you see the election in 2020 in the U.S in November as critical to that then? Given that second Trump term could really lock in a lot of those trends you just discussed?

Richard McGregor:

I totally do. I’m sorry to say, but if Trump is re-elected that is a disaster. I’m not saying everything he’s done is bad, but he’s just corrosive for U.S institutions, the importance of at least some level of truth and transparency in a democracy, in stability, in using expert advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. I’ve always thought he’s going to lose actually because I think there’s so many Americans, you can look at all sorts of elections which have taken place, the democratic primaries, the midterms two years ago. So many people want to vote him out, it’s just a matter of the candidate who the Democrats field on the day, most likely Joe Biden we’ll see can get those people out. But I think you won’t undo the damage that Trump has done quickly and I should also say of course, Trump might be a symptom as much as a cause. He didn’t land in American politics a spaceship, the circumstances, the soil had been tilled for many years making way for him. But if he gets another four years then I think that will be devastating for global democracies.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, Richard on that very happy note, I’m going to switch to our final question that I ask every diplomates and I was trying to find something positive to switch us to, but you’ve defeated me. But I’ll get across there in an enormously clunky Segway, but three people coming to a barbecue or foreign guests coming to a barbecue at Richard’s place in Sydney. You’ve noted that you’re in Sydney, so who would they be and why mate?

Richard McGregor:

Okay. I guess we want a Chinese guest. Let’s get Deng Xiaoping along with an interpreter because of his sheer sense, the arc of history of his life is quite remarkable. I think he would be terrific. I would like, and this is by the way I’m not saying all these three people would get along. I’m just telling the people I think-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It might make it more interesting-

Richard McGregor:

More interesting. I think this is a great man of the old elite foreign policy, but a great thinker was a Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson who was pivotal in setting up the post war world. And a third person who I think might be a good peace maker amongst those or somebody who could step in when the conversation froze would be the late Kofi Annan from the UN, a great African diplomat. Many people would criticize him over many different things. He was in a job where he was never going to please everybody, but I think he also had a fantastic career as well. So he’d be my third guest.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, they’ll be fascinating conversations around that table. So we’d love to get a podcast of that one mate so make sure you record it if you do happen to get everyone on.

Richard McGregor:

That’s true, yeah. I’m sorry to sound so gloomy, I’m really sounding gloomy these days and maybe it’s been locked up inside and I can’t exercise enough.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

What is that? In fairness Richard, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so you are entitled to be a little gloomy right now in mate.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well, next time I’ll be happier, I hope.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Indeed. But look, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve given a lot to think about and I really appreciate the chat. So thank you so much.

Richard McGregor:

Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.

 

 

 

Dr. Alexandra Phelan: Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and you should know

Dr Alexandra Phelan is a faculty member at the Center for Global Health Science & Security at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

A global expert in pandemics, Misha Zelinsky caught up with Alex to talk about all things related to COVID-19, including the nature of the threat we face from the virus, the challenges coordinating government responses, the vital role universal healthcare plays in stopping pandemics, why the Chinese Communist Party’s delays at the start were so costly and what Australia and the world should be doing right now.

As a serious note please make sure you are listening to authorities and taking the most up to date advice as this crisis unfolds. The situation may have changed by the time you have listened to this. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Welcome to Diplomates. This is Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Dr. Alexandra Phelann from the United States. She’s Australian but she’s joining via the magic of the internet, which is not yet crashed with all the traffic that’s on it. Alex, can you hear me? Welcome to the show.

Alexandra Phelan:

I can, Misha. Thanks so much for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, pleasure’s all mine and the listeners. I might start, there’s a lot of places you can start with this topic relating to, we’re obviously going to be talking a lot about coronavirus or COVID-19, which is much more sinister-sounding name. Firstly, maybe you could just start by explaining what exactly the virus is. I mean, a lot of people say it’s a bad flu, it’s a killer virus, is it somewhere in between? Maybe you could start there with a short definition.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ll firstly start with sort of two terms. We’ve got COVID-19 which describes the disease, so when people are ill and then we have SARS-CoV-2 which is the name that has been given to the virus itself, the coronavirus and you might here in there that SARS-CoV-2, so SARS coronavirus two, is because it’s closely related to the coronavirus that we saw in the SARS outbreak back in 2002, 2003, but it is a different new novel coronavirus.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are four coronaviruses that normally circulate during the year. They’re sort of a type of virus, a coronavirus, and they normally cause mild illness, so like mild colds, but we do know of two before this virus, more serious forms of coronavirus and that’s SARS that I mentioned and MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is caused by the MERS coronavirus. And those are two viruses that showed us that the coronaviruses can actually cause this serious disease and this third novel coronavirus, so this sort of severe coronavirus is another example of a coronavirus that can cause quite serious respiratory illness being COVID-19.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right. Okay. And so in terms of the next question I think’s useful to get, as long as we’re doing a quick round of definitions. A pandemic. What is a pandemic and how do we define one?

Alexandra Phelan:

Great question. A pandemic is actually is not necessarily a legal term or a specific technical click, it’s more a descriptive term. A pandemic is simply a way of describing an outbreak or an epidemic that has gone over the entire world. And there are different definitions that people use to describe what is over the entire world. Some definitions are simply that it’s to two or three continents. Some definitions say everywhere except Antarctica. But essentially, it describes the spread of disease, rather than the severity of a disease, and as we look at the cases around the world of coronavirus, it’s quite clear that this is a pandemic. Now when the WHO confirmed that this was a pandemic the other week, it didn’t necessarily change anything from say an international law or a governance perspective. There maybe some contracts around the world that might have the word pandemic in them and that’s a triggering event or some pieces of domestic legislation that have pandemic as a triggering event, but as a term, it’s more a descriptor rather than any sort of significant legal designation.

Alexandra Phelan:

There is a term that is significant legally and that’s a public health emergency of international concern or PHEIC and that was declared on January 30th by the World Health Organization director-general under international law.

Misha Zelinsky:

And say that we’re now officially in a pandemic and we’ve got this rather severe version of the coronavirus, I mean, it’s hard to be how worried to be. I mean, can you give a sense to me, because there is so many different projections and people making various calculations as to mortality rates based on data out of China and other places. How worried should people be because it seems that early sentiment, certainly in Australia and I think around the world was people were relatively sanguine about it. How worried should people be and how concerned should we be about the various projections?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so worry versus being informed is a difficult one. I work in pandemic preparedness. This has been my life for the last 10 years and so for me, the idea of worry is not necessarily a good one. I think though how seriously should we take this is very seriously. And the reason being is, I mean models are models and there are limits to what models can actually demonstrate and what models can factor in and there are lots of different models that are being used for this outbreak, but what we are learning based on the observed data and I guess the consistency we’re seeing a range of different models that are coming out of this is that this is going to have beyond what it already has, a significant human health and life impact. If we start to compare it to other, comparisons can be useful to get a sense of things, right?

Alexandra Phelan:

If we compare some of the data that we do have, and again, this is just observed and this is likely to change, we do have some early, what we call case fatality rates. They’re a form of mortality rates that look at out of everyone who gets the disease, how many people actually die and this is being updated because every country in every situation will change the factors that cause whether people die or not die. And so there’s an average case fatality rate of about 3.4% and there’s out of everyone that gets it 3.4% will pass away, but that changes based on the situation. In Italy it’s looking like the case fatality rate is sitting up at that sort of higher-end, maybe 3.4%, perhaps even a little bit higher, but in other countries we’re seeing in say South Korea, we’re seeing it at sort of the lower end, sort of closer to 1%. Now that being said, that number, 1% is still significant.

Alexandra Phelan:

If we compare to past outbreaks and obviously this is the first time we’ve had a COVID-19 outbreak, this is a new type of coronavirus, if we look at say influenza pandemics, and they’re perhaps the most useful comparison, but you can’t really compare them exactly because they’re different diseases and different circumstances, but if I said, we’ve got this 3.4% global case fatality rate, we look at say seasonal influenza. Seasonal influenza each year has around a 1% case fatality rate typically, I mean it sort of changes a little bit, and that does a significant health burden. If we look at say the H1-9, so 2009 influenza pandemic, swine flu, which people may remember, that was about 0.1%. So, if we go from 0.1% to about 1% and then we’re looking at that’s between 1% and 3.4% or so depending on the circumstances, we’re looking at a pretty significant global health burden.

Alexandra Phelan:

The 1918 Spanish flu, just sort of think back to that, which killed more people than both wars combined, had a case fatality rate of about 2%. So, if we’re hovering at around that 2% and we get global spread and we get that 2% globally, and again, it depends all on the situation in each country, what measures countries take to protect their citizens and protect the health of their citizens will affect it, but if we’re looking at those sorts of figures, then we are in this, this is going to be a marathon, this is not going to be a sprint, the global impact and the health impact of this outbreak is currently expected to be significant.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, that’s certainly sobering those statistics as compared to the Spanish flu which killed 10s of millions if not 100s of millions of people. So, just curious, you talked about the kind of the responses and sort of the impact. One of the things that people are talking about a lot is sort of this flattening of the curve, which is essentially governments trying to reduce the speed of the rate of infections, how much can that impact on how the health system responds and preventing the health system being overrun and not having access to respirators et cetera. How critical is that to the response?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so this is what makes this virus particularly concerning is the ability to overwhelm health services. Because when you do have the severe form of illness, which still appears to be only about 20% of everyone who gets it, gets this severe form, because that’s a really important point to make, it looks like 80% of the population will have a mild illness as 20% who are severe, but if we’re seeing 20% of the population with severe illness, that is guaranteed health care system overwhelm. And what we’re seeing in Italy for example, what we saw in Wuhan specifically, not necessarily in other parts in China, but in Wuhan, in Italy, and we are likely to see in other countries around the world, the intensiveness and the severity of care needed is what makes that health care overwhelm. So this flattening the curve, the idea here that is a term that those of us in pandemic preparedness have worked with and it’s wonderful to see this is rolling out and people understanding it, but what it’s worth understanding is whilst it’s about reducing the number of people with the severity of the illness over time, so reducing from being everyone overwhelming the health care system at once and trying to spread it out and delay the people who are getting the severe illness as long as possible so that the health care system can cope.

Alexandra Phelan:

One of the things that’s not reflected in a lot of those graphs is health care services are already overwhelmed in most places in terms of our ICUs, in terms of our beds. Around the world, governments have consistently under-funded health systems or non-nationalized health systems, and so we’re already kind of at health care capacity or very close to. So, even if we are doing this mitigation, this flattening of the curve by focusing on slowing, but necessarily stopping the spread of an epidemic, we’re still likely to meet that sort of peak health care demand at that level, it’s just about mitigating that as much as possible. So that’s where those mitigation strategies are really key.

Alexandra Phelan:

But then the other strategy that we’ve sort of talked about is this idea of suppression, which is not just about mitigating and reducing the impact but also actually stopping the spread to people. So, that’s where we start to talk about things like social distancing, which we can get into. The idea of social distancing is you try to prevent people who are infected from coming into contact with people who are susceptible, and that includes people who may not have severe illness but could then pass it onto people who are vulnerable, which includes older populations. We say older, we’re looking at maybe over 65 as the data again is coming in, but also people with underlying medical conditions that make them more at risk, and again, a lot of this data is observational and on the fly, and so it’s likely to change and that has to inform government policy as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so that’s really kind of critical then how the government responds. Can you give a sense, I mean, you’ve mentioned Italy a bit, maybe what Italy got wrong and maybe some of the countries that seemed to have maybe tackled the challenge. I mean, China had a very aggressive response essentially locking down Hubei province and then having people essentially report to fever clinics et cetera. Are you able to give a very kind of high-level delineations in who’s doing it well and who isn’t and what the key factors there are?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, let’s start with the good example. The good example is South Korea, and they’ve been touted as a good example, and this may change over time. But to date, South Korea have appeared to reduce the spread, have a health care system more able to cope, and have managed to start to reduce the cases going forward from here. What South Korea implemented was a bit of this multi-pronged strategy that looked at both mitigation and suppression. So, what they did is implemented significant testing processes whereby individuals could essentially access tests, to get tested to check if they were infected regardless of their illness and their symptoms, or their travel history, and South Korea was able to run 20,000 tests a day at some point. And that included things like drive-up car testing facilities, as well as actively testing individuals.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now if an individual tested positive in South Korea they were essentially put into sort of a self-isolation and there were a range of different measures that the South Korean government used that helped implement that, which may or may not transfer to other places. So they used extensive mobile phone surveillance and monitoring to help enforce that, which I think that depends on the acceptability of an entire population because, at the end of the day, public health requires public trust. You don’t want to be doing anything that undermines peoples willingness to engage with the government. So, they implemented that testing and surveillance, and so it meant the people that were infected were taken away like they were at home, they took themselves away from the potential risk of spreading it to other people. And coupled with broad social distancing, meaning that people weren’t necessarily going out to restaurants and bars and people were working from home, engaging those sorts of policies so even if someone hadn’t got a test, you’re reducing the opportunities for transmission before someone knows whether they are sick or not. So, the testing coupled with the social distancing measures were incredibly effective.

Alexandra Phelan:

If we now look to say Italy. Italy started its surveillance and testing significantly too late. The social distancing that were put in place were put in place probably two weeks too late and the thing to I guess think about with pandemics and when we do this pandemic preparedness, we say that when you think it’s too early, you’re probably just about to get too late. The whole point of these social distancing measures is to have it in place before you have transmission occurring because remember when you actually are doing a test and you’re finding people are turning up and they’re sick, so you’re doing a test based on them being sick, not like South Korea where they’ve just got testing happening, if you’re waiting for people to get sick, you’re probably two weeks down the track already. There’s been two weeks of … We still don’t know exactly the details of pre-symptomatic transmission, like how long before people show symptoms, can they transmit it, that’s still getting that precise data, but it appears to be an element here. Once people are showing up and they’re sick, it’s already a bit too late.

Alexandra Phelan:

And so this sort of a week and two-week timeframes we’re seeing sort of roll across the world, and so in Italy, once these measures were implemented, sure they might have assisted in bringing down the curve, but by that stage, the system was primed for overwhelm and that’s what we’ve seen in the Italian ICU units in the north of the country. There are some more nuanced sort of distribution of ICU beds within the country that could assist, but the overwhelm has occurred because these measures were put in too late and Italy was the first country in Europe to really be` hit, so it’s also not surprising that these measures were put in too late.

Alexandra Phelan:

I do want to sort of take a moment to mention Wuhan. In China, in other cities, in Beijing, [Shanghai 00:17:16], [Sichuan 00:17:16], et cetera, they implemented these sorts of social distancing measures very similar to what we saw in South Korea and that was very successful. Wuhan is a special category and I think it’s really important to distinguish the successful measures done in other China cities from Wuhan. By the time Wuhan implemented their lockdown, which is a phrase, and if we look at what it technically was it was a cordon sanitaire, which is not a quarantine, it’s essentially a geographic area that has a rope tied around it and said no one can come and no one can go. By the time that had been implemented, there was already significant local transmission occurring. The impact of the cordon sanitaire in Wuhan appears to have potentially delayed the spread, not within China, you know this was happening during Lunar Year travel periods, but perhaps could’ve delayed the spread internationally by a couple of days.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now the question is at what cost those couple of days because we don’t know how many people in Wuhan died from secondary causes as a result of the lockdown from the health care system overwhelm and the appropriate counterfactual would be what if Wuhan back when they had the first notifications from doctors at the end of December or during December and early January, if we’re being flexible with the timing there, if they’d implemented social distancing and extensive testing and gotten those diagnostic tests up and running in time and had that in place, could have it been a very different picture, and I think that is a counterfactual we’ll have to explore in the after reviews of this outbreak.

Misha Zelinsky:

You sort of touched there about the importance of quick response and not waiting too long, but as I think from an Australian point of view, we’re watching the world seemingly going into lockdown, is it inevitable that every country’s going to be lockdown in some way, or is that not inevitable. Because one of the things I’m struggling to understand just as a complete layman in this space is, is lockdown really the best and most effective way of dealing this in a social distancing way but in an almost complete social distancing sense or can it be measured and mitigated in different ways?

Alexandra Phelan:

So I think the first thing I’d say is the term lockdown is getting used to describe just relatively normal social distancing measures that we’d say are quite legitimate as well as very punitive, arbitral and authoritarian measures because the term lockdown doesn’t mean anything right? It’s a descriptive term-

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, for example in LA, right, they’ve just now closed restaurants and bars to the public. I mean, in Australia it was just said, it was no football games, but I think it was quite stark to see cities around the world now where they’re restaurants are shut, bars are shut, any sort of social event is shut.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so that’s happened here in New York as of tomorrow wherein all restaurants, bars et cetera closed. In reality that’s already been happening to some degree. So, if we’re thinking about that, so if we want to use lockdown to mean a few things. I think the measures that we want to be seeing are working from home policies, that should be implemented. It’s already here in New York, that is getting people working from home if they can because not everyone can and not every business can, but where people can work from home. No gatherings, I think the current, and please feel free to correct me was 100 people or 500 perhaps even, I mean that’s way too … 20 people versus 500 people that’s an arbitrary distinction, really it’s about removing people having contact, so I would say even getting the point where people aren’t meeting up with more than 5 people. I think that is what we need-

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow.

Alexandra Phelan:

to be sort of be reducing this transmission, right? Obviously in families, that’s not necessarily feasible, but I wouldn’t be having a dinner party. If they are going outside, making sure they’ve got that physical distance, but I think though when we start to think about things like schools, which this becomes tricky because it might seem counter-intuitive, schools and universities, universities I think there is more of a justification for moving classes to online and reducing that contact, but for schools, one of the things that needs to be consider in this process is the fact that if you cancel schools a parent has to be able to stay home and not all parents have jobs where they will be able to work from home and in particular the workforce that we are particularly concerned about are our health care workforce.

Alexandra Phelan:

One of the most direct ways to stymie say the US health care workforce, and I’m not as across the Australian data, is if single parents have to stay home and look after their kids because a significant number of health care workers, particularly nurses, are single parents with primary carer responsibilities to stay home and look after kids. And the alternative might be to be looked after by their grandparents who we know are a high-risk group, whereas children, thankfully, on the current data appear not to be high risk, so closing schools, particularly say primary schools, can have really significant negative impacts on your ability to respond. And so whilst it might seem counterintuitive, the closing of schools needs to be really well thought through and considered in regards who are the parents that might have to stay home to look after the kids, and that’s why as a social distancing measure, in a lockdown, that may not actually be the appropriate thing.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are lots of in-between, right, you can stagger recess, you can stagger arrival times, you can increase recess times, that’s why it’s a lot more nuanced than I think the discussion has been to date in a lot of the data in Australia, but certainly, mass gatherings, restaurants, bars. There is a social responsibility on all of us that if we take measures now, we could save our grandparents, our parents, and our friends and other loved ones who may be particularly vulnerable to this outbreak.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so this social distancing, or maybe it’s moderate lockdown or that this really like closing down of large parts of the economy, what’s not clear to me at least is how long will this last for and what the aftermath looks like? So I mean it’s 14 days, it’s eight weeks, but then at the end of that period, are we sort of through the worst of it, or can it sort of spike again? That bit’s not clear to me either and I think that’s causing a lot of confusion at least in my mind.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, yeah. I guess from a pandemic planning point of view we always put upfront the economic costs of a pandemic and the reality is the more people who are getting sick and ill and if you don’t mitigate and reduce the spread the bigger the impact on the economy, so it’s like just accepting there’s going to be a loss, it’s just how much of a loss. So in terms of the timeframes and how that factors in, as I said, models are models and they’re not necessarily, you know, they’re not forecasts, they’re not Nostradamus or Cassandra.

Alexandra Phelan:

But some modeling that came out overnight from a group at Imperial and they’re work has been informative for the UK government response and other responses previously, is that we would likely need to be using a combination of mitigation and suppression, so social distancing as well as reducing peak health care demand until we have a vaccine and it becomes widely available and we know from other vaccines we’re probably looking at the 12 to 18 months. So, there has to be some sort of combination with both measures.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now how does that work in practice? Well, we saw that in South Korea, and also in parts of China, we’ve seen the ability to bring cases under control and get case numbers low enough that you can go back to perhaps the testing model of testing if someone’s sick and then isolating them and quarantining their contacts. So because suppression is possibly in the short term, if we could potentially loosen interventions and measures provided that we don’t see a rebound, so it all depends on how good the system in place is for that period in between. So, we could see these temporary relaxations in short windows, but it needs to be able to put the switch back on if we see case numbers moving again. And that can relatively disruptive obviously, but that might be a way of easing the economic and social costs of interventions that are being used over that period until we have a vaccine.

Alexandra Phelan:

A vaccine isn’t guaranteed. We do have incredibly a potential candidate of vaccines out there, but we’ve got to remember the only tool we actually have in our power right now, as humans together against this virus is our solidarity and our ability to act to socially distance and until we have a vaccine and it’s available it’s going to be our solidarity that is going to be what keeps us safe.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it sounds like people should be digging in for the long haul, so maybe switching now just to what maybe individuals should be doing social distancing. What should people be doing as of now, working from home clearly but are there specific measures people should be taking in terms of preparing themselves?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so I think some of the measures we’ve seen in Italy and what we’re seeing here in New York, closing of bars and restaurants and people working from home, but keeping grocery stores and pharmacies open so people can still go get food, and so there’s this sort of rush and panic to have a 18-month prep, that’s not necessarily be required. Having a stockpile of food to sort of get through the next two weeks is a good way of doing it, or having to get through in sort of periods and bursts and that way when people run out it’s sort of much more staggered and people can go to the shops and get groceries. In terms of other additional measures, I think the most important thing, and this is particularly for people who are not in high-risk categories, who are healthy, who are younger, so like under 60, is to realize that they have perhaps one of the most important role to play in stopping the spread of this outbreak and that that is more important than going to a bar with mates or having friends over, and we’re very lucky this has happened at a time where we have tools where we can chat with our friends through video and audio link and there is some really innovative and creative ways we can keep ourselves not socially isolated whilst we’re doing this social distancing.

Alexandra Phelan:

I think the other sort of very individualized measures are clearly washing your hands often and properly, I think people are getting that message. If you do feel sick to contact the relevant hotline that’s made available or health care service to check with them. If you do have any symptoms, to stay home. The reality is, is we say mild illness, up to 80% of mild illness, that still can include pneumonia, so you can still get pretty sick and pretty unwell, but you’re not necessarily at the point of hospitalization and needing the health care service, and so I think there’s going to have to be an understanding that it’s not going to be pleasant for everyone that gets it and has a mild form. Some people will just get a sniffle, some people will get quite sick, but what we need that is our ICUs and our hospitals are available for people who are going to die without that support. So, I think that individual recognition of what is serious and what’s not serious.

Alexandra Phelan:

And I think the final thing is we all have a part to play in protecting the most vulnerable members of our community not just in our behaviors but also ensuring that they’re not socially isolated. Our elderly population or people with disabilities, or other members other community, just anyone in the community might not have the social connections and/or the support systems to be able to go get groceries and do things like that, so I think ensuring that we’re protecting those individuals. And that includes things like ensuring that sick leave is not a limit on people’s ability to stay home. Ensuring that casualized workforce in Australia have access to sick leave and have access to payment protections. There are lots of models around the world where the government’s actually gave hand-outs, gave amounts of money, and not just sort of what we’ve seen in Australia so far, but a broader range of people, and I think those sorts of measures we really need to be thinking about our restaurant workers, our casualized workforce, that need to be part of this because we need to be safe and staying home and not feel the economic individual economic pressures to have to be going to work.

Misha Zelinsky:

I absolutely agree with you around the issue around insecure work and the lack of access to health care. Certainly a concern in Australia, and I know it’s a bigger concern in countries like the United States. In terms of reassuring people, I mean we saw, I think at first everyone was having a bit of a laugh about the toilet paper crisis that seemed to have started in Australia and has spread around the world, but the prospect of panic buying is now very real. We’re seeing queues for things around the world and in the United States, people are queuing for guns, which is concerning, do you think we’ve done enough to reassure people? Because there’s a balance between scaring the bejesus out of people and also making sure they’re properly aware of the facts. So, how have you got that [crosstalk 00:32:09]?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, it is a really challenging example of science and political, and governance communication. There are people who are experts at this, right, people who are experts in how to communicate that tension-

Misha Zelinsky:

Like Twitter, right?

Alexandra Phelan:

… I think if we saw government engaging these experts, in fact in our pandemic plans that is right up there in our top-10 priorities is have expert communicators for this exact issue. So, what people should be doing is having enough food and supplies that they feel that they can stay at home for the two weeks, in case they are sick and they stay at home for that entire period. And recognizing that hoarding is … You know, you see these posters during WWII, hoarding is unpatriotic, we’re kind of in that sort of period, right, where this is take only what you need to keep you and your family safe, and you might need to change some behaviors to be able to take less than what you would normally need. And I think that’s where there’s also a role for government in communicating what’s going to happen in terms of supply chains and logistics about access to food and how those supply chains are going to be kept active so people know that hey in two-weeks’ time when I’ve served my period of isolation, I need to go out and get some more supplies, get some more food and whatever that they know that they can.

Alexandra Phelan:

In New York, a number of restaurants have shifted to go and delivery so that they can keep their staff on board and can continue to provide food and done in a way where it’s pick up and drop off so you don’t have any individual contact between the people delivering and people who are at home. And so in facilitating those sorts of supplies and facilitating a much clearer communication is really key to addressing that balance. It’s a hard one but it’s possible.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s the role here? So, how concerned are you as someone as an expert, I mean I was half-joking about Twitter, it seems to me that every single person’s now an expert in infection rates and global health policy, but how concerned are you about the role of social media in driving fake news and being able to distinguish what’s happening and what’s not happening? And also, I think, it’s very difficult for people as well with the flood of information from around the world, not just in their own jurisdiction, how do you see those challenges in amongst all this?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so I think there are two elements here. The first element is accuracy of information and the second element is mental health. So, the accuracy of information is we’ve become accustomed to receiving information from multiple sources, reliable and unreliable, and over the last four years, in particular, there’s been a lot of discussion about how do you stop unreliable information and where do you get reliable information. One of the advantages of a public health threat is we do have already established authorities on public health and that’s the World Health Organization, that’s the Center for Disease Control for the US, that’s the different public health departments in Australia, and I think I haven’t been up to date on what the Victorian Department of Health has been communicating. WHO and CDC have lots of really shareable memes on social media, they’re not actually memes they’re just images, but really shareable ways of communicating accurate information. So, if you are using Twitter and Facebook, I would make sure you’re following WHO and your state, as well as the federal health department, because they have been engaging in really active and proactive communication on those tools and I would limit where you get your information to those sources as much as possible, partly because of the first reason, for getting correct information, but also the second reason is mental health.

Alexandra Phelan:

A pandemic is a scary thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty and in that uncertainty, we can get worries and fears, as well as misinformation. There is constant information coming from other countries, accurate and not accurate, there’s constant levels of panic and fear and people telling other people not to fear and not to panic and dismissing what are quite legitimate concerns in many respects, so I think if you are not working on the outbreak directly, and it’s not necessarily directly relevant to what you need to be doing in your day-to-day apart from what you are doing to protect yourself and your family and your community, limiting the information you get to perhaps once a day. Maybe it’s the news broadcast at night or even radio at a certain time of day, or to the WHO or CDC or where ever you’re getting your news and limiting it, because I can tell you from someone who’s been following this outbreak since 31 December 2019, it can very quickly because overwhelming and very quickly that sense of lack of control, like what can you do as an individual. So I would focus on those steps that we spoke about and limit your time on social media in so far as you can while staying connected with your friends and family and loved ones.

Misha Zelinsky:

Staying off social media generally is good advice, so [crosstalk 00:37:56]. So, yeah you talked a lot about governments and the important role that they play here, I mean unfortunately in some instances we’ve seen I think rather poor leadership. I mean how helpful or unhelpful do you think the political class has been around the world on this issue? Who’s doing it well, who’s not, and what should they be really doing to restore a sense of calm to this?

Alexandra Phelan:

I think one of the best examples that we’ve seen in terms of political communication and political messaging and leadership is in Singapore, we saw the Singapore government very early come out say what they’re going to do, very clear messaging, balanced, and I think there’s a couple of rules for political and health communication that we try to follow. You say firstly, what do you know, what you don’t know, what you’re doing to find out and when you’re going to speak with people next? I’ve seen the state of Victorian Premier Andrews do exactly that framework in a number of the messaging and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples within different levels of government in Australia as well. So, I think clear messaging and leadership upfront and early is really key and that Singapore is a great example.

Alexandra Phelan:

We look at WHO, I’ve openly critiqued them on a number of different issues with this outbreak, particularly on human rights and international law norms, as well as public health messaging, but to their credit, one of the most incredible things WHO and the Director-General Tedros and others have been doing these daily updates to press, really clear messaging, again, what we know, what we don’t know, what we’re doing to find out, and when we’ll be back and I think those are some really great examples of communication. And it really shows how communication is so central to leadership and when people don’t hear from their leaders, they get worried. And I think having clarity of messaging is one of my biggest concerns with the current outbreak back in Australia and how it’s being dealt with. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just expanding on the Australian response, it seems that we are at least somewhat behind the rest of the world maybe by fortune of our geographic isolation, ability to control our borders, I mean what would your advice be to Scott Morrison and the rest of the authorities that are responsible for this, what should we be doing urgently?

Alexandra Phelan:

So, the first thing I would say actually is to push back a little bit on that. Pathogens don’t respect borders. So, the fact that Australia’s a little bit behind in terms of timing is not a factor of border security, in fact at one point, we can maybe at another date how border enforcement can actually make things worse, or perceived border enforcement. But it is potentially a fact of our geographic isolation in terms of just number of travelers from the relevant parts of the world that has made a big, big step. Sorry, I got so distracted with making a particular point I forgot the rest of your question, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s okay, it’s an important point to make and as I said, I’m more than happy to be corrected on this topic, I do not claim to be an expert.

Alexandra Phelan:

No, no, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, so what would you be advising the government in Australia to be doing if for whatever reason we do seem to have some time still up our sleeve?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely that’s spot on. So, what we have right now is that time up our sleeve. There is already local transmission in Australia and so we need to start recognizing that we need to have measures in place now that address social distance and for people to limit that local transmission. We can’t rely on trying to control who comes in and out of the country, it is already here, it is already in Australia. So, what is needed is, I think there should be a move to issue advisories about limiting all mass gatherings, so I would say, over 20 people. People should and this is advisory and I’m deliberately using the word voluntary and advisory here, we can sort of talk about mandatory and criminal in a moment. There should be a prioritization of testing. We’re already at risk of running out of certain re-agents as I understand in Australia, so I think guaranteeing and shoring up our supply chain to actually conduct testing and to continually proactively test anyone who is showing symptoms, regardless of their travel history and perhaps facilitating testing through things like drive-through testing, continuing to set up specified clinics and to have that testing for people who have symptoms or who are our contacts of people who have symptoms or are confirmed.

Alexandra Phelan:

We then also be needing to look at our own measures. We should be looking at an encouragement and people who can, working from home. If they can, work from home. I think the universities, makes sense also to be shifting to a university-from-home model, where applicable, where okay. The school closures, as I mentioned earlier is a little bit more tricky and a little bit more difficult and I think that should be thought through very carefully because of the risk it will have on our health care workforce and our vulnerable elderly populations if those measures are implemented. The next thing we need to be doing is preparing a health care system. We do not have enough ventilators in Australia to cope with this. We do not have enough ICU beds in Australia to cope with this if we have transmission what is modeled in other countries and what we’re seeing in other countries.

Alexandra Phelan:

What we need to be doing is can we increase those direct items, do we have ability to get more ventilators, and get more beds, and that includes being ready to … When I say ready, I mean within the next two weeks, if we don’t see any particular shift in transmission being ready to be able to have our hospitals in surge capacity, that includes cutting elective surgeries and getting ready to have our system and perhaps already depending on what capacity is like in hospitals now, already be switching to have our hospitals in crisis standards of care, which that’s when we’re determining who gets access to ventilators. We need to have those plans in place now because you don’t want to be making those ethical decisions on the fly. And to be having our hospitals ready and supported ready to go for when to surge does hit.

Alexandra Phelan:

We’re going to be seeing, I think the thing I would say to people is do not be surprised and alarmed as we see cases doubling or exponentially growing because that’s exactly what we’re expecting the virus to do. So, when you see breaking news cases have doubled overnight, or whatever, that is expected and what you see today is two weeks after the infection occurred. So, we need to be putting those measures in place now so we are stopping that spread and it may seem like it’s too early, but that’s exactly when we’re talking about a pandemic, that is exactly when you need to be putting these measures in place. I think the cancellation of mass sporting events I think they’re absolutely the right decision and I think we need to be moving to those measures now.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now I mentioned the mandatory and criminal thing. Something that has concerned me is, so I worked on these laws in my undergraduate law dissertation was on these laws in Australia, when you use punitive criminal laws, you push people away from the public health system. You push them towards the criminal system, you push people towards avoiding interaction with authorities, whether they be police or public health.

Misha Zelinsky:

Because you don’t want to admit that you have it so you’re better to hide from it.

Alexandra Phelan:

Absolutely. And that’s when it goes underground. That’s when we see transmission, right, because people don’t want to engage. I was deeply disappointed to hear the Prime Minister say talking about dobbing in your mate who comes into work to the police. That’s is a strategy for underground transmission in Australia that we cannot track and it is not the right message, because we are about to go into a pandemic most likely in Australia, well we are in an epidemic, we are mostly likely drawn into the scale that we’re seeing around the world to some degree, we may be able to flatten it and move it to a different trajectory if we act now. What we need right now is solidarity and trust in our authorities and trust in each other and it is much better than if your mate comes into work that you say, “Hey, you go home right now. You have to go home.” Than you’re calling the cops. We need to be in this together and we need to support each other, and support our most vulnerable populations and moving towards a criminal model, I can tell you now from someone who’s worked in this field for a decade. criminalizing anything to do with health will always make health worse.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a very strong message and I think that’s something we should absolutely take on board here and around the world. Now just one, as we get towards the end of this. I know you got important conversations to have and important work to do. You talked before about the Wuhan situation and the origins of this outbreak, I mean, you talked all about the government response information sharing, how big a stuff up, and would it have made a difference had the Chinese authorities sort of acted earlier rather than covering it up. I mean it’s all sort of been forgotten now in the flurry of activity, but of course, at the time doctors were being arrested for diagnosing the illness and things like of that nature, as essentially the system tried to manage up, to hide the problem emerging. How big a problem was that delay in the beginning to where we are today?

Alexandra Phelan:

I think we will get some really interesting counterfactual model or sort of post hoc models to look at exactly that, that if this was reported. Again, this ties into the point that I was just making, that we know that a system that shares information, that is transparent, that is based on public health principles and is based on human rights, including the right to health and the right for everyone to have their health protected by the government, we know that those systems are much better at responding to infectious diseases and so measures that discourage notification that penalize individuals speaking or reporting, or a bureaucracy that deliberately slows down the sharing of information upwards and the reactions out of concern of potential punishment, we know that already, we know that that makes health worse, so I think that it will be very unsurprising if we have after-action reviews that sort of look at if we had had action by the Wuhan government in early January. So, even when this was reported globally, but if Wuhan specifically, we’d seen action in early January, rather than keeping the lid on things whilst the regional meetings were being held, then I think they’re quite conceivably could’ve been an appropriate response that mitigated and contained the outbreak at a much earlier stage.

Alexandra Phelan:

The nature of exponential growth means that the earlier that you can get in the more lives saved and the economics, like the economics, aren’t really what’s going to be at play here, but that’s the early you intervene the less the impact. I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be going forward because we’re going to have a long way before we get to those sorts of after-action reviews, but yeah, I think that will definitely be a point of many, many PhDs to come.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sounds like you’ve got one in the making there for yourself, but how do we future proof ourselves against future pandemics. I’m sure there’s someone who’s thought about these for a very, very long time, probably been jumping up and down producing reports saying that we’re not prepared for pandemics, we’re not pandemics and being ignored. What are the things that, you know, we obviously need to control this outbreak now, but what are the real things we need to be doing to future proof ourselves against future problems like this?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, we need a couple of things. The first is we need investment in strong domestic health care system. We’re incredibly lucky to have Medicare in Australia and we should not be cutting it, we should not be underfunding it, we should be supporting our systems. To be able to have the capacity to prepare for pandemics like this let along every day health of Australians and that’s around the world, universal health care around the world. So, ensuring that health care is affordable, it’s available, it’s acceptable and it’s accessible and it’s quality around the world.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are a range of different capacities as under the piece of international law called The International Health Regulations there are these core capacities that countries are obligated to implement. There is an external evaluation available of countries to assess whether they’ve met those requirements and so there are tool kits, there are frameworks, and there are legal obligations that already exist for pandemic preparedness. And yes, we have been jumping up and down for the last 10 years and longer, so investment in not just in our own countries but the investment in the health systems and pandemic preparedness of other countries around the world, because we’re interconnected. If this pandemic has shown us anything is an outbreak anywhere is a public health threat everywhere and rather than placing blame on countries it’s about building up their support and their capacity to prevent, detect and respond to these outbreaks in the future.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Alex, this has been a hell of a conversation. I’m certainly more informed, though I don’t know if I’m any less alarmed, but to bring some kind of levity to this conversation, I normally find some clunky way to segue and I can’t possibly think of one for the final question about a barbecue at Alex’s place with three foreigners. Now, it is three, which does make it under your number of small gatherings, so we can still go ahead, though you might need to buy some stuff ahead of time and I can’t guarantee everybody’s going to make it there, but who are the three foreigners at a barbecue at Alex’s and why?

Alexandra Phelan:

You know what? I might need you to ask this question again, Misha, at some point, because I have been so busy I haven’t been able to sit and think about who I would invite to my barbecue. I think I’m still in social isolation mode.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you know what? I’m going to let you off the hook. Ordinarily, I don’t let my guests out of here without answering the question but given that you’re fighting the good fight on behalf of Aussie’s in the global debate, I think I’ll let you off the hook, but-

Alexandra Phelan:

I appreciate it.

Misha Zelinsky:

… it’s been a fantastic conversation. Really appreciate your insights and good luck with the fight against not only this pandemic, but all future pandemics. Thank you very much.

Alexandra Phelan:

Thanks, Misha.

 

Dr Michael Fullilove: Why middle powers matter – managing China in an era of Trump.

Dr Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. An adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Rhodes Scholar and renowned foreign affairs expert, Dr Fullilove is a widely published author and a much sought after global commentator.

Misha Zelinsky up with Michael for a chinwag about how Australia should interact with a rising China under Xi Jinping,  the madness of US politics and what a second Trump term might look like, how open systems of government still have the upper hand, why the world might be one elected leader away from a new sense of calm, and why – despite everything – Michael remains an unabashed optimist about the future. Be sure to listen to Michael’s special shout out to the ‘Deep State’!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Michael, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you for joining us.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank you for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, pleasure’s all mine and listeners. Now, so many places to start obviously, but you’re a noted internationalist and probably a tough time to be an internationalist with global politics being as they are. There’s so many reasons to be pessimistic.

Michael Fullilove:          Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talk a lot about being pessimistic, would you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist about the future of our foreign policy and the world more generally?

Michael Fullilove:          I’m an optimist by instinct and by nature. I think there’s lots of reasons to feel down at the moment because you’ve got a leader of the free world who doesn’t believe in the free world and doesn’t want to leave it. You have a West that is stepping back from its traditional role, you have non democracies up on their hind legs, you have an international organization in the UN that’s sort of unable to solve the global problems that we it tasked with solving.

Michael Fullilove:          So there are a confluence of factors that make one pessimistic, but as against that, I never underestimate the genius of humanity to get its act together and solve problems when they come into focus. And also never underestimate the role of individuals because I think structures matter, structural reason, the world changes for vast impersonal reasons, but also because of individual decisions that individual leaders make.

Michael Fullilove:          If Donald Trump, for example, I’m sure we’ll come to him later, if Donald Trump is not reelected president, if a Democrat of any stripe really is a reelected president, I think that would be a burst of adrenaline for the international system. I think a lot of the world would say, “Wow, maybe we’re getting back on track.” Maybe they’d be more impetus to solve some of these bigger global problems.

Michael Fullilove:          Similarly, if we go to the UK, I don’t think Brexit would have happened. You can’t explain Brexit without the role of one or two individuals, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. If Hillary Clinton had won the election four years ago rather than Donald Trump, then we’d probably be living in a different world. So we are at… the sort of pendulum is swinging in a bad way at the moment, but I always believe the pendulum will come back.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think though, this period that we’ve had, this 30 year period that people seem to want to hark back to around the liberal world order, is that an anomaly though? Are we just going back to the way things always have been, which is big power politics and big strategy or strategic role rather than the world harmoniously operated by one hyper power?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that it’s all to be played for. We don’t know the answer to that. It’s obvious that power politics is rushing back, and if America is considering America first, then it’s natural for other countries to do that. But I do think that the benefits that were provided by the liberal international order that existed came into being sort of after the second World War were incredible in terms of economic growth.

Michael Fullilove:          There were so many wonderful things that were achieved in that period that I’m not ready to write it off and say, “No, we’re out of the garden, went back in the jungle.” I think we can get back to the garden, it’s all to be played for. but there are a few big decision points coming up and one of them is the U.S. election.

Michael Fullilove:          I think if Donald Trump is reelected, I think it becomes much harder to maintain that garden. Suddenly the world will adapt to that, they will start to say the United States, which is in the cockpit of the world order has really changed, it’s a different country from what we thought it was, and that will have all sorts of flow on effects.

Misha Zelinsky:             Let’s talk about us politics. Politics has gone a little bit mad in United States. You heard the Iowa result, one result, we’ve had the president recently acquitted by the Senate, Republican Senate of largely partisan basis apart from Mitt Romney. What do we make of the madness of U.S. politics leaving aside global politics? And how does that flow into… Because you’ve painted the positive picture, but let’s talk about the negative picture?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s very hard for an America far like me. Bear in mind that I spent a lot of my life reading about the U.S. politics and the U.S. role in the world. I wrote a book on Franklin Roosevelt who helped to establish the international order that we see crumbling in front of us.

Michael Fullilove:          So for me to go through even just the last week or two, the incredible incompetence of the Democrats in Iowa, the sort of partisan acquittal of the president really after really atrocious behavior in relation to Ukraine. And then the state of the union, the garishness, the grotesque circus-

Misha Zelinsky:             Is almost like an Oprah Winfrey TV special.

Michael Fullilove:          And I don’t acquit the other side either. I thought-

Misha Zelinsky:             Tearing up the space?

Michael Fullilove:          … Pelosi’s bit tearing up the space. The whole thing, it feels like the country’s coming apart at the seams, doesn’t it? So look, voters of New Hampshire, we look to you to restore some order.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, you’re an avowed Americanist, everyone knows that. How does the world operate without its traditional leader? Or can it operate without its traditional leader?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s hard and it’s a challenge that we have been trying to come to terms with really since the second half of the Bush administration, I would say. I think in the first administration of George W. Bush, the first term they overreached, and then in the second term they started to step back.

Michael Fullilove:          Obama for all his qualities had a much more limited view of America’s role in the world and he hoped that as America did less, other countries would do more. You remember that was the sort of the hope that in the middle East that the Europeans and someone would step up as Americans tried to lead from behind.

Michael Fullilove:          And what actually happened was that as America did less, everyone else did less too. So this is the problem, it’s hard… I think middle powers like Australia should do more with other middle powers.

Michael Fullilove:          I think we should do our best to hold the system together until the fever passes in Washington, but it’s hard because middle powers don’t make the international system great powers, super powers make the international system. The international system tends to acquire some of the features of the most important powers.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t know the answer to your question, Misha, we’re living through an experiment. I think all of us have to do what we can to hold the system together and hope that America returns to some form of normalcy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you’re absolutely right, history is governed by events that are these pivot points, Brexit, which we’ll come to, the 2016 election is perhaps one of the most classic in contemporary politics, but let’s fast… And you’ve painted a rosy picture potentially of what a democratic presidency could do for America, but the global mood so to speak, but let’s fast forward to a second term of a Trump presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:             Strikes me that much of Trump’s worst do you think have been largely contained by the institutions? May be almost struggling to the point now he’s busting out against them. Can the institutions survive a second term of Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s the big question and having just come back from the United States, it feels like we’re probably more likely than not to have to grapple with that question. Look, the glass half-full view says that as you say, “The institutions have more or less held together the free press, the U.S. civil service to some extent, the deep state [crosstalk 00:08:24]”-

Misha Zelinsky:             The national security systems.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank God for the deep state.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m going to end up with a lot of [ATMS] from some interesting people on Twitter, but anyway.

Michael Fullilove:          Bring it on, bring it on. So that’s the positive view, and of course… I’ve said to my American friends, “Don’t forget halfway through a second term, a president tends to enter the lame duck phase and event start to move on, and often the most important changes that a president brings in happen in the first term.” So that’s the glass half-full.

Michael Fullilove:          The glass half empty version says that we will have Trump unleashed, the deep state will wither away. It will be impossible to… We’ve already seen him come back at issues again and again like free trade, and alliances, and other things and this time he will overcome the resistance. I suppose we also have to think, even if he limits himself to two terms and you’d have to say based on everything you see about him, I don’t know why he would think the constitutional limitation should apply to him.

Michael Fullilove:          What happens after Trump? Does the Make America Great Again movement survive Trump? Does someone else called Trump run for president in four years time? What does that do to the democratic party? This is the fear that if you have two terms of Mr. Trump, does that really knock the country off course? And does it start to spiral away like Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter? No.

Misha Zelinsky:             He goes from being an anomaly to systemic-

Michael Fullilove:          Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             … force.

Michael Fullilove:          The new normal.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right. And so that I think is an interesting question to pose. We could probably talk about Trump all day and we will return to U.S. politics in a global context. Jumping across the pond as a word to the UK, Brexit. It’s now done. One of the things that people feared was that the UK leaving Europe would be the first of a domino effect. Next would come in France after that might come Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think there’s more to come in Europe? And what’s the net impact of Brexit on Britain, but also on the European union, which is critical to the liberal world order? It’s a sleeping giant in many ways.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the good news is that Brexit has been such a shamble that no one in Europe wants to follow the Brits. And so you remember after the Brexit vote, people were talking about Frexit, and Grexit, and Spexit, and all the rest of it. But now I don’t think… I think everyone looks at that and says, “No, we don’t want that.”

Michael Fullilove:          Now, one possible wrinkle on that is Scotland where suddenly you’ve got a country in a nation in Scotland that is in a very different place on Europe and many other issues from England, so that’s a caveat. I don’t think Brexit will break up Europe, but I think what Brexit will do is first of all, it will make Britain poorer and more distracted than it would otherwise have been.

Michael Fullilove:          And as you say, we’ve historically relied on Britain to be one of the tent poles of the international order, the most internationally focused European country, the one with the greatest, with big economy and outward-looking economy, trade dependent, strong military and intelligence services, and it has been blown off course, it’s been heavily distracted for five years and it will continue to be that way.

Michael Fullilove:          I’m not a total bear when it comes to Britain’s future, I think Britain’s got a great future, but I think it’s going to be less than what it would have been if it had stayed in Europe. And to come to the other bit of your question, I think Brexit will make the EU smaller by definition, weaker, poorer, less liberal, more statist, less pro American, less willing to stand up to Russia.

Michael Fullilove:          So I think the net effect of all this is to benefit enemies of the West, adversaries of the West in the Kremlin or [Xiao Nan Hai 00:12:48] and elsewhere.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think a Scottish independence vote is likely? It’s interesting question, isn’t it? Because the Scots voted to stay perhaps principally because they want to stay in the EU and then their friends down South have now taken them out of EU, it’s interesting problem politically.

Michael Fullilove:          I hope it doesn’t. Look, I hope it doesn’t because all the… I just think Scotland adds so much to the United Kingdom that… My people are from Ireland and England, not from Scotland, but I just think it would be a shame for Britain as a country, but also again, it would further distract, it would be more lead in the saddles for Britain.

Michael Fullilove:          And really someone like me wants a Britain that gets over this, that does get Brexit done and gets over Brexit and comes back to playing a confident outward looking role in the world. We need that. And another extended debate about Scotland and the impoverishment of the country that would come from Scotland, exiting can only be bad news for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you mentioned the Kremlin and Russia, and clearly they had a hand in Brexit, and they had a hand in the 2016 election famously, and there’s talk that they might have a hand in the 2020 election. But I want to talk a little bit about open and closed systems because this seems to be the big trend we’re heading towards is that for a long time we had a globalization led by United States and more democracy and there’s going to be integration, et cetera.

Misha Zelinsky:             And what we now have is two worlds, one that’s characterized by a liberal openness of information, of people, of exchanged and increasing closed essentially autocratic systems. Traditional theory has been the open systems would win. Bill Clinton nailing jello to a wall, good luck with that. If you want to control the incentive, of course, it appears to be the case that the closed systems are winning and using the openness against them.

Misha Zelinsky:             Why do you think that is the case and what’s the way for democracies to guard against that without losing the closing themselves?

Michael Fullilove:          I think in the end, open systems work better, and I think to return to the metaphor of the pendulum, the last 12 months or 24 months, we’ve gone through this period of the strong men where we were worried by the rise of the strong men. But if you look at how countries like Russia and China are doing now, would you say that closed systems are working when you look at Russia’s economy, the fact that it’s in a demographic death spiral?

Michael Fullilove:          Russia has an economy not much larger than Australia’s.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, Mr. Putin plays a poor hand well, and he invests heavily in his military, in his ability to cause problems and cause mayhem elsewhere. But in terms of delivering economic growth, and happiness, and good health to the Russian people, that system is a failure. If you look at China, it’s a different story I think.

Michael Fullilove:          You have to acknowledge the success of the Chinese system in the last few decades as it opened up, but if you look at coronavirus and you look at the reporting now about how Chinese bureaucracy has refused to come clean quickly, you can see that that closed system to come to answer your question, doesn’t respond well to these shocks. An open system that is open to science and open to transparency will work better in the long run.

Michael Fullilove:          So I believe in our system and I sometimes I want to shake people in the West stop, and shake them out of their topper and say, “Don’t underestimate the system that our fathers and mothers fought for and our system is better than their system.” And I’ll tell you what, if we could elect a couple of leaders in big Western countries that would change the psychology.

Michael Fullilove:          To come back to the structural versus individual, don’t underestimate that the fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States, the fact that Merkel who was so impressive for a long time is fading out of the picture, there’s not that many big Western leaders that you can look to and say that they’re really impressive.

Michael Fullilove:          Whereas as I said, say Putin seems to play weekend well, Xi Jinping is obviously sort of a world historic figure. I admire Macron in many ways, and I think if we could get a couple of other Western leaders out there that might change the psychology a little bit.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting though, isn’t it? How much do you think the crisis of confidence within the West, not just in the leadership, but almost in the system itself? You look at polling, which says, “Younger people have concerns or they don’t think democracy is the best system.”

Misha Zelinsky:             Or just generally that the West doesn’t seem to have the swagger it once did maybe in the Cold War days where literally believed in the system and self-evidently projected in that way. Do you think there’s something to that? So that may happen?

Michael Fullilove:          I do. I think that… What’s happened is first of all, the forever wars that disenfranchised a whole generation of people around the West who didn’t believe in those wars, and also who not only thought the wars were wrong, but then watched as the Wars were not won. And their system seemed unable in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere to win those wars.

Michael Fullilove:          And then the global financial crisis I think was the second blow of the hammer and the ongoing effects of that’s had, inequality. I think these are the problems that these have shaken our faith in the system. Now, it’s interesting when you mention that polling.

Michael Fullilove:          The Lowy Institute polling for a number of years has found those concerning results among younger Australians that they don’t necessarily believe that democracy is the best system, but what’s interesting is that we dove deeper a couple of years ago and did qualitative polling as well to try to work out why we were getting those quite shocking results.

Michael Fullilove:          And younger Australians didn’t say that they necessarily believe that authoritarian government is better, it was more to do with disillusionment about how Australian democracy is working. So concerns that the parties were not different from each other, or the politicians were only in it for themselves, or that the system seemed to be broken.

Michael Fullilove:          I think there’s a grain of hope there. I don’t think young Australians want an authoritarian system, but they want our system to work better, and so do I. I would like to have politics in Australia and around the world that is solving the problems rather than being concerned with their own position in the hierarchy.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve spoken a couple of times about inspiring leaders. Are there any leaders that you can see on the horizon you think that man or woman is someone that get us to this place?

Michael Fullilove:          Well, I mentioned Macron. I love the audacity of Macron, I love saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             Starting a party from nowhere and just-

Michael Fullilove:          Incredible, amazing. Imagine that in the Australian context, not just becoming president under the age of 40 have a nuclear power, but shattering the old parties hold on the political system. Buttigieg is showing similar-

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, he’s interesting.

Michael Fullilove:          … audacity in a way. But I think it’s too soon to put our hopes in him. So I like Macron, I like the fact that he thinks big, he thinks about these big issues. I would also say I wouldn’t again, at the risk of getting mobbed on Twitter, I have much more time for Boris Johnson than the many people, and I think that I disagree with Boris on Brexit completely and I think Brexit was totally wrong headed for the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          But I think Boris is more of a liberal, cosmopolitan leader than many people think. I think his instincts on immigration and questions like that are much more liberal than people think. I think there’s a glimmer of hope there and just to offer a third leader if I can. For some years I’ve had an eye on Keir Starmer who seems to be the front runner at the moment to lead the labor party in the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          Starmer is someone of real… who had a distinguished career as a prosecutor, someone who’s a sort of fully formed human being with a hinterland. Very interesting guy, and I’ll tell you, if he could… To go from Corban to Starmer, that would be a big battlefield promotion, so fingers crossed.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay. You’re clearly passionate about democracy and someone believes in heavily. How concerned you about this notion of political warfare and the border [Kratz] dabbling in Western democracy using social media or weaponizing institutions against Western liberal democracy? How concerned are you about that advent because it’s reasonably new, but it seems to be getting worse not better?

Michael Fullilove:          It is concerning, but here’s the good news story is that Australia has responded. The whole Australian system has responded to attempts by foreign interference, especially from the Chinese party state in the last couple of years in a way that’s very interesting. People overseas often talk about Australia as the canary in the coal mine, but I say to them, “Some canary.”

Michael Fullilove:          The problem with that is a canary has no agency, does it? It’s just a bird in a cage and it either dies or it doesn’t die. Whereas actually what Australia has done is stood up for itself, and that’s partly policy changes at a government level. It’s partly the political class on both sides coming up with a new bipartisan approach. It’s also the media.

Michael Fullilove:          There are probably half a dozen journalists in Australia whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning, but it’s the scoops that they have led, especially in the old Fairfax press actually and in the ABC, not exclusively, but especially there that has thrown light on some of the problems in the system.

Michael Fullilove:          So if you ever thought that an individual can’t make a difference in society, that’s not true because those stories forced the political class to focus on it first, forced all of us to focus on it. And now a lot of countries abroad are saying, “Okay, Australia seems to have done a few things right here.”

Michael Fullilove:          And you start with transparency and throwing some light on what other countries are trying to do, how they’re trying to get their hands in the stuff of our soul.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’re absolutely correct about the press. I think we are critical of the press and its role at times, but I think they’ve done an outstanding job in that context. Now, switching to China and the critical nature of the Chinese relationship to Australia’s future. How do you see Australia managing its relationship?

Misha Zelinsky:             Is our relationship with the U.S. central to this? Because a lot of people say, “We don’t have to choose between the economic trade relationship and our security relationship.” But increasingly those two countries are choosing at least strategic rivalry for not shifting towards some kind of cold war. What is our position within that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think on China, I think our policy is properly a mix of engaging with them battles so hedging, and it has to be an intelligent mix of those two, and you’ve got to work out when you engage and when you hedge. I think we should cooperate with China where our interests overlap, and sometimes our interests will require us to say yes to China even when the United States says no to China.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t think we should look at China always through an alliance prism. I think we should be ambitious when we see opportunities to pursue our interests. But I think when our interests diverged from China’s interests, we have to be very tough minded and very clear and consistent about why we’re doing something, we’re going in a different direction.

Michael Fullilove:          And that’s very hard to do, especially when your own politics is as fragile as ours. We’re not in the freezer with China, but we’re kind of in the bar fridge where they’re not that happy with us, and that’s fine. We’ve stood up for ourselves, but Beijing hasn’t really put the weights on us in the way that it has put the weights on the South Koreans and a couple of other countries. So it will be interesting to see how we respond if they ever do.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the other thing is to say that the U.S. matters because like most Asian countries, we want a U.S. engaged in the region because it helps to provide some balance to the force if you like to go back to the Star Wars metaphor. And it’s easier to maintain our freedom of movement and independence when there’s at least two big States in the region.

Michael Fullilove:          And the other thing that I think is important for us to think about when we think about China is not to shrink Asia to the dimensions of China. And not to forget that there are a number of other big Asian countries including Japan, and South Korea, and Indonesia and Vietnam, and others, and we need not focus on China both in positive and negative ways to the exclusion of those other countries.

Michael Fullilove:          We need to thicken those countries and have a sort of a balanced Asia relationship and not too focused on China.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because one of the things undercooked is clear relationship with India. Certainly, our relationship with Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, but do you think there’s a case for deeper links between the democracies of the Asian and Southeast Asian region and working together, not necessarily as an avert way to the Chinese Communist Party, but just as a way of promoting democracy in the region?

Michael Fullilove:          Yes, I do. I think that it’s totally legitimate for democracies to get together and to work out where their interests overlap, and if we believe in our system, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying that. I would also say though that there are some countries that are not democracies but are not necessarily in the China camp as it were.

Michael Fullilove:          And it’s useful for us also to thicken our links with those countries, so yes, I think we should be… I think India is a big opportunity for us, but I’d also like us to do more with a country like Vietnam that’s certainly not a democracy, but that has different interests from China’s.

Michael Fullilove:          And the more we can thicken those connections, the more we can complicate the region, the harder it is for any one state to dominate the rest of us. And that’s what all of us want, we all want the freedom to make our own way. None of us want to live in another big State’s shadow.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a really interesting point. Speaking of big States and in the shadow, what’s your take on the Pacific in the way there’s been the Pacific step up, which is arguably Australia has been a little bit of sleep slip of the wheel given our importance in that region, but China has been exceptionally assertive in that area.

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned are you about that in that particular context?

Michael Fullilove:          I think we’ve got a lot of equities in the Pacific and I don’t think we should get jumpy about China. I do think it would be inimical to our interests if a country like China were to establish a military base in the Pacific, and we need to be very nimble about how Pacific Island States are relating to Beijing.

Michael Fullilove:          But let’s not underestimate the strength of our connection to the Pacific, and one of the research products the institutes put out recently that I’m very proud of is the Pacific Aid Map where we tracked all of the aid to the Pacific from all the donors around the world, including China.

Michael Fullilove:          And one of the highlights from that index… from that map, I should say, is that Australia provides 45% of total aid to the Pacific, and if you add the Kiwis, it’s 55%. But if you read the papers, you think China’s aiding our lunch in the Pacific, but actually more than half of the aid comes from Australia and New Zealand.

Michael Fullilove:          And we still have these very thick person ties to China, and most Pacific elites know that sure there’s money to be had, there are commercial opportunities with China, but that in the end, Australia is a better longterm bet. Again, to go back to what we were discussing earlier, we have to be confident in ourselves, confident in our history and confident in what we bring to these other States.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just circling back to United States and Trump in the context of Pacific and Asia Pacific politics. One of the things that is notable about the Trump presidency is how transactional in nature it is. How concerned should we be about the nature of the alliance given the isolation, tendencies of the Trump presidency, given the transactional nature?

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned should we be about the formality of the [inaudible] alliance in that context? Is it bankable? Can we take it to the bank or is it ultimately going to be another deal to be made or broken by Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s a very good question. You’d have to say that the relationship between the Trump administration, the Morrison government is very strong really. So we’re not at risk in the way… The Eye of Sauron is not on us. But having said that, the truth is that Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in alliances and he’s said that consistently for 30 years.

Michael Fullilove:          Let me put it this way, it’s hard to think of a less reliable Alliance partner if your country was in trouble, someone who is less disposed to risking American lives and spending American blood and treasure in defense of an ally on the other side of the world.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, of course, you can’t shrink the American system to the president, and in extremists there’d be lots of people around the president saying this is important.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the links are deeper than the presidency.

Michael Fullilove:          The links are very deep and the deep state, again, thank goodness for the deep state and the deep states, but it has to be admitted that I think… Of course, every country, there’s like an Abacus in the capital and they’re constantly assessing other capitals in terms of reliability, and an intention, and capability and all that.

Michael Fullilove:          And of course, allies around the world are looking at the United States and looking at the president’s instincts and it doesn’t us more confident. That’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:             One thing that’s been very consistent about the Trump presidency has been his approach to the Chinese Communist Party, particularly the Chinese Communist Party under Xi. It’s a very different beast, modern China to even to China of five, 10 years ago. Do you think the world was naive about the rise of China and wasn’t live to the changes under Xi’s regime?

Misha Zelinsky:             Or have we been asleep at the wheel and say that the South trying to see, should we have been Sterner there? Could some of these sudsiness we’re seeing now had been dealt with by being a bit stronger earlier on? How do you see that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that Obama for example, could have been firmer with China definitely, and I think Obama had unrealistic expectations. And I remember this because I was in Washington when he came into office and he really felt that the United States and China could form a group of two at G2 and they together solve all the problems. And I don’t-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is funny, he was an optimist about these things.

Michael Fullilove:          He was. He was an optimist, yeah. But I think that was too optimistic. Yes, I think we misread it, and a lot of analysts misread Xi Jinping in particular, a lot of analysts. Most China analysts thought he would be a steady as he goes leader and not a transformational leader. So I think that’s true.

Michael Fullilove:          The question is now how do we deal with this new China under Xi Jinping where more and more power is being concentrated in the person of the president, where the country has great strengths as we see in military expenditure, and confidence and so on, but also has great weaknesses as we’re seeing in the coronavirus.

Michael Fullilove:          This is the big challenge for leaders, getting the mix of hard and soft, standing up where we feel that China is overstepping the appropriate bounds for a sovereign country, but on the other hand, not squeezing China and not acknowledging that. Of course, it’s a great power and it deserves certain progressives and it deserves respect. The mix of hard and soft is very difficult one to get.

Michael Fullilove:          And on Trump, I don’t really know what Trump’s settling point on China is because he’s very tough on China when it comes to trade, but I don’t think he really cares about security issues when it comes to China. Very hard to imagine Trump caring about half submerge water features in the South China sea. So let’s see where he comes down.

Michael Fullilove:          Today, he’s been tough on trade but not on other [crosstalk 00:35:54]-

Misha Zelinsky:             He’s been tough on 5G though, on techno nationalism, but arguably that’s a trade that he sees it as but.

Michael Fullilove:          There was that tweet, remember when he kind of hinted that if Xi Jinping gave him a good trade deal, maybe Huawei could get it back in. To go to your earlier question, the problem is everything is transactional for Mr. Trump. Everything is a deal waiting to be had.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so what would that mean for something let’s say Taiwan or Hong Kong? He was reasonably firm on Hong Kong, but do you think Hong… sorry, Taiwan is as big a red line for the United States as it is used to be under Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          That’s a very good question. That’s a very good question. I would defer to specialists on it because there’s so many different angles to it, but starting from first principles, not withstanding the vibrancy of Taiwanese democracy and the legitimacy in my view of Taiwan playing an important part in the role in the world, I think if it came down to a sort of a crisis and Mr. Trump had a 3:00 AM moment, I think he’s much more attracted by the idea of doing deals with Xi Jinping, the leader of a giant superpower than he is about defending a scrappy, tiny democracy.

Michael Fullilove:          That’s sort of from the first principles, but of course, as you know, the relationship between the militaries of Taiwan and the United States are very deep as well, so it has a lot of support in Congress in the media. So it’s a complicated question, but I don’t think Trump’s instincts play well for the Taiwanese.

Misha Zelinsky:             A sobering point to leave the formal part of our conversations, but we’ll now switch to the real meat of the debate, the thing that everyone’s been waiting for is barbecue of Michael’s three guests, alive or dead, but they’ve got to be foreign, they can’t be yours. I’m sorry to say [inaudible] but who would you have and why?

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I like the fact that you do it as a barbe because everyone has who do you want to invite to a dinner party or whatever? And barbes are more fun than dinner parties anyway.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s true. There’s more beer.

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I would have to have FDR because I spent years writing about FDR, first of all for my Master’s thesis, then my PhD, then a book. And when you spend so long thinking about someone, you wonder always what would the guy be like, what would actually be like to meet. So that would answer that question for me.

Michael Fullilove:          I would have a strong hypothesis, which would be that he would be great fun because he always mixed the drinks in the oval office at about 5:00. He’d mix the martinis and have everyone in for cocktail hour. And he was just a charming personality, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about him.

Michael Fullilove:          In fact, Winston Churchill said of FDR that meeting him for the first time was like opening your first bottle of Champagne.

Misha Zelinsky:             That is a hell of a rap.

Michael Fullilove:          Now of course we’re going to serve beer at our barbecue, but having someone who has a bit of bubbly to his personality would be good. Secondly, I would probably invite Grace Kelly because I’m a big Hitchcock fan and I loved her. She was such a charming, interesting, intelligent figure with such a crazy life story, and I love that period of all Hollywood. I love Hitchcock movies, and Billy Wilder movies and stuff like that.

Michael Fullilove:          And thirdly, to round it out because we’d need someone to entertain us, I’d have Bruce Springsteen because-

Misha Zelinsky:             Boss.

Michael Fullilove:          … I’m a big longterm fan of the boss. Love his sentimental blue collar view of American democracy, I love his love songs. He’s such an authentic character that I think he would ground this otherwise highfalutin barbecue, and I think he’d be the kind of guy who’d be fun when you’ve got a couple of beers into him. So that’d be my barbe.

Misha Zelinsky:             Or Champagne as it were, but that sounds fantastic. Look, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Michael Fullilove:          Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s been a fantastic chat and good luck with everything [crosstalk 00:40:38]-

Michael Fullilove:          It was a lot of fun. Thanks.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.