Kal Raustiala 0:10
Good morning, everyone. Welcome back to another episode or zoom performance by the Burkle Center. We're very happy to have all of you with us today to hear from Ben Rhodes, who I'm going to introduce in a moment. So just a reminder about our format for this morning. I will briefly introduce Ben. Ben will come on and talk about his new book. And then he and I will have a conversation about it. And then we'll open it up to questions from all of you. So please send in your questions using, I think it's the q&a feature. We'll send an announcement around about that and I'm happy to pose those to Ben. And we'll wrap up in about an hour or so. So let me introduce our speaker and guest for today. So first of all, many of you know Ben as co-host of Pod Save the World, which he's done for several years now. Of course, former adviser to President Obama for the entire eight years of the Obama administration. And since getting out of Washington, Ben has written a couple books. Now the first book, The World As It Is, was really a kind of straightforward memoir of his time in office. And the second one, the one we're going to talk about today, After the Fall, which I have right here. And of course, highly recommend - a very interesting take, you'll hear about it in a moment, has just been released. I'll also add Ben is a former professor at UCLA. So he taught a course for us, in fact, he talks about it in the book a bit. And Ben doesn't know this, but I'm hoping to drag him back into that at some point in the future. So let me turn it over to Ben Rhodes. And we'll get into his book discussion. Ben, welcome.
Ben Rhodes 1:49
Okay. Thanks so much Kal. And good to be with you. And yeah, I would love to come back to UCLA. You know, the parking aside, I had a wonderful experience. And, look, I'll start by just kind of walking people through, I think what I was trying to do with this book and how it kind of got written, because I think that that sets up what we'll talk about in the q&a. But essentially, for me, you know, I left government after eight years, you know, from the time I was 31 to 39. And I'm kind of spit out on the back end of this experience. And really a decade if you count the two years of the Obama campaign - incredibly disoriented. I think, anyone who goes through 10 years, in that kind of circumstance, you know, there's a natural disorientation to leaving the room where things happen, and from that degree of stress and adrenaline. But then when you compound that with the fact that, you know, Donald Trump is president of the United States, and he's dismantling on a kind of daily basis the things that you worked on, and he kind of represents the opposite of, of everything that you cared about. And as someone who worked on global issues, as I looked around the world, that was the dynamic that I saw, happening in more and more places, if not, kind of seemingly everywhere. I wanted to figure out a way to, to think about that in the process of myself, and ultimately to write about it. And I think the starting point for me is I started to travel a lot. And this book is really about, you know, looking at the United States from the outside in, a bit like being in a dysfunctional family where you have to step outside to understand what's happening. Not that I've ever had that experience, but, you know, there are a couple interactions that kind of planted the seed that became this book. The first one is in 2017. I was traveling actually with former President Obama in Germany. And I was in a place called Baden-Baden in Germany, which feels like the kind of place that an exile goes to, which is very much how I described my feeling as being an American in the Trump years, and I met a young woman named Zhanna Nemtsova, who had driven over to see me. She herself was exiled, essentially she was the daughter of Boris Nemtsov who had been assassinated in the shadow of the Kremlin. Nemtsov had been kind of leading the oppositionists to Vladimir Putin for years and had been killed. And she had left Russia in part because she was trying to pursue support for a true investigation into the killing of her father. And, you know, she wanted my help. She wanted Obama's help. And I had a very disorienting experience. This is only like a couple of months after we'd left office and realizing that I couldn't really help her. I mean, I didn't have the same you know, capacity obviously, that I did in government to do much to help her. But her story was incredibly compelling, and she was incredibly compelling, not just her dad, and I realized how interesting it is to be able to inhabit what's happening in the world through this one person's story that she's telling me - of everything that happened in her family's life. And to kind of wrestle with it as someone who has worked on those very same issues from a position of political power, and now is looking at them from the outside.
And then, you know, a little bit later, I was meeting with a democracy activist from Hungary. And Hungary is a country that is essentially gone from being a liberal democracy to being something of a single party autocracy. And I asked them, you know, can you walk me through how that happened under Viktor Orban, your prime minister, who was elected in 2010. And he said, well, it's quite simple. Viktor Orban was elected on a right wing populist backlash to the financial crisis, he redrew the parliamentary districts to consolidate control for his party, he changed the voting laws to make it easier for his supporters to vote. He packed the courts with right wing judges, who would find in favor of his power grabs. He demonized civil society past, you know, some restrictive laws there. He enriched a set of cronies, who then financed Orban's politics, but also bought up pieces of the media and basically created a massive right wing propaganda machinery. And they wrap this whole thing up in a nationalism message, an us versus them message where the "us" is the true Hungarians, and the "them" are Muslims and immigrants and refugees and liberal leads and George Soros. And, of course, he's describing this to me, and I'm thinking, well, you know, this sounds a bit like my lived experience of the last decade, and so then I realized that the idea for this book was essentially that I was going to try to understand the nationalist and authoritarian trend that was taking hold around the world, both as a means of understanding what's happening globally, but also as a means of understanding what's happening in America.
And I ended up kind of choosing four countries that I unfortunately, could have chosen more, but four countries where I was going to find characters to tell the story. Hungary, Russia, China, and America and each of those in their own way, presents a different kind of flavor of this trend. But they're all connected. And in many ways, America is kind of symbiotic with all of that. And I'll just kind of briefly give people a sense of what I found in each place. I mean, I think Hungary was a fascinating place for me, because it's kind of a small to medium sized country. It's been kind of a laboratory for the reemergence of this brand of really blood and soil ethno-nationalism, that is more reminiscent of kind of pre-World War I times. And, you know, I met with a young woman who started with help from friends, a new political party that is challenging Orban. This incredible anti-corruption activist Sandor Lederer, who's the one that I referred to earlier, and investigative journalists, civil society activists...so I had kind of a cross section of people, mainly younger people, my age and younger, at least. And how is their lived experience, told the story of what's happened in Hungary, and what people are doing to push back. And what I was really struck by is the extent to which, you know, the financial crisis in 2008 had been this kind of cataclysmic event. Orban himself described it as on par with the three great global regime changes of the 20th century, World War I, World War II, and the end of the Cold War, although he said, you know, everybody knew in the 20th century when they woke up, that the world had changed the day after those things ended. Not everybody understood the finanicial crises but he did and people like him did. And the story that I heard from my Hungarian characters, was basically one of democracy not living up to the promise that people had after the end of the Cold War, a sense of kind of mounting frustrations with the inequality generated by liberal democracy and the corruption that crept into Hungarian politics. And when the bottom fell out in 2008, Orban recognized that confidence in democracy itself had collapsed, particularly confidence in the kind of American-led globalization as a system that was kind of fundamentally unfair, in the same way that the last system was fundamentally unfair, you know, there may have been more freedoms, but there was still this kind of rampant inequality and sense of dislocation. And there was this kind of unresolved history that bubbles underneath the surface of Hungarian political life, kind of like underground rivers, the unresolved history of the battles between communism and Nazism and Hungarian society where some people have collaborated with either side of that. And he kind of grabbed hold of Hungarian politics, seizing on those grievances in that, in that kind of backlash to the collapse of confidence in this model, and he was kind of pulling it back to this very familiar, ethno-nationalism, which again, as as my interlocutors reminded me repeatedly, is more the norm than the exception. I mean, Hungary had only been a democracy for, you know, around under 20 years before Obama was elected, but also, just throughout history. There's something unique about the post World War II period where there is progression towards democracy. And as one of the people I talked to, actually a British counterpart in this told me, you know, there's something of an elongated reason cycle that we were shocked by World War II and by the Holocaust into putting up some guardrails and tempering that ethno-nationalism and having debates about ideologies, but less about the kinds of things that got us into World War II. And as that historical memory had faded, this has now reemerged and I think the Orban story is emblematic of what we see in the politics of a lot of countries, a lot of democracies in particular, that are drifting in a more nationalist direction. Then Russia was a very logical next step, because Orban had, in many ways, just copied the playbook that Putin himself had generated. And I spent a lot of time, obviously, thinking about Vladimir Putin over the years. But for me, it was instructive to really go back to the point of origins and I talked to Alexei Navalny,
I talked to Zhanna Nemtsova , who I mentioned, and a couple of other Russians. And, you know, Navalny's story was incredibly instructive to me, because he described, you know kind of that sense of grievance and humiliation born out of the way that the Cold War ended. He described being a child, and, you know, he's taught to believe that Russia is the greatest country in the world, or the Soviet Union is, and then all of a sudden, it collapses, and he's getting Western army rations as a child and hearing him just recount that, you can kind of feel the kind of grievances that a Putin was able to tap into after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And then his own career and Boris Nemtsov's, you know, has its roots in kind of the 1990s, when you had this kind of massive sell off of the Russian state enterprises, in incredibly, incredibly corrupt ways. You know, everything that the Soviet state once controlled, is just kind of being sold off bottom dollar to people who are becoming billionaires, while everybody else is kind of getting screwed. And that kind of compounds his sense of rage and disorder. And Putin simultaneously steps into that. And he simultaneously capitalizes on the grievances while enriching himself and his cronies. But by manipulating this, and evolving his own story, kind of traces his arc because he starts out as kind of an anti-corruption activist and one of the liberal parties in Moscow on something simple. He's seeing neighborhoods getting destroyed by major real estate developments that are not compensating people who've been kicked out of their homes. And he's challenging these in courts, and he's losing because he's realizing the whole system has been rigged, and it's all corrupt. And he goes kind of independent, becomes an anti-corruption activist standing up to Putin and he's incredibly innovative. He buys shares, just a few shares, of different Russian national oil companies so he can sue them and get access to their books. And he kind of parallels, you know, Putin's increasing repression. And then what I described, is essentially how after Putin had consolidated his power in Russia, he kind of sets out on a counter-revolutionary movement against America and and the liberal order. And that's when you get an increasingly assertive and aggressive Russian foreign policy that's aimed at undermining democracy itself, not just in Russia but everywhere. And he finds obviously, these perfect tools in American-made social media platforms that give him entry into the lives of every one of us. And so this machinery that he's built in Russia, to kind of control what people are consuming and thinking, you know, goes on offense along with the kind of repression of people like Navalny and others, but also great innovation from people like Navalny, and the Russians that are standing up to this. And we can get more into kind of some of the lessons that may be taken from that. And then I went to China and, you know, I really immersed myself principally in the Hong Kong protest movement, but also talked to people from China, Mainland China itself, although, even though I traveled to China those conversations tend to take place outside of China. And were China is, is actually where I see the future in the sense of, you know, I described the experience of being in Shanghai and being woken up in my hotel room and visited by some Chinese officials in 2017, who wanted to warn me that Barack Obama should not meet with the Dalai Lama. And what was so disconcerting about that, is in part that we hadn't announced a meeting with the Dalai Lama. This was not a public thing. And so the implicit point was, somebody's communications were being monitored. And I remember walking out and and looking at the Shanghai skyline, which looks like the future, it's beautiful, kind of futuristic skyline, lights glistening out on the water, there's people taking selfies everywhere. And I remember thinking to myself that, you know, this is quite logical that if you take kind of America's 30 years of global supremacy
and hegemony and you take the capitalism and the national security focus and the technological mania, and you just stripped out democracy, you would get exactly what I was looking at, you know, and that kind of planted the seed of like, well, I want to think about how is America been a part of these trends and how we wittingly or unwittingly, also contribute to them. And the Hong Kong movement was a fascinating window into how young people in particular, are figuring out what their identities are, as there's this encroaching future in which technology facilitates a much more totalitarian control over what you can say and do and ultimately what you think. And then I end with, the longest section of the book is about America itself. And I'm the character and Obama comes in and out and a couple of others. And where I really land here, as we go, you know, I had the unique experience of finishing this during the pandemic and BLM and the election, is that, you know, the most important thing we can do for ourselves in the world is not a foreign policy or domestic policy, although those are things we need to do. We have to figure out what it means to be American. What is our democratic identity that we seem to have lost and seems to be so contested today? So I'll stop there, Kal. I went on for a bit. Sorry about that. But it's, you know, I wanted to set up everything and happy to talk about any piece again.
Kal Raustiala 18:20
Great, that was fantastic, Ben. And I'm just gonna hold the book up again so everyone can see it. Maybe you can't actually see it with this crazy backdrop. But there's a link circulating around and the book actually has on the cover a scene from Hong Kong and kind of umbrellas everywhere. And it was kind of evoking a lot of things you just talked about. So, you know what, there's so many interesting things about the book. And it's -so I've read your read your previous one, which is, you know, also a terrific deep dive into what it's like to be in the White House. But in many ways, a much more straightforward memoir. This one is sort of a combination, as you kind of suggested, of a memoir, kind of travelogue, but also a lot of interesting thinking about what is the world that we're in today, and how did we get here and to some degree, where we're going, but more how did we get here. And with that in mind, you mentioned 2008. And that really does jump out a lot in the book as a really pivotal turning point. In history, I think one of your characters at one point, one of your interviewees calls it like a hinge point or uses a phrase like that, that I think really captures something that I think virtually everyone listening or watching right now, we remember it, but it's interesting to go back, something that isn't actually all that far away. I don't remember feeling like it was a hinge point. But it was, so maybe say a little more about sort of how you came to understand that in writing the book.
Ben Rhodes 19:50
I was really struck by that, Kal. And look I it knew was a huge event at the time and obviously consumed the early part of the Obama presidency, but I think it was a bigger deal than we even foresaw. I think the place that started this is when I was in Hong Kong. I actually talked to a Hong Kong government official, anonymously. And you know, I said to him, I'm working on this book about the rise of nationalism, authoritarianism. And where do you begin, you know, and he said, well, it goes back to 2008. That's when, in the West, people lost confindence in liberal democracy. And that opened the door to the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism. And that's when here in China, the government looked around and said, wait a second, we don't necessarily have to wait and defer to these guys anymore. Maybe there's a model, we can challenge them with our model, instead of just kind of developing in parallel. And that kind of summed up in miniature, kind of one of the core arguments of the whole book, which is, that's what happened. Now, it's obviously a more complicated story. But I do think that, you know, in the West, in kind of, you know, the democratic world, if you will, that event was a big, big deal, in the sense that America already kind of been....the Iraq War had already kind of delivered a bit of a body blow to kind of confidence, and the Americans knew what they were doing, and were trusted stewards of this. But the main thing that we had done, you know, after the fall of the Berlin Wall - and these three countries I look at are all on the other side of the Berlin Wall - it just kind of unleashed this flood of globalization, which really was capitalism, and in some places was democracy too. And that seemed to have this extraordinary momentum like that everything was kind of solved, and people are gonna get woven together in the system that inevitably was going to make places freer. And when the bottom fell out of that, it was like, well, maybe this isn't the best option. Maybe we should start shopping for other ones. And I think that's what that Hong Kong official was telling me. And that's definitely the feeling you got. I mean, if you look at even the Brexit slogan, Kal, and I look at the UK a little bit in this book was, "take back control". You know, I think there was a sense that everywhere that, you know, people lost control and their traditional identities, usually, their ethno-nationalist identities kind of became the port in the storm, after that financial crisis, which by the way, most of the rest of the world felt much more acutely than Americans. As bad as it was here, it was much, much worse in places like Hong Kong. And I do think there's something in China to this idea that they were always kind of growing and growing, growing, but they were kind of, you know, on certain core things, like we defer to the Americans. And as one person described to me, the moment when Alan Greenspan testified after the collapse of the economy, he asked what went wrong, and he said there was a flaw in our thinking. And the flaw was assuming that firms would essentially have a self-interest in their shareholders' interests. And he was like, bam, that was the moment, that was the gunshot, here in Asia like, there's a flaw, you know, and so the Greenspan was kind of this Oracle, and, you know, kind of emblematic of this whole system if he doesn't know why this happened. Well, maybe the Beijing consensus is, is the better bet.
Kal Raustiala 23:32
Yeah, it's interesting, because I was kind of mulling, you know, was it the problem that capitalism of the sort that drove us to 2008, was it that a capitalism itself as a kind of inherent, or was it kind of a bad form of capitalism? So on the one hand, 2008 seems like yeah, Greenspan, I'm sure is right. And we had flaws in our system. But on the other hand, you talk a lot about the kind of crony capitalism, yeah, that arose in places like Hungary and Russia, in particular, and you kind of point out that Russia was really the template. And there, it seemed like maybe the problem was not that we had too much, too many markets or too much market, but that the markets were just totally rigged. And here, they were kind of rigged too, but not nearly in the way that they were in Russia. So anyway, I don't know there's really an answer to that, you know.
Ben Rhodes 24:23
No, it's a critical question, because I do think that in places like Hungary and Russia, and I would argue, to some extent here, you know corruption itself and just kind of crony capitalism, an oligarchic capitalism has really been the driving force behind the authoritarianism. I mean, Putin basically runs a racket, and so does Orban to some extent, maybe, you know, or Biden's childhood friend who was meant for being a pipe fitter to a billionaire, you know, I think these things are connected Kal, in the sense that I'm like, I'm all for capitalism, you know, to some extent. But it was the kind of unregulated, you know, the Americanized kind of unregulated form of capitalism, that kind of washed over things had these blind spots, you know, and in America, the blind spots were, you know, financial schemes, and the kind of policies that just exploded inequality. As that kind of hit places like Hungary and Russia, the blind spots became, you know, there's a tolerance for this kind of corruption. I mean, go to, you know, Davos, right, like, I haven't been, but I mean, it's a pretty safe bet that if you went there, there are a lot of oligarchs, you know, with private jets, you know, and they're on panel discussions with, you know, the great titans of industry and politics in America like, this, the whole, this whole system kind of knew what was happening and was kind of like, well, but it's all for the good. And, you know, Navalny told me that, you know, the oil crisis, he's like, look at that playbook, right to put in jargon, because Putin, at the end of the day, doesn't push back that hard against the idea that there's some corruption, but his argument is that it's corrupt everywhere, the Americans have a different version of corruption. And when the banks are getting bailed out, and everybody else is kind of getting screwed in the U.S., that's like his argument, like see, like, you know, they may have democracy, but it's the same thing in the end. And I think there's...so again, I don't want to assign all the agency to us, but I do think the excesses of our kind of post-Reagan Cold War model, you know, in a lot of ways this book, where I'm critical of the U.S. and self-critical in ways, even about some Obama policies, it's the excesses that came from being so powerful, you know, that power corrupts, right. And I think this is one of those areas where, even though we were not constructing these oligarchy schemes, we tolerated the blind spot, and we encouraged those Russian sell-offs, you know, that created this, we thought, well, just privatized everything and it will work out. And it didn't.
Kal Raustiala 27:12
Yeah, the other thing that jumped out at me, I mean, there are many themes kind of running through the book, but 2008 was one of the big things that kind of really jumped out. The other one was, you have this phrase which I forget if you got from one of your interlocutors are not, which isn't maybe unique to you, but really was a running kind of theme in the book, the notion that the 20th century was a century of ideology. 21st century appears to be a century of identity. And obviously, those are not distinct eras. Yeah, you have overlap, maybe even in the 90s, in a lot of ways, or maybe even earlier, but there was a way in which, you know, when we look back, it's amazing actually how much people cared about ideology in the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, and didn't really think in identity terms the way that they do today, all over the world. So anyway, that was something that really jumped out. And I'm just curious about how you see that unfolding going forward. And what do you think the cause of that is?
Ben Rhodes 28:11
So this....Bao Pu who was one of the lead characters...fascinating guy. I mean, I just hope people find his voice as compelling as I did. Bao Pu was in Tiananmen. His father was a senior Communist Party official, but in the reformed camp. He sees people shot all around him. His father gets basically imprisoned or at least put under house arrest. And Bao Pu leaves China, comes to the U.S. for awhile, then goes to Hong Kong were he sets up a publishing house that publishes a lot of the kinds of things that the Chinese Communist Party doesn't like, right? They've never been published on the mainland.
Kal Raustiala 28:48
His father was pretty high ranking?
Ben Rhodes 28:50
Yes, yes. His father was high ranking. His father was kind of the adviser to the, was an adviser to the general secretary, you know, so this is someone in the middle of things who wanted to negotiate with the students. And Bao Pu made this case to me that basically that the Chinese Communist Party, after Tiananmen, understood that they needed new sources of legitimacy that, you know, they're looking around the world and they're like, communism isn't gonna be it anymore. And what they kind of settled on is okay, part of the legitimacy is what we know about the economy and just results is gonna be legitimacy, people getting lifted out of poverty. And I want to be clear, like some extraordinary things have happened, including hundreds of millions of Chinese people being lifted out of poverty, but also, they turned very aggressively to Chinese nationalism. And they, you know, they'd once discarded under Mao, say Confucius, and suddenly they are embracing Confucius and Confucian values and the textbooks and the education system in the media is becoming much much more nationalist. I mean, remember communism was global, right? And suddenly this is kind of a re...a steady rebranding of the Chinese Communist Party as kind of this blend of state controlled capitalism and Chinese nationalism and essentially making themselves inseparable from Chinese identity. And so it's Bau Pu who made this point to me more broadly that the 20th century was about ideology, fascism, communism, capitalism, democracy in Hungary lived right on the frontlines of that and Russia, obviously, was a participant in that. But that the 21st century is about identity. It's about, you know, the older questions of who we are, the intent in the direction of nationalism, and particularly ethno-nationalism. And I think that's right, you know, and if you look around, you know, from here, with the internal difficulties we're having in this country, to Brexit, to what's happening in Hungary to Hindu-nationalism in India, to you know, what Erdogan's done in Turkey to, obviously Putin. I mean, this is what's happening everywhere, a version of this. And I think that's very bad. Because this kind of.... where does that lead? I mean, that it only leads to kind of conflict. That's why we moved away from nationalism after World War II. And, you know, it's not, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. I think people need identities, people need to feel centered. And inevitably, a reaction to globalization was going to be people being like, wait a second, like, you know, I get why people don't want to just live in a world in which they don't feel like they belong to a smaller community, you know, but one of the things I heard from the younger people, you know, say, the young Hungarians, and to some extent, the Hong Kongers, although in a different way, is it that you can have different identities, you know, you can....Hong Kongers are like...our identity is our city, you know, it's not a nationality, our city kind of stands, our city stands for some values. And in Hungary, what I heard is a guy saying, like, look, the answer here is, well, the political party that I looked at that was founded by these young people, their whole point is like, I think I can be Hungarian, and European. I don't think those things are in conflict. I think those things are very complimentary. And so younger people are kind of figuring out ways to have multiple identities. And that, I think, is our only hope. Because if we are defining ourselves only by our different identities, only by our differences, you know that's never led anywhere but to bad things in history.
Kal Raustiala 32:36
Yeah, yeah. No, I agree with that. It's interesting to think about. I don't know if you went back and looked at, you know, Sam Huntington, the late Harvard professor who wrote these two essays in the 90s, one clash of civilizations, that got a lot of attention. And then the other one was something like who we are, you know, who America...I can't remember what the title was, but essentially, also, he was lambasted for both of them in a way. That was probably, you know, I think justified to some degree, but he was pretty prescient about the way that these identities, even if the details aren't necessarily correct, that identity would be the key feature going forward, and that we here in the United States would also face this struggle of who are we as a nation? And you actually spent a fair bit of time in the book trying to unpack that. What does it mean...Trump has an answer, the republican party today has an answer. It's a white nation. It's a Christian nation, a nation that is definitely is not Barack Obama.
Ben Rhodes 33:31
Kal Raustiala 33:32
And you know, where I think most of us, I'm imagining on this call, certainly, me and you, Ben, have a different view of what America is. And think that, you know, it's fantastic that America is this place that people are drawn to from all over the world, and that that's one of our strengths, that we're actually a diverse nation. But that's a true struggle. And in any event, he saw some of those things early on. And I think you're right, the issue of, of coming to a sense of identity that isn't necessarily exclusionary or hostile to others is going to be the key feature. And to some degree, I don't think you talked about this in the book, but I was struck thinking about how, you know, the 50 states all have identities, in a sense. You know, you and I both grew up in, you know, New York State and live in California, and we kind of have identities as New Yorkers or people of different identities, you know, but we still think of ourselves as Americans. And there is a way in which you can have multiple identities and many Europeans absolutely do. So I think you're right about that.
Ben Rhodes 34:31
Yeah, I just want to say one thing on that. I totally agree. And I do mention in the book, you know, how I thought of myself as a New Yorker, as an American, as someone from a Jewish background, even though religiously Jewish and we, I think, you know, what should be so great about America is we're supposed to be the country that solved this problem...that you can be from anywhere and believe anything and be American. And what I think America is, is a place made up of people from everywhere, where a multiracial multi-ethnic democracy allows us to to try to get better, tries to live up to this kind of story we tell ourselves, and in a way Trump and Obama are perfect, you know, opposites, you know, Trump the exclusive identity that is largely white and Christian and backward looking. Obama, you know, the inclusive future, you know, the idea that America... in his own person, he blended together these different identities. And, and I think that, you know, throughout our history, right like that, we had a Declaration of Independence, where...that said "all men are created equal" that was written by a guy with slaves. Like, this has been not a new competition, but it plays out in new ways. It's particularly intense now and like, look, part of it and the truth, and I wrestled with this book is like, you know, Obama's....I remember saying to him an argument that I make in the book, which is like, well, in the Cold War, you know, it did seem like at least everybody agreed upon certain basic things. You know, we were for these things and the Soviets for these other things, and there were kind of guardrails against someone like Trump becoming president. And as Obama pointed out to me, Yeah, well, yeah, all the people in the room were white man. So it's easier to agree on all these things. And so part of the challenge here, and I talked about it in the book, is that the particular American flavor of this is yes, some of the 2008 backlash that led to like the Tea Party was the sense of grievance, because the system appeared rigged but some of it was that we had ta black president. And that increasingly, you know, that we're an increasingly diverse society. And there's been a reaction to that. And that's what makes these stakes so much higher here is that we're either going to kind of work through that and emerge on the other side as a truly diverse and inclusive nation, or we're not. And that either way, it's going to be incredibly disruptive to some people.
Kal Raustiala 36:46
Yeah. Yeah, no, I agree completely. So do you see a...let me just ask you a little bit of...you brought up China in a few different ways and obviously it plays a large role in the book. The U.S.-China relationship is so complex, and you had a kind of bird's eye view for many years. But now that you've done this kind of research for this book, and thought a little more about where we stand in 2021, where do you see that relationship going? Because you know, the two nations are on very different political tracks. Even though you show some tangencies, one of the things that's striking about China, that you point out as others have, is the way that technology is being used in nefarious ways. But of course, that's also true here. It's maybe not the government that does it. It's private sector, but either way, technology is kind of rapidly kind of controlling us. And that's one of the points you make in the book that there's this kind of, I think you use the phrase techno-totalitarianism.
Ben Rhodes 37:43
Kal Raustiala 37:44
You know, which is, I think, pretty accurate. So I'm curious where you see U.S.-China relations going in the near term given the kind of disperate path we're on right now, even with these commonalities.
Ben Rhodes 37:56
I mean, quickly, I was, you know, pretty terrified inhabiting the technology where the technology is going. And as you say, Amazon knows things about me. But, you know, the Hong Kong story they told me was one of, and this is in their words they me repeatedly, they cited George Orwell and they're like, you know, it got to a certain point where... this is Hong Kong too where there's not total control. And I look at, you know, the Uyghur situation and where there is total control too but they're, like, you know, this society starts to be controlled because, it just kind of becomes clear, like, if you want to get ahead, if you want to get a job, you want to advance in life, you don't be critical of the Chinese Communist Party online. You don't even go to websites that might be critical, because someone's gonna be monitoring that...you don't even send emails because someone could be reading that. If there's such an effort to control what you can say, and what information you can access, invariably, that's controlling what you think, you know. So it's not just controlling speech. Technology allows you to go to the next level and to kind of literally engineer how people think, because there's so many incentives to think a certain way and so many disincentives, and I what I call out in the book, Kal, and you and I've talked about this, and I think you've written about it, is like, we are already doing that here. I mean, I tell the story of Daryl Morey, you know tweeting about Hong Kong protesters in the NBA, you know, losing you know, all this money, but like, I also tell the story about Hollywood like, when's the last time you saw a movie that was at all critical of the Chinese government? John Cena just had to apologize in Mandarin. Because the vast franchise relies on that market. Our culture, which is supposed to be the freest in the world has already self-censored itself. You don't even see that many movies about democracy like you used to because a movie about democracy, even if it's not critical, China is not going to run in China, which is as big a market, you know, bigger for some movies than here. That's already happening. You know, I'm uncomfortable with that. But maybe that's what people want. And my basic point in this gets to your point of where this is going. Americans have to decide, do we care about that? If we do, it requires completely changing our China policy because if you look at it from the outside, and even from China's perspective, what does America care more about these last 30 years? Including when I was there, when you know, I know that, in the first term, we needed China's help to save the global economy after that financial crisis. And second term, we needed to work with them in Paris to get the Paris Agreement done. Every President has had some thing that they wanted to work with China on since Tiananmen that was important, but the message then is we care more about profits, and national security, and the development of technology than we care about democracy. How can you conclude anything else from looking at U.S.-China policy for the 30 years? And we've gone to the mat with the Chinese over, like their purchases of soybeans, more than their human rights record.
Kal Raustiala 41:18
I think in part we believed that it was going to happen inevitably, you know, it was gonna be the internet, or it was gonna be, you know, we didn't need to worry... I mean, this is I'm sure a justification maybe post...
Ben Rhodes 41:28
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Kal Raustiala 41:29
We didn't need to worry, because China was going to turn into us sooner or later. Turns out maybe not.
Ben Rhodes 41:35
We thought that and whether we thought that because there's a rationalization. I mean, I think I remember genuinely thinking for a time, I then think it evolved into a rationalization. And when Xi Jinping took power, it's like, you can't avoid it. So to me, we have to figure out and the Biden team is kind of in the process of doing this, like, okay, we actually really care about democracy, we're gonna have to kind of go to the mat with these guys on somethings in ways that are uncomfortable, but in ways that I don't think need to lead to like a war, or even a Cold War and just means, you know, readjusting our priorities in the world.
Kal Raustiala 42:12
Yeah, agreed. So I know some of the questions will touch on this so let me go to questions from viewers about our discussion. There's quite a few. So let me start with one actually, about...people are gonna ask about the Biden administration of course.
Ben Rhodes 42:24
Yeah, that's fine.
Kal Raustiala 42:26
You know, I know that's fine with you. So the first question: the Biden administration recently approved military aid to Egypt, with Tony Blinken stating that there had been good progress in terms of human rights. Given President Biden's campaign...given that he campaigned on quote "no more blank checks for Trump's favorite dictator" and human rights, how can human rights be recalibrated in this administration? So I think feel free to answer that more broadly outside of Egypt. But what should President Biden be doing?
Ben Rhodes 42:55
So I'll answer this, you know, I tell the story. I'll do it quickly in the book of Muhammad Sultan who, because I talk about, I think the forever war mindset has contributed to this anti-democratic trend. Muhammad was an Egyptian American from Ohio who went back to Egypt to Tahrir Square, he sees Mubarak get toppled, he's hopeful, he stays there. Then he is shot in 2013 after the Morsi coup, the coup that removed Mohamed Morsi. He's thrown in prison, even though he's an American citizen. He's tortured in just brutal ways. They let people die in his cell. They encouraged him to commit suicide. He goes on a hunger strike. Then they let an ISIS recruiter into his cell. And he debates the ISIS recruiter about the merits of nonviolent resistance versus resistance. This is a government, the Egyptian government that we've given billions of dollars to that is putting ISIS recruiters in the cells because they want to radicalize their opposition, because that justifies their repression, and keeps the billions of dollars coming. I didn't like it when we did it in the Obama administration. I wouldn't give them a cent. Like how can we talk to anybody in the world about democracy and be shoveling billions of dollars to defense contractors who then, you know, send the weapons to the Egyptians? I mean, it's the height of hypocrisy. I mean, and look, I get you can't have perfect, you know, the world is what it is and it's a tough place and no government can be a pure expression of values. But I think the degree when you look at someone like Mohammed bin Salman or Sisi in Egypt, the degree of repression that we are passively in the case of MBS, or directly in the case of Egypt, subsidizing, totally discredits anything we had to say about democracy and it kind of corrupts ourselves. And so, I know I have the luxury of being outside of government, I can assure you I've made these arguments when I was in government and lost. I think that the bar has to get higher in terms of our pursuit of consistency, which we'll never be able to achieve perfectly right. I mean, we're not perfect. We never will be. But I would like to see this taken more seriously by the Biden team. And I'd say that, like I said that in the book, I would have liked that Barack Obama took him more seriously.
Kal Raustiala 45:23
I mean, I think if I remember, you point out in the book that with regard to China, there was a moment where President Obama was seeking Chinese assistance with the Paris accord and climate change. And could have, am I getting this right?
Ben Rhodes 45:37
Kal Raustiala 45:37
But you wanted him to be more critical about human rights, but he made the calculation. And you, you know, I think tacitly kind of supported it at the time.
Ben Rhodes 45:46
Kal Raustiala 45:47
Hey, climate change is an existential threat. Point being that there's always going to be equally big fish to fry. And politicians inevitably have to make these choices. Somehow human rights ends up getting the short end of the stick all the time.
Ben Rhodes 46:00
I think, yeah. And I'd say quickly on that Kal, it's like, again, it's not going to be perfect. You have to deal with the Chinese government. And I actually think sometimes engagement can be a better way of trying to pursue human rights. Obviously, I engaged with the Cuban government. I think in the Middle East, though it's gotten....because the ends that we're seeking, right, counterterrorism and peace are not being facilitated by this military. So that one, I think, is actually weirdly and easier. And people may say to me, well, if we back out and the Russians have come in, well, how could it be, you know, more repressive than it already is, and there's a cost to just supporting repression, to our own, to ourselves, and to what we represent.
Kal Raustiala 46:46
Yes. So the next question is, sort of dovetails a bit on that. So I mean, this question is posed in terms of Trump, but it really can go beyond. So after Trump, can America still be considered a leader in the push for democracy? I mean, the system seems to be falling apart even now as the country becomes more polarized.
Ben Rhodes 47:03
So the hopeful note I end on in this is, look, I think Trump is a.... we'd already had some body blows and democracy itself kind of got attached to the Iraq War in ways that were very corrosive to our capacity to promote democracy around the world, which I support, obviously, well, I'm rooting for democracy. If you read the book, you'll see my heart is with all these movements and people. I think the opportunity and the danger of Trump is obviously, our democracy looks like it's coming apart, but you know, people saw not just Donald Trump as president, they saw that we elected Donald Trump president, and they're wondering, who are these people? Yeah, there's a lot of that. And I think there's an opportunity in that there, which is, we're....we're like everybody else. We have an exceptional story. But in terms of like that a nation can be a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy, but we can have a corrupt autocrat with a son-in-law down the hall, like everybody else has had in the world. And the opportunities, if we can work through it, it's actually better, it's more relevant example to people around the world than if we're just sitting there on high, you know, issuing demands, like our actions, our capacity to fight through this, if we can, I think will be a very powerful and positive example to people in other countries. If we can't, well, then we got bigger problems. But there, I found a huge amount of opportunity, and even hope and being fallen and the title is "After the Fall", because then you're more recognizable, you're not just the big bad Americans...the city on the hill in the war, you're down with everybody else trying to solve this problem. And if we can solve it, I think that will really will ripple out.
Kal Raustiala 48:45
Interesting. So next question, also related to democracy issues. Do you think a majority of young people (and the questioner defines that as under 25) are pro-democracy? Is it different in China, the U.S. Russia, the EU, Nigeria, etc? Can you say anything about patterns? But I guess generally, is democracy something that's still an ideal around the world?
Ben Rhodes 49:08
I think so. I mean, I think there are a lot of young people that I talked to for this book, and I engage a lot of young people through some other vehicles I have and work I do. And I've definitely found young people, broadly speaking, to be more inclusive, tolerant of different identities of, you know, just differences. And I think that's a key starting point to democracy is just your willingness to live peacefully with other people and value them for who they are. I particularly think in Europe, for instance, young people are really...there's a backlash to the backlash, you know, Orban, and Brexit kind of resists backlash to democracy itself and in a way, globalization. A lot of young people are now kind of trying to swing the pendulum back. I think in this country I've been struck in teaching at the extent to which young people, and I've taught at UCLA, I've taught at another school in the city but I won't name names like that. But the young people I've taught and I interact with a lot because of Pod Save the World and traveling around, like, are pretty pissed. And they're like, this democracy does not look like me at all. And, you know, I've been in a lot of rooms where like, Bernie Sanders was like the right wing. Like, I think people don't have an idea that like, people are moving left, young people in this country, in a way that, you know, like Barack Obama is a controversial figure in conversations. And I think there's some health in that, because I think that the anger or a kind of bewilderment at a government that doesn't deal with climate change, and doesn't really deal with any of the issues that young people seem to care about, and that is stuck having these kind of petty debates in Washington. That's hopeful in a way but if it tips into apathy, and just turning out, that's the danger. And because what I find everywhere, by the way, that's exactly what the autocratic playbook is, like young people are a threat to us, because young people tend to be more progressive and tend to want things to change for the better. So I'm going to make politics look so revolting to them that they just tune it out, and they go do other stuff. And that's worked quite well in a lot of places. And I think that's the playbook here, right? And so I think young people ought to be mindful, like, no, the reason it looks so insane, is that's what they want you to do. You actually have the power to change this, you're basically the only ones who do because if you voted in certain numbers, different people win. And so I always implore young people to remember that.
Kal Raustiala 51:46
Yeah, I think that's really important. It's funny, people talk about Orwell, a lot. And you did. But in some ways, you know, Huxley's Brave New World was more prescient, you know. He talks about this world in which people are just too busy entertaining themselves, drugged up basically in a way, and just tuned out. And that's actually, technologically tuned out, facilitated by that, that's actually the real threat. And I thought that was really striking in your book, the way that so many autocrats really do take advantage of people's distaste for politics and, you know, inevitable inertia to just get their way eventually to kind of wait things out. And I agree, I....that doesn't happen here. It doesn't seem to be, I mean, based on what I see around us, you know, UCLA and LA are both places with a, you know, pretty active political culture right now. Hopefully, it lasts,
Ben Rhodes 52:36
It feels yeah, it feels that way. But the risk, right is like, let's say the Republicans rig all these election laws with the midterms and then basically kind of steal the election in 2024. I don't know what happens. I think people, I mean, I think we'll have nothing good. And not just because Republicans won. I mean, there will be some kind of breakdown, I think, in social cohesion from the Left this time. And, you know, I, I think also the Chinese figured, like the Chinese Communist Party, always try to separate governments from people because I don't think people are responsible for their governments. Even in some democracies. You know, Tiktok is interesting to me, because the Chinese have tried to create this experiment where you get the culture of liberal democracy, you know, you get Beyonce, and you get, you know, big Marvel movies and you get, you get the NBA, but we don't want any politics, no democracy in that, can we kind of control this so that people have this thing to entertain them, you know, but they just don't have any ideas in it. And I'm not suggesting, there's great ideas in the music and movies, but it's, you know, it's, it's not overtly political. And TikTok is interesting, because, I mean, here there's politics on TikTok. But I think, you know, it's, it's not a coincidence that that's the social media platform that merged in China. Because it's kind of about just like, it's, it's less...I mean, Twitter is a political...it facilitates kind of debate and argument in ways that I think are even unhealthy. Obviously, as much as I indulge in it, TikTok can become a pretty...a space of just, you know, creativity without politics and entertainment without it. You know, I think there's something interesting about the fact that that's a social media platform that emerged in China.
Kal Raustiala 54:39
Yeah, that's interesting. You know, you might be right. It might be that TikTok is just so new. If you look at the early days of facebook, facebook seemed pretty benign, pretty friendly. You know, not very political certainly...it became very political over time.
Ben Rhodes 54:54
Kal Raustiala 54:55
And, you know, maybe it's that, maybe it's young people, you know, it's hard to say but yeah, that is an interesting point.
Ben Rhodes 55:00
TikTok got political in Gaza recently. I mean, it was interesting to see people using it. So it can be used in a very political way to just show what's happening someplace. Which is probably not where the Chinese government would like to see it evolve.
Kal Raustiala 55:16
I'm sure. Well, then this has been great. And I really want to emphasize to everyone listening, watching, that Ben's book is a really thoughtful take on all the issues that we talked about in the last hour, you know, studded with some great stories. Ben is a really good writer. So you probably, I didn't really introduce him this way, but you probably know he wrote, you know, many of the greatest speeches that President Obama gave. And that writing verve comes through in the book, so it's an enjoyable read. I highly recommend it. And of course, available anywhere, I'm sure Amazon, but many other places as well. So Ben, thanks again for coming on. Hope to have you back.
Ben Rhodes 55:53
Thanks so much, Kal. That was awesome. Great talking to you.
Kal Raustiala 55:55
Take care, everyone.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai