International Correspondent, National Public Radio; Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence, Princeton University
Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
Managing Editor, CFR.org
The 2019 CFR annual Back-to-School Event celebrated the tenth anniversary of the podcast The World Next Week with a live taping before a student audience. James M. Lindsay, Robert McMahon, and Deborah S. Amos look back at the last decade and discuss the decline of democracy, the Middle East, and U.S.-China relations.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon. I am Irina Faskianos. I’m the vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Welcome to our Back-to-School Event for college and university students, all of you. So thanks for being with us. We appreciate you giving us your afternoon. We know that you’re putting in long hours studying for midterms and writing papers, all of this during a time when your news feeds are filled with stories that need to be carefully considered.
As a nonpartisan think tank led by CFR President Richard Haass, CFR provides background, context, and analysis on international affairs for your research needs and to better understand the world. So come to CFR.org, where you will find backgrounders and info guides by our editorial teams, blogs, op-eds, reports, and congressional testimony by CFR fellows, videos and transcripts of on-the-record events that we hold in this room and in D.C., Foreign Affairs magazine—which also publishes daily content at ForeignAffairs.com.
In addition, we have two new resources that you all should check out.
First, World101, an online modular course focusing on the fundamental concepts of international relations and foreign policy. That can now be found at world101.cfr.org. You’ll find modules on immigration, terrorism, and the like.
Second, CFR’s Election 2020 hub, that will offer resources you can find nowhere else. So very soon you will be able to track all of the presidential candidates’ positions on foreign policy issues, watch a video series that explains the most misunderstood foreign policy challenges facing us today, and listen to a specialized podcast series of The President’s Inbox hosted by our Senior Vice President and Director of Studies, James Lindsay.
So, as you listen to today’s program, this is what you can do: live tweet using the hashtag #CFRBacktoSchool.
And with that, I am going to turn the podium over to Gabrielle Sierra, CFR podcast producer and host of Why It Matters, to give you a sneak preview. So, Gabrielle, let me invite you up to the stage. (Applause.)
SIERRA: Wow. (Laughs.) Hi, guys. Thank you, Irina.
So how many of you listen to podcasts? Amazing. Good answer! You know, human beings like hearing and telling stories. Whether it’s meandering anecdotes from our grandparents or epic recounting of the old days with our best friends, storytelling is deep in our DNA. And I think that’s why podcasts have become more popular than anyone could have imagined a few years ago.
The Council was ahead of the game. It premiered The World Next Week in 2007 and then branched out with The President’s Inbox in 2016. Now we are introducing a new series, Why It Matters.
Our goal is to shine a light on some of the most interesting and intense stuff going on around the world right now. We’ve got some amazing guests for the first season, including former Obama CTO Megan Smith; Charlie Bolden, who is the first African American to run NASA; as well as a variety of journalists, activists, leaders, and thinkers.
We are actually going to play our minute-and-a-half promo for you right now while I try to stand here cool and you listen, so here we go.
(A sneak preview of Why It Matters podcast begins.)
SIERRA: The world is a big place and there’s a lot going on.
MS. : One person in our country has been given the authority to potentially end life on Earth.
MS. : They’re credited with saving eleven million lives with elite math.
MR. : It will become the Wild West, in effect, in outer space.
SIERRA: Why It Matters is here to help. We’re curious, too. And we’re on a mission to figure out how the world works, how big decisions are made, and how something that feels so far away can actually hit close to home.
MR. : Whether the first nuclear weapon to be used in anger since August 9, 1945 happens five years from now or thirty years from now matters.
MR. : A fleck of paint traveling at seventeen thousand miles an hour went through all but the last pane of that window.
SIERRA: A fleck of paint?
MR. : A fleck of paint.
MS. : Lethal autonomous weapons are going to get things wrong.
MS. : There are people in China who are billionaires from this recycling process.
SIERRA: Fueled by the minds at the Council on Foreign Relations and hosted by me, Gabrielle Sierra, the podcast weaves together conversations with leaders and thinkers who are facing these problems head on.
What did you feel the first time you went to space and looked back on Earth?
MR. : It’s an overused word, and that’s awed. You saw the ocean. And I always say it’s one ocean: no borders, no boundaries. You get the understanding about humanity.
MS. : Predict.
MS. : (Laughs.) I know.
SIERRA: So what do we lose out on when women don’t participate in STEM fields?
MS. : Well, the genius of half of the population.
MR. : Gabrielle, I’ll tell you, great questions.
SIERRA: Rocket Sandra Bullock out into space.
MR. : Exactly. Totally.
SIERRA: So join us as we bring some of the world’s most interesting stories home to you. This is Why It Matters.
(End of audio presentation.)
SIERRA: That’s Why It Matters. (Applause.)
It will be released on October 23. So please head to Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. You can do it now so you’re alerted when the first episode goes up. I don’t see phones. I need you to subscribe and get on it right now. You know, we’re super excited to have you guys listen. We have postcards available. And I will be sticking around after the event, as well as my amazing co-creators, Asher Ross and Jeremy Sherlick, who are there in the back, and we are here to answer questions. And if you want to say hi or gives us a high-five, we are very friendly. So please come talk to us.
So even though I’m obviously very excited about Why It Matters, we are here for another important reason: CFR’s first podcast, The World Next Week. This show, which is hosted by CFR’s Director of Studies Jim Lindsay and CFR.org Managing Editor Bob McMahon, started right as the podcasting world was taking form, long before everybody and their cousin started making one. Today we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of Jim and Bob hosting the show together.
For those who don’t know, The World Next Week previews international developments in the week ahead and incorporates some interactive elements from you, the listener, which you will be experiencing today. Their special guest is Deborah Amos. She is the international correspondent at NPR. So this is the first-ever live taping of The World Next Week, which is really exciting, so give it up for them. (Applause.)
MCMAHON: Well, welcome, everyone, and welcome to this special live tenth anniversary edition of The World Next Week. I’m Bob McMahon.
LINDSAY: And I’m Jim Lindsay.
MCMAHON: And we have a special guest here. Deb Amos is the international correspondent for NPR. We are delighted she could spend this anniversary special with us, and walk back over the past decade, and maybe take a little bit peek ahead as well.
AMOS: Can I say one thing? There’s more than one—(laughs)—international correspondent for National Public Radio.
MCMAHON: But you are THE international—
AMOS: I’m THE. Thank you very much for that. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: Treasure the “THE.”
AMOS: OK, good. Today I’m the THE.
LINDSAY: OK. Well, Deb, let me join Bob in thanking you for being here. Again, it’s a big day for us. And before we dive into it, first I want to say happy anniversary to Bob.
MCMAHON: Happy anniversary, Jim.
LINDSAY: Thank you. (Laughter.) This is our tenth anniversary. That means—ten are aluminum, so after the show’s over I will buy you a Bud Light in a can—(laughter)—to mark the occasion.
What we thought we would do, given that we’ve been doing this for ten years, is that rather than doing what we normally do, which is to look ahead at what’s going to be happening in the week to come, we’d take some time to look back and talk about what’s happened over the lifetime of this show. And so we’re taking a look back at the most significant developments or trends over the last ten years.
Bob’s going to kick it off for us. Bob, what do you see as sort of the big news coming out of the last decade?
MCMAHON: I’m struck by one of the issues that we’ve talked about maybe the most of any over—or among the most of any over the past ten years, Jim, and it’s what’s generally known these days as democracy in decline. And I guess I’d start out by first wanting to sort of deal with the assumption about democracy.
So what, democracy’s in decline? Well, you know, Winston Churchill is credited with saying at one point that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other ones that have been attempted. And it certainly—you can point to many flaws in democratic governance, and many problems, and a great deal of problems involving democracies today. But there is an assumption—a widely shared assumption and a great deal of backing evidence—that the democratic system of governance is a global good; is something—especially if you look at—you trace the postwar era in the world, that democracy is—representative democracy allows for the human aspiration of freedom to—it allows it more than other systems of government. It has had the most success in that regard, that it protects civil liberties and minority rights, that it contributes to economic stability. Democracies don’t tend to go to war with each other, except for trade wars I guess. But they do not.
And so I’m starting off with the assumption that democracies are good. And they are in trouble. And they are in—close democracy watchers say they are in crisis. Ten years ago the—sort of the main benchmark organization for tracking these types of things is Freedom House. It has its world survey that it puts out. And about ten years ago, when we were doing this podcast, it had already logged three years in a row of decline in its Freedom Index. And by the way, it’s been on a losing streak ever since then: it’s thirteen years in a row now, counting the last Freedom Index they did.
But ten years ago you had—there were already troubling signs and the seeds had been planted in a number of ways. The world was just coming out of the global economic crisis. And among many things that that crisis did was I think it angered a lot of people. It sort of isolated or it created a great deal of enmity towards so-called global elites, who seemed to come out of the crisis better than others, for example. There were other issues at play, as well. The world was starting—there was a greater movement of people around the world for all sorts of reasons. That has continued unabated over the past ten years as well. Those are—I would say the economic one, the economic inequality question, was a main cause.
There were enablers. A very big enabler that’s been pointed to again and again is social media, really the change—the radical change in media landscape. You know, we—Jim and I and Deb grew up in a world where you had sort of this oligarchy of network television in the United States, you know, the three main networks. You had newspapers where your go-to place for, you know, the news of the day, wire services through the newspapers, and radio. But it was all a very controlled world. It was nowhere near the kind of environment we have now. But there was a—there was a gatekeeper function. There was a moderating function of media that just got blown up. And it was starting to get blown up ten years ago. The business model of these—of these organizations was under huge duress, and social media stepped into this void. And then you had people—the sort of people who were getting more and more angry about the situation they were finding themselves in, you know, self-selecting where they could get their information from. And so the enabler of social media I think played into this as well.
And so then what you had, you had the extraordinary sort of string of events over the past ten years that has also already created reams of analysis, but you had the countries from the Philippines to more recently Brazil turning illiberal, shall we say. You had the standard bearers of democracy, European countries, the U.K.—what we’ve been witnessing in the U.K. in the whole Brexit process, which is still playing out, has been, many people have said, sort of the great downturn of a—of a great nation and a—and a democracy standard-bearer. The European Union has been dealing with its—with its struggles, especially in the eastern fringes of the European Union. And then you have the United States not necessarily out there on the—on the forefront of democracy promotion anymore, and in fact facing what some say is a looming constitutional crisis in its own government.
And so there’s no—there’s no neat single story to tell, but I wanted to lay those out there as the conditions that were—that were at play ten years ago as Jim and I sat down with our merry band to start this podcast, and that have started to watch what—this decline unfold.
LINDSAY: Bob, can I just throw in, like, sort of an optimistic note onto the—
LINDSAY: —into the conversation, given that that was a pretty bleak list of developments? And everything you said is exactly true, but I think we also need to keep in mind that the idea of democracy is not necessarily dead.
I mean, one way you can tell the story here in the United States is that because the president has made changes in American policy, it’s actually energized the public conversation. I will note in 2018 we had near-record turnout in a congressional midterm election. So there’s that.
But as you look around the world, think, for example, what’s transpiring right now in Hong Kong, where you have protesters—millions of protesters turning out to make demands, among them to have greater say in how they are governed. We also see democracy protests in Russia. So I agree there are lots of storm clouds out there and real reason to be concerned about them, but I think there are also some rays of sunshine, shall I say.
AMOS: Well, I was thinking about where was I in 2009, and I was in Damascus. There was no hint of an Arab Spring in 2009, and the Assad model appeared to be as good as you got. People call it a neoliberal autocracy that had changed from what Hafez al-Assad had had on offer, which a terrible socialist drab. This was, you know, two young, dynamic—a couple at the head of the government: Bashar al-Assad and his wife, who was a banker. She had given up getting her MBA at Harvard to come and marry him. There was an opera house. I remember watching a Hamlet production, and Assad came, and there was a line in the play about how people had voted 99 percent for the leader. And he slapped his knee he was laughing so hard.
Fast forward to where we are now, and let me say just one thing about this idea about democracy and where the chutes are. Boy, the Middle East looks really bleak—really terribly bleak. But the eight hundred thousand Syrians who went to Germany are politically active in a place that they can be. They are organizing for war crimes trials in Germany. There are lawyers who are looking for witnesses to be in these cases.
Saudi Arabia, another terrible example, feels to us that it’s gone backwards. For the first time ever there is an activist network outside the country. That has never happened before. And this network does things like help young women who have gotten them figure out how to do it, how to shape their media campaign; you know, who to ask for asylum.
There are human rights groups now that have formed in London. This is very new for the Saudis. And so I think you have to be careful about where you look and recognize what you see. So the idea is not dead; it just takes different forms.
LINDSAY: But you also raised the interesting question of how will democracy activists be able to fare in a world of greater or tighter surveillance. I mean, Bob mentioned that part of the corrosion of democracy has been brought about in some sense by openness, by having lots of voices—many of those voices authentic, obviously some of those voices not authentic, but obviously governments have a greater ability to track people. And they can track them for good reasons and they can track them for nefarious reasons. And so you have this great concern that, as these networks develop, in turn governments will target them and crack down on them, and that, in some ways, many of the science fiction dystopia movies that Hollywood turns out periodically may contain more than an element of truth in terms of how governments can control their people.
MCMAHON: Well, what was happening in Hong Kong is fascinating in that regard because you have this incredible test of wills between the public demonstrators—I mean, we’re talking of lots of demonstrators who have sort of adopted what they call the “like water” effect where they just sort of melt into or form this amorphous mass, allow certain things to take place but block other things. But they are, you know—there were attempts to sort of spray them with colored water to tag them and all sorts of other things—you know, the demasking laws and other things. But they’ve sort of kept ahead of the authorities.
LINDSAY: It’s like move, countermove.
AMOS: We are in an arms race, and it’s big data against, you know, open phones. I don’t know anybody anymore that’s not talking to me on WhatsApp. I don’t even buy a chip when I travel abroad anymore because that is my international line.
Everybody understands that you want encryption on either end. You can livestream a demonstration, but the police know where you are and where you were. And so that’s where the arms race is. And I don’t think we have a winner yet.
LINDSAY: Do you think you know who the winner will be?
AMOS: I’d like to hope that it’s the good guys, but there’s no guarantee. None.
MCMAHON: Well, I would say, also, among the many fronts to watch is the U.S. 2020 presidential election process—how information is disseminated. Everybody obviously is very mindful of 2016 and the storyline there, and you need look no further than the Mueller report to sort of see how the U.S. system was compromised.
And what does this mean for social media companies’ responsibility? Will they in fact be required to sort of govern themselves as broadcast networks have been in the past in the United States in terms of policing content on their platforms? It’s a huge issue.
We had some controversy this week with Facebook’s chief, Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about this, but will these organizations—which have put a lot of resources into trying to tamp down the hate speech and the actual events that are causing violence or that are contributing to it, but I’m not sure that they are yet feeling the pressure to do more.
LINDSAY: I would love to go and have a talk fuller about social media, but I will probably reveal my great ignorance of many of these apps and how they work.
I actually want to pivot and say maybe, for Deb, as you look back over the last decade, what do you see as sort of the big trend, the big development?
AMOS: Can we go back to social media? (Laughter.) I mean, it’s been such a huge part of my life. I mean, part of the reason that I know about WhatsApp, Telegram, and all the other ways that we communicate now is because I’ve got to keep up with young Arab revolutionaries. I can’t find them unless I’m on all those apps so I know them.
I think that there is an effort certainly—I spent two-and-a-half months in Europe this summer, and they are much more aware—not aware—but they are trying to use legislation to change and to protect. But what you end up is every time I want to read an article, I get a big screen that says, please give me your choices, and I look at what those choices are, and they are we will send you personal ads or we won’t. It’s not—it’s not working. It is too cumbersome, and there’s moments where I just click and say, whatever you want to do to me, fine; I want to read that. I don’t have this much time.
So I don’t think we’re even close to a solution to what we are going to have to make it safe, that we still have encryption, and that—
LINDSAY: That raises a problem because obviously—I mean, encryption is good if you are a good person and you don’t want your stuff being looked at, but if you are a bad person trying to do bad things, encryption is a powerful tool to let you accomplish your bad ends. How do you—how do you balance that out, Deb?
AMOS: Good policing. I mean, look, you know, of the things that criminals use, I think it’s a minor thing, honestly—encryption—and policing is how most crimes are solved if they are. But I don’t think that all of us have to give up privacy for that reason. And I think certainly the legislation that’s beginning doesn’t take that as a bottom line either.
MCMAHON: So Deb, you talked about previously where you were ten years ago in Damascus. Obviously Syria plays this gigantic role in the past decade. But could you talk a little bit about the sweep of the Middle East. I don’t know—is Syria the story that you want to focus on, or would you—are there other things we should—other lessons we should take from the past ten years in the Middle East?
AMOS: Well, at the moment it is because we are at a pivot moment. I mean, this is Humpty Dumpty. The U.S. president pushed him right over the ledge, and I don’t think we know yet how that one will come out. Everybody is racing, from ISIS to Moscow, what does this mean to me?
It may mean, at the end of the day, that Turkey does have a safe zone on the border. That’s what it looks like, that Russia in on the other side. I mean, this week we’ve had these amazing scenes that—you see the Syrian army going up the highway one way and the Americans coming down the highway the other way, the Russians moving in from the right, ISIS moving in from the left. I think that is a huge story.
I think the second big story is Saudi Arabia, and the question is, can the head of that government get away with murder? And that’s also a story that hasn’t completely played out.
So those are—in my mind, those are the two big ones to watch—and Iran.
MCMAHON: And the U.S. has sent forces to Saudi Arabia because Iran is seen as a threat to the Saudi energy installations. So is it a Saudi-Iran story, a Saudi-Iran proxy story? Is it—
AMOS: It’s all those things, and throw in Syria as well because Syria raises questions about how reliable are we. The Saudis were discomforted, to say the least, about what happened in northern Syria and said so publicly. The Iranians have been cheering what happened and so are—because they are involved in Syria. And so have the Russians. So that’s a new element to add into what is—what appeared for a while to be a pretty simple confrontation between the United States and Iran, and now everybody is back in.
LINDSAY: Deb, can I draw you out on that because there’s obviously been a lot of commentary, a lot of discussion, certainly on the cable news channels, about which countries have benefitted from the president’s decision to withdraw troops. But what I have seen less discussion of is how American interests are hurt because the president would argue that American interests have been advanced by his taking the troops out. How do you size that discussion up?
AMOS: Well, ask the Israelis. I can’t imagine that they are very happy about this because it gives Iran a stronger, you know, foothold in Syria.
I have seen the argument that says if, you know, Bashar can take over his country again, he has no need for the Iranians and the Russians. But Iran has been in Syria since 1979. It is unlikely that they will walk out the door just because things are calmer, and that’s not going to happen for at least another ten years.
LINDSAY: But to the person living in Decorah, Iowa, or San Antonio, Texas, what does that matter? How does that translate into American security?
AMOS: Because an unstable Middle East eventually reverberates; 9/11 is about the Middle East ultimately. ISIS on the ground is about our security. And those things are not written in this black and white tableau but they’re there. And I think that people in the region know that they are there.
LINDSAY: So let me ask you—we’ve been in—heavily in the Middle East from—longer than a decade; if I count right, sixteen years since the invasion of Iraq. How does that net out for you? What has the United States gained from that? What has it lost?
AMOS: Well, the Middle East never works in nice, neat decades. The Middle East is a very long story, and it has been for us—for the United States for a long time. I mean, it used to be a very simple equation: oil-Israeli security, and now it has gotten a little bit more complicated because of the Iranians.
But I agree with you. It is a very hard argument to make for the middle of the country because most people don’t know about Kurds and don’t care either. But instability people do understand, and precipitous foreign policy decisions made on Twitter is not a good model.
LINDSAY: I should be careful. Before I get lots of love letters from Decorah, Iowa, and San Antonio, Texas, I should say about Americans generally; it’s not just the heartland sort of issue to be curious about this.
AMOS: Yeah, that’s fair. I think that’s fair. I think a lot of people don’t know.
MCMAHON: But I think President Trump—what he did tap into was something—as he has done on many other fronts—was what he was encountering on his campaign trail, which was this fatigue with the Middle East.
MCMAHON: This absolute exhaustion, and when you look at the numbers on Iraq, for example, of so-called “blood and treasure”—just the U.S. side let alone what happened to Iraqis and others in the region. It’s just staggering, and so I think he still has—and he was doubling down on this last night at a rally—you still have these adherents who just say, enough for Americans over there trying to fix things in a place where they’re just going to be at each other’s throat.
AMOS: But you see, the Middle East is the anti-Las Vegas—what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. That is not true in the Middle East, and we have seen this again, and again, and again. And so that’s the drawback to walking away—walking away in the way that the walk was done.
Yes, there is a good argument to be made that we were doing ourselves no good by staying in Syria. We were essentially a trip wire, and you could see what happened. As soon as that plug got pulled, all hell broke loose. And they had to come in again and say—to Mr. Erdoğan—“don’t be a fool”—(laughter)—in that letter that the president sent to him. So—
LINDSAY: But it didn’t seem to have had much of an impact on President Erdoğan’s decision because he received it before he decided to actually send troops in.
AMOS: He has been making that decision for about—I think that decision, in his head, was made letter or no letter. He was going in.
AMOS: And you see what the pressure is on him. He’s got two problems. He’s got—in Idlib, eventually—there are millions of people there, and they’re going to have to go somewhere, and there’s not any place for them to go except for north into Turkey or—
LINDSAY: Turkey is what? Two million—
LINDSAY: Three million Syrian refugees.
AMOS: Exactly. And here’s the second problem he has had. He has just lost—his party lost the election for the governor—the mayor of Istanbul.
MCMAHON: Speaking of democracy.
AMOS: Speaking of democracy. And this guy—
LINDSAY: That was after a do-over.
AMOS: Exactly. He tried to see if perhaps he could get a better result the next time.
LINDSAY: He didn’t like the first result.
AMOS: But this guy is pretty strong against Syrian refugees.
AMOS: And so his idea is, all right, I will just shove them into this space I want to take in northern Syria. So that’s his solution to a very acute political problem for him.
MCMAHON: One final thing to wrap up your Mid-East segment, which is just Iran. So 2009, if we’re bookending our ten-year conceit here, Iran had come through a pretty tough people power revolt, and it ends this decade, you know, sort of weathering U.S. sanctions but also, as you say, taking a little bit of a victory lap on Syria. How do you look at the way Iran’s domestic dynamics are playing out?
AMOS: So I think they are in a holding pattern. And I just saw an Iranian official recently. And I said, are you guys waiting for—to see what the 2020 election is going to look like? And he said, absolutely. They will wait that one out, because they don’t have to make a decision until they know, are we talking four years, are we talking eight years? Then we see. But for the moment, maximum pressure is not working. It just makes the region—why are the American troops in Saudi Arabia? Because maximum pressure is not working.
MCMAHON: I want to move over to Jim now and see if Jim can kind of take us back ten years and take us through what he sees as a significant development maybe that was not foreseen or maybe there were some harbingers there.
LINDSAY: Happy to do it. I would say, looking back, to me the big change over the last decade has been the end of the U.S.-China love affair.
MCMAHON: Was it a love affair?
LINDSAY: It was a love affair.
MCMAHON: All right. OK. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: Let’s go back—let’s go back—
AMOS: Good toys. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: Let’s go back a decade ago. We were first recording it. There was a lot of talk in the air about how we were seeing the rise of Chimerica or, if you prefer, it was Chifornia. There was an awful lot of talk about how American economic engagement was going to inject American political values into the Chinese system. Maybe we’d see China become more open. We would see China eventually evolve into a responsible stakeholder in the international global order. So much so that in a lot of capitals around the world there was a great fear of the rise of the so-called G-2, that these two governments, Beijing and Washington, would essentially dominate what’s happened in the world and set the rules for everybody else.
Let’s flash forward to today. The United States has formally named China as a strategic competitor. We have launched a trade war against China. One of the aims of that trade war is to disentangle or decouple the U.S. and the Chinese economies. Meanwhile, China has made it clear that it has no desire or intention simply to take directives from Washington, D.C. And not only does Beijing want to set the rules of the game, it wants to determine what games are going to be played, and whose playgrounds they’re going to be played on. And as you saw just last week with the controversy over a single tweet sent by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, the Chinese intend and have used their economic leverage to try to censor what people in other countries are saying that talks about things or issues that they don’t like.
And I think that’s a really big development. I think the question going forward is: How is this relationship going to evolve? Now, again, it’s probably a big dose of humility. If we go back, thinking about your area, Deb, when the Arab Spring first broke out everybody was talking about how democracy had finally arrived in the Middle East. Didn’t quite turn out that way, except maybe for Tunisia. Likewise, a decade ago people were sort of upbeat about where U.S.-China relations were going to go. So humility always.
But I do think we’re likely to see a lot more conflict in that relationship. We’ve just seen the president announce a trade deal, although a lot of the parts of the trade deal haven’t been worked out. And by the time they sit down and try to put the fine print it, the deal may fall apart. But the bigger issue is it is at best a truce in a much longer, broader confrontation between the two capitals. And it won’t simply be limited to issues about what the tariff or tax is on imports coming into the country.
MCMAHON: You know, it was—there was a great deal of interesting, and it hasn’t totally dissipated, in the Trump administration’s approach to China. Different from its approaches in a lot of other areas, because for a number of China hands, so to speak, it was like: Finally, the U.S. is going to knuckle down and confront China with some of these things that have been bothering us. And it wasn’t just in the U.S., by the way. It was other countries that were bothered by China’s trade practices and intellectual property theft, and so forth. And yet, as we’ve discussed on our podcast and many of CFR’s fellows have noted, the U.S. has been loath to kind of build any sort of a coalition. In fact, as it was declaring trade war with China, it was skirmishing on the trade front with allies who normally would have joined.
AMOS: Can I say, after spending the summer in Europe, they feel squeezed. So Huawei signs are, you know, as big as you can imagine all over Germany. Trade in Europe, with China, is quite large. And you find this split between people on, OK, when the conflict comes, what side are we going to be on? And they would love to build an alternative to the SWIFT system so that if Trump says, I’m sorry, but you can’t trade with China, they want to be able to say, I’m sorry, but we have to.
LINDSAY: So the SWIFT system allows payments to flow around the world. And the United States, given its financial power and clout, can basically say you can’t go through U.S. banks, and the system seizes up.
AMOS: So they’ve already created one. They said it was for the Iranians. It’s called INSTEX. But it’s also for the Chinese, if they ever have to stand up. But there’s another sort of argument in Europe that says, look, we—the transatlantic alliance is—it’s what we’ve got. And we don’t like the guy in the White House, but we can’t go this alone. And we certainly can’t be on China’s side. So we’re stuck.
LINDSAY: Well, but I think as you look at it, the problem is that while the Europeans would prefer to find some way to work with the White House, the White House has not just on this issue but on a whole range of issues, signaled that it’s not interested in their help. One of the great ironies of the Trump presidency, of course, that the president campaigned back in 2015-2016 on how America’s friends and allies weren’t doing enough, and he wanted them to do more. And what we have seen over the past two and a half years is a lot of those foreign capitals got that message and wanted to do more. And the answer from the White House is, no thanks, we don’t need your help.
And there’s this notion that there’s strength in numbers, and that’s not something that is really, I think, taking hold in the Oval Office. And the president has sort of conceivably alienated pretty much everybody. And even sort of looking at the issue with Turkey, where on the one hand I think the president was hoping to take an impediment out of U.S.-Turkish relations, but he’s touched off a conflict that is leading members of Congress to talk about sanctions. And the president and the secretary of the treasury are talking essentially about turning off the Turkish economy, which doesn’t sound quite like the way you would want to go about building a strong partnership.
AMOS: And apparently Mr. Erdogan is coming to Washington.
LINDSAY: That is still on? I was wondering.
AMOS: That is still on. I read it this morning. It is still on. And that will be really interesting, to see what happens when the Turkish leader comes to Washington, at a time when Congress wants to sanction the Turkish economy.
MCMAHON: You know, we talked a lot about trade, for obviously reasons, but, Jim, I’m wondering what you think about the human rights front with China? The administration recently, actually, just announced some sanctions on Chinese officials related to the repression of the Uighurs. Human rights, it transcends many U.S. administrations, the human rights challenge with China. But do you see it as an area where there could be some traction? Or is it—is this going to be an area potentially also for building an international coalition, because there’s international, whether it’s U.N. or European bodies, that are also concerned about Uighurs and other issues with China?
LINDSAY: Well, number one, I don’t see any international coalition building because this is not an administration that is interesting in building coalitions. And I would say, even beyond that, is that this is an administration that has deprioritized, if I can use that horrific word, human rights in American foreign policy. And the president was quite clear. Very blunt about it on the campaign trail. He didn’t think it was our business. We were no better than anybody else. It wasn’t our business to go around and do that. I think that what you see happening now vis-à-vis China is simply trying to create leverage for trade talks, not because there’s anything—any great concern about the Uighurs.
Now, the challenge, of course, you have is in dealing with China is that it is very powerful and there’s not anything obvious the United States can do to compel Beijing to change its policy toward the Uighurs. And indeed, one of the problems you can run into is the more public you make your opposition, you can actually reinforce the desire in China to continue that crackdown. You can actually sort of reinforce the outcome you don’t want to have. So there’s something to be said for quiet diplomacy.
But there’s also something to be said for taking an issue head-on and talking about it. Our good friend and colleague Elliott Abrams has done a lot of work in human rights area. And he talks about—has written about in a number of his writing and books—about during the Cold War when Ronald Reagan was talking about the Soviet Union as the evil empire, and talking about the importance of people having freedom and liberty, that those—that the mere fact he said that didn’t change what the Kremlin did, but it gave hope and inspiration to people who many times felt they had been forgotten and left behind.
AMOS: That’s a big deal.
MCMAHON: So those of you who might be habitual listeners to The World Next Week podcast know this is the point where Jim and I run out of steam and turn it over to our audience, Figure of the Week, for a change of pace. So we’re going to continue that—the spirit of that—by turning over our Figure of the Week segment of the podcast to you all—actually, it’s Figure of the Decade, though. You all have a mobile device. It won’t change the screen behind us or anything, but it will allow you to vote for a Figure of the Decade, both a person in one vote and a number on the second vote. So please—let’s see. I want to make sure I have the guidance right to you.
So you should see—OK, now you’re seeing the first question.
LINDSAY: Do you have a question? No.
MCMAHON: Significant figure of the last decade. This is something to think about in terms of not popularity, necessarily, but significance. Think about that before you cast your vote. We will run down the list of four names. There they are. Little surprise, I would imagine. Donald J. Trump, number one. Xi Jinping, number two. Vladimir Putin, number three. Angela Merkel, number four. So just press the number on your—on your mobile device for which one you think is the most significant figure. I’ll give you a few seconds, maybe twenty to thirty seconds to mull it over before you log it, and then we’ll see where we turned out. Let’s say I’ll give you about fifteen more seconds. There’s a lot of votes coming in right now, fast and furious. Democracy in action. Love it. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: Participatory democracy.
MCMAHON: So how do they vote on these titans of the world stage?
Q: Push two and OK, or?
MCMAHON: Just the number is fine.
LINDSAY: Just two. Just the number and you’re good to go.
MCMAHON: All right. So that’s a lock. Let’s see what we came up with. Oh, there you go. All right.
AMOS: Wow, aha!
MCMAHON: So our Jeopardy contestant here added his final Jeopardy choice.
LINDSAY: I win. I win. (Laughter.)
MCMAHON: So just for the sake of our podcast audience, we’ll run down the list. So number one vote-getter was Xi Jinping with 33.3 (percent). Hmm, exactly a third. Interesting. (Laughter.) Thirty-three-point-three percent for Xi Jinping, number one. Number two, Donald J. Trump. Twenty-six-point-four percent of you voted for Trump as the most significant figure. Third place, not far behind, Vladimir Putin, 24.1 percent. And last was Angela Merkel with 16.1 percent. So what we’ll do after each of those votes, by the way, is we’ll talk a little bit about who you chose. And maybe in the Q&A some of you can say why you chose that way as well.
Xi Jinping, obviously, for—Jim sort of teed up a little bit the China question. But you know, a huge figure, huge transformative figure. I’m not certain yet how the transformation is going to end up, since it’s still very much in progress. But he has—he is the most, I would say, authoritative and powerful Chinese figure since Mao. And has set about consolidating his power, consolidating the power of the Communist Party, in ways that were, I think surprising to a lot of people who thought maybe they could see a little bit more pragmatism in him. It’s going to be easy to—interesting to watch, though, as Chinese growth starts to slow. We just had new figures published. I think the lowest Chinese growth in thirty years, or something like that, 6 percent? Six percent, many countries would kill for, but for China it’s quite a drop.
And so his ability to deal with slowing growth, to deal with this trade war, to deal with restive minority populations, a very feisty democracy movement in Hong Kong, an unresolved situation with Taiwan, which has its own feisty—by the way, Taiwan has elections next year. So it’s a great choice, actually. And Jim—I don’t think Jim is doing any coaching. I think he personally was also thinking along the same lines. I don’t know, Jim, if you have any thoughts to add.
LINDSAY: Well, what I would not is, as Bob said, Xi Jinping is the power powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. And he intends to exercise that power. And he has risen to the top in part by making the case that China—it is time for China to shine in the world, that China needs to be more assertive. He is the one who used the metaphor, but China is going to decide the playgrounds on which games get played. But he does also have a big risk. When you consolidate power and you hold it all, you also become the person who clearly is responsible for all things that happen, good or bad.
And you mentioned the issue of the potential weakening of the economy, but also the fact is there were lots of people in China—it wasn’t just people outside of China that were surprised at how successful he was at consolidating power. He had rivals and challengers within the Chinese Communist Party. And so I think the interesting to watch in the years to come is really what’s going to be happening internally in China, because think that—particularly upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party—is going to determine where China goes.
AMOS: Let me ask both of you. I’m surprised at how low the Angela Merkel number is. Is it because she had a lot of challenges, and she actually did them pretty well? (Laughter.)
MCMAHON: I think there’s probably something to be said for that. I think here you have someone who’s actually in the midst of this sort of democratic maelstrom has seemed to have navigated a pretty smooth—so far, at least—smooth transfer of power in Germany in terms of her own party, in terms of appealing to the moderate base in Germany. And, you know, and so she’s not in the news every day. She doesn’t—that’s not her style. And so she gets punished for it in the voting.
LINDSAY: Lastly, I think she’s consequential, but I think she also has failed to really sort of rejuvenate, really keep momentum going for the European Union and the broader European project. I mean, if there is another sort of fourth trend over the last decade I would point it, it’s the—I wouldn’t called it the failure of the European dream, but maybe the failure of the European dream to reach its achievements. You’ve seen a lot of backsliding, divisions within the EU. You had Grexit, you have Brexit. But you also just have this notion that many countries, particularly in the southern rim of the European Union, are really unhappy with Brussels. And, you know, obviously the president of France has a bunch of ideas for rejuvenating the European project, but we don’t see them going anywhere. And so I think the question for Angela Merkel is what has she left after her that is going to be better? And I don’t see that significant—
MCMAHON: She never really teamed up with Macron like she did with Sarkozy—Merkozy, it was called at one point.
LINDSAY: Yeah, you haven’t really had that, so. And I think obviously when you’ve talked to many people, as I’m sure you have, in Germany, she still gets a lot of criticism for her I think morally correct decision to welcome a million refugees into Germany. But for many parts of Germany it was too many people too quickly.
AMOS: Although the thing that we haven’t talked about at all, and you feel it acutely in Europe, certainly in Germany, is climate change. And in fact, that has become the primary concern, rather than the refugees. And the Greens may do better. There may be finally a coalition with the Greens for the first time ever.
LINDSAY: Well, speaking of that topic, Bob—
MCMAHON: You’ve teed us up well for the next—for part deux of our poll, our Figure of the Week poll, our audience figure. So get the—get your devices handy again. This is a number. And we’ll put four up there for you to vote from. So is your figure of the decade the fact that the world population reached 7.7 billion? Or number two, global warming increased 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels? Or three, international migrant count hits 272 million. I believe that’s a record. Or, four, percentage of people worldwide living in extreme poverty dropped from 18.1 percent to 8.6 percent. So a positive development amongst the four choices. So please go ahead. Make your choices. I’ll give you the same amount of time as last time to think it over and go ahead. Just click on the number you want, and we’ll take stock in about ten-fifteen seconds.
AMOS: This is called dead air in my business. (Laughs.)
MCMAHON: All right. With that, we will call it a stop. And let’s see how the—see how the poll went. So global warming.
AMOS: I knew it.
LINDSAY: I win. (Laughter.) Two for two.
AMOS: That wasn’t hard, that second one.
MCMAHON: A whopping—a whopping 47.5 percent of you chose global warming as the most significant figure, numeric figure of the past ten years. Number two was international migrants surging. That’s 27.6 percent of you chose that. Extreme poverty, the improvement in poverty levels, 16.6 percent noted that. And world population, 8.3 percent.
Jim, what would you say about the global warming figure?
LINDSAY: Well, I have to confess that I’m old. And I can remember when we talked about climate change as something that might happen and is now something that is happening. Whether you look at rainfall patterns, the beginning and ends of seasons, storm activity, the global climate is changing. And I think that actually has massive consequences for the other three items on our list. How do you feed a planet of 7.5 billion people, and growing, if rainfall patterns change, if places that are used to being food-producing regions can no longer produce crops? We are already seeing climate change-induced migration. Those of you who follow, for example, what’s happening in the so-called Northern Triangle in Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras—part of that is driven by climate-induced changes, failure of the coffee crop, people leaving their homes and their farms.
And we look at these numbers, and sort of the bright news on that chart of the reduction of people who are in extreme poverty, the real question is can you continue to lift people out of poverty if food production is disrupted? Now, I will note, this is no surprise to anybody, that the global response to climate change has been too little, too slowly done. I’m, again, old, so I remember the fanfare that surrounded the 1992 Kyoto Accord. That accord died on the floor of the United States Senate. And I’m told by people who track these things that more than half of the heat-trapping gases currently in the Earth atmosphere were generated after the Kyoto Accord was signed. The 2015 Paris climate agreement has been hailed. People patted themselves on the back over that great achievement. I just went on something called the Climate Country Tracker. And essentially none of the major emitters of heat-trapping gases are anywhere close to hitting their Paris climate targets. And it’s obvious that the United States has walked away from the Paris climate numbers and our emissions are growing again.
So the talk about how we want to keep the globe from not heating more than 2 degrees centigrade, the prognosis for that, I think, is growing dimmer. We’re going to see a lot more talk about adapting. That’s easy to say. Perhaps wealthy countries will be able to adapt, at least to some kinds of climate change. It’s going to be a lot harder for poor countries, who simply won’t be able to build in the kinds of resilience that we’re talking about. And for many low-lying island countries—but I will also say low-lying parts of continents—are going to cease to exist, because they’ll be underwater.
MCMAHON: I think we hit a particular low point this summer, actually occurring during the G-7 summit, I believe, when you had these reports of these raging fires in the Brazilian Amazon, and some of the G-7 leaders scrambling to do something about it. And Mr. Macron getting into a bit of a tiff with Bolsonaro of Brazil over the response. And it seemed—for the severity of the fires, and the concerns, and the alarm, it kind of subsided as a news story. I shudder to think what’s actually still happening in the Amazon. And in not just Brazil’s Amazon, actually. Bolivia’s been facing its own problems. But it was an example of the world not covering itself in glory in sort of the way it was responding to something that’s a broader crisis.
AMOS: But, you know, I’m not surprised by that number. All you have to do is look out and sort of see who’s in this room. And we’re the guilty parties. And you all know it. Our generation didn’t do its job. And so it’s up to you now. I mean, I’ve had three—four heatwaves in Berlin where we were at Baghdad temperatures, in a country that doesn’t have air conditioning. And you can’t put it in now, because it is a carbon emitter. And you can’t retrofit those buildings now. Schools closed, businesses closed, production goes down. I saw it in—the forests are disappearing in Germany. I mean, Europe was in a lather this summer. So it’s up to you.
LINDSAY: I will note that, you know, this raises some tough challenges. Not simply that dealing with climate change, reducing the emission of heat-trapping gases requires changing the way cities are built, the way economies are run. It also requires a change in the way that countries operate. And you hit on it, Bob, with talk about what happened this summer, and you sort of saw it up close up and personal, which is that to solve this problem all countries have to do something. And the problem is, there’s an incentive for many countries to free ride. I’ll let you pay to fix it. Or they say: Why should I pay to fix it? I didn’t really produce that much. You’re the ones that produced it. So that’s a problem.
And, you know, our boss, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has a book called World in Disarray. And he talks about this notion of sovereign obligation, that normally you think of sovereignty as it’s my territory and I can do what I want. And the idea of sovereign obligation is that that may be true, but you also have obligations to others. And that’s what the Brazilians had. And the response we saw was a surge in nationalism. The Brazilians saying: You’re not the boss of us. You know, unless you want to pay us a lot of money, take a hike. And that’s part of the problem of trying to find a resolution.
MCMAHON: Yeah, at the U.N. General Assembly subsequently you did not see a lot of rhetoric from a number of important countries, like the U.S. about sovereign obligations. It was more about the sovereignty—the assertion of sovereignty.
LINDSAY: Old-fashioned sovereignty.
MCMAHON: Old-fashioned sovereignty.
LINDSAY: Westphalian sovereignty, as I used to teach in introduction to world politics.
MCMAHON: Well, we have—as a live podcast, we have a new element for this one as well, which is audience participation. So I think we want to move to the next segment of this, which is open question time. So if you are thinking of questions, get them ready. We have several people deployed around the room, ready to come in and pass the mic to you. Jim will be, you know, choosing.
LINDSAY: That’s because I’m old, I get to call on people. (Laughter.)
MCMAHON: So—and you know, it’s a typical Council policy on this is to frame a question, not an assertion of view necessarily, but a question. And identify yourself. And we’ll answer as best we can.
LINDSAY: We’ll come right down here to the front. If you could stand up and wait for the microphone.
Q: Professor Ira Weinstock, political science and sociology, Touro College.
My question is very simple. After what Trump just did to the Kurds, why would Kim of North Korea trust any agreement or anything that Trump says?
LINDSAY: I think you answered your own question, but—(laughter)—Bob or Deb, you want to chime in here?
MCMAHON: I’m sure he’s watching this very carefully. Kim has a special relationship with the president, obviously. He’s played it actually very skillfully, by all appearances. But when it comes down to brass tacks in terms of what the U.S. wants from him and denuclearization, I think it’s looking more and more remote—a more and more remote prospect. And in terms of what the U.S. leverage might be it’s kind of—it’s also seeming like a remote possibility.
AMOS: It’s not just what he did with the Kurds. I mean, for the Saudis, they couldn’t figure out—you didn’t do anything about that drone? That was really expensive. And so what you saw two days ago—
MCMAHON: The drone that the Iranians—
AMOS: That the Iranians shot down. So what you see two days ago is Putin comes and it is, you know, all flowers and everything the Saudis can do to welcome Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia. Which, you know, if you’ve been following this for long enough, you know, this is really something. The Saudis were always, always, always anti-Soviet Union. And it was a religion question for them. And now, you know, Putin is welcomed in the same way that Trump was in the beginning of the administration. It was fascinating to watch.
LINDSAY: We’ll go over there by the column. Once again, stand up, identify yourself.
Q: Hi. My name is Julia Khan. I’m senior at Barnard College.
And something that you, Deb, had said about this new big data versus open phones arms race raised a question for me, which is: Is in this arms race, who are the players and what does it mean that it’s not just necessarily states?
AMOS: Well, it is mostly states. I mean, what we saw—one example is Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, a group in Canada called the Citizens Lab did some information. And in this question, I suggest that you all look them up. They’re doing some really interesting work. And they discovered that the Saudi government has bought technology from the Israelis to put malware on his phone to track everything he said. And I think that that is the biggest issue about, you know, big data versus, you know, freedom on our phones, because there is technology available. You can buy it. And you can see that ideology has nothing to do with it. You will buy from who can deliver. And now, you know, we all have apps on our phones that are supposedly encrypted, but for how long? I don’t know.
LINDSAY: OK. We’re going to go on the right side, just geographically not necessarily politically. We’re going to go all the way in the back.
Q: Hello. My name is Max Bott (sp). I’m a freshman at NYU Stern.
My question is, with the rising differences in ideologies between the United States and China, and the growing power of these two countries, are we headed for a new Cold War?
MCMAHON: Well, it’s a great question. It’s been on the cover of magazines, a few already. I think it’s—I think it’s tough to, first of all, define what a new Cold War is, in some ways. Having grown up under the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, there’s certainly things that just don’t apply anymore, one of which is just the economic integration of the two countries is vast. And as Jim was saying, you know, the whole Chimerica idea that was out there ten years ago, and the interactions between the two countries just are far different than they were in the Soviet days.
However, certainly in terms of the military buildup going on, the—sort of the rivalries and the competition playing out in the South China Sea, the disagreements and potential frictions growing over human rights, and then you add to that a trade war and potentially a changing of the trade relationship in a certain way, that leaves certainly a chill. And it’s—maybe Cold War is not the right term, but there is a—some sort of a major chill going on, a tectonic move perhaps, that is taking us into a difficult place, and a worrisome place, again, given the size and the firepower of the two countries.
LINDSAY: I’m going to come down here to the front. Kind of rotate around the world, give everybody a chance.
Q: Hello. My name is Ogo Sylla at—I’m a grad student at Baruch College.
And I’m wondering, isn’t it about time maybe to kind of tackle the climate change crisis issue, an inherently capitalistic issue with doing that—oh, sorry.
LINDSAY: If you could start—maybe identify—do the whole thing over again? That would probably help. (Laughter.) Sorry.
Q: No, no worries. My name is Ogo Sylla. I’m a grad student at Baruch College.
And I was asking that isn’t it time, to better tackle the climate change issue, to reframe it as an inherently capitalistic issue? And then with what we know today, and being knee-deep into it, doesn’t that offer the best of political opportunities windows to actually start fraying at that—at that issue, at that system?
LINDSAY: Deb, you’re the savvy media person. (Laughter.) You think a lot about framing issues. Is it simply a framing issue?
AMOS: I don’t think it’s simply—I wish it was. That would—that would make it easier. It is a speeding up issue. I think that we can all agree on that. We thought that we had more time than we do. So I think framing is—look, you have—and I’ve seen them, political leaders say, I want to deal with climate change but I don’t want it to hurt the business community, not too much. So we’ll go a little slow. And I think, I’m sorry, but it’s going to hurt a lot more if you don’t tackle it now. So in my view—Europe is different—but in this country I still feel that that’s the argument, that if we move too fast, you know, it will be bad for business.
MCMAHON: Do you get the sense that the businesses themselves are kind of keen for more guidance and more structure?
AMOS: I do. I do.
MCMAHON: I mean, look at what’s happening in California.
AMOS: And with the car industry? Absolutely.
MCMAHON: The car industry, but also the energy industry. It seems like there’s some readiness—just anecdotally—there’s some readiness on the part of big business to do more on this front. I think there’s a great deal of concern. And they’re not getting any sort of structure, except from local governments.
AMOS: And it’s the political people who are saying, well, you know, we have to go—I’m for this, but not so fast.
MCMAHON: It’s not happening on the Democratic presidential candidate debates. We’re not seeing climate much at all.
AMOS: No, I agree.
LINDSAY: I would actually flip the gentleman’s question around. I think actually the way you can solve it is through capitalism. It’s often framed exactly this, it’s going to cost you jobs. The fact is, there’s a tremendous amount of money that you can make by inventing new technologies. And I will note that coal-producing plants don’t really care whether or not the government is elected, or through monarchy, or run by a communist party. It is about industrialization, not about who owns the means of production.
MCMAHON: I would also note, small little note of potential hope in terms of how other environmental issues have been dealt with in the past, take a look at the Montreal protocol and what—how it formed what it was supposed to be addressing. When I was coming of age the term “acid rain” was the big concern. Climate change was still a little bit more remote. Acid rain was the abiding concern. A lot of similar arguments coming out about how expensive it would be. You ended up having, among other things, a U.S. Republican administration stepping forward and taking leadership on it, and banning certain elements that were causing—that were contributing to the acid rain that was—that was afflicting especially North America. So there are ways to address these things. And political will’s a big thing. But the private sector can also take note of these things as well.
LINDSAY: OK, I went right before. Now I’m going to go left. I’m going to go—I can only see an arm with a white bracelet. White bracelet, you get to ask the question.
Q: Hi. I’m Talia (sp). I go to the New School. I’m a graduate student there.
And I’m actually taking a course called post-truth politics. So my question is regarding facts and the death of truth. Do you think this is—are we experiencing that? Like, facts are no longer relevant in today’s age?
LINDSAY: Oh, I’m going to go back to our reporter—(laughter)—since you got that whole objectivity, just the facts.
AMOS: Oh, man. Yes. Look, I think that in one way it is a—you know, it’s a political strategy that if the truth doesn’t matter anymore than it’s easier to convince people one way or the other. We see this every day. We see, you know, Mick Mulvaney is on tape saying one thing, and then an hour later comes out and says he didn’t say it. But there’s a tape. But I didn’t say it. But there’s a tape!
LINDSAY: But he’s a member of Congress—or, was a member of Congress. And he’s used to be able to revise and extend the remarks in the congressional record. So this is just the way business is operated on the Hill.
AMOS: And I think that journalism also is having trouble adjusting to this new landscape. For us, there’s certain conventions that we have to abide by. And that is the equivalency, that we have to have two sides. And sometimes, we’re stuck with a false equivalency. This used to happen in all the climate change arguments, where your editor would say: But what’s the other side? But it’s a bunch of climate deniers that are paid by the oil companies. I don’t care, you must have one. And you had to have one. And there was no way to sort of let your readers know, or your listeners, that the balance was not equal, it was a false equivalency. But that’s how journalism works, and that’s what we do. Three, there’s far too much opinion on the journalistic side of it, far too much in my view, because that’s all we have. That’s our coin in this realm, is objectivity and good reporting. And we are wasting it.
LINDSAY: Deb, too much opinion in the pieces people are reporting, or too many reporters going on nighttime cable news shows—
AMOS: Part two. Part two. Absolutely part two.
MCMAHON: And tweeting.
AMOS: And tweeting. I mean, you know, my company polices tweets. We have a—you know, the politburo, and they really watch us. Because we’re a dot-org, so they must. But I am appalled by what I see my colleagues tweeting.
LINDSAY: In other—in other—
AMOS: In other news organizations.
MCMAHON: And so to the question about facts and truth, I mean, this does get down to journalism responsibility and credibility. And I think there are movements afoot, whether it’s the self-policing of the big social media platforms, but also there are private organizations or nonprofit organizations setting themselves up and mobilizing and trying to do more to kind of rate the more credible sources to serve this kind of gatekeeper function. I worked for a number of years for a U.S.-funded broadcaster called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. And I joined them in the early ’90s, broadcasting to these countries just coming out of the communist era. Their fact checking was far more rigorous than where I had been previously in private sector media, but partly because they were very, very sensitive to being seen as a, you know, propaganda and distorting the truth, and everything else. And their credibility mattered for them, and actually made them one of the go-to sources of news in some of the markets they were in. So it does matter. I think we’re seeing a kind of a cyclical thing going on with media right now. And it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out.
LINDSAY: I’m going to come right up here to the front.
Q: Hello. My name is Nada (sp). I’m a junior student at Adelphi University.
So I just wanted to ask, regarding attitudes towards democracy in the Middle East, we recently see a rise once again in protests in Sudan, in Egypt, and Lebanon, and Iraq. So I wanted to ask, do you see any regime changes in Egypt or any of the other countries?
AMOS: I don’t think soon, because everybody’s just been through that.
MCMAHON: Well, Sudan might be a—
AMOS: Maybe, maybe. But I think what is interesting is that spirit of the Arab Spring is still alive. What’s happening in Lebanon is just astonishing today. I was watching it on social media. So this is a generation that still is willing to go to the street and take those risks. You know, I worried that that was all snuffed out because so many of those activists played such a heavy price in Egypt, certainly in Syria. But this week has shown me that the Arab Spring is still alive and kicking.
LINDSAY: I’m going to go in the back—in the back. First person I see, closest person to me with their hand up. That’s you. Stand up. That’s the general rule, if you think you’re called on, act like you’re called on. (Laughter.)
Q: All right.
Q: I’m Ellie Spresser (sp) and I’m a master’s student at Fordham University.
And my question is, does anyone see a disconnect between this administration’s early focus on the Muslim ban and the current stance on the Uighurs? And is this simply a ploy in the trade war, or is something different going on?
LINDSAY: I already voted. I said it was simply something used to gain some leverage in the trade war.
MCMAHON: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s—there’s certainly an argument to be made compelling one in that direction. It’s partly because of the inconsistency on the administration’s approach on human rights questions across the board. I mean, positions they’ve taken on Venezuela, for example, go against, you know, positions they’ve taken in other parts of the world, facing similar circumstances. And so it’s hard not to be cynical in that respect. And so they have—they are mandated—let’s also note that administrations are mandated by Congress to issue human rights reports and to weigh in on issues like this. And in some cases, they will find common cause with Congress to act in ways that seem consistent. So it’s a big complicated.
Again, it’s hard not to be cynical. I think on face value, though, I think there was a great deal of concern about the appalling state of affairs involving the Uighurs. I think the other fact is that there’s not a lot of Uighurs who are making their way to the U.S. to seek asylum. And so that is a consideration. I mean, we are seeing a direct through-line to those who are coming to the U.S.—the asylum policy and the immigration policy in this country is quite different.
LINDSAY: We’re going to come right up to the front. Finally somebody in the front row put their hand up.
Q: Hi. My name’s Veronica (sp) and I go to SUNY Buffalo State, a poli-sci major.
In relation to climate change, like you said earlier, you said it was up to us to make a change. What should we be doing to combat this issue?
AMOS: Political organization. Find whoever is working on this in your town. Mayor Bloomberg after Paris—after the Trump administration got out of the Paris agreement, he went on a tear and started doing some really interesting organization. You know, it’s interesting that you ask because I’ve been talking about this in my own town. Every once in a while, I’ll nudge my sandwich maker to, please, could you get bamboo spoons. And then you think, who cares? You know, these issues are so big that—you know, this is how about how airplanes fly. This is about how air conditioning works. It is bigger than any one of us. But I think that if political leaders know that there is an angry mob organized, it is better.
LINDSAY: Let me go to the gentleman with the white shirt, like, three rows up in the middle.
Q: Oops. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: I’ll amend that, the white shirt without the jacket. But that was a good move, white shirt with jacket, to get up. (Laughter.) I’ll come to you next, OK?
Q: Good afternoon, my name is Christopher Bagdonis (sp). I go to Manhattan College.
And my question for you guys is, what do you think the most important development is going to be in the next ten years, looking forward?
LINDSAY: Wow, curveball. (Laughter.) What is it Yogi Berra said, predictions are hard to make, especially about the future? (Laughter.)
AMOS: I do the news, so like—(laughter)—I’m out. (Laughs.)
MCMAHON: He turned—he turned the tables on us, because that’s usually our focus is looking ahead. You know, well, on the one hand I’ll take the topic I started with. I think it could be consequential, because at the end of the day democracy is involving leadership and changing policies from climate, to Middle East policy, to what have you. There are a number of interesting things going on. And to sort of riff off of Jim’s positive take on democratic developments, it’s not all gloom and doom. And I think partly because of this sort of radicalism—radical populism in some places, it has stirred up publics that were dormant, complacent, cynical, and what have you. And there are many, many examples of how.
Listening to Deb talk about the environmental activism made me think of the new president of Slovakia, a woman who’s an environmental lawyer, who was content to be going about her business until things in her country started to outrage her, including the killing—the unsolved killing of a journalism—investigative journalist. And she’s now president. Came out of nowhere to become president of Slovakia. Slovakia was in this belt of countries that were seemingly illiberal and moving in a bad direction. You saw a backlash in some cases in this country in the midterms. You saw a lot of—just look at the voting levels compared to 2016 and 2018. There’s a lot more activism, a lot more people running.
You know, it was interesting, we—Jim and I had our year-end podcast last year. We did it with a German scholar, who’s at Brookings right now. And she said something that stuck with me, which was that when she was thinking about what happened in democracy, and what now could be changing because of it, she said, you know, in Germany they were—in her country, people were very happy to just sort of take this wonderful stability and prosperity that they had inherited. And she was—she called them consumers of stability. But she said people started to realize it’s not about just consuming, it’s about actually, you know, actively sustaining democracy and doing something about it, being citizens.
And she was hopeful that she was seeing changes in Germany. You’re seeing things in Europe as well. The pendulum may be shifting in other places. Last weekend elections in Poland were not as concerning as some people—some close watchers thought, because the main party that has been sort of acting illiberally did not win the senate and is not going to be able to force through a number of constitutional changes. Hungary’s dominant party lost a number of municipal elections, including in Budapest. You’re seeing moderate—or, you see center-right party emerging—a leader from the center-right in Greece. And Greece slowly, possibly, moving out of its morass. Italy, a center-left party entered into a coalition government in place of a neo-fascist.
And so there are changes happening. I think democracy is a place I would start with to look for ten years down the road and see whether this was the period of time that people were shaken out of lethargy and maybe started moving on things like climate, among others.
LINDSAY: To me, the obvious answer to the question is climate change. That’s going to deliver some things we don’t like and haven’t expected. But since that’s an easy and obvious answer, let me give you a different one, which is the continuation of nuclear proliferation. And I think looking forward, you know, it has been since August 9th, 1945, nuclear weapons have not been used. In the course of the 1970s, into the 1980s, we created this arms control regime, as it’s called, that sort of limited the main nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. That system of arms control is falling apart. Bush administration left the ABM Treaty. The Trump administration’s left the INF Treaty. The New START treaty may or may not be renewed.
MCMAHON: The last of the main treaties between the U.S. and Russia.
LINDSAY: Last of the main treaties. We already have other treaties that have sort of fallen by the wayside. But that sort of governs the U.S.-Russia dynamic. We have the complication of China modernizing its forces, India and Pakistan having forces, the development of new technologies that may put existing nuclear technologies at risk. Talking about things like hypersonic missiles. So I think technology is creating a whole series of problems in what I’ll call sort of the nuclear area, that we have not begun to grapple with and they may rise up and surprise us in some particularly alarming ways.
AMOS: Can I put one nod into tackling inequality, because it has everything to do with what you’re talking about. There was—Times did a piece about a study done by thirty different universities. And the idea is that the more inequality there is a country the more it is likely that the populace wants a military government. Happens here too. So if it is—and I think so many people know how important this is that there are people who are looking into how to address it. And a ten-year span is a good span to look at, because if we don’t—if we don’t figure that out, we will all be marching about in uniforms.
LINDSAY: OK. The gentleman with the white shirt but had the jacket on. I promised you that you could ask a question. Go.
Q: Hi. I’m William (sp) from Rutgers, a research intern at the think tank sensible societies program.
My question is about China. So returning to the theme of multilateralism, what does the panel think of mainland China’s Belt Road Initiative? Do the panel think of the initiative as more of a philanthropist infrastructure project or a neocolonial model of debt trap diplomacy?
MCMAHON: Well, it’s certainly starting to seem like the latter, according to reports emerging from countries that have been heavily involved in this. You’re starting to see—Belt and Road, it also takes on a little bit of an amorphous quality because it’s—China is active in so many places. And Deb mentioned the Huawei signs in Europe. I saw them in Georgia, the country, the summer as well. China is seemingly omnipresent in—
LINDSAY: Georgia you mean the country.
MCMAHON: Georgia the country.
LINDSAY: Not Georgia like in Atlanta, Macon.
LINDSAY: OK. Just wanted to—
MCMAHON: Yeah, Georgia the country.
LINDSAY: ATL, that sort of stuff.
MCMAHON: But also in Africa as well. And it’s both an essential, in some places, but also increasingly onerous partnership that these countries find themselves involved in, especially feeling like they’re leveraged and feeling a bit, you know, invaded by Chinese workers, and entrepreneurs, and so forth.
I think the Belt and Road, the verdict’s still out on it. It’s, I think, a lost opportunity for the U.S. Of course, was countering it through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was one of the first moves the Trump administration made, in leaving it. And so it’s—again, it’s—I think it’s beginning to feel like it’s becoming a bit of a burdensome move by China. And I think you’re going to start maybe seeing this ratcheting up a little bit more as China’s economy slows, in terms of their need to create markets, and export markets, and so forth. I think there’s a great deal more pressure that countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative are going to be feeling.
LINDSAY: I’m going to come up here towards the front.
Q: Hi. My name is Mary Oboyhi (sp). And I’m a second-year graduate student at Arcadia University.
Like democracy, multilateralism has also declined. What are some factors that can bring back multilateralism?
LINDSAY: The one factor that’s most likely to revive multilateralism is the willingness of the United States to lead the effort. If you look at sort of the world that was created by the United States after the end of World War II—we call it the rules-based order, or the liberal international order. You can call it the American-led order, Pax Americana. What stood out about it was that you had one country, the United States, that basically served as, like, an organizing force to build up these institutions that did not exist before. For a whole variety of reasons, the United States has sort of lost its enthusiasm for multilateralism. Clearly President Trump when he campaigned ran on a platform not of isolationism, as it’s often discussed, but of unilateralism. We’ll do what we want. We don’t want to be fettered by these institutions.
And I think one of the consequences that is a result of that is where there has been opportunities to reinvigorate multilateralism, they’ve fallen by the wayside. Just to give you one example, on this issue of trade. You know, when you talk about problems, there are really sort of three stages: Recognizing of a problem, figuring out why you have the problem, generating a solution for the problem—I should say four—and then implementing your proposed solution. I think the president is right in that there’s a lot of problems in the international trading system. He falls down on steps two, three, and four. And clearly one of the ways to deal with what he’s concerned about in the international trading system would be invigorating what’s known as the World Trade Organization.
Instead, the United States essentially has decided it does not like the World Trade Organization. And in, oh, about two months from now the organization effectively is going to be unable to continue working, because at what you call the appellate level, the final stage in how the World Trade Organization works, requires on having members of that appellate body. And the United States is blocking the appointment of new members of that body. And come December, they will not have enough people to actually proceed. And what that does is, again, if you break institutions people go elsewhere. Institutions become very hard to fix, and it becomes very hard to create new institutions.
So I think that would be the big change. Now, some of you may be thinking, well, maybe China could lead us in terms of a new multilateral direction. The Chinese, to this point, have not shown any interest in doing so. Maybe someday they will. But I would note sort of the vision China has of how the world will be organized is not one that has a lot of appeal, particularly to countries that are in its neighborhood. They actually fear the rise of China. That’s why for the United States there is a lot of support for what we might call sensible U.S. diplomacy in the region.
That’s why you had so many countries in Southeast Asia and in East Asia signing up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because they saw this as a multilateral example of how you could knit countries together, create a counterweight to China that would put pressure on China to have to adapt to what members of TPP were doing, rather than China sitting there essentially as a gigantic economic black hole, sort of in terms of its gravity—its economic gravitational pull, sort of drawing everybody toward it.
MCMAHON: Yeah. I mean, I would say it’s also worth looking in the multilateral sphere on foreign aid, which is not a favored topic for this president, although there is still quite a bit of foreign aid dispersed by the U.S. and it’s a congressional—area of congressional—great congressional interest. But executive—presidential administrations can have an incredible effect. And one area I would just point to, just by way of example, was the PEPFAR program under President George W. Bush in Africa. The U.S. brought extraordinary resources to bear and worked with a number of countries, NGOs and so forth, to basically help diminish and stamp out in many places HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
And while there were a number of critics of some aspects of that approach, and of other aspects of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, he gets wide credit for that initiative, which PEPFAR was a success. It was U.S.-run. And the U.S. really was uniquely situated to be able to bring that sort of firepower to bear. You see the U.S. do this in many other places, especially on the global health front. But there’s other areas as well.
LINDSAY: We got time to take one final question. This young, energetic person right there. All the weight is on you. Take us with one final great question.
AMOS: But the pop up was a good start. (Laughter.)
Q: Hello. I’m Sophi Soufie (sp). I’m a junior at Columbia University.
I just wanted to ask how you envision the role of the United States in the pursuit—the continuing pursuit of human rights, especially in regards to Netanyahu’s recent threats to extensively expand illegal settlements within Palestinian territory?
AMOS: Oh, dear. (Laughter.) You know, I thought the answer to the last question of how do you go back to multilateralism is an election, American. And I think this—it’s the same answer. I think that this administration will be quite supportive of that, in the same way that the president spoke about, you know, the Kurds are no angels, and it did really bother him that we were having some real, serious civilian deaths. And so I can only say that I think the answer is an election.
LINDSAY: On that note, Bob, I think we’re going to wrap up.
MCMAHON: We wrapped up where we began, with voting, and people voting and taking part in democracies.
This wraps up the first-ever live podcast edition of The World Next Week. Thanks to Deb for joining us. (Applause.) Please don’t wait ten years to join us again.
AMOS: Thank you.
MCMAHON: And Deb Amos is one of the international correspondents for NPR. But for me, she’ll always be the international correspondent. I also want to thank you, the audience, these are fantastic questions. You guys have done this before, obviously.
LINDSAY: Give yourself a round of applause. (Applause.)
Please subscribe to The World Next Week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a review while you’re at us. They help us get noticed and improve the show. Please note that opinions expressed on The World Next Week are solely those of the host, that’s Bob and me, or our guest, in this case Deb, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. Today’s program is produced by Zoë Collis and Senior Producer Jeremy Sherlick. And I should say we couldn’t do this show without both Zoë and Jeremy, the senior producer. So they have our thanks. Also want to give special thanks to Sabine Baumgartner, Veronica Bernie, Maria Casa, Allison Cozzi, Irina Faskianos, Julissa Sarabia, Gabrielle Sierra, Anna Shortridge, and Sarah Valero for their assistance. This week our recording engineer was the one and only Chris Vera. Our theme music is provided by Miguel Herrero. It’s licensed under Creative Commons. This is Jim Lindsay. I’m running out of breath. Let me just say, goodbye.
AMOS: This is Deb Amos.
MCMAHON: And this is Bob McMahon saying, so long. (Applause.)