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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Challenging the Consensus on China

Featuring Jessica Chen Weiss

Is China the US’s perennial enemy? How do the complexities of China’s political landscape affect global affairs? And is conflict over Taiwan inevitable? In today’s episode, we explore these questions with Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell professor and author specializing in Chinese foreign policy and nationalism. Plus, we learn about Uzbekistan’s change in domestic violence criminality and have an update on malaria vaccinations.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am joined on this podcast as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? Is our podcast, weekly podcast, that is making the case for a brighter future, but also just making the case for why we need a better sensibility when we look at difficult issues.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re gonna talk to Jessica Chen Weiss, who is a professor at Cornell where she specializes in China foreign policy and nationalism. She’s also the author of two books and she served under the Biden administration as the secretary’s policy planning staff. She is the author of a much talked about article called The China Trap in Foreign Affairs, which is all about how our overblown rhetoric between the US and China might be moving us toward conflict over Taiwan. So I’m really looking forward to our conversation with Jessica today.

ZK: And the reason we are looking at China is that of the many foreign issues that the United States confronts in the world today, there is absolutely nothing more central and important than China. I feel like there is no such thing as talking about China too much in the world today and that we really need to examine our own groupthink and that this assumption of China as an enemy and that this conflict is inevitable needs to be challenged and needs to be pushed back against because it is not the only set of choices and it may actually be some of the worst set of choices. So in that spirit, we’re gonna talk to Jessica Chen Weiss.

Jessica Chen Weiss, thank you so much for joining us today. We’re recording this in mid-April, and a few weeks ago, there were hearings about TikTok, which quickly devolved into all the ways in which China is pursuing nefarious ends in the United States using a Trojan horse app. We’ve had the president of Taiwan pass through the United States, met with House Speaker McCarthy, which led to another series of Chinese military drills off the coast of Taiwan. So I guess the question is, has the die sort of been cast in such a way that we are, whether we call it or not, in a de facto Cold War or great power competition with China?

Jessica Chen Weiss (JC): I don’t think the die has been cast, although I think the trends are pretty grim, that following the President Biden and Xi Jinping’s meeting in Bali, we of course had the spy balloon incident which derailed Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing, and which I think was meant to try to, as the Biden administration puts it, put a floor under the relationship. And subsequent to that, we had the ties transit and the Chinese response. But I still think that you have, at least on the US side, a desire to continue to stabilize the relationship. Secretary Yellen gave a major speech talking about how the world is big enough for both of us, and that United States and China, even amidst our competition, have a shared interest in peace and prosperity. So it is not beyond the realm of the possible, but it also, I think, requires folks to imagine and put muscle behind the idea of an alternative trajectory, one that will bend these negative trendlines away from an avoidable crisis or conflict likely over Taiwan.

EV: So, Jessica, you’re saying that on a government level, some kind of imaginative capacity is required to have a different approach between China and the US. I think that one thing that is difficult, looking at it from the narrative that just gets put into the mainstream, is that there’s this constant jump period of China as a threat, right? Like China’s a growing threat to American interests. And just speaking as a layperson, I have a hard time figuring out what does that really mean? And is that really true?

JC: That’s a great question, Emma, because there are ways in which Chinese interests and values are very much opposed to those of the United States, but that isn’t the same as saying that China is an existential threat to life as we know it in the 21st century, which is what Representative Mike Gallagher said at the opening hearing of the select committee on the Chinese Communist Party. And so being really sober about the extent of Chinese ambitions and also whether or not they face significant headwinds to actually achieving those ambitions is really important to rightsizing the challenge or threat that China poses.

And I think that there is really insufficient discussion we take for granted this [inaudible] menace and when you don’t make clear what it isn’t impacting in terms of vital US interests, then it starts to become a conversation where they’re like the Chinese Communist Party is hiding under everybody’s bed and they sort of get increasingly paranoid and unable to focus on the kinds of areas where it’s crucial that the United States focus policy to make sure we get it right for ourselves, recognizing that China is one of many players out there on the world stage, that in some cases, our interests overlap, in other cases, they don’t, and navigating that kind of complicated world is just like the essence of foreign policy.

EV: Could you actually rightsize some of those things right now just in terms of ambitions and the headwinds? I think that might be helpful for people to hear.

JC: Yeah, absolutely. So the Chinese leadership has publicly described as China’s fundamental objectives, the achievement of sovereignty, security, and development on the road to national rejuvenation. And Xi Jinping has taken a much more aggressive stance on consolidating his power at home, reinserting party leadership across a Chinese society, and has emphasized the party’s leadership is essential to delivering what is really a longstanding goal, wealth and power after a century of humiliation in their nationalist narrative at the hands of foreign powers. But oftentimes we read increasingly that Chinese speeches which talk about socialism inevitably triumphing over capitalism is often cited as evidence that the United States and China can’t coexist peacefully as long as the Chinese Communist Party still rules. But these speeches in a very insecure political environment in China are often meant as much to instill kind of domestic confidence in Xi Jinping and ideological loyalty to the party as they are really a kind of an objective description of the reality that they perceive.

And ultimately, there’s, I think, a lot of domestic debate within China and uncertainty about what role China should play on the world stage. They certainly want to be less vulnerable and more secure in a world that has largely favored liberal values and democracies, the Chinese Communist Party is one of the few remaining communist parties around the world that still rules, and the TCP is deathly afraid of going the way of others. And so Xi Jinping’s approach has been to be much more combative to show that China will not be pushed around, judging that to do anything else would be to invite further humiliation or provocation.

Now that, of course, translates into like a menacing China that is much less willing to go along to get along and has magnified fears that CCP’s efforts to achieve a world that’s safe for autocracy is necessarily coming at the expense of a world safe for democracy. And my argument is that those two worlds are not irreconcilable. In fact, the United Nations, which is– one of its founding principles is the preservation of sovereignty. But increasingly in this globalized world, you have a lot of transnational influences, a lot of insecurity felt, not just of course in China, but also increasingly in the United States. And I think that kind of soup, that cauldron of insecurity is contributing to the spiral of insecurity over not just the military challenge that China poses in the the Indo-Pacific to Taiwan. Obviously, China seeks what they would call reunification with Taiwan, does not like US alliances, although it was probably potentially prepared to live with them, it’s gonna be hard for them to displace the United States given the robust state of those relationships.

And so really, the areas in which the United States and China’s interests are irreconcilable, I think largely has to do with the issue of Taiwan where the preservation of the status quo, something that the United States is ostensibly– policy is committed to. It may or may not be something that the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party is going to want to live with forever. And so that’s an area in which the best solution is, Jude Blanchette and Ryan Hass have written, is no solution, just to kick the can down the road because politics in Taiwan, politics in China, who knows where they will evolve. Someday, there could be something that a leadership in Beijing could call peaceful unification. The important thing is not to foreclose that possibility now. Otherwise, I think that there are ways in which if we– I’m not saying that this is where we are now, but if both the United States and China were to find ways to discipline and exercise more restraint in these kinds of unilateral tactics that both sides find not just aggravating but dangerous, we could arrive at some kind of modus vivendi that would be certainly safer than where we are today.

ZK: So you were in the Biden administration for a little less than a year, in the policy planning staff in the State Department. It looks increasingly like there’s this broad and almost unchallenged consensus emanating from Washington that China is approximate threat and should be contained, maybe not at all costs, but with increasingly intensive measures that use both trade authority and Commerce Department to limit China’s access to semiconductor equipment, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, to anything coming from the United States that relates to AI, just increasing scrutiny of this whole relationship. Is there any dissenting notes? I assume you were one to that amen choir, and why aren’t those dissenting notes more evident if they exist?

JC: One of the reasons that I wrote the piece was because I felt that those alternative viewpoints existed but were largely artificially quiet both inside and outside of the administration, that people held these views and were concerned but understood what was politically acceptable, whether or not you were speaking publicly on the hill or even inside of a closed-door discussion. And so in the piece that I wrote for Foreign Affairs, The China Trap, I talked about the perils of groupthink, which creates a sort of artificial sense that everybody agrees. Now, I think everybody agrees that this is a real challenge, but we don’t have an agreement really on what exactly should be done. And the extent of the challenge that China poses is also one where I feel an increasing worry, especially now with the new House Select committee, is trending in a much more extreme direction than many are comfortable with.

And I would say that I don’t feel like I’ve been shouting into the void. In fact, one of the things that we know from political science research is that when you have a kind of herd mentality or this artificial kind of convergence around a particular set of ideas, a few voices can begin to, simply by speaking out, trigger the process of a growing realization that actually there is less consensus here than what might have been apparent and that more and more people can feel comfortable speaking out. Now, my objective here has not been to– or even aspire to a new consensus, but simply that it’s important for policy to have a healthy debate internally and externally. And then that’s one of the things that that leads to better policymaking. And so I have been encouraged by the number of op-eds and other pieces by various people in the US political space that have been articulating a bit more of this concern about where are we headed and to what extent are we, to some extent, driving a self-fulfilling prophecy by engaging in these more exaggerated assessments, and in particular, this sort of growing fatalism that the United States and China are destined for conflict.

And to that, I was quite encouraged again to see Secretary Yellen say today that our destinies are not faded, that economics is the study of choices, and that the United States and China both have choices to make. I don’t think I’m optimistic necessarily, but I’m also not fatalistic. And so through this, I think what you’re doing here, which is to say that there could be an alternative, something could go right, is to create space for those alternative choices.

EV: Yeah, I can imagine someone listening to this and thinking like, yeah, okay, it might turn out all right, but what are we supposed to think when Xi Jinping is saying last couple months, like the PLA should be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. Certainly, that points to a pretty conc– not a concrete timeline, but it’s a near term timeline, right?

JC: To me, what it reflects is the fact that Xi Jinping doesn’t feel confident today that the People’s Liberation Army has a credible military option to take Taiwan and hold the United States at bay. It’s a very difficult military task to launch that kind of amphibious invasion.

ZK: Particularly if you’ve never done one before.

JC: Absolutely. One of the challenges, I think, with such assessments is inferring from a timeline for the development of a credible capability to then equating that with a timeline for intent. And, again, I think it’s important that from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command has said that this is not a timeline for invasion. We should not conflate a target for capabilities. Again, this is Xi Jinping trying to get his system to get in gear to be prepared.

But the challenges that trends in Taiwan, politically, look really bleak, particularly after of course China’s own actions in Hong Kong has really made that prospect of unification under one country, two systems, just politically toxic in Taiwan. And so I think they see both demographic and political trends in Taiwan as well as growing American assistance and interest in supporting Taiwan. They see, I think, a need to prepare to fight a war that they might end up losing, from Beijing’s perspective, is they think that the for them, unfortunately, the threat of military action remains the method of deterrence that they feel that they have to rely upon, and if they took that military threat off the table, then what’s to stop Taiwan from moving precipitously toward [inaudible] or formal independence?

Audio Clip: Taiwan is self-governing, but China sees this land as its own. And so an invasion scenario is being rehearsed. The enemy in red helmets, landing, dispersing, infantry responding, both conscription and defense spend have recently increased here, a sense of urgency renewed. And that’s in part because this is not all rehearsal.

ZK: One of the things that is continually troubling is both a myopia and a double standard, right? So China announces that, or Xi Jinping announces that he wants the PLA to have this capacity by 2027. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is constantly announcing that it expects to have the capacity to repel a Chinese invasion or do any number of things, that somehow, we don’t expect people on the outside of that to treat those as intense, right? Treat those as we’re not just planning for contingencies, that we’re actually gonna do it. If the Pentagon did everything that was a contingency, we would be in a constant state of war with everybody all the time. So why we’re not able to then accord China the same, I don’t know what the word is, maybe not respect, but just this is what militaries do, they plan for things that they might be deployed for, whether we like that or not. So that’s number one. Like why are we not able to do that with China? I mean, I wondered this too about– like exactly how many aircraft carrier groups is China allowed to have just because it’s a great power without us then treating that as an offensive action towards us. Like how many semiconductor fabs are they allowed to have just ’cause they’re a big country making a lot of stuff? And why are we not able to do that?

JC: I think on the question of Taiwan, I think that it’s not just the development of capabilities, but it is the targeting of particular dates, that Emma raised, that I think has contributed to a worry that this isn’t just about a contingency, but this is like an intent to use that capability. And here I think that there’s been a lot of attention paid to what many have suggested is Xi Jinping’s impatience and desire to make progress on the Taiwan question. These are just fragments of speeches really, but oftentimes I think that there is a rush to see not continuity in terms of that goal, but– which I think that desire to make progress has actually been around for quite some time. And that language is not necessarily new, but when Xi Jinping links reunification to rejuvenation in some of these authoritative speeches, then he’s not gonna wanna linger or fester forever, this is gonna be his defining legacy, et cetera. I don’t think we have a huge amount of evidence concretely to suggest it means, okay in 2025, whatever, he’s going to do this, but I do think that it colors the overall assessment of what are Xi Jinping’s intentions and how willing would he be to reach for that military option.

You also have, I think, the willingness to allow– in Chinese social media and online discussion, there’s growing, I think, commentary about the need to use “decisive measures” or entertain the military option as they put it. Now again, there are lots of voices online and they are not driving policy, but they do create a source of pressure that I think CCP has in some sense strategically cultivated. Not to say that their hand will be forced, but it is something that– again, if you are sitting in Beijing, I think a key concern is that the outside world looks at China’s stance and says you’re bluffing, you’re too weak, your military’s not prepared. If we’re gonna go and push for independence, like now is the time. And I think that the leaders in Beijing are thinking to themselves, we need to make it very clear and very credible that any moves in that direction will be met with severe consequences. They say those who play with fire will get burned or things like this. And so unfortunately, there is really here a kind of mirror imaging where efforts to invest in the credibility of the resolve to fight come at the expense of assurances that this is just a contingency planning as opposed to a plan to actually use those capabilities.

EV: I think that was a pretty persuasive explanation of where this amped up rhetoric is coming from on the Chinese side. How would you give the explanation of where this amped up rhetoric is coming from from the US side? This is all because of the military industrial complex. People are out to make money, so of course we wanna push the let’s potentially go to war over Taiwan with China. So I’m curious if you could do the exact same for the US that you just did for China.

JC: Absolutely. I think some see this as simply a response to a growing Chinese pressure against Taiwan, but I think it’s also– increasingly, I think, as US-China relations deteriorate and overall Taiwan, this democracy of 23 million people, it seems like that’s our natural partner. And then they go from partner to ally and they don’t realize that actually United States no longer has a formal defense alliance with Taiwan. It was a condition of normalization between the United States and China that we remove troops from the island and that we abrogate that defense treaty.

And so in this sort of good versus evil framing of US-China relations, where Representative Gallagher said that one of the purposes of the committee is to remind people we are the good guys, they are the bad guys, then it becomes this very binary framing where of course we do everything possible for Taiwan. And that is the new frame in which we think about deterrence when actually, what has underpinned the status quo and the stability across the Taiwan Strait for decades was the idea that United States opposed unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, needs to credibly deter a Chinese attack on the island, but it also needed to deter moves by Taiwan toward permanent separation or formal independence.

And today, by contrast, you have– fortunately, former Secretary Pompeo does not appear to be running for the presidency, but he was among some politicians who have been urging to grant formal diplomatic recognition to Taiwan to pursue One China, One Taiwan policy to overturn US policy. And that’s the kind of thinking here that I think could really obviously precipitate the very kind of conflict that we are trying to avert. And I think it’s being done really out of this sense that there’s a clear moral stance that needs to be taken here, which unfortunately I think is more likely to bring about the conditions that lead to Taiwan’s democracy being crushed under the weight of Chinese coercion, but also potential military action if they feel that Taiwan is precipitously slipping away from their perspective.

ZK: I think it’s a tough argument to say that Americans should die to defend Taiwan. We’re not even dying to defend Ukraine. We’re spending a lot of money and we’re doing a proxy fight, but we’re not expending bodies. And maybe that wouldn’t be in the offing in Taiwan anyway. It’s hard to know what that would look like. But during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, certainly post-’60s or post-the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was this idea of mutually assured destruction of nuclear weapons that prevented– it did contain conflict, it pushed it out peripherally, that it prevented any direct conflict because of this concern that you’d spiral into a nuclear Armageddon.

And I think what’s unspoken is that the degree of economic integration between the United States and China, which actually goes way beyond the statistics that are measurable, right? It’s like stuff that we import from Vietnam and from the Philippines often originates in China to begin with, so the actual size of the integration of China into this global economic system is even greater than it shows up statistically, right? That in fact there is really a mutually assured economic destruction if you were to be in anything resembling a severing of relations, à la what’s going on now with Russia. With Russia, it just was about natural gas and oil for Europe and even that was replaceable.

There’s no economic plan B if we were to suddenly sever relations with China, nor is there a domestic economic plan B and all of Xi Jinping’s maybe internal belief that China could weather that particular storm for the sake of Taiwan I think would prove to be woefully dramatically tragically wrong, domestically within China, the disruptions this would cause. I guess maybe my question/concern is I don’t know that people get how much mutually assured economic destruction is part of this mix where they certainly did get the nuclear equation in 1970.

JC: I think it’s a really important point. And I think that we didn’t even get to a place where the fear of nuclear annihilation instilled restraint really all that easily. And you’ve got new documents coming out about the Cuban Missile Crisis suggesting that things were– there’s a lot of blundering that goes on. And then the question is that fact, right, that continues to be a risk in US-China, if there were to be a US-China, conflict, that the role of nuclear weapons and potential escalation I think should not be dismissed. And yet even that threat does not seem to be instilling a kind of a prudence today in the Taiwan context in terms of US language and rhetoric as well as what China feels that it might need to do to get Taiwan and the United States to back off or back down, let alone the economics.

And I think that there is a real sense in which to the extent that there is an appreciation that this would be catastrophic, it is being used really to deter the other side and it is not doing a lot to instill restraint on– the US government has been talking a lot about the volume of trade and commerce that would be devastated in the event of a crisis or conflict over Taiwan as part of its deterrent messaging. And yet we are still in this sort of prepare for conflict as opposed to prevent conflict mode in terms of thinking creatively about ways to stabilize the status quo. I mean, there are some assurances, I think, that have been offered to suggest that the United States is not changing the status quo, seeks to preserve and uphold a One China policy, but those are words, right? And then the actions meant to bolster deterrence, look to the other side in Beijing, another slice of the [inaudible], in Beijing’s sphere, aimed at helping Taiwan become independent. And so I think that we are– unfortunately, the economic costs of the drift toward disintegration are not necessarily being priced in.

I think you also heard in Secretary Yellen’s speech today that we will never compromise on national security even if there are economic costs associated with that. And when you have that kind of thinking, again, it puts it in the realm of this is what we must do regardless of what it is gonna cost us. And I just think that Americans aren’t particularly well informed about the degree of our own resolve. How important is this issue, what levels of devastation, attacks on the continental United States, severe shortages and rationing, like what would we honestly be prepared to endure in the event of this kind of a conflict? And I’m not saying that if push comes to shove, that we wouldn’t do that, but if you knew that, looking down the game tree, that was how devastating this would be, wouldn’t that then create space today for a lot more creativity, a lot more willingness to entertain alternative options rather than being like, okay, there was a balloon, therefore, we can’t talk to China.

ZK: But that should be part of the mix much more unequivocally, what you’ve just said of– look, at the end of the day, if you’re not willing to entertain that scenario as a likely outcome of the path that you’re pursuing, then you should stop pursuing that path [laughs]. We didn’t stumble into World War II. If anything, it took a long time to get us to that point and a lot of internal debate and clearly, there was a limit to what we were willing to do in terms of the contest with the Soviet Union. Plus it had no economic consequence. It had zero internal economic consequence, the contest with the Soviet Union, and therefore is not a good comp. It’s not a good example of, oh we did this then so we could do that now because there was no economic price to pay. There was no domestic cost per se to the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

JC: Absolutely. Absolutely. I just think that the reality versus the rhetoric are really at odds here. And I think that leads to– and the narrative of course is that this kind of economic integration exchange is like a vulnerability as opposed to a source of continued prosperity. And so that, I think, makes it really vulnerable because when push comes to shove, I think that those kind of market actors, those market exchanges might well feel forced to dry up for fear of being seen as unpatriotic.

EV: When it comes to imagining Americans resolve around this, if push came to shove, I think you can pretty quickly think about how Americans felt during the pandemic when orders were backed up for a few weeks and there were the supply chain issues and how angry people were about that, how angry people were about the baby formula shortages that were just one small– or not small, okay, it wasn’t small, but it was one particular thing in the economy that I could see resolve around this unraveling very quickly.

But I mean, considering things that are also not spoken and not understood, I think there’s a media element to this too that we haven’t really spoken about, which is that everything that China does, and you mentioned the spy balloon, it’s incredible we got as far into the conversation as we did without mentioning the spy balloon. But everything in the media that China does is really framed suspiciously. Like the spy balloon was such a hullabaloo. Just today, this morning before we recorded this, there was this thing I read in a newsletter about China’s research in the South Pole and what are they really doing down there and are they spying, and this, that, and the other thing. I think the thing that got missed with the spy balloon in particular was that apparently, this is just business as usual. The US flies on China all the time as well. Do you think that’s right, like that we’re just missing that angle as well?

JC: Yeah, I think that the challenge is calibrating the level of outrage, alarm, and concern, right? That this was not a benign balloon, but neither was it likely intended as a insult or a humiliation of the Biden administration. It was probably blown off course– I mean, it was a spy balloon, it was blown off course. And then for reasons having to do with the stovepiping in the Chinese system, like that the lack of coordination around messaging and what was happening, so it was just a big cluster– I don’t know if you allow profanity on your podcast, but it was a–

EV: [Laughs] We could fill in the rest.

JC: And the language and really, I think the spy balloon, if anything, if there was a silver lining, I think it did, to many in the United States, expose just how unserious the American kind of commentary and reaction to China and the, challenge that is posed by China looks where people are aiming rifles in the air. It’s just like a lot of posturing as opposed to let’s get real about what is this? Like why is this happening and what can we do about it? Because to my mind, Chinese spying, Chinese interfere, all these things are things that need to be talked about. And diplomacy is to deal with difficult issues, right? And we need to find our way through protracted discussions and negotiations to a better place where we don’t have these types of things happening, where there are bounds that each side more or less respects around what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

ZK: Given the degree of actual integration of these systems, which, again, seems to exist in a alt parallel universe, right? That we, on the one hand, are deeply intertwined economically in supply chains and in every way conceivable with China and China with the world globally, and yet we have this other track of increasing conflict and animosity and attempts to contain. When you talk about that integration economically, the one thing that those who have a parallel bring up is they go, yeah, well that was true with the European powers in 1914. They were very integrated and then look what happened. So that’s not a barrier to war. I guess we could debate, is that the right analogy? And I think in many ways nobody was integrated economically in 1914 commensurate to what’s possible and what’s structurally true today. So I’m not sure it’s really the best. There still was a lot more localism then than there is now. So I guess if you’re gonna look five years out and assume that these tracks continue in in separate ways, do you feel like the integration that exists, even if it’s not acknowledged, is a ultimate impediment to the kind of conflict that would otherwise potentially emerge?

JC: I certainly think that it exercises some degree of restraining influence, certainly, I think on the Chinese side, Xi Jinping has, as part of China’s national rejuvenation, put forward modernization as a key objective. The road to modernization runs through continued access to international technology markets and capital. And so to the extent that that access one of the objectives that makes the near term rush to take Taiwan, I think that’s a good thing.

One of my concerns is that the advocates of a broader decoupling miss the fact that these economic ties, they’re not strictly, I think– I don’t think that if push came to shove, that they would necessarily be sufficient, the threat of the kinds of sanctions against China that we’ve seen against Russia, I’m not sure that they would necessarily restrain a Chinese attack if, again, Xi Jinping and his coterie thought that Taiwan was about to be irrevocably lost. But I do think that in a kind of peacetime situation where this doesn’t have to be the CCP’s top priority, it’s not an imminent or urgent matter, that I do think that this kind of integration provides a kind of disincentive to overturning that apple cart.

ZK: Thank you so much, Jessica. This is a clear conversation we’re gonna be having for years, at least I hope it’s a conversation we’re gonna be having for years as opposed to trying to scrounge for food and shelter in the aftermath of-

JC: [laughs].

ZK: -an Armageddon. So let’s trust that this is a conversation we will be having for years and a debate. And I do wanna thank you for your voice in this. I wish it was louder in that there were many others explicitly saying what you’re saying. I mean, it’s certainly you’re not a lonely voice crying in the wilderness, but it would be better if you were not quite so singular.

JC: [Laughs] I agree.

ZK: It’s great that you’re singular. It just would be better if it’s–

JC: No, no, I totally agree. I totally agree. Hopefully there will be more.

ZK: So thank you so much.

JC: It’s been such a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

EV: Thank you, Jessica.

One thing that we touched upon at the end there but didn’t fully delve into is the American public’s appetite for this at all. And one might say that pre-9/11, we certainly had no appetite to go into the Middle East and bada bing, bada boom, suddenly there was appetite. Obviously, there was a huge precipitating event there, but still, maybe it’s possible that appetite could be drummed up. But my sense right now, despite the rhetoric of the governments involved is I don’t think Americans particularly want to get involved in a war over Taiwan, which I think is apparent, the fact that what you brought up in the beginning, which is that we don’t even really wanna get directly involved in this war between Russia and Ukraine.

ZK: Yeah, I think you really would need a 9/11 type event to shift that, meaning Americans would have to be killed by China in numbers explicitly, which I’m pretty sure China has no interest in doing. Yeah, I talked to my son’s cohort about this. They’re teens. And no one’s going, yeah, these are the shores on which we should die, right? This is the cause that we should sacrifice ourselves for. I doubt your friends feel that, that there’s, yes, this is the fight, this is the good fight.

EV: It’s funny because the friends of mine that I have that are in the military are– it’s a military thing, right? They don’t have any hunger to go to war. They don’t wanna do that, but if it happens, they will go, of course, right?

ZK: Within the military, yes, there’s the willingness, but-

EV: Yeah.

ZK: -you need a lot more than just that-

EV: To make it happen.

ZK: -to support a really intense conflict with China,-

EV: Yeah.

ZK: -intense military conflict.

EV: Yeah, yeah. I know. I agree with you. And I think the point you made about China not wanting to escalate with the US is also very poignant. Sometimes this conversation about China feels like China is our rival and our competitor and they’re gonna become more economically powerful. And then there’s this hanging thing of and then what? Are we genuinely afraid that China’s gonna try to invade the United States? No way. How?

ZK: Right.

EV: That would not go well. Obviously, we would suffer too, but that would not go well for China. Let’s be serious about that.

ZK: And that then also, the question I keep coming back to is what exactly is the China threat? Is it their system, which they’re not even really exporting, at least during the Cold War, there was actually some global contest of systems. It’s not even clear whether that’s true with China. Their internal system is clear, but their desire to export that at the present moment is highly questionable. Can we not live with a system that we find morally odious and antithetical without feeling the need to confront it? So again, this is a really vital conversation for the United States to have with itself about what threat are we talking about and why does it matter and what should we be focusing on and is this a good use of our energies and our resources?

EV: Mm-hmm.

ZK: I think people probably know what my answers are to that, but we should all be having that discussion to and play it out. I think we can suggest at this point, we often don’t play this out sufficiently. So we act like we can literally have our cake and eat it too. We can have intense economic integration with China and intense conflict and then not care about what the dominoes might be. All right, let us turn to the news of the week, shall we?

EV: Yes, let’s do it. First item, the news of the week. When you started The Progress Network and I came onto The Progress Network, I did not think I was gonna be talking about malaria so much, but here we are talking about a malaria news again because we have a quick follow-up to the good news that the first malaria vaccine had a great dramatic impact in the first three countries that it was distributed through. Now, we also have the very first approval of the second effective malaria vaccine, which is R21. And it’s much more effective than the first. It’s almost 80% effective and it’s been waiting for approval. So Ghana is the first country that just approved it. Nigeria quickly followed. It’s under current consideration by the WHO and several other African countries and the sort of double whammy of the two of them, I’m pretty excited to see what kind of results are gonna come out of that end pretty soon.

Audio Clip: The United Nations says more than 600,000 people die from the disease each year. On average, one child dies every minute. And it’s children who face the highest risk of death. Scientists say it’s a game changer in the battle against a virus that is one of the leading killers of children in Africa.

ZK: I’ve got nothing to say to that other than Hosanna, Hosanna, great news, yet another indication of progress being made in terms of health and science in ways that we should salute and applaud and pay more attention to.

EV: Absolutely. So second piece of news for today, we have newsletter readers listening to the podcast, you will have read about this last week, is a pretty landmark shift in the criminal code in Uzbekistan. So just to remind everyone, Uzbekistan is Eastern Europe/Central Asia. We’re talking Kazakhstan area, just to situate people what area of the world we’re in, ’cause Uzbekistan certainly is not a country that gets put into the US news very much. They were one of the few remaining countries in the world that did not have a specific criminal offense for domestic violence. So obviously, if you hit somebody, it’s gonna fall under whatever the assault law is. But there’s no law saying you can’t just go around hitting your wife. And they passed one for the first time as well as a raft of other amendments to the criminal code that are pro-women’s rights, laws around stalking and harassment and other particularities.

And obviously, the changing of the law is not gonna transform a society overnight. From the research that I’ve done, apparently, domestic violence is very rampant in Uzbekistan. The figure that I used in the newsletter, from a late 1990s Human Rights Watch report, was that 60% of women in Uzbekistan thought that domestic violence was a “normal situation”. So that gives you the extent to which domestic violence occurs and is accepted there. I thought this was excellent news, and frankly, that I saw covered absolutely nowhere.

ZK: Yeah, I actually went to Uzbekistan in 2021-

EV: Oh, that’s right.

ZK: -in the midst of the pandemic and it was great ’cause there was nobody there. The Uzbeks were there, but certainly no tourists.

EV: [Laughs] You would think.

ZK: [Laughs] They were there. And actually, that came up, the massive prevalence of domestic violence, men particularly beating up their wives, and what little legal recourse there was. It’s wild given that to hear that they have addressed that ’cause it didn’t seem– it’s not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination. And but even then, autocracies needing to be responsive to the domestic pressures and demands internally can lead to some positive change.

EV: Yeah, and I should say too, that it wasn’t just that law that changed. There were two other laws in 2018 that were about equal rights and opportunities, but more so than the legal stuff, in 2018, 2019, the country introduced the first abuse shelters for abused women, which is particularly important because in Uzbekistan, a single woman can’t go and rent a hotel room on her own, right?

ZK: Right.

EV: So absent friends and family, an abuse shelter is gonna be the thing. They introduced a hotline and they introduced protection orders, which didn’t exist before 2018, which, coming from the US perspective, is wild. And with a lot of the news that we cover, you can look at this like, really? Wow. Really? That just happened now? On the other hand, thank God it happened.

ZK: So we’ve done malaria, we’ve done Central Asia, just an indication of, again, what we’re trying to do weekly, constantly always, that there are things going on in the world that we just aren’t paying attention to. And some of that is home country bias, right? I don’t expect Uzbekistan to ever be top of the fold on a newspaper, if anyone actually even reads a physical newspaper and knows what top of the fold is, but on the homepage or massively retweeted tweet, but these things are going on and we would do better to pay some attention to them, at least as part of our daily diet of news.

EV: Hear, hear.

ZK: Thank you, Emma, for yet another cool, compelling discussion.

EV: Thank you, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Being Jewish Today

Featuring Noah Feldman

What does it mean to be a modern Jew? How do Jews in America handle their relationship to Israel, especially after the atrocities of October 7 and the subsequent war with Hamas? Zachary and Emma speak with Noah Feldman, Harvard professor and author of the new book 'To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People.' The Israel-Hamas war, levels of Jewishness, and how Gen Z sees things are talked about in today's conversation.

America’s Next Economy

Featuring Natalie Foster

What is the cost of not investing in families in America? How can economic security be guaranteed? Zachary and Emma speak with Natalie Foster, president of the Economic Security Project and author of the new book ‘The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America’s Next Economy.’ Baby bonds, student loans, why so many Americans dislike dealing with the government, and raising the economic floor are among the topics discussed today.

Veterans and Invisible War

Featuring Phil Klay

In the modern age of warfare, what does it mean for Americans to enter the armed forces? Zachary and Emma speak with veteran and author Phil Klay about the disconnect many people who serve in our current wars feel when they return back home, as well as the lack of understanding that American civilians have toward the complexities of these conflicts. Yet the military remains a major factor in the government’s budget and in Americans' patriotic pride. This discussion leads to questions about the morals of modern warfare and the care the nation owes to the veterans who have provided their service and the allies who have assisted in our efforts.