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.
S2. EPISODE 4
The World Post-Putin
Featuring Anne-Marie Slaughter
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been framed as a global inflection point. It may or may not be in actuality, but it is certainly a moment that challenges our assumptions of how we view the current world order and opens questions about what the next one would best look like. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America and a Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, joins us to discuss what is happening now in Ukraine and where the future of defense is going.
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 as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having in this podcast a series of engaging conversations with engaging people about how we create the future of our hopes and not the future of our fears. Not all these conversations are happy and good-newsy. In fact, they are all grappling with really challenging, difficult issues, because that’s what it means to be alive, to be engaged in the warp and woof of really messy present-tense issues, whose outcome we simply don’t know, which is why it’s easy to get scared about the future, because we don’t know. You only know in hindsight. Everything is clear when you know how things played out. It’s not so clear when you have no idea what the future holds, and when there are a lot of possible dominoes that seem to lead in a really negative direction.
And right now, one of those dominoes that has fallen and led to a whole series of other ones falling is of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the global reaction against it, in the face of it. And to be honest, some global reaction against the Western reaction against Russia. So there’s a lot going on here to unpack. And a lot that challenges our assumptions of what the world order was becoming. If we’d had this conversation six months ago, it would have looked very different. We would’ve focused on very different things: China, climate change, and yes, maybe Putin, and maybe NATO, and maybe the EU, but largely our entire lens would’ve looked very different. And that I think is an important caveat to any discussion we have about the future, which is that a lot can happen that we don’t expect. Some of it for the worst, but a lot of it for the better.
So, Emma, tell us a bit about who we’re gonna talk to today, who is one of the leading authorities, thinkers, deep trenchant, fascinating, interesting, Anne-Marie Slaughter.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So I’m really looking forward to speaking with Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the CEO of New America. She’s also the Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Of course, like many of our guests, she’s a prolific author and writer. She’s a contributing editor to the Financial Times and Project Syndicate, and her most recent book is called Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics. She’s going to provide lots of insights for us on foreign policy, foreign affairs, politics, and just life as we know it.
ZK: And just for clarity, The Progress Network is under the nonprofit umbrella of New America. So there’s that affiliation as well. And Anne-Marie spent two years as the director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. So she’s also walked the walk and not just talked the talk
For those who are listening, this is being recorded on April 12th. So we’re gonna try to keep this a bit broader, knowing that by the time people are listening, the world could have changed yet again with the speed and velocity that change is happening these days. So with that is a series of caveats about how we are—always but more so even now—a prisoner of our present moment, and thereby only able to extrapolate so much about what the future is gonna look like. Clearly, the thing that is top of mind when it comes to international affairs is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global response to that, at this point, seven weeks into this conflict. And there’s been a massive amount, and continues to be a massive amount, of commentary. You know, we’ve all had our opining about this. And the thing that’s been most, I think, prominent in Western media—and we’ll get to whether or not that’s actually the right lens to be looking at this through—is, this is a Rubicon moment, a before and after, and the world, quote-unquote, will never be the same again.
Do you feel that that’s true? Is the kind of breathless commentary du jour not breathless at all and should not be referred to that way, in that this is one of these before and after moments that we’ll look back at, or is it more revealing things that we’ve been quietly sweeping under the proverbial rug and not looking at adequately?
Anne-Marie Slaughter (AS): Well, Zachary, it’s always a pleasure to be in conversation with you and Emma. And I’ve actually refrained from op-ed writing in part because it’s no time to criticize my own team when they’re doing the very best they can, and largely, I think, doing a very good job, and in part because I think we need more distance to be able to say anything really intelligent. That said, I’ll plunge in [laugh].
ZK: Please do.
AS: I think it is overhyped, for sure. Vladimir Putin annexed part of Ukraine with very similar tactics, although not a frontal assault, in 2014. And at the time, lots of people said “this is changing the rules of the international game. He is announcing that he will not be bound by the post-’45 UN norms,” right? Article 2 of the UN Charter essentially binds every state not to use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other state. And there he was. He said, essentially, “Crimea belongs to us and I’m going to go take it.” And then he said, “and the Donbas belongs to us.” And although there’s been a truce since then, there’s have been a settlement. So from that point of view, you at least have to go back to 2014. Many folks would say, “no, no, you really gotta go back to 2007,” where he announced at the Munich Security Conference that Russia had been humiliatedand that the loss of the Soviet Union, or the breakup of the Soviet Union, was the greatest disaster of the 20th century.
I also think, though, it’s not just about Russia, when we talk about, “is this this great inflection point?” It could well be the last of these kinds of wars of the 20th century. Really, the last time a major power is going to physically invade and try to conquer another territory. And we can talk about why that might be. It could be just a return to 20th-century politics, which I deeply fear is where NATO is trying to go. And I think that’s a big mistake. It could be an inflection point toward a really different 21st-century politics, because we say, again, “no more of this,” but also we recognize that we need new tools, new norms, new institutions to address the threats of this century. But in any event, there are lots of precursors to this moment, and no one can really see what it’s an inflection point to.
EV: Anne-Marie, I definitely wanna come pick up on what you said later about how this might be the last war of the 20th-century style. But before we get there, on this thread of, you know, “is this as an epochal moment overhyped,” one narrative that I’ve been seeing a lot is like Ukraine is the front lines of the battle between democracy and autocracy. Certainly that’s how it’s being framed in the US. And, you know, there have been some really interesting takes out there that are pointing out, you know, the Global South doesn’t see it this way. Asia, doesn’t see it this way. Even here in Greece where I live, it’s not seen that way, and we’re in Europe. So I was wondering what your thoughts are on that.
AS: Emma, you’re absolutely right about how other parts of the world are looking at this. And it was very striking to me to see the states that did not vote to expel Russia from the Human Rights Council. And to see India, for instance—we’ve been courting India, and we’ve been announcing that the Quad is one of the front lines of the autocracy–democracy line. And yet India refuses to immediately condemn Russia and is very clearly trying to still play a mediating role, but also refusing to choose sides. I would also add, it’s not just in other parts of the world, it’s in other parts of the United States beyond the federal government. In fact, you could find plenty of parts of Washington, DC that would not see this as the democracies versus the autocracies. If you talk to Americans of color, if you talk to Americans who have come from those other parts of the world, whether it be Brazil or India or parts of Africa or other parts of Asia, they would say, yes, this is terrible.
No one would not say this is terrible. This is brutal. This is awful. We have to stop it. But they would say—they are saying—wait just a minute. When Bashar al-Assad gassed his people, pictures just as awful as anything that’s coming out of Ukraine, when he dropped barrel bombs on his people, when the Afghans were massacred and had to flee when we look at Iraqis or Ethiopians or so many other conflicts, why are we not responding to those? And if we can’t respond to all of them, why are we privileging this conflict? If you’re Europe, maybe, because as it’s right on your borders. And yes, it’s on NATO’s borders. But there are many people around the world who think that the autocracy–democracy line is way too simple, that many of us have troubles as democracies. But there are also many people, particularly younger people, who just think this is the last century. We’re looking at climate change. We’re looking at pandemics. We’re looking at migration and refugees as global problems that really can’t be addressed by drawing an autocracy–democracy line.
ZK: I’m so glad you brought this up. I thought we would get into that later, but it’s good that we’re getting into it now because this lens—and everybody, every human, every nation, every group has a lens that is particular to them. And the point is not that we don’t, it’s to be aware that we do and to be aware that there are other ways… The problem has always been, particularly in the United States over the past 50, 60 years, when it came to the Cold War, is that any attempt to do that gets accused of being moral relativism, right? And this was a huge Cold War issue where you tried to say, “well, let’s look at how the United States looks if you’re not the United States.” And that led to these accusations of “yes, but we’re different. And our morality is better. Our political system engenders more openness. And therefore our actions have to be understood in that context.” And that may in fact be true, but as you just raised, Ukraine should also—should, my own judgment leveled—raise this question of “why haven’t we been paying attention to what’s going on in Yemen?” And, you know, I was just in Saudi Arabia, and of course you raise that issue with them and they say, “well, yeah, the Saudi Air Force bombed a bunch of inappropriate targets and led to a lot of civilian casualties, but you Americans did the same thing in Afghanistan, and were guilty of being manipulated by local forces who, in Air Force parlance, were the spotters who you thought were identifying a legitimate target and were just identifying their proximate enemy.” And that’s just one of, you know, you listed a whole series of other ones.
So what do we do, though, about the pushback of, I guess the idea of we are more or less flawed or not more on the side of angels than our adversaries like Putin, who’s an autocrat and violates all the norms that we think are essential to a free and open society? What do you do to the pushback that says, “well, come on, you know, yeah, we may have made mistakes, but we’re not that. And this is not the time”?
AS: So I think we make two counterarguments. One is that it was possible for us—and I put us in quotes, meaning white European Americans who run the country—in the 20th century to essentially dismiss all those other conflicts in the way that you said. And we could do it because from our point of view, we didn’t know people who were getting bombed. We were not relatives of those people who were getting bombed, who had been on the other side. Of course there were Americans that were, but they were a much smaller percentage of the population. We are now heading for a majority–minority nation—I much prefer the term “plurality nation” because there will not be a majority; by 2027, Americans under 30, there will be no white majority. Those Americans are saying, “well, it may not be exactly equivalent, but my family was killed by American bombs in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Yemen; or American-made weapons, American allies.”
And at that point, it becomes very like, in many ways, if you think about it, remembering the Holocaust. So many Americans said, “wait a minute, that was my family,” right? We don’t forget that. So part of the response is, what you privilege really depends on who you are, and when you are a far more diverse nation—and it will take quite a while, of course, to have our demography fully reflected in our power structure—we will privilege other conflicts.
But the other point, which is just as important, is if we really want to win the 21st century, which I think is a kind of preposterous notion—winning the 21st century would be saving the planet, in my view. But if we’re thinking in Great Power terms, it does us no favors in Africa and South America and Asia and the Middle East not to recognize our own failings. Not to say, “look, we have to stop this. This is absolutely hideous.” But let us not pretend that this is the black versus white, you know, Armageddon battle where all the democracies are gonna line up against the autocracies. It’s more complicated than that. And we recognize that right now, our job is to stop this. But longer term—and this is where we could have a pivot to really a different order—longer term, we need to address civilian deaths in all conflicts. We need to look at Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s fabulous work [“The Uncounted”] showing just how many civilians the United States killed in Iraq, where we could have been more careful. So we need to use this not to pound on ourselves, but to say, we can no longer fight wars this way. And that goes for us too.
EV: Just to reiterate what you just said, Anne-Marie: To be honest, I was surprised—and I think there are a lot of Americans who would do better to realize this—to hear that it’s a very popular stance among young people here in Greece—I’m talking particularly about on the left—that the framing about Russia versus Ukraine is not Russia versus Ukraine. The framing is Russia versus the US and NATO. And I was surprised by this, to be honest. So I think there’s some Russian propaganda operating in the media landscape here in Greece. But yeah, I just wanted to put additional emphasis on what you said.
ZK: And like, both end up being radically destructive, right? Because no matter how you frame it, when it becomes that kind of ideological-slash-older conflict between the West and Russia or the West and the Soviet Unionyou’re left with what Anne-Marie just talked about in the comparison of “the civilian deaths are still the civilian deaths,” right? It doesn’t matter what the ideology is. There are a lot of people dying in Mariupol. It doesn’t matter what the ideology was about us and Saddam, and were there or were there not nuclear weapons. Vast destruction of civilian life and infrastructure nonetheless ensued that we kind of need to look at. I mean, that’s always the… What is it like liberals… There was that movie “The American President”…
There’s always a Hollywood movie where the president says everything that you think a president should say that no president ever actually does say. And it would be like getting up, going, “look, we know we need to confront some of the sins of our past, or some of the egregious mistakes of our past. However, the fact that we’ve been complicit in things that we absolutely should not have been does not then make it okay for another country and another nation to be equally complicit.” Right? I mean, that would be the framing. It would be our moral complicity and our own issue doesn’t in any way give anyone a free pass to do the same.
It’s interesting, you’ve been in government, Anne-Marie, and I hadn’t thought about this question coming up, but it does based on the conversation. Is that in fact just a complete, you know, wishful thinking that that kind of dialogue and discussion would actually be part of how we approach these things?
AS: Well, there’s certainly the immediate daily tempo of government in a crisis in which, no, this is no moment to show up in the Sit Room and say, “you know what? I’ve got an idea for a new security architecture in Europe.” [Laugh] That is not the way government works. And anybody who does that is just hopelessly academic.
That said, it is very striking to look at the first war in Iraq, to look at the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, which admittedly was not as violent, and I’m gonna return to that. But George H.W. Bush and his team, Brent Scowcroft, Condi Rice, but many others, and it was a more bipartisan time particularly on these kinds of issues. So there were certainly plenty of Democrats also thinking about this, where you had multiple ways that you could handle the crumbling of the Soviet Union. And you could have simply expanded NATO immediately then. And we can talk about the later expansion of NATO, which I think was a very complicated set of issues at the time. But actually they really did take the time to think about not just “we won” [laugh], but how do we actually achieve a Europe whole and free, which is what the mantra had been for most of the Cold War, and critically, how do we think about including Russia in that Europe? Because Russia is a European power. You know, I studied the Soviet politics. If you did foreign affairs in the 1970s, 1980s, it was about the Soviet Union. So I spent hours and hours and hours studying the Slavophile–Europeanist split, you know, in Russian history. But Russia is a European nation as well as an Asian nation. And I don’t think we’ll ever get security in Europe unless we have actually a structure that includes Russia. And we did try.
So you not put those ideas on the table in the crisis. You can have those ideas in advance. You can tell things like the Department of Policy Planning, which I ran, the Bureau of Policy Planning at the State Department, to be thinking about those ideas, as indeed George Cannon did, way back when that office was created. You can have similar think-tank parts of the government thinking about scenarios and alternatives so that when the crisis comes—and this crisis… Think about a railroad switchyard, where depending on the choices you make, you are sending trains down very different tracks. And the implications of those tracks will be felt for decades. Like as in decoupling Russia from other parts of the world in energy, you know, that will play out over decades. You want to be thinking in advance about “what are the alternatives” so that when you’re making those decisions, you’ve already thought through some of the big ideas. And this is again where I really worry that the top American foreign policy team has thought much more about the 20th century than about really new approaches for the 21st century, which I just deeply believe we need. And again, I’m a baby boomer. My kids who are millennials and Gen Z, a lot of this for them is just not relevant to the world they live in.
EV: What kind of like big new approaches would you love to see them looking at and discussing, not now in crisis mode, but you know, looking into the future?
AS: So I would like them to think that, post Putin—because I do think Putin is showing himself to be as brutal as anyone we’ve ever seen, and we’re never gonna be able to really do a lasting deal with him. I hope we can get to a truce. I hope that that truce will last long enough for the power configuration to change or the negotiations out of that, which is what happened in 2014. But at some point Putin will no longer be there. And at some point Putin immediate successors will no longer be there. Because It’ll be messy when he falls. And probably there will be a power struggle. I truly hope we’re not in for decades more of this kind of government of Russia.
But assuming that there is a Russian government we can at least deal with, then we have to be thinking about, and above all, talking to the Europeans about, because they have to take the lead here, which is also new for us, what does that European security architecture look like? What can you imagine? Can you have Nordic states and Russia and the Baltics, you know, can you have that be one set, sort of a security range? Can you have the Eastern and Central European, and again, some of the Western European states connected? Can you have a Mediterranean circle? You’re in Greece, you really need to be thinking hard about Greece and Turkey, but also Egypt and Morocco, I mean a Mediterranean thing.
So I can imagine an architecture that is overlapping security circles, that is still anchored in a Western Alliance. I’m not suggesting we dissolve NATO, but I think NATO has to change. The idea that we’re just gonna move it right up to the Russian border. You know, Finland and Sweden are now talking about joining. We’d have a thousand mile border, or a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia and NATO. I think a lot of Americans are not signed up for that. That was what we agreed to in 1948. So I think you wanna be thinking through that and you wanna think not, oh, here’s the vision, but here are the steps that could take you toward that vision. And we want to make sure we don’t foreclose it now and condemn ourselves, as I said, to another three or four more decades of what is really, if we look back historically, the end of the post-Cold War era rather than the beginning of the new era.
ZK: So you mentioned a couple of times that the 21st-century challenge from your vantage is more the global challenge of climate change than what goes on in Ukraine, per se. And I know you’re in no way sort of downplaying the intensity and the crisis of Ukraine. There is also linkage there, right? Because some of the moves to isolate Russia as an energy power, replace natural gas in Central and Eastern Europe, not relying on the 10 million barrels a day of Russian oil, not all that’s exported, but nonetheless that’s about the production. The problem with those transitions being crisis oriented is that people then move to the energy supply that is easy and present. And in the case of Europe, that’s actually gonna be coal. I mean it might be LNG and it might be natural gas from other sources. So, I mean, those linkages… And to what degree does like Ukraine actually set back the whole climate change challenge because people are gonna sort of look for an energy supply that they can use to substitute the carbon-rich energy supplies they got from Russia. And a lot of that’s gonna be carbon-rich energy supplies that are even, you know, dirtier and more problematic.
AS: Yes. But again, this is a question of how we think about a transition. You know, our mutual friend Fareed Zakaria had a really good column where he said, if you really want to hurt Russia, you have to sanction oil and gas. And to do that, then yes, you’re gonna have to go to Saudi Arabia. You’re gonna have to go to Venezuela. You’re gonna have to go to other sources of oil and gas immediately. However, there’s a way to think about that and think about how fast can you pivot. And certainly the Germans are thinking about this, right? The Greens are in government and no one really expected them to take as hard a line as they’ve taken. Although there’s always been that wing of the Greens, the Joschka Fischer trans-Atlantic wing of the Greens. And Analina Berbock is in my view taking the right position. But you need to be thinking, okay, so right now we reduce our reliance on Russian oil and gas. And note that the Germans are actually saying we’d rather sanction coal and stay taking some oil and gas, but then rapidly move more to renewables. I would say more to nuclear power. I think the German decision to wean itself off nuclear power that fast was a mistake.
We’re not recognizing the ways in which nuclear technology evolves. We’re not Chernobyl anymore. But equally thinking about, all right, so we invest in LNG. And the investments that the Obama administration made in 2009 to 2014, where we really were thinking about this scenario, we make more of those investments. We speed the way to renewables. We think about other alternatives. And then we also think about what are the most climate-friendly ways to be still dependent on oil and gas. Lower methane flaring. Much more conservation.
It’s really extraordinary in Europe, how much less energy you use than in the United States, because the prices have been high for so long. This could speed the move to electric cars so much faster. You know, when gas is between $5 and $7 a gallon, lots of people are gonna be thinking, you know, I don’t wanna do this anymore. That’s the moment that Congress should be subsidizing electric cars. So I think there are… I agree with you, but if we have a different vision in mind, and this is, again, why democracies versus autocracies just does not do it, there’s a lot of ways we can use this crisis for at least medium- and longer-term progress toward where we need to be on the climate. And medium- and longer-term is only a couple of years. I know that. But still.
EV: Matthew Yglesias had a good piece recently that was like, “why aren’t we mass-producing heat pumps, you know, in the US and handing them out everywhere as part of the war effort?” But you know, the clean energy transition is one aspect of the American and European response. Another aspect of course is, okay, so far we have avoided nuclear war, that’s great. Another aspect is the refugees. I was just wondering, as an overall picture, how would you judge the American, European response to all of this?
AS: I think it’s been really remarkable. And again, the Americans got the intelligence right. I didn’t think they had. I was at the Munich Security Conference the week before Putin invaded. It started the Thursday exactly a week before. The Olympics were still on. A number of us, certainly including me, said Putin is never gonna invade before the end of the Olympics. And sure enough, you know, that was Sunday night. But at that point, the Americans were publicizing the intelligence. I know there’s an argument that says, no, you know, that really gave Putin no option but to go ahead and do it, sort of double dare and I’ll show you. Maybe, but I thought it was a truly bold strategy. And I do think it helped Europe and large parts of the world come together when the invasion happened, which I think would’ve been much harder, because it had the impact of making everybody think, “well, maybe, and we’d better plan for this.”
I think that the work the Biden administration has done in Europe, really that hard, hard work of calling every capital, which is one reason that often we don’t wanna do that work has been impressive. And I know just how difficult that is. It’s just many, many hours on the phone talking with the foreign ministers, the different sub ministers of the head of state. I think Europe has been extraordinary. And really, the decision of the Germans to forego Nord Stream 2, at least for now. The decision for the 2% spending, we should talk about. Again, that can be a valuable forward path. It can also be understood as I think taking us backward. But overall, I think the administration has supported Ukraine in very important ways, has left very little room for Putin to divide the US and Europe. And I think Putin was doing this in part—with Merkel gone and a new German government—I thought he really thought he was gonna get a split. And he didn’t. So lots and lots to praise.
The places where I’m worried. You mentioned nuclear war. I don’t think it’s a good idea to personalize it with Putin. I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell him, frankly, to call him a war criminal at every turn, much less to say this man can’t remain in power. If we know anything about it, machismo is his middle name, and this kind of “I’m gonna show you man to man…” I think not a good idea. And I also, as I said, I think the larger framing is not right. But the response to the crisis itself has really been impressive. And again, I know what pressures all those folks are under, and they’re operating on no sleep and, you know, constant incoming from everywhere. And I think they’re really doing the best they can.
ZK: So in the cup half full, cup half empty, right, you talked about Europe coming together. It becoming a more cohesive bloc. You know, the counterpoint is, well, you’ve got Poland, and you’ve got Hungary, and maybe by the time we’re listening to this, France will have had an unexpected election, or not, but the fact that they’re even close is its own thing. Do we still think it’s a good thing for the EU to start functioning as kind of a supernational cohesive bloc? Or maybe not. Maybe people in Europe are—people as in voters, as in individuals—are saying their own version of Brexit. “We Don’t want supernational authority. We don’t wanna work together in that way. We’ll work together when it’s opportunistic and in our interests.”
AS: Well, Zachary, you know that I’m a strong EU supporter. And I will say that if you look back to the very beginnings of the EU to the European coal and steel community, and then the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European union has integrated in fits and starts almost entirely triggered by different crises. And this one I think will be the crisis that finally gives rise to a much more robust European foreign and defense policy. So the foreign policy, they’ve had at different times. The defense policy, they have not. It is very striking that when Schulz said, yes, Germany is going to spend an extra 2%, he said, “but the arms that we need have to be manufactured in Europe according to European designs.” Now, in the short run, he’s gonna buy American weaponsand maybe that’s the most efficient way to go. But if they can truly integrate European procurement, they can have a European defense.
Remember, Europe and the United States are the only two entities in the world that can build civilian airliners. And James Fallows, you know, once said, “that’s the mark of a great power. Can you build a civilian airliner?” Because it is so complicated, it takes so much money and so much expertise and so much logistical capability. Europe can certainly have a far better defense capacity, but you’ve gotta break down a lot of national barriers, where the French wanna make their fighters and the Italians want to make theirs, and it used to be the British.
The other point is, it’s valuable that the British are out now because this really is going to be up to France, Germany, I’d say Italy and Poland. This has divided Poland from Orban in very important ways, because obviously the Poles are probably the most militantly anti-Russian, along with the Baltic states. Orban is having to backpedal. Were Marine Le Pen going to win, and she’s not going to, but we can hypothesize. She’s a very different Marine Le Pen. She’s not leaving Europe. She’s said, “I don’t wanna leave the EU.” And she is definitely denouncing Putin.
So I really do think you have the makings of a true European defense policy. What I would say to them, though, is for God’s sake, don’t become the United States. The future of defense is more civilian. It’s more about resilience. It’s more about knowing how to take refugees, integrate some, and give others a chance until they can go home. It’s more about taking the lead on global threats like climate and pandemics and cybersecurity. It’s about setting global governance rules for tech. It’s about playing a role between China and the United States that is more toward the United States but does not accept the demonization of China. So there’s a lot that Europe can do and should do. I think this crisis really will be a springboard to another round of much closer European foreign and defense policy
EV: Anne-Marie, this is another maybe cup-half-full, cup-half-full question…
AS: [Laugh] You are The Progress Network, after all.
EV: Yeah, maybe it’s all positive. You know, Thomas Friedman had this sobriquet that I like a lot, that I’ve been usingthat this is the first World War Wired, in that you can see this war in real time, you know, on social media. And I was wondering how much you think that really did affect the strength and the speed of governmental response based on public sentiment. Yeah. Share your thoughts on that.
AS: I think we could call Thomas Friedman a sobriquet superpower [laugh]. His ability to capture that phrase that just says, “Yes! This is what seems new about something,” whether it is or not. I mean, I think about “the golden straitjacket,” they’re just countless over the years. But this is again where if the territorial part is the last war of the 20th century. And again, I should say the last war among great powers, because obviously there are many parts of the world where there are still horrific civil wars and territorial invasions where we’ve paid less attention. But, you know, look what happened to the tanks, right? I mean, being in a tank is suddenly a really terrible place to be when you’ve got anti-tank missiles that can be launched from shoulders. And so much of the supply chain, right, the logistics, all the things we’ve seen, the Russian army is a much less formidable force than we might have expected, but a lot of what they’re going through would be true of all armies now, when you think about how you can fight back. If that’s true of the physical part, the wired part is very definitely a 21st-century war.
And again, we’ve seen this coming. My colleague Peter Singer, who is a senior fellow at New America, wrote Likewar three or four years ago, and really about not just cybersecurity and the ways you fight through information, but the ways you use social media. And there, of course both sides—well, certainly Russia and Ukraine—have been fighting the media war as much as anything else. I just this morning watched Boris Johnson marching through Kyiv next to Zelensky. And, you know, Boris Johnson was a journalist. He understands communications. And that was a made-for-TV, made-for-social-media moment.
I think though, what we’re not taking enough account of, and Zachary mentioned this, and he’s right, we are looking at English-language media. Ben Scott, who is at Luminate, had an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, where he said, take a look at the Russian-language social media. But not just Russians. See what Bulgarians are reading. And see what’s happening on Facebook in Bulgarian or Moldovan or Georgianor all the different languages that Russia and Putin’s trolls, the Russian bot farms, are manipulating to project Russia’s view of the war. This is how we will be fighting, or this is how we will be having conflict going forward. Probably more with cyber weapons, but certainly control of the information space, which is now just as important as control of the physical space, I think, as we go forward. And here again, there are just so many ways that these weapons will be developed and used, where it’s like being at the beginning of industrial warfare, where you went from cannons to then of course, tanks to all the tools of the 20th-century warfare, which basically harnessed industrial technology for warfare, and now we’re at the beginning of harnessing information technology.
ZK: You know, there can be a degree of “back to the future” of this. And I’m always trying to look at whether or not our sensibility of everything changing is simply that we’re aware of our contemporary changes and much less aware of our historical changes. Meaning, you know, if you wanted information about the Crimean War in the 1850s, as an individual removed from that, whether you were, you know, a shoemaker in London or, you know, a merchant in Paris, you were subject to the information, much of which was only official information, about what was going on in the battlefield. And it may have had very little to do with what actually had transpired. I mean, eventually the truth came out. But at the time, people were very much subject to information control and what we would call propaganda. And maybe we’re sort of back to that, having had an expectation of real transparency.
So I sort of wonder about… Our contemporary tools make that information warfare more ubiquitous, and perhaps easier to do it at scale. I don’t know that it changes the game quite the way we think it does. But it does lead me to the question I wanted to ask of, if we had been having this conversation six months agowe likely would have only briefly touched on NATO and the EU. We certainly might have talked about Putin, and we might’ve talked about what the challenge of Russia is. But we almost certainly would’ve talked about some combination of climate change and China as being sort of the two poles both of the Biden administration and kind of a Western political locus.
We’ve touched a little bit on the climate change part, although that’s in many ways a separate and broader conversation. But I do wanna ask about the China question because, you know, one thing I’m wondering, I have my own biases here too, that we should not have been in the onward rush to a cold war with China to the degree that we have been, and that that should have been halted in its tracks or at least looked at. But I do wonder what do you think about the degree to which all the focus had been on “the 21st-century rivalry is gonna be the United States and China.” Full stop. And then this Ukraine and Russia and the whole mobilization happens. Should that make us question whether or not that six-months-ago assumption was correct? Or is this simply a [inaudible] on the way to that being true?
AS: Well, the China lobby, or perhaps I should say the anti-China lobby, is very concerned already that this may hinder the pivot to Asia. And they’re already writing op-eds saying, “no, we gotta double down. This just proves that China really holds the balance of great power politics. And look, China’s now with Russia. If China, we’re not with Russia, this would not be such a big issue.” I don’t think that’s true, by the way. Russia is doing all the damage it’s doing not because China is not stopping it. China was never gonna stop it. And the fact that China’s providing it diplomatic cover, no, because Russia’s a superpower. Russia’s a great power. It’s got a veto. The long-term implications of a China–Russia alliance are troubling for all sorts of reasons. But I think this is a reminder that the single-minded obsession with China as the other great power of the 21st century is just deeply misguided.
I really do keep thinking that I’m back in college in the mid 1970s, and I’m reading William Appleman Williams and The Tragedy of American Diplomacy about the paths we might taken in the late 1940s. And again, I’m not naive. I do not think we were gonna do a deal with Stalin, and there are so many what ifs. It’s not a game that makes much sense to play. But what was clear is that there was a very strong interest in defining the world in terms of a great superpower military rivalry. And Eisenhower said that. You don’t have to listen to me.
And so, when I look at this versus China, you see that anybody who’s connected to defense or arms or any of that thinks, yes, this is the way to go. This is how you get your budgets. This is how you, you know, really set up the same kind of great power relationship we had in the 20th century. You have all the sort of ability to get a bipartisan consensus, which the president really needs. I think China is a threat in some ways. I think it is an indispensable partner in other ways. I think it is a complex country and we ought to be taking account of those complexities. I think the idea that we are gonna convince African and Asian and Latin American nations to choose is crazy. And they’re making that very, very clear. Again, we’d do better if we traded on some of our great strengths, which said, we’re not going to tell you we’re the greatest, just like the Chinese are. We’re going to be a much more open, much more transparent, much more self-critical country. We’re going to engage in many messier ways. We’re gonna let China generate its own antibodies, which it will. And it is, in many countries as it insists on a Chinese workforce, as it is very ham-fisted in lots of its its commercial and diplomatic relations.
So I think this should be a moment where we really, again, do reassess. But that’s again why I fear democracies versus autocracies because it very neatly puts China and Russia as if they were similar countries. This is not the Cold War. These are not communist nations. They have very different ways of governing. And we should be taking account of that.
ZK: And by the way, the antibody metaphor’s particularly apt given the COVID challenge in China and their own desire to develop their own way of approaching that, hermetically sealed. And I, you know, I think you’re totally right. And it’s vital to look at the degree to which China is so—from the perspective of an American security establishment that evolves in the late 1940s, you referenced that before—China is perfectly cast as the adversary that those structures were set up to confront in the Soviet Union, in a way that, for instance, Islamic fundamentalism as kind of an amorphous ideology-slash-rogue set of groups was always ill cast, or uncomfortably cast. And China really fits everything that that establishment looks for: a different ideology that is in its way counter to ours, a state structure, a culture, a military, a state, all of it. And I think that’s worth looking at, like, we were looking for a successor.
AS: You’re a hundred percent right. That was true even in the late 1990s. Bill Clinton was already talking aboutyou know, China is our peer competitor. And when Bush won, before 9/11, we were fully geared up for the US versus China. And then 9/11 hit. And as you said, it became the war on terror, and we needed China there. And then all of that has had its sequelae. But yesthere are many, many, many established interests who profit from that kind of great adversary. The US is one pole and something else—China, or better, another nation—is the other.
EV: Anne-Marie, since we’re talking about sort of overdrawn lines here, like you’re saying, you know, China doesn’t have to be our next enemy, Russia and China are not the same countries, do you see Taiwan in that same way? In that we’re sort of overdrawing the lines between Russia coming into Ukraine and China possibly coming to, you know, take over Taiwan. Because I’ve certainly seen a lot of that. And then, you know, people on the other side saying like, “wait, wait, wait,” you know, “Taiwan is not Ukraine.”
AS: I mean, this is complicated. Taiwan is not Ukraine. And for that matter, she is not Putin. And lots of people are saying she green-lighted the invasion, read the February 4th communique between the two of them. We don’t know what she was doing. I think it’s pretty clear, he did not think he was green-lighting a massive invasion trying to take over Kyiv and occupy the country. But they’re very different. And the Taiwanese case is very complicated on the US side as well as the Chinese side. There are similarities in that Taiwan’s not a member of NATO or part of an Alliance like NATO any more than Ukraine is. But I think to try to analogize either what the invasion might look like or what the response might look like blinds us to a whole lot of complexities that we have to take account of.
And again, this is the war between what the public sees and what Amanda Ripley calls, you know, our love affair with binaries as human beings [laugh] and the actual need to complexify and to take account of many different factors and move slowly and very deliberately to try to keep lots of options open. And government has to do that in the fish bowl of media that it always operates in. But I would be very, very careful about using those analogies. And frankly, I would simply discourage them as much as possible.
ZK: In our valedictory moments, I wonder what you feel about the arc of the past 60 or 70 years. One way I’m looking at Ukraine, even in the negative comparison that there’s plenty of conflicts that we haven’t paid sufficient attention to, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, that the general lack of tolerance for and acceptance of the brute use of force and terror to achieve political territorial aims, which would’ve been essentially the story of much of history and certainly of European history. Trevor Noah had a brilliant riff on people saying briefly about Ukraine, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this. We’re Europe. We don’t do this.” And Noah was like, “This is kind of what you do until the middle of the 20th century. Europe really perfected the art of war.”
So the flip side is, it’s probably a good thing that so few societies, and so few people are easily embracive. I mean, I doubt even in a cynical left-Greek culture that just sees us as superpower rivalry redux, there’s not a lot of tolerance for or acceptance of death and the use of force as the way to achieve political aims. And I wonder if that norm—Steven Pinker has obviously written about that, controversially—if this is in its own way evidence of that norm, right? And that we should at least go, look, comparatively we’d like that to be a norm. We, being actually most human beings, do not like bombs dropped on them, do not like their kids being killed on the way to school. There’s a generalizable, I think, reality to that. Do you share that, as a feeling of there’s a lot to be said for even the excessively ahistorical hyperbole insofar as it reinforces something that we probably do want as a prohibition?
AS: I do. This is an argument I have with my husband all the time. But I’m an international lawyer, and it is really significant that over the course of the 20th century, you have two enormous norm changes. One is the idea that simply invading another country to take it over is not okay. For most of history, that was fine. That’s what you did. So to make it illegal in international law, did that stop war? Well, no. Probably nuclear weapons did more to stop war among great powers. And there have been plenty of smaller wars. But when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991, the world lined up. When the United States wanted to invade Iraq, the UN would not bless it, and there was a tremendous amount of opposition, and people are right to see the similarity there with what Putin is doing. It’s not identical, but there are certainly similarities. And then you see this today. That’s a huge change. And we do need to keep pushing on that as a norm governing nation states.
But the other is absolutely the human rights movement and the movement to hold individuals accountable for war crimes, which of course happened after World War II. Many people said it was victor’s justice. Then you get the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. And for Rwanda, the International Criminal Court. Those things are riddled with power politics. But they are actual progress. Because you could do this forever.
And even if you think the Holocaust is 6 million people, Srebrenica is 7,000 people, Bucha is 300 people, and we are responding in the ways we should respond. The key, however, is to be responding when children and families and people who do not look like us—and “us” right now, I’m thinking of white European Americans—are killed. And until we can do that, and I think we are going to move in that direction, you will always have that progress tainted by—more than tainted—really, undermined and corrupted by the claim that it’s only for some people.
ZK: Absolutely. And definitely one of the goals of our future ahead is to insist on the universality of those realities and not the particularity of them in a particular moment that suits us. The idea of a norm is that it needs to be universal and difficult, and not simply particular and easy. And I do hope we’re heading in that direction, but I guess time will tell, and we’ll find out. And we will keep having these conversations with Anne-Marie Slaughter. And everyone should, if given the opportunity. So thank you for joining us today.
AS: Zachary and Emma, really a wonderful conversation, even if a very sobering one.
EV: Thank you, Anne-Marie.
ZK: So, Emma, one thing that struck me in the conversation was something you had said about, you know, a particular cohort in Greece. I know this has become a kind of a trope of our conversations, but again, it’s a useful one because it does offer some degree of comparison of either the group think or just, we always think that everyone thinks the way we think, because the only people we talk to are ourselves. When you get into conversations, which I’m sure occasionally slide into arguments about what people are perceiving versus what you’re perceiving, how do you navigate that difference?
EV: Well, I should say first of all that [laugh], there is a strong form of… Greeks really love to argue with other Greeks. Because I’m half Greek, I’m not viewed as fully Greek. They view me as an American. And so, because a lot of people have very strong opinions about the United States here, they are not as willing to get into a conversation with me about how they view American foreign policy and American actions. But when we do enter into those conversations, what we end up talking about is, okay, what does Russian propaganda look like? And when are you reading it in the Greek media landscape? And they say, well, there’s also a lot of American propaganda. And I’m like, what does it look like? And what does Russian propaganda look like? Because I can tell you for sure what a Russian bot looks like because they come to The Progress Network Facebook page all the time. And then there’s always that sort of basic conversation of like, are you getting your news on Instagram? Are you getting your news on social media? It’s like always the first and enormous red flag. But there’s a real lack of trust, I think, is the problem with those conversations.
ZK: Which of course we’ve talked about with Jonathan Haidt, and we’ve talked about with other people, Jim Fallows, as absolutely a domestic American issue. It’s the domestic issue within European politics. We’ve talked about the French election. This challenge of even getting to a place where you are agreeing on a basic narrative of what’s going on can be highly, highly challenging, where people are essentially reading radically different scripts of the same reality. And therefore are spending a lot of time, as you just said, arguing about the propaganda, each side of which thinks it’s fact. I mean, hopefully these kind of conversations that we’re having help offset that, although honestly, most people who are listening to these conversations are already willing to have that be offset. That’s a whole other challenge of how do you communicate to those who aren’t listening? Nonetheless, that’s a beginning of it, right? To just try to puncture and agree that yes, there’s actually legitimately different facets, legitimately different ways to look at things. Although there are not completely different realities.
EV: I mean, and it’s kind of like what Anne-Marie is saying about, we’re sort of in the first 10 years of the Industrial Revolution, as far as weaponry. We’re in the first, you know, beginnings of the revolution of the internet, meaning we’re all learning how to navigate the pitfalls. And I hope that in the not too distant future, we’ll have figured out, first of all, how to educate children about news literacy, how to educate them about what a bot looks like online versus something else. And I think that we will slowly get better at that. And that we’ll be able to agree on facts again, but maybe that’s naive.
ZK: And yes, like I’ve used the word “hopefully.” You just said “I hope.” We do know that hope is not a strategy, but I think when we’re articulating it, it is from the place of, we need to make efforts to change this dynamic. One of which is to have conversations like this, one of which is to presumably do some of what we’re doing with The Progress Network of giving people news that is not part of the usual news narrative. One that points in a more constructive direction, because that’s out there too, right? It’s the same basic issue of, we cannot get too imprisoned in what Eli Pariser brilliantly termed at the dawn of this—we cannot get imprisoned in our own filter bubbles. And we need to make an effort not to, which requires critical thinking about the information we’re digesting and a willingness to digest information that seems alien and foreign. And that’s true for all human beings everywhere. This is obviously a longer conversation. One which we will continue to address. So we are at the end of this one. Thank you as always, Emma, for joining me in these conversations. And thank all of you who are listening for joining The Progress Network.
EV: Thanks everyone for listening.
If you wanna find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, please visit our website at theprogressnetwork.org. And if you want something other than gloom and doom when you open your email in the morning, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’S a roundup of progress news from around the world, and that’s at theprogressnetwork.org/newsletter. And please, if you like the show, if you could tell a friend, share an episode, leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, that would help us out ton. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas. The show is produced by Andrew Steven and edited by Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thank you so much for listening.
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