Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, a weekly columnist for The Washington Post, a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly, and the author of three New York Times bestselling books.
The Politic: First, I want to start with your recent commentary about Trump’s abuse of American foreign policy power. President Trump readily makes concessions and also receives concessions that seem, for the most part, symbolic. To what extent do you think this is a break from previous administrations, and what are the most significant implications?
Fareed Zakaria: Actually, this is an area where I think Trump is exacerbating a tendency, but is not inventing one. The United States has had a bad habit that was developed mostly after the Cold War of using its superpower status in ways that are often unwise. During the Cold War, the United States was always constrained by the reality of a big competitor, of the Soviet Union, and therefore, didn’t want to seem to be abusing its status for fear that any abuse would, in a sense, give the Soviet Union an advantage or would make the Soviet Union look good. Throughout the Cold War there was a competition for influence in large parts of the world. After the end of that struggle, the United States became so dominant that it was able to use that power and status in ways that were often arrogant and even abusive. It used power to maximize its narrow self interest rather than affirm international norms. The great project today should be to ask how to strengthen and enhance the international order Washington has built since 1945. That is, how to strengthen the open trading system and the rule-based international order in human rights. Because over the next few decades, American power will wane, but the rule-based world it has built can endure.
Let me give you an example. The U.S. often abuses the privilege of having the dollar as the reserve currency to demand that foreign banks do what it wants. And here, when I say the U.S., I mean some prosecutor in New York or in Virginia will do it. It works. The reality is, the dollar is so powerful that if a bank is fined ten billion dollars by some local prosecutor in New York City, they have no option but to pay it because they need to participate in the federal reserve system which clears all international financial transactions.
Or take international law. The U.S. will use international law when it suits it and not use it when it doesn’t suit it. It will invoke international criminal law when it wants to, and plus, it’s not itself a signatory to the international court.
All these tendencies did exist, but I think that they got exacerbated at the end of the Cold War. But with Trump, the fundamental problem is that he doesn’t even believe in the system. He doesn’t believe in the basic framework. Other presidents, I think, would always say that they believed in the system, but there was this one exceptional thing where they had to this way or that way; take the Iraq War. People forget that Bush did try to do it very much through the United Nations and took the issue to the United Nations Security Council many times. And then when he couldn’t get his way through that route, he went the unilateral route. At least that showed a certain kind of respect for the process and procedures. With Trump, you get the feeling that he fundamentally doubts the entire project.
What worries me about it, of course, is that when you abuse your authority that much, you encourage alternatives to it. So you are already seeing the Chinese talk about making the yuan another alternative reserve currency backed by gold. The Europeans obviously would like to see the euro do that. I think most of these things won’t happen right now; the dollar remains preeminent. But it’s not a good sign that people are chafing at the fact that the United States is wielding its power this way. It gets at this broader issue, which is that the United States isn’t a good steward of its superpower status. It will only shorten the longevity of that status.
Do you think the role of the dollar is being challenged by China, India, Brazil, etc.? What do emerging mixed economies mean for the order that America has set up? And how you think the U.S. should respond to trade cheats?
The role of the dollar, the central role of the dollar, is actually fascinating because in its origins, it is entirely a product of American power. But the dollar’s power actually expanded in the last decade. I think a few things happened. The euro is the obvious alternative to the dollar, but it has lost steam. Some still believe it could crack up. The Chinese have had problems with internationalizing the yuan because they don’t want a freely floating currency. And so the dollar persists and has gained ground. It mirrors the way English has gained ground as the global language of commerce and diplomacy because everybody needs some common platform. Everybody needs some language in which to do business.
Think about the European Union where you have the odd situation where Britain is going to leave the European Union, but English is going to remain the de facto lingua franca of the European Union. When a Dutch diplomat wants to speak to a Spanish and Polish diplomat, the three of them can agree to speak English. So the dollar’s role, in some ways, mirrors that reality. So it is not so much a sign of overweening American power. It is the accident of it being the dominant currency at hand during the expansion of globalization. But it gives the United States enormous advantages because the United States always borrows in its own currency.
The trade issue is more complicated. I think that the fact is, you have significant new emerging economies that are global powers, or at least regional powers, that are fundamentally determined to maintain a mixed economy, and quasi-protectionist policies are a huge problem.
I think China is by far the biggest of them, but India and Brazil are also problems, and this reality does undermine the global trading system. It does undermine further progress. The only thing I would say is that if the United States were committed to free trade, slowly these problems do tend to get better. In the last 30 or 40 years, countries have opened up, because they themselves go into new areas of the economy, like services, and want, therefore, access to a wider market. As Chinese companies start exporting themselves, they will want a more open trading system. Again, the problem here is that the United States, the Trump administration, is losing some of its faith in the free trade system. Which is, I think, very unfortunate because, put bluntly, the United States has benefited enormously from global free trade.
It’s helped others as well, for sure, but the United States being at the center of that system, having designed the system, having set the agenda for it, but having lots of exceptions to it, has benefited enormously. The inconvenient reality of the world trading system for those Americans who think that we haven’t benefited is this: the country that has put the most protectionist measures on in the last 20 years? It’s not China, it’s the United States. The United States has enormous power. This is far bigger than just a reflection of the fact that if you have a large market, you can wield power because everyone wants access to your market. And that’s what I was worried that China was doing, but let’s not forget, the U.S. does it as well.
On the note of China, can we discuss its consolidation of power, the consequences of the abolition of term limits, and how the U.S. should be responding.
The U.S. can’t do very much. It’s an internal Chinese development, and China is a major world power at this point. So I don’t think the U.S. could or should try to interfere in those internal decisions. When you look at it on the face of it, I think it’s one of these moves that in the short term probably has some benefits. Xi Jinping has been trying to fight corruption. His supporters say that he’s been trying to do economic reform, but has lacked the muscle to do it because some of the reforms are quite unpopular, and there is domestic opposition to them. They say that all these things will become easier. I’m sure that’s true, but, in general, certainly the lesson of history is as Acton said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And this seems as close to absolute power as you get.
Xi Jinping has essentially been told there are no limits on how long he can be leader of China. He’s now been elevated to a pantheon that only Mao is part of. His doctrines are now considered quasi-sacred, which means that I think he could wield power in the party even outside of any government position because it gives him a kind of deity-like status. And historically, that has not been a sign of political stability in the long run. When you look at the Chinese system, they made so many good decisions in terms of modernizing their society and promoting economic growth. But the tragedy of a dictatorship is that you can make big decisions, but you can also make bad decisions, and those also get fully and comprehensively implemented.
The one child policy that China put in place is a perfect example: the Chinese are facing a huge demographic problem because of it. Now people forget that India tried to put it in place, but it was actually never bold enough to try a one child policy, but India tried a two child policy in the ’70s, around the same time that the Chinese put their policy in effect. But India, this messy, chaotic, diverse democracy, was never able to do it. When the government actually pushed hard on those issues, they got voted out of office in 1977. So the policy never happened. The happy result, I suppose, is that India will be demographically vibrant 20 years from now, whereas China will be demographically decaying.
You mentioned human rights earlier in context of Trump. I’m wondering if you support Trump’s use of American military force in Syria? You’ve also commented on his resemblance to Barack Obama. To what extent do you still think that holds?
Yeah, you know when I compared Trump to Obama on Syria, I didn’t mean it as a criticism. I really meant it to say, Syria is a very difficult, complicated problem. I think people have an easy moralistic attitude of saying we should just go in and do something. The reality is, Obama approached it, I think, very much with a view that this is a human rights catastrophe, and let’s see if there’s something we can do. The Obama administration came to the conclusion, I think correctly, after considerable thought, that there really weren’t many good options. There were many ways to get the United States deeply involved in a morass, in a downwardly spiraling civil war. But there were not conditions for effective American involvement that would improve the human rights situation.
Fundamentally, you need some good guys to back who have some plausible hope of winning, of being able to take control of at least a large part of the country, if not the whole country. And the truth was, the two principal forces were Assad and the Islamic fanatics, ISIS and Al-Qaeda. There was a tiny free Syrian army that was not very effective, that did not seem particularly likely to be able to either command military support or legitimacy. This is a fairly common tendency in revolutions, in revolutionary situations. The Leninists always win. If you look at the Iranian revolution started by liberals, or look at the French Revolution which ended with Jacobite terror.
All these revolutions, what happens is, as violence increases, the most fanatical, you see the ones who are willing pay the highest price rise, and that’s what’s happening in Syria. I think that Obama came to that conclusion and tried to find some ways to enforce some norms and to lay down some markers short of a large American opening.
To wrap up, I want to talk to you about the fall of liberal democracy, a small subject. I love your references to Tocqueville, I really do. What is your tentative response to the question, “Who and what should be preserving the good in liberal democracy?” And what is the role of a university like Yale in preserving liberal democracy? Have universities been upholding that vision?
20 years ago I wrote that article (The Rise of Illiberal Democracy in FA, 1997) and argued that there were two crucial aspects to democracy. One was political participation, the “democracy” part. But the other was the “liberal” part, by which one means liberal, small l: constitutionalism, the rule of law, the separation of powers, fundamentally, the preservation of individual liberties. And that that part is much harder to achieve than holding an election. This is something the Greeks worried about: the ability of popular leaders and of majorities to systematically oppress minorities, to just strip people of their individual rights, things like that.
One solution I had always thought was institution—you know, courts, parliaments, things like that. And what I think has become apparent is that they are not enough. There are places like Hungary and Poland that have admirable constitutions. Turkey, which has very strict provisions, all of which can be overcome by a clever enough populist or somebody who wants to use his majority power as a way to discredit, delegitimize, and erode those institutions. Then, I think one comes to realize that what’s also very important are the non-governmental institutions like the press, like universities, the old guilds, the lawyers, the people like that. That’s why Tocqueville describes lawyers as America’s aristocracy because it’s a profession not purely motivated by money, but that has a sense of a higher purpose. That’s why lawyers were traditionally officers of the court, even a private lawyer, even somebody who’s not working for the government.
And I think that that richer tapestry of civic life is, in some ways, one of the crucial parts of what sustains a democracy. Look, I don’t think one needs to be overly alarmist about the Trump administration. But to the extent it has tried to abuse its power and authority, what have been the checks? Clearly not the Republican Party which has completely collapsed in surrender. The checks have been courts, but also lawyers within the administration: the FBI, the Justice Department, the State Department who have quite boldly defied the president when he’s wanted to do things they regarded as either illegal or improper. Also, the press which has in a fairly spirited way continued to do what it considers its job. And, if you look at other countries, Turkey, Russia, even sometimes I worry about India, those institutions are weaker, that leadership as we know it is weaker.
So I think it’s given me, certainly, a really deep profound appreciation for the fact that in the United States, you have this much broader and richer tapestry of these institutions and groups of people, civic organizations and just human beings who have a sense of that broader commitment. Without it, what you realize is that you can have everything written down perfectly, and it doesn’t matter. It’s something I guess we should have known. The Weimar Constitution, for example, is the most beautifully, intelligently written constitution. And it was regarded as such, was lauded as such, by people at the time. But it crumbled because Germany did not have the internal strength of that civic culture and could collapse because of a man who was able to unravel it all.