Among the cacophony of cable-news squawk-fests, socially mediated newsfeeds, and listicles, believe it or not, there’s still a niche market for sober analysis of current events. Fareed Zakaria’s got that market cornered. Host of a foreign affairs program on CNN, writer of a weekly column in the Washington Post, and author of five books, Zakaria is a rare specimen of that endangered American species called the public intellectual.
Zakaria has fashioned himself into an authoritative voice on matters of geopolitics, offering historical and political context to the events shaping our ever-globalizing world, all the while peppering his prose with timely allusions plucked straight from the Great Books curriculum.
It was a bit jarring, given such gentility, to read a recent column of Zakaria’s titled “The Unbearable Stench of Trump’s B.S.” It was less shocking to find out that Zakaria borrowed his definition of the term “bullshit” from a Princeton philosopher named Harry Frankfurt. When Zakaria called in to chat with The Santa Barbara Independent in advance of his talk at the Granada Theatre on September 27, it was on that subject that our conversation began.
I think the topic of bullshit is more interesting than the topic of Trump. I hope you’re right because one of Trump’s strategies during the primary was to stay interesting, which meant he dominated media coverage. If he’s getting to the point where we’re all getting bored of him, that would be a very good thing.
Does a little part of your soul die every time you have to talk about him? I find it deeply frustrating that we have to analyze every tweet or every comment he makes on foreign policy or economic policy as if it is some serious expression of policy, that there’s some thought behind it, that there’s an ideology behind it. It’s all nonsense. These are kneejerk reactions that mean nothing. He could change his mind tomorrow.
Frankfurt says that one cause of bullshit is the fact that public life compels people “to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.” You work on a cable news network where people have to talk 24 hours a day. To what extent is Trump a product of our media climate? He is very much a creature of the modern media age in which speed is essential. Short, controversial, obnoxious, sensational statements get you enormous currency. Then they disappear and then you’re on to the next thing. You don’t have time to develop outrage about the John McCain comment because then Trump is on to Mexicans, then he’s on to Muslims. He’s consumed the limelight in a way that makes everybody else look small. There’s certainly a kind of genius in that. It also reminds us that the people interested in politics in a serious sense are a small subset of Americans.
Jefferson said an educated citizenry is the key to preserving our democracy. Most Americans are sensible, smart people. When they make an important decision, they do careful research, they are very sober. But when it comes to exercising their rights as citizens, there is this strange tendency to suspend that kind of rational thought process and instead look for somebody who is going to affirm you emotionally or give you psychological comfort.
Let’s get to foreign affairs. The G20 meetings just ended in China, a country that has swiveled inward. Is this the beginning of a long-term economic uncoupling from the United States? China may be going through the most important changes since the Cultural Revolution. For the last 30 years, China has been on a path to greater openness, greater integration with the world economy. But right now it is going through something very different. Economic growth is slowing, and the Communist Party has decided to reassert control in a very substantial way. Dissent is being crushed, people are being purged, there is much stronger nationalism to Chinese policy. The same Western companies that they courted are now being discriminated against.
If China moves in a substantially protectionist direction, that will change the geopolitics of Asia and the world. Let’s remember China is the second largest economy in the world. Even with this slowdown, it is growing at least twice as fast as the United States. If there is a serious conflict between China and the United States, then we move from the world we’ve been living in for the last 20 years to a world that looks much more like the Cold War where you have two great antagonists in two camps, countries have to choose sides, and systems get closed rather than opened.
You are a supporter of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, and you feel like the presidential candidates are being demagogues in opposing it. Is that right? I think Hillary Clinton knows enough to know that it’s a good agreement. Donald Trump knows nothing about it or any major public policy issue, so I have no idea whether he’s being sincere or not.
The vast majority of what the TPP does is open up Asian markets. This deal makes it easier for America to export goods into Japan, which is still the third biggest economy in the world, to Indonesia, to other countries in East Asia. It also for the first time raises environmental standards and talks about worker rights in a substantial way.
As important as the economic issue, there’s a very important foreign policy issue here, which is: who will get to write the rules? The real prize here is for the United States to stay the dominant, agenda-setting power in the world. To do that, it has to be able to do it in the Asia Pacific. In 10 years, four of the five largest economies of the world will be in the Asia Pacific. That is where the pivots of the 21st century lie.
President Obama has been trying to make his pivot to Asia, but the Middle East keeps occupying his attention. He’s been reluctant to use military force in Syria despite pressure from those on both sides of the political spectrum. How do you think he is playing his cards? It has showed incredible discipline and in my opinion strategic wisdom to not get substantially involved in the Syrian Civil War. This is without question the most complicated Civil War that I have witnessed in my 30 years of studying international relations. The American intelligence community estimates are that there are 1,000 different militias fighting in Syria. There are at least five to six major powers with stakes in Syria. They are all backing different sides.
You have in Syria this fundamental problem. We are unalterably opposed to the strongest power, the Assad regime, and we are also unalterably opposed to the Assad regime’s primary military rival, ISIS. We’re against the other jihadi groups there. The idea that in that chaos, substantial American involvement would somehow sort this all out is crazy. What I think is much more likely is that the United States would drain enormous blood, treasure, time, energy, and attention in a no-win quagmire.
Do you worry about a potential President Clinton who is more hawkish than Obama? I do worry that Hillary will not have the same disciplined, strategic approach to the use of military force that Obama has had. I think that Hillary Clinton comes out of a Democratic party that felt as if it was on the defensive in the 1980s and 1990s when they were constantly accused by Republicans of being soft on Communism, of being soft on military intervention. It was a legacy of the Vietnam experience. Because of that, both Bill and Hillary Clinton decided that the way they were going to demonstrate that they were not those kinds of Democrats, was to be tougher. The danger of that is that is a political strategy that may not be good foreign policy strategy.
On the other side of Syria is Turkey. Were you surprised by the coup attempt, and are you worried about the prospects for a U.S. alliance with an increasingly authoritarian regime? I was surprised by the coup and the counter-coup. For a long time, it seemed as if Turkey was exempt from the instability that has been consuming the Middle East. Now, it is unfortunately clear that that instability has entered Turkey. Partly, the Kurdish issue has been revived, partly ISIS. One piece of it seems to be that Turkey is going through a fundamental debate internally whether it is still the bastion of secularism and modernized Islam that Attaturk had created or if it is going to be very different. President Erdogan has played with these forces in a way that has not been productive.
But let’s talk about when Turkey really began to change. That was when the Europeans made it clear to Turkey that it would never be a member of the European Union. A lot of Turks believed it was simply because they were Muslim. That was a much more dramatic shift than people realize, and Erdogan began this project of redefining Turkey which has produced a lot of opposition and tension.
When you recently interviewed President Obama on your show, GPS [Global Public Square], you ended by asking him what he’s reading, so I’ll do the same with you. I read a forthcoming biography of Alan Greenspan by Sebastian Mallaby. It was a wonderful portrait of the economic conservative movement, free marketers who wanted the Republican Party defined by openness and internationalism, now so bereft because Donald Trump in no way represents them. What you have now is a Republican Party with a standard bearer who believes in walls and tariffs.
Zakaria will speak at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday, September 27, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.