Expert Excerpts: International Relations


Barry Posen – Restraint in American Foreign Policy

Barry Posen Transcript

I’m speaking for my book, Restraint, and Restraint is not just a book title. It’s what people call the grand strategy that I recommend. And the title tells all, to achieve American national security, the United States should be moderate in its ends and choose moderate means to achieve those ends. Now, to do this, I think you have to define security rather narrowly, spin out a plan to achieve a limited set of goals, then see how you feel about it. Particularly, do you feel safe and do you still see lots of inexpensive ways to make yourself safer? Now, one reason I developed the grand strategy of restraint, and I stand on the shoulders of people who were ahead of me on this, is to give critics and doubters of the post-Cold War U.S. course of action, a grand strategy, a place to sit, a perch, to critique the grand strategy that I think we’ve had, which Larry mentioned is some have called liberal hegemony.

Now, I define security as “safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and a power position sufficient to comfortably defend all these three Grand strategy is the outline of a plan to achieve security, a political military means-ends chain, and a set of real political and military priorities, arrayed to achieve those objectives. It’s not a cookbook. It’s a set of guidelines. Now, restraint as a grand strategy, at least for me, focuses on a limited set of security goals. Three are of concern to me. One is a classical goal, which is the US, as it did in World War II and during the Cold War, should oppose the creation of empires at either end of Europe, which might assemble enough power to conceivably threaten the US. This is a very hard thing to do, but it’s not inconceivable. Now, in Europe, Russia is presently too weak, and the Europeans are in my view too strong for hegemony to be a risk. So I don’t think there’s much the United States really needs to keep doing there. And that’s where I’ve devoted a lot of my attention recently.

At the other end of the world, China is stronger and getting even stronger. So US help in Asia is probably needed. The question, as we were discussing earlier, is how much and what kind? And restraint advocates, and as I said, there’s, many of us, are working through the question of what a restraint policy in Asia looks like, but we are not there yet. We don’t have a fully worked out way to approach this problem.

Second interest is to be vigilant against unusually ambitious non-state actors who choose violent means. We’ve just had the 9/11 20 year anniversary. And it’s a good reminder of this problem. The devil here is in the details of exercising this vigilance. Occupying other countries militarily is probably not the best way. Then third, we have to think about the risks of nuclear weapons and the risks they pose. And I’m particularly interested in the problem of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors. States have a return address. You can deter states. You may not be able to deter non-state actors.

Now, the US has the luxury of focusing on a limited set of threats as well as a few goals, because it is inherently a very secure country for economic, geographical, and even technological reasons. Now, in contrast, the US should abandon the grand strategy of the last 30 years, which I call liberal hegemony. And there, the title also tells all. The premise of that strategy is the US should be the strongest state in the world by a considerable margin, and the US should aim to transform other states so they look more like us. This strategy is encompassed in the famous Washington phrase, the US led liberal world order.

My view is that liberal hegemony has more or less failed and it has failed for fundamental reasons that cannot be overcome by more military power or more foreign aid or cleverer diplomacy. There’s a bunch of reasons. One, other powers also want security and they compete to get it. Russia and China are the noteworthy great powers. Iran, a middle power. The very old international relations theory called realism predicts that other states want security as well. They don’t just trust other great powers, even ones as nice as the United States.

Second, US allies are also self-interested actors. Because the US offers them extravagant security guarantees, they under-contribute to the common defense, which raises US costs and risks. I call this cheap riding. Some also act with more boldness or carelessness than is reasonable because they trust in the US insurance policy. This I call reckless driving. Another problem, as Ken talked about, is that nationalism is a strong force in the world. Even a benevolent liberal US offering good advice will often have its advice rejected if we bring that advice at the point of a gun. Iraq and Afghanistan are object lessons.

Another problem is that there has been a diffusion of military power in the world associated with the processes of globalization and modernization. And this translates into more military capability for more actors. And this has simply made the waging of war more difficult and costly than it was, and it has made sustained military competition with other great powers, even more demanding. It’s not easy to compete with a country that has a GDP that’s more or less the same as yours, which is where we are with China.

War itself, which has been a choice instrument for the United States in the last 30 years, is a blunt and costly instrument. It’s not a scalpel. But members of the foreign policy establishment seem to believe that threats of war are often effective and if we have to make good on our threats, it will be easy to win. I think the record shows otherwise. There’s a long list of potential wars implied by the commitments that the current US foreign policy establishment would like to make, commitments regarding Iran, commitments regarding North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, Taiwan. These all involve the possibility of war. And by comparison, Iraq and Afghanistan, which were relatively limited counterinsurgencies in sum cost at least $2 trillion to achieve not much actual success and in these other wars that are presently in the mix, could cost a great deal more. And several of these potential wars would risk nuclear escalation.

Now, at this point, I see only two paths to change. One is, the United States can continue this liberal hegemony strategy until we finally run into a crisis that really hurts and forces sudden retrenchment, something much worse than Afghanistan or Iraq. Now this could be ugly in part because many states may not be ready to look after themselves if they haven’t been warned. And other states, challengers, may see sudden windows of opportunity. I’m a small C conservative when it comes to diplomacy. I don’t like sudden movements in international politics.

The other way the Americans could proceed, which I think is more reasonable is to embark on serious reforms, the grand strategy restraint would secure key US interests and lower costs and risks by limiting our aims and being careful with our means, especially military means. Finally, I should note that restraint does not preclude cooperation with others to deal with problems of inherent common concern, which no nation state can truly address on its own, such as climate change or pandemics. Indeed, it might make such cooperation easier by lowering the temperature, lowering the number of competitive international security relationships, which have a habit of becoming all-consuming and zero sum, which right now, sadly, is the direction of our relation with China.

World politics is entering a new phase because the US is no longer the sole great power in the world. It may also be true that economic resources within the United States available for national security will become scarcer because there’s more claimants for those resources. Certainly, the resource of public political support is becoming scarcer. In my view, US political leaders must choose their foreign policy objectives more carefully, manage resources more scrupulously, and threaten and employ military force less frequently. And the grand strategy of restraint points the way.


Kenneth Pyle – The Flawed Decision to Demand Unconditional Surrender Against the Japanese

Kenneth Pyle Transcript

My book is about the impact that we Americans have had on Japan. In my judgment, no country has been more impacted by America’s rise to world power than Japan. So, I would like to highlight three controversial points about the war in the Pacific, and all three are related.

First, the main reason for the huge impact we had on Japan is the way we mistakenly chose to fight the war in the Pacific. Franklin Roosevelt declared that the war against the fascists, Germany, Italy, and Japan, would be fought to unconditional surrender. It’s the only war in American history fought to unconditional surrender. All other wars, we’ve had a lot of them, were fought to a negotiated peace. Our diplomats were told not to negotiate, not to discuss conditions for ending the conflict, so compromise and diplomacy were ruled out from the beginning.

Instead, Roosevelt announced that our war goals were to demand from Japan surrender of its sovereignty; to occupy Japan; dissolve its empire; permanently disarm it; carry out war crimes trials; democratize its political, economic, and social institutions; and reeducate its people. Well not surprisingly, such sweeping goals did not result in unconditional surrender on the part of the Japanese who feared the execution of their emperor, the abolition of the Imperial institution, and the end of their way of life as they had always known it.

The mistake in my judgment was to rule out diplomacy. The possibility of a negotiated peace with Japan existed, which might well have avoided the protracted war and also Stalin’s last-minute entry into the war, which gave Russia a foothold in the Far East. Hitler and Nazism defied compromise solutions, but with Japan compromises were possible. We know that because once the war was over and we occupied Japan, we began to make a succession of major compromises right away with our wartime goals. It was ironic that after insisting on unconditional surrender, the Americans decided to keep the emperor, keep the conservative bureaucracy, leave high levels of concentration of capital, that is zaibatsu, and restore the pre-war conservative elite, and then most ironic of all, prod the Japanese to rearm.

Second key point in the book is that this totally unprecedented unconditional surrender policy made the use of the atomic bomb almost inevitable. Since we wouldn’t negotiate, that meant our military was given charge of war strategy, and American strategy became maximum force with maximum speed. When the B-29s came within range of Japan in 1944, we then fire bombed 60 Japanese cities, deliberately targeting civilians to break Japanese morale. There were upwards of half-a-million civilian casualties. Just in one night bombing Tokyo, 100,000 people died. In his memoir, General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the bombing campaigns summed up the strategy in stark terms, “Bomb and burn them until they quit.”

Japan refused to surrender, mobilized the entire nation for a last stand, which meant invasion of Japan would be necessary at a huge cost of casualties to us. When the atomic bomb became available, there was no doubt that we would use it. Unconditional surrender policy had made the use of the atomic bomb almost inevitable.
The third and final key point that I want to make about the book is that we have mistakenly convinced ourselves that the occupation of Japan under General MacArthur was such a great success, that it became the model for subsequent interventions in other countries and nation-building. The seven-year occupation of Japan turned out to be the most extensive reconstruction of a nation in modern history.

The problem is that we denied the Japanese the right to reform themselves according to their own culture and traditions and history. Instead, we imposed our institutions and values on Japanese politics, education, economics, and society. We wrote their constitution and imposed it, along with our education system, along with equal rights for women.
If democracy is to work. It must be in the lifeblood, the experience, the history of a people, but we believed our institutions and values were universal, good for every people, regardless of their history and culture. Our occupation of Japan, unfortunately, became the model and inspiration for all subsequent American interventions and nation-building efforts. For example, President George W. Bush often cited success in democratizing Japan as demonstrating our ability to do the same when we invaded Iraq. He said that many, many times.

By some estimates, we have conducted as many as 30 major interventions. In the last century, we believed we could nation-build. Our values were universal. Never mind the history and culture of other countries, we could remake them.

In the wake of the unhappy outcomes of recent quixotic interventions, including Iraq, and most recently, Afghanistan, Americans are beginning to become disillusioned with such nation-building and efforts to remake other countries in our own image.


William Easterly — Experts and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

William Easterly Transcript
Larry Bernstein:
Our next speaker is Bill Easterly. He is a professor of economics at NYU, and he is the author of the Tyranny of Experts and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor.

Bill Easterly:
There’s a district called Mubende in Uganda. On Sunday morning of February 28th, 2010, the farmers of Mubende were in church and they heard gunshots outside. They came out and they found that soldiers were burning their homes and the soldiers kept the farmers at gunpoint from rescuing their homes. The soldiers burned the recent grain harvest of the farmers and shot their dairy cows. Then the soldiers marched the more than 20,000 farmers away at gunpoint, and they were told, “Never come back. This land is no longer yours.”

And what’s surprising about this story is that it was part of a World Bank project to grow forests to replace the subsistence farming that was going on in Mubende and then sell the timber, which World Bank experts thought would be a more productive use of this land. It does not turn out to be higher productivity for the Mubende farmers who lost their land. The farmers might’ve hoped that publicity would help them, the story actually appeared a few months later on the front page of the New York Times and the World Bank was momentarily embarrassed and promised an investigation. Well, it’s now 11 years later, and that investigation never happened. I heard about this story at the time, it’s one of the things that motivated me to write The Tyranny of Experts.

The problem here is that World Bank experts told the poor residents from Mubende Uganda, what they should want, forestry, rather than respecting what they actually do want, farming. The kind of economics I was taught is that if forestry was such a miracle cure, the first question to ask is why were the farmers in Mubende not already doing forestry? And when we impose solutions by force on poor residents of the developing world, we lose that insight. World Bank experts went ahead, even though they knew their recommendations would be imposed or could well have been imposed by force as actually happening, violating the forgotten rights of the poor. Now I can give you 300 pages of historical and modern evidence that respecting rights for the poor, is actually the best recipe to end poverty. A combination of property rights and choosing for yourself in market, including the ability to protest politically when those rights are violated, is the recipe that has worked for many rich countries around the world. So, I will direct you to the 300 pages to check that out.

What’s a little more novel that I wanted to argue, that is not usually recognized in development discussions, is that we really should think of choice as good in itself, regardless of whether it increases prosperity or not. Economists have long evaluated wellbeing based on individual choice. If I choose B over A, then economists say, “B must make me better off because I chose it. Because I voluntarily chose it, and who better than me to know what is best for me, than me?” If instead I was coerced to choose B over A, and we could actually infer that I am made worse off because coercion would not have been necessary, if I had thought I was going to remain better off. So why are aid agencies supporting the violation of the property rights of the poor?

Unfortunately, things have not only been going in the wrong direction for many decades in development, they’re going even more in the wrong direction in the last 20 years. Aid over the last 20 years has increased the most to governments that violate property rights, repress democracy, and control markets the most, and not by a little bit. The worst fourth of governments ranked on those dimensions, had a 300% increase in annual average foreign aid received in the new millennium, while annual aid for everyone else increased by 35%. So, it’s simply no contest, the aid agencies, for some reason, that we will talk about more in the Q and A, seem to be choosing a path in which they increasingly violate more, the rights of the poor and give their own experts, the World Bank experts, the power to impose solutions on the poor, by aligning themselves with other autocrat regimes, they will impose solutions by force.

So I want you to have three takeaways from this talk. Number one, and this one is a fairly conventional debate, which I’m happy to have, that choosing for yourself is actually the best way to end poverty and create prosperity. The second is more novel, and this is one I frankly care about a lot more, choosing for yourself is a good thing in itself. None of us really wants to be told that we are better off by somebody else, we went to decide for ourselves when we’re better off. That has long been the tradition of economic thinking, since the times of Adam Smith, into the 20th century, that’s the kind of welfare economics that I was taught. How we evaluate whether people are better off, we just ask them, we just let them choose. And the third point I want you to take away is that sadly foreign aid, as this has worked out and even more in recent years, often empowers experts to force on poor people what the experts think they should want, instead of what poor people actually do want.

So in economic development efforts, if I can quote one of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln, with a slight paraphrase, it’d be an economic development, it’s also time to have a new birth of freedom, so the development of the people, for the people and by the people, does not perish from the earth.

William Easterly, Martin Gurri, and David Edgerton QA Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
All right, Bill, I’m going to start with you and then we’ll bring Martin into the conversation. Why is the World Bank doing this? Why are they supporting autocrats with the worst human rights abuses, as a place to provide their aid? I mean, historically US aid specifically has been limited by human rights violations or the context of how would it help American foreign policy, why are we giving all these money to these autocrats, what’s driving this?

Bill Easterly:
So I’ll give you a bureaucratic answer and a foreign policy answer. The bureaucratic politics is that the World Bank simply wants to give as much aid as possible to keep itself in business. And so it literally wants to give aid to almost every poor country without discriminating. And so there are some egregious cases that it will not give aid, like North Korea, only because it’s so egregious that it would be simply embarrassing. But otherwise, the World Bank just wants to stay in business by giving every government, regardless of how much it is violating the rights of the poor, the aid that the World Bank needs to keep its own employees and its own mission and business. And there are many good people that want to do good for poor people in those countries, so it has an altruistic backing as well, but is sadly unrealistic about what the effect of the aid will actually be.
The foreign policy reason is that aid has often been not only about development, but also about the foreign policy goals of the US and the UK, for example. So one good reason why aid has gotten worse is that during the long war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wars in Africa against terrorists, the World Bank has supported allies of the US government and allies of the UK government. Uganda, for example, was providing troops to fight Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The US chooses the president of the World Bank, so the US has plenty of leverage by which to control the policy of the World Bank, so they really want the World Bank to support US allies. And the World Bank, for its part, it wants a lot of political backing for what it’s doing, so it knows that you can get political backing by cooperating with US foreign policy.

Larry Bernstein:
So is the takeaway here that the failure of supporting these autocrats, is somehow embedded in the US foreign policy state department’s objectives? Because I would have thought that the state department would have been very opposed to supporting a number of African autocrats, maybe with the exception of these Ugandans, but what am I missing there?

Bill Easterly:
Well, you’re presuming that the US state department is opposed to human rights violations. Is that what you’re saying?

Larry Bernstein:
Yeah, I guess so. You’re saying it’s generally not true. I’m going to try a different line of questioning because it sounds like that one answers itself. You joined as a guest at one of my book clubs, probably 10 to 15 years ago, for the previous book that you wrote, which was also a condemnation of the World Bank. And I went around the room and asked each individual to decide would they cut to zero funding to the World Bank, cut it in half, or keep it the same. And when I came to you, you had misgivings on the question and you said, “I guess I would keep the funding the same in the hope that the World Bank could be reformed.” It’s been 15 years since I asked you that question, when I ask you it again, what should we do about funding the World Bank? Should we cut it, should we cut it in half, or should we keep it the same?

Bill Easterly:
Well, I’m proud actually, Larry, to be a reticent expert. I think there are too many experts that are overconfident on how they want to drastically change the world, and they’re not cautious enough on how their ideas could cause harm instead of good. I’m also cautious about that, I want to be a humble expert rather than over-confident one. I do have to admit in those 15 years, I have mostly given up on the hope of reforming the aid agencies of the World Bank. So, I guess I have to admit I’m a lot more negative now than I was 15 years ago.

Larry Bernstein:
Okay. All right. With that, let’s bring in Martin to the conversation. Martin, your last point related to the role of populists as not being leaders, but followers of the angry public. And given that, how do you expect the interaction between populists and the public in the future? Is it the public found Trump and should we expect the pulbic to find someone else who will represent them or will someone, a leader, have to show up to engage the public? And how do we think about the context of the United States or France or the UK or any other country for that matter, that is a big one that we should be keeping our eyes open for.

Martin Gurri:
Yeah. Well, every country is, of course, different, but the phenomenon is remarkably similar, and a lot of it has to do with what Bill was talking about. I mean, I was just sitting here shaking my head in wonder. It’s not just the poor in Africa that get told by experts, “This is what you’re supposed to be.” I think that 20th century top-down model of democracy, which worked very well for many years because it had that information advantage, had an almost mystical belief in expertise and a mystical belief that they own scientific truth. And that model, it was very comfortable, I think, if you were part of that expert class, part of that ruling class, it must’ve been quite wonderful. You spoke and nobody talked back.

I think, looking at the populist question, we have to reform the options, the choices that the public gets. The public goes to a strange individual and they’re going to pass political judgements that I don’t think anybody, even a supporter of Donald Trump would question. This was a strange and bizarre individual who had no experience in any sort of politics or any sort of government service, only because the elites were not representing the options that the public wanted. It was almost a statement of, “Okay, this guy is weird enough that he cannot possibly be one of them.”

I mean, Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil, for example, I mean, he makes Trump sound like an etiquette book. I mean, there is a sense that the public looks for these outrageous figures, just to make sure he’s not one of them. So what to do would be, you have to provide exactly what Bill was saying. You have to listen to what the public is saying. Don’t tell the public what they want, listen to what the public is saying it wants. And the moment you do this, you break through the log jam, and the moment the established parties, for example, can produce candidates that belong to that establishment, and yet satisfy the options and the questions and the choices that the public wants, the less populism we will have.
Larry Bernstein:
Let’s use some European countries as examples. Do you view Boris Johnson as a populist?

Martin Gurri:
Yeah, that’s a good question. That’s a really good question. I do. I do. But come on, he’s been in politics his whole life. He can orate in Greek, in ancient Greek. This guy, he’s one of a kind, so probably we should treat him that way. But yes, I do treat him as a populist because he took a stand with Brexit when nobody else did in that political class, and Brexit was clearly the populist issue in the UK, in England, I would say.

Larry Bernstein:
And how would you view it in France? So when you look at the Macron election, there were four parties. Did you see a populist? Is Macron an example of a populist, or is that just a far-right example? How do you think about French politics?

Martin Gurri:
Yeah. Okay. So basically, when you look at that election, the one that Macron won, his party, was in a sense the public’s party. He was a nobody, he follows the pattern of many, but he made Boris Johnson look massively experienced by comparison.

Larry Bernstein:
He had a junior position at JP Morgan.

Martin Gurri:
Yeah. He had been with Rothschild, he had been a minister for a couple of years, and his party had just been created literally months before the first election. So that doesn’t happen in France. Now, when he took over, he clearly took certain stands that were, in his mind, very centrist, but in the certain part of the public’s mind, much more like the old stuff that they didn’t want. I say, populism of France, the obvious expression of it was those yellow vest demos-

Larry Bernstein:
Before we get to the yellow vests, I want to get there for one second. So you’re absolutely right. I imagine this is almost inconceivable in the United States, that somehow a new party is created months before an election, and not only does it win the presidency, but it also wins a majority of the Congress. I mean, just mind boggling. But then when Macron comes to power, oh my God, it’s like he staffs the government with all elites, he himself is viewed as an elite from grade school. This is not Donald Trump, this is power with the elites, it’s an anti-populist party.

Martin Gurri:
But I have to say, in France-

Larry Bernstein:
And then when the yellow jackets show up, it’s like, “Who are these guys? And how dare they?”

Martin Gurri:
Right. Right. I mean, that’s exactly right. I mean, I became a very popular figure in France. I love France and I read French and badly speak it. But I mean, the French know their stuff. They feel like they are a very unique country and they don’t want anybody else to tell them what. They had no idea what was happening to them when the yellow vest struck. They started inviting me over, his party started inviting me over to talk to them, to explain what was going on because they had no clue. When you look at those yellow vest protests, if you look at their YouTube. I mean, it’s really fascinating.

I mean, they have these little songs where they go, “If you’re a rich hippie, you are a good guy. But if you are a plumber, you are a bad guy.” I mean, it’s the exact same thing that you see here in the United States with Trump, the idea that there’s this class of rich, successful, globalized, people who can work anywhere, that are running the show, that don’t even understand the language you’re speaking, much less give a hoot about what is important to you. And now they’re having equal problems because they have mishandled the whole COVID situation, pretty terribly.

Larry Bernstein:
Bill, I want to bring you back into the conversation. Two weeks ago, we had Charles Goodhart, and Manoj Pradhan talk about their new book, about Chinese demographics and how it will change the inflationary context of the world. And I asked the question about the future role of Africa and the future role of India, to bring online these billions of people into the world economy. And they were very pessimistic, and I think they were pessimistic because they thought that China was successful, was because they had top-down planning. And then India, because it’s democratic and chaotic, they would be unsuccessful at taking that next leap forward. And Africa would be a basket case because of the too many countries and a lack of property rights. How do you think about Chinese success as being a function of their top-down approach to problem solving, and in your framework, do you expect India to be successful or not?

Bill Easterly:
Yeah, so I think one of the greatest myths in economic development discussions is this idea of the benevolent autocrat. And we’re very much too quick to give credit for a dynamic economy to whichever autocrat happens to be presiding over it at the moment. The evidence, when you check that idea, doesn’t support that.

And so what is going on with China? I mean, what is the most important thing that happened with China, was the spread of economic freedom after Deng Xi Ping reluctantly let it open up in the late 1980s and continuing ever since then. Now partially reversed a little bit by Xi which of course coincide with the slowing down of growth. But the biggest story is simply that, that there was a massive expansion of economic freedom and the role of markets and the role of people choosing for themselves. And the massive increase in participation in the global economy and international trade. And what was the result is very rapid growth from the previous extreme poverty under a Stalinist central planning model, to a much greater level of prosperity under a market economy. That’s the big story and everything else pales by comparison with that.

Larry Bernstein:
So maybe Martin, just bring you in on the China top-down solution, here you have a group of elites trying to control, both the public information and how that’s disseminated. It seems in your framework that that sort of slow adaptation, centralized power is particularly at risk.

Martin Gurri:
Well, I mean, I don’t know what you mean by that. Explain a bit.

Larry Bernstein:
In other words, they have no ability to change their methods through elections. They’re desperately trying to both control information and prevent reforms. And all they can do is banish people off Facebook, but is that a loser? Can they control information? Can they control dissent?

Martin Gurri:
No and no. And I think one of the truly fascinating things is watching our elite, some of them, not that old. Some of these are gen X type leaders who essentially want to go back to the 20th century. They want nothing to do with the 21st. Within that group, I think, once again, I agree violently with what Bill said, there is this sneaky admiration for what the Chinese are doing. I don’t think this is necessarily people who want to overthrow the government and set up a similar system, I don’t see how you could, that system is so one-off, but there is, in little statements that are made about the Chinese are better at this, the Chinese, they’ve conquered COVID because Chinese COVID numbers, who the heck knows what they are. I mean, this is a country that essentially cooks the numbers on everything it does.

Martin Gurri:
But there is, to our own elite, this admiration of they think that they themselves, the Chinese, don’t have this fear of the public and can just point the gun and say do it. But the reality is when you look what’s happening in Hong Kong, is that even in China, there’s trouble with controlling the public when the public really wants to make a statement on the streets. I think what’s kept them going, is they have been tremendously successful economically. I have talked to many, many Chinese who hated the system, but told me things like, “Well, my grandfather lived with pigs in a hut and I’m going to Harvard, so why should I want to rock the boat?” But all it takes is for that economy to take a bad tumble and wait and see.

Larry Bernstein:
And Martin, do you have any predictions as to what your framework means for both the elites and governments? Does it mean that we’re going to see, you started with this, how fragile the Arab world was in terms of the Arab spring and how these long standing governments fell down. Do you see similar concerns among governments in Europe or other important allies of ours? Who is more at risk, the more open societies, the more closed ones? How do you think about that? Or do you think it’s going to be more of the same and that elites will just adapt to this revolt of the public?

Martin Gurri:
Once again, I will cite my new hero Bill Easterly and say, no, of course the open societies are much more flexible and much more adaptable than authoritarian governments. I don’t do predictions, again, citing the same person, we need to be humble about predictions. If you want to be wrong, make a forecast. However-

Bill Easterly:
It’s hard to be an expert in this world, when you’re being humbled, Martin. Not easy.

Martin Gurri:
Too true, too true. But I mean, I think the most important question that nobody seems to be asking right now is, okay, as I said, in 2019, we had, I mean, that wave, the cycle of protest that began in 2011 was cresting, just cresting. It was incredible to watch it. It was everywhere in the world and it was pretty powerful. And then we put this lid, this lid of a quarantine that is the most, as somebody said, the greatest and most thorough global quarantine in the history of the human race. And in about no more than a year plus, that lid is going to blow. It’s probably blowing already for all we know. And what’s the public going to want when it comes out? And I have no answer.

I mean, one possible possibility is that it’s going to come up with all the repressed anger, and frustration and rage and think, you people really messed up this COVID thing, and you’re going to get revolt on steroids. Equally possible, honestly, the way I’m feeling right now, which is, just giving my vaccine and I’m off to have fun. You get the roaring 2020s or something like that. I don’t know. But nobody seems to be asking this question, it is probably the most important one in politics today.

Larry Bernstein:
So we had Chris Arnade speak on the call in March and he said, “Oh my God, if we quarantine three generations of a family in a small living space, people are going to get hurt and there’s going to be an explosion. We’re getting a powder keg.” And then we had the black lives movement going on and there was a lot of demonstrations nationally and globally for that matter, on a variety of topics. Why do you think we heated up and then cooled back down?

Martin Gurri:
Yeah. Those things are very random. There is no specific … they are issues that lie dormant for years, and you can see that there are people trying to make a case out of them and nobody’s paying attention, and suddenly one thing happens. It’s like viral messages. You can make all kinds of rules about what makes a viral message, and I actually studied that and I studied it in CIA and afterwards, but then you can take those same damn rules and you apply them to probably a million other messages that didn’t go viral. So I can’t begin to tell you why that happened. All I can tell you is that the potential for that is simmering at a very high level of intensity, underneath that lid that’s been placed on COVID, whether it’s going to explode politically, whether it’s going to explode in party mode, and I would just want to get to work and make up all the money that I lost while this happened. Who knows? Who knows? But we should be thinking about it.

Larry Bernstein:
I think your point is like, who knew when the Arab spring started that it would be that fruit merchant in Tunis that would kick start this whole thing?

Martin Gurri:
Totally, totally true. I mean, that’s a perfect example.

David Edgerton:
Bill’s argument is essentially that the free market and people operating within it will come up with good information about development. But in the case of lots of new media in a free market and the media in many parts of the world, it seems to be throwing up very bad information, that’s to say it is … It seems a massive generation of fake news. I mean, is the answer that there’s something missing in Bill’s theory, or is it that in the United States and in western Europe and many other parts of the world we don’t in fact have a free media, and it’s quite wrong to see what we see on the internet as the product of the grassroots, and it’s rather the product of very particular interests who can control in many, many ways the kind of things that it appears.

In other words, is it partly the strength of the old media reproduced through new media, or is it new kinds of control of information using the new media?

Is populism not the right way to understand what’s been going on, but to say we have elite forces mobilizing particular segments of the population using old and new media.
Martin Gurri:
Yes, uh huh. That is a very comforting theory that the elites tell themselves, which is behind all this craziness, all these crazy people, there is an elite figure that’s manipulating it all. That’s very comforting to the elites. I have seen no evidence of that honestly. In cases like Donald Trump’s, obviously he’s out there stirring the pot. But most, including the people that support him, most of the movement that I’ve seen both with street protests and with the election of populists, these are bottom-up eruptions, and they have to do with precisely breaking the mold that the elites want to maintain very, very intact. But yeah, I hear this again and again, and I have people that … And there’s a lot of data on this, by the way. There’s a lot of data that for example the fake news in 2016 had … Was there any? Oh yeah, lots. Did the Russians meddle? I mean I’m CIA, of course they meddled. They always do. Did it change a single mind? I have seen no evidence of that, okay? I have seen no evidence of that.

The fact that things … And I would dispute the premise, which is that information is bad. There’s a lot of information out there. What’s missing is not good or bad. There’s lots of good information out there. What’s missing is authority. What’s missing is a person that we jointly turn to and that person says, or that institution obviously, says, “Okay, this is reality, this is the way we see truth right now.” We all say, “Okay, well that source has spoken, now we have agreed.” That’s what authority is. Truth is not some platonic form, and it’s not a gift from science. It’s basically something we see from an authority. When authorities have exploded, truth is up for grabs.

Bill Easterly:
Let me agree with my new friend Martin. If you’re worried about the problem of fake news, fake news has always been around and has always been horrible, most horribly, horrifically severe in authoritarian societies. If you want to look at places where hatred and conspiracy theories are rife, just look at any authoritarian society where journalists are in the pay of authoritarian elite actors. More freedom is the answer to better information. It’s not the problem, it’s the answer to better information.
Bill Easterly:
Let me also say something I think Martin will agree with. I think-
David Edgerton:
You’re disagreeing with each other. You’re not agreeing.

Bill Easterly:
We are disagreeing, okay. Okay. Whatever. I think elites actually make the problem worse by telling the public, “Here’s what I think, here’s what you should think.” We’ve gone from persuasion, which was the basis of freedom of speech, to dictation, this is what you should think. And that’s what causes elites to lose trust in the mainstream media sources, I think.

Martin Gurri:
If I could add one last thing. We spoke about France and the yellow vests. The leader of the ruling party there, En Marche, Macron’s party, was asked what’s going on, and he said, “I think our policies are too intelligent and too subtle for the public to understand.” That tells you everything you need to know.
Bill Easterly:
Yes, exactly. Yeah.


Martin Gurri — How Technology Changed the Battle Between Elites and the Public

Martin Gurri Transcript

Larry Bernstein:
The show is going to move to a completely different topic, and that is the role of experts and elites and their battle with the public. Our first speaker is going to be Martin Gurri, and we’re going to follow him with Bill Easterly right away. And then, we’re going to go to questions and answers with the two of them. Martin Gurri is a former CIA agent, who specializes in politics and global media. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and he is the author of the controversial book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Martin, please go ahead.

Martin Gurri:
Okay. I have six minutes. I’m going to give you six minutes of the chief predicament of a moment in history. Fortunately, you already know the symptoms. If you watch those strange looking people sack and loot the Capitol Building, you understand my theme. I’m talking about the eruption of public anger against the established order, against politics as they’re actually conducted, and against society as it actually exists. I’m talking about a conflict that pits the public, ordinary people, against the elites who manage the great institutions of the modern world, a conflict that is everywhere in society and global in scope.

In 2019, I counted at least 25 major street insurgencies around the world. What I found was remarkable was that these insurgencies struck at the poorest countries, Sudan, but also the wealthiest, France, in dictatorships like Algeria, but also in strong democracies, like Chile. The revolt of the public is not just about economic deprivation. It is not just a cry for democracy. So, what’s going on?

When I was a young analyst of global media at CIA, my job was pretty straightforward. The volume of open information was a trickle. Then, around the turn of the century, things went haywire. A digital earthquake propelled a tsunami of information in volumes that were unprecedented in human experience. And that’s not just a phrase. The information produced in 2001 doubled that of all previous history, going back to the dawn of culture. 2002 doubled 2001. This trajectory has continued. If you chart it, the line really does look like a gigantic wave, a tsunami.

Now, information has effect. It changes minds. As the tsunami rolled around the world, behind it, I could see ever increasing levels of social and political turbulence. This wave of trouble began to crash in 2011 with the sadly misnamed Arab Spring. In January, a young Egyptian, called Wael Ghonim, posted on Facebook an invitation to a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. One million users saw the invitation, 100,000 said they would attend. Three weeks after that initial protest, Hosni Mubarak, dictator for 30 years, was gone. Back to the question, what’s going on?

Evidently, digital platforms have allowed the public to leap on the political stage and become a leading actor there. But the public is many, not one. Online culture fractures opinion, like a fallen mirror. In the 20th century, radical groups wanted to conquer power so that they could impose a political program based on some ideology.

Today, the public is indifferent to power and openly rejects organization, leaders, positive programs, and coherent ideologies. It’s too fractured. They can unite and mobilize only in the act of repudiation. The public is always against. It strikes at the ruling institutions without offering alternatives. Pushing the logical conclusion, this descends to nihilism, the belief that destruction is a form of progress.

The flip side of the revolt of the public is a crisis of authority. The great institutions of the 21st century, government, media, and so forth, received their shape in the 20th. That was the heyday of the top-down, I talk, you listen model of organizing humanity. Turns out that for this model to be tolerated as legitimate, it has to enjoy a semi-monopoly over information in every domain. At that time, information was terribly scarce, which made it extremely valuable. The institutions that control the flow of information were vested with authority that they could tell ordinary persons, top-down, what the important public issues were, and often, how to think about them.

The information tsunami has simply swept away the legitimacy of this model. The elites who run the system are totally demoralized for good reason. They know that their every mistake, misjudgment, failed prediction, self-interested move, sexual escapade, will be exposed and talked about endlessly. The daily failure sets the information agenda.

One more symptom of this conflict is populism, the rise of politicians who exploit their hunger for repudiation for their own ends. Populists in Donald Trump are often portrayed as demagogues who manipulate a gullible public by means of, for example, fake news. I incline to the opposite theory. Populists are merely clubs in the hands of an angry public used to bash at the institutions. If they are unwilling or unable to play that part, they will be discarded, fake news or not. The revolt of the public, as I understand it, is aimed at the hierarchical structure of modern government. As such, without much regard to the political system, the public moves online at the speed of light, and can’t understand why the elites remain ensconced in their pyramids. There’s no question that government, in the digital age, can be flatter and faster, or that the elites have absolutely no intention of allowing this to happen. The consequences of this tectonic collision played out in Capitol Hill on January 6th, an almost laboratory perfect example of the revolt of the public interacting with our crisis of authority. Thank you.


G. John Ikenberry — the Next Liberal Order


John J. Mearsheimer — Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order


Robert D. Kaplan — the Ideology Delusion


Graham Allison — Thucydides Trap with China and How to Avoid It


Daniel Markey — Belt and Road Initiative Changes China’s Relationships with the Other States in Asiad


Rory Medcalf — How Australia, India, South Korea, Japan, and the United States Can Work Together to Contain Chinese Power