Ian Bremmer and Tom Nichols. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni.
Ian Bremmer and Tom Nichols. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni.

Ian Bremmer & Tom Nichols on Globalization, Populism, & American Politics

Jan 16, 2019

If populism is a reaction to a globalism that is viewed as unresponsive to the needs of citizens, can populism sustain any version of globalization? Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer and Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College discuss and debate this important question and much more.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the Carnegie Council. This is a continuation of a series of discussions that the U.S. Global Engagement program has been having over the last year dealing with the tectonic changes in American politics and how it relates to U.S. foreign policy. I am Nikolas Gvosdev. I'm a senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council, and I oversee the U.S. Global Engagement Program.

This conversation builds on two previous ones we had in 2018, which some of you here in the audience and some of you who are watching on the live stream have participated in. The first with Kori Schake and Colin Dueck, looked at the question of the extent to which American confidence in the political establishment has been shaken over the last decade and the implications that has for U.S. foreign policy. Then in the fall we had Asha Castleberry and Ali Wyne discussing the extent to which politicians and experts are able to link American foreign policy to so-called "doorstep" or pocketbook issues in making a case for why the United States should be involved in the world. All of this went into the interim report that was released by the U.S. Global Engagement Project this December on misconnecting with the American public, looking at the narrative collapse for American foreign policy.

In all of these discussions, there was an issue that we were circling around, and that was the question of populism, which not only in the United States but also throughout the industrialized world we've seen a resurgence of populist movements critiquing globalization, critiquing elites, and critiquing the status quo, certainly the post-Cold War status quo.

So it made sense to have as our third conversation two eminent public intellectuals, Tom Nichols and Ian Bremmer, both of whom have written very critical books over the last two years, Tom being the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, and then Ian Us Vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, which get at this heart of whether or not the populist critique has legs, whether or not populism provides a way out of the current political crises that beset the United States and other industrialized democracies, and is it possible to resuscitate the global system in which the United States plays a leading role, resuscitate it in a way that is more amenable to the populist critique but without losing the many benefits that the peoples of the world have enjoyed from globalization over the past 20 years.

Those of you who were up this morning may have seen a preview of this discussion on Morning Joe, where Tom and Ian got warmed up for today's session here, and so what I'd like to do is first give them an opening five to seven minutes of points from your book or anything that you'd like to bring up, and then we'll moderate back and forth. Particularly, I know that from the Morning Joe producers that they said you could have been on for another hour, but they had to cut you off, so certainly use this as a part two. If there were issues or questions or snarky comments you couldn't get in on the air, then feel free to do so now.

So, Tom, I think as the initial challenger, maybe we'll open it to you and the have Ian respond, and then we'll just go back and forth. So, Tom, the floor is yours.

TOM NICHOLS: I think mostly we're here to talk about Ian's work, but I'll start with first my admiration and then my criticism, which is that I felt very challenged by reading Ian's work. In part, as I said this morning when we were at the studio, I found it very affecting because Ian and I come from similar backgrounds. We're both kids from Massachusetts, we both grew up in working-class environments, we both kind of moved through education and the global opportunity society; all the good things that have happened over the 30 years we've been beneficiaries of that kind of system.

So I found it a deeply affecting work, and it did make me think very hard as someone who does not accept the critiques of globalism, who is not particularly friendly to the currently what I would say are fashionable attacks on the elites. In part, maybe I feel it's easier to do it because I don't feel myself to be one of those elites, even though people will say to me, "Well, you're educated, you're a professor," and all that stuff. But it's not my background, so I still feel like I'm a newcomer to that environment. But it made me think about some structural problems that are undeniable, and I think this was one of the real strengths that I took away and that Ian made me think very hard about, that there are just things that are happening in the world that are undeniable. We can talk about whether they're good or bad or whether we have to accommodate them or not, but they are real things that are actually happening in the world, things like growing income inequality, structural changes, the large tectonic movements in the economy.

My critique, and I will make this very brief and then hand it over to Ian for more discussion: I think that in all of the critiques of globalism and globalization—which I think Ian very wisely makes a distinction between; I think people use those interchangeably, and that's wrong—tend to focus on elite choices, and they tend to let the choices of the public off the hook.

For example, when we talk about how globalization created a middle class in Asia—I think at one point in your book you say something to the effect that the globalized economy created a middle class where there wasn't one. In the back of my head, I heard, "Or the inexhaustible thirst of American consumers for cheap electronics created a middle class in other countries."

We almost talk about this as though the elites among themselves agreed to create certain things, but this was actually powered by consumer choices and by people I would argue seeking a high, almost inflated standard of living. Now maybe that's partly age speaking. I'm in my late 50s, so for me it is still abnormal that every place is air-conditioned, which I love. But that's still new to me. That's an expectation people have.

I want to bring the masses back into this discussion because I think they bear a greater responsibility for some of the negative effects of globalization, more so than we've talked about. I suppose you could argue that it doesn't really matter who's to blame. This is where we are in 2019.

But if we're going to think about solutions, I want to make sure we're not trying to solve the wrong problems because I think a lot of our politics is not rooted in economically determined resentments that come from globalization but that are coming from other cultural aspects of globalization, which you do talk about in the book but that I think are something that we tend to leave aside in some of these discussions because they raise some very uncomfortable problems about the responsibility of the large group of people who do not identify themselves as the elite.

In this sense, I will do my best to take the unpopular position of defending the elites and trying to bring a little bit more of that responsibility back to the masses in this discussion.

Let me turn it over to Ian.

IAN BREMMER: I think it's right to talk about the problems first where we have a lot more agreement and talk about the solutions after this initial intervention where I think we have some fairly significant differences.

I'll start by saying I love Tom's work. The Death of Expertise was fantastic. If you're not following him on social media, you should. I find him one of the most engaging people intellectually out there willing to discuss a lot of this stuff. I also stand by my own pinned tweet very strongly, which is if you're not following people that you dislike or disagree with, you should, and I'm here to help. And here's a guy, we can have a conversation where we strongly disagree about some things and still have an awful lot of respect for each other, and I think we're losing a lot of that in our country right now. That's a very serious problem. So if this does nothing else but help show that these are useful conversations to have and that you can come away with healthy disagreements, with more respect for each other as opposed to less, then I think that's a good thing.

To be personal for just a second, it was funny. Tom said this morning that he actually really appreciated that I was somewhat autobiographical in my book, which I have never done before, but because this is an issue that kind of requires looking at who you are and how you relate to this stuff, and it's true that we come from similar backgrounds, but he had a house and I was in the projects, and his dad was alive and mine's dead, so I'm even worse. There you go. But arguably I'm much more of a self-professed elite right now a someone who has been to Davos 10 times and stuff, so I definitely also feel more complicit with elites in the present system, and I think that I should come clean about that in the sense that I think it's important to recognize where you are personally.

Tom said something this morning that I thought was very interesting, which is, "People don't read books anymore or articles without bringing some narrative about the author in advance." That's an unfortunate thing, but if it's true, we need to recognize and actually talk about it.

I guess I would say, I don't remember exactly how it came to light that we needed to have this debate aside from the fact that we clearly were engaged in some public pretty significant disagreement that was extremely mutually respectful, and everyone following it on Twitter was like, "You guys should have a debate because it's interesting."

I think I went off because he seemed to be blaming the people, the average human being like those I grew up with, for the structural problems in the country right now. My knee-jerk reaction to that was: "Wait a second. Really? You're really going to say that?"

I say that because let me accept completely that people need to do as much as humanly possible to take responsibility for their own successes, and people need to bootstrap. I'm all over that. Lord knows, that's how I grew my own career with my mother. She gave me every opportunity in a place where a lot of other kids did not have it. That matters a lot to me. So it speaks to me personally. But when I look at the level of inequality economically in the United States today compared to 40 years ago when my mom was just starting to raise me, I say: "Wait a second. Are we blaming these people for that level of inequality?" Like we all love the cheap stuff. I get it. We want to shop at Walmart.

But when you displace all sorts of workers it seems to me that it's the job of the government and the shareholders who are making the lion's share of the profits to ensure that those people who are displaced have more opportunities. We have to do that. And I absolutely say it's the elites' responsibility to do that.

I also believe that there are other factors that are driving these challenges that have very little to do with economics. We fought in Afghanistan on the back of enlisted men and women. I don't blame them for the fact that we got into that failed war. Or Iraq. I don't blame them. And if I were them or their family members or their communities watching them come back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or sometimes much worse, I'd be angry, and I think there's a reason why those families voted for Bernie Sanders and for Trump and not for Hillary Clinton or for Jeb. I fundamentally see that.

Furthermore, I would say that for me—I want to get into solutions, but in terms of the fundamental problem I see the growing ability of special interests in the United States to capture the regulatory process. I particularly see that with the strength of vested lobbies to prevent long-term policies that would obviously benefit the interests of the common good. This is very obvious when I look at social media and Facebook and other such companies that today I see as fundamentally opposed to the fabric of liberal democracy in their business models but that are not being effectively regulated by the U.S. government in my view, but I think that there have been many other examples of such companies historically in the United States, and the strength—I do think it's a pendulum.

I think Tom and I would both agree that there needs to be a healthy balance between personal responsibility and effective stewardship from the government and from the elites. What I am suggesting is that I fundamentally believe that in the United States and most other advanced industrial economies over the course of the past two generations that that pendulum, for many reasons that we can talk about, has swung way too far in the hands of elites, and that as a consequence has effectively captured a larger portion of the governance structure.

That's why for me, if you ask me where I place blame for the failure of globalism—and not globalization; I'm a huge adherent of globalization—the ideology that says that you, the average American citizen and voter should support free trade and open borders and the United States providing global security all over the world, why that has failed, I would probably place 70 or 80 percent or more of the responsibility of that on empowered elites. And I suspect Tom would say, "Actually, that's more like 80 percent on the back"—more?—90 percent—

TOM NICHOLS: No, no. You're right.

IAN BREMMER: I'm right.

TOM NICHOLS: Kind of flipping it around.

IAN BREMMER: Flipping it, around 80 percent on the back of the average person. I think that's the crux of the disagreement.

TOM NICHOLS: There's a couple of things because I think one of the things we found this morning is how much we agree, strongly in some areas, about the need for the elites, government and large corporate structures, to exercise some kind of social responsibility. I'm certainly not going to sit here and argue for—oh, and I think I'm supposed to remember to say that I don't represent the views of the Defense Department in any way.

IAN BREMMER: Which is good, given what you just said.

TOM NICHOLS: Given what I just said, right. So I'm not sitting here as a proponent of a completely unregulated, hypercapitalist system, which I actually agree with you I think we are swinging too heavily toward in some areas.

With that said, I think we're talking about two separate problems. The capture of the regulatory process by large corporations I think is a real thing. You and I could have a whole productive conversation about that. The misery of the middle or working class that is generating this populist anger I think is actually a separate problem. I don't link them in the same way that you do because I think in part that behavior is being driven by things that are not related to a global system.

One of the things—again, this is about Ian's book, but in my book one of the things I found was how much of that rage is driven by people believing things that just aren't true. People say: "We have to take care of our own here in America. We have to stop spending 25 percent of our budget on foreign aid."

And you tell people, "Look, we spend less than 1 percent on foreign aid," and the answer—and I think this is maybe one of the reasons I instinctively bristle at the critique of elites—is that when I correct people and I tell them this, they say: "Oh, that's not true. You're just one of those elites. You're just one of those elites pumping these fake figures and fake news."

I'm like: "No. This is the god's honest truth. We don't really spend . . . " Something between 5 and 10 percent of the people in this country think that we spend half our budget on foreign aid. The average person when taking a guess will peg it at somewhere between 10 and 25 percent. There is just nothing that the state or corporations can do about the fact that the average person thinks that we're spending like the entire GDP of California on foreign aid.

And they believe this I would argue because—the underlying problem that I wrestled with in my book was what I think is an epidemic of narcissism that encourages people to adopt a victim mentality, that they adopt a narrative of victimization that says, "My standard of living"—you and I had this discussion this morning. If you ask someone, "Are you happy generally with your standard of living?" Maybe. If you tell them, "By the way, your boss makes 10,000 times what you make," now their standard of living sucks because they're just mad.

I think some of that is generated through a villain I think we both identify, which is social media, even though we're both very active on social media. Facebook in particular I think is making people psychotic in some way, just believing things that are just not true.

I separate these two problems. I think the problem of greater regulation of capitalism and the externalities of globalization—which does produce environment problems; it produces shifts to cheap labor, all of those problems that you've identified—but I push back on the issue of globalism because the United States created a system of trade and cooperation and peace—and this is the other thing about failed wars, but not World War II, not the Cold War, not the world I grew up in—that was to our benefit, responded to us, acknowledged us as its leader, and we were more than happy to reap all the benefits of that for 50 years. And now we have people again believing that the NATO is this fantastically expensive thing that we buy and that our allies are just a bunch of freeloaders. I think this is just poisonous, and it responds to people believing what they want to believe.

I'll just finish with this, because this is the question I would always ask when it comes to solving this problem. If I were to go to Ohio or Indiana or West Virginia or Kentucky tomorrow and say: "Look. You win. We're going to do things your way. The cultural revolution is complete. We've sent the professors to the fields to pick potatoes"—one of the reasons I've never been comfortable with the whole idea—"but what is it you want? Tell me what you want me to do now that will fix this." And I think the answer will always—as it always will with this kind of nation populism—come back to: "Tax everybody I hate, and build big things in my hometown that will put me to work for a while."

Well, that's not an answer. I think that's where I—again I kind of push back and say, "Yes, there have been people who have been victimized by change."

The first thing I ever did in politics was in 1980 working on closing the biggest employer in my hometown, a tire factory. It put 4,000 people out of work. It was an absolute dagger to the heart of my hometown.

On the other hand, I think there are a lot of behaviors—drug addiction, out-of-wedlock births, chronic unemployment—that really are not related to globalism or globalization and are related to unvirtuous habits of the American voter that we have conveniently offloaded onto foreigners, elites, treaties, and other things.

IAN BREMMER: So like in any good debate, there's an awful lot to agree with in what Tom just said. For example, do I believe that popular opinion on facts are widely, almost libelously, stupid in many issues. You talked about foreign aid. I see this with numbers of Muslims living in your country. Those numbers are off wildly. Like in France, people think that 33 percent of the country is Muslim. Where do you think you're hiding these Muslims? It's just not true. People get fundamental facts wrong all the time.

First of all, how much of that is the responsibility of those individual people as opposed to those who are actually pushing those sorts of facts on them through social media? That's another question.

But before we get to responsibility, there is a very big difference with the idea that a set of people is legitimately aggrieved about something and the very separate idea that they have really good ideas that should be implemented in how to fix it. Those are two very different things which Tom has conflated I think unfairly.

The Palestinians as a people are very legitimately aggrieved about a lot of stuff including, by the way, by their own government, but also by the Israelis and by the Europeans and the Americans, you name it, and they've got legitimate grievances. I really wouldn't like to see Hamas, legitimately elected in Gaza, be in charge of implementing the right policy responses to how to fix that.

Nelson Mandela was a fantastic, unique, once-in-a-lifetime human being for South Africa. He was legitimately aggrieved in a personal way that Tom and I can never even imagine, given what we've been through. And yet, he was willing to actually do everything possible to try to make sure that they didn't go after with pitchforks the professors and the others. But now you look at what's happening in South Africa a few decades later, and you see Julius Malema and you see the youth movement and the rest, and you say: "Actually, my god, these people do not have the solutions. They want to go in a Zimbabwe direction. That would be horrifying." And yet they're legitimately aggrieved.

My book is not trying to argue that we should let the people who are legitimately aggrieved, who clearly have a lot of their facts wrong, and are comparatively easily manipulated—my mother read the National Enquirer every week; it was part of how I learned to read. And if you asked her about policy facts, she was horrifying. But she did know something that was fundamentally true, and that fundamental truth was that she had to take care of her two kids and give us opportunities because you know what? The elites were going to screw her. They said that they cared about us, but they didn't really. They didn't really.

I think that's a fundamental truth that holds for Brexit; it holds for Trump; it holds for Sanders; it holds for the gilets jaunes, the yellow vests in France; it holds for the Italians; and all the rest.

To start talking about some actual solutions—I don't know if we can agree to disagree on this or not.

TOM NICHOLS: You took one rhetorical off-ramp that I'm going to just flag an objection to, which is that we're talking about people who are legitimately aggrieved. I am going to push back here and say that part of my argument is that they are not legitimately aggrieved.

IAN BREMMER: I know. That's right. That's part of the argument which I disagree with.

TOM NICHOLS: For several reasons. First, because the things that aggrieve them are not true, that there are things about which they are enraged that simply are not factually correct, and if you correct them, they tell you that they are going to hold onto that belief anyway because that is an important part of how they manage their lives.

The other reason is I think—at least in the United States; I think where it comes to other cultures I'm going to leave this aside because I'm not a Palestinian—there are a lot of Americans who believe they are aggrieved when what they are really suffering from is a sense of relative deprivation that they have acquired through spending far too much time living in the homes of other people through social media and Internet communication where we have taken the expectation of a standard of living—and I'm not talking about people in Appalachia, I'm talking about middle-class people like my friend we talked about earlier today, who tells me as he's sitting in his swimming pool or on his boat how the world has really done him dirty. I find that really unsettling, to have people talk that way because they have come to internalize that notion that somehow they have been deprived.

There's one other thing I would say: There are people who are legitimately aggrieved—and this is where I think we can dovetail back into solutions. If there are people living in Kentucky, where the coal is running out in a mountain and the world is not going to coal, I think simply saying to them: "Well, you're out of luck. That's the way it went." I don't think a compassionate society does that.

On the other hand, I think a compassionate society also does not come to them and say: "You know what? Your grievances are completely legitimate. Coal's the future, and we're going to keep doing this." We have to find our way out of that cul-de-sac of trying to constantly respond to things that are not solvable.

I'll leave you with this, which is an anecdote I've always used to talk about the death of expertise. The people I'm talking about are the people who are furious and want you to call their congressman and want their member of Congress to repeal Obamacare, but they want them to keep the Affordable Care Act. When the elites are confronted by those kinds of choices, they say: "You know, we can't get a rational demand signal out of the public, so we're going to just keep doing the things we do." And I do think it is the public's responsibility to send better signals for what they want.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Tom, before we have you resume the lima bean harvest, as we move to solutions, a couple of themes I just want to bracket, and then you can take it or move on. One is this question of trust—trust in sources, trust in elites, trust in governments. What happens when that trust is ruptured? How is it repaired?

Something that you were talking about that touched on the working group we did in Stamford, which is the generational question, that people who have grown up with the benefits of globalization think of it like air. People of a previous generation who didn't expect that you could just simply fly to Bali at the drop of a hat see that, well, you might need to invest more in this, and so the question is, do we need to go through a period of deprivation again, or Tom, you used the metaphor of touching a hot stove, before people gain an appreciation.

Finally, this question of the broken social contract, because Ian, especially one of the things I think this really touches back on—and it goes back 20-some years to the Clinton administration—which are the broken promises about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and free trade, which is that the winner is committed to saying, "There will be losers, and we will take care of the losers," and then somehow, well, we're not going to do it.

Again, as you start thinking about solutions, how much of these issues of trust, winners and losers, and whether or not people have to be deprived of the benefits of globalization to appreciate the system, if any of that is relevant to what you're going to do in our last segment. If not, just go where you'd like to go.

IAN BREMMER: There is no question that all of what you just raised is at the heart of how you respond to this challenge, the feeling that we no longer trust these elites. They have facts, but their facts are being used against us. Their fancy facts on Brexit: "That Brexit bust. Did anyone really believe it?" No, what they really believed I think is that no matter what, these elites—Labour or Conservative, CEOs and financial institutions, mainstream media and professors—all may have had all of their facts, but no matter what the outcome somehow it wasn't going to come to them, and I am deeply sympathetic to the idea as Tom suggests that a lot of these people are aggrieved over things that are not so, and I am absolutely willing to throw Tom a bone and say that a lot of that is on them, and we need more social responsibility.

We talked this morning about the fact that, like how did you stop people from smoking cigarettes? Some of it was hectoring. Some of it was a sense of, "That's just not okay," and doing that within families and doing that within communities. It doesn't all have to be regulated.

But when you have companies that are doing everything they can to make cigarette smoking look cool—


IAN BREMMER: —to kids, and when they try to suppress data that says that you will die if you actually—and you'll be very expensive before you die, now we see that we've changed the regulatory environment in the United States, and the problems have largely gone away on this one issue while in emerging markets you haven't changed it, and the problems are disastrous for them.

I fully accept the idea that part of the solution must be on the fact that ethics matter, and those ethics matter personally. They matter within the family. I'm not in any way suggesting that Tom is wrong that we suddenly wash our hands of responsibility for other people. This is not just a paternalistic solution.

But let me give you the beginnings of one thing. I'm really interested in how you think about it.

I think about the quality of commercial airline travel in this country, which is a fricking disaster, right? And the reason it's a disaster is because over the past 20 years everyone that could afford to have better plane travel and was in the front of the plane and had loud voices and had influence politically and made sure that if things didn't go well they would bitch about it are now basically flying private, either themselves or they've got options, they do the net share, the NetJets. As a consequence, the people who are left who are flying through your basic terminal in Newark and LaGuardia is everybody else. It's the aggrieved masses.

We have by far the best educational system in the world if you can pay for a great private school all the way, K-12 and Harvard, too. But do not tell me that when you take all those people out of the system that I would be much better with no paternalism at all as long as we had the same access and the same system for everybody. Because then the elites would actually have some accountability for fixing the system that all the other poor bastards have to suffer with.

But instead what we have is a whole bunch of wealthy people taking them out of the system and then saying, "What are you complaining about?" Not okay.

We've got one system in this country, and that really bothers me. When you have a group, the most powerful people in the county, opting out and saying, "Well, we'll just take care of ourselves, you didn't build that, this was all me," my response is, "We need a regulatory response to that."

TOM NICHOLS: That was a very clever device of pitching airline travel and education because I think education and airline travel are quite different.

IAN BREMMER: They are different.

TOM NICHOLS: Now, as anybody here knows, if you're watching me on the live stream, I have some thoughts about airline travel.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You're not taking your shoes off, are you?

TOM NICHOLS: Everybody leave their shoes on. I have flown in the front. I've flown in the back. At the time deregulation happened, only about 15 percent of American adults had been on an airplane, had taken a commercial flight.

AUDIENCE [off-mic]: Really?

TOM NICHOLS: Really. We're talking the 1970s.

After deregulation, now, about 85 percent of American adults have flown a commercial flight, and I wish they wouldn't. Because people fly—again, it's a discretionary thing now. Why do you fly? Because you can. And then people complain about it. They say: "The seats were so small. I had to take my shoes off and do yoga." To me, the hell of airline travel is other people, and I can't opt out of the system.

But I think what's lost in this is this country, rich or poor, people fly like it's nothing, like at the drop of a hat. I was coming back from Ireland. Of course, anecdotes are not data, but I'm going to tell this story anyway. The guy behind me was horrendously hungover, and I knew this because he kept saying it to the guy sitting next to him.

I'm listening to this conversation. He says: "Yeah, I was in Berlin. I was partying for a weekend."

And they're talking. "So what do you do?"

"I'm a grad student. I'm a grad student in Boston."

He said, "What were you doing in Berlin?"

He said: "It's cheap. I decided to go see some friends and party for a weekend."

Well, all of us here have been to graduate school—the idea of taking a weekend off of graduate school and getting totally loaded in Berlin for three days was completely unaffordable. But with cut-rate airlines and deregulation, a graduate student can say: "You know what? I'm going to go to Berlin. I'm going to go to an Airbnb or I'll flop with a friend. I'm going to go out and party."

Things like destination weddings, going to Bali. One of the things I raised in one of our Internet discussions; going to Disney World used to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Now it's a frequent-flyer program.

I'm willing to shift the discussion over to education, but when you're talking about the discretionary use of something that we once considered a luxury that people now consider a right, this is part of the problem I'm talking about, where people talk about air travel isn't pleasant enough, and I feel like I'm on the verge of that old Louis C.K. bit about, "And yet you flew in a chair that went into the sky."

But with education, I think yes, I think as with everything in a democracy the ability of the wealthy and the educated to opt out at will is a problem. That becomes a problem of fundamental freedom. Because I've been on both sides of that. I lived in a town for a while where I opted out of the public school system with my daughter, who now goes to a public school. I think there's an issue here about—I chose as a teenager to stay where I was and go to a public school. My parents wanted to try to give me some other opportunity. It would have been difficult to afford, all the of the problems you know about. And I think I was better for it. I mean, I'm glad I went to a public school. I think that's really important. These community organizations—like schools, like the military, like fraternal organizations—are all parts of how we all learn to live with each other.

On the other hand, I'm uncomfortable telling people, "You have to be the person who leavens this bad situation by being the good person. You, the person of good habits and diligence, have to make sure that your children are there to leaven this otherwise, to balance out the bad decisions of a lot of other parents who simply were not as conscientious as you were."

The word that you just used is one you and I talked about as we spilled out onto 49th Street this morning, which is "paternalism." I think this is a case where I would tell the masses: "Be careful what you wish for. The elites can solve a lot of these problems, but you might not like the way it's done because it does come down to some paternalistic"—I like the smoking analogy because I think we found a really good balance between a careful hand of regulation, taxing cigarettes out the wazoo. I'm all for sin taxes. I love those. But also a personal responsibility issue of, "I don't want you smoking in here." It's just a bad habit.

But I worry because populist movements—and I understand; you're not asking them for solutions, but I feel like the problem we're wrestling around here is the solutions we keep circling back to are very forceful solutions. Particularly given the country we live in now—the president gravitates toward: "I can fix things by executive power. I will reorganize things on a large scale." If you can do that for one group of people, you can do it for another group of people, and I think that kind of social warfare is really an invitation to chaos. I want to find a better solution.

I guess the one broad place we can agree is we do need to find a solution. I'm just not sure what road we want to go down to find those solutions because there are real problems.

IAN BREMMER: We've talked a little bit around the social media problem. We haven't talked about the broader technology problems, that if you think we lost a lot of jobs and displaced a lot of jobs with globalization and free trade—again, which both of us agree is a system that we would have done again if we could, right? It would be hard to stop even if you—the idea that you couldn't stop it is not true. You could stop it. We may be on a road toward stopping it. We can discuss that if you want.

But technology is going to displace a lot more people, a lot more jobs. I do think there is a major danger—and this is one of the reasons that I really wrote the book—that when you disentangle labor and capital the likelihood that those people suddenly find large percentages of the population dispensable becomes really high.

Again, let me use the Israel-Palestine example. Netanyahu, who probably should be in jail for local corruption issues, is about to win another election, and he's going to win another election because he has allowed the Israeli people to truly believe that they don't need to resolve a damn thing with the Palestinian issue because it doesn't affect them, because the Palestinians have become dispensable. They're not a threat, they're not an issue, they can't come over, they don't need the labor. Boom. Even though, right across the border in Gaza, 50 percent unemployment, 40 percent absolute poverty. Like not acceptable. And I don't think Israelis are bad people. I just think that when you live with that situation long enough you need to dehumanize to a degree. I think Trump gets that. You've got to dehumanize the "Them."

I worry that as we start having technologies that truly displace large percentages of folks who used to have things they could do, that were meaningful, that if we don't come up with some paternalist responses—and yes, they're not responses that the populists are calling for themselves. I don't really care who's calling for them, but I want a social contract that works for these people because I do not want in our own society to have people go the way that horses did when we invented the steam engine. We don't care as much about them.

As human beings, I think we're fundamentally good people, but when you put us in positions where we need to start engaging cognitive dissonance, we do, and we make all sorts of justifications. Tom's like: "I'm not going to tell that person that they're going to have to behave differently just because these poor people get screwed. I'm going to let them send their kids to a private school."

Well, you get enough of that behavior, enough of that understanding, and suddenly you have a whole bunch of people who aren't going to have opportunities. We need to find a way to ensure that all of these people who are about to get very seriously displaced have universal ongoing training, and if they say they don't want to spend that money on education, I don't really care. I'd mandate that.

Mike Bloomberg didn't care that people said, "I want to be able to buy my really large drink."

He's like: "You know what? We're paying for way too much type II diabetes and obesity. I'm just going to tell you that's stupid. And by the way, you don't even really want that, but when you're being told by these very powerful soft drink companies all the time that this is the way to go, and when they super-sized you just a little bit more every year and you don't really notice it"—we were perfectly happy with smaller drinks before and now we're not.

What changed? "Is it really because we became a decadent society?" Tom was asking me today?

TOM NICHOLS: Decadence, yes.

IAN BREMMER: Is it that? Or is it that actually the companies in unfettered ways are lying?

When I see social media executives tell their kids, "You're not allowed to have a Facebook account, you're not allowed to use a smartphone," but their job and their business model is going around telling everyone else how they should be on it all the fricking time, that's not okay. That requires paternalism to destroy that business model.

Let's be clear. Again, on smoking we did do a compromise, but that compromise destroyed the business model of those companies in the United States. Destroyed it, right? I'm okay with that.

Look. If you've got a business model that fundamentally hurts the American people, I want you out of business. I'm prepared to say that.

TOM NICHOLS: I think one place—just to give an example of bringing folks into the conversation that again, we kind of spilled out into the street his morning—we probably agreed is we would probably both stop subsidizing corn manufacturers.

IAN BREMMER: Absolutely.

TOM NICHOLS: Because we're just subsidizing all this corn which has to get turned into corn syrup, which is just sugar, which has to go into stuff. You got to put it somewhere.

I'm all for saying: "Look. People need to make good, nutritious choices. One of the ways I can do that is by not making corn syrup unbelievably subsidized and cheap so that we're basically like aerosoling it into the population." I can totally agree with that.

Actually, another place I think we probably agree: On some of these jobs that are going to be put out of business where entire groups of people—again, I'll go back to coal. I would be perfectly happy with just buying out, taking part of our national income and just buying out everybody involved in coal. Part of the problem I think is that the people who dig coal are going to say: "No, no. I want to dig coal, and I want my children to dig coal." And at some point then I'd become as paternalistic as you do, where I say, "Well, no," that we're done with that.

IAN BREMMER: I told Mike Bloomberg that. Compromise here. Bloomberg just goes, doesn't run for president, instead just buys all of the remaining coalfields in the United States, turns them into national parks somehow, and retrains the workers who don't have jobs anymore.

But he could do that. It doesn't have to a government solution. But it's really paternalistic.

TOM NICHOLS: Okay. But it's also a market solution.

IAN BREMMER: Would you prefer private sector paternalism? It's not a market solution. It's a billionaire. It's not exactly a market solution.

TOM NICHOLS: A billionaire buys all the coalfields. I'm almost more comfortable with that than the government doing it, but I can be convinced on this because I'm not one of these—I think a lot of people on the conservative right have gone from limited government to anti-government anarchists that I don't really understand anymore.

But your cautionary tale, you were talking about Israel. My cautionary tale is Greece. I'm part Greek. I was in Greece back in the 1990s with my dad. My father was not an educated man. He had a 10th-grade education and a GED. But he was sitting with our Greek relatives. Now, this is in the 1990s. This is right after Greece enters the European Union, and my father is sitting across the table in this taverna in rural Greece where we're from and he's saying, "This cannot last."

He's talking to my family. He's saying: "Retiring at 39 is not sustainable, this level of expenditure. Your economy is going to collapse. The Germans will bail you out." This today would sound like he had written a book on globalization. My dad's answer to that would be: "No, it's arithmetic."

IAN BREMMER: So I have a question for you on this.

TOM NICHOLS: But the reaction from our family was: "You Americans. You think everything's so complicated."

IAN BREMMER: So what percentage of the responsibility for the unsustainability of Greece are the German and other Euro bankers who continue to support plowing money into what they know is a completely unsustainable economy at interest rates that make absolutely no sense given the fundamentals, but they're making a ton, and they're the ones who get bailed out in the end while the Greeks take the worst depression in the 20th century?

TOM NICHOLS: You're talking to the wrong guy, because my whole argument against the European Union 30 years ago was Greece, that creating a European Union with a common currency and a common economics base—I said, "Germany and Greece in the same economic space, this isn't going to work."

I was not an anti-EU guy. I suppose as a younger conservative I didn't like big transnational organizations, but I've also—this was being a former Russia person, as we all are here, I thought anything that creates peace and stability of the whole of Europe was something I encouraged, so I believed in European institutions, NATO, the European Union, and so on.

But you're not going to get me to defend endless bailouts of the basket cases of Europe. My problem was that those countries were already—bring it back to the P word, to populism—these were countries that already had unsustainable economic models that were headed for trouble that shouldn't have been going down this road in the first place, and the question is, who's to blame?

Sure. I've had a colleague of ours who is Greek who has been in this institution many times, we have this discussion. He says: "Well, you know. They didn't really understand or they didn't"—

I said, "No." The problem is that—again, this is the argument that all the masses got hoodwinked by the elites. My argument is, "Or you could argue they all thought they'd be the last person to sit down before the music stops and get a chair."

So who's to blame? I think there's a great symbiosis of blame here—


TOM NICHOLS: —between the elites, who said, "I can deliver all this completely imaginary stuff" and the masses who said, "I'm electing you to deliver all this imaginary stuff." I think that all of this represents a kind of failure of civic adulthood in some way.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Let me just go ahead and just return to Ian and give you the last word to wrap up the formal part so we will stay on schedule. Is there anything you want to respond to Tom, and then you have the last word.

IAN BREMMER: Okay. I was thinking about this fantastic book that I read recently, I think it's called The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by a [Stanford] historian, Scheidel. It's basically looking at societies and governance from the Stone Age right to today. No matter what the type of society, whether it was feudal or whether it was pre- or post-industrial, whether it's a democracy or an authoritarian state, what you find is that inequality in all of these systems structurally over time increases with the exception of when you have pandemics, state failure, or war. In other words, people in systems, particularly large and complex systems, no matter what the rule set is, if they're close to power, they find a way to ensure that they maintain their proximity to power, pass it on to their kids, and have more of it.

The stat that I find most disturbing in the United States today is that the United States, a better indicator for how wealthy you are today is the wealth of your parents. That is a better indicator in the United States than it is in any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) economy in the world. That type of lack of social mobility is not what America was built on, and it deeply worries me that we've moved in that direction.

So again, as Tom has said, all sorts of responsibility to go around, but I think that if you take an honest look at where the United States is today compared to where it was when Tom and I were kids, the fact is that the American Dream is more distant for the average American than it was then, and that's something that I believe we need to take more responsibility to in responding.

That was the reason I wrote the book, and I felt complicit in large part because I thought about writing it in 2009 with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I didn't write it. I didn't write it because I said to myself: "You know, this movement's going away. No one's going to care. No one's going to read the book," which was analytically true. If "ethics matter," it was a really bad reason not to write a book.

So I kind of feel like it's my job to sit up here with Tom and engage and talk about these things now, and I know that Tom feels the same way, which is why this was such a fun thing to do.


QUESTION: I'd like to have a clearer definition of "elite."

IAN BREMMER: I wrestle with this. On the one hand, elites, party of Davos, small group of ultra-wealthy people who truly have the ability to move the needle in terms of having real access to power, the senators, the heads of state, the regulators who have the ability to capture. That's one definition of elites, a very small one.

I don't believe that that's really what we're getting at. I think we're really getting at roughly the top 10 percent. Franklin Foer wrote that extraordinary article in The Atlantic about the people who have the ability to benefit from guilds, the people who have the ability to take advantage of the "great sort" that's happening in the world, to be on the right side of the walls, to make sure that the lead poisoning and the other issues that would affect the broad society don't affect them, don't affect their kids, that have the ability to pass on their connections in ways that are useful, get the internships, that kind of thing.

This is very personal for me. When I went to Tulane I went there because—I'm a public school kid, Catholic high school—Tulane gave me a full scholarship. And I thought: That's awesome. Eight thousand bucks a year for me to spend this money, plus I'm not going to have to pay anything. What a great opportunity. I had no idea that it almost was the end of the road for me because the job fair was crap, none of my professors had any connections to any of the Ivy schools, the good Ph.D. programs, anything like that.

They moved mountains for me, and it almost didn't work. And that was for someone who was really trying to figure out every angle. You take 5 percent away from that, and I'm not getting to what I'm doing right now. It's just not happening.

And I'm thinking to myself: Wow. It wasn't because my grades weren't any good. It wasn't because I don't know how to communicate. I had those two basic skills. I just didn't have the connections. I literally didn't have anyone who was in a position of being a gatekeeper.

So, for me, elites are people who have direct access to gatekeepers. When you talked about trust, Nick, I think this is a really interesting point. People who do or don't trust institutions or elites I think you could define very well by people who do or do not have access to gatekeepers. If you don't have access to gatekeepers, your level of trust and belief in the legitimacy of the system falls off a fricking cliff. For me, that's a definition.

TOM NICHOLS: Or maybe to add to that definition because I don't really disagree with you that much, there's also—I think of elites as people who have enough autonomy to control a lot of the outcomes in their lives. As someone who went from—Ian was definitely poorer than I was, maybe one paycheck away from disaster; my family was maybe two or three paychecks away from, a gray-collar family.

But as I got older and more educated and progressed further in my career, I gained more and more of a sense of autonomy and being able to control the outcomes that I care about. And I can tell you that when I encounter outcomes that I can't control and I feel powerless, that really makes me anxious. I remember back to a time earlier in my life when I felt that way all the time.

On the other hand, I think when you see kids like us who were kids and then transitioned, class transitions, we wrestle with two—and I'm not going to speak for Ian—I think in general we will wrestle with two different feelings. One is, "There but for the grace of god, holy crap, it was such a near-miss thing, right, Tulane, but I made it."

I had the same experience. At the last minute I was given a scholarship for my graduate education because I was out, I was done, I was beaten, bankrupt, the whole thing. And I always think, Wow, near-miss.

On the other hand, you also come back from this background and say, "Boy, if I did it, a lot of people can do it," and sometimes unfairly because you need innate talent, you need family, you need someone who cares about you. We both had moms who said: "Get out of here. Go do something."

So I think of elites as people not with a lot of money or education but people who definitely have a lot more autonomy over their lives. This is where I think Ian and I are probably in very strong agreement. I think of elites as people who have that autonomy, and we have a social responsibility to exercise it on behalf of people who don't.

AUDIENCE: What about luck?

TOM NICHOLS: What about luck? Luck, yes. When we bring up the issue of luck, I guess this is where I take a third son of Massachusetts who was much more privileged than we were, John F. Kennedy, to say, you know, life isn't fair. There are people sometimes who make it into positions of great power through dumb luck—I speak of no one in particular right now, of course—and also people of great talent who I've seen plowed under the ground through just bad luck.

IAN BREMMER: I think access to gatekeepers makes you much luckier.

You may also like

<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Protest_against_U.S._military_attacks_in_Syria_(33919232325).jpg">Protest against U.S. military attacks on Syria, April 2017</a>. CREDIT: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons

DEC 5, 2018 Article

Misconnecting with the U.S. Public: Narrative Collapse and U.S. Foreign Policy

For the past year, the U.S. Global Engagement program has focused its attention on the continuing strengths and weaknesses of the narratives that can ...