The Doorstep: Opportunities for New Narratives in Foreign Policy, with Judah Grunstein
January 13, 2022
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nikolas Gvosdev, senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, co-host also here of The Doorstep, welcoming you to 2022. Or is it 2021? I don't know. I feel like it's Groundhog Year. We're going to talk about is it not or is it not Judah Grunstein, editor-in-chief of World Politics Review, in a minute. Did things change or did they stay the same? Are we optimistic or are we pessimistic?
All of us will get to hear him in a minute, but I wanted to mention—because I think this is a super-interesting story that everybody forgot about—that in October the Pandora Papers came out talking about offshore, all the money offshore, and all the hidden money that politician billionaires are hiding and using it to manipulate foreign and domestic policy, which is what we talk about here at The Doorstep, how the world impacts you.
Our first Book Talk is January 24 and I want to mention Casey Michel, author of American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History, is going to be talking with us about—prescient—the Pandora Papers and a look about how money is flowing and impacting the United States, how wealthy people hide their money.
You know what I found, Nick? A 2006 column from The National Interest that I wrote, "Billionaires Without Borders," that talked about this issue. So I just want to say we were ahead of the game in 2006—
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, we were.
TATIANA SERAFIN: —talking about money and the way money flows, and I think that we shouldn't forget about that.
I know today the new figures on inflation came out. It is the highest in 40 years. I know I'm feeling it. I think you're probably feeling it. We will talk to Judah about how that looks and what the impact is around the world in a second, but I think that is one of my most important stories that was big and forgotten in three seconds from 2021 that we are going to bring back in a couple of weeks in our Book Talk, so please watch this space to sign up.
I don't know if you have a 2021 story that you feel has been neglected, Nick, that we need to talk about in 2022. Do you?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Not really. I think that more it's just the sense of, as you said, it's a Groundhog Year, and things that were not resolved in 2021 are spilling over into 2022, including the dark side of globalization, which I know that Judah will be addressing as well, and paying attention to changes in narrative in how we are viewing the world.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Let's go to Judah now.
Welcome back to The Doorstep, Judah. Thanks so much for coming in and helping us understand what's going on with the world.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me. I feel it's a real honor to be the first guest of the year and to have this responsibility to sort of go out on a limb and make some predictions. We'll see. I feel like I did pretty good last year.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Let's see. Let me remind everybody of your predictions.
We had our "Aha!" What is our "Aha!" for the year? I think there are some people who are optimistic (myself) and some people who are a little more pessimistic (Nick)—but Judah, you talked a lot about that there was a real opportunity for the United States to engage in the world at the beginning of last year. Do you think that promise has been fulfilled? I ask this specifically because the World Politics Review today had this question: "How do we preserve Washington's global leadership role at a time when its model of governance is increasingly called into question?"
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: That's actually from the column that I wrote on Monday.
I guess the easy answer is that "engaged in the world" is sort of value-neutral. Clearly, I think that the Biden team has very much engaged in the world. It seems to me that they have had, I'd say, a much more proactive and active first year in office than I anticipated.
I think they did do well to take some months in the beginning to reengage, reopen channels of communication, and things like that, with partners, to take the measure of adversaries and rivals. So I think there was a moment of if not hesitation then reflection, which I think some people were impatient with because, after the four years of Trump, there was this sense of We have to get going right away. I felt like that was relatively prudent.
And then, I feel like there was an initial round of diplomacy with allies that was pretty productive in terms of smoothing over some of the rough edges that had been left by the Trump administration.
The initial diplomacy with Russia as well I felt was again prudent, trying to essentially establish the frameworks of what the Biden team was hoping for and expecting, but also where its red lines might be. I thought that was effective.
I was a little surprised, I'd say, by the time it took to engage with China in terms of the leadership level. There was that first very rocky and volatile meeting in Alaska, which I think caused some sparks and had a lot of people, I guess, expecting the worst. I don't think we quite had the worst. I feel like the Biden team perhaps didn't have a choice, but it took longer than I expected to get to the leader-level summit, which we saw more recently. I guess also some of those Trump-era trade tariffs and things like that really have not even begun to be addressed. That was the big surprise for me.
I think something that a lot of people were surprised by, but myself less so because of the time I have spent in Europe and keeping a close eye on Trans-Atlantic relations, was some of the bumps in the road in terms of trans-Atlantic relations. I think there was an expectation definitely in Europe, and I think in the Atlanticist community on both sides of the pond, that there would be not just a honeymoon but an extended period of cooperation, smooth communication, and a real reparation of the damage that Trump did.
My feeling is that that was always a little unrealistic because of the depth and breadth of some of the differences in trans-Atlantic policymaking and that there is always this sense, especially with Democratic presidents, of "Finally someone who likes us, who appreciates us, who appreciates our way of doing things—multilateralism, diplomacy, etc.," and then there is always this big surprise when they realize that the president of the United States is actually the president of the United States and when U.S. interests take priority, the president will always go after those first. I think we saw that with Aukus, for instance, and the Afghanistan withdrawal, which I think was a pretty courageous move and I think the long-term wise one, even though there have been some awful humanitarian consequences from it.
To wrap up, it's sort of a wide range. The gaps I would say so far—and I think they're trying to address them—would be:
Southeast Asia would be a prominent gap. There has been actually some diplomatic movement there and engagement there, so that might be a little unfair, but maybe with less results than maybe one would have expected. The Quad in South Asia and Asia-Pacific seems like there is more momentum there.
I would say Latin America and South America in particular, there has been a real absence of urgency, and I think that there are quite a few urgent matters on the table there.
And then, I think that, sadly, as always, Africa takes a backseat, and I think wrongly so, because of how many exciting opportunities are there, how much upside potential there is, and how critical it is becoming in terms of the global economy, in terms of the future demographically, in terms of demographic dynamics, and things like that. I think that's a real missed opportunity, but it is a historic one for the United States.
That would be my round-the-globe summing up. But I do think it was a very active year, and I think, especially given the institutional damage done by the Trump administration to the State Department in particular and a lot of the blockages on nominations for ambassadors and high-level positions, they have done a pretty good job. There is never going to be a 100-percent error-free U.S. foreign policy, but they have done a pretty good job, and where they might have stepped on some toes or ruffled some feathers, they did a good job to try to step back in really quick and try to address it. I'm thinking in particular with France.
TATIANA SERAFIN: That is very optimistic.
I'm going to go to you, Nick, because last year you said there might be some unintended consequences and you thought that the United States engaging in the world without thought or going too fast would leave an opportunity for something bad to happen. Do you think something bad has happened, Nick? Is this Kazakhstan/Ukraine invasion the bad thing that has happened, or were you wrong?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank god that some of the things that could have gone wrong last year didn't in the way that they could have.
But I do think—and I would agree with Judah here—that the administration came out and they reengaged.
But there are problems. One of them is domestically structural, and that is that the Biden administration came in with the impact of the assault on the Capitol, and that still has long-term implications—how that went down, the sense that American politics are unstable, the inability to get some key pieces of legislation through, even when the president and his party control both houses of Congress—meant that on a variety of areas—great rhetoric. The president goes to the Glasgow summit, the president talks about engaging in the Indo-Pacific, and yet there is the sense that the Biden administration can only work around the margins. They can't get major things through Congress. They are not going to get a trade deal through Congress, so Secretary Raimondo has to try to work the margins at the Commerce Department. I think this will have longer-term implications.
And the sense, too, that the Biden administration has people in it—and we have talked about this, Judah, with you and we've talked about it with other guests at The Doorstep; it has been part of our Twitter conversation as well with people—a mindset in the administration that is still not grappling with the diffusion of power.
Colin Dueck last year came on and said something, which I think is still true, the idea that you can make a declaratory statement and somehow that declaratory statement substitutes for policy action. Dealing with the reality that Russia and China are not going to easily align with U.S. preferences and that the U.S. ability to compel is not what it once was I think is leading to some issues. That's the structural question within the United States.
And then the geopolitical one is the diffusion of power elsewhere, and the sense then that when these two things come together, even allies and partners are going to hedge against what they see as disruption.
Maybe, Judah, since you are in Europe, the United States is having these bilateral talks with Russia, Russia is meeting with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia is meeting as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, significantly with the European Union left on the sidelines—but also there is a sense among at least some Europeans that U.S. policy towards Russia is not in alignment with some of Europe's doorstep interests.
Again, you are in Europe right now. I don't know if you are anticipating major rises to your energy and power bills or anything like that, but that certainly is an area of divergence.
You have talked, Judah, about the first year—they came out of the gate, they were saying the right things, they were dealing with ruffled feathers. Do you still have that optimism moving forward that in year two of the Biden-Harris administration they are going to continue to do this, or do you see some real points of disjuncture opening up, whether over Ukraine, NATO, energy, or Europe's relationship with China and how that fits in? Are the other partners around China worried about U.S. commitments? Any clouds on the horizon, or do you think that they are going to be able to navigate these seas?
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I have to say I'm kind of reassured to hear that I am the voice of optimism because I tend to be maybe not a pessimistic person, but I'm not necessarily surprised by bad developments. They are perfectly compatible with my worldview, let's put it that way.
I would definitely agree with the guest who you mentioned whose name I didn't retain—
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Colin Dueck.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: —that one of the things that bugs me the most about the U.S. foreign policy establishment, whether in government but also in the ecosystem surrounding government, is that there is this sort of expectation or understanding that once you frame a problem and once you articulate a solution that makes perfect rational sense to an observer sitting in Washington, DC, usually—but even, for instance, for the sake of argument, that makes sense in terms of a non-zero-sum game—that that solves the problem and that at that point all you have to do is convince everyone that we know their best interests better than they do.
It disregards point of view. It disregards strategic point of view, which grows out of history, it grows out of experience, it grows out of social and cultural long currents of history, political history, international politics, and things of that nature. It also disregards the nonr-ational aspects of human behavior. Somehow there is this expectation that that won't filter into decision making in terms of international politics, and to me that's absolutely absurd.
The example I always go back to is Brexit, where you had on one side of the argument very rational, technocratic arguments for why staying in the European Union was in the best interests of everyday Britain, and on the other side you had a really affect-laden, emotional argument toward national sovereignty and a history of national glory, a lost glory narrative, which appealed. There was a certain attempt to sell Brexit that it would pay off dividends. I tend to have more respect for people's intelligence than that, and I think people knew that they were going to pay a cost, but it was a cost they were willing to pay.
People are willing to accept net-loss outcomes—which is what I wrote in my column on Monday—if the emotional payoff is satisfying. I think that is something we are seeing more and more in international politics after a period of cold, emotionless, technocratic governance. I think Trump was a cause and a symptom of that, and I think that January 6, 2021, was almost a paroxysm of that in the United States, but we have seen it all over the world.
With regard to your question, Nick, in terms of clouds on the horizon, I think that, for one thing, the difficulties in harmonizing the trans-Atlantic positions—on China, on Russia, on Nord Stream 2 with Russia with regard to Germany, between Eastern and Western Europe, because Northern and Southern Europe, even on Afghanistan for that matter—are foreseeable, they are almost inevitable, and they are a fixture of the landscape. They are a feature, not a bug.
I think that will always take management on the part of the United States because I think the United States is still—and we see it in terms of the discussions with Russia right now—the leader of that coalition and will be. The European Union is not going to be the leader and no individual European country or format—the Minsk format is not going to step in; it's not going to take the place of U.S. leadership on that. I think that requires a lot of reflection and puts a lot of responsibility on the United States.
Then you have China. Same thing. A little different because there is not the same historical aspect, in terms of the European security architecture and Europe's relationship to China and to Asia, but harmonizing that is going to be a constant struggle, a constant effort, if it's at all possible.
I think that China is doing a lot of the United States' work for it right now because perceptions of China are just going through the floor pretty much around the world and in Europe in particular, where you have countries like France, for instance, which even a few years ago was still talking about China as a potential partner and cooperation where possible and things like that. Popular perception and elite perception of China is now predominantly negative, so China has really done a great service to the goal of creating a coalition.
The thing where I would maybe speak to and meet your concerns, Nick—and it sort of ties it all together—is that I feel like there is a real loss of strategic fluency in the U.S. policymaking establishment—the idea that the adversary gets a say, the idea that there are inflection points and there are momentum points where things shift, where you go from the defensive to the offensive—and I think it works in negative ways both when the U.S. foreign policymaking community becomes overconfident or over-alarmed.
I will give a particular example because Russia to me seems like the particular example. Over the past seven years especially, there has been this sense of fear and alarm about Russia: Russia's resurgence, Russia is replacing us in the Middle East, Russia is moving into Africa—we are about to run a piece today on a more realistic appraisal about Russia's role in Africa—Russia is going to roll through the post-Soviet space and reestablish its sphere of influence. Maybe.
The problem with that is that Russia is neither just a "gas station with nuclear weapons" nor is it some sort of behemoth, hegemonic steamroller that is going to replace the United States. It has a lot of internal problems.
It is fairly easy to play a spoiler role when you are dealing with a global power like the United States and you can go in on its coattails. No one is counting on Russia to protect them in the Middle East. No one is counting on Russia to guarantee a regional security order, whether in Europe or in the Middle East or in Asia. So it's easy to go in and pick off some loose parts here and there and to step in and have preponderant power in a local environment. That is relatively easy, and it's something I think Putin has been good at.
I think the Russian military has proven—I was somewhat skeptical at the beginning of the Syria operation—it can project force, it's smart, and it has a good strategic doctrine, tactical, operational, you name it.
Is Putin a strategic genius? Well, we'll see. I personally think it would be a disaster for him to invade Ukraine. Will he do it? Maybe. I thought it would be a disaster for the United States to invade Iraq, and we did. It is very easy to fall into that sort of hubris, and so I think that is where the U.S. alarm over Russia starts playing to our disadvantage as well.
Basically, my reading of it is that Russia has played a defensive position really well. They have now achieved a state of stalemate, if you like, and I think China probably has as well—like you said, we can't compel, and we might not even be able to deter—but should Russia invade Ukraine, that's a real inflection point where from the defensive—and this is straight out of Clausewitz and classic strategic theory—the passage from the defensive to the offensive is a dangerous point because it's where your compressed force and your compressed momentum and dynamic momentum start extending outward, and as we know, when a coiled spring springs out it has a lot of force, and then it reaches its apogee and that's where it loses its power.
I think it's a real open question, especially given all the instability right now—and we can talk about that—in the post-Soviet space whether Russia has the resources to stabilize Kazakhstan, shore up Belarus, intervene in Armenia if necessary, and try to hold Azerbaijan and Turkey, keep them honest in that theater, and commit—what are we talking about, 100,000, 120,000, maybe more—troops to invading, occupying, and holding territory in Ukraine, which I would say is a much more capable military right now than Saddam Hussein's, for instance, and with a lot more friendly neighbors willing to channel support and aid, and with a lot more repercussions on the economic side than the United States ever faced from the Iraq invasion.
Again, this is all a way of saying that the adversary gets a say. The United States will have enduring challenges and pitfalls to avoid in trying to advance its interests. But, having said all that, so does China, so does Russia, and I think we are definitely entering into a period where they will more and more try to challenge the United States and try to test the United States' resolve on core interests.
I think if I have one real major concern for 2022, it would be whether the taboo against interstate warfare for conquest holds or not. I am concerned about that. Even if it were, for instance, in the realm of a cyberattack that passes more clearly than we have seen in the past into a real act of warfare with the kind of impact that we understand as being bellicose and an act of war, over these next 12 months for me that is where the biggest danger is. And even there again that might then reinforce that taboo, it might reinforce a backlash—we don't know—but I think, if I have a more pessimistic or alarmed concern, that would be it right there.
Clouds on the horizon: Certainly Ukraine is one, a massive cyberattack—we all know theoretically what it will look like—I think that kind of shocked-but-not-surprised event in cyberwarfare could very well take place in the next 12 months.
Those would be my areas of concern with regard to U.S. foreign policy and global politics in general.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I have to step in here. Neither one of you has mentioned that this is like Groundhog Year. You have not used the word "pandemic" and the fact that we're all still stuck—well, I don't know if you are, Judah—here with now booster mandates, mask mandates, kids walking out of school in New York City in protest of in-person classes.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech. We have to specify. My brother went to Stuyvesant and I know a lot of people who went to Brooklyn Tech. These are elite schools in New York with precocious, shall we say, politically inclined students.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Well, it all starts at a local level, and where it starts it can spread. That is what I believe.
But where does the pandemic fit in all of this? At the end of the day, here at The Doorstep we look at how do we on the ground—an average, Main Street, U.S.A. person—view the world?
I don't know that we are actually thinking of all the issues we have talked about. We are thinking of inflation. I can't buy what I want to buy. I can't go outside. That's really annoying.
It's hard for me to care about Ukraine—I'm saying it as a hypothetical; full disclosure, I care about Ukraine. But I do think there is this sense of Groundhog Day.
I do want to ask you two, seriously, about the idea that I'm seeing. The number-one issue of my students is their mental health. I don't know how that fits into foreign policy, but it has got to somehow impact discussions of who we are as Americans and who we are in the world.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I'm dating myself, but I'm pretty sure you'll both get the reference, but it reminds me of Airplane! I feel like the Biden administration picked a tough year to embrace a foreign policy for the middle class for all those reasons, whether supply chain difficulties, the pandemic, or energy prices. It's a tough sell right now to go back to the American people and say: "Look, everything we've been doing outside the United States, look how well it has paid off for you."
Nick, one of the most recent pieces you wrote for World Politics Review had to do with the circle that the Biden administration would not be able to square between fuel prices at the pump, climate change and the green transition, and containing Russia's energy and geopolitical designs. I think that does play in it quite a bit.
I will be honest. In the United Kingdom I feel like I have been very fortunate. I have been in a part of the United Kingdom that has always been about two or three weeks behind London in terms of the pandemic curve, and because the government always waited two or three weeks too long to impose restrictions on London, they were always perfectly timed for where I am, which is Newcastle. So the pandemic has had—in terms of human costs, in terms of the health care system, and in terms of day-to-day life—there was never a panicked approach to the restrictions. People generally did not mask up outdoors, which we now know is relatively sensible.
Things have remained that way now. I feel like we are transitioning into a "live with COVID-19" reality. For better or worse, I don't think that, given the explosive contagiousness of the Omicron variant and the fact that, whether or not the data backs this up, the perception that it is less severe—the data does seem to be backing that up for now—I just don't think you are going to be able to sell to publics anymore the kind of sacrifices and pain that was absorbed throughout last year.
With regard to what you mentioned about your students, Tatiana, this kind of gets into another aspect that I think is going to be central to international politics this year and moving forward. It is the topic of a weekly column that we have started in the past six months or so, and maybe more recently by Aishwarya Machani, on intergenerational equity and justice: the burden that has been placed on young people in the past year and the sacrifices that we have asked them to make to protect more vulnerable people from a virus that we know statistically did not threaten them as much as it did vulnerable people and older people has been enormous.
I feel like we missed a real opportunity after the global financial crisis to address some of the costs of that crisis, to address some of the younger generation's concerns. I think that has had ripple effects in the Occupy movements and the backlash to that and other things of that nature. I think that if we don't address those issues this time, we will find a real cleavage in societies that will only exacerbate the kinds of cleavages that we are seeing in Western democracies and elsewhere now.
We are talking about aging societies that will depend on young people for their Social Security and retirement safety nets and a diminishing proportion of young people who have had their earning potential severely hampered and undermined, not to mention their developmental process of entering young adulthood. For that reason, we felt it was really important to include a voice from that generation and to really center and foreground some of those concerns and some of those preoccupations.
I think that with regard to mental health, with regard to education, and with regard to employment, that to me, as much as the three things that I think coming out of the pandemic are primordial, are something that I think has gotten more attention, which are: gender equality and the need to "build back better" by including women's voices in rebuilding after the pandemic and repairing some of the damage that was disproportionately felt by women during the pandemic; global equity in terms of vaccine equity and health care equity with the Global South and Africa in particular; and then finally, intergenerational equity—we don't take enough into account the concerns and the needs of the young generation that is alive now and the generations that are to come that have not been born yet, and that is as important with the pandemic as with climate change, for instance. I think those are the major challenges that I see for the pandemic.
As for the rest, I am pretty sanguine about human resilience and the ability of societies and the international system to shore up some of the fault lines that appeared. I might be too optimistic about that, but I am. But those three things I think are really, really crucial.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I agree, and I am optimistic—before Nick raises his pessimistic voice. I am looking to Chile and the election there of the left-wing legislator who came out of nowhere and will take office in March. I am going to be really watching what is happening there because I do think that we're not watching Latin America enough. There were huge evangelical movements there that put a lot of conservatives in power, but I think the tide is turning in 2022 and I do think that the younger generation, as I said last year, is coming up and understanding how they need to participate in politics, not just protest.
I am looking forward to our 2022 midterms here. Beto O'Rourke is running again in Texas for governor, so I think that is going to be an interesting and exciting race here in the United States considering everything that is happening in Texas. I am optimistic that, from the ground up, from those students walking out the classroom, that there are going to be some changes.
Now, Nick, you wanted to be pessimistic?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Of course I want to be pessimistic.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Your reputation precedes you.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It precedes me, yes, of course.
Look, I think, going back to the question of the pandemic, first of all is the negative impacts the pandemic is having on politics, particularly in the industrialized democracies. The restrictions, the almost sometimes pandemic health "theater" in terms of restrictions and everything else, fuels a backlash. We already saw how this played out in schools in the Virginia gubernatorial race. I think it is going to be a disruptive element.
I think this is something, by the way, that other countries have priced in, the fact that they expect President Biden will lose one or both houses of Congress in 2022, and that a lot of huffing and puffing from the administration about things they are going to do or not do will be impacted by the loss there.
I think people are beginning to realize that, far from 2020 being a decisive break in American politics, the prospect of either a return of Donald Trump to the White House—or if not Trump himself, a Trump-allied figure—is something that I think particularly Europeans are beginning to really take notice of, that this is a possibility, and therefore that hedging aspect.
Tatiana, the point about mental health I think is really interesting because this also comes, as we discussed in the last podcast for last year you know, we just had the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, and you can compare and contrast the wave of optimist among young people in 1991—even with the recession and all of that, the sense that the Cold War was over, we were on the cusp of these major new technological breakthroughs that over the past 30 years have transformed everything—the way we live, the way we communicate, the way we work—and I think that the generation coming out in 2021 is looking at this pandemic and what's the next pandemic, what's the next health security issue, and technology is perhaps seen in a more negative way.
Judah, you already talked about cyber. One of the things we have just put out on our Doorstep Twitter feed is a link to a commentary about the next cyberwar is not going to necessarily just be big-ticket items but the extent to which everything in your home is linked in and that cyberwar could come down and touch you right in the home where you live.
And, as you said, the sense that politics don't work, that the structures of the business and economic structures of the last 30 years are not delivering—this really, I think, opens up the possibility of institutional upheaval and changes in the landscape.
But I think this sense of pessimism—which isn't just me, but I think is shared by others—that we are entering into an era where things are a lot more uncertain, and how that is going to play out I think is going to be critical.
My worry again with the Biden administration—and it's not a knock on the president in the sense of his age, but, yes, his age and generation matters—I don't know intellectually if he and some of the people around him grasp some of these intergenerational issues the way, Judah, you have put them out there, and how this will have an impact on politics, and the agility that you need to shape to the way the world is changing.
As you said, maybe it is not an auspicious year for foreign policy for the middle class, but increasingly that is going to be, I think, a driving factor not just in the United States but in Britain, in other countries in Europe, and in East Asia, of: "How does what happens in the world benefit? And don't talk to me about grand systemic vision. I want to know how I'm going to get a job, how I'm going to put food on the table, how I make sure the heat is on in wintertime, and that I have opportunities."
I think all of this comes together and, again, I am pessimistic about the short-term prospects in the United States. You are in Britain. How much longer does Boris Johnson remain as prime minister? We have an uncertain election in France. The coalition in Germany looks to me to be far more unstable perhaps than people are willing to give it credit for. How long that will that coalition endure? And, as we have seen in other places, Russia is very much an unpredictable wild card these days. What is going to happen not only with what Russia does internationally but domestically? And China itself is going through some real points of divergence.
If either of you want to talk me off the pessimistic ledge, I am open to being convinced, but—
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I will take a stab at it.
I feel like there is a "cognitive fallacy" I think it's called, the "here and now" fallacy maybe. When I think back to the mid-1980s, for instance, and growing up under the threat of nuclear war, in New York—knowing that New York isn't Newcastle, it was definitely targeted by a number of warheads—there was no way that a nuclear war between the United States and Russia could break out and my city would survive.
My father—just to share a little bit of my family's background and his—was a hidden child during World War II. His father left Poland after the pogroms in the mid-1920s. I think all of our families have these stories, every generation, and before that the Depression and World War II, and we could go further and further back. I think that a lot of what we are seeing now in terms of some of the social justice movements are addressing some of the even longer cycles of systemic injustices and things like that.
I think that there is always this sense that what we are facing now is the worst that has ever been. I am not quite convinced that the United States in 2022 is more politically divided than it was in 1968, or 1972 for that matter when there was political violence, there were terrorist bombings in the United States, the Weather Underground and others. In Europe there were the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Northern Ireland, the Basques, the ETA—you name it.
It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that the world is always coming to an end, and very often that is a personal anxiety because our lives are cyclical.
I think that, in particular with young people, a lot of the anxiety that they're feeling is cultural and societal. There is a lot going on that even absent the pandemic—my wife teaches at the university here and she often expresses the fact that she feels like there is a lot more a sense of anxiety among young people about the world and their place in it than she remembers or that I remember. I think that is something that can be independent of some of these other things we're talking about. That doesn't make it any less important, but it is somewhat independent.
What does that mean? I am always trying to keep an eye out for where that green shoot is going to break through the permafrost.
We have a lot of closure in the world. I wrote about this in my year-end essay, that closure has become almost the default mental setting. There is a crisis somewhere—close the borders, new variant—close the borders, trade competition—close the borders.
It reflects, I think, even within countries there is closure to listening to the other side of the argument, to differing points of view, there is a closure to other groups, to others. I think that is a pendulum swing.
I think we made a lot of mistakes in terms of how we practiced globalization because the narrative was a lovely one, it was a very inspiring and compelling one, and we blew it because a lot of wealth went into a very few pockets, and it could have been more evenly distributed, and I think that would have made a big difference.
But that narrative of a zero-sum game where we can all get along and share pieces of the ever-bigger pie, we can't go back to that. That's gone. But what will be the new narrative that emerges, that gives us a sense of, "Oh, you know what, there are benefits to opening frontiers, to letting people in, because then we can go there," to try to understand beyond the divides of the political elites? Maybe person-to-person and people-to-people exchanges, things like that.
I am always keeping my eye out for that. I think young people historically always play a big role in that, and that is where the optimist in me will be looking at the same time. I'm kind of like a George Carlin optimist, in the sense that I think the planet will be fine. We might not be around to see it, but the planet will be fine, so in the very long term things are going to work out.
The challenge that we have is to make sure that, as widely as possible, we can try to build some sort of narrative and hope for a better collective future because we all know that the boundaries and the borders are artificially created. Where that narrative comes from I don't know, but I never rule it out.
I think that pessimism is as arbitrary, non-rational, and indefensible as optimism is—neither can be ruled out—so I am hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
TATIANA SERAFIN: On that note, don't look up. Did you see the movie Don't Look Up?
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I haven't seen it, no, but I have read a lot about it already.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much for your time today. This was really great, and hopefully we can have you back to see what went well and what didn't in 2023.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Make it a yearly tradition. I love it.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Make it a yearly tradition, exactly.
JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I'll book it in right now in ink.
Thank you both so much for having me. It has been a great pleasure, a lot of fun.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thanks, Judah.