Due to popular demand, we are making available the transcript of our two-part debate with Daniel Bessner on the past and future of American power. This was perhaps the most contentious episode in Wisdom of Crowds history. As it happens, that’s also why it was one of our favorites.
We see conversations such as this as a model of what we are trying to do at Wisdom of Crowds: encouraging spirited but civil disagreements about first principles. Bessner is an ideal interlocutor for precisely this kind of discussion. A self-described socialist, he is one of the most influential and important leftist intellectuals writing on foreign policy today. The fundamental question we wanted to ask was whether American hegemony has, on balance, been "good" or "bad" for the world.
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Without further ado, our conversation with Daniel Bessner, lightly edited for clarity.
Shadi Hamid: So one of the reasons I'm excited about this is because Danny, I feel like you're my Twitter friend and we've DMed over the years and I feel like I know you, but it turns out, I don't know you and I've never met you in person. So that's the first thing [chuckle] and I know that you're very funny on Twitter. So I feel like, "Oh, I like his vibe on Twitter and his tweets make me laugh." So there's that. But then I realize I don't really have a great sense of where you stand on certain issues. I mean, obviously you're on the left and that's clear and actually, I don't know if you remember this, but we were both involved in the Bernie campaign. And I think the first time I actually kind of registered Daniel Bessner as a name and maybe a metaphor [laughter] was on...
Daniel Bessner: That's when you know you've made it, when you become a metaphor.
Shadi Hamid: Exactly. But it was on an email thread as part of some of the Bernie stuff and anyway, so it's interesting and I bring that up because people don't really understand why I supported Bernie. And I think that as time has gone on, even sometimes I don't fully understand why I supported Bernie. And I think what's clear in terms of reading some of your recent work, especially in regards to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I think that I've diverged considerably from where the left is or has been in a number of ways. So I'm excited to actually unpack what is the root of that divergence.
Daniel Bessner: Sure.
Shadi Hamid: So, I don't know, I mean...
Daniel Bessner: Maybe I guess, Shadi, just to jump in very quickly, I think it's important to perhaps at the beginning of our discussion, just mention what is the left. And it's difficult to really define that in United States because there really isn't an organized left. There has been historically in this country or certainly in Europe. So oftentimes we're talking about kind of individual speakers or thinkers like myself. So I just wanted to highlight that because right now the left is pretty in coit. And that's the moment we're at, in terms of our institutional and organizational power. So I just want to say, I'm not speaking on behalf necessarily of any organization but in a reflection of the time, sort of a disembodied free floating intellectual.
Damir Marusic: A metaphor as Shadi put it.
Shadi Hamid: Indeed. And that's good for you.
Daniel Bessner: A walking metaphor.
Shadi Hamid: And that's good for you to clarify. And I don't want to... And I really do mean this, I think that our listeners should know that you are at least from my perspective, one of the most important and influential young left intellectuals talking about foreign policy today. So anyone who wants to engage in these debates, from my perspective, there's two names in the relatively younger crowd. I actually don't know how old you are but I assume that we're both millennials. Damir, sadly is not a millennial.
Daniel Bessner: Yes. Yes.
Shadi Hamid: He's an older person. [chuckle]
Damir Marusic: Grizzled Gen Z or something.
Daniel Bessner: But I was born in '84.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. So I was born in '83, so I had that sense that we're of the same generation. The generation that sort of came to fruition after 9/11. 9/11 happened, my freshman year of undergrad and so on. But those two names are basically you and Samuel Moyn who I think are just essential reading when it comes to thinking about what a progressive foreign policy might look like. So that's the nice thing [laughter] that I can say. No, no. But how about this, maybe just kind of...
Daniel Bessner: No, no, let's go at it. [chuckle]
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah. Just to orient our listeners, because they may not be aware, if you had to just sort of articulate your vision and framework on US foreign policy, especially now in light of recent developments… In some ways I would say this is a hinge point or at least for some people, it is. I've become more hawkish, and I was already kind of hawkish, since the Russia's invasion of Ukraine. So, I think some people are moving in that direction, but it seems to me that you're kind of holding the fort and saying that, "Hey, there is still a kind of leftist anti-imperialist position that is moral and principled and worth defending." So maybe just lay it out where you stand now and how you're thinking about these different topics.
Daniel Bessner: Sure. I'll try to do my best. And then we can dive into specific topics as you guys want. But essentially I try to adopt a historically informed approach to US foreign policy and particularly the era of America that began after World War II, when the United States, I think, really emerged as the world's superpower. I think in retrospect, we could see at the time then it was far more powerful than the Soviet Union in a lot of different metrics. And we could talk about that, but essentially the United States, since World War II has pursued a strategy that has been termed armed primacy which simply means that the United States argues that both American prosperity and global peace and prosperity depend on it being the military hegemon, depend on it having the hundreds of overseas bases, depends on having a huge defense budget, depends on it having a permanently mobilized society that's geared toward war, which wasn't the case before World War II. And if you actually go back to the late 1940s and read what a lot of elites were saying, they were basically making the case where this type of permanent mobilization that us three have lived with our entire lives.
Daniel Bessner: And based on the historical reading of what primacy has actually meant for the world, the various cruise, the various wars both before and after the Cold War ended. I think that US military hegemony has not been on balance a great thing, particularly, when we move our gaze outside what I call the core, the North Atlantic core of the effectively Western Europe and the United States and Canada. But when you move toward the global South, I think you see that dollar hegemony, US military hegemony hasn't been that good for most people. And therefore, the type of world I want to build, and I guess philosophically, I'm a secular humanist . I think all human lives are of equal value regardless of what your citizenship is. I will depend on the United States versus first restraining its power, or unassociated with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which embraces restraint, but ultimately reducing its power, and allowing other nations to basically do what they want in a more free way.
Daniel Bessner: I think that the historical arguments in favor of this is pretty clear. And that I think would be on balance better for the world, particularly, as nation state based problems that really did define the 19th and 20th centuries recede into the past and more global transnational, or international problems, whatever you want to call them like climate, pandemics, inequality come to the fore. And if you're talking about current politics, I think Ukraine... The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a gift to the American military industrial complex because it essentially allows a type of return to Cold War logic, or return to the securitized and militarized logic of America sending arms abroad, and people making a lot of money off of these arms of an entire techno-scientific structure in Washington DC, and basically getting itself into its former comfortable position of advocating for the US to, "do something abroad." And so what I try to do is argue and militate against that unbalance. Even if there are difficult short term decisions to be made, it would be better for most people, both in this country and the world, if the United States did far less abroad.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, okay. That's good to start, and just to kind of put my cards on the table because I'll assume that not all listeners will be super familiar with me, especially since some of your dedicated fans and followers may decide to tune in, so just to be clear, so I don't want to presume that you've read everything I've written, but just so people know, I wrote a piece in the Atlantic a couple of weeks after the Ukraine invasion started with the somewhat suggestive title, "There are Many Things Worse Than American Power", where I basically make the case that American power on balance is better than the alternative. So, I think there's obviously a key divergence there, and maybe to start along that path, and I should also say and... Danny, you might not like this, so please don't hold it against me from like a moral perspective that I while I haven’t put out the full argument in writing, I have definitely said on podcasts and tweeted that, I am now open to increasing our military budget where I wouldn't have been previously. In that sense, I've been, "radicalized." So perhaps I'm part of the very problem that you're pointing to, that I'm sort of feeding into what might become an increase in the military industrial complex, the return of that kind of mentality and so on. So, on this question of American power, and Damir also feel free to jump in here. [chuckle] I don't want to speak for Damir, Damir maybe isn't as concerned...
Damir Marusic: Well, yeah, I guess if we're laying out our priors. I mean I...
Shadi Hamid: Yes.
Damir Marusic: I think it's probably just as well that I say I anticipate that this conversation will be you guys talking about what is good, and I'm less worried about that, and Danny, I sort of want to talk to you about that, about the priors and how that works out, because I don't know,I guess I come at it from a much more Slavic and tragic sort of view. And I...
Daniel Bessner: Yes, of course.
Damir Marusic: Would be keen to talk...
Daniel Bessner: Where you stand is where you sit.
Damir Marusic: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So, I mean, I think there's a conversation to be had there as well, but Shadi go ahead, make your point about the good in any case here in your argument because I think there's lot to do there.
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. So, I think where we do overlap, and also we had Glenn Greenwald on, you know, at the start of the war as well, and that was interesting. But I respect Glenn, and that's why we've had him on the show twice to some people's dismay. [chuckle] So where I overlap with Glenn and I think you as well, is I think that the US has a pretty horrific record in its foreign policy, particularly, as it relates to the Middle East, and as someone that...
Daniel Bessner: America hasn't been so great either. [chuckle]
Shadi Hamid: Yeah, yeah, that is true. So, I was about to say that too, that during the Cold War, obviously, in terms of trying to overthrow various regimes and Chile being, I suppose...
Daniel Bessner: Or NAFTA. NAFTA hasn't been so kind to Latin
America either. That's post Cold War.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, so I don't...
Daniel Bessner: I'll let you go, I'll let you go, sorry.
Shadi Hamid: No, but you lost me a little bit there. I'm not as economically oriented and we can get to that, because I think that's a big part of your argument. I'm sort of agnostic on things like NAFTA, and I don't claim to be an expert one way or the other. But yeah, so here's what I would say, we've done a lot of bad things in the Middle East, in Latin Americas in a particular period and to some degrees, to this very day, and maybe that's also an issue of debate.
I'll just bring up something that you said in your conversation with Glenn Lowry, which we'll include a link to. It's very, very interesting and I love your dialogues with Glenn on his podcast. It's just a model of principled disagreement and laying out one's priors and so forth. But one maybe more specific point is you said that Russia probably wouldn't have invaded Ukraine in the early 2000s or in the 1990s. It was only willing and able to invade Ukraine because US power has declined in relative terms. And that to me, in a very obvious way, suggests that the decline of American power isn't necessarily good. If America hadn't been declining, Russia wouldn't have invaded, if I understand your argument correctly. But maybe we can just start with that because that's a very specific illustration of how adversaries are emboldened when they see American weakness and then they end up doing terrible things and committing atrocities as we are seeing in Ukraine.
Daniel Bessner: Yeah. And of course, I would never deny those atrocities or the brutality and awfulness of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, just to make that clear. You have to make things like that clear. My simple point was that I don't think in an era of incredible American power, the type of thing that existed in the 1990s, where the G7 controlled, I believe, the statistic is something like 66% or 67% of world GDP. I think it's now something around 30%. Maybe those precise numbers aren't right, but the trend is something like that. No, I don't think Putin would have invaded Ukraine.
And I think there's a couple of things I would say, first is that there's just the empirical question of whether the type of power that the United States had in 1945, in 1991, is ever going to be seen again in world history. I would argue that those were very unique circumstances in 1945, effectively the most developed countries had been ruined in war and in 1991, the United States' closest peer competitor effectively disappeared from the scene overnight, allowing the United States to have an enormous amount of power that I don't think we'll see something like that happen again in the future, in the near future, in the predictable future, roughly predictable, nothing's predictable, but I think everyone, I hope everyone will take what I mean, in the future.
So, there's that. I just don't think it's really possible again. So, in some sense, I view that argument as tilting at windmills. But again, it also depends on what timeframe you're adopting. So, if you want to make an argument that the United States should intervene in every atrocity that happens at every moment around the world to prevent short term consequences, I understand that. I see the appeal of that morally. But one could, I think make an equally moral and ethical claim that if you take a more medium or long term perspective, that the type of world that we need to be building toward, will not be organized around the singular hegemonic power that you just said has done a lot of bad in the past, but will necessarily be more multilateral and more organized around cooperation, even with states that American policy makers might not like, with, of course, the caveat that American policy makers have been quite fine with aligning with Saudi Arabia or Egypt or other non-democratic or anti-democratic countries, when it served their perceived interest.
Everyone knows hypocrisy is not a particularly interesting argument, but it is there. So that's how effectively how I would answer that. In the short term, I think the reduction of American power, like you said, resulted in really awful things, but you also have to take other perspectives when you're making policy. Particularly given that I think that many Americans and Shadi, you could tell me if I'm wrong are basically in hawk to the progressive era fantasy, literally, the turn of the 20th century, that you'll be able to manage politics, manage international relations like it's a great game of risk. And I would just say, as a historicist, you're never able to manage any of these things. These things always have unpredictable consequences. People always point to the funding of the Mujahideen in the 1980s, etcetera, etcetera, this is something that's repeated over and over again. So I think the force that is made in favor of sending arms to Ukraine and constantly increasing military budgets and military aid for Ukraine, don't take account of the criticism that I just made in really any way, shape or form. Which is typical, it's DC you know, everyone's worried about tomorrow not 20 years from now.
Damir Marusic: But Danny...
Shadi Hamid: True.
Damir Marusic: I think it's a great answer. First, I'll say I agree that we're no longer in the unipolar moment. Even in 1945, it was a kind of unipolar moment until the Soviets caught up though again, debatable how much they caught up.
Shadi Hamid: Did they though?
Damir Marusic: No, no, again, I'll even grant you that one. Though I think that there's a lot of good history and stuff to talk about, perceptions and how likely that was. I don't know. I was just actually, oddly enough, not even in preparation for our interview, I was on the plane from Berlin reading, Jack Snyder's book about how empires misjudge and misunderstand threats. So, I mean, it's on my mind, but let's just assume that at least there was unipolar moment before the elites really sort of woke up to what was perceived as the rising threat. But what's interesting there, in how you framed your response, and maybe this will help us sort of start unpacking some of where you're coming from, you have an idea of building a better world and the building of the better world happens through restraint. And you're trying to build a world that is multilateral and based on cooperation.
What are the some of the antecedent that you need for cooperation to spring up in the world beyond just American disarmament? Basically, will it arise normally because rational actors? Will it arise normally because democracy and democratic peace theory? Is there a trend towards democratization that America is hampering by being more active and basically democracies would emerge more, if we did less? Is that part of the underlying theory building cooperation in the future?
Daniel Bessner: One question. What do you mean by democracy? Voting?
Damir Marusic: No, no, sorry. I didn't mean that. I was trying to brainstorm what you meant by cooperation in the world. Will it come out from just states, be they they're democratic or non-democratic, rationally behaving and finding ways for institutions to cooperate, or is it that there's a process of democratization that will overcome the world and then democracies are better able to cooperate? I don't understand this notion of a cooperative world.
Daniel Bessner: I certainly don't think...
Damir Marusic: Yeah.
Daniel Bessner: I mean, so I would ask you what your priors are, because it sounds to me like your priors are realism. Do you have a degree in political science?
Damir Marusic: No, I'm a total dilettante. I have a master's in something politically science-y, but no, I don't have a degree.
Daniel Bessner: Right, right. I would say that just fundamentally, it sounds like a lot of the categories you're working with are these categories that were developed between the 1930s and the 1960s to explain international relations.
Damir Marusic: Sure.
Daniel Bessner: They assume things like states are going to naturally expand, and that states will naturally fill power vacuums, and every state is ultimately bent on world hegemony. Because I think people, literally the people who developed how we think about international relations, people like Hans Morgenthau, people like Arnold Wolfers people like John Hertz, were essentially universalizing the experience, in particular of the 1930s and the first half of the 20th century, and making them laws of international relations. So, I would just say that a lot of the ways we talk about international relations, I just fundamentally think we have to adopt a more historical approach to them. The power vacuum is, I think, a very clear one. The Mearsheimer idea that states mechanistically expand, because everyone's concerned with survival is I think ahistorical. So, I don't have like a one, two, three step plan, but I guess my theory of the case is that things are better worked out by people who actually have stakes in the regions in which they are.
Things are best worked out by countries that are actually in east Asia or actually in Latin America or actually in the Middle East. And when you have an imperial power like the United States coming in from outside, it prevents effectively organic developments on the ground to proceed as they do. I don't have a theory of democratization. I would also question, what do you actually mean by democracy? Because I would say in the United States we have a very minimal understanding of what democracy is, which again emerges from a political theory that is actually quite skeptical of public opinion. We have actually created a state in this country, like the national security state that effectively prevents ordinary people from actually exerting an influence on politics. So, I certainly don't have a theory of democratization, but I guess I do have a philosophy where countries should be able to decide what type of political regime they want to live under.
Damir Marusic: I mean I...
Daniel Bessner: And it shouldn't be up to the United States to decide whether that is or is not legitimate.
Damir Marusic: Well, so I mean, again, I'll let Shadi handle the democracy stuff. I'm deeply agnostic about it. I'm not like a democracy person. I was just sort of teeing it up there for Shadi to go at it with you. And yes, I am generally sort of a realist, but unlike a restrainer, I'm much more of an offensive realist. So yeah, you nailed me pretty quickly and easily on that, but the question is then on the localism. And I again, I'm a big fan of this approach that you champion of going at these things historically, but the question always becomes in any situation, compared to what, and as you said, under what timeframe. So, you take...
Daniel Bessner: Yeah, sure, I think…
Damir Marusic: Take Ukraine, for example, let me just push you on that because it's.
Daniel Bessner: Sure.
Damir Marusic: It's a localized conflict, it's actually a conflict that goes back, to the time of the Polish Lithuanian Empire and Russia...
Daniel Bessner: Sure, to the ninth century [laughter]
Damir Marusic: Yeah, no, I mean, you could take it all the way back and there are all sorts of contingencies and local things. War is one of these things that persists in the settling of these sorts of things. So again, my press to you is maybe you're not optimistic. Maybe I just misread when you say, "Build a better world around cooperation." But where does that better world that come from? Again, maybe you don't have to have a full theory of it, but if I scope out and try and look out the grander sweep of history it doesn't necessarily fill me with any kind of optimism with a lack of hegemony.
Daniel Bessner: So what have people fought over? What have people fought over traditionally?
Damir Marusic: Land, women.
Daniel Bessner: Land?
Daniel Bessner: So, I would say that do people still fight over land.
Shadi Hamid: Religion, ideology.
Damir Marusic: Yeah, that's true.
Daniel Bessner: I would say that's usually not the major cause, but that reveals my Marxism. I would say that's usually a super structural cause. sometimes there are... So, let's go back to like the crusades, right? That's the classic ideology drives war thing. I mean, I think there's been a lot of compelling scholarship to argue that it actually had to do with like land distribution and things along those lines. So, I guess my first principle is I don't think ideology is actually a crucial driver of war. It is in one of the factors in there, but historians have to rank causal hierarchies I would not generally put it at the top. I don't think that's why the United States fought the Cold War, for instance. I think that was far more about the search for American primacy.
But I would say, and this is something that is still being worked out in discussions like this, is I don't think people need to fight over land in quite the same way as a whole. I'm not saying that this will never happen, but I don't think that wealth and things like that are as linked to land because of things like the green revolution, which essentially allowed us to pack a ton of calories into food, I think people fought over things like that. I think you'll see a lot of war right now due to climate change and access over water resources. You're going to see a lot of that. But then the argument is, then why are we talking about Ukraine when we should be talking about this global system? So, I would say that the reasons that people go to war even though there are historical trends absolutely is that the experience of industrialization is fundamentally different than what the Delian League was doing or something like that. And we need to take a more historical approach, not only in examining antecedents but in examining what changed. So, both continuities and change.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. So, well, first of all, I do appreciate Danny that you basically just called out Damir for reading dead old white men who were alive from 1930 to 1960.
Damir Marusic: That's all I do.
Daniel Bessner: These are the people I study. I mean, I know, I know them better than anything. I've read everything these people have ever written, and they're brilliant.
Shadi Hamid: You wrote a book about one of them.
Daniel Bessner: I wrote a book about one of them, but the universalizing of the 1930s is just what has happened in American IR thinking and is just not accurate. China is not Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union was not Nazi Germany.
Shadi Hamid: Interesting. Okay. We're going to have to unpack that too. I'm going to add that to our list. Okay.
Damir Marusic: This list is growing Shadi. We're going to be here for weeks. Go on.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. Okay, [laughter] I'm going to try my best to get to what I think is maybe part of the heart of the matter. First of all, I should say that it's interesting that you take issue with a minimalistic conception of democracy. I mean, that's very much my position and I have a book coming out where I basically lay out what I call democratic minimalism as an organizing principle for our foreign policy. But that's a different story and maybe that's a subject for another debate. I think the reason that I supported Bernie, and you mentioned Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was because of similar concerns about our conduct in the global south and how we support authoritarian regimes, so on and so forth. But I think that you can start from that premise and come to two different conclusions.
I think your conclusion is to say that it's better for the US to just stop being involved, to stop intervening, because whatever we do, we make things worse. The empirical historical records suggest that that tends to be what happens, right? I think I come to a somewhat different conclusion, which is that, yes, we have done all these bad things. my proposal is that it would be better to say, well, American power is a fact. We're not really likely to get to a point in the foreseeable future where leftist restrainers, control US policy. So, US power is still going to be wielded regardless of what we want. I would much rather wield that power in the service of our ideals and close the gap between our rhetoric and our actual policy.
So, in other words, I would like us to get aggressive with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and use our leverage. For example, the fact that Saudi Arabia's military can't run without US logistical support, maintenance, spare parts, and so forth, I would like us to basically say to the Saudis, listen, if you want to continue getting advanced weaponry from the US, if you want to continue having this US security umbrella, then you have to get your shit together and stop exacerbating a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, stop supporting authoritarian regimes across the region. And the list is actually quite longer than that.
Daniel Bessner: Why not just not give them the weapons?
Shadi Hamid: Well, yeah, I'm actually fine with that, but there has to be a reason that we're not giving. So, we're currently giving them these weapons, right? I would like to tell them we're not feeling comfortable with this relationship. You're doing a lot of terrible things with the weaponry that we give you. So, we have to reassess our relationship. And these are the benchmarks that are important to us. Some of them have to do with our values and the fact that Saudi Arabia is working against American values throughout the Middle East and beyond. Then also I would argue it’s against our interests. I mean, when, the Saudi Crown Prince kidnaps the Lebanese Prime Minister, I would like to humbly suggest that that is not just against our values, but also against American strategic interest in the Middle East. Because I don't think it's realistic to go from where we are now to completely cutting off all military support. There are steps in between and I think if we have level...
Daniel Bessner: But why, I mean if we didn't have an SCC [laughter] We didn't have an SCC in 1931. We had one in 1933. I don't know. I just don't buy this realism argument. That's just for, I mean...
Shadi Hamid: No but...
Daniel Bessner: I don't have to make a career in DC. So, I think a lot of it is like the sort of career incentives of Washington DC force one to make arguments about realism, but everything's realistic. We control our own history.
Shadi Hamid: But... Okay. The last thing I am as a realist. I'm kind of like an ideologue on foreign policy. I basically think that we should be using our leverage with Saudi Arabia to punish them if they don't open up their political system, if they don't stop doing things that are morally abhorrent. And I don't think a realist would feel very sympathetic to this idea of let's...
Daniel Bessner: Yeah. I wasn't using realism in the international relations sense. I was using realism in just like the common sense, like who decides what's politically real?
Shadi Hamid: Okay.
Daniel Bessner: I mean, it seems like very easy not to give weapons to the Saudis. That seems like a very easy thing, unless you don't want the Military Industrial Complex to be pissed off. And then we get into a discussion of the American political economy.
Damir Marusic: I mean...
Shadi Hamid: Okay. Okay.
Damir Marusic: Let me frame it a different way because I think it's a good point. Shadi, why do we need to have any influence in the Middle East? Why not just be like you get no weapons, go fend for yourself Saudis?
Damir Marusic: What are the interests?
Daniel Bessner: We don't need to be influencing the Middle East. We should absolutely have spent the last 70 years investing in alternative energy. That's the best Middle Eastern policy.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but I don't see any plausible scenario where the US decides to basically stop everything it has been doing in the Middle East, because there are interests that are implicated and whether we agree...
Daniel Bessner: You could say the same about slavery or the New Deal or any other huge shift in America. America's actually interesting because more than other North Atlantic countries, we actually do make gigantic shifts. It's like, oh now there's no welfare state, now there's a welfare state. We had slavery, now we don't have slavery. I think that's actually unique to America. Other countries are a bit different, but if you start making it realistic and treating it like it's realistic in the common sense of the term, I don't see why we couldn’t just stop giving them weapons. Why the hell do we need to give Saudi Arabia weapons?
Shadi Hamid: Okay, but you would need Congress to be on board with that. I just don't see how that happens in terms of the legislative process.
Daniel Bessner: So, then we get to this domestic political economy and then this is the whole problem. This is like the inequalities engendered by a capitalist nation state. And then I agree, ultimately, I don't think that's going away anytime soon, but foreign policy is actually one of the areas where there's not that much domestic interest in it. There's not that much public interest in it. There's a ton of domestic interests that are making money off of things, that want things to stay the same, but then now we're getting into questions about political economy.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. Point taken. So, let me make the argument a little bit differently then. First of all, I do think that we have a moral interest in the Middle East to help Arab countries become less authoritarian and more democratic.
Daniel Bessner: What does that mean though? I mean, these categories are so historic. The very category of authoritarian that's created in the Jim Crow United States. As a historian, it's just so silly for me to treat these categories as real things.
Shadi Hamid: But it's a continuum, we can make determinations about countries becoming somewhat more democratic or somewhat more authoritarian.
Daniel Bessner: So what about our mass incarceration? What about mass incarceration in the United States?
Shadi Hamid: No, no, I'm talking about Arab countries. Sorry. I was just talking about for example, like Egypt during the Arab spring, when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through free elections, Egypt had become somewhat more democratic than what it previously was. Whatever you think about...
Daniel Bessner: Defined as voting, more people voted.
Shadi Hamid: You know, representation, accountability. The fact that people could actually express their views publicly without fear of government persecution for the most part, at least, I mean, in some sense it was the golden age of peaceful intellectual combat. It was very frightening for a lot of status quo elites because people were actually expressing their views openly for the first time in modern Egyptian history. So, the fact that you had this vibrant intellectual and political scene where people were competing and putting out their ideas from far left to far right and people were...
Daniel Bessner: Why is that an American interest?
Shadi Hamid: Well, because if we as Americans believe in democracy and that believe that democracy is better in the long...
Daniel Bessner: But we clearly don't. I mean, any glance at history shows we don't give a shit about that. Overthrowing a million countries, funding all these anti-democratic movements around the world, that's just not real. It's not something we've ever given a shit about.
Shadi Hamid: No. But me as an individual American, and I know many other Americans who share this view, we do think that our ideal should be reflected to some degree in our foreign policy. We don't live up to those ideals necessarily...
Daniel Bessner: Who defines what the American ideal is, though? What gives basically people in the military intellectual complex, the legitimacy to decide what an American ideal is, or the bureaucrats appointed by politicians.
Damir Marusic: But Danny, you have a theory of this, you have a theory of this in one of the articles, I can’t remember exactly where it was. You say that you yourself approach these questions, that you maybe instrumentalize and maybe with a bit of a scare quote, you do talk about interests and you feel like there is a politics here. And you think that even though you despair of the fact that the American people end up being more selfish on these things, and aren't moved by global sort of concerns, they don't share your view of the equal worth of every human life, they value their citizens more than others, but you feel like there's a process there of convincing presumably, right?
Daniel Bessner: You mean like the Deweyan educationist approach?
Damir Marusic: Yeah, sure, Deweyan's educationist approach. But you yourself seem to have laid out your own approach to this. How do you conceive of your role politically in domestic political economy? What's your role as an academic? Are you just a critic or are you moving the needle somehow towards your set of values in educating?
Daniel Bessner: Well, I would say the big problem that I confront in the domestic sphere is this accretion of institutions that have become the American states. Everyone knows about the Senate, everyone knows about the Supreme court, these are fundamentally anti-democratic minoritarian institutions. But besides that, I think when we're talking about the creation of foreign policy, we've essentially created organizations like the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisors. The White House itself has increasingly centralized foreign policy, literally in the White House itself in addition to the plethora of think tanks that in which people cycle in and out of government.
So, I just think in any substantive sense, American foreign policy making is not democratic and most American policy making isn't democratic at all. I mean, look at the response to the George Floyd protest, how many police departments have been defunded? Oh, wait, they've all been refunded or, increased funding. So, I would say when we're talking about spreading democracy around the world, it's almost absurd to do that when we have the actual country we actually live in right now.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. But a couple things, so for example, not to get sidetracked, but on defunding the police, just so I can understand what you mean by democratic a little bit more. It seems from all the survey research that I've seen that a majority of Americans on the national level, but also in specific localities or states, don't actually support defunding the police. So, there is a kind of...
Daniel Bessner: We shouldn't get into this, because now we're talking about survey questions and how it's asked through answers survey questions, and just I'm skeptical of that entire methodology to say the least.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. Okay. Fair enough. We don't have to delve into that. Just to clarify where I'm coming from, because you said like who decides these things? First of all, I don't consider myself part of the military policy complex. The prospect that a Biden administration would consider someone like me for a position, it's never something that as far as I can tell is or will be plausible. And also, the fact that I didn't care enough about that to be part of one of the Biden working groups even after I supported Bernie.
Daniel Bessner: Yes. I said, no, thanks.
Shadi Hamid: Well, yeah, I mean, I supported Bernie knowing that I had no thought that he would actually have a chance of winning. So, when it came close to him winning the primary, I think a lot of us were like, oh my God, wait, this might actually happen. But anyway, so I'm ultimately only responsible for myself. I know that a lot of Americans don't share...
Daniel Bessner: Spoken like a true American. [laughter]
Shadi Hamid: Yeah. Well, look, I write and I speak about these topics in public and I realize that I'm in the minority.
Daniel Bessner: I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding.
Shadi Hamid: Oh, I know. I know. But I'm in the minority in the sense that my side lost the debate about democracy promotion in the Middle East. We turned away from that first in the Bush administration, after there was like one year of a half-hearted freedom agenda, then we kind of went right back to supporting authoritarian regimes. Obama was vaguely open to some of these ideas for six months in 2011, then he went back to supporting authoritarian regimes. Biden doesn't even give a shit when it comes to the Middle East, so on and so forth. I'm not representing any kind of national movement, but I do want my view of a moral interest, of a moral commitment, of trying to help Arabs and Muslims live freer lives, that they have at least some say in their own destinies, that they're not forced to fight on two fronts. Because right now, if you're an Egyptian and you want to have more political openness in any kind of minimal sense, you have to fight not only against your own regime, but against the US that's supporting your regime and helping your regime stay entrenched for God knows how long.
And just on the point of why don't we stop giving weapons to Saudi Arabia and get out? Well, the risk there is that if we actually did do that, it wouldn't actually help Saudi Arabia become more politically open or even somewhat vaguely more democratic. They would continue being authoritarian and they would fill the gap by getting support from China, Russia, whatever it might be. So, if we're going to withdraw or threaten to withdraw support, or withdraw our weaponry, let's at least use that leverage to push them in the right direction. Because if we just get out completely and there's nothing beyond that, there's no strategy then Saudi Arabia is still going to be brutal to its own people. So, if the goal is to actually get Saudi Arabia to be less repressive towards its own citizens, or we can say the same for Egypt, Jordan, we’re talking about most of the countries in the Middle East here, then I think we have to be "realistic" because I actually want to see policy change. I actually want to see people's lives get better.
Daniel Bessner: Well, if that's the case and why not focus on redistributing wealth and power from the global North to the global South. That's far more likely to engender the sorts of changes that you're speaking of than focusing on basically, I guess, freedom of speech, which will make intellectuals’ lives better, I absolutely agree. But if we're talking about the masses of people… Since the colonial era, the global North has just dominated and veraciously extracted from the global South. So to me, if that's your genuine goal that then I feel like there's better ways to attack it.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. But if you...
Daniel Bessner: Much better ways in fact.
Shadi Hamid: So let's say we're talking about any kind of polity, if Egyptians are unhappy with X, Y, or Z issues, democracy, free and fair elections at least gives them a chance to vote in people who have a different view on these fundamental questions. So I would…
Daniel Bessner: But that's not how it works. That's just not how history works. I think the history has shown that the very minimal American understanding of democracy has actually led to the erosion of what I would say is more genuine democracy, social democracy, economic democracy, things like that that allow people to live better lives. I mean, if we're talking about this country, it's only in the 1930s, in the face of fascism abroad that American intellectuals actually define democracy down to just mean voting. And I would see the history of the last 100 years, it's just shown how that definition of democracy does not actually lead to the sorts of things that you want, very clearly. It's not even a question.
Shadi Hamid: Okay. To be clear, I'm not only talking about elections. I'm talking about voice accountability, responsiveness, representation, the idea that people should have a right to recourse if things in their country are going bad or terribly. That they can actually have avenues to express their grievances and dissatisfaction and then articulate those and organize accordingly.
Daniel Bessner: Do you think we have that here?
Shadi Hamid: Not in any kind of perfect or ideal sense, but...
Daniel Bessner: Not even in a close sense. Study after study shows that there's absolutely no connection between public opinion and elite policy when elite policy and capitalist interests disagree with public opinion. We don't even have that here. When you have these massive states, what winds up happening is you wind up basically accruing an elite governing class and a largely disenfranchised public, that's what we have here.
Damir Marusic: Okay, but so Danny, listening to you, I'm just still trying to discern which way you would like to see history move, and maybe you could walk me through it. I'm starting to imagine that maybe the ideal is the state withering away. I feel like you may have even alluded to something like that in the past. Is that where we're headed towards in an ideal world if...
Daniel Bessner: No.
Damir Marusic: No?
Daniel Bessner: That's not my ideal, either.
Damir Marusic: Okay, what is it? Because you keep coming back to this, and this is fine attack on Shadi to say, "Well, we suck too." But I'm not that bothered by that. So, the question is, is what do you want?
Daniel Bessner: I think we need to redistribute wealth and power in this country.
Damir Marusic: Okay.
Daniel Bessner: And I think we need to start from there. And then I guess if I was trying to think in terms of international relations, I think we should focus on having some form of genuine redistribution within North America, then keep on expanding that outwards as much as it's feasible without causing too much havoc and chaos. And then actually getting genuine democratic representation where it's not just the rich who have their ideals listened to.
Damir Marusic: Yeah, okay. Well, and then the mechanism for the redistribution again, brings us back to this cooperation. So, we start first by reforming ourselves, the United States...
Daniel Bessner: Yes.
Damir Marusic: We become true to not just are founding ideals, but to a set of social justice ideals that we can...
Daniel Bessner: No, not social justice. Social democratic.
Damir Marusic: Social democratic, fair.
Daniel Bessner: Socialist. Let's just... Socialist. Flat out socialist.
Damir Marusic: Fine, let's just say a more socialist direction for the country. And then does the United States then need socialist partners in other countries to do cooperation or does socialism also arise in partner countries? Do other rich countries become more socialist?
Daniel Bessner: Well, now we're talking...
Damir Marusic: Well, no, I mean...
Daniel Bessner: We're talking unpredictable scales of time.
Damir Marusic: Fine.
Daniel Bessner: So I do think that if America, for example, Shadi you mentioned earlier that like America was only bad to Latin America during the Cold War, if we stopped doing things like helping fund the drug war and things like that, it would free up other countries in Latin America to pursue their own policies, and we'll have to react to that, respond to that, see how it develops. But in my ideal world, you'd see more redistribution of wealth and power throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. I am a political citizen of the United States, so I can't speak for other countries. And we do live in a world of nation states, I am aware of that. And then hopefully, if humanity moves in what I would consider a positive direction, we'll be able to stave off catastrophic climate change. What I actually think is going to happen... Marx has a great quote, I think it's in the manifesto, where he says, "We'll either become socialists and communists or we'll suffer the mutual ruin of the contending classes." I think the mutual ruin is more likely than not at this point, but I have to strive for the better world.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, okay. So first of all, I don't think I said that America stopped doing bad things in Latin America and only did them in the Cold War. I think what I was trying to get at is we were much worse during the Cold War.
Daniel Bessner: I don't know, the drug war was pretty bad.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, but I mean, just in terms of overthrowing regimes. At least we did help some democratic transitions in places like Peru, Argentina, Brazil in the mid to late '80s. We got around to putting pressure on some of our former authoritarian allies. We also did some of that in Asia, with South Korea and the Philippines. I just mean that there was a trajectory where if we look at a continuum, we did improve in terms of putting pressure on authoritarian regimes. But we don't have to get into all the specifics, I just want to clarify what I meant by that. But the more relevant...
Daniel Bessner: The specifics aren't as clean as that, let me just as a historian, underline that. It was a lot of doing what was perceived in US capitalist interests in all of those cases. It was not out of the goodness of our heart.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, but what's so bad...
Daniel Bessner: Well, because capitalism has destroyed the world. Americans consume, what is it, 25% of world energy? That's why capitalism's bad, because it's cooked the planet. Because we don't have any sort of natural relationship to our environment in any way, shape or form. The whole thing of permanent growth is actually literally cooking the planet. We don't distribute resources efficiently or effectively in this country whatsoever. Instead of giving people healthcare, private capital invades in. Capitalism is from my perspective, not very good for the world.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, but if we end up supporting democracy because it aligns with capitalist interest...
Daniel Bessner: It's a Band-Aid. It's a Band-Aid on a cancer.
Shadi Hamid: Okay, but if people end up doing the right thing, I.e., what I can consider to be morally compelling and morally just, and they get there because some other things are influencing them and they're like, "Oh well, this is actually good for whatever... " I mean, that's still better than the alternative of supporting authoritarian regimes. If I had to choose between capitalism...
Daniel Bessner: I don't think it matters. Because we're cooking the planet. It doesn't matter, really. It doesn't really matter.
Shadi Hamid: But it matters for the people to live under these regimes. If there's greater political openness and greater democratization, that's helpful for the people who actually live in those countries because they don't have to worry about waking up to a dawn raid by the police because they said something wrong. I mean, that seems pretty tangible.
Daniel Bessner: Yes, I agree that that is helpful. But then again, if it comes at the expansion of these American business interests that are just extracting all these resources to be converted into energy that cooks the planet, it's helpful in the short term. But ultimately, if we're talking about these larger issues, it doesn't really affect them. But yes, I think it's horrible. I think that sort of authoritarianism is absolutely horrible. I'm an intellectual, I love freedom of speech.
Part 2 (From Subscriber Only Bonus Episode)