The World As It Is: A Conversation with Ben Rhodes

The World As It Is: A Conversation with Ben Rhodes


– My name is Shaun Casey,
I’m the Director of the Berkeley Center for Religion,
Peace, and World Affairs here at Georgetown University. I really don’t feel like I
need to introduce Ben Rhodes. There’re already people
walking up to him on the street saying, “Aren’t you Ben Rhodes?” So I don’t think
identity’s a problem here. We’re here to talk about Ben’s
book, The World As It Is. I think it’s coming out
in paperback edition. We have a volume still I think on sale if you haven’t had a
chance to pick one up, but welcome to everyone, and we’re just gonna jump in and probably about the halfway mark, we’ll pivot to the audience for your Q&A, so please be thinking about your questions and we’ll have microphones
roaming when we get to that. First of all, you’ve written a great book, which is not always the case when people leave administrations. – Low bar. – Well, yeah, there’s a
lotta dreck out there, but this is definitely not
that, which is very exciting. Lemme begin with a question, if you could tell us a little bit, Ben, about your pilgrimage
towards public service. Where were you, what was it that happened, and why did you decide
that this is something you wanted to do at a very early age? – Well, first of all,
thanks for hosting me here, Shaun, and Jeff DeLaurentis, one of my favorite people
in government, both of you. Particularly I’m talking to students, when I graduated from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do, so, like some people, then
I went to graduate school, and I was actually
getting a master’s degree in fiction writing, and if I’d known how much grief I’d get from the Republican party about that over the next 20 years of my life, I would never have done that, but it’s kinda sorting it out, but I thought I was gonna be a writer, but I also always had
a political interest, so I was working on a
city council campaign on September 11th and I had this unobstructed
view of the second plane hitting and the first tower collapsing, and I remember having to walk home ’cause the subways were shut down and cell phone service was down, and I had no idea the
scale of the catastrophe. I knew people who worked in that area. I didn’t know if they were okay, and I remember just thinking
that whatever I was going to do going forward was gonna be connected to the response to this event, that sitting in my apartment in Queens and writing short stories about a guy living in an apartment in
Queens trying to be a writer was no longer the thing to do, so I came down to Washington. I wanted to get into journalism, and somebody that I interviewed
with recommended that, “Well, if you wanna write
about foreign policy and learn about it, have you considered
being a speech writer?” ‘Cause he knew this guy, Lee Hamilton, who needed a speech writer, and I had not thought about that. I think most people don’t
consider becoming speech writers, but I took that job, and I guess the point I’d make is that, when I look back on it,
it’s this pretty big chance. I was 24 and just decided to pick up and move to a different city
and then go into a profession that I’d never thought about going into. Then, I worked for him for five years, and then I took another chance to go work for Barack Obama’s campaign because one of the things I’d
learned working for Hamilton, he was the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission and the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, and we’d prepare these reports
about what should be done, and I realized that if the
people in charge didn’t change that you could write all the
best reports in the world, and so then I wanted to go
do something about that, and Barack Obama was coming along. Here’s this guy who’s different and he opposed the war in Iraq, which is what had angered me, and I guess the point is that, if I had set out to
work in the White House, I never would’ve worked
in the White House. I set out to learn things and do things and to work for people I admired, and that led me in directions that brought me to the White House, and so it was that impulse
to be a part of the events that were gonna shape my
life that was most important, and just following a path of things that were interesting and important to me led me to places I never
thought I would go. – [Shaun] So, one of the things
that I think comes across in the book too that, once
you got in the Obama orbit, there was sort of an
organized passion there. It wasn’t just another step on
a career path leading to some cushy foreign policy job
when you got to be 50 or 60. – Nobody, and I really
believed this at the time, when I went to work for
Barack Obama in 2007, I was 29 and I was probably
one of the oldest people on that campaign at that time, and I literally do not
think a single person in that headquarters was thinking about what job they would have
if Barack Obama won, and that’s why that campaign worked. It also showed us, when
he won the Iowa caucus, we were like, you know, “Holy crap, this is us, politics is us.” There’s not some Wizard of Oz who determines who the next president is or who the next member of Congress is. If you’re organized and you get involved, then the government becomes you, and Barack Obama would tell you this, that it was literally just
a few hundred young people that won him the Iowa caucus and propelled him to the presidency. Well, and a lot of money
that he had raised, but the young people raised the money, so I think people have more
agency in our democracy than they sometimes think they do, but, again, they’re more
effective if they care. If you’re trying to win
because you want a job, people can smell that a mile away. If they see the passion, people recognize it and
they believe it’s authentic. – So, I think that’s a really
important analogy to 2019, and we have a lotta students here in the School of Foreign Service who I think began thinking
about doing something like what you did or
working in that arena, and there was the Obama administration that did all these innovative
things and then suddenly not, so what counsel would you
give to a 20-year-old junior School of Foreign Service major
who right now is wondering, “Is it worth continuing
pursuing my passion in justice and a new order, or do I just look for a master’s degree in novel writing or something?” – Well, don’t get a master’s
degree in novel writing, first of all.
(Shaun laughing) I guess I’d say two things, one about the state of
politics in our world and then one about the specific
circumstance of this junior. First of all, and this is
a partisan view, obviously, but things seem pretty bleak. Things seem really dark, and they are, and I think what is most
dangerous and upsetting in our country and the
world right now is that these authoritarian nationalist figures appear to have the wind at their backs, whether it’s Donald Trump
or Bolsonaro in Brazil or literally a Nazi party
in Parliament in Germany, which is never good, or Duterte in the Philippines
or Putin in Russia or Netanyahu in Israel,
go on down the list, but what I will say is that this story of authoritarian nationalism, it’s the oldest story in the book. Blame other people,
us-versus-them brand of politics, and it always leads to very bad things. It always leads usually to very big wars, but what it depends upon
is cynicism and apathy. There is not majority support
for this in our country. There’s frankly not
majority support for this really in any Western country. If you look at places
where they get footholds, it’s never with the majority. It’s in through the door
of minority government, and so what they depend upon is for young people in particular to give up and to think that, “I can’t change this,” or, “Politics is too broken,”
or, “I’m just gonna go do X,” and that mentality is very dangerous ’cause it’s what they rely upon, so the first thing is to
not give up your agency to those forces. They want you grinded down, they want you exhausted by the tweets, they want you exhausted by the negativity. Don’t let that happen. The second more concrete thing I’d say is there’s a lotta ways to make a difference. Yes, you can go work on
a political campaign. You can go work for an NGO. You can become a journalist. You can become a foreign service officer. One of the fascinating
experiences I had in government is I had a team of people that I worked with, and it ended up having a lot
of foreign service officers, some military officers. We were just talking about this, and we were all about the same age, and everybody had had a
similar 9/11 experience, but I’d gotten into politics. Some of these people had gone
into the foreign service. Some of these people had
signed up in the military, and then you meet people
who had started NGOs. There are many different
ways for you to do things. If you follow the things
that you care about, you will find things that you can work on. You’re at Georgetown. You’re smart. You’ll be employed, don’t worry. Think about what you want to do, not necessarily what you want to be. – So, one of the things
you talk about early on, and at one point you say you have a sort of symbolic chip on your shoulder because you were not a foreign
policy establishment insider, in some ways, neither was
President Obama in that sense, he’d become a senator, but
he had not worked his way up through the Washington bureaucracy, and maybe I’m over-interpreting here, but I think there’s a subtext
in your book that says that’s a good thing to
have non-blob members, to use a famous phrase, inside the actual foreign policy
apparatus of the government so that it’s not a
company town, if you will, but to have people with
different viewpoints who don’t necessarily have the credentials to be part of the establishment. – Yeah. There’s a structural piece of this and then there’s a more meta piece. The structural piece is
there are ways in which some of the national
security establishment in this country are wired
that I find to be troubling. To take a very prominent example, ’cause when I was talking
about with the blob, it was largely the repeated impulse towards military intervention
in X Middle Eastern country, and it keeps changing, but what you find underneath the hood is the influence of Saudi Arabia
and the United Arab Emirates, for instance, prominently, and they have very specific interests that they would like the
United States to act upon, and they spend millions
of dollars in lobbying and they spend millions
of dollars in think tanks, and, oh, by the way, if I was friendly towards their interests when I was in government, I’ll probably get a $50 thousand
paid speaking opportunity in Abu Dhabi the first year I’m out, and I may get a very lucrative
seat on a corporate board. I mean, this is all staring
everybody right in the face, and actually one of the benefits
of the Trump administration is it’s literally staring us in the face, the corruption of this, the
corrupting influence of money, and good people who are well-intentioned, I’m not saying everybody’s
corrupt but it seeps in, or frankly the way in which
if you take certain positions you’re thinking, “Well, 10 years from now, will I be able to make it
through a Senate confirmation if I’m critical of the Israeli government? Am I gonna put that at risk?” There are weird incentives that do feed certain types of behaviors and caution in some respects
and inertia in other respects. So, that’s a structural piece. I think the broader piece of this is the ability to question
underlying assumptions from time to time. We were just talking about
this with some students. Cuba was the other example, When I came into government, I thought this Cuba policy is crazy. We’ve tried this for 60
years and it doesn’t work, and if you talk to experts, there’s nobody who would
really dispute this. The reason that you didn’t
try to change Cuba policy was just kind of because you don’t
try to change Cuba policy. There are some powerful people in Congress who will give you a hard time. There are some powerful
interests in Florida that will make a lotta noise, and there was just this
acceptance of a status quo that didn’t make any sense, and the ability to step
outside of that status quo and say, “But this doesn’t make any sense, so we should do something to change this,” that was a mindset that
Obama could bring to bear and say, to me, “Go make
as much change as you can in negotiating this,” and that’s an outsider perspective that I think is useful to say, “Just because we’ve
always done it this way doesn’t mean we can’t question
that underlying assumption and do it differently,” and so I always tried to maintain
that outsider skepticism, frankly, of certain aspects
of US foreign policy so that the potential to
change the direction of the ocean-liner of American
foreign policy was available, and so there are I think
both some structural issues that need to be sorted out about why it is that certain countries are so influential in our foreign policy, and their impulse is usually to get us to intervene on their behalf, and also why it is that we
sometimes don’t do enough to step back and question
the direction of things. – [Shaun] And I think
it’s interesting, too, in the book you talk about it, I think it was at the
beginning of the second term where the president asks you, “Are there particular projects you wanna add to your portfolio?” and allowed you to say, “Cuba is one,” and he said, “Cuba is in a sense
yours to begin to push on.” He didn’t turn to somebody who’d been on the Council of Foreign Relations staff for 30 years who was a
Cuba expert to do that. – Yeah. What we did is I was going to lead the Cuba negotiation, but, look, I was not the
biggest expert on Cuba, so we took the best expert we could find, a guy named Ricardo Zuniga,
and made him my partner. Ricardo knew a lotta things
about Cuba that I didn’t know, but I had certain things that I could do that Ricardo couldn’t do ’cause
I was very close to Obama and the Cubans were going
to value most of all that that person was kinda one degree
removed from the president, and, frankly, because I
wasn’t a traditional diplomat, I could do certain things differently, so the first meeting I
had with Alejandro Castro in June of 2013, we sit down, and, after exchanging some pleasantries, I got the three hour speech
about the Bay of Pigs invasion, about attempts to
assassinate Fidel Castro, about Cuban-American efforts to sabotage the Cuban government, CIA efforts across Latin America, most of which was true, by the way, but I got the full complaint, and I think a normal diplomat, Jeff, correct me if I’m wrong, would almost be compelled
to at least debate, if not debate those things, say, “Well, but we have all these concerns about the Cuban government,” and I was able to sit
there and think about, “Well, how am I gonna respond to this?” and I finally said when he was done, which took a while, I said, “Look, Alejandro, I wasn’t even born when most of this stuff
happened, number one. Number two, I understand and I respect that this history is important to you. I’m not here to argue with
you about this history, and I respect that it matters to you, but I’m here because I
work for a different kind of American president than
all the American presidents that were a part of this history, and he wants me to be looking forward.” I could say that in a way that nobody who was at the
State Department could, and that’s not a shot
at the State Department, it’s just the reality
that I could break out of a certain convention precisely because of the non-traditional
nature of who I was, and then, frankly, having
Ricardo that whole time, he could point out, “Well,
here’s why they’re raising this,” or, “Here’s what you
need to know about this,” or, “Maybe you shouldn’t
have said it that way,” and so it took both of us. It wouldn’t have worked
without both of us. – [Shaun] Yeah, in our shop, we call that playing the pinata. When we go into the Muslim world, the first thing we get hit with is, “Well, you guys invaded
and destroyed Iraq.” – We did.
– [Shaun] But it was crazy, it’s like, “But our president
actually got elected on opposing that.”
– Yeah yeah, yeah. – [Shaun] But I hear you, and I think a lotta the
State Department career folk are like, “You don’t bring that, no, no. You have to defend American
historical policy.” – Yeah, and I think it
presents a difficult challenge. What’s interesting is, if you look at Cuba
and Iran in particular, there’s something about the psychology of American foreign policy that if there’s a country
that embarrasses us, for some reason we have a
hard time moving on from that, and at the same time you have to wonder why do we have to be bound by history? I think the other thing that’s important in dealing with some of these countries is we tend to think of any
authoritarian country as like a monolithic, so every single member of
the Cuban communist party must be the same, every single member of
the Iranian establishment must be the same, and what I found is
they’re just as diverse as any other country. Frankly, the more I talked to the Cubans, the more I realized that
Fidel and Raul Castro don’t agree about things
and they’re brothers, and there are these interesting
factions inside of Cuba, and, frankly, I wish we
had more diplomats there ’cause then we’d understand
more what those factions are, and then once Jeff went down there and we had an ambassador,
we learned a lot more. So, I think sometimes
we have to be willing to not just revisit our
assumptions of our policies but look at places as the
complex living organisms and collections of human
beings that they are. – While we’re speaking about Cuba, can you say a little bit
more about the Vatican role in your interactions with
various global Catholic leaders, and what role did they play
in the change of policy? – Well, we had an idea from early on that the Vatican could play some role, and then what Ricardo and I decided was what we would
need is a third party, that, the US and Cuba, we
don’t fully trust each other, even if we get along well
with our interlocutors. So that each party could feel assured that the other side would
keep their commitments, the Vatican could kinda play this role, and that, frankly, if the
Vatican played that role, it could help build support
in both the United States and Cuba for what we were doing ’cause it’s a respected
institution in both countries. We teed Obama up to talk
to Pope Francis about this in March of 2014, and we were already pretty
far into the negotiations, and so they had a long talk about Cuba. Francis very much wanted to help, so he sent a letter
essentially offering to help that the Cuban Cardinal Ortega,
who was close to Francis, could deliver in person to
both Obama and Raul Castro, and then the ball was in our court, and so then we arranged
to go to the Vatican in October of 2014 to
finalize the agreement, so we actually negotiated
all the agreements and we were going to essentially
finalize and present them and deposit them at the Vatican. The interesting thing is that the Vatican doesn’t do business on email, really, (Shaun laughing) which is actually a real
good idea in retrospect. I wish we had some of that. So, they actually didn’t
know how far we’d come, so I’ll never forget
coming into the Vatican, you’re in St. Peter’s like everybody else, and we come in, Ricardo and I, and the Cubans meet with the secretary of state of the
Vatican, Cardinal Parolin, first, and then we went in second, and this guy looked kinda stunned. He’d been in Venezuela,
he knew Latin America, and he says to me, “Are you
really normalizing relations with Cuba and opening embassies
and all these things?” and I said, “Yes,” and, I’ll never forget, he
looked at me and he said, “Who are you?”
(audience laughing) and I was like, “I’m Ben Rhodes,” and he said, “Does John
Kerry know about this?” (audience laughing)
and we had to explain to him what the NSC is and all this stuff, but then what was very powerful is we went into this ornate room with some tapestry from a thousand
years ago on the wall and we had to read aloud
all the agreements, and we had seven different documents that we all had to read aloud ’cause the Vatican’s very formal, but it was actually very
powerful to read the words. The United States commits to
normalize relations with Cuba, and I remember while I was doing this, a number of people on the
Vatican side teared up, people who’d worked in Cuba, and I remember Cardinal
Parolin coming up to me after and saying to me, “This
will give people hope,” and I said, “Yes, we
hope that the American and Cuban people can move past this,” and he says, “No, not the
American and Cuban people. This will give people
around the world hope if former adversaries can reconcile,” and you got this sense
of the moral component of Vatican involvement, that there’s certain
things that are bigger than even the relations among nations and the principle that adversaries can reconcile through dialogue and that there’s a common humanity on different sides of borders. That was very present in
the room when we were there, and then I think having Pope Francis as the guarantor of this
agreement, given his standing, made it much more powerful
when we announced it, so I think the Vatican was essential, and I would say that, even when we got the
letter from Pope Francis, that broke a couple of log
jams in our negotiations, so they didn’t negotiate it, they didn’t put the agreement together, but having their weight
behind it was very important. – Several months after that,
I was coming to the Vatican and one of our embassy
staffers there told me that there was actually more
Vatican talented expertise on Cuba in their diplomatic
core based in Rome than maybe in any other point in history of the modern papacy. – Yeah, because Francis
was from Argentina, because Parolin had been, I
think, archbishop in Venezuela. Yeah, everybody I met in that meeting had lived in Cuba at some
point and knew it very well, ’cause the Vatican has
put a lot of effort into building up, since Pope John
Paul went, its presence in Cuba because they recognize, as we did, that Cuba is an entry, it’s
a doorway to Latin America. Cuba’s a lot more
important than just Cuba. Cuba stands for something big. By the way, not just in Latin America. I remember going to the African
Union with President Obama and when he mentioned Cuba
anywhere he went in Africa after the opening, the
place would go crazy. The role of Cuba in the
imagination of Africa, because of where they stood on apartheid, well, I don’t wanna go on too much, but I was gonna say I remember Jeff and I were the only two Americans
at Fidel Castro’s funeral. Well, actually, no, American officials. I was on this dais, and Harry Belafonte and
Danny Glover were there, (audience laughing) but I remember actually the
most powerful speech was given by the president of Namibia, ’cause the Cubans had helped
them fight for independence, and he said, “The Cubans
are the only ones who helped liberate us and never asked
for anything in return,” and there’s a lot of bad things to say about this current Cuban government, but they were on the right
side of some of that. – So, you’re 10, 11 months
into the book’s release into the world, and now the
paperback is coming out. When a book comes out, you get
different waves of reactions. I’m not asking you to tell us everything, but what had been the
most surprising responses that you’ve noted from
any party, any quarter, to the book itself? – What’s been very interesting
about a book tour is that people outside of Washington, and we’re obviously in Washington now, first of all, the most consistent
thing I heard positively was about the personal story and, “I don’t know what it’s
like to be in this job,” and, “I don’t know what
it’s like to balance,” I write about what it’s like to have a marriage and be in the White House, and the curiosity that people
had about public service and the sincere and
earnest desire to know more and the feeling that you
detect that people feel like they’re not getting that from the media, that there’s this triviality
to the way things are portrayed that doesn’t really reach them. I think that the difficult thing for me, to answer your question specifically, is so much is colored by,
obviously, the Trump phenomenon, and so people observe this as
some ancient history document and people wanting to figure out where things are going to go. I’ll tell you one of the most
interesting reactions, though, I had was that I’ve had similar
reactions on the book tour, but it’s an interesting story to tell. While I was writing the book, I used to go every now
and then to West Virginia, and, yes, this is going to be a talking to a Trump voter
in West Virginia anecdote, but I used to go to this old inn or bed-and-breakfast kind
of place in Harpers Ferry. I liked to go in the winter
’cause it was empty and cheap, and so I was the only person
staying in this house, and the woman cooking
breakfast kept asking me who I was and what I did, and I didn’t wanna tell her who I was ’cause I could kinda tell she was probably a Trump voter in West Virginia, and one of the things I was
wrestling with in the book is the experience of being this villainized figure by the right-wing, and she’s a very nice person, and I told her I used
to work in government and I was writing about it, and so she starts talking
about politics and Trumpers, and then she says that she voted for Obama but then she started doing research, and did I know that
George Soros was the devil and it’s getting worse and worse, and then she says to me, “And
do you know about Benghazi?” (audience laughing) Sitting there, I was
like, “This is interesting ’cause she doesn’t know who
I am,” and so I was like, “Why don’t we go in the other
room and talk about Benghazi? ‘Cause I’d really like to know.” And so we sat down and, actually, I ended up having this
45-minute conversation with her where I said, “What do you
think happened in Benghazi?” and she’s like, “Well, they lied, and they all lied about it!” and I was like, “Well, no,
actually, there was this video,” and she’s like, “They made up the video!” and I’m like, “Well, there was a video,” but then I said, “Even if you
think that some people lied, what were they covering up?” “Well, there was a stand-down order,” and we went through the whole thing, and I was able to kind of say, “Well, no, actually, this is what,” and she could figure out over time that I seemed to know
a lot about Benghazi, (audience laughing) and it finally reached the
end of the conversation where she kinda said, “Well,
if nothing bad happened, then why are all these
former special forces guys on Fox who say that it did?” which was kind of the core of the issue, and I said to her, “Well, you don’t like that George Soros spends a lotta money to make people think
something, in your opinion, I obviously have a better opinion, did you think that maybe a bunch of people spent a lotta money on Benghazi?” So, we finished the conversation, I said to her, “Look, I’m
a character in this story, and you probably won’t like
me if you knew who I was,” and she says, “No, no, you’re
such a nice young man!” and all this stuff, and I was like, “Oh,
I’m just telling you,” so the next morning I wake up
and I can hear her downstairs, and I’m like, “Oh boy, I don’t know if I wanna go downstairs,” ’cause I knew she would’ve
figured out who I am, and so I went downstairs and she was like, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry,
if I’d known who you were, I never would’ve said
all those things to you!” and I was like, “No, I’ve
actually never been able to talk to a human being beyond the hate messages
and death threats I get.” I didn’t put it that way. And she’s like, “But you’re so nice, and you’re not Ben Rhodes
that I’ve read about,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m not! That person is not a real person!” And I did have this experience from some people who read the book and were like, “Well,
I never thought about,” and I wanted to tell that, so that’s been the most heartening thing is occasionally reintroducing
myself as a human being and not as the cartoon character of myself on the right or the left, for that matter, has been the best experience. – [Shaun] So, I gave a
midterm exam this semester, and there’s some guilty students out here, and one of the questions
was is Obama a Niebuhrian, and being Georgetown students, the essays came back yes, no, and maybe, but one of the things
I wanna ask you about, which you shed a lot of
light on I think in the book, is Obama’s conception of exceptionalism. Now, that’s sort of a booby trap in American political rhetoric today ’cause you have to say, “Yes, I am,” or hell rains down on you, but you paint a pretty nuanced picture that, for Obama, that doesn’t
mean God created a new Israel back when the Puritans
landed in Massachusetts, so could you say more
about your elaboration of his deeper, more robust understanding of what American
exceptionalism means to him? – So, to try to connect
it quickly to Niebuhr, human beings have the capacity to do good and the capacity to do evil. Those impulses are present in every human and in every country. America has done incredibly good things and incredibly bad things. The definition of exceptionalism, so what makes America exceptional? Obama used to get criticized
for apologizing for America and all the rest of it. The point that I’d always make is Obama’s definition of American
exceptionalism is that the way in which America was organized, our founding documents, allowed for the continued
betterment of America, the ability to right historical wrongs, the ability to extend rights to people who had previously been denied them, the Civil Rights Movement,
the Women’s Rights Movement, the Worker’s Rights Movement,
the Gay Rights Movement, the welcoming of immigrants. It’s a very progressive view
of American exceptionalism. I remember he gave a speech in Selma where he gives a list of
heroes of American history, and I love it ’cause it’s Jackie Robinson and it’s Sojourner Truth
and it’s all the people who got left out of the
history books for too long, but what makes us exceptional is our ability to improve ourselves. We have a democracy that
gives space for lots of different people to come
together and make things better. We weren’t stillborn perfectly out of the heads of the founding fathers such that every single thing we did after that was going to be right. No, what’s exceptional about us is our ability to improve ourselves. By the way, the same thing is
true in our foreign policy, and some of the things I’m most proud of, like Cuba, were about trying to right what I thought were historical wrongs, and so, to me, that’s a
profoundly patriotic idea. How do you have a progressive message that can resonate with
a lot of Americans is he would acknowledge flaws
but in a deeply patriotic way and say, “We’re a country
that had these flaws but could improve upon them,” and he’d get criticized,
but he wasn’t apologizing. He was actually saying about what made him so proud to be American, that we had this history
that we’re able to overcome, and so that was very much his view, that we had to learn from a past that allowed us to correct imperfections and to acknowledge that
we’re not perfect now. We have to continue to get better. – [Shaun] So, let me maybe close, and we’ll pivot to the
audience here in a second. You did run a short list there of really innovative,
amazing policy changes, Iran, the Iran nuclear deal,
getting inside of Iraq. Of all of those at the end of the day, what are the ones you think, just from your own personal perspective, whether you worked on them or not, what are the greatest
foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration? – I think that there’s
a list of achievements, most of which have been aimed at, but I would say the
ignition to Iran and Cuba and a whole host of other things. If you look at the Paris agreement, the reason the Paris agreement
I think is so important, and, by the way, the next US president will reenter the Paris
agreement on the first day, so it’s the one I
actually know will endure, the reason it’s so important is obviously, first and foremost, it’s the architecture within which the world will
deal with climate change, so we have to improve upon it, but it was built in a way that allows for continued improvement and allows for nations to periodically enhance their ambition and to kinda create this
effort outside of governments to marshal new technologies,
and I won’t dwell on that, but the other reason it’s important is it’s the kind of international
order that we need to have. We no longer live in a world in which the G7 countries
can solve things. We live in a world in
which China and India need to be profound stakeholders
in the international system where every country has a role to play, and Paris is the first
agreement of its kind where literally everybody is
in it right now except for us. Two hundred countries
are in this agreement, and they all have a
differentiated commitment within a common architecture, and the reason I think that’s such an important foreign policy achievement is not just a climate change aspect. We need a Paris agreement for
migration in this world today, we need a Paris agreement probably for the uses of certain technologies. It’s a model for a truly 21st
century international order that doesn’t look like
the UN Security Council but that looks like the
actual world that we live in. So, to me, Paris is about
a much bigger message that the whole world can come
together to do something, and climate change is obviously
the most important thing that the world has to do. I think, beyond that, you
think about legacy a lot when your legacy’s being dismantled, but the honest truth of that is, and I was talking about
this in the last session, what I’m most proud of is also what are all the people around the world who were inspired in
some way by Barack Obama, what are they going to do? Obama and I used to have
thing when we’d get cynical at the end of the administration. He’d say, “Remember that girl in Laos,” and what he meant by that
is I talked to him about there’s a young girl, or a young woman, I’m middle-aged now so if
you’re 22, so young woman, who came to an exchange
program that we set up, came to the United States
to study waste management and studied in Montana or something. I met her when I went to Laos, and she was in some round table we had, and she said, “Yeah, I was
gonna come to the United States and stay and get a job there,” and she’s like, “But then I
heard Obama say something about the need to improve your communities, and I decided to go back,” and now she would set
up a network of villages along the Mekong River that
were providing clean water to those villages, and when I told Obama that, he’s like, “Yeah, that’s the whole point of politics. Think of how many people
there are like her, and we don’t even know
what they’re gonna do,” and that to me is an
incredibly hopeful thought, and it made me think
that my political hero was John F. Kennedy, and I couldn’t tell
you five laws he passed or five foreign policy accomplishments. I can tell you that I probably went into politics in part because of him, so everything I did is
a part of his legacy, and there’s probably hundreds
of millions of people that he impacted in that way, and I think Obama’s one of those people. I see the incoming
Democratic House majority, and it looks like a ’08
Obama campaign rally. It’s younger, it’s more diverse. I see multiple African-American candidates and people of color running for president. All of this feels like part of what I was trying to be a part of, and that ultimately is more important even than any one accomplishment. – Fantastic. So, let’s pivot now. We got these klieg lights in our eyes, so I’m gonna do this sort of stare. We have microphones roaming, I assume, and so lemme give you the ground rules. Number one, ask a question or disguise your sermon as a question. If you wanna learn how to
preach sermons, come see me. There’s schools where
you can go and do that. The School of Foreign
Service is not one of those, and the more quick questions we get, the more people will get
to ask quick questions, so when the microphone comes to you, tell us who you are and what
institution you’re from, so why don’t we start at the front, and we got two microphones? All right, so don’t we
on the second microphone finding somebody in the back? So, please.
– [Kate] Sure. Thank you, Mr. Rhodes, for coming tonight. I’m a big fan of Pod Save
the World and Crooked Media, so thank you. I am a recently graduated
master’s student from UNC currently interning with
the Hudson Institute, and I wanted to ask you–
– Your name? Tell us who you– – [Kate] Oh, Kate Rouleau.
– Thank you. – [Kate] I wanted to ask you about what tied into your last answer. Could you talk about
what progressive policies we should be expecting from
the Democratic candidates in terms of foreign policy in 2020, 2021? What should the US be doing
to help lead the world? – Yeah. The first thing is I think
we have to understand that the most powerful
thing that we can do is to get our own example in better shape. If you talk to people around the world, the biggest tool of support for democratic values around the world is when we are living
them effectively at home, respect for the rule of law and independent media and civil society, so actually there’s a
connection between that and what we do around the world, and I’d like to see a progressive
articulate the connection between how we will invest
in those things here but also revitalize our commitment
to those things overseas. I think, obviously, these
candidates should be putting forward, as some
of them are, in my view, the necessity of bringing
to some form of end the permanent war that we’ve
been in in multiple countries. I think there should be a
termination of the legal authority that currently governs
our military operations and a replacement of that with something that is much more narrow, coupled with I think a reduction
in our military footprint in many parts of the world. I think I’d like to
hear the articulation of what does it mean for climate change to be treated as it should be, which is as the single most important national security issue of our lifetime. The idea that we organize
the entire US government around fighting terrorism,
a few thousand people, or maybe a few tens of
thousands of people, when we have literally
a threat that implicates every single national
security interest we have, that makes no sense to me, and I’d like to see what
does that mean in practice? If we have a $900 billion defense budget, I would like to see a
significant chunk of that repurposed to, in some fashion,
fighting climate change. If you’re talking about what is an existential
threat to this country, if you’re talking about how do you wanna fund the Green New Deal, the trillion dollar nuclear
modernization plan that we have, I’d like to see a chunk of that
dedicated to climate change, so I’d like to see real answers on what does it mean to
resource a global effort to hyper-charge the transition
to a clean energy economy in our country but also around the world. I’d like to see us revisit, in the same way we’ve
revisited our Cuba policy, certain relationships. The US-Saudi relationship
is a deeply corrupting one, and it’s time to rethink all of it. Why are we providing military assistance to a government like this? Why are we supporting a
series of foreign policies across the Middle East
that are destabilizing? And then I think I’d like
to hear the articulation of a foreign policy that puts people at the center of it again, that’s about supporting
people around the world, and what does that mean
in terms of assistance? I look at a problem like Venezuela that is being treated as
a regime change policy and not as a policy of trying to support the Venezuelan people, who are in a very difficult circumstance, so I think that I won’t go on beyond that, but I think that we should
expect to get a sense of not just to say we’re for strong alliances and being respected, but what are some of the
core components of that? – Let’s take a question from the back, and then maybe we can move to the back over here for this third question. – Hi, my name is Julia Friedmann. I’m a senior here at the
School of Foreign Service, and I was wondering if you
could speak a little bit about the confrontation with the blob and how, when you’re speaking truth power, you’re not only dealing with an individual who represents that power, you’re also dealing with
an entire bureaucracy that has a momentum in favor
of one specific policy position or one specific policy philosophy, and so, when you’re taking that on, I was wondering what your
primary strategies were? – Yeah. So, my strategies, the successes were mixed. I think that within the position I was in, I wanted to signal, and I wrestled with this in the book because I actually don’t know
whether it was right or wrong when I look back on it, I think it was right, but
then I probably overdid it, a lot of the reason why certain
things aren’t done is fear. People are afraid of change, or you could find the fact that a lot of people in
the government agreed with what we wanted to do with Iran or agreed with what we
wanted to do on Cuba but didn’t wanna be out in front on it because they were worried
about the risk of it. Put it this way, if you have a career in
foreign policy and government and you’re thinking about, and I kind of alluded to this before, what are the things that, if I touch, I’m probably gonna have trouble in my Senate confirmation down the line? Iran and Cuba are pretty
high on the list, right? And I knew that. I knew that heading into the second term, and so my strategy was that
I could be a leader in a way if I literally pulled the
pin out of the grenade and jumped on it myself
and had it explode on me to try to show people, “We
don’t need to be afraid. We can take on these fights. Charge up the hill with me here, guys, and I’ll be the lightning rod on this.” But in terms of within bureaucracies, I do think that, and I may
have overdone that at times, but I do think that you do need to signal ’cause one of the things I recognized, actually particularly when I left, is some of the people who’d
followed me up the hill got fired by the Trump people, or the Trump people went after them. I felt pretty bad about that, and what I realized is the
reason they were afraid is ’cause they knew they were
gonna be there after I left, but when I ask them,
none of them regret it, or at least they tell me they don’t, but I do think you need to indicate if you are challenging convention that you yourself are
willing to pay a price, that you yourself are willing
to engage in a debate, that you’re not gonna push this down on somebody else below you to suffer the incoming. That was my approach. The reason I paused for a long time is I still to this day don’t know if that was necessarily right or not, but that was definitely my approach, that they needed to see from the top down that we were willing to
fight for these things and that they should feel
willing to fight for them too, and that’s how ultimately
bureaucracies change. – So we have a question over here. Can we grab someone? Right there. – Hi, Ben, my name’s Casey. I graduated from the University of Oregon, and now I work for the Navy
as an intelligence officer, and my question concerns the
Trans-Pacific Partnership and China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and I’m wondering do you
see this as a zero-sum game between China and the United States, or is this something
that we can cope with? Obviously, the Trump administration
has not pursued the TPP. I’m wondering if an
administration afterwards, if it’s feasible to join something like the Trans-Pacific
Partnership in the future. – Yeah, it’s not a zero-sum game, but here’s how I describe it, and it’s funny when people ask, the walking away from TPP
is actually I think probably from a geo-strategic thing
the most damaging thing that the Trump administration has done, and here’s why. I had a particular
responsibility for Southeast Asia at the end of the administration, and I remember I talked
to a Vietnamese official, and he’d say, “We’ve hated the
Chinese for a thousand years, but we know they’re gonna be here for the next thousand years, and we don’t know if you
all are gonna be here, and TPP is the only
indication that you are,” and you’d hear a version
of this everywhere, and “hate” is a strong word, he meant that they were kind of rivals. I don’t hate the Chinese, I don’t wanna suggest it’s a zero-sum, but the point is that Belt Road, there’s things about that that are concerning to
all the countries in it, and I know ’cause I’ve talked to them. It’s essentially a plan in
which everybody has to sign on the dotted line to China’s terms, and so, yeah, they get
some infrastructure, but you go into debt to China, and you probably maybe have
to pay a bribe to somebody, and the terms aren’t good
but they are predictable. Everybody knows the price,
everybody knows the deal, and the thing about the
Chinese is it never changes. They stick to the terms. Meanwhile, we’re doing this, and so they’re looking at us and saying, “You know what, we better make
our deal with the Chinese,” and so since we pulled outta
TPP and since Trump came in, every one of these
countries is just saying, “These guys are nuts, and we better just make
the deal with China now.” And I’m not just talking
about Southeast Asia. I think this is probably
happening with the South Koreans and the Japanese to some extent and all of Africa and Latin America, and so, to me, it’s not that
TPP was supposed to beat China or zero something. It was to show, well,
here’s an alternative way of arranging commerce
that has some protections, that has access to the
highest-quality markets in the world, that has some protections
for intellectual property, that has some protections
for the environment, that has some protections for the people who are actually doing the work, and that if we could show that this works, it’s not a direct competition, Belt Road happens, this happens too, but hopefully there are more people who wanna be a part of this club, and TPP had Vietnam and
Singapore and Malaysia in it, and ultimately I think,
if it had gone forward, you’d have Indonesia coming
into it and the Philippines, maybe even China one day, and so this is how we
view China generally is we don’t wanna keep China down. We want China to continue to emerge, but we want them to emerge
as a responsible stakeholder and participant in an international system of rules and norms that work and aren’t just zero-sum pre-World War I type of mercantilist approaches, and what’s so drawing about
Trump is that’s what he’s doing. He’s doing a pre-World War
I mercantilist approach that I think always leads inevitably to conflict of some sort. So I would like to see
us come back into TPP or something resembling it because, if we don’t, the Chinese
are gonna write the rules for how the global
economy operates, not us, ’cause ultimately they’re
gonna be a bigger market. If we think that we can cut off the technology supply chain with China, well, we’re gonna have a
smaller team than they’ve got. They’re gonna have a bigger data set, which means they’re gonna have
better technology than us, so we have to figure out a way to make this work interdependently while not just kind of walking away. – Okay, we have a question
person right here. Yeah, right there. – Hi, my name is Ilary, and I’m a junior at the
School of Foreign Service. Thank you so much for talking to us, and I had a question on
the point you mentioned about the Paris agreement and how this could play
out for potential agreement on the future of social media
and the free speech there. Do you think it’s possible for
an agreement to be reached? Thank you. – In 2009, we went to Copenhagen, and the whole thing had fallen apart, the climate change summit in Copenhagen, and I remember Obama trying to figure out how we could salvage something and going and forcing
his way into the room where we thought the Chinese were, and I actually got physically pummeled by the Chinese security, ’cause they didn’t want us in there. What they didn’t want us to see is that they were chairing a meeting with India, Brazil,
South Africa, and Russia. The Chinese were running the meeting. The point is the Chinese
had already risen, and what they had told
the developing block is, “Why should we do something? The rich countries created this
problem, let them solve it.” And that led to a principle that guided the Paris negotiations, ’cause we said to them,
“Without you guys in the game, can’t do anything to solve this problem.” So we called it common but
differentiated responsibilities. Every country was going
to have to do something, but we could define the
different commitments the nations had. Everybody is gonna have
emissions reduction targets, but the rich countries are
gonna have to do more faster, and we’re gonna have to pay into a fund to help the poorer countries. If you applied the common
but differentiated model to different things, I think it can deal with
particularly migration and if you look at tech. If you look at tech and social media, I think it would probably
take more the form of like a regulatory type of agreement, but the fact of the matter
is if everybody in the world is accessing information
on a set of tech platforms, they are going to be
manipulated by bad actors. We’re seeing this, and it’s
ripping apart countries. I think it’s ripping apart our country, and we have strong institutions. I was just in Myanmar where they went from 0% internet
penetration basically to 95% in almost like five years, and the whole experience of
the internet is on phones ’cause people don’t have computers, and it’s all just
through the Facebook app, and people who had no access to anything but government propaganda suddenly think they have
a portal to everything, all the information on the internet, but all they’re getting fed
is hate speech about Muslims. If you wanna know why what
happened to Rohingya is happening it’s in part ’cause of that, so the point being is I think
we have to set up a structure where the different countries of the world are coming to some agreement
about information flow and not censorship but knowing where the source of
certain information is, what are the steerings by
which certain information, certain actions by certain
governments to target and interfere in the
politics of another country, what are the norms that govern that? What are the rules that
Russia’s even breaking? Right now, there are no
rules that Russia’s breaking. We need to establish them. So, I think that’d be hard
to get global agreement on. I think Russia and China
wouldn’t necessarily come in at the front end, but you may need to start with some smaller group of like-minded countries that agrees to a set of principles that you then try to add participants to, and actually the French
tried to start this at the Paris Peace Conference last year. What are some principles that can govern the use of technology and social media? Because ultimately you’re
gonna need some framework that can start to address questions. Right now, it’s social media. In 10 years it’ll be,
or maybe not 10 years, five years, it’ll be like
facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence, so there does need to be some
version of a global agreement that figures out common
and differentiated roles for different governments to play, regulatory arrangements, norms, dispute resolution
mechanisms to deal with this, ’cause right now there’s no
architecture to deal with it. – Let’s come back over here. Let’s have the gentleman in
the green shirt right there. – [Aiden] Hi, my name is Aiden Hughes. I recently finished my master’s
at the Mitchell Institute in Northern Ireland. I was hoping to ask a question about effective political
communication and messaging. Something that I’m concerned about is how much more successful
idea-driven politics seems to be over policy-driven politics,
and we’ve seen that. That’s an old problem, but I think it’s really coming
to the forefront right now. We saw that in 2016 with our election. I think you can make a
case that it occurred in Brexit with their referendum, and a lot of people are suggesting that we’re seeing it right now in the difference in
success and enthusiasm between someone like Senator
Warren and Pete Buttigieg, and I say that as a Mayor Pete fan. So my question is how can we, or can we, make a policy-driven campaign
and a policy-driven politics more consumable for the general public? People who aren’t in this room, people who aren’t policy wonks, and can sit down and understand and consume the full details
of something like the TPP. How can we make that messaging
more effective, or can we? – Not if it’s not connected to a story. Obama used to tell me everything that we do
is about telling a story about America and what America is, and it was actually interesting. It was after this profile of me came out that I got a lot of grief for, and he said, “You know
what that thing got wrong, it made storytelling
sound like a bad thing,” and he’s like, “Storytelling,
that’s our entire job, is to tell a really good
story about America.” And what he meant by that
is not in the speeches. Every speech we had, every policy we had, how we carried ourselves,
how he presented himself, all had to add up to one story
about what we were doing, and if you look at Barack
Obama’s effectiveness as a politician, his 2004 Democratic Convention
speech that launched him is the exact same speech as
his 2017 farewell address. It’s basically a message of progress of essentially America succeeds
when we have the principle that I am my brother’s keeper,
I am my sister’s keeper, that people of different
backgrounds can come together to make positive change. That’s the story, and underneath it, what
flows from that story, well, if that’s your story, then you would want to provide people with affordable healthcare, and if that’s your story, then you would see a
role for the advancement of marriage equality
to the LGBT community, and many policies flow from that story, but you need to start with the story. If you start with the list of policies, nobody’s gonna listen to
that list of policies. Right now, the most important
question in the world is there are two stories in competition, and one of them is the
oldest story in the book. The story that says
whatever the problems are, it’s the fault of the
people who are different, the Muslims or the
immigrants or the gay people. There’s a version of
this story everywhere, in the United States and
Israel and Hungary and Russia and in the Philippines and Brazil. That’s their story is
the reactionary story, and we’re gonna go back in time, we’re gonna keep the immigrants out, we’re gonna bring back the old jobs, and there’s no policy really behind it other than the policy rooted in grievance. We’ve got all these progressive policies, but we don’t know what the story is that’s gonna beat that story, and part of it is that we’re
defensive about things. You go to Europe and I
talk to progressives there, and their whole thing is about, “There are a lot of problems
with the European Union, but we need it for X.” You’re gonna lose the
argument if that’s your story. If there’s some people over here saying, “The European Union is a disaster, and all the problems are in Brussels,” and then the answer to that is, “There are a lot of problems
with the European Union, but we need it for some
things,” you’re gonna lose. Just like here, it was just driving me
crazy in the Iran agreement, like, “The Iran agreement
is the biggest catastrophe in the history of the world!” And then these Democrats would be like, “Oh, I have lots of concerns
about the Iran agreement but,” it’s like, guys? If the voters are gonna choose the person who most stridently opposes, so part of this is also body language and saying, “Here is what I believe.” Here’s a crazy idea, I believe
that globalization is good. I believe that the free movement of people and the free movement
of goods is important. I believe you can’t
put this back in a box. I’m not saying this is a story,
but this is what I believe. People need to know
where you actually stand and sense that it’s authentic
and that you have a story, and our story is that, first of all, if we go down that road,
we’re probably all gonna die, either in the war or in the climate change that these guys are bringing on. Our story has to be about the fact that an inclusive approach to
our societies and our world is ultimately what’s gonna
bring people opportunity and what ultimately is gonna
give people a safety net and what ultimately is gonna allow people to resolve their differences peacefully. It’s a better story, but
we’re not telling it, and you’re not gonna tell it with just a college affordability plan, and you’re not gonna tell it by just attacking the other side, and you’re sure as hell not
gonna tell it if you’re so busy holding other progressives
to purity tests. We’re in a life or death struggle here for the meaning of our democracy and the survival of the enlightenment, so let’s get behind a story that can work, and the policies will flow from that. I guarantee you they will, but let’s not shoot machine guns at people based on whether they’re
for a Medicare for all or a Medicare buy-in option. We’ve got bigger enemies to take on. Sorry, I’m not mad at you.
(audience laughing) – I’m gonna retract my
statement about the sermons. That actually was a very
good one, so I repent. I’m gonna call the last question, so I’m looking back somewhere
in the back quadrant. How about this gentleman right here? You’re on the border. Well, I’m sorry, I was talking
about this guy up here, but never mind, you got the
microphone, you’re in charge. – Thank you, Charles Simmons, I’m a national security
consultant and a writer for GPI. I do foreign policy pieces. Quick question for you. Iran said today they’d like
to do a hostage exchange. Do you think this is
just them trying to see if the administration’s gonna play ball, and let’s assume the
administration’s not gonna play ball, how much longer can the
policy of provocation continue to go on before
Iran does something and the administration looks at it as a way to substantiate
a counter-response? – Yeah, so, I’m a cynic on this, and I kinda believe that the
administration’s entire policy is intended to try to
provoke Iran to do something that will give them a pretext to enter into a military
conflict with Iran. That’s what I see. They’re just stacking up provocate, designating the IRGC,
stacking up the sanctions, recognizing the annexation
of the Golan Heights. They’re just trying to
push every button they can, I think, to get Iran to do something that they can then respond to. That’s what this feels like to me, this policy of maximum pressure, and the Iranians have been
oddly restrained in a way. The fact that they’re still in compliance with the JCPOA is kinda shocking to me, but I don’t know how much
longer that can hold. So on the hostage piece,
I think the Iranians, part of what they are
probably figuring out is what the Trump administration’s doing is really unpopular in places
like Europe and China and, well, everywhere, and the Iranians want those countries to keep buying their oil
and want those countries to keep not cooperating
with our sanctions, and they may be just trying to
find ways to look reasonable. They may have that
international audience in mind as much as us. I’m not on the inside, so I
don’t know the particularities of what they could even offer
in terms of hostage exchange, but I would imagine that
that may be part of it because there’s a game being played for global public opinion as well, and I’m pretty worried and
pessimistic about this, though. I don’t know why we closed
our consulate in Basra. That was very weird to me. I don’t think the security situation there is worse than it was at other times during the war when we
had a consulate there, but if we entered in a
military conflict in Basra, the Iranians could take
that thing out immediately. I find it weird that there’s not a secretary of defense nominee. It’s been like five months. By all counts, Mattis, hawk that he is, was a brake on doing something with Iran. I think institutionally the
Pentagon would be very cautious ’cause they know the cost of that war. Maybe they don’t want a
strong voice at the table for the Department of Defense when it comes to Iran and Venezuela, so here I’m veering up
to conspiracy theory, but it just feels there’s a lotta smoke around the desire to have a conflict, but they can’t really have it unless the Iranians do something. They can’t just wake up and
bomb Iran, so that worries me, and the Iranians probably know that, which probably suggests why
thus far they’ve been restrained but maintaining that for
another year and a half is gonna be tricky. Sorry to end on a downer.
– No, no. – I gave this great sermon.
(Shaun laughing) – A couple of housekeeping points. Ben is gonna be signing
copies of the book up here, and we ask that you form
a line down this side, and please don’t cut through,
but stop here at the step, and we’ll get the table
up and get that organized, but secondly join me in thanking Ben for an amazing conversation.
(audience applauding)

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