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Stephen DUBNER: So my sense of reading you overall, particularly reading your new book, Age of Revolutions, is a sense of sadness and surprise that the world finds itself today in a state of peril, that the powers of populism and darkness and closed thinking are battling hard and maybe winning against what seemed to be the liberal trend or a trend toward openness and relative peacefulness. Is that too dark a read of your views? 

Fareed ZAKARIA: No, I think you put it exactly right. It’s a sadness. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed as though many of the great enlightenment, liberal, progressive projects in the world were moving forward and being embraced by people from Eastern Europe to Latin America to Africa. Opening up, holding elections, many of them free and fair. Markets that were often closed, opening up so that people had many more opportunities to move up. Trade between countries growing, tourism between countries growing. And then the information revolution, which was bringing us all together, binding us together. All these forces seem to be moving forward. They were each reinforcing the other in a kind of virtuous cycle. And then what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is every one of the trends I just mentioned has reversed. We are in a democratic recession. We are in an age of rising trade and tariff barriers, and protectionism. We are in an age where information systems that were once open are increasingly being cordoned off, monitored, regulated. And all of it is fueled by a certain degree of populist sentiment, which says “Stop this train, we’re moving too fast, and I need to protect myself.”

That is Fareed Zakaria.

ZAKARIA: I host a show on CNN, write a column for the Washington Post, and write books like this one. 

This one — Age of Revolutions — is subtitled Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present. The 1600 material — the “First Liberal Revolution” in the Netherlands, then the Glorious Revolution in England, and so on — it’s all interesting, and well-written, and insightful. But it is the present that I wanted to speak about with Zakaria. For my money, he is one of our smartest and sanest geopolitical observers, and in a moment when it seems the world is on fire, I thought he could help us sort things out. Zakaria says we are right to feel off-balance:

ZAKARIA: We are living through possibly the most revolutionary period in human history.

Today on Freakonomics Radio, we talk about why left and right is no longer the correct way to think about the political divide. We talk about China and Russia, of course. And: the new calculus in the Middle East:

ZAKARIA: U.A.E., Bahrain, Saudi have no love for Hamas — they hate Hamas. And they don’t like the fact that Hamas is backed by Iran. 

We also talk about the scarcity of moral courage:

ZAKARIA: History is complicated. Sometimes the bad guys win.

Roughly half of the world’s population live in countries that are holding national elections this year. So: will things get even more chaotic — or will they settle down? You probably have some thoughts about this; we will hear Fareed Zakaria’s thoughts, beginning now.

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DUBNER: Can you tell me, you know, your life story in just a couple minutes? A little bit about your upbringing and how you got to where you are today. 

ZAKARIA: I grew up in India in the ’70s. I managed to get a scholarship to Yale and went there, had a fantastic time, then got my Ph.D. at Harvard in political science and international relations, and then proceeded to go into the world of journalism.

DUBNER: With a Ph.D. in poli-sci., did you consider academia at all or no? 

ZAKARIA: Oh, very much so. In fact, I remember very well, this moment where I was finishing up my Ph.D. I was having lunch in New York with Walter Isaacson, who was a senior editor at Time. And he said to me, “There’s a job in New York, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, you’re a little young for it, but you should throw your hat in the ring.” And I said to him, “Walter, I have no interest in that. I think I’m on track to be offered an assistant professorship at Harvard.” And he said to me, “I’m talking about the managing editorship for Foreign Affairs.” And I said, “Yeah, and I’m talking about an assistant professorship at Harvard.” And it’s a wonderful example of how you get siloed. Each of us thought that what we were talking about was a much bigger deal than the other person thought. I ended up going to Foreign Affairs. And I’ve always been fascinated by international affairs. My mom was a journalist, and I think I was 14 years old when Henry Kissinger’s memoirs came out, and I must have read them, because I remember telling my mom — she was working at The Times of India, which had excerpted the memoirs — and I told her, “You missed a couple of really good sections.”

DUBNER: Now, your father, I understand, was a member of the Indian National Congress. 

ZAKARIA: Correct. He was the member of the party that liberated India, gained independence, and dominated it for the next 50, 60 years. 

DUBNER: I’ve read that he was also an Islamic theologian. Is that accurate? 

ZAKARIA: No. Wikipedia sometimes gets things wrong. And it’s particularly on issues of Islam. It’s an interesting flaw in Wikipedia. He was a scholar who was interested in Islam. He was a completely secular man, but he was always very interested, and particularly interested in the Indian experience. He did write a little bit about theology, but mostly it was history of India, history of Indian Muslims.

DUBNER: So, growing up as a Muslim in India — what share of the population was Muslim by that point? 

ZAKARIA: It’s always been somewhere between 10 to 12, 13 percent. 

DUBNER: And what was that like for you, just as an experience as a young person learning to look around the world in a certain way, being in a minority in a very, very big country like that.

ZAKARIA: When I was growing up, I was very conscious of being a minority in a very secular, pluralistic, and diverse country, and a country that took enormous pride in the fact that it was secular and pluralistic and diverse. There was an extraordinary emphasis that Nehru and Gandhi placed — you know, the two founding fathers of the Congress party and of Indian independence — enormous emphasis they placed on the idea of tolerance, and pluralism, and secularism. Secularism meaning really, that there was no favoritism toward one religion or the other. And, you know, Nehru — he was India’s first prime minister — he wouldn’t go to openings of temples, because he felt that that would be unfairly putting his thumb on the scale of one religion versus another. And that was in some ways my father’s life work. He told me once that the most important political choice he ever made was when he was 13 or 14, as a young Indian Muslim, in the 30s, where he chose Nehru’s vision of secular nationalism rather than Jinnah’s vision of religious nationalism. He was very committed to a secular India and a pluralistic India. So for me, growing up, there was a lot of pride in that version of the polity of Indian civil society. You were conscious you were a minority. So my father was conscious, for example, that while he was a politician, he could never be prime minister of India. There was always that understanding that you were a minority. But it was, as I say, a country that he took enormous pride in. And by the end of his life there was a lot of sadness about the rise of Hindu nationalism, a kind of militant Hindu nationalism, that was tearing away at the fabric of what had kept this country so vibrant and admirable for him. 

DUBNER: You’re one of the few nationally prominent Muslim journalists in the United States. I’m curious if you feel that places expectations on you when talking about important global events that involve Muslims, of which there are many in the last few decades.

ZAKARIA: What I’ve always tried to do is use that background as a way to elucidate, to inform, to give my viewers and readers a sense that I kind of know that world, and I have an insight into it. I really don’t like identity politics, and don’t really believe in it, so I’ve very rarely have written a column or an opening commentary for my show which says something like, “as a Muslim,” or “as an Indian.”

DUBNER: You say, “I really don’t like identity politics.” I think that’s one of the reasons why I like your commentary so much because what’s at the core is the actual politics and economics and social movements and so on. But that said, much of the political and social discourse in this country and elsewhere these days is really rooted in identity politics, and I’d like to hear your comment on how costly you think that may be. 

ZAKARIA: I think it comes from a good place in some cases, and comes from a sense that people’s experiences and the history of certain communities had not been adequately looked at and analyzed and honored. And I get all that. But I think it’s fundamentally illiberal. Because it is fundamentally saying, “I have this identity and that identity trumps everything else, so you can’t understand what I’m saying.” And I think that if you make that argument, you’re essentially making an argument against knowledge, and certainly against the Enlightenment project. The whole point is that we can all live together because I can understand your circumstances and we can come up with solutions and policies and legislation that allow us to benefit each other and the whole. The whole point of great literature is that you have the ability to understand other people. You know, Shakespeare was not Danish, yet he wrote a play about a Danish prince. I think the whole idea that you cannot understand me because your skin color is different or because your parents took you to a different house of worship when you were young — it doesn’t, to my mind, recognize that the whole point, certainly since the Enlightenment, that we have been moving towards is the idea that we can all understand each other. 

DUBNER: Let’s go back in history a little bit. Let’s get a little of the flavor of your book. There’s one, just, history that I found so interesting — and it may feel banal to you, I hope not, but if you would, tell us the history of why, today, many of us still talk about the left and the right, where that comes from.

ZAKARIA: That was one of the things that I was most surprised by, and delighted by, because it was such a wonderful little quirk of history, and it turns out to be largely accidental, almost architectural. The basic story of the French Revolution is: the king needs to raise taxes, and calls the National Assembly into session for the first time in, like, 150 years. They meet in this semi-circular fashion, where basically the king sits in the front. In front of him are all his nobles and the priests. And way at the back are all the commoners. And because the debate gets so furious, almost spontaneously, the two sides ideologically start to sit together. One of the people who was there at the time, a French nobleman, says, those of us who wanted to keep the present system, ended up on the right-hand side of the chair, and the people who wanted to abolish the monarchy, or who were the radicals ended, up on the left-hand side. Then this architect, Pierre-Adrien Paris, is asked to build a new home for the National Assembly. So they moved from Versailles to Paris, and he finds this long, rectangular room, and they don’t have the space for a semi-circular configuration. So he sets it up with what we now think of as the kind of British parliamentary setup, right? Where you have the chair, and then long benches on either side facing each other. And what ends up happening is all the people who want to abolish the monarchy are on the left. All the people who want to uphold the monarchy are on the right. And that’s why we talk about left-wingers and right-wingers to this day. 

DUBNER: Most of us talk about left-wingers and right-wingers, but you have moved on. You’d prefer to characterize this split, really, as open versus closed.

ZAKARIA: This is really the origins of the book, where about ten years ago, I began to realize that this divide that had served us very well analytically, in terms of understanding politics, for at least 100 years, was no longer really valid. It really was left/right on the economy. The left wing wanted more state involvement in the economy and more redistribution, and the right wanted less state involvement in the economy and less redistribution. And that perfectly well explained left-wing versus right-wing in the United States, in Europe, in India, in Brazil, everywhere. And what was increasingly happening was that we were moving into a realm of new issues, largely defined by identity culture and perhaps fundamentally determined by where you stood on this question of: do you want a world of open economics, open politics, open technology, open culture, diversity? Or do you want the opposite? I remember reading about a very good analysis that Theda Skocpol, the legendary social scientist at Yale, did on the Tea Party. She said the Tea Party presented itself as being kind of libertarian, wanting low government spending. But when you talk to them, and you looked at all the focus groups, and you looked at how they voted, that wasn’t their concern. Their real concerns were cultural. It was immigration. It was assimilation. It was diversity. It was what we would now call the woke agenda. That was really what was animating them. And you move to figures like Donald Trump. Trump’s entire message has nothing to do with the old Reagan formula of low taxes, balanced budget, spread democracy abroad, spread markets abroad. No — his basic message was, “The Mexicans are stealing your jobs, the Chinese are stealing your factories, the Muslims are trying to kill you, I’ll beat them all up, and you’ll be great again,” right? That had nothing to do with Reagan’s sunny, optimistic, libertarian vision. And watching this change, I realized, Okay, this is new. A lot of these people say: “Yeah, the economy’s doing well, but I hate immigrants. I hate what’s happening on the border. I hate the woke agenda.” Those are the driving issues. We’ve always tended to think it’s the other way around. It’s “economics is dominant and this cultural stuff is a little bit of fluff.” And it’s really inverted now. 

DUBNER: What is your take on why so many people in the U.S., which is, as John F. Kennedy famously called us, “a nation of immigrants,” have become so hostile to immigration? Do you feel it’s on the merits to some significant degree, economically and border insecurity, and so on? Or do you feel it’s more of a cultural touchstone? 

ZAKARIA: It’s a complicated question. First, I think it’s important to remember that we have the mythology that America has always been enormously open to immigrants. But the reality is we have always had periods of huge backlash. Think about, you know, the Know-Nothing Party in the 19th century, founded basically to oppose Irish immigration and then Italian immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which is the first time we actually ban a certain group of people. The quotas that were put in place in 1924, which are extraordinary. It’s beyond anything even Trump is talking about right now. And that lasted till 1965. So we’ve had long periods of enormous openness toward immigration, but long periods of enormous hostility. The way I think about it is, immigration is sort of the human face of this world of openness that I’m describing. Because something like global capital flows is an abstract idea. Trade is largely an abstract idea. Even open technology systems is an abstract idea. But human beings who look different, who sound different, who worship different gods — that’s visceral, and so people focus on that.

DUBNER: Doesn’t that seem like a very outdated construct, though, for a civilization that’s relatively modern? Because if you think about it, people moving around the world are really not very different than commodities and trends and goods and services moving around the world. So why is it so hard for people to accept that people are part of the economy, and people moving is actually the opposite of friction, it’s actually grease in the system?

ZAKARIA: Oh, gosh. I mean, of course I agree with you theoretically, but I think it would be missing a lot to not understand that that’s how human beings react. We are tribal, and we get more tribal when things are changing.

DUBNER: So, you write that “Our times are revolutionary. Wherever you look, you see dramatic, radical change.” Elsewhere, you write “an international system that had seemed stable and familiar is now changing fast, with challenges from a rising China and a revanchist Russia.” What is the best evidence that the pace of change and the intensity of the change are really, as you put it, unrivaled? Because, yes, life was stable during the Middle Ages, and no one wants to return to that. But in the modern era, the one constant has been change. And so is it really that there’s more change at the moment, or is it that so many of us are kept apprised of every tiny piece of change via a new, constant global digital media, and therefore we think there’s more change or even chaos than there is? ​​Plus which, we all know about this negativity bias, which is the human animal is more sensitive to bad news than to good. 

ZAKARIA: So first, to just take something you said, which is very important, which is that information technology might itself be accelerating our sense of how much this is changing. But that’s a reality you can’t get away from. That is part of the change that has taken place, this explosion in information technology. But let’s look at the objective data, because you’re right to wonder. If you look at politically — as I said, the number of democracies has just exploded. And remember, democracy is a very new, unwieldy, chaotic form of government for most countries that have had a very different, top-down system rather than a bottom-up one. If you look at trade, there was an earlier burst of globalization — in fact, probably two: there’s one around the early to mid-19th century, and then one that takes place sort of in the 50s after World War II. But I do think, you know, the fall of the Berlin Wall really turns out to be one of these seismic events. If you think about trade, the number of countries that come online, come into the open world economy — in the 50s, Europe returns, and then Japan starts to come back, and then Korea. Then you have, you know, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong. In the ’80s and ’90s, you get China, India. It’s two-and-a-half billion people. All of Eastern Europe, most of Latin America, half of Africa. So suddenly you go from, if you were to do it on a per-year basis, 10 or 20 million people joining the open trading system to 3-, 400 million joining it when China comes in. So I’ve often thought that that’s part of the China shock. It’s just the size. It was so different from anything we had ever experienced, that it has had a real effect, but also a psychological effect. 

DUBNER: Okay, let’s take 1991 as a start date, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the subsequent rise of the U.S. as the lone superpower, for a time at least. In your work, you often point out that the so-called “good old days” in the U.S. weren’t actually very good, at least for most people. So let’s go with that somewhat optimistic theme. When you think about the U.S. since 1991, what would you say have been some of the best long-term geopolitical decisions since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

ZAKARIA: I think probably the most fundamental one was to not retreat into isolationism again, as the United States had had a tendency to want to do after every major war. After World War I, famously, Wilson tries to commit the United States to a new global system, the League of Nations, and the U.S. basically pulls back — which then is a huge factor in the rise of fascism, the collapse of the global economic order, all that. After ’45, there were a lot of people who wanted rapid demobilization, NATO was very unpopular among Republicans. So after ’89, there was none of that. There was a very clear sense that the United States needed to stay engaged in the world. The key to America’s hegemony has been this idea that we will work on geopolitical stability, and we will be very sensitive — shall we say, jealous — of anyone who tries to challenge our geopolitical hegemony. But you can get rich, you can thrive. You can prosper in the world, you know, and you can raise your people’s standards of living. And that bargain has worked miraculously. I think the biggest mistakes probably are all ones where the United States overextended itself in the search for some kind of perfect stability — bringing democracy to Iraq, even to Afghanistan, rather than a narrower focus on punishing Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for what they did on 9/11.

DUBNER: That’s an interesting distinction you draw between enabling prosperity in other countries versus the more common label of “spreading democracy.” But I am curious to know what you think about the width and breadth and sustainability, I guess, of democracy. So this year, more than 50 countries, representing about half the global population, are holding national elections. The U.S., of course, but also India, Indonesia, the U.K. — I believe they’re early 2025 — Pakistan, Taiwan, Mexico, South Africa. So what do you think is the significance of this year for democracy per se, and how do you see that affecting long-term U.S. interests? 

ZAKARIA: I think the biggest challenge we face this year, and it’s a larger trend, of course, is the one that I identified about 20 years ago, which is the rise of illiberal democracy. I’ve always thought the United States does better when it encourages conditions that lead to the spread of democracy rather than imposing it by forcing elections. If you think about countries that modernize their economies, modernize their societies, often under dictatorships, and then modernize their political systems — if you look at South Korea and Taiwan, the two most consolidated liberal democracies in Asia — where they first modernized the economy, then that results in the creation of a middle class, then that, very reluctantly and under enormous pressure, opened up the political system. But that stuck. That ended up giving you a much more stable basis than, say, holding an election in Pakistan without any of those concomitant forces, and being surprised that what you end up with is a very illiberal democracy. But ultimately, a sign of the victory of democracy ideologically is even the dictators hold elections, you know? I mean, Putin is going to hold an election, the Iranians. There used to be an old joke about Mubarak when he was the president of Egypt, which is that he would hold the election and they would come to him and say, “Your Excellency, we have good news. The election has taken place. You have won 97 percent of the vote. What more can you ask for, your Excellency?” And he would say, “The names of the three percent who did not vote for me.” But the real significance is we’re seeing democracy, but are we seeing liberal democracy? The distinction I make is that there was a liberal tradition to democracy — rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights, minority rights, all that — those are being undermined in many of these places.

DUBNER: So you write a lot in this book and elsewhere about the rise of populist politics in the current era. It’s certainly not the first time. But also, you’ve discussed a recent interesting reversal, and that’s in Poland.

ZAKARIA: Yeah, it really is fascinating because what you have in Eastern Europe is this dramatic shift to liberal democracy after the Soviet Union collapses. And so we all celebrated, and we forget that these are still societies that are not that advanced economically. They don’t have large middle classes. They’ve lost whatever tradition they had of rule of law and independent institutions because they’ve been under communism for half a century, and under Russian occupation effectively, for half a century. And so they’re still scarred societies. What we discovered in Poland, is that there were these deeply illiberal populist forces there. And once the system sort of shook out, you saw the rise of classic illiberal populism, which, after all, is a very familiar story in Europe. This is the land of Hitler and Mussolini. And it’s classic illiberal democracy, voted in democratically, and then they start to use the state media, which had been set up in Poland almost like the B.B.C., and they turn it into basically state propaganda. They tried to pack the judiciary and strip it of some of its independence. They tried to pack the bureaucracy, they wanted to fill it with their party loyalists. But the good news, it turns out there is a very core liberal democratic fabric in the country still. And they had these recent elections in which it was clear what was at stake. And you got a higher turnout in that election than you got in the election that led to the fall of communism in ’89. You had, I think, 72 percent turnout. 

DUBNER: Were you surprised that the existing rulers allowed an actual fair and open election there, in Poland? Because in many countries, they don’t. I mean, we read the data out of Iran, for instance. If we believe that data, we would think that if there were an open election held, that the theocracy would be gone tomorrow, correct? 

ZAKARIA: Yeah, I suspect so, though I think it has more support than we realize. But I think that it’s important to note the progress implied in what you’re describing, which is: people want democracy, people want the legitimacy that comes from choice and public participation. And that’s a good thing. It just needs to be accompanied also with liberalism, and constitutionalism, and the rule of law. 

So: what happens in a society without those things?

ZAKARIA: Putin represents this feeling that we were once great and we have been stripped of our greatness.

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Fareed Zakaria is host of the weekly CNN program GPS — that stands for Global Public Square — and he has written several books, including The Post-American World and The Future of Freedom. His new book is called Age of Revolutions, in which he argues that “we are living through possibly the most revolutionary period in human history.” At first glance, that claim might seem hyperbolic. There aren’t so many people storming so many barricades. But that makes Zakaria’s point. The current revolution, he argues, is a retreat from a massive trend toward open societies, replaced by a facsimile of openness that is usually stage-managed by an autocrat. Here’s what Zakaria writes about Russia: “Vladimir Putin has harnessed identity politics and jingoism as a response to his nation’s structural decline.” And Zakaria says Putin has done this masterfully.

ZAKARIA: He stripped the country of any opposition. He stripped the country of the civic culture that allows for free exchange of ideas and organization of opposition politics and all that. And within that denuded, desert landscape, he is popular.

As we heard Zakaria say earlier, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of Soviet communism, was “a seismic event.” He also argues that this shock was felt most acutely in Russia, where it continues to resonate.

ZAKARIA: Russia is fundamentally a revanchist great power. The Soviet empire was about 70 years old. The Russian Empire was 3 to 400 years old. That’s part of what is the great wave of nostalgia that Putin represents, this feeling that we were once great, and we have been stripped of our greatness. And Russia really was on its knees in the 1990s. I point out in the book, the Russian economy shrunk by 50 percent in 5 or 6 years. That’s more than it shrunk during World War II. So it really was on its back.

DUBNER: Life expectancy —

ZAKARIA: Plummeted. And by the way, it’s still in very bad shape. But then, because of all the other forces we’ve talked about — growing globalization and liberalization — the economy starts growing mightily. And Russia is the greatest provider of natural resources in the world. It’s not just oil, it’s natural gas, it’s coal, it’s nickel, it’s aluminum. So, it rides on this wave of global growth, and does it rise so much that it creates a rich Russia? No, because the economy is still fundamentally screwed up. But it rises enough that it creates a very rich Russian state.

DUBNER: Now, when you say the economy’s screwed up, there was an opportunity there, right? When all kinds of firms were privatized, it became the worst kind of crony capitalism, but theoretically, a pivot could have been done there that might have resulted in an actually rich country for the people who live there, yeah?

ZAKARIA: Oh, absolutely. The 1990s were a fascinating experiment, where you tried to take a country that had been a totally communist economy and figure out how to make a capitalist economy out of it. Clearly, it failed. I don’t want to say “we” failed, because I think that gives the U.S. too much agency. The U.S. did give lots of advice, much of which was probably bad. But, it’s one of these things that, what works better are slow, incremental, organic changes. And so it turned into a disaster. It turned into, as you say, the worst kind of crony capitalism. Russia has such a deep tradition of statism. So maybe it was never going to work, but certainly we didn’t do a good job.

DUBNER: When you talk about that deep tradition of statism, it makes me want to ask you a question that is the kind of question that I think is very unpopular in political science circles, and in public as well. And that comes to national character. So if you read politics, you know, 40, 50, 100 years ago, there was a lot of discussion about how the national character of a place like Russia determined a lot of its political and economic moves. And the same could be said of many other countries, especially older countries. And the U.S. was seen as still kind of a teenager in that regard. Would you say that Russia is continuing a manifestation of its age-old Russian Empire national character now, potentially at the expense of better options?

ZAKARIA: I would. And I think there’s no question that Russia has this very deep imperial culture that comes out of its history. It’s the last multinational empire. And it is trying to hold on to its empire in the way that the French did in Algeria and in Vietnam, and the British did in Kenya.

DUBNER: It never ends well, does it, when they try to hold on?

ZAKARIA: Right. And then think about it: the French killed one million people in Algeria trying to hold on. But you raise an interesting issue, which is this issue of national culture. And you’re right, people have kind of ambivalent feelings about it. It’s absolutely clear that national culture makes a huge difference. But it’s important to understand that national culture is not genetic. It is the product of history and institutions and policy, and it can change. Look, why does Russia have this vast imperial tradition? It’s vast, open space, easily conquerable. Western Europe in 1500 had 500 different states, if you count all the duchies and principalities. Why? Because it’s riven with rivers and mountains. So it’s easy to defend, and very hard to conquer. Whereas China and Russia, these vast open plains, which ended up with vast single empires, with centralized power. You know, so all this matters. But you can change it. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great senator-intellectual, had a line where he said, “The central conservative insight is that culture is more important than politics.” And people often use that line, but they forget his second line, which was “The central liberal insight is that politics can change culture.”

DUBNER: That’s a really interesting summary and observation. It does make me wonder: the people who study and have influence in the realms of politics and economics — you know, two separate sets of people — but they have a lot of leverage. The people who study and explain culture, I would argue, have much less leverage. Do you think that’s a problem? And if so, what do you think should be done about it?

ZAKARIA: Yeah, it’s a huge problem. And I think it explains many of our greatest policy failures. If there’s a central policy failure in American foreign policy over the last 75 years, I would say it’s our inability to understand nationalism. We didn’t understand nationalism in Vietnam. We didn’t understand it in Iraq. The greatest lost opportunity was in the 50s and 60s. All these third world countries were fundamentally pro-American in the sense that they looked at the old colonial empires of Europe, and hated them. They looked at America, and admired a lot about America. And we blew it all, because we got into this mindset that ideology was all that mattered, that communism versus capitalism was the great divide. We didn’t understand the complexity of the situation. I’ll give you an example of the country I grew up in. India was not fundamentally pro-Soviet in any sense, but the people who had supported Indian independence when it was a colony of Britain were all the socialist states. So there was a kind of left-wing orientation to India’s founding, because those were its comrades. But it was all misread as some kind of, you know, anti-democratic, anti-Western view. The most famous example of this, I think, is we misread Ho Chi Minh, who, when he started out, petitioned the United States for help, in the 40s. And instead, we branded him from the start a communist. Flash forward to Iraq, where we fundamentally didn’t understand that the country’s nationalism was very complicated because it had these three communities — the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds — who hated each other, who had never really been part of one country except for a brief period.

DUBNER: So do you think the U.S. has become less ideological in that regard in the last 20 years?

ZAKARIA: No, I don’t think so. Because I see it in China. You know, Russia actually benefits from global instability and tension, because whenever that happens, the prices of commodities, particularly oil, go up. So it almost has a structural reason to be a spoiler, whereas the Chinese are the opposite. They are a low-resource economy. They depend on global capital, global investment, global markets, and they have benefited enormously from that process. The world-historical mission of the United States is to make the world like it, to make the world democratic. The world-historical mission of China is to make China great. When they go to Kenya, they don’t look at Kenya and say, “You could be like us.” They look at Kenya and say, “You will never be like us, because you’re not Han Chinese.” I’ve always thought that it comes out of the high-Protestant tradition. If you think of Britain and the United States, these two great, high-Protestant countries, there is a universalism inherent in Christianity, right? That is one of the most revolutionary aspects of Christianity, which is that we are all created the same in God’s eyes. And that is one of the most wonderful things about Christianity, in my view. “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.” It’s all about that. Where the Chinese don’t believe that at all. They feel like, “We’re Chinese, you’re not.” And so that gives it a different outward orientation toward the world.

DUBNER: Let’s talk about the Middle East for a bit. First of all, if one was around in the early 2010s, during the Arab Spring, one might have thought that that part of the world would be radically different than it is in 2024. I would argue it’s not very different. Can you talk about that? What happened, and what are some useful lessons to be drawn from the Arab Spring?

ZAKARIA: You know, in 2003, I wrote that book The Future of Freedom, about illiberal democracy. I basically made the case that the Arab world was fundamentally unready for liberal democracy. Because of oil wealth, it had been able to stop the process of modernization — economic modernization, social modernization — to an extent that no other part of the world had been able to. The whole structure of that region ended up being that the governments didn’t need to modernize their economies to get tax revenue. That’s the fundamental reason why societies modernize. If you think of the American Revolution, you know, “no taxation without representation.” What the Saudis basically say it’s the flip side of that. “No taxation, no representation.”

DUBNER: I mean, nice work if you can get it, right?

ZAKARIA: Right, right. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to tax you. And by the way, we’re not going to represent you either.” So that model, that stagnancy, sort of infused the Arab world. And when you just rip the Band-Aid and say, “Okay, let’s liberalize, let’s hold elections,” it’s not going to work out well. And that’s exactly what happened with the Arab Spring. Every one of those countries has now reverted. Now, I will say there was one hopeful sign, which is that the Gulf Arab states have really become very forward-looking, not just economically but socially. You look at what M.B.S. is doing in Saudi Arabia with women. He’s really dismantled the whole religious police. He’s largely dismantling the religious educational establishment. He is allowing much more freedom of speech. And, you know, initially it’s entertainment and all that. But these are real steps forward for a society that was really, in many ways, run like it had been run in the Middle Ages.

DUBNER: Let me ask you to just give a quick description of the differences between the leading Arab states today versus the leading Arab states a few decades ago. You’ve explained why the shift has happened. It’s about resources and so on. But can you talk about how that may manifest itself in geopolitical relationships there, including Israel, but also with the rest of the world? 

ZAKARIA: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. So ​​if you think back to the Arab world, what we meant by the Arab world 30 or 40 years ago, what we really meant were the big Arab countries: Iraq, Syria, and above all, Egypt. Egypt was the cultural heart of the Arab world. All great political trends have come out of Egypt in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. All the great pop music stars came out of Egypt. All the great writing came out of Egypt. Egypt was the center of Arab culture. And it was deeply infused with this idea of Pan-Arabism, which was basically that all the Arabs should be one language, one society, one culture, maybe even one country. In fact, Nasser tried to create a union between Egypt and Syria, which actually happened for a few years. They were one country. And all of it was very anti-Israel. It was almost defined by its anti-Israeli quality.

DUBNER: And why was that, Fareed? I’ve always wondered. I mean, it’s an obvious target for, you know, theological reasons and some land displacement. But, I mean, as many people have made the point since the October 7th attacks, there have been billions of refugees throughout the history of the world, and this one has turned out different. So why was that Pan-Arab position against Israel so strong?

ZAKARIA: I think it’s a great, great point. And it’s largely because you were searching for a way to unify these very disparate countries that are actually not —

DUBNER: Common enemy is a good tactic.

ZAKARIA: Exactly. In fact, it wasn’t very religious. It was fundamentally — “They are different. They’re newcomers. They’re alien. Let’s gang up against them.” And that became the animating heart of Pan-Arabism. It never really worked. Pan-Arabism collapsed because these countries are very different and they often don’t like each other much. And now what you have in a post-industrial economy, in a post-industrial world, is that the Gulf states have become so rich that they absolutely dominate the Arab world. Egypt is now in a tight, police-state dictatorship. Syria is in chaos, Iraq is in chaos. And they all depend on handouts from the Gulf states. So the Gulf states have realized that as very rich hedge funds, if you will, they need stability. They need predictability. And they look at Israel and think, “This is a natural partnership.” You know, “We have the money, they have the brains,” to put it crudely, as one Saudi told me. You know, “We should be making alliances.”

DUBNER: That’s been going on behind the scenes for years now, yes?

ZAKARIA: Absolutely. The U.A.E., for example, has had active intelligence cooperation with Israel for at least a decade that I know of. Qatar had very, very close relations with Israel. They cut them off after one of the attacks on Hamas in Gaza, but they still maintain informal contacts. And the Saudis are itching to do it.

DUBNER: So how do the Saudis and the U.A.E. and even Qatar see the Hamas attack of Israel on October 7th? We’ve read a lot about how the Hamas attack was connected to the Iranian position in the region. I’m just curious how you think those Gulf state powers actually see it, and what they think is a viable outcome for them.

ZAKARIA: With the exception of Qatar, I think they all view it as an unfortunate interruption of trends that they were hoping would move in their direction. In other words, U.A.E., Bahrain, Saudi have no love for Hamas — they hate Hamas. They don’t like Islamic fundamentalism, and they banned all this stuff in their own countries very viciously. And they don’t like the fact that Hamas is backed by Iran. But they recognize that the Palestinian cause is very popular at home. I mean, it’s wildly popular. And so they’ve all backed off. But you notice not one of them has severed relations with Israel. Not one of them. They’re all trying to basically find a way to get back on track. “How much would we need to do on the Palestinian issue so that we can get back to what we really want to do, which is to establish relations with Israel”?

DUBNER: I heard a recent interview with John Bolton, the former National Security advisor. He was asked what he would advise the Israeli government “do next in Gaza,” that was the phrase. And he said “the important strategic context for Israel and for the United States is to see that this is a struggle not just against Hamas, but against Iran. And what Hamas instituted on October 7th was part of the Revolutionary Guards’ Ring of Fire strategy around Israel.” I’d never heard of Iran’s Ring of Fire strategy. I assume you can explain it to me?

ZAKARIA: Sure. They sometimes call it an axis of resistance. And I don’t think John is exaggerating when he says it’s a ring of fire around Israel. Iran’s fundamentally concerned about Iran. And what it has done over the last 20 years is, recognizing that it is weak, that it is under sanctions, that it is not going to be able to compete — you know, Saudi Arabia’s defense budget is, I think, roughly ten times Iran’s. So Iran, most people don’t realize, it’s actually fundamentally weak. But out of its weakness, because it’s a very shrewd strategic player — I mean, the Persian Empire is 5,000 years old — they have come up with this asymmetrical strategy, which is they have infiltrated themselves with a series of militias around the world. So, it’s Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, the militias of Iraq, Assad — in Syria, they actually have the Assad government. They fund them, but the funding is very — you know, again, it’s an asymmetrical strategy. This is pennies on the dollar that Saudi Arabia uses to buy defense weaponry from the U.S. But it’s very effective, because it keeps everyone off-edge. It gives them the ability to kind of harass, and put you on the defense. And that is their fundamental strategy. Some of this helps them harass Israel and they want to do that. But it’s important to realize it’s fundamentally about preserving Iran and its freedom of maneuver.

DUBNER: Are you surprised the extent to which so many Western supporters, mostly liberal Western supporters, have gotten behind the Palestinian cause, considering the fact that the Hamas attack is essentially tied to Iran?

ZAKARIA: I think that what most people are doing is not thinking about that geopolitical dimension to it, and just thinking about the fact that the Palestinians have been living under occupation for 56 years. And there’s a sad story there that you can latch on to. But it does mean that you’re forgetting or ignoring that there is also a geopolitical play here. And the way I would put it is, the Iranians have used that occupation, used it to infiltrate themselves into the circumstance and turned it into a geopolitical issue.

I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio. We don’t talk about geopolitics too often on this show, but it does come up. One of our most popular episodes of all time is called “Is the U.S. Really Less Corrupt Than China?,” with the political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang. If you’d like to hear it, or any of the more than 500 episodes in our archive — they are all available, free, on any podcast app or platform. So, get busy. And: if you would like to hear all those episodes without ads — and get a weekly bonus episode of Freakonomics Radio — you should become a member of our Freakonomics Radio Plus membership program. Just go to the Freakonomics Radio page on Apple Podcasts, or to

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When Fareed Zakaria writes in his new book Age of Revolutions that we’re living through an intensely revolutionary era, he isn’t only talking about geopolitics. It is true that some regimes may be on the verge of collapse, or at least radical change; but he’s also concerned about the other revolutions we’re living through: economic, technological, even emotional. On the emotional front: it does sometimes feel like all eight billion of us are playing a tug of war between universalism and tribalism. Here’s how Zakaria puts it in his book: “Modern civilization has given ordinary human beings greater freedom, wealth, and dignity than any before it. … If it collapses, and the new dark ages arrive, it will be because in our myopia … and our petty rivalries, we lost sight of the fact that we are the heirs to the greatest tradition in human history, one that liberated the human mind and spirit … and whose greatest achievements are yet to come.” End quote. So: Fareed Zakaria has an optimistic streak — our “greatest achievements are yet to come” — but: he is also a true student of history. So there was something I wanted to run past him; this was a question sent in by a listener.

DUBNER: Here’s an easy question: “Is the U.S. in a state of decline that we might recognize from the decline of the Roman Empire, let’s say, or nowhere near that?”

ZAKARIA: Nothing even close. The United States is probably more dominant in many core measures than it has ever been. And I think it’s fundamentally important that we understand this. Because a lot of our bad policies come out of a mistaken fear of decline. The whole policy toward China economically is premised on the idea that the U.S. has been declining, it has been hollowed out industrially, China has taken advantage of it, and is rising. And it’s all wrong. One of the key measures of your long-term strength is who dominates the world of technology. Go back to the 16th century, it was the Dutch. Eighteenth century, it was the British. The Americans have certainly been for the 20th century. If you were to look in 1980, and say, “What were the dominant technology companies in the world?”, by market cap, the U.S. would probably have three or four. Today, when you look at the biggest technology companies by market cap, they’re all American. We’ve never been more dominant technologically. It’s in software, it’s in hardware, it’s in artificial intelligence, it’s in quantum, it’s now going to be in nanotechnology. Then if you look at demographics — another core indicator — we are the only rich country in the world that is demographically vibrant. You know, Europe is turning into a retirement community.

DUBNER: Although we are growing primarily by immigration, because our fertility rate has fallen.

ZAKARIA: Yeah, our fertility rate is basically the same as Europe’s. The only difference is we take in one million people a year legally, and we assimilate them very well — I would argue, as an immigrant. But as a result, we are demographically vibrant, and we will continue to be demographically vibrant unless we do some kind of Trumpian, you know, quotas or freeze. If you look at energy: this is a total transformation from the last 25 years. We were the world’s biggest energy importer. We are now the world’s biggest energy producer. We produce more natural gas than Qatar. We produce more oil than Saudi Arabia. It’s extraordinary. And we have this green revolution, where we’re becoming dominant players there. So I look at this sometimes, and I think to myself, what country would you have traded places with over the last 30 years? We have the best hand in the world.

DUBNER: Your answer suggests that we also lead the world, however, in beating ourselves up.

ZAKARIA: We’ve always been somewhat introspective, and I think that’s a good tendency, and I think worrying about it is a good idea, because it forces you to fix your problems, but not when you sort of get paralyzed and you start making these mistakes. Why have we done so well? Because we are a thriving free-market economy where we allow our companies to be tested against the world. Would the American car industry have been better off if we had shielded it from Japanese competition? Would our information-technology companies be better off if they lived in a hermetically sealed bubble  and never had to be tested against the Alibabas of the world and the TikToks of the world? So I worry a lot that the fundamental driver of American strength has been the fact that we compete, we go out there and we hustle, and we do it against the best in the world. As long as we keep that goose that lays the golden egg going, we’ll be fine. China hasn’t become more like us, but we have become a lot more like China in the last ten years.

DUBNER: If Trump were to win the presidency this fall, how seriously do you believe we should take his talk of, as I read it, essentially wanting to establish a dictatorship or something that looks like one, much closer than we’ve had in this country?

ZAKARIA: You never know with Trump because he’s such a kind of weird narcissist, that everything is filtered through the question of, is this good for me? When he was president, he literally passed executive orders that would have essentially banned TikTok. And the courts overturned them, saying, “You can’t do this by fiat.” And now he says he doesn’t want to ban TikTok. Why? Because it would give Facebook more business, and he thinks Facebook is against him. So, the whole thing is always interpreted through the lens of “What will this do to me?” He is the first president in American history to contest the elections that were clearly free and fair, and attempt to subvert that process of peaceful transfer. That’s a pretty core element of the American Constitution. It may be the essence of democracy.

DUBNER: Which political leaders, past or present, does Trump remind you most of?

ZAKARIA: That’s a very good question. I would say he reminds me right now of Erdogan in Turkey. Trump is not as popular as Erdogan, but Erdogan certainly has the same completely cavalier attitude towards norms, traditions. He uses his political power to persecute his enemies. And as a result, Turkey is one of these places where I feel the sadness you were talking about. Because there’s no question in my mind that over the last 20 years, Turkey has gone significantly backward on many core elements of what make a good society. For his entire span in office, he has undermined the rule of law, undermined the courts, undermined the bureaucracy, used political power to persecute his enemies, upended old, longstanding norms, basically ran a third time when he was not supposed to by changing the Constitution. So Trump is a lot like that.

DUBNER: Okay. So assuming it’s Biden-Trump, who do you see winning?

ZAKARIA: The polls right now suggest Trump. The elections right now suggest Biden. I’m not copping out, but polling sometimes reflects people’s general attitude, their feeling of unhappiness, they think Biden is too old. But an election is about you in the booth, and you have a choice between these two people. And it’s serious. It’s not just you mouthing off to a pollster. If I would be forced to bet, I would put a small amount of money on Biden. But I’d say this with very low confidence only because of the craziness of our electoral system. There’s no question Biden will win by over seven million, probably nine million votes nationally. The question is, how will about 150,000 votes distribute themselves in four states: Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? That I don’t know.

DUBNER: So, Fareed, I’m a fan of your CNN show, GPS. You interview politicians and institutional leaders, public intellectuals, sometimes artists. And in this realm of, let’s call it TV journalism, but even broader journalism, you strike me as one of the few honest brokers we have. Now maybe — you know, maybe it’s all a con job, and you’re being paid by hidden forces to groupthink us all into some perverse outcome. But I don’t think so. Because when I read you and I watch your work, I just don’t see the usual tendencies that a lot of journalism, especially American journalism, has. You don’t shout, you don’t harangue, but you also don’t sugarcoat. And so I really appreciate that, as a consumer of it. But as a producer of media myself, I want to know how you do that. And how can the rest of us do a little bit more of that?

ZAKARIA: I’m very flattered by what you said, but you are detecting exactly what I’m trying to do. Part of it is, it comes naturally. I really think of myself as trying to understand each issue, and not start out by saying, you know, “I have a team, and this team is always right.” So on things like the border, I’ve been very tough on Biden and said, basically, Trump is right about the border crisis. On a lot of the affirmative-action stuff, the university stuff, I’ve been more of what people would consider right-wing. On other things I’ve been more left-wing. I’ve always been respectful of the other side, because I do think that there are intellectually interesting arguments on all these sides. You can’t have 75 million people voting in one direction without there being something interesting to learn about that. But the thing that I think has been hardest is just to stick with what you know is right and real and true, and not fall into the social desire to be part of a club, the commercial realization that, you know, in journalism, heat works better than light. I would be a fish out of water trying the other stuff. I think it has worked. You know, I’ve been able to — by counter-programming in a sense — I’ve built an audience and, you know, we have good numbers. So I think part of it is really trying to be true to yourself, be authentic, so that you can actually build an audience where people can feel that. And that’s the hard part, because the short-term incentives are to yell and scream and to be partisan. And I really do worry about that in the broader media landscape, because I think that actually you’re catering to a very small part of the country. Effectively it’s the primary voters, and you’re forgetting about the broad general middle audience.

DUBNER: Let me ask you a last question. I’m curious what you think of the role of moral courage in geopolitics. You write these amazing histories of so many leaders and outsiders over the course of many revolutions, over the course of several centuries. And a lot of times, it’s intellect that wins the day. Sometimes, it’s economic power. Sometimes it’s luck, being in the right place at the right time. But if you look at history, you do see that often it’s the person who had moral courage — or at least a sense of what that might represent — who succeeds. Not often enough, perhaps. But I’m curious when you look around the world today, if you can point to some people that you feel exhibit a high level of that, perhaps?

ZAKARIA: Gosh, that’s a big question. Look, history is complicated. You know this as well as I do: sometimes the bad guys win. Communism goes on for decades and decades. Soviet occupations went on for a long time. Iran is under a nasty, repressive regime now for 35 years. North Korea. All those places. What I would say is that in the broad sweep of history, countries and people who have embodied or in some way encouraged the best ideas, the ideas that are most consonant with human flourishing and development, have done remarkably well. Just the idea of democracy. When it starts out, it’s a peculiar practice adopted by a handful of countries nestled in the North Atlantic. And look at where it is today. And I think the extent to which the United States has been at the forefront of this process for the last 100 years is something we should take enormous pride in. Now, there is a danger to overdoing it, to pushing too fast. The primary negative lesson is the lesson of the French Revolution. Not that the ideas of the French Revolution were bad. They were, in many cases, deeply admirable. But they were overly theoretical, overly radical, pushing them on society at a time when they weren’t going to be adopted, and producing an enormous backlash. So I think a lot of times we’ve gone astray because we’ve curtailed our morality in order to play power politics, and often have done it very badly — you know, supported some crazy African dictator for no rhyme or reason.

DUBNER: And a lot in South and Central America and, you know, in a lot of places.

ZAKARIA: Exactly. So we’ve deviated from that. But in the main, when you compare it to the alternatives. You know, in the 20th century, you had the great European powers that were all rapacious colonialists. You had the Soviet Union, you had Mao’s China, you had Hitler’s Germany. The U.S., it really was the best. And as long as we can continue to push in the broadest sense for human beings to flourish, to be seen, I think we’re doing something very important. I’m an unabashed patriot in that sense. And I think what we’re trying to do here is create a country where people from all backgrounds not just exist, but are seen, and come out of the shadows, and are able to be themselves, and do not have to conform to somebody else’s version of what they should be. That’s a deeply admirable thing. And I do think, you know, we are the good guys, and we should take pride in it.

Most of the people we interview on this show are academic researchers or experts in some domain. We don’t often interview journalists. That’s what Fareed Zakaria is — albeit a journalist with a political science Ph.D. I loved this conversation with him. I don’t know if that means that more journalists should have Ph.D.’s, or simply that more journalists should operate like Zakaria: with clarity, compassion, hard-headedness, and an absence of rancor. What did you think of this conversation? Our email is We will be back next week; until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Augusta Chapman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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