Int’l affairs commentator Gideon Rachman

Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator discusses his new book and why what happens in Egypt matters throughout the rest of the world.

Gideon Rachman is considered one of the world's most influential commentators on international affairs. After a 15-year career at The Economist, which included stints as a correspondent in Brussels, Bangkok and Washington, he joined the Financial Times as chief foreign affairs commentator. Rachman began his career with BBC World Service and was a visiting fellow and Fulbright scholar at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In his book Zero-Sum Future, he gives a stark warning about a gathering global political crisis.


Tavis: Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs columnist for “The Financial Times” in London, following a 15-year career with “The Economist.” His new book is called “Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety.” He joins us tonight from New York. Gideon Rachman, good to have you on this program, sir.
Gideon Rachman: Good to be here.
Tavis: I want to start this conversation actually with something you lay out near the end of your book, which is that for the balance of your career, for most of your career, that is, you have felt like you were covering a world, as a reporter, covering a world that was steadily improving, and you suggest in the text that you no longer feel that way.
Talk to me about why you feel that way in this age of anxiety, and then we’ll get more into the text.
Rachman: Yeah, well, I started work in the mid-1980s, and so perhaps the most dramatic political event of our era was in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the communist empire and the rejoining of huge numbers of countries into the kind of liberal, democratic world.
But it wasn’t just a European trend. You saw in Latin America the fall of dictatorships, you saw the transformation of economics in Asia – India becoming much richer, China becoming much richer, and in fact even in the Western world this was a kind of – I think a period of optimism, really up until the financial crisis, albeit with great troubles, like 9/11.
But nonetheless, economically it was a period when Western Europe and the U.S. felt they were doing well, and when Western power, particularly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall – this was the 20 years of America’s unipolar moment. I do think we’re in a much more trouble era economically, and then as a result, politically as well.
I think there are new rivalries emerging in the world, which is what I’m writing about in the book.
Tavis: Does the uprising that we’re witnessing now in Egypt play more to you’re the world is getting better or the world is a more troubled place?
Rachman: Well, we’ll see, won’t we? I think it’s a very interesting moment. If things work out well, then it does in some sense fit into the narrative of what I call the age of optimism – the period before 2008, which was characterized by a belief in the spread of democracy, the spread of markets.
In theory, at least, the best thing that could happen to Egypt and to North Africa and to – is neighbors, us and the European Union, for example, is that this becomes a more prosperous, freer society. But I don’t need to tell you, of course, there are enormous question marks about whether that is, in fact, what will emerge, and I think we are also discovering the limits of Western power, U.S. power and influence in events.
We have some influence, but basically we’re bystanders. Also, some of the background factors are, I think, more on the worrying side of the equation, such as the fact that we’re seeing social unrest really across the world, but particularly now in Egypt, linked to rising food prices, and that’s a kind of commodities prices shock which I think we’re going to be living with for some time.
Tavis: You’ve argued that what’s happening in Egypt, as we all know, this uprising is dangerous in so many ways, but you’ve also argued that you think it’s hopeful, the situation can be hopeful. Tell me more about why you feel that way.
Rachman: Well, look, first of all, I think as any kind of human being you have to in some way warm to the sight of people overthrowing a dictatorship, and if – but it is a big if – they are able to move to a freer society that is able to sustain a democracy, I think it means as individuals they’ll be freer and that the economy will work much better, because it’s a corrupt autocracy with low living standards, and I think ultimately this is what we’ve all hoped for in the Arab world, that these old autocracies will give way to more democratic, freer economies.
But these transitions are never smooth, and I think that Egypt could go in either direction. If we’re very unlucky and if the Egyptians are unlucky, it could turn into a kind of theocratic, Iranian-style state. If not, it could go the other way. But it’s really too soon to tell.
Tavis: Finally on Egypt, we, of course, here in the West have been preoccupied with the conversation about Egypt vis-à-vis our relationship with that nation and what it means for us. Tell me, though, why what happens in Egypt matters for the rest of the world.
Rachman: Well, look, this is the pace-setter in the Arab world. It’s traditionally been the country that others look to. It’s a very large country, a lot of ideologies, whether Nasserism, communism or even al Qaeda had some of its origins in Egypt. So what happens there matters enormously to a huge part of the world, which we keep getting sucked back into.
I don’t need to remind you there’s a war going on in Iraq; we’re very dependent on oil supplies from the Middle East. So no matter how much we try to kind of concentrate, perhaps, sometimes on other parts of the world, feeling that we’re too preoccupied by the Middle East, it’s a part of the world that is absolutely central to western interests, and for us as Europeans, in my part of the world, they’re our neighbors as well. S you get a big surge of instability in North Africa, it’ll wash all over Europe.
Tavis: Where our relationship with Egypt is concerned – and when I say “our,” I mean the U.S. – you argue quite persuasively and aggressively in this book, that is to say you debunk this notion that democracies inherently decide to cooperate and work with each other.
So there’s no reason to believe that just because Egypt moves in a direction that we think it ought to move that they necessarily, under new leadership, are going to be cooperative with us.
Rachman: Absolutely. I think it’s quite likely it’ll be the reverse. I think there was a slightly naïve assumption in the United States that the answer to your foreign policy problems was the spread of democracy.
Now, I think the spread of democracy is a good thing in itself, but if you look at big international meetings, say in climate change, the U.S. turned up there and it found like countries like India, Brazil, Turkey, were actually siding with the Chinese viewpoint rather than with their fellow democracy, the United States.
National interests and national views matter enormously, and coming back to Egypt, if you look at opinion polls it’s at a very anti-American country for complicated reasons related to the relationship of the two countries.
So a more democratic Egypt could actually quite likely be a much less friendly country to the United States.
Tavis: So unpack this title for me then, “Zero-Sum Future.”
Rachman: What I was trying to look at when I wrote the book was the political consequences of this great economic shock we’ve just been through. The reason I lighted on the title “Zero-Sum Future” is it’s actually a phrase that you hear from political leaders across the world.
So when Hu Jintao came to the U.S., he warned against “zero-sum thinking” about U.S.-Chinese relations, and President Obama also said, when he went to China, “We don’t see the world as a zero-sum game. A more powerful China isn’t necessarily bad for the United States.”
So what they’re both saying is that gains in prosperity and power for China in this case needn’t be bad for the United States, needn’t come at the expense of the United States.
I’m slightly challenging that, or rather, I’m saying that in the aftermath of the economic crisis, it does look increasingly like on the U.S.-China in particular, that a richer and more powerful China does actually challenge the United States in both economic and political ways.
Now, I don’t think that’s a good development. I think that creative leadership might find ways to reestablish cooperation. But the reason it’s a zero-sum future is I think that we are moving increasingly into an era of international rivalries, U.S.-China at the center of it.
But also, I write about problems within the European Union and the whole problem of what the kind of diplomats call global governors – efforts to find common international solutions to a whole range of issues, from nuclear proliferation to the food crisis, global economic imbalances. They’re all stuck, and they’re all stuck for a reason, which is that countries can’t find common ways, common solutions, because their national interests keep bashing up against each other.
Tavis: To the point you just made now, I wonder, though, that said, whether or not there are some rules of engagement, for lack of a better term, that ought to be abided by in this rivalry that seems unavoidable between the U.S. and China.
Rachman: Yeah, and I think that the interesting thing is that there are rules of engagement, and for the moment they’re being stuck to, but I think they’re coming under increasing strain.
So for example, the economic relationships are enormously important, and there are common international trade rules, but the U.S., really even at quite high levels in the Obama administration, are saying well, hang on, actually – we think the Chinese are breaking the rules, for example, on currency.
The question then comes, well, does America, if it thinks that, does it retaliate? Does it impose tariffs? That question is alive in Congress. Then other companies also worry about some American policies, the printing of money, and you see countries like Brazil and Thailand putting in capital controls, which again is eating away at the structure of the globalized economy.
So there are common rules, but I think they’re coming under strain, economically and also politically in other areas.
Tavis: I’ve got two minutes to go here, and I’m wondering if you can do me a favor and kind of just top-line for me so much of what the book revolves around – these three ages that you break down. The age of transformation, the age of optimism and the age of anxiety.
Rachman: Well, the age of transformation is ’78 to ’91, and that’s when I think we create this globalized, capitalist world. It starts with the opening of China in ’78, its move away from communism; it ends with the opening of India in ’91, and by the end of 1991 you have a kind of single global capitalist system in which all the major powers are participating.
’91 to 2008 is the age of optimism, when I think all the world’s major powers are kind of satisfied with the way the world’s working. The U.S. has its unipolar moment; China and India are growing very fast, European Union pretty optimistic as well.
Then you get this economic crisis, 2008, and the age of anxiety begins, because I think that a lot of the assumptions, particularly that we in the West had about our position in the world, about the spread of democracy, the dominance of free market economics, they’re all open to question. Therefore, politically we’re anxious and economically we’re worried about declining living standards and challenges to our position and power in the world.
Tavis: Finally, is it fair to say, then, that American power in the age of anxiety is going to wane?
Rachman: I think relatively, yeah, I do think that is the case. I think it’s inevitable, and frankly, the process was going on before 2008 with the rise of the Chinas and the Indias.
But I think that the economic crisis has brought it into focus, because to put it bluntly, within about 10 years the Chinese economy on current trends is likely to be larger than that of the United States, and unavoidably that has big political implications.
Tavis: We’re just scratching the surface tonight here on what is a provocative new text called “Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety,” written by the chief foreign affairs commentator for “The Financial Times,” Gideon Rachman. Gideon, congrats on the book. Good to have you on this program, sir.
Rachman: Thank you very much indeed, enjoyed it.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm