January 14, 2022

Fareed Zakaria

Author and anchor Fareed Zakaria discusses the lessons of Covid-19 as the world enters the third year of the pandemic; Zakaria, who as a student brought William F. Buckley Jr. to Yale, also discusses threats to democracy at home and abroad.

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MH: Lessons from the pandemic, democracy in America and what to do about Ukraine. This Week on Firing Line. 

Zakaria: “America’s greatest asset, its constitutional republic and its democratic character seem to be in danger of breakdown.” 

MH: He’s been in the public square for decades. As a young conservative at Yale in the mid-1980s, Fareed Zakaria brought William F. Buckley Jr. to campus, and appeared on Firing Line.

Zakaria: “There is also the rise of nationalist sentiment around the world in every sense.” 

MH: Zakaria became the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine when he was just 28.  Now he’s a Washington Post columnist, an author, and the anchor of the CNN program GPS: Global Public Square.

Zakaria: “Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world.”

MH: Over the years, some of his views have shifted to the left. These days he’s focused on how the pandemic is shaping the future, America’s role in the world…

Biden: “America is back.” 

MH: …and dangers to liberal democracy at home and abroad. What does Fareed Zakaria say now?

Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate Funding is provided by Stevens Inc. and Pfizer inc.

HOOVER: Fareed Zakaria, welcome back to Firing Line and Happy New Year.

ZAKARIA: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be with you, Margaret.

HOOVER: As 2022 gets underway, Omicron is driving a surge in cases and hospitalizations, and there is fresh debate over what our public health posture should be. Now, you finished writing your most recent book, “Ten Lessons For a Post-Pandemic World,” back in June of 2020, when roughly 125 thousand Americans had died from the virus, we’re rapidly closing in on 850-thousand American lives lost. How, Fareed, have your ten lessons for the post-pandemic world held up?

ZAKARIA: You know, actually surprisingly well. If you look at the biggest challenge the United States has had, what I pointed out in the book, that our public health system is not really designed for public health. By which I mean, it’s designed for private health. We have a health care system where if you’re rich or if you’re insured, you get pretty darn good health care. If you’re not, it’s pretty miserable. But the most important part is that it’s private. It’s not public. Dealing with a pandemic. You require a collective response, not an individual response. Public health issues are not just health issues, they’re public issues. Both words are important. Doctors and scientists don’t get to decide for everybody in a democracy what policy is going to be. And we don’t blindly follow. Because, frankly, they have one particular perspective. For example, in their case it is: minimize the spread of this disease, which is the most important objective. It is absolutely the one they should have. But it’s not the only one. We also have an economy that we have to think about. And if you say, you know, that you can start to slow the spread of this virus by 15 percent by shutting down the entire economy and putting, you know, 50 million people out of work, we would say that’s not a risk/reward ratio that makes sense. And that’s why everybody needs to be involved in this. I quote Clemenceau, who during World War One said war is too important to be left to generals. Well, pandemics are too important to be left to scientists. It’s not that their perspective is not important. Probably the single most important one. But there are other issues you have to think about. You have to think about what is the price of shutting down a society, shutting down an economy, putting people, kids out of school and you’ve got to balance the two. And that’s why ultimately, in a democracy, this has to be done by all of us, not just by the experts.

HOOVER: There’s a lot to learn from the postmortem. But in some ways, Fareed, it seems to me the experts, quote unquote, aren’t learning from their own mistakes. You know, on December 21st, the Biden administration announces that they’re supporting a plan to send 500 million at-home tests to Americans for free. Now we’re in the middle of January and the first tests have still not shipped. This is on top of the Biden administration’s shortsightedness in preparing the country for the surge that would inevitably come through the holiday season. What is your sense or view of why the Biden administration has fallen short? 

ZAKARIA: You know, it’s actually a perfect example of the first point I was making. We’re just not very good at public health. So from the start it is obvious that the thing you needed more than anything else was good, cheap mass testing, because that’s the simplest way to figure out whether people are infected or not, and, more importantly, whether they are infectious. So that’s the core thing we needed to get right. We didn’t get it right during the Trump administration. We haven’t gotten it right under Biden. Now, I contrast it with the vaccine. We got the vaccine right because it’s a very American solution. It is a simple, technological, one shot deal where you solve the problem. And we’re good at that. Testing is an ongoing institutionalized bureaucratic response. It’s part of a whole system that has to be able to deliver and then deliver and collate the results and share the data. We’re terrible at that. We’re bad at that kind of public health and collective response and sharing of data. 

HOOVER: You write a passage in the book where I want to quote you. You said, “And then there is America, which has long charted its own course. Was this exceptionalism the cause of the country’s inability to tackle COVID 19? Does that failure shed light on broader weaknesses of the world’s most powerful country? It certainly highlights a specific American vulnerability.” Tell me more about that. 

ZAKARIA: Yeah, I do tend to think that. Look, I’m an immigrant. I’ve made my life here. So I want to be clear that, you know, I’m saying this with an immigrant’s love for the country. There is a danger when you start to think that you are special and unique, different, that you don’t learn as much. You don’t look around. You don’t say, How do other people do this? What can I learn? Bill Gates had a great line where he said, “Whenever I was at Microsoft, when we confronted a problem, the first, the two questions we would ask ourselves is, who in the world is doing this better, and what can we learn from them?” Well, you know, the public discourse in this country, we don’t ask that question very often. We don’t say, Who’s got a good healthcare system and what can we learn from it? Who somehow has, you know, low rates of gun homicide, and what could we learn from it? Who has a prison system where you don’t have repeat recidivism, people going back in and out, cycling back and forth, and what can we learn from them? And that is, I think, related to a certain, to a certain degree, to the exceptionalism. 

HOOVER: And yet the role that the U.S. played in funding and developing the vaccine feels like an example of American exceptionalism, or at least American leadership.

ZAKARIA: Absolutely. You know, and it’s one of America’s great strengths, which is: we are a very rich country. We have the resources to do stuff. We have an amazingly innovative private sector. And in a way, this public private partnership is a tried and tested one. If you think about the development of the computer chip, if you think about Silicon Valley in general, so much of it was: the government identified something crucial, it pays an enormous amount of money, and the private sector develops it. The vaccine similarly. No private sector would have been willing to make the kind of billion-dollar investments. You remember what the government said – and this is, again, to Trump’s credit – we’ll, you know, we’ll give you the money, you build the factories, before the FDA has approved these vaccines. So if it doesn’t go right, the government will suffer the billion dollar loss. But if it goes well, all you have to do is repay the loan and then, you know, all the profits are yours. That’s a very American system. We’re good at that. It’s a little bit different from the mythology of the American free market in that time and time again the government has stepped in. But not to run things, not to administer things. It’s, you know, our system works best when the government pays and the private sector executes. So maybe there’s a lesson that maybe we should be doing more things like that.

HOOVER: The United States set a new pandemic high for hospitalizations this week. You wrote in The Washington Post just last week that it is not time for, quote, “lockdowns, school closures or onerous travel restrictions.” And I saw you told Bill Maher just before Thanksgiving that vaccinated Americans should get to decide what level of risk they are willing to take. So on a practical level, give us some examples.

ZAKARIA: Sure. I think that if you are triple vaccinated, if you are vaccinated with a booster, if you are being careful about using masks and if you are using tests, if you want to have a dinner party or, you know, a Christmas thing and 20 or 30 people there. You know, I went to a couple of these where they asked everybody to do a test that morning, send in the results. That seems to me a reasonable level of risk in a free society. The chance that somebody is going to get seriously ill in that circumstance that I described is very low. The chance that they’re going to die is essentially nonexistent. And let me just remind all of us that every time you drive on an American highway, you are taking a much higher risk than what I just described. Now, if you’re unvaccinated, it’s a whole different game, but that’s the kind of risk-reward thinking we have to engage in. We need to think about this more sensibly.

HOOVER: Do you think there are certain rules that should apply to those who choose to be unvaccinated? 

ZAKARIA: I think one way to think about it would be to think about the cost element, because they are placing a burden on the public health system disproportionately higher than the vaccinated. I mean, the Canadians are thinking of essentially having a tax on non-vaccinated people because they’re saying, you know, you are forcing us to cater to you in emergency rooms, do all these kinds of things where there is a cost which all of us are going to bear. But I think that the important thing to understand is, you have a lot of freedom in this country, but you don’t have the freedom to ask– or you shouldn’t have the freedom to ask other people to pay for your mistakes. That feels to me like– for all those who believe in personal responsibility, that cuts the wrong way.

HOOVER: It brings me to the mandates, the vaccine mandate conversations. We’ve seen a real dearth, particularly from GOP elected leaders, of creativity in terms of figuring out how to achieve the public policy end of having the most people vaccinated. Right? How do we encourage, incentivize or penalize people for not becoming vaccinated if we’re not going to mandate it? And that’s it seems to me like where we’ve fallen short. But why haven’t we seen more energy around trying to achieve the public policy outcome we all desire apart from the mandate conversation.

ZAKARIA: You know, it’s part of a much larger issue that you’ve talked about on this program often, which is the cowardice of the GOP on issues where they think the base is wrong. And I say they think the base is wrong using a very simple piece of evidence. Every one of the GOP leaders you are talking about, Margaret, is vaccinated, including Donald Trump. So they all believe in it for themselves, for their family. But they will not tell their followers, their base, ‘Look, this is important. This is life saving. The reason I’ve gotten it is X, Y and Z.’ It’s very sad. It’s a complete lack of leadership, and it has produced this unique problem in the United States. It is why we are the least vaccinated country in the advanced industrial world.

HOOVER: Is a tax on the unvaccinated something we should consider?

ZAKARIA: I’d be interested in, you know– We have and we have a constitution that makes it harder to do this kind of thing. But how about calling it a ‘public health charge?’ I’m in favor of making people understand that they cannot burden the public, and all of us, all taxpayers, with something that they can easily, you know, take care of themselves. 

HIS POLITICAL JOURNEY

HOOVER: Fareed, this isn’t your first appearance on Firing Line. You– in 1999– were a guest on one of the final episodes of the original Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr., and he gave you a glowing introduction. Listen to this: 

BUCKLEY: I first met Fareed Zakaria when he was the undergraduate president of the political union and presided over a debate I had there with Senator George McGovern. His sharp mind and pen have moved him very quickly to young eminence in foreign policy analysis. 

HOOVER: Quite a compliment. And at the same time, Fareed, your politics have had their own journey since the time you appeared on Firing Line, and since the time you were the head of the Yale Political Union. How has your political journey, starting with the right, how has it progressed? 

ZAKARIA: Bill and I used to joke about this. The last time I saw him, we went sailing off the coast of Connecticut. And he was very generous personally, and he would never try to needle you. But he started to tease me about it, and I said to him, Look, I think the best and most honest answer would be this. I have changed a certain amount, but the right has also changed a fair amount. I would argue that the right has changed more than I have. And he said to me, that’s a fair point. And he felt the right, by the end of his life, he felt that the right had changed a lot as well. Look, I came to this country as an immigrant. I was very fervently anti-communist because I grew up in India, and I’d seen real life communists and communism. I liked Ronald Reagan’s muscular anti-communism. And that was the defining issue. I was always socially very liberal, but it never seemed important at the time. It just wasn’t the central issue that people were dealing with. The central issues were Communism and free markets. And so when the 90s come around and Bill Clinton moves the Democratic Party to the – you know, the Cold War is over, so there’s no more Communism– Bill Clinton says the era of big government is over, and he becomes a free trade, free market Democrat, as does Blair, I suddenly realized that I was very comfortable with that kind of liberalism. And then the right starts to embrace more and more these social issues that I was never very conservative on. And now they start emphasizing abortion, gay rights, you know, prayer in the public schools, et cetera. And that just wasn’t my world. It wasn’t my agenda. I thought it was a– I, really, I’m a very modern person. I think that this whole kind of throwback to the idea that you’re going to make America great again, that it was all great in the 1950s, the, you know, the nostalgia as a form of political ideology I find both off-putting and somewhat offensive. Because, you know, we’ve come a long way, women have come a long way, minorities have come a long way. And I think it demeans all that progress to view it in those terms. But, do I get annoyed by the Democratic Party’s overreliance on regulation and taxation? Yes. Do I think the cancel culture is absurd? Yes. So, I– in some ways, I’m not a great team member. And in my journalism, I always think my job is not to pick a team. My job is to look at the issue and ask myself, what is the best answer on this issue? And sometimes I agree with the Republicans. Sometimes I agree with Democrats. I mean, obviously I have moved left. I would not dispute that. But I get into a lot of trouble when I write columns that say, ‘You know what, on this issue, the Republicans are right.’ Or, on this issue– I even wrote a couple about Donald Trump. And, you know, there were, there were vanishingly few issues on which I agreed with him, but there were some. And I felt it was my responsibility to say that, not to be quiet about it.

HOOVER: Is the right unrecognizable to you now? Does it represent any of the modern American conservatism that Buckley represented to you anymore?

ZAKARIA: No. Today, you’re absolutely right, it is unrecognizable. What’s happened now is the Trump revolution. The right has essentially become a populist, nationalist, somewhat racially oriented party. And I think that that transformation — which would, I think, have people like Buckley spinning in their graves — has made it completely unrecognizable. So that the right — and you can see this not just in Trump, but in Josh Hawley, in Marco Rubio and all these people — is anti-business in many areas. It’s anti-free trade. It’s very protectionist in many areas. It is not particularly interested in upholding, championing, encouraging and spreading democracy abroad — a core element of Reagan’s conservatism — and instead is much more focused on this cultural nationalism, religious nationalism.

HOOVER: Is the Republican Party in its current state a danger to democracy?

ZAKARIA: I don’t think that the Republican Party in its ideological framework is necessarily a danger to democracy in the sense that, you know, look, people have conservative nationalist views. That they have those views, even if they have somewhat racially oriented views, I mean, this is a free country. People are allowed to believe what they believe. What has made them a danger to democracy is that many conservatives believe two things: One, that their country is slipping away from them, that there is some kind of existential danger of a radical transformation of America. This fear that the country is going to be transformed, and changed, and is going to– is going to be destroyed. So that existential fear, coupled with the fear that you can’t win legitimately just with elections. Look, in the last 25 years the Republican candidate for president has won the popular vote only one time, George W. Bush’s second election. What that has produced is this fear of democracy, this fear that if people vote, maybe we’re not going to win, and then America gets destroyed. So you put those two things together and it is a danger to democracy, and that’s why you’re seeing so many changes in election laws at the state level. And so now, yeah, I do think unfortunately, there are elements of the Republican Party that are actively undermining American democracy. 

HOOVER: I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to squeeze in a question about another fledgling democracy that is fighting for its own autonomy. In 2014, while the Russian annexation of Crimea was underway, you called the crisis, quote, “the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War.” Today, Russian aggression is again in the spotlight. One hundred thousand Russian troops have amassed in recent weeks near the border with Ukraine. Talks this week did not lead to a breakthrough. You have said that you are generally wary of calls for U.S. intervention, but that this is different because it involved quote, “whether national boundaries can be changed by brute force,” end quote. 

ZAKARIA: So let me explain why I thought this was so important. The United States has created an international system after 1945 that is a transformation of international politics. Since 1945 the number of times that a country has simply annexed another country’s territory is vanishingly small. I mean, it’s a huge breakthrough in international relations, you know. So when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, it was violating one of the really, the central achievements of this American rules-based international order that was created since the Cold War. So I thought it was incredibly important not to normalize something like this. Because, you know, the gap between order and disorder is very thin. And once you start normalizing this stuff, you can imagine a world in which we’re back to this kind of constant war, invasion, annexation. So, one thing I will say about where we are now is, we have stayed together against the Russian annexation much more strongly than I worried about. So the biggest fear was that the Europeans — all of whom are dependent on Russia for energy, for natural gas, all of whom want to do business with Russia, and generally don’t tend to have a lot of steel in their spine on some of these kinds of issues — would give in, would cave. And I have to give credit here. I mean, this is where human beings matter. Angela Merkel, being somebody who came out of the world of communism, had a very strong sense that this was a defining issue for Europe and for the West, and she stayed strong. If we can really keep an international coalition together, impose incredibly punitive sanctions on the Russians, threaten — you know, I think the Biden people are doing the right thing – make it clear to them that this would be a fundamental transformation in Russia’s participation in the global economy. Well, then that’s a very heavy price. And the Russians would, I think, think once, twice, three times about it. 

HOOVER: So what is the red line, then, when it comes to the U.S. response to Russian aggression?

ZAKARIA: We don’t accept the annexation of Crimea. We never will. We continue to support Ukraine. We give them, you know, the support they need. Look, at the end of the day, what the Russians are fighting in the long run, in my view, is a losing game. They are trying to maintain a series of docile satellite states around them: Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan. Belarus and Kazakhstan are not asking for American help, so we shouldn’t get involved. But Ukraine is asking, and has been asking for 10 years now. If we can help Ukraine stand on its own, that will be the single most effective way to deter the Russians and to, and to send a signal to the people in that region: ‘Look, if you have the capacity and the willpower, we will help you. But, you know, it’s your country. You have to fight for it.’ 

HOOVER: What would justify military intervention then, Fareed? 

ZAKARIA: A full scale invasion of Ukraine with an attempt to actually incorporate it back into Russia. I think that we would have to– at that point, we would have to ask ourselves, how could, you know, is there a way to militarily deal with this? It’s very hard, Margaret. The reason, if you remember back to the old days of the 1980s, that we were trying to deploy short-term nuclear missiles in Europe, was that we did not believe that we could win a conventional war in Europe against the Soviet Union. That fundamental logic still applies. It would be very hard for us to win a conventional war against Russia in Europe, these are the very tough decisions in life, because it’s a very tough problem. But you don’t get any points for failing with honor. 

HOOVER: Fareed Zakaria, thank you for coming and sharing your views, and thank you for coming back to Firing Line. 

ZAKARIA: This is a huge pleasure and I, you’re doing such an amazing job with it. I think Bill Buckley would be very proud. 

HOOVER: You’re very kind.