American Political Scientist and Author
President and Founder of Eurasia Group
It would always be a good thing to lead with humility and discretion but it is particularly important now because America's negotiating position in the rest of the world is weakening. And Trump has neither. He needs experts.
By Heidi Legg
I heard Ian Bremmer speak this past fall at a BNY Mellon event and was taken by his candid views and breadth of knowledge on the geopolitics of our times. I then discovered that he was a local boy, who had been raised by a single mom in the Chelsea projects before building a 30-year career in political science as founder of Eurasia Group, now the world's largest political risk consultancy. If you ever wonder how we look for visionary voices…. it’s that combination of personal story and Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory of mission that collides into a moment of time when such a voice is needed in society.
Bremmer founded Eurasia Group in 1998 when he discovered that the private sector didn’t normally hire political scientists. He now has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Stamford, CT, London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and San Francisco, with more than 150 full-time employees consulting to world leaders and major corporations. But for Bremmer, who regularly appears on Charlie Rose and speaks to world leaders around the globe, these accomplishments seem ornamental, secondary to a mission built around fact-based discussions on what is happening geo-politically and how America, with all its world privilege, has choice on how to use its powers. His Twitter feed is as frank as they get.
Bremmer argues in his book Superpowers that there are three directions for US foreign policy today and that the mistake, as he saw in the Obama years, is to try to be all three. The point is to pick one. I sat down with Bremmer to discuss his worry about Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience, his view on the frothing market, Trump’s relationship with Russia, and China’s potential to move into a global leadership role with the loss of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In an age where institutions seem to be crumbling, I consider voices like his vital to the conversation around emerging ideas and where we are headed.
I’m not sure if we should begin with the fact that you grew up in the Chelsea projects in Boston or that you've been knighted by the Italian government. What do you think?
I don't know. They seem like they'd go in the same direction, don't they?
What was it like growing up in Boston and how did you set off on what’s become an illustrious career in political science?
What's on my mind right now in terms of that topic is JD Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy which I've finally read after being told by everyone over the last few months to read and this idea of, ‘Why did Trump win? And who are these rural people in Appalachia and all the rest?’
What was so interesting to me is how similar this grandmother, who was this sort of critical figure in his life growing up, was with my own mother. And given his age, these two women came of age at about the same time. My mother also didn't finish high school, swore like a sailor, was incredibly confrontational, extraordinarily loyal to her family, and viscerally private. Those elements created, on the one hand, this extremely challenging emotional headspace for you to grow up around and, on the other hand, made you feel like you could accomplish anything you wanted. It gave me the emotional tools to succeed despite the fact that everyone else that grew up around me, many of whom were very smart, did not have those tools from their family and as a consequence did not end up getting out of Chelsea.
In his book, Vance’s conclusion, which I think was the right conclusion, he had a very different series of life choices: he ended up going to the Marines for a couple years and then went to college at Ohio State and then went to Yale Law School. I did very different things but he ended up concluding that the issue was not so much about ‘how what the government was or wasn't doing for these people,’ but it was more the culture of 'no optimism.'
What's the culture of 'no optimism'?
It was something he did not have. The 'culture of no optimism' – he had this grandmother and I had my mother – was his ability to understand that there were choices for him out there, that he could aspire to be more than what was around him, that he could stand up to authority and question things and think for himself. He learned that he could work hard and that he could be optimistic about his future and that he could have an American Dream.
You went onto Tulane and then Stanford followed by fellowships and academic roles. Was there a turning point in your career when you remember it all coming together?
I don't think so. First of all, I've built Eurasia Group now for almost 20 years with a full education and Ph.D. and I was an academic for a couple years. That's a lot of time in my field and so on the one hand you can say, ‘Wow, this kid was in the projects and he's forty seven and look at what he's accomplished,’ but from my perspective, I've been doing this for 30 years.
Yes, but even if you had studied at St. Paul's and grew up with financial privilege, I'd still be amazed at what you've accomplished.
Yes, but 30 years is a long time. I'm both humbled and enormously appreciative at where I am right now and how much I can do and it certainly spurs me to work a lot harder to make me feel purposeful. I've never felt that in my trajectory there was a sudden booster ship, rocket ship. I think it’s been steady and I’ve tried many things for a long time and some things work and some things don't. I’m someone very willing to take 'no downside, big upside' risks and take a lot of them.
Since Trump's election, the stock markets are up. Do you see this continuing or is it an overreaction?
First, in terms of the position I'm in, I think you're absolutely right. There's no question that people around the world now really want to understand how politics affect markets because the U.S. is a big driver of that, hasn't been heretofore. It's interesting that the markets have been as bullish in the U.S. as they have been and I think, in part, it's because the markets are very short-term.
This is not a strategic view. There's no concern about the fact that the US might not be leading the world order and what that means or that globalization is being turned back on its head and that the Americans are going to be hit by it. Structurally, there are lots of reasons, not just Trump, why you should be concerned about the trajectory of the United States in the world.
If you only look at, ‘What do we expect for the next year?’, we have a number of very wealthy, pro-industry, pro-banking appointments to the Trump cabinet with a president-elect who wants to cut back on regulation, wants to reduce corporate and individual taxation, wants to support infrastructure in the US, and wants to do a lot of privatization – these are all things that are traditionally focused on growth. Even if some of that growth is short term, and not sustainable, the market likes those things. You also have a Republican House and Senate and a Republican president-elect, which means that gridlock should not be as much of a problem.
At least for the next two years?
No, more than that because I don't see the Senate being a problem given which seats will be up in the next two years. For the entirety of a four-year Trump administration – unless he decides to start going off on the Republicans or vice versa…and that's not inconceivable – at least for now, there's good reason for the markets to think the US economy is doing better now than it was and these policies all look pretty promising. I think that's very rational.
So a Bull market will continue into 2017?
Look, there have been global recessions on average since World War II, every seven to eight years, with the last one in 2008. We’re kind of due and there are lots of things around the world – things that can go bump in the night – that are problematic, certainly around Europe and European banks, for example, and certainly around cyber. I think there are lots of black swans that could hit that would suddenly make us feel very differently about the economic trajectory but those are not priced into the markets, nor should they be. If you leave those things aside, the beginning of a Trump administration looks more uncertain than most given how much of an outsider he is, but still on balance it is structurally bullish.
Will the focus in 2017 be on Russia, China or the Middle East?
I think the focus is going to be on the United States. I think that the pivot to Asia is dead and Trump reflects a pivot back to America. Now, where America's foreign policy is going is an open question.
I suspect – barring God forbid a massive terrorist attack or something like that – that the Middle East is going to be less important for the United States. It's a low energy price environment. There's been progress against the Islamic State's physical headquarters in Iraq and Syria. There's a willingness to work with the Russians and potentially the Turks in trying to put some form of nominal end or symbolic end to the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria and the Americans don't have good ideas for how to intervene more significantly across the broader Middle East. I would expect that that part of the world would not drive a great deal of foreign policy unless something really blows up.
Now in Russia there are real opportunities. Obama's biggest failure as president in foreign policy was clearly Russia. He said that Russia must leave Ukraine. Putin said, ‘You're wrong.’ It turned out that Putin was right. He said that Assad must go. Putin said, ‘You're wrong.' It turns out that Putin was right. Obama said that we were going to put sanctions on the Russians until they behaved and everyone else would follow them and the Chinese and the emerging markets said that we were wrong and that in fact they were going to invest more in Russia. All Trump has to do is show up as president and say, ‘Guys, look at reality. These are things you may want to happen but the reality is that Assad's there and Russia's in Ukraine and we're having these problems with them and the Europeans aren't supporting us. So, why are we doing that?’ Kissinger, who was actually meeting with Trump today and has been meeting with him recently, will connect those dots and that's a no-brainer for a 93-year old. That's not hard.
So here’s Rex Tillerson. He’s a strong executive. He has a better relationship with Putin than anyone else Trump could have chosen, and before we dismiss that as a bad thing, we should consider the benefits of better communications with a guy that has a demonstrated ability to make all kinds of trouble for Washington. As an oilman, Tillerson, like Trump, will take a very transactional approach to Putin. Some good may come from that. At the very least, it will produce results better for the US than Obama ever got from Moscow. Let’s be clear: This isn’t détente. The CIA investigation into Russian meddling in US elections and the frictions it creates between Trump and Republicans in Congress will create more US-Russia tension.
Does this possibility of an improved relationship between the U.S. and Russia surprise you?
It's not a surprise in the sense that Obama had mishandled it so badly. Even Hillary Clinton, who had real problems with Russia and the Russians were hacking the Democratic National Committee to try to delegitimize the election, if she had won, would've tried to get it off the floor. She may have failed, but at the end of the day, we don’t know what Putin will do.
Tillerson will be a positive for frank discussions, but there a lot of people already around him who don't share his views on, ‘Hey, Russia could be awesome to work with.’ There will be other voices in Trump’s ear that don’t take the transactional approach. And, as we know, Trump himself is pretty volatile. In the end, we don’t know whom Trump will listen to – Or if he’ll listen to anyone.
Asia's where the U.S. should be more focused. The China relationship is by far the most important relationship. It's also the one that worries me the most particularly given the news we've seen in the last few days including the conversation with the Taiwanese president.
Do you think it was a mistake to call the Taiwanese president?
Sure, I do. I think it was a mistake because there was no strategy behind it. That call didn't need to be a mistake. It is conceivable and there are arguments that I am prepared to listen to that would say, ‘The U.S. has been too soft in China, the Chinese are wiping the floor with us and we need to focus more on building relationships that are going to matter as a bulwark against China that otherwise is going to eat our lunch, and that one of those is Taiwan with a government that wants to work more with us and so we should give them military aid. Why wouldn't we talk to the president?’
To do that I would argue that: number one, you want to have a Secretary of State. Number two: you want to have an Asia team. Number three: you want to coordinate it with Asian allies who support what you do and, number four: you would have wanted the thing that's most important to support your Asian allies and builds a bulwark against China which you would have wanted to move ahead, which is the Trans-Pacific Partnership which, of course, Trump has killed.
What you have is a number of Trump's junior transition team who ideologically want to support Taiwan and they set up the call with the Taiwanese. Trump has no idea that this is going to cause a policy-brouhaha. He takes the call because people are congratulating him because he's president. There's then a firestorm. Trump says, ‘Why the hell is there a firestorm? What is this all about?’ He finally gets the brief and then Kelly Ann Conway comes out and says, ‘Hey, Trump wasn't making policy.’ That's what actually happened and of course you can't support that because that's incompetence. Unfortunately, there is a downside in foreign policy to having a president-elect who has neither any experience in foreign policy, literally none, nor the particular inclination to get some. I think that is actually a downside.
People say that if the TPP doesn’t happen it would be a pivot away from Asia. Suddenly, Asia seems to be very much in the US culture: the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is coming to visit Pearl Harbor with President Obama in late December and the president of China is planning to go to Davos in the new year. Where do you see things going based on these developments?
The American pivot to Asia is dead. That does not mean that Asia is becoming less important. In fact, what it means is that the Chinese President Xi Jinping, in particular, sees a lot of room for movement and for leadership and to pick up where the Americans were not. That is precisely why, for the first time, Xi Jinping is going to Davos. That is directly related to the pivot to Asia being dead. Davos is this bastion of Western-led globalization where Trump, not only will not be going, but he considers Davos a problem. Trump railed against it publicly. If you're now the country that's leading globalization and is actually spending more time internationally, is supporting the United Nations, why wouldn’t you, as Xi Jinping, go in and pick up the pieces?
My friend Antonio Guterres, who is the new Secretary General of the United Nations, and I were talking the other day and I adore the guy. He had come from Beijing where President Jinping fêted him and held a private dinner for him, which is highly unusual.
The pivot is that the Chinese are going to lead a lot more things, at least economically, that the United States had heretofore and that is clearly a long term problem for the US. Why? If the Chinese are setting the rules and if they are both authoritarian and state capitalists, then they are going to set rules that we do not like and that will not be advantageous for our currency, for our companies and for our way of life.
To a degree, we don't need to care because we're the world's largest economy; we've got all the technology, all the food, all the energy and geopolitically our part of the world is very stable, but this will affect our allies around the world and ultimately that does not redound to our advantage.
Can the U.S. be friends simultaneously with both Japan and China in a very close way?
Yeah. I don't know that this administration can because this administration is much more about winning and losing. This administration is much more about scoring points and putting its name on stuff. I think that the idea behind U.S. policy in Asia and the pivot to Asia for the past years has been the hope that as China grows, they will not only get wealthier but they will also reform. And this idea is that they will become at least more economically advanced and that means their currency will become convertible and they will have more rule of law allowing corporations to act and compete with each other on a level playing field, not just in regard to the West and China, but also within China itself. The fact that the Chinese weren't involved when we set up the World Trade Organization and didn't have the ability to be, but then joined under Clinton and that presaged over 30 years of very strong Chinese growth. And I think the Trans-Pacific Partnership was part of that. It was something the Chinese did not have the standards economically to join when you try to set it up but you hope over time they will align more with it.
I do believe that as China got wealthier, there was a shot that the U.S.-China relationship would also be able to grow and grow more constructive. Now certainly it would be with some tension because again we don't share values in political systems and China is getting bigger. Even if we leave aside freedom of speech and human rights – which is hard for us to do, nor something we necessarily want to do – but even if we do, the fact is that it's hard for an America that expects everyone to do what we want. It’s also hard to deal with a China that's actually going to be bigger than the US, economically speaking, within a decade. This was never going to be easy, but I was not someone who believed at all that it was inevitable that the U.S. and China were heading towards confrontation.
Is the end of TPP a mistake?
It's a grave mistake. Yes.
What do you know about the Trump-Putin relationship?
They don't have a relationship, yet. They will and they certainly have some mutual interests and the most important mutual interest is Putin has felt that the United States treats him with disrespect and that the U.S. has been trying to delegitimize both his system and him in the eyes of the average Russian citizen. He feels that the Americans are very arrogant about the exceptionalism of our values and he considers us massive hypocrites. He hears the Americans say that the Russians need to be democratic and the Russians need to be free market and, meanwhile, he sees things like Guantanamo and Iraq and the rest in the United States, and even the financial crisis, and says, ‘Look at these guys.’
You think Putin sees us as hypocrites?
He does and he does not accept the idea that the Americans get to tell the Russians how to behave and I think that he sees in Trump, at the very least, someone that is much more transactional in the way they think about foreign policy – as a business deal. Trump could not care less who he's selling a business to as long as they're giving him the highest price. Trump does not really care about the values of his allies as long as they are doing something that is transactionally useful for Trump. I think that for Putin, that is a much more comfortable way to approach international affairs. There’s a reason why Putin feels that this has the potential to be a more constructive relationship – but… to be very clear, there's a lot of uncertainty in Russia right now as to exactly how to approach Trump.
You wrote that those who make foreign policy must be guided by humility and discretion. Trump is neither. Who should Trump surround himself with?
I mean you couldn't have come up with a sentence that resonates more clearly with what I think America needs in the world and what Trump doesn't have.
It would always be a good thing to lead with humility and discretion but it is particularly important now because of America's negotiating position in the rest of the world is weakening. And Trump has neither.
Who does he need? He needs experts. He needs people, who know what they’re talking about, and who have a nuanced understanding of how other people see the world. He needs people who can sit down with the world’s most important people and understand the conversation from both points of view, even as he/she fights for the best deal the administration can get. And Trump needs people whose judgment and advice he respects. He needs to have people around him who are capable of talking him into or out of important decisions. That requires a different kind of self-confidence from the president. Not chutzpah. It’s the self-confidence that allows for humility and discretion.
Trump desperately needs competence in foreign policy and he desperately needs competence in international affairs. We are well beyond the 'How might we create an ideal foreign policy team – a team of rivals?’ We're way beyond that. We are at 'Oh, my God. This guy literally has no idea how to conduct basic diplomacy and foreign policy.' He is not inclined to do it.
Mattis is a very good pick for Secretary of Defense, by the way.
Even with the rule about civilians running the army?
I could care less.
How do we keep foreign policy in civilian hands and not military hawks?
That’s so not my worry – not at all. My concern would be how do you keep foreign policy or any policy in the hands of professionals as opposed to people in and around the Trump business organization? That's the problem because of conflicts of interest. How do you keep America from becoming South Korea, for example? That's a much bigger worry. Five years ago, I would've said, ‘I'm worried about having a military person running the Secretary of State.’ Today, we're so far beyond that being a problem. The fact that the Secretary of Defense is going to be a thoughtful person who is not inclined to rattle sabers unwisely is a very good thing. Mattis is his best appointment so far in terms of foreign policy.
You write in Superpowers under the Moneyball theory that it's not power that makes America exceptional, it’s our freedom and that the government has no right to spy on us. Are we at risk of losing this?
Privacy is going away. There's no question about that and the question is to the benefit of whom? Is it corporations or is it governments? And in different countries, the answer is different things.
One of the most disturbing trends that I've seen on this front in the world is in China where people don't have credit ratings. It's a poor and developing country and those don't typically have them. They're now creating credit ratings in China called Social Credit where the economic benefits which allow you to get a mortgage or leave the country or apply for anything is linked not just to how you behave economically, but also what you do on social media, who your friends are and whether they’re politically unorthodox. Obviously this is Orwellian stuff but it's also extremely useful for the Chinese government that wants to maintain a hold on political stability.
The question is what other companies or governments are going to start moving in that direction? When all of the data is controlled by a relatively small number of organizations, their decision on how to use that, one could argue, includes the fiduciary responsibility of a Chinese company to use Social Credit, if they can, because clearly a politically unorthodox Chinese would be a worse credit risk. As a shareholder, you certainly wouldn't want to extend credit to someone who is more likely to end up in jail, right? That's relevant.
Data collection exists here as well.
Right. Of course.
It comes back to leadership. We look to government to regulate the adverse use of that data by both government and corporations to make sure that data wasn’t being used or people weren’t being punished in a way that took away our freedom. That’s a place, as a journalist, where I wonder how we tackle that?
One way we tackle it is behavior changes. Email doesn't work. We saw this not only with WikiLeaks but also with the Podesta issue where an individual has all of their emails put up online. I see many CEOs and companies who are basically saying, ‘We have to move to some form of intranet.’
I think email will move the way that young people use it. You have a cell phone and you will share some information on a dating app; you'll share some information on Instagram; some you'll share on LinkedIn; some you'll have in email and it'll be inefficient but there'll be different types of privacy and engagement for different types of apps. I suspect that the next iterations of your smartphone will not have email. This idea of a universal communication form called email that has all your information is too hackable. It doesn't work. The surveillance is a problem and it gets rid of all privacy.
Now there's still this question of how much information government and corporations are going to be able to grab, even if you are less exposed in terms of what kind of privacy you're giving away because you're not sharing as much as you used to.
Even if we limit it, how do we protect it from being used?
It’s not just usable, people can profit from it. The government can use it to monitor you and companies can use it to make money and that's an area where right now I don't see effective pushback. I think that we're moving in a direction where the Internet that we used to believe was decentralizing and empowering of individuals is becoming centralizing. Instead, it’s empowering corporations and authoritarian governments.
Please talk to me about US debt. There has been a 120% increase in military spending post 9/11 and our debt equals our output. I worry about the US debt. Do you?
Whenever I'm asked about debt, no one ever talks to me about the balance sheet, which I find curious. When we look at companies, we would never invest in companies only understanding their debt, that would be stupid, but when we look at government we do. The question is, ‘When we're actually taking debt on, are we wasting the money or are we investing in smart things?’
I have no problem with the idea, in a low interest environment, of doing a lot of spending. I have no problem with raising our deficit if we are investing in things that are necessary that will help the country grow. Are we investing in needed infrastructure like a smart grid, for example, or airports that work, or sea walls that are going to be necessary given climate change? Are we investing in more flexible training so that younger people are going to be able to compete in a digitized and more A.I. driven economy? I would blow the budget out on that. But the question is purely, ‘Are we going to do that or are we going to invest in lots of things that are populist driven but actually a waste of money?’ That's what we need to understand.
You lay out three foreign policy choices in Superpowers and argue that the key for an administration is to pick one and follow through: Independent, which is isolationist; Moneyball, which is around trade deals and tactics; and Indispensible, which is based on fixing the world's problems and spreading democracy. Which do recommend for the Trump administration?
Right. You can't do all three.
It's very clear that Independent America is what Trump has embraced and independent America is not necessarily isolationist, but unilateralist. It is much more about America looking out for itself and being more transactional in its foreign policy. I don't like that pick but it is the one that I believe that America, given a more challenging global environment and given the direction that the American citizens themselves are moving in with this reaction and the backlash to connectivity and globalization, the one we are most capable of actually implementing and executing.
The worst thing you can do is say one and not do it – because Obama talked a good Indispensible America game but then didn't do it. That's much worse than picking one and following through.
The problem is that, while Trump has an inclination towards independent America, independent America only works if you lead by example. In other words, make America so strong at home that everyone else recognizes that we're too big to fail. Then they have to go along with us – not because we tell them to – but because it is in their own interest.
My fear, given the conflict of interest issue with Trump and given the lack of policy capability in many of the people around him, is that the U.S. will not be leading by example and that you'll have unilateralism abroad but you won't have the piece that's critical for the foundation of independent America.
Do you think Trump's administration won’t deliver on the jobs and infrastructure and MAGA?
I worry that America's going to be more divided by a Trump that focuses on identity politics. I worry about what sort of relations with America's Hispanics and blacks and Muslims and women are going to look like under Trump. I worry about the efficiency of US spend when a fair amount of the economy may look like it’s informal and compromised by those with conflicts of interest around the Trump family. Those kinds of things make it hard for the Americans to lead by example.
Let me be very clear: I do not think that Trump is fit to be the president, but now that he's been elected, I want him to succeed. I think it's critical that he does and not just for our country – for our world. There's no question it is possible for him to succeed. If he gets good people around him and if he focuses on the domestic challenges, it is possible. He's got Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff; he has some solid and capable people with Elaine Chao for Transportation Secretary, Wilbur Ross for Commerce, and he can get more.
Trump could surprise us and truly sell his company and say, ‘I'm going to be president. I'm rich enough. I don't need these problems. I'm going to IPO my company and the identity politics don’t matter as much.’ Once he's president, he's already got as much power as he wants. It is certainly possible that he can succeed and obviously the outcomes are going to be more nuanced and more complex. Certainly, if you look at the first three weeks since he's been elected, the trends are not good. The trends are that his personality, his behavior, his impulses continue to get the better of him despite the fact that he's now won. I mean look at Obama acting as the adult in the room and meeting with him for 90 minutes and saying, ‘I want to help this guy.’ But Obama isn't going to be able to do that for much longer.
China is investing in infrastructure in Africa and Laos to secure their access to resources. You remind us about the Marshall Plan in the book and how 10% of U.S. output was spent rebuilding Europe post-World War II. If America chooses an isolationist foreign policy and China is investing worldwide, what happens to America?
It depends on how well we build. Again, the U.S. is the largest economy in the world and while it probably won't be in 10 years – China will – we still have many intrinsic advantages: we're the largest energy producer in the world; we're the largest food producer in the world; our technology is at the cutting edge in so many new fields and the future of the world is going to be dictated less by population than it is by automation and A.I. There are a great deal of things that the United States has going for it that could allow us to be exceptionally successful in the next 10 to 20 years, even if we're not the ones building all the infrastructure and setting the standards.
If China's successful economically over time, they may not want our political models but they are going to need to deal with more competition inside China and that will move them to a more transparent model, economically. I don't feel that it’s inevitable that the United States taking an independent America strategy is a failure.
One of the purposes of my book was to say, ‘If you're the world's only superpower, it's not like you're in a corner. You don't only have one choice.’ There are a lot of countries out there where I don't need three choices for foreign policy. You can do America, America or America. If Trump comes in and you're Mexico, the peso is going down. Why? Because he's a problem for you, right? But if you're the United States, you actually have choices and what I wanted to do was articulate, in the most fair and even handed way for the American citizens, how this stuff matters.
It's becoming more challenging given how they make it sound going through the election where, ‘It's either my way or the highway and you do what I do – everyone else is evil.’ That's not true. America has real choices and Americans historically haven't had to care much about foreign policy because we can do it all. It didn't matter if we were lying to people post World War II, but now that's now true anymore. Now we do actually have decisions to make and I think that that's a good thing. It's a wonderful luxury to be able to choose your future.
This goes back to how you started the conversation. My mother instilled in me a sense that even though I grew up in the projects with no dad and poor, I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do and as it turned out, what I wanted to be was a political scientist in the private sector. Not only did I get the advanced degree, when it turned out the private sector didn’t hire political scientists, I created the firm. Now, that is an extraordinary position and the number of Americans that I know who have the ability to do whatever they want and don't – that is such a crying shame. When you read Hillbilly Elegy, you realize how many Americans, living in this most extraordinary country, don't actually have the ability to do whatever they want. They are stuck in the same rut as their parents in the way that you think about a caste society in India.
Wasn’t that the source of frustration this election?
Absolutely, but all the more reason why if you're in my position, you feel compelled to let Americans that are interested in this stuff know that we have choices. It's really important to know that we have choices.
Why should the world care about political scientists having value in the leadership of our countries?
Because people are otherwise being lied to about the world. There's a reason why people don't trust their politicians; they don't trust their leaders anymore. They don't feel authentic. They feel like they're pursuing an agenda.
Add not trusting the media to that list.
They don't trust the media anymore, their political parties anymore, their CEOs, their bankers – they don't trust all these people in established positions and I think that what political scientists bring to the table is the ability and the experience to look dispassionately at what's actually happening in your country and outside your country and to do it in a way that's not going to create antagonism, isn't going to say, ‘I don't like the person you support.’ It's not about that. I don't care who you support. It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat or like the Israelis or the Palestinians. That doesn't matter. Let's just talk about what's actually happening in the world. That's becoming much more important and that's the role that good political scientists play. It's vastly more important now than it has been at any point since I've been around.
What public opinion would you like to change?
I have so many. The thing that bothers me the most is those public opinions that are actually not opinions but criticism of fact. They shouldn't be opinions. For example, I accept evolution. I don't believe in evolution. It's not an opinion. It's an accepted scientific fact and so if you believe in creationism, in my view, you don't get to argue with me. That's not both of us on a panel on CNN where we discuss it and where they give each of us equal time. You don't get that. You don’t get to change something that is false to recognize.
When they're truly public opinions, fine. How do you feel about gay rights? How do you feel about capital punishment? How do you feel about legalization of marijuana? We can have great debates over that. We can disagree. It's perfectly fine. I don't want to change any of those opinions, but when we're talking about things that are fact such as climate denial when 99% of scientists accept that climate change is happening, you don't get to have an opinion that says it's not happening. You don't get to be Mike Pence and have an opinion that maybe a few million illegal immigrants voted in the election. No, actually, that's not possible. That is provable, and so I worry deeply that America is becoming a country where there is a growing set of establishment public opinions that are actually anti-fact and that is the first step towards authoritarianism. Let us be very clear. That is how your democracy ends. If there is one thing that I will do as a political scientist, it will be to fight with every bit of influence that I have to ensure that that does not happen.
People used to look to journalism for fact-based information but now there are few revenue streams for those of us doing straight journalism and it’s deeply problematic in ensuring truth gets out there. Any ideas?
That's right. I think what you have is people like Jeff Bezos who understand it's important and are putting their money behind fact-based journalism. And you've got Eurasia group and you know what? I don't need any more money. I don't care. You can’t do anything to me.
For example, the CEO of Boeing said something mean about Trump's trade policy and 22 minutes after it came out in the Chicago Tribune, Trump tweeted that the Boeing plane was too expensive and should be cancelled. That is what creates the end of fact. When people feel like they need to check themselves before they give their honest dispassionate view on something and we need people that can't be intimidated by that and that cannot intimidate me. That's certainly true.
Do you think Obama recognizes Palestine before he leaves?
Greatest Obama legacy?
Favorite place in Boston?
What do you miss most about Boston?
Meandering the streets with the old buildings and the way the city used to be. I hate the new development over the Seaport. It feels like Canary Wharf. I can't believe they did that to Boston. It actually makes me feel less rooted. I like to walk the North End and the Back Bay and Beacon Hill and all those areas that I rambled around when I was a kid and take the bus in and think it was amazing. It's been around for a long time, at least from a U.S. perspective. That's what I like about Boston.
Anyone you really look up to?
I really looked up to Christopher Hitchens and his facility with the English language, his ability to pick up an argument thread for argument sake and to eviscerate and speak truth to power, extraordinary. I like people that do that. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Alice Waters. I like people like G.K. Chesterton and Mark Twain – I like curmudgeonly figures, people who are authentic because of the power of their ideas and who also are somewhat bumptious. Those are people that I really admire.