Former Obama Advisor Ben Rhodes Discusses Authoritarianism, Nationalism Around the Globe
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, September 28, 2021 — Asia Society Texas welcomed Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama, for a conversation with moderator Mustafa Tameez, CEO and founder of Outreach Strategists LLC and board member of Asia Society Texas. Rhodes discussed his new book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, addressing the rise of nationalism he has noted across the globe and the factors he believes have contributed to that.
Corruption central to growing strain of authoritarianism
In his book Rhodes said he hoped to investigate what he termed a trend of growing authoritarianism and nationalism across the world through an examination of China, Russia, and Hungary. He selected these countries as, in his view, China and Russia serve as counterexamples to the U.S. in the future of politics by representing autocratic leadership compared to democratic institutions, while he believed Hungary’s story mirrors the one in the U.S., wherein a leader exploits populist views against liberalism and globalization.
Rhodes indicated that his book highlights specific characters and their lived experiences to explain the direction of events in the world. Through the stories of Hong Kong protesters, well-known Putin critic Alexei Navalny, and a Hungarian anticorruption activist, Rhodes identifies the central root of the autocratic trends that have emerged in the three countries: corruption.
“Corruption was exploited as the vulnerability to democracy and then it became the lifeblood of autocracy,” he said, explaining that corruption led people to feel a sense of grievance against democracy and globalization, a feeling which was then harnessed by leaders like Hungarian President Viktor Orbán to attack democratic, liberal institutions such as the EU and global trade and immigration. Yet despite Orban’s attacks on corruption, Rhodes noted that Orban simultaneously used corruption to finance his own rise, tactics which Donald Trump emulated in the U.S.
The role of economic interests and nationalist identity
Rhodes went on to identify specific challenges in the trends of growing nationalism and authoritarianism, including the roles played by global economic interests and the impact of identity. He pointed to the interconnected global economy and China’s outsized influence resulting in self-censorship in critiques of China’s domestic policies. In Rhodes’ view, China’s financial investments through its Belt and Road Initiative incentivizes benefiting governments to align with China’s political goals, while China’s massive economic market leads international Western-based businesses to stay silent on issues of authoritarian policy to protect continued access.
Authoritarianism has also been increasingly interconnected with ethnonationalist sentiment, Rhodes added. He explained that the age of globalization brought a number of tradeoffs and costs along with its economic benefits, and these costs often included the homogenization of access and experience as well as the loss of traditional identity. The loss of identity became a rallying point after the global financial crisis in 2008 brought into question the reality of the economic benefits, Rhodes said, and authoritarian leaders around the world — including in China, the U.K., Israel, Turkey, and India — began to offer a new narrative around returning to traditional identity and “taking back control” from the encroachment of globalization.
“What’s happening now is this question of whether we can live in societies in which people have multiple identities,” Rhodes said, “or whether we have to once again go back to frankly what has been the norm in history where a sole identity is the dominant actor in a society.”
Rhodes also noted that he believed the most significant factor today is the role of technology. While he acknowledged there has always been competition between autocracy and democracy, and between progressive and reactionary politics, technology today has scaled up the ability for surveillance and disinformation. He said that, in every society, the objective of every autocrat is to make people cynical or apathetic; the goal is to disillusion people into withdrawing or disengaging. “The second that people do that, you’re left with Putin and Xi Jinping.”
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Being American in today’s world
Finally, Rhodes touched on the future for the U.S. and what it means to be “American in the world we’ve made.” He noted that modern American identity was formed in the Cold War era, standing for freedom, democracy, and open societies. Rhodes said he believed the absence of a unifying sense of national identity in the 1990s and onward has contributed to much of the political divide and partisanship that has grown more acute. “We don’t have an agreement to that question right now, of what it means to be an American,” he said, and pointed out that Obama and Trump offered two different answers to that question.
Rhodes concluded that he has seen the system work and believes it needed to change but, in his view, it takes more than one president to change inequality in society or the whole of U.S. foreign policy. He said, “I think America at its best is supposed to represent underdogs, the outsider, the people who — against the odds — do really big things.”
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