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I'm Ben Rhodes on January 20th, 2017. I left the White House for the final time. I was exhausted physically and emotionally from eight years as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter. I flew with the Obamas on their final flight aboard Air Force One, we dropped them off in California, said our goodbyes, and then flew back over the country. There were only a few of us on board. My head was full of memories from the years gone by and a sense of despair about how it ended.
For those few hours, it felt like I was suspended in time between two presidencies flying through the American darkness on the most famous airplane in the world. We landed in Washington just as dawn was breaking, and then almost immediately, President Trump set out to destroy everything.
I worked on President Trump's major announcement today, pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. President Trump reversing some of the Obama era policies toward Cuba.
The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord every morning.
I'd wake up in fear of getting another news alert on my phone, another sledgehammer to an agreement, a treaty, a promise we'd make instead of leaving the free world. Trump was trying to dismantle it along with everything I believed in. At the same time, I started traveling from Europe to Asia, from Africa to Latin America. I saw the incalculable damage that Trump is doing. But I also met progressive activists and politicians, we're fighting to make things better.
They were doing amazing work, which gave me hope, and they wanted America back in the fight with them on their side, which also gave me hope. So I started recording our conversations. This is a podcast about what happens to the world when America betrays the values that we are supposed to stand for and with an election just a few months away. We'll hear about what we need to do to be the country. We should be the country the world needs us to be.
This is missing America over the next nine episodes will introduce you to some of the inspiring people I've met. Hong Kong people do feel that they are part of the larger international community. In order to survive, you have to prove to people that you are needed. Progressives need to grab hold of that yearning, that humans have to belong. They'll tell us how, in the absence of American leadership, a host of diseases have swept through their countries and across the planet.
covid-19, for one, but also political diseases like nationalism, authoritarianism, disinformation and climate change.
None of these are easy to eradicate, but together we'll look for solutions.
We'll hear from the people likely to work in a Biden administration, and we'll learn how to become a country actually worthy of leading the world. And if you're skeptical, if you don't think American leadership has ever really been good for the planet, we aim to convince you otherwise. Starting first today with the tale of two outbreaks, the first one got stomped out by an international coalition led by the United States and the other, well, you're living through it right now.
This is what happens when America goes missing. Think about the first time you heard about covid-19, they say right now that the immediate risk to the American public is low.
The early reports didn't seem so bad. Coronaviruses called, which produces pneumonia like symptoms. But so far, it does not appear that this disease is easily transmittable between people.
We have a totally under control. It's one person coming in from China.
Even so, when I heard them, I felt a chill of deja vu and fear.
You see, back in twenty fourteen we had to deal with an outbreak of a different disease and it taught me that epidemics aren't like the Kennedy assassination or 9/11 disasters that hit everyone at once. And, you know, immediately that the world has changed. Epidemics sneak up on. Every day back then, I'd get the presidential daily briefing, a summary of all the bad news in the world, it's on an iPad and I'd scroll through everything that was threatening to fall apart at the time.
The headlines usually focused on the atrocities of ISIS or Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But then one day further down in our briefings came an alert from West Africa about people getting sick from Ebola.
It said the virus often leads to massive hemorrhaging and then a few days later came another alert. Data showed a 50 percent fatality rate. And then another alert. Death count rising. Finally, our national security adviser, Susan Rice, said, hey, we should pay closer attention to this because I worked Africa for almost eight years, six of eight years during the Clinton administration, we dealt with an Ebola outbreak in the Congo and in Uganda.
That was really serious. And then Marburg fever, which is a cousin of Ebola, another hemorrhagic fever.
And so I had seen this and saw how it could spread. And here it was in a different part of the world that seemed much more virulent and that we were far more behind the curve in getting a grip on.
Obama told us to stay on top of it to prepare for what was coming. But everyone else seemed to be falling behind. The World Health Organization had sent personnel to West Africa, but they dragged their feet on, even declaring Ebola a crisis later.
Samantha Power, our ambassador to the U.N., found out why.
Answer behind the scenes. The countries in West Africa were lobbying not to because they didn't want to scare away business.
Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been in conflict for years. They were just beginning to recover. Trade was finally picking up and they knew that the minute they had the big Ebola stamp blazoned on their territory, that that would scare away foreign workers, foreign investors. And so they lobbied. And so, you know, just kind of stayed on the sidelines for longer than they should have.
Meanwhile, at the White House, the government's top scientists and health officials let us through a series of briefings.
And if you ask anyone who is there, they'll probably mention the same moment. The thing that made clear what we were doing, it was a chart from the CDC rejecting the death rate from Ebola. If we let it go unchecked, the curve on that chart went straight up like a hockey stick. Millions dead in just a few months.
Amy Pope was deputy homeland security adviser and helped manage the Ebola team.
Interestingly, the multilateral institutions that have been set up to manage this kind of response had failed. Right. So most spectacularly, the World Health Organization. And I think at some point there's a recognition that actually we can't leave this, that we can't leave this just to U.N. actors.
So the U.S. did what it used to do in a global crisis. We lead as Ebola continues its deadly march across the region.
The American military and other Western health workers continue to trickle in real boots on the ground. First, Obama sent thousands of troops to West Africa.
The military had never been deployed like that in a health crisis, but they knew how to quickly set up distribution centers in temporary clinics nearby.
Around the clock, construction operation is underway to complete the first of 17 US funded Ebola treatment units.
And our troops also knew how to build airfields and airfields were going to be important because the second thing we did was get dozens of countries to fly in what became more than 10000 health care workers, experts and supplies of their own.
Convincing those nations wasn't easy. I don't think people immediately saw why it was in their interest to send anybody into West Africa. I mean, these aren't major economies. They're not major trading partners. And it took a lot of persuading to get people to step up. President Obama actually reached out to many, many leaders to ask for their help, and we would give him a list. This is what we need. And can you call the president or prime minister of this country or that country to get them to engage?
He wasn't alone. Envoys, AIDS, anyone with any reason to talk to a foreign leader, pressing them to act on a bill at the U.N., Samantha Power spent days twisting diplomats arms.
United Kingdom, you have a history in Sierra Leone, including a history of deploying military troops there in a peacekeeping capacity. What are you prepared to do in Sierra Leone where you have that history and at a time when China was looking to flex its muscles, to be able to go to my Chinese counterpart and say, OK, you want to be at the big table, how many Ebola treatment units are you prepared to build? Best part, it worked with the U.S. committing so many resources.
And with more and more countries joining, you got tougher for hold outs to say no.
The UK is sending hundreds to Sierra Leone and France is leading efforts in Guinea on the French president's schedule, inspecting facilities put in place to fight the deadly virus.
Korea will send its first full scale medical team to Ebola hit Sierra Leone in the coming weeks.
At one point, even I got involved, I was at the Vatican finalizing the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
I asked Alejandro Castro, Fidel's nephew, if Cuba could send doctors to help Viterbo. Something in his voice changed, America had never asked Cuba for anything, really. We never even treated them with respect. He said he'd see what he could do. Within weeks, more than 100 Cuban doctors were headed to West Africa. Some of them on U.S. aircraft. Imagine that. So what are the lessons of Ebola? First, you can't resolve an international crisis without an international response.
And second, an international response is impossible without someone to give it all up push. The Trump administration refused to learn those lessons. In fact, they failed to learn anything from Ebola at all.
I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear. I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.
That Inauguration Day, 2017, not long before this, Amy Popat, given Trump's transition team the infamous pandemic playbook step by step instructions for handling a pandemic gleaned from the Ebola crisis.
So it was if this happens, do this. If this happened was basically a decision tree that meant was meant to capture every single hard decision that we had to face and help people work through it.
Using past experience, Trump transition team ignored it. But the seed for Trump's more fundamental failure was planted right in the middle of his inauguration speech when he said this From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.
From the moment he took office, Trump went out of his way to make international cooperation, to fight a pandemic or do anything else impossible.
Why do you keep calling this the Chinese virus? Why do you keep using this? Because it comes from racist. It's not racist at all. No matter if it comes from China. That's what comes from China. I want to be accurate. This is not about Trump versus Obama. It's about Trump versus what Americans and the world should be able to expect from any U.S. president in a crisis to coordinate a global response instead in America's absence. There is no coordinated global response.
Right now, the international system is kind of become a self-help society. You know, it's not a US led world order. So what you have is a kind of each man for himself, each country for himself kind of vibe and a set of actions.
We've become a disengaged patchwork of countries without unified leadership. Sharing no set of protocols to stop the disease in the world has paid the price. Ironically, most of all, America has paid the price with far more deaths from covid-19 than any nation on Earth, the coronavirus crisis has taken another staggering turn for the worse.
For the first time in weeks, the US daily coronavirus death toll hitting above 1000. President Trump saying the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. Some health experts describing it as a virus with no end in sight. So I know the question all this raises, why us why should the United States lead the international response to covid or any other crisis? Why can't someone else push the world in action for ones? Some of it's just practical. We have a capacity like no one else, not just money in the military, but a muscle memory to mobilize a global response that even powerful countries like China don't have.
We also have a lot of friends. Susan Rice.
We have an inherent advantage also in our network of alliances that is also unmatched and we have extraordinary diplomatic reach. We're in every capital on the planet virtually, and we can walk into the foreign ministry in and meet with somebody sufficiently senior and say, hey, you know, this is something that's important. Let's talk about it. And I don't think there's there's any substitute for it.
Why do we have the reach or at least used to before Trump? Because America literally built the international system that's been in place for 75 years.
So if you think about the first half of the 20th century, what you looked at was essentially a dog eat dog world.
Jake Sullivan was national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and he'd likely be a key player under President Joe Biden. He takes us back to the end of World War Two.
The leaders of the United States basically said, we don't want to go through that again. We don't want another Great Depression caused by a lack of international coordination. And we don't want a Third World War that would leave millions dead and hundreds of millions displaced.
So instead of lording over defeated enemies like Germany and Japan, America rebuilt them and then used its power to advocate for a whole web of international rules and institutions standards to facilitate trade and fight disease, human rights laws to protect people from despots, nuclear arms treaties all designed to prevent another world war, another Great Depression, another pandemic not out of the kindness of our hearts, but because it was good for us, too.
And that kind of positive some mindset is something that other countries could see. They disagreed with us on a lot. They saw we acted selfishly a lot. They saw we screwed up a lot. But they also saw this underlying view in the American foreign policy attitude that said, we're all in this together. We can produce solutions where everyone ends up better. And that's a very attractive and appealing dimension.
That underlying attitude we're all in this together is what made America's most important achievements in the world possible.
But as we've seen since Trump turned America's back on the world, when he put America first, the system that America built has started to fall apart. Let's be clear, as Jake says, we've screwed up a lot. The list of our failures is long Vietnam support for right wing dictators and more recently, this. At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.
President Bush said today that he was disgusted by pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by American soldiers.
It is another grim military milestone. The American death toll in Iraq rising to 4000, in fact, under the Obama administration.
I was part of a few disasters myself. For every Ebola response, there was something like a Saudi led war in Yemen or a military coup that we tacitly supported in Egypt. We'll talk about those later in the series. So know, America's moral compass isn't exactly honoring, but consider the other choices. Who would you rather see leading the world because somebody is going to lead it?
Susan Rice, you rather have, you know, Xi Jinping and China lead it with, you know, a million wiggers and concentration camps in Hong Kong, just literally having been snuffed out and a surveillance state like would blow our minds here in the United States. I mean, you rather have Vladimir Putin lead it. This is the world we live in, a world where no one else has the capacity to lead. And the country's next in line would spell disaster for cooperation among nations and for individual human rights.
Of course, under Trump, America is also a disaster for human rights. So to lead again, we'll have to find a way to begin to rebuild our moral authority. The good news we started doing that this summer when protesters took to the streets across America to insist that black lives matter, why that movement matters more than any foreign policy we could pursue when this episode of Missing America continues. Stay with us. Missing America's brought to you by babble, learning language is always on my to do list.
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So, again, just to begin, how many years were you in the foreign service? Thirty three years. Thirty three years? That's me talking with diplomat Danny Russell. He served as Obama's assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
My very first assignment was to Japan, a country that I thought I knew fairly well already. And I discovered something in the first year that blew me away. It was this. It's a simple realization. People will do more for you willingly without you requesting it and often without you even knowing about it, if they believe that you stand for something, if they believe in your cause, if they feel like they are part of an enterprise that's bigger than just you.
Danny says he always keep that in mind when he thinks of America's role in the world. Me too.
We've learned how America has the resources and muscle memory to lead the international community that we need to do it because without us, the international system begins to crumble. But until Trump, the real source of our leadership has been that we stood for something bigger than just us.
Basically, America's got a really good story. It's a story that starts off with a bang, a declaration of independence, which declared that everybody everywhere is born equal. But that document alone wasn't enough to create equality.
In fact, its author on slaves, the women of this new nation, didn't even have the right to vote. And the country was literally built on land stolen from natives. So what happened next in the story is also important, former national security adviser Susan Rice sums it up.
The very founding principle that we're all created equal in our efforts over 200 plus years to try to make that real, I think is profoundly powerful.
It bears repeating the 200 years worth of effort. That's what's powerful.
We've shown a capacity to improve and renew ourselves through, you know, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, the election of Barack Obama. I mean, you name it, there are many ways in which we've shown that, you know, we can better ourselves.
And that part of our story has been the foundation of whatever moral authority we've ever had.
America's power in the world has always been connected to the attraction of the American model.
Chris Murphy is one of the leading progressives in the Senate.
His radical idea that we have built a country based on these two fundamental ideas, one, self-determination that we decide for ourselves our future, but that we do it in a multicultural, multi-ethnic nation in which we blend together people of different faiths, different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different races. There's no other country in the history of the world that has done both these things, made a commitment to democracy and a commitment to multiculturalism. And those two ideas coexisting is the story of American influence in the world.
And by the way, it's a story that is indistinguishable from the fact that America is a nation of immigrants made up of people from everywhere. America is not just a melting pot, but it's a microcosm of every strand of humanity that exists. Susan Rice, people like my own immigrant grandparents from Jamaica who came here to the United States in 1912 to Portland, Maine, with nothing, no education. My grandfather was a janitor. My grandmother was a maid.
And then they were able to send all five of their kids to college and they all became successful professionals.
That sort of American dream, I think remains powerful. The power of that concept ripples around the world, too, because people everywhere have friends or family who came to the states and accomplished things that they couldn't back home. And if you want to know why the battles over American identity have become so intense, Susan reminds us it also has something to do with this demographically.
Most people know that by the mid 40s, we're not likely to be a majority white country anymore. We're going to be majority minority. And that scares some people. It shouldn't, in my opinion, but it it does. So it is a racialized other in our country that I think Trump has deliberately stoked the notion that we can go back to the future in 1950, when in his parlance, we were somehow great once and can be again. You know, that's not about, you know, Leave it to Beaver.
That's about a time when, you know, they were very few brown people and black people had no rights. Let's be honest. The world can see us having this fight with ourselves, even if sometimes we refuse to see it ourselves and for the last few years. They've seen the wrong side winning total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. We're going to build the wall. It's going to be built.
Who's going to pay for the wall? Who? These are things that Donald Trump said on the campaign trail before he was president.
And just the fact that a big chunk of Americans voted for him anyway began to undo all of those decades of goodwill.
As we've lost our connection to that American story, as our democracy has started to weaken, as we started to see our multiculturalism as a weakness rather than as a strength, it's not coincidental that our influence in the world has begun to atrophy.
Chris Murphy isn't just talking about our influence over other governments. It's also among their people. Zagor Hamzy runs an NGO that helps refugees deal with trauma. She grew up a refugee herself from war torn Afghanistan.
America's always had really good stories. You know, it's the land. You know, American Dream has influenced so many people beyond America. In fact, when my family was thinking about, you know, where do we go? America was one of the countries that that we considered because of this idea that it's a nation of immigrants, that, you know, it's about meritocracy and you can make it there if you work hard.
And I think what it needs to do is to live up to the stories that it's told.
Right. And I think that's only going to happen if Americans are able to to get honest with themselves about what they actually stand for right now.
Because for a lot of people outside of America, it's you know, it's it's quite clear a lot of the hypocrisies of American mythology.
We're tangled up in our own hypocrisies. Exactly.
And so I think that the only way that you can move forward is if Americans can look to their dark past, aside from, you know, the American dream and all the amazing things that have come up, but also look at all the other stuff that has happened, you know, and oppression and just domestically, like gun violence, massacre, all these different things.
And for that to happen, I think you actually need some space that can hold quite a lot of trauma because there are a lot of feelings and emotions and resentment and anger from so many different communities.
And I think that's if there are spaces that can hold and then you can come through it in a tone and move forward.
Zala. She's in America that stop trying to better itself. That hasn't even been willing to acknowledge its hypocrisies. But maybe this summer that started to change.
Americans of all races hit the streets to express their trauma and try to atone and sure enough, right after our Black Lives Matter protests began.
So do these people here in central London. These hundreds of people have gathered because of a statement Black Lives Matter in Australia.
Organizers say tens of thousands of protesters gathered, some highlighting what they say is the mistreatment of the country's indigenous population in Brazil to South Korea.
Thousands gathered in their city streets to make their voices heard.
Black Lives Matter quickly became a global rallying call with protests in the U.K., Belgium, Australia, Brazil, South Korea, even Syria.
The protests are very much focused on what's happening in the United States, but a lot of protesters are also focusing on systemic racism here in Belgium, America's own challenge is rippling out all the same, a measure of how racism scars our common cause.
And you have to understand, the last years in massive civil rights protests in countries around the world, Muslims protesting mistreatment at the hands of India's Hindu nationalist government, the people of Hong Kong protesting China's encroaching authoritarianism. But these were regional movements. America's protests went global because finally, once again, we represented something that mattered to people everywhere. It's as though the world had been waiting for this country to get back to being itself, to live up to our story, to confront our demons so that we can lead again.
That requires more than electing a new president. Susan Rice says BLM gives us an opportunity, but we have to follow through.
It's young and old and it's black and white and Latino. And, you know, every state in the union who have finally come together to say, wait a minute, this really is messed up. It's not just the black folks who think it's messed up. We all think it's messed up and we got to do something about it. But if we let this moment evaporate and it only becomes, you know, NASCAR takes down the Confederate flag and Mississippi changes its state flag and a few statues of Robert E.
Lee and some other, you know, Confederates are torn down, then this has been a complete waste to succeed.
Movements have to be sustained. And if they are, movements like viruses can be contagious. America's own history shows us this song. Boudella is a writer and entrepreneur from Ghana. He told me how America's greatest movement of the 20th century, the civil rights movement, helped galvanize the movement for independence from the British in his own country.
Kwame Nkrumah, first president. He went to University of Pennsylvania at Lincoln University, and it was his interactions with African-Americans and the civil rights activists there that gave him some of those early ideas that he brought back.
One of those African-American leaders was Martin Luther King, who was welcomed at Ghana's independence celebration. And just as Ghana's liberators were inspired by King, he was inspired by them. When he returned from Ghana, King drew this lesson.
If there had not been a ground in India with all of his noble followers, India would have never been. There have not been an increase among his followers in Ghana would still be a British colony that had not been abolitionist in America for one night, we might still stand today in the dungeons of slavery.
Sanju DeLay believes in the power of that kind of connection, all these great African American icons who are intimately involved. And so you had this symbiotic relationship. So I think that there's a great opportunity for both communities in the U.S. and across the African continent to learn from one another, because ultimately what we're looking for is a more just and a more prosperous world across the board. I mean, there are differences here and there. But if you think about it in both the U.S. and across Asia, what is everyone pushing for?
We are all pushing. We just want a more equitable just society and a fair shot to achieve our dreams. And that's the same whether you're in Ferguson or whether you are in Kampala.
The American civil rights movement was part of an arc of progressive activism that reshaped the world in the 20th century through protest and mass mobilization. Former colonies were liberated. Societies were made more equal. The Berlin Wall came down. You see, all that progress wasn't about American power. It was about the power of what America at its best represented.
In this series, we'll learn how America under Trump has become a source of inspiration for right wing nationalists in Europe, an increasingly totalitarian China, and for disinformation and anti-immigrant sentiment everywhere. But we'll also learn why and how America needs to lead again with the kind of government that helps stamp out Ebola in the kind of activism that can galvanize movements for justice around the world.
There are a whole lot of issues that are of national and international significance, where American leadership at the community level, at the activist level, the civil society level can and should be important. And so, you know, maybe will lead to a revolution of throwing the bums out that that others can replicate. This isn't wishful thinking. It is an American narcissism. The progressive leaders of the world will straight up tell you they need us back to help solve a whole host of problems.
David Lammy is a leading Labour member of Britain's parliament when it comes to things that require global leadership, that, frankly, if America isn't in the room leading, they will not happen. If America is not leading on climate change, it cannot happen. If America is not leading on the refugee crisis facing much of the world, it cannot happen.
Or listen to Australia's Kevin Rudd.
He led that country's Labour Party and served twice as prime minister, despite the the carnage delivered to America's global standing by the Trump administration. Don't underestimate the deep and abiding goodwill around the world on the part of America's long standing friends and allies and others towards American leadership. It's still there. People actually want America to lead. And the rest of the world is kind of looking forward to that. It's been a very long four years, but of course, we can't lead again until we throw the bums out here and deny Trump four more years.
They could permanently define America in the eyes of the world for more years that he would use to tell a very different American story and set a very different kind of example, an example for how to roll back democracy. David Lammy, I'm bit in politics now long enough to know when new political individuals emerge that are seductive and attractive, and particularly those that are attractive in the United States. You should never underestimate how that is not just a story about the United States.
It's a political story that is mimicked across the world very, very sadly. Donald Trump is not just about the United States. It's about the copycats that we're now seeing emerging in South America and Eastern Europe and being copied around the world. And, of course, if Donald Trump were to win a second term, while the consequences are huge. Next time, we'll hear more from David and others about one of those consequences, a disease called nationalism, why it's made a comeback, why it's so dangerous, and how a young woman in Switzerland managed to fended off.
With wit organization, a computer and some simple, compelling stories of her own, the most important thing is like be popular, like you can be popular without being populistic. And I think that's really important. Sometimes we like liberals. We tend to be too intellectual to be a bit afraid of finding simple words for big issues, you know, on the next episode of Missing American. Missing America is written and hosted by me, Ben Rhodes, it's a production of Crooked Media.
The show is produced by Andrea Gardner Bernstein. Rico Gagliano is our story editor.
Austin Fisher is our associate producer, sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez, production support and research from Nimmy Ibori in Sydney.
Ratt Fact Checking by Justin Kozko. Original Music by Marty Fowler. The executive producers are Sarah Gaymer, Laura Smith and Tanya.
So many special thanks to Allison Frazetta, Tommy Vietor, John Lovett and John Boehner.
Thanks for listening.