Welcome back to parts of the world.
I'm Tommy Vietor. I'm Ben Rhodes.
And I think the theme for today's show is threats to democracy and what the world can or should do about it, because we got we got the coup in Myanmar and what options that the Biden administration has or does not have to respond to it. We will talk about the sentencing. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. There's a major attack on abortion rights in Poland. We'll get into President Biden's decision to pause arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the UAE and then some actually some interesting and notable reforms made in Saudi Arabia and then Israel's vaccination effort.
But it does feel like, you know, democracy is being tested in a lot of ways right now, maybe shortly after our own was tested.
Yeah, no, there's a common theme. Common thread. Yeah, it's not ideal, but good. We'll fight through it. And then our guest today is Trelles Germaine's star, the host of Black Diplomats. It's a great podcast. He's also a senior reporter at The Root. You guys just talk. Can you give us a preview of what folks will hear in the interview?
Yeah, I really wanted to just try doing some really interesting stuff with black diplomats, and I wanted him to explain kind of the worldview that infuses what he does, which is that you need to structurally take on the lack of diversity in representation in foreign policy and media, but but not just about getting people in jobs, changing the mindset. What happens if we deal with white supremacy across the board, including in our foreign policy? How would that lead to different outcomes?
How would that lead to America not just showing a different face, but acting differently at home and in the world? So Taurel really takes us into that. It's a cool interview.
That's fantastic. I'm very excited to hear that. Also, Ben, you have some big, big personal breaking news to announce exclusive for parts of the world listeners.
Yeah, well, yeah. Yeah, no.
So today, my book, After the Fall Being America and the World We've Made is live for preorder and clapping. And. Yes, and I've you know, I've dangled bits and pieces of this on the show. But I mean, I'll just describe kind of what I set out to do. You know, a few years ago, I basically set out to write a book to try to understand what the hell is happening in the world. You know, what's happening in the world, what's happening in America, what was happening to me, feeling like so exiled essentially from the things I worked on that were being dismantled by Trump in my own country, that was unrecognizable to me.
And all those things have to do with why was democracy collapsing everywhere? And what was interesting about it is I went abroad, right.
And I I spent a lot of time talking to Russian opposition, has spent a lot of time talking to people like Alexei Navalny, who told me his whole story of what's happened in Russia in his life and why that led him to make the decisions he did and take the risks that he's taken and really unpacking the nature of the Putin regime and how how corrupt it was and how it had a playbook of authoritarianism that had been repurposed in places like Hungary.
And I spent a lot of time in Hungary talking to activists and opposition leaders about what had happened in their country.
And one of the things that was particularly alarming there is that the playbook that had been run in Hungary was verbatim the playbook that the Republican Party is run in this country, you know, get elected on a platform of right wing backlash to the financial crisis, you know, redistrict to get a majority foothold and have propaganda outlets and disinformation outlets that get your message out, pack the courts, get corrupt cronies.
You financed your politics and have this kind of nationalist us versus them message that demonizes immigrants and Muslims and even George Soros like the same thing. And I started to see America more clearly by looking at what had happened in places like Russia and then Hungary, and then spent all the time talking to people from China and particularly Hong Kong about how even if we look at Russia and Hungary as kind of the vanguard of pushing back against democracy, China is the one with the different model.
And what does that feel like to people in places like Hong Kong who are being encroached upon by this kind of techno totalitarianism where they can literally feel their their freedom slipping away? But the thing that was so interesting to me is I realized a book that I set out to write about the world was actually about America, because I had to reckon with the fact that the 30 years since the end of the Cold War that America has been this kind of unchecked hegemon.
We made this world, our fingerprints were everywhere. And it was really a few different areas are kind of embrace of unbridled capitalism, unregulated capitalism and globalization after the Cold War kind of created not only the financial crisis that collapsed people's confidence in America and our leadership.
It also created this void in people's lives where they didn't they didn't have anywhere to turn for meaning, and so they turned to these traditional brands of nationalism and then post 9/11 militarism, where you had people like Putin literally using the exact same rhetoric that was used to justify the war on terror, to justify what they were doing and copycatting even some of the authorities that that the US pursued after 9/11, but chiefly creating this kind of us versus them politics where you demonize the other constantly.
And how that bled into China, right where China said that it's putting a million workers in concentration camps was the people's war on terror. You know, they they very clearly align themselves with that.
And then lastly, obviously, technology and the kind of unregulated explosion of social media and the Internet that we thought was going to be this tool to connect everybody and became this kind of perfect weapon of surveillance in the Chinese case and disinformation and in the Russian case.
And, you know, we have to wrestle with the fact that all these things happening around the world aren't foreign. The same things that are happening here. And in many ways, they're the outcome of 30 years of of what America has chosen to be. And so the biggest part of the book actually deals with America.
And in my experience, kind of questioning every assumption I had about who we are and what we do in the world, going back and unpacking some of the things that happened in the Obama years through a new lens.
And I left it feeling oddly more hopeful, even though it sounds like because I met these amazing people, Alexei Navalny, Xana Nemtsov, an amazing Russian woman whose father was killed by Putin outside the Kremlin.
These Hungarian opposition as these Hong Kong protesters, people like fighting for the things that America supposed to stand for. Right. So I'm sorry if that speechify a little bit. But the real point I want to make sure, Tommy, is that, like, you sit down to write and it's hard as hell you got a blank screen even harder in a pandemic and you try to think of, like, who is your audience? Because, you know, you're trying to tell a story to somebody.
And my audience is you guys, this world is like that.
I was thinking about you guys because we have this conversation every week and I'm like, I'm traveling. I'm meeting these people. I'm wrestling with these things. It's a very personal book. It has the feel of a memoir. And it was kind of an effort for me to try to explain everything that I've been processing these last few years. So I really hope I hope everybody picks it up, of course. But I particularly particularly hope that the world those pick it up and feel like it's part of this conversation that we've been having the last couple of years.
That's awesome. I cannot wait to read it and also just I'll say it so you don't have to if you want to buy this book, preorder it, guys listening because that helps Ben get on like the New York Times best seller site of helps other people find it. It helps us knock. Like Dan Bongino is a book that, like the RNC, bought 400000 copies of off.
So check it out. It's incredible. You've heard bits and pieces of it on this show. Ben has been generous enough to share anecdotes from his travel along the way. But I guarantee you will love this. By the way, also, if you guys love News & jokes, subscribe to our What Day newsletter. It's hilarious. It's informative. It's nightly crooked dotcom slash subscribe. Also, listeners to parts of America know that I'm the unofficial president of the Keep It fan club.
That's our our Pop Culture and Politics podcast. I literally never miss an episode, but this month is especially great because they're hosting a series of discussions with black creators, business leaders and guests for Black History Month. So it's just really great stuff. Check it out. Check out. Keep it. OK, Ben. So let's start in Myanmar. Very sad news out of Myanmar. Some people call it Burma. Long story there. We're just going to go with Myanmar for the purposes of the show.
But over the weekend, the military staged a coup. They surrounded Myanmar's parliament building and arrested top civilian leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi. The commander in chief of Burma's military is now de facto in charge. The military has declared a year long state of emergency. For those who don't know. Aung San Suu Kyi is a political leader, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent decades under house arrest because of the military. She is a revered and also controversial figure.
So, Ben, we could start this story in a lot of places. What you like? Twenty eleven, twenty fifteen. Nineteen sixty two. Nineteen forty eight. But I think for now, maybe we just go back to November of last year. That was when Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy Party trounced the military's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. In these parliamentary elections. I think her party won like 70 or 80 percent of the vote in this threatened the military's control of the country, which they had a lot of because of how Myanmar's constitution is set up.
And so the military quickly declared that this election was fraudulent. There was a lot of chatter and concern and speculation about a potential coup. It sort of increased ever since November when that. The election occurred, I should note that election observers, international observers don't believe there was fraud, but this coup finally occurred over the weekend on the day that the parliament was supposed to convening for its first session. And not coincidentally, this also means that Myanmar's top general goes from this sort of lame duck figure who is going to retire in June to a de facto dictator.
So then what what else do you think people need to know about what happened? And like, despite all these concerns and sort of predictions that have been building over time. Were you surprised that the military ultimately went through and just seized power in a very classic old school military coup this weekend?
Well, I mean, I think first and foremost, it's a tragedy for the people of Myanmar.
I think what people need to understand is that the competition between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military has never been resolved. And it goes back many decades. And the military has been in charge for most of Myanmar's history as an independent country. Aung San Suu Kyi went back to the country and won a landslide democratic election in 1990, and the military invalidated it and threw in prison and put her under house arrest, essentially. And it wasn't until 2011 that she was able to re-enter politics.
And there was this moment in 2015 when her party, the NLD, won a landslide election. But that didn't mean that she had the power. She became what's called the state councilor because the Constitution expressly prohibited her from becoming president. There was a provision in the Constitution written into the Constitution that said if you had foreign born children, you could not become president. And it was written with her in mind. The military under the Constitution prescribed itself a twenty five percent block in the parliament, which was enough to prevent them from allowing the constitution to be amended.
So you can see what was going on here. The military was trying to keep its power right and keep its economic interests, by the way, too, because they're corrupt, they enrich themselves. All their power, all their money could be at risk if Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD could reform their constitution. And so since she won that election in twenty fifteen, her five year term, the five year parliamentary term was very tense because she wanted to reform the Constitution.
The military obviously didn't want her to do that.
You had but we talked about a lot the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, which got a lot of attention where she seemed to not want to challenge the military, in part because she didn't want what just happened to happen. You know, she thought that she might be able to co-opt some of the military to make a deal with them, to show them perhaps that she wasn't as threatening as they might have thought. But this question was was unresolved and she had a very negative relationship, let's just say rivalry with this commander in chief Menang.
Among the two of them did not like each other, did not get along. I met when I met with her when I was still in government. She would complain about him, that he he wanted to do something like this. She spoke about fears of a coup. So this has been lurking in the backdrop, despite kind of the the partial Democratic opening that's taken place in the country.
Now, what happened here is they had an election and the NLD won overwhelmingly. That is not surprising. Every time there's been a vote in nineteen ninety twenty fifteen this year, the NLD wins by about the same amount. They win like 80 plus percent of the country because Aung San Suu Kyi is literally the national hero. She's the daughter of the founding father of the country. She's revered in the countryside everywhere. Right. Whether we can talk about obviously she's a flawed leader.
She obviously didn't use her moral authority or her political power to do anything to help the Rohingya. But in the country, she's the person who is the unifying figure. The military made these claims of massive electoral fraud.
Sound familiar that an independent election commission said didn't take place?
And what happened to me is that there was a period where they wanted to negotiate something. Minnan-Wong, the commander in chief, was required to step down. He was about to lose his power because he was essentially term limited out of his job as commander in chief. And he was trying to negotiate with her that he would become president and she could still be the state councilor. And she just kept saying no to that for reasons that you might understand. And so there's this kind of irreconcilable difference where the military really didn't want to accede to the results of the election or wanted something in return from her in order to validate the results of the election.
She wasn't going to budge on certain things.
So I wasn't as so surprised. The only reason I was a little surprised is that for the military itself, their interests were already pretty protected.
You know, like I said, they had this twenty five percent bloc in parliament against really transformative constitutional change. They still controlled the ministries of defense and home affairs, the kind of the core security ministries. I'm sure they still have their corrupt interests. This really seemed to be about this one guy, Menang Long, who felt like he was about to get pushed aside, perhaps. And so this is his power play. And clearly what he was able to do is bring the military along and, you know, what is an old fashioned coup and what is, again, tragically not new in Myanmar.
It's a return to the old status quo, the military kind of dictatorship that has prevailed for most of the country's history of independence.
Yeah, but I think it's a very good laydown, I think, of what's happening in Burma. Predictably, a lot of the US coverage of what has happened as framed this as a test for Biden or even a test for for the US and its moral authority. So I think we should get it to the options that are available to the Biden team. Already, the Bush administration has formally declared that this was a coup. Biden pointed out in a statement that the US used to have a whole bunch of sanctions on Myanmar, but those were removed over the course of about a decade because the country made progress towards democracy.
The clear implication there being that Biden could reimpose sanctions if he wants to. Congress could introduce legislation to sanction Myanmar. There are also these previous horrifying allegations you referred to that Myanmar's military conducted a genocide against a Muslim minority population called the Rohingya. I say allegations. I am confident that this this happened. But the Biden team is reviewing the set of facts to see whether this was a genocide. And that process should be separate based on the merits. But a lot of the same people, the same generals in Myanmar are implicated in the genocide.
So that's another pressure point. Then, you know, what tools do you think the Biden administration has available to influence the military's behavior? And how impactful do you think those tools are against this military government in in Myanmar? And then like one very leading question for you, which is, do you worry as much as I do when you read all these reports about this issue as like America's problem to solve? I worry about where where the logic goes there.
Yeah. I mean, look, the first priority here should be that the United States needs to do whatever we can to get as many other countries on board with delegitimizing this as a coup, which is not as easy as it sounds, because a lot of countries in that neighborhood in Southeast Asia are not democratic and don't want to take this on. But most importantly, you know, obviously, in addition to kind of Europe and Japan and our allies, you know, countries like India that is a big neighbor of Myanmar is coming out strongly that this is illegitimate, that this is a coup and calling for a return to democracy.
Very delicate and interesting diplomacy needs to be done with China, which has a lot of influence in Myanmar as well.
Actions at the UN. You want as broad a chorus as possible to just indicate to the military in Myanmar that the world is not going to accept this and that they're going to be isolated and that what people expect is a return to democratic rule in the country.
Then you want to use that to try to get into some window for diplomacy. Can we get back to some diplomacy inside of the country that allows for, you know, a process of discussion, negotiation for a path back to the NLD being seated in parliament? The military said it wants to have another election.
I mean, the NLD clearly won the last election. I think the starting point should be seat. The parliament already won the election. But the question is, can we just make sure that that there's a capacity to return to democracy in terms of what tools the US has? In addition to that? Yes, there's sanctions. I think that the important point here is that this should focus on the people most responsible for this. So we mentioned Minnan-Wong, the commander in chief.
This is the guy, I think, who needs to be the most pursued in terms of isolation and sanctions and whatever circle of people is enabling this, because you want to kind of send a message to the rest of the military, like don't follow this guy down this path, which, by the way, and this is part of the reason why was surprise could be devastating for the military, for the country to descend back into the civil wars with ethnic groups in that country escalate.
You're descending back into extreme poverty. Obviously, you have sanctions of a lot of these military leaders have learned how to. Make money on the kind of the dark market of drugs and jade and rubies and things like that, so, so but you want to you want to indicate a choice to these people. Don't go down this road. You know, the world is not accepting this result. We're going to come after this guy and his and his cronies in terms of sanctions.
And but we're going to offer a window of diplomacy for you to to climb back from what you did. And that's that's your best. It's a long shot. I'm not suggesting it's easy, but but that's the the play available to the Biden team, you know, international delegitimization sanctions and the threat of additional sanctions and really aggressive diplomacy as fast as possible to try to get some diplomacy going inside of the country so that there's a path back from this precipice.
Yeah, I think what what just made me nervous was reading all these articles in straight news reporting about how this is a test of Biden, a test for democracy. Yeah. And then you read like the neocons write The Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote, The top U.S. priority in Asia is limiting Beijing's ability to control independent states like Burma, which is strategically situated in the Indo-Pacific, blah, blah, blah. It doesn't mention the fifty four million people, right.
It's like this feels very like Vietnam era domino theory. We must roll back the bad guys. And it's like, wait, wait, wait, wait.
Let's talk about the tools available. What sort of like in the realm of possibility. And then I think the lessons of the past 20 years. Right. Is, is don't act quickly and make things worse. I mean, that's my that's my fear here. Not that we're going to really invade Burma. I don't think Joe Biden's going to do that. But, you know, it was like hard to read all these things and think no lessons have been learned.
I mean, because, first of all, if you if you dump all your sanctions on them right away and you just start yelling about the Chinese, that then that's going to be the status quo, you know, and by the way, we may end up there, but but you need to give some yourself some window to try to to to affect the situation positively again, because of those 54 million people who are suffering who are at risk. I've heard from lots of friends inside of Myanmar who are scared and worried and concerned and want there to be some some possibility that that the current direction of events doesn't continue.
I think the second point you make Tomi's just like name this elephant, the room like of, you know, the same coverage. This is Obama's failure.
These these countries aren't baseball cards that we try to compete with the Chinese for. These are countries where people live. They're complicated places that this dynamic inside of Myanmar is is very difficult in the sense that we all want a democracy. That's what we support. Right. That's why we supported Aung San Suu Kyi, because she would win democratic elections. Right. That was complicated in its own right, because even after she won democratic elections, she didn't exactly govern as we would like, particularly on the Rohingya issue.
Right. So so this these are not this is not some play that can be orchestrated from Washington, right? Yeah. There are too many actors involved inside of Myanmar. There's such a complicated history there. There's ethnic civil wars. There's a military that has always had power.
I mean, this is what's also so ridiculous. But they never fully relinquish it. They partially relinquish the power they had.
Now they're trying to take it back, all of it. And that's that's the tragedy here. Right. And I do. I do. I hope that what we try to do on the show is to give people a sense that there's context of these issues.
And when we make it just like a, you know, a test of the political narrative in Washington, that that sometimes doesn't lead to the right kind of nuance that you need in dealing with an incredibly difficult situation.
Yeah, we don't need another domino theory of the case. So let's let's talk with some of the contacts in this recent history here in the ways Myanmar opened up during the Obama administration. Because, you know, both of us were on President Obama's trip to Myanmar in 2012 when he became the first US president in history to visit. He met with the president at the time, a retired general named Fanshen, who I think later came to Washington and met with him in the Oval Office.
He met with Aung San Suu Kyi. He delivered a major speech about the US Myanmar relationship. And that was the early stages of a process that really started in 2011 and that culminated in the lifting of longstanding US sanctions on Myanmar and really saw this remarkable opening up of a country that had been totally isolated and controlled by a military junta for decades. Again, obviously, it was an imperfect opening. You talked about some of the structural problems within the Constitution itself, but it was still remarkable.
But even at that time, there were people saying Obama moved too quickly, like he was too thirsty for a deal to open Myanmar up. Others said that there was not enough attention being paid to the treatment. Of the Rohingya, the ethnic minority that we believe was the victim of a genocide and that more attention should have been paid to their rights in that time to try to prevent what ultimately happened, then, you know, you spent a lot of time working on this issue in government.
You've been back, what, since you left? You've written extensively about it in the Ulinich. Like neither of us is a dispassionate observer here because of the fact that this is part of the Obama legacy, either issues we personally worked on. But I do want to try to like think about the decision in hindsight and see if how to judge it, because I guess the questions I have are like, is it just too soon to know whether the opening was the right move in 2011 or 2012?
Do we think that this decade of opening up could be just a good thing no matter what, because it showed the people of Burma that there was this better future that was more democratic, that's now available to them? Was the military given too much leeway? Like how are you thinking about all of that work in hindsight, given the events of the weekend? Well, again, it relates to what we were just talking about in the sense of like we didn't create the opening, it happened inside of Myanmar, you know, like the Burmese military, Thein Sein, the president began to open up and the United States had long supported democracy in Myanmar and supported Aung San Suu Kyi as kind of the emblem of the pursuit of democracy in Myanmar.
So, you know, again, first of all, this wasn't some situation where the United States tried something open with a crowbar. This is the country started to open and we thought, how can we encourage that? What is the best we can do to try to encourage that? And President Obama engaging them, restoring an ambassador to the country?
I don't know why. Why would you not do that? You know, like like looking back, like, I honestly, those initial steps, right. Of having an ambassador and sending Obama, you want to encourage countries that begin to go down a path.
And that's what we did. And mindful of the fact that not all the problems in this country were solved. So on the first question of just like should we have gone? And we. Well, of course we should have what should we have favored the military?
I don't quite get the logic of of of the alternative of not supporting the opening and Aung San Suu Kyi reentry to politics and an election. Right. Because there might be a coup several, several years later. Right.
There's a question of did we lift sanctions too fast, which is a very valid question to debate. And again, my view is, was at the time and I still tend to think the military has its own. They lived under sanctions for decades. Right. They they have their own sources of corrupt financing. They they they trade in drugs and gems and all kinds of stuff. Right.
And so our calculation in consultation with Aung San Suu Kyi, by the way, was that that the sanctions were punishing the people in Myanmar and not necessarily the generals were rich.
They were rich under sanctions. Right. And again, people can debate this.
And but but my belief and I continue to believe it is that we sometimes overstate, overthink the impact of these sanctions. Look at Cuba, look at Iran. Sanctions aren't changing their governments. Right.
So to me, it's it's the tragedy of the fact that the Myanmar militaries began to go down a path of relinquishing some power. And when they got to the precipice of where they were going to have to relinquish a lot of it, they pulled back.
And in the last several years, nothing changed their calculus from pulling back and now they pull back all the way. I also want to say, Tommy, like people should question us, but like, what the hell happened the last four years, like the Donald Trump ever engage Aung San Suu Kyi or the, you know, anybody in Myanmar?
He actually just tried to do the same thing that the military did in saying that there was electoral fraud, no elections.
This is not pure. What about as the point is that the stories of foreign countries don't begin and end with American administrations. There's a there's a 70 year history to what's happened in Myanmar that extends through multiple administrations here. And and I stand by the idea that when there's an opportunity to take to try to promote democracy, you take it and you do whatever you can to to try to move it forward. And to me, I guess the more missed opportunity that I consider is that could we have done more to try to broker something between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military when we had when we were still there in twenty, fifteen, twenty sixteen?
That that let's think about that, because sometimes people just think of sanctions. Well, like and we tried, but like, could we have done more to try to resolve some of these structural issues.
Maybe not and maybe wouldn't even have been us. Could we have worked with other countries to try to do that? Those questions should all be asked. But I don't think I think it would be a tragedy, frankly, to draw a lesson that because there was just a coup in Myanmar that 10 years ago we shouldn't have encouraged a democratic opening that had a chance of success. You know, that that would be a dangerous lesson to draw, I think.
Yeah, look, I agree. I am sort of channeling the Washington, D.C. conventional wisdom that talks about diplomatic agreements with more scrutiny than like most wars that are waged.
But, you know, I do think through good always good to think through and invent this stuff.
And again, we have a point. I, I personally was involved, so people should question a please, like they should criticize.
But what I hope they don't do is think that somehow the US ever, ever had all the control that we were able to determine what was going to happen in Myanmar in twenty eleven or twenty fifteen. Or 2017 or 2020. This is a complicated country with a complicated history, we have to do the best we can at every given moment here. And yes, hopefully, like hopefully they can get back to democracy. Hopefully the experience the last 10 years means that they'll be better the next time there is another opening.
You just have to keep trying. You can't give up on these places and you can't give up on democracy.
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You're your greatest asset. This podcast sponsored by Better Help Entertain the World Listeners get ten percent off their first month at Better Help Dotcom Crooked World again. That's better help Betty LP Dotcom Crooked World. And listen, if you're still listening, tweet it. Love it. You are your greatest asset. He needs to hear. Thank you so much. So let's turn to Russia, because I think actually it is kind of related, the last several weeks we've been talking about Alexei Navalny, the Russia and anti-corruption activist, opposition leader General Thorn in Vladimir Putin's side.
Last August, Navalny was poisoned. He was nearly killed by Putin's goons. He had to go to Germany for treatment, but decided to come back to Moscow a few weeks ago where he was immediately arrested. There were big protests over the weekend. Know today a Russian court sentenced him all night to an additional two and a half years in prison for what was essentially a parole violation. You know that this verdict is a joke because, you know, some of these alleged parole violations happened when Navalny was recovering in Germany from being poisoned.
Near the end of the trial, Navalny denounced Putin and said he will go down in history as Vladimir the poisoner of underpants. The the reason he said that is the poison used against Navalny was reportedly put on his underwear. That's how they applied it to him. So as we were preparing to record, hundreds of riot police have filled up Red Square and other places in central Moscow. Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, has called for Navalny is immediate and unconditional release.
Then this seems like a big change in terms of how Putin is dealing with Navalny. This trial was like big and it was public. Previously, Russian authorities hadn't punished Navalny nearly as severely. He'd gotten house arrest. He'd gotten shorter sentences. But the thinking then seemed to be they didn't want to martyr him. Now he may be locked up for several years. I'm sure that Biden's national security team is debating all of this as we speak. What do you think the range of options are here to respond?
And what do you what do you recommend they do?
Well, I think the sense, again, is a human tragedy for Navalny, although he knew he knew the risks he was taking and he may have wanted to force the issue. And he's proven the massive support he has. And I think this will only increase his support because people see that the unfairness and corruption of this of this ruling, I think for Biden, again, you know, it's related to what we just said.
He can't there's no action he can take right now that it's going to force Russia to release Alexei Navalny.
What he can do is shine a spotlight. Never stop talking about Alexei Navalny every single time that anything comes up with Russia. Alexei Navalny, this case should be front and center. The world's attention needs to stay on his case every single day that he's in prison. I think more importantly, because people can talk about sanctions. But we've mentioned this on the show before. What has Alexei Navalny really honed in on that has resonated with the Russian public? It is Vladimir Putin's corruption.
That video he showed of this billion dollar palace that Putin clearly felt, you know, like he got caught because he's been denying it. And now they they trotted some guy out saying, oh, no, it's my hotel when it's pretty obviously Vladimir Putin's billion dollar house that he goes to hang out at.
And and I think what Joe Biden can do in the Bush administration is continue the work that Alexei Navalny was doing and revealing Vladimir Putin's corruption and spotlighting that corruption and highlighting for people just how much money this guy is worth and where his money is and how his money flows to the financial system.
That's what we can do, is we can't we're not going to be able to force an outcome here. But what we can do is, is carry this fight forward and do the kind of work that Navalny was doing, not just us, but other countries. I hope because the corruption is the vulnerability for Putin and that's why Alexei Navalny is in prison. And so I really hope that the Biden team stays focused on that because this story is not over.
Alexei Navalny has tapped it has tapped a vein here that speaks to the deepest frustrations that Russians have with their own government. And those frustrations are not going to go away because Navalny is behind bars. Yeah, hopefully.
Hopefully the opposition can sort of sustain all the protesting and the work they were doing. And, you know, Navalny will be safe in jail, but pretty harrowing stuff. OK, we have a few more issues, which I ticked through a little bit faster.
So the first one was something we've talked about before, which was last week, Poland finally imposed a near total ban on abortion rights, which now are only permitted in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger. This ruling by Poland's Constitutional Court first came down in October of last year. It sparked massive protests that delayed the implementation of the law, which seemed like a hopeful sign. And then last week, it seems like Polish citizens were actually quite surprised when the government published a law enforcing this ruling.
Poland's ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, is this extremely right wing group. This move is seen as part of a broader attack on social freedoms and a way to appeal to the country's Roman Catholic population. It doesn't seem like the protests are going to end anytime soon, despite Bown. Chilling temperatures, you know, Benny, and we talked about this story a few months back, I was a lot more hopeful that the protests could indefinitely delay this ruling or give some time for the legislature to work.
Do you think there's any role that the international community or institutions can or should play in trying to push back on the repressive trajectory in Poland? Or do you think that kind of goes into messing with their sort of internal lawmaking? I think it's hard to do.
I think that one thing is that having an administration that once again is not afraid to promote women's health and women's choice around the world, that alone is useful. Right. And so we just shifted from a republic administration that bans any funding whatsoever in US development assistance, for instance, to going to anything that could have to do with reproductive health. That's change. And I think we can speak about these issues publicly in forums around the world. I don't think there's much you can do kind of bilaterally to Poland.
I think you can raise concerns about these types of issues. But ultimately, this should be something that galvanizes kind of cross-border movements. You know, we we talked about the movement in Argentina that succeeded in legalizing abortion. I think, you know, the biggest threat to laws like this is people getting mobilized inside of Poland, getting involved in politics. And we've seen women marching in the streets there. And I think the solidarity we can show to those people is ultimately what's going to change things.
This is another common thread, right, is that these fights are never over by Navalny in prison, this law passing even what happened in Myanmar. But we just have to put our heads back down and recognize it. And all these issues, there are movements that are across borders and need to support one another. And that's that that's the role that we should think of for ourselves.
Yeah, agreed. OK, so some good news here. Last week, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that the Biden administration has imposed a temporary freeze on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and that they are also reviewing weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including the sale of the F-35 fighter jet and advanced drones. Those F-35 fighters and the drones were promised to the UAE by the Trump administration as part of the Abraham accords, which was their effort to get Middle Eastern countries to officially establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
The fact that that Biden is reviewing these arms sales is very good.
It's especially good for the people of Yemen. The war in Yemen has led to horrific famine. And thanks to amazing work by activists over many years, there is now bipartisan support for ending US involvement in that Saudi led war in Yemen. That U.S. involvement started under Obama, which was a mistake. It was greatly curtailed by the time he left office. But then Trump ramped it way back up and just indiscriminate, horrifying death that led to famine.
So, Ben, I'm starting to see some hand-wringing about how Biden might need to work with the Saudis more closely. He might need them on Iran, that cutting off arms to the Saudis will lead to some broader rupture in the relationship. I think it's also worth remembering that the Biden administration will likely declassify and release an intelligence report on the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. So they're sort of like two pieces to this news. There's the Saudi piece.
There's the ups. Curious if you're at all worried about this sort of rumination you're seeing in the press about upsetting the US Saudi relationship. And then with respect to the US UAE arm sales with these advanced fighters and the drones, if the Biden folks say they want to build on the Abrahim accords, should we? Do you think we should assume that most of this arms sale will ultimately get approved?
These are like very long term horizons we're talking about when it comes to arms sales. They can often take decades.
Yeah, it's a very positive step and it shows that they're really looking at these relationships because it's the war in Yemen. It's the arms sales in Syria. Shoghi Those are the near-term things where we want to see action. And they've said all the right things about all three of those. And there's no reason for the UAE to get tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons to to normalize relations with Israel. That doesn't make any sense. It's not.
Why is that required? Right. They should they should want to make peace and they want a war, but they should want to normalize relations. Israel, because it's it's the right thing to do and it's the right thing to do diplomatically. It's the right thing to do morally.
And so, yeah, I hope that's not the kind of situation where they review it. But then the deal goes forward because it's it's not relevant to to to normalization. It shouldn't be the price of normalization, shouldn't be giving them every last weapon system they want. And at the same time, I think they they're going to figure out like how to you're not going to like even people like me are very critical of the Gulf relationships, obviously, and like sever ties with these countries.
They have to think through what is a more rational approach to countries. We have serious differences with their human rights concerns, and that's related to what we said we've been talking about Tommy because, you know, the Saudi relationship even more than the Emirati relationship that gets thrown back in our face.
We're going around the world talking about democracy in Myanmar and Russia. And then we have like a friend of Mohammed and someone who's chopping up journalists.
So to me, how they articulate what they see, these Gulf relationships being in a more rational way than factors in human rights concerns. It factors in concerns about Yemen, where we did make a big mistake in the Obama years of supporting that initial effort. That's going to be the real proof here. And, of course, Iran, too, whether we're giving them a veto on whether or not we reenter an Iran agreement if the Iranians comply with it.
Those are all things that I think will be evident in the next few months where the administration lands. So far, so very good and they deserve a lot of credit for what they're doing.
A very eager to hear about the the GPA decision soon. There was some good news out of Saudi Arabia that I wanted to highlight because I think we're often understandably pretty hard on the country. So for decades there have been Saudi textbooks that have included anti-Semitic content, hostility towards religions other than than Sunni Islam, and then homophobic and misogynistic content. But experts say that a lot of that objectionable material has recently been edited out of these textbooks. So the revision started in twenty nineteen and I guess even more removed for 20, 20 editions.
Again, these textbooks are still far from perfect there stuff in there that would offend a lot of people. But the head of this Israel based institute that monitors school curriculum is called the change is quite astonishing. So it seems good that this is this is very dark. But I also read that executions in Saudi Arabia were down eighty five percent from from twenty nineteen to twenty twenty. Some of that has to do with covid restrictions, but some was a reduction from what appear to be reforms like a ban on capital punishment for drug crimes.
So, you know, this does strike me as the kind of stuff people were hoping to see when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ran around the US getting great press, calling himself a reformer and convincing journalists and tech CEOs that he was a good guy. But I do think they deserve some credit for these, like incremental but important changes.
They do. And again, I've been very critical. Right. But like, we should give people credit where credit is due and these are important changes. They're kind of see changes and what has been a history of anti Semitism kind of problematic content. So, yeah, I mean, this is a good thing. And and again, like this speaks to the fact that, like, yes, the idea of modernizing, reforming elements, the society is good.
The question is you don't need to be a dictator that doesn't tolerate dissent in order to modernize, you know, so so, yes, I hope you know that this is the beginning of of a broader set of changes that that gets at some of these social elements. But that ultimately also gets at tolerating human rights activists and dissenting voices, too.
That would be good.
I'd rather that happen then than have to be critical a lot here. So. So we should welcome it. Yeah, definitely.
Definitely good news to stories about Israel that I wanted to flag. So the first is the Forward wrote an interesting piece noting that while Biden and Bibi Netanyahu talked about 10 days after Biden declared victory in the presidential campaign, they have not spoken since Biden became president. They pointed out that Biden has talked with the leaders of Canada, Mexico, Britain, France, Germany, NATO, Russia and Japan. That's not a ton of calls. In two weeks, Ben and Biden's top national security team, they've like three of them or four of them have called their counterparts.
But, you know, people are pointing out a notable omission, like basic question for you. Do you think there's a message here from Biden's team to Netanyahu that they're not his biggest fan? Or are we all just like over interpreting, you know, the call list when Joe Biden is like trying to negotiate a covert deal, blah, blah, blah, like do a billion things? I think it's probably a little bit of both.
I mean, I don't think it's some huge thing. But, you know, look, the reality is that Joe Biden was the vice president and administration that Netanyahu fought tooth and nail for for most of eight years. And and the fact that you wouldn't be at the top of the list shouldn't be a surprise. Right. At the same time, I don't think it's an indication of any more kind of substantial shift in how they're going to approach Israel. I think it's going to be he's going to want to have a good relationship with Israel.
That's Joe Biden's orientation. But it probably does indicate a little bit of like, hey, we didn't forget what happened there, particularly in the second Obama term.
Yeah, there. The other part of this story is that, you know. Rail is run the best vaccination campaign in the world, and they deserve credit for it, as of the weekend, they had administered five million vaccine doses to the to Israel's population of about nine million people. So we're talking about the Fizer and Moderna vaccine. So some folks have gotten one jab. Others have gotten, too. And so they're fully vaccinated. But Israel is vaccinated like a quarter to a third of the population, which, my God, that makes me jealous, given where we're sitting here in California and in the US.
And the good news is that like that vaccination campaign has been wildly effective in terms of driving down case numbers, hospitalizations, etc.. But here's a very important caveat that I think is worth talking about. The Israeli government is not vaccinating Palestinians living in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. And Palestinian health officials will probably have to wait months for their vaccine doses to arrive because they acquired them separately. Over the weekend, the Israeli government announced it would transfer 5000 doses to this Palestinians to immunize frontline workers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But obviously that does not come nowhere close to vaccinating. Even a big chunk of the population is probably not even all caregivers.
So inequality when it comes to the distribution of vaccines is not just a problem in Israel, right. In the US, you're seeing black and brown communities get vaccinated at a lower rate. Rich countries like the United States have been able to buy up hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines while poor countries will have to wait longer. But I did think that this was a pretty egregious example, given that when it comes to Israel, we are talking about territory that in one instance Israel occupies and we're talking about Gaza they control access to.
There is a broader and more important point, which is admittedly very hard to make when we're all scared and we all are stuck at home and we just desperately want to get vaccinated, which is that like vaccine nationalism. Worrying about your country first is not a winning long term strategy. Right? Because even if we vaccinate every American, we're not going to be safe. If covid is like flying around the planet, replicating, mutating, maybe making vaccinations less effective.
Right. And so similarly, Israeli citizens aren't safe if their Palestinian neighbors aren't getting vaccinated and they're commuting in and out of the country for work. So kind of an important detail in what otherwise would be just like a total success story.
Yeah, and a great credit to them for what they've done, as usual. Like when Israel puts its mind to something, it's extraordinary what they can do. But to your point, it's one of the reasons why they had such high targets is because it was a relatively small geographic space. So is the West Bank and Gaza and and for moral reasons and for practical reasons, like you say, they they should be they should not be practicing this type of vaccine nationalism, which again, we might see in other places, too.
So so my hope is that that that that that changes. It's really, you know, given think of how close people lived to each other across some of the the lines that divide the West Bank and in Israel, like, you know, they can do this in the end if they want to be they're an occupying power.
They should do it. Yeah. Yes. They should last things on vaccine supply. Just to close out here with some good news, I saw right before we came into the show that there is preliminary data that shows that Russia is a Sputnik five vaccine, is over 90 percent effective and it's one hundred percent effective against serious illness. So, again, that is great news. There is no great power competition when it comes to developing vaccines. We need billions of these things.
So that's just made me very happy.
Again, another theme like Public health should be the most apolitical thing you know, you want. I don't care where the vaccines from works. I want everybody to get the vaccine, even if it's people I don't agree with. Like like let's just we can put everything aside to get this done. I don't care if it's called Moderna or Sputnik or whatever else it's called, like, let's just get shots into people's arms, guys.
OK, so just going to do something unusual here to go into the break, which is play some music for you. This is Anastasia Vasilisa, a doctor and close ally of Alexei Navalny in Russia.
She was playing the piano as police investigators entered her home to search the place and they ultimately arrested her because she is in the opposition. And so we'll we'll leave you with this music. And when we come back, we'll have Ben's interview with Taurel Germein Star. My name is. But the world is brought to you by the Financial Times view America's news in a global context with the Financial Times 20 20 was a year like no other in the F.T. is looking ahead to twenty twenty one and asking the US in the world can steer from crisis to recovery effort.
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It's more obvious to people.
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I think that's right. Yeah, that's a very good point. Thank you for being. Thanks for being here with me, guys.
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Hey, thank you very much. Interestingly enough, I wanted to be a guest.
Oh, good. Good. Well, I'm glad we made it happen. Yeah. And look, I wanted I wanted to, you know, just kick it off by just, you know, naming something that we don't talk about enough, which is, you know, I spent eight years in the White House, NSC meetings, principal committee meetings, deputy community meetings. And you look around the room and it's almost always largely white faces. I can't tell you how many times I looked around the room.
And the only black or brown face in the room was President Obama.
And I want yeah, you know, I mean, he was the boss, but still it.
And so I want to explore kind of why that is and what we can do about it, but also importantly, like what kind of policy outcomes that leads to.
So so just for starters, I mean, as someone who's explored this, nobody should check out your podcast. How would you describe this problem? Why is it that foreign policy in particular, more so probably than just about any other policy area in the United States, despite the real gains? Lloyd Austin, Linda Thomas Greenfield, why is it that this has been such a difficult endeavor to promote meaningful diversity in the workforce and then we can get into what that means for for outcomes?
Yeah, absolutely. So when you think about national security, you really should be thinking about what makes people feel safe. And so when you think about what makes people feel safe, particularly with people of color, we think about our we don't think about the world per say. We think about what's going on in our communities. We think about what's happening with our, you know, with food, being able to put food on the table, thinking about our next job.
And so when we saw the first of all, first of all, when you think about national security, is this perceived as its far away thing that we don't have a grasp for? And I'm saying this as a black man who grew up in inner city Detroit, whose world I just could not see beyond Detroit until I went to school and started traveling. And you also have to think about where the gateways into this field. And so normally the gateways are foreign service.
It is some form of government work. And you normally have to know someone who helps you to kind of be in the know is normally the think tank communities. And I can speak from my experience in that I found that culturally these places are very difficult to navigate, you know, particularly if you're just in the comfort of having the conversation about security, for example, if you're thinking about Iran. Right. You know, think about the fact that my number one observation about Iran, for example, is that I don't think that a lot of us legitimately give Tehran the the grace of feeling threatened.
Right. You know, like that basic stuff like, you know, they are Persians. They're not Arabs, for example. And I'm bringing all this up to say that I think that we spend so much time thinking about foreign policy and the concept of military and thinking about it in the terms of neoliberalism, that a lot of people of color who would be good candidates to fill these roles may not feel comfortable bringing that perspective. And so I think the Black Lives Matter movement has manifested in this country a new bravery and confidence that we are capable of being in these rooms and we don't have to be a particular type of person in order to fit in.
And so we see these improvements taking place right now. But you're going to see more as the Black Lives Matter movement emboldens folks to feel like it's OK to infiltrate these spaces. And I know for me what helped was I had a number of people who told me that, hey, you're talented tomorrow and you have the capability in your personal experience is important and is valuable. And I see the world, interestingly enough, through my uncles who sold drugs, you know, saying, you know, like it's just just an ironic thing.
I've actually written about this. And so just feeling safe to say that and being able to flesh that out in an intellectual framework, it makes all the difference in the world.
You know, it's really interesting. And I want to unpack kind of some of the different angles of this, because I was always struck. Again, I'm just drawing on my experience.
Which is working for Obama that he had this this different big experience. It's a big experience. Right. But he had this you know, he had this double experience that he brought to that office that nobody had before.
One is he lived in Indonesia right after a coup that the CIA sponsored that killed hundreds of thousands of people. So he saw as a kid like the other side of American power, the side that Americans don't like to look at abroad. And then he had an experience as a black man in the United States of recognizing that the authorities, you know, sometimes can do things, that they make you feel less safe, make you feel less insecure.
And I think that that that led him to kind of think about, you know, some of the negative consequences of things that America might do around the world, you know, militarily and otherwise, sanctions in ways that other presidents wouldn't. I know I just offered kind of a pretty leading question.
But the question itself is, if we bring different perspectives, particularly black and brown perspectives into the room, how do you do you think that that might lead to different outcomes in terms of, you know, looking at American power through different eyes, considering restraint before we act? How would that you know, how would that interface with the issues that American foreign policy deals with?
Well, for one, I think that it's not just about having people of color, it's about having people of color who are interested in challenging a neo neoliberal construct that is foreign policy. And so, you know, there are plenty of people of color who are fine with things the way that they are and they are just fine with ascending to the top. So I think that is about bringing folks in who really have a healthy appreciation of deconstructing this, this, this, this economic construct that feeds into our militarism, for example.
And so when you when you think about safety, when I talk about safety on my podcast, black diplomats, my whole. Thing is, how do I get you engaged in this conversation, because you know, the same folks, you know, Biden, for example, he won a majority of the black vote this go around. And so he's going to be making a lot of foreign policy decisions. And a lot of us don't feel like we're engaged and we don't feel like we have the language to have those conversations.
And so, first of all, you have to get people language and to work around. And so what I found to be most productive is saying, hey, where are some things you connect to in a number one thing that I've heard are veterans. Right. And because to so often veterans are are connected to, you know, our armed forces and those are the people who are sent off to fight wars. And we often look, unfortunately, at foreign policy through the lens of military.
Don't do that through the barrel of a gun. And so what is it like to divest from the Pentagon, for example? We saw some more progressive members of Congress are pushing for a 10 percent cut, you know, and the Pentagon. And so what can that be? What can that be reinvested into? Should I be that should be reinvested into the State Department? Right. And so people who are actually skilled at diplomacy and I don't think we spend enough time talking about, you know, we talk about divests to invest divests from the Pentagon and we know that they have billions of dollars in ways that could be going to State Department officials who are very talented, a State Department that was decimated under the Trump administration.
Let's be, you know, blunt about that. And so when you start telling people about things that they can tangibly touch, then they'll start to have an understanding of it because they'll be able to talk to people, you know, they'll be able to talk to their cousins. They'll be able to talk to their children. They'll be able to talk to their parents because the military, you know, for a lot of folks is a gateway. They're another thing is, you know, I find that, you know, bringing people of color into these conversations who really have an analysis about these things, it can also mean that we will have different relationships with people who are deemed adversaries.
So you take, for example, with Iran, I brought it up earlier, is that, you know, one thing I respect about Obama in the Iran deal, in the first step he took with that was he didn't care about the grievances. He cared about the the regional grievances. But this whole thing was I do not want Tehran to create a nuclear weapon. That was the that was and, you know, this is being a part of, you know, national security meetings and things like that.
That was like the big grasp of the and it was working until Trump unraveled it. And so I think that there are a lot of ways in which, you know, you make a decision about who's an ally and who is the person that you can work with. And Iran is one of those places where, OK, we're going to determine that they're the axis of evil. But there are so many people you can make an argument that Saudi Arabia could be on that axis of evil is all about how you perceive things.
Right. And so people make these decisions and you can imagine these decisions. It's really that simple. And so I think that people of color and the people who have been on my show have begun reimagining what this you know, what what it means to be an adversary, what it means to be an enemy of the United States. And I think that we would be able to help to deconstruct this Cold War mentality towards Russia as an area that I'm very keen on.
And, you know, there is a way in which we deal with the Kremlin. And I tend to say the Kremlin, because I don't like to stigmatize Russians by saying the Russians. So, you know, when you look at the Kremlin, you know, there are we need to negotiate them with new start. We need to negotiate with them in regards to, you know, new cars, you know, nuclear nonproliferation. But there are still ways in which we're going to have to be strong, you know, strong and, you know, from a sanctions perspective over Crimea and a number of other things.
So we have that relationship with Russia. Right. So why can't we have it with Iran? Why can't we have it with other places? And so a fresh perspective of people of color perspective will also help America look at its own flaws. Right. You know, America forever has been this country that says that we are the model for the world. And I think that when you see people like myself, people we know, black men and women, people of color who are locked up literally in cages, you know, they will say, wow, you know, this is how America treats its own people.
How can you just sit on a sit on this pedestal and preach to us? And so you're going to have people from these experiences reimagining what safety means.
And that's going to have a very different outcome for the ways in which we engage folks who we deem our adversaries because it definitely needs to change.
Yeah, I know. And you make a powerful argument, you know, that they're getting different people in the rooms, allows us to look at things differently, allows us to make different priorities on things like defense spending, challenging certain aspects. The neoliberal consensus, there's also, you know, what do you think the opportunity is abroad?
Because, you know, I think Americans simply sometimes appreciate how much our legacy of white supremacy, you know, in fact, impacts how people hear us when we talk to them about things like democracy, you know, which has been a feature of American foreign policy. And I also noticed the power of showing up in other countries, particularly in, you know, increasingly important countries in the global south and showing up with not just a Barack Obama, but as Susan Rice, you know, when I was working there, that that frankly, you're puncturing some of the skepticism people have about American democracy.
If we have different representation abroad in the foreign service and in the people who are showing up with the president, you know, what is the opportunity there to kind of reshape how the world looks at America's own flaws and make us a more credible voice on things like human rights, where we seem to have lost all of our credibility.
Well, well, that's actually a very good question in order for American diplomats, people of color who are put into these roles to be representatives of America, we have to have good leadership at home. Right. So it's not just enough to appoint and, you know, people of color, ambassadors to critical areas of the world. If we don't have good leadership at home that are actually creating domestic policies, you know, for example, like when you know, you know what it means to stop sending military aid and selling military arms to local police departments, you know, Biden is already taking steps, you know, begun to take steps in that regard.
So that's a laudable but this when you undertook it has taken hundreds of years to create this white supremacist construct and is going to take many more to unravel people's minds around around the reality that we don't have to live this way. These are so, so so the representation part is important. But there are some structural things at home, you know, for one and one example is that we saw it in Georgia. Just, you know, people pand Zwolinski, the Ukrainian president, you know where I'm at right now in Ukraine, like the Ukrainian president, Zolensky on his axios interview for saying that, you know you know, I look at America differently now on one point.
I do respect the fact that because Ukraine is constitutionally limited in regards to its authority and is much in much of his powers linked to defense and national security. So maybe it may not have been the most diplomatic thing to say, but on his face, he was not wrong. Right. And so there are plenty of people who are a lot more independent who have the capacity to point the finger, and they have power and independent power from us where they don't have to, you know, beg us for support.
So I think we, you know, just think about the fact that we had January six a literal attempted coup. Right. The ways that we talk about other countries at Carinthia, at The Washington Post has an incredible series of stories where she says, well, if this were happening in another country, this is how Western media would cover it. And so America still is kind of high on its own, you know, pseudo democracy supply, if you will.
And, you know, I think that there needs to be a reality check with ourselves to say that in many respects we are democracies are just as fragile in many respects as a lot of the countries that we like to criticize.
And so keep in mind also that you have a Democratic you have a Republican Party that essentially is functioning as a de facto terrorist, a terrorist cell or at minimum a propaganda tool for, you know, larger domestic terror cells in the United States. That sounds like hyperbole to people, but that's a real thing. We have a functioning, powerful party that has the capacity to elect presidents that is actively and openly undermining democracy. Think about that. So it's it's one thing to send in diplomats, but the work that activists did in Georgia, you know, is it's just it's remarkable.
And so as much so. So the work that, you know, Latasha Brown is doing, Stacey Abrams, there are so many other activists around the country who are trying to say, quite frankly, white America from itself. And and so diplomats who are deployed across the world are benefiting from that. So the more that we showcase that activism is improving our country and the more that people like President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Democrats, because Republicans just don't care.
But Democrats are embracing the movement that is going to create a stronger foreign policy and a stronger diplomatic corps because we're strengthening democracy at home and we're giving diplomats that we're deploying, you know, the proper support and showing them that, yes, we're calling for democracy in your lands. But look at what we're doing at home. And this is the example that we want you to follow.
Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, and some of this is the story that's told to. Right.
I mean, the media is even less diverse than the workforce. And yet you're in the media, you got a podcast, you write. You mentioned Karen Nitya. She's great at the post in bringing new voices in. How important is it to change who's telling the story about these issues?
I'll tell you, the reason why I started black diplomats was because I felt like for a long time I was shut out of national policy conversations and I didn't feel safe in these spaces because, quite frankly, my perspective is different. And I've always been willing to talk to people about how I view things. But as you know, there was a point where I almost quit. The Russian area studies feel roughly about six, seven years ago, and the reason why almost quit was because.
It's already tough in the U.S. press corps. We've had a Black Lives Matter movement, I think, but really buoyed black journalists in particular was the two thousand well, not only black journalists were people of color. Journalists were the uprisings. And and, you know, in Ferguson. Right. In 2014, the untimely, you know, killing of Michael Brown. And so when you saw not only, you know, working journalists, but you saw activists taking over social media platforms and retelling the story then that gave black journalists, people of color, journalists in newsrooms more powers.
So the movement empowered us and I don't know how. And we really need to start really giving activists their props. Right. I mean, because I know that there's a separation between activists and journalists and everything, but if it wasn't for those activist newsrooms would be weaker.
Black people would be weaker in our newsrooms if it wasn't for the Black Lives Matter movement. And so that in itself gave me courage to try. Right. Because if it wasn't for my social media platform, people reached out to me based on how I was tweeting about Ukraine because I didn't need anyone's permission to tweet. Yeah, yeah, OK.
And so slowly but surely, people started asking me to write and then I started getting opportunities to speak. And so I started developing the confidence that I can do these things.
And I found that people who say, hey, I studied Russian at Georgetown or I study Russian, you know, at Ohio State. And so we developed this small group, a camaraderie of black people who are interested in Russia and Central Asia and Eurasia. And so we have similar stories about being shut out, being shut down and being ignored and being insulted by white people in, you know, media in Eastern Europe and think tanks, etc.. And so we developed a union.
And so it was them who actually encouraged me over the years to create a podcast. And I also saw the fact that there are a lot of people of color who left the Obama administration and they had a hard time getting hits on television. And so I said, you know what, let me give you a space. And so I started a Kickstarter, a Kickstarter and raised money to get, you know, this equipment that I'm using to talk with you right now with because it's expensive, you know.
And so but but also I also the thing about a podcast is that is very different from appearing on CNN for a three minute segment or a five minute segment where, you know, you're just sitting here talking to me, you know, you being able to do this work, getting on this microphone and you do it and talking to somebody for the time that respect until you get to really understand who a person is, you get to flesh out their views and their ideas and their perspectives and the way that you can't do in a succinct soundbite.
And so I gave a platform to mostly people of color, and I haven't had one white man on my show yet. And it's not because I don't like white men. You're and you know, but it's like I just feel like we've heard those perspectives and you can go anywhere for them. And so I'm really proud to say that I'm approaching my 30th episode and everybody that's been on my show has been a person of color and a person of color who has a mentality about challenging neoliberalism.
And so a number of people who are on my show were on my show in the past are now in the Biton Harris administration. That's something I'm very proud of. And there's something I'm working to build on. And and I think and people have told me, Tarrell, you know, I can't really say this publicly, but I listen to your podcast every week because you say a whole lot of things that I want to see in meetings, but I can't do it.
So there are a lot of people in the State Department that listen to me. They're people that work across the United States federal government, but also folks who felt like they didn't have access to it because they see someone like me, they see somebody with my politics and say, dang, man, you make me feel safe. I can ask questions. I want to sound dumb. And so is nothing like seeing someone like yourself that makes you feel secure and being able to ask the next question.
And so black diplomats is really about talking about safety and security in a way that we all can understand, because safety and security for black folk is an entirely different thing for white folks, and it has nothing to do explicitly with our skin color has everything, everything to do with how we walk this earth. And so once I bring and policing, I bring in the military. I bring in all of these sensory points that people can touch on to them.
I give them I give people a variety of entry points that they can that they can engage the conversation that they otherwise wouldn't have in a more kind of root or a a very kind of the word I'm looking for is. I guess that for lack of a better word, because I can't find it is know like a straight shot type of approach that says, hey, this is what Russia is doing, this is what China is doing. And quite frankly, it's like people can't grasp it because they don't know where to hit at.
And so with me, I taught one of the things I talk about, safety, security is I spoke with Latasha Brown and she was talking about I talked to her about her activism. But a lot of people don't know. She said, I want to be a diplomat. I wanted to be a U.N. diplomat. And so we spoke about that. And so there are a lot of activists out there who have studied abroad or they speak another language or they may have an immigrant experience.
And so they could talk about the perspective of I've come here as an undocumented immigrant and I've gotten, you know, legal status. I've gotten I've become documented now. But they could talk about safety and security from that perspective. And so those are the voices that I have intentionally sought and it's gaining traction.
Well, look, you know, we wanted to have you on to kind of, you know, get that sense of your mission and hopefully encourage some of our listeners to to check out. But I'd love to have you back on some point to just talk Russia and Ukraine, you know. Yeah, of course.
I'm I'm ready for I'm a I'm a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. One thing I want to shout out in, I spend a lot of time on these things, and so I'm more than willing to provide that perspective. I'm looking forward to it. So please, I'm waiting.
Yeah, let's do it. Because there's a you know, unfortunately, we know that there'll be a lot of twists and turns in those stories in the coming weeks and months in Russia and Ukraine. But, look, we we loved having you. And again, nobody should check out black diplomats, follow in social media and and hope you I'm sure it's a little colder in Ukraine than it is where I am in L.A. But I hope you have some time, too.
All right. Thanks a lot for joining us. Absolutely, man. Thank you so much.
That's all we got for today. Thank you to Taurel Jermaine staff for doing the show. Ben, I'm very excited by your Bergsman. Remind me again where I can find that link. Well, you know, you can go to Amazon or you can go to your independent bookstore and support your bookstore.
Or if you go to my Twitter feed, there's also the random house my publishers like. So there's lots of ways to get it, but I really hope people check it out. Fantastic. I can't wait to talk to you guys this week.
So positive. The world is a crooked media production. The executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our associate producer is Jordan Waller. It's mixed and edited by Andrew Chadwick.
Kyle Cygwin is our sound engineer thanks to our digital team, Elijah Cohn, Elfriede Na Melkonian and Milo Kim, who film and share episodes and videos each week.