Host of the eponymous foreign affairs show on CNN, Fareed Zakaria GPS, an editor at The Atlantic, and columnist for The Washington Post, Zakaria has been included on many top thought leader lists and has been repeatedly nominated for Emmy Awards over the years. Fareed is one of the most insightful, clear and rational media voices, at a time when it seems the global political landscape has become a shouting match, awash with confusion.
His new book, In Defence of a Liberal Education, underlines the importance of an interdisciplinary education and how it can strengthen the future of a country.
We sat down with Fareed to discuss his views on everything from the health of the American education system to the future of terrorism, and of course the most polarising man on earth right now, Donald Trump.
One of the questions you pose in your book In Defense of a Liberal Education is, “does it really make sense to study English in the age of apps?” It’s such a powerful but simple question.
I would argue that it has always made sense to study things that help you think, that help you write, that help you express yourself, that help you analyse. And English is one among several other ways that you can do that. So it has always made sense to study something like English. In fact I would argue it makes more sense today because we’re living in this age of super-computing. Computers will be able to do much of the routine coding that was previously being done by human beings. What is going to happen is that you are going to need more than just the ability to do standard computer science. You’re going to need an X-factor, and that comes from creativity and from your ability to think laterally and connect two or three disciplines.
Just last week I spent some time in Silicon Valley with the founders of Airbnb and the thing that struck me about the company was that of the three founders, two are designers and one’s a computer scientist. They argue that the success of their company has an enormous amount to do with the fact they have an inter-disciplinary approach at the heart of the company.
Going on from that point, you talk about how our age is defined by things like capitalism, globalisation and technology. The new heroes for millennials are people like Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. Is it just a case of the emperor’s new clothes? Are the young people who are trying to emulate these figures driven by greed or are they the genuine potential saviours of these new industries?
It’s a very good question. I think yes, we are living in a time defined by globalisation, by technology and to a certain extent capitalism. But I don’t think the reason people look at Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg as heroes is just about money. It’s not just that because people want to be billionaires they’re worshipping billionaires. There’s more to it than that. I think that there’s a sense that people like Bezos are representing the future. They’re at the forefront of trends that are transforming our world. Think about it, these are companies that a few years ago didn’t exist for the most part, and have now completely transformed whole industries, modes of living, modes of being, the way we communicate with one another, the way we organise ourselves. So it’s about the fact that it feels like these people are pioneers.
"There are nine internet global technology platforms that a billion people use and all nine have 65%-95% market share and they’re all American."
Fareed Zakaria on America's innovation engine
I think also it’s partly because they’re so young and they seem so approachable. They seem so much like us. The bureaucrat of old was a big fat man in a three-piece suit, puffing on a cigar, whereas Mark Zuckerberg looks like the guy next door. Bill Gates began this in a way. Both he and Steve Jobs both had this approachable, young, geeky charisma and that is at the heart of this fascination we all have with these people. Of course it does help enormously that they’re rich and that everybody wants to get rich. But you don’t see people looking at the Koch brothers and thinking, “my God I want to be like them”, even though they’re fabulously wealthy.
One thing that I think plays into this is this discussion about education is the way people from outside look at America and the role of the ‘American dream.’ Scientist Michio Kaku says that America has a secret weapon and that’s their H-1B visa that allows foreign workers with extraordinary abilities to live there, helping to keep the country’s industries afloat. Would you agree that America is so malnourished of good professionals that it relies on feeding from offshore talent?
I would argue that there’s no question; America benefits enormously from having a talent pool of almost the whole world to draw from. People come here, particularly for higher education, and we are all aware of that. I would make two additional points though. Firstly, it’s not just the talented people. The United States benefits enormously from having people from poor countries desperately come here with an enormous sense of drive and desire to work hard. It gives the whole of society and culture this boost of energy, and maybe these people end up being very successful. You get a high school graduate going to Stanford Computer Science and you know they are going to be successful but then there are so many people who come in various other ways and become super successful chefs, or dancers, or executives, or entrepreneurs. I don’t think we should discount the raw energy that comes from immigrants who come here to ‘make it.’
The second point I would make is that it’s not just that we take immigrants in, we’re also able to assimilate them so that they feel completely comfortable here. Canada has as many foreign-born citizens as the United States. So does Sweden and Australia and many more countries. Yet the American innovation machine seems to be working at a higher speed than these others because when people come here they feel completely at home. They feel that they have an opportunity to try to do stuff and if they fail it doesn’t matter. America celebrates individualism and allows people to be themselves in a way that is very helpful to entrepreneurship. So I still think there’s something very special here. How else can you explain the fact that there are nine internet global technology platforms that a billion people use and all nine have 65%-95% market share and they’re all American. The next two to come about are Airbnb and Uber, which are also American. Not just American but basically all in two places: Silicon Valley and Seattle.
In your previous book, Post-American World, you make the point that perhaps higher education is America’s best industry, stating that the US has the majority of the world’s top 50 universities. But in your latest book I sense a real cause for concern that the USA is losing a kind of diversity in intelligence because of where you’re placing your emphasis in education. American education is not ranked as highly as it once was.
We still have the best Higher Education system in the world, but there are problems and they are problems that I worry a lot about. The first is related to cost and the second is linked to standards. There is too much of a party culture that is set by rich kids, who the universities increasingly need in order to pay for tuition, so there is this downward spiral that I do worry about. It’s not going to happen at the very high end. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Caltech, MIT, they’re all going to continue to not just shine but expand their leads with the rest of the world.
But there is the broader problem with higher education. The book really is a plea to recognise historically what the sources of success have been in the United States. We don’t have an Asian system, which is overly reliant on repetition, memorisation and mass testing. What we have is a system that has really encouraged people to problem-solve, to think, to follow their passion, to give, and study what they’re interested in, and to go where learning takes you and, as a result, to fall in love with learning. Those are the great skills that make American higher education still distinct, not just from Asian education but also from European education. It’s weird that we’re forgetting that those are our strengths. We’re number one, so why the hell should we be copying South Korea’s system of education when they’re the ones wondering how to be more like us.
Let’s talk about America. I suppose we should first address the elephant in the room which is Donald Trump. You’ve made it quite clear that you are not a fan of Trump’s views, labelling many of them as ‘appalling.’ There is a lot of confusion and emotional rhetoric in America right now about his meteoric rise. How do we begin to make sense of this strange tale?
It’s a very good question. You know, we’ve all been puzzling over it. At the heart of it are two phenomena, one is very old and one is new. The very old phenomenon is this: Donald Trump’s message to people is very simple, “your life is hard, your life is difficult, your prospects are poor, and it’s all because of someone else. Your condition is because of Mexicans, Muslims and Chinese people. I will beat them up and you will feel restored.” That message is hauntingly familiar. That is a message that is heard throughout history and I don’t want to necessarily focus on the 1930’s. There have been demagogues throughout history who have said, “Don’t look in the mirror, the problem is the other.” And ‘the other’ is usually defined in racial or religious terms. That is the core of Trump’s message. As for the rest, he changes his mind every day. He will contradict himself within the same sentence. But on this he never has. He is consistent with the Mexicans, the wall, the Chinese. He knows people are not interested in tax policy or entitlement reform.
As for the new part, Donald Trump is the first person I can think of who has come into politics from the world of pure celebrity. Joshua Cooper makes this point which I think is so well made, that if you’d looked a year ago and said there are two candidates for the Republican nomination: one has raised 125 million dollars, has already received the endorsement of 50 senior republican elected officials, and has two presidencies in his family. The other has 10 million twitter followers. Who’s going to get the nominations? We would all have said Jeb Bush and we would have been wrong. Twitter means he has found a way to connect with people through social media. The style mechanism of the moment has allowed him to bypass all the traditional gatekeepers so that when people say he isn’t a successful businessman, he understands no one will believe it because for 11 years people watched him play a successful businessman on television. Trump understands that Twitter is just a way to dominate the news cycle and get into people’s emotional lives. I don’t think we’ve seen someone come out of the world of celebrity before, a much larger world than the world of politics which is itself a small sub-culture. Celebrity is the dominant culture of our time.
"There have been demagogues throughout history who have said, “Don’t look in the mirror, the problem is the other.” And ‘the other’ is usually defined in racial or religious terms. That is the core of Trump’s message."
Fareed Zakaria on Donald Trump
Isaac Asimov once said, “there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, there always has been. The rhetoric is that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Thinking about the ascension of Donald Trump, there seems to be an increasing anti-intellectualism establishing itself firmly and what you say is a declining education system, with subjects such as philosophy and the social sciences becoming less appreciated. Would you agree that a disturbing correlation has begun to appear?
I think there is a correlation, but it’s also worth pointing out that (and I don’t want to sound elitist or snobbish about this but it’s simply a fact), the vast majority of people who have voted for Trump in the Republican primaries have tended to be among the less educated people in America, and that has been the single strongest correlation for a while. So he has found a certain base where perhaps the issue of facts are not particularly powerful in the way in which people form their opinions. I’ll tell you what I worry about even more than people not using facts or critical thinking; what Trump has been able to do throughout his campaign is assert things that are absolutely false, that he probably knows are absolutely false, and never retracts them. He gets away with it in a way that is unprecedented to my knowledge in modern American politics. From asserting that Barack Obama was not a citizen of the United States, to the statements he makes about Mexicans and Muslims, to the idea that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in a plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy and even insinuating that Ben Carson is a child molester. He’s never retracted one of these statements or been expected to. That is deeply worrying in a democratic culture. What is the next president going to say to connect with voters? There were always some rules that said candidates just couldn’t do certain things, and Trump has made it possible to lie, to grab attention, denigrate his opponents, and never have to pay any kind of price for it. That’s the most troubling thing.
Do you think he’ll be elected as president?
It’s difficult for me to separate my analysis from my wish, but if I had to bet today I’d bet on Hillary Clinton. The Republicans have had a hard time over the last twenty years because of the demographic changing. There are now more minorities and more college educated people. So if you look at the five largest states of the Electoral College: California is essentially a Democratic lock, New York is a Democratic lock, Illinois is a Democratic lock, Texas is a Republican lock and Florida is up for grabs (but one has to say with the demographics it seems to be leaning towards the Democrats.) If you start a race with four of the five largest states in the Democratic camp then it makes Trump really have to ‘run the table’ as they say, with every major state and all the minor ones, in order to get the electoral majority.
"I’ve learned to have a healthy democratic suspicion of the idea that there are any supermen out there. When you get up close you realise that everyone has foibles, they all make mistakes and they all put their pants on one leg at a time."
Fareed Zakaria on a lifetime of mixing with global leaders
You’ve spent a lifetime mixing with all manner of heads of state and all manner of influential people, from Obama to Gaddafi. What have you learnt through the experience of meeting these unique people who are shaping the world around us?
Oh boy. Probably the dominant thing you recognise when you’ve spent a lot of time with powerful people, is that they’re all human beings.
So I’ve learned to have a healthy democratic suspicion of the idea that there are any supermen out there, any people who will prove to be greater than you or I. I don’t mean that as if there aren’t people I admire, but when you get up close you realise that everyone has foibles, they all make mistakes and they all put their pants on one leg at a time. It’s important not to deify people and in celebrity culture there’s a tendency I find distressing to do this, even more than was the case 20 – 30 years ago. When presidents retired in the old days, when Harry Truman retired for example, he was always called Mr.Truman. Now someone who speaks in the house for five minutes is called Speaker for the rest of his life.
If we could turn to the area of geopolitics and terrorism, you just released a documentary on CNN called Why They Hate Us. What came to mind for me after watching it was the book
The Clash of Civilisations by political scientist Samuel Huntington who you studied under. He made a statement in the book – “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas, values or religion, but by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact. Non-Westerners rarely do.” Quite prophetic? Is this narrative about the East’s disdain with the West something that has been in the making for some time now?
Look, I think Samuel is a brilliant man and that book has many brilliant insights, but I think he exaggerates in that instance. Or let me put it differently, the West did have a superiority of ideas which then led to the superiority of the ability to create better wealth and better technology which included better military technology. So Western superiority in warfare was not entirely unrelated to the West modernising much faster and more effectively than the East. That was the real divergence that began to take place around the 15th century.
He is, I think, entirely right in terms of what the world remembers, but what we also forget is that the rest of the world has spent so long, hundreds of years now, as a playground for Western power and ambition, and as a result of that there is this bleak resentment and a sense of these countries wanting to assert themselves. The thing we always forget when we confront the rest of the world is nationalism. If you look at Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s the sense that people don’t want to be dominated by the West, by a foreign power. We always think we’re the good guys because we’re supporting democracy and in a way that’s true, but in another way we’re an 800-pound gorilla that has been dominating the world for a long time. That’s why you have to tread very carefully and be aware of the understandable backlash to Western power.
There seem to be a lot of old ghosts in the world that are rising. Many far right political parties have gained popularity in Europe and this of course plays into the current immigrant issue. There seems to be a lot of blurring of mythologies. Rather like with Trump, people seem to be having discussions not based on critical thinking, but based on big, bold headlines and emotional rhetoric. Would you agree?
The way I’d put it is like this: we’re going through a period of extraordinarily rapid change with two huge forces of globalisation and the information revolution. Both are going at warp speed and both reinforces the other and is highly disruptive. If you have a regular job in a regular company, you will see the world transformed by these two forces. Somewhere out there someone is doing the job you’re doing at a tenth of the wages. Somewhere out there someone is inventing a machine that will be able to do what you do. That is the reality that currently surrounds Western society.
The people who are doing well are the people who are saying, “this is all the fault of somebody.” There is somebody to blame and as a result of it, ironically in this age of globalisation, the strongest force is nationalism. Look at Donald Trump. Trump is an American nationalist very much at peace with the forces rising in Europe. I have a European friend who said to me, “whenever I come to America for the last 35 years I was always struck by how American politics was so different, we were stuck in the old world, you were inventing the new. Now I come to America and you have the same politics that we do. The politics of religion and race.”
Let’s discuss other giant developing continents and countries for a moment such as Africa, India, China and Russia, all of which enjoy some type of modern authoritarianism
which, as the NY Times puts it, “just hums along”. All the while the middle classes grow in these places at warp speeds and become more educated. Do you not think eventually these countries will want their own revised versions of democracy?
Historically it’s true that as countries become richer and better educated people want greater autonomy and greater participation in politics. I don’t know how you’d describe Japan as a democracy, they have had the same government in power for 75 years, but, you know, they do have that trend. The part I think people often assume will come with that is that they’ll be more modern, more pro-Western, and that’s not true at all. It’s easier to imagine them becoming more democratic, individualistic, and anti-Western. If we look at China for example, I’m not sure that we can say that the government is more anti-Western than the people. It might be the opposite.
"Terrorism wins if we are terrorised."
But would you say that a more liberal education, which you have argued for, and democratised access to the internet, will cause the structures of these countries to dramatically change?
I think, at the end of the day, I believe in education, and I believe it is fundamentally a progressive force. But it can be a bumpy road. If we look at Europe’s history, as Europe modernised and opened up its society you got a lot of dictators. Not just Hitler, but look at the 1880s with the election of people like Karl Lueger. There have been many cases along the bumpy road to democracy. I think in the end if a society is stable and middle class and highly educated, yes, it’ll be more peaceful, but it’ll be a rollercoaster ride.
What do you think the most imminent threats to world peace today are? Are there any major threats geopolitically?
I think that terrorism is a real concern, but I think its actual threat to world peace, to stop society from functioning, is highly exaggerated. It has this emotional appeal. If you look at statistics, compared to highway accidents or gun shooting it is clear that the numbers who have been killed is very small, but the emotional impact is very large. What I worry about in regards to terrorism is that it creates a society of fear, of racial and religious profiling. Terrorism wins if we are terrorised. That’s the real danger.
The broader threat, I think, fundamentally comes from a larger countries that have the capacity to monopolise large scale resources. The two countries you have to worry about that are resolutely not integrated into the world’s order are Russia and China. Russia is in some ways defiant but is ultimately a declining power so it has limits. China is ambivalent but is an enormous power which will be the largest economy in the world, even if it’s not particularly advanced. That’s what we should be worried about. That’s where all our energy and intentions should be spent and focused on. How can one deter and integrate these great complex societies? And believe me, the 21st century will be about this challenge.
Will you ever run for power?
I like my independence too much. You have to make a lot of compromises and I think I’m not good at that. I would be reluctant, so I wouldn’t be good at it.
Photos: Jeremy Freeman / CNN