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Daniel Runde on the Campbell Conversations

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Daniel Runde
Daniel Runde

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Daniel Runde. He's an expert on international relations and Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., where he also holds the Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis. He's written a new book titled, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”. Mr. Runde, welcome to the program.

Daniel Runde: Thanks, Grant, for having me. I'm so grateful.

GR: Well, we appreciate you making the time to talk to us. So let me just start in talking about your book, by asking you to briefly remind our listeners just what soft power means.

DR: Yeah, thanks, Grant. So I wrote the book, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”, because I think we are in an age of great power competition with the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin's murderous regime in Russia. We're not in a great power competition with the Chinese people, we're not in a great power competition with the Russian people, we are with their governments. What I would argue is most of our competition is going to play out in the global south. That means developing countries, Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, the Pacific Island states, Ukraine and Moldova. Some of it's going to be military, like hard power, which is kind of military and our intelligence capacities. Much of it is going to be nonmilitary competition. So I'm using soft power to mean basically everything other than, say, battleships, night vision goggles and sort of intelligence kinds of functions. So I'm thinking about things like, we're going to compete over vaccines, we're going to compete over values, we're going to compete over what kind of technologies power the future and what are the digital rails of the future for developing countries. We're going to compete in the multilateral system, which I'd like to talk about. So, soft power is, some of it is things like international foreign aid, like international development, some of it is certain kinds of diplomacy. And some of it is other forms of engagement with the rest of the world that may or may not be sort of development or diplomacy per se.

GR: All right, and you mentioned China there quite a bit. And I noted when I looked through your book that you write a lot about China in your book. And I found, for example, your observation about the increasing numbers of African students studying in China to be interesting and something I did not know. Could you say a little bit more about the nature of China's challenge to the global leadership of the United States? You ticked off a lot of different areas in which there would be this competition. But tell me a little bit more about the nature of China's challenge.

DR: So, China is the second largest economy in the world today. And China is, we talk in the military realm about China being what's called a near peer competitor in terms of aviation, the Navy, or in terms of capacities or expertise. I would argue that China is a near peer competitor in nonmilitary forms of power. And this is different than even 15 years ago, Grant. So, whether it's producing vaccines or if you go back 20 years, the United States was the largest trading partner for about 120 countries in the world. And China was the largest trading partner for about 60 countries. Today, China is the number one trading partner for about 120 countries in the world and we're the number one trading partner for about 60 countries, so in essence it's flipped. So whether it's economic engagement, whether it's there, many of your listeners have heard of something called Belt and Road Initiative, which is like any positive, forward looking agenda that speaks in the hopes and aspirations of developing countries as it pertains to infrastructure and digital infrastructure. And it's successful because it's a positive, forward looking agenda. And so they have money, they have capacities, they have expertise. If we choose to leave a void today, China and sometimes Russia has the ability, often has the ability, not always, but very often and increasingly often, has the ability to fill a void that we choose to leave behind. So whether it's in the multilateral system, whether it's in our inability to provide vaccines, whether it's closing, making sure that developing countries have access to the most modern cell phone technologies, whether it's sort of providing leadership or financing or ideas for the multilateral system, whether it's providing education and training to developing countries, they have an ability that they didn't have 20 years ago. And so I think your listeners need to understand that. I wrote this book, “The American Imperative, Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”, because I wanted folks like your listeners to understand that the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin's murderous regime have the ability to fill voids that we leave behind. And they have, especially the Chinese Communist Party, have the ability to do that. And so we, by us not engaging with the world and oftentimes there's a temptation to do that, we have to understand that if we do that, we have to accept the fact that at times China is going to have the ability to fill voids.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Daniel Runde, Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of a new book titled, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”. I wanted to follow up with you on this issue of ideas and values and as a way to do that, I'll just put this out there for myself. This has somewhat mystified me when I've listened to discussions about China as a rival to the United States, and I can certainly see it as an economic rival. And you've laid out in some detail now the ways in which it is working its way and having its influence in the Southern Hemisphere. But when I think about the realm of ideas and offering a vision that one would want to aspire to, it seems to me it's clearly a repressive regime. And it's unclear to me, at least in the world, what it stands for. You've mentioned the values that developing countries may be seeing there for their economies. But I'm still left a little bit at a loss of the attractiveness of China in terms of ideas and values that a country would want to aspire to embody. Help me out here, help me understand this challenge better.

DR: Oh, thanks Grant, I think that's an interesting point. So I would say immediately after the financial crisis of 2008, 15 years ago, there was sort of a moment saying, oh my gosh, democratic capitalism, that's over, and what we really need is some kind of like government led, state owned enterprise, economic model with some kind of soft or hard authoritarianism. Is it maybe it's not so bad? And so there was some kind of moment, whereas I'm going to call it, I disagree with that, but I think there was a little bit of additional attractiveness to that. I do think given that China has had, and when I use the term China, I want your listeners to think Chinese Communist Party as opposed to China, the Chinese people.

GR: Okay.

DR: China has had, the Chinese Communist Party and their government has had all sorts of challenges of late. I think if your listeners, I'm sure, follow in the press, there's been a whole series of challenges in China. Some of them are quite structural, having to do with debt, some of them having to do with demography. And so I think that perhaps the model is less attractive than it was. I also think the, you know, I think post-COVID I think there's a reckoning with China for a whole bunch of reasons related to the pandemic. And so I think that those are all the case. So what I do think though, having said all of that, here's what I go back to what I said earlier, that the United States or any great power, in my mind, needs to have a positive forward looking agenda that speaks to the hopes and aspirations of friends or potential friends. And China has that in the Belt and Road. So I don't like the Belt and Road, in fact, I hate it because the Belt and Road is a great idea. There was a failure, the World Bank and Multilateral Development Bank system, and let's call a system led by the West, became less and less enthusiastic and less and less interested in financing big energy projects, big infrastructure projects. But as countries move up the development scale, Grant, they need more energy, they need more gas. Sometimes they need more oil sometimes they need more coal, sometimes they need a big hydro, sometimes they need a big nuclear. And they also need roads. Sometimes they need airports, sometimes they need ports. And I think for a whole series of reasons, some of them concerns about environmental stewardship, some of them having to do with just making sure that local communities were being respected in a particular way. It got harder and harder, or institutions led by the West, got less and less enthusiastic about financing or enabling all the things I just listed. So in essence, that became a void. So, yes, of course, we should have lots of renewable energy, but a lot of energy is going to need to be reliable energy as well. And so many countries are still going to need gas, some of them are still going to use oil and sometimes they're going to use coal. I'm not saying that's not ideal, but some of them are. If they're sitting on coal, I believe they're going to dig it out of the ground and they're going to use it. So what I'd say is it's not just an environmental issue, but what I would just say is that they spoke to the hopes and aspirations countries saying, I want to have a port, I want to have an airport. I've traveled to 80 countries, I often try and figure out, well who built the, if they see a new airport, I always wonder, well, did the Chinese build it? And 50% of the time the answer is yes. And so they have financing, they have construction firms and they offer it in kind of, and they also offer speed and they don't offer what I'm going to describe as lectures. So, you know, I'm all for human rights, I'm all for environmental stewardship, and I'm all for good governance and not taking bribes. I think all those things are true. But I also think if we're going to like help our partner countries in the developed world, it can't take ten years from an idea of a project to it being built by the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank or somebody else, because we're now in a competition where China can say, I'll build it, yeah, in a year. Now, oftentimes we'll say to them, well, they'll do shoddy work or they'll load you up with debt, or they're going to bribe you or they're going to be disrespectful of local communities. All of that is potentially true. But my point, Grant, in my book, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”, is that we can't fight something with nothing. We too need a positive forward looking agenda that speaks to the aspirations of friends and potential friends. They have one, we have to get one, we've had them in the past. We had one, President Kennedy launched an initiative called the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960’s for precisely this reason. So we have had this at moments in our history. We need to have a positive, forward looking agenda. And I wrote this book to begin a national conversation about how we're going to engage with the rest of the world because we can't just wag our finger at developing countries and say, don't take China's money, don't let them build your hydroelectric dam. Don't take their money for an airport, like, we can't doesn't mean we have to compete with China dollar for dollar, but we can't tell countries they can't develop. And that's part of what's attractive about China. So, yeah, it's authoritarian, maybe their economy is not doing so great now. Maybe they're not going to have as much money to throw around as they did in, say, 2015 or 2016 or 2017 because of some of their problems. But they're the second largest economy in the world and they're going to be part of the furniture. They are also, I want your listeners to understand, like they would like to reset the system. We all have grown up in a system for the last 70 plus years that was led by the United States in the West and there are a whole bunch of assumptions built into the current system that we all live in: a stable dollar, no World War three, there's not been a great power war, attempts at trying to resolve problems through diplomacy, concepts like rule of law, as opposed to saying, well, whoever is the strongest gets to kind of like, throw their weight around and invade countries and carve up countries like what we're seeing in Ukraine. So I think China, if they could, I would like your listeners to think about this, Like imagine a world led by the Chinese Communist Party, what would that world be like? And I have asked people that. I haven't had any American listeners yet tell me, Grant, when they think about it, sincerely say to me, you know, that would be awesome, I would love it if the Chinese Communist Party set the rules of the global system that would be so much better things I care about, whether environment. Does any one of your listeners believe that the Chinese Communist Party would be a better steward of the environment? Like, does anyone seriously, believe that? Does anyone seriously believe they’d be a good steward of freedom of speech, freedom of association, the kinds of most personal decisions you want to make as a human being with you and your family, do you believe they'd be a respecter of freedom of religion? Would they be a better steward of global economic stability than the United States? Would they be a peacemaker in the world, or would they be an enabler of authoritarian regimes who do bad things? I'd say, I'd argue that every one of those instances, they'd be far, far worse. But we take for granted American leadership. They would like to displace us at the top of the heap, and they would like to put together a coalition of villains from the Star Wars bar. If you remember that scene in Star Wars. You know, Belarus and North Korea and Iran and Vladimir Putin and Venezuela and Nicaragua and Cuba and a handful of other, you know, freak show governments who would, they would like to reset the global system around a bunch, basically for the authoritarians and the aggrieved, that's what they would like to do. So I think that we need to understand that we can't let that, I don't think we should want to let that happen. But if we stand still and we don't engage in the world and we're not, what I'm calling for is a rethink of our nonmilitary forms of power given these new realities. I think we ought to do a top to bottom review of where we put our people time and money, how we’re organized, and what we're going to stand for, given the fact that if we don't, China is making a play to, you know, to kind of reset the global rules of the game in ways that we're not going to like.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Daniel Runde. He's senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power” and we've been discussing his book and the ideas that are in it. So, let me ask you this question, one final question about China, and then I have a question about Russia and then I want to get your recommendation for what the United States should be doing a little more specifically. But, my last question about China is, what is it do you think they want to get out of this? Is it extractive is it sort of a form of colonialism or neo-colonialism, or is it the influence for influences’ sake and as you say, to kind of reset the global system? Is there one thing that's driving them, do you think?

DR: Yeah, I mean, they were the center of the world 500 years ago. So they think the last 500 years have been an aberration. They would like to have a system where they're the center of the universe. And that this is a world save for the Chinese Communist Party that could continue to rule China for the next hundred years, and they would like to make it difficult for democracy and human rights to flourish in the world. And what they would like is, they do have neo-colonial relations with a lot of countries. We can say to countries don't partner with China, but if we're not, for example, in Africa, very few American companies show up in a significant way. So we can't say to African countries, boy, don't work with those Chinese firms if American firms aren't going to show up in China. So, we can't fight something with nothing. That's my message for your audience. And I wrote the book, “The American Imperative Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”, to say we can't fight something with nothing. What's our something?

GR: Okay. And you also have mentioned Vladimir Putin a couple of times. And I guess I would just say with the exclamation point at the end of it, my same question that I asked you originally about China in terms of what would be the attractive vision there, because I would think a country, all you have to do is look at Ukraine to say, we don't want to come near this guy. So, how is he a challenge to the United States?

DR: So, he is a disruptor. He doesn't have enough economic weight, but in certain niche things, like he's an exporter of security is certain kind of like, you know, he's got the Wagner group or things like the Wagner group. So where there are security vacuums in parts of Africa, he's made available hired guns to support security vacuums. He's also very focused on sort of, let's call it his near abroad. He's also not even able to be a good partner to countries like Armenia. You saw today that there have been problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia has looked to Russia as its security guarantor and Russia because it's distracted in Ukraine, has basically decided to kind of like not go back, not honor those commitments to Armenia. So on the one hand, they are a disruptor of the system. They're sort of a junior partner in the in the, “League of Bad Guys” with the Chinese Communist Party. But they are absolutely China is absolutely rooting for Russia to win in Ukraine, like, let's be very clear about that. Iran is rooting for Russia to win, North Korea is rooting for Russia to win. So this is like a coalition of like the Star Wars bar of bad, bad people. And so my point is, is that, you know, Putin has some ability, whether it's energy, whether it's security, whether it's minerals. Sometimes we underestimate agriculture and fertilizer and especially in kind of the, a ring of countries around Russia. He'd like to cobble together a new Soviet Union or better yet, a new Czarist empire with him as the czar.

GR: And so what specifically should the United States be doing? I mean, you've sketched out a very compelling vision in general for what we need to be thinking differently about. But do you have specific recommendations?

DR: I think there's at least four that I want to leave your listeners with. And I wrote, “The American Imperative” because I wanted folks like your listeners to think about this. I think there's four things in particular. I don't want to depend on China ever again for any product or service. I want to have multiple alternatives to China, whether it's technology, whether it's medicines, whether it's ventilators. I think we discovered during COVID when they threatened to cut off our pills and ventilators, those were grounds for divorce, and you'll recall that that happened during COVID. So we need to enable reshoring, allied shoring, friend shoring, whatever you want to call it, but we need to have a different kind of arrangement where we're not 100% dependent on China, step one. Step two, many of your listeners, I'm sure, are very concerned about climate and environmental concerns and a potential carbon transition. If we're going to have a carbon transition, we need to have metal mining, metals and metals processing are critical components of that. China is on its way to becoming a combination of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela for mining minerals and metals processing. I don't think the American people or the West are going to find it acceptable to switch dependence on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and whoever else, Russia, with being dependent on the Chinese Communist Party as part of the carbon transition so we need to think really long and hard and strategically about mining minerals and metals processing that we're not dependent on that. And so we need to use various tools of statecraft and economic state craft to think about that as well, we can talk about that. Third, it would be a really bad outcome if the digital rails of the future are owned by the unholy trinity of Huawei, ZTE and Alipay. But many parts of the developing world are on their way to exactly that happening. All transactions, all phone calls, all texts are going to get vacuumed up and sent to Beijing. It's not going to be in our interest, and it's going to be very difficult to work with partners going forward. So we need to enable an alternative so that the digital rails of the future are not controlled by Huawei, Alipay and ZTE. Those would be sort of three examples of things. I think, the other thing is I think we're going to revisit the global trading system. I don't think, one of the things we're finding is, is that if with China being the number one trading partner to so many countries, they have an unusual amount of influence and leverage over these countries. We have kind of taken a step back in the last eight years, both in the Trump administration and the Biden administration on global trade. Global trade has been good for largely for America, I know that's sort of a debatable premise. Net, it's been overall good and it's also been a way in which many poor countries have gotten wealthier. And I think that we're going to have to revisit that in the context of great power competition. So I'd say trade, mining minerals and metals, reshoring and allied shoring and closing the digital divide are all things to be thinking of. The final thing I'd say is pandemic preparedness, like, I don't want to sit in my basement again, Grant, nor do you for a year and I want to have the ability to have early warning systems and greater surge production of vaccines if and when something bad like that happens again.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Daniel Runde from the Center for Strategic and International Relations. So you're kind of scaring me, I have to say, this does not sound very optimistic. We've only got about 3 minutes left or so, but in the time we have left, give me some reasons to be confident that the United States may be up for this challenge.

DR: So I think that I have found when I have framed it in this way to policymakers in the Trump administration or the Biden administration or members of Congress, are you prepared to cede leadership to the Chinese Communist Party in X or Y space? Almost invariably, no one has ever said to me, oh, yeah, that would be awesome, that's fine. And so I've often found that that has been a winning argument to see America take leadership roles that it needs to take on a number of different fronts. So I'm guardedly optimistic over time, we're going to get our act together. And I actually think the 2024 election cycle, even though it seems rocky right now, I think it will be a one of the ways in which we kind of begin to kind of debate this as a country.

GR: Yeah that's exactly where I was going to go with what you just said there, you anticipated it at the end. Do you see these kinds of things being front and center in that election cycle? Because it almost seems like it's going to be more domestically focused in a lot of ways, particularly if you look at the criticisms of Biden.

DR: Right. There'll be a lot of domestic focus but I do think that, for good or for worse, much of the way we're going to look at the world outside of our shores is through the lens of this great power competition lens. I'm not saying it's the only lens we're going to look at the world, but this will be one of the ways in which we look at the world.

GR: Interesting. And whether we’ve only got about a minute left. I'd wanted to squeeze one other thing in related tangentially, perhaps, but Bill Clinton has said that his biggest regret as president was not doing more to stop the genocide in Rwanda. We haven't talked about human crises of that nature. Is there is there something going on in the world other than Ukraine that the United States needs to be focusing on doing something about?

DR: So I think, I would say it's Nicaragua. There's terrible human rights being violated in Nicaragua. And we have the power, we ought to be much harder on the Ortega regime there. They're crushing civil society. They're destroying what's left of their democracy there. They're repressing organized religion. It is just, it's outrageous what's happening there. It's deeply offensive and your listeners should be deeply offended in what's happening in Nicaragua. It is a very evil regime, the Ortega regime is an evil regime.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there on that happy note. But this was a very provocative and insightful conversation. I really appreciate you making the time. Again, this was Daniel Runde and his new book is titled, “The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power”. Mr. Runde, thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, I really appreciate it.

DR: Thank you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.