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Opinion

Democracy Works: Combatting disinformation at home and abroad

Peter Pomerantsev
Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev visited Penn State at the end of March, when he was just back from a trip to Ukraine. We discuss what he saw there, as well as how American media is covering the war. We also talk about the similarities between Ukraine and the United States when it comes to being vulnerable to Russian disinformation — and how both countries can strengthen democratic media.

Pomerantsev is a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and author of the books "This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality" and "Everything Is True and Nothing Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia."

Episode Transcript
Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University. I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
I'm Chris Beem.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to Democracy Works. This week. Our guest is Peter Pomerantsev, who is making his second appearance on the show. He just completed two days worth of talks at Penn State, and is also just back from Ukraine. And he really had a front row seat to what's happening there. And we have talked on the show in in recent weeks. And it's been a broader media narrative that what's playing out and Ukraine is, is really, on some level a fight between authoritarianism and democracy. And Peter talks, talks about that both what's happening on the ground and this this bigger struggle or conflict that's at play.

Michael Berkman
Yeah, right, Jenna, this this conflict, this war in between Russia and Ukraine has been framed in a variety of ways, obviously, I mean, on the on the one hand, you have Ukraine, Ukrainians are fighting for their lives. And Russians clearly underestimated the extent to which they would find the fortitude to do this. But you know, taking a step back, it's also a very important conflict between NATO and Russia, and where NATO is going to draw its lines in effect, and who's going to who's going to come under the umbrella of protection from NATO. And as you suggested in your introduction, and I think Pomerantsev would be the first to agree with this. It's a conflict between authoritarianism and democracy. And that seems to be a conflict. That is very important in this day and age.

Chris Beem
Well, he thinks it's, it's pivotal, right? This isn't an historical moment. That's what Pomerantsev says. He, he's arguing that they're that authoritarianism. And this is actually an argument that you heard very, very similar argument that you heard in the 20s, and 30s, that the modern world just cannot sustain democracy anymore, that it's just too complicated to interwoven, there's too much data out there. And democracy just is, is not just inefficient, it's set up for such insoluble conflict, that it just can't solve people's problems. And you see this reflected in, in not just Russia, but also China. And you seen something similar maybe in, in people in the United States, who have, you know, supported Russia, and supported Putin. I mean, it's harder to do that now after, you know, overwhelming evidence of war crimes, but in terms of their dissatisfaction, or their questioning of democracy, you see this all over the world. And so this is a moment where these two forces are are at war. And how this gets adjudicated, how it's how it comes plays out, is going to have an impact.

Michael Berkman
After a period of clear democratic expansion around the world, following the Cold War, and the development of new democracies, we're clearly in a period, and we've talked a lot about it on the show is a lot been written about it sort of democratic erosion brought about, you know, to a large extent by the worldwide recession of 2008 2009, by all kinds of flows of refugees around the world that have created all kinds of pressures on Western governments, but also just by the internal pressures of democracy, internal tensions of democracy itself, which has really taken taken a toll on democratic discourse and ability of democracies to really deliberate and discuss within themselves.

Chris Beem
The other thing is that social media has been weaponized by by a number of politicians or political groups, to to undermine people's sense that they can understand what's going on, that they that there is a an objective reality out there. But you also I think, would have to admit or acknowledge that the liberal democratic order the liberal democratic countries have united and come together far better than people would have expected, so far better than Putin would have expected. Right?

Michael Berkman
Yes. I mean, it's it's actually quite remarkable in the way especially given the pressures that the West were under over the last four years when last under the Trump administration, where where the US really abdicated a lot of its leadership of NATO and of the West more more generally. And, I mean, I think that's speaks to something that really makes this moment. So frightening and interesting is the acceptance of many political elites now of various forms of authoritarianism around the world. I mean, I guess the United States has a long tradition of white supremacy and enforcing that in a variety of ways. So authoritarianism is nothing new here. Yet there is a lot of support among the American Republican Party for Putin, and a lot of sympathy for Putin. And I think they're two news stories over the last couple of weeks that I think really drive this home in some scary sort of ways. One is that CPAC, which is, you know, the major conservative conference every every year in the United States, where major political leaders on the Republican Party in particular speak is going to be held in Hungary, which is an illiberal democracy.

Chris Beem
Explicitly and is proud of it. Right.

Michael Berkman
Exactly, exactly. And, you know, this whole sort of this affection that many on the right seem to have for a bong,

Chris Beem
And you know, what accounts for it? I mean, I think Pomerantsev does a good job of kind of laying out what it is that I mean that what those common features are, yeah,

Michael Berkman
And that, and that's the striking parallel between Russian propaganda and the kind of disinformation that we're seeing here. I mean, the ban and strategy of just throwing out all kinds of Bs is the same thing that basically Putin does. Right. So the other the other news story that I thought was important and interesting had to do was the interview with Fiona hill, where she talks about President Trump's clear hostility to Ukraine and a fit for and sympathies with Putin and the Russians. It'll be made crystal clear to Americans that one party seems awfully comfortable with authoritarianism right now with foreign authoritarians.

Chris Beem
Yeah, I think we should pick up this idea of how United can the United how United can the liberal democratic order be when so many of these countries are internally riven by these same dynamics. But for now, I think that's a really good spot to bring in journalist interview of a Peter Pomerantsev.

Jenna Spinelle
Peter Pomerantsev, welcome back to democracy works. Thanks for joining us.

Peter Pomerantsev 
It's lovely to be back.

Jenna Spinelle
So last time you were on the show was about a year ago. And at that time, we were talking about the idea of what does it look like to make a democratic public sphere online, civic tech and those sorts of things. But the war in Ukraine was not on my radar. Maybe it was on yours. But I'm just wondering, I guess, to start us off here. How if there's a difference in how you think about this idea of democratic or undemocratic communication in times of war versus times of peace?

Peter Pomerantsev 
Oh, that's a great, great question. You know, we I suppose if we look at the theory of it, there has always been an acceptance even in democracies that in times of existential wars, if we're talking about Ukraine, it's been invaded. I mean, it's not like a war far away. It's it's a home, that obviously there's more oversight, more centralization, more censorship, more control. And no doubt that's happening in Ukraine. I mean, the all the channels have been folded into one channel, there is definitely government oversight. And that's not unusual in the time of war. And, and it's a real choice that media face, I mean, the BBC and World War Two, which definitely had government oversight, that's not be overly romantic. But it was decided to give it a lot of independence, and that it would report on British losses in World War Two, in order to maintain trust. So I think the Ukrainians are probably facing those choices. To what extent are they honest about their losses, in order to maintain trusts, but avoid the motivation and despair? So that's a very hard balance for any society that's at war to strike. But then, you know, there's the kind of outward communication that Ukraine has been doing, which I think has been a real contrast to Russia, while Russia has been sort of denying truth and, and obviously aggressive way saying there is no war. And I think there's even a quote saying we didn't invade Ukraine, from the foreign, we never invade countries, their spokespeople, but I mean, stuff that's really denying reality, really as a way of sending a big middle finger up to to anyone just saying power is more important than reality. And then being very duplicitous when they do when they do communicate things. We know the Ukrainians have have built everything around empathy, and, you know, respecting their interlocutors and trying to engage them in a conversation, which is, um, By the way, that's the democratic thing to do. It's also I think, the clever thing to do. So it's been a real contrast in how you do external communication during the war.

Jenna Spinelle
And, you know, I think for people in in America, certainly this is the first time that we've spent a lot of time thinking about Ukraine are really, you know, kind of here hearing about it. And the images that have been presented are of the, you know, people in the country kind of standing together as one, you know, as a Lenski as this this war leader, but I know that you your research looks at polarization in Ukraine, I am just wondering about kind of the, what's below the surface, if you could talk about some of the the polarization that exists and, and has existed in Ukraine.

Peter Pomerantsev 
Sure. So I think maybe a lot of it is familiar to Americans and men in America, there are these divides between these categories known as North and South, around the Civil War and civil rights. So in Russia, in, in Ukraine, it's traditionally been perceived as being around east versus West or the East more nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and softer and Russia, are the West less nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and much more independent and anti Russian, those of and that then relates to sort of things like culture and languages. But so that's always been the cliche. And that's always been something that's been pushed very hard by the Kremlin saying, it's not a real country. To be honest, it's something that is actually been accentuated by a lot of political scientists in America. So someone like Huntington, who's a very famous political scientist, would say that Ukraine has a naturally divided country, because they have slightly different, they believe in slightly different types of Orthodoxy in different bits of the country. So it's like, you know, slightly different types of, of Christian Orthodox. And but whenever you actually start doing social research in Ukraine, which which I, in my research unit, Johns Hopkins, have been doing extensively for the last four or five years, you find that these things are very simple. They're actually there's a lot more that connects people. And I suppose what connects them is a shared history of being violated by superpowers all around them. So Ukraine, historically, some of that sort of trapped between empires between the Russian Empire and the Austro Hungarian between the kind of expansive nationalism of Poland and Hungary and Romania, and so on and so forth. There's a reason these things keep happening there, because of trapped in these Borderlands between empires. And that has taught Ukrainians to live with with this nonstop threats of greater powers. And there's this common sort of, there's this common thread of, of resilience and horizontal connections that you use in order to survive a assault. And that's coming through now. I mean, what's been recycled in this war, it's a real honor society war, everybody's chipping in. It's not just the army and the leadership. It's like, you know, the midlength ranking bureaucrat, and the mayor mayors are having an amazing war, really sort of self organizing. So local business people, Granny's throwing jars of pickle Russian planes, or drones and bring them down. It's everyone. And that's a very Ukrainian response that's predicated on its history. There's nothing sort of like mystical about it. It's really a result of having hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of facing up to oppressors of thinking how you survived that.

Jenna Spinelle
And the the wars is also being framed, at least in in American media anyway, as this sort of struggle between democracy and autocracy, you know, the West versus not West, for lack of a better term. I wonder, do they see it that way?

Peter Pomerantsev 
Yeah, I mean, to a great extent, yes. But but also more or less mentally about freedom and sovereignty. My thoughts are very interesting, the way the way Ukraine. Ukrainian story has resonated in America, it appeals both to the people who see this opposition between, you know, a clearly ethno nationalist racist, right, far right dictatorship and Russia, and a more liberal democratic Ukraine. But also conservatives here have been very enthused, because it's a war of national serenity and patriotism. So democracy is a very vague word. But Ukrainians know that they live in a pluralistic society and Russians don't they know that in Ukraine have a messy and corrupts it is they actually have some rights, and they have a freedom to have agency and they know that you don't have that in Russia. So yeah, on a very base level about democracy, I don't think it's about institutions, but an ad in a parliamentary procedures or something, but But it's maybe the stuff that really informs democracy sort of free and pluralistic society as opposed to one that is anything but that.

Jenna Spinelle
And can you give us a sense of what the civil society infrastructure is like

Peter Pomerantsev 
so so Ukraine, trust woods, we call it what we call civil society has always been very high. So what do we mean with that sort of Activists, activists during the war and 14 have sort of fed and clothed the army. We mean business association. So it's a country that has, which has a middle class, and kind of has small business associations and communities. Churches, very, very popular, especially in bits of the west of Ukraine. But also, like if we're going to be civil society isn't always fluffy stuff. I throw mafia in there. Gangsters, like petty gangsters, that's a big thing. People trust the local petty gangster, I throw in a kind of football supporters and football hooligans, there's a very, very strong groups in Ukraine. Again, civil society isn't always pretty. I throw in the far right, militias that we have heard about, which are tiny in terms of percentage of the votes. And, and small, a small, very small amount of people in the Army is like 1000 people, but But you know, they're quite, they do have some sort of profile. But again, a very much a case of people self organizing in ways we don't necessarily like so society doesn't necessarily have to be fluffy civil society, but the Ukrainian instinct is towards that. And that is, in and of itself, a democratic instinct. So so, you know, even that gangsters are quite different. But you know, they don't form these huge hierarchies. But they do in the very east, but they don't, they don't generally. So. So it's a pluralistic society that relies on these horizontal networks, really, because you never trusted the state, the state was always an aggressor. And, and that's been passed down. That's curse. In many ways. It makes it very hard to build strong, straight state institutions. But that's what we're seeing throughout the country at the moment. That's incredible. I mean, obviously, the Army is doing an amazing job. And there are ministries, like the Ministry of Infrastructure, which is keeping the trains going, which is amazing. And that's clearly centrally coordinated. But even there will be somebody on the ground, making a quick decision to make sure everything's moving. It's a country where people have a lot of agency. And again, it's an all of society effort. I think journalists are tweaking on to that. It's not just about Zelinsky in his bunker. It's an all of society effort. It's happening at everything at every level. And you see it everywhere in Ukraine. From this meeting, sorry, there were this beautician in Mariupol, who organized like as an escape route for for people from the siege, she's a beautician, she just used her smarts. And so of course, that was what was completely missing. From the Kremlin's interpretation of what would happen when the invaded the Crimea thought it has weak, weak faith and institutions, so therefore, it will. So therefore, it will collapse. But what they clearly didn't understand that it had these very strong horizontal bonds, basically.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, I mean, where was that that blind spot for Putin, and for the Kremlin should have just

Peter Pomerantsev 
been reading our polling. I mean, like, like, our polling and focus groups was showing this over and over and over again, we'll see what works with journalists. So we could see when journalists made films about this, like legal history, documentaries about how Ukrainian civil society cooperated in the Second World War, people loved it. And people loved it across the country. So like, it's part of the self identity, like proud of it. This is like, this is how we do things that's like the Ukrainian way of doing things. So So yeah, the, I mean, one of the great pieces of analysis to do for historians going forward, but it's really leaking out is just how bad the internal polling was the Kremlin dead before the summation. I mean, it's not the first time and think about America invading Iraq and the whole world saying no, no, like, it's, you're gonna launch chaos there. Because actually, the social contract in Iraq is very thin, and they're like, No, everybody will love us. And they'll create a new state and like, everyone who knew the region was like, That is not what's going to happen, you're about to open this kind of like Viper's nest of ethnic and social hatred. And so like, you know, well, what can I say, you know, sociologists, are important, cultural anthropologist, are even more important, but just read the literature, I don't know, it's all in the books, due to the military analyst really need to sort of like, do a lot more research outside they're very narrow field of moving tanks. So the other

Jenna Spinelle
Thing that you you have written about in your arena research is this idea of, of National Remembrance, which I gather is something that has has been happening in in Ukraine and it's something that we are we in America are really bad when it you know, everything from, you know, civil rights, or the kind of the legacy of slavery and on Anon, I wonder if you could talk about public memory in in Ukraine what what has happened there and maybe any lessons that that America or or other parts of the world could could take from what's what's happened there?

Peter Pomerantsev 
Sure, well, actually, the research that we did in Ukraine, the methodology we're now applying to an American project. So that is literally what we're doing. This is something that myself at Hopkins and then our partners at millions of conversations with is an organization in Tennessee that looks at overcoming polarization and more in common, which is a sociological institution that looks at what Americans have in common. So we're going to be doing that we're going to be taking our methodology in Ukraine, where we really looked at essentially, what what what unites people beneath some of these divisive narratives and also like, our the divisive narratives, let's say in Ukraine that can be about the Second World War, and whose side were your grandparents on in it? There's actually ways of probing those issues, which is, which still get at the facts, but isn't necessarily as divisive in the way it's been presented. So yeah, so we've been doing that we're gonna be doing, we're just starting that in the US, we'll just the point of designing the surveys. But my instincts say that and having talked to sort of people in the so called South and I keep on saying the so called South because I actually think that the, the categories north and south might be unhelpful to people in Mississippi, they're like, they weren't, you know, you know, take something like putting down Robert Ely statues. So there's a syphilis, you know, I don't know, probably pro segregationist bit of society, that campaign in front of the Robert Ely statues but and they get all the attention, that doesn't necessarily reflect the maybe much more nuanced opinions that people in Mississippi have. And I'm talking to high school teachers, they're like, much more complicated, people do get that it's a pretty bad history can be some of the way. And maybe sometimes people feel that people in the North don't talk about their own history of slavery, and kind of push all the blame on to the south. I mean, it gets very, very complicated. And you got to get into those complications, and, and those sort of perspectives, to get even to find a way to talk about the really difficult. That's what we found, mostly, we found that in eastern Ukraine, people who we thought of just Soviet nostalgics, they were nostalgic for a bit of the Soviet Union, but they didn't like the human rights abuses, they didn't like the censorship, etc, etc. So I think we just have to learn to listen to each other a bit better. And obviously, there are vicious, nasty extremists and fascists. But the idea is to really isolate them, and see who else you can bring into a much more kind of truthful and honest conversation about history. And it's not about avoiding the past, or what it's not about, sort of like the sort of like, happy clappy like, oh, let's focus on what unites us. It's not it's how do we talk about the difficult stuff, but in ways that integrates as many people as possible

Jenna Spinelle
We recently had on the show your Hopkins colleague, Lilliana Mason, who has done a lot of work about the relationship between political disagreement and political identity. And now in Her most recent book, political violence and how that fits in here. So when you were talking before about, you know, having, working with with millions of conversations and trying to understand that these differences might not be as as big as we think on on policy, how do you think about political identity in that picture?

Peter Pomerantsev 
And I'm glad you raised that because that gets us into the into the key word here identity, which we throw around a lot and very unthinkingly. I'd actually not take a sociological point of view the way Liliana does or a political science. I take a second litical one, what do we mean by identity? What are the different types of modeling identity, and a psychoanalyst will tell you because I asked them their identities, very problematic idea. As a child grows up, if they can't deal with the world, something traumatic happens as they grow up, and I'm simplifying viciously, to can't deal with the reality of others that the world doesn't revolve around themselves and didn't get enough attention isn't actually get into a dialogue. And as a child, that kind of emotional dialogue, they will adopt this very, very paranoid identity, which is expelled out of themselves any difference within themselves, and sees itself at odds with a confrontational world. All infants are conspiracy theorists who think that something is taking the mother's breast away, sort of psychoanalyst tries to do is try to get you beyond identity, to what they call identification, seeing the complexity of the relationships that you existing, moving away from this paranoid definition of us in them. That's what I'm talking about. When our when our news media defines people over and over and over again as liberals versus conservatives, even though the sociologist says that's not actually how people see, like, understand the world in a in a very personal way. We're reinforcing these tribal identities. So what I'm talking about creating the conditions where dialogue can happen, and where discourse can happen. And I'm definitely looking at smoothing differences. I'm talking about being in a place where you can talk about them and creating the conditions. I think about media, how do you do debates differently? How do you do news media differently? How do you do TV shows differently? Where that can that paranoid identity Smoots and where I'm in a position to recognize the humanity of others, and then we can work towards solutions. So differences, the essence of democracy, democracy is meant to be antagonistic. And we debate and we push back. But at some level, we see there's something a common humanity that we can relate to just about. So often what models of identity and I think we throw around this word identity very, very carelessly, and make a lot of assumptions behind it, which are very negative ones. But let me give you another example Europe, because I'm, I'm from Europe. In a very practical way, I spent several years in something called a European schools, which was special schools designed by the founders of the European Union, to get over the problems of tribal European identity, which you think you guys have got a bad here, we had like several world wars around this, okay. And you guys had a civil war, believing us was worse than what was the idea of the European schools, I think it's all about not erasing different identities, but having a different idea of what identity is. So what we would do, we had these different language sections, I was in the English one, there was a French one, a German one. And these schools were all about you preserving where you came from. You did your classes for most subjects in your language, with the view that you would go back to your home country to go to university there, it wasn't around creating a Supra kumbaya sort of like, Hey, we're all European No, no, it's all about I am English, preserving the language preserving the culture, preserving the ideas, but you do history and geography in a foreign language from a foreign point of view. So not only was ever be taught by or usually trilingual, you learn to see things from a different place. It's very shocking for me, because I grew up with an idea of Napoleon than Napoleon was really bad guy, because that's how we're taught it in England. And I spent a year learning it from the French point of view going on Napoleon, interesting, nuanced. And that's just a tiny example. But it gets you to see things from another point of view. I didn't become pro French, or French, in any meaning of the word at all. What I did, though, was start to understand, have more space in my identity, and the ability to sort of dance around it. And maybe the ability to wear identity with a slightly lighter skin, which I think you can do. If if you're not existentially under threat. I mean, if there's a war, you know, you take up arms and fight somebody in this kind of peacetime things, saying, Yes, this is my identity, my case, I'm English and all these things, but I can't actually see it from the other point, person's point of view. And I don't feel kind of clingy, about my identity. Now, again, if you're a minority, if you're oppressed, and you should be clinging to your identity, I'm not in any way saying, you should erase your identity from a position of weakness, because if you're under attack, you fight back. And actually, I think you can even do so violently sometimes. But as Ukraine is, but I'm talking about in a democracy where, you know, there's a rule of law and people sort of like rights should be guaranteed.

Peter Pomerantsev 
So that's that. And we can do a lot of as media, I think, actually, that's the mission of public service media to facilitate that and help that. And the way sadly, media in America is constructed at the moment is, is through the opposite of that. It's the kind of like, you're a CNN viewer, you're an MSNBC viewer, this is what you do. And that's quite upsetting. I was watching a sort of a nice MSNBC show the other day, and it was just like, the whole show was just beating up on some Republican senators, and those Republican senators really deserve to be beaten up on. But it's clear that the model was like, here's your identity, we hate those guys feel good about yourself, which is like, what can we get can get me on this now. And our debates are structured this way our TV shows are structured the way the financial incentives of newspapers are structured this way. That's not great. That's not great. So we need a different ecology for our public sphere where, where we can learn how to talk to each other. And also, we have lots of identities. I mean, I suppose that's the psychoanalysis. So Candace would say you have an identity as a, you know, I'm seeing some research about the seamlessness of American research. When people were introduced to each other's as Republicans and Democrats, they clashed, the moment they are introduced to each other as like, your two mothers or your two doctors. They could they could find a common language. And again, we'll disagree. That's fine. That's good. I'd say actually, but but at least were locked into a discourse, a dialogue, and enough trust where like, if the other ones lose and win an election, you don't have a nervous breakdown. Right? I mean, that's not healthy. This sort of every election in America is like, it's the end of the world if the other side wins. Like its elections, they win un it's democracy stuff develops. A this sort of sensitive to the end of the world with every election that you have on both sides is a deeply unhelpful, and, you know, worldview. I think.

Jenna Spinelle
And you and on on election night, what do you see a map that has red states and blue states? Yeah,

Peter Pomerantsev 
That's fun. Come on. I don't want to live that I'm not saying I'm not saying make boring TV. That's good TV. Yeah, elections are competitive. I mean, they're I like to ports. I know I want my map.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, but I mean, till on this on this point of incentives, though, that that gets to this this question that you were talking about earlier today in your, in your time on campus, you know, who's whose job? Is it to say, no, we want something different. And I, you know, given given all of the, you know, financial implications, I think that's sort of like everyone's kind of looking around at each other as as you said, saying, is it your job? Is it my job? I mean, do you do you have thoughts about where, where this this larger scale process change might start, particularly with national media? I know, there are examples on a, on a local level, I think this is easier to maybe build out and to get funding for and all those sorts of things. But, you know, where where does that ball start rolling? nationally?

Peter Pomerantsev 
Yeah, it's bad. It's bad. I don't know, I've only been here six months, I don't understand. Because the foundations that I talked to think their theory of change is very micro led 1000 seeds bloom like this is a national crisis. That's not enough. I think we need historically we've had interventions. In Britain, the BBC was created partly to solve this problem in the 1920s, when you had very bad polarization. In Britain. We need big interventions. I suspect in America, it definitely won't be like the expansion of public media, it's just never going to happen here. Because of polarization. So I think the local media thing is a start. I think maybe civic tech design, designing spaces where people can interact, I think that might be easier here. My dream is a kind of an armada of civic media, who are both local, but also commit thematic.

Jenna Spinelle
So to kind of bring together all of these things that we've we've been talking about how should democracies respond? And how should people in democracies respond?

Peter Pomerantsev 
So it's not just this war? I wouldn't. So I'd say this current moment of invasion of Ukraine is part of a much longer campaign that Putin has been waging in Syria, you know, in the information and political space and his attacks on the American elections and others. So this isn't this isn't just didn't start five weeks ago, this has been going on, really, since today, since we're for almost a decade now. So it's part of a much longer campaign, to you know, Russia obviously set it you know, they say we're hoping to, to remake the world order so that it shifts towards countries like them. And obviously, China and Saudi Arabia, and, and quite a few others are a part of the sort of Cabal, and there's a lot of countries sitting on the fence waiting to see which way the swings. So what it means essentially, is us a society's understanding that that it is a conflict. And that means we're gonna have to sacrifice some things. So we need an oil and gas embargo in Russia, that will be hard for countries like Germany might well push them into pretty high inflation. I don't understand the point of the EU and its stabilization funds, if it's not to deal with this, it's like this is why the EU is created is kind of a bulwark against the repeats, return of tyranny. Well, here it is. And that's why we have these like huge stabilization funds in it. So this isn't the time to use it. I don't actually understand the point of it anymore. So but that means society societally saying, Oh, it's not just the fluffy Ukrainian hobbits against evil sour on Putin. It's like, no, no, this is a front in a much larger complex, and one that's going to define the 21st century. So it means being recognized. And that that means being prepared for some level of sacrifice. That also means thinking very seriously about military mites, and how that plays into the complex. I'm not saying to do anything rash. But at the end of the day, we have to think very, very clearly about how the other side will keep on escalating. And they will keep on raising the stakes. They will keep on putting pressure, they'll keep on testing after Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, maybe NATO. This isn't going away. They're in there. And they see this as systemic. And I think there's almost a desire to sort of keep this over there, that the creditor will it will give Ukrainian some low level weapons, just go over there and make us think about this as little as we possibly can. And that's not going to be enough. The longer this war drags out, the more emboldened Putin will become. If he then goes on to defeat Ukraine, he certainly won't stop there. So I think we have to lose some of our we have to really think about what we mean by escalation. Is that actually more escalatory if we let Putin win, which kind of we are at the moment? I mean, we're raising the cost of the win, but we're essentially saying, Oh, he's going to win anyway. Let's make it harder for him. But the default idea has always been in DC that he's going to win. That might be changing now because he's his arm. Is the mess. But that's always been the default position. I think we have to think very serious about this word escalation, which has become the main word in DC that is repeated over and over and over again. And what is actually true escalation is letting Putin win, which is currently I fear is the default mindset. Is that actually much more escalatory than ensuring that he doesn't win?

Jenna Spinelle
Yes, that is, that is a very important point, Peter, you know, I am continually impressed that you can, that you do all of these things, and Ken can talk about them so eloquently, and you know, make make those connections and, and help us make those connections at home and abroad. So, Peter, thank you very much for joining us. My pleasure.

Chris Beem
So yeah, you definitely got the sense from Peter that he sees this as a, the war in Ukraine as being a fundamental struggle between a future that embraces democracy or, or one that is, you know, is authoritarian. And, you know, I mean, I think he would also agree that the West has responded with with a pretty unified voice. However, you know, it's also the case, I think that, you know, we have governments who are responding in, you know, fairly unified, fairly strong ways to, to this invasion, and to Russia, war crimes, et cetera, but within just about every one of these countries, but you have, you know, some kind of manifestation of that same authoritarian, democratic split within the countries, right. You know, we just saw in France that, you know, the pen got 23% of the vote, and it made the cut off, right, a far right party. And in United States, you see, a, you know, I mean, you see these people interviewed who say, I would much prefer Putin to be my president than Joe Biden. And so I just wonder how sustainable this this unified front is?

Michael Berkman
Yeah, well, to me, it just points to the importance of institutional design and structures. I mean, France is very different from us. So. So in the United States, where authoritarianism is still a minority position, it can wield an enormous amount of political power, because ours is a political system built to really to retard majoritarian control, and to enhance the power of strategically placed minorities, through the courts through the Senate through things like that. In France, you know, it is disturbing the runoff between with LePen on the other Macron, and LePen. On the other hand, LePen lost votes for time, as I understand it, and because they do have a majority based system, she's not going to gain political power, but it's not nearly the same kind of threat, as it is here, where actually, you know, Trump was able to become president without winning anywhere close to a majority of the majority. And, you know, if he's gonna be the candidate and run and win again in 2024, and very possibly could pull that same, that same kind of thing. And so, it to me, it really just emphasizes the importance of institutional structures, because I suspect this kind of split within populations, you're going to find just about anywhere.

Chris Beem
I wish I agreed with you, but I don't and here's why. I think, you know, ultimately, there are going to be serious economic costs associated with the West's response to this Russian invasion. And the, the better those responses are, the more powerful they are in terms of impacting Russian behavior, the stronger those impacts will be right. And that's certainly true in in Germany and France who get so much of the oil from from Russia that goes for India, too. But even here, I my strong suspicion is there are a sizable percentage of Americans who are just not willing to accept the price of gas now, who don't see this as resulting from Putin, and they certainly aren't going to tolerate it getting worse.

Michael Berkman
Throughout our our, you know, the way that the American economy has developed the way the American political system is developed, has been to create an Rila is on the automobile, right? So we didn't build the mass transit systems, we didn't build the train systems. Instead, we built an interstate highway system and we built suburbs. And so it's, it's a little tough to tell people now whose livelihood depends on driving 40 minutes work, that they should just be prepared to pay more to help the cause of democracy. Because we've built everything to make it impossible for them to have any other options, no other way to get to work. And so while I think gas is too cheap as it is, and oh, we thought it was better in the European model, where it's always more expensive. But they also provided other ways for people to manage. So I don't know, I don't know how tough we can be on people for saying they should be prepared to support the price of gas, in order to promote democracy, this can have, you know, many more very bad effects coming down the future, as can you know, as will these flows of refugees that are leaving, and moving into other places, and as we've already seen before, from from massive flows of of refugees, so it's a Yeah, it's a it's a very volatile situation and will be going forward. It's remarkable how much of the Western NATO was held together to this point.

Chris Beem
Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, you're

Michael Berkman
Not have been Russia's aim to unite NATO.

Chris Beem
Absolutely not. No, I mean, and in some ways that demonstrates that, you know, there are some objectives that he simply is not going to cannot and will not achieve with this war, no matter what happens. No, but

Michael Berkman
he'll get the east of Ukraine, and maybe that maybe that will be where, as I understand, that's where most of the energy resources are. I mean, I think that they're going to we're in for we're in for a very difficult time.

Chris Beem
I think that's basically where I come down too. I mean, and I think you're absolutely right, that if we were, if we were in a less polarized time, this would be a really good time to make an argument that, listen, we do not want to be beholden to dictators, and authoritarians, whether they be in Russia or in Saudi Arabia, or wherever. And so we should be developing alternative sources, and we should be developing mass transit. But even if we had complete agreement, which is absolutely not in the cards, that's that's a long term proposition, as is just about anything else. I mean, the only thing short term we can do is what Biden is doing, which is letting out oil from the from the reserves, but that's not going to be enough. And so I think short term, yeah, there's going to be significant burdens on Americans and Europeans. And there's going to be a sizable minority with within all those populations that don't accept it. And so how you sustain this commitment on the part of liberal democracies is going to be very difficult. All the more reason to take seriously the point of view of Peter Pomerantsev. So to be continued, obviously, for Democracy Works. I'm Chris Beem.

Michael Berkman
I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
Thanks for listening.