‘Some elected officials are more afraid of Trump’s anger than they are of Putin:’ Governor Howard Dean on global democratic backsliding and state-building

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Howard Brush Dean III is an American physician, author, consultant, and retired politician who served as the 79th governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003 and chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. Dean currently serves on the Board of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a democracy building organization chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. He is a Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Haywood: When most people hear Howard Dean, they think of you as someone with experience in domestic policy — as Governor of Vermont, obviously, as well as being the chairman of the Democratic National Committee [DNC] and your experience running for president in 2004. Can you talk about how you have since begun to transition towards working on issues of foreign policy?

Dean: That is a very interesting story. When Madeline Albright was head of the NDI [National Democratic Institute] I knew her, and when I was chairman of the DNC, Obama was about to be elected. I recognized how important it was for Obama to resurrect the American image abroad, especially after George W. Bush, who I personally liked but thought was a pretty awful president, as did most of the world – with the exception of the people who benefit from PEPFAR [U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], which I think is a major international achievement, and getting the three Baltic countries into NATO, which turned out to be prescient given how the Russians are behaving. Anyways, so I as Chairman controlled roughly 600 tickets to the DNC, which usually go out to various politicos: I gave every one of them to Madeline Albright to distribute to ambassadors from around the world. I thought it was really important for people from around the world to see that America is back. You know, the international election to Obama’s election was extraordinary and it was because America is always expected to do unexpected things and break new barriers in ways that nobody else can. And that was a big barrier he broke.

Madeline eventually, when I left the DNC, asked if I would join the board of NDI. So I said of course, and I stayed there for probably 12 or 13 years. The European people all knew me because they didn’t like Bush and I was the only Democrat running for president in 2004 with the you-know-whats to take on the War in Iraq. Everybody, all the other top candidates voted for the war and voted for Bush’s tax cuts, which mostly benefited the top 10%. If the election had been held in Canada or Europe I might have won because they all knew me. So, I was well-known in Europe and had a lot of supporters, so they were thrilled to have me over there. I started in Eastern Europe – the NDI doesn’t do much work in the European Union, except for a few programs to deal with discrimination against the Roma people. But most of our work is on the fringes of the EU. I spent a lot of time in the Balkans, and I spent a lot of time in Ukraine, including coming in after the Maidan after the dust had settled. And from there, you know, we began to expand into Burma and other places.

Abdulkadir: Turning towards your time in the NDI doing work on integrating the Roma community into Eastern European politics, I’m curious to hear what you think the link is between integrating ethnic and gender minorities into the political mainstream and maintaining strong democratic institutions? Do you think one causes the other?

Dean: From a purely calculus point of view, if the minority is small, you can probably get away with abusing them. But from a human rights point of view, I don’t think any of us succeed in the world, any society succeeds, unless everybody succeeds. The long-term goal is to make sure everybody has human rights. Now the Roma are complicated. Many of them are living with 15th century traditions, which may not be the healthiest environment for small children, as in they might not permit their kids to go to school. Not all Roma live in wagons or tents someplace, there are members of the German parliament, for example, who are Roma, but there are some communities in Eastern Europe that are very insular and removed. And the question is, how do you integrate them? There are Roma who have been successfully integrated into the political process in some places and can speak for their brethren. But there are also some members of the community who don’t want to be integrated. The trouble is, then, that if you don’t choose to be integrated then your kids can’t make a living and so have no choice but to live in conditions that might not be considered acceptable. So the big thing for us to do was foster programs for those who wanted to be more integrated and wanted to have a livelihood. We also tried to get local people not to “other” the Roma. The Roma are very famous for being “othered” throughout history. There has been a lot of scapegoating of them and their culture in Eastern Europe especially. The real guts of the problem is about trying to improve the lives of the Roma people without telling them how to live. And part of our role was to make sure the people who might be tempted to abuse the Roma understood that they were being watched by the United States.

Haywood: Can you talk more about your experience in Ukraine for a second?

Dean: Ukraine was wonderful. The first time we went there I think was after the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych. And Yulia Tymoshenko and others were expected to run for president at that time. We met with someone called the “Minister of Lustration” which we had no idea what that was. Turns out, it was the minister who fights corruption – of which there was a great deal in Ukraine, as in most post-Soviet states. Well, it also turned out that he had no office, no staff, and no money. So we bought him a cup of coffee and that was our meeting with the Minister of Lustration. So we started at the bottom.

Then I did a lot of coaching of political parties in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Georgia – I spent a lot of time in Georgia – Kosovo, and Armenia. To have a political party in a country that hasn’t had a real political party for generations is quite difficult. They don’t really understand everything that is involved. At one point I had a meeting with Tymoshenko (this was when Yanukovych was in power) and it was ten people around a table in a relatively small restaurant. Tymoshenko had the big game: when I sat down in front of her, she had my chair a little lower to the ground than hers. That’s a whole bunch of Washington crap but everybody does it, you know. I’m looking over her shoulder and I see Madeline Albright’s biography. Well, that didn’t get there by accident. They knew who I was, and who would be coming in, and so rearranged the books. I mean, this is the big game, right? So we’re sitting around this table in some fleabag-ish restaurant with all the political parties, there were about eight of them. The idea was to get them all together behind a candidate and then we’d challenge Yanukovych. None of the parties had any clue what they were doing except for Tymoshenko’s. So Tymoshenko’s person proposes we have a primary. I said “Great! How would you run that?”, since they had no experience in running primaries at the time. So he says “we’ll just have a poll and whoever leads the poll is the candidate.” But Tymoshenko had already been Prime Minister and so everyone knew who she was – she’d win easily. It was just ludicrous.

There was some real talent in Ukraine. One of the guys, who started a party of young people and had some enthusiasm – in addition to being the only person who understood organizations besides Tymoshenko. His name was Arseniy Yatsenyuk – he ended up becoming the Prime Minister of Ukraine. He had a real problem with corruption though and left after a couple of years. But then along comes Volodymyr Zelensky and along comes the Russians and the corruption gets rooted out and so forth. It is not totally rooted out now, but it is a democratic state. Kyiv is a modern city – it’s a lot like Berkeley in the 1960s. A lot of young people and coffee houses (except now the young people of computers, of course).

One of the most moving things that happened to me is that there was one guy at the end of our roundtable discussion that came up to me – he didn’t speak English, he had a translator who spoke only Russian. This was in 2014 after Putin had already illegally seized Crimea from the Ukrainians. He told me “I was raised by two good communists who taught me the Americans were the bad guys and the Russians were the good guys. I’m married to a Tatar, and we had to leave Crimea and she’ll never be able to go back and see her parents again as a result of this. So I just want to thank you for your support.” That kind of stuff makes it all worth dealing with. It’s the big picture and the diplomacy and all that. But stuff like that is what really matters: when you move people’s lives, that’s what matters.

We did the same thing in Burma. I knew about the persecution of the Rohingya long before anyone else I knew did because I did a meeting with young people in Yangon. The NDI always tried to meet with young people. And it was extraordinary – there was a civil war going on. This was followed by a peaceful transition to democracy. The civil war has since been rekindled when the military decided to become unpeaceful and untransition. Anyways, it was during the transition that I met with many young people. Obama was following me by a week (which terrified me because I have a penchant for speaking my mind and I was worried I was going to leave a mess for him. Luckily I didn’t). Among the young people there were members of every ethnic group in the country, and these ethnic groups had all been fighting each other for thirty years. What I discovered is they uniformly hated the Rohingya. I kept asking them all about it. Finally one of them got annoyed – which was surprising since it’s a very polite society, they certainly treat their elders more properly than the Americans do. But even they got upset sometimes. He said “how come you’re asking these difficult questions?” My answer was if you don’t ask difficult questions you don’t get truthful answers. But all of them, including all the minority groups that were being persecuted by the army, hated the Rohingya. It was really scary because usually what happens when I go to a country, I find the older folks have the same old ethnic hates they’ve always had but the younger folks are starting to get together and become less interested in these divisions. And that was not the case in what is now Myanmar.

Haywood: Why do you think that is? I’ve heard discussions of social media as having  a particularly bad effect on the conflict in Myanmar – do you think that’s the case?

Dean: Social media is a negative influence on any conflict because you get so much disinformation, and the people who are spreading the disinformation know how to appeal to the worst prejudices of people, and they know exactly where to hit them. That was part of it. Part of it probably was these kids have not had this much exposure, if any, to democracy. There had been a junta for years, and Aung San Suu Kyi had only been in power briefly before being deposed by the military. There’s lot of theories. The guy who took over after Ken Wallach as president of the NDI, Derek Mitchell, had been the ambassador when I was in Myanmar. Derek is just a stand-up guy who really understands all this stuff very well. He used to joke that the junta got tired of retirement and was looking for something to do so they decided to come back. That’s not exactly true but it seemed like it sometimes.

Tauch: I’m curious, besides Myanmar, what are your thoughts on democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia in general?

Dean: How about democratic backsliding in the United States of America? That’s not so great either! None of us are immune to appeals to people’s worst instincts instead of their best instincts. I’m worried about it. I spent a lot of time in Vietnam with NDI and IRI – the International Republican Institute.  Interestingly, both organizations were formed by the same legislation under Reagan, and we work in parallel (although they have a little more of an ideological agenda than we do). We sent a joint delegation to Vietnam. Vietnam is not a democracy. But it is also not as authoritarian and controlling as China. Especially the southern part of Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City is very lively. If you didn’t know you were in Vietnam, you would think you were in any big Asian city in a relatively free country. Vietnam is very business-oriented. When we would meet with the local and provincial and national officials, every one of them started out with a five-minute diatribe about how they were shooting at us 40 years ago, and then a 45 minute dialogue about how terrible the Chinese were. They had been paying tribute to the Chinese since 941 AD and the United States was only a relatively recent irritant. That’s why now Da Nang is the only port in the world that services both Russian and American naval vessels.

So our relationship with Vietnam is actually quite good.  Is it an authoritarian country? Yes. Do you get in trouble if you criticize the government? Yes. But is there free enterprise? Also yes. I would call it a thriving country, which we’re investing a lot in because it’s a friendlier environment than China right now for American companies. I won’t say it’s a good model, because it’s not a democracy, but I will say for all but a relatively small number of political dissidents, it’s a fairly safe country to make a living and have children in. 

The other funny thing about our trip to Vietnam was – and this was just like the United States – we’d go to see the big shots. And then we’d go down to their version of a county government, and all they would do is complain about the big shots. And then we’d go to the local people, living a village just like the United States except for everyone was speaking Vietnamese, and they’d all complain about the authorities and the counties and the government. They weren’t very measured with it. I don’t want to be a fool and say it’s a free society – it isn’t. But there’s a real spirit of capitalism in Vietnam and I’m guessing the government is a little bit behind where the people are.

There is a lot of rural poverty in Vietnam – which we weren’t shown much of on our visit there. The rural areas are different. I took the U.S. embassy staff out to dinner there and one of the things I heard from them is their main immigration situation is going out to the villages and seeing who really got married to who and who didn’t. Because of course if you’re an American citizen, which many Vietnamese people are after the Vietnam war, then you get to come over to America without any problem. But it turns out a lot of those “marriages” to U.S. citizens weren’t quite true – they would be married to someone else.

Haywood: Do you foresee a role the US should play in encouraging countries like Vietnam towards more liberal democracy? Or do you think we should be focusing on our own problems with democracy that you mentioned earlier?

Dean: Well, I think that we as a country have to be careful. I’m obviously in favor of democracy, absolutely in favor. But I think our efforts to influence that process in other countries depend on how much repression there is in that system. For example, I am much more worried about Uganda because of its murderous anti-gay policies than I am about Vietnam. Are there human rights violations in both places? Yes, there are. But we cannot force a government on every group of people in the world. So I think we have to be judicious in where we apply our efforts for democracy.

We just taught a class on Africa, I had a woman named Michelle Gavin come in and speak to my class, she was an ambassador to Botswana and now works for the Council on Foreign Relations. One of the things we talked about is how the United States recently cut the Ugandan government off from an African trade association over their persecution of gay Ugandans. But the hard question is: do you cut them off like that and punish them? Or keep them engaged and try to influence them? That’s a discussion you have to have, and the answer is not clear-cut. Policymakers have to ask themselves how many human rights violations and abuses they are willing to tolerate before disengaging. And it’s not universal. We put up with more human rights abuses in Egypt than we would in, say, Algeria. Why? Because Egypt is, from a strategic point, more important to us. So we give them tons and tons of money and they mostly align with our priorities. But at the same time they put a hell of a lot of people in jail just for trying to be democrats (small D).

Haywood: Switching gears for a minute here. Do you mind talking about Donald Trump and his effect on foreign policy both in and out of office?

Dean: Trump was a disaster. And he was a disaster for foreign policy – first because he was inconsistent. Second, he has an affinity for dictators that I don’t understand except that he’d like to be one himself. Third, he took away all of America’s leverage on the world stage because no leaders were able to take him seriously. His four years were tempered only by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who knew what they were doing, and some public servants who also knew what they were doing. I personally think he’s mislocated a couple of brain cells in general.

Haywood: I assume then you’re concerned about his intent for a second term?

Dean: Sure. Wouldn’t you be concerned if somebody openly advertises that we’re going to get rid of your democracy?

Haywood: Can you also talk about the general trends toward isolationism in the Republican Party that have expressed themselves more recently?

Dean: Well, we pay a price for isolationism every time we do it. We were isolationist after the First World War and got Nazi Germany as a result. You’re going to pay a much bigger price later if you choose not to be involved in the world now. Trump is known for that. I mean, in his hotel business he always had a policy of “take what you can now” and is paying for that in New York State Court. I grew up in New York and no real estate guy I know in New York will do any business with Donald Trump. His word is no good. But he has an incredible gift for grievance politics, and this is a good time for that in the world. But I think he’ll set the country back terribly if he’s elected, especially setting our international status back dramatically. Europe doesn’t like him. Guess what? Europe is pretty powerful these days. They can do without us if they have to, except in defense.

So yes, I’m concerned. But what I’m more concerned about is the failure of the Republican Party to stand up for the country. Republicans and Democrats, I always knew we’ve had disagreements about spending money on programs and things like that. But the disagreements ended when had to defend the country together. That’s gone now. Some elected officials are more afraid of Trump’s anger than they are of Putin. That is a gross misjudgment in a public servant. And there are a lot of those people in the Republican Party.

Haywood: On a related note, you mentioned Europe and our defensive relationships there. Can you talk about how perceptions and the role of NATO have changed since the end of the Cold War?

Dean: The attack on Ukraine has created a sense of solidarity among NATO countries, as well as better arming and a better approach to the budget. I think the countries of Europe understand now, too, that they’re going to have to pay more for their own defense. Europe’s coordination and NATO’s expansion has been very, very helpful. To have 800 miles of frontier with Russia that we didn’t have before is a big deal. But NATO has problems. We have dictators or wannabe dictators within the European Union – the Law and Justice Party (PIS) in Poland, which is the sitting party currently (and hopefully soon to be opposition) [Note: Since the recording of this interview, Polish national elections were held in which the PIS did not win a majority of seats.], and Viktor Orban in Hungary, who is a disaster.

Haywood: This is a broader question. From a high level, what do you think the goals or guiding principles of American foreign policy should be?

Dean: We need to encourage to the best of our ability, first of all, dealing with climate change, which is the biggest threat to the world right now. Second of all, we need to find ways to respect people that we didn’t use to respect. You know, we were never a quote-unquote, “colonial power”, but we acted like one using other methods than the British and the French and Spanish and so forth all did. This change is happening — it’s slow, and problematic sometimes in some countries, but it’s happening. When Ambassador Galvin, who I mentioned earlier, came to talk to my class, one of the things I said was I’m very hopeful this is going to be the African century. Everybody says, Oh, isn’t it going to be the Chinese century? What about the African century? Africa is going to become the most populated continent at some point. There is enormous capacity in that continent for creativity and development, and it ought to be our responsibility to provide reasonable, thoughtful help. Not that that process is going to be easy. I mean, South Africa is really scary considering the goodwill that’s been wasted by corruption and so forth after their incredible liberation. The EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] there is terrifying though, they’re basically the Trump of the left. But it still is a democracy, which makes it stand out, and it is a multiracial society, which is terrific considering where that came from. So we need to be as helpful to South Africa as we possibly can.

You get a much better understanding of places and their complexity when you actually talk to people from there rather than talking to me. But I’ll share one story: NDI did an exercise with some southern African countries, which were fairly democratic. One of the problems in many democracies, including the United States, is that the major political parties don’t talk to each other. They look at each other as enemies. Particularly on their “home turf.” So the goal was to get members of the three largest political parties in each of the six countries we were working with. And one of the countries – Zambia – had just had an election. The top three officials of Zambia were women: the President was a woman, the attorney general was a woman and the chief justice was also a woman. Which is unfortunately unusual, especially in Africa. So we’re doing this roundtable with all the significant figures from each party and one of the men says “Well, what do you do if you have a woman who is the president who’s totally incompetent, and Chief Justice who doesn’t know anything about the law and an Attorney General who can’t win court cases?” And I said, “Oh, I understand just what your problem is, the women are behaving just like the men!” But working there was great.

Wright: I want to ask a little bit more about what you mentioned, about developing respect for people in areas of the world that previously America has not had so much respect for. We’ve been talking in this interview about the impact of domestic culture and politics on foreign policy, but I’m wondering about the opposite: what information comes from outside the United States into the US either by Americans or by people from other countries that can alter or deepen our understanding of foreign policy?

Dean: The answer to that is music. People will always write stuff, and the intellectuals will read it and everyone can “my-good-man” their way through cocktail hour and what not. But what really is changing is music. Especially in Africa – there’s this incredible fusion of Caribbean, black American, and more traditionally African music. It’s all over the place, and it’s really cool. That’s how you get understanding between people. Remember it’s the people that really matter, not so much the diplomats. The shared cultural stuff that’s happening more and more, that’s what I think is important.

Wright: Do you have any thought or opinions on the way the US has done cultural diplomacy in the past? Are there any strong cultural diplomatic initiatives you’ve seen, or is this something that will happen or perhaps happens best without the hand of government being involved?

Dean: It matters who the president is. Obama was great, especially regarding connections with Africa because of his personal ties there. And he hired some really great people who were able to reach out to various countries there. Obama appointed Patrick Gaspard, who was a big supporter of mine when I ran for president as well as a union guy for SEIU (Service Employees International Union), as ambassador to South Africa. Patrick is black, for context. That kind of representation and connection matters. And not only was Patrick a black diplomat in a majority black country, but this is also a guy who was a black union executive with one of the largest and most successful unions in the United States which matters because labor organizations in South Africa are very developed and an important issue. So Obama was able to pick Patrick as someone who transcended all the handshaking of the State Department and was able to form real bonds with the country and people he was assigned to.

Look, the State Department and diplomacy is important but it’s not everything. Culture and universities and student exchanges and music and kids staying at each other’s houses – that kind of thing is actually in the long run more important for building connections. Obviously, you need an experienced diplomatic corps so when the you-know-what hits the fan you know what to do. But the way people really get to know each other is to have, you know, student exchanges and things like that.

Tauch: What are your thoughts on the current conflict between Israel and Hamas as well as the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict? Can you discuss how the administration’s stance has changed from the start of the conflict until now?

Dean: I think Biden is moving in the right direction. To back up a bit, first I don’t think anyone is going to be able to solve this problem in the long run without a two-state solution. That’s going to require the United States to put pressure on Israel. Second, I’ve made my views on Benjamin Netanyahu well-known in the past. I don’t think he has served Israel well. Israel is in as much if not greater danger from internal threats than they are from terrorists, although I of course think Hamas is awful. I think Israel was better off when Yitzhak Rabin and even Shimon Peres were Prime Ministers than Israel is today, as the most right-wing government in Israeli has attempted to undermine Israeli law against the will of the people.

Many terrible things are going on in this conflict. One of the things I try to do is avoid focusing only on the terrible things without looking for a solution. People get incredibly emotional, as they very well should, about these tragedies, especially when they are close to home. But it’s hard to figure out what the hell to do to solve the problem when you’re clogged up with anger and fury. Before pontificating about which group is terrible or which isn’t, I try to look at the facts. Is Hamas a terrorist organization? Yes. Are they honest? Are they a good negotiating partner? No. Is there terrorism being perpetrated in the West Bank by the settlers? Yes. They’re shooting people and taking their land; that’s terrorism. So it’s a mess. It needs to be stopped: I’m in favor of the ceasefire, obviously. We need to get those hostages out; that has been happening, which is good. But in order for a long-term solution to take shape, the United States must insist on a two-state solution in a way that is fair for the Palestinians. Just for the record: Representative Rashida Tlaib, whom I have not met, was censored for saying “from the river to the sea” in reference to Palestine. You know who also used that phrase? Menachem Begin, when he was Israel’s Prime Minister. There’s two groups that want “from the river to the sea” but they don’t mean the same thing. In a long-run solution, no one is going to get everything they want.

Part of the problem is that, except for the Sadat-Begin agreement at Camp David (and Begin was pressured by Carter), we’ve never had good leadership on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict at the same time. That’s a travesty. That’s just been one of the tragedies of the Middle East is that there have not been leaders on both sides who are capable of moving their people at the same time. The trick about great leadership is telling your people something they don’t want to hear and getting them to do it. It is easy to be pushed along by the crowd to avoid court appearances or wherever your motivation is. But it’s not easy to face them and get them to do something they don’t want to do.

Now I think Israel’s Ariel Sharon would’ve been able to do it when he was Prime Minister. When Sharon was Prime Minister he had been a bit of a bete noire to the liberal Jews because he was very right wing and had stood back during a massacre of Palestinians in Shatila, which was a refugee camp in Lebanon. But Sharon had courage. That’s the thing about politics: it requires strong leaders with courage. I mean, he was prepared to tell his nation that they had to do something that they really didn’t want to do so that there would be a better long term future. And there’s not enough of that anywhere. But that’s what it takes to be a good leader.

Wright: Are their leaders elsewhere in the world who have that quality that you admire? Are there other people that you’ve seen rising in leadership positions or who are making a name for themselves that we should be watching and learning from?

Dean: My favorite was Merkel. Angela Merkel was, in my view, the leader of the free world when Trump was President. As for your second question, I think a lot of those leaders aren’t proven yet. One of the places I’m looking is Great Britain. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when power changes hands in Great Britain. Great Britain is in enormous amount of trouble as a result of their Brexit vote, which was dishonestly engineered. Keir Starmer is going to be the prime minister — for better or for worse, I don’t know him personally. But the Conservatives really screwed up Great Britain terribly, and now we’re going to see if Labour can do any better. The previous Labour leadership and Labour as a whole was a disaster. So they ended up being out of power for 14 years, and now Starmer will get a chance to turn things around. Supposedly he’s boring. I don’t care if he’s boring or if he’s thrilling. I just want him to tell the truth and be a strong leader, which means telling people what they don’t want to hear sometimes. That’s one problem about democracy. You know, people will say things that they think people want to hear. And that’s not what they need all the time. Sometimes you just have to stand up and do what’s right. And if you lose your office, you lose your office, but at least you did what you thought was important. 

But to answer your question, I’m sure there’s a long list of people who are up and coming. You guys should tell me.

Haywood: We’ve heard you’re an avid reader. Have you read anything on foreign policy lately you’d like to share?

Dean: Arne Westad wrote a really interesting book about 12th century Korea and China, Empire and Righteous Nation, which was very interesting. Strobe Talbott, who was an undergrad at Yale when I was before ending up as Deputy Secretary of State, wrote an interesting book The Great Experiment about how nations have developed and grown together. Ned Blackhawk’s book, The Rediscovery of America, was great – really shines a light on all the hooey people learn about what Native American society was like. It really painted a comprehensive picture of what America was like before settlement by white people, which I found very interesting.

Haywood: Can you talk about how opinions and attitudes have evolved on China within U.S. politics, especially over the last few decades?

Dean: I’ve spent a lot of time in China. My first trip there was around 1999 – a business trip while I was governor. I was getting lunch with some Chinese businessmen, and after a few drinks they said some not great things about the Chinese government. And I asked them “how can you say these things about the government? Don’t you get nervous?” and one of them replied “there has been a saying in Guangzhou for many centuries: ‘the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.’” And that’s true. I think the people know a lot about the government that they don’t say.

Even earlier, my father was in charge of freight operations to supply Chiang Kai Shek during the Chinese civil war. My father had to return home to take care of his father and eventually Chiang Kai Shek was defeated. But one of the things he said was “the Chinese are never going to stay communist because they’re too entrepreneurial.” And they are. Their work ethic is unbelievable. They have made huge leaps since Mao, especially under Deng Xiaoping. I am very fond of China. And I’m not afraid of China, although I do think there are factions you have to watch out for. When I’d come back from trips to China I’d say “China’s a democracy.” Which would surprise people. But I’d tell them “all nine of the Politburo get to vote.” But the President does have to line up those votes – the three from the army, the three from the party, and the three from the bureaucracy.

I went many times with NDI to China. I used to go with other groups, too. At one point, Yale Law and Vermont Law School were co-running an NGO that sued provincial governors for violating environmental laws. We did this with the blessing of the central government there because, 20 years ago, the provincial governors had the strength to threaten the central government. Anyways, what I learned is that you can’t get a flavor of China until you spend some time there. I don’t think it’s possible. I think what people will find out is that we have a lot in common. The Chinese are so entrepreneurial. The young people especially were incredible. The first time I ever went to Beijing, I didn’t know what to expect. (Turns out it’s a big gray city with terrible architecture — go to Shanghai). But there were all these kids in blue jeans walking around hand in hand, you know, girlfriend and boyfriend. That wasn’t at all what I expected. It was indistinguishable from walking around the United States.

The problem with China’s government, and the problem with authoritarianism in general, is in the long run it’s a losing hand. I’ve met Xi before, when he was Vice President. I have respect for him. He’s a tough guy though – I would not want to meet him in the middle of the dark in the night. But his great mistake was getting rid of the term and age limits on the presidency. There are two main problems in every society: asset allocation and succession. The Chinese had solved the succession problem. If you don’t have an orderly succession, you risk blowing everything up. Many societies have blown up because there was no order of succession. And the Chinese had that. And Xi took it away. Xi is very capable, but nobody is perfect. Everybody gets old and a little demented and can’t remember things [gestures at self and laughs]. That’s the mistake they’ve made. The real danger is then when they get into a position of losing stability because of a transition in power. It’s always easier to cause a distraction elsewhere, getting a rise out of people and inspiring patriotism to detract from the chaos and inability to have an orderly succession, than it is to just have an orderly succession process. Of course, most democratic countries in the world already have that process.

[Note: The above transcript reflect the personal opinions of Dr. Dean and do not represent the views or endorsement of the Yale Review of International Studies or the Yale International Relations Association.]

This interview was conducted by Abla Abdulkadir, Owen Haywood, Lisa Tauch, and Megan Wright.

Authors

Lisa is a student at Yale University (class of 2027) studying Political Science.

lisa.tauch@yale.edu
Owen Haywood

Owen is a student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Global Affairs, Economics, and Mandarin Chinese. He currently serves as the 2023-2024 YRIS Interviews Director. Interests include writing, politics (both domestic and international), and any podcast he can get his hands on.

owen.haywood@yale.edu

Megan is an Eli Whitney student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Economics with a Certificate in Persian and Iranian Studies. Previously, she spent more than a decade as a professional dancer in San Francisco and New York and studied labor relations at the City University of New York's School of Labor & Urban Studies.

megan.wright.mhw37@yale.edu

Abla is a student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Applied Mathematics.

abla.abdulkadir@yale.edu