Q&A: Ben Rhodes

The former Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama and co-host of the Pod Save the World podcast talks to James Orr about presidential strategies and how to push back against Putin

The World Today Published 15 July 2021 Updated 18 October 2022 3 minute READ

Ben Rhodes

Former Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting to President Obama

James Orr

Journalist on South Asia, the US and the Middle East, Freelance

You were an aspiring writer before entering foreign policy and building your career as Obama’s storyteller. How would you grade the strength of Biden’s policy narrative? 

What Biden’s team have done well is be very clear about their priorities and objectives – and then repeat them, which is important in politics. 

Biden came in and said: ‘I’ve got to stamp out Covid. I’ve got to get this economy moving and I’ve got to show that democracy can deliver.’ And that pretty simple story is matched by their actions.  

I think the challenge, though, is while that’s all happening, not very far beneath the surface of American life all the same warning signs are there. Republicans are attacking the right to vote, or even the capacity of people to count votes in different states. You’ve got the entire Republican party basically embracing the big lie that Donald Trump won the election. 

Republicans realize they can get away with breaking all the unwritten rules of American politics: that you don’t lie relentlessly; you don’t violate certain norms; you don’t say you won elections when you lost; and you abide by a peaceful transition of power. 

Their strength is, in part, the people who finance right-wing politics and right-wing media in ways that are sustained and relentless. But their strength is also that they don’t play by the rules. And if you are in a fight and one side doesn’t play by the rules, they have an advantage in that fight. 

Biden has this impulse to be bipartisan and show he can work with some of these people. His impulse is not to go for the jugular, but at some point, he is going to have to.  

You were instrumental in securing the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. Can renewed efforts in Vienna secure a new agreement following Trump’s decision to pull out in 2018?  

Part of the issue for Biden is that he doesn’t want his foreign policy to be dominated by the Middle East. He is trying to deal with China, with climate change. 

The United States must recognize that our fixation with Iran is totally out of step with the scale of other challenges. We have spent more bandwidth on Iran than, arguably, China in our foreign policy for a long time. 

Our fixation with Iran is totally out of step with the scale of other challenges

One of the problems in our politics is that the intensity of Iran as a political issue is much higher on the right than on the left. A lot of effort has been put into scaring Americans about Iran and linking the Iran issue to support for Israel. 

Benjamin Netanyahu was in many ways the most aggressive spokesperson against any nuclear deal with Iran. With Netanyahu removed from office, it actually might reduce the temperature a little bit in terms of the intensity of this Iran fixation on the American right.  

If you don’t have some kind of diplomatic agreement with Iran, you could be faced with the choice of whether or not to go to war with Iran to stop a nuclear weapon, and Americans are sick of war in the Middle East. 

Republicans have been quieter [in their opposition to a new deal] than in the Obama years. Part of that is that Obama himself was a more polarizing figure to Republicans. I’ll state the awkward truth, which is that a lot of that had to do with his race.  

The temperature is not as high now and I think that’s an opportunity for the Biden team to realize. 

Will the temperature with China boil over? What is the right approach for the United States here? 

The Chinese blend together capitalism and technology and this totalitarian view of national security in ways that eliminate democracy. There is a lot of momentum behind their model right now, and to me that’s not something that you deal with in a trade war, or even with how you manage this or that geopolitical issue. 

The Chinese playbook is always to try to divide other countries

It requires first and foremost the United Sates to revitalize our own model. We have to stabilize our own democracy. Then you need to multi-lateralize your positions vis-a-vis China as best you can. This is where the Biden team differs from the Trump team. 

So whether you are talking about technology and supply chains, Chinese trade practices that you think are unfair, whether you are talking about China bullying other countries in the South China Sea, the Chinese playbook is always to try to divide other countries so that they can then muscle individual countries.  

On all of these very complicated issues, the United States needs to first and foremost develop common positions with Europe, with allies in Asia, with as many countries as we can so that we are then negotiating with China from shared positions. 

That is where the Biden team has to get to. But that’s going to take a little time because not everybody is of the same mind on all of this. 

Let us talk about the destabilizing power of autocracies. Can western governments alter the behaviour of autocracies by better highlighting their corruption? 

The basic fact is that corruption is the principal vulnerability of a lot of autocratic regimes. It was anger and corruption that spearheaded a lot of the opposition to Viktor Lukashenko in Belarus. In Russia, corruption was the single issue for Alexei Navalny and one of the reasons the Russian president Vladimir Putin was so intent on silencing him. Putin sensed that Navalny was gaining traction by revealing the scale of Putin’s own corruption.  

There are two aspects to this. One is I don’t see why democratic governments would not do more to spotlight the extent of corruption that sustains authoritarian regimes. That would be one additional way to put them on the defensive.  

Secondly, America – and the Biden team is beginning to do this – doesn’t do nearly enough to crack down on corrupt financial flows.

The US and other countries can do more to try to choke off some of the money laundering that sustains oligarchs

This money washes through London and New York via a variety of means such as shell companies, real-estate interests. Billions and billions of dollars sustain the crony networks of Putin and Lukashenko, and I think the US and other countries can do more to try to choke off some of the money laundering that sustains the oligarchs who then finance the repression. 

People ask me why hasn’t this happened yet. This is another interesting symptom of the 20-year focus on terrorism. A lot of the efforts, in terms of financial crimes and sanctions and anti-money laundering work were focused on terrorism. 

It’s time to put more resources into this. This is an issue where we are going to see more activity in the years to come.  

What should be the White House’s strategy against autocratic corruption? 

What we have to recognize – and this is the central point in my book After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made – is that Putin has been waging this 20-year war against democracy itself, and his effort is very tied to discrediting democracy, making it look chaotic, making it look dysfunctional.  

We are in a fight of different models of governance – the democratic model and the autocratic model. We need to go on the offensive where we are both trying to demonstrate the value of democracy, but we are also trying to discredit the type of governance that Putin represents. 

This is the kind of thing that can change attitudes over time – relentlessly driving home this message that autocracies are corrupt. Because if you look at what motivates people, voters, citizens around the world, one thing that nobody likes is their government stealing from them.