Obama’s chief speechwriter diagnoses rising authoritarianism in the changing world order

mai'a k davis cross interviewing ben rhodes
Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, joins Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science and international affairs, for a talk on his new book about global autocracies. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Former president Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter Ben Rhodes, who traveled the world with the 44th president and was involved in some of the administration’s biggest foreign policy decisions, stopped at Northeastern Monday evening to share insights about the breakdown of the traditional liberal world order.

Rhodes, in front of a packed audience of students in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex for the annual Civic Experience speaker series, recounted an anecdote involving him and Obama in 2017 when the two were staying at a hotel in Shanghai. Obama was no longer president at the time and was succeeded in the Oval Office by Donald Trump.

“Some Chinese officials wanted to come see me,” Rhodes recalled, “to basically warn me that Obama should not meet with the Dalai Lama on his upcoming trip to India.”

Rhodes said that what he found disconcerting was that no meeting between the two had been publicly announced. Beijing brands the current Dalai Lama, exiled in India, as a separatist and instead recognizes someone else as the highest religious figure in Tibet.

“These people were basically like ‘Yeah, we’re reading your email, and we don’t like what we see. And we don’t care that the guy down the hall [Obama] is the most famous politician in the world. He shouldn’t do it either,’” Rhodes recalled.

The meeting later took place as planned. But the incident was one of several examples of rising global nationalism and authoritarianism Rhodes cites in his new book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made. The New York Times best-seller is a follow-up to his memoir, The World As It Is.

Rhodes, now a global affairs television commentator, told interviewer Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern, that he could feel a sense of rising authoritarianism in the world toward the latter half of Obama’s second term.

“I set out to investigate it,” he said, “and what I knew I was going to find was that there was kind of one big trend in the world that America was a part of, not separate from. The more I pulled this thread, I discovered America’s fingerprints on this world more than I think we would like to acknowledge.”

That discovery prompted Rhodes to focus After the Fall on three areas―first, the period from 1990 to today, what he described as “unbridled capitalism, the explosion of globalization, and unregulated capitalism.”

ben rhodes smiling
Rhodes, now a global affairs television commentator, said he could feel a sense of rising authoritarianism in the world toward the latter half of Obama’s second term. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

He found that in every country that has experienced an authoritarian wave, political leaders exploited the citizenry’s dissatisfaction with globalization and the feeling that the system was slanted in favor of others. “It’s only for rich people and it’s only for the Americans,” Rhodes described the prevailing sentiment at the time.

That, in turn, prompted some people to turn to authoritarian figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The second area that his book covers is the security policies of post-9/11 America, which Rhodes said worked to the advantage of the world’s strongmen. “Putin justified his canceling of the direct election of governors in Russia in 2002 as part of a war on terror. Viktor Orban built a wall along Hungary’s border before Trump tried to build one here,” Rhodes said.

Technology―social media, in particular―comprised the third focus of the book. “These perfect tools of connection and empowerment become the perfect tools of disinformation and surveillance,” said Rhodes.

When asked about Afghanistan, Rhodes said that President Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, made the right call in withdrawing U.S. forces, but that the exit could have been handled differently. What made America’s involvement in the conflict interesting to Rhodes was that it was essentially two wars that were being fought.

“Take out al-Qaeda, take out Osama bin Laden,” he said. “Then there was a second effort, the nation-building enterprise, which was already failing” when Biden became president.

“The tragedy is for the Afghan people principally, but that’s a tragedy that’s not just in the withdrawal. That’s the tragedy in the 40 years of American engagement.”

Afghanistan is what drew Hannah Sumrall, a second-year student with a major in health, science, and finance, to come hear Rhodes in person. The event was also livestreamed on Facebook and posted for future viewing.

“I’ve been taking a real interest in all of the proceedings with Afghanistan and Biden’s response and thought it would be interesting to hear from somebody who’s kind of worked on that side of the political aisle,” she said.

Since many of the people Rhodes interviewed for the book are not much older than students at Northeastern, it makes sense for young people to hear his message, she added.

“Young people are normally at the forefront of disruptive change,” Sumrall said.

Northeastern’s Civic Experience speaker series, now in its third year, was designed to connect students with young and emerging leaders to talk about the issues of the day.

Rhodes recalled getting his start in politics in his early 20s when, on September 11, 2001, he was a graduate student in creative writing while also working on a local political campaign in New York.

“I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I saw the first tower fall,” he remembered. “I wanted to be involved in foreign policy, I wanted to be involved in politics, and writing was my entry point.”

At 29 years old, Rhodes went to work for then-candidate Obama, and by the next year found himself in the White House. “My life has been…not planned,” he smiled, “let’s just say that.”

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