'This Is An Opportunity': Fareed Zakaria On 'Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World'

Oct 13, 2020
Originally published on October 13, 2020 11:52 am

COVID-19 has disrupted life around the globe. Borders have closed between nations, businesses have shuttered, and school and social routines have been profoundly altered. Yet amid all this, CNN host and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria sees possibility.

"This is an opportunity, if we take it, to really go ahead and make some of the big changes that we all know we need," he says.

In his new book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, Zakaria looks ahead to the ways that COVID-19 might fundamentally change our relationships to work, technology and government. He says Americans in particular have some important decisions to make about the role of government in our lives.

"We have to do something about the inequality that has become so dramatic in these Western societies," he says. "We have to get our infrastructure in shape. We have to have a better health care system that allows poor people access to good, decent health care."

Zakaria is hopeful for the future: "We can't forget that human beings have choice. We are not doomed to go down the path that people think we have. And yet, nor is it guaranteed that we will make the right choices. It's all up to us."

Zakaria says that depending on the actions we take now, "We could well look back on these times 10 or 20 years from now and say, 'This was the turning point. We were finally able to make some of these changes.'"


Interview highlights

WW Norton

On comparing how authoritarian and democratic countries have fared in the pandemic

It turns out that there's a mixture of results on both sides, the democratic side and the authoritarian. So I don't want to suggest that authoritarian states are all good or bad at this. There is no question that China handled it very well overall. They mishandled it at the start, that mishandling had something to do with the secretive and repressive nature of the Chinese system. But then they pivoted and did a remarkably good job. ... But consider other dictatorships: Russia, Venezuela, Iran — they've all done terribly at it.

On the other hand, with democracies, you see countries like the United States and Great Britain that have not done very well, but some of the best performing countries in the world — Taiwan, South Korea, Germany — are all democracies. And in fact, what's interesting is when you look at the Taiwanese response and you look at the South Korean response, it isn't that they used draconian powers of government very well. They did not, actually, in either of those cases, do a shutdown ever. What they did instead was very good testing and tracing. The key to stopping the growth of Covid is that when you find somebody has it, you very quickly do contact tracing and isolate those people who have it so that you are, in a sense, separating out the small number of possible infectors from the large population. ... It turns out that the intelligent democracies, because they're open, they're transparent, may be the best performers of them.

On how lean, adaptable governments seem better able to respond to the pandemic

It's not the quantity of government, it's the quality. - Fareed Zakaria

The 20th century was consumed by this huge debate originating in, of course, the debate between capitalism and communism on the size of the government. How big should your government be? And it's an important debate and it has important dimensions. But I think it is obscured something very important that is getting highlighted in the 21st century, which is it's not the quantity of government, it's the quality.

Fareed Zakaria's previous books include The Post American World.
Jeremy P. Freeman / WW Norton

It's the fact that these governments in East Asia are very lean. They are very responsive. They spend a lot of time trying to adopt best practices and they have managed to do it at a much cheaper cost than governments in Europe, by and large. One of the things you realize in all of those places is that the governments are very attentive to learning. They learn from failure. They learn from their mistakes. For example, during SARS many of these governments in East Asia did not handle the SARS epidemic that well. And they immediately asked themselves, what can we do better? How do we do it differently? And that level of responsiveness is not something you tend to see in the American system in particular, where we have this idea that we are the best of everything. Why do we need to learn from anyone?

So it turns out that ability to be an intelligent, aggressive, supple, those things are much more important than how large the government is.

On how the erosion of trust in the U.S. government has hurt America's ability to respond to a crisis

The United States is born in an anti-statist revolution and has always had a suspicion of government. This is an anti-statist country. In its inception, even the British colonists in their own way had some of this DNA as part of their makeup. So it's always been a struggle. Franklin Roosevelt revolutionized the country by creating, for the first time, an activist federal government that saw itself as having the responsibility of the economic welfare of its people. What happened in more recent years ... is that ever since Ronald Reagan, you have had this deliberate attack on the federal government as corrupt, inefficient, dysfunctional, when it really wasn't. ... What happens with Reagan is you begin this assault on government. He said [in his 1981 inaugural address], "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem." ... All that has taken an enormous toll coupled with the defunding of government agencies. We don't recognize this because the number is obscured because Social Security, Medicare and the Defense Department have all gone up so much. But the other functions of government have either stayed the same as the population has doubled or they have actually been cut dramatically. ...

[Former adviser to Donald Trump] Steve Bannon ... said the goal of the Trump revolution is to deconstruct the administrative state. Well, if that's your goal, guess what? When you have a pandemic, it's not going to function very well.

On the pandemic's effect on global inequality

There's no question in my mind that the effect of COVID-19 and the pandemic is going to be to substantially increase inequality around the world, both within a country, but also among the countries of the world. So let's just take global inequality: India and China have been growing faster and as a result, 400 to 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 20, 25 years. That whole process is now being arrested and perhaps being reversed because the lockdowns, the paralysis, the great recession that are taking place everywhere in the world. This is affecting the person who is at the bottom of the pole much, much more than it is the people at the top. The people at the top have education. They can do their work digitally. They have access to urban centers. They're doing fine. It is the people at the bottom who are suffering the most. And so you are going to see massive rises in poverty in places like India, probably a little bit less so in China, because they have managed to get their economy back. Many of these countries, by the way, cannot do what the United States can do, which is to print money and to print money in its own currency and issue debt, so they will be doubly disadvantaged.

But then let's take a look at the United States. ... If you look at the last four recessions and you look at the top 25 percent of earners and the bottom 25 percent, and you say during the recession, what percentage lost jobs, it turns out that for the last three recessions, the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent lose jobs at about the same rate. In this recession, the top 25 percent have actually stayed stable. They haven't lost many jobs. The bottom 25 percent, it's just a cratering. ... It's all the bankers, the lawyers, the people in media, we're all fine or mostly fine. But think about the restaurant workers, think about the waiters, think about the people who work in hotels, on cruise ships, in theme parks. All those people who were low-wage in any case, have seen their livelihoods destroyed. And this massive acceleration and exacerbation of inequality is, to me, the most deeply worrying thing about what this pandemic has done.

On why the federal government should step in to help the people who need it most

I think that the most important piece of what the federal government can do is to stabilize these people's lives with direct aid, with the massive infrastructure spending, so that people who are in these categories, people without college educations, can can find their way forward.

Look, at the end of the day, you can only do it for some transition period. But I think we should be erring on the side of helping rather than not. I understand there are concerns about the deficit and I understand their concerns about inflation and all that. But if we don't do this for the next year or two, you won't have a society. You won't have an economy that is going to function in any kind of meaningful sense. Worrying about inflation is a luxury, if you have 30 to 40 percent of the country that literally can't make ends meet.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to listen to the interview Dave Davies just recorded with Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post columnist and host of CNN's weekly show "Fareed Zakaria GPS," which stands for Global Public Square. I'll let Dave introduce him.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Fareed Zakaria has just published his fifth book, and it won't surprise you to hear it deals with the coronavirus pandemic, but it isn't about testing, masks or vaccines. Instead, Zakaria has done some thinking about what the post-pandemic world might look like and how we can manage it better. He notes that pandemics have had major impacts in the past, from the pestilence that raged through ancient Athens as it was battling Sparta to the bubonic plague that took 20 million lives and changed class relationships in Europe. COVID-19, Zakaria writes, will have impacts on economic inequality and our relationships to work in technology. And it should teach us something about the importance of science and guiding policy decisions and the value of honest and effective government. And he says there's a lot to consider about the role of the United States in a very interdependent world.

Fareed Zakaria grew up in India, then attended Yale University and got a Ph.D. in government at Harvard. He became editor of Foreign Affairs magazine at the age of 28. He was a columnist for Newsweek, then editor at large and columnist for Time. He now writes a weekly column for The Washington Post. He's hosted his CNN show, "Fareed Zakaria GPS," since 2008. His fifth book is called "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World."

Well, Fareed Zakaria, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Thank you so much, Dave.

DAVIES: You begin this book - I mean, it's really looking forward at the world we will inhabit. But you begin by looking at the lessons we can learn from how we have responded to this health crisis. And you write that in October of last year, Johns Hopkins University did an analysis of countries best prepared to handle a pandemic. It found the U.S. ranked first overall, Great Britain was second. That's not exactly the way it worked out. What did it miss?

ZAKARIA: It's a great question, Dave, because I think that one of the things that we need to understand when we sort of look at the world is that the United States has so dominated the world, not just militarily and politically but intellectually. We set the agenda. Our experts tend to be the world's experts. Our great institutions tend to be the ones that get to do the ranking and the evaluating. So we tend to have what I would call home country bias. So probably what happened with these models is that we looked at the amount of money spent. The U.S. does fantastically on that. We looked at the greatest research institutions and public health institutions like the CDC and the FDA. We looked at the great pharmaceutical companies. And you put all that together and America looks formidable. But perhaps we didn't ask ourselves, what about access to health care? Does everyone have it easily? We do very badly on that. What about the ease with which you can collect data, you know, having a centralized data system that allows the government or any organization to figure out who's healthy, who's not, who's had what tests, who's not. We do terribly at that. So all our weaknesses get glossed over, and all our strengths get magnified. I think that that's a large part of the story. And then, of course, there is the specifics of how the Trump administration handled this.

DAVIES: You know, we think of authoritarian regimes as maybe better positioned to deal with a threat like this because, you know, there's no dissent or debate. They can make rules quickly, enforce them very strictly. What does the record show when you look at how countries have responded about whether authoritarian or democratic governments have done better in this crisis?

ZAKARIA: It's fascinating. It turns out that there's a mixture of results on both sides, the Democratic side and the authoritarian. So I don't want to suggest that, you know, authoritarian states are all good or all bad at this. There is no question that China handled it very well overall. They mishandled it at the start. That mishandling had something to do with the secretive and repressive nature of the Chinese system. But then they pivoted and did a remarkably good job. I mean, they have done so well with COVID, Dave, that when they have been testing their vaccines, they have to test them in Pakistan and Brazil because there's nobody in China who has COVID anymore. And so, you know, no question, at the end of the day, the Chinese do very well. But consider other dictatorships. Russia, Venezuela, Iran - they've all done terribly at it. On the other hand, with democracies, you see countries that, like the United States and Great Britain, that have not done very well, but some of the best performing countries in the world - Taiwan, South Korea, Germany - are all democracies. And in fact, what's interesting is when you look at the Taiwanese response and you look at the South Korean response, it isn't that they used draconian powers of government very well. They did not actually in either of those cases do a shutdown ever. What they did instead was very good testing and tracing.

DAVIES: One of the things that seems that is a factor in getting more effective government is when the population trusts the government and is invested in it performing well. And it seems since the 1980s or so, we've had this deep suspicion and mistrust of government. And that probably hasn't been helpful in terms of, you know, building a really effective government, has it?

ZAKARIA: Yeah. Look, the United States is born in an anti-statist revolution and has always had a suspicion of government. You know, this is an anti-statist country in its inception. Even the British colonists in their own way had some of this DNA as part of their makeup. It's always been a struggle. And, you know, Franklin Roosevelt revolutionized the country by creating for the first time an activist federal government that saw itself as having the responsibility of the economic welfare of its people. What happened in more recent years, as you correctly point out, is that ever since Ronald Reagan, you have had this deliberate attack on the federal government as corrupt, inefficient, dysfunctional, when it really wasn't. I mean, the American government - maybe it's because I grew up in India. American government at the federal level functions pretty well. And it certainly used to function pretty well when it was well funded, when it was respected. The government of the '50s and '60s, for example, is the government that created the information revolution by funding microchips, by creating the Internet, by creating GPS. All these came out of government programs. But what happens with Reagan is you begin this assault on government and, you know, he said government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem. The nine most frightening words in the English language are I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

All that has taken an enormous toll, coupled with the defunding of government. I mean, government agencies - we don't recognize this because the numbers obscured because Social Security, Medicare and the Defense Department have all gone up so much. But the other functions of government have either stayed the same as the population has doubled or they have actually been cut dramatically. You see this, for example, in something like the IRS. The IRS is able to do half as many audits as it was 25 years ago. And so all of that dysfunction is part of a deliberate effort to deconstruct the administrative state. That phrase comes from Steve Bannon, who said the goal of the Trump revolution is to deconstruct the administrative state. Well, if that's your goal, guess what? When you have a pandemic, it's not going to function very well.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Fareed Zakaria. His new book is "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR-ON-SIX")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Fareed Zakaria. He writes a column for The Washington Post and he hosts the CNN weekly program "Fareed Zakaria GPS," which stands for Global Public Square. He has a new book called "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World."

One of the lessons that you say we have to learn is that markets are not enough. And you cite an editorial from the Financial Times, which is, of course, a champion of competition and free enterprise, which essentially says government is going to have to be more active in our economies. In what ways?

ZAKARIA: Well, I think one of the things that has become clear over the last 20, 25 years is that free markets by themselves are producing certain social inequities and dysfunctions that only government can solve. So let's take a look at the Internet and the information revolution. The whole idea was meant to be that the information revolution lets the little guy have a chance. It flattens the world, as Tom Friedman used to say, you know, that any company from anywhere can get on the Internet. And that quality does exist. I don't want to pretend that it doesn't. But the overall effect of the information revolution has been to create five or six companies that are so large that they dominate their space in a way that - I don't know - Standard Oil never did in its in its heyday.

And then you notice, perhaps because of the digitization of the whole economy, that this is happening in every sector, that if you look at the, you know, hotel sector, if you look at travel, if you look at any of these areas, it is essentially getting dominated by one to three players, usually two players. And this is bad for the consumer. It means that you can have an oligopoly that raises prices. You have poorer choices. Then you have the reality of this winner-take-all system where what's happening is in every industry, the top 5% of producers, let's say, are the ones producing all the the wealth and income and at the - bottom grows larger and larger. And so you have massively rising inequality. So you just take those two phenomena. One is, you know, the kind of absence of real competition. And the other is the dramatic widening of inequality. You realize this is where government has to step in. One is to actually make markets work better than they are working. And the second is to do something about a level of inequality that is going to approach the levels you had in France before the French Revolution if we're not serious about it.

DAVIES: So does that mean Congress passing new antitrust legislation, the Justice Department pursuing more antitrust cases?

ZAKARIA: Absolutely. So this gets into a technical issue. But it used to be when Roosevelt set up the antitrust system in the United States and even before him, Theodore Roosevelt - the two Roosevelts, if you will - they viewed antitrust from the point of view as saying, our measure of whether a company is too powerful is, does it have too much market share? Does it have market dominance? Does it fix prices? Does it have too much political power? Does it interfere in the political system? Does it deny consumers choice? There was a kind of rich tapestry of things that you looked at. What happened in the '70s and '80s was a kind of conservative revolt against this, spearheaded by Robert Bork, very famous legal academic, who then was nominated unsuccessfully for the Supreme Court. And Bork said in a book called "The Antitrust Paradox," the only thing we should look at is whether the consumer gets cheaper prices. And if the consumer gets cheaper prices, everything else is OK because that's how markets should work.

Well, it turns out if you look at something like, you know, these tech companies, sure, the consumer gets, you know, a lot - often the goods are free, but you're stifling competition. There are no competitors. You are dominating the field. You're crowding out others. You gain greater and greater political power. Your political contributions then have a huge impact on the politics of the country. That can't be right. So we have to return to an older understanding of antitrust where we are trying to make sure that you actually have a level playing field for the little guy, for the new competitor. And we are moving correctly, in my view, to go to a much older view, which is no, the company - a company has many stakeholders. It has its shareholders. It has its employees. It has suppliers. It has the communities that it lives and works in. And those are all interested stakeholders. And a company has to do right by all of them to thrive.

DAVIES: Of course, any efforts to increase government regulation, you know, generates opposition from people who fear socialism. You know, we - you know, socialism is advocated by more people now than it used to. But it's also, you know, ardently opposed by a lot of people in the conservative side of the country. Denmark is often cited as an example of a country that has democratic government and a blend of policies that embraces markets and some policies that some would call socialism. Do you think it's an example to emulate?

ZAKARIA: I think it is. It's very interesting you bring it up because it's not just Denmark. Their market is, in a sense, a symbol. But much of Northern Europe operates on - in a way that kind of mixes up the categories in a very interesting set. So most of Northern Europe is actually very free market, by which I mean they don't have a lot of tariffs. They don't have a lot of regulations. They actually allow companies lots of leeway to hire and fire. There is a Heritage Foundation index of economic freedom. So Heritage Foundation is a super conservative think tank in Washington. And many of these countries rank higher in terms of their economic freedom, as judged by the Heritage Foundation, then does the United States. So they're very free market, but they have pretty high taxes - in fact, very high taxes. And they distribute the money in a way that really encourages equality of opportunity, gives people the tools they need to move up in social and economic terms. So that mixture - they sometimes call it flexicurity because it's a very flexible, open economy but with a lot of security built in. It strikes me as a very interesting idea because the issue is not really, you know, how much regulation you have. Of course, nobody wants excessive regulation. Nobody wants regulations that are counterproductive and self-defeating. And America does have a lot of that, by the way, mostly because it has this crazy quilt patchwork of federal, state and then local regulations. What you really want are simple, effective regulations that ensure that you have a free, open market.

But the key is what the Northern Europeans do, what the Danes do is they say, OK, let's have the most efficient mechanism to generate all this wealth, but then let's tax people to get some of that money and make sure that we take care of the inequities, and we give everyone a chance. So the most frightening thing about the United States right now, Dave, is social mobility in America is lower than in every country in northern Europe. It's lower than in Canada. It's even lower than in some countries in the rest of Europe. What I mean by that is the American dream - the idea that you are going to do better than your parents - is basically not true anymore. It is a myth. It's alive and thriving in Denmark, in Canada, in Sweden, in Germany but not in the United States.

DAVIES: You know, there's the question of economic inequality. And I think it's a big, big problem in the United States and a growing problem. You write that in recent years, global inequality has actually been declining, in part because of the - you know, the growth in China and India and other places. What's ahead? How will the pandemic affect this?

ZAKARIA: This is probably the area that I became most pessimistic about and most sad about, honestly, when writing this book. There's no question in my mind that the effect of COVID-19 and the pandemic is going to be to substantially increase inequality around the world, both within a country but also among the countries of the world. So let's just take global inequality. India and China have been growing faster. And as a result, 400 to 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 20, 25 years.

That whole process is now being arrested and perhaps being reversed because the lockdowns, the paralysis, the great recessions that are taking place everywhere in the world - this is affecting the person who is at the bottom of the poll much, much more than it is the people at the top. The people at the top have education. They can do their work digitally. They have access to urban centers. They're doing fine. It is the people at the bottom who are suffering the most. And so you are going to see massive rises in poverty in places like India, probably a little bit less so in China because they have managed to get their economy back. Many of these countries, by the way, cannot do what the United States can do, which is to print money and to print money in its own currency and issue debt. So they will be doubly disadvantaged.

But then let's take a look at the United States. One of the scariest graphs I saw - this came out after I wrote the book, but it illustrates the point I make in the book perfectly. So if you look at the last four recessions and you look at the top 25% of earners and the bottom 25% and you say during the recession, what percentage lost jobs? - it turns out that for the last three recessions, the top 25% and the bottom 25% lose jobs at about the same rate. In this recession, the top 25% have actually stayed stable. They haven't lost many jobs. The bottom 25% have - it's just a cratering. If you look at the graph, it's literally like you see this deep plunge down.

And you can you can imagine it, right? I mean, it's all the bankers, the lawyers, the people in media. We're all fine or mostly fine. But think about the restaurant workers. Think about the waiters. Think about the people who work in hotels, on cruise ships, in, you know, theme parks. All those people, who are low wage in any case, have seen their livelihoods destroyed. And this massive acceleration and exacerbation of inequality is, to me, the most deeply worrying thing about what this pandemic has done.

DAVIES: And it seems to me that the working poor - I mean, their savings are modest. And those savings that, you know, were planned for rainy days or college educations for kids or down payments for a home are all being wiped out as this continues. Can the federal government do enough to make a difference here?

ZAKARIA: I think it has to. I think that the most important piece of what the federal government can do is to stabilize these people's lives with direct aid, with massive infrastructure spending so that people who are in these categories, you know, people without college educations can find their way forward. Look. At the end of the day, you can only do it for some transition period. But I think we should be erring on the side of helping and - rather than not. I understand there are concerns about the deficit. And I understand their concerns about, you know, inflation and all that. But if we don't do this for the next year or two, you won't have a society. You won't have an economy that is going to function in any kind of meaningful sense. You know, worrying about inflation is a luxury if you have 30 to 40% percent of the country that literally can't make ends meet.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break again. Let me reintroduce you. Fareed Zakaria writes a weekly column for The Washington Post and is host of CNN's weekly show "Fareed Zakaria GPS," which stands for Global Public Square. His new book is "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World." We'll talk more after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HORNSBY'S "BACKHAND")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Fareed Zakaria. He writes a weekly column for The Washington Post and is host of CNN's weekly show "Fareed Zakaria GPS," which stands for Global Public Square. His new book is "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World." You have a very interesting section here about relationships between the United States and the rest of the world. And, you know, the U.S. had a long, long period after World War II of kind of hegemony. You know, there was the rivalry with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed. Where does the U.S. stand today in terms of its power and influence in the world?

ZAKARIA: The United States is still the single most powerful country in the world by far - no question. And it's powerful in economic terms, in military terms, even in political terms, cultural terms. If you just think about social media, for example, the United States dominates that space, whether it's Instagram, Facebook, all that. But what's different about the world is two things. One, for the first time in a long time, the United States has a real competitor, and that is China. If you look at the world today, what you notice is U.S. is No. 1. China is No. 2. But then China is larger than the next four economies put together. In other words, if you took Japan, Germany, Britain, France, added them all up, China is as large. China is the second-largest military spender in the world, and it is again larger than the next four put together. So you have the emergence of a bipolar world. And the second piece of this is power has become much more diffuse because everyone is more active. It's something I described in my last book. I called it the rise of the rest. You know, the West has been dominant for two or three hundred years and now the rest are coming up. And you see that in countries like Brazil and Turkey and India. They're all doing better. That economic growth makes them politically confident. It gives them cultural pride. And as a result, no country can boss them around the way they used to. So power has become diffuse and disaggregated. So we have to live in a very different world than we did in 1945 or 1990. The U.S. retains enormous strengths, but, you know, it's a whole new world out there.

DAVIES: Right. So the question is, now that there is this new rivalry between two superpowers, how is it managed by its leaders? So let's look at Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. How are they doing at managing this rivalry?

ZAKARIA: I'm very worried. So I said to you that inequality was the single thing that I worry most about as a as negative consequence of COVID. The second one that I worry about is the potential for a new cold war between the United States and China. They're not handling it well. Let's start with them. Xi Jinping is more repressive, more nationalistic than his predecessors. He has asserted the Communist Party's hegemony in in China in ways that have been bad, frankly, for their economy, bad for their political system. It's - we are in some ways a strange return to kind of Maoist rhetoric and certain kinds of cultural tropes. He's been - Xi Jinping's foreign policy has been aggressive, whether toward India, Vietnam, the Philippines and, of course, the United States.

And then you have Trump, who has viewed relations with China the way he views almost everything, which is in an entirely narcissistic fashion to see whether or not it could benefit him. So he starts out - first, he bashes them on the campaign trail because that helped him get, you know, the working-class vote of people who felt that China had taken away a lot of America's factories and jobs. Then he comes into office, and he decides he wants a big trade deal with China and he wants the Chinese to buy a lot of American products, particularly in states that he wants to win in the 2020 election. And so he showers praise on China, showers praise on Xi Jinping. And as we remember all through COVID, he's almost embarrassingly praising China during this period. Then he realizes that he is being hit for his COVID performance, for his malfeasance in dealing with COVID. And then he starts attacking China. So, you see, what you have is there isn't an American foreign policy with regard to China under Trump. It's a Trump policy borne out of his own entirely personal narcissism and desire to get wins and losses and score points.

So in the midst of all that, you have - you know, he's whipped up hostility towards China. Xi Jinping has whipped up hostility towards the United States. And unfortunately, one of the things that we often forget in America is, you know, the other side gets a vote, too. If you keep whipping up anti-Chinese hysteria in the United States, that will then feed the nationalists and the hardliners in China. And you will end up with a competitive spiral. And what I worry about, Dave, is these are the two most dynamic societies in the world. They are going to get into an arms race on nuclear weapons, in space, on cyber. It would be the end of an open global economy and an open trading system. The world will go into a kind of Chinese technology world and a U.S. technology world - very different world than the one we've been living in for the last three decades.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Fareed Zakaria. His new book is "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Fareed Zakaria. He writes a weekly column for The Washington Post and hosts CNN's weekly Sunday show, "Fareed Zakaria GPS," which stands for Global Public Square. His new book is "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World."

The other thing you write is that one of the things that troubles you as much as Chinese aggression is American abdication. And I think you're talking here about the United States and its relationship with its traditional allies. How does that figure in?

ZAKARIA: Well, Trump, in one respect, does have a worldview. I think we always think of Trump as opportunistic and, you know, he just adopts whatever policy seems like it will help him. That's mostly true, but he has had one consistent worldview. When he was a real estate developer in 1985, he took out an ad in The New York Times. And, you know, Trump is cheap, so he must really believed this. It costs a lot to take out a full page ad in The New York Times in those days. And it was basically an attack on our traditional allies. It was an attack on Japan, which he said was going to conquer the world economically, and we were dupes to let the Chinese into the trading system. It was an attack on NATO. It was an attack on the European allies. That is the consistent theme of Donald Trump's worldview, that we are getting ripped off by the world.

It is entirely the inverse of the view that has been held by every president since Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that if we create a more stable world, if we stay engaged in it, if we build the architecture of openness and a rule-based liberal international order, we benefit enormously because we are, of course, the richest country in the world. We want stability. We want peace. We want order. And every president has understood that until Donald Trump. And so his foreign policy has largely been a series of withdrawals, abdications, retreats. And he openly admits that. He doesn't like NATO. He doesn't like - he's withdrawn from more treaties than any president in U.S. history. And so that feature of American foreign policy is, of course, eroding the liberal international order that we have built, and it's eroding it far more dramatically than anything China is doing.

DAVIES: Do you think foreign leaders see the last four years as an aberration or a fundamental change in how the United States will interact with the world?

ZAKARIA: I think they are trying to answer that very question themselves. I think it would be nice to say, oh, they think it's a total aberration and we'll be back to normal, but they don't think that. They wonder along several lines. First, they wonder, is part of this a new America that is less interested in playing a part in the world? You know, because Trump represents something. He may not have gotten the most votes. I mean, Hillary Clinton did get 3 million more than him, but he got a lot of votes. And the message of nationalism and populism and protectionism did resonate for some people. So they are all worried. Does this mean, you know, is this the kind of wave of the future? Is this the new America? Also, many of them are worried about what it means for them in terms of freelancing. Do they then have to find their own way in the world? Do they have to, you know, think about a world that is less open, that in which they can rely less on the United States? So, you know, these are not idle thoughts. They're actually very seriously trying to figure out how they would be more self-reliant. And then that produces its own self-fulfilling prophecy. There are also countries in Europe that are wondering, outside of Trump, there has been a broad shift in American attention toward Asia and away from Europe. And is that a permanent shift? So, you know, some of these are broader shifts. Certainly, they regard Trump as being unusually aggressive, vulgar, inattentive and mean-spirited towards the traditional alliances of the United States. But it does go beyond that.

DAVIES: And if Joe Biden were to win and his administration adopted a different posture, how quickly might he restore relations with allies? I mean, how long - is this a matter of turning an aircraft carrier?

ZAKARIA: No. I think with the traditional allies, it would be much easier to get back to a normal relationship with the allies, with the traditional allies, partly because Trump has been so bizarre and such an aberration. But it would still be navigating a different world. And I think, you know, the idea that Biden can just restore things back to normal in general is not exactly right. It's a new world. It's a - you know, it's a much more difficult, complicated world. Countries are much more active. You know, Asia is becoming much more dominant. And then there is the central issue of China. Biden's greatest challenge will be not getting back the allies but figuring out how to navigate a sensible, sane position on China because it is genuinely a complicated issue in foreign policy terms. But don't forget, Donald Trump isn't going anywhere, even if he loses, and Mike Pompeo isn't going anywhere. These guys are going to be criticizing, assaulting, attacking everything Biden does, particularly on China. So, you know, let's remember, even if Donald Trump loses, we are still in a highly polarized, combustible political environment and navigating the U.S.-China relationship through that environment, it's going to be very tough.

DAVIES: There's a lot to be pessimistic about in what you write here. You end the book on a more optimistic note, on our capacity and opportunity for change, which might actually be increased now. Explain this.

ZAKARIA: Well, in a strange way, the moment when you have a chance to make a difference, a chance to make real change, often comes in gloomy times, often comes when things look very, very bad. And that's because it's at times like that that you can get people to change. You can get companies to change. You can get societies to change. So think about Roosevelt and the New Deal, right? He is able to make these sweeping changes in America only because things are tough, things are difficult. People's lives have been dislocated. People already have had to accept a lot of change. Now, think about the situation we're in. We are still - most people don't seem to realize we are still in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Our lives have been turned upside down. We're spending all this time in solitude. Companies have had to change the way they work. Cities have had to change the way they organize themselves.

So this is an opportunity, if we take it, to really go ahead and make some of the big changes that we all know we need. We have to do something about the inequality that has become so dramatic in these Western societies. We have to get our infrastructure in shape. We have to have a better health care system that allows poor people access to good, decent health care. You know, if we take this as a spur to move in those directions, we could well look back on these times 10 or 20 years from now and say, you know, this was the turning point. We were finally able to make some of these changes. It's not guaranteed. I mean, the thing I write about at the end is really it's all up to us. You know, we can't forget that human beings have choice. We are not doomed to go down the path that people think we have and nor is it guaranteed that we will make the right choices. But we have to try now because this is a moment at which you can make change.

DAVIES: Yeah. There's an old saying among government policy wonks. You never want to waste a crisis. Take advantage of it and make change.

ZAKARIA: Exactly. And this is a big one.

DAVIES: Before I let you go, I have to ask you about one more thing you've been writing about, and that is, you know, the prospects for a pretty wild election here. I mean, with the president saying there's going to be all this fraud in mail-in ballots, you know, people voting in the pandemic, you know, more mail-in ballots for more jurisdictions than have ever seen them, how do we avoid a dysfunctional nightmare after this election?

ZAKARIA: Look, I've written about it because I'm worried about it. And I think I'm right to be worried about it because one thing we do know about President Trump is that he will stop at nothing and he will do things that really are poisonous to the democratic culture of the country in terms of casting doubt on the legitimacy of these ballots, contesting them, having people come out on the streets, tying things up in court. So I think - I hope that the Democrats and I hope some Republicans also are thinking about their national responsibility and how to how to counter this. But I do think the simplest, most important, most powerful way we can avoid all this is if there is a decisive victory against Donald Trump. I think that if you look at the polls right now - and I understand - I know everyone who is listening to this is wincing in thinking about 2016. Look, Biden's lead is 2 1/2 times what Hillary Clinton's lead was. He's leading in most of the swing states. If you start to see returns like that - and remember, many states count their mail-in ballots first. So even though they are mail-in ballots, it will not take many days to recognize where the trends are. If the media does its job in reminding people that this is not Election Day, it's election week, I think we may end up in a different situation.

And look, I'm not a very partisan person, but on this election, I really do think the way in which Donald Trump has assaulted the democratic institutions of the country in this process of trying to get reelected is itself so telling about what the dangers of another four years of Trump would be that I think this goes beyond partisanship. It's really important for us not to have a democratic process in which, you know, you are using the power of the state to undermine democracy. I wrote an essay 25 years ago called "The Rise Of A Liberal Democracy" in which I warned about this, about democratically elected leaders or popular leaders using their power to then undermine democracy. And I have to confess, I was thinking about, you know, Kazakhstan and Belarus and the Philippines. I was not thinking about the oldest constitutional government in the world, the United States of America. But that is what Donald Trump has done. He has put us in the same league as Belarus.

DAVIES: Well, Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ZAKARIA: It was a real pleasure, Dave. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN's Sunday show "Fareed Zakaria GPS," which stands for Global Public Square. He also writes a weekly column for The Washington Post. His new book is called "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the filmed version of the Broadway show "David Byrne's American Utopia," which will premiere on HBO this Saturday. This is FRESH AIR.

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