Illustration by Brooke Bourgeois

Like a Colossus | Ben Rhodes Goes Looking for Democracy

Parvin Khan

In both his first and second books, published three years apart, Ben Rhodes recalls a turn of phrase from the end of the last millennium that left a deep impression on him: “America bestrides the world like a colossus.” The neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote those words in a 1999 column for Time called “A Second American Century?” about the unipolar system that seemed to have emerged after the Cold War.

Rhodes quotes Krauthammer’s simile in his first book, The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House (2018), in a reflection on the pressure President Barack Obama faced in his second term to ramp up military force in places like Syria and Ukraine. “I remember a snippet from a column around 9/11: America bestrides the world like a colossus. Did we? It was a story we told ourselves,” he writes. “A trillion dollars later, we couldn’t keep the electricity running in Baghdad.” By then, the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, which began not long after that triumphalist Krauthammer dictum, had cast a pall over Obama’s foreign policy record. In Rhodes’s second book, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, published in June, the phrase is deployed without quotes. He tells us of traveling through Kaliningrad, Russia as an aimless 23-year-old graduate student, in an experience he now regards as “one last journey through the post-Cold War world that America bestrode as a colossus.” Gone is the skepticism Rhodes had displayed in his first book, where America’s late-twentieth-century world dominance is treated as an assumption worth interrogating (“Did we?”). By book two, it has become an established truism. What happened in between?

Rhodes considers himself part of the “9/11 generation,” a cohort of young people who had a political awakening and moved to D.C. after the attack. When the Twin Towers fell, he lived in New York and still hoped to become a novelist. Instead, he shifted gears and rapidly rose through the ranks of Obama’s first presidential campaign and into the inner circle of his administration. As a speechwriter, he crafted the messaging for occasions like Obama’s 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo. Then, as deputy national security adviser for Strategic Communications, he helped midwife some of the administration’s signature initiatives, including the Iran deal and the thawing of American relations with Cuba. His true role, as he explains in both books, was to “mind meld” with the president — to not just translate, but anticipate many of Obama’s foreign policy positions. Rhodes is also known for having coined the term “the Blob,” in a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile, to describe the hawkish groupthink endemic to the Beltway foreign policy establishment.

Now, several years out of the White House, Rhodes is a writer and podcaster living in L.A. His second book finds him in a full-blown Dantean midlife crisis. The narrative opens in the early days of the Trump presidency, with the new administration poised to undo many of the foreign policy victories of the Obama years. In response, Rhodes hits the road: “I felt most like myself when I was running away from it all,” he writes, “at what felt like the edge of the world.” Part memoir and part travelogue, this book picks up where Rhodes’s first one, which covered his eight years in the White House, left off. It is structured as a series of three case studies drawn from his travels in and around the formerly Communist countries — Hungary, Russia, and China — that he claims are “at the center of the political forces remaking the world today.” His methods, he writes, are “based on the instinct that it is best to see global events through the perspective of individual lives.” 

Rhodes’s mission is diffuse: he hopes to narrate how the U.S. lost its way, how our newfound impotence damages our ability to shape foreign affairs, and how our hegemony, though on the wane, has produced many of the problems people now face abroad. The book also represents Rhodes’s effort to “relearn what it means to be an American in a world gone wrong.” Due to the personal nature of the undertaking, he hedges that it tells an “inevitably incomplete” story. 

In the nineties, he writes, American-style liberal democracy, as opposed to communism, seemed to have proven itself to be the superior form of “human organization” and the “inevitable endpoint of history.” That state of affairs fell apart due to a confluence of factors: 9/11 prompted the Bush administration to start a forever war that “hemorrhaged resources”; the “globalized spread of profit-seeking capitalism” eroded “people’s sense of traditional identity” and seeded corruption; and, all the while, “social media segmented people back into lonely tribes.” (None of these broad diagnoses are controversial, but they are not particularly fresh either.) Due to these developments, he explains, democracy itself started to recede across the globe, and the void was filled by “older forms of nationalism and social control in new packaging.” Though the U.S. won the Cold War — or, in Rhodes’s phrasing, “removed the demon that needed to be faced down abroad” — the rivalry had also “compelled a certain sense of national unity,” which is now gone. The fact that we never settled on a new collective purpose after the USSR dissolved as an adversary is, for him, lamentable.

Rhodes can’t quite make up his mind about precisely when things went wrong. At times, his answer seems to encompass the entire post-Cold War period; elsewhere, he pins the start of our decline to the 2008 financial crisis, or to the 2016 election. “America had helped shape the world we lived in before descending into the cesspool of the Trump years,” he laments. “To be American in 2020 was to live in a country diminished in the world.” It was also, he felt, to live in a country on the verge of abandoning democracy altogether, due both to unaddressed domestic issues like racism and to a growing isolationism. 

The 2020 election, for Rhodes, was a “narrow escape”: it presents a chance to “step back into history as a nation with a new understanding of how to improve upon the world we made.” To do so would require the collective effort of a generation to find a positive, unifying identity that supersedes the fractured “tribes” to which we have retreated in recent years. (Rhodes conjectures several times that we might draw upon our history as a nation of underdogs and outsiders, which seems like an odd way forward for the citizens of the richest and most powerful country in the world.) A new identity, Rhodes argues, would enable America to be a constructive force abroad again — and indeed, “that is what we owe the world.” This thesis is a little half-baked, because America’s international actions have never been decisively tethered to what the average American wants. Foreign policy has most often been the site of a bipartisan elite consensus, essentially detached from public opinion. 

In Rhodes’s account, America today is a flailing superpower with a checkered track record, and Americans are a “fallen” people who have lost a once-meaningful national purpose. These are two big, and somewhat distinct, problems to solve. But it is with a loose sense of their interconnectedness that he sets out on his quest. 

 

Whether or not you have deep familiarity with any of the places that Rhodes visits, the people who come to speak for them through his reportage are of a familiar type. In Hungary, he sits down with an investigative journalist, a young opposition politician, and a human rights activist. He FaceTimes with Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. He meets with democracy activists and a veteran journalist in Anglophone Hong Kong. In between, he encounters a carousel of anonymized people from the worlds of finance, policy, and development. “In Singapore, I met a British guy… who reminds you that the Brits once administered far-flung places,” he writes. The nameless Brit goes on to deliver a sort of Economist-style explanation of the postwar order.

Rhodes chooses to cite almost exclusively the kinds of people who make themselves most available to observers like him: well-educated, often English-speaking activists, diplomats, liberal politicians, dissidents, and journalists. Without a clear narrative through-line, these characters wander to and from the fore, like Waking Life for the Brookings set, presenting a variety of banal remarks about recent geopolitical developments — that Asia has moved on from America, for example, or that China is investing in Kenya. Many offer ready-made soundbites. In Hungary, the activist Márta Pardavi is quoted worrying about how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “chips away at public support for [the NGO] sector, for civil society, and also the basic idea of democracy,” and anti-corruption activist Sandor Lederer argues that “if you’re contributing to a world of ethnonationalism, then ultimately you risk ending up back in the conditions that you suffered under.” Even Navalny, the now-imprisoned Russian opposition leader, speaks in technocrat-ese as he sums up the two major points of Putin’s and Orbán’s agendas. At times, these interactions take on a Socratic quality: Rhodes asks Navalny whether the 2008 financial crisis reinforced Putin’s message that the West, too, is riddled with corruption. Navalny replies: “Absolutely.” Anywhere you go, it’s easy to find members of the English-friendly chattering class who will happily transmute local dynamics into the vernacular through which Westerners typically consume foreign affairs. 

All told, Rhodes’s reports from these far-flung places fall somewhat flat. The interviews with Navalny, for instance, amount to little more than access journalism and don’t add much to our understanding of the most famous living Russian not named Vladimir Putin. There’s nothing wrong with boldface names, but one imagines that Rhodes, even post-Obama, could surely leverage his connections into something more insightful. That promise is left unfulfilled. Hong Kong commentator and activist Bao Pu, whom Rhodes freely admits he sought out expecting an “oppositionist who speaks the language of Western democracy,” is mainly used to narrate recent Chinese history. “After 1992, they found that the rest of the world was operating under a market economy,” Bao says, “so now, if we control money we control everything.” Same with the Hong Kong-based journalist Ching Cheong, who, in this book, breezily recaps such high-level storylines as China’s transition from Marxism-Leninism to patriotic nationalism. Rather than turn these figures into mouthpieces for potted histories, Rhodes could have quoted them on the mechanics of the Hong Kong protests, or on how those protests were crushed during the pandemic. Rhodes’s characters are rarely given anything surprising or counterintuitive to say in his final cut, even though many of them live under dynamic and even dystopian conditions: in prison, under house arrest, or harassed by a police state. Through the relentless sameness of the quotes that make it into this book (on creeping authoritarianism, the arc of post-Cold-War history, the erosion of civil society, and so on), Rhodes’s interviewees end up sounding like a Greek chorus — technically polyphonous but conveying the same ventriloquized content. 

Hungary, Russia, and China are hardly irrelevant to Rhodes’s project, but the subtitle’s reference to “the world we’ve made” sets up certain expectations. Isn’t the world we’ve “made” also found in places like Iraq, Chile, Cambodia, and Guatemala? Rhodes admits a personal need to grapple with the Obama administration’s foreign policy missteps, such as supporting the Saudi Arabian war in Yemen and the surge in Afghanistan. But these are not the policies that he interrogates; nor are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan the places to which he travels. In his first book, he described how the media and military almost immediately forced Obama’s hand in Afghanistan, considered the legacy of the midcentury U.S.-led coup in Iran, and recalled meeting Laotian victims of bombs laid by Americans long ago. To further advance this education, he might have met with more recent civilian victims of our wars, or ordinary people affected by our interventions gone wrong. Doing so would have forced harder questions than the one that preoccupies this new book, which is, essentially: why do authoritarian regimes exist when democracy also exists? Rhodes could have, for instance, asked how the attempt to build democracy actually fared in Afghanistan, or what U.S.-led military intervention did for Libya, whose economy contracted by 67 percent last year, a decade after the U.S. helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. In terms of grappling with American influence in the world, Rhodes has chosen relatively softball targets. 

For the countries Rhodes does report from, the explanatory power of acknowledging American hegemony over and over again is limited. It is hubris to think all of the modern problems in a place like Hungary are related to the U.S., especially this long after the Cold War’s close. We live in an era, after all, in which multinational pharmaceutical companies negotiate directly with national governments. (Pfizer allegedly demanded sovereign assets like military bases as collateral in vaccine negotiations with Argentina and Brazil earlier this year.) The U.S. today has far less of a mandate to play policeman of a world where there are not just multiple superpower countries, but state-like megacorporations too. Against this backdrop, Rhodes’s parallels and comparisons can feel forced. In one section, Rhodes links a 2014 Orbán speech articulating his vision for illiberal nationalism to a contemporaneous development in the U.S., wherein the “Republican party was attacking the wiring of America’s own democracy.” Later on, he compares his own experience at last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests to that of the dissidents he met over the course of his travels: “I felt that same sense of flickering empowerment… that Katalin Cseh must have felt in her first mass rally in Budapest; that Alexey Navalny must have felt looking out at a crowd of Muscovites standing up to Putin; that the Hong Kongers must have felt attending a flash protest at lunchtime.” And he writes that white supremacy in the U.S. is just “one particularly virulent manifestation of all the other ways around the world that the few claim supremacy over the many.”

Rhodes’s insistence on seeing America’s hand everywhere, and on comparing all people’s struggles with Americans’ struggles, is a dour expression of the exceptionalism that he admits has colored his outlook since childhood. “To be born American in the late twentieth century,” he recalls, “was to take the fact of a particular kind of American exceptionalism as granted — a state of nature arrived at after all else had failed.”

 

Rhodes is neither a peacenik nor an interventionist; he got into politics because of his “rage” over the Iraq War, but also advocated “doing something” as Gaddafi advanced on Benghazi, according to his first memoir. Still, he questions the centrality of the military to U.S. foreign policy. His alternative north star is a vague belief in “democracy.” 

The concept of democracy, and especially liberal democracy, is elastic in this book. Rhodes presents it at times as a past feature of American hegemony, as in post-Cold War Hungary, where American victory yielded “expanding markets, opening societies, and liberal democracy washing over Eastern Europe like the rushing water of a breaking wave before it recedes.” Elsewhere, democracy is one part of a larger story: “After the 2008 financial crisis, there was no meaning to fall back on… so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people became more willing to toss out the liberal democracy with the liberal economics.” Too often, Rhodes references democracy in a way so bland and so bureaucratic that it fails to become interesting even in the voices of the activists and dissidents quoted in this book, who do tend to have real skin in the game. In Hungary, Lederer tells Rhodes that people living in right-wing nationalist regimes have to “strengthen democracy… by strengthening local communities, by creating personal identities that are challenging national identity or nationalism.” What does that mean? Lederer’s own identity-creating praxis, he tells Rhodes, includes hiking and attending classical music concerts — though it’s a little hard to see how such hobbies directly strengthen democracy. 

Rhodes closes one chapter on the twinned rise of populist nationalism in Hungary and the U.S. by writing that “none of this happened because of Donald Trump.” Despite this reassurance, as much to himself as to his readers, it is clear that Rhodes wears distinctively Trump-era blinders. In a discussion of social media, he asserts that Facebook was an “open vessel for Russian disinformation that tore down Clinton and elevated Trump,” neglecting more credible problems — like the way Facebook facilitated the spread of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka — in favor of partisan score-settling. That he was once at the vanguard of a more rhetorically sophisticated kind of policy-making makes these prosaic observations especially disappointing. He is also not immune to the Trump-era alarmism about rising authoritarianism: he calls the Trump presidency an “American experiment with fascism” and claims that Trump’s actions constituted “abandonment of the international order.” After the Fall is dedicated to “people battling authoritarianism everywhere,” its first section is called “The Authoritarian Playbook,” and in 2019, he taught a course at the University of Southern California on “global authoritarianism.” Although authoritarianism around the world predated Trump, the conversation about it gained a new urgency and charge during his presidency. Placing Trump within a cohort of right-wing strongmen including Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi was helpful context for certain aspects of his character, like the overt corruption and inflammatory speeches. But it was also a salve to Americans who wanted to believe that Trump was part of a global zeitgeist, rather than a result of specific policy failures at home. 

Rhodes is not ignorant of the economic factors that have shaped recent world history. In After the Fall, he constantly references the Great Recession, acknowledges “three decades of unchecked American capitalism,” states that “the Tea Party was built on the wreckage of American capitalism” and admits that, “largely because of American-made financial schemes, the global economy collapsed.” However, he betrays no familiarity with the impact of the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which were both formed in New Hampshire in 1944, are still headquartered in the U.S., and crippled many nations in the American-led international order after World War II. 

From the Eastern Bloc to postcolonial Asia, Africa, and Latin America, these institutions imposed “structural adjustment,” the set of free market reforms that countries must undertake in order to secure IMF or World Bank loans. There is scant evidence today that these policies actually alleviated poverty or facilitated economic growth. To pick a country out of a hat: in Pakistan today, the government can’t expand state services because it is stuck in an endless cycle of servicing IMF debt. Rhodes clearly wants to register the U.S.’s history of economic impact throughout the world, but some of the most meaningful episodes in that story occurred in the last century, long before the Great Recession, and outside Rhodes’s historical lens and personal memory.

It is telling that Rhodes tends to group nations under the umbrella of authoritarianism without considering the impact of these older U.S.-led economic interventions. In Hungary, for example, it’s not simply the case that socialism was replaced by a stable democracy in 1989, and that said democracy then mysteriously acquiesced to the ethno-nationalist vision of Orbán, who first took office as prime minister in 1998. As the economist Adam Fabry argues in The Political Economy of Hungary, Orbán’s base includes those who lost out in the free market reforms that transformed Hungary in the 1970s. This major economic restructuring comprised a massive influx of loans from Western banks, the World Bank, and the IMF; the privatization of various industries, and the import of technology from the West. But economic output didn’t grow fast enough to realize the promise of these reforms, and external decisions in Moscow and Washington drove up the country’s foreign debt burden. Hungary was trapped in a debt cycle that continued into the twenty-first century and, in 2008, became the first European country that the IMF bailed out after Lehman Brothers collapsed — with serious strings attached in the form of austerity. This helps account for why, for instance, Orbán made a show of breaking with the IMF and nationalizing private pensions in 2010 and 2011 (even as he pursued different austerity measures of his own). He cannot be understood in an economic vacuum.

Instead of charting new territory on any of these subjects, Rhodes frequently digresses into musings about the recession that terminate in rhetorical questions like, “Where do you go to find meaning, to figure out who you are in a world that has this economic drive behind it?” He may be grasping for straws because materialist critique has no place in his analysis. “There is no predetermined reason that the unbridled capitalism we’ve championed needs to fuel rampant inequality and climate change around the world,” he writes, suggesting that unbridled capitalism isn’t really a problem at all. 

 

“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building,” President Biden announced in his August speech after the fall of Kabul. “It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” The address struck a dramatic new tone. Both Democrats and Republicans had for years expounded on the importance of building and supporting democratic institutions in Afghanistan. Rhodes was likely pleased that the withdrawal finally happened, especially after his frustrating experience watching Obama get pressured by the military and media into a troop surge there. He told The New York Times last month that Afghanistan was proof that “The evidentiary basis for the idea that American military intervention leads inexorably to improved material circumstances is simply not there.”

But what about democracy beyond Afghanistan, where we failed in such a spectacular manner, and whose Taliban regime is ludicrously removed from any concept of “liberal democracy”? It seems unlikely that Rhodes will be able to shake off the democracy fixation more generally. Though he has always attempted to distance himself from the Blob, and sees the mistakes in specific theaters like Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, his book shows that he can’t let go of the fundamental premise that America is and should be the standard-bearer of liberal democracy worldwide. That ideal is out of step with reality in a moment when our biggest democracy-building project of the past two decades has crashed and burned, and the other superpower we must contend with, China, has no interest in theoretical arguments about democracy at all. “Fighting authoritarianism,” per Rhodes’s book dedication, is just not an apt lodestar for America in the world today.

It is only in passing that Rhodes ever gets close, in this book, to the true problems of our contemporary foreign policy. Early on, he mentions that America had become a “superpower humbled by its own failings,” and by 2020, it was obvious to him that “there was nothing inherent in America that made us immune to the viruses that had consumed all manner of societies in the past.” These lines open up some tantalizing distance from the vestigial exceptionalism that still lets him cling to the idea of America as a beacon of democracy in the world. But they end up as orphaned insights. There is no real follow-through as to what it could mean if America is not so special after all. 

What happened between the years recounted in Rhodes’s two books? How did he go from helping forge an unprecedented deal with the manifestly undemocratic Islamic Republic of Iran to spouting platitudes about democracy and authoritarianism? Perhaps it was moving on from his high-intensity job under a president who candidly discussed with Rhodes the end of American world dominance, and who believed in subtlety and nuance as tools of diplomacy. Or perhaps it was the unprecedented shock of the Trump election, which scrambled many people’s powers of analysis. Either way, once Rhodes left the White House, he lost the plot.

Parvin Khan is a writer based in New York.

Copyright © The Drift 2021