It’s Hardcore History.
So, the origin story for the conversation
you’re about to hear is that I was on a panel
with the upcoming guest,
and as we were departing the panel,
he leans in and whispers in my ear,
we should talk about asymmetrical warfare
sometime on your show.
And as many of you know, I’m a sucker
for romantic talk like that.
So, we set it up, and we had the conversation,
I should point out, back on December 14th, 2021.
So, I’ve held this for a little while,
which might mean if somewhere in the timeline
there’s anything that seems a little strange to you,
that might be why.
Although, I didn’t notice anything,
but I tend to miss stuff, especially when I’m as deep
into the Hardcore History weeds as I am right now.
There’s a lot of mental issues
that the host has at the moment.
I don’t even know how to describe the guest
that’s upcoming, because he’s done so many things
in so many different areas.
Actor, author, writer, senior fellow
at the Modern War Institute at West Point,
and writes about zombies.
He is the author of World War Z.
He was a comedy writer at Saturday Night Live.
His father and mother are both probably known to you.
His dad’s Mel Brooks, his mother’s Anne Bancroft.
It’s a fantastically interesting individual.
I enjoyed my conversation with him immensely.
So, for the next hour and a half,
I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did
that we had with Max Brooks.
Max Brooks, thank you so much for coming on the program.
Um, why don’t we start with your definition,
since you brought it up, thought we should talk
a little bit about asymmetrical warfare.
Tell me what your definition
of asymmetrical warfare is, and why you think
people should know about it.
Yes, well, my version of it is, uh, as Clausewitz
once called war politics by other means,
I call asymmetry war by other means.
Uh, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t include violence,
but it’s not exclusive state violence.
And what I mean is, uh, the traditional definition
of war is that you have Army A on one side
and Army B on the other side, and they go at it
on a chosen battlefield, and whoever wins, wins the war.
And asymmetry is using every other means possible
in order to achieve your goal, which is, could be anything.
Uh, and so I think the reason I wanted to talk to you
about it today is because I think America’s
kind of at a crossroads, and we need to remember
that fighting in what the military calls
the gray zone is nothing new. It’s a very old way of fighting,
but we have sort of forgotten that because we’ve gotten
really, really, really, really good at sanitized,
conventional conflict, and we need to get back
to the gray zone.
So, I was looking at the, uh, list of hardcore history shows
that we’ve done, and the second one, so show number two,
was essentially about asymmetrical warfare,
uh, the West and field battles and that mentality
versus the East and guerrilla warfare
and wearing down and all that kind of stuff.
We couched it in terms of the West and the East,
more like a Persia-Greece sort of thing,
but now everybody practices all these.
I mean, these are in everybody’s playbooks, right?
Everybody knows about field battles,
everybody knows about, um, you know,
I had a teacher once who described
asymmetrical warfare as everything other than
field battles. Um, and so, everybody knows
about those kinds of things. Now, if you’re going to fight,
uh, the strongest military power in the world,
and I’m gonna say we still are the strongest military power
in the world, you don’t wanna fight somebody like that
conventionally, right? Wouldn’t the asymmetrical,
uh, method be the smart way to do something like that?
Yeah, yeah, and I think, you know,
you’re the perfect guy to talk to about this
because this is recent history for all of us,
whether we realize it or not, and it all goes back
to a recent war we fought, which I consider
to be the worst war we ever fought,
which was Desert Storm.
Now, why do you consider Desert Storm
to be the worst war we ever fought?
Uh, because it’s not about, as in life,
life is not about the experiences we have,
life is about what we take from them.
And you know this, this is just being a person.
We know people who have had incredible life experiences,
haven’t learned a damn thing.
And are the exact same person they were 20 years ago.
And they keep wondering why, uh, things keep happening to them.
And they haven’t learned.
And that’s the problem with Desert Storm,
was we fought this war,
specifically as a war of deterrence.
The world was changing, the Soviet Union was crumbling,
uh, America was sort of stepping onto the world stage
as the only superpower left.
And we thought the best way to deter future aggression,
you know, up-and-coming challengers,
was to have a very public, very conventional,
big, mechanized, expensive conflict.
Uh, and we did that. We did that with the Iraqi army,
which both sides hyped up the fact that it was one
of the biggest armies in the world, at least on paper.
And that’s why we invited this brand new, uh,
fledgling company, CNN, you know, 24-hour cable news,
to cover the war.
Because we wanted everyone to see us just utterly pulverize
this massive army.
And we thought that would deter aggression.
We thought that if we said,
listen, if you mess with America on the battlefield,
we will smash you into atoms.
What we didn’t realize was what we were teaching
all our future competitors was,
if you are going to mess with America,
don’t go anywhere near the battlefield.
Find alternative means.
And our enemies have been developing asymmetric means.
Whereas we keep gearing up,
despite what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We’re still gearing up for the next desert storm.
So, here’s what… So, I think I take away
a little bit differently the recent history,
only because I see it more as a continuum.
Um, I mean, so, it’s funny, because as you get older,
ten years starts seeming like not that much time.
When I was a kid, it seemed like half my life
when I was 20, because it was.
But you think about the time period,
let’s go between like 1975,
the year the Vietnam War officially ended,
and 1985, when the new American military,
it really is gonna be debuted against
Manuel Noriega in Panama, right?
You’re gonna see stealth technology debut there.
You’re gonna see a bunch of other different elements
debut there. Uh, maybe call that a warm-up
or a test case for, uh, desert…
Okay. So, uh, so, to me, that ten-year period,
including things like the impact of people
who were junior officers in Vietnam,
like Colin Powell and the people who’d ridden
through the ranks, Schwarzkopf, all those guys,
was to create sort of a different sort of mentality,
different kind of warfare.
Uh, certainly, these guys, having been through Vietnam
on the ground, would’ve understood
the challenges of asymmetrical warfare.
Do you tend to… Is there a bureaucracy involved
where you tend to want to focus on the big things
because that’s where… I mean, not to change subjects here,
but I mean, I remember talking about submarines
and the Japanese military, the Navy in the Second World War,
and the literal excuse for why they didn’t care more
about it was, the guys who would have to study it,
the junior officers, didn’t want it.
They want to study big fleet battles
and decisive things. Is there some sort of, um,
call it a bureaucratic, um, um, um, uh, bias
towards those sorts of things?
Whereas, things like asymmetrical warfare
seems like small potatoes by comparison,
not very exciting?
I think so, and I think it’s a combination
of culture and money.
And so, you would think, coming out of Vietnam,
that we would’ve come out of that war
with the absolute best guerrilla warfare school
the world has ever seen.
Because we used to be good at things like that.
We would come out of these wars,
and we would learn incredible lessons.
We came out of the Civil War understanding
that the U.S. Army had to be professionalized.
You couldn’t just elect your officers anymore.
You couldn’t just appoint an officer
because his dad had made a campaign contribution.
The Army had to be professional.
Uh, we came out of wars like World War I and World War II
understanding these new technologies
like air power, uh, tank warfare,
even things like snipers.
These things had to be institutionalized.
But then you come out of Vietnam,
and you see this gravity back to our comfort zone,
back to the Fold the Gap,
uh, back to the idea that Vietnam was a one-off,
we’ll never have to fight that again.
And that’s where you get into, uh,
the psychological disaster of Desert Storm.
The idea that Desert Storm was a return to how wars
will be fought and should be fought,
as opposed to what it really was,
which was a dying breed.
That it was a last gasp of the old ways of fighting.
And so that’s why you get into this problem.
You know, being a fellow at the Modern War Institute
and meeting these mid-grade officers
who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan,
I got this understanding of how little has been studied
about exactly what they were going into.
You know, a lot of the guys that I know
who went into Afghanistan,
they had no books about Afghanistan.
They had the bear went over the mountain.
They weren’t indoctrinated to study even the Afghan War,
uh, the Soviet War in Afghanistan,
uh, guerrilla warfare in Iraq.
I mean, I always said the day that we got out of Saigon,
if I had been Secretary of Defense,
I would have given General Bowen Japp a check
for a million dollars to come and be a professor
at West Point and teach us everything.
Because that’s what we used to do.
When somebody would give us a run for our money,
after the war, we’d invite them in.
We had a lot of ex-U-Boat commanders, uh,
helping us prepare for an underwater war
against the Soviets.
You know, it’s a funny thing, though,
because I, you feel, to take some of the pressure
off of our planners and military,
I think they’re in a little bit of a bind here,
because they don’t have the option of deciding,
as you know, Max, I don’t mean that I’m telling you
anything you don’t know, but they have to plan
for both eventualities, don’t they?
They don’t know that you’re not going to get into
some weird sort of war in, um, in, in, in Asia right now,
off the coast, maybe in a, in a Taiwan defense situation.
In other words, you don’t know what the enemy’s going to do
or what the situation is going to develop into.
You have to sort of be prepared for everything.
And it’s a Sun Tzu quality, isn’t it?
That defense everywhere is like not having defense anywhere.
But, but you kind of have to be ready for 9-11
or World War III, don’t you?
You do. And this, this is why I said,
it’s not just about culture, it’s also about
money because there is, there is a center of gravity,
which is the military industrial complex.
Right. There’s a tail wagging the dog thing.
We don’t need more tanks for the military,
but the Georgia district where they make them
needs them, that kind of dynamic, right?
Right. And in which you actually have
General Ray O’Dierno speaking to Congress saying,
we do not need any more tanks.
You know, if you think about the amount of money
we shoveled into things like laser weaponry
during the Iraq war and trying to retrofit them on Hummers
so we could shoot IEDs with a laser beam to blow it up.
That’s big money at work.
Compare that to the fact that in 20 years in Afghanistan,
20 years, Dan, we never had a witness protection program
for our Afghan allies in which a massive amount
of our casualties were guys being shot
by their Afghan opposite numbers
because the Taliban would threaten their families.
Now there should have been a program where those guys,
the moment they get the call from the Taliban,
we’re going to kill your family.
Unless you kill an American, he should have been able
to go to his American opposite number, tell him
the American should have said, well,
we have a program in place.
You can come on base. Your family is safe.
Don’t worry about it.
Not once did we ever have that program.
That’s not where the big money was.
The big money was in putting a laser on a 747
to knock off the one ballistic missile
that Kim Jong-un might fire someday.
Well, that’s the vulnerability then
that opens the door to the Ace Amendment.
That opens the door to the asymmetrical warfare, right?
Because the more you invest at that very high level,
the more things aren’t being handled
at the very low level, leaving vulnerabilities.
And what’s so weird, though, Max, is as you had said,
we’ve fought enough of these things.
I mean, since the Second World War,
this has been the main kind of warfare
we’ve actually engaged in.
You would think that by now this would be institutionalized.
And yet we still follow in the same sort of pattern
that you can see.
I mean, I love the Roman legions
because they would start off when they first formed them,
you know, made up of the conscripts.
And they would form, and they wouldn’t,
they would be totally green and not very good.
Then they would work themselves over time
into this fantastic fighting machine.
And then they would disband at the end of the conflict
and lose all the institutional memory that they had built up.
And I feel like that’s our pattern, too.
I mean, when you fought Korea, Vietnam,
innumerable small sorts of things,
you would think we would have this figured out by now.
And you know what’s also funny,
and you know this better than I do, Max,
but you’ve met enough of these officers to know
that this has to be one of the most well-read,
intellectually curious, historically minded
group of commanders that I’ve ever encountered.
I mean, they totally buck the trend of the sort of the
stuck in the last war military mentality.
So if that’s the case, you would think
that we would be specifically excelling at things
like learning from past experience.
Why do you think that’s not helping more than it is?
This is one of the issues I think we’re coming up against,
is, like you said, the officers that I have known
at the Modern War Institute, the mid-graders,
the captains and the majors, they’ve all been through it.
And they know the old system doesn’t work.
They are insanely curious.
A good friend of mine, John Spencer,
recently retired from the Army, he
is the preeminent scholar in urban warfare.
And on his desk is a little disc, a copper disc.
And he said, this is the primary mechanism
inside the Iranian IED that killed a lot of my friends.
And behind him on the wall is an AK-47.
He said, that killed the rest of them.
And he said, that’s it.
That’s what killed them.
Nothing high tech.
And that’s an example of how these guys are very much aware
of how wars are being fought.
But the problem is, they are, I think, like we said,
we’re arrayed against culture.
We’re also arrayed against, like we said, big money,
the military-industrial complex.
I think there’s also a third element in this triumvirate,
which is geography.
Because we are safe, because the wars we fight
are not existential wars.
I don’t think there’s enough of an honest-to-God threat
that burns through the fog.
I think because we think that our wars
can be wars of choice, then we might
have the choice never to fight another Iraq or Afghanistan.
We can delude ourselves into thinking that the next war
can be desert storm, because we will choose the time and place.
That’s just the typical hubris that goes back forever.
But it’s interesting, because in my, you know,
if you think about yourself like a science fiction
supervillain, right, or the Joker, or somebody like that,
you can see, I would think, that we’re much more vulnerable,
if you’re talking about, you had mentioned,
existential threats, right, a threat to your existence.
Other than nuclear weapons, I think
the most logical threat to our existence
is having some program, and I’m sure the Russians are doing
this, but I bet everybody’s doing this,
where you’ve got paid people who are going on message
boards in the United States and helping to rip the country
apart from within, which I would argue,
we’re much more vulnerable to something like that right now
than anybody launching a serious ground
war anywhere in the world.
And yet, that’s not very sexy if you’re
in the halls of military academia
studying, you know, potential war scenarios.
That’s not the one you necessarily
want to be working on, but I would
argue that except for the nuclear weapon
threat, which never goes away, and the longer we don’t talk
about it, the more we just become inured to it,
that would be the next level, is simply being torn apart
by what Max Brooks has labeled correctly,
Well, I’ll go one even farther.
We knew, we knew years ago that the Russians were putting bots
on medical websites to begin to debate vaccines.
And they would put them on both sides, by the way.
You would have debates being waged by bots pretending
to be regular Americans debating about vaccines,
and that was to sow doubt.
And that was way before COVID.
And I’m sure years from now, you and I
will be doing a podcast about some historian who
will do a deep dive into how much that attack on our trust
in vaccines contributed to the deaths suffered by COVID.
You know, Max, though, here’s an interesting thing that
reminds me of some of the nuclear brinksmanship-type
debates they used to have at places like RAND,
where they would ask about countries exploiting the fact
that you didn’t want to launch World War III,
so we’ll just take a little bit of territory
and see if you’re willing to use nukes for something
as minor as that.
I feel like things like bots in cyberspace tearing apart
your national cohesiveness are one of those kinds of things.
I mean, you’re not going to launch a war, for example,
with Putin’s Russia over that, right?
It’s not like invading Latvia might have been.
But at the same time, certainly you
can’t just let that stuff fester if it’s as dangerous
as we just said it is.
It almost seems to me like the kind of thing
that you would, that in the old days during the Cold War,
you would have addressed in some sort of summit agreement
or something like that.
No, you’re exactly right.
And I’m glad you used nukes, because the thing
about human psychology is, you and I both know,
the human mind has a problem with imagination.
For all our imagination, we still
have difficulty thinking about things
until they’re right in front of our face.
And the reason that we had such incredible diplomacy
and legality when it came to the use of nukes, right?
Who keeps them?
Who gets them?
How do they use?
What’s the oversight?
What are the treaty stipulations surrounding them?
I mean, the legislation would fill a library
about nuclear weapons because we saw them used.
And you couldn’t argue with them.
And it didn’t take much for the human mind
to look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki
and picture the rest of the world.
And you can’t tell me that Kennedy and Khrushchev
didn’t have those images in the front of their brains
when they were negotiating over Cuba.
But the new threats that we have,
we haven’t seen something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Take, for example, cyber warfare.
I did an article, I wrote an article on this
a little while ago, speaking to a friend of mine
in Cyber Command, who said that we have all the tools
to stop cyber warfare.
What we don’t have is doctrine.
We never got to that phase like we did with nukes,
where you get in generals and lawyers and diplomats
and really sit down and order pizza and beer
and stay up all night and hammer out agreements
about this new power, which is cyber warfare.
We don’t have that.
I always use the example, what if, let’s say,
Russian hackers hijack data in a hospital, right?
And all they want is money.
They’re not working for the Russian government.
They’re just taking the money.
But while they’re holding that data for ransom,
people are not getting their prescriptions.
And they’re dying.
Well, that’s murder or manslaughter.
How would you judge this?
Is that murder?
Is it manslaughter?
And then if the Russians don’t turn over these killers,
is that any different than the Taliban
harboring Osama bin Laden?
And if that attack on the hospital is a NATO ally,
isn’t that Article 5?
Isn’t that an attack on the citizens’ lives of a NATO ally?
So this is what I mean.
We don’t have a cohesive doctrine
to tell us what is a cyber crime versus a cyber act of war.
Reminds one of sort of like letters of Mark or something,
allowing plausible deniability.
You know, that’s the other thing when
you compare it to nukes, too.
With nukes, you’re talking about physical things,
the possession of which can be seen, photographed, studied,
assessed, movements of which can be followed.
When we’re talking about somebody who can just quickly
sign on into cyberspace anywhere in the world,
push a button that begins a process,
then sign off, throw the phone away, and run.
I mean, I feel like the plausible deniability
reaches new levels of deniability,
if that makes sense.
Well, you know, Eisenhower made a wonderful speech
during the nuclear age about how our power was
exceeding our wisdom, and how we had to catch up.
I love that one, by the way, yeah.
Wasn’t that a great one?
Oh, my god.
It’s a future shock type statement by Eisenhower,
He got it.
He understood that, wait a minute, we’ve
unleashed all this power.
We need to now get in front of it.
We need to build a fireplace around this fire
before the fire burns down our house.
But we haven’t done that with anything else.
And that’s the problem, because these new sources
of power, like cyber or like the internet,
they’re so insidious, you don’t see the immediate threat
until it’s too late.
Now we’re starting to see it, and we need to catch up.
So this is where free societies are at a bit
of a disadvantage, perhaps.
So you look at these states who see, you know,
we always make it sound like the reason that states
like Iran, for example, or China are threatened
by the internet is because they’re
threatened by openness.
But we’re threatened by it, too.
And we’re not threatened by the openness.
We’re threatened simply by the fact
that, you know, we used to be scared
about the anarchist cookbook information getting online.
And something like that’s ridiculous now, right?
It’s like we used to be scared, or the Soviets used
to be scared, about one radio signal, Radio Free Europe,
coming over the Iron Curtain and what
that one radio signal of propaganda might do.
Can you imagine trying to have the Cold War with the internet?
I mean, so I feel like there’s this ability that regimes that
are more authoritarian and can cloak
the curtailing of civil liberties and the freedom
to go online and read what you want
in terms that sound like patriotic, self-defense,
protect yourself from the invasive enemy outside.
I mean, I feel like they have more of an ability
to close that loophole or that hole in their defenses
than we do, because in our society, it’s not just a bug,
but it’s also a feature.
Does that make sense?
Yes, and you know, but what’s funny
is that in the short term, they have an advantage,
but only in the short term.
Because in the long term, our advantage
is our openness and our ability to have these messy debates
and the ability to inoculate ourselves
from these kinds of viruses.
See, the idea is that in a free and open society,
you have more chaos.
But in the chaos, you self-correct, right?
You elect different people.
You change the laws.
You try a law out.
The law doesn’t work.
You change it.
Or the law goes too far.
You pull it back.
I mean, that is the story of Western democracies,
is we’re always sort of shifting that line.
And in the short term, yes, it’s much more chaotic.
But it builds a more durable society,
as opposed to, say, the People’s Republic of China,
where in the short term, it’s peace.
But it’s peace built on a fragile absolutism,
where the moment a problem leaks in,
you have no mechanism to self-correct.
It’s either perfection or it’s the end.
And that’s why they have to shut things off.
I mean, any society that is afraid of debate
is a society that is doomed eventually to failure.
And we saw that.
We saw that with the Cold War, that they
had to wall themselves off.
Because the moment free ideas, freedom, and expression,
and arguments came in, they had no mechanism
for controlling it and for inoculating themselves.
And the system collapsed.
So I’ll take a little bit of short-term chaos
any day for a little bit of long-term durability.
You know, you and I are, I’m a little older than you,
but we’re almost the same age.
That, to me, is the argument we always grew up with, right?
That’s the old free society versus closed society,
pros and cons argument.
I feel like some of the variables, some
of the things we’ve already discussed here,
may impact, though, that received conventional wisdom
that we both grew up with.
For example, it’s almost like a jujitsu kind of thing,
where you were just talking about the arguments that
keep us healthy and allow us to self-correct in our society.
But it’s almost like when we talk
about these bots or the ability to undermine our society
from within, acting as though you’re
American citizens having political debates on message
boards or in the comments after news stories,
I mean, that you would say is a feature 35 years ago
of our strength in the debates and all this kind of thing.
Now it seems to me almost something
that’s turned against us.
I feel like the debates that we’ve
been having in this country is what’s ripped us apart.
And if those debates have actually
been prompted by our adversaries or international competitors,
then they’ve taken that advantage
that you and I grew up with calling a feature
and turned it into a bug.
Does that make sense?
But I would argue that it means that we
need to have better debates.
We need to have all the facts at our disposal.
Like, for example, when I go on Twitter,
as I’m sure when you go on Twitter, right,
we need to have a check next to our name
to make sure we are who we are.
Yeah, I don’t have that, Max.
I have to have that.
Preaching to the wrong guy here.
But I had to do that, you know, the same way
I had to do that on Facebook.
But the average person doesn’t have to do that.
Well, why is that?
Well, I am lucky enough to live in a society
where if I had the will, I could elect someone
who could run for office, who could drum up support
and make the case, and then make the law and say,
listen, anybody who wants to be on social media
can be on social media, but they must prove who they are.
So therefore, if I am hearing a debate about vaccines,
I know that it’s actually not a working class single mom
from Hammond, Indiana.
I know it’s Sergey and Igor in Kaliningrad.
I mean, you know, this goes back to how I grew up.
No, I was going to say, it’s analogous to the letters
to the editor and those kinds of things
where there was a person checking
the validity of those kind of apps.
So you’re going back to sort of a brick and mortar
model for the cyber age and things
like how we attach accountability
to those kinds of things.
Well, you know where I’m going back to?
I’m going back to my mom.
My mom was a health nut.
And I grew up, as you do.
You and I, we grew up in a time when
it was probably the least healthy time to be an American.
You know, because the generations that came before us
had healthy, good food.
It probably didn’t last as long.
It was probably a little more expensive,
but it was good for your body.
The generation coming up now is better off
because of what happened to us, where we
were just shoveled in crap.
Now, my mother was one of the first consumer advocates
who lobbied and made sure that everything
that was in the supermarket had ingredients on it.
And so that way, she, at the very least, nothing was banned.
But she, as a consumer, had the choice of what
she put in her child’s body.
And you can argue that’s all we need from social media.
You can say what you want, but I need to know who it is.
And that’s a first step, is having actual ingredient labels
for information, the same way you have it for nutrition.
Well, what it makes me think about, Max,
is if you and I are talking about national security
concerns, it strikes me that, and you know,
didn’t strike me five minutes ago.
It just struck me now based on what we’re saying.
But it strikes me that one could make a case that true, accurate,
confirmable, trustworthy information
might be more wrapped up in our national security
than we had otherwise thought.
I mean, the old idea of the importance of the fourth estate
to the running of the rest of the constitutional part
of the country, maybe there’s something to the idea
that those are all support systems.
And if any one of them becomes rotten
or ceases to function as a support beam,
our stability is perhaps endangered.
What would you say to this idea about maybe something
like truth and factual information
being important enough for our national debates
to be a core component of maybe our national security concerns?
Well, we used to have that.
And I think as a historian, you will appreciate the term
by Francis Fukuyama, the end of history.
And are we allowed to swear on the show or not?
I don’t generally, but, you know, well, say what you want.
We’ll figure out how to handle it.
Well, I think, you know, I will say that the notion,
I’d say that in many ways, our institutions
are still stuck in the 90s.
And by that, I mean this notion that it is the end of history,
that all the great challenges are over.
And I think that notion in the 1990s,
that the great challenges of the human race
are over, that it is the end of history,
has, to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson, has fucked us.
And so we need to get back to the idea
that we had, we used to have, that everything is connected,
Dan, that you cannot separate the sheep and the sheepdogs
when it comes to our national security,
that we used to understand that everything eventually
flowed back to keeping us safe.
From our children getting good nutrition,
to our environment keeping us healthy,
to our infrastructure, to our schoolteachers
knowing what they talked about.
Everything, everything meant having
a healthy, well-informed society that
was able to govern itself, and therefore
able to withstand outward threats.
And we gave all that up in the 90s
because we saw the threats as going away.
So we could all just do our own thing.
We didn’t need these institutions.
We didn’t need oversight.
No more, you know, no more grownups.
Because it was happy time.
Well, the happy time is over.
And we need to get back to the notion
that we can still be free.
We can still make good choices.
But we need to keep our eye on the ball.
I’m meditating on this we thing that you keep using.
Because it sounds utopian to me at this point.
Because I don’t feel like we are a collective, unified.
I see a lot more division, not just in the United States.
But I mean, I think you can see, as you’ve
been able to see for 50 years, echoes
of what goes on in the United States you see elsewhere.
I think you see it in Europe, too.
I think one could make a case that there’s
some of this in Asia also.
These trends of, and you know, it reminds me,
and you’re going to know about this, Max,
it’s almost become sort of an internet trope.
The Project for a New America Century,
New American Century paper that came out before 9-11 saying
that there should be, you know, that the natural tendency
in our country is to pull apart.
And then it’s only big events like Pearl Harbor
and whatnot that contradict that momentum.
I don’t know if that’s true or not.
But I would suggest that I think certainly
that’s where we are now.
And to me, so many of these things
that you say we should do break down
when we’re not really we, right?
Because if I say, oh, yes, we should do this,
we may be one group of people who want to do A,
and we may be another group of people that want to do B.
And they disagree, and they elect different people
to Congress who fight in the Congress.
And then you have the military industrial complex
and foreign countries buying access on K Street.
I mean, the way this actually all interacts
when it gets into the soup of actual reality
sounds a little bit more complicated to me
than this idea that we need to do this,
and we need to do that.
Well, I didn’t say that we need to do what’s easy.
That’s the thing.
And this is always what I come up against,
whether I’m talking to a strategic studies
group or a biodefense panel.
The pushback I always get really can be boiled down
to what you’re saying we need to do is hard, to which I say,
yes, yes, it is.
Running a self-governing democratic system
is very difficult, which is why you
see the appeal of dictatorship, because I
think there is something in all of us,
really, deep down, that wants to be children.
Remember that horrible moment when we were kids,
and bit by bit we had our innocence ripped away from us,
and we realized, oh, my god, I have to do work.
I have to help take care of myself.
And I think that that’s painfully
traumatic for all human beings.
We start off completely helpless.
Someone else is running everything.
Some of us are very lucky to have
the people who are running everything
know what they’re doing, or we think
they know what they’re doing, and we get to go out and play.
And then bit by bit, we go, oh, boy, I got to pitch in.
And that’s hard, and it sucks.
Well, we live in a society where we have chosen to be grownups.
And being grownups is hard, and it’s messy, and it’s painful,
and it’s uncomfortable.
Or you can choose to live in a country like Russia, or China,
or Iran, in which you can be a child,
and you are not responsible for how things go.
Somebody else is in charge, and you
get to blame them.
And so we have a lot of freedoms in this country,
but what we don’t have is freedom from responsibility.
And I think I’m very blessed in that I had two greatest
generation parents who told me about what it was like to grow
up like that, where you had to do your part,
and serve, and sacrifice, and it sucked.
But that’s what you got to do if you want to live this way.
See, here’s the thing.
You bring back so many echoes of the way we were all raised.
I mean, these are the sort of things that, in our generation,
we were infused with.
And this is Cold War stuff to me.
I mean, this is why we fight, like the old line about why
These are the things that they would put in a movie
that you would see between the double feature in the movie
theater explaining what this war in Europe is all about,
and American values, and Western democracy,
and all this kind of stuff.
But I mean, we’ve had a civil war in this country before.
And that’s not so much about people not wanting
to do the hard work and wanting someone.
You know what I’m saying?
In other words, some of what you’re saying
sounds to me like on a different level from, hey,
we’ve had a civil war before.
We could have a civil war again.
And if we have a civil war, well,
that’s not helping any of this democratic stuff
we were just talking about.
And I mean, I would put the odds,
and this is a stupid thing to do.
But I mean, I would put the odds of the United States
having a civil war in the next 25 years
as better than they’ve ever been since the 1850s.
And that says something.
Now, I’m not sure what it says.
But if you’re in the halls of power
and your job is to defend the United States from threats
both foreign and domestic, I’m more scared of that
because I think that’s more of a realistic threat
than coming to blows, for example, with Russia,
even though coming to blows with Russia
ain’t as far away as it used to be either.
And as far as, I mean, a civil war, everyone is always,
that seems to be what everybody’s talking about.
I mean, as we both know, it’s not going to be 1860s.
No, no, because we’re all mixed together.
There’s no easy divide.
We’ll have it precinct by precinct.
Yeah, but there is a real fear.
There is a real, honest to God, fear.
And I know this from my friends in the national security
world of a right wing, white supremacist insurgency
in this country.
And it’s very real, and it’s bubbling.
But it’s not inevitable.
None of this is inevitable.
That’s the wonderful thing about a free and democratic society
But we get back to the truth.
We’re in a loop here because it gets back
to the truth thing, right?
Because these people, one would make the case,
and I have, that the great ballast
of the American electorate would self-correct
if given reliable information that they could trust.
Now, I would make the case that I don’t think there’s
a society in the world that has ever
been given reliable information that they could trust.
But I would say that the democracies maybe
in the 1970s and 1980s gave it a good stab.
But without that, and with the disinformation,
and with all of the choose your own truth
sort of post-20th century society we live in now,
I feel like the self-correction mechanisms are broken.
So if you don’t have that truth and reliability factor,
does it impede our ability to self-correct?
And if we can’t self-correct, what does that mean?
Well, I feel that it is all, it might be broken,
but it is all fixable if we do our part.
And that is something that we used to understand.
And like I said, this goes back to what I was saying before,
is that that means having to see yourself
as part of something bigger, and having
to do things you necessarily don’t want to do.
I mean, I’m buoyed by the fact that I live in LA, which
is the most selfish, narcissistic, lazy Sodom
and Gomorrah ever, ever.
I mean, if you want to point to possibly the worst of America,
welcome to my hometown.
And yet, for the first time in my life,
I’m seeing my neighbors starting to take
an interest in local politics, and the details
of local politics.
Why is this happening?
Nobody I’ve ever known, my whole life,
knew who our city councilman was.
We lived our lives.
And now, because the homeless crisis is out of control,
and people are asking, why is this happening?
And they don’t believe the propaganda they’re hearing,
we’re starting to have community meetings.
And for the first time in my life,
I went to a meeting in the cold, sitting out, freezing my buns
off, for a candidate who’s going to run for city council.
A municipal attorney talking to me about court cases,
and why things are the way they are,
and the big money that’s at work.
And if she is elected, what she will do to unseat the man who
has allowed homelessness to run rampant.
And by the way, not helping the homeless people either.
She rattled off statistics of every homeless person
who died in and out of shelters in LA that night.
Now, she is just one person.
But if I do my part, and show up, and sit in the cold,
and maybe give a little money, and maybe canvas for her,
and maybe do some phone calls, I can help
make a little bit of difference.
And maybe if my neighbors do that,
they can make a little bit of difference.
I don’t get to do that in China, or North Korea, or Russia.
I get to do that here.
I’m trying to, I feel like we’re circling around the same points
again, which is I’m thinking about the end.
You know, remember, there’s a Star Trek episode.
I feel like I’m contractually obligated to bring that up.
But where there’s a mere universe, right?
And it’s the absolute opposite of everything.
And in my mind, there is a Max Brooks in Los Angeles,
or maybe he’s in Georgia.
I don’t know what the opposite of Los Angeles is.
And he’s got a goatee.
And he’s going and doing just what Max Brooks is doing.
He’s going to support this candidate who’s
going to unseat them.
But he’s on the exact opposite of all the issues.
In other words, I feel like your activism is canceled out
by the other Max Brooks.
And that describes the country as a whole.
You know, you keep saying we, and we.
But we is something that, to get back
to that Project for a New America Century thesis,
was that we’re naturally pulling apart.
I don’t feel like that we is here.
And if you say, OK, if it’s not here now,
what can foster the conditions to recreate that sense of unity
so that we comes back?
Well, then are we talking about a specific kind of leadership?
I mean, do you need an almost JFK call
to some sort of higher calling?
I mean, if you decide, if Dan and Max have identified
the problem right here as a sort of a we, unity, lack of focus,
lack of whatever that might be, a need
for a reinvigoration of our democratic system,
how does one accomplish that beyond the child level?
If we’re all children and would rather just be led,
how does one do this?
Well, I think we all need to be more aware of the forces at work
that are pulling us apart.
We can’t just say it’s just happening.
We can’t just say, oh, we’re just being pulled apart.
No, there are actual forces at work that are pulling us apart.
And if we identify those forces, then we
can actually combat it as opposed
to some sort of nebulous darkness
that we all see as inevitable.
OK, I like this, though.
I like this, though, because I think
I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I think
you’ve hit the nail on the head here.
So what happens when our freedom, right,
the fact that we get to debate, we get to have the,
what happens when our very freedom is
part of what undermines what you’re just talking about?
In other words, we can have multiple media companies all
giving a very different narrative,
playing that narrative to a very different audience,
interested not in truth, but in clicks, viewers, audience
size, impact, that kind of thing.
But that’s a facet of our freedom, right?
Putin doesn’t have to deal with an opposition network
that he, you know what I’m saying?
In other words, it’s our very freedom
that has opened the door to these things that
are the impediments to us becoming we again.
So we need to identify what exactly are the forces at work.
And that’s what makes me so optimistic,
because finally, after years and years of banging my head
against a wall, I am starting to see the national debates start
to center around these forces.
For the first time in decades, I’m
starting to hear people on TV, on social media
talk about voter suppression.
Well, what exactly does it mean, redistricting, gerrymandering?
I’m also starting to hear the attack on social media
about these algorithms that specifically
are devoted to extremism.
You know, this has been happening for decades,
but we were much more concerned with what
Lindsay Lohan was up to.
And it is so wonderful to hear the top stories now
about these forces at work, because we
have to identify them first in order
to do something about them.
It’s like in my neighborhood, going back to local politics.
For years, I was just seeing the homelessness getting out
of control and homeless people dying on the streets
and their encampments bursting into flames,
but always hearing, oh, it’s inevitable, or oh, God,
this is so terrible, we need to do something.
Or they’re the victims, and they have rights.
And if you want to do something to mess with their rights,
you’re a fascist.
Well, for the first time, I heard a candidate say, no, no,
no, you have to look at it in terms of addiction,
mental illness, the housing plans, long-term housing.
I mean, really breaking it down.
And that’s what I’m starting to see on a national level.
Why do my neighbors fly opposite flags?
Why do they watch opposite TV shows?
If we can identify them, we can also solve them.
You know, when I look at the current climate,
and this is all simplistic stuff,
and this is why I’m not a historian,
because I can play with all these simplistic,
non-representative scenarios and not worry about it.
But I mean, to me, there’s a Weimar Germany vibe.
And the Weimar Germany vibe is that there’s
extremists on both sides.
And both of those groups are growing in size,
pulling people from the ballast, the societal ballast
in the center, because there is no center to hold.
So in the Weimar situation, it was
a level of distrust and disenchantment
with the ability of that government
to do what the people there wanted done.
And that helps peel the ballast population off
to the extremes.
So I guess what I’m saying is in the 21st century,
so there was something I remember in the early 1990s.
It was when Al Gore and Bill Clinton
were running for office against George Bush Sr.
And one of the planks that they were pushing
was this idea of reinventing government.
And what I liked about the idea of reinventing government,
forget the specifics, was this idea
that because of new technology and new things being learned
all the time, we should not assume
that that is not something that can be continually done.
Because during that time period, there
was this attitude that government is government.
It was the same in ancient Greece.
It is the same now.
The pluses and minuses are all the same.
What I liked about the Gore-Clinton idea
at the time was this concept that, no, we
can improve these things.
We don’t have to sit and stand pat
and pretend like none of this stuff can be improved.
If this is the Weimar Germany situation,
then improving the credibility and the functioning
and the belief and trust in the government
itself would be a way, I would think,
to reverse the peeling off of the ballast population
to the extremes.
How can something like that be done?
Because to me, again, everything,
and you said it yourself, everything
we’re talking about here, which seems
like a bunch of different issues not connected
to military things at all, are all wrapped up
in our national security more than most people might think,
including this, is the government functioning?
Is it not functioning?
Can it be fixed?
Can it be improved?
And if it can’t, what does that mean?
Yes, well, this is what I mean about reintroducing ourselves
to the connections, where we used to,
my parents’ generation used to understand
how everything was connected.
But like I said, the 90s fucked us,
because the 90s believed that it was the end of history,
and we could all take our eye off the ball
and do our own thing, and we understand that we can’t.
We understand a lot, a big portion
of our friends and neighbors became
radicalized in the 90s because of globalization.
The jobs moved away.
But that economics flowed into politics.
At the same time, we deregulated the media.
So that’s politics and economics.
Those two were connected.
At the same time, you then had the rise
of the opioid addiction, which goes into public health.
At the very same time, you are outsourcing things
like the biotech industry, which meant that when COVID hit,
we didn’t have enough supplies, because it was all overseas.
We used to understand how everything flowed together.
And in the 90s, we completely outsourced everything.
And we need to understand that everything is connected.
And once again, going back to being,
I’m buoyed by the fact that we are
starting to understand this now.
Our policy on China is starting to change,
and that’s bipartisan.
I’m so buoyed by the fact that Trump was China hawk,
but so is Biden.
He didn’t just come in and say, well,
everything Trump said is wrong.
He said, no, we have been financing
a whole alternative method of government,
which is based on capitalism without democracy,
and that is wrong.
And I think that if we support that notion,
we can get back to the idea that our value shouldn’t
be taken for granted.
Nation states do exist.
There are different ways of living our lives.
And we can wrest back control, which will bring us together.
So that takes us back.
So we’ve added now the dimension of something like this.
So the China hawk question is interesting to me.
I don’t know what we gain from all this, whether it’s
I don’t know what the United States.
So if we assume, and this is a little off the path of what
we were talking about, but since this national security
umbrella pretty much covers anything we want to shove
into this space, it seems to me that the country’s policy
should be dictated towards what’s
best for the people who pay the bills that the country racks
How does confrontation with other large nation states
benefit the average American on the ground?
Well, there’s different types of confrontation.
If you have our carrier battle group facing off
with the Chinese carrier battle group in the South China Sea
and everybody’s got their finger on the button,
that’s probably not going to turn out well.
However, it is time to reach back into history,
specifically the 1990s and the early 2000s,
and reset our trade relationship with China.
Because we believed in the goodness of our hearts,
going on the death of the Soviet Union,
that if we were to just engage with China,
bring them into the World Trade Organization,
and put factories, Nike and Apple over there,
and they would liberalize.
We believed that liberalization would come
from economic engagement.
OK, nothing wrong with that.
I personally think that’s a better foot to start out with.
But now we know that it’s wrong.
Now we know that instead of them becoming more like us,
they’re using our money to make us more like them.
They are now using our greed to influence us here at home,
whether it’s the NBA not being able to say anything
about Hong Kong, or whether they’re censoring
Hollywood movies now.
We understand now that it has backfired.
Yay for a society that’s able to self-correct.
We can reset those trade agreements and say,
I am very, very sorry, corporate America.
And I’m very, very sorry, Xi Jinping.
We can no longer finance a system that
is dedicated to ending ours.
If you want to do business with us,
then you have to compromise.
And you have to be a fair player in the game.
And if you don’t, then you can be like South Africa
and go your own way.
So this is interesting, because I would argue that,
and I think you set it up well by saying that they’ve
gotten us addicted.
And we have to, we’ve fused our societies together
in ways that have made it difficult for either one of us
to pull apart without hurting ourselves.
But what I would argue is that we
don’t have the control over, so let me back up.
I have these wonderful history books,
and they will show ads from American companies
during the Second World War.
So there was one for an American cigarette manufacturer,
And the ad was how Lucky Strike had changed its color to green
for the war effort, the poster said, right?
In other words, to support the United States in the war
against the Axis.
That’s an American company back in the day
when companies had a more tie to their nation states of origin.
Now these are global international concerns
with as much stuff on the ground in China as they have here.
If you were to get into a Third World War with China,
I’m not so sure all these companies
are going to pick us like Lucky Strikes did,
rather than stand aside and just say, hey,
we just do business with people.
We’re not going to get involved in this dispute.
I guess what I’m saying is you can still have these,
you can have bilateral trade agreements with China.
You can have these giant NAFTA or GATT-type deals
that China has to then adhere to the rules
the rest of the world’s playing by.
But I don’t know how you’re going to necessarily
get the very companies on board here by telling them
that they’re going to have to penalize themselves,
their stockholders, their bottom line,
by somehow punishing the largest, one of the largest,
because it depends on whether you’re going numbers of people
or the amount of spending money available per person,
but one of the largest markets available on the planet.
Well, this is what I mean.
This goes right back to how we started the conversation.
This goes back to asymmetric means of fighting.
When I look at the global competition
between American Western democratic freedoms
and Chinese authoritarianism, I think,
which is the best way to spend our money?
We have a limited amount.
Do we spend it on trying to match their hypersonic missiles
with our hypersonic missiles?
Or do we take that money and use it as tax incentives
for our companies to move back to Ohio and the Rust Belt
rather than making money overseas,
than putting all that money into sweatshops overseas?
Which one gives us more leverage over the PRC?
Well, again, I think then you’re getting into long-term…
I mean, if you’re going to say that…
You know, what’s great about this, Max,
is we could do six hours on this
because everything we talk about
leads to the next step in the conversation.
And they all are completely interactive with each other, right?
They’re pinging off all the other societal questions
that we’re dealing with.
For example, if you talk about things like the Rust Belt
and tax incentives to pay people there enough
to do what the Chinese sweatshops are doing,
well, then you’re talking about maybe 20 or 30.
I mean, when does that stop, right?
Then in the next generation,
you’re going to have people saying,
oh, my gosh, now you just had these lazy people
in the Rust Belt who don’t have to work
because they’re getting these…
I mean, I think you’re going to…
I think that’s a yin and yang.
You talked about self-correction.
I can hear the Milton Friedmanites out there saying,
no, no, no, no, no, that’s not how you run economics.
But to get back to what you were saying
about national security and asymmetrical warfare,
this is going to be a problem
whether or not we’re dealing with China per se
or Russia per se.
And this is the problem I’ve always had
with U.S. foreign policy is we sort of say,
okay, this is the great adversary.
And you had talked about the Francis Fukuyama
end of history moment.
Well, that only happened because we’d had a 50-year
Cold War that seemed over.
And then you think, okay, ding dong, the witch is dead.
Now we can just have a nice, peaceful world.
And we forgot that there were global interactions
between nations that existed
before there was a Soviet Union
that would come back into play.
Well, they’re going to come back into play
whether there’s a China down the road
that we’re worried about or…
I mean, they could become our best friends tomorrow
and there will be some other thing behind them
that necessitates our need to keep building tanks
in the key districts in Georgia,
whether we need them or not.
You see what I’m saying?
Yes, and this is why I think it is critical for America
to learn from its own history.
Because we started this conversation
talking about how we don’t learn from our defeats.
We also don’t learn from our victories.
One of the conversations that I’ve been listening to
within the halls of national security
is the re-engagement with what’s called soft power.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.
And we used to be masters at that.
And I guarantee you have this picture in your library
of an American Marine on Okinawa
giving a canteen to an old Okinawan woman on a stretcher.
We all know that picture.
Because that’s who we used to be.
We used to have two armies at the same time.
The army would go in and beat the enemy with guns and bombs.
The second army would come in with quinine and sea rations.
And I was part of living history in 1994 when I went to Russia.
And I watched them all standing there with their hands out
waiting for another Marshall Plan.
And why shouldn’t there have been?
That’s what America does.
When we conquer an enemy, we rebuild them
and make them see the advantage of our way
instead of leaving them to rot.
And we didn’t do that.
Once again, the 90s.
OK, Russia, you’re free.
We have better things to do.
There’s naked people on our computers.
And that kind of on we and rot gave way to poop.
Well, and then also expanding NATO to the Russian borders
might not have been the best balance of power move either.
And once again, so as you’re leaving the Russians to decay
and fall, and I literally spoke to when I was a college kid
talking to a member of the State Department in Moscow,
telling me that these people, these very proud people,
are watching their country go from being
an industrial powerhouse to an exporter of raw materials.
To which then I spoke to a Dutch businessman who said,
don’t kid yourself.
Their biggest export is women.
Now, how is that going to play on the soul of a nation
if that’s not going to come back to haunt us?
And it did.
And here we are.
So we need to also remember our history.
Like you said, there’s going to be other threats.
Well, we also have to look back and say, well,
what did we do wrong?
But also, what did we do right?
Because America’s done a lot of things really, really right.
And we need to remember that whenever we
engage with other countries.
This has not happened for the first time.
It has happened before.
So you mentioned the soft power.
So this is a problem that I’ve had talking to people.
And they’re generally not the military people.
They’re people that enjoy the ability to use force
and who seem to think that things like diplomacy
is a sign of weakness for countries that
don’t have large militaries.
And I keep trying to point out historical examples
of diplomacy, which is used not as a shield,
although there’s nothing to be scoffed at when it is.
That’s very valuable.
But as a sword.
I mean, you look at how the Chinese and the Byzantines
used diplomacy, for example.
I mean, they would destroy whole nations without using
their military at all.
And that’s what we’ve really forgotten, is that this stuff.
And this is something, by the way,
that our adversaries have not forgotten at all.
They don’t scoff.
I mean, that is what this undermining us,
if it’s happening through our own social media,
is very similar to, right?
This idea that there are ways to defeat your enemy
without putting on the armor, saying
your lineage to your adversary across the giant mode,
and then getting into Victor Davis Hansen style
Western hoplite combat.
I mean, you’re just as dead if somebody
shoots you from behind.
And I feel like some of these things
we’re talking about here, our own people
would think was sort of wimpy.
But listen, if the Byzantines can destroy you
without using their military, why use it?
And that’s soft power used like a weapon.
Oh, yes, well, I think this comes from the fact
that America has changed from my dad’s generation.
When my dad was in World War II, everybody served.
And everyone understood soft power
because everybody who had fought in World War II
was also part of the armies of occupation.
My dad’s last job in the Second World War in occupied Germany
Because as we both know, the werewolves,
the idea that these Nazi kids, these Hitler youth,
they were going to go into the mountains.
They were going to go into the forest.
There were caches of weapons buried.
And they were going to fight the Allies for the next 100 years.
Well, the reason my dad survived to make me
is because those insurgencies died out
because those kids had jobs.
They didn’t have to fight.
Because the moment they came out of the forest,
somebody said, hey, you, kid, we got some milk
that needs delivering.
You want a job?
And they did that.
And the rebuilding of Germany and Japan
is what made them not just passive,
but some of our best allies.
Now that’s changed because now we have a sheep and sheepdog
And most of the people in the military I talk to
They understand what soft power really means.
I met a special forces officer who’d
been to the Ebola task force in West Africa.
And he said, we have an open door now.
Thanks to what we did in West Africa with Ebola,
they will welcome us there for any reason.
If we need to get into West Africa
in any of those countries, we will be welcomed with open arms.
The people you’re talking about, the hawks,
tend to be chicken hawks who’ve never actually served,
who are very macho and don’t know actually what the facts
are overseas on the ground.
And that’s another problem of the sheep and the sheepdogs.
Because when you tend to see these people pushing
for armed conflict, they tend not
to be the people who’ve actually been
in the profession of arms.
I agree with that.
I also want to point out that, you know,
because we’ve referenced it multiple times,
this idea about like in your dad’s era.
And my grandfather was in the AEF Army of Occupation
in the First World War.
But we should recall that those people that
may have been unity, but it wasn’t
unity of a sort that had existed forever.
This was conscription, right?
This was a temporary unity because of the war effort.
I mean, the idea that this was how it was in 1900
or something is a real departure from US history.
And that to me is what the second, you know,
you had talked about how the Gulf War kind of screwed us.
My own view is that the Second World War screwed us
is because it put us on this path that we’re still on now
and that there’s no getting off.
Where, like you mentioned, if we needed
to get into West Africa, well, the American in me
says, why on earth would we need to get into West Africa?
Right, what does West Africa have to do with us?
But in the 21st century American mindset,
any place in the world is potential interest zone.
And that’s why we have to have bases all over the planet.
That’s why we have, what is it?
We have, I think we have a military command
for every continent except one and now space.
I think most countries would say, I mean, if you’re,
let’s pick out, I’m trying to think of it.
If you’re Denmark, that’s not a concern for you.
But it is a concern for us and has been
since the Second World War.
Max, what would happen if we found out
to dovetail this whole conversation
into one sort of bucket?
What if the biggest threat to our national security
as a nation is the path that we have set ourselves on,
which would put us in confrontation
with any other great power on the planet
that seeks to be a great power on the planet
if we don’t like them?
I think that the Second World War set us on the best path
because it made us understand that we are all trapped
on this very tiny little planet.
And what affects one of us affects all of us.
And we understood that because after the Second World War,
we did not establish an American empire.
You talk about military commands.
However, these military commands are all partnerships.
These are not armies of occupation.
These are armies of alliances that we have.
We spent the immediate post-war period
setting up international organizations
like the United Nations and the World Health Organization, NATO,
the European Union, all these different organizations
that are very, very messy and go against the polar opposite
of some of us who are isolationist.
But there was a forward-thinking, enlightened
part of that generation who led America
through the Second World War that
understood the only way to avoid a third world war
is if we all work together.
Because like you said, it doesn’t affect Denmark.
Yes, it does.
What affects a tiny little country across the world
will eventually, if left unchecked, come to Denmark.
Now that, before anybody jumps in there,
starts making comments, that does not
mean the Bush doctrine, which means
that we must intervene militarily
at the first sight of trouble and go it alone
and get all the Americans killed.
That’s not what I mean at all.
What I mean is we must identify how these problems,
no matter how far away they are, will eventually
come to all of our shores.
How do we identify them?
How do we all work together and share
the burden of responsibility?
And we used to be really, really good at that.
And as you and I both know as history buffs,
the very first test of that was the Korean War.
And it was not an American war, as faux historians
would want us to believe.
That was a UN conflict.
Yeah, fought under the UN flag, yeah.
Fought under the UN flag, because that
was a threat to all of us.
Same thing right now.
We talk about vaccine diplomacy.
I think COVID should be a wake-up call,
because it is a threat to all of us.
So even though it did start in China, it did come to Denmark.
I’m thinking about, see, it’s funny, because, and this is,
I’m a natural contrary, and I think,
and a natural devil’s advocate.
So I hope you’ll take this all in the spirit that it’s meant.
So I’m thinking about, like, the very things
that you were talking about in terms
of enhancing global stability, enhancing global peace.
And I see it in just the opposite sense.
So take the alliance system before the First World War,
which was seen as a stability-producing sort
of thing, and then, of course, after the First World War,
it was blamed as one of the main potential stressors that
might have led to not allowing the countries involved
in the war much leeway once things got rolling.
For example, if we ended up, I mean,
we mentioned earlier the NATO pushing
the borders towards Russia.
Now, I have no problem with all the people in Europe
who want to get involved in an alliance
to protect themselves to do that.
But I do think that alliance systems have
a way of prompting counter-alliance systems,
and then history shows spheres of interest and influence
get breached, and you end up with problems.
I mean, that’s what Belgium becomes in the First World War
kind of, and what one might make the case
that the Baltic nations, or who knows,
Donbass in Ukraine, or Georgia when they were talking
about the NATO stuff.
I mean, I feel like these all become,
if you want to look at them in a negative light as opposed
to the positive, we’re creating more global stability,
these are also potential flashpoints,
areas of disagreement, area, I mean,
look at what we would be facing today, Max,
potentially, if we hadn’t sort of backed off,
and this sounds terrible because it
sounds like you’re leaving people in the lurch,
but if we were still basically pledging
to defend Taiwan from China, we right now
would be looking at, I mean, Taiwan
could be Belgium in the First World War.
So I mean, in my mind, these things
are all potentially double-edged swords.
I’m not arguing that we don’t get stability
in some of these cases, but let’s not ignore the fact
that they also become potential flashpoints
that trap decision makers and policy makers.
Well, I would argue, though, that the only way
you’re trapped is if you’re overly rigid either way.
Because even at our-
Wait, but in a negotiation, you’re only one side.
The other side has to tango also, right?
Yes, but at some point, you always
are deciding where you’re going to draw the line.
You know, at our height, the Korean War
could have gone into World War III,
but that was a decision to keep it limited.
Likewise, in 56, when the Hungarians rose up,
Eisenhower made a very specific decision
that defending the Hungarian people,
and I remember I was at the Atlantic Council,
this other think tank that I’m on,
speaking to a Hungarian diplomat.
It was 1956, right?
In 56, and I said, listen, we screwed you.
I’m sorry, we did.
But Eisenhower made a calculated decision
that the temporary freedom of the Hungarian people
was not worth the nuclear annihilation
of the entire world, and he was right.
And as a result, you and I are right here.
So alliances work, but alliances are not biblical text
that must be followed fundamentally.
They are fluid, and we must decide when and where.
The same way Nixon decided to flip China.
If we were ideologues, then the entire communist world
would have always been against us.
Likewise, Tito was our communist,
and Fidel Castro could have been our communist
if we hadn’t been so stupid.
Likewise, Ho Chi Minh could have been our communist,
because he wanted to be.
He wanted to be our ally.
No, he liked George Washington, I know.
Yes, so what I’m saying is alliances work.
So Max, would you offer NATO a membership to Ukraine?
No, no, no.
If alliances work?
I would say that we need to understand
where the alliances end.
We have to understand Russian culture.
We have to understand Russian history.
We have to say to Putin, listen, you
want to protect your borders.
We understand that.
Ukraine cannot join NATO.
However, if you continue to fund this war,
then we will have that episode of Star Trek,
where the hill people and the village people
are both getting flintlocks.
Because for Dan, a private little war.
This is exactly what I’m talking about
when it comes to asymmetry.
Does it mean that if Putin rolls in the tanks to Ukraine,
we respond with our own tanks and start World War III?
Does it also mean when he rolls in the tanks,
we wash our hands of Ukraine?
If Putin does roll in the tanks and hoist the Russian flag
over Kiev, there must be a price.
And he needs to understand that, in the words of Sting,
the Russians love their children too.
And Russian mothers will not tolerate Putin any longer
if those zinc coffins start coming home from Kiev.
I wonder about that.
Because I also think that this gets back to what you and I
were saying earlier about the differences authoritarian
or more authoritarian regimes have in controlling.
I mean, for example, once upon a time during the Vietnam War,
we saw the coffins coming back to the United States flag
draped, and they were on the media, they were on the news.
We don’t do that anymore ourselves.
But the Russians and the Chinese can completely
I mean, they could lie about the numbers,
and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
Funny you should say that.
A little piece of history, that’s actually false.
We know now, through unclassified historical
documents, that in the height of the Soviet-Afghan conflict,
when we fought, right?
We thought that Soviets could do whatever they want.
They’re the Soviet Union.
They could throw as many lives into that furnace
as they wanted.
We know now that the war was deeply unpopular, to the point
that the casualty trains, the trains coming back into Moscow,
bringing in those zinc coffins, came in at night
because they didn’t want the Soviet people to see
the casualties stacking up.
Even authoritarian regimes are vulnerable
and are casualty averse, because sometimes it
doesn’t come down to the form of government.
Sometimes it comes down to the culture.
We know Russian culture, they want the spoils of war,
as Churchill said, without having to fight the war.
It’s very different when Nazi armies are slicing
through the motherland.
That’s when they’ll give up anything.
But would Russian mothers now want
to risk their darling sons for a piece of the Ukraine?
I think that’s going to be the key,
is that it’s going to be the goal.
Is the goal seen as worth the cost, right?
And so I think with Afghanistan, you’d already,
what did they sink into that, a decade before it ended?
And one of those things where I think, like we did too,
eventually you look at it and the various lines on the paper
are not intersecting at the right place,
and you just go, OK, oh, it’s like the Vietnam War.
When you decide, what did the Pentagon papers say?
That the government knows that we can’t win,
but you can’t get out either.
And then there’s going to be this moment where, OK, we’re
five years away from getting out.
We have to stabilize things on the ground
before we can get out.
And then you lose half your people
after you already figured out it was over.
OK, but that’s good stuff about the Soviets.
And I actually, I agree with that.
But I also would point out that that was a country that
by 79, 80, 81, and that’s right when they went in,
was already in trouble.
And by the time they got out, what was it, four or five years
that they lasted after the withdrawal from Afghanistan
before we had Boris Yeltsin and a brand
new Russian Federation?
Well, and this is what I mean about asymmetry.
When I’m talking about stopping Putin,
what’s the best way to stop Putin from invading Ukraine?
Is it Javelin missiles?
And is it tanks and planes?
Or is it a negotiated settlement with Western Europe
to stop the gas from pipeline?
So therefore, the United States or North America
becomes the number one natural gas supplier for Western Europe
and not Russia.
Which one gives us more leverage?
But OK, so this is where I’m going to take you to task.
Because this, to me, is the same thing.
Which one gives us more leverage?
Which, I mean, this is all part of the competition.
Instead of going to the Russians and maybe saying,
were we in your shoes, we would not
want Russian assets in Mexico, right?
We just wouldn’t.
We wouldn’t allow it, right?
So we understand what’s involved here.
And of course, we also understand Russia’s history,
how often it’s been invaded.
If you were to say that that country had
the equivalent of a national PTSD complex,
I wouldn’t argue with you, right?
They have every reason to be afraid of invasion,
is what I’m saying.
Look at their national eagle.
It’s got two faces pointing east and west.
Yeah, and people, I mean, the trauma of that place
is palpable and understandable.
So knowing all these things, my grandfather was a salesman.
And at his funeral, somebody said
he was a great salesman because he could always see things
from the other side of the fence, right?
With the other side.
If you went to Putin and you said, listen,
I understand what you’re saying.
What if we talked about a band of demilitarized states
on your border, right?
You couldn’t, I mean, this is the Romney,
we’re going to play Star Trek, this
is the Romulan neutral zone, right?
In other words, you can’t do it and we can’t do it.
But this is a way to tell you that we
have no bad intentions.
I know what would happen.
It would start to be the commercial inroads,
and that would all be the things that cause trouble.
But I think right there, you would be showing that,
because I feel like, this is a terrible thing to say,
because we’re on, but I feel like the West really
pushed their advantage after the fall of the Soviet Union.
And this would be a way to do what you were saying,
where you would essentially say diplomacy,
and you would say, we understand your problem.
How about this as a solution that works for everybody?
And then you could also put the safeguards in place,
which would say, for the people in Ukraine,
for example, that have every right
to not want to be invaded.
This neutral zone, if violated, and of course,
now I’m setting up Belgium in the First World War again.
But I mean, if this area were invaded,
then we would consider that to be a terrible violation
of a neutral country that the rest of the world
has acknowledged is neutral.
Like I said, I’m just setting up World War III
by setting up World War I again.
But that’s, I mean, maybe something
like that is how you diffuse situations rather than trying
to gain leverage in an ongoing eternal struggle
against Russia and China.
Well, that’s what I mean, is where does the power
of your enemy come from?
You know, like what I said, when dealing with Russia,
which is casualty averse, and we know this.
We know the Russians do not want,
they don’t want to be bathed in blood.
They want the spoils of war without the war.
That’s very different than dealing
with someplace like Hamas, which only has outrage and revenge
as their power base.
The worst thing that you could do for Hamas
would be to declare peace, because then they
would be exposed.
Instead of glorious freedom fighters,
they would be a bunch of screw ups who can’t pave a road.
So they live on violence.
They require violence in order to exist.
That’s not Russia, and that’s not China.
The threat of violence is a card to be played in negotiation
the same way information warfare, economic warfare,
The Russians are the masters of energy warfare.
And we need to step that up, and we need to understand this.
Our enemies, like I said, going back to the beginning,
they understand how to play every key on this piano called
international relations, and we just
keep banging on that deep one.
Max, have I not asked you, is there
something I haven’t brought up in this conversation,
something you’d like to get into?
We’re at about 1.22 now, and I’m happy to go
wherever you want to go.
And listen, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way.
It is a devil’s hour.
I feel like it’s just a better conversation when you and I go
back and forth, rather than me asking questions
and you answering.
I hope that’s OK.
No, I mean, listen, I know you don’t
want to admit this to the people listening,
but you and I have both been on Bill Maher.
And Bill’s whole thing is you can disagree, and we disagree.
And that’s good.
That’s the great thing.
I would much rather be, if you and I were both Chinese
and we were on the history podcast,
Hardcore History in China, it would
be called the glorious history of the perfection
that is the Chinese people.
The celestial heavenly kingdom, yes.
And then we would just be complimenting Xi Jinping
and all the Chinese, and that would be it.
So no, the debate is good.
Through the debate, we get to the answers.
So I mean, I think one other thing that we haven’t hit on,
because I always wanted to talk to you about this.
You’re a history, you’re Roman history, right?
Some of it, yeah.
Right, you know Roman history.
This is the example.
When we talk about the ability to self-correct
and the Roman Republic, how many consuls
did they go through before they got to Scipio Africanus?
Well, a lot.
Imagine if they had just had one emperor.
Well, I like, I’m seeing the value in the consul,
the two consul system more and more these days.
I have to tell you, I’m starting to wonder if we wouldn’t benefit
from something like that a little bit.
As I look at the downsides of our own system right now,
because Max, I truly believe this isn’t,
I think it’s an existential test for our system,
what we’re going through right now.
And I think the social media is sort
of the tip of the iceberg.
I mean, we sort of referenced either directly or indirectly
the Alvin Toffler future shock type conversation earlier.
I think that’s what we’re in right now.
And I think this is trying to figure out
how we’re going to wrestle.
Like we said, once upon a time, radio-free Europe
was seen as a dangerous, destabilizing thing,
if not from the people behind it,
then the people on the other end of it, right, the Soviet Union.
Well, now you’ve got zillions of radio-free Europe.
And everybody’s got them, and they’re
pointed in every direction.
I mean, we’re like a, I mean, it’s
a great giant experiment with all these nation
states as guinea pigs.
I had a conversation with James Burke from Connections
in the day the universe changed.
And he said that he thought it was very possible
that the very forces that made nation states a good idea
once upon a time, right, where size mattered
and all that sort of stuff, that it’s
going in the opposite direction.
And that maybe the idea that, you know,
the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia type nation state thing
has run its course, and that people
would be able to form virtual type nations
through communities and whatnot in multiple countries
so that you’re not, I mean, obviously, there’s
some long-term development that would be
needed to make that possible.
But I think the idea is interesting when
we start thinking about, where does all this lead?
Either, you know, the Max Brooks self-correction
towards the nation states solidifying and repurposing
again, or maybe a de-evolution to something different
that we can’t even imagine, yet made possible
by all this technology, interconnectivity,
and yes, the stresses and strains
that are heaping up in our country
to the point where we’re ready to kill each other.
Well, you know, I think that that’s very possible.
What the hell do I know about what the future will bring?
Same here, baby.
I’ll know when we get there.
But what I will say is what I, and I’m like you,
I’m not a professional historian.
I’m a history major.
I’m guessing you were too.
And what I have taken from American history
is a constant series of addiction and self-correction.
Something is starting, you know, something is working for us.
We love it.
And then eventually, there is a heavy bill to pay.
And sometimes it’s huge, like slavery.
There was a very heavy bill.
We’re still paying for that one.
And sometimes it’s something like oil, you know,
made a lot of people rich, made us very powerful very fast.
And we’re now paying for that one.
But I do always see the ability of America to be better
because I believe, and I see it, our whole national identity
is built on fighting the good fight.
We understood this even in our Constitution, right?
The idea that it doesn’t say a perfect union.
It says a more perfect union.
Even our founders understood that humans are imperfect
and that the American experiment is not about being great.
It’s about fighting to be better than we already are.
And I see that.
No matter what you say about where we are
and all the trials, even in my short little life
of almost half a century, I have seen
so much incredible progress in this country.
The America that I grew up in, the social freedoms
and the tolerances, the people who were not even
allowed to exist when I was a kid
are now free and equal to me.
The fact, and you know more than me,
so I’m going to challenge you.
I’ve always challenged people on this.
Maybe you can prove me wrong.
Find me another civilization where our recent president
could have been a slave of our first president.
Has any civilization made this much social progress this fast
without a gun to its head?
Because Germany and Japan did that,
but they had a gun to its head.
Has any other civilization made this much progress
in this short a time on its own by its own force of will?
The historian that neither of us really are officially
would say that progress is a culturally specific sort
of an attitude.
And what we would consider to be progress,
we would be measuring other countries by a standard
that they wouldn’t think of as progress at all.
Which is exactly why I’m proud to be an American.
Because I’ve traveled all around this world.
And I’ve seen other countries.
And I’ve seen other so-called great powers.
And they look around and they go, we’re done.
This is it.
This is us.
This is who we want to be.
And we’re totally OK with it.
And then I come back to America, and I
see this constant growing pain of always reaching
towards the light.
And sometimes we fall back, and sometimes we go forward.
But that fight for the light makes
me proud to be an American.
I’ve always said, Max, I want an America that lives up
to the marketing materials.
My friend, thank you so much for coming on the program.
These are the kind of conversations I have for fun.
So thank you for providing a really entertaining afternoon
Thank you, Dan.
And I look forward to your next 11-hour Hardcore History
Listen, hopefully, you and I will be in the same room
before too long again.
You bet, buddy.
My thanks to Max Brooks for coming on the program.
I really enjoyed the conversation.
I wouldn’t mind doing that one again.
That’s a lot of fun.
And I know there’s 9,000 things I’m supposed to tell you.
But with the Hardcore History temporary brain
fog that develops at this stage of the process,
I can’t remember any of them except to say that we said,
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