New Frontiers 350

New Frontiers, the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs’ podcast series, offers a deeper view into global areas through one-on-one discussions with Middlebury College faculty and others.

New Frontiers topics—from big tech, environmental conservation, global security, and political economy to culture, literature, religion, and changing work patterns—have global or international dimensions.

New Frontiers is available through most podcast apps including Amazon Music and Audible, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podcast Addict, RadioPublic and Google Podcasts.



COMING SOON- Episode 5 - “Understanding Slavery in Medival China”

with Middlebury Professor Don Wyatt


 

Akhil Rao
Akhil Rao

Episode 4 - What to Do about Cosmic Garbage

According to the US Space Force, only 2,000 of the 22,000 objects that have been tracked circling the Earth are fully operational, functioning satellites. Put differently, roughly 90 percent of the objects that can be tracked circling the globe is junk—space junk, or cosmic garbage. How did it get there, why does it keep accumulating, and how best might we address this global problem are all topics that Akhil Rao, Assistant Professor of Economics at Middlebury College, writes about in a co-authored article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In this episode of New Frontiers, Professor Rao speaks with Mark Williams about these issues and explains why adopting “orbital use fees” could be the best way to address the problem of cosmic garbage.

New Frontiers - Season 1, Ep 4: What to do about Cosmic Garbage

Only 2,000 of the 22,000 man-made objects that currently circle the Earth are fully operational, functioning satellites. The rest—roughly 90 percent—is space junk, or cosmic garbage. In this episode of New Frontiers, economist Akhil Rao explains how it got there, why it accumulates, and why economic tools could be the best way to address this problem.
 

New Frontiers Podcast with Akhil Rao
EPISODE 4

C.T.
From the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College, this is New Frontiers. I’m Charlotte Tate, associate director of the Rohatyn Center. New Frontiers podcasts highlight research undertaken by Middlebury scholars and others, on matters of international and global concern.  Everything is fair game—from big tech, environmental conservation and global security—to religion, culture, and changing work patterns.

In this episode, economist Akhil Rao joins Mark Williams—director of the Rohatyn Center—to discuss a global problem that’s literally out of sight—the congestion and debris in outer space—and why an economic approach to address this problem could help manage it successfully.  
M.W.
I’m really pleased to be joined here on New Frontiers, by Akhil Rao, who is an assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College. Some of his research is focused on the economics of infectious diseases—certainly a hot topic during this COVID pandemic—as well as the field of computational economics. But today I’m going to be asking Akhil to help us understand what for me is a somewhat unusual realm of economic study and research, and that realm is outer space. In particular, we’ll spend some time talking about an article he co-authored, that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s all about the space industry, its growth, and how economic tools, rather than technological fixes, might better address some of the problems that have been created by a growing private sector space industry. The article is titled “Orbital Use Fees Could More Than Quadruple the Value of the Space Industry.” Akhil Rao, thank you so much for stopping by today and welcome to New Frontiers.
A.R.
Thanks for having me here, Mark.
M.W.
We’re glad you’re here. Your research here is in outer space and I mean, you know, you’re not a physicist. You are not an astronomer. You are not even an engineer. You’re an economist. So let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in studying the economics of outer space? What triggered your curiosity about space and economics?
A.R.
So I grew up in Northern California and south India and exchange rates were something that really fascinated me when I was a kid. Like, I didn’t understand why the paper in one place meant different amounts of paper in the other place.  And so that got me kind of interested in economics to begin with. From there I started thinking a lot about water. And so when I went to graduate school, I wanted to study water resources. Southern California, where I went to undergrad has severe water problems, south India, where I grew up also has severe water problems. So it just seemed kind of like a natural thing to focus on that, like, here’s this scarce resource, here’s this science of scarce resources, let’s study scarce resources. But I went to grad school at Boulder and Boulder does a lot of aerospace. And so at some point I was walking around and I saw a lot of space-related stuff. I was reading some short stories and I saw some things about space debris, and you know these two just kind of connected. And I thought, well, I wonder if anybody’s written about the economics of orbital space.
M.W.
Interesting.
A.R.
Started looking into it. And I thought, well, you know what? This is kind of like water stuff. It’s a scarce resource. It needs to be allocated, not a lot of folks have written about it. Maybe I’ll write like a one article about it, right? Like how much could there really be to say about this? And it’s just kind of been what I’ve been doing since.
M.W.
So this developed for you, the convergence of economics and outer space, developed while you were in graduate school.
A.R.
That’s right. So I think it was sometime in my first or second year of graduate school when I really started thinking about this and then got good feedback in brown bag seminars and stuff.
M.W.
Looking for a dissertation topic and so forth, and perhaps this might be it?
A.R.
 Yeah, that’s, that’s pretty much how it went. You know, I really didn’t think that it would be that big a topic, but the more I looked into it, the more questions I found. So now this is the thing that I work on.
M.W.
Space is a pretty big place. Well, before we really dive into your article and the argument that you make, could you help us understand a bit more about the private sector and outer space? I think a lot of people might have heard something about the Blue Origin’s New Shepherd Flights. Blue Origin, being the aerospace firm that’s owned by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and the new Shepherd Flights, being those commercial space tourism flights that have taken a handful of incredibly wealthy people and celebrities into outer space as tourists. But when your article talks about the space industry, you’re not really talking about space tourism, you talking about some other aspects of that industry, is that right?
A.R.
That’s right. That’s right. So what we’re really talking about are satellites and the supporting infrastructure that makes satellites work. So we’re talking about rockets, we’re talking about receiver stations on the ground that transmit signals to and from satellites. That’s what we’re talking about. The space tourism business is interesting and it certainly captures the public imagination, but if you think about this in terms of shares of value that it generates it’s tiny. It’s probably a decimal point, but it’s not much bigger than that yet.
M.W.
So the number of people who are benefiting from the satellites far exceeds the number of people who are benefiting one way or another from space tourism.
A.R.
That’s right. And I mean, to get a sense of the magnitudes here, the people who are benefiting from space tourism in sort of the direct sense to the folks who go up, if you want to be a bit more generous, you can say, well, there’s folks who work at the companies and, you know, they get paid and they get revenues, so they’re benefiting too. But it’s hard to go much farther than that. If you think about satellites in orbit though, there’s a ton of people. So anyone who’s ever used remote sensing imagery, or who’s ever benefited from some decision making somewhere, having access to a satellite picture. You can think about folks who in the California wildfires in 2020—folks getting evacuated had some benefit from space-based tools because the U.S. Forest Service used satellite imagery to coordinate their responses.  
M.W.
Anyone who’s looking for their best friend’s new house when they’re trying to drive to it.
A.R.
Right. That’s right. That’s right. Google maps. And you know, now, if you think about Ukraine well satellite imagery is playing a huge role in the conflict. So the number of folks who benefit from satellite imagery alone, that’s one product that a satellite can produce, is easily on the order of millions of people. That’s a different ballpark than people going to space.
M.W.
We’re talking about orders of magnitude difference. Can you clarify a bit more about what’s been going on in outer space right now and especially why economists or others should be concerned about things that they can’t even see in terms of how corporate actors and states have been using outer space? What’s wrong with the status quo?
A.R.
So what’s been going on over the last 50 years is a buildup of junk. So we can kind of describe this more scientifically and technically, but like at a very basic level, we’ve got a bunch of folks showing up at the campsite and not cleaning up after themselves and leaving a bunch of junk behind. And that’s what humans have been doing in orbital space since the dawn of the space age. So there’s a bunch of stuff like dead satellites, bits of rockets. So when you launch a rocket, there’s this upper stage that inserts the satellite into the target orbit, it does kind of those last adjustments. That gets left behind. That’s a pretty big thing per launch. There’s nuts and bolts from satellites. There’s bits of fuel that have leaked out of satellites.  There’s tools that astronauts have lost on space walks. There’s a lot of junk that’s up there.  And so there’s just been this ongoing buildup of junk.
M.W.
Okay. As I was reading your article, you say that the buildup of debris, or junk, is kind of a classic tragedy of the commons problem. And for all of our listeners who aren’t really familiar with this concept or maybe haven’t thought about it in some years, could you briefly explain what the tragedy of the commons is and why it poses a unique type of problem?
A.R.
So the tragedy of the commons, that term is referencing an article by Garrett Harden, I think in Science, in the 1950s and the argument in the article was that if you have a scarce resource where users of the resource are not in some way coordinated and are able to use it—I’m putting air quotes here—unchecked that they’re going to really spoil the resource and mess it up. So this was Harden’s argument and he was applying it in a pretty racist way to people having kids and the natural resources of the world. And I should note that the fundamental argument that he makes about like pastures in England, that’s something that historians and others have found many issues with. So it’s not clear that Harden’s argument goes through on the historical merits. And it’s not clear that his arguments really describe the general situation of all resources in the class that he was focusing on. But what his arguments do describe, which we focus on here is the case of a resource, which is in fact uncoordinated.
M.W.
By uncoordinated, you mean by the users.
A.R.
By the users, that’s exactly right. So what we in economics would call an open access commons. So a common pool resource in economics is a resource where my use subtracts from your use and vice versa. And we don’t have the ability to secure excludable rights to the resource. So you can think about these water bottles that we have on the table. I drink the water in this bottle. You can’t drink it. But we do have some notion of excludable rights where I can say, look, this is my water bottle. You can’t drink from this one. And you can say the same thing about a different water bottle. Now, imagine a case where we couldn’t say that. Where, you know, you’re free to just grab my water bottle at any time, and I’m free to grab your water bottle at any time. And there’s no sort of notion that we would say this is yours or mine. Well, then in that case, we might expect that we would end up drinking more water or depleting the water bottles faster than we otherwise would. That because I’m unable to have some sense of security in the notion that the water will still be there in 20 minutes, I’m going to drink more faster than I otherwise would, because if I don’t drink it, it’s gone. So to economists this term open access is a really important modifier on the term commons. The term commons is used across many disciplines and it refers to, broadly speaking, some kind of communally held property. But what’s really important to economists are the institutions that govern the use of that property. And so open access is one particular institution under which anyone is free to use the resource in any way they see fit so long as they have the ability to do so. So think of open access as a formalization of what people usually mean when they use a term like “the wild west.” So outer space right now has characteristics of an open access commons. As a side note, I think that Harden’s article is maybe better understood as describing the tragedy of open access rather than the tragedy of “the commons” broadly. So, in outer space, because we have these open access institutions to use orbital space, my co-authors and I argue that we are seeing something like what Harden was describing in his article happening there.
M.W.
I’d like to sort of pull the discussion back towards a way that you described the issue, the problem in outer space. You said that there’s a lot of junk, space junk, up there. Okay, I’ll play devil’s advocate. Come on. Let’s be, let’s get real. How much stuff is really up there as space is a huge place? How much of a problem is this in reality?
A.R.
You may have seen this recently. Elon Musk had a claim that there’s room in orbital space for billions of satellites. There’s no issues at all with any kind of congestion up there. And I think that, you know, there’s some, there’s a grain of truth to that, space is big, that’s for sure, unquestionably true. Right now, in orbit, there’s on the order of 27,000 officially cataloged pieces of debris floating up there. Most of those are about 10 centimeters, softball roughly or larger. That’s to do with the limits of our tracking systems. So we can’t really detect things smaller than that in most locations in orbital space. And so there’s probably a bunch more stuff that’s smaller than that. Almost surely there is, we just can’t really see it. So we don’t really know how much there is or what the distribution overs sizes is. But coming back to the question like space is big. Why is this a problem? I mean, the American west is huge. Los Angeles still has traffic jams. People want to be in places where there is value. And often that means that people are going to cluster in the same places. So there are regions in orbital space in low earth orbit, the region from sort of zero to 2000 kilometers above the mean sea level. I should probably say closer to 100 to 2000 kilometers above the mean sea level. There are regions there that are fairly congested. So you could think about the particular orbital paths, the sun synchronous orbits that remote sensing satellites use. These are very special orbits because they ensure that shadows are always in the same place when a satellite crosses over a patch of the earth every day. So if you’ve got a satellite and a sun synchronous orbit, that’s passing over this building, it’ll always pass over this building at the exact same time, so that the shadows look the same so that you can start to do some inference on what’s actually there without worrying about shadows getting in the way. So that’s a really valuable orbit. There’s a ton of remote sensing satellites that all tend to cluster in sun synchronous orbits.
M.W.
Because those orbits would be most beneficial for the function of the satellite. 
A.R.
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. So that’s the issue. It’s not that there isn’t space, it’s that the space that we want, there’s only so much.
M.W.
Sort of like real estate in San Francisco or Boston. Well, this sort of brings up a housekeeping question that I have, when you think about housekeeping for outer space, who keeps track of this debris, this junk that you’re talking about? If a company or a nation state wants to launch a satellite, where do they turn to find out whether the proposed orbit that they’re contemplating is one that’s safe or not?
A.R.
So there’s a bunch of layers in the question that you asked that I’ll try to answer in the appropriate order. So at one level there’s a UN registry of objects. If I launch a satellite, then I’m going to, I should at least, tell the registry that, “hey, I’ve put this satellite in this orbit and I’ll keep you updated on what happens with it, if I move it somewhere else,” or what have you. That’s an entirely voluntary disclosure. And so there are a bunch of objects, many of these objects presumed to have a military function, which are not on the registry.
M.W.
And the registry is only for satellites? Or for other debris?
A.R.
It’s for satellites. And so to the extent that a piece of debris was once a productive, active satellite, it will also be in the registry. But to the extent that there’s, you know, bits of fuel that leaked out, that’s not going to be in the registry
M.W.
And discarded.
A.R.
Discarded nuts and bolts, or what have you. That’s not really going to be it.
M.W.
Components and so forth.
A.R.
For that stuff, just physically tracking it, there’s a network of sensors. There are several networks of sensors, actually. The one that is widely regarded as the best is operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. And so this is a military network work of sensors that tracks objects in orbit. The U.S. makes this data publicly available, again, up to certain restrictions. So, U.S. military satellites, for example, do not often show up in this record. And they make this available as sort of a public service. They’re also a number of companies that are starting to offer tracking services.  So there’s one called Leo Labs that’s doing this. Steve Wozniak one of the Apple founders started a new one called Privateer that is also trying to do this.
M.W.
I wonder if they have the capacity at this point to measure as much debris as say DOD does.
A.R.
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think that they’re working towards that capacity and DOD itself is actually looking to offload some of this function onto commercial partners. So one of the things that the Trump administration did was pass a series of space policy directives. They were actually very active in the space policy realm, and I think it was space policy directive two, or maybe it was three, that said that the space situational awareness function should be moved from defense to department of commerce. And that eventually that should be handled by some private actors.
M.W.
Interesting. Okay. Well, it sounds to me as if there’s a type of a traffic management problem going on in outer space.  And your article seems to suggest that this traffic management problem is also really an environmental policy issue. And how would that be? Why might we rightly classify it or categorize it in that fashion?
A.R.
I think there’ a few ways to get to that conclusion. One is to say that it’s an environmental policy problem because outer space is an environment that humans use. And because it’s an environment that humans use, we should think of this region in the sort of lens that we use for other areas that humans use.
M.W.
We shouldn’t pollute it.
A.R.
We shouldn’t pollute it. Right. That’s one way to think about it. One way to get to that conclusion. Another way is to say that, look, this is an environmental policy problem, because it has the characteristics of one. There’s a productive activity that humans do, there. That product activity produces a residual, a pollution product, debris. And that’s what happens with lake management. That’s what happens with atmosphere management. So why shouldn’t we fit orbit management into that same bucket.
M.W.
Okay, great. Thank you. Let’s get into the heart of your article itself. You talk a lot orbital use fees in the article. Can you explain to the listeners what an orbital use fee is, and how would it work?
A.R.
Yeah, so I think the easiest way to think about an orbital use fee is going back to that camping analogy. If you want to go to a campground, you’re going to pay a fee to use it. If you litter at the campground, then presumably you clean up after yourself. And if you don’t, you pay a fine, and that fine is meant to deter littering. And it’s also meant in some part to cover some of the cost of cleanup. That’s kind of the idea of an orbital use fee. That when you put a satellite into orbit, you’re going to pay a fee that grants your satellite the right to access the site. That fee is also going to go towards incentivizing you to keep the site clean. If you pollute more, if you create more debris, you pay a higher fee. If you reduce the amount of debris you generate, you pay a smaller fee. And so in that way, it’s really trying to align your incentives with an environmental sustainability incentive, to keep the orbit clean.
M.W.
Who would the fee be paid to? To whom?
A.R.
So there’s many ways that you could implement this. Sorry, I’m going to go on a brief tangent here about space law. Objects in outer space are regulated by the state in which they were launched. So the launching state is the authority for the object. So if I launch a satellite from the U.S., the U.S.  is the state that holds authority over my object. And so in one version of this orbital use fee, I would pay my O.U.F. to the United States. I think that that’s probably an easier way to make it work than to build an international orbital use fee collection agency in the UN or something like that. But, you know, in theory, you could do that too. There’s nothing really in the theory that we discussed that we laid out that requires you to pay the fee to one or the other specific entity. What’s really important in getting the orbit users to use the resource right, is that they pay the fee.
M.W.
Is the fee a one-time fee? Is it something that is paid annually? How would that work?
A.R.
So it’s a recurring fee. Every let’s say year, you could cut it into finer increments. That’s fine too. Every year that your satellites in orbit, you’re going to pay this fee. If you want to stop paying the fee, pull your satellite out of orbit.
M.W.
Interesting. You and your co-authors refer to something called the Kessler Syndrome. What is that and how does this concept influence the way that you analyze orbital use?
A.R.
So the Kessler Syndrome is this idea that came about in the 1970s. A NASA scientist named Donald Kessler and another one named Burton Cour-Palais, they wrote this paper talking about what would happen if the debris in orbit built up to a density where debris can start colliding with other debris. So one thing that we haven’t really talked about here is why we should care about debris in space. And the issue is that stuff in space goes really fast. There’s a common, I think, sense that you go to space by launching a rocket that pushes you upwards. And that’s only half true, partially you’re going upwards, but partially you’re also starting to fall and continuously missing the earth. So you’re also going sideways. And you’re going sideways at a tremendous speed, something on the order of 17 and a half thousand miles per hour. So when stuff in orbit collides, like it’s going really fast and it’s not going to come out of it in one piece. That’s bad because if it doesn’t come of it in one piece, now there’s a whole bunch of other fragments that are also going very fast, that can also hit something else. And, you know, to the extent that we want our satellites to keep functioning, we should maybe not want them to get hit by junk. Seems like a thing we might want. The Kessler Syndrome is this idea that what if there was so much debris that debris can hit other debris and generate new debris in a kind of self-sustaining cascade without any human intervention required. Like we could wave a magic wand that pulls every single productive satellite out of orbit, and there’s still enough junk left up there to keep producing new junk year over year for, I don’t know, the next century or something like that. So that’s the idea of the Kessler Syndrome. You can think of it as analogous to run away climate change. If enough carbon gets into the atmosphere, then it triggers some mechanisms like, you know, permafrost melts and methane gets out of the clathrates and that triggers more greenhouse gas release and so on and so on.
M.W.
The Kessler Syndrome posits that there is a tipping point at some point.
A.R.
That’s right. And so this has been verified in a number of analytical and simulation studies. To the extent that we’re able to observe this happening, it seems like it’s already begun in some orbital regions. So there’s the 750 to 850 kilometer region. There was a missile test there in like the 2007, 2008 timeframe around then, the Chinese government blew up one of their own weather sensing satellites to show that they had the capacity to blow up satellites. So that anti-satellite missile test is widely understood to have generated enough debris there to have kept a cycle of debris production going. Now, it’s important to note that this is not like, if you’ve seen the movie Gravity, this is not like that. This is not like all of a sudden two days from now all of orbital space is totally unusable because the cascade started and it just goes like a flash. This is a slow-moving catastrophe. It’s probably going to take 30 to 50, maybe even 100 years for, you know, some of those regions to become fully unusable.
M.W.
Thank you. You know, I have never really heard to be honest about an orbital use fee for outer space. Perhaps that’s because I’m just, ill-informed on the topic. As far as I can tell it’s something that’s never been tried before, in outer space. So I’m curious, are there some other examples, perhaps from other sectors where environmental policies analogous to an orbital use have been tried, and if there are, what’s been the result? How well have they worked?
A.R.
Yeah. So an orbital use fee, I think you should understand this as one among a suite of policies that are, in some sense, equivalent. These are what I call natural capital pricing policies. So these are policies that say we have some kind of capital that nature has given us. It’s currently available in a way where folks can use it without having to pay a market price. So, you know, you go chop down some trees, you go out into the high seas and you grab some fish, things like that. And the idea here is really just that, well, you know, if you had to pay a price for it, you’re going to think a little bit more carefully about your use than if you didn’t have to pay a price for it. And so there’s many different implementations. You can think about a cap-and-trade system. That’s a kind of natural capital pricing policy. So in a climate change context a carbon tax is maybe the thing that’s closest to an orbital use fee. But it is in some sense, equivalent to a cap-and-trade system. It’s just that the international legal situation is such that property rights for orbital space seems like a far more distant prospect than taxes for using orbital space.
M.W.
And if we were to focus on the efficacy of these analogous policies in other policy realms can you speak to that?
A.R.
Yes, they seem to work. There are issues. So let me get into some examples here. The EU has an emissions trading system. So this is the EUETS. It’s a cap-and-trade kind of carbon market. So firms can buy permits to emit carbon dioxide in the EU. They can trade these permits. Year over year, the total number of permits rachets down slowly, and firms either pay a higher price for each permit, or they choose to not get a permit and then reduce their emissions so that they’re in compliance. The EUETS seems to have worked. It seems to have brought emissions down. Now I’m saying worked, but I should put a caveat here, which is that it’s worked at achieving its own goals. So the EUETS says that it’ll achieve an X percent reduction, it achieves an X percent reduction. Now you can say, well, you know, an X percent reduction, isn’t what we need. We need like a 10 X reduction. Sure. And by that light, if you say, well it hasn’t achieved a 10 X reduction. You could say it hasn’t worked. But as far as meeting the goals that it sets goes, it’s done that job. The California cap-and-trade market is another example of this. California has a market for capping greenhouse gas emissions. It has successfully blown past the target that is set for itself.
M.W.
So is this why you also said that the orbital use fee was part of a suite?
A.R.
That’s right. So you could think about an orbital use fee as literally tax, you could set it up as a tax with some kind of rebates and some kind of tradeable permits. Maybe it makes sense for the tradable permits to be for actors within one administrative unit, like the United States, maybe not. There’s lots of flexibility that system designers have here in implementing the policy.
M.W.
So another question that comes to mind given what we’ve been discussing is the extent to which using orbital use can ameliorate the totality of the problem that’s there. Debris that has been there for quite a while. I would imagine some of this stuff is pretty old stuff; it’s been up there for a long time. Perhaps even put up there by actors who no longer exist, like the Soviet Union. How does one rectify that aspect of the problem? How do you address the environmental fallout of space junk by using orbital use fees, particularly the legacy debris problems?
A.R.
So the legacy debris problem is an interesting one because a fee isn’t going to do anything about that directly. It’s just not, and that’s not what it’s trying to do. Now it will affect it indirectly through a couple channels. First, we have really robust evidence across a number of different sectors that when you put natural capital pricing policies into a place you incentivize clean innovation. So when we start charging power plants for emitting carbon into the atmosphere, pretty soon, they get pretty good about reducing the amount of carbon they emit into the atmosphere, whether that means taking innovations that were kind of on the fence, hadn’t really been deployed yet and deploying them, or whether that means putting money into R and D to develop new innovations that will let them stay in compliance and reduce their costs. So an orbital use fee would have the same effect, we think, for orbital space. That it would incentivize the development of clean technologies. And we really need these clean technologies, because right now there is no scalable system for removing debris from orbit. There’re some companies that are trying to develop things, that’ll remove large pieces of debris. There are some folks who are talking about ways to remove small pieces of debris, but there is no one yet who has both a technology and a business model that will let them pull this stuff down.
M.W.
So if given the correct incentive structure, then firms, presumably states as well, who are operating and putting satellites into orbit will become more conscious about littering.
A.R.
That’s right.
M.W.
And then in the aggregate over time, while you may not be decreasing the legacy debris, you won’t be necessarily adding to it, at least not to the same rate.
A.R.
You won’t adding to it, and you’ll be developing the technologies that you need to remove it.  And once you’ve got those technologies, removing the legacy debris actually helps reduce your orbital fee liability because it reduces the risk of a collision on orbit. Now what’s really important with this orbital use fee is to get the numbers right. So we spend a lot of time in the paper figuring out how to calculate these numbers. And, you know, it’s an order of magnitude approximation, but it’s still, as far as we can tell the best numbers that are out there. You want to charge a fee that gets people to internalize the amount of the cost that they’re pushing onto others. To put it a bit differently, we don’t want a fee that’s so large that it starves the space industry, that it kind of kills it in the crib. We don’t want that. We don’t want a fee that’s so small that people don’t pay attention to what they’re doing. We want a fee that’s just right. So that people can say, “Hey, I’m going to do this thing. And this thing is going to have all these impacts on all these other folks. Let me factor that into my bottom line. Let me see whether the thing that I’m doing passes the cost benefit test once I add all of the costs that I’m imposing on others into that calculation.” And so part of those costs is the risk that a piece of debris that you put up there, or that your defunct satellite contributes to a cascade of collisions and generates more debris in the future. Well, if we remove all that legacy debris that reduces that risk, that reduces your fee liability.
M.W.
Pretty interesting, actually. I just thought of another question, maybe perhaps a vexing one. If countries really do start taxing, regulating their satellite sectors, like you and your co-author suggest, won’t the private companies just sort of pack up and leave for less strict countries. I mean, isn’t the solution that you’re proposing really unworkable until orbital use fees are more broadly adopted by most states in the world.
A.R.
This is what we call the leakage problem in economics. And it’s a real problem, right? Like it’s a real thing that people worry about. I mean, I guess I’d address this in two ways, right? One is you can look at this by analogy, right? There’s a very clear analogy to tax rates and wealthy individuals that, you know, if you raise the capital gains tax, then folks are going to leave and stop innovating in the United States. They’ll go elsewhere. I mean, if that were actually true, we would see almost all wealthy individuals concentrated in whichever country has the lowest tax rates. And eventually pretty soon, we’d see all countries racing to the bottom for a zero tax rate. That’s not what we see. To some extent, there are wealthy individuals in countries, despite high tax rates who stay there despite high tax rates. I mean, really what I think is going on here is that there’s other things too, the taxes, aren’t the only things in the calculus. If you’re a company that wants to, you know, do space stuff, broadly, launch some satellites, provide imagery, provide some value-added services on top of the imagery, machine learning on the imagery, whatever. You need access to a talent pool. So you need to have a bunch of engineers who can do stuff. Many of these goods are what are called dual use goods. They can be used for military purposes as well. So again, this imagery is a great example, right? You can use satellite imagery to detect fires and respond to wildfires. You can also use satellite imagery to detect troop movements and position your forces accordingly. So these dual use goods are very, very tightly regulated and pretty much every country around the world. If you’re in the U.S., and if you want to serve the U.S. market, you have to jump through a whole bunch of regulatory barriers. All of which are more onerous than paying, like, I don’t know, 0.1% of your profits in a tax. That in some sense is the easiest barrier that you have to jump through because you just send the money off, you send the check off and you’re done. You don’t have people coming in and checking that you’re in compliance that, you know, you don’t have foreign nationals with compromised allegiances working for you or whatever they get worried about.  
M.W.
Trying to manage orbital use for the good of everybody. That seems like an inherently global problem. It’s a really large problem. And I wonder if you would agree with that. And I think you just did but doesn’t it then follow that trying to push for orbital use fees before there’s global cooperation or an international treaty, isn’t that like putting the cart before the horse? Don’t you need to get the cooperation first? Don’t you need to get a consensus amongst the states who would be collecting these fees?
A.R.
I think that’s a good question. I think it’s actually an open question. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what the right sequencing of events is. I guess I’ll say this, there’s some in the space community who say that we shouldn’t worry about environmental policy until there’s a big debris event.  And then there’s some that take a, maybe more, realist take that we aren’t going to end up worrying about this stuff until there’s a big debris event. Which are two different positions. I think we should worry about space policy before there’s a big debris event precisely because it’s so rare to have a chance to get ahead of an environmental problem when we know good policy tools. We almost never have that opportunity. But to your point about international agreements, I mean, I don’t know, maybe if the U.S. starts implementing these orbital use fees, that’s the seed that’s necessary to start building these agreements. The field of space law is a very active field. There’s a ton of folks in it. And broadly, when I talk to space lawyers who work in this area who are trying to negotiate agreements and norms of orbital space use, they say that, you know, things are deadlocked. The UN is the body that things have to go through. There’s UN COPUOS, the committee on the peaceful uses of outer space. Nothing really happens there. Folks spend years and years arguing over like details of language in an agreement. And, you know, that’s just not at the time scale that we need for these agreements. And so, I mean, I think if someone can move faster, if the U.S., for example, can set the example through a tax policy route, they don’t need to go through the UN for that. And if they can get folks to agree, then they can get folks to agree. And that’s like any other multilateral or bilateral set of negotiations. It can go faster.
M.W.
Let me ask you this. Are you relatively optimistic that we will see something akin to what you and your colleagues are advocating? That we will see some type of environmental policy adopted to address the problem of space junk? First, if you’re optimistic about that, and second, given that there’s a variety of forms that this might take and different ways it might be achieved, what do you see as the most likely route that this will happen?
A.R.
Yeah. So I think someone will do something. I think people are trying to do things.
M.W.
A state?
A.R.
A state. So, focusing on, I guess, the U.S. and the EU right now. The EU, I think is a leader in regulation, broadly. I think that they have of the European Space Agency has put a lot of resources into building the technical tools that are necessary to provide these types of natural capital pricing policies and other environmental policies. Now they don’t have the same kind of market for space services that the United States does, and they don’t have the same kind of supply side that the U.S. does. There’s just not nearly as many companies trying to build rockets, for example, in the EU, as there are in the U.S., trying to build satellites in the EU, as there are in the U.S. Now, the U.S. has also been trying to do stuff, so recently, in 2020, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that they were thinking about asking for a kind of a bond, a performance bond, they called it. So this is like, you launch the satellite, you pay this bond into the FCC account, you deorbit the satellite, you get the money back. And, you know, this was kind of a napkin sketch of an idea that they put out there. And the industry very quickly came out and said, you know, no, no, no, we don’t need this. We don’t need anything that would increase our costs. Which, that’s exactly what I would expect. So that’s not really surprising and that didn’t really go anywhere. But more recently, the office of science and technology policy at NASA has been putting together efforts to study the problem more. I think that we’ll probably see something happen in the U.S. that is more than just, we recommend you follow these guidelines.
M.W.
Do you think that it’s likely that there will be serious cooperation and coordination amongst the states most likely to be utilizing satellites? I’m thinking of China perhaps along with the United States, will that type of interstate cooperation in this global commons be something that would be realized?
A.R.
I don’t know, because I think that, you know, the U.S. and the EU can cooperate. The U.S. can cooperate with Canada. Sure. I don’t see how the U.S. is going to be successful at cooperating with Russia, for example, in the next five years on these issues. I think it would be great if they could, but I don’t know that they would, and similarly, I think there’s real challenges that have nothing to do with space involving U.S.-China cooperation. So I don’t know. I mean, you study this stuff, like, do you see U.S.-China cooperation happening?
M.W.
I see it as being in the broad, general good, but states have their own distinct interests. And those interests in the best of times they align so that great powers can cooperate and coordinate their actions, toward the greater good. But those are infrequent. And I don’t see a lot of that happening. And so that comes back then to the question of how feasible is this proposal, if a major player, I don’t mean to be picking on China, but I’ll use China as a major player, is not part of the game?
A.R.
I think that’s a great question. So there’s two pieces here. The first is that partial implementation is better than no implementation. And so to the extent that the U.S. is able to do things as a big market, if the U.S. implements something where it’s like, you’ve got to pay this fee, you’ve got to post this bond, if you want access to the U.S. consumer market. I mean, that’s a pretty big lever.
M.W.
Yeah. I’d agree.
A.R.
You know, I can’t think of a single satellite internet constellation that has an actual commercial business plan that is even remotely close to viable without access to the U.S. consumer market. So that’s, I think a big lever there.
M.W.
Akhil, this has been a really, really fascinating discussion. As someone for whom the stars have always intrigued me since I was a boy, but has never studied the economics of outer space, this has just been a fascinating discussion. I appreciate you spending time with us today. Where’s your research leading you next? What are you working on now that our listeners may want to keep an eye on down the line?
A.R.
Yeah. So there’s, there’s two questions here, I think, that maybe of interest to folks listening to this. One is exactly that question that you raised earlier, what’s the right sequencing of these measures? To what extent does an orbital use fee policy, for example, make an international treaty to pull a bunch of debris down or keep debris from crossing some level become more or less likely? So this is work that I’ve been doing, actually, with a student at Middlebury, Aditya Jain, he’s graduating this year, phenomenal student, he’s going off to University of Chicago to do amazing things at a pre-doctoral program.
M.W.
That’s wonderful.
A.R.
So, this I think, is really important research and I think this will help us understand the right order of operations for doing these kinds of policies. The other is studying the effects of events like missile tests on collisions in orbit. Now at a very granular level satellites maneuver out of the way when they think there’s going to be a collision. There’s a lot of uncertainty involved. It’s a very technical thing. It is, as I say, literally, rocket science.
M.W.
Sounds like it’s not easy to do either.
A.R.
Not easy at all. And you know, when you do this, it’s like, I guess, think about like you’re driving on the road and someone throws a, I don’t know, a bottle out the window while you’re on the freeway and you’re going pretty fast. You might swerve to dodge it. And if you do that, if you’re on a busy enough road, your swerving is going to make someone else have to swerve. It’s going to make someone else have to swerve, and on and on. There’s a cascade here. And so I’m trying to study whether or not these cascades occur, when they have occurred, and what we can learn about them.
M.W.
Interesting. Interesting. We have been talking with economist Akhil Rao about outer space, the private space industry, and why adopting orbital use fees might be a great way to address the growing problem of space debris, or as he terms it space junk. Akhil, thanks very much for stopping by and talking to us today on New Frontiers. Really appreciate it.
A.R.
My pleasure.
M.W.
Bye-bye.

Student
Professor Akhil Rao grew up in southern India and northern California. He picked up snowboarding as a graduate student in Colorado, and during Vermont’s beautiful winters he enjoys snowboarding the slopes at the Sugarbush ski resort. When time permits and he’s not lesson prepping, teaching, or conducting research, Professor Rao is an avid gamer.  Outside the classroom, students might spot him hustling to class, roving around the library stacks, or at some of his favorite hangouts in town like the Mad Taco restaurant or the Otter Creek Bakery.



 
Will Pyle
Will Pyle

Episode 3 - What Made Russians Skeptics about Democratic Capitalism?

In this episode, Mark Williams talks with economist Will Pyle, the Frederick C. Dirks of International Economics at Middlebury College, about recent findings he published in the journal Post-Soviet Affairs. Their discussion explores why Russians of a certain cohort—although liberated from the economic and political constraints of Soviet Communism—are not the strong enthusiasts of democracy and capitalism that many westerners believed they would become after the USSR collapsed.   

New Frontiers - Season 1, Ep 3: What Made Russians Skeptics About Democratic Capitalism?

Did the collapse of the Soviet Union—and the tumultuous years which followed—help shape Russians’ attitudes toward capitalism and democracy in the Putin era? If so, how; and why would the effects of the Soviet collapse still be felt and manifest thirty years later? In this episode, economist Will Pyle joins RCGA director Mark Williams to unravel this puzzle.

New Frontiers Will Pyle Transcript
Hosted by Mark Williams

Charlotte Tate
From the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College, this is New Frontiers. I’m Charlotte Tate, associate director of the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs. New Frontiers podcasts highlight research undertaken by Middlebury scholars and others, on matters of international and global concern.  Everything is fair game—from big tech, environmental conservation and global security—to religion, culture, and changing work patterns.

Today, Mark Williams—director of the Rohatyn Center—is joined by economist Will Pyle, to explore how the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Soviet Union helped shape Russians’ attitudes toward capitalism and democracy in the Putin era.

Mark Williams  
Will Pyle is the Frederick C. Dirks Professor of International Economics at Middlebury College. Much of his research is focused on the evolution of markets and markets supporting institutions, particularly in post socialist countries, and especially in Russia. Today, I’ll be talking with Will about one of his most recent projects. It’s an article he published in the journal, Post Soviet Affairs, that, interestingly enough, examines Russians’ political attitudes and their preferences, as much as it does their economic attitudes and preferences. The article is titled, “Russia’s Impressionable Years: Life Experience during the Exit from Communism and Putin Era Beliefs.” Will Pyle, welcome to New Frontiers.

Will Pyle 
Thank you, Mark. It’s wonderful to be here.

Mark Williams  
Well, why don’t we dive right into it? As an economist, what initially got you interested in researching Russia? How did this happen and what aspects of Russia’s economy have you studied the most?

Will Pyle 
Well, my interest in Russia came actually before my interest in   economics and it goes all the way back to two years of Russian language courses I took at my public high school in Seattle back in   in the 80s. I had a great teacher, a Russian emigree, who, along with teaching us Russian, got us interested in the country’s culture and history. I went on to major in history in college and I took several courses on Russia and eventually wrote a senior thesis on a topic in 19th century Russian intellectual history. I actually only took one economics class as an undergrad and found it found it really boring honestly. After college, I went on to work at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, and I was there in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and the countries of Eastern Europe threw off communism and held democratic elections. It was a really exciting time.  I took a great class on the economic transition from communism to capitalism. My professor convinced me that I might want to go on and get a PhD in economics to better understand the whole process of abandoning one economic system for another. So as a graduate student, I got into a decent PhD program and eventually wrote my dissertation on credit markets and the banking system in Russia in the 1990s.  And then my research and the Russian economy, or on the Russian economy, for at least the next 15 years after I left graduate school, was focused on Russian businesses, as you as you alluded to earlier, and how they navigated an economic environment in which the bedrock institutions of a modern market economy, like the rule of law, including the enforcement of private property rights, were weak or compromised.

Mark Williams 
Well, it sounds like a really fascinating journey that you had from an undergraduate to the professional status that you have right now. The research we’re talking about today, here, is about public opinion in Russia, but again, you’re an economist. And so how did you get interested in researching what you are calling in this article, political preferences of Russians? Is this a topic that you’ve been working on for some time?

Will Pyle 
My interest in doing research on public opinion is actually relatively recent. Five years ago, I taught a first-year seminar on the old Soviet economy and its collapse. One of the books that I assigned was an oral history by a Belarusian journalist, a woman by the name of Svetlana Alexievich. And the book of hers that I assigned for my first-year seminar is called Second-hand Time, and it’s about how the demise of communism was experienced in Russia by very average people. And what her oral histories highlight is a real nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s achievements, and a deep sense of loss at its collapse. It was that book, perhaps more than anything else that I read or heard about, that got me thinking carefully about how Russians form their worldviews, about the factors that shape their beliefs, about the way societies should be ordered. And I, I couldn’t help thinking that the really wrenching and disorienting experience of transitioning away from one socio-economic system, communism, to another entirely different socio-economic system, market-based capitalism, like Russia went through in the early 1990s, would leave a lasting impact. And so as a researcher, as an economist, I started cataloging the available public opinion survey data that would allow me to connect Russians life experiences, in the 1990s to their worldviews into the 21st century, that is to understand Russia today, to understand how Russians collectively view the world we have to spend more time understanding the 1990s. And my sense is that certainly economists and to a lesser extent, political scientists, have forgotten the 1990s. And one of the reasons I think, is that there’s just not that much good data from that decade. In the early 1990s especially, the Russian government just didn’t have the capacity to collect the sorts of market-generated data that governments and other industrialized societies routinely collect for many, many economic variables. Decent government data doesn’t begin until just before the turn of the 21st century.

Mark Williams
From what I’m hearing, you see the 1990s as a critical period where one needs to understand what’s going on in Russia, at that point, in order to better understand what one sees coming out of Russia today. On that basis, let me be a bit provocative and ask you this sort of devil’s advocate question. Honestly, why should someone even care about public opinion in Russia today? Why should someone care about what Russians think about their country? How it ought to be run? After all, Russia is an autocracy. Political freedoms are limited and circumscribed dissent is suppressed. Aren’t the opinions of Russians really unrelated to how their country is actually governed and what Vladimir Putin decides to do?

Will Pyle  
Well, that’s a great question and you are indeed being provocative there in asking it. There’s a Middlebury alum, Tim Frye, and he’s now a professor of political science at Columbia University. And he’s one of our country’s leading interpreters of contemporary Russian politics. Anyway, he’s just published a book about Putin called Weak Strongman. And one of the points he makes, Putin wants to be feared, yes. But since repression is costly, and not always effective, he also wants to be loved. And being popular by being responsive and sensitive to public opinion, makes it less likely that he’ll face challenges to his rule. There’s another recent book by political scientists Sam Green and Graham Robertson that makes a very much related point. They argue that Putin’s rule is it’s not forced on an oppressed and unwilling public, but is in some sense co-constructed with society. Putin has been, in effect, lifted up above the normal push and pull of politics by 10s of millions of Russians. 

Mark Williams
Again, that’s a fascinating response. Let’s dive into the heart of your article. And let’s start with the title. What are Russia’s impressionable years? What does that phrase actually mean for listeners who aren’t acquainted with it?

Will Pyle   
There’s a hypothesis from social psychology, that one’s life experiences in young adulthood, basically late teens until the mid 20s, leave a more lasting impact than if they’d occurred at another stage in life. This is often referred to as the impressionable years hypothesis. And not too long ago, two economists put the hypothesis to the test by looking into whether living through an economic downturn when you were 18 to 25, whether that affected your worldview later in life. So they looked at a lot of survey data from the United States going back to the middle of the 20th century, and what they found was that if you were you were living in a part of the United States that was going through tough economic times when you were in your impressionable years, you are more likely to hold progressive economic views later in life than somebody your own age that hadn’t experienced that same sort of economic downturn during their impressionable years.  Now, the impressionable years that I’m talking about in my article, that are part of the title of the article, are a bit different.  I’m using that phrase to refer to what I hypothesize is a stage of history in which all Russians regardless of age, were prone to form enduring memories and beliefs based on their own individual life experiences. I home in particular on the period from 1989 to 1994. And so that’s the idea. So I’m cribbing a term and using it in a slightly different way than it’s used traditionally. I focus in on that period from 1989 to 1994, and it’s a period that that covers the last three years of the Soviet Union and the first three years of an independent Russia. It’s a period that’s bracketed on one side by the dissolution of Soviet control over Eastern Europe and the unraveling of the Soviet economy and on the other side by the privatization of a huge swath of Russia’s economic base. It’s a half decade in which Russian life expectancy collapsed in a way that’s almost unprecedented for a country not experiencing war, or widespread disease. It’s a period in which the old rules governing how society was organized were thrown out, and new ones were introduced. It’s a period as I write in the article, when so much was so new for so many. Russians at that time, were taking it all in learning lessons about how a market economy with private property functioned, how democracy and free elections functioned, and drawing conclusions, forming beliefs that had the potential to endure for a long time, perhaps their entire lives. That particular half-decade, from 89 to 94, had the potential, I hypothesize—and it’s just a hypothesis—I hypothesize left a deep and lasting impression on them.


Mark Williams
How do you go about showing that there’s actually a connection between what Russians experienced in life during those impressionable years you’re talking about which, which honestly is over a generation ago, and what they believe much more recently.

Will Pyle 
So I couldn’t have done it without access to a really wonderful data set. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development carried out a massive survey across Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union in 2006. And they asked a whole bunch of questions of at least 1000 individuals per country. And one set of questions, had a retrospective or backward in time component to it. People were asked about life events, potential life events, and whether they’d occurred in 1989, 1990, 1991, each year all the way up until 2006. Which years for instance, they had been laid off from a job, which years they had experienced a severe decline in their household income, etc. Those are those sorts of questions.

Mark Williams  
Big life changing events, milestone events.

Will Pyle 
Exactly, exactly. People were asked also for a lot of information on their lives in 2006: their employment status, their income, how well they felt they were doing financially relative to other people in their country. So they basically collected a ton of personal information from this representative sample of at least 1000 people per country. The questions that I was most interested in had to do with their attitudes and beliefs, particularly whether they felt democracy was a good political system, whether an economy based on markets and private property was better than the alternatives, and whether they felt their government should do more to redistribute income and wealth. Now, these are their attitudes and beliefs circa 2006, well into the Putin years, which had begun in 1999. And I was particularly interested in investigating my impressionable years hypothesis, that a person’s life experiences and experiencing economic hardships between 1989 and 1994 influenced those beliefs and attitudes with respect to democracy, and a market economy, and the proper role of government in redistributing income in 2006 were different as a result. I’m thinking of Russians as being just incredibly sensitive to external stimuli in that period from 89 to 94, because everything was so new. And so they’re learning lessons about how this new world works. They’ve heard, and they’ve imagined what the world beyond the Berlin Wall was like prior to 1989.

Mark Williams 
The wonders of capitalism, and consumerism, and prosperity.

Will Pyle 
Exactly they had an exaggerated sense, I think, of the glories of life to the west. But they really had their antennas up in that period that half decade. And so that, because they were extra sensitive to their initial experiences, those initial lived experiences, I’m hypothesizing that those initial experiences did get embedded in a way that maybe later experiences with markets, private property, and even democracy didn’t get embedded in the same way.

Mark Williams
Well, one thing that stuck out to me in your article is that when you examine the attitudes and preferences that the Russians display, they’re quite skeptical, you claim, about economic inequality. And presumably, I assume that’s because since under Soviet communism, vast or routine economic inequality was rare, or at least it wasn’t acknowledged, officially. And this raised two questions in my mind: first, hasn’t economic inequality actually grown dramatically under Putin? And maybe I’m wrong about that, but that’s my impression. And second, if that’s true, then what does it tell us about how much Russians’ beliefs actually shaped the country’s trajectory under Putin?

Will Pyle
So that’s a great question. A really, really good question. I’m going to put a pin in it, if it’s okay with you, and come back to it.  And I’d like to finish the thought about how I actually use the survey data. 

Mark Williams
Okay, please do.

Will Pyle
To illustrate that the hypothesis, my hypothesis, actually held up.  And so, we economists, and a lot of political scientists these days, use statistical software.  We take it to the big data sets, and we can look at large data sets and perform exercises that effectively allow, in this case, me to compare Russians that are similar in all respects that I can observe in the data: same education, same household structure, same gender, age, similar economic circumstances in 2006. And then see if those who experienced economic hardship during the impressionable years, on average felt differently from those that didn’t experience economic hardship from those same impressionable years.  And that’s, in fact, what I find in the data.  Russians who suffered between 1989 and 1994, Russians who suffered, in particular because they lost their job or they suffered a severe decline in their income, they’re the ones that are particularly skeptical of democracy and market economics. And they’re particularly big believers in a more progressive redistributionist government in 2006.  So they have a very different orientation than Russians who didn’t have this same experience of suffering back in those impressionable years.  Now, interestingly, I didn’t find any relationship in the data between individuals experiencing a job loss or a decline in income after 1994 and their beliefs in 2006, there was only in that period between 1989 and 1994 where we see that strong relationship.  But to come back to your really good question about inequality and Russian sensitivity to inequality, it certainly comes out in the survey data from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development that Russians are unusually kind of sensitive to questions of economic inequality. And they’re big believers relative to peoples in other countries that government should get involved in addressing inequality.

Mark Williams
What’s interesting to me about that is from a Western perspective, we hear a lot about the oligarchs who have commandeered the commanding heights of the Russian economy, perhaps via the privatization of portions of the old Soviet state-owned enterprises and so forth. And from a Western perspective, one hears a lot about the growth of inequality that seems to be quite dramatic. And so, which is why I was wondering about the impact that Russians’ concerns over inequality might actually have or not have on the direction that the Russian state is going under President Putin.

Will Pyle 
It’s a very natural question. Now economists, we have ways of formally measuring inequality. And those measures just took off really rapidly in the early 1990s. And if anything in the years since they’ve come down.

Mark Williams
Really, they’ve come down?

Will Pyle
They’ve come down. They’re still very high. In terms of the policy response to the inequality even in the present day, I think there are a couple points worth making. First of all, Putin recognizes that there’s a political payoff to knocking the rich off their pedestal. During his first term, all the way back in the early 2000s, he launched a frontal assault against one of the big oligarchs.  There was one particular oligarch, guy named Mikhail Kolakowski, who was the owner of the biggest private oil firm in Russia in the early 2000s. And Putin threw him in jail for 10 years, before sending him into exile, and that was incredibly popular. And Putin understood that that would be popular because of Russian sensitivity to question inequality.

Mark Williams
I see. So he could use some of this to his own political advantage in a very practical sense.

Will Pyle
Yes, very much so. And another point, in part because of the Russian public sensitivity to economic inequality, Putin and his inner circle have gone to great lengths in the present day to conceal just how wealthy they’ve become. You’re probably familiar with the name of Alexei Navalny, who’s been Russia’s leading opposition figure for at least a decade now. Just in the past year, he survived an assassination attempt.

Mark Williams
He was poisoned, wasn’t he?

Will Pyle
He was poisoned just before getting on a plane, and then he was nursed back to health in a German hospital. But being the courageous figure that he is he went right back to Russia, got right back in the game, and very soon after that was put in prison on trumped up charges. Anyways, Navalny’s popularity as an opposition figure grew out of his efforts to expose the corruption and ill-gotten wealth of Russia’s governing elites. Information about Russia’s inequality today is something that Putin very much wants to keep hidden.

Mark Williams 
That reminds me of something that’s been in the news of late, and that is the revelations about hidden wealth by powerful individuals and world leaders that have been revealed with respect to the Pandora Papers. Can you tell us anything about that, and how that might play into the sensitivity that Russians have about inequality within their country?

Will Pyle
So my understanding is, I’ve just read the news stories, and my understanding is that there are more Russian accounts that have been unearthed than accounts from any other single country.

Mark Williams
These are issues they would rather not see come to light.

Will Pyle
Exactly. Because of exactly what you asked about because of Russian sensitivity to questions of inequality, they really want to keep these sorts of matters under wraps.

Mark Williams 
When one reads your article that Russians are skeptical of inequality and draws a line, perhaps logically, that maybe that type of public opinion would lead to state policies that might seek to diminish inequality or address issues of inequality, what I’m hearing you say is that it’s not that the political leadership doesn’t understand the sensitivities that Russians display towards inequality, it is that they do understand them, and, A, either don’t want them to become too public and too much discusses, or B, at times might be able to use those sensitivities for political purposes and to their political advantage.

Will Pyle 
I think that’s right.


Mark Williams
Let’s think about what you’re addressing with respect to Russia but in a slightly different context. Didn’t a lot of other countries that are in Russia’s part of the world also go through some really similar tough times when communism collapsed after the Cold War ended? What do we see in those countries? What can you tell us about, you know, something about how Poles, or Ukrainians, or Georgians experienced those impressionable years? Was it similar with the Russians? And have the outcomes to your knowledge been similar or different?

Will Pyle
So it’s true. Almost all the other countries that you mentioned, all the other countries in the region experienced profound economic shocks in the wake of the collapse of communism. Some countries experienced even steeper declines in income in the early 1990s. And throughout Eastern Europe, hard times in the aftermath of economic liberalization were the norm, collapses in GDP, persistently high rates of unemployment; for all the former Soviet republics, but Russia really, those economic wounds were salved, at least in part by the excitement of democracy, by getting out from under the Soviet yoke, and achieving political independence. But for Russians, identification with the Soviet Union was always much stronger than it was for the peoples of the other post-Soviet states. So, the Soviet Union’s collapse was experienced by them much more as a psychological loss. In the survey data that I look at for the article, outside of Russia and those other countries from the former Soviet Union, I don’t see the same pattern connecting personal experiences with economic hardship in the early 1990s. And personal beliefs in the 2000s.

Mark Williams
Are you saying that the psychological dimension that you see in the Russian data isn’t mirrored in the data from some of the other countries?

Will Pyle  
So, I am speculating. I don’t really see the psychological dimension in the Russian data, I’m speculating that it’s there that the fact that I see that relationship in the Russian data, and I don’t see it in the data from these other post-Soviet countries, lines up with this hypothesis that I have, that there is this kind of this combination of economic and psychological factors that’s unique to Russians and is not shared elsewhere in the post-Soviet space.

Mark Williams
Do you think that that’s because Russians, seeing themselves as the sort of lodestone of the Soviet Union, had much more to lose than some of the other countries that were grafted into the Soviet Union, are satellites of the Soviet sphere of influence?

Will Pyle
The Soviet Union got started in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They were the cradles of the revolution. Russians always occupied the most prominent political posts. Russians always identified more with the Soviet Union, than the peoples of the other republics. So, there was a real sense of identity tied to that.

Mark Williams
That larger political project.

Will Pyle
That larger political project, that larger political body the Russians felt that certainly the people in the Balts, certainly the Georgians, the Armenians, the Azeris, they never felt. And a lot of those people had been part of independent countries before the Soviet Union was even formed. And so, they really kind of felt a sense of liberation when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Mark Williams 
Will, I’m curious about something in your, in your hypothesis, and in the findings that you are presenting in this paper? I’m really curious to know what role, and it’s not necessarily addressed in the paper which is why I’m asking now, what role do you think that time and speed might play in the process of forming worldviews? And by this I mean, do you think that it was simply the losses, the economic and the social losses that Russians experienced when the Soviet Union imploded, which played the leading role in forming their worldview, that you see during the Putin era? Or was it the rapidity of these changes that mattered more?

Will Pyle
I think the speed of the changes is critical here. Russians really had the rug pulled out from under them in the early 1990s. The Soviet world, in many ways, was a world of certainty and security. Incomes may not have been as high as the incomes that we have here in the industrialized West. But people were guaranteed a job, they were guaranteed basic health care, they were guaranteed a pension. In the early 1990s, all that was taken away, almost overnight, incredibly rapidly. There’s a Berkeley anthropologist, a guy by the name of Alexei Yurchak, who captured that sense of a wholly unexpected, an almost tectonic shift in Russians’ lives in a book he entitled, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.

Mark Williams
It’s a great title. Well, given the magnitude of the changes that were wrought inside what had been the Soviet Union, given the way that those changes seem to have affected the development of worldviews and the preferences for politics and economics that citizens hold later on, would you expect to see similar results if you studied a different country that underwent a sort of similar loss? And here I’m thinking of, for example, suppose you studied the British say, pre and post the loss of empire, would you expect to see something similar develop in the mindset of British citizens. Would you expect to see similar dynamics, as you observed in Russia, in these other contexts?

Will Pyle  
That’s a fun question. Of course, with economists always wanting to know if there’s good data to answer that question. If there was good data to answer that question, I think that would be a natural extension.

Mark Williams
I’m asking you to speculate.

Will Pyle
So, I will speculate now and I’ll draw on somebody who’s smarter than me, Yegor Gaidar who served under Yeltsin as Russia’s prime minister in 1992 and was really the architect of the country’s rapid economic transition away from communism. Just before his death a little over a decade ago, he wrote a really, really smart book called Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia. And in it, he writes how difficult it can be to the national consciousness to adapt to the loss of imperial status. He pointed out that when the decline is gradual, a process that extends over decades, this was arguably the case, for Britain.

Mark Williams
It certainly  was the case for  Britain.

Will Pyle
In the 20th century. The elites and the public realized that coming to terms with the hopelessness, the uselessness of trying to preserve the empire is futile. And in those cases, it’s much easier to handle imperial decline than a sudden collapse, like the Soviet Union experienced. A second thing Gaidar pointed out was that while his reading of history is that nostalgia for territorially integrated empires is always going to be stronger and longer lasting and deeper than the nostalgia for overseas empires. When the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991, millions of ethnic Russians were cut off from Russia proper and they were residing in newly independent countries like Ukraine, in what used to be Russia’s territorially integrated empire. Now Putin drew on that, that sense of loss and frayed connections when he decided to annex Crimea back in 2014. Indeed, that was incredibly popular. And Putin’s popularity, I think, was no higher than it’s ever been over the past 20 years than immediately after.

Mark Williams
So, the loss of a landed empire is felt more acutely, more intensely than the loss of an overseas empire. That in turn will have effects on the development of a worldview.

Will Pyle   
One of the things that Gaidar expounds on in making that point is that he’s worried that Russia will suffer from the same sort of syndrome that Germany suffered from between the wars. After World War One and territories were, the borders separating states were redrawn. And some of the empires that existed prior to World War One were dissolved: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire were dissolved and state boundaries were redrawn. A lot of Germans got left in nation states outside of Germany, for instance, the Sudeten Germans who were in Czechoslovakia. And of course, Hitler used the fraying of those ethnic bonds across national borders to gin up nationalist sentiments and to get Germans fired up for his ambitions, his expansionist ambitions. And Gaidar, writing in 2007 in a way that was very prescient actually, thought that Putin might do something similar.

Mark Williams
To try and reacquire influence or even territory of what had been the Former Soviet Union.

Will Pyle  
Exactly. Not only did Russia invade Georgia in 2008, a year after Gaidar wrote those words, but using the pretext of Russians in Ukraine, he annexed Crimea and has supported surreptitiously this kind of frozen conflict in the Donbass in the years since.

Mark Williams  
This is really fascinating. Let me bring you back to how you approach the research in your in your article. As an economist, Will, as a scholar of Russia’s economy, its economic performance, its economic transition, how is research that’s based on honestly what we might call sort of non-standard economic tools, how is that useful? I guess what I’m really asking is, what does the approach that you’ve adopted in the article here help us understand about Russia’s economy or its trajectory that a more standard economic approach might not fully explain or illuminate?

Will Pyle 
So, I’m not sure that I’d say that there’s a more standard economic approach to the topic. Economics is a discipline that’s diverse in the questions that it asks and the methods that it uses. I do feel particularly good, particularly proud about the way that I reached out to research on Russia from other disciplines, sociology and anthropology, for example, oral histories, as well, those sources from outside my discipline were particularly influential in the way I formulated my hypothesis, that Russians were particularly impressionable during those years right around the Soviet collapse. To the extent that commentators talk about the Yeltsin years in the 1990s today, most treat the decade as a single contiguous whole. But what my investigation of the sociological and anthropological literature allowed me to see was that Russians experienced the early 1990s very differently than they did the mid to late 1990s, even though the economy in the latter half of the decade was even, if anything, in a worse state than it had been in the earlier part of the decade.

Mark Williams 
Interesting. Interesting. Well, what’s next for you? The article that we’ve been discussing for this episode of New Frontiers was published back in January 2020. And you’ve been on sabbatical, I know, for the past year, so are you continuing to do research on this topic? What’s coming down the line?

Will Pyle 
Well, so with a colleague from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, I’m working on a new paper that also explores the general relationship between economic shocks and political preferences in Russia. We’re looking at presidential voting patterns between 1991 and 2000, a period that bridges the before and after of market liberalization and privatization. There’s another paper that I’m working on with a colleague at Indiana University, and we’re analyzing how Russians respond relative to the peoples of other countries that get at what we’re calling for now aggressively nationalistic points of view. We’re not terribly comfortable with that term yet. It has a kind of a negative connotation.

Mark Williams
It sounds foreboding.

Will Pyle
Yes, so we might rethink that. But for now, we’re calling it aggressive nationalism. And we’re looking at a quarter century worth of polling data from the 1990s up almost to the present day, focusing in on whether people agree that it’s best to support their country even when it’s wrong, or that their countries should pursue its interests, even if doing so leads to conflict with other countries. And what we’re finding with our data suggests that there’s a real appetite for expansion of military spending, supporting their country, even if it leads to military conflict, supporting their country, even if they know in their heart of hearts that it’s wrong, that that appetite, if anything, it’s stronger, prior to Putin getting on the scene.

Mark Williams
It’s much more endogenous than something that’s been induced by the leader.

Will Pyle
It’s more embedded in Russians. And I don’t want to get into the kind of essentialist argument that it’s always been in the Russian character to be more militarist and aggressive. I think the trigger, and it’s a natural trigger, and it’s not a kind of story, an essentialist sort of story, is that it’s the Russians’ experience that exit from communism in just a very particular way. It’s that combination of being the metropole of a former imperial empire, and experiencing the economic hardship. Those two things kind of mixing in together, gave rise to, it kind of created this brew of factors that gave rise to a more aggressively nationalistic population. In the West, I’m not sure we treated Russia with the respect that they deserved.

Mark Williams
Certainly not the respect that they felt they deserved.

Will Pyle
Certainly not the respect they felt they deserved in the 1990s. We took NATO right up to their right up to their doorstep.

Mark Williams
All the time expressing surprise that this might disquiet Russia. Yes.

Will Pyle
And I think it did. And I think that in many ways, and that was done in the 1990s by the Clinton administration. And I think there were good reasons, there were not necessarily all, there were good reasons for doing that. Can I say with certainty that Putin wouldn’t have made a move into Estonia, if Estonia wasn’t a member of NATO, like it is now? No, I can’t say that; maybe that would have occurred. But I think if we were a little bit more careful in the way that we treated Russia, and were a little bit more sensitive to their former status as a superpower, were a little bit less triumphalist in the aftermath of the Cold War’s end that that aggressive nationalist streak, or however you want to call it, may not have come to the fore as dramatically is it seems to have in the survey data that we’re observing.

Mark Williams
Will, your new project sounds fascinating. I can’t wait to read the article that comes from it. And thank you very much for talking to us today on New Frontiers.

Will Pyle 
Mark, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.


NH
Professor Will Pyle lives in Middlebury with his wife and sons—the joys of his life. While Professor Pyle grew up in Seattle, Washington, he lived in various places throughout the world which included Japan where he went to kindergarten.  Professor Pyle has always loved music from eclectic to Americana and grew up playing the piano. He is very active in the community and has been a Meals on Wheels volunteer for over 12 years.  Around town, you can often see him bicycling or catch him at a soccer or ice hockey game.

 
Joyce Mao
Joyce Mao

Episode 2—China and the American Right

“Asia First was an insistence that Pacific affairs receive as much if not more attention than European Atlantic relations in the Cold War. Its proponents, its supporters, many of whom were very powerful, conservative voices in the Senate and in Congress, felt like U.S. foreign policy after World War II was neglecting mainland Asia and therefore imperiling the whole Cold War.” —Joyce Mao

In this episode, Mark Williams talks with Joyce Mao, Middlebury College associate professor of history, about the Asia First initiative and, in particular, the effects that U.S.-China-Taiwan relations had on American domestic politics. Why were American conservatives so interested in Asia after WWII and in China particularly? In what ways, if any, did conservative concerns over China influence U.S. foreign policy, and how did conservatives’ interest in China help shape the development of the political right in the United States?

Joyce Mao’s book, Asia First: China and the Making of Modern American Conservatism, was published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press.

New Frontiers - Season 1, Ep 2: China and the American Right

New Frontiers - Season 1, Ep 2: China and the American Right
Joyce Mao, associate professor of history at Middlebury College, discusses her research and book, Asia First: China and the Making of Modern American Conservatism, the first publication to look at the imprint of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations upon the American Right after World War II.


New Frontiers podcast with Joyce Mao

Charlotte Tate
From the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College, this is New Frontiers. I’m Charlotte Tate, associate director of the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs. New Frontiers podcasts highlight research undertaken by Middlebury scholars and others, on matters of international and global concern.  Everything is fair game—from big tech, environmental conservation and global security—to religion, culture, and changing work patterns.

In this episode, Mark Williams—director of the Rohatyn Center—sits down with historian Joyce Mao, to discuss how concerns over China—and US foreign policy in Asia after WWII—helped shape modern political conservativism in America, and create a movement which in time exercised increasing influence in American politics.

Mark Williams
Joyce Mao is an associate professor of history at Middlebury College. Much of her research is focused on American foreign affairs and national politics during the cold war, especially with respect to U.S.-Asia relations and, in particular, with respect to the effects that U.S., China, Taiwan relations had on American domestic politics. Today, I’ll be talking with Joyce about the arguments she makes and the conclusions she reaches in her book, Asia First: China and the Making of Modern American Conservatism, which the University of Chicago Press published in 2015. Joyce Mao, welcome to New Frontiers.

Joyce Mao
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. I love the title of the series. I feel like we’re going to announce a mission to the moon.

Mark Williams
We might get there eventually. Well, why don’t we dive right in and let me ask this.  With all of the history that there is to study what kindled your own personal interest in this particular topic, China and the United States of the 1950s and 60s, what was it that drew you to this subject?

Joyce Mao
Well, my interest in political history and the history of conservatism began when I was an undergrad history major at UC Berkeley and growing up in California and studying California history, I became very aware of California as the cradle of the new right. And when I went to grad school in history at Berkeley, there was a very steady discourse about conservative internationalism, especially after 9/11.  And mainstream media coverage of 9/11 and what the Bush administration would do in response to it really made it seem as if conservative internationalism and overseas intervention were a given. And I was curious about how that came to be, because I was doing a lot of reading about the 1930s and 1940s when conservatives were considered isolationists. So, I began to wonder how conservatism got from point A to point B. And the more I read, the more I researched, it became very clear that China was a big part of that equation.

Mark Williams
Interesting. Interesting. Well, let’s go back to the beginning in a way, and let’s think about the title of your book itself. What do you mean by Asia First? What is that?

Joyce Mao
Well to put it succinctly, Asia first was an insistence that Pacific affairs receive as much, if not more attention than European Atlantic relations in the cold war, its proponents, its supporters, many of whom were very powerful, conservative voices in the Senate, in Congress felt like U.S. foreign policy after World War II was neglecting mainland Asia and therefore imperiling the whole cold war.

Mark Williams
Is this sort of coming out of the, the tail end of the Marshall Plan and the efforts to, to rebuild Western Europe after the war?

Joyce Mao
Yes. And certainly that was a counterpoint. Conservatives who were Asia firsters looked at what was happening in Europe and the investment that was happening there on the part of the United States as a stark contrast to what they felt was not happening in China in particular. And it’s great that you bring up Marshall because it was the failure of the Marshall mission in 1947, to bring about some sort of coalition government between the Chinese communists and the Chinese nationalists that really saw a drop off in terms of initiative for U.S.-China policy. And of course, Asia firsters would argue that pause really helped bring about a conclusion to the Chinese civil war that was unfavorable to American interests.

Mark Williams
You perhaps have already answered this or at least provided part of an answer. If we were to go back to the 50s and 60s, is the reason that American conservatives were so concerned about Asia precisely because they saw this divide, you might say, between the focus on Europe and the efforts that were being put forth there and the focus on, or the lack of focus that they saw or perceived to be with respect to of Asia?

Joyce Mao
There was definitely among some conservatives, a genuine, sincere interest in China and the fate of China. A long missionary history, a long history of engagement with China that really dated from the early 19th century was one of the underpinnings that Asia first conservatives pointed to as evidence that the United States should keep up a commitment to the potential of a democratic, what they called a free China. And so, all the efforts that were underway in the European Atlantic provided a strong precedent for conservatives to say, why isn’t the same sort of investment being made in regards to China. But then there’s the cynical side of the story in that there were plenty of conservatives who became Asia firsters, who really didn’t have an organic interest in China, who regarded Chiang kai shek’s leadership with some degree of skepticism, but China was too good of an opportunity to pass up when it came to critiquing containment policy, liberalism as a governing ethos. And so, when joining forces, those Asia firsters who really believed in a free China and those who were there for more sort of opportunistic reasons, and many of them were one and the same really, it resulted in a potent argument about an Achilles heel in U.S. foreign policy and became a politicized issue within domestic political circles.

Mark Williams
So, China should be at the forefront for a variety of security reasons, strategic reasons.

Joyce Mao
Yes, absolutely. And after 1949 and Mao’s victory, you have to understand that the world map was at the forefront of a lot of political arguments in terms of which part of the world was free, quote unquote, and which part of the world was red, quote unquote. And with Mao’s victory, the largest country in the world went red. And so, that for Asia first conservatives was proof positive that containment policy was going to fail. It had already failed. The United States had, quote unquote, lost China to communism. And so, there were questions of, well who lost China? Who within the U.S. government let this happen? And that is based on a number of assumptions about American paternalism and that China is the United States’s to lose in the first place?

Mark Williams
That’s exactly what I was going to say. It’s always fascinating to me to hear those types of discourses for precisely the reasons you’ve outlined, as if a country, a civilization as old and a country as vast as China was America’s to lose in the first place. It’s quite odd. So let’s go back to these concerns that the conservatives had with respect to China. Was this the dominant mode of thought in the United States at the time, is this what most people were thinking back then, or was there a kind of counter narrative and at least in political circles that saw things about China differently than the way that the conservatives did?

Joyce Mao
Asia first conservatism, the argument that the United States had somehow lost China was definitely the alternative political view. But they were an incredibly loud minority voice with well-placed advocates in elite institutions within government. The dominant mode of thinking about U.S. foreign policy was of course containment theory. And this was, you know, the overarching framework for the cold war that most experts signed on to. What was different about Asia first was its very pointed critique, not only that containment and a defensive posture in the cold war, wasn’t going to work in the long term and that China was evidence of that; but also, they took containment theory as an example of how liberalism overall was a faulty way to approach governance, both at home and in foreign policy. And so, the spinoff arguments about who lost China and Asia first brought in arguments about executive power, congressional balance of power, not only in foreign policy but in other realms of governance as well, and how the United States saw itself within a multilateral security system. So, Asia firsters extended the who lost China argument into critiques of the United Nations for example, corresponding arguments about how the United States needed to wield its power more unilaterally and not be beholden to the whims of communist states or third world nations.

Mark Williams
Who might be members of the United Nations.  

Joyce Mao
Precisely. So then there’s also the McCarthy side of the story. McCarthy’s red scare began as a hunt for communist subversion within the state department. Who lost China was a big part of the context for McCarthyism’s rise to the fore of the national political discussion. And so, arguments about government is too big; it’s too bureaucratic; there are employees within government who aren’t vetted enough; and that such an unwieldy state is not serving American interests either at home or abroad.

Mark Williams
I see. Well, this is really fascinating to think about the way that the foreign gets mirrored into the domestic and is welded together there. Let me be a little provocative. You said that you were a history major as an undergraduate. I almost became a history major myself, so I did a fair amount of reading as an undergraduate in history. And the history books, at least to my mind, they’re usually filled with lots of information, lots of details and so forth. But when you boil it all down, most history books seem to make a couple of central or really big arguments. And one of the biggest arguments that your book seems to make is that the conservatives’ interest in China actually helped shape how the political right developed here in the United States. So I have two questions for you here. First, is that more or less an accurate reading of the book, I’m not misinterpreting anything there? Is that an accurate reading of one of the books big arguments? And second, if it is an accurate reading, then how much of this conservative focus on China actually did help shape how the political right developed here at home?

Joyce Mao
You read the book correctly. Thank you for, you know, hewing so closely to one of the main arguments that I make in the book is that China helped bridge a divide between the elite institutional politicians that were easily associated with Asia first conservatism, names like Barry Goldwater, William F. Nolan, who was a senator from California, Robert Taft, who was a senator from Ohio and senate majority leader. These were folks who really inhabited sort of exalted realms of elite American politics. But one of the marked features of the postwar new right is its grassroots movement and its ability to reach new audiences, new constituents, and keep conservatism evolving and reaching new audiences and new voters. And in the 1940s, there is a palpable divide between elite conservative officials in places like Congress, and a growing grassroots movement that is going to only reach full flower in the 1960s.

China is an issue that helps, in a topical way, elite officials reach out to grassroots activists and vice  versa. China means so many different things to so many different kinds of Americans. And what really helps unite these branches of the conservative movement, when it comes to China, is this affinity for the idea of China and the potential of China as a democratic counterpart to the United States in the Pacific. It is something that I found really consistently in the archives when it came to letters from constituents to their representatives. Publications that grassroots organizations would put out to members and future members, as well as, you know campaigns trying to reach out to elected officials.

Mark Williams
This belief that China would become or ought to become a democracy, sort of the mirror image of the United States, something like that?

Joyce Mao
Yes. And that goes back to that sort of open door, special relationship that harkened back to the United States poised to become a major world power reaching out, the world’s youngest democracy reaching out to reform, you know, the world’s oldest country in a meaningful way and building sort of bridges of ideological brotherhood. At the same time, the reality is that that relationship never really existed in the first place; that there was a distinct power imbalance that the dreams of a Chinese democracy never really come to fruition according to American metrics. And there is a lot of discussion among both conservative activists and conservative officials in the past perfect tense that the United States should have done this. It could have done that. And so, in the 1940s maybe there was some potential hope that the cold war would go a different way, but once the PRC became an irrevocable reality, there is a distinct rhetorical shift that both elite officials and activists share in that, okay, well we’re going to treat China as evidence. What happened to China’s evidence that liberalism is a failure containment is a joke and use what we can out of this idea of China to move our own agendas forward.

Mark Williams
So, the right becomes shaped by its being the antithesis of liberalism, its perception of liberalism. And this has both a domestic and an international or foreign component to it.

Joyce Mao
And one of the arguments I make in Asia First is that without China, without the specter of Chinese communism, the right would not have been able to muster the same kind of foreign policy platform and foreign policy arguments that it so eloquently advanced in the 60s and beyond.

Mark Williams
Interesting, interesting. Your book I think makes clear that when you’re talking about conservatives, quote unquote, you’re really referring to modern conservatives. And so, for the benefit of our listeners, could you please explain what you mean by modern conservatism?  Modern as opposed to what?  

Joyce Mao
Modern as opposed to the earlier iteration of conservatism that dominated say in the 20s and the 30s, the brand of politics that emphasized small government, free market, and a brand of politics that frankly, after the great crash of 1929 was associated most readily with big business, the one percent. I call it modern conservatism based on two key characteristics. The first is an approach to internationalism, meaning an active vision for the United States role in the world, and a clear approach to foreign policy. This is something that’s distinctly lacking in the pre-World War II version of conservatism. But after World War II, it’s a political necessity to have a foreign policy. And one of the stories that I track in the book is how it is that China as an issue came along at precisely the right time for conservatives who are looking for a way to achieve a toehold in full foreign policy discussions. This gave them a really good opportunity to enter a national and international discussion about how it is that the United States was going to wield its superpower. So, however theoretical or imperfect in its application, this Asia first internationalism really did signal a responsiveness to global affairs, marking it as modern, as I discuss in the book.

Mark Williams
Okay. Then one might say that the conservatives at the time took stock of their movement. They saw a gap, meaning a foreign policy gap, and China was utilized to help fill that gap and help build and expand the movement.

Joyce Mao
Yes. The second feature of modern conservatism that I really want to mark is how it is that conservatism continually evolved its organization and its mobilization, meaning that it was a political movement whose dynamic composition allowed for future growth. And it allowed for the movement to have multiple epicenters of activism, legislation, changing ideas, and therefore ensuring that it would continue to progress and move forward. And one of the key claims that I make in Asia First is that China was a key component of both those branches of conservative development.

Mark Williams
So, China was also an aspect of this, we might call it agility, this movement agility?  Can you elaborate?

Joyce Mao
China was a way for conservatives to advance ideas and ideals because it was almost a figment of the imagination, this idea that China could be a democratic counterpart to the United States. The needle wasn’t moving in terms of official China policy, per se. Chiang kai shek was not going to be, quote unquote, unleashed to take back the mainland. That was a far from distant possibility and conservatives knew it. So the ways in which they would invoke China, which drew upon, you know, sort of sentimental attachment to China or China as a shorthand for liberalism’s failures, was a way for conservatives to demonstrate that they had some sort of foreign policy acumen, but at the same time invoke a lot of the ideas that were driving their movement at that particular moment in time.

Mark Williams
Okay. Thank you. Sort of carrying on with this notion of modern conservatives, as you look over America’s political landscape today, do you think that there’s still such a thing as a modern conservative, at least as in terms of the way that you’re using this to describe the 1950s and the 1960s?

Joyce Mao
When I look at politics today, I definitely see vestiges of Asia first internationalism within contemporary discussions about foreign policy. There are still tenants of conservative internationalism from the 50s and 60s that are readily associated with the ways in which conservative foreign policy is thought of and remembered; things like an emphasis on unilateralism, selective military intervention, and certainly a sort of hardline rhetorical articulation about things like communism. And I’m thinking specifically about the Reagan era, but even today there is growing public sphere analysis of how the cold war continues to impact contemporary politics, and Asia first internationalism should be part of that conversation. But I think when you look at and assess the conservative movement today, you also need to take into account the social and moral phase of conservative development that drove the movement in the 1970s and the 1980s. Nowadays, I think it’s a combination of a hawkish unilateralism and the moralism of the Christian right, as well as a willingness to harness the energy of the fringe as a way to redefine the mainstream. Someone like Josh Hawley seems eager to take up the mantle of modern conservatism. Ben Sasse is also in the mix.

Mark Williams
Okay. Good examples. You know, I have to say that I found your book a really enjoyable read, and I’m wondering if you could share a couple of telling stories from the book, you know, are there any particular nuggets that listeners might look forward to reading about?

Joyce Mao
Well, one entire chapter is devoted to the John Birch Society, which was a well-known grassroots organization named after a U.S. army intelligence officer named John Birch, who was killed by Chinese communist soldiers in the waning days of World War II. Not many folks who have even heard of the John Birch Society would recognize the origins of the group’s name. And it’s an example of what I was talking about in terms of that bridge that China provided between grassroots organizations like the John Birch Society and elite politicians. The name inspiration came to the founder of the John Birch Society, a man named Robert Welch, who was a candy maker from just outside of Boston. Welch was really disillusioned with Republican politics; he did not like the direction of the party; he really hated Eisenhower. In fact, he accused Eisenhower of being a secret communist in a really ill-thought-out book. 

Mark Williams
They were everywhere.

Joyce Mao
Apparently. And he really did not feel at home within the Republican Party. And then he heard a speech by Senator William F. Nolan of California, one of the loudest Asia first conservatives, about this man named John Birch, who was a Baptist evangelical soldier, who was the so-called first casualty of the cold war. And it happened in China. And Welch was inspired. He wrote to Nolan, I saw the letters between them, and they had this long correspondence about how John Birch was an American hero. And Welch kept that under his hat for a few years. And then decided to establish this new grassroots organization that would fight for American freedom, fight the American cold war, you know, by harnessing the power of the American voter, the ordinary American. And, again wrote William F. Nolan and said, this is what I’m doing with this story that you shared with me. And so, that to me is a really potent example of how it is that China brought together these different branches of the right, that weren’t exactly seeing eye to eye.

Mark Williams
Grassroot and elite in this case. I see. Okay.

Joyce Mao
And the John Birch Society is a really good example of that. Another story that I really love that I talk about in the book is the time when Barry Goldwater sued Jimmy Carter in 1979. One of Jimmy Carter’s initiatives as president was to fully normalize relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. And he began,

Mark Williams
This was the process that had begun with Richard Nixon.

Joyce Mao
Yes. Traveling to Beijing in 1972. Until the late 1970s, there really hadn’t been much advancement in that relationship in terms of fully realizing a normal relationship between these two very important countries, and Carter wanted to bring that about. And he decided not to renew the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. And this was a decision that he announced in late 1978. Conservatives, as you can imagine, were livid. None more so than Barry Goldwater. He accused Carter of obliterating Taiwan’s independence, quote, he is saying Taiwan has no right to exist, end quote. All because Carter had announced that he wasn’t going to renew the mutual defense treaty. And so, Goldwater took Carter to court. A sitting U.S. senator sued the sitting U.S. president. Goldwater, and nine other senators, and ten representatives filed a civil suit in U.S. district court. They argued that the president had no constitutional right to end a treaty without consulting Congress or the Senate ratifying the decision with a vote. And this was really, as you can imagine, a remarkable moment.

Mark Williams
Somehow this escaped my intellectual horizon. This is the first I’ve heard about this.

Joyce Mao
The case reached the Supreme Court, eventually. It cycled through, you know, district court and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case without oral arguments, in December 1979. After hearing arguments, it declined jurisdiction, dismissed the case by a vote of six to three. The majority opinion stated that matters of presidential power should be determined by congressional processes, not judicial processes. And really basically the majority opinion said, this is an embarrassing situation, and it would not bode well if all three branches of government did not see eye to eye on this particular question. So we’re not, we’re not getting involved in this fight. This defeat of Goldwater’s case was actually offset by the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in the spring of 1979. And the TRA was a really forceful statement by Congress that there would be continuing American support for Taiwanese sovereignty. It included that crucial element of future arms sales, if the island’s defenses were in need. And that’s really what Goldwater and other Asia firsters wanted to maintain in the first place. They also wanted to show up the president and really kind of reiterate Congress’s power when it came to foreign policy.

Mark Williams
This is so fascinating. In light of everything that you’ve said so far and what I have read in the book, what impact did the conservative efforts ultimately have on American foreign policy and U.S.-China relations? What’s your assessment there?

Joyce Mao
Well, the foreign policy manifestation took time. It wasn’t an immediate overnight change in which you see conservative internationalism or conservative foreign policy rise to the fore of actual cold war strategy.

Mark Williams
So if we were talking about the 40s and the 50s where you, the period that you’re focusing on, are we seeing demonstrable achievements at this point?

Joyce Mao
Not so much. What I talk about in the book is that the foreign policy arguments that were being made in the 50s really had most impact on domestic politics. But then the seeds were planted for the long term. Conservatives eventually run presidential candidates, eventually win the White House under an unabashedly conservative banner with Ronald Reagan. And certainly, you know, something like Reagan’s rhetoric during the cold war, which was very hardline, at least in public, owes a lot to that conservative internationalism and that sort of hardline stance about winning the cold war. We’re talking about rollback, not containment. And that’s something that Asia firsters articulated as far back as the 50s. I think another impact that Asia first has had on U.S.-China relations specifically, is the fact that Taiwan remains a key issue and that the independence of Taiwan, the sovereignty of Taiwan, is something that is going to continue to mark U.S.-China relations.

Mark Williams
It’s in the news right now.

Joyce Mao
Absolutely. I mean, it’s certainly what she and Biden were discussing the other day. The other element in terms of lingering and lasting impact is how Asia first really demonstrated that American public sentiment about China matters when it comes to the shape of national political discussions. And that millions of Americans care about China and think that China has a place within America’s future for better or for worse.

Mark Williams
Okay. I understand now. To what extent do you think that Asia first still resonates with America’s political right today? Can it help us better understand what’s happening inside conservatism right now?

Joyce Mao
Understanding the history that American conservatism has with China, I think helps us to better understand not only the history of that particular movement, but also get a better read on the nuances of what’s being discussed today. When we think about China’s continuing reverberations within American politics, conservatives consistent calling out of the PRC is really hard to miss. Trump’s demonization of the PRC, even as he expressed personal admiration for Xi Jinping is one example, and certainly foreign policy credentials for politicians who are on the right entail op-eds and public addresses about the dangers of a China unchecked by the United States. Even with a Democrat in the White House, the tenor of recent U.S.-China relations really does recall the era of the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Biden’s overall approach, his continuation of the trade war with the PRC, his emphasis on building out American infrastructure and multi-lateral alliances to counter the PRC, signal the legacies of Asia first. And when it comes to American public opinion, polls reveal a prevalent concern about China and its significance for the United States, and it’s a concern that cuts across partisan and regional lines. And so, one thing that I’m left wondering is how these present circumstances really elicit the question of, are we all, progressives, liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between, all Asia firsters now?

Mark Williams
It’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about the extent to which a focus on China might actually carry more weight today than it did in times past, particularly in the 40s and the 50s. I’m thinking about China which is not a huge, impoverished country. It is a huge, wealthy country. A China whose power clearly is growing, whose influence is growing, and whose ambitions are following in step with its growth of influence. As a political scientist, as someone who looks at and thinks about great power relations in a serious way, there seems to be a great case to make that this is a relationship that ought to be managed with care, for all of these obvious reasons. We’re not talking about a country that is easy to ignore, or that should be ignored. In contrast with the 40s and the 50s, where one I think could make a case that given what had happened in the second world war and given the problems that Europe had created for most of the world, the focus probably should be there to make sure that those types of problems don’t recur. Do you have any thoughts about what’s going on with U.S.-China relations right now? As a student of history, are there any lessons from the 1950s and the 1960s that you think might help policy makers, either in Beijing or Washington, make this relationship the best that it could be?

Joyce Mao
I keep coming back to Taiwan as a flash point for U.S.-China relations, and the recent discussions about China and about Taiwan really do show a contrast in terms of what the United States will go to bat for. Not human rights violations, not pro-democracy protest crackdowns in Hong Kong. Those two latter events did not elicit the same sort of strong protectionism that the Biden administration has demonstrated say with military exercises and strong rhetoric in bilateral talks with the PRC. The way in which I think I’m going to consider, you know, the shape of future U.S.-China relations still centers on that old issue of Taiwan. Which is very familiar to many Americans, sort of intergenerationally, and I think holds a sort of historical weight that even Hong Kong, the Uighur situation, don’t really resonate in the same way with Americans who are observing from afar in many cases. I think the Biden administration is using both multilateral means and bilateral discussions to make its own mark on U.S.-China relations. And the fact that we are now in a steady dialogue between the two countries is, in and of itself, perhaps the point, right? Because it’s been a while since there has been a really clear China policy. And it seems as if the Biden administration is making China a real focal point in the way that it conceptualizes world order and American foreign policy to shape that world order. Even during the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, there were gestures, but not this sort of front and centering of China as both a potential partner in some cases, say with the climate discussions, but also adversarial. And I’m watching with keen interest. What I think is different about the Biden approach, vis-à-vis the Obama approach, is that we’re in a different political moment now. We’re post-Trump. Trumpian politics really singled out the PRC as an enemy, as an adversary that any strong nation would have to counter in a very direct fashion. I think coming out of that political context, perhaps the Biden administration is having to respond to that context, those expectations that many Americans have about what to do about China, and this new China question for the 21st century. His Democratic predecessor Obama wasn’t operating in those particular political contexts. And so perhaps that’s something to bear in mind when thinking about why it is that the Biden administration seems to be placing China front center.  

Mark Williams
I can see the residual effects of how the relationship deteriorated, one might say, from 2016 up through 2020 increasing animosity and so forth, and trade wars and so forth. I can see that. Well, Joyce, let me ask you in the time remaining what is next for you? The book that we’ve been discussing was published in 2015, and what are you working on now that we can look forward to reading?

Joyce Mao
What I’m working on now is a project about China in the American economic imagination. So, I’m asking questions like, why does the Chinese economy inspire such deep emotions, ranging from anxiety to optimism among all types of Americans. I’m interested in the history of the answers to that question. So I’m looking at how U.S. officials try to decipher events like the Great Leap Forward. How American economists use China as a case study for modernization theory, particularly in the 1960s. I’m also making the Asian Development Bank the subject of one chapter. In many ways, this new project is a natural follow up to Asia First. With Asia First, I looked at conservatives, now I’m turning my attention to the liberals, who actually had policy making power in the 60s, and how they sought to significantly alter the U.S.-China dynamic when there was no official relationship between the two countries. And what I’m finding is that money and economic theory are key tools that American liberals tried to use to reshape not only the U.S.-China dynamic, but the Pacific region at large.

Mark Williams
That’s really fascinating. I honestly look forward to reading what you have to write. We’ve been talking about the book America First: China and the Making of Modern American Conservatism. And we’ve been speaking with the author of that book, Middlebury College Professor Joyce Mao. Joyce, thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today on New Frontiers.

Joyce Mao
Thank you so much.

Student
As a native Californian, Professor Joyce Mao grew up on the West Coast and after migrating to the Northeast, she’s embraced life in Vermont—hiking the trails around Middlebury and enjoying the ski slopes nearby—while trying to keep up with her two children. She enjoys baking, reading, and is an architecture and design enthusiast.
 
Molly Anderson
Molly Anderson

Episode 1—Should Corporations Govern Global Food Systems?

In this episode, Molly Anderson, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College, joins Mark Williams to discuss her recent article titled “UN Food Systems Summit 2021: Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems.” At issue is whether multinational corporations (MNCs) should have more influence and say in controlling/governing food systems than does civil society and its constituent parts, which are most plagued by problems of food insecurity. Anderson believes MNCs should not enjoy such a privileged position over so vital a basic necessity, and she offers a forceful critique of the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), which in her view helped ensure such corporate control.

New Frontiers - Season 1, Ep 1: Should Corporations Govern Global Food Systems?

With global food insecurity on the rise, what can the United Nations do to help protect the world’s food systems and establish safeguards against food insecurity? Did the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit take us in the direction of a future where populations’ access to food is ever more secure? If not, why, and what would a more optimal approach entail? Middlebury College William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies, Molly Anderson, discusses these and other issues examined in her recent article, “UN Food Systems Summit 2021: Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems.”

New Frontiers Podcast with Molly Anderson and Mark Williams

Charlotte Tate
From the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College, this is New Frontiers. I’m Charlotte Tate, associate director of the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs. New Frontiers podcasts highlight research undertaken by Middlebury scholars and others, on matters of international and global concern.  Everything is fair game—from big tech, environmental conservation and global security—to religion, culture, and changing work patterns.

Today, Mark Williams—director of the Rohatyn Center—is joined by professor of Food Studies Molly Anderson, to discuss food systems, food security, and why the recent United Nations Food Systems Summit is unlikely to generate effective safeguards against global food insecurity.

Mark Williams
Molly Anderson is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies and the academic director of food studies at Middlebury College; much of her research is focused on food security, food systems, human rights and the food system, and the right to food here in the U.S. and other industrialized countries.

Today, I’ll be talking with Molly about one of her most recent projects, a coauthored article that appeared in the journal Frontiers and Sustainable Food Systems.
 
As a political scientist myself, one thing I find intriguing about this article is that it deals as much with political factors as it does with agriculture, ecology, or other factors that we typically associate with food production. The article is titled “UN Food Systems Summit 2021 Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems.”

Molly Anderson, welcome to New Frontiers.

Molly Anderson
Well, thank you for inviting me to the RCGA podcast series.

Mark Williams
You’re quite welcome.

Molly Anderson
I’m honored.

Mark Williams
I’m glad to have you. Now, you hold a doctorate in ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So as a trained ecologist, how did you become interested in in food studies to begin with, and especially for our listeners who may not know, what exactly is food studies anyway?

Molly Anderson
Well, let me answer the second question first, because it has a lot of connection with what surprised you about that article that I’m writing about political issues, even though my training is in ecology. Food studies is fascinating to me because it deals with everything that food touches, which of course includes political dynamics. Political dynamics are extremely important in determining who’s able to eat, how much they can eat, what quality of food they can eat, how food is produced. And those actually are some of the things that entered into this question that we were considering in that coauthored article that appeared in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

But how I got into food studies. I originally wanted to work in Latin America, in international development and was in Peru, up on a hilltop in the Andes, 14,000-plus feet gasping for breath,
but also had a kind of apocalyptic moment where I realized that I should be working in a culture that I understood much better than the Andean culture. I had come there with this presumption. And in retrospect, it’s really presumptuous that I would have something to teach people in that culture about managing their landscapes. And this is a place where people have been managing their landscapes sustainably for millennia. They’ve done an incredible job of terracing in the Andes. And here I am, coming from North Carolina that was dealing with all sorts of environmental problems, coming from there with this idea that I had something to tell them.

And I realized I needed to go back to the United States and work within my own culture on the
problems that were really pressing environmentally and socially in our environmental milieu.
And one of the biggest problems in North Carolina at that point was the concentration of
hog manufacturing and chicken production in CFO’s confined animal feeding operations,
which were both terrible for the people who had gotten roped into being producers of hogs or chickens under these circumstances, but also terrible environmentally, as we saw soon after that, with hurricanes where the hog lagoons, as they call them—lagoons, connotes this beautiful blue tropical view—but hog lagoons are these nasty pits full of hog manure and urine. And with the hurricanes, the lagoons were breached, and the manure and urine spilled out into riverways, polluted them, did terrible things to the fish living in the riverways, and also created dead zones at the mouth of the river as they came out into the ocean, just like the dead zone that’s in the mouth of the Mississippi River, where it feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.

So I got into food systems because that was the big issue in North Carolina: what was happening with this transition from independent hog producers into basically cogs in an industrial system and causing huge environmental problems in the process. And then one thing led to another. I went to Tufts University and worked in the School of Nutrition Science and Policy, started a graduate program in agriculture, food, and environment while I was there,
and then left Tufts for various reasons. But was out doing independent consulting for about eight years and then decided I really missed academia, really missed working with students, went back to teaching and here I am at Middlebury.

Mark Williams
Well we’re glad to have you here at Middlebury, and we’re glad that you brought this expertise with you. When we talk about food systems again, what exactly are we talking about?

Molly Anderson
We’re talking about everything that affects how food is produced, distributed, and consumed, which includes all of the policies, all of the institutions that make the rules, the regulations, the laws that affect how producers operate, how input suppliers operate, inputs like pesticides and fertilizers. And then where the food goes, how much it’s sold for, who gets to eat it, who gets the best quality food.

Mark Williams
How it’s distributed and how it’s consumed.

Molly Anderson
Exactly. So everything that feeds into that system, the food system, is part of food studies.

Mark Williams
Just to follow up a bit. What are some of the common problems or threats that food systems typically face?

Molly Anderson
Well, right now there’s a battle going on in food systems. It’s a battle between industrialized food systems, which were started largely in the United States during the Green Revolution and the research money that we poured into the Green Revolution in Mexico, in the Philippines, all over the world, not in Africa. But the industrialized food system has been highly productive, and many people will say, well, it’s prevented starvation of millions of people. Yet that productivity came at a huge cost: environmentally, socially, economically, from the perspective of farmers. The winners are the corporations largely that have written the rules, the governments that have cozied up to the pesticide manufacturers and the fertilizer manufacturers, and the CEOs of those companies. But the losers have been people whose land has been grabbed in order to produce food with these industrialized food systems, the farmers who have lost income because they no longer have as much power and their livelihoods are being threatened, and the environment—the environment has been a huge loser. So we’re seeing all of those threats from the industrialized food system. The good thing is that there’re alternatives. That’s not the only way to produce food.

Mark Williams
OK, well let’s dive into your article and get to the focal point. The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit is what you’re writing about. Was this the first time that the UN had ever convened a summit on food systems?

Molly Anderson
The summit did take place. It was September 23rd through the 24th of 2021. It was not the first food summit, but it was unusual in many ways. There have been at least four food summits that preceded this, and they have all operated in a very different way than this one did. This one was organized by the UN Secretary General in partnership at the World Economic Forum, and the secretary general had signed an agreement. Actually his deputy, Amina Mohammed, had signed an agreement with the World Economic Forum just a few months before the launch of the UN Food System Summit. They had agreed to work in partnership, and this was quite unusual because the previous summits had all been organized coming out of the FAO, which is responsible in the UN food, in the UN system.

Mark Williams
FAO meaning?

Molly Anderson
Food and Agriculture Organization. It is responsible for all issues that have to do with food, food and agriculture. So this, which of course should be about food and agriculture—it’s a food system summit, after all—is coming out of the Secretary General’s Office with strong support from the World Economic Forum. It was not designed with any kind of strong input or an ask from member states, and the UN is really the place where member states of the United Nations come together and make decisions together. But this summit was set up in a way that diminished the role of the member states. It really elevated the role of the corporations that are part of the World Economic Forum, which is constituted of the thousand biggest corporations in the world. So they had a big role in this summit, and the member states relatively little. The organization was quite different. The conduct was quite different of the summit.

Mark Williams
Well, let me just stop you for a minute for point of clarification. If the United Nations had been more or less in the business of holding these types of summits periodically, and I think you said there were three or four that have preceded this one. Why was this one called? And you seem to be saying that it was called in a very atypical manner. Why was it felt that there was a need for a summit now? And what did the summit aim to achieve?

Molly Anderson
Well, let me answer that in two ways. From the perspective of the World Economic Forum, I think this summit was a continuation of what they call the Great Reset, which was an initiative that first came out of the World Economic Forum several years ago, in which they said member states operate too inefficiently, too slowly. And these UN processes that we’ve been relying on, we can’t rely on them to solve global problems anymore. They should be turned over to corporations, which are able to operate far more efficiently, far more effectively. So, they were arguing for this Great Reset. And that was one of the problems, and that’s how it played out in the summit—that it really was posing this Great Reset as the answer to world problems. The big problem right now is that we are facing the end of the Sustainable Development Goal period, 2030, when many different objectives, many different goals are supposed to be achieved. We are not anywhere near being on track with achieving the end hunger goal. In fact, for the last five years, we’ve been slipping farther and farther back in terms of food insecurity, and with COVID, that became much worse. As of last year, 711 to 820 million people are facing food insecurity. And this is a major jump from the previous year, which was 600-some million people facing food insecurity. So, a much larger number last year, because of COVID, are at risk of severe malnutrition than in the previous year.

Mark Williams
So there’s a perceived need for this summit then, to address these types of problems then.

Molly Anderson
The problems are real, but to have a food summit called in this way—this is so far from the way that civil society would have organized a food summit. And civil society recognizes that there’s a major problem.

Mark Williams
Well, this more or less gets to my next question that I wanted to ask you, and I think you may have addressed some of it. In your article, you and your colleagues criticize this particular summit, and actually you criticized it a lot. So what would be the two or three major critiques that you and your colleagues have about this summit?

Molly Anderson
Diminishing the role of multilateral institutions like the Committee on World Food Security. And what I mean by multilateral is that countries make decisions.

Mark Williams
The states themselves.

Molly Anderson
Yes, the member states are making decisions. What the summit replaced multilateral decision making with is something called multi-stakeholderism, where anybody can come to the table. It sounds great in principle. It sounds as if this is a very democratic way to negotiate problems.

Mark Williams
Sounds like an improvement.

Molly Anderson
Well, it sounds like an improvement. But in fact, it’s not because the multi-stakeholderism allowed the stronger institutions, the corporations, which had a lot more money, a lot more ability to participate in these negotiations, it allowed them to play a dominant role. And the people who should have been at the front, the people who were actually facing food insecurity—the social movements, the most marginalized people—their voices were cut out in multi-stakeholderism.

Mark Williams
So the people most affected by the problem of food insecurity, we might say were silenced or at least not given an opportunity to have input into solutions.

Molly Anderson
Exactly. And they’re the people who can say best, what kinds of solutions would work. So that was one of the big problems, replacing multilateralism with multi-stakeholderism. But some of the other problems had to do with the chaos, the lack of transparency in decision making that pervaded the Food Systems Summit, and the way that the CSM, which is the major body within the Committee on World Food Security.

Mark Williams
And the CSM means?

Molly Anderson
The CSM is the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism. It is the place within the Committee on World Food Security where the social movements and NGOs can participate and can speak directly in plenary sessions of the Committee on World Food Security and can negotiate in every way on any guidelines coming out of the Committee on World Food Security. They decided not to participate in the Food Systems Summit because they were knocked out, and they could see from the way it had been organized and the way that the CFS itself had been marginalized.

Mark Williams
Let me play devil’s advocate a little bit. If civil society organizations haven’t really joined in the summit and they’re not very enthusiastic it, is it really fair to blame the UN organizers for this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to blame the civil society organizations themselves? I mean, aren’t they basically shooting themselves in the foot by not participating in a summit that is directly related to a concern that they hold dear?

Molly Anderson
Some people have made that argument. And in fact, the organizers made that argument that they open the door, anybody who wanted to could participate. It was very inclusive. They even renamed the summit, the People’s Summit, which was a bit of an insult, honestly. And some civil society organizations did participate. The organizers cherry picked civil society, who they thought would support their views or be receptive, at least to their views, and wouldn’t object to multi-stakeholderism. But it was a very principled decision, a very difficult decision that was made by the CSM, and they actually went to the organizers and said we would be glad to participate in the summit if you would add an action track. Action tracks were the ways that it was organized. There was an action track on equitable livelihoods, an action track on nature-based solutions, for instance. They said if the organizers would add an action track on corporate dominance, corporate takeover of the food system that could be self-organized by civil society, they would be glad to join. That was one of the things that simply was not on the agenda of the Food Systems Summit, even though people who are pretty much in favor of what corporations are doing will say there’s corporate dominance of food systems now. So, they refused to participate, partly because the organizers would not work with them. So, it was not a rash decision by any means.

Mark Williams
I see.

Molly Anderson
They consulted with their constituencies and the constituency said we simply cannot participate in this. This is so far from what we believe needs to be happening in discussions of what’s wrong with the global food system.

Mark Williams
Let me ask you about something that I’ve been curious about, and it’s to gauge your thinking about an alternate way of looking at this scenario you’ve just described. And by this, I mean, shouldn’t we be happy? Shouldn’t we be glad that the big corporations seem to be playing a fairly significant role in the summit, organizing it and participating in it? Given the power and the influence that these corporations seem to have with global food systems, isn’t it really important to keep them engaged in helping to solve what’s clearly an important problem?

Molly Anderson
The problem is that they created the problem. So, by bringing them in and saying, yes, you can help us solve these problems of inequity, of lack of livelihoods for poor farmers, of fertilizer prices shooting through the roof, of seeds being held by rules that prevent smallholders from saving their own seed. By asking corporations in the door and saying, yes, you can help us solve these problems, you’re asking them to solve the problems they have created. And it just doesn’t make any sense. They do give lip service to solutions, but then they turn around and do the bad things they were doing all along. They just continue with that. There’s a fundamental disconnect here because the main purpose of corporations is to make money for shareholders.
It’s not to serve the public good, to increase the income of small-scale farmers. That’s not what they’re about. They even aren’t about increasing environmental quality, although the degradation of environmental quality is making their own corporations—it eventually, that’ll catch up with them; it’ll turn around and bite them because they won’t be able to continue in the businesses that they’re in if the environment degrades sufficiently. Yet in the short term, they are completely obligated to make as much money as they can.

Mark Williams
The business of business is business.

Molly Anderson
Yes. Yes. So they want to continue with business as usual, instead of some fundamental change in perspective.

Mark Williams
I see. Do you think that the folks who organized the Food Systems Summit are more or less just blind to the problems that that you and your colleagues are highlighting in this article? Hasn’t anyone tried to point these issues out to them so that they could be fixed? And if they had been pointed out, what has typically been the response?

Molly Anderson
That’s a real mystery because, as I said, the UN has been the bastion of multilateralism of member states coming together. So why the UN would suddenly be signing partnerships with the World Economic Forum and why FAO signing a partnership with Crop Life, which is made up of the major pesticide producers in the world? In some ways it’s a complete mystery. But it’s a direction that civil society is fearing very much: that corporations are taking over this space that has been the space of member states. And some member states don’t like this either. They can see that they are losing power to corporations. And of course, many corporations have a lot more revenue, a lot more to invest than member states do. So, the UN is turning to corporations hoping that they will finance solutions to the problems because they don’t have the money at their disposal to pay for these solutions. So it’s a kind of devil’s bargain. They are saying, well corporations, you can be involved and we trust that you will come up with solutions in partnership with civil society and other voices that are at the table that will serve the public good, but that’s not what corporations are about, and they have the major say.

Mark Williams
Given the disempowerment that seems to be happening, in this case with respect to the member states, how have the states responded to this or has there been a response? Have they recognized this as a disempowerment or have they, have they not?

Molly Anderson
Some of them definitely recognize that it’s disempowerment, particularly the African nations. And one of the issues with the UN Food Systems Summit, the special envoy, who was appointed by the director general of the secretary general of the United Nations was Agnes Kalibate, who is the president of AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa—very close ties with corporations and with philanthropic organizations that have a lot of corporate buy-in, like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—so, because with Brazil’s change in government, with a far-right government coming into play with Jair Bolsonaro in power in Brazil, they are basically aligned with corporate interests far more, so they have become an ally of the private sector mechanism, which is the way that corporations come together in the Committee on World Food Security, just like the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism is how social movements and NGOs come together. The PSM is far more powerful in Brazil, and Brazil is not opposing this at all.

Mark Williams
What about some of the industrialized states?

Molly Anderson
Many of them have not supported the CSM in the way that we, and by we I mean the CSM would have hoped that they would support.

Mark Williams
Let me get back to the civil society organizations who were disappointed with the way this summit was organized and not enthusiastic participants. What kind of summit would these organizations have liked to see?

Molly Anderson
They would have liked to see a summit that was organized by the people who are not benefiting from the global food system now. The very people who are suffering that increase in food insecurity, that are suffering from land grabs, having their land taken away, having their fishing rights taken away by industrialized fishing fleets, having the consequences of climate change. They are bearing the brunt of that, and they didn’t cause it. So what they would have liked to see would be a summit organized by the people who are suffering most from food insecurity instead of the people who are benefiting now in the global food system. And that’s what the Food Systems Summit was all about. A summit by the winners.

Mark Williams
Would an argument against that type of summit be that those who are most disadvantaged by the problems of food insecurity are also in the least likely position to be able to solve that problem because of a lack of resources, or lack of organization, or lack an inability to grapple with something that is of the magnitude of the kind of crisis that you’re talking about?

Molly Anderson
Well, they know what the solutions need to be. They know better than anyone else what needs to be done in order for them to be food secure, for them to have tenure rights over the lands that they have been farming or fishing, the seas that they’ve been fishing for generations. They know best what needs to change. They know what needs to change in terms of addressing climate change. We’re just coming out of the COP26 and again, a highly non-representative summit where people from the global south were not able to travel to Glasgow. They did not have as much of a voice because of connectivity issues with internet, because they are still struggling with COVID immensely, because of this vaccine apartheid that’s been imposed by the wealthy nations where we are still getting far more booster shots. So yes, they do not have the financial resources, but they are incredibly articulate and they know the solutions, and it’s the member states who have the responsibility to listen to them to uphold their human rights. That’s the obligation of member states. So, the member states should be listening to social movements and civil society, and upholding their human rights, and then engaging with corporations in whatever way is necessary to, or with philanthropic organizations, in whatever way is necessary to bring in resources, for instance, having very strict limits on what corporations are able to do in their country, or very strict limits on how corporations can engage in negotiations. A corporation that’s abusing human rights and degrading the environment should not have a seat at the table to talk about solutions to environmental degradation and the violation of human rights.

Mark Williams
Thank you. I’d like to ask you to try and look ahead now and help us understand what might be coming down in the future. What do you think the long-term impact of the UN Food Systems Summit will likely be? Do you think that there’s going to be lasting effects on how food systems are actually governed, or maybe even on how much gets invested in different solutions to the food insecurity problems we’ve been discussing?

Molly Anderson
There may well be, and that’s exactly what civil society feared at the very beginning. They feared that there would be far more of a focus on the high-tech solutions, the kinds of solutions that bring benefits back to the venture capitalists in wealthy nations, than on the kinds of solutions that would benefit poor people—things like agroecology, like food sovereignty. And true enough, there was almost no mention of agroecology or food sovereignty in the Food Systems Summit. Agroecology did come up toward the end and there were member states that advocated for it, several in the EU, several in Latin America.

Mark Williams
Could you briefly tell us what agroecology means and food sovereignty?

Molly Anderson
Agroecology is the system of food production, distribution, and consumption that is counterbalanced against the industrialized food system. It’s a way of producing food in far more harmony with nature, not using pesticides, eschewing the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers because they are damaging the environment. They are leading to the incredible loss of biodiversity that the whole world is facing right now. And the ecosystem services that biodiversity provides are things that are essential for human survival. So if we are killing biodiversity, destroying it, and degrading the natural environment, there’s a limit to how long humans will be able to survive and certainly a limit to how long the kind of civilization that we’ve created will be able to survive. So agroecology also has a focus on improving farmer livelihoods, on improving the nutritional status of people. So farmers are planting far more crops, which allows them to diversify; they have a better chance of getting an income from whatever crops do survive under the consequences of climate change, and the family—the household—has better nutrition because they’re eating a bigger diversity of crops, or eating animal products and crops, instead of planting cash crops to feed a global economy.

Mark Williams
And food sovereignty.

Molly Anderson
Food sovereignty is having control over your own food system, and that’s something that corporations have been threatening immensely through investing in things like AGRA, but also through imposing regulations on farmers that prevent them from saving seeds, that prevent them from farming in the way they want to be farming: regulations that say you have to be growing cash crops. If you want a loan from the World Bank or a loan from the IMF, you need to be growing cash crops and not investing in things that are useful for your household. It’s a continuation of structural adjustment.
 
Mark Williams
This has been really fascinating. The whole topic has been fascinating. Looking ahead, what’s next, what’s next for you? The article we’ve been talking about today was published back in April of 2021. The summit took place this fall in September. Are you going to continue to monitor what comes out of the UN Food Systems Summit? Or do you have another research project that you’re going to be conducting?

Molly Anderson
Well, I’ll continue to work with the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism. I have been attending the CFS to the greatest extent possible over the last 12 years, and I find it fascinating to see these very articulate smart people coming from the global south and trying to present their case to their governments in this Committee on World Food Security that allows them to speak directly to their governments. And when their governments say, oh everything’s going fine, the people from the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism can say, well actually, they’re not. We are suffering incredible hardship and particularly with COVID, that’s been something that was nowhere on the agenda of the Food Systems Summit, even though that was the big problem leading to an acceleration of food insecurity. So, I will continue working with the CSM, and I’m also starting a project of narratives of food system transformation.

Mark Williams
Oh, really.

Molly Anderson
Yeah. I have a book contract with Routledge to develop a book to look at this narrative of the industrialized food system and its supporters, vis-à-vis agroecology and the kinds of narratives that are coming out of the global south. So I’m hoping to go to Mexico and interview people who have been involved in agroecology research.

Mark Williams
That should be fascinating. I look forward to reading what you publish based upon that research.

Molly Anderson
I hope you will. 

Mark Williams
Molly Anderson, thank you very much for talking to us today on New Frontiers.

Fun Facts about Molly Anderson
Professor Molly Anderson lives in Middlebury, Vermont. Besides her passion for food studies, she enjoys reading, bicycling, and gardening; specifically ornamental, perennials, vegetables, and herbs. She also loves her two Manx cats, Anya and Ethos. Once upon a time she was an avid long-distance bicyclist, and in tenth grade, this future professor was a finalist in the Texas State spelling bee. Outside of the classroom, students often bump in her at the library or food co-op.
 
Mark Williams
Mark Williams

New Frontiers is hosted by Mark Williams, director of the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs and Middlebury College professor of political science.


 

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