Bruno Maçães on the Spirit of Adventure (Ep. 50)

He’s built a career teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people across the globe. Just don’t ask him about Canada.

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded September 3rd, 2018

Read the full transcript

COWEN: I’m here today with Bruno Maçães, who is senior advisor at Flint Global but also, more prominently, author of The Dawn of Eurasia — On the Trail of the New World Order, one of my favorite books of the last few years.

Bruno, thank you for coming.

MAÇÃES: It’s a pleasure.

COWEN: To start on a wide-ranging basis, is there a notion of liberalism prevalent today consistent with the idea of adventure in politics?

MAÇÃES: There was actually — and maybe you know about this — that was actually my dissertation. I was trying to think along those lines. I don’t think there is.

Back then, I actually was trying to explain that liberalism is compatible and promotes adventure. Now I’m more and more convinced that it doesn’t and that you have to go outside of liberalism to find something like the ideal, the practice, and the appeal of adventure.

COWEN: Explain for us, what is it in Rawls that is wrong? How is it the idea of adventure is lacking in Rawls?

MAÇÃES: Too much control, the idea of a life plan. I haven’t read Rawls in now 10 or 12, even 15 years. But that is a very central idea to him. It’s everywhere that you plan your life, that you make some choices of values, and then you organize almost tactically how you get to those values. That never appealed to me.

COWEN: If the idea of adventure is more prominent in your thought, how would this make you different from contemporary liberalism? What do you stress differently?

MAÇÃES: We would need to downplay the idea of choice. We would need to downplay the idea of control. A certain openness to the unexpected. What I did back then, when I was thinking about these things, was, we have to reframe right and the idea of law. All these concepts have to be reframed in some substantial ways in order to get there.

COWEN: Is this why you love Stendhal so much as an author?

MAÇÃES: Yes. Stendhal is the best example of this ideal. All his books are, one way or another, about adventure. It’s not there on the page, but he thinks about it almost philosophically.

COWEN: How is it that this idea of adventure has been drained out of contemporary liberalism?

MAÇÃES: First of all, from a theoretical point of view, we think we know all the answers. We think we know how to live. What you get today is, in fact, this attitude of constant preaching, of telling you what you should be doing and what life is for. We have the answers. Of course, from a theoretical point of view, adventure is about not knowing the answers, looking around.

Adventure is fundamentally about being aware that there may be a completely different lifestyle that you’re not aware of, and they’re just passing you by because you’re not looking for it. I don’t find this anxiety present in contemporary liberalism at all.

Adventure is fundamentally about being aware that there may be a completely different lifestyle that you’re not aware of, and they’re just passing you by because you’re not looking for it. I don’t find this anxiety present in contemporary liberalism at all.

COWEN: Is early Fukuyama, the caricatured version of Fukuyama — that history either is over or will be over — is that going to be right eventually, or just never?

MAÇÃES: No, never. Of course, never. The reason it can never be right is that, actually, human beings don’t want it to be over. Since history is a human creation — with chance mixed in it, of course, but it is fundamentally a human creation — if human beings wanted it to be over, they could do it, but they don’t want it. They want it to continue to be open.

COWEN: How has Harvey Mansfield impacted your thinking on politics?

MAÇÃES: Very much. Not just his books, which I read religiously when I was 23, 24, 25, but of course, when I met him and I studied with him personally. He is a personality that attracts you. Every single conversation is memorable, so I still remember those.

COWEN: What do you think is, then, the main ideological competitor against contemporary liberalism? Presumably not Islam in some form, but something else. What?

MAÇÃES: It has to be China. It doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be others and that we couldn’t develop others in the West, as well. I don’t see the energy, the vitality for that.

Russia certainly doesn’t seem to present an alternative. China does. I saw that in the travels that are part of this book, how all over the world, people are getting more and more attracted to the Chinese model for reasons we can discuss. Essentially, it projects an image of state capacity, of efficiency, of getting things done.

By misfortune, that’s precisely the opposite of what the West is projecting right now. That explains why China has become an appealing model.

COWEN: If the deep-cultural-roots view of history is correct — that nations have traits which persist — does this mean China is doomed to be unstable more or less forever? The Chinese model — it looks good today, but examined over the last three or four hundred years, it looks pretty bad.

MAÇÃES: The crucial distinction here is that the contemporary Chinese model is a model of modern society, of technological society, and that changed everything. Their continuities, their transformations — they transformed their cultural tradition into something that can be called modern.

In the end, you can’t make judgments about what China was 200 years ago and compare it to what it is today because there’s been a fundamental break. The entering into modern society, which we’ve done in the West and China has done as well now, changes everything.

On the ability of the US and EU to break from the past

COWEN: Is the United States today capable of making a fundamental break with the past?

MAÇÃES: I think it is. It’s present in my book and in almost everything I write that I still think the United States is capable of this and that Europe isn’t. I’m open to changing my mind on this, but I still see this.

Trump and everything else that is happening here shows that there is a deep discontent and an attempt to look for other ways, which may turn out, and almost inevitably will turn out, to be misguided at first. But in the end, it may work out.

COWEN: In your basic model of the European Union, what is it that the Union actually can do well?

MAÇÃES: It can do a few things very well. It introduces rationality, almost a scientific spirit, into politics, which sometimes may seem boring. But I’m sure I would miss it if it wasn’t there. All the nonsense that you get in national politics — the European Union dilutes it, counters it, and gives you something that is actually more palatable, more acceptable.

It does open borders. It does make borders more or less irrelevant in Europe, and that’s a very good thing.

It is quite successful in the things it does. My critiques, most of the time, are about the things it doesn’t even attempt to do. The things it attempts to do it does rather well.

COWEN: How soon will the European Union disintegrate? And if so, over what issue?

MAÇÃES: It won’t disintegrate. What is possible is that it will become ineffective. It will become a repetition of the Holy Roman Empire. It will be around. People will still pay tribute to it, but it won’t do anything.

I think that’s a possibility, but a full-scale disintegration, I don’t think that can happen.

COWEN: Isn’t a boring history what we should be striving for? If the EU lives more off Chinese and Indian tourism, it grows, say, at 1.3 percent a year. It has enough austerity that budgets don’t explode. Maybe two or three countries on the periphery peel away, but lives continue. People marry and die and have children.

Isn’t that a victory for Fukuyama? Or how should we think about that?

MAÇÃES: That would be fine. I don’t like the argument that the scenario you described is something that kills human greatness, and so we have to disrupt it somehow. If that’s the scenario, it would be fine. I don’t think it’s possible.

There are people all over the world that have their sights on Europe, that think that people, let us say in Brussels, where I lived last year, work five or six hours a day and have very high incomes, where people in Delhi work 14 hours a day and have very low incomes. The idea that we have in Europe that everyone all over the world finds this acceptable or good is, of course, a great delusion. It won’t last, this way of life that we have in Europe.

COWEN: Because of wage competition from other countries, equally talented people?

MAÇÃES: Yes, because of all kinds of competition. I think Europe still benefits from the wages of the past, the fact that it was leading different technological revolutions. Once that’s no longer the case — once, let us say, all the royalties and the licensing fees from our technology dry up — that will be felt. There will be pain.

I think it will happen because the impression now, the experience now, of going to China and other places is precisely to see that they are trying to overturn this situation.

COWEN: In the pessimistic version of this scenario, what happens to, say, the median wage in the European Union? Say you’re, right now, a middle-class worker in France. Thirty years from now, what’s your standard of living?

MAÇÃES: If it stagnates, if it continues to stagnate, if people all over the world, if the tourists arriving from China suddenly are the ones filling up the restaurants in Paris, and young French men and women are serving them at the tables, this is not exactly the European dream, but it’s, of course, a very serious possibility now.

The last year, the last two years, have been better, but still the predominant feeling in Europe is of stagnation, of not going anywhere, especially among the young — where sometimes you have, of course, social security and healthcare and even a salary that allows you to live decently, but you have no dreams, no opportunities of getting into the job that you always wanted to get into.

That’s the feeling in Europe now.

The last year, the last two years, have been better, but still the predominant feeling in Europe is of stagnation, of not going anywhere, especially among the young — where sometimes you have, of course, social security and healthcare and even a salary that allows you to live decently, but you have no dreams, no opportunities of getting into the job that you always wanted to get into.

COWEN: Will Ukraine ever prosper? Or does the carving up of parts of the country by Russia mean it will fail to achieve stable democracy?

MAÇÃES: Yes, I’ve come to that opinion slowly and reluctantly. Four or five years ago, I thought that it was up to Ukraine. Now, I’m more and more convinced that if Russia is not stopped, and if their interference is not stopped, it’s simply impossible. It’s beyond human power to make a country successful under those conditions.

Just the budget that Ukraine devotes to the war effort makes it very difficult for a country that should be investing in education, healthcare, infrastructure.

COWEN: Are there any countries on the western frontier of Russia that you would be bullish about?

MAÇÃES: I think, perhaps, Georgia.

COWEN: But part of that country is carved out, right? Twenty percent of the territory is in a kind of limbo?

MAÇÃES: Right. On the one hand, I don’t see the same destructive impetus coming from Moscow in relation to Georgia as it is in relation to Ukraine, probably because Georgia also didn’t attempt to become an anti-Russian bulwark on the borders of Europe.

I think they’ve been able to build an interesting experiment there of a country that is increasingly connected to Europe, not breaking with Russia, increasingly connected with China. For my book, it’s a very interesting country.

Then, of course, there’s Azerbaijan. It’s difficult to find others beyond these two.

COWEN: Azerbaijan. Is it Europe? It was the easternmost part of the Roman Empire. Does it count? Is it Eurasia? What is it?

MAÇÃES: That’s why I like Azerbaijan so much. It’s very difficult to tell what it is. Once you’re convinced that this is fundamentally a European country, something happens that proves otherwise, and the other way around. If you want to look for a country that truly combines East and West, I would start with Azerbaijan.

COWEN: In terms of social liberalism, why is it so different from the other Shiite countries?

MAÇÃES: It is, of course, a very repressive dictatorship. But one thing I feel strongly about and that I would try to change in how we in the US and in Europe approach these things is, there are different shades of authoritarianism. I’m not even sure the word authoritarianism is a good one because it projects our experience into other parts of the world.

Central Asia

But when you travel, for example, from Azerbaijan into Turkmenistan, then Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, you see that these countries are very different. You breathe an air of freedom in Kazakhstan that you certainly don’t breathe in Turkmenistan.

We in the West tend to say they’re all the same. Because they’re not like us, they’re all the same. I think this is a big mistake.

COWEN: What’s the future of Nagorno-Karabakh?

MAÇÃES: I fear it is not a bright future. The dynamics all point towards a reawakening of the military conflict in the future, and every development in the region makes it more difficult.

What is happening now with Armenia becoming less aligned with Russia could precisely be the trigger to a conflict. If Russia removes the guarantees that it’s offered to Armenia, then I think Azerbaijan is going to be in a very good position to try to recover that territory. So I’m not optimistic about what can happen there.

COWEN: What went wrong with Turkey? Is it that we were too optimistic in the first place? What signal misled us? What was wrong in our theory that caused us to overvalue the prospects of Turkey becoming liberal and open and prosperous?

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

COWEN: Why did Europe turn its back on technology and push adventure out of its psyche? Is it World War II? Failures of imperialism? The social welfare state was too comfortable? All of the above? What’s your model?

MAÇÃES: Many different things, but I think my model would be . . . the fundamental factor is the fact that we led the previous revolutions. We were successful. We got a lot out of them. I think it’s human nature — it applies to individuals, but also to countries and even to continents.

If you’ve been successful bringing about the last wave of change, then you want to preserve things as they were. You want to enjoy the fruits of what you did, of all the work you had. Then it will be up to others, in other parts of the world, to lead the next wave. Perhaps in 1,000 or 2,000 years, Europe will be back there again.

That’s how I think about change in history.

COWEN: What’s the long-run political equilibrium for Hungary and the Visegrad nations?

MAÇÃES: I think a little bit of what we’ve been seeing in the last decade: not breaking with Europe, but being in an adversarial relation with the EU institutions. Also a problem, of course, for the EU because it becomes much more difficult to have ambitious plans and to do things if, inside the EU, you have a number of countries — which is growing by the day — that are in some kind of adversarial relationship with you.

COWEN: What are some of the hidden Straussian messages in The Dawn of Eurasia, if indeed there are any?

MAÇÃES: There aren’t any, but I have to say that the esoteric method . . . I used to think, when I was reading Strauss at 18 or 20, that it was too fanciful. I have to say, in my political experience and now writing books, it is helpful.

You have to be aware of different ways to communicate and the possibilities that opens, that you can say something to certain people without getting in trouble, necessarily, by being too open about your views. I think that’s helpful for everyone.

I doubt that any single good writer doesn’t do a little bit of this.

COWEN: Is American exceptionalism correct? How does the United States fit into your picture? And are we just following in the complacent footsteps of Western Europe?

MAÇÃES: American exceptionalism is correct in its time. I think it won’t last forever. The idea that you hear now, and you heard it during the John McCain funeral, that America was always great, it is still great and will always be great — as a political message, it may be helpful and useful.

But of course, as a philosophy of history, it’s bonkers.

COWEN: Is your vision of the United States fundamentally Tocquevillian or not?

MAÇÃES: I’m still very puzzled, even though I lived here, on the whole, for eight years. I’m still very puzzled about what America is about. I cannot find a book or a particular understanding by any author that I’m entirely happy with about America.

America still remains a big mystery.

COWEN: You were just in Silicon Valley. What were your impressions of the Bay Area?

MAÇÃES: I think, and people there told me the same — people who have lived there for decades — that the big changes came 30 years ago. If you’d been to the Valley 10 years ago and you go now, you don’t see much difference. There’s a sense that things have slowed down. That’s very obvious and not particularly good news.

COWEN: If you were advising a young, Western, entrepreneurially minded individual who had some money and wanted to capitalize on the implicit predictions behind your worldview about Eurasia or somewhere else, what would you tell them to do?

MAÇÃES: Maybe more immediately, the book applies to political entrepreneurs, people that want to create a new political order, or at least to contribute to that. Business entrepreneurs, there’s also some ideas there that are relevant.

Connecting Europe and Asia is going to be both very critical and very profitable for those who manage how to do it. For those who are able to connect different parts of Eurasia — I say in the first or second page that people that are very successful in business today are people that are aware of the differences. They don’t try to reduce them. They work by connecting different cultural areas.

Connecting Europe and Asia is going to be both very critical and very profitable for those who manage how to do it. For those who are able to connect different parts of Eurasia — I say in the first or second page that people that are very successful in business today are people that are aware of the differences. They don’t try to reduce them. They work by connecting different cultural areas.

Lots of people lose a lot of money because they think, when they go and try to sell their products in China, that China is becoming like the West, the wealthy classes are becoming like the West.

I had a talk that I gave to a famous whiskey producer. My main message was, if you try to sell whiskey to the Chinese wealthy classes, don’t think for a moment that they are or are becoming like the Western wealthy classes. They are different. So your advertising has to be different. There’s opportunities to make a lot of money if you understand these dynamics.

COWEN: What are economists most wrong about?

MAÇÃES: Maybe about what I’ve been talking about at the beginning: adventure. Maybe the idea of the unknown, the idea of the unexpected. All of this is very difficult for economists; at the same time, so important.

Of course, many economists have made a lot of progress on the idea of innovation, on the idea of newness, and I’ve been always very interested in those reflections. But it always feels a little less than what is needed.

COWEN: A reader writes to me a question: “Arguably, the last writer to robustly conceptualize Eurasia was Rudyard Kipling. Does Kipling matter today?”

MAÇÃES: Yes, I love his books. I think he is treated very unfairly. We now put everyone in the same bag as imperialists and racists. There were lots of people — part of the British Empire and its expansion — that actually had a very finely attuned understanding of different civilizations, and Kipling I would include there.

Another writer that comes out of that spirit that I love and that was important for this book is Toynbee. When we read those books, we actually have the very vivid sense that we’ve lost that. We’ve lost that ability to arrive at a place without preconceptions and try to understand it on its own terms. If Kipling was bad at that, we’re much worse.

On Brazil and Portugal

COWEN: Portugal today. Why is there no right-wing nationalistic movement as we see in so many other European countries?

MAÇÃES: There isn’t even a right wing. There isn’t even a center right. We have to develop that before we develop a far-right movement. If you ask me why not, it is also — and I hope the listeners won’t be disappointed that I use this escape route too often — but it’s still a puzzle and a mystery to me.

You could say it’s because of the dictatorship, reaction against that, the 48 years of Salazar. But you had very similar dictatorships in Spain and Italy, and now you have very self-confident center-right and far-right parties. Not in Portugal, where it remains very difficult.

My experience in politics was precisely of how difficult it is to embrace ideas that everywhere else in the world are acceptable, but not in Portugal.

COWEN: Was Portugal the first European country to lose its sense of adventure?

MAÇÃES: Yes. There’s some interesting texts where this is described. Portugal made a lot of money in the early century of the empire, and then there was always this idea that the point of making all that money was to go back home and to build a small palace or a villa and enjoy your life.

Again, I said it before: I think this is human nature — applies to nations and to countries. The vital energy that is necessary to change the world doesn’t last. It goes away, and then it’s someone else’s turn.

COWEN: If Portugal has systematically lower productivity gains than Germany, is Euro membership sustainable?

MAÇÃES: I think so. The Euro crisis shows that the adjustments could be done inside a year. Lots of economists that thought it couldn’t were proven wrong.

COWEN: But at very high employment costs.

MAÇÃES: Yes, which have been corrected in the meantime. Some of the problems that we have in Portugal are common, or perhaps even more serious, in Italy and regions of Europe. If you look, actually, at the 10 poorest regions in the European Union, 5 are in the UK. So the problem is a bit more delicate than that.

I’m more and more convinced that the problems we have in Portugal are problems that we have all over Europe.

COWEN: Several years ago, I went to Porto. I was looking around in the central district, and I saw apartments selling for about €60,000. Maybe not in perfect shape, but still incredible real estate, A+ location.

Is that sustainable? Are those prices too low? Or do you expect for Porto an ongoing depopulation, where $60,000 to live downtown, plus some maintenance, is actually about right?

MAÇÃES: Yes. The reason was, of course, that people moved out of the city into the suburbs, and prices collapsed in the center. That’s been corrected now, as you’d expect. Lots of foreigners coming in. I meet almost all the time people in London that have bought a house for 60,000 or 80,000, and they go there for the weekends. That has helped correct the prices a bit and helped the city.

COWEN: Is Brazil too Portuguese for its own good?

MAÇÃES: I think so. I understand Brazil almost immediately, because some of the virtues and some of the flaws are the same. We always say that Brazil is a giant Portugal. If everything had gone well with Portugal, then Brazil would have realized her historical destiny.

But of course, some of the problems that Brazil is going through are similar to our own. Two recent prime minister and president of Portugal and Brazil are in jail and under investigation for corruption. They were very good friends. We do seem to have a certain synchrony in our historical development, for good and bad.

COWEN: It seems there are populated parts of Brazil where, literally, the government does not rule, neither the central government nor a municipal or state-level government. Is that the future of Brazil? Or will more of Brazil end up looking like southern Brazil, which is reasonably well run, say Curitiba?

MAÇÃES: It’s difficult to know. There was a moment 10, 15 years ago where people were more optimistic about Brazil than they are now, but the democracy, the democratic institutions still work well. The courts work well. We’re going to have an election now, which could be a moment to rebuild some of the things that were lost.

While that lasts, I’m still going to be an optimist. While the institutions actually resemble more the US institutions than some European institutions that are in worse shape, I think we should be optimistic.

COWEN: How is the sense of adventure there in Brazil?

MAÇÃES: I don’t think the predominant sense in Brazil is of adventure. The predominant sense in Brazil is of dolce far niente, of a certain enjoyment of life and the small things of life.

When I first went to Brazil, I was the urban depressive European who listens to Joy Division.

COWEN: [laughs]

MAÇÃES: When I landed in Rio airport, I looked around, and it almost seemed like the very opposite of everything I believed in. But after a month, it had started to get to me how suave people are, how they live not in the moment, but in the second, without worrying too much about the future.

This is true — and I think it’s a good thing to point out — this is true of the upper classes in Rio, which are almost the perfect example of how to enjoy life in the world, anywhere in the world. But it’s also true of everyone. It’s well distributed across Brazilian society, the sense of enjoying life.

COWEN: From your Portuguese point of view, what is best in Brazilian music?

MAÇÃES: I’m not a big music fan, I should tell you. But bossa nova is almost irresistible, for some of the reasons that I’ve been talking about. It is a musical form that is very close to life in its simplest elements, doesn’t have a very obvious message. It is about life and the small things in life that we like and love.

COWEN: What classic work of Portuguese literature should every American read?

MAÇÃES: Every American should read, certainly, Pessoa, who died less than a hundred years ago but, I think, deserves to be called a classic. Certainly one of the five greatest writers of the 20th century. I’d start with The Book of Disquiet, which is an extraordinary book and will always remain so.

COWEN: There’s a new edition of that out in English that has extra parts that have been cut.

MAÇÃES: That is fantastic. It’s a book I’ve taught when I was teaching at university. I made a point of teaching that. I think every young person under 25 will love that book and learn a lot from it.

On Russia as an underrated force

COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

COWEN: Is that why Azerbaijan feels so open for women compared to other Shiite countries? Is that because of the Russian state?

MAÇÃES: Absolutely. When you go to Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, which is the other example of that, you really have to wonder how the Soviet Union, in a short period of time, was able to change this culture so deeply, in a way that actually has continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Without making valid judgments about whether that was a good or bad thing, it shows the ability of the Russian state to penetrate life very, very deeply and to organize it.

COWEN: If President Obama underrated Russia as a world force, what was the underlying flaw in his worldview that caused him not to see that?

MAÇÃES: The underlying flaw with Obama is always the same, is that he really took seriously this idea that history has a direction, that it’s going somewhere, to the point where, I think, at some point, he wasn’t even trying to change reality. He was trying to get out of the way of reality.

That, to me, is almost impossible to understand, how he could believe in something like that. If you read that interview he gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, that comes up on every issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s Vietnam or Russia or China. His immediate answer would be, “Well, history is going in this direction. Let’s get out of the way and let it work its wonders.”

The underlying flaw with Obama is always the same, is that he really took seriously this idea that history has a direction, that it’s going somewhere, to the point where, I think, at some point, he wasn’t even trying to change reality. He was trying to get out of the way of reality. That, to me, is almost impossible to understand, how he could believe in something like that.

COWEN: Is the United States the country that understands Russia least well?

MAÇÃES: No. I’m not sure of that, actually. Tocqueville said that the United States and Russia had a lot in common. I think there’s a certain ability that both have to understand the other.

The European Union, I think, does not understand Russia at all. Certainly, the United States has trouble understanding the world as a whole, but Russia may actually be a bit of an exception.

COWEN: Why has Russia never been a free, liberal country, or maybe very, very briefly? What is it in their history or their cultural roots that accounts for so much emphasis on state control, authoritarianism, sometimes totalitarianism?

MAÇÃES: Your question, Tyler, also shows a little bit of the Obama disposition. You are puzzled why they are not liberal because you assume that everyone should be liberal, and so what needs to be explained is why they are not liberal.

But maybe we can look at this a bit differently. There’s no strong reason why Russia should be liberal. In the absence of the forces that make you go in that direction, it didn’t.

COWEN: What do you think the Russian economy will sell in 20 years’ time?

MAÇÃES: I think, until Putin goes, it will be very difficult to do the reforms that Russia needs. I see them actually becoming more and more focused on energy, trying to expand to other regions, trying to extend their control of energy sources, in the Middle East in particular, energy connectors, pipelines in Syria.

I don’t see Russia being able . . . I don’t even take seriously the statements that occasionally come from the Kremlin, saying that they are developing an industrial park or a technology zone. That’s not to be taken seriously anymore. But after Putin, who knows?

COWEN: You don’t take it seriously because you think they don’t have the talent? They don’t have the decentralization? What is it they’re lacking? Why can’t they do it?

MAÇÃES: You have to change a lot of things. You have to make a lot of people angry. You have to move money from some sectors to other sectors. You have to change the laws. You have to break the power of oligarchs. You have to let small startups have a chance. All of this takes a lot of political will, which, simply, the current president and his people don’t have.

COWEN: Is it inevitable that Russia will become more and more Asian in some way?

MAÇÃES: Yes. It’s already happening.

COWEN: And what does that mean to you?

MAÇÃES: I think it is, of course, a shock for Europeans because the idea that Russia was trying to become like us was always very reassuring, both psychologically but also politically.

I think, in some moments, Russia was of incredible help to Europeans. It did defeat Napoleon, after all, and helped reestablish a certain balance in Europe that gave us a century of culture, and of economic growth, and of technological revolutions. The 19th century in Europe would have been very different and much worse without the Russian armies defeating Napoleon.

That has always been very hard for us, to have that sense of, perhaps in the future, having Russia join us. Now we lost that. If we understand that Russia is never going to become like us, never going to join us, then suddenly we have a problem there.

COWEN: When I go to Russia, I’m struck by how much more sexual dimorphism I see than in the United States. Men and women, at least superficially, they dress quite differently, they act differently. There’s a notion you should hold the door open for the women.

Why is Russia, and also Ukraine, so extreme in this direction?

MAÇÃES: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That’s a very good point. By the way, Russian women will tell you different things.

They will, of course, complain that they are not taken seriously in the workplace, but they will also tell you that they like that masculinity of Russian men, which often just takes the form of paying for everything, which is another striking difference between Russia and the West — that the man is supposed to pay for literally everything when he goes on a date.

This is perhaps one of the areas where you see that Russia has its own political will. There’s really no appetite to go in the direction that we in the West feel is obvious and inevitable. There are some, of course, movements about the workplace, but not a lot in terms of changing that dynamic between the sexes.

By the way, in a way, I think in Europe, this is perhaps becoming clear, that some people are starting to get attracted to a certain Russian way of life.

One of the reasons they are starting to get attracted is, those people who don’t like the changes that happened in the West in the last 40 years look to Russia and see a country where not only they haven’t happened, but they haven’t happened because people don’t want them to happen. It’s not seen as a failure. It’s more of a conscious, active decision.

COWEN: In classic Russian literature, what is of most interest to you?

MAÇÃES: Of course, all of Tolstoy, all of Dostoyevsky, even the smaller 19th century writers more than 20th century. Russia had a certain understanding of modern society and modern life that was, in many cases, deeper than the understanding in Europe because they were looking at it from the outside and struggling with it. You see that in all of 19th century Russian literature.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: In all of these conversations, or many of them, we have a segment in the middle, underrated versus overrated. Feel free to pass, but are you game?


COWEN: Overrated or underrated, Charles de Gaulle?

MAÇÃES: Overrated.


MAÇÃES: He was essentially someone who lived in the past, who was born in a different world and never quite adapted to the new world.

COWEN: His version of nationalism — isn’t that where Europe today will end up?

MAÇÃES: No, I don’t think so. You can try, and some people are trying in Poland, in Hungary, but it doesn’t have the ability to change the existing order.

COWEN: V. S. Naipaul, overrated or underrated?

MAÇÃES: I would say underrated because I think that it’s never enough to love Naipaul. You can’t do enough of it. I think people rate him very highly, but if you can rate him a little bit higher, all the better.

COWEN: Most interesting work to you?

MAÇÃES: Literally, almost everything, but I will go with the masses and say that the best novel is A Bend in the River. Then the three books on India, nonfiction mixed with fiction, I always keep going back to.

COWEN: Alfred Hitchcock?

MAÇÃES: Again, I think is more and more highly rated, but I would encourage to rate him even higher. Yes, a brilliant filmmaker.

COWEN: What is it, implicit in Hitchcock movies, about liberalism does he understand that we haven’t pulled out yet? People not wanting liberalism — that’s a theme in Hitchcock, I think.

MAÇÃES: Yes. A big theme in Hitchcock is the hidden pathologies of modern life. The psychoanalytical repressions, and repetitions, and obsessions or fixations, which in fact destroy our life. You’re caught in a pattern of repetition, and you cannot get out of it while life passes you by. I think that’s a big topic.

I think yes, it is a very promising idea to think that Hitchcock is thinking about the contradiction between liberalism and human nature, that they don’t quite fit well together.

COWEN: Best Hitchcock movie or your favorite?

MAÇÃES: Vertigo.


MAÇÃES: I think it’s a perfect movie. Hitchcock movies, because they are so ambitious, always have mistakes, very obvious. By the way, he talks about them in, for example, in his interviews with Truffaut. He talks openly about the mistakes he made in this or that movie.

I would say Vertigo is the one where, by chance or effort, it’s very difficult to find a mistake of structure, of script, or acting, or casting, or anything really.

COWEN: Soundtrack, yeah.


COWEN: Visiting Djibouti, overrated or underrated? How good a trip is it?

MAÇÃES: It is an extraordinary, very unusual trip. I have to tell you that the first week, I hated it.

COWEN: Why did you hate it?

MAÇÃES: It’s a very tough place. It is incredibly hot. There’s nothing to do. The country is built on volcanic rocks. There’s not a tree in sight. Everyone is smoking khat and languishing on the streets under the horrible heat.

The prices are extraordinarily high. You would pay $500 for a hotel, but you pay $500 for a hotel not knowing exactly what you’re doing there or whether you’re enjoying it. But after a while, you start to see that it is a strange and unique place, at the very least.

COWEN: What about it interested you so much?

MAÇÃES: There’s the politics, all the politics that is happening there, all the geopolitics that is happening there. Then, there are some extraordinary landscapes if you can find them. And there’s this culture, which is a combination of Africa and the Arab world, was always a place connecting different cultures.

In the end, after two weeks, you start to feel that finally you have a place that forces you to break from your habits. You cannot carry your habits there because there’s really no way to go to your local café and read a little bit. There’s no way to eat the normal food. It forces you to break with your normal habits, and that’s a good thing.

COWEN: What is it you eat there, then? Somalian food?

MAÇÃES: Yemeni food, I think, would be the most promising. There’s a couple of very good restaurants. There’s, of course, Ethiopian food. But I would go to the Yemeni restaurants. Yemeni food, I fell in love with.

COWEN: Let’s say you’re designing a dream tour for someone who has two or three weeks to spend in Eurasia, and they come to you and say, “Bruno, give me a tour.” Where should they go to get the best overview of what you write about in your book?

MAÇÃES: It’s difficult to pick one, but maybe the best would be fly to Kashgar in China, in Xinjiang Province, and then cross the border to Pakistan, and perhaps go down all the way to Lahore and then Delhi.

First of all, you will see the Pamir Mountains. You will see a mix of different cultures, Kyrgyz, Kazakh. You will make one of the classical trips, which is to go from China to India by land. Many people have done it by sea, but by land is a little more unique.

COWEN: China. Your next book is on the One Belt, One Road project. You’ve argued on Twitter and, I think, elsewhere that Chinese foreign policy . . . A year ago, China’s so-called coming out party was actually a big disaster, and not a triumph for the Chinese rulers. Do you still think that? Make your case.

MAÇÃES: Yes. It’s so obvious. It’s one of those cases where people a year ago were saying that China was brilliant because China was the anti-Trump. Trump has corrupted all our thinking about everything because you first think about Trump, and then you think about whatever you’re supposed to be thinking or talking about.

That was one example. It was very clear to me that China was making lots of mistakes. Now I think everyone agrees on this, even the Chinese authorities, which are openly talking about self-correcting and going in a slightly different path, which, if you know the Chinese regime, it’s a big deal when this is all out there in the open.

They made lots of mistakes in terms of pushing too hard, in terms of not understanding the countries they were dealing with, their culture, and really creating problems almost everywhere, from Australia to India to Europe to the US. There isn’t a single place where they are not in a worse positon now than they were two years ago.

COWEN: Can One Belt, One Road deliver without the Chinese northwest being in good working order?

MAÇÃES: Probably not. By northwest, you mean Xinjiang?

COWEN: Xinjiang, right. Will it be in good working order? It seems to me there’s many more arbitrary detentions, problems with the media, talk of detention camps where large numbers of people are being held.

MAÇÃES: Yes, I talk about that in the book. I talk about the contradiction between what has really become a surveillance state in Xinjiang. I could see that myself, but it really doesn’t matter because if you’re a foreigner, you’re [not] going to feel the brunt of it as much.

I look, let us say, vaguely Turkic, so I could certainly be from Central Asia. I guess the Chinese would think that, so I was stopped constantly and interrogated. My papers would be checked. I could see that, personally. I think I could look a bit Uighur.

The problem is, how do you build the connectivity that you want to build if you have this problem in Xinjiang? I think the Chinese are approaching it by breaking Xinjiang in separate parts, one in the south, where the Uighur minority would be isolated and controlled, and one in the north, which is becoming less and less Uighur, more and more Han.

In that sense, it could be possible because the connections going through Urumqi to Kazakhstan are in working order, simply because the Han have taken control over Urumqi. Urumqi feels like a city transforming itself, growing very, very fast, not at all abandoned by Chinese authorities.

COWEN: What is the chance that One Belt, One Road ends up being seen historically as a big success, similar to, say, settling the American West, building the Panama Canal, which in retrospect are obvious successes, even though there were hitches at the time?

Are we seeing a repeat of that? Or is it going to burn and crash the Chinese economy, or slow down? There will be too much debt, too many white elephants, and the region will continue to be a kind of chaos.

MAÇÃES: No. I think it’s almost inevitable that it will be seen as a success because the structural force of China’s rise is so strong, it will, in one way or another, change the world as we know it.

I think Xi Jinping has set things up in a way that all those changes are going to be attributed to the Belt and Road, even though we know very well that without the Belt and Road, there would be pretty much the same, perhaps a little less organized.

It is also a public relations and a marketing coup in the sense that the changes that are coming anyway are going to be attributed to his initiative. I think he is thinking about things in those terms.

There is no way that China is going to disappear or go back to its size and importance of 40 years ago. That’s out of the question.

COWEN: Will China run Australian politics in the long run?

MAÇÃES: I think China will run the politics of a number of countries. The question is, who are the candidates for that? I don’t think Australia is top of the list, but I think there will be countries that will be essentially run from Beijing.

By the way, I should say that’s, of course, what happened in the last 70 years with a number of countries that were run from Washington.

COWEN: Sure. Say Cambodia and maybe Laos. What else is on your list?

MAÇÃES: We have to see about what is happening in Pakistan. Pakistan is difficult to control, but in some respects, China has really penetrated Pakistani politics and society and the civil service. Then a number of countries in central Asia.

Perhaps Southeast Asia countries are less conflict ridden, and so in that sense, perhaps easier to control by China. Then, of course, a number of African countries where that is ongoing and becoming very obvious.

COWEN: If you think of the traditional Chinese view that ethnic Chinese overseas are almost like Chinese citizens, even if they’re not formally Chinese citizens at all, and China now seems to be taking much greater care to mobilize them as a force for Chinese national interests.

What does the equilibrium to that process look like? That the overseas communities rebel and don’t cooperate at all? That they become a kind of fifth column where they live? That China gives up on this effort? What’s going to happen?

MAÇÃES: That’s one of the very good examples of why we live in a world that is heading towards new and dangerous fronts of conflict. I think this is a very serious problem. China will not give up on its overseas citizens. They have obligations towards the motherland.

On the other hand, we see already very strong reaction against this in the West, which, by the way, will feed into xenophobic tendencies in the West itself. Very quickly, people will start to assume that every Chinese is working for the Chinese state.

I think, by the way — make a parenthesis here — that we’ll see some of the same dynamics in the case of India. Perhaps not as acute — India is a democracy and has rule of law. But what I found out in my recent visit to India is that India likes this way of thinking about the diaspora and is trying to apply it to its own diaspora.

So it’s a world where borders are becoming very diffuse, where perhaps countries are becoming a bit footloose, like multinationals. A country like Russia or like China, in some respects, doesn’t stop at the borders anymore. It has stakes. It has participations in other countries.

China has a 20 percent stake in Djibouti, and it has an 80 percent stake in the Chinese diaspora. When you look at a country, it is a combination, a diagram of different stakes all over the world, and not an organized national community within borders. This is the world we’re heading to, which is world ripe for conflict of all kinds.

COWEN: Which is the best Chinese regional cuisine?

MAÇÃES: There’s a Sichuan restaurant just around the corner when I was coming in. That would be my choice. It’s certainly the one where I can order almost everything, and I’m going to like everything. That doesn’t happen with many regional cuisines in China.

COWEN: Have China, South Korea, Japan, possibly Singapore, taken on Western technology and technological ways of living more thoroughly than we have ourselves in the West?

MAÇÃES: That’s what’s happening now. They are taking new technological transformations with an appetite that we no longer have in the West. Say, self-driving cars.

I’m pretty sure they will be fully operational in China before they are here or in Europe, in part because the strength of the Chinese state and its ability to go against people who will suffer from these transformations is much higher.

Take European countries. They are captured by special interests that will make sure these sorts of transformations don’t come about. We’ve seen that in Europe with Uber being banned everywhere increasingly.

Also, there’s a certain appetite that comes deeper from the Chinese psyche and has to do with, “It’s our turn. It’s our turn to use technology to change the world.” They are entirely in love with that idea, and we don’t have it anymore.

COWEN: How creative is the Chinese tech community, not just implementing, using, and copying, but actually building new systems?

MAÇÃES: My impression, talking to them and looking around in Beijing and Beijing Silicon Valley, is that they are very creative. Don’t assume that, because society is an authoritarian society of some kind, that that authoritarianism is present everywhere.

There are elements of Chinese life where the force of the Chinese state is not present at all. One obvious one that has been commented recently by critical voices in China is, for example, sexual life. It’s not true of every dictatorship that people are left alone to organize their sexual lives as they want, but in China they are. There is no control over that, which has helped the regime in some ways.

Even an authoritarian regime has to give people freedom in some areas, so that they can have rewarding lives without asking for more. I think technology is also an area where the state wants people to break rules, to go ahead, to improvise, to be creative.

I even wonder sometimes whether the fact that other areas are closed to human initiative doesn’t, in fact, increase the willingness to do new things in the areas where it is possible. Human effort is diverted to those areas and concentrated in those areas.

COWEN: Like having great chess players in the former Soviet Union.

MAÇÃES: Exactly. I think we’ll see a bit of that in the case of the tech community in China.

COWEN: Going back to the United States, which is the segment or part of American society that’s still most adventurous, least complacent?

MAÇÃES: The politics is wonderful. For a European, I have to say — almost everyone in Europe would laugh or be shocked when I say this — but in the end, you want a democracy to be rough and dirty and full of nonsense as long as there is nonsense on the other side to counter it.

I just see an openness of American politics, whereas European politics — everything is predetermined, everything is preset. It’s already been determined what you should say and how you should say it.

In the end, of course, European commentators and politicians complain about Trump, but they are following American politics, perhaps spending two or three hours of their days watching American politics. They’re not watching German politics. So again, tell me why this is so bad.

COWEN: So Washington, DC, is arguably more creative than Silicon Valley.


MAÇÃES: No. I was going to say Silicon Valley next. But politics is important because if you don’t have that at the center of a society, which is, in the end, the state — if you don’t have that there, you are not going to have it anywhere else. You need a bit of that in politics and I would always start with that.

Silicon Valley — maybe I don’t know enough. In my recent visit, I saw, of course, two or three very exciting companies that are doing stuff that is not done anywhere in the world, so I wouldn’t be critical of the Valley. It’s just you don’t see the same spirit that was there 30 years ago and that created the Valley itself. Lots of people who know how it was 30 years ago tell me this.

COWEN: What do you think you understand about Canada that maybe most Americans do not?

MAÇÃES: About Canada?

COWEN: Canada.

MAÇÃES: I don’t think I understand anything about Canada, Tyler.


MAÇÃES: Canada is one of those countries that, I have to confess, I find difficult to fit in my play of world history. I don’t see what is the role that Canada is playing in the transformations we’ve been talking about. So, if some of the listeners can get back to me on that . . .

COWEN: Do you think of it as a cross-subsidized part of a broader North American political empire that trades with the 50 states, but in a world-historical sense is an appendage?

MAÇÃES: Something like that. Or maybe it’s a critical voice of the US, but it’s a critical voice with which you can relate, almost like your alter ego because it is in so many respects like you, but always looking for the areas where it is not like you. Maybe it plays an interesting role in that respect.

But then again, my impression of Canada is that it changes so dramatically from political cycle to political cycle because with Harper, you had, in fact, an extreme version of an American neoconservative.

COWEN: Do any of those changes matter?

MAÇÃES: In the end, I guess not. A little bit like the political changes in some European countries. There is an organized system, which is stable. The changes are, to some extent, rhetorical.

COWEN: How optimistic are you about East Africa?

MAÇÃES: I am very optimistic. The numbers speak for themselves. There’s some countries there are the fastest-growing countries in the world. There’s an industrial revolution happening in Ethiopia that you’ve been talking about.

In fact, in terms of geopolitics, there’s a lot happening. It may seem that that could pose some risks. But if you start from the presupposition that they have serious political problems that haven’t been solved yet, the fact that there’s a movement in the relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea or Somalia, or possibly the recognition of Somaliland — all that seems to be positive.

It just shows that there’s energy there. There’s finally an internal ability that doesn’t come from the outside to solve some of the problems that go back to colonial times.

On the Bruno Maçães production function

COWEN: If I may close with a few questions about the Bruno Maçães production function. You have an actual job, is that correct?


COWEN: How do you find time to learn about new areas? How does your life fit together?

MAÇÃES: You try to get a job where it doesn’t feel like you’re not doing what you are supposed to do if you actually get informed about Russia and China and what is happening all over the world. That’s also part of my day job. Then I try to make sure that I have enough hours during the day to do the other things I like, like write and travel and talk to people. Those two things would help.

COWEN: At the margin, what’s the form or method of learning most undervalued by others? Is it travel, talking to people, reading books, studying with Harvey Mansfield, something else, spending time on Twitter?

MAÇÃES: Looking at my past experience, I had a job for a few years in Berlin in a very unusual university where I could decide the courses that I would teach. So I taught Darwin. I taught Copernicus. I taught economics, even though I don’t have a PhD in economics. That was wonderful.

I think if universities could do that, those three years were the three years I learned the most in my life, just being forced to teach something where you are completely uncomfortable. It’s one thing to try to learn something where you’re uncomfortable, but think about teaching it. That was a very intense and productive time of my life.

More recently, having been in government does open some doors. You can have some very interesting conversations with people who are actually in the rooms. That also has been a very formative experience for me, especially in . . .

COWEN: You were in the Portuguese government in 2011? Which years again?

MAÇÃES: ’13 to ’15.

COWEN: How do you choose which books to read?

MAÇÃES: Twitter actually plays a role now. When people that I trust recommend a book, I usually follow through. I read less. I reread a lot these days. Go back to books that I liked and try to understand them better.

Then keep an eye on the things coming out on the subjects that I’m particularly interested in. I’m sure I won’t miss any book that is about China — where China is going for example — and make a selection. It’s pretty easy to do, I think.

The great thing about having read a few tens of thousands of books is that — I’m sure you had this experience — you get pretty good at identifying a book that you think is worthwhile, so that you stop at page 10 and you are absolutely sure you have no regrets about it.

COWEN: [laughs] Last question: what are you planning for your future?

MAÇÃES: I’m trying to become a full-time writer and a very productive one. I started late, but I’d like to, in the next 15 years, let us say, to write 15 books. Whether this is going to work out, you’ll never know. Something could come along, but that is the default position right now.

COWEN: Are there any topics you’re willing to tip your hand on, if only speculatively?

MAÇÃES: No, but I don’t plan to write 15 versions of this book. I’m going to write on technology. I want to write on America. I want to write on the future of Europe. I want to potentially try to write one or two novels. That’s the plan. Again, I’m not sure it’s going to work, but that’s the plan. The more I talk about it, the more pressure I have, the better.

COWEN: And that’s your sense of adventure. Bruno, thank you very much for coming.

MAÇÃES: Thank you. It’s a pleasure, Tyler.