Fareed Zakaria on the Age of Revolutions, the Power of Ideas, and the Rewards of Intellectual Curiosity (Ep. 208)

For Fareed Zakaria, his books—and not his columns or CNN show—are most important avenue for introducing new ideas to the world.

Those who know Fareed Zakaria through his weekly column or CNN show may be surprised to learn he considers books the important way he can put new ideas in the world. But Fareed’s original aspiration was to be an academic, and it was a chance lunch with Walter Isaacson that convinced him to apply for a job as editor of Foreign Affairs instead of accepting an assistant professorship at Harvard. His latest book, Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present is a testament to his enduring passion for ideas and his belief in the importance of classical liberalism in an age of increasing populism and authoritarianism.

Tyler sat down with Fareed to discuss what he learned from Khushwant Singh as a boy, what made his father lean towards socialism, why the Bengali intelligentsia is so left-wing, what’s stuck with him from his time at an Anglican school, what’s so special about visiting Amritsar, why he misses a more syncretic India, how his time at the Yale Political Union dissuaded him from politics, what he learned from Walter Isaacson and Sam Huntington, what put him off academia, how well some of his earlier writing as held up, why he’s become focused on classical liberal values, whether he had reservations about becoming a TV journalist, how he’s maintained a rich personal life, and more.

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Recorded March 8th, 2024

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Special thanks to an anonymous donor who “supports the mission of CWT” for sponsoring this transcript.

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m chatting with Fareed Zakaria, who truly needs no introduction. But I would like to point out, as of March 26, he has a new and wonderful book out, Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present. Fareed, welcome.

FAREED ZAKARIA: It’s a huge pleasure to be here. I’m a little intimidated, I must confess, because I listen to you. I’m a fan of the podcast, and you range very widely. I’m worried you’re going to ask me questions about something I wrote about 15 years ago that I don’t remember. [laughs]

COWEN: You will remember it, but I want to start by trying to figure out you. What did you learn from Khushwant Singh, and when was that?

ZAKARIA: This is the dedication of my book, where I decided I was going to try to remember all the people who helped me along the way in my life. It starts with Khushwant Singh, who is probably, if you’d asked somebody in India 10 years ago, they would have told you he’s the most famous journalist in India.

I got to know him when I was 10 years old. He was my mom’s boss. My mother worked at a magazine called the Illustrated Weekly of India. He was an extraordinary character. He was a novelist who had also been a diplomat, and then he had become editor of this magazine. He was a kind of intellectual — I don’t know that we have as many of these kinds of people as we used to.

He was a novelist who won a couple of awards for his books. He was a great lover of the English language and of poetry, in particular. It was infectious. He gave me this real love of the language and love of poetry that I still have to this day. He, in a sense, taught me how to write, made me understand what good writing was, turned me on to people like George Orwell. I just have this very fond memory. He also taught me how to play tennis, how to swim, all kinds of things. My father was not very athletic, so he filled that role in a way. So, that’s who he is.

As you know, the list is long. I tried to go through everybody who had really helped me along the way.

COWEN: What was it he saw in you that encouraged him to pay so much attention to you? You were 10, you say, right?

ZAKARIA: Yes. I think I’ve always been intellectually very curious. I don’t think I’m the smartest person in the world, but I am very intellectually curious. I get fascinated by ideas and why things are some way. Even when I was very young, I remember I would read much more broadly than my peers.

I think I looked this up once, but Henry Kissinger’s memoirs came out when I was 14, I think. I remember reading them because I remember my mom — at that point, she was working at the Times of India. They excerpted it. I remember telling her that they had chosen some of the wrong excerpts, that there were other parts that would have been better. I must have read enough of it to have had an opinion.

On his father’s socialism

COWEN: Why couldn’t you talk Singh out of his Nehruvian socialism? He was a great liberal. He loved free speech, very broad-minded, as you know much better than I do. But he, on economics, was weak. Or no?

ZAKARIA: Oh, no, you’re entirely right. By the way, I would say the same is true of my father, with whom I had many, many such conversations. You’d find this interesting, Tyler. My father was a young Indian nationalist who — as he once put it to me — made the most important decision in his life, politically, when he was 13 or 14 years old, which was, as a young Indian Muslim, he chose Nehru’s vision of secular democracy as the foundation of a nation rather than Jinnah’s view of religious nationalism. He chose India rather than Pakistan as an Indian Muslim.

He was politically so interesting and forward-leaning, but he was a hopeless social — a sort of social democrat, but veering towards socialism. Both these guys were. Here’s why, I think. For that whole generation of people — by the way, my father got a scholarship to London University and went to study with Harold Laski, the great British socialist economist. Laski told him, “You are actually not an economist; you are a historian.” So, my father went on and got a PhD at London University in Indian history.

That whole generation of Indians who wanted independence were imbued with . . . There were two things going on. One, the only people in Britain who supported Indian independence were the Labour Party and the Fabian Socialists. All their allies were all socialists. There was a common cause and there was a symbiosis because these were your friends, these were your allies, these were the only people supporting you, the cause that mattered the most to you in your life.

The second part was, a lot of people who came out of third-world countries felt, “We are never going to catch up with the West if we just wait for the market to work its way over hundreds of years.” They looked at, in the ’30s, the Soviet Union and thought, “This is a way to accelerate modernization, industrialization.” They all were much more comfortable with the idea of something that sped up the historical process of modernization.

My own view was, that was a big mistake, though I do think there are elements of what the state was able to do that perhaps were better done in a place like South Korea than in India, but that really explains it.

My father was in Britain in ’45 as a student. As a British subject then, you got to vote in the election if you were in London, if you were in Britain. I said to him, “Who did you vote for in the 1945 election?” Remember, this is the famous election right after World War II, in which Churchill gets defeated, and he gets up the next morning and looks at the papers, and his wife says to him, “Darling, it’s a blessing in disguise.” He says, “Well, at the moment it seems very effectively disguised.”

My father voted in that election. I said to him, “You’re a huge fan of Churchill,” because I’d grown up around all the Churchill books, and my father could quote the speeches. I said, “Did you vote for Churchill?” He said, “Oh good lord, no.” I said, “Why? I thought you were a great admirer of his.” He said, “Look, on the issue that mattered most to me in life, he was an unreconstructed imperialist. A vote for Labour was a vote for Indian independence. A vote for Churchill was a vote for the continuation of the empire.” That, again, is why their friends were all socialists.

On the Bengali intelligentsia

COWEN: Why do you think the Bengali intelligentsia has been so especially left-wing? Is there a reason?

ZAKARIA: Oh, the Bengali intelligentsia. The Bengali intelligentsia was the great intelligentsia of India, probably the most literate, the most learned. I think it’s because they’re very clever. One of the things I’ve always noticed is that people who are very clever political elites tend to think that they should run the economy because they can do it better than the market.

Milton Friedman used to say that there are two groups of people who don’t like the free market. Academics, intellectuals because they think they can do it better than the market, and businessmen because they don’t like competition. What they really want — this is a variation of the Peter Thiel argument — what they all really want is to be monopolists. That former part is, I think, what explains the Bengali intellectuals.

By the way, many of the policy intellectuals of India in the ’50s and ’60s, who were very much socialists, were brilliant. This is not a case of stupid people. They were all educated at places like Berkeley and the London School of Economics and Harvard. We see the same phenomenon now, when you watch the Biden administration putting in all these rules about chip making and things like that. They think they can figure out the direction the economy is going in, the way it should be guided.

I think that the reality is, the market is much more powerful than they are in these areas. To give you one simple example, they decided, “Okay, we need to be making high-end chips.” Who do they bet on? They bet on Intel, a company that has failed miserably to compete with TSMC, the great Taiwanese chip manufacturer. Intel is now getting multi-billion-dollar grants from the United States government, from the European Union, because it fills all the categories that you’re looking for: big company, stable and well-run, in some sense, can guarantee a lot of jobs.

But of course, the reality is that chip making is so complicated. The future of chip making seems to be moving to companies like Nvidia and AMD and Micron, leaving Intel far behind. Intel had lost the last war and got rewarded for its failure by being given a check by the US government, saying try again, and now it seems failing in this next war.

Who knew that, actually, it’s Nvidia, whose chips turned out to be designed for gaming, turned out to be ideal for artificial intelligence? That’s a perfect example of how the Hayekian market signals that come bottom-up are much more powerful than a political elite who tries to tell you what it is.

But to answer your question, political elites love the idea that political elites get to direct the economy.

On religious experience

COWEN: What did you learn from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer?

ZAKARIA: I went to a high Anglican school in India until 12th grade. We’d start every morning singing a hymn, reciting a prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer. I learned probably two things. One was a reverence for tradition, and in particular, I loved the hymnal. I think Britain’s great contribution to music is religious music. It doesn’t have anything to compete with the Germans and the Italians in opera and things like that. Religious music, I think the Brits and the English have done particularly well.

The second thing I would say is an admiration for Christianity for its extraordinary emphasis on being nice to people who have not been lucky in life. I would say that’s, to me, the central message of Christianity that I take, certainly from the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s imbued through the Book of Common Prayer: to be nice to the people who have been less fortunate than you. Be nice to poor people. Recognize that in God’s kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

There is an enormous emphasis on the idea that those things that make you powerful in this world are not the things that really matter, that your dignity as a human being doesn’t come from that. I think that’s a very powerful idea. It’s a very revolutionary idea. Tom Holland has a very good book about this. He’s a wonderful historian in Britain. I think it’s called Dominion.

COWEN: Yes, he’s been a guest.

ZAKARIA: Yes. He points out what a revolutionary idea this was. It completely upended the Roman values, which were very much, the first shall be first. The powerful and the rich are the ones to be valued. He points out, here is this Jewish preacher coming out of the Middle East saying, “No, the first shall be last, the last shall be first in the kingdom of heaven.”

COWEN: Do you think you picked up an anti-clerical side from Singh at all?

ZAKARIA: Yes, I think I’ve always liked the more radical Protestant, which is, actually, also the more radical Sunni idea in Islam, that people should have an individual relationship with God. That the intermediaries seem to exist to exert power and are often corrupt and often distort the message. Yes, and I still believe that.

I think that one of the most sickening things to look at in America is these televangelists who take advantage of ordinary people and their faith. Clearly, to me, they seem to have constructed an elaborate and deeply corrupt racket out of the whole thing.

COWEN: I went to Amritsar the year before, and it was one of the most magical feelings I’ve ever had in any place. I’m still not sure what exactly I can trace it to — I am not a Sikh, of course. But what, for you, accounts for the strong, powerful, wondrous feeling one gets from that place?

ZAKARIA: It’s a very good question because I also have that feeling. I think it might explain, for example, Amritsar is the most important place for the Sikh religion and has a beautiful temple. It’s called the Golden Temple. When Indira Gandhi, as prime minister, stormed it because there were a group of separatists who had holed up there — that really is what triggered enormous, enormous pain and anger in the Sikh community, which eventually led to her assassination. I bring that up only to emphasize your point that it has a special magical feeling for Sikhs.

I think there’s something about it architecturally, which is that there is a serenity about it. Sometimes you can find Hindu temples that are very elaborate. Sikhism is a kind of offshoot of Hinduism. The Hindu temples can be very elaborate, but very elaborate and ornate. This somehow has a simplicity to it. When you add to that the water — I’ve always thought that water adds an enormously calming effect. It’s something about that combination, I think, but I’m just speculating.

COWEN: What languages did you grow up speaking?

ZAKARIA: Hindi and Urdu more than anything else. Hindi and Urdu are two Indian languages, very related. They both have roughly the same grammatical structure, but then Hindi derives its vocabulary entirely from Sanskrit, or almost entirely from Sanskrit, and Urdu derives its vocabulary almost entirely from Persian. Urdu is a language of Indian Muslims and is the official language for Pakistan. It’s a beautiful language, very lyrical, very much influenced by that Persian literary sensibility.

If you’re speaking one of the languages, there’s a way to alternate between both, which a lot of Indian politicians used to do as a way of signaling a broad embrace of both the Hindu and the Muslim communities. Nehru, India’s first prime minister, used to often do that. He would say, “I am delighted to be coming here to your home.” He’d repeat the word home, first in Urdu, then in Hindi, so that in effect, both constituencies were covered.

Modi, by contrast, India’s current prime minister, is a great Hindu nationalist. He takes pains almost never to use an Urdu word when he speaks. He speaks in a kind of highly Sanskritized Hindi that most Indians actually find hard to understand because the everyday language, Bollywood Hindi, is a mixture of Hindi words and Urdu words, so there are Persian and Sanskrit origins. But for Modi and for people of his ilk in the BJP — his party — it’s very important to “cleanse the language Hindi from foreign influences.” That is why they will speak a very Sanskritized Hindi.

COWEN: Even that you grew up speaking Urdu, your connection with Singh, who was born in what is now Pakistan — how much, if at all, do you have an aesthetic longing for what used to be called historic India? I don’t mean in an imperialistic kind of way, but just, there was something proper about the fact that it was all connected. Is that in your thought much at all?

ZAKARIA: Yes, it’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever written this, so I’m not quite sure how you picked that up, but absolutely. I’ll give you a simple example. Look, I think the partition of India was a complete travesty. It was premised on this notion of religious nationalism.

It was horrendously executed. The person who drew the lines, a man named Radcliffe, had never been to India. He’d never been east of the Suez and was given this task, and he did it in a month or two, probably caused a million-and-a-half to two million lives lost, maybe 10 million people displaced. It broke that wonderfully diverse, syncretic aspect of India.

If you look at cities like Delhi and Lahore, what was beautiful about them is that they mix together all the influences of India: Hindu, Muslim, Punjabi, Sindhi. Now what you have is much more bifurcated. If you go to Lahore, Lahore is a Muslim city in Pakistan, and it has a Punjabi influence. Delhi has become, essentially, much more Indian and Hindu and has lost that Muslim influence. To me, as somebody who really loves cosmopolitanism and diversity, it’s sad to see that. It’s almost like you’ve lost something that really made these places wonderfully rich.

I feel the same way when you read about the history of Europe. You think of a place like Vienna, which, in its most dazzling moment, was dazzling precisely because it was this polyglot population of people coming from all over the Habsburg Empire. A large segment of it was Jewish, and it had, as a result — think about Freud and Klimt and the music that came out of there, and the architecture that came out at the turn of the 19th century. And it’s all gone. It’s like, at this point, a somewhat beautiful but slightly dull Austrian city.

COWEN: You feel Mumbai is still the most cosmopolitan part of current India?

ZAKARIA: Yes, by far. Mumbai is definitely the most cosmopolitan part, and it still has a lot of cosmopolitanism because India still has a lot of Muslims in India, even though the Muslim majority areas ended up being Pakistan, Bangladesh. But there’s a very substantial minority — around 10 percent, which in Indian terms — maybe 12 percent — it’s about 180 million Muslims, which makes it, I think, the third- or fourth-largest Muslim country in the world.

COWEN: Why do you think Indian Muslims have not radicalized so much? Or at least it seems that way to me, as an outsider.

ZAKARIA: No, you’re 100 percent right, they have not radicalized at all. George W. Bush used to say — and it’s basically true — that it’s extraordinary to see a population of 150-plus million Muslims living right next to Pakistan, right next to Afghanistan, and there was not a single known member of al-Qaida. I think there are now maybe a handful of members of ISIS who’ve been found to have been Indian Muslims. But given the scale of almost 200 million Muslims, the fact that there are, at most, five or ten who belong to these radical terrorist groups is extraordinary.

It’s not even that; they don’t vote for Muslim parties. In general, they vote for the Congress Party, which is a secular party. They don’t, even in their voting — forget terrorism — they don’t even vote for specifically Muslim or Islamic fundamentalist parties.

COWEN: Why is that, though?

ZAKARIA: I think it’s the kind of, again, the syncretic nature of India, that India has always been diverse. Hinduism is very tolerant. It’s a kind of unusual religion in that you can believe in one god and be Hindu. You can believe in 300. You can be vegetarian and believe that’s a religious dictate. You can be nonvegetarian and believe that that’s completely compatible with your religion. It’s always embraced almost every variant and variation.

I think, in a sense, Islam fit in within that tapestry very easily, and it’s been around for a while. When people talk about cleansing India, Hindu nationals talk about cleansing India of foreign influences. Islam has been in India since the 11th century, so it’s been around for a long time. People, I think, feel comfortable and don’t feel the need to assert that distinctive identity by voting in a parochial way.

Some of that is changing, and I worry about it because there is much more sustained persecution of Muslims these days in India, but I still think, in many ways, India is a wonder of this. There’s nothing quite like it, no country quite like it. There are 15 official languages, and those are real languages, languages with thousands of years of literature and poetry. These are not dialects. They have 400 dialects in India. Yet there’s something that unifies the country, almost geographically, civilizationally.

On being good at politics

COWEN: Fast-forwarding a bit, what did you learn debating at the Yale Political Union?

ZAKARIA: Oh, I had great fun. I learned more than anything else, honestly, how to do politics because the Yale Political Union was like a mini parliament, but there were political parties, and you had to make alliances. You had to, especially if you were trying to rise up there. I became president my sophomore year, which was pretty fast. You had to be very good at politics. I discovered — if I can be totally honest — I was very good at politics, but it scared me. I did not like the person I became in doing it.

You have to be pretty ruthless, pretty expedient. You have to make alliances. I wouldn’t say you have to be deceptive, but you have to do a little bit of overpromising and switching horses when it seems necessary. I don’t know if I decided this consciously, but I think one of the reasons I’m a journalist and not an active participant is that I saw what it does to you as a person, and I didn’t love that. I was very good at it, I will boastfully say.

COWEN: There was, I think, a 2003 piece in New York Magazine. I know you know it. This suggested you might someday be secretary of state. Now, this was never you saying that, but when that came out, no one laughed. Today, that would be unthinkable because our politics is somehow crazier. What did you think in 2003 when you heard people thought you could someday be secretary of state?

ZAKARIA: I was enormously flattered, obviously. I didn’t myself think that that was a likely scenario because I had already begun to see a shift that had taken place. If you look back to when Nixon appointed Kissinger national security adviser, Kissinger had barely — he had been a consultant to the Kennedy administration. He had really been an academic, and Nixon had been attracted to him for two reasons.

One, he had read his Foreign Affairs articles, mostly in Foreign Affairs. Two, he knew that Kissinger advised Nelson Rockefeller, and Nixon had a little bit of that envy of the Eastern establishment. When Carter appointed Brzezinski, Brzezinski was a famous academic, again, had never held a government job. There was something about the Cold War which made people think the stakes were so high, you had to find the most brilliant person you could, or something like that.

In the last 30 or 40 years, the trend has moved much further away from that, and much more toward loyalty, toward people who have been supporting you, who have been on your team, who have worked on your campaign. I’ve never wanted to do that. I’ve never done that. I always thought that that was people who are using an old standard, which is, “Here’s this guy who writes really interesting stuff on foreign policy. Maybe he’s going to hold high government office.” I don’t think people like me are asked to do that kind of thing anymore.

It’s a separate question as to whether I’d do it. I have been asked to serve in government several times but never at that level. I’ve never really wanted to do it because I’ve realized it’s a version of what I was saying to you about the Yale Political Union. I’m not a very good courtier, and you have to be a courtier if you’re going to serve. You lose your own voice. You have to take on the voice of the principal, the president, and you have to be a good team player.

I’ve always liked my own independence, my own voice, and so, even though I was flattered at times when I’d be offered these things, it never quite made sense to me. I always found some excuse. Economists have a wonderful phrase, revealed preferences. After about the third time I was offered something, when I turned it down, I realized to myself, “You know what? My revealed preference is, I do not want to go into government.”

COWEN: At the Yale Political Union, who beat you the most often in those debates, if anyone?

ZAKARIA: I was pretty good. I had a roommate who was also a member of the Yale Political Union. I was right of center in those days. He was left of center, and he was very, very eloquent and very smart. His name is David Murphy. He then became a partner at Wachtell Lipton, which is literally the leading law firm in the country, the most, most profitable law firm by far. He now does arbitration, and he’s still a formidable debater. We’re still very much in touch.

Brad Berenson was another person who was very good, who I think served in the Bush White House in the Office of Legal Counsel and then became general counsel to GE. I would say those two more than anyone else.

COWEN: In these years, if I understand it correctly, you’re viewed very much as a prodigy. Did you feel pressure from that?

ZAKARIA: No, if I’m being totally honest, I got energized by it. I felt like I had the wind behind my back. I was amazed that America — it wasn’t America; it was where I was at Yale and Harvard and all that — that nobody cared where I came from. Nobody cared.

I remember once being asked when I was a graduate student at Harvard — Tony Lake was then national security adviser, and his office called and said — I’d written something in the New York Times, I think — “Mr. Lake would like you to come to the White House to brief him.”

I walked in and there were five people around the table: Tony Lake; Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger; George Stephanopoulos, who was then director of communications at the White House; Joe Nye, who was a senior professor at Harvard; one other person; and myself. And I kept thinking to myself, “Are they going to realize at some point that I’m not an American citizen? They’re asking me for my advice on what America should do, and I am on a student visa.” And of course, nobody ever did, which is one of the great glories of America.

On Walter Isaacson

COWEN: What did you learn from Walter Isaacson?

ZAKARIA: Walter, when I first got to know him, was just a great journalist who had written this book, The Wise Men. One of my funny social faux pas — I met him at a cocktail party at Harvard at a student group, which he belonged to when he was at Harvard and then I belonged to as a grad student, called the Signet Society.

We were chatting about books, and somehow The Wise Men came up, and I puffed myself up as a graduate student and said, “Oh, I just reviewed that book for the American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa.” I said, “I just reviewed that book.” He looked at me, and he said, “Yes, and I wrote it.” [laughs]

I learned from him — you know, more than anything else, Walter had this wonderful ambition. I say wonderful because he was a journalist, but he decided he was going to write this book about American foreign policy, about the group of people after World War II who really charted the course of American foreign policy, charted the course of the American century. Then he decides to write a biography of Henry Kissinger. Then he decides to write a book about Einstein.

I think, particularly when you’re trained as an academic, as I was, you get into silos and you think to yourself, “Well, I only know about this one thing.” Walter has this amazing breadth about him, where he’s willing to take on anything — Leonardo da Vinci — and he pulls it off. The books are amazing, I think, that sense of that breadth of ambition I’ve always loved.

COWEN: Yes, I like the Leonardo book. Now, you write your dissertation under Huntington, right?

ZAKARIA: Correct.

COWEN: What was your thesis topic, and how did you choose it?

ZAKARIA: I’ll be totally honest. My thesis topic was, I tried to answer the question, when countries rise in great power, when they rise economically, they become great powers because they quickly translate that economic power into diplomatic and military power. What explains the principal exception in modern history, which is the United States?

The United States by 1880, by most measures, had overtaken Britain as the leading industrial power in the world, but if you looked at its army, its navy, its diplomatic representation, and the number of embassies it had around the world, it ranked 20th in the world. I think it had many, many fewer foreign outposts than Italy. It had a smaller army than most European nations. So, what explained this massive delay in America rising politically and diplomatically and militarily?

My simple answer was that the United States was a very unusual creature in the modern world. It was a very strong nation with a very weak state. The federal government in the United States did not have the capacity to extract the resources from the society at large because you didn’t have income taxes in those days. You still had the state militia systems, where the federal troops — it was not that easy, particularly in the shadow of the Civil War, for the federal government to raise troops. There were all these obstacles to America translating its national power into state power that could be used.

Now, the reason I did it was, partly I was fascinated by it. Paul Kennedy had been my adviser at Yale, and he had been writing The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, his great tome at the time.

The second reason I did it was I wanted to get a job in academia. And this conformed to certain academic fashions at the time about testing hypotheses and testing various theories of realpolitik, called realism and classical realism and defensive realism, all of which I now look back with a certain amount of regret because I think it added unnecessary theoretical layers to what was actually a very elegant historical thesis.

Look, I was an immigrant kid. I wanted a job, and so part of the point was to write it in the style that would get me a job, and it succeeded. I think it would’ve succeeded at that. It was a well-regarded dissertation; it got published by Princeton. But by then, I decided to move away from academia.

COWEN: What put you off academia? And this was for the better, in my view.

ZAKARIA: I think two things. One, I could see that political science was moving away from the political science that I loved, which was a broad discipline rooted in the social sciences but also rooted in the humanities, which was rigorous, structural, historical comparisons. Looking at different countries, trying to understand why there were differences.

It was moving much more toward a huge emphasis on things like rational choice, on game theory There was an economist envy. Just as economists have math envy, political scientists have economist envy. It was moving in that direction. Whether it was the right direction or not, it was not something I felt like I would thrive in.

The second piece of it was actually very much related to Huntington. Sam Huntington was quite an extraordinary character, probably the most important social scientist in the second half of the 20th century. Huge contributions to several fields of political science. He lived next to me. Me, obviously in a tiny graduate student apartment, but he in a townhouse on Beacon Hill. I would sometimes talk to him. We’d have coffee in the mornings.

He had a routine, which is, he’d get up about 6:00 a.m. He’d go down to the basement of his townhouse, and at 6:30, he would start writing or working on whatever his next big research project was. He’d do that, uninterrupted, for three hours at least, sometimes four. Then, at about 9:30, 10:00, he would take the subway to Harvard.

His point was, you got to start the day by doing the important work of academia, which is producing knowledge. All the rest of it — teaching, committee meetings, all that — you can do later. He was so disciplined about that, that every five years or so, he put out another major piece of work, another major book.

I looked at that, and I said to myself, I do not have the self-discipline to perform at that level. I need to go into something that has deadlines, that has structure, that has more feedback because, as you know well, Tyler, there’s a very lonely aspect to being an academic. There’s a lot of fun, and there’s lots of interesting things, but a lot of it is just sitting by yourself.

In the new Leonard Bernstein movie, there’s a point at which Bradley Cooper says — I’m guessing this comes out of a Bernstein interview, where he was asked what’s the difference between being a conductor and a composer — he says, “Well, being a performer, you have a constant relationship with the outside world. You have a grand outer life, a life directed outward. But as a composer, as a creator, you only have a grand internal life.”

It’s all within you, and you have to be able to generate ideas from that lonely space. I’ve always found that hard. For me, writing books is the hardest thing I do. I feel like I have to do it because I feel as though everything else is trivia — the television, column, everything else. I think it’s important, but it’s relatively — in my conception, in my hierarchy, it’s trivia. The most important thing you can do is to try and write books that make a difference, that put new ideas into the world, but it’s the hardest thing for me.

On editing Foreign Affairs

COWEN: By age 28 now, you’re editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, which, especially then, was extremely important. How did that happen?

ZAKARIA: Really, luck. I was having lunch with Walter Isaacson. This just shows you serendipity in life. I was having lunch with Walter Isaacson in New York, and I was telling him that Sam Huntington had offered me an assistant professorship at Harvard. There was an institute that Sam ran, and he had told me he thought he could create an assistant professorship that was half-time teaching, half-time assistant director of that institute, and I was thrilled about it.

Walter says to me, “Well, I don’t know that you should really go into academia. There’s this job out there, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and the editor-in-chief is much older. He’s a real journalist. You would balance him out really well. You should try and get that job.” I remember telling him, “Walter, didn’t you hear me? I think I’m going to get to be an assistant professor at Harvard.” He looks at me and says, “Did you hear what I just told you? I think you could be managing editor of Foreign Affairs.”

I realized that we were both totally socialized by our respective careers. In graduate school, you’re on a conveyor belt, and the end of the conveyor belt is becoming a great professor, and what better place to start than Harvard? In journalism, the idea of being managing editor by the time you’re 28 is . . . Each of us was reflecting our biases and our silos.

But I went home and I realized I’d really always loved journalism. I’d started a magazine when I was in high school. I’d been the editor of the Yale political monthly. Every summer job I’d ever had, I worked at a magazine or a newspaper because I found them fun. Again, revealed preferences telling you more than what you say to yourself.

So, I called him up and said, “Yes, throw my hat in the ring.” Then I discovered it was very tough because I was 28, and everybody else who was being interviewed was 45-plus. They had much more experience than I did. I had to really hustle to be viable, but without that lunch with Walter, it wouldn’t have happened.

On the clash of civilizations

COWEN: Was it you who commissioned Samuel Huntington’s very famous “Clash of Civilizations” essay?

ZAKARIA: Yes. I didn’t commission it. What happened is, I went to Sam and told him I was going to take this job at Foreign Affairs, which he was completely opposed to. My three advisers all advised me against taking the job. I realized that the reason was, they were all great academics. Within the world of academia, the way you gain fame and influence is by having great proteges, by having great students who then go on to become great academics. They all thought that my going would be a great loss to academia, but also a loss to their legacy.

Sam very much felt that I shouldn’t take the job, so I said to him, “I am going to do it, but can I ask a favor? You sent me a draft of an essay you’ve been writing, for my comments, a few months ago, called ‘The Clash of Civilizations.’ Can I take that with me to Foreign Affairs and publish it?” That’s how it became, so I took it with me. We edited it, and we made it the first-time-ever lead essay. Foreign Affairs had never had a lead essay before. The typeface was all the same. We redesigned the magazine, and we made this the clear cover essay.

COWEN: In a world where we have a major war with Russia attacking Ukraine, significant conflict in the Sudan, ongoing conflict in Congo — several million lives killed there — you think that essay is still correct? Because those are very significant conflicts, and they’re not really cross-civilizational. They’re within particular groups.

ZAKARIA: I think he got one thing very powerfully right, which is that at the end of the Cold War, where ideology was the core motivational factor behind much of the conflict of the Cold War — whether you were communist or capitalist, whether you were allied with the communist or the democratic world, whether you were a proxy for — those were the battle lines of the mid-20th century. Once that went away, what people were going to revert to was their identity, and their identity often rooted in religion.

If you think about the rise of al-Qaida, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, you think about the return of a certain kind of Chinese nationalism in China — I think that piece of it — you look at the rise of Hindu nationalism in India — he really understood that people were going to fall back on these older, descriptive identities in a way that they had not during the Cold War.

What I think he got wrong was, international relations is fundamentally a struggle for power, and that a lot of those power struggles — it’s not that they are motivated by things that are completely contradictory to identity politics, but they sometimes match up and they sometimes don’t.

Many of the wars in the Arab world have been Arab on Arab, Muslim on Muslim. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he was invading another fellow Arab, fellow Sunni state. As you point out, a number of the African conflicts are, essentially, you’d have to say, conflicts within civilizations. Some of the conflicts are ones where people find odd bedfellows so that the Chinese and the Russians are allying, even though, in a sense, they’re two different civilizations.

There’s a long history of this. Richelieu, when he was running France, the great Catholic power, allied routinely with Protestant powers. Power politics sometimes transcends identity politics. I think he missed that, but it’s still a very powerful and thought-provoking essay, I think.

COWEN: After 9/11 in 2001, you wrote a famous essay for Newsweek, “Why Do They Hate Us?” You talked about the rulers, failed ideas, religion. If you were to revise or rethink that piece today, how would you change it? Because we have 23 more years of data, right?

ZAKARIA: Yes. Not very much, honestly. The central point I was making in that essay was that if you look at the Arab world, it is the principal outlier in the modern era, where it has undergone almost no political modernization. If you looked at Latin America in 1970 versus 2000, you would have seen a sea change, where it was mostly dictatorships in 1970 and was mostly democracies by 2001. If you looked at, obviously, Central Europe — totally transformed from communist to liberal democracies. Even if you looked at Africa, you would’ve seen enormous transition.

The Arab world had remained absolutely static. My argument was that it was largely because of the curse of oil and oil wealth, which had impeded modernization. But along with that, because of that failed modernization, they had developed this reactionary ideology of Islam, which said the answer is to go further back, not to go forward. “Islam is the solution,” was the cry of the Islamic fundamentalists in the 1970s.

The problem that they were saying that Islam is a solution to was the failed modernization, the failed Westernization of these countries. That toxic mixture was at the heart of what was producing armed reactionary ideologies like al-Qaida and things like that. I really do feel very proud of that essay, but you’re absolutely right that we have 23 more years of data.

What’s interesting is that, partly because of 9/11, which I think in some ways was a great wake-up call, what you have seen is a much greater effort by elites to modernize the societies, not simply to buy a modernity by buying Western goods, but to find ways to actually modernize the society.

From all the stuff going on in Saudi Arabia right now, which is, yes, there’s a lot of economic bringing golf and other sports in, but there’s opening up the lives of women, allowing them to be educated, ending the segregation, allowing (famously) them to drive. And Saudi Arabia, in a way, was at the heart of this problem because it is the richest country and, in many ways, sent the signal of what kind of modernization was compatible with Islam and what was not.

I think that in a way you’ve seen more forward movement in the last 20 years than people realize, even though the regimes have largely stayed dictatorships. But that tension still exists, by the way. Egypt is a very brutal country because, again, it has fundamentally failed to modernize.

COWEN: I’ve been surprised how well some of the Gulf nations have done since, say, 2001. If we look at Iran, which has really not done so well, if you had to explain in as fundamental a model as possible . . .If you see Iranians abroad, they earn high incomes, they have real science, they have real technology. There’s some degree of national unity in a way maybe you wouldn’t find, say, in Iraq. But what’s the fundamental thing at its core holding back Iran?

ZAKARIA: I think it’s a very similar version of what we were just talking about. It’s oil wealth coupled with —

COWEN: But UAE has made the transition. Why isn’t Iran like UAE?

ZAKARIA: To begin with, those Gulf states — it’s important to remember — are tiny. You’re talking about a million or two people in Qatar. I think you’re talking about maybe 400,000 people. It’s much easier for an elite to dominate and rule those places. There’s a reason why Saudi Arabia was more difficult. Saudi Arabia, it’s the one real country, by which I mean real population size. That’s why, in a way, what MBS is doing has been more difficult. You’ve got to measure the population’s reaction to things.

Iran is a big country, bigger than all of them. I think that between the oil wealth and the failed modernization, where the Shah went to . . . In my current book, I talk about this. Iran strikes me very much like the French Revolution, where the Shah tried to move much too far, much too fast, much too disruptively — triggered an enormous backlash, which they’re still living with now.

You add to that the oil wealth, which makes it easy to not modernize. To just remind people what the problem with oil wealth is, it means you don’t have to modernize your economy. You don’t have to modernize your society because you can get enormous wealth just by drilling holes in the ground — actually by paying other people to drill holes in the ground. Mostly Western technology is used to extract those resources. So you never get through the painful process of actually modernizing your society, and many of these countries are in that situation.

As I said, the Gulf states are so unusual, and it’s not an accident that the most modern of the Gulf cities is Dubai, the one city that has no oil. Oil is 10 percent of Dubai’s GDP. It’s about 90 percent of Abu Dhabi’s. Even there, you see that variation. The thing that needs explaining is why is Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar — and maybe Saudi — worked, not why do the other ones not work — because the other ones are all like Nigeria, like Venezuela, the oil-rich countries that have never made it.

There are these small exceptions, and they’re all very small. They’re run by very forward-leaning absolute monarchs who have enormous power and can exercise that power because they have a tiny population.

COWEN: You had a famous interview with Lee Kuan Yew, the theme being culture is destiny. Now, Singapore has done very well since then. Do you think that is because of their culture? Why hasn’t Singapore become more corrupt?

ZAKARIA: Yes, I don’t. Lee Kuan Yew clearly did. I think it’s a perfect example of they had very good leadership, and they institutionalized some of their best practices in a way that made a huge difference. For example, why they are not corrupt is because Lee Kuan Yew thought long and hard about this problem, and he decided that he was going to create a system of bureaucracy in Singapore, which was that they get paid close to market wages. A cabinet minister in Singapore makes about $1.5 million. Senior civil servant makes about a million dollars at the highest level, and it permeates.

They do it in a very rigorous process, where they essentially benchmark against a company like McKinsey or things like that. Of course, you don’t make the same amount, but the idea is that you should be able to make the kind of money that allows you to live a good life, send your kids to schools and colleges, afford healthcare, have a good retirement, so that all those things that tend to be temptations to be corrupt, you don’t need to do because if you just do your job well, you’re going to . . .

It’s a perfect example of how there’s nothing cultural about it. There are Chinese bureaucracies in China, and there are a lot of very smart people, but they’re super corrupt. There are Chinese businessmen in Indonesia, and they’re very corrupt. But Singapore managed, through the structure of its system and its laws, to do it. Now, to be fair, Lee Kuan Yew would argue that there’s some part of this that is the Chinese Mandarin tradition of trusting bureaucrats and stuff, but I’ve never bought the cultural argument.

If you look at Max Weber in his book on capitalism, The Protestant Spirit, he basically said the two cultures that are inimical to growth, that are going to be our obstacle to growth, were Catholicism and Confucianism. If you look at Spain and Italy over the last 40 years, they’ve grown pretty darn fast, in fact, somewhat faster than some of the larger countries in the North. If you look at Confucianism — of course, now people say it’s the Confucian ethic that has propelled China forward.

The same is true of India. It used to be that people talked about the Hindu growth rate, meaning the low growth rate in the 1950s and ’60s, and now they say there’s something about Indian culture that actually is very pro-entrepreneurial.

I think that culture is a very big grab bag. When you see success or failure, you can always dip into that bag and find something that explains either the failure or the success.

On returning to classical liberalism

COWEN: I’m struck that this year, both you and Ruchir Sharma have books coming out — again, Fareed’s book is Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present — that I would describe broadly as classically liberal. Do you think classical liberalism is making a comeback? Or is it just being plowed under by progressivism, wokeism, Trumpism, illiberalism, nationalism? Or are you leading a new trend?

ZAKARIA: I wish I were leading a new trend, but I don’t think I am. I think the reason these books are coming out — and certainly, mine, as you know, is centrally occupied with the problem that there’s a great danger that we are going to lose this enormous, probably the most important thing that’s happened in the last 500, 600 years in human history, this movement that has allowed for the creation of modern liberal democratic societies with somewhat market economies.

If you look at the graph of income, of GDP, per capita GDP, it’s like a straight line. There’s no improvement until you get to about, roughly speaking, the 17th, 18th century in Europe, and then you see a sharp uptick. You see this extraordinary rise, and that coincides with the rise of science and intellectual curiosity and the scientific method, and the industrial revolution after that. All that was a product of this great burst of liberal Enlightenment thinking in the West.

I fear that that whole project is now under threat because of all the forces you described: populism from the right and the left, dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that want to manipulate it to serve their purposes. Part of the reason is it’s just been so successful, that it is producing change and transformation — economically and socially and even personally and psychologically — on a scale that is so disruptive and so troubling to people that they search for solutions.

If you think about what we’ve gone through in the last 30 years — and this is really the central argument in my book — massive expansion of globalization, massive expansion of information technology so that it has completely upended the old economy. All of this happening, and people are overwhelmed, and they search in that age of anxiety. They search for a solution, and the easy solutions are the ones offered by the populists. They’re deeply anti-liberal, illiberal. So, I worry that, actually, if we don’t cherish what we have, we’ll lose what has been one of the great, great periods of progress in human history.

COWEN: What’s the most surprising thing you learned writing this book?

ZAKARIA: One surprising thing that you maybe knew, Tyler, that I didn’t was that the left-right divide that we talk about — it came about as an accident. If you think to yourself, why do we speak of people being left-wing and right-wing and left of center and right of center? It’s because during the French Revolution — actually just before the French Revolution — there was a National Assembly chamber in which people used to sit according to their status, whether they were commoners, whether they were priests, whether they were aristocrats. That was the division.

As the debate turned into a debate about the preservation of the French monarchy, the people who wanted to preserve the monarch tended to cluster on the right of the presiding officer’s chair, and the people who wanted to get rid of the monarchy tended to gather on the left.

Then this architect, Pierre-Adrien Pâris, designs a new chamber for the National Assembly, which becomes a rectangular box in which there is literally a right side and a left side, and all the people who wanted to preserve the monarchy would congregate on the right and the people — naturally, this was not by requirement — and all the people who wanted to upend the monarchy were on the left.

That is how you came up with left-wing and right-wing, which I’ve always thought is a wonderful example of sometimes in history you have these serendipities which then have a very long and powerful effect.

COWEN: Why does your book cover the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age?

ZAKARIA: The Dutch are the first modern country. If you think about politics before that — certainly with the exception of ancient Greece and Rome — in modern history, the Dutch invent modern politics and economics. They invent modern politics in the sense that it’s the first time politics is not about courts and kings. It is about a merchant republic with powerful factions and interest groups and political parties, or the precursor to political parties.

It’s the beginning of modern economics because it’s economics based not simply on land and agriculture, but on the famous thing that John Locke talked about, which is mixing human beings’ labor with the land. The Dutch literally do this when they reclaim land from the sea and find ways to manage it, and then invent tall ships, which is, in some ways, one of the first great technological revolutions that has a direct economic impact.

You put all that together, and the Dutch — they become the richest country in the world, and they become the leading technological power in the world. It was very important to me to start the story — because they are really the beginnings of modern liberalism. And I should be clear, when I say liberalism, I mean classical liberalism, liberalism as in often pertaining to human liberty.

COWEN: Circa 1800, how large were the Chinese and Indian economies?

ZAKARIA: This is one of those highly misleading statistics that certainly the Chinese and Indians often use, but it tells you very little. Circa 1800, the Chinese and Indian economies are the two largest economies in the world, and people have taken this to mean, oh, the West had a temporary spurt because of colonies and cheap energy, and that the Chinese and Indians are just coming back to where they were.

First of all, the statistic is misleading because in those days, GDP was simply measured by using population. All society was agricultural. The more people you had, the larger your GDP. It was meaningless because the state could not extract that GDP in any meaningful way, and it’s meaningless because it doesn’t measure progress. It doesn’t measure per capita GDP growth, which is the most important thing to look at.

If you look at per capita GDP growth from 1350 to 1950, for 600 years, India and China have basically no movement. It’s about $600 in 1350 and $600 in 1950. The West, by comparison, moves up 600 percent in that period. It’s roughly $500 per capita GDP to roughly $5,000 per capita GDP.

You can also look at all kinds of other measures. You can look at diet. There are economic historians who’ve done this very well, and people in England were eating four to five times as much grain and protein as people in China and India. You can look at the extraordinary flourishing of science and engineering. You can look at the rise of the great universities. It’s all happening in the West.

The reason this is important is, people need to understand the rise of the West has been a very profound, deep-rooted historical phenomenon that began sometime in the 15th century. The fact that we’re moving out of that phase is a big, big deal. This is not a momentary blip. This is a huge train. The West define modernity. Even when countries try to be modern, they are in some way becoming Western because there is no path we know of to modernity without that.

One other way of just thinking about how silly that statistic is: in pure GDP terms, China had a larger GDP than Britain in 1900. Now, look at Britain in 1900: the most advanced industrial society in the world, ruling one-quarter of the world, largest navy in the world, was able to humiliate China by using a small fraction of its military power during the opium era. That’s what tells you that number is really meaningless. The West has been significantly more advanced than the rest of the world since the 16th century at least.

COWEN: How did you end up writing online wine reviews for Slate?

ZAKARIA: [laughs] Michael Kinsley, who was my first boss at the New Republic, called me up one day and asked me if I would write a foreign affairs column for the new webzine Slate that he was starting with Microsoft. I said to him, “I’d love to, Mike, but I just signed on with Newsweek to write a monthly column on foreign affairs.” He said, “Well, you’ve got to write something for me. I really want you to be part of this new venture. It’s really important to me.”

I said, “I tell you what, I could write about something I know about as much as foreign affairs. It’s wine, and I’ll try and write it in a way that would be of interest to a non-wine drinker.” That was the mandate I set myself, which is, try to write this in a way that is of interest to somebody who wouldn’t.

I try to answer why is it that the British love Bordeaux wines, and they call them claret. Red Bordeaux is called claret. It’s a very long tradition, and people have often said this is an example of British taste and culture. Well, of course, it isn’t. It’s an example of tariff policies for 400 years.

When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II in France — for those of you who remember the movie The Lion in Winter with Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole — everything that came out of Bordeaux was tax-free to Britain because of this marriage, because Eleanor of Aquitaine was French and came essentially from Bordeaux, and so all Bordeaux products went to Britain tax-free. As a result, the British developed an enormous liking for this wine.

So, it was a good way of trying to get people who are not interested in wine interested in something about wine.

On TV journalism and fame

COWEN: Were your feelings conflicted at all when you started doing TV? Or was it just plain, outright fun, like, “I want to do this. This is for me.”

ZAKARIA: When I started to do it, I was just doing it as a commentator. The main gig I got was, George Stephanopoulos asked me if I would be on the Sunday round table. He inherited the show that David Brinkley used to run, and that was fun. That was just pure fun. When I started to try to do it myself and do my own show — I had a little show on PBS — that was more difficult, and I had to find a way to come to terms with television because I really fundamentally thought of myself as somebody who was a writer who just happened to occasionally be on television, offering an opinion.

If you look at it from that perspective, you can’t but think that television is superficial because if you take my show, which I’m very proud of, but if you took the transcript of my show, it would probably fit on one page of the New York Times. That’s just the nature of television.

What I came to realize, and what I had to get myself to understand, was that the better way to think about television is, it’s like haiku. You have real constraints in terms of time, but if you use those constraints well and powerfully and effectively, you can have a huge impact because you’re hitting people in a place where print doesn’t often hit.

So, I now think of the show very much in those terms. Each segment of my show is about six to seven minutes, and so I say to myself, “I’ve got six minutes with this person. What is it I can do? What can I extract? How can I hone this in a way that the audience gets the maximum insight out of it?”

COWEN: The final question. From a great distance, it might seem that you’re one of these people who’s so busy being famous that it just drives you crazy, or you don’t get to do what you want to do in life. Yet the book is out. You’ve done many other things. You have an incredible network. You travel a lot. You enjoy wine and food in a serious way.

What’s your own self-account of how that has come to be a good, acceptable, fulfilling life for you, and that you’re not driven crazy by being too busy being famous? Do you know what I’m getting at?

ZAKARIA: Yes, very much so. I would say, first of all, I’m not that famous. As my kids will often remind me, I’m like a third-tier celebrity. By which I mean, there’s the Brad Pitt world. That’s a completely different world. Then there’s the Anderson Cooper world. That’s one level below. I’m probably in the third range, where if I’m at an airport, every five or seven minutes, somebody might come up to me and say, “Hey, I like the show.”

But it doesn’t interfere with my life in any way. It’s a pleasure to have people. I’ve almost never had somebody — once or twice — somebody come up and be nasty. It’s mostly people are very sweet, they’re nice. Occasionally somebody wants a selfie, but it’s really not very intrusive. As I said, it’s partly because I’m really not that famous.

Where it does have the impact you’re describing is, I have a lot of opportunities in terms of speeches, visiting places, conferences, people wanting to meet — all of that. You have to make choices. That part — managing my time — is one of the most difficult parts of my life. I’ve tried to do it well.

I’ve tried to do it, most importantly, in a way that I still have a very rich personal life, mostly with my kids but also with my close friends. I’ve maintained a social network that is mostly the people who are really my friends, not the famous people who invite you on their boat. I know that that’s not real. I know that if I didn’t have my job, I wouldn’t get those invitations.

I’ve tried to stay honest with myself that way and to be enormously grateful and thankful for the opportunities, for the luck that has allowed me to do what I do. Be nice to people, be decent, recognize that I’m in an unusually privileged position, and be the best representation I can of myself.

I think, more than anything else, probably having kids grounds you in that way because you can have all that other stuff, and it makes no difference. You can be a terrible father. I probably spend most of my time . . . when I think and reflect and be self-critical, I want to be sure that I’ve done right by my kids, I’ve done right by my friends.

COWEN: Again, Fareed’s new book is Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present. Fareed Zakaria, thank you very much.

ZAKARIA: Tyler, a huge pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

Photo Credit: Jeremy P. Freeman, CNN