The following topics are discussed is a slightly edited version of an interview by Joanne Z. Tan of political science Professor Jason Wittenberg at UC/Berkeley, on Feb. 22, 2023, for the podcast “Interviews of Notables and Influencers“:
1. Ukraine War: Is it a proxy war between the US and Russia? What will happen if Russia wins? What will happen if Russia loses?
2. What role China will ply in this Putin’s War, and in the future world order?
3. With NATO’s expansion to Russian border, does the West have any responsibility in “cornering” Putin into an aggressive and brutal dictator and a warmonger?
4. Will pro Putin European countries like Belarus and Hungary help Russia if the Ukraine War escalates?
5. Would it be correct to characterize the War in Ukraine as a war, basically, symbolically, and practically between democracy and authoritarianism?
6. Do you foresee an alliance among countries such as Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and China and more countries? Which other countries might join them?
7. Does a weakened Russia help strengthen China? Will the West be weakened in this Ukraine War?
8. what’s your assessment for the possibility of a Third World War? What can the United States and the world do now, and in the future to prevent it?
9: Mass shootings in the US: What can be done about it?
10: What are your thoughts on the specific steps we can take now to improve and sustain our democracy, in addition to rank choice voting for primaries, and 18-year term limits for Supreme Court Justices?
11: How is anti semitism different from and or similar to, or the same as racism? What is the root cause?
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Joanne Tan 00:00
This is 10 Plus Podcast. I’m Joanne Tan. This is called the “Interviews of Notables and Influencers“. And today I’m honored to have Professor Jason Wittenberg of political science at UC Berkeley. He’s going to share his insights about Putin’s war in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the future of democracy, anti semitism, dictatorship, authoritarianism, and what can be done specifically to protect an improved democracy in the United States. Professor Wittenberg earned his PhD from MIT, he focuses on Eastern European politics. Thank you so much. May I call you, Jason?
Jason Wittenberg 00:45
Yes, please do. And thank you for having me on the podcast. It’s a pleasure.
Joanne Tan 00:50
My great honor. So the first question is: Putin’s war in Ukraine. Personally, when he aggressively, brutally just marched into Ukraine, I was completely infuriated. And I immediately made it clear to the world of my absolute support of the Ukrainians, I cannot see the outcome for Putin to win this. The world democracy is hanging in the balance, we really must defeat him. But now, it’s been a year, and it looks like a proxy war between the US and the EU, and Russia. Hypothetically, I have these two questions, even though I’d hate to see that, but hypothetically, what will happen if Russia wins? What will happen if Russia loses?
Jason Wittenberg 01:44
Okay, thanks. Those are really great questions. Everybody’s asking them, it’s, uh, you know, all over the place. So let’s just dig into this a bit. So you mentioned a proxy war. You know, traditionally, a proxy model, a proxy war, is when each side has a client state, and then the two clients fight each other. So this was like the Cold War, where we each, the Soviet Union and the US, each supported their groups, say in an African country, and then those groups were fighting each other. So in a sense, this war between Ukraine and Russia is kind of partly a proxy war. Because, you know, some people talk about how the US and the EU are, you know, arming and helping Ukraine in order to weaken Russia in a way that they wouldn’t normally be able to do. At the same time, the proxy nature of it is part of the reason, notwithstanding the support, that there’s been some resistance to providing Ukraine with even more lethal arms, and definitely the reason that NATO country so I would say, it’s more NATO than the EU, by the way, NATO is not putting troops on the ground, so as not to have a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. So if you will, it’s a little bit of throat clearing on the meaning of a proxy war.
Now, back to your questions, you know, what if Putin wins, I hate to be academic about it. But we need to define what constitutes a win for Putin, because it’s not,… there are different options. One of the options is the Russian incorporation of eastern Ukrainian territories into Russia. So these territories with a large Russian speaking minority, where there was already a low level kind of insurgency against the Kyiv government going back many years, so one is incorporating those into Russia, or at least separating from Ukraine and then having them as be like a puppet state of Russia. So that’s one way to win this war. For Russia, sorry, yes, for Russia, installing a puppet regime in Kyiv that does Russia’s bidding. So a pliant government in Kyiv is maybe a bigger way to win this war for Russia. And then the biggest victory of all would be reincorporating, Ukraine writ large into the Russian into the Russian Federation. So now, these outcomes have different probabilities of occurring. So let’s talk about, for example, the most likely one, if Russia wins the most likely one would be somehow separating these Russian majority territories from Ukraine and perhaps incorporating them into Russia. So the more limited victory seems more likely, right now, given the fact that Russia has been badly bloodied by this war, there seems to be significant opposition within Russia to the war, and so it’s unlikely they can manage one of these more striking victories that I mentioned earlier.
So what if they win? I think if Russia wins, for sure, Russia will be emboldened to further intervene in other former Soviet republics as a way of restoring the losses it endured with the collapse of the Soviet Union. So Belarus, for sure. You know, there are Central Asian republics, Caucasian republics, the only limitation I would put on that is the Baltic states, which are actually in NATO, and therefore a much riskier proposition. So Russia will be emboldened to, to act more aggressively in his neighborhood. That’s the primary consequence of a Russian win.
Now, if Russia fails, which I take to me, again, a return to the pre war status quo would be a failure. So not getting any of the gains that they earned during the war would count as a failure. I think here, the implications are harder to predict. But I am confident that two things that get talked about a lot as possibilities are not going to happen:
The first one is, there won’t be a mass uprising against the regime. There is no movement that could coordinate this. So the opposition is totally fragmented. There’s no mass movement that might affect this. And secondly, even if there were such a mass movement, it is not clear that the Russian people would want it to happen. So it’s very unclear whether on the whole, this is what is desired, because that could itself bring a kind of chaos. You don’t know what the next leadership is going to look like, at least Putin is a known quantity. So that’s one thing.
The second thing that is floating around is that Russia itself might fall apart. So what people don’t appreciate, they don’t focus on the region, is that, you know, the Soviet Union was a multinational state that fell apart into its constituent republics. You know, 30 plus years ago. What people don’t realize is that Russia itself is a multi ethnic country, there are a lot of ethnicities, a lot of languages, a lot of heterogeneity within Russia itself. And so people are saying, well, Russia itself will fall apart into a kind of Slavic core, and then non Slavic periphery. And I think this is also extremely unlikely. Russians are very sensitive about their territorial integrity, not the least of which is because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And if there were any threat of that the Russians would not hesitate to use as they did in Chechnya earlier, a very brutal force to put it down, which would make Ukraine seem like a walk in the park.
Joanne Tan 08:58
Wow. Well, so it doesn’t look like Putin is going to give up after a whole year. It’s in his DNA to do whatever he can to make the war however long it takes for him to win. At whatever casualty. Do you agree?
Jason Wittenberg 09:27
Yes, I agree that that’s his intention. The casualties. If he stops the war, it won’t be because of casualties. Yeah, let me put it that way.
Joanne Tan 09:36
Yes. In the beginning, those soldiers were preparing for a parade. They thought it was a cakewalk. Okay. So he underestimated the West. Now, Biden, I appreciate his prudence. He is not authorizing using American fighter jets because he does not want to escalate into a World War III.
Jason Wittenberg 10:04
Joanne Tan 10:05
I don’t have a crystal ball,
Jason Wittenberg 10:07
But neither do I, by the way.
Joanne Tan 10:10
How, how is this going to end?
Jason Wittenberg 10:14
We don’t we don’t know, at this point. It could, you know, it could, it could be the kind of a conflict that drags on for years until, you know, one side tires of the conflict and, you know, finds a way to save face, and to end the conflict. And that would basically have to be Putin. It might be at some point, actually, Ukraine. So, you know, right now, Ukraine’s intention seems to be, to not just get the Russians to retreat, but for example, to recover Crimea, which was taken over by Russia in 2014, which some people marked the beginning of the conflict in 2014, when Russia took over Crimea. So, you know, Ukraine could do some things that would increase the probability of a negotiated solution by not insisting on, you know, getting Crimea returned to Ukraine.
Joanne Tan 11:23
Yes, that’s what Henry Kissinger suggested, as well.
Jason Wittenberg 11:27
Okay. So it’s not a,… you know, if you’re,… the thing is, at this point in the conflict, neither side is prepared to kind of make concessions.
Joanne Tan 11:27
Yes. Now, that leads to my next question.
Jason Wittenberg 11:42
Joanne Z. Tan 11:43
As of today, China is trying to be a broker, to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. And the West is deeply suspicious, since in my opinion, China is at least the “secret lover”, quote, unquote, of Russia. Okay. And China was blaming the US hegemony for the Ukraine war that was started by Putin. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. Ray Dalio in his book called “Principles for dealing with the changing world order”, he seems to predict the downfall of the US and the rise of China. And of course, that should be discounted by his decades of being entrusted by China with investing China’s sovereign fund, from which he got extremely wealthy. okay. So now China is pretty assertive, to say the least, in this regard. And of course, Russia and China, given their close relationship, maybe Russia will allow China that prominence of brokering peace, and what will… What role do you see China will be playing in this war, this Putin’s war, and in the future world order?
Jason Wittenberg 13:03
Okay. So as far as the war goes, to the extent, China can portray itself, as a kind of neutral party, I don’t see any issue with China acting as a mediator, you know, in the war, and gaining whatever prestige it’s gonna gain, as a result of in the event of successfully mediating an agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I don’t have a problem with that, probably US foreign policy elites have a problem with that. Because for the last, you know, 60 or more years, it’s been the US, which has been the broker between various, you know, among various conflicts around the world, such as in the Middle East, and elsewhere, so the US would not be happy, because it’s essentially ceding to China, some of this, you know, world leadership that, you know, that the US had enjoyed for decades before.
You know, which leads me to your second question, which is the, you know, the rise of China, so, I haven’t read Dalio’s book. And so I don’t know quite what he means by the downfall of, of the US. So, you know, the US is still by, as far as the numbers that I know, is still by some trillions of dollars in absolute terms, their largest economy in the world, and that will not last for very long given the relative growth rates between US and China, but it still is.
Secondly, on a per capita basis China is not a particularly wealthy country, given its size. And so in terms of wealth, well, the US isn’t the most isn’t the wealthiest either per capita incomes, but it’s way ahead of China, as many other countries are. Furthermore, notwithstanding China’s, you know, increased devotion of resources to building up their military, I think, in military terms, the US is unquestionably the strongest military in the world, the only military that can fight simultaneous wars 10,000 miles away from the US mainland, either in the Eastern Hemisphere or the Western Hemisphere, the US can do that no other country in the world possesses that capability. And it will take decades for another country to develop that capability. So I don’t say that in the future, the US isn’t going to decline. I think there are a lot of reasons having to do with domestic US conditions that suggest that might be true. But I don’t see it happening not only in the short term, but in the short term medium. In the short term, medium term.
Joanne Tan 16:30
Okay. So Putin in the 90s tried to become a NATO member, out of whatever motive of his, but the West declined. I think the US particularly. We didn’t trust him. Okay. Does the West have any responsibility in quote, unquote, “cornering” Putin into an aggressive and brutal dictator?
Jason Wittenberg 16:55
Yeah, so there are two sides to this. There’s a Russian side and a US side. So each believes its own narrative is correct. So let me give you my, my sort of take on these on this issue. So first off, let me say I do believe that the West engaged in activities following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Moscow could rightly perceive as aggressive or threatening for most, the expansion of NATO, not so much the rejection of Russia, but the expansion of NATO, not just to former Russian or Soviet, rather, allied states, such as Poland and Hungary and Bulgaria, but two former Soviet republics, like the Baltic states, so literally bringing NATO, you know, right to Russia’s borders. Of course, NATO, even in the Cold War, was on Russia’s borders, in Northern Norway. So it was on the Soviet border in Northern Norway. So it’s not new for NATO to border, but this seemed, you know, even more of an aggressive posture on the part of the US.
Joanne Tan 18:19
Jason Wittenberg 18:20
And then, the US also flirted with the possibility of Georgia, and especially Ukraine of their potential memberships. So one thing to keep in mind about this expansion and the potential potential memberships. So one thing to keep in mind about this expansion and the potential memberships is that the requests for these things are coming from those countries. The US isn’t knocking on Kiev’s door and saying, do you want to be a member of NATO? It’s Kyiv, knocking on Washington’s door, saying we would like to be a member of NATO.
And that’s even more true for the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the East European states who have a long history with Russia and know what Russia is capable of. So it wasn’t so much a US initiative as their initiative, which we then had to say, you know, yes or no to.
Now, keep in mind that the initial expansion of NATO occurred in 1999, i.e., a decade, after a decade of Russian weakness and humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So this was like taking a dog while it’s down. Russia had already been, you know, had gone through economic collapse. It was humiliated because it lost its sphere, you know, its sphere of influence, and it declined as a global power. And then on top of all of that, the states and its former military alliances join the other side. So, uh, you know, you could see why, so I understand Moscow’s perspective. However, I do not think that this, you know, somehow made Putin who otherwise would have been a happy collaborator into the dictator he ultimately became. So Putin came to power in 2000, the year 2000, to, among other things, restore Russia’s dignity and influence. That would have happened with or without NATO expansion. In my opinion.
Joanne Z. Tan 20:45
Jason Wittenberg 20:47
So the NATO expansion, maybe made it a little worse, but it would have happened anyway.
Joanne Tan 20:52
Right. And Madeleine Albright, she was credited for expanding NATO to Russia’s border. So, Well, truth has many facets, you know, they,… there are people who will argue, yeah, even though you said, we did not knock on Ukraine’s door and invite them, but we were pretty pushy in that regard that made Putin feel threatened and cornered.
Jason Wittenberg 21:24
We have to distinguish between NATO membership as such. And, for example, in the case of Ukraine, the US effort to prevent Ukraine from having a pro Russian government, so in other words, whatever rule that US had, in this Ukrainian uprising, which led to the… which led to a duly elected pro Russian Ukrainian leader fleeing the country, and being replaced by a pro Western leader,
Joanne Z. Tan 22:07
Um, yeah, but…
Jason Wittenberg 22:09
That’s not NATO expand…so that’s another kind of, you know, you can consider that another kind of aggression. Yes. But even then, the other argument, so I would stand by my other argument, that, you know, no one forced Putin to invade Ukraine. Ultimately, that’s Putin’s decision to pursue that tactic as opposed to another tactic.
Joanne Tan 22:42
Right. And also, we’re not going to deal with what ifs, what should haves, you know, even if hypothetically, West accepted Putin, during the weak moments of Russia, accepted Putin’s request to join NATO, even if we took Russia in,
Jason Wittenberg 23:00
Joanne Tan 23:01
There is no guarantee that he will not have become a dictator, today.
Jason Wittenberg 23:06
That is, that is true. And I would, you know, that would be an implication of my argument, is that he would have, he would have done what he did anyway.
Joanne Tan 23:15
Anyways. Yes. So with pro Putin, European countries like Belarus and Hungary, what are your predictions about their involvement if the Ukraine War escalates?
Jason Wittenberg 23:28
Yeah, so first of all, I wouldn’t call Hungary and Belarus, the countries of Hungary and Belarus pro Putin, as such, I wouldn’t even call their leaders pro Putin, there’s a stronger case to be made, that their leaders are pro Putin than the countries are in terms of sympathy, you know, popular sympathy. Although it’s true that both countries, particularly since the Ukraine war began, and also before this Ukraine war began, have shown more reluctance to join on the anti Putin bandwagon than other countries in the region. So that is definitely true. I see this more in terms of interests than having a kind of, you know, pro Putin sympathy. So both countries rely on Putin for energy, or I should say, rely on Russia for energy. And in the case of Belarus, as far as I know, the energy is heavily subsidized. So I think Hungary pays full price. Hungary is a NATO with the EU. It’s going to be a painful process, but I think Belarus gets a deal because it’s a much poor country. So in this case, I think the leadership is naturally taking a more measured approach. So, you know, if the country is supplying you with oil, you don’t thereby, you know, slap that country in the face. It’s just bad. It’s just bad diplomacy.
For example, on the anti Putin side, both countries are hosting Ukrainian refugees. And actually, I believe both countries are also hosting young Russian refugees that are fleeing the, you know, the draft and other things. So not everything they do is pro Putin. I mean, that’s kind of an anti Putin strategy.
Now, in terms of entering the conflict, there’s a much greater probability with Belarus than Hungary. And the reason is, the president of Belarus is an autocrat. So Belarus is a dictatorial country. So he’s an autocrat, and much more at the mercy of Putin, than the Prime Minister of Hungary, who’s trying to maintain an energy supply, but is otherwise completely integrated with the West. So it’s just inconceivable that Hungary would enter, you know, on the side of Russia, no way that it’s going to happen.
Joanne Tan: Okay.
Jason Wittenberg: Yeah, so Ukraine is more democratic than Russia. I think everybody would agree with that. But at the same time, it’s… the conflict is not one between democracy and authoritarianism. Even though Ukraine is more democratic than Russia. Countries go to war, not ideologies, or systems of government. So, but the thing about this democracy versus authoritarian is not that it’s accurate, or correct. But it’s useful. Nothing rallies support for a conflict better than framing it as a more Titanic and world changing struggle that it actually is. This is not World War II, where, you know, Nazi Germany had global ambitions. And it really was a titanic struggle between, you know, the forces of darkness and the forces of light or however you want to call it, and losing really meant some really bad things happening. You know, ultimately, this is a regional conflict that will get resolved. And, you know, democracy will go on and authoritarianism will go on. And so, you know, I don’t blame the Ukrainians and their allies for trying to portray the conflict in this way, because it is good for attracting other support.
Joanne Tan 28:13
Jason Wittenberg 28:14
but it’s really, you know, I don’t buy it.
Joanne Tan 28:18
You don’t buy it,
Jason Wittenberg 28:19
I don’t buy it at all.
Joanne Tan 28:20
You talk to Germany, you talk to the EU, the NATO countries, they view it,.. they feel threatened.
They feel like if we allow Ukraine to fall, they are next, and they do…
Jason Wittenberg 28:37
That’s that, you know, apropos of the consequences of Russia winning, so in answer to the previous question, the former Soviet republics just to repeat myself, if Russia wins this conflict, they do need to worry. Not just about, you know, greater Russian influence, but about actually, potentially a military invasion, which they already did in Georgia in 2008. So there’s already a precedent for invading a former Soviet state. I don’t think the East European country, the NATO members in Eastern Europe, needs to worry about this as much.
Joanne Tan 29:15
Jason Wittenberg 29:29
Yeah. Well, if you give me that list, so the question is what would unite all, your question you have to ask yourself is: what would unite all of those countries? And I can think of one thing that unites all of those countries, and that’s a desire to contain US influence.
Joanne Tan 29:53
Jason Wittenberg 29:54
So you know, I suppose something like that could form, maybe also along with Venezuela. So if you narrow it to a target of US… targets of international sanctions, if you narrow the commonality to targets of US sanctions, you could add Venezuela and maybe take out China. You know, and then have some interests that they all have in common. I don’t see something like this, especially with those countries, as very likely to happen. So let me just give you a few reasons why.
First, if you include China, it’s a lot, you know, who’s going to be the leader of this alliance, Russia or China. Russia is going to bottle on to be a leader, and China’s going to want to be a leader. And they can’t both be leaders, probably. And so there’s a conflict right there. That seems to me, would that mean that its actions as an alliance would be highly constrained, because they probably wouldn’t, you know, it’s unclear whether they could agree on anything. Because they both have these aspirations of this great power status.
But let’s take out China and leave the rest with Russia. So, you know, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, I don’t know what else, Russia is clearly the big cheese in this partnership. So the question is, what’s in it for Russia? The Russians already cooperate, cooperate with Iran in the military sphere, like with drones and maybe fighter planes, unclear exactly what they’re doing, but they’re cooperating militarily, without an alliance. The Russians are already in Syria, which you also mentioned without an alliance. Russia doesn’t need Venezuela’s oil. So it’s unclear what Russia gets out of having Venezuela in the Alliance, since it doesn’t need the main thing that Venezuela exports, which is oil.
A China Venezuela alliance is much more likely than a Russia Venezuela alliance from this perspective, because at least China, in theory, needs the oil. So basically, I don’t see what’s in it for Russia. And also, it’s like, you know, when you think about the reasons for joining an alliance, it’s like the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But this alliance that you’re talking about, doesn’t make Russia more threatening than it already is. And so they just don’t gain anything. With the possible exception on the margin at some prestige of sort of being at the head of a some international, not quite military ally it isn’t even clear what kind of alliance it would be, some kind of an alliance designed to oppose us influence.
Joanne Tan 33:26
I have two observations inspired by what you just said. Okay. Number one is the future’s balance of global power seems to be a sort of a three legged stool with US and NATO countries, the EU, and China and Russia. And ironically, Russia is shooting itself in the foot with this Ukraine war, because this Ukraine Was is going to weaken Russia, substantively,
Jason Wittenberg 33:58
that’s correct. Yeah.
Joanne Tan 33:59
So, this, this will actually strengthen China, China – this is Observation One. Observation Two: China is getting the best from both worlds. And on the one hand, its vast trade and export economy depends on the west and the capitalist market. On the other hand, its political system is very much in sync with Russia’s authoritarian system. The Chinese Communist Party was founded upon the Russian Bolshevik model. So, China wants to be getting the best from both sides and eventually, you know, in the Chinese, there is an idiomatic description, like when two clams are fighting on the beach, the fisherman is the one who is winning who’ll pick both, fighting…
Jason Wittenberg 35:02
Right. Okay, that’s a good, that’s a good thing – That’s a good Chinese saying. Yeah.
Joanne Tan 35:06
So China actually is the fisherman.
Jason Wittenberg 35:08
Yes. Yes, indeed.
Joanne Tan 35:09
So in this conflict, Russia will be weakened. The US will be weakened. The EU will be weakened. I mean, NATO will be weakened, no matter what.
Jason Wittenberg 35:21
In the Russia Ukraine conflict, you mean?
Joanne Tan 35:22
Jason Wittenberg 35:23
Joanne Tan 35:24
And then China will be getting the oil, buying oil from Russia, that equals bankrolling and supporting the Russians.
Jason Wittenberg 35:36
Joanne Tan 35:37
And then trying to be the broker, the “honest” broker, I don’t know how honest that is. So I don’t know if the politicians are thinking like this.
Jason Wittenberg 35:51
I, you know, I doubt it. I don’t know, I don’t really have that much connection with the people that are truly in the decision making thing. But you know, China, so it’s not clear that the US is weakened by the Ukrainian war. In fact, to the extent that Ukrainian use of arms and other things, stimulates, you know, American and European companies to, you know, make more arms, that could actually be, you know, war is actually, in some ways good for the economy. There’s an argument to be made for that. So, it isn’t so clear that the US and Russia are definitely weakened.
Joanne Tan 36:37
Jason Wittenberg 36:38
The only country in this conflict that’s even peripherally involved with this conflict that is weakened, is Russia, now not just because of its battlefield losses, but because of, it basically destroyed the reputation that it enjoyed in people’s heads as being kind of the second military in the world. The performance in Ukraine has revealed Russia to be in some ways a hollow military power. It’s taking them a year, even, you know, okay, the US is supplying arms, but it’s still taking them a year to make very little headway in a country that’s, you know, 1/3 the size and, you know, etc, etc, etc, and dwarfs Ukraine, in multiple, in multiple ways. And so, you know, that helps China, you know, so a weak Russia helps China. That is true.
Joanne Tan 37:35
Jason Wittenberg 37:38
That is unquestionably true. I’m not sure the US is weakened. I don’t think that’s the biggest weakness of the US. You know, I think our domestic troubles are a much greater factor weakening us than these foreign adventures.
Joanne Tan 37:57
I agree. I have the questions down my list. Okay. So,
Jason Wittenberg 38:13
Yes. Okay, let’s break this up into two parts. I think it’s a good way to do it. If by a third world war, if by that you mean an all out nuclear exchange among the large nuclear powers, then notwithstanding Russia’s recent saber rattling about nuclear weapons, so there are various threats emanating from Moscow about the use of nuclear weapons, I think the probability of this is, is low, relatively low, though not as low as it should be. So we all want it to be really low, but it’s still low. Now of the nuclear as they say, the nuclear genie is out of the ball, you can’t uninvent nuclear weapons, they’re out there. So, there are really only two means that seems to be feasible right now for keeping the probability of that conflict low. One is to maintain the so called MAD strategy: Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD, to maintain the strategy of MAD which is MAD, which is if you want to start when you better be ready for your own complete destruction. So it’s like a self, you know, it’s like a suicide to do that. So that already, you know, dampens things, you know, makes assumption that people don’t, that a country doesn’t want to commit suicide, which may or may not be a good thing, but you know, it’s something thing that dampens down the probability.
And the second thing that we can do is kind of at the launch stage, to make sure that for one thing, not just one person, and maybe not just a few people can unilaterally launch a weapon. So it’s like, the President has the codes, and then someone has to do something like in the submarine or whatever to do it. And there might be, you might need two people to do that. So you, you make the actual decision to push the button, it’s not actually pushing a button, it’s sending a code to the other, other people to use their good judgment to decide whether to do it. So you take it out of hands on one person, and you make it less likely that something like this could happen by accident. In other words, the means by which you detect nuclear launchers and weapons have to be good enough to make sure that something, you know, can’t be mistaken for a nuclear weapon.
And there have been a couple of close calls, which hopefully, they fixed. So that’s at the level of the traditional great power nuclear war. Now, I have less good news about the other option, uh, you know, the other kinds of third world war, which is that a rogue state, or a group would gain access to a nuclear weapon, and then launch an attack that might trigger a larger conflagration. And this thing, I think, as time goes on this possibility gets higher over time. And frankly, you know, very worrying even now. The only solace I take on this issue is that, first of all, it is not easy to develop nuclear weapons. It takes a long time, a lot of, you know, things have to come together. It’s been done by states, it’s hard to, it’s hard to do by a group. So they’re hard to develop. And even if you have them, it’s not like carrying a gun around where you can just carry it around, and then use it when you want to. I mean, these things are delicate, they have to be handled with care. It’s not easy to deliver them even if you have them. But I worry about the second option more than the first option.
Joanne Tan 42:43
Yes, yes, I… me too. Now the next question. The number of mass shootings in the US are more than the number of days since 2023 started.
Jason Wittenberg 42:54
Yeah, I didn’t know that. But it’s a depressing fact,
Joanne Tan 42:58
According to CNN, okay. Yeah. What can be done about it? And we did talk about earlier that what is more dangerous to cause the fall of our democracy is, is from within, rather than from foreign forces,
Jason Wittenberg 43:15
Joanne Tan 43:16
Jason Wittenberg 43:17
Now mass shootings. So the way that I view this, if you have – and I’m not the only one that sees things this way – is you have three ways to intervene. There’s means, there’s opportunity, and then motive. And I want to take them each in turn. So the means, i.e., the gun, access to the gun, we seem, at least in the US, at least at the level of national policy, this seems to be the primary way we’re dealing with the problem. So you know, the ban on assault weapons, which lessens the, you know, ability of, you know, the shooter to fire off 100 bullets, you know, at a time; keeping guns away from crazy people, so, in other words, background checks. Other means to, like, you know, restrict access to the means for committing to shooting. Now, this helps, obviously, a lot. You know, if crazy people don’t get guns, then you know, you’re probably going to make it less likely to have mass shootings.
But I think it is also insufficient, at least in the medium term. Even if you could repeal the Second Amendment, so the Second Amendment is looming in the background here, the right to bear arms, so even if you could repeal, somehow repeal the Second Amendment, there would still be millions of guns that are already around. So maybe in the long long term, that would work because eventually the gun, you know, the guns would get old, and you wouldn’t have new guns replacing them, but you would still have these millions of guns. So I think these restrictions, while helping, are not really going to ultimately solve the problem, even though that’s what we seem to apparently focus on.
So then there’s opportunity. So, in addition to controlling the availability of the weapon, we’ve actually, although it’s more, you know, less obvious at the national policy level, changing our built environment in ways that minimize opportunity. So metal detectors, locked fences, guards, TSA, when it comes to airplane, you know, when it comes to airplanes, but also, you know, people have the gun, and then you’re just not letting them into the areas where the mass, where the masses occur, so you’re not giving them the opportunity to do it. So right now, it’s airports, government facilities, and schools. In the future, if, if current trends continue, it’s going to move to grocery stores, shopping malls, you can imagine, it’s already this way in Israel, for example, where they’re trying to keep out terrorists, with guns. So now the issue here is that perpetrators will innovate. If you put up a locked gate, you know, it’s like, build me a fence. You know, you can’t build behind a fence to get people out. I mean, this is an argument against the border wall in Mexico, if you build a fence, they’ll just find a way to go over the fence. So people innovate, and now the shooters are going to innovate. Maybe it won’t be guns, but maybe it will be cars, wrappings or knives, or, you know, some other things. And do we really want to live in a locked down society, where the security is so tight that, you know, it’s like, people are uncomfortable, it’s not very sociable, etc, it seems like a very unpleasant means for stopping the problem. Which brings us to motive. Hear the questions are, why do so there’s different kinds of shootings actually. So one is you’re having a conflict with somebody, and you use that to resolve the conflict with a gun.
So why do use of gun to resolve conflicts? Or, in the case of, often the case of mass shootings, why in the… why the use of guns in response to a) mental distress, or, you know, b) some kind of, you know, maybe a racist or homophobic or, you know, whatever motive, you have to do that. It’s like, there’s like a gun culture that we have, where we resort to guns, where it seems to be, you know, if you look around the world, it’s like people have conflicts all around the world. But not everybody resorts to guns to resolve them. So I think the key in the long run, although not in the short run, is to try and change this culture.
Joanne Tan 49:01
That’s going to be hard.
Jason Wittenberg 49:02
It is going to be hard. It’s not that the other ones, you know, aren’t useful. But I think they’re bandaid, you know, their bandages over the problem rather than actually going to the root of the problem, which is this motive.
Joanne Tan 49:17
Gosh, genies out of the bottle for too long.
January 6 Insurrection made it clear that our democracy can be destroyed from within. Yeah, in the book “Ill Winds”, Stanford professor Larry Diamond mentioned a list of things we need to change in order to sustain our democracy, such as rank choice voting for primaries, and 18-year term limits for Supreme Court Justices. Yeah. What are your thoughts on the specific steps we can take now to improve and sustain our democracy?
Jason Wittenberg 49:53
Yes, so I agree with Larry Diamond that those would be, those would be good things to do. Rank choice voting is already being used in various local, you know, local elections. And I think the advantage of it is that it prevents a kind of split ticket voting where the person that most people don’t want, more people don’t want wins the election, because there were two other candidates which split the vote, which split the vote among them. The example that’s always mentioned is Florida, the US election, presidential election, Florida in 2000, when Ralph Nader and Al Gore, so two kinds of leftist candidates ran against George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, and basically Nader stole enough votes from Gore that Bush, you know, barely, not by much less than 1000 votes became, was declared the winner. And so rank choice voting makes outcomes like that less likely. So and so I think, you know, overall, it is better for democracy.
Let me list some other things that he doesn’t talk about. One would be to, you know, they’re kind of related to strengthen the Congress, and which would weaken the presidency. So get Congress to fulfill its mandate. For… let me give you an example of one thing that Congress is supposed to do that they don’t do anymore, which is the power to declare war. That’s the right of Congress. Congress gets us into wars, not the president. But the last time Congress declared war, my memory fails me, but it was like in the middle of the Second World War. And I think it was against Hungary in like 1942, or 1943. I don’t recall. Every other war since then, has been, you know, not quite a war, because Congress didn’t declare it. But, uh, well, we were involved, anyway, Korea, you know, Vietnam, Iraq, everything else. So. So there’s a… so one way to strengthen democracy would be for Congress to exercise the powers that it’s actually given in the Constitution, because the Congress is what the people elect. You know, it’s like a people’s house. And so it would be better for democracy if they did this stuff than if the president unilaterally does it.
Joanne Tan 52:37
What about the term limits?
Jason Wittenberg 52:38
So term limits for Congress?
Joanne Tan 52:41
For Supreme Court Justices.
Jason Wittenberg 52:43
Oh, so that’s a Larry Diamond thing. So if that, yes, that would be a very good thing. And the long, long term is a good idea. So like 18 or 20 years, I think that would be a fine, you know, addition.
So one thing is Congress. And then the opposite of that is the President actually exercises independently of the things that Congress refuses to do. For example, the President does executive orders. And because Congress, you know, so because Congress is, you know, deadlocked. The President, issued executive orders to do various things that by right should be passed as a law through Congress, such as, you know, withdrawing from the JCPOA, the agreement with Iran or limited nuclear weapons, or, you know, various, various executive orders about immigration and other things, which should be law. For example, the dreamer, you know, that all the stuff with the dreamers, that is a result of a presidential order, I believe. So it’s another, so it essentially makes the, the individual, you know, less powerful in the system, which, in the situation of Trump would have been a good thing for democracy. If he had been handed a little more to remove the ability to do that kind of stuff unilaterally, you have to go to Congress. That’s one thing.
The second thing that I recommend would be to lower the temperature at the national levels, for example, fights over the Supreme Court by strengthening federalism. By strengthening federalism, you put more on the states. This actually relates to gun control. So you put more on the states that they have to do. So the more you put, the more responsibility you give to states, the less, the lower the stakes for controlling national office. So for example, take the Second Amendment, gun control, which we talked about already: right now, it’s all at the federal level, huge fights for Supreme Court justices, and so on and so forth in order to make this go one way or the other, in regard to the Second Amendment. If you return all that to the states, it’s not a perfect solution to the problem, but blue states will be able to enact draconian gun control laws.
Joanne Tan 55:37
Well, it doesn’t …
Jason Wittenberg 55:38
and red states no. So and, you know, so the idea would be that you allow blue states to do what they want and red states to do what they want. And then that is the scope of the federal government, if you will, then a retreat. Now there are some downsides to this. Or abortion, for
government, if you will, then a retreat. Now there are some downsides to this. Or abortion, for example, abortion, for example,
Joanne Tan 56:04
Let’s talk about gun control. Okay. California has the most stringent gun control laws,
Jason Wittenberg 56:11
Joanne Tan 56:12
But, like what happened during the Lunar Year, two mass shootings, one is by people in their 70s and late 60s. So this, you know, one old man just killed people in a dance studio; the next day, another pretty old man, not as old, killed co-workers in Half Moon Bay. And so these people, they can just get guns, those semi automatic guns from Nevada, from other neighboring states without a federal gun control law. So…
Jason Wittenberg 56:52
Well, so, you know, Nevada. So, you know, there are ways around that, for example, if you know, if I’m in Nevada, so you’re quite right, it’s possible. First of all, it’s more difficult to do that. So you do lower. So, you know, in terms of means, it’s still harder to, you know, on the margins, makes it harder to get guns. You know, Nevada could require ID, I mean, you know, maybe there are ways around that, but you know, so the question was, how do we save, and now we’re talking about the national level democracy, and the way to the way to save the rancor, you know, the way to counter the rancor at the national level, because everything revolves around control the presidency, the Supreme Court, etc. So that, you know, how we live our daily lives depends on who’s in these places, who, who’s in these positions.
So by turning more over to the states, you make less things, fewer things, in danger, in danger if the wrong party gets into the national office. So blue states will have draconian control, blue states will have draconian gun control, and extremely liberal liberal abortion laws, and red states will be the opposite. That’s how well you know, that’s what the lay of the land will be. Now, these issues are like going to another state, you know, so it’s true. So blue, people in red states are gonna go to blue states to get abortion, you know, would go to blue states to get abortion, which probably they’re already doing now. And then red people in blue states, they really want their guns, would probably go to red states, in order to buy the guns now, you could legislate in a way that would make that more difficult, but you’re never going, you know, in a free society, you’re never going to have 100%.
The question is, what can you do, what can you do to make it less likely. Your intervention, in the terms of gun control, you know, you can restrict the means, you can restrict the use of guns, you can make it less, so you know, you could have metal detectors as you’re going into your workplace, which would have removed, you know, which would have caught or, you know, like at the airport, a guard there with a metal detector and then searching your bag. And that would have prevented the shooting. So there’s a, you can be more restrictive in the means, you can have the metal detectors, and then try, I don’t know the motives of these people, try to make headway on the motives, and so the idea is to do as much as you can to lower the temperature, but you’re never gonna get it to zero in a free society, and possibly not even in an unfree society. So, for example, if you probably read about what happened in Japan, and the assassination of the former Prime Minister, you know, this is like a once in a century happening in Japan, it’s against the culture. Guns are stringently, you know, controlled. The man made his own gun. Yeah. And then because it’s so unheard of, of course, there wasn’t the level of security you would have in the US. Because who would think that, you know, someone would murder a Prime Minister of Japan, but it happens. So you’re not going to get to zero. I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But that’s it.
Joanne Tan 1:00:47
Yes, but the escalation of mass shootings is intolerable. There are people who are leaving our country, because they don’t want to expose their kids to school shootings.
Jason Wittenberg 1:01:07
Well, what, you know, yes, I’m one of those people. I’m not leaving. But, you know, I’m one of the people that thinks about it, I have a grade schooler, you know,…
Joanne Tan 1:01:20
we cannot go on like this, something needs to be done…
Jason Wittenberg 1:01:21
Yeah, You’re right. But the question is what we, you know, you know, what do we do about it? So, in the case of schools, you know, they’re reducing the opportunity. So, there are now metal gates that are locked. There aren’t metal detectors yet, at least in maybe in grade schools, but there might be in like, high schools, I don’t know, where the kids are older. And you never know. I think, you know, that’s how they’re trying to, you know,
Joanne Tan 1:01:32
Now other countries are not like this.
Jason Wittenberg 1:01:57
That is true. That’s why, that’s what, that’s why I was harping on the gun culture. Even if you, even if you let’s, let’s engage in a hypothetical, a counterfactual, let’s say we give 10,000 guns to Japanese, in Japan, I doubt that a single one would actually be used to commit in mass shootings. So even with the means, so, you know, there are countries where people are armed like Switzerland where you don’t have mass shootings. So I hate the term because it’s used in a facile way, but there’s a grain of truth to this idea that “guns don’t kill people, but people kill people. ” Okay, you know, I’m not using that to excuse the presence of guns, but if we look around the world, there are countries that are much more armed that don’t have our level of mass shootings. Even in Israel, which has to deal with a, you know, a sui generis set of problems. So Israel, in some ways, is not a good case. But I mentioned it for this reason, which is that, have you ever been there?
Joanne Tan 1:03:29
Jason Wittenberg 1:03:30
So there are soldiers walking around with rifles, on their arms everywhere. On the bus, on the train, walking along the streets, the incidence of mass shootings by, you know, one Israeli citizen, I guess – I’m not talking about the conflict with the Palestinians – I’m talking about one Israeli citizen against our massive others is extremely low, despite the prevalence of guns.
Joanne Tan 1:04:07
And I’m sure Israel has mentally disturbed people just like the United States. People who, you know, have grievances.
Jason Wittenberg 1:04:22
Joanne Tan 1:04:24
So what’s wrong with Americans?
Jason Wittenberg 1:04:28
Well, I mean, you know, this is a … I don’t know the answer to this. It’s definitely a cultural thing. I think, if ,
Joanne Tan 1:04:38
America wasn’t like this. We didn’t have mass shootings …
Jason Wittenberg 1:04:42
That is true. And, you know, I don’t really have, you know, too much special insight into this. You
That is true. And, you know, I don’t really have, you know, too much special insight into this. You know, when I look at Europe, for example, versus the US, I see, for example, much stronger families,
Joanne Tan 1:05:03
Jason Wittenberg 1:05:05
in Europe, much stronger families in Europe on average than in the US. On average, obviously, there’s a big heterogeneity. Europe’s not itself homogeneous. And I think it’s like, you know, it’s like, if we think about homeless, it’s not like in Europe, you don’t have people that would be homeless. It’s just that they’re in the care of their, you know, it’s like, either extent, either their nuclear family or maybe their extended family, or maybe their community, there’s like more care for them, and so it doesn’t manifest itself in the same kind of…where you have people that are seem to be detached from their families and communities.
Joanne Tan 1:05:52
Do you have stronger families in Israel than in the US? Yes. See? Yes. Now, America was not like this 40 years ago, 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, the mass shootings have been escalating exponentially in the last 10 years.
Jason Wittenberg 1:05:55
Extremely strong. I don’t… except for that… So the only, the only thing, and it’s a significant thing that has changed in the last 10 years, so it’s not the level of craziness, or mental illness, I don’t think that’s changed, it is the prevalence of social media. And this idea that by doing a shooting, you immediately become, for good reasons, or, you know, for bad reasons, excuse me, you become like a media star. If you become a media star you know, there are 1000 Twitter posts. you know, you get everywhere and, you know, for people that are, you know, mentally disturbed, this might be a way of kind of making a splat, you know, having an impact, a broader impact that they would never have been able to have before. It used to be 40 years ago, when you did a mass shooting, it got reported in the local newspaper, maybe a national newspaper, depending on how egregious it was. But then it never went any further.
Joanne Tan 1:07:28
Yeah, okay. Well, social media is available in Japan, in Europe, in Israel, – Same social media,
Jason Wittenberg 1:07:37
They don’t have the culture. The point is, they don’t have the culture to begin with. Lacking the culture, the question is, if you have the culture, and you have the means, and you have the
opportunity, why don’t you do it? Because, yeah, but you know,
Joanne Tan 1:08:05
Something must be done!
Jason Wittenberg 1:08:06
I don’t, You know, I wish I had more insight, but I just don’t.
Joanne Tan 1:08:13
Okay. Yeah. Now,
you studied antiSemitism. So, I have a very rudimentary question. Okay. How is anti semitism different from and or similar to, or the same as racism? What is the root cause?
Jason Wittenberg 1:08:36
of anti semitism?
Joanne Tan 1:08:38
Yeah. How does this differ from the …
Jason Wittenberg 1:08:40
You know, of course, the whole podcast could have been about just this question. Nonetheless, I will, I’m going to give it a stab.
So they’re similar in the following way, at least. In both cases, a group of people are “othered” in some way. And then there are others in a way which allows discrimination against them, seemingly without regard for whatever individual characteristics the victim has. Other than, other than, you know, being Jewish, in the case of anti semitism and being well, I mean, you know, in the case of anti black racism being African Americans, but there can be racism against other groups. As you, as you’re probably aware, recently, for example, against Asian Americans, who have also been othered, you know, in the same way.
They’re different in the sense that Yeah, so a form of stereotyping. They’re different in the sense that anti semitism has sometimes been racialized, but it’s not always racialized, but it’s not always racialized. So the thing about racialization is that you, the person can’t do… the person in the stereotype group, you can’t change your race, you might claim to be a different, but ultimately, in the eyes of the racist, you’re that race, no matter what you claim, so you can’t claim, so there’s no way for example, in the case of racism, or racialized anti semitism, to kind of escape your fate.
Joanne Tan 1:10:45
Jason Wittenberg 1:10:48
So that’s a very important distinction between racism, which is kind of a, you know, something immutable, that you can’t change, versus, for example, anti semitism that’s rooted in religious bigotry. So, for example, you know, Jews, you know, for hundreds of years in Europe, were discriminated against, basically, because they weren’t Christians. You know, sometimes they were blamed for crucifying Christ, by the, you know, by the Christians, and they, you know, sort of didn’t go along with most of the countries where, you know, overwhelmingly Christian sort of didn’t belong to the mainstream group. And so this, you could actually get out of this, for example, by converting to Christianity. So, if you convert to Christianity, you essentially, essentially escape this stereotype, and then you can live your life, you know, as a Christian, and so this was, this was, this is not an option available to the victims of anti racist, contemporary, anti racist, excuse me, contemporary racist attacks, where if they see you’re Asian, or they see your, you know, African American, you just get attacked.
Joanne Tan 1:12:34
Got it. The root cause is,
Jason Wittenberg 1:12:38
You know, no one really knows the root cause, in the case of anti semitism, I would say, it became a kind of a global thing, as opposed to a local thing, when, after Christianity became prominent, you know, in the Roman Empire, then it kind of got into the, you know, it wormed its way into the DNA of the state. Now, it’s a complicated story, because Jews weren’t persecuted at all times. And in all places, it was very, you know, if you look at it, it’s very varying, but, you know, it basically starts out with a universal church, Roman Catholicism. And there’s this religious strain that goes through things, and they were sometimes massacred as a consequence of, but sometimes just discriminated against, or, or a force to segregate themselves from the rest of society.
And because they were segregated, both geographically and in terms of like their occupations, for example. So for example, Jews were the ones that were allowed to lend money because interest was prohibited. You know, the church prohibited, you know, interest, charging interest for loans. So, they gave this to Jews and what this evolved into, so the Jews started to specialize in banking because it’s something that they are allowed to do. And then anti semitism evolves into this kind of an anti capitalist thing, or an anti money thing, where the Jews are seen to be, you know, interested in you know, interested more than other people in money.
So, it evolved from a religious thing into a kind of, well, another stereotype. It’s one of the Jew as a swindler. Or the Jew as a greedy banker. And you can see caricatures of this, you know, historically, mostly in Europe. So this is basically a European, European phenomenon.
And even later, ironically enough, you get another evolution. Because when communism got going, in the 19th, you know, socialism got going in the 19th century, and especially in the 20th century, a lot of Jewish people were, or at least nominally Jewish people were sort of, you know, involved with the Communist Party. Like, especially in Russia and Eastern Europe, there were not so many at the mass level, but at the elite level, so like the leaders of the parties, you know, Leon Trotsky, for example. So you could point to many of the old Bolsheviks who were at least born Jewish, whether they, didn’t, they didn’t practice, but they’re born. They’re born that way from Jewish parents. And so then the stereotype becomes the Jews as communists. So the interesting thing about it is you have the Jew as capital, hyper capitalist, the Jew as banker, and the Jew as communist. And each stereotype sort of gets invoked, when it’s needed in order to do whatever the anti Semite needs to do.
Joanne Tan 1:16:24
I see. Yes, victimization.
Jason Wittenberg 1:16:28
That’s why they call anti semitism shapeshifting.
Joanne Tan 1:16:32
Jason Wittenberg 1:16:32
Because depending on when, what period you look at it and where you look at it, the stereotype could actually be different.
Joanne Tan 1:16:41
Yes, but no matter what periods of history, humanity – the bad part of humanity, of course, always wants to scapegoat some group based on their quote, unquote, “otherism”. Whether it was communism who they’re labeled with, or it’s greedy bankers, whom they’re labeled with, or whatsoever. Okay, it’s just, it’s prejudice, it’s victimization.
Jason Wittenberg 1:17:14
So that is true. Yes.
Joanne Tan 1:17:17
Lastly, since I’m a branding expert,
Jason Wittenberg 1:17:20
Joanne Tan 1:17:21
I asked all my honored guests the same question at the end of the interview. What does the personal brand of Jason Wittenberg stand for, with no more than five words? In other words, what do you want the world to remember you for upon exiting this planet?
Okay, If you have more than five words, that’s fine. I’ll try to summarize.
Jason Wittenberg 1:17:38
Four words: Luftmensch.
Joanne Tan 1:17:50
I don’t know what it is,
Jason Wittenberg 1:17:51
Which is a Yiddish word which means someone who is interested in intellectual things at the expense of kind of professional advancement and monetary, you know, gain. So, you know, I don’t do all the things I could do in order to, you know, increase my exposure and earn as much money as possible. So, I’d like to engage in intellectual pursuits, that’s Luftmensch, one word, Flaneur, which is a word that comes from French. Actually, we use it in English also, it’s not commonly used, in someone who is kind of a wanderer and likes to take in. It’s usually used in an urban context. It’s like you wander around the town and you just kind of take in the city and respond to the various slices of life that a city offers. So I love doing that. Polyglot. I don’t speak many languages fluently, but I know a number of languages at varying levels of knowledge. And it’s also self referential, because both Luftmensch and Flaneur are not English words. So the Polyglot part is like self referential within the brand name. And then finally, Father.
Joanne Tan 1:19:25
Father to how many children?
Jason Wittenberg 1:19:27
Joanne Tan 1:19:28
okay, son? Daughter?
Jason Wittenberg 1:19:31
Joanne Tan 1:19:32
Thank you so much. I really appreciate this in-depth discussion. I’ve learned a lot. And the world is a fragile place. Democracy is a fragile thing. And our country is not in good shape. We all have a duty to make it better, to make our democracy better, to make our culture better, to deal with gun violence. And it’s truly very enlightening to discuss with you about all these issues and about the Ukraine war. So, thank you. Thank you so much.
Jason Wittenberg 1:20:13
Thanks a lot. Joanne, it was a pleasure. You know, going around with these things, not easy answers to the questions, but I was very happy to do it.
Joanne Tan 1:20:25
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