The Insider: The World According to Zakaria

Jun 1, 2008  •  Post A Comment

India-born, Ivy League-educated Fareed Zakaria was born to take an intellectual approach to politics and public affairs. His father was a scholar and politician; his mother a newspaper editor.
For eight years he has been editor of Newsweek International, which reaches some 24 million people around the world. He writes a column that appears in the domestic edition of Newsweek as well as the Washington Post. His last book, “The Future of Freedom,” became an international bestseller.
He’s now touring in support of “The Post-America World,” which is already earning raves. In 2007, he traded his chair of five years at the roundtable on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos”—where he proved he could wound the oh-so arch conservative George Will by correcting him—to host an hourlong weekly CNN show focused on foreign affairs. “Fareed Zakaria—GPS,” as in Global Public Square, premiered Sunday. Last week, The Insider talked to the master juggler of multiple responsibilities about subjects ranging from his goals for the show to his delight in just playing dad with his three young children, ages nearly 9 to 2 months, with wife Paula Throckmorton Zakaria, a jewelry designer and writer.
The Insider: You say on your Web site, “The tallest buildings, biggest dams, largest-selling movies and most advanced cell phones are all being built outside the United States,” and that this “rise of the rest” of other countries as world powers is the great story of our time. Is this a story the American public is ready to hear and to comprehend?
Fareed Zakaria: That is the question. Going forward, we’re going to, as a country, have two real options: to look at this new world coming about and on the one hand we could take it in and realize this is great, it means other people are doing well, we’ll do well, the pie will expand, and be open and optimistic about it; or we could sit there and deny it and quibble and only talk about the stuff we still dominate, which is military power, and in some ways close ourselves to this new world. To me the big issue is, are we going to keep ourselves open to this new world or are we going to close ourselves to it. The book and the show and the columns I write are all part of a piece I’m trying to get Americans to really understand. There are big changes happening, but it’s not all bad. We have to adjust. We can’t just sit there with our head in the sand.
The Insider: Is this also a story American politicians can safely and effectively embrace and act on?
Mr. Zakaria: That’s the real question. I have more faith in the public than in the politicians. [Politicians] tread very nervously around this stuff. They are very cautious. I bet not one of them would be caught dead using the phrase “post American world.” On the other hand, it’s happening. You can not talk about it and the sun will still rise. Maybe what the show can do and what the book can do and the column can do is make a little more space for an intelligent discussion with this stuff. That’s not a partisan point. I just think we need to be talking about it and really looking at what’s happening around the world. You can draw whatever conclusions you want from it, but the first step is not to deny that there are changes taking place.
The Insider: Will this goal for your show require a different sort of Web presence as a companion aspect?
Mr. Zakaria: We are trying to figure it out. One thought I’ve had, and it is very ambitious and it will happen after a while, is to try and figure out a way we can actually connect people around the world. Let people in one place upload what’s going on in other places, and there can be a genuine sense in which people are witnessing this rise of the rest and talking about it. How you do that on the Web in an effective way is going to be one of the real challenges. The promise of the show is that CNN has this unique platform, which is what attracted me to it. I think there’s something like 72 foreign correspondents, and if you think about it, every other network is cutting down. So you have this platform, you have this reach, and you have this brand name that is so well known all over the world. Now, what can you do with it is to try and actually create this global agenda, create a sense in which people understand that there are these things that affect us all and here’s what we need to be talking about. I think maybe the Web is going to be better at that, at being a kind of central clearinghouse, and allowing people to come in from all over. I’ve been playing with this idea of somehow getting people from around the world to weigh in in a slightly more interactive way and maybe even a slightly more visual way. I have this feeling that if you tell somebody, “Turn your cell phone around and take a quick 30-second video of yourself and tell me what is the biggest story I’m missing this week?” See what the guy in India has to say and the guy in Russia has to say. Upload it on the Web site. This is all in my head. But there’s got to be some way to do that kind of thing.
The Insider: That almost sounds like it verges on a sort of advocacy when you use a word like “agenda” and you say you want to get people to come together, at least to connect in some way with what’s going on elsewhere. Is there an agenda that some partisans or media critics might hop on?
Mr. Zakaria: I think it would be fair to say that this is not going to be a bland news-reporting program. There’s going to be a lot of analysis. I don’t think people need more just raw news. They need for you to put it into context. Tell people how we should think about this. What does it mean? Inevitably that’s going to be influenced by the way I look at the world.
I think I’m a pretty fair-minded person. Obviously, I will have my views, but I think the reputation that I have, most people would say, “He’s pretty fair.” I think that’s one of the areas where television is going, because news has become a commodity, so you have to ask how do you add value, how do you bring perspective, how do you bring analysis to bear on the subject. What people really want to figure out is, “What does this mean?”
The Insider: When you say “add value,” the mind immediately forms the question of whether you’ve been sitting in meetings too long with television executives. Is that your phrase or is that somebody else’s?
Mr. Zakaria: That was probably somebody else’s. Maybe I am the typical viewer in this sense. If I am getting the seventh account of the Chinese earthquake on some channel, my eyes glaze over. At some point, you kind of lose interest. The urgency is gone. What I really want to know is, is there any larger consequence to the story? Does it mean China’s economy is going to slow down, and is that going to affect us? Does it mean the Chinese government is going to break up? How should I think about this? I guess what they mean when they’re using business school jargon [is] you have to be going to the next level.
The Insider: How does China do Olympics business as usual?
Mr. Zakaria: This is the weird thing about China: They’re living in several centuries at the same time. Go to Beijing and Shanghai and it’s almost like they are cutting-edge of the 21st century. Then you go four hours away and they are in the 16th century. Peasants you see are living lives not that different from the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s changing, but you still have this weird mismatch. They both exist. The thing I would like to know, and in my first panel I have probably the best China guy in the United States, I’m going to try and get into a discussion of what the Chinese think about that. Should they be building one less stadium in Beijing and use that to house people, or is this such an issue of nationalist pride for them that the Olympics, they are happy to do anything? Is there any criticism of the government on that issue? That to me is the interesting tension.
The Insider: You’ve been high-profile—a fixture in print, on television, the last book became a best-seller. You’ve got this new CNN show and two of the three elements in the title are your first and last names. Is that a wonk’s equivalent of rock stardom?
Mr. Zakaria: [Chuckles.] You know, I’ve been very lucky. The weirdest thing is I can’t believe people pay me to do this. I get to travel, to talk, to think about foreign policy, foreign affairs, to write about it, to talk about it on TV. What can I say? Only in America.
The Insider: Or only in post-America America?
Mr. Zakaria: I think maybe what this reflects is that Americans do realize they need to know more about the world. When I go around, I’ve been on book tours, I gave the commencement speech at Oberlin, I feel as though Americans seem to understand the world is changing. They don’t know what to make of it, but they are hungry for somebody who can kind of explain it to them. I’m not getting a lot of sense of denial out there in America. In Washington, I think it’s a different matter.
The Insider: How will you apply what you have learned as a commentator to this show as far as how it is shaped, and whom you invite to be on it?
Mr. Zakaria: I want it to be a very different kind of program. I start with the advantage of having the field to myself. I have the other 95% of the world. Most shows deal with the 5% that is America and I deal with the other 95%. In terms of the panels, I really want to get people who are not just journalists but are people who have varied backgrounds. I tend to find there isn’t enough integration of other views. When you talk about what’s going on in China, I would like to have people who are running big NGOs in China, or a businessman who has a factory there, integrated into the conversation. It’s not going to be a National Geographic-type program, you know: This is the fascinating and exotic world we live in. It’s going to be why this matters. I remember once this professor of mine at Harvard telling me when I was trying to explain something to him and I said, “It’s very complicated.” He looked at me and he said: “I know the world is complicated. Nobody is paying you to do that. You’ve got to try and order this information in some way. You’ve got to, in some sense, simplify it.”
The Insider: What have you sworn to yourself and to the CNN executives and your executive producer that viewers will never see you do on this program?
Mr. Zakaria: What I really don’t want to do is the kind of political horse race, up and down in any sense, to talk about the process. I really don’t want to do that. It’s not because I don’t respect it. I’m interested in it like everybody else. I think the world does not need one more program where we discuss when Hillary Clinton is going to drop out. It’s not my comparative advantage. It’s not what I’m good at.
The Insider: None of your professional responsibilities, in terms of topics, in terms of the time you have to devote to them, are easily dispatched. How do you juggle everything, including this extreme book tour you’re on just days before the show launches?
Mr. Zakaria: I’ve perfected in life—I haven’t perfected, I’ve become pretty good in life at juggling lots of balls and hoping that one doesn’t fall and crash. The honest answer is that I have a lot of very good help. I have a great managing editor at Newsweek who is able to run the day-to-day show at Newsweek International. I have a great executive producer [Liza McGuirk] for the show. These things are never individual enterprises. I try to keep very much in mind that I wouldn’t be able to do this stuff if not for a lot of people helping out.
The Insider: And finding time for family? How do you do that? Or are you going to write a regret-filled memoir years from now?
Mr. Zakaria: My wife is very, very understanding. I have three kids. You make choices. I don’t think I have been to a book party in New York in five years, because book parties are 6 to 8. That’s basically the time I put my kids to bed. If I’m not traveling, I’m always home. You make choices. I realize that what’s gone out of my life is the kind of casual entertainment, social life and all that. Frankly, I enjoy it, but it’s not crucial. It will be around when my kids are teenagers and can’t stand the sight of me. At this point it’s not important enough to do. One of the very conscious choices I’ve made is that when I’m not traveling, I’m really home a lot. In today’s world, it’s so much easier also to do a certain amount of work at home. Some days I’ll write my column at home. That means I can play with my daughter for half an hour, write my column for an hour and a half, go back and see how she’s doing, things like that, which are a real pleasure. The BlackBerry has become my greatest ally.
The Insider: At your son’s young age, is his worldview any different than his friends’ worldview?
Mr. Zakaria: I try very much to enter his world, rather than drag him into mine, so we don’t spend a lot of time, you know, I don’t make him come to events of mine or anything like that. I go to his school stuff. Last weekend I was just hanging out with him and a friend of his who had a sleepover. We went to the park. I played tennis with them. We played soccer. He knows what I do. We talk about it in that sense. So, yeah, I think he’s much more aware of the kind of broader world and the public world than some of his friends, though he goes to a school where there are plenty of kids like that.
The Insider: What’s your secret guilty pleasure?
Mr. Zakaria: Honestly, it’s playing with my kids. I approached it thinking it would be a chore, a duty. But what I discovered was that I just love it. In entering their world, you really have to leave yours. You have to deal with them on their terms, in their language. It’s incredibly liberating You can just be, at a very basic level, a human being and a dad who’s trying to have a great time with his son or his daughter. To me that’s been completely magical.
The Insider: How do you ride herd on pop culture, as it were, with your children?
Mr. Zakaria: They’re deluged by it. We’ve tried to draw a kind of balance where very little is forbidden. They can watch TV. They can play video games. But it’s all in very small doses. The TV is basically off, except on Sunday, where the family sits down and we watch a movie together. It’s movie night and it’s a special night. We all enjoy it.
The Insider: What was the last movie you watched as a family?
Mr. Zakaria: “Singin’ in the Rain,” which my son was grumbling about. “You’re making me watch a boring movie.” I noticed like an hour later, he was humming, he was singing the songs, so I felt tremendously vindicated. He came to me all traumatized one day. There was this video game that was very hot in his class and we had heretofore not allowed him to buy a video game. So I said fine, you can have it, let’s figure out how many hours a week seems like a reasonable amount. We came up with two hours. I said after you finish your homework and you still have 20 minutes left, you can play it for 20 minutes. If you completely restrict all this stuff, it becomes forbidden fruit. And yet you’ve got to do what’s right, and I do think a lot of this stuff drains you—TV in particular. Too much TV really makes you passive. You really want to teach children to stay active.
The Insider: Is any of this approach something that seems either lacking or undervalued in international diplomacy? No, no, no, we’re sorry, Mr. Iranian Despot. You’re only allowed to enrich uranium two hours a week.
Mr. Zakaria: You’ve got to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, no matter who the person is. That’s part of what I hope the show will do, just bring those voices in, bring those perspectives in. Not that you always have to agree. If you hear their point of view and you understand where they’re coming from, maybe there’s a deal to be had. Maybe there’s a point where both sides are better off than being in the completely inflexible position of either. That’s what modern business is based on, that there’s some place where everyone can win. One of the points of the show is to change the tone a little bit. We make it so difficult. Look at this debate about talking to our enemies. It places the next president in this horrible quandary. If Obama wants to do it, he’s going to be accused of being an appeaser. If it’s McCain and he needs to talk to these people—which there’s a very good chance he’ll have to do anyway, because we’re doing it with the Libyans, we’re doing it with the North Koreans, we’re doing it in Iraq with the bad guys all the time—what does he do? He has to explain why he is backtracking. We place ourselves into these boxes. We don’t leave ourselves room to maneuver as a country.
The Insider: Any urges whatsoever to write a fiction book?
Mr. Zakaria: Part of wisdom is knowing what you’re good at and knowing what you’re not good at. My wife writes fiction and she writes it very well. I always had a romantic idea that I could one day write a novel, but when I think about it seriously, I realize I don’t have that talent.

Your Comment

Email (will not be published)