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David Miliband to Fareed Zakaria on UK election: “[Labour] bet that this was an economic change election…in fact it was an economic security election”

Today on Fareed Zakaria GPS, Zakaria held an exclusive interview with David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, Gideon Rose, Foreign Affairs editor, Danielle Pletka, American Enterprise Institute Senior VP, and Ian Bremmer, Eurasia Group president.  They spoke about ISIS and whether America should try and “fix” the world’s problems. See the full transcript below.

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FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: We have a lot to talk about with a terrific panel, so let’s get right to it. Ian Bremmer is the president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultant. He’s the author of the brand new book, “Superpower:  Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.” Danielle Pletka is the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. David Miliband was Britain’s last Labour Foreign Minister. He is now the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. And Gideon Rose is the editor of Foreign Affairs and once worked in the Clinton National Security Council.

David, you have been to Iraq and to Lebanon recently, in the last few months. When you hear these stories about ISIS now being able to take over another town in Syria, take over Ramadi, what do you think?

DAVID MILIBAND, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE CEO: Two things really come to mind. The first was said to me across all sections of Iraqi society — I was in the Kurdish region at the time — and they said very clearly, at the moment, the choice for Sunnis communities is between ex-Baathists and ISIS.

And the absence of a legitimate Sunni representation that really commands confidence in Sunni communities is debilitating in the fight against ISIS. The second thing, obviously, is that as the Syria war goes on, the choices get worse and the dangers of inaction become clearer and clearer.

ZAKARIA: But when — the third aspect of it of course is that the Sunni community does not trust at all what they regard as the Shiite government in Baghdad.

GIDEON ROSE, FOREIGN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Well, I think what you’re seeing here is that ISIS’s success is not just a tribute to its own abilities but to the fact that it’s an opportunistic infection on a body politic, both in Syria and Iraq, with severely compromised immune systems.  The real problem in Iraq and Syria is not ISIS; it’s the lack of any kind of political order in which a competent, aggressive radical group like ISIS can make such headway.

And until we fix that larger political problem, we’re not going to be able to stop ISIS. And the real question is do we want to and are we able to really address the larger problem of political order in Iraq and Syria.

ZAKARIA: Danielle, this is a great sectarian struggle. We tried in Iraq. We spent ten years. We picked, hand-picked, the government, and the sectarianism bubbled through and is essentially destroying the country. Should we really try again in Syria?

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE SENIOR VP: It seems to me so dreadfully unfair to suggest, first of all, that we failed terribly in Iraq. When we left Iraq in 2011, we were not failing. There was comity, not perfect, but between the Shia and Sunni. And in fact the Shia and the Sunni have lived in the Middle East for a long time.

This narrative, this Sunni versus Shiite narrative, the Persian Empire versus the Ottoman Empire, is enormously detrimental to our interests. And the more that the Saudis and others dig in on the Sunni side, and the more that the Iranians dig in on the Shia side, the more likely we are to see conflict.

Now, Gideon says, you know, that, well, we can’t fix it, and of course the answer is, well, no, we can’t fix it. But we have a stake in the solution and that’s the challenge for us. When people say to me, oh, they’ve been fighting for millennia, well, A, they haven’t been fighting for millennia; B, we care — even if we don’t care about the hundreds of thousands of people who are dying around the region and being tortured and being raped and being kidnapped and being sold, even if we don’t care at all about that as Americans — we still care about the fact that groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is benefitting in Syria and has sworn bayat to al Qaeda, is rising up. Ultimately, they come for us.

ZAKARIA: Do we care? Ian Bremmer, you have a new book but also a TIME international cover story in which you actually poll Americans as to whether they want to go around fixing the world’s problems. And what are the results?

IAN BREMMER, EURASIA GROUP PRESIDENT: Well, the good news is that there really is space for a debate here, that Americans are all over the map in terms of whether they believe that we need to really live up to our values, be more of a global policeman, lead if otherwise there’d be a vacuum, and those that want to pull out.

But there’s a problem here, and that is there’s a huge generational divide. And the younger you get, the more you have Americans saying we do not want to touch these things. And the problem you have is that the candidates, while they are at least starting to really debate some of the foreign policy issues in a way that, in 2012, the election really didn’t, the willingness to actually stand up and talk about the cost, talk about what would be required to truly take a leadership role in helping to build a coalition, fix the Iraqi army, defeat ISIS — the same people who are saying we must defeat ISIS are saying absolutely no boots on the ground, and that just does not stand.

MILIBAND: But that’s why — the problem with the “independent America,” quote, unquote, thesis that Ian, in the end, supports is that you may not want to have anything to do with them but they’ll end up having something to do with you.

And in an interdependent world — remember, it’s more than 50 years since JFK declared inter-dependence — the idea that America can have the blessings of globalization but none of the burdens does not add up. And I think that’s the real choice that America faces, because it cannot enjoy all the fruits of being a leader of the global economy…

ZAKARIA: But does that mean it has to…

MILIBAND:  — including economic, but not only that, without bearing those burdens. Unless there is leadership from America for a rules-based international system, then you will have a vacuum. And when you have a vacuum, you have danger. That’s the simple instrumental argument —

BREMMER: But let’s talk about —

MILIBAND: Now I do admit, I feel passionately about this because seven beneficiaries of our services lost their lives outside Idlib, and so the consequences of inaction, the consequences of a vacuum, are that people we’re serving are having their funerals today, and that really speaks to very, very deep American values as well as interests.

BREMMER: Let’s just talk about where that vacuum hits, though. I mean, there’s no question that it’s a much worse world order if no one is providing that leadership, and the Americans are best situated to do so. But the fact of the matter is that ISIS is a much greater threat in the region, a much greater threat to Europe, than it is to the United States.

The Americans are the ones with the energy production now. They’re less interested in these things. The Americans are not being affected by the refugee crisis in a way that the Turks, the Jordanians, the Lebanese, the Europeans are. And frankly the willingness of the Saudis and others in the community to not only send their boys to war, but also to be willing to say, “We’ve got a problem with radical Islam within our countries and we have to actually deal with that. We have to cut off these clerics.”

If they’re not prepared to do it, I’m just saying you have a much harder argument to make. I agree with you, but if you don’t have a credible decision by an American leader that’s really going to give you that kind of outcome, then the least you can do is not lie about it.

ZAKARIA: Danielle, isn’t that fair that this is, first and foremost, an Arab problem? The Arabs should be taking care of it?

PLETKA: As I said before, we can posit “We don’t care about these Arabs,” “We don’t care about your guys in Idlib.” OK, fair enough, you know. I’m sure seven people were killed somewhere in New York state as well.

That is — that is the challenge here, is to understand that even if you want to profess indifference, callous indifference to what’s happening, and say ISIS is an Arab problem, even the Sunni-Shia is a Muslim problem, the issue is that each time it comes back to bite us.

ZAKARIA: All right, we are going to have to switch gears when we come back, because another big issue that people have been talking about has been the British elections. There’s an argument that the Labour Party moved too far left, which is one of the reasons why it lost. It did that under one Ed Miliband. I’m going to ask his brother, David Miliband, whether he will take over the reins of the Labour Party, when we come back.


ZAKARIA: And we are back with Ian Bremmer, Danielle Pletka, David Miliband, and Gideon Rose. So, right after the British elections, J.K.  Rowling tweeted, I wonder what David Miliband is thinking of these elections? So, tell J.K.  Rowling. Did the Labour Party under your brother, who won a narrowly contested — won narrowly in a contested Labour Party race for leadership against you, did he take the party too far left?

MILIBAND: I think that he bet, and the party bet, that this was an economic change election.  And in fact it was an economic security election. And at some level it’s relatively straightforward what happened. There’s many layers to it, because in Scotland, obviously, you can see political fragmentation of a very serious kind, the rise of the Scottish National Party. But essentially economic security was the key argument, and economic risk was the danger that Labour failed to mitigate.

ZAKARIA: Is that good news or bad news for Hillary Clinton? At the end, she presumably will be the candidate of economic security and a degree of continuity.

PLETKA: This is a lesson for Hillary Clinton, if you want. She’s tacking very far to the left.  She’s nervous about her left flank in the country. She recognizes who exactly is going to turn out, who’s going to be energized. And so she’s taking a series of positions that are rather different from the Hillary of, I don’t know, last year? And I think that’s very fraught with risk for her, actually, because at the end of the day people do value security, and I think they also value a genuineness in a candidate who isn’t sort of John Kerry-style flip-flopping around based on what they think is going to win them the next primary.

ZAKARIA: You were just in Asia. What are you hearing in terms of concerns about China? It does seem as though China is flexing its muscle in the South China Seas, but at the same time, aggressively courting India, trying to present itself as the kind of inevitable economic superpower of the region.

BREMMER: Well, one interesting point, tied to the Hillary question, is when you go around the world and you ask who they want to be the next leader, you know, elites everywhere are saying we’re happy with Hillary — not Chinese leadership. They didn’t like the pivot to Asia. They didn’t like Hillary’s containment concepts, which that’s the way they perceived it. That’s going to be interesting when we start talking about foreign policy for 2016.

But there’s no question that China is the one country in the world that actually today has a global strategy, not the United States. The fact that they are creating all of these institutions like the BRICS Bank, like the Asian Infrastructure Bank, they’re planning on spending over a trillion dollars to — both on infrastructure and also on equities — to align other countries economically toward the Chinese long-term.

The Americans have not had a response to that, neither an assertive nor a defensive one. And I think that unnerves a lot of American allies in the region, who, unlike a lot of other countries, like Britain, really want to see a lot more America in their part of the world. And they’re not getting it, right? I mean, the British election was not about let’s talk about European leadership.  It wasn’t about the world. In Asia, Modi’s India, Abe’s Japan, Joko’s Indonesia — they’re really quite concerned that the United States is not consistent and is not ultimately committed to them. And I think that’s an interesting challenge.

ZAKARIA: And presumably…

ROSE: — which is why the United States simply has to — has to pass not just Trade Promotion Authority, but the Transpacific Partnership, to show that it is not a wall, that it actually cares about maintaining and reviving the liberal international order and sustaining it, that it has created and benefited from.

ZAKARIA: But presumably, this is also the reason it can’t get overly involved in the Middle East again.

ROSE: Absolutely. The problem with the pivot was we didn’t do enough of it, and that we didn’t back it up and that we managed to get trapped into a backward-looking, olive-tree conflicts rather than forward-looking, Lexus concepts, to use Tom Friedman’s old terms.

ZAKARIA: What — in your dealings as foreign minister, what was your sense of the Chinese? Do you think they are trying to kind of upend the international order?

MILIBAND: No, I think they’ve studied very carefully the history of how hegemonic part — powers have declined and have — how rising powers have gained. They worry, actually, about what American, quote, unquote, “decline” is going to mean. And my – I’ actually a strong supporter of the Asian pivot, one of the last ones. And I think it should have been done with Europe.

PLETKA: You can’t pivot if the Middle East is on fire. Europe certainly can’t pivot if, in fact, thousands and thousands of refugees are arriving, streaming through Italy, which is taking more than 40 percent of these boat people. You can’t — you can’t ignore it.

At the same time, you’ve got to have the bandwidth. And we in the United States don’t have the military resources. The real tragedy behind the pivot is even if we wanted to, even if we had the will, even if the Middle East wasn’t on fire, we don’t any longer have the necessary resources to put towards a fully resourced pivot in Asia.

ZAKARIA: Well, we’re spending 70 percent of NATO — I mean, if we don’t have the resources, nobody has the resources.

PLETKA: That’s exactly right.


ROSE: I don’t — I don’t buy that. I think the problem is one less of resources and actually capabilities than of will and attention and the fact that sort of, in effect, we take for granted not just the benignness of the American order — then everybody recognition of that — but also the persistence of it. And Americans have a sort of imperial privilege that they need to check. And they need to make clear to the rest of the world that this order is good, it benefits the United States and the world, and it’s going to be going forward for generations to come, not just generations in the past.

BREMMER: I think we’re capable. Thirty-seven percent of the world’s defense budget is spent by the United States. But the problem is the pivot to Asia was run by Hillary Clinton, by Tim Geithner, by a series of folks in the first term in Obama that actually did Asia.

ROSE: Tom Donilon.

BREMMER: They had Tom Donilon. Others — Kurt Campbell. They’re all gone. There’s no one left. I mean John Kerry is not an Asia guy. What was his focus on? Israel-Palestine for 18 months. That’s a fireable offense, from my perspective. But I mean for — the point is, that’s not — they don’t want consistency. And if you don’t have leaders that are going to engage in consistency, with a president that really cares as a top priority, that strategy matters, then the result you’re going to get is people that are saying you can’t do this stuff.

ZAKARIA: All right…

PLETKA: Just — may I have at you both for one second on the defense budget?

You know, you need to understand that we are spending a smaller and smaller part of a smaller and smaller pie. So the notion that we’re spending any particular percentage needs to understand the pie is much smaller. We spend 50 percent of our defense budget on personnel. We don’t have the carriers. We don’t have the attack ships. We don’t have the refueling capabilities. We don’t have the new technology that we need to actually be in Asia in the way that we need to, to contend in the Middle East, as well.

ZAKARIA: Well, the military budget is becoming like the budget of all American institutions…

PLETKA: Well said.

ZAKARIA: — which is largely devoted to pensions and health care…

PLETKA: Exactly. Well said.

ZAKARIA:  — with very — with a small appendage at the end. Anyway, we’ve got to stop. Thank you all very much. Wonderful conversation. We’ll do it again.