Barack Obama photo

Interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN

September 04, 2016

Zakaria: President Obama, thank you so much for joining us.

The President: It's great to see you.

Zakaria: One of the centerpieces of your foreign policy has been the so-called pivot to Asia...

The President: Right.

Zakaria: -- the idea of moving toward that part of the world where all the dynamism, economically certainly, exists.

One of the architects of the pivot says that the sine qua non of the pivot is TPP, and it looks as though that pact is in trouble. Hillary Clinton is now against it. Donald Trump is against it. Paul Ryan is even against it.

The President: Well, no, the -- I don't think that's correct. But the, look, the politics of trade have always been complicated.

Let me back up and say that the idea of the rebalance was not to neglect other parts of the globe in favor of Asia, it was rather to recognize that, for a decade, we have not been paying attention to Asia at a time when it was undergoing this enormous transformation, that it was going to be the world's most populous region, the most dynamic market. And that we had to make sure that we reminded ourselves as well as the region that we're an Asia-Pacific power.

And the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a historic agreement cobbled together among a very diverse set of countries. And the basic argument is simple. This is going to be the world's largest market. And if we're not setting the rules out there, somebody else is.

And what we have been able to do is not just establish a trade agreement among these countries, because many of them we already have trading agreements with. What this does is it raises the standards for trade so that there is greater protection for labor rights, a greater protection for environmental rights, greater transparency, greater protection for intellectual property, which is so important to a knowledge-based economy like ours.

It removes 18,000 taxes, effectively, tariffs. Because we're a relatively open market and many of our trading partners the have been closed, it gives us a huge lever to open up markets for American goods and services.

And so there's no serious economist who hasn't looked at this and said this is actually not only a smart trade deal, but it actually, makes up for some of the failures of previous deals to have fully enforceable labor or environmental components.

But what is true is that there have been, in the past, always, a vocal, you know, set of interests that are opposed to trade inside my party, the Democratic Party. And what's been new is some populist anti-trade sentiment inside the Republican Party.

Having said all that, it was said that we couldn't get the authority to even get a trade deal done and we got it done. And I remain confident that we can get TPP passed

Zakaria: There's a similar pact for Europe that is being negotiated.

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: And the vice chancellor of Germany just said that's dead, implying that trade is just not a -- are we at a turning point where trade is -- free trade is no longer popular in Western societies?

The President: Well, if I'm not mistaken, the German government then said...

Zakaria: Walked back [inaudible].

The President: -- that wasn't the case. But what is absolutely too true, Fareed, is that the combination of globalization and automation have integrated the world economies like never before. And what I think has been the fault of those in charge of that integration process has been to not pay attention to the winners and the losers.

Overall, it has created enormous growth, prosperity and wealth for all the countries involved. And, you know, part of the reason that we've seen billions of people rise out of extreme poverty during our lifetimes has been because of that integration.

But what's also true is, is that there has increasingly been, because of this integration, a tendency toward those of us who are highly skilled, highly resourced, have access to capital, to be able to get a bigger and bigger share of that growth. People who are low skill, low wage, not mobile, have had trouble getting leverage in this system. And so that divergence has created more and more inequality within advanced economies, whether it's the United States, countries like Europe.

And so part of the argument that I've been making consistently, part of the argument that I will be making when I go to my last G-20 meeting is that if advanced countries don't pay attention to inequality, if we don't pay attention to not just growth in the aggregate, but how is that growth distributed? And do people have ladders of opportunity in this new global economy? Then yes, there's going to be a reaction against globalization and against trade, even though -- whether that resistance is coming from the left or the right, the prescriptions that they're describing, somehow cutting off global trade, aren't really viable.

And so, you know, the argument I make to my progressive friends is you are absolutely right to worry about inequality, but the answer is not to pull up the drawbridge. The answer, rather, is to make sure that everybody has high labor standards, that all countries are accountable to their citizens in terms of things like minimum wages, workers' standards, making sure that there's an education system that people can access.

And unfortunately, we haven't done enough of that.

Zakaria: When you're in China, are you going to be having a different series of conversations with the Chinese leaders? By which I mean a lot of China experts look at what is happening in China and say you are seeing a new form of nationalism, you are seeing a new specifically anti-Western and anti-American nationalism, whether it's in regard to cyber theft and cyber crime, cyber attacks, the way Western companies are treated, the business in the South China Sea where China is doing what apparently violates international law and is worrying its neighbors.

Is it time to get tougher on China?

The President: Well, first of all, I don't think any of that's new. Remember, China has been run during our lifetimes by a communist party that has been much more anti-Western in the past. We went through a period over the course of 20 years, in the '90s and on through maybe the onset of my presidency, where, because state-sponsored capitalism and an export-driven model was very successful, China was less interested in making waves.

But, you know, you've got over a billion people, one of the largest economies now in the world. And so it's to be expected that they will want a bigger seat at the table when it comes to international affairs.

And what we've said consistently is we welcome the peaceful rise of Chin, consistent with international norms. That's good for everybody. An impoverished and collapsing China would be dangerous for everybody.

And, you know, we should want China to take on more responsibilities, not only for its own people, but also for a wide range of international problems and conflicts, whether it's climate change or disaster relief or dealing with things like Ebola.

But what we have said to the Chinese -- and we've been firm consistently about this -- is you have to recognize that with increasing power comes increasing responsibilities. You can't pursue mercantilist policies that just advantage you now that you are a middle income country, in many ways, even though you still have a lot of poor people. You know, you can't just export problems. You've got to have fair trade and not just free trade. You have to open up your markets if you expect other people to open up their markets.

When it comes to issues related to security, if you sign a treaty that calls for international arbitration around maritime issues the fact that you're bigger than the Philippines or Vietnam or other countries, in and of itself, is not a reason for you to go around and flex your muscles. You've got to abide by international law.

And part of what I've talked to communicate to President Xi is that the United States arrives at its power, in part, by restraining itself. You know, when we bind ourselves to a bunch of international norms and rules, it's not because we have to, it's because we recognize that, over the long-term, building a strong international order is in our interests. And I think over the long-term, it will be in China's interests, as well.

So where we see them violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea or in some of their behavior when it comes to economic policy, we've been very firm. And we've indicated to them that there will be consequences.

But what we've tried to emphasize to them is, if you are working within international rules and international norms, then we should be partners. There's no reason that we cannot be friendly competitors on the commercial side and important partners when it comes to dealing with the many international problems that threaten both of us.

Zakaria: I got to ask you one question about the campaign.

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: As you watch the support that Donald Trump has...

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: -- and you watch where it comes from, I'm wondering what you make of it, because, you know, you've written in the past that you're -- the Kansas side of your family is white working class, Scotch-Irish. These are the people who support Trump. These are the people who seem to have the most suspicion about you.

The President: Right.

Zakaria: What do you make of that?

The President: Well, look, there's a long tradition in the United States of inclusion, immigration diversity, but also people, once they're included in what they consider to be the real America, worrying about outsiders contaminating, polluting, messing up a good thing.

That's not new. That dates back to you know, the beginning of this country. And what I'm always reminding people is that, although you'll see bumps, whether it's the Know-Nothings or, you know, other [inaudible] of anti-immigrant sentiment directed at the Irish or Southern Europeans as opposed to Northern Europeans, or the Chinese, or today, Latinos or Muslims -- the long-term trend is people get absorbed, people get assimilated, and we benefit from this incredible country in which the measure of your patriotism and how American you are is not the color of your skin, your last name, your faith, but rather your adherence to a creed. Your belief in certain principles and values.

And I don't expect that that's going to change simply because Mr. Trump has gotten a little more attention than usual.

And I think if you look at the current polls, they're -- you know, he's been able to appeal to a certain group of folks who feel left out or are worried about the rapidity of demographic change, social change who, in some cases, have very legitimate concerns around the economy and feeling left behind. But that's not the majority of America. And if you talk to younger people, the next generation of Americans, they utter -- completely reject the kinds of positions that he's taking.

So, you know, we have to take it seriously. I think that any time we hear intolerance, any time that we hear policy measures that are contrary to our values, banning certain classes of people because of who they are or what they look like, what faith they practice, then we have to be pretty hard about saying no to that.

And I think that America will do that this time, as well.

So overall, I'm optimistic. But, you know, I think we have to pay close attention to what's going on.

Zakaria: When you look at the news that has come out of Turkey over the last few weeks and months, the coup attempt, but then the purges afterwards...

The President: Yes.

Zakaria: -- very -- the issues around Turkish foreign policy, are you confident that Turkey is a liberal democracy, a staunch NATO ally, where we have nuclear weapons, and is a force for stability in the region? Or should we be worried?

The President: Well, they've gone through a tumultuous event. You know, this coup was serious. You had members of the military engaging in treasonous acts against a democratically elected government. And what was encouraging was the degree to which the Turkish people, including those who are opposed to President Erdogan, stepping up and saying this is unacceptable. And that was, I think, the -- the ray of hope that came out of what was a really challenging event.

You now have a reaction by the Turkish government that understandably is scared and concerned. Imagine if something had -- like that happened here in the United States, the challenges that we would have in figuring out how to re-stabilize our country.

I have long said to President Erdogan directly, even prior to this coup, that he began his career as a democrat and a reformist, and the danger, I think, of any leader is the longer you're in here, you have to constantly remind yourself of the values that you came in with. And that if Turkey cracks down on journalists in ways that are inconsistent with democratic practices, if dissidents' voices and civil societies lose more and more space. That, you know, the mere act of voting is not the only part of democracy. Rule of law, free press, freedom of assembly, those are all part of it as well.

I think the Turkish people are going to be debating this and working through this over the next several months. We haven't seen a diminishing effect on our security relations. Turkey continues to be a strong NATO ally. They are working with us to defeat ISIL and are an important partner on a whole range of security issues in the region.

But, you know, no doubt what is true is that they've gone through a political and civil earthquake in their country. And they've got to rebuild. And how they rebuild is going to be important and what we want to do is indicate to them the degree to which we support the Turkish people. But like any good friend, we want to give them honest feedback if we think that the steps they're taking are going to be contrary to their long-term interests and our partnership.

Zakaria: Mr. President, it's become a GPS tradition that when we have you, we have the honor of having you on the program, rather than me making a book recommendation, you do. You've just come back from a vacation. You must have taken a pile of books.

The President: I did.

Zakaria: Which among them would you recommend?

The President: On the fiction side "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead. A terrific book. Powerful. Discussing some of the issues that we discussed here today around race and American history.

The other book that I really enjoyed a book by an Israeli author, Yuval Harari, called "Sapiens." And it -- it's a sweeping history of the human race from 40,000 feet. And part of what makes it so interesting and provocative is that, because it's such a condensed, sweeping history, it talks about some core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization that we take for granted but weren't a given. And it gives you a sense of perspective in how briefly we've been on this earth, how short things like agriculture and science have been around, and why it makes sense for us to not take them for granted.

And, you know, it goes back to keeping the long view in mind. You know, oftentimes when I'm going through a really difficult problem in the presidency, I think back to one of my first foreign visits to Cairo. And after I gave a speech there, we went to pyramids. And I had all afternoon to wander through it. One of the perks of being president was they kind of cleared out the crowds.

And, you know, the pyramids live up to the hype. They're magnificent. But as you're looking at the hieroglyphics and you're getting the background on how they were built and the Egyptian government at the time, you're reminded that I'm sure they had their versions of polls and scandals and you know, economic ups and downs.

And, you know, what's left is those pyramids. So that's what I mean about not sweating the small stuff. You know, it -- in the sweep of history, we get a very small moment in time. We try to treat people -- I always tell my daughters, treat people kindly, be useful, use your time well. But remember, you're part of a larger sweep of this big story that that brings us all together.

Zakaria: Time and chance happen to them all.

The President: Yes, that's exactly right.

Thank you.

Zakaria: Mr. President, thank you so much.

The President: I enjoyed it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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