A call for political courage to solve the world’s most dire problems

Are the world’s most pressing problems unsolvable? Not so, says Foreign Affairs editor Jonathan Tepperman. OpenCanada’s Krista Hessey chats with him about his new book, the need for gutsy global leadership and what other countries can learn from Canada.

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November 24, 2016
OpenCanada/ Krista Hessey

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Winston Churchill supposedly said in the wake of the Second World War. The idea of turning a disaster into an opportunity is one of the necessary evils of leadership that Jonathan Tepperman describes in his book, The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World of Decline. Tepperman has history to back his point — he lays bare 10 examples of leaders who have been faced with seemingly insurmountable crises, doused the fire, and risen triumphantly from its ashes.

Tepperman, the New York-based, Canadian managing editor of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Foreign Affairs magazine, launched the book recently in Toronto. In it, he outlines the “terrible ten” problems plaguing the world: inequality, immigration, Islamic extremism, civil war, corruption, the “resource curse,” energy, the “middle-income trap,” and political gridlock in both the United States and the rest of the world. He diagnoses up front the problem that ties all of these issues together: the failure of politicians to lead. And, in a way to frame it all in a positive light, he draws upon specific examples of leaders who have bucked that trend, acting boldly and adhering to their pragmatic instincts to overcome the challenge at hand.

Tepperman’s research took him to unexpected places around the world like Botswana, Singapore and Brazil. Canada is highlighted in the second chapter for its immigration policies: “It’s a story of a country doing the right thing because it had to, not because it necessarily wanted to,” writes Tepperman, who grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and has spent most of his adult life in the United States.

Will innovative leaders with stiff backbones be able to solve these formidable problems, as Tepperman suggests? And what of the capacity to export the policies Tepperman sees as successful? We put these questions to him during his book tour in Toronto last month. (Note: We sat down with Tepperman shortly before the election of Donald Trump, however, the final question and answer have been updated since).

How did the concept for this “good news book,” as you call it, come about?

The honest answer is that it came out of two sources. The first was, in 2013 I got an opportunity to write a guest column for a big international newspaper, and I thought this was going to be my big break. I started writing the column and just a month or so into the gig, there was a complete editorial shuffle and all of the old editors were fired and all of the columnists they had just hired were fired. So what I thought was going to be this amazing opportunity vanished overnight.

I was so mad, I went around for about a week just trying to figure out what to do with this anger, [until] I thought maybe I should find another home for the column. Then I thought I'd find the most bang for my buck if I finally had the courage to do this thing [I had] been too frightened to do before now. Had I not been so pissed off about the column, I wouldn't have had the guts to do it. Anger can prove to be a very powerful motivator and a way of dealing with inner anxiety.

The other, more substantive explanation is [that] I have long felt frustrated with this prevailing media narrative, and in the serious literature of international affairs as well, that we're living through this time of terrible decline, maybe even past the point of no return. I was frustrated with the media, which so consistently told bad news stories while overlooking the good news stories.

I had this intuition that things are not actually as bad as is commonly portrayed. I couldn't really back that up with data, and so the intellectual reason I decided to write the book was to try and prove this idea. I went around asking people in different countries how they've tackled their big economical and political challenges, and sure enough I found these remarkable signs of progress. They gradually convinced me that things are not as bad as many people, and as many voters, think.

I started by trying to codify a list of 10 problems that seemed like the most pressing challenges of our age and that together are responsible for much of the global turmoil and malaise that has everybody wringing their hands – classically impossible challenges like Islamic extremism or income inequality or political gridlock. I was fascinated to find that all of these problems have already been tackled somewhere with remarkable success, but you don't hear about it very often, so I wanted to tell those stories in the book.

You tackle a striking geographical range of countries, taking readers from Brazil to Botswana to South Korea. What connects all of these experiences?

[When writing the conclusion of the book] I went back and looked at all of the stories I had compiled to see if any common strands or themes leapt out. I found that, in fact, there were a few that could be described as leadership lessons or tools for political problem solving that most or all of the successful leaders I wrote about used.

All of the leaders in the book were ruthlessly unsentimental when it came to problem-solving. They would start with the problem at hand, look at the data, and then start looking for answers wherever they could find them. [Then they would] identify a solution, steal it, apply it, and not worry about whether it came from the other side of the political aisle or whether it came from a different country. This meant they often ended up serving their constituents in unconventional and unexpected ways.

"Crises prove enormously useful in making big political changes."

For example, I have a chapter on how Brazil beat back inequality under the presidency of Lula De Silva. His solution was a very market-friendly, even neoliberal approach to poverty alleviation that bucked all the conventional wisdom in development studies. It was first used by conservative economists, so it was the last thing that Lula, who is a champion of the left, would be expected to embrace, but it worked incredibly well.

The second theme is to never let a good crisis go to waste. That has become a cliché in the United States and around the world, as well as this idea that crises create opportunity. But, the fact is, crises prove enormously useful in making big political changes, because what they do is sweep away the roadblocks – institutional, political, popular – that in ordinary times make big, radical, dramatic changes impossible. [The leaders] in the book had the brains to identify the opportunity that those moments gave them and to seize the moment by rewriting the rules, often in very dramatic ways, which they couldn't have done under ordinary circumstances.

There are five of these lessons in the book. The third I would mention now, that seems to be conspicuously lacking in the United States if not in Canada, is the need to have guts and the need for bravery. To embrace the kind of pragmatism I describe earlier is scary. It often involves going against your own party and going against your own constituency in ways that your loyalists may find very upsetting. Making the kind of big changes that I write about is also risky for a couple reasons: one, they may simply backfire, two, they are often contested by entrenched interests, and three, big structural changes, especially to the economy, often take a long time to pay off.

We see that in the story of Mexico, where in 2012-13, [leaders] made, arguably, the most important economic reforms in the modern history of the country that will set the country up for success at some time in the short to medium-term future. But the problem is, those reforms haven't yet started to pay off in a way that ordinary Mexicans can feel in their daily lives. That's one of the reasons the guy that responsible for all of these changes, Enrique Peña Nieto, is currently polling at the lowest level of any president in Mexican history.

Don't get me wrong, he's made a lot of mistakes that have also contributed. But, the point here is that he's also not getting any credit for the good stuff he has done because those changes haven't yet started to bite yet. That's why very few politicians attempt structural reforms in the first place, they're really hard to make and you may not get credit for them within the four or five-year political life cycle. If you're going to make big changes, it requires putting your country before your own political prospects. That's what most of these leaders were willing to do.

What factors often prevent a policy that was successful in one country from working in another?

The first is that circumstances vary from country to country, and so you can't simply take what worked in one place and export it in the exact same form to another country and expect it to work there. For example, bringing Lula's Bolsa Familia program [which provides conditional cash transfers] to New York proved really difficult because [Brazil] is a poor country where it takes only a little bit of money to make a vast difference in a poor person's life. One of the reasons Lula's program was so popular in the end was because it was so radically cheap. It represented about half of one percent of Brazil's GDP; when you think about the fact that it was responsible for lifting almost a quarter of the population out of poverty, that is really, really cheap. In New York City, in a country with a per capita GDP of about US$53,000 a year, it obviously takes a lot more money to make that kind of difference in people's lives, and so the program becomes a lot more expensive to run.

Problem number two is more psychological and therefore maybe even harder to overcome. At the end of the book, I had to ask myself: if all of these answers are out there, then why aren't more countries following [other countries’] lead? Part of it is political courage, but the other is that policymakers prove to be remarkably resistant to using data and examples drawn from other countries when making policy. Now, that's not universal, but for whatever reason there is this big resistance to looking at what has worked and what hasn't worked in other places. Part of it is that a lot of countries don't like to admit that they need anybody else's help, even when it comes to ideas.

You praise Canada’s policies on multiculturalism and immigration, though many here are warning it would be a mistake to assume Canada is immune to the angry nationalism and xenophobia festering across the globe. Do you think the “Canada exception” may prove wrong?

I don't think the risk is that it'll prove to be wrong, but the risk is that Canada will move away from it and will adopt new policies that will undermine the incredible levels of public support that immigration has had basically since 1968 until today. There are some worrisome signs, the kind of rhetoric that Kellie Leitch has adopted in the Conservative leadership race, insisting that newcomers embrace “Canadian values.” But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic as well and the biggest one that I see is what happened to [former prime minister Stephen] Harper in the weeks leading up to the last election.

What's really interesting about immigration in Canada is that it's long been a bipartisan cause. It was actually a Conservative government under [John] Diefenbaker who first started pushing Canada to open up and drop its racial criteria and to focus instead on economic factors in deciding who gets in and who doesn't. Then, of course, it was [Pierre] Trudeau who expanded that program and added this element of multiculturalism but then it was another Conservative, Brian Mulroney, who entrenched Trudeau's multicultural initiatives into Canadian law for the first time.

When [Stephen] Harper came into office people thought he wouldn't do that. These previous politicians were progressive conservatives, much more centrist. Harper looked like a much more American-style right-wing conservative and had come out the Reform Party in which they had talked about restricting immigration and even shutting down the Ministry of Multiculturalism.

Sometime after Harper first became prime minister, Jason Kenney, his immigration minister, went to him and said, ‘If we ever hope to become a majority government we're going to need to win over the minority and immigrant vote.’ So, over the next few years, the Conservatives embraced immigration in this really remarkable way with Kenney going to cultural centres multiple times a day and bringing greetings from the government. Harper also apologized to Asian Canadians for the exclusion acts at the end of the 1920s and '30s. The government poured money into celebrations of ethnic heritage as well as trying to increase the overall immigration figures. Both Kenney and his successor, Chris Alexander, travelled the world trying to attract more immigrants to Canada.

It worked incredibly well, so well that in 2011, the Conservatives stole the immigrant vote from the Liberals for the first time in Canadian history. They outpolled Liberals among newcomers to Canada and minorities, so you would have thought that that would have reinforced the message which previous generations had already learned which is embracing immigration is good politics in Canada.

Then Harper did this thing towards the end of the last election where he started campaigning against immigration and against Muslim women wearing the veil in citizenship ceremonies. It was probably as much about specific Quebec politics as it was about anything else, but it ended up backfiring hugely and one of the things that contributed to a victory for Trudeau – which was much greater than anybody expected.

Now, that doesn't mean that Canadians will continue to feel this way, but I think if the Canadian government continues to manage immigration the way that it has, which means continuing to weigh economic factors very heavily so that newcomers to Canada that contribute to the country in all of these ways that are obvious to everybody and at the same time continues to very vocally support multiculturalism, which sends the political and cultural message that diversity and pluralism makes Canada stronger and makes Canada more Canadian, than I think there is no reason the "Canadian exception" can't continue.

While all countries can heed insight from Canada’s multiculturalism, what lessons can leaders in the United States learn?

Had the United States done what Canada did 50 years ago, immigration would not be the hot button issue that it is today. The problem is the xenophobic genie is really out of the bottle in the United States. How do you put it back in? I do think that adopting the right policies would help.

Comprehensive immigration reform would make a big difference. The U.S. could shift its emphasis to economic factors instead of emphasizing family reunification as heavily as it does right now. The problem with it as well is that it is emotionally and sort of intuitively appealing. Who doesn't want families to reunify? But it lets this arbitrary factor – whether your relatives were lucky enough to get into the country before you did – shape the entire immigrant population.

Every policy success mentioned in your book been a product of crisis. In your opinion, is the United States at this precipice?

At least half of the country thinks so. In fact, I suspect voters on both sides see the country as facing a dire crisis; they just differ about the nature of the problem. One half, the Trump supporters, think things have gotten so bad that only shock therapy can save the country. The other half thinks that shock therapy may end up killing the patient.

My view is not so grim. When you remember that Secretary [Hillary] Clinton won the popular vote, and that, but for the intervention of FBI Director James Comey and the Russian government, she probably would have won the electoral vote as well, it makes it harder to argue that things are so bad that Americans finally decided to vote for revolution.

But there's no question that many, many Americans are profoundly unhappy with their government, their circumstances, and their leadership – and with good reason. Are things as bad as they were in Mexico in 2012, when that country turned the corner? No. Are they as bad as Indonesia in 1998? Again, the answer is no. But they're bad enough to cut through business as usual and lead to radical reform.

The problem, as I point out in my book, is that crisis alone isn't enough to produce good outcomes. After all, countries face terrible crises all the time. What separates the winners from the losers is how they respond. And that depends on leadership: on the presence of politicians willing to put the good of the country before their own and willing to adopt pragmatic solutions that may violate traditional party pieties and will piss off special interests. Doing all that takes tremendous courage. And those kinds of guts are in short supply today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.