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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Interview With Eric Schmidt About Artificial Intelligence; Europe's Bungled Vaccine Rollout; The Next Battle On The COVID-19 Front. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired March 07, 2021 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you live from New York.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the show, artificial intelligence will dominate the future of the economy and China is winning. A disturbing new report from a panel of top tech executives says America needs to wake up.

Can the United States ensure that it is the world's AI super power?

I will talk to commission chair and the former head of Google, Eric Schmidt.

Also, whether you're going on a vacation or a business trip, you better be ready to show a passport -- a vaccine passport. Want to get back to your job? Be prepared to show proof that you got a jab. We'll explore the ethics of what some say is our inevitable future.

And Australia takes on big tech. Canberra says Facebook and Google must pay news organizations for their stories. I'll ask that country's communication minister why his nation is taking the stand. And could this become the new global standard?


ZAKARIA: But first here's my take. The Biden presidency is still in its early days, but it's not too soon to point to its most impressive accomplishment so far, one that will have major implications for years to come.

The COVID vaccination program has been transformed. The federal government has now established or expanded over 450 vaccination centers, and the country is carrying out two million vaccinations a day, more than double the rate when President Biden was inaugurated.

The president says he has secured enough supply to vaccinate the entire adult population in the next three months, well ahead of every major country except for the United Kingdom. The United States has administered around 85 million doses of the vaccine, compared to about 40 million in the European Union and 55 million in China. Over 15 percent of Americans have received at least one dose, which is about five times the rate in China.

In short, Biden is demonstrating to Americans and to the world that the U.S. government can once again work.

The Trump administration does deserve credit for Operation Warp Speed, the program that helped fund the vaccines and the private sector deserves credit for the miraculous speed and effectiveness with which they developed the vaccines. But for the most part, Trump left the rollout to the states. In early 2020, with COVID having turned into a massive national crisis, Ron Klain, now Biden's chief of staff, said the Trump administration was pursuing an articles of confederation response.

Trump did this for two reasons. First it was clear the pandemic was going to create big problems, and he didn't want to bear responsibility for them. The sentiment in the White House was, let the governors own the lockdowns. We will own the recovery. Second, Republicans have for years denigrated the federal government, arguing that it was incompetent and dysfunctional, that Washington was corrupt and that the private sector could handle everything better.

Trump's initial solution to the pandemic was to line up a bunch of private companies and announce that they would quickly set up Web sites and testing centers and cover the population. Little of that actually happened.

Joe Biden came into office intent on reversing Trump's approach. He owned the crisis, releasing a 200-page national strategy that outlined, for example, exactly how the government would use its powers and resources to ramp up vaccinations.

That included ordering millions more vaccines, using the Defense Production Act to ensure that additional production could happen fast, enlisting the Armed Forces, National Guard, FEMA and other agencies to support vaccination sites and shipping vaccines directly to pharmacies, thus creating another network of vaccination centers across the country. The result, a massive ramp-up of the supply production and administration of the vaccines.

Government is hard. American government is harder still. It's a political system designed to prevent tyranny, not facilitate speedy action.


ZAKARIA: So power is checked, divided and shared, making it all worth takes energy, ingenuity and above all a belief in government. Biden clearly learned from his experience running the stimulus program as Barack Obama's vice president.

Ron Klain, who coordinated the response to Ebola in 2014 and '15 is impressively focused on execution as White House chief of staff. Biden's COVID-19 coordinator Jeffrey Zients is a talented executive who's excelled in the private and public sectors. He may be best remembered for fixing the Obamacare Web site.

A senior White House official told me, you have to work every day at all the details, grind the stuff out, persuade, cajole and force everyone to get on the same page. The federal government has amazing people working with it. FEMA, for example, has some real miracle workers, but they have to be led and managed. It can be done. The answer is not that a consulting group can do this better. For people like us who believe in government, task number one is to make government work.

The contrast with Trump is easy to draw because Trump didn't really view his job as diligently administering the federal bureaucracy. For him the presidency was a reality television show. And politics was a series of symbolic acts.

But there is a broader view of the federal government that grew out of the Vietnam War, Watergate and some of the excesses of the great society programs, one that Ronald Reagan gave voice to when he said in his inaugural address.


RONALD REAGAN, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.


ZAKARIA: Joe Biden can show us that Reagan was wrong. It was the American government, after all, that put a man on the moon and helped create the Internet. And in today's world, there are crucial challenges that only government, well-led and administered, can solve.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

Artificial intelligence first beat a human in a chess match 24 years ago. Since then AI has grown exponentially. It is driving cars and diagnosing diseases. It can write news articles and create artistic masterpieces. It can fight the enemy on a battlefield. In coming years, it will do nothing short of reorganizing the world as we know it. But America is at great risk of falling behind China in the race to dominate this realm.

That last part is according to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. It is a blue-ribbon panel of top thinkers and executives who have just sent their final report to Congress and the president.

The chair of the commission, former Google head, Eric Schmidt, joins me now. I should note that I am an unpaid adviser to Eric Schmidt's organization, Schmidt Futures.

Welcome, Eric. Let me ask you first, do you agree with that characterization that artificial intelligence is going to be sprinkled or coursed through the entire economy of the future? ERIC SCHMIDT, CHAIR, NATIONAL SECURITY COMMISSION ON ARTIFICIAL

INTELLIGENCE: Thank you. Extremely well said. What we now know is that AI will be the basis of pretty much everything you deal with over the next five or 10 years. It will be present in your information space. It will be present in your medical care. It will be present in how your car works. Over and over again, AI is going to be an essential part of the world and in particular the United States.

ZAKARIA: And are you confident in saying that right now your fear is that China is actually ahead?

SCHMIDT: We were constituted two years ago -- this is a bipartisan group of about 15 commissioners -- to look at this question. We came to the conclusion that the United States is today ahead, but may lose our lead fairly quickly. The reason is that China has decided to focus on leadership in AI by 2030 and is doing the necessary steps to provide that leadership.

We believe that it is a national emergency, literally a threat to our nation, unless we get our act together with respect to focusing on AI in the federal government and in our national security, and we make hundreds of recommendations for the Congress and the White House to follow.

ZAKARIA: But right now, Eric, you do point out in the report China has twice as many super computers as the United States. You point out that its 5g program or the outlook is much, much stronger. You point out that the Chinese use more data. They have four times as many people. All this -- I mean, this sounds like it's already happening, that they are moving ahead.


SCHMIDT: They are planning to move ahead. We have a chance to save it. We continue to be the innovators globally. We continue to have the strongest and best companies. China is already a lead in facial recognition, no surprise there, as well as in electronic commerce. They aspire to be leaders in synthetic biology and they're almost certainly very far ahead of us in 5g.

They are a significant global competitor to the West and to America. They're organized in a central planning way. And AI tends to benefit from having large sets of data and lots and lots of money. America is not organized that way. Our recommendations include a top-level panel that would be convened under the vice president to focus on technology competitiveness and global competitiveness.

It also includes very, very significant increases in R and D funding and an awful lot of training. The government is not today prepared for this new technology. They just don't have the skills inside of it yet.

ZAKARIA: You've talked about the importance of getting the government involved. I mean, you're a private sector guy, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. You don't worry about the government investing, industrial policy, you know, all those fears that the government will waste the money? SCHMIDT: Well, you know, we have a competitor in the form of China who

has an industrial policy which has much more money, very smart people and global ambitions. We need a strategy to win against that. And that's not just true in AI. It's true in all of the key technologies. One of the things in our report is we list key technologies that will be the platform drivers in economics for the United States in the future.

We estimate that winning the AI battle is a $50, 5-0, trillion business over 20 years or so. So the amounts of money at stake here are huge, and we're not prepared. We need to double our R and D spending in our universities. We need to make sure we have a natural research network for startups and small technical groups, university faculties, to build the next generation of AI. The AI winner is not yet determined. It's the next great challenge.

ZAKARIA: How much money and dollars do you think the United States should be investing in order to compete with China?

SCHMIDT: In the report, we suggest a doubling of basic R and D every year, which I think is probably as fast as we can absorb it. And we estimate that that number should get to about $30 billion. $30 billion seems like a lot of money, but when we're playing with trillions of dollars of industry profits, growth and value, you can see.

Imagine the worst case, which is we don't do this, and the great next companies all come out of China and that the fantastic technology companies that have been built in the United States which comprise 20 percent of our stock market value end up being in another country and not under our control.

There is national security concerns and also, by the way, there is values concerns. If these things were built in China, for example, they are not necessarily going to follow our privacy rules, our respect for ethics. They're going to have their own rules, which are not ones that any of us want to be subject to. So we have to be careful to win this battle. There are five or six core platform battles that America is in the process of facing that we may lose.

I mentioned two. Energy is another one. Our autonomy in robotics is another one. Additive manufacturing is another one. These are all areas that China has prioritized in their "Made in 2025" plan, and they're known to put their money behind their central planning. They intend to win. We have to respond competitively. This is not a war. This is a competition that we can win if we get ourselves organized.

I'm worried that because of the structure of China they're going to move quicker than we are, even with the great things that we are as a democracy.

ZAKARIA: Eric Schmidt, a very important message. Thank you.

SCHMIDT: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, Australia's new law that forces Facebook and Google to pay for news. I'm talk to Paul Fletcher, Australia's minister of communications, about whether his nation is paving the way for others to do exactly the same. Back in a moment.



ZAKARIA: And GPS is back. Now, we have not been able to communicate with the Australian minister of communications. Yes, that is an irony. We will keep trying.

In the meantime, the government of Italy announced Thursday it had blocked a shipment of about a quarter million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that were destined for Australia. Italy is currently in the midst of an uptick in COVID cases and Rome didn't want to send this liquid gold to a nation that has had near zero COVID cases since October.

Is this the vaccine nationalism that many had feared?

Joining me now to explain it all is Zanny Minton Beddoes, the editor- in-chief of "The Economist."

Welcome, Zanny. First let me ask you the broader question of why has the European Union, which is the biggest, richest, economic bloc in the world, why has it sort of bungled the vaccine rollout where the Europeans are way behind the United States?

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF, THE ECONOMIST: Well, you're quite right. They are way behind. And I think the main reason is that the European Commission is inexperienced at this. Health policy is usually the purview of individual countries in the E.U. But this time they decided to club together and do the vaccine purchases together through the European Commission.


But that led to all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles because each individual country had to sign up on every contract. The European negotiators, perhaps because they were so inexperienced, pushed the drug companies hard on liability, on price. They didn't want to be seen to be overpaying. That also showed things down. The European vaccine regulators said that unlike the British and others, it wasn't going to rush through emergency approval.

So all those things meant the thing got off to a very slow start. They then had some bad luck. The European Union bet heavily on the Sanofi vaccine which had a very big delay. And then I think in the last couple of months they actually added more errors themselves. Firstly, there are several countries in the E.U., notably France, where people are quite hesitant about vaccines. So to counter that vaccine hesitancy, they had an incredibly rigmarole rollout scheme which meant that it went very slowly.

And then European politicians particularly Emmanuel Macron poured cold water on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which means that lots of people in Europe are reluctant to have that vaccine so that even as Europe, as you say, is way behind others, they are not using doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine they have. So add all of that together and it means they're incredibly slow. There is a lot of anger in Europe, but it's really incompetence and inexperience.

ZAKARIA: And so that leaves them in this extraordinary position where they are putting embargoes on the vaccines. How is that going to play internationally, do you think? How is it even playing in Europe?

MINTON BEDDOES: Well, I think it's going to play extremely badly internationally. Its practical consequences in the short term are relatively modest because, as you say, the Italian government's decision to not allow those exports to Australia won't have a huge impact in Australia because they have very, very few cases.

But the signal it sends about the reputation of the European Union which always prides itself on being this bastion of the international system of multilateral rule is looking like an economic nationalist in extreme. And, you know, if the vaccine supply chain, which is very global, everything from vials to the ingredients for vaccines, it's produced in lots of different countries, if other countries started to emulate the E.U., we would have a terrible trouble vaccinating the world.

And so there is a huge reputational risk. And I think internally within the E.U., there is just the kind of growing view of every country for itself. And so from Denmark to the Czech Republic, individual countries are trying to get hold of the vaccine themselves.

ZAKARIA: Now from stunning failure to stunning success, Britain is really the world's leader in vaccination. If you take Israel and the UAE out, which are tiny nations, Britain has vaccinated significantly more people even than the United States. Why? What went right in Britain?

MINTON BEDDOES: Well, you're right. It's been a huge success and something that is, you know, everyone in Britain is immensely proud of. And I think there's four reasons. Two of them are sort of the first order ones that the Britain started very early. We formed the vaccine task force to find one and to buy them back in April last year. Secondly, money was really no object. This was not a government that is going to haggle over money.

But thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it was an example of really effective work between government and business. The vaccine task force was chaired by a woman Kate Bingham who is a venture capitalist in biosciences, really knows this area. Bioscience is an area where Britain has long been very strong and the government went out of its way to make Britain an attractive place for pharma companies to sell vaccines.

They helped with trials. They helped with, you know, smoothing red tape. They made things as easy as possible. And then finally, the National Health Service, which of course is a matter of huge pride in Britain, was immensely useful because it is a centralized health care provider unlike the U.S. and unlike much of the European Union. And that centralized nature made it much easier to organize an effective distribution scheme. So, yes, Britain has been remarkably successful. ZAKARIA: And finally, Zanny, why is it that Europe has had such a

nasty wave recently? You know, even the countries that have managed to handle it well like Germany saw a huge uptick. In many cases it has come down. But I was wondering whether there's some reflection. It seemed like, you know, even if you are good state, if the society of people just get fed up of these social distancing rules, you see these spikes. Or was there something else?

MINTON BEDDOES: I think it's a bit of that and it's a bit of bad luck. And in some sense what you see happening now in France, in Germany, the Czech Republic and others, is kind of what happened in Britain, you know, in November and December. Particularly in December. A new variant suddenly takes hold, much easier -- much more transmissible. That's what's happening now in Europe.

At the same time as there is kind of lockdown fatigue. And the European Union, most countries, have much, much looser lockdown regulations than we do in Britain now. Britain is interesting. It's become one of the most severe regimes globally, even as the vaccine is successfully being distributed. And with the result that in the U.K. we can now -- we're on a road map to lifting everything.


Whereas in Europe, as you say, they are contemplating tighter restrictions. But I think in shorter answer they've got new variants. They're more transmissible and they have weaker lockdowns.

ZAKARIA: Zanny Minton Beddoes, you always explain things to succinctly. Thank you so much.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, the next battle on the COVID-19 front. Vaccine passports. You may need to show proof of vaccination to cross borders, walk into a theater, even go to work. What are the ethics of all of this? We'll explore when we come back.





(UNKNOWN): May I see your papers?

(UNKNOWN): I don't think I have them on me.

(UNKNOWN): In that case, we'd have to ask you to come along.


ZAKARIA: From "Casablanca" to today, a demand to produce personal documents can be uncomfortable. But post-pandemic, it's something we'll all likely have to get more and more comfortable with.

We could be asked to show proof we've had the shots in order to get on an airplane, go to a concert or go back to work. Joining me now is medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, a professor at NYU.

So explain why you think, basically, that this is the future and we should be comfortable with it?

ARTHUR CAPLAN, PROFESSOR, MEDICAL ETHICS, NYU: Well, I'm sure that the future holds vaccine passports for us, partly to protect against the spread of COVID and it rebounding.

There are many countries, as you were discussing earlier, that have low rates of COVID, Australia, India, Nigeria; some countries improving fast, Great Britain, the U.S.; other countries lagging and trying to do lockdowns.

As vaccines become available, the best way to control the spread; the best way to control new outbreaks and perhaps even new variants is to demand proof of vaccination before entry.

And, you know, it's not a new idea. We have it for yellow fever. There are about more than a dozen countries that say you can't come in if you haven't been vaccinated against yellow fever. And many others require you to show proof of vaccination if you transit through those countries.

ZAKARIA: What about the concerns that many people have about privacy, about the privacy of their health data, that is this -- you know, is there a slippery slope here? OK, I'm -- I'm comfortable telling you whether or not I have COVID, but do I -- does that mean that it becomes OK to ask about other things?

CAPLAN: Well, there is always a danger of a slope. But I think here what's different is traditionally we want to protect health information because, if someone finds out you have an illness or a disease, they may discriminate against you; they may penalize you; they may say you can't get a job; you can't get insurance; you can't get disability insurance; you can't get life insurance.

With a COVID certification, you're going to gain freedom. You're going to gain mobility. And I'm going to suggest that you're probably going to be able to get certain jobs. If you want to work on a cruise ship, I can't imagine that they're not going to be advertising that everybody who's on the staff and the crew is vaccinated, so come on back.

So the difference, if you will, is it often is the case that health information, when released, threatens to harm you. In this case, being vaccinated threatens to benefit you. It goes in the other direction.

ZAKARIA: What about the effect on inequality?

And I want you to talk about it in two ways. First, there is going to be an inevitable inequality in that there are, even within countries where things are going well, like the United States, there are going to be people who don't have the vaccine. Sometimes that will tend to be people who come from, maybe, poorer communities or perhaps places where there's historically been reluctance to get vaccinated.

And secondly, of course, the rich countries are hogging the vaccines. And so maybe -- you know, maybe appropriately because they paid for them, but the point is you are going to exacerbate the divide between the rich and poor around the world.

So, you know, first within even the united states and then the rich -- the West versus the rest, if you will?

CAPLAN: Well, remember, vaccine passports or even vaccine requirements do depend on access. It's hard to impose anything unless you are pretty sure that somebody can get a vaccine.

So I think it will be a little while before we see this, let's say, within the U.S. But there are going to be communities and areas of the country where it starts to make sense, due to high availability of vaccine, to say, "You want to come back to work in person? You've got to show me a vaccine certificate. You want to go in a bar, a restaurant? You've got to show me a vaccine certificate."

I think there will be some inequality in the U.S., but hopefully it will wash out quickly as the supplies increase very rapidly. And I think they are going to.

It also gives you an incentive to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Some people are not sure, still, whether they want to do the vaccine. But if you promise them more mobility, more ability to get a job, more ability to get travel, that's a very powerful incentive to actually achieve fuller vaccination.

Internationally, those problems are there. There is no denying it. There are going to be countries that are way behind in terms of having access to anything.

But I am going to predict that the world won't wait for vaccine passports until everybody is on board. I still think you're going to see some in place, despite the fact that this will isolate some countries and perhaps even cause them economic damage. It's just the better off and the lucky in a certain sense not wanting to wait for everybody to come on board.

ZAKARIA: So let me ask you about the ethics of a test applied by an employer who says, "In order to get this job, you have to be vaccinated."

Are there legal, ethical issues in terms of the fact that you will be favoring one person or one group of people over another?

CAPLAN: Well, there could be. And I think we'll see that happen. That's more mandating a vaccine for the right to work, if you will. Some jobs do that now. The militaries around the world will quickly be saying, as soon as the vaccines are licensed, which they're not yet; they're still out on emergency approval. But once licensure occurs, I think you'll see everybody required in the military to have to vaccinate to be in the military.

But in the private sector, some jobs have high contact. You're dealing with a sales force that goes out and sees a lot of people. You have a lot of people coming into the office for one reason or another, depending on the line of work.

There I think you can say, for safety and the integrity of the business and being able to work the business, we've got to ensure our clients that everybody is vaccinated.

So as long as you don't discriminate and say "We're only going to vaccinate older people" or "but we don't require this of younger people" or, you know, "we don't require people who live in rural areas to prove it, but we do urban," discrimination is what the employer will have to watch out for. They can't do that.

But if they put on blanket protections and say "It's to protect us and to keep the business going because otherwise our customers won't trust us," I think they will be able to do it.

ZAKARIA: Professor Caplan, a pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much.

CAPLAN: Thank you so much.

ZAKARIA: Next on "GPS," a seismic religious event, the head of the Catholic Church meets the head of Shiite Islam in war-torn Iraq. We will explore this extraordinary occasion and what it means when we come back.


ZAKARIA: Pope Francis arrived Friday in Baghdad for a historic visit to Iraq, the first ever for a Pope. The trip comes amidst heightened violence in this war-torn nation and, of course, amidst a global pandemic.

The remarkable journey was made even more so when the head of the Catholic Church met with the head of Shia Islam in Iraq, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. What made this meeting so extraordinary?

Joining me now is CNN's Ben Wedeman. He's in Erbil, where the Pope offered a mass to some 8,000 people earlier today.

Good to have you on, Ben.

First explain why the Pope is in Iraq. Because what is striking about Iraq and the last -- much of the Arab world has been the disappearance of Christianity and Christians through, you know, people fleeing, through persecution, often violence.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. That is the prime reason of Pope Francis's visit here, is to express solidarity and support to the Christian community in Iraq, which has dwindled from around a million and a half back in 2003 to perhaps 300,000. Today he wanted to reassure them that the Catholic Church cares about

them, wants them to remain in Iraq to the extent that they can. So that was really the prime mission here, not that necessarily a four- day visit by Pope Francis is going to change the mind of almost everyone we spoke to in the Christian community who said, "Given the opportunity, we will leave."

And, in fact, you will not find one Christian family that doesn't have a relative who has emigrated to the United States or Canada or Australia or Sweden or somewhere else.

The second mission that he had here was to meet with Grand Ayatollah ali-Sistani to continue this outreach to Islam, keeping in mind that he did sign this document with Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar who represents the Sunnis -- not officially, of course, but he's seen as such.

And now he had this opportunity to meet with a leading cleric among the Shia. He doesn't necessarily -- Shia Islam does not have a hierarchy like the Catholic Church, nor does Sunni Islam. But certainly it's important.

Now, I'm just looking down below right now. The Pope's convoy is leaving Erbil at the moment and heading to the airport and back to Baghdad for what so far has been a trip very, very well received by Iraqis regardless of their religion. Fareed?

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about that last point you made. Ali-Sistani, Grand Ayatollah ali-Sistani is very careful with whom he meets. I know this because I was scheduled to meet with him once. I think it was in 2003 or '04, right after the Iraq War, and at the last minute I got a message saying he will not meet with an American. For some reason he thought that perhaps I had a non-American passport or something like that.

And he's very careful about the symbolism of whom he meets with. Is this a sign that -- that, you know, that kind of ethnic chauvinism and religious nationalism that -- that seemed to consume Iraq for so many years is waning and that they want -- the people really are nostalgic for that multi-ethnic, multi-religious Iraq that existed?

WEDEMAN: I don't think they ever were opposed to it, by and large. I mean, keep in mind, for instance, when you wanted to meet the Grand Ayatollah back in 2003, 2004, that was right after the American invasion. It was a much more sensitive time.

But, yes, by and large, Ayatollah Sistani is very careful about who he meets. For instance, recently, the chief justice of Iran went to Najaf and wanted to meet with Sistani and he turned him down.

So the fact that he was willing to meet in a private meeting, it should be stressed, with Pope Francis, is significant and -- hugely significant.

We don't actually know exactly what they discussed. Afterwards, for instance, Sistani's office said that he stressed that Christians in Iraq should enjoy peace and security with full rights under the Iraqi constitution. Pope Francis expressed his appreciation for the Ayatollah's role in protecting Christians in Iraq.

But, beyond that, you know, if you want to get into, sort of, the -- the trees of Shia politics, you have two main trends.

You have the one in (inaudible) in Iran, which is represented at the moment by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And they believe in what's known as Velayat-e Faqih, which is the rule of the jurisprudence. In other words, clerics should be involved in the nuts and bolts, the daily running of a country. And that's what we've seen in Iran.

In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf believes that, at certain key junctures perhaps the clerics should express their opinions, but they shouldn't get involved in politics.

ZAKARIA: I've got...

WEDEMAN: Fareed?

ZAKARIA: I've got to let you -- I've got to let you go, Ben. We are out of time. As always, a pleasure and an education to hear from you. And we will be back in a moment.


ZAKARIA: Now for our "What in the World" segment. It has been less than two months since Joe Biden assumed leadership of the country. And we've all watched the return to regular press briefings and routine policy squabbling with profound relief.

American democracy, as Biden put it in his inaugural speech, appears to have prevailed.


PRESIDENT JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR.: Democracy has prevailed.


ZAKARIA: If that's true of the world's oldest democracy, in the world's biggest, it is a different story altogether. The pro-democracy nonprofit Freedom House put out its annual report this week. And India's status, usually a rare bright spot in Asia, has fallen from "free" to "partly free" for the first time in 30 years.

India's illiberal slide has been steady and now swift under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP.

Over the past few years, India has clamped down tightly on freedom of speech. Police have filed criminal charges against activists, journalists and opposition politicians for merely criticizing the government under a colonial-era sedition law.

Last month, a climate activist in her early 20s named Disha Ravi was arrested on sedition charges for doing nothing worse, it seems, than drafting and sharing a document in support of the ongoing farmers' protests. The document was later tweeted by Greta Thunburg. The police accuse Ravi of attempting to "spread disaffection against the Indian state."

According to the research group Article 14, more than 7,000 people have faced sedition charges since Modi was elected prime minister in 2014. The press, once vaunted for its dynamism, has been under relentless attack and intimidation.

"The New York Times" reported in April that Modi used the pandemic to harangue media outlets into providing favorable coverage. His government has pressured outlets to fire journalists critical of its policies and to suspend features that critiqued it, the paper report reported.

A spokesperson for India's foreign ministry responded to the Freedom House downgrade on Friday saying "India has robust institutions and well-established democratic practices. We do not need sermons, especially from those who cannot get their basics right."

A central thrust of the government's illiberalism relates to its efforts to promote Hindu nationalism, singling out India's Muslim minority.

In December of 2019, the government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, a law which allows a path to citizenship for migrants belonging to six different religions from nearby countries. The one group it does not set a path for, Muslims.

And there are hints of more discriminatory policies to come. BJP officials have spoken of instituting a national citizens register in which every Indian would have to establish proof of their place of birth. It's difficult for many to furnish such proof in India, but as Freedom House notes, Muslims would be disproportionately affected by such a register.

And then there is Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir was India's only Muslim minority state. I say "was" because in August 2019 the central government hurriedly passed legislation that stripped Kashmir of its statehood and its special autonomous status under the Indian constitution.

And under a harsh security crackdown, thousands of people in the state were preventively detained. Freedom House tallies Kashmir separately than the rest of India.

In 2020, Kashmir's score plummeted. Currently, it is rated as "not free," on par with dictatorships and police states.

The Indian historian Ramachandra Guha argues in a recent article in the journal Liberties that the beauty and radicalism of the nationalism of India's founding fathers is that it was not tied to any single faith or language. It exalted in India's diversity.

India has fallen short of its democratic ideals before Modi but rarely has it fallen so far, so fast.

The country is not yet lost as an anchor of democracy in the world, but it could be, if it continues its slide, a result that would be catastrophic for it but also for the world in which India has always stood as a shining beacon, a thriving refutation to the idea that democracy was something better suited for rich countries or for the West.

Better than almost any country, India has affirmed the idea that democracy was a universal right of all humankind.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.