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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Biden Administration Gets Off To Testy Start With China; Russia Recalls Ambassador After Biden Says Putin Is A Killer; A Global Mystery: How A Slum In Mumbai, India Only Had One-Tenth Of Expected COVID Deaths. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired March 21, 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): We'll start today's show with America this week enraging both Beijing and Moscow. Russia recalls its ambassador after President Biden said Vladimir Putin is a killer.



ZAKARIA: And the U.S. and China begin high-level talks.

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government is taking.

ZAKARIA: With an exchange of insults.

YANG JIECHI, CHINESE FOREIGN AFFAIRS CHIEF: The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.

ZAKARIA: Two of America's toughest relationships just got tougher. I'll talk to Richard Haass, Zanny Minton Beddoes and Admiral James Stavridis.

Also, at the start of the pandemic, everyone predicted the greatest strategy would occur in the developing world. But, in fact, the poorest countries have suffered relatively few COVID deaths compared to the rich ones. What explains this mystery?

The "New Yorker's" Sid Mukherjee plays doctor detective and will tell us what in the world is going on.


ZAKARIA: But first, here is my take. During his visit to Asia this week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin outlined his key concern.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: And while we were focused on issues in the Middle East, China has modernized its military and so our goal is to make sure that we maintain a competitive edge over China or anyone else.


ZAKARIA: Welcome to the new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat.

What Austin calls America's edge over China is more like a chasm. The United States has nearly 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China. It has twice the tonnage of warships at sea, including 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, compared with China's two carriers which are much less advanced. Washington has over 2,000 modern fighter jets compared to Beijing's roughly 600, according to national security analyst Sebastien Roblin.

And the U.S. deploys this power using a vast network of some 800 overseas bases. China has three. China spends about $250 billion on its military which is a third as much as the United States. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution notes that if China were in NATO, we would berate it for inadequate burden sharing since its military outlays fall below the NATO's 2 percent minimum.

At the height of its imperial might in the late 19th Century, when it ruled over a quarter of the world's population, Great Britain adopted a two-power standard. Its Navy had to be larger than the next two put together.

U.S. military spending remains larger than the next 10 countries put together, six of which are Washington's close allies. America's intelligence budget alone around $85 billion, is much larger than Russia's total defense spending. And yet the U.S. never imagines that this kind of spending could ever be seen by other countries as worrying or threatening. In requesting even more money for his region, the head of the Indo Pacific Command, Admiral Davidson, remarked on China's increases in defense spending.


ADM. PHILIP DAVIDSON, INDO PACIFIC COMMAND: I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they're putting in the field unless it is an aggressive posture.


ZAKARIA: But fact that Washington is spending more on the military than it did at the height of the Vietnam War, even accounting for inflation, should threaten no one? In any case, the size of military spending is a misleading indicator of strength, far more important than the objective sort and the political military strategy used to achieve those objectives. The U.S. has probably out-spent the Taliban by, I don't know, 10,000

to one in Afghanistan and yet Washington has been unable to achieve its objective there. Ensuring that the Kabul government rules the country uncontested.


If the United States defines his goals carefully and assembles an intelligent and consistent political and military strategy to achieve them, it can succeed. Without that millions of troops and trillion dollars will not guarantee victory. Bigness is not a substitute for brains.

Consider two contrasting exercises of power. America's F-35 fighter jet program, devilled by cost overruns and technical problems, will ultimately cost taxpayers $1.7 trillion according to a document obtained by Bloomberg. China will likely spend a comparable amount of money on the belt and road initiative, an ambitious set of loans, aid and financing for infrastructure projects across the world aimed at creating greater interdependent with dozens of countries that are important to Beijing.

Which do you think is money better spent? The Pentagon operates in a realm apart from any other government agency. It spends money on a scale and wastes money on a scale that is almost unimaginable. Every government agency is required to audit its accounts but for decades the Pentagon simply flouted this law. In 2018 it finally obeyed paying $400 million for 1,200 auditors to examine its books. Yet it still could not get a clean bill of health.

As Matt Taibbi notes in a brilliant expose of Pentagon accounting, the auditors were unable to pass the Pentagon or flunk it. They could only offer no opinion explaining the military's empire of hundreds of acronymic accounting silos was too illogical to penetrate. The Defense Department has failed to pass two more audits.

Having spent nearly two decades fighting wars in the Middle East without much success, the Pentagon will now revert to its favorite kind of conflict, a cold war with a nuclear power. It can raise endless amounts of money to outpace China even if nuclear deterrence makes it unlikely there will be an actual fighting war in Asia. Of course there might be budget wars in Washington but those are the battles the Pentagon knows how to win.

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

It was a remarkable week for Washington's relations both with Moscow and Beijing. We'll get to Russia's anger in America in a moment, but first, on Thursday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan hosted their Chinese counterparts in Alaska. Blinken in his welcoming remarks to the foreign delegation and the press made clear he would press China on the Uyghurs Hong Kong and Taiwan.

China's Foreign Affairs chief chose to respond by leveling his criticisms about America's internal affairs. Each person was to make a two-minute statement. His lasted 16. Tony Blinken then jumped back in with a rebuttal. All in all not quite what was planned.

Joining me now are James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He's the co-worker of a new novel that images a future war with China, it's called " 2034: A Novel of the Next World War." Zanny Minton Beddoes is the editor-in-chief of the "Economist" and Richard Haass was director of policy planning at the State Department. He is now president for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Welcome, all. Richard, let me start by asking you, you staffed many summits and meetings like these, participated in many and have watched many. What did you make of the one in Anchorage?

RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Look, Fareed, this is the most, as you know, important relationship of this era of history. There are profound disagreements between the United States and China economically, strategically, on matters of human rights and the rule of law.

This relationship is going to take the most deft-handling if these two countries are not going to end up in some sort of confrontation or some sort of relationship or cooperation as precluded, and I would say Anchorage was not a good start. And that's diplomatic. It was a terrible start. It was mishandled. Way too much public signaling. We ought to have private strategic dialogues.

We know we have these real disagreements but we also know that talking about them in public forces people to take out postures that are far more absolute because they have to play to the home crowd, to the gallery, it makes exploring the possibility of compromise that much more difficult. We've really got to dial it down in public. This applies to both sides. Make it private.

Make it regular, make it sustained, and see if we can't lower the temperature and just maybe, not just rule out confrontation, say, over an issue like Taiwan, but find some areas where we may actually be able to make a little bit of progress such as North Korea, Afghanistan or climate which seems to be the one area that two have actually agreed to set up a follow-up working group.


ZAKARIA: Jim Stavridis, how do you see the summit and do you think, you know, it does feel as though we've been moving toward an ever-more confrontational posture on both sides?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Yes, I'm with Henry Kissinger on this one, Fareed. He said over a year ago that we're in the foothills of a cold war. I think we're continuing to ascend that mountain. We're perhaps not in a full-blown cold war. We're old enough to remember what the cold war look like. It was millions of troops facing each other across the Fulda Gap to vast battle fleets playing hunt for Red October around the world.

But we're kind of edging in a bad direction. I agree with Richard on the tactics. It doesn't feel good right now. Here's the bottom line. What we need and has been lacking is a plan, a strategic plan for facing China. And that means kind of taking a page from Richard's comment a moment ago. It means confronting where we must. We're not going to cede the South China Sea to China. It means confronting on human rights.

Look at the cover of "The Economist," Zanny, but it also means cooperating wherever we can. I think climate is a terrific place to think about it. Bottom line, we need a plan, we need to get our allies in the game. And we need to get final -- we need to get the U.S. inner agency kind of pulling together, not in different directions.

ZAKARIA: Richard, let me just come back to you for a second before I get to Zanny to ask, I mean, I'm looking at the gamut of issues and you raised some of them but it does seem to me, if you want to actually get something done in Myanmar and maybe restore the previous government, if you want to get something done on Iran, you know, not just climate change but even the pressing problems of today, China does seem pretty crucial.

Do you think there is any discussion on those issues or is the public confrontation we're seeing matched with the private freezing of the relationship?

HAASS: Well, this discussion of these things privately even in Anchorage, what there hasn't been is progress. And look, even if the public side of this has been handled better, Fareed, I think progress would have been difficult. But you're exactly right, North Korea, 90 percent of their trade goes in and out through China. We're not going to make progress unless China is on board. China is now bailing out the Iranian economy with oil purchases. Again, they are critical.

Myanmar, they could subsidize this military government. So we could just go around the world and we can basically say we need China involved at times constructively. It's not going to be easy. Xi Jinping's China is fundamentally differently. It's more repressive at home. It's obviously wealthier, it's stronger, it's more assertive. So this is going to be difficult under the best of conditions and my point is two. One is diplomatically we've got to get this under control.

And second of all, we've got to put our own house in order. In some ways the most effective tool vis-a-vis China might not be how many warships we have in the South China Sea. It might be whether the United States is politically united, and whether we are economically competitive.

ZAKARIA: Zanny, you have a cover story on China and you're pretty tough on China but you also come out eventually for engagement with China because you point out just how dominant it is in the world economy right now.

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE ECONOMIST: Yes, absolutely. And I am slightly less tough on last week's meeting, the Anchorage meeting, than James and Richard. I think that this is a deliberate recalibration of U.S. policy to be more open in confronting China on its authoritarian and aggressive nature on human rights, on cyberattacks, on Taiwan, but at the same time there is a desire to work in areas of mutual interest.

And I think that, you know, in some ways both sides got what they wanted from that meeting which was to play to their domestic audiences. The question is whether you can then pull off a more strategic, cooperative approach in areas where cooperation is there, whether it's climate and so forth, while at the same time sounding publicly tough on the other stuff. It's going to be a balance, but I think it's too early to write this strategy off.

And I think that there is clearly a joined up thinking in the administration, whether they can pull it off, whether they can get the allies on board, because one thing that our country made it very clear is you do need to engage in China.


This is an epoch defining challenge between the West and a rising authoritarian China. It is going to define the next few decades and we have to get this right but I think it does mean standing up for human rights, calling out China on things that offend Western values, but at the same time recognizing that this is a country that is the world's second biggest economy with which we have engage. And so I'm not sure so that the Biden administration has gotten it as wrong as Richard seems to think.

ZAKARIA: All right, we are going to have to leave it there. I'll give you one statistic just to close. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union traded $5 billion worth of goods and services every year. The United States and China trade $5 billion worth of goods and services every day.

Next on GPS, we will talk about Russia, another wild week of words. President Biden said that Putin is a killer. Putin then challenged Biden to a debate. What in the world is going on?



ZAKARIA: On Wednesday, ABC News broadcast an interview in which President Biden was asked if he thought Russia's President Putin was a killer. His response, "Mm, I do." Russia reacted angrily, recalling its ambassador to Washington and suggesting that an irreversible deterioration of relations might be at hand. Is it?

Joining me again, James Stavridis, Zanny Minton Beddoes and Richard Haass.

Jim, Biden seemed to respond in a kind of spontaneous way. Was that OK or should he have been more disciplined? It feels like if you're going to call the president of Russia a killer, maybe they should -- it should be a thought through plan rather than an off-the-cuff response to a reporter. STAVRIDIS: Well, as we were saying a moment ago, Fareed, there is a

reset or recalibration going on and I think Putin is a bit of a special case if you will in this regard because strangely and mysteriously, he was treated with kid gloves, him personally, by President Trump. So I think this administration wanted to put a shot across the bow as we would say in Navy terms right away.

Now whether calling him a killer is exactly the right thing to do, you know, I'm kind of reminded of that great book of leadership, "The Godfather" by Mario Puzo when Don Corleone says, don't make the mistake of hating your enemies. It clouds your judgment. I think this one felt pretty calibrated to me. It signaled a toughness on Russia, particularly on Vladimir Putin, and again I think he is a special case because he has killed.

He's killed at the micro level, former KGB agent in the United Kingdom as Zanny knows very well, on British soil. He tried to poison his major opponent, Navalny, and he's killed at the macro scale in both Syria and Ukraine. So, to me, I found it honest and refreshing when he was called a killer.

ZAKARIA: Zanny, how do you think Europeans reacted to that?

MINTON BEDDOES: Well, I think that's going to be -- I mean, there was very little publicly as you know. I mean, I agree, I think it's accurate and in some sense refreshing to hear President Biden actually say that. The problem in Europe is, as you know, that the Europeans are somewhat split and some are much closer to Russia and are very concerned about extreme sort of hostility towards Russia from the United States.

So I think this feeds into a broader European, slightly suck-it-and- see skepticism about this whole recalibration by the Biden administration. It's very, very obvious that the Europeans are not leaping up to be sort of -- put themselves right behind the Biden administration either with regard to China or with regard to Russia. So I think it's going to cause him quite some challenges to get the Europeans on board.

ZAKARIA: Can you say a little bit more on China? The Europeans are hesitant to come on board on China, why?

MINTON BEDDOES: Yes, well, because the Europeans, remember, just before the Biden administration took office, they signed a trade and investment deal with China against the expressed private wishes of the incoming Biden administration. And although the Europeans are talking about, yes, yes, it's important to have a joint, you know, approach of Western democracies towards China, they have been noticeably reluctant I think in recent weeks to embrace the Biden administration's approach to China and to really make clear that there's a joint Western approach.

And as, you know, Richard Haass said on your show before, the Western approach to China is never going to work unless the West works together. The U.S. can't do it alone. China has -- you know, is the biggest trading partner of far more countries than the United States is. The reality is that the only way to influence China is if the Western democracies work together and in tandem, and unfortunately it's not at all clear right now that the Europeans are willing to kind of sign up.

ZAKARIA: Richard Haass, what about the business with Russia? Is this a refreshing degree of candor from Biden or does it complicate negotiations with Russia?

HAASS: So let me be the skunk at the garden party. The issue is not whether Putin is a killer. Of course he is. The question is whether saying that publicly advances things.


I think it makes it more difficult for President Biden to actually sit down with him. How do you sit down with a killer? And also the United States doesn't have that much influence, whether it's with Russia or China on these human rights issues. You know, we can could broadcast our unhappiness but Mr. Navalny is probably going to rot in jail for quite a while, and Mr. Putin is going to continue doing what he's doing in Ukraine, and in Syria.

That shows the gap between our rhetoric and our ability to deliver. So again to me the purpose of foreign policy is not simply to signal. The real question is, does this help us, for example get Russia to do what we want in a Ukraine or in Georgia or the Middle East. Does it get Mr. Navalny out of prison sooner? Does it get us in yet another nuclear arms control agreement that would perhaps capture a greater set of weapons?

I'm not so sure. Again, it is a question of tactics. And I'm simply raising the question, Fareed, that I'm unpersuaded that this is the way to go. It reminds me of Woodrow Wilsons about open covenants openly arrived at, at the time of World War I and afterwards. It didn't work so well. Diplomacy is often done best in a smoke-filled room and then when you've had the set of compromises and the agreements, then you bring it into the public view.

ZAKARIA: All right. Stay with us. While the White House is celebrating America's vaccine rollout, Europe has been rather poorly executed. It's also created an opportunity for the far-right and for populism there. We will dig into exactly what is going on.



ZAKARIA: And we are back with James Stavridis, Zanny Minton Beddoes and Richard Haas.

Zanny, you explained to us very nicely the, kind of, series of screw- ups that led to the problems with Europe's vaccine rollout, as if to -- to prove that there are crazy people on both sides of the continent. Now they've gone ahead and put up -- suspended AstraZeneca because of what appears to me to be a confusion between correlation and causation. It is true that some people who have taken AstraZeneca have had

problems. It's not clear that they were caused by AstraZeneca. In any event, what I want to ask you is to, you know, further comments on this, but also is this undermining the kind of centrist leadership in Europe that had seemed a bulwark against populism?

Merkel is looking bad. Macron is looking bad. The far right has made gains in -- in Germany. To a certain extent, they've made -- they've made in -- in the Netherlands in the election last week. What's going on?

BEDDOES: Well, the main thing is that it is a real mess and very, very worrying. You know, the cases in Europe are rising. There was a note from German officials just a couple of days ago saying they're rising exponentially. More than 20 million people in France have gone back into lockdown. The more virulent strains of the virus are -- are rapidly spreading across Europe. And very few Europeans have been vaccinated.

Ten percent -- less than 10 percent of Germans have been vaccinated, compared to 50 percent of adult Britons, for example. So they're way behind on vaccines. And part of that is what we talked about on your show a couple of weeks ago, that the European Commission messed up early on by centralizing the procurement of vaccines and then haggling over price and liability with the drug companies.

But then more recently, the sort of mess-up about AstraZeneca has been really extraordinary. First of all, European politicians, particularly Emmanuel Macron, poured cold water, with no basis, on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine. He said it was "quasi-ineffective" on people over 65, for which there was absolutely no evidence.

And then in the last 10 days or so, more than 16 European countries temporarily suspended the vaccine, as there was this increase in cases of blood-clotting, when, as you say, there is no evidence that it had anything to do with the vaccine at all. The amount of blood-clotting -- blood clots that happened were no different than what you would expect. And in the U.K., more than 10 million people, me included, have had this vaccine and they're fine.

And so it was a -- it was frankly a crazy thing to do because the Europeans said it was the precautionary principle; they were just being precautionary. But, in fact, by suspending the vaccines even for a few days, more people will have died because more people will have got COVID than otherwise would have done. And perhaps even more important, they have, sort of, fostered this sense of suspicion within Europe about this vaccine.

I looked at a poll in France, where 60 percent of French don't trust the AstraZeneca vaccine. And since that's one of the main vaccines that Europe is going to be relying on, you know, they are in a real pickle.

Add to that the fact that they're also now threatening to, you know, ban the export of vaccines to any country that isn't exporting to them. So they're going right down the vaccine (inaudible) road. It's a real mess. Is it going to help the far right? I think that's not clear yet.

But what's certainly clear is that governments in Europe are furious with the European Commission. People in Europe are furious with their governments. And if they don't get this under control, there's going to be an awful lot of lives lost.

And -- and, you know, that affects, actually -- I mean, that's tragic in itself, but it also affects the rest of us, because with COVID, you know, none of us are safe until this is brought under control across the border, across the globe. And to have the richest -- one of the richest parts of the world failing so miserably is a real, real problem.

ZAKARIA: Jim Stavridis, we -- I must ask you to be brief on a divided, disunited, angry Europe is no good for the United States or the world anyway, right; it makes cooperation more difficult?

STAVRIDIS: (inaudible) for four years as supreme allied commander of NATO. You've got, you know, 28 NATO nations at the time, different languages, different culture, different history.

Look, the vaccine has been a tale of three cities, if you will. China has handled it perfectly, if you will, because they have all the authoritarian tools, Europe probably the worst because of the 28 different speeds of the bicycle, U.S. probably somewhere in the middle.

But to your point, if we want our allies, partners, friends -- the greatest pool of democracies in the world exist in Europe -- if we want them with us, in front of China, if we want them with us in front of Russia, if we want them with us on climate, we have to pull for them to pull together.

ZAKARIA: Jim Stavridis, Richard Haas, Zanny Minton Beddoes, always such a pleasure. Thank you.

Next on "GPS", a true global mystery, and a doctor/ New Yorker writer who plays detective and sets out to solve it, when we come back.


ZAKARIA: In the early months of pandemic, after COVID had raged through New York City, I talked about my fears for what might happen if the virus raged in the same way in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India.

You see, Dharavi has a population density nearly 30 times that of New York. But my fears turned out to be unfounded. As the New Yorker's Siddhartha Mukherjee reported recently, as of mid-fall, the slum had only a few hundred reported deaths, one-tenth of what was expected.

He writes that, on a national level, India's death rate is also about one-tenth of America's. Indeed, the Third World as a whole has suffered much less than the first. The question gripping epidemiologists is why. Dr. Mukherjee has been investigating the mystery. He is of course the

author of "The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Sid, welcome. First describe for us just the magnitude of the misprediction, as it were.

You know, we were all expecting this virus to rage through the developing world. And in fact, in country after country -- it's not just India; it's Nigeria; it's, you know, large parts of Africa -- there just aren't those many COVID deaths, right?

SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE, AUTHOR, "THE EMPEROR OF MALADIES": Yes, absolutely true. So -- so the magnitude is -- is quite impressive. Again, we have to make a distinction between the fact that the virus is actually present, as far as we can tell; the virus is moving through the Third World. It's moving through low-income countries, Nigeria, India, Ghana, Pakistan, Bangladesh. You know, most places are reporting that there is virus moving through those countries.

What's different is that the number of deaths is surprisingly low. And, you know, there have been several epidemiological models that were created early in the course of the pandemic, models that try to predict how many deaths would occur, for instance, in India or Pakistan or -- and most of those models, the predicted models, are ten-fold off to 100-fold off in deaths. And that's really surprising.

ZAKARIA: And what do you think is the leading cause? What is the leading explanation for this mystery?

MUKHERJEE: So -- so, it still remains, I would say, a mystery. But there are possibly many causes. And one of the things that I try to do is to dissect the causes, one by one by one, examining them and then either putting -- you know, putting a yes or a no, as it were, to those causes.

The -- the most obvious cause is that most of these low-income countries have younger populations. So, just to give you one example, the median age in India is 28. The median age in the United States, Italy, Spain is in the 40s. So clearly, that's -- that's one factor. But it cannot be the only factor.

Just to give you one example, the median age in Mexico, for instance, and the median age in some other countries that have also been badly affected is actually similar to the median age in countries like India, Pakistan, et cetera.

So one explanation is that most of these countries, these low-income countries, have younger population. Younger people do get infected, but they don't usually die from COVID. So that's one explanation.

ZAKARIA: What about heat? You sometimes hear people say, "Well, there must be something about the hot weather that in Africa is somehow, sort of, burning away the virus. I, sort of, look at Texas, which can get very hot, and it doesn't seem to be -- doesn't apply at least here. MUKHERJEE: Heat doesn't seem to be a reasonable explanation. What

might be a reasonable explanation is that what heat allows you to do or forces you to do is ventilate. And when you ventilate; when you're in a setting of very hot weather, people are generally more outside.

They don't live in crowded spaces. Windows are open. Doors are open. There's a lot of -- there's a lot of natural ventilation. And maybe that is contributing. But we really don't -- we don't know whether that is a factor or not. Heat by itself doesn't seem to be a factor.

ZAKARIA: That would make sense because, in a place like Texas, presumably everyone is indoors because the air conditioning is ubiquitous.

MUKHERJEE: Exactly. And -- and, you know, they're indoors; they're in malls; they're in places like, you know, environments where they are being constantly exposed to recirculating air.

Now, one thing that's very important, I should remind you, it's a very interesting factor, in high-income countries, there is a phenomenon in which the elderly, particularly, are housed together, so in nursing homes, long-term nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, et cetera.

And, Fareed, a full one-third of the deaths can be attributed to deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In -- in other countries, there is much less so of the so-called warehousing of the elderly. The elderly live in multi-generational families, but they don't -- they don't live in -- in large nursing homes, typically.

I often give the analogy -- you know, there's a famous Agatha Christie novel called "Murder on the Orient Express." And the -- the trick in that novel is that the detective, Hercule Poirot, a famous detective, finds out in the end that there is not one culprit but many culprits.

You know, usually, you think about murder mysteries as having a single culprit. I think that the discrepancies in the COVID deaths across the low-income versus high-income countries is going to be like the "Murder on the Orient Express." There's not going to be one culprit but a multitude -- a multitude of culprits.

ZAKARIA: Siddhartha Mukherjee, pleasure to have you on. Thank you for that.

MUKHERJEE: Thank you very much.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back.


ZAKARIA: And now for the last look. The Biden administration managed to pass the massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill. But as experts have pointed out, it was able to do this only because the Democrats used an obscure legislative tool called reconciliation.

If that hadn't happened, the bill would have failed, even though the final vote was 50 yeas to 49 nays, a majority in favor.

Why? Because almost all legislation normally needs 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate. You see, in America in 2021, the Senate doesn't observe the founding tenant of a democracy, majority rule. Instead, it abides by super-majority rules.

As The Economist notes, some countries, including Germany and India, require super-majorities, in their case two-thirds of the parliament, but only to amend the constitution.

In Denmark, you need a super-majority to transfer oversight of some parts of government to an international body like the European Union.

The United States is the rare country that requires a super-majority for nearly all legislation. It's all because of a feature of the Senate that has faced sharp criticism this week, the filibuster, the principle that allows legislators to hold up bills indefinitely, originally by debating them on the Senate floor.

It comes from the Dutch word, by the way, for "freebooter," or "pirate," the idea being that a person is obstructing the legislative process for his or her own personal gain.

To overcome the filibuster, you need those 60 votes, three-fifths of the Senate chamber. So in today's almost evenly split Senate, the requirement for a super-majority is in effect the form of minority rule.

How did we get here? The answer can be found in a new book by Adam Jentleson, once an aide to former Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid. The book is called "Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy."

Jentleson notes that the filibuster was nowhere in the founders' conception of government. One of its first uses was in 1841 when South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun and his cronies talked on the Senate floor for 14 days to kill a piece of legislation.

The bill in question was about banking. But what Calhoun and his cronies were really up to was protecting the slave-holding South against the power of the North.

Almost 80 years later, in 1917, the filibuster's power was expanded when a new rule was introduced. If you wanted to stop a senator from performing this talking trick, you had to produce a super-majority of votes, at that time, two-thirds of the Senate.

From the 1920s on, segregationist senators exploited this rule to kill Civil Rights legislation. Anything that might dismantle that race- based power of the South was filibustered.

Jentleson points out that, from 1877 until 1964, only Civil Rights bills, which were sadly few and far between, were killed by filibusters.

As you can see, this tactic was invented and invoked not to protect our democracy but to degrade it by depriving rights to black Americans, often against the wishes of the larger public.

But it took several decades to turn the filibuster from an occasional tool of obstruction to a persistent feature of the Senate. In fact, it took one man, Mitch McConnell.

In Senator's McConnell's first six years as minority leader, recorded use of the filibuster averaged out to 92 times per session. That was double the average rate of the previous 25 years.

Today, Jentleson writes, the filibuster doesn't even have to happen through debate. All one has to do is send an e-mail to the majority leader announcing the intent to filibuster, and the business is done.

The filibuster just adds to the Senate's problems. Fewer than 1 million people in Wyoming have the same representation in the U.S. Senate that 40 million Californians do. There is no other upper chamber in the world that is so unrepresentative, except the appointed House of Lords in Britain, which is next to powerless.

As Paul Waldman wrote in week in The Washington Post, abolishing or reforming the filibuster could actually incentivize Republicans to work with Democrats and foster true bipartisanship.

If a bill is going to pass, whether you stand in its way or not, why not influence its features and take some credit for its passage?

Ending the filibuster is about more than any individual piece of legislation. By abolishing this crazy, destructive rule, America could begin the process of healing its polarized politics.

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