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Could a values-based trade policy prevent World War III? Mathias Döpfner on why we need to stop doing business with dictators

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner about his thoughtful new book, The Trade Trap: How To Stop Doing Business with Dictators.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Mathias Döpfner, a longtime writer, journalist, and business leader who is today the CEO of Axel Springer, which is one of the largest media companies in Europe. He’s also the author of the provocative new book, The Trade Trap: How To Stop Doing Business with Dictators, which calls on global business and political leaders to rethink their trade and economic dependence on authoritarian regimes. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, including his case for a new global free trade arrangement limited to a values-based alliance of democracies.

Mathias, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: Hi, Sean. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

SEAN SPEER: As the Cold War came to an end and the current era of globalization took shape, there was a pervasive assumption that growing economic cooperation and exchange with non-democracies like China and Russia would have a liberalizing effect on those countries—what you refer to in the book as “Change through trade.” What do you think about that assumption in hindsight, and why do you think it persisted for so long in spite of the mounting evidence that it was wrong?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: There was this optimism also, in a way, symbolized in Fukuyama’s book, The End of History, that democracies, free and open societies, would prevail. There was the conviction that through intense business relationships and trade relations with non-democracies, there would be change, so change through trade, towards more freedom, towards more human rights, and rule of law-based societies.

If we look at the situation today, we have to acknowledge pretty much the opposite is the case. You could say there was change through trade, but change towards more autocratic systems, and freedom has not prevailed. Freedom House, an independent institution that monitors the state of freedom around the world, was downgrading for 17 years in a row now, one country after the other. Today, only 40 percent of the world’s population is living in free and open societies. If we are not changing something fundamentally, I think freedom and democracy will suffer and we will see more and more influence from autocratic systems on democracies.

The last wake-up call that we have seen was the Ukrainian war. Putin did what he did because we let him and because he could create dependency, particularly in Europe, with regard to an energy policy where basically EU member states subsidized or financed this terrible war. I think it is definitely a learning lesson and we should draw the right conclusions from that.

SEAN SPEER: One interesting insight from the book is that you attribute it in part to what you describe as a “psychological mistake.” Western political leaders imposed their own sensibilities on to the Chinese and Russian states. Talk about that, Mathias. Was this a failure of empathy in a way? Did we fail to put ourselves in the shoes of Putin or Xi or other illiberal political leaders around the world?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: That’s really an interesting observation that we in Western democratic open societies basically take a gesture of compromise almost as a moral obligation to answer that with a compromise too. If you give in a little bit here, we give in a little bit there, and we meet somewhere in the middle. In a lot of autocratic systems, this is just perceived as a sign of weakness and as an invitation to do more. If you give in a little bit here, then I can go further. I can be even more brutal in pursuing my goals.

I think that is something that has led Western politicians and Western leaders very often to the wrong conclusions. We thought she or he would never do that because it is unreasonable. He or she would never do that because it is against the interests of their own people, or she or he would not do that because we were offering a hand or we were offering a compromise, so the reaction will be also a positive one, but it wasn’t. Unfortunately, dictators and autocrats seem to understand only the language of strength and power.

SEAN SPEER: Let me just follow up on that answer. You mentioned earlier Fukuyama and his influence over the intellectual climate in the post-Cold War era. How much was it a collective buy-in in the idea that history was arched in a certain direction and that there is something almost formulaic between rising GDP per capita and in turn the movement towards democratization?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: First of all, I think we have to understand in which context Fukuyama wrote his famous book. That was in the context in the year ’89 of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, there was a very, very positive sentiment all around the world. It was a sentiment based on the message that democracy is going to prevail, freedom is going to succeed.

Then, of course, in the early ’90s, with the creation of the WTO and the full membership of China as a WTO member, there was this belief that the more we trade with remaining non-democratic countries, the more obvious is that they see the beauty of free and open societies, prosperity, a growing middle class will do it, and more and more people will lean in to democratic values. Also here, the misunderstanding was if we offer that, if we stimulate that, the answer can be only answered based on our values, but the values were different. That was seen as a sign of weakness.

Okay, we can do asymmetric trade in the WTO, we meaning China, based on that special status of a developing country. Can you imagine that still today China is in the WTO defined as a developing country, which comes with a lot of privileges, with a lot of exemptions, although China is the second biggest economy? China went up from 3.8 percent of contribution to world GDP in 2001, the year of its full membership, to more than 18 percent 20 years later. That is a very clear message.

In the same time, the United States went down from 32 percent to 24 percent approximately. It’s clear who is winning, and they are winning based on a principle of asymmetry and not based on a principle of reciprocity. Here again, good intentions have simply been abused.

SEAN SPEER: Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and public intellectual, has argued that China observed the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a lesson and therefore pursued a strategy of perestroika without glasnost. That is to say, the country’s political leaders deliberately pursued a policy of some market reform, including participation in the global economy, without accompanying political reform. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, what is it that enabled China’s leaders to manage that process better than the Soviets did?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: It’s almost not an assumption. I think it’s a fact. If you look to the old principles of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of China’s opening, particularly opening its economy, that was based on a very different spirit and on a very different execution than the policy that the present government under Xi Jinping has executed over the years. People who travel regularly to China cannot deny that the country is not opening up. The country is getting more autocratic. It’s getting less free. It’s getting more rigorous with regard to surveillance and control of its people.

Those are facts and observations that I share in my book The Trade Trap in order to come to a concrete proposal on what we can do in order to avoid, that with China, in dealing with China something similar could happen that we have seen now with Russia. I think it’s fair to say that the Russian war in Ukraine, which is basically ongoing for many years, and you could say it started in 2008 in Georgia, and definitely in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, this war has officially begun.

Now it may be only the first chapter of a way more dangerous chapter that we could see with China, where a takeover of Taiwan would cause the real risk of a World War III. We have to avoid that under all circumstances by, I think, a proactively managed new trade policy. That is what my book is about and where I really come in with a concrete proposal.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to that proposal because, as you say, it represents an alternative vision to the way in which globalization has manifested itself over the past couple of decades or even longer. Before we do, I just want to stay on the origins of where we presently find ourselves.

One of my favorite passages is the following: You write, “The fundamental error was to expose market economies to a state-led capitalism that creates its own rules and abuses existing terms of trade and competition, asymmetry instead of reciprocity, fueled by China’s ongoing status as a developing country, a status that allows China to benefit from looser rules within the WTO, a status that is absurd for an economic superpower like China. The process of change through trade was actually implemented front to back. As the West became weaker, China grew in economic strength and authority.”

Talk about the consequences in your mind for liberal democratic countries like Canada and Germany and others. What have been the cost and consequences of this policy failure?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: First of all, it’s like in a sport match. If there are two teams, one team has to play according to the official rules and the other one is playing according to its own rules. It’s very clear which team is going to win. That’s not competition. It’s unfair competition. That’s why there is a need to act.

You asked very concretely what would be the consequences if we don’t do something. I think it would be naive to think that the consequence would be only growing a dependency.

If you look to the United States, I think north of 90 percent of the antibiotics in the United States are based on components that are only and exclusively produced in China. If you look to the German car industry, the three major car companies are already dependent on China. VW is selling more than 40 percent of its units and making more than 60 percent of its profits in China. That is already today a de facto dependency.

I think if that dependency is able to grow and if we don’t do anything against it, then growing political influence is going to be the consequence. Then we in democracies, in Canada, in the United States, in Europe, we have to play more and more according to the Chinese rules. We have seen it in Australia, in many countries, in Africa, where there is already a large degree of dependency, but also in Germany.

Let me give you one very concrete, almost symbolic example. It is a couple of years ago when Daimler, a big German car company, was doing an advertisement quoting the Dalai Lama. It was a very harmless quote about innovation. They had it as one of thousands motifs that they used for their advertisements. The simple fact that they quoted the Dalai Lama with this harmless innovation quote was considered a provocation for the Chinese state and for the Chinese people. Then the CEO of Daimler apologized twice, once in a letter and the second time publicly for that mistake. Apologized and said we didn’t want to hurt the feelings of Chinese people.

Now, I visited the Chinese ambassador in Berlin shortly after that event and I asked him, “Did the CEO of Daimler really have to apologize for that?” He said, “Not really, only if Daimler wanted to continue to sell cars in China, then he had to apologize.”

SEAN SPEER: [laughs] I just want to follow up on that point, because not only has there been a political consensus in most of the West in favour of change through trade, as you outline in the book, but that line of thinking has also pervaded most of the Western business community as well. Talk a bit about the influence of business on the trajectory that we found ourselves in with respect to illiberal countries like Russia and China.

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: There is this old saying of Milton Friedman, that is, the only purpose of business is business. I think if we look to the present situation, the opposite is true. Everything that businesses are doing has a political consequence and a political element. A concrete example is Russia. Now, what can we do? It is very hard for us business leaders, CEOs, to show more political responsibility. They are in their jobs in order to maximize shareholder value. They have to focus entirely on the short and midterm and long-term well-being of their company. How could you ask a CEO to just not take advantage of an incredibly attractive growth market like China?

I think in that context, we really need a political framework, a framework of rules that help business leaders to comply and at the same time still excel in a fair level playing field competition. We cannot delegate that entirely to the business leaders. They cannot solve that problem. This problem is a societal problem. It’s a highly political problem, and that’s why I think we need new alliances based on values and on rules.

SEAN SPEER: Just a couple of more questions before we delve into your particular proposal and vision for a new form of globalization. As you note in the book, while it took long for policymakers to recognize these mistakes—arguably, too long—they’re finally starting to. You observe for instance that a new American strategy vis-à-vis China is one of the few areas of commonality between Democrats and Republicans. Yet the Europeans have moved slightly slower on this front. Why? What do you think explains Europe’s hesitation?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: Here and there, Europeans tend to or seem to be a bit more naive if it is about the actions of autocrats. A good example is the prediction of an invasion of Russia in the Ukraine. I remember the Munich Security Conference two years ago where I would say 90 percent of the American guests were convinced that Putin would invade and 95 percent of the Europeans being present were betting against it and said it’s only a tactical move, he’s never going to do it.

Maybe that in general, Europe tends to be a bit too optimistic about the actions of autocrats. That has to do perhaps with the psychology that we discussed at the beginning, that they do not expect from autocrats that they could do something which is so much in sharp contrast to their own values and moral principles.

The second aspect that I think plays an even more important role is that very simply the level of dependency in Europe on autocratic systems, in particular on Russia and on China, is much higher.

As I said, the German car industry is an example. The German energy industry is another example. There is this hope that by just continuing what we have done in the past, we can avoid short-term problems or short-term setbacks. What we in Europe sometimes naively underestimate is the long-term damage. That’s why I think we also need clarity. I think there is no way for Europe to somehow muddle through and say, “Well, we have our good friends across the Atlantic and we also have our new friends in Asia. It’s all going to go well. We can take the advantages of both sides.”

I think that’s not going to prevail. That’s why we need this discussion and we need a new clarity and we need decisions also in Europe. By the way, if we are speaking about, let’s say the German car industry as a wonderful example, it is also pretty naive to think that if we just continue there will be a good end. No, there is not in the long run the question when we the West and how we are going to decouple from China, the more interesting question is when is China going to decouple from the German car industry? We have seen already the precedents of that.

When China’s company BYD sold, based on a highly state-subsidized offering, 100,000 car units to the biggest German car rental company, that was an announcement. That was a very clear statement. That was not any longer the business that German car companies would make. It was a business that a Chinese car company shaped in the middle of Europe, in Germany, in order to send the message, “We are going to enter your markets. We have the know-how. We have the technical and scientific know-how in order to come up with very competitive cars, and we don’t need you any longer.” I think we have to hear the signals. It is naive just to think that we can do more of the same.

SEAN SPEER: How much of it do you think may be explained by ideology? I ask because within certain progressive circles in Canada, there’s been something of a willful blindness to China and its actions, in part because it represented something of an alternative model to the perceived hypercapitalism and inequality of the American capitalist model. Do you think that that in any way has influenced thinking in parts of European political leadership?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: I’m sure that that has a big influence, but I just think it’s a terrible misunderstanding because I do not know any more hypercapitalistic system than the communist capitalism of China. China is a state-led turbocapitalism. The big difference is, and people are always referring to that, if in America or in Europe a new airport is built, if there are people who are demonstrating against it, it is a process. It takes years. People are then saying proudly, “Look how fast it goes in China. Three years after the decision, the airport in Beijing is ready.”

Yes, you can do that. If you just tear down the house of somebody who is contradicting to that project. That’s a state-led communist central state capitalism. That is for me the more aggressive version of capitalism, not to speak about human rights on a broader scale. I think it is just naive to listen to the propaganda of autocratic systems pointing to the United States as a negative example of capitalism. For me, that is still in the competition of imperfect systems, a way more human system than the Chinese version of capitalism.

SEAN SPEER: I want to ask you about your perception of ordinary Chinese or Russian citizens. You know these countries well. You’ve even published news outlets within them. At the risk of overgeneralizing, what do you think ordinary citizens in these authoritarian countries think or want? Do they want Western-style freedom or are they motivated by a sense of nationalism or some other political ideal?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: That’s a very interesting question. I’m particularly glad that you are asking about the people because I definitely want to avoid any misunderstanding that if I’m referring to the Russians or the Chinese that I’m speaking about the ordinary people. I would never do that. I’m speaking about systems. I’m speaking about governments. I’m speaking about autocratic leadership structures. I’m speaking about dictators.

I’m not speaking about the ordinary people. The ordinary people are very heterogeneous. There are people who are intrinsically supportive of some of the actions of autocratic systems and a lot of people who are intrinsically opposed to it. Very few dare to speak up, and those who do bear high if not existential risks. We know the examples where even an opposing view can cost you your life.

Having said that, we should not underestimate the role of propaganda. Propaganda is an incredibly forceful tool, particularly if it is implemented by undemocratic systems in a very authoritarian manner. We see what propaganda has done in Europe during the terrible times of the Nazi regime. We have seen what propaganda does in Russia during the war where you could say there is an almost complete disentanglement between propaganda and public opinion and reality. Also, in China, propaganda plays an incredible role.

Take the social scoring system. A lot of people in China are saying, “Actually, I prefer that system because there is at least a certain degree of objectivity and if I behave well according to the standard principles, I have nothing to fear. Whereas in former times, just the accusation of a third person could have cost me my life or my career.” It is all relative. I would be very careful in generalizing. Definitely, the simple fact that in a totalitarian system, there is no visible and strong and powerful opposition does not mean that the majority of the people, or 100 percent of the population agrees with the actions of its government.

SEAN SPEER: Okay. That has been a really insightful background and context. I want to come now to where we find ourselves and the options available to us. You argue there are essentially two paths. The first is the failed status quo in which, as you put it, “The old world becomes a historically instructive theme park for tourists from all around the world.” The second is what you describe as “A genuine transatlantic alliance successfully revived as an economic and values-based partnership, an alternative to the U.S. unilateral decoupling from China.” The former seems self-explanatory, so let’s talk about the latter. What in particular do you envision?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: I have a very concrete idea that I want to discuss basically. I’m not saying that it is a recipe that has solutions for all details, but it’s an idea. This idea is based rather on incentives than on prohibitions. The idea is that instead of continuing the quite dysfunctional WTO with all its asymmetries and dysfunctionalities, we should form a new, much less bureaucratic trade alliance of democracies. If we look to democracies’ contribution to world GDP, it’s altogether still around 70 percent, so democratic market economies still have the upper hand.

In a significantly and fast deteriorating manner, if we continue like that, it will be below 50 percent in the foreseeable future. Then we have a different situation, but today, we still have the upper hand. Let’s take these democracies, these open societies and form a new trade alliance based on three criteria for membership. One criteria is the rule of law. The rule of law is the basis for everything in a free and open society. The second principle is the principle of respect for human rights, which also defines a sharp contrast to most of the non-democratic systems where human rights don’t count. The third criteria is the acceptance of certain CO2 emission targets.

I think a climate policy without China cannot be successful. China is in charge of 32 percent of CO2 emission, more than the rest of the world, including the United States, Russia, Europe together. Also, the amount of coal plant power is growing fast and has quadrupled in China in ’22 compared to ’21, while the rest of the world tried to reduce that. At the same time, we are discussing the contribution of air traffic to CO2 emissions. It’s roughly globally 2 percent. That gives us an idea about the importance.

Clear criteria with regard to CO2 emissions, human rights, and the rule of law, those are the three basic criteria for membership. All members in that new trade alliance can do, and this is very important, tariff-free trade. That would be an incredible incentive to strengthen democratic societies and the business of democracies. All countries who do not comply with these criteria and cannot be members and cannot do tariff-free trade, continue to do trade based on tariffs, perhaps on high tariffs.

We have these tariffs today too. We have had recent discussions in Europe, should China now pay additional tariffs on electric cars? That shows us that there is a need for regulation, but these small and very specific regulations, they will never do it. It’s always reacting to something. I think we need a principle for a new form of trade policy. That principle could be the acceptance of these three criteria within that group, which can be organized in a very informal manner, you can do tariff-free trade.

I think that would create an incredible stimulus. Like a big tax reform, it may have, in the short term, some downsides and some negative effects, but in the long run, the positive effects will be way more important and will stimulate the prosperity of our economies, with that, stabilize democracy, reduce dependency, and make sure that the open society model prevails. That’s it in essence.

SEAN SPEER: The book has some sharp language in discussing pre-existing global institutions like the WTO, the UN, and others. How might such an alliance, which presumably would take on some institutional forms, situate itself relative to these longstanding institutions?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: First of all, it has to be way less bureaucratic. I’m much more inspired by the first trade alliance that existed, the GATT Alliance, that did a good job over a couple of years until it was replaced by the more bureaucratic WTO. The less formalized and the less institutionalized it is, perhaps the better it is. I think it needs to be based on a transatlantic axis between America, Canada, EU, England, and then as fast as possible, every country that wants to become a member.

Japan is of course super important. Australia, some African countries, Latin America, and very, very important, India. 1.4 billion people, a growing economy, you could say here and there at the edge between democracy and more autocratic elements, but still a democracy. Perhaps not a perfect democracy, but a democracy. We have to win them for this project in order to ensure a critical mass. That would be the vision. We definitely have to go in steps. I think the first initial axis needs to be the transatlantic axis that we know.

SEAN SPEER: One obstacle to such a vision comes from within democracies themselves. In one of the book’s most provocative chapters, you write of how Donald Trump and Angela Merkel pursued priorities and policies that weakened their countries from within. Explain what you mean. What did these two counterintuitively have in common?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: It is very different, and I don’t want to stress what they really have in common because they’re probably the most opposing types of leaders, but in two different ways they have weakened democracy. Trump in the more obvious manner with the idea of alternative facts, which I think is pure poison to democracy, because if you have not respect for a factual basis, how could ever voters could make an educated decision? That is establishing the principle of manipulation and propaganda, which I find purely toxic for a democratic society.

That is reflected then in the denial of electoral results and the events that we all know of, which I think transforms that phenomenon beyond party politics. It is not a question of whether you are conservative or liberal, whether you prefer Republicans or Democrats. This is a very fundamental kind of coup from the top to undermine democratic institutions. In the case of Angela Merkel, it is pretty much the opposite. It is the most centrist idea of leadership. It is the most compromise-based idea of leadership.

Angela Merkel has, for example, through her energy policy in Germany, with the drop out of nuclear energy after the Fukushima event, created a situation where she weakened the German economy and energy landscape and strengthened an autocratic player like Russia. When Angela Merkel took office, Germany consumed roughly 33 percent of its gas from Russia. By the end of her term, it was north of 60 percent. Within 15 years it has almost doubled. Also with Nord Stream II and other projects, that has strengthened Putin. You could say even created the Putin who could do what he did.

Also on some other levels, she has weakened the German society by a very unsuccessful digitization of German institutions and the German society by a very unsuccessful management of the refugee crisis, which has strengthened the extreme polls in Germany, the extreme right that is now rising and is weakening democracy. Sometimes you can also weaken democracy with good intentions by just weak centrist leadership. Those are the two observations that I did not want to neglect if I’m focusing mainly, of course, on the threats of autocrats and strong men that are, of course, the biggest threats to our open society model.

SEAN SPEER: There’s been growing commentary in the West that due to Chinese demographics and slowing economic growth, the country may reach its apogee before it’s in a real position to challenge Western dominance. What do you think of those arguments? Are they persuasive or a case of self-delusion?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: I think they are actually pretty dangerous because, yes, we see these recent developments of a weakened Chinese economy, but why would China be the only exception on earth where there is no cyclicality in the economy? I think it is totally natural that after so many years of the rise of the economy, there is a downturn. To think now the downturn is going to continue forever is as naive as to think that the upswing is going to continue forever. There’s cyclicality.

Then to think just because there are recent developments that may weaken China, we don’t have to do anything because it is all solved by itself, I think is a naive hope and a very bad alibi for being passive. I think on the opposite, we should take that situation as an opportunity because now is perhaps a moment where we can even convince through such a trade concept as I describe in my book The Trade Trap that China may also come to the conclusion that a little more freedom and more human rights and more rule of law and more fairness in competition may lead to a great deal more prosperity. And with that, it is very much in the interest of the Chinese people and also on the stability of the Chinese government.

Perhaps that is now the moment to step by step shape a deal with China to bring them to a table for a fair and truly symmetric deal. Instead of saying, “Oh, that is a reason for not doing anything,” I think we should say, “This is now the moment. Let’s shape it. This is the opportunity.”

SEAN SPEER: A penultimate question. I want to ask you to paint a picture of your vision for economic and political cooperation around the world. It strikes me as a more realist version of the post-Cold War promise of globalization. Is there a risk though that it could exacerbate tensions between liberal democracies and Russia and China by exposing the fault lines that the current system conceals?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: First of all, I think if we continue as we do in the moment to protect globalization by continuing that kind of asymmetric trade policy, I think we definitely endanger globalization. This is a wrong understanding of globalization. Globalization will not continue because some countries are already taking action. Here, particularly the United States are, as you said at the beginning, in an almost nonpartisan consensus, organizing a decoupling. I think a unilateral decoupling of the United States from China will not only not solve the problem, it will also damage in the long run the United States economy and its people. What it will do, it will lead to deglobalization.

Also, other countries in Europe and elsewhere will then come up with individual solutions. That will split the world. That will split the world and will deglobalize the world. Whereas if we go towards the direction that I have proposed, I think the likelihood that we will have at least among the countries that represent 70 percent of global GDP, an intensified globalization, an intensified international cooperation. If we really have tariff-free trade among these countries, you could say this is the next big step for globalization because it’s hard to distinguish what is domestic, what is foreign. It is really bringing us together way more with very positive economic effects and benefits.

That is for me the realistic model of globalization, and out of this strong position, the likelihood that we will step-by-step invite other countries who are, at the moment, perhaps on the more autocratic side but see the beauty of this inviting alliance of free and open societies will lead to the fact that one after the other will join and that will make the group of globalized countries with intense international cooperation even better. I think that is the model to further unite the world. Whereas to continue what we have done will split the world, will lead to a new very bipolar world order, which I think can be in the long run very dangerous.

SEAN SPEER: I want to end with a question about Russia’s war with Ukraine. The book opens with a powerful story about a meeting that you had with Vladimir Putin in 2005. You’ve met him and seem to have a discerning sense of what motivates him. Based on those insights, how do you envision the war playing out? What does the endgame look like for Russia and the rest of us?

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: When I met Putin in 2005, it was after one of our editors-in-chief, Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia was shot in front of the newsroom. That was the reason for the conversation. Of course, then I met a different Putin. It was not the Putin that we see today. Even then, you could already sense that there was this idea of a new Russia, of a more powerful Russia, bring back Russia to an old glory, position Russia against America that was perceived as a colonial power with cultural arrogance, and so on. You could feel the tension. You could feel an aggression that then turned out to create a truly autocratic leader, a dictator who is pursuing this terrible war.

Now your concrete question, how can that end? Of course, I have no crystal ball and I’m far from being an expert in predicting things like that. The only thing that I would say is, that is not very easy to digest, but I truly think that strong men are only strong as long as they are perceived to be strong. As long Putin gets away within Russia with his propaganda that the war is actually going well, as long as there is no obvious setback that is even undeniable by propaganda, as long he will remain in power.

I cannot see a reliable peace treaty with an aggressor like Putin. That’s why I think the only option is regime change. I think regime change is only happening if the losses in this terrible war are obvious. That’s why I think that NATO and Western allies have to double up in that strategy to defend freedom and democracy in our very own interest. There is no alternative. To give in halfway makes no sense.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a sober answer and this has been a sober conversation about a sober book. It’s entitled The Trade Trap: How To Stop Doing Business with Dictators. Mathias Döpfner, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

MATHIAS DÖPFNER: Thank you, Sean.

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