February 22, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Julie Smith, Josh Rogin

Deep Dish: What to Make of the Munich (In)security Conference

Each year, international security and defense chiefs meet at the Munich Security Conference for intense debate about global security challenges. The Washington Post's Josh Rogin and Julie Smith from Foreign Policy and the Center for a New American Security help us understand what happened, and, more importantly, what didn't happen at this year's premier security summit.




[Julie Smith: The optics of that, having a US Secretary of Defense sit in the audience and not say anything was one of the most surreal moments of this entire conference.

Josh Rogin: The Chinese are much more savvy about the way they're dealing with the West than the Russians. The Russians use really blunt tactic to overplay what you could consider a weak hand to get short-term tactical advantages. The Chinese are playing a long game, and they're happy to sort of let Western countries struggle while they just simply quietly expand their influence and their economy and their military and their everything.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're discussing what happened at the recent Munich Security Conference and what it says about US leadership in the world, as well as the global security landscape.

To help with this conversation, I'm joined by Josh Rogin, the Washington Post's Global Opinions columnist and a political analyst for CNN. He writes about foreign policy and national security and also was at the Munich Security Conference in Germany. Welcome, Josh. It's good to have you.

Josh Rogin: Great to be with you.

Brian Hanson: Also on the line is Julie Smith, who is an editor at Foreign Policy and the director of Strategy and Statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and was the principal director for European and NATO policy at the Pentagon. Welcome, Julie. Thanks for joining us.

Julie Smith: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: So each year, there's an international security conference, the Munich Security Conference, which is widely seen as one of the most important security conferences in the world every year. And to set the context for this discussion as we talk about the content of this conference, Julie, I was wondering if you could start out just by sharing, why is this particular event so important? Is it who comes? Is it where it's held? The history of the event? Why does this event matter?

Julie Smith: Well, it's really the premier security conference for the transatlantic partners. It is by far the oldest security forum that's been in existence, and it's been around for literally decades. Of course, it's grown in size. It initially was a very small group of Germans and Americans coming together to talk about security issues. Now, it's literally hundreds of people — heads of state, ministers, academics, think tanks, journalists, all sorts of folks — coming together over the course of three days in Munich to talk about global security.

So it's not just the US-German relationship, it's about Europe and the United States, but it's also about Asia. They talk about the Middle East. They talk about Russia. And it's a who's who of the national security community around the world.

Brian Hanson: It's great to help us understand what this is. And, Josh, you wrote a piece about the conference, and one of the things that struck me about what you wrote is you said that "the United States' failure to lead the way forward for the transatlantic alliance was on full display. What did you mean?

Josh Rogin: Yeah. Well, I started going to Munich Security Conference about five years ago as a guest of Senator Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who leads this massive congressional delegation he chaired. He actually got an exception to the new rules about spending government money on overseas travel, and he flies two planes full of experts and journalists every year. It's a show of force for the United States that he adds to the official administration delegation. And they do all sorts of stuff, meetings and dinners and bilats and [inaudible 00:03:52] speak on panels. It's pretty remarkable, actually.

Every year you basically see either the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense or both speak. And this is sort of where they are supposed to come up with some ideas to lay out a proactive US-Europe agenda, somewhere they want the European transatlantic alliance to go and what they think about how to get there.

Of course, last year right after the election, the conference was in full out freak out mode. Everyone was really worried about the Trump administration's rhetoric during the campaign. Everybody was just really upset, frankly, because these are the transatlanticist globalists that the Trump people have disparaged from day one. But Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary Mattis gave big speeches, okay?

This year, not so much, right? We had Dan Coats on a panel, but that was it. Then we had H. R. McMaster, who sort of gave a speech about ... He has this stump speech. It's like, North Korea this, Hezbollah that, Iran this, and Russia that, right? And that made some Russian news. But that was basically that.

And nowhere in there did the European officials who I talked to who, I talked to many of them, hear what the Trump administration's positive agenda for the transatlantic relationship is. Yeah, sure, they want us to be tough on Iran, and they want the Europeans to reopen the Iran deal. Lindsey Graham was talking to them about opening a European Gitmo, right? But in terms of how we actually solve shared problems or what a positive trade agenda or anything like that, it just wasn't there.

And that left all of the European officials that I talked to thinking, "Oh, man. Okay, I get this is how it's going to be. And if we want to sort of keep the transatlantic alliance strong, we're just going have to lower our expectations of the Trump administration, then wait them out and hope that the whole world doesn't go to pot between now and then."

Brian Hanson: And, Julie, on a similar theme, you wrote that the US lacked bravery and leadership. Anything you want to add to Josh's characterization of the US presence and message?

Julie Smith: Yeah. I think Josh is right. McCain was honored. He was given an annual award for leadership and, unfortunately, couldn't join the delegation this year because of his battle with cancer, couldn't lead the organization as he's done in so many decades past. But his wife, Cindy, came and accepted the award on his behalf and read a statement from John McCain, and in that statement he said to the participants of the Munich Security Conference, "I'm counting on you to be brave in the face of all these challenges that we face collectively as allies, in the face of attacks against liberal democracies around the world, in the face of open-ended questions about the sustainability of the rules-based order."

And so he left us with this message, but my sense, as Josh just mentioned, was that we weren't being particularly brave. The United States government, the current administration didn't come with a rallying cry for our European partners and others. There were some requests to get more involved in the Middle East, but there was no vision, there was no strategy. There was no effort to kind of bring the group together around a single issue.

The administration could've used the opportunity to really press hard on North Korea and see what we could collectively do as allies to address that problem, but it was only mentioned a handful of times. And even on Iran, it was kind of a light touch. And so what is usually a plea on the part of the United States to kind of rally the international community around a single cause, actually that never came to pass.

And McMaster's speech was overshadowed by the fact that later that same day the president tweeted at McMaster saying what H. R. McMaster meant to say on Russia was that, essentially, there's no collusion. And so that made McMaster's speech seem very inconsequential because his boss is then tweeting at him and issuing a correction, which has never happened, obviously, in the history of the conference. And so McMaster, who had an okay speech, again, it was short on vision and fresh ideas and policy proposals, but it was an all right speech, I mean, all of that was swept away within a matter of hours because he was berated by Trump in this tweet. And so it was a missed opportunity.

I mean, again, this conference started as a collection of individuals that primarily came from the defense community to talk about the US-German defense relationship, and so ministers of defense have always been a central part of this conference, but this year we had the US Secretary of Defense sit in the audience while his French and German counterparts, the other two ministers of defense, walked up on stage and gave their thoughts on the international community. And the optics of that, having a US Secretary of Defense sit in the audience and not say anything was one of the most surreal moments of this entire conference.

So I agree with Josh. I mean, I think it was a missed opportunity, and it fell flat, and it said to the Europeans that we're pretty short on ideas right now, and that we're not particularly interested in leading the charge on any of these issues.

Josh Rogin: Yeah. I would just jump in real quick and say a couple of things about what was just said. First of all, on the Mattis thing, yeah, it looked really bad for him to show up and take all these private meetings but not actually say anything in public, but I'm speculating that his calculation here is he has the same problem as McMaster has-

Julie Smith: Exactly, yeah.

Josh Rogin: ... is nobody really knows [inaudible 00:10:06]. So he's kind of screwed if he does, and he's screwed if he doesn't. So he just decided not to take the risk, and that goes along with Mattis' overall theme.

As for McCain, I went to this four-hour dinner at the Bavarian president's residence. It was [inaudible 00:10:22] excruciating thing that we actually try to avoid when we go. We usually go out to some restaurants or a beer hall or something because the dinner's so painful. But what ended up happening is that Cindy McCain ended up delivering what was really the most important speech of the weekend, and that was reading from her husband's text.

There were a lot of parts of it, but there's one sentence that I'll read to you now that I think is really the crucial sentence. According to McCain's text, it said, "The real reason we come to Munich is because we believe that certain values should order our world, that the peace and prosperity we cherish depend on the survival and success of those values, and that they are worth the fighting for." Okay?

Now, when we talk about the history of the conference, it goes all the way back to von Kleist, who was involved in the plot to kill Hitler, right? He started it not just to promote US-German defense cooperation but to build infrastructure around the liberal world order at large and the values that underpin it. It's those values that are most under assault in Europe right now and, frankly, also in the United States.

So I feel like we could talk about the conference and a lot of intrigue around all these famous people hanging out in this crowded little hotel for three days, but the conference is not the issue. The conference is a symptom of the problem, and the problem is that we've taken for granted this sort of assumption that the liberal world order and the values that underpin it are going to survive.

The fact is that history didn't end at the end of the Cold War, and the dictatorships and tyranny and the rollback of democracy is on the march, and the enemy gets a vote, and we as a Western society have failed to respond. That's what they're saying, that's what they're thinking, that's what they're feeling.

There are some good things to say about the Trump administration. They have increased money for European defense. They have gotten some good people to do it. A lot of the Trump people will say, "Well, don't look at what we say, look at what we do." And if you look at what they do, it's not all bad, right? But at the same time, without some sort of American leadership on protecting those basic institutions and values, forget about the conference, that's an opportunity cost of historic proportions in my view.

Brian Hanson: I want to pick up on this point about leadership in the Western alliance. President Trump as a candidate and then as president certainly has not embraced the same values, agenda that has been at the core of the transatlantic alliance. He notably has called for Europe and other allies to play a bigger role in their own defense.

And if the United States is moving toward that kind of posture, did you see leadership emerging from other parts of the world? The Trump administration might say, "Okay, that's fine, Josh and Julie, but where is Europe to pick up its fair share of the load and to drive this forward?" What were the Europeans like?

Josh Rogin: I want to leave Julie to ... She's the expert on this region, but I'll just first give you my very quick observations from spending three days there, right? And they're rudderless because they're having their own internal crises. You've got Brexit. You've got a lack of a German government for I don't know how many months. We've got the rise of illiberal governments in places like Poland. It's just everywhere you look. They've got refugee crisis, economic crisis.

On the one hand, you do see some emerging, what I like to call hedging. It's like, okay, the EU might develop its own defense. Whatever. If they get their act together. Let's wait and see. But when it comes to sort of someone stepping into that role of leader of the free world, no one's there, okay?

When the Germans got up and spoke at the conference, they were like, "Oh, you want us to spend 2% on defense? I don't think so. Where are we supposed to put all these aircraft carriers that we would have to buy in order to reach that?" So there's a lot of pushback, and there's a lot of resentment that the Trump administration's agenda is all negative. "You got to do this. You got to do this for us."

Meanwhile, Trump is saying all these horrible things about Europe all the time makes it harder for our friends in these countries to help us [inaudible 00:14:42] at this conference is all the Atlanticists. These are the people who like us. They're on our side. They dedicated their careers and their livelihoods to us, to promoting the relationship with us, and so they have no choice, they got to stick with it. But they're not getting anything back.

Brian Hanson: Julie, what do you think?

Julie Smith: Yeah. I mean, I'd largely agree with that. I mean, we can be critical of this administration's lack of emphasis on the values piece of the relationship and its failure to provide real leadership right now at a time when the partners on both sides of the Atlantic really need it. But we shouldn't forget that there is a major leadership gap on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

Chancellor Merkel does often, not always, but often joins the Munich Security Conference. She frequently comes and gives some sort of speech. And she couldn't come this year because she is up to her neck in ongoing negotiations to try and form this government, which is still hanging in the balance, and we're not exactly sure what's going to happen when the Social Democrats vote on the big grand coalition plan in the next couple of weeks.

So she couldn't come, and as a result of that, President Macron in France decided that it wouldn't be right for him to come without Chancellor Merkel there, which is correct. So he stood down, and we had ... The one guy who's actually trying to put forth some sort of vision, and you can argue with it and pick it apart, but at least he's putting ideas out there, so he decides to take a pass. And then we had [inaudible 00:16:29] who did come to Munich-

Brian Hanson: Theresa May.

Julie Smith: ... and had this opportunity to lift her head up from Brexit for a minute and really lay out her own view of what the transatlantic partners should do in the face of all of these challenges that we face collectively, both internally and externally, and she didn't seize the moment. She opted for a Brexit speech because he's marching towards the deadline of March of next year, which is when technically they have to finish the Brexit negotiations.

She was messaging largely some continental Europeans but also her own people about her vision of kind of how the UK is going to work on security issues with the European Union going forward. Somebody like me who works on those issues, I liked the speech and found it interesting, but there were about five of us in the audience of 500 that felt that way. And everyone else just was shrugging their shoulders like, why did she do that?

And then on top of it, we had really bizarre dynamic where I spoke to some of the organizers of the conference, they couldn't even get some of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe to sit together on the stage. That usually happens with like the Israelis and the Saudis or ... You have countries in the Middle East that really don't want to be on stage together for different reasons depending on what issue they're squabbling over. That's common with some of the folks from the Middle East.

What's not common is to have countries in Central and Eastern Europe say, "I won't go up on the stage with the head of that country because we're in some big debate right now about the illiberal fly that we see in Poland and Hungary, and we now disagree on X, Y, and Z." And so they actually had to carve out individual speaking slots for some of these countries so that they wouldn't be up on stage arguing with each other. And that, to me, is just a very sorry state of affairs inside the European dynamic, inside the family, so to speak.

So, yeah, you've got Germany, all eyes are on Germany. Can you lead, Chancellor Merkel, and work with Macron to carve out a way forward? And that seems to be an open-ended question, so that was one part of it. And then, yeah, the debates inside Europe about some of the things that are happening and the debates they're having about migration and rolling back democratic processes.

So, yeah, it felt disappointing, not just on the US side, but it felt very disappointing on the European side as well. So if anyone's holding their breath and hoping that Europe in this moment of kind of a pause in US leadership, I hope it's a pause and not permanent, that Europe will grab the reins and run with it, and I think they'll be left waiting. And you shouldn't hold your breath because I don't see somebody, to mix metaphors here, grabbing the reins and running with it. I just don't see it.

Brian Hanson: So you guys have ... Okay, I'm going to ... No US leadership. Europe, not only isn't there leadership from the key countries, but we've got NATO allies who don't even want to appear on the stage together at a security conference. I guess one of the kind of devil's advocate questions is, so what? Does this matter? And why is it important in the world that we don't see this kind of leadership from the US, from Europe, that the alliance isn't advocating for the values and the agenda of the past? Is it a big deal?

Julie Smith: It is a big deal in my mind. Sorry. I think it's a very big deal because we have a lot of skepticism among our publics on both sides of the Atlantic about both the value of the relationship and the value of the institutions that we've spent 70 years constructing and reforming. And so at a time when you've got great skepticism about things like trade, why do we have the NATO alliance, what good is it, why do we need the European Union on the other side of the Atlantic, it would be nice if we had leaders that could articulate the purpose and the mission of those institutions and our broader transatlantic relationship so, hopefully, we can kind of keep things together.

The second reason it's important is because Russia is [inaudible 00:20:52] a very aggressive campaign to divide Europe from within, to divide Europe from the United States, and one of the biggest cards we have to play right now is transatlantic unity. And a failure for both sides of the Atlantic to come together and really map out a way to address what Russia's doing to undermine our democratic institutions is not going to leave us in a good position. We cannot give Russia the upper hand, and right now, because we're so silent and because we lack so many ideas, I fear we actually are giving Putin an upper hand in that regard.

Brian Hanson: Josh?

Josh Rogin: Yeah, I agree with that. Just a couple things. On Russia, it was really interesting this year at the conference. Usually at this conference you have a lot of sort of Europeans who are hem-hawing about Russia, who think that the United States is just too hawkish and we got to hear both sides. They're often German, sometimes Italians, et cetera. You didn't hear that this year. All the Europeans are very sort of clear eyed about Putin and what he's trying to do in Europe and the interference and everything. Now, again, we should have more to offer them for how to solve that problem, but at least we're all kind of on the same page. There's a note of hope there.

On who cares, on the "so what" of it, I would take it to a much more practical level, right? Let's take it into the Trump administration's terms, "America First," American security, American economic prosperity, competitive engagement, all of that stuff, "principled realism," whatever they want to call. You look at any of the [inaudible 00:22:23] past, what does it mean? Counter-terrorism, immigration, cybersecurity, all of these things require and even would benefit from deeper cooperation with Europe, okay? There's none of these things that America has to do to keep it safe that couldn't be better done with really close partnerships that are working really well, which is exactly what we don't have.

This is sort of where you get to the sort of values-interests calculation, right? The argument of the liberal world order is that our values are our interests, that if we promote these values, that creates more stable societies, more prosperous markets for our goods. This is the whole idea, and it's not clear that the Trump administration has bought into that. Sometimes it sounds like they have, and sometimes it sounds like they haven't. But if I were talking to the Trump people, I would just say, "Hey, 'America First,' part of that is that America does best when it does well for others."

Brian Hanson: In terms of global leadership, the other country that we have not talked about at all is China, and some commentators have noticed that, as opposed to some recent years, China didn't have a very big presence at this conference. What's your sense? Is there something important in that, or is it just a circumstance?

Josh Rogin: I have never really seen China show up really big at this conference. They always send like one or two people. This year, they sent Fu Ying, the very senior Westerner handler in the Chinese Communist Party system. She put on quite a show. She's very skilled. She went sort of one-on-one with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

The Chinese are, in some ways, much more savvy about the way they're dealing with the West than the Russians. The Russians use really blunt tactics to overplay what you could consider a weak hand to get short-term tactical advantages. The Chinese are playing a long game, and they're happy to sort of let Western countries sort of struggle while they just simply quietly expand their influence and their economy and their military and their everything.

When I saw Fu Ying speak at the Munich Security Conference, she seemed very pleased with the state of affairs between the United States and Europe, but she didn't really seem to want to get involved too much because from her perspective, if we're [inaudible 00:24:58], they might as well not stop us.

Julie Smith: Yeah, that's right. I mean, you do get some folks who increasingly do come from Asia, but it still is a transatlantic conference. I've been going for about 11 years. It's definitely changed over time. But I think irrespective of how many people actually came from China, what struck me was the lack of conversation about China.

I mean, one thing that we could be working on as partners is really figuring out what our strategy is to cope with the Belt and Road initiative. China is clearly making some moves to move into the broader European-Eurasian space, and it would be nice to have a conversation among the allies about this.

Now, there were literally hundreds of side events. What happens in Munich is there's the big hall where everyone crams in a space that's too small to hear the big VIP speakers, but then off on the margins there are these little events going on, 30, 20 people, 50 people in a room. And I went to some of them. Clearly, you can't go to all of them, and you don't get invited to all of them.

But I asked a lot of people if there was some other trapdoor where someone was discussing these types of issues on the side, and I didn't hear that there were too many discussions about that. There were events on the Arctic and cyber and the future of the West and AI, artificial intelligence, and a whole host of other things, but I think we missed the mark on having a conversation with or without folks from Asia about Asia, and that just ... It didn't play. It didn't play in the theme of this year's conference.

Brian Hanson: Interesting. So our closing question coming from [Jared 00:26:53], who posed it on the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group, and I want to ask each of you to comment on his question, which is, what can the average citizen do to strengthen ties between America and Europe in the face of the attacks that we see on Western society?

Julie Smith: I think if someone out in the southern Bavaria or in the middle of Kansas feels particularly passionate and committed to the transatlantic relationship, I think a continuing to track what's going on in the relationship, keeping yourself informed is something we should all be doing to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of this partnership.

And then to the extent that it's possible, establishing relationships. I think things like exchange programs, exchange students, I think all of these things are very important in terms of developing personal connections on both sides of the Atlantic. And in fact, the way that I got into the field of working on Europe is in high school. I was an exchange student in Europe, and it really opened up my eyes to these allies on the other side of the Atlantic that aren't quite like us but are closer to us than any other corner of the world. And I learned pretty quickly to understand the value of that relationship.

And then talking to your friends and neighbors at the public library or your book club or wherever you might be, trying to have conversations with people to hear from people who do have an alternative view. It's important that we hear from people that have grievances against globalization and some aspects of the relationship. I don't think all of us should sit on our high horse and claim that we've gotten it all right over the years.

But I think engaging people in debates, which we're often afraid to do in our communities because we're told, "Oh, don't really get into politics." It doesn't have to be political, but I know at my organization, we're doing a lot more travel outside of Washington. We're holding public events across the country. Over the next three years, we're going to go to 12 cities across the United States and bring groups of Europeans and Americans.

And if anybody's interested in that, they should go to our website, which is cnasinthefield.org, which is all one word, and you can see what cities we're going to be visiting. And if we are coming to your city, come out and see us and meet with some Europeans and have those conversations because I think the disconnect between Washington and the rest of America or the disconnect between Paris and the rest of France, those gaps are only widening.

Brian Hanson: And we'll put that web link on our Facebook page for listeners who might want to follow up on that and didn't get all of it written down when Julie said it.

Josh, what advice have you got for the average citizen who cares about the American-European relationship?

Josh Rogin: I think Julie's got it exactly right. The whole conference was covered with the sort of regret that elites in all of these countries had lost their populations. There's just no doubt about it. Brexit and the Trump election are the starkest examples of that. And there's a need to sort of respond to the legitimate grievances of those left behind by globalization while still making the argument for globalization as the best way to lift these people into a better life and a better situation. So that's all true. So I couldn't have said it better than her, so I want to leave you with a little funny story from Munich that I think shouldn't be left out of this podcast because it's kind of cool, right?

There was this background dynamic at the conference between former Vice President Joe Biden, who Julie knows very well, and former Secretary of State John Kerry. Biden gave two speeches in which he was very, very tough on the Russians and, frankly, sounded like he was getting ready for some sort of public campaign. And Kerry was very active on the sidelines meeting with people and holding court and really making sure that his presence was known. It was the beginning of what I think is going to be a rivalry that we're going to see play out very interestingly over the next three years. You heard it here first, Biden versus Kerry.

Brian Hanson: Thanks for breaking the news here on Deep Dish podcast. We'll invite you back for sure.

Well, Julie and Josh, thank you for coming back from Munich and sharing your observations, thoughts, and analysis. I thought it was a very helpful conversation, so thank you both for being here.

Josh Rogin: Any time.

Julie Smith: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: If you want to read more about Julie and Josh's views of the conference, Julie has a piece that's titled "At the Munich Security Conference, the United States Lacked Bravery and Leadership" that can be found online at Foreign Policy, and Josh has a piece called "The Trump administration is missing in action in Europe," and that can be found at the Washington Post. Both these two offer commentaries and analysis frequently on those outlets, so I would encourage you to check those out.

And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions about anything you heard, please go to the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group and ask them. And as a reminder, the opinions on Deep Dish are those of the people who express them and not the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

If you liked the show, please subscribe and also share the show with someone who you think would enjoy it as well. You can find the show under "Deep Dish on Global Affairs" wherever you listen to podcasts. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. Our research associate for this episode was Alex Hitch. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon for another slice of Deep Dish.

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