Jonathan Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, has a new book out titled The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. In it, Tepperman examines ten places all over the world where governments have faced seemingly intractable problems and managed to solve them—from eradicating extreme poverty in Brazil, to reforming immigration in Canada, to fighting corruption in Singapore. Through original reporting, interviews with the major players, and expert analysis, Tepperman reveals how leaders adopted bold reforms and took political risks to get results. Earlier this week, he spoke about the book with Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Justin Vogt.

This is, in essence, a book about good governance. It's a collection of stories about governments that have faced major challenges and have come up with solutions through political processes. It runs against the grain of most contemporary commentary on government and politics, which tends to focus on dysfunction, corruption, incompetence, and the failure of state institutions. Did you intend the book as a defense of government, or as defense of politics, at a moment when everyone seems to hate those things?

I intended it as a rebuttal, or a rejection, of two things, or as a response to two things. First was this overwhelming consensus that this is a time of terrible decline for the world, which we see in the media and which we hear constantly from pundits and politicians. There are certainly plenty of reasons why one might draw that conclusion, but I've never felt that it's right; I’ve rejected it on a sort of intuitive level. So I started the book with the idea that this consensus was wrong, and then I went looking for reasons to prove my intuition, rather than the other way around. And I was fortunate enough that I was able to find lots and lots of evidence to back up this intuition that I had.

That gets me to the second part of my answer to your question. I'd like to think that I'm not just this Pollyanna who always thinks things are going to turn out well. But I've always been really annoyed by the tendency of people in our profession to only look at problems. There's the cliché, of course, that “If it bleeds it leads.” That's true in the news business, but it's also true in policy analysis as well, to a certain extent. Or at least there's an overwhelming tendency to focus on problems and criticism, as opposed to solutions. I don't know why exactly that is.

It seems to me that there’s a tendency for people in our business to say, “OK, there's this problem that everyone knows about. But the real reason that it's a problem is something that you don't know about, and I'm going to tell you all about what that real reason is.” But then that's rarely followed by: “And here's the solution that knowing the ‘real’ reason leads you to.”

I think that's right. And look, I think the problem is that finding answers is hard, and tends to get you into wonky territory, too, which a lot of writers may not be comfortable with. But, just as I started with this intuition that the consensus was wrong, I also started with this sense of annoyance with the literature in our field, which tends to either not answer questions or look for solutions—or, when it does, it presents them at this very high level of abstraction. I've spent my career in foreign policy as a writer and not in government. But one of the ways that I've tried to keep myself honest is by forcing myself to think, “Well, if I were in government, what would I actually do about this?” Because I think it's kind of cheap to just stand on the sidelines and carp. I think that the more intellectually honest approach is to think, “Okay, if a policy sucks, then what should we actually do about it?”

But you're not claiming in the book to have found some kind of secret sauce that will solve all governance problems, right? It's not like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Governments.

No, I didn't start out with a unified field theory about how you solve problems in government, or what makes the difference between successful countries and unsuccessful countries. There's a huge variety of solutions—which you would expect, because all countries are different, all circumstances are different. Every government is highly idiosyncratic and the problems that they face are unique. That said, I think there are some general rules that you can distill if you put all of these stories together. You do start to see commonalities. A commitment to relentless pragmatism on the part of officials or leaders. A determination to find an answer to a problem, regardless of where it comes from. A willingness to steal the best solutions from wherever you can find them and then to run with them, whether or not they happen to align with your party or your ideology.

One the heroes of the book is [former New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg: there’s a chapter on his response to the federal government’s failure to keep the city safe after the 9/11 attacks. One of his aides told me that Bloomberg's basic approach was, “Do the right thing and then don’t worry about all the other shit.” And that's what all the other leaders in this book did.

That’s interesting, although what distinguished Bloomberg is that he didn't have to be political in some traditional ways, because of his independent wealth.

That’s true. And I would also hasten to add that it’s not enough just to master the policymaking process: another thing that unifies all the leaders in this book is that they mastered both the policy side and the political side. They had this technocratic side but then they were able to successfully manipulate the political process to actually get by and make it work, and if you don't have the latter, you're never going to get the former. So arguably, unless you're a philosopher king, that's an essential piece of the puzzle.

So, your basic advice is to sort of do away with ideological purity, to be pragmatic, to be realistic, to be ready to compromise: it’s sort of a plea for technocratic wisdom. But right now, we're in the midst of this populist moment: voters in developed democracies are raging against established parties and raging against institutions, so it seems like it's only going to get harder than ever to build support for the kinds of deal-making and compromises that are at the heart of your stories.

I’m hardly the first person to say this, but one reason that people are turning to populism is because they are frustrated by government's persistent failure to do anything about the problems that ordinary people face and to make good on campaign promises. And so, in a sense, it’s the lack of pragmatic problem solving that has led people to give up on politics entirely. Now, does that lead to the conclusion that if politicians again embrace pragmatic problem solving, then populism will go away? I don't know, I can't promise that. Another thing that I emphasize in the book is that one reason that making big changes, especially structural reforms to countries and economies, is really risky. And one reason that leaders rarely attempt them is that they take time to pay off. The pay-off isn't immediate and, given short electoral cycles, an individual politician may not get the benefit. In the meantime, reforms often cause a bit of short term pain—at least to special interests, who push back.

A globe sits on top of debris in a classroom, March 29, 2011.
A globe sits on top of debris in a classroom, March 29, 2011.
Yuriko Nakao / Reuters
One of the cases I look at is in Mexico, where the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was willing to drop a longstanding tradition of bitter warfare between the country’s three major parties and bring them together. It's probably no coincidence that Mexican presidents are limited to only one term. So they don't have to worry about re-election.

But there are plenty of other cases in the book where politicians made changes and survived and went on to great successes—and got re-elected. That includes figures like Bloomberg, who was re-elected twice. And then there’s [Luiz Ignacio] Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, who left office in 2010 as the most popular politician in Brazilian history, with an 87 percent approval rating. Obama called him most popular politician in the world, when he left office. This is a guy who was a star at both the World Economic Forum at Davos and at the World Social Forum, which is a hard trick to pull off. What he proved is that you can get broad buy-in for bold solutions but that sometimes you have to serve constituents in unexpected ways. Lula was a man of the left who ended up finding a classic neoliberal solution to poverty in Brazil—the Bolsa Familia program—which dealt with poverty and inequality by handing cash directly to the poor rather than giving them goods or job training or things like that.

Cold, hard cash.

Just cold hard cash, right. But there were conditions: the recipients had to make sure that their kids stayed in school, had to get immunized, had to go to the doctor, and so on. So the program made an enormous difference in the lives of poor people, but the conditions suggested to conservatives in Brazil that it wasn't just a handout. And by putting cash in the hands of poor people who until then had been excluded from Brazil's market, it turned them into consumers and purchasers, which turned out to be a huge boon to the Brazilian economy. In fact, economists have estimated that the multiplier effect of the Bolsa Familia program was 1.7, which means that for every real that the government spent on it, the economy got a 1.7 real benefit from it.

Another strategy that a number of leaders in the book deployed was using the art of satisficing—giving something to lots of different constituencies and making sure that many different segments of society got part of what they wanted, while at the same time being careful to ensure that nobody gets everything that they want, because that inevitably excludes other segments of that society. Now, what you get when you do that are very messy solutions. But that's something that all of these leaders were comfortable with; these were people who didn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

The last thing I'll say to your question is that many of the solutions in the book came at moments of existential peril for the places in question. When things are at their worst, that tends to do several things. First, it really concentrates peoples’ minds, and second, the extremity of the moment breaks down many of the obstacles that ordinarily block reform. So you see politicians and parties and even publics who'd ordinarily not accept radical, ideology-breaking solutions, accepting them, buying into them out of desperation.

But that can also cut the other way, right? It can lead to the worst kinds of decisions.

Of course: I’m not advocating that countries throw themselves into crisis in order to get the right solutions. But there is some hope to be gleaned from the fact that just when things are at their worst is often when solutions materialize.

You got a remarkable level of access to heads of state and decision-makers all over the world. Of all the heads of state that you met, who impressed you the most on a personal level?

A number of the leaders that I interviewed really impressed me with their intellect, with their commitment, their savvy, their technocratic expertise. But often things like political genius don't translate across culture and across language. That was not the case, most dramatically, with Lula, who absolutely blew me away in our interview. Now, of course, I spoke to him in 2014, and since then he has got himself into a whole heap of trouble because of his casual insouciance towards corruption—which has been an issue with him all along. But being with him, I had the feeling that I was in the presence of a world-historical political genius. Lula has this LBJ-like ability to use his every tool, including his own body, to seduce and overwhelm his interlocutors. And by the way, it's no coincidence that LBJ is one of his heroes and someone that he's studied very closely. It wasn't like he brought me into the bathroom with him and pulled up his shirt to show me his appendectomy scar, but during the course of our interview, we were sitting next to each other and he kept trying to draw me in by tapping me on my arm to emphasis a point. And then he started grabbing me by the bicep and gently squeezing it as we talked. And, by the end, we were sitting there and holding hands—for moments at a time. I saw what was happening, but I was so utterly discombobulated by it that I didn't know how to respond to it. I was sort of both attracted to it and repulsed by it at the same time.

If you could force a single head of state to read the book, who would you pick? Another way of asking that would be: What country is currently facing a tough but possibly solvable problem that actually might be fixed by a creative, flexible, pragmatic approach?

Well, as managing editor of Foreign Affairs, maybe I shouldn't go with this answer, but it is the United States. The United States is currently suffering from a number of the problems that I've described in the book: the failure to address immigration reform, political gridlock, corruption at many levels. And these are all self-inflicted problems. The fact is, the United States looks really bad today, but only until you start looking at just about every other country in the world. And that's because the country still has so many assets that other countries would die to possess, whether it's an extremely educated population, or the best universities in the world, or an economy that is more innovative than just about any other country. More spending on R & D, vast natural resources...

Don't forget massive military power.

Right—and an ocean on either side. And Canada to the north and Mexico to the south: the United States lives in one of the safest neighborhoods in the world. Bismarck had this famous quote: “God smiles on drunkards and Americans.” But what's changed is that we're now in a moment where it seems like our government is doing everything that it can squander those incredible assets. So I guess if I could force someone to read the book, I would like to pick the whole political class in this country, or, at least, the leaders of certain parties—although I suspect the candidate of one of the two parties would not be very interested in the message I have to sell.

Now, what alarms me most is that our political establishment has been making decisions in recent years that are progressively making it harder and harder to get the country back on the right path. The two that come to mind are the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the role of money in politics. And what those two things do—especially gerrymandering—is make forging a bipartisan consensus on anything so difficult for structural reasons. Untying that knot is going to be really difficult, but doable, I think.

And the reason that I keep returning to the United States as the answer is because this is the country, I think, more than any other, where the fixes would work so well. The country has been so successful, and is poised to once again be so successful—if only we could stop wounding ourselves.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
Loading Loading