I must grow old. Jerry Brown is starting to make sense to me. Arnold Schwarzenegger sounds like an international statesman.
And following the advice of former California governors now seems to be the best course for humanity.
It is unlikely that these two ex-governors – one known for his puzzling aphorisms, the other for his silly words – are now global voices of reason and champions of peace. It also makes sense, in a perverse way. As the world goes mad and sets itself on fire, where better to turn to wisdom and experience than crazy, flammable California?
Brown and Schwarzenegger’s rises to sage status reflect how California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, functions like its own country, with its governor serving as the second U.S. president. California governors now sign international treaties, contribute to global climate policy, and are a fourth branch of US government — using regulations, litigation, and our markets to control the president, Congress, and the courts.
When California governors leave office, they retain high profile but carry less political baggage than presidents, whose shortcomings are obsessively covered up by our polarized, partisan media. The world and the United States lack statesmen, and Brown and Schwarzenegger used their position and notoriety to fill the diplomatic void.
They do it in a very Californian way, combining big visions and pure realism in statements with global reach. In times of war, they mix nostalgic appeals to their personal history and dreams of a more peaceful future. But they do so with a brutal style that challenges the instinctive moralism of right and wrong that plagues American national politics. They plead to make common cause with rivals and enemies – the kind of stubborn inclusion that best represents the California idea.
Schwarzenegger’s most recent message was for Russia in a short video he posted online which went viral within minutes. In the clip, Schwarzenegger ostensibly told President Putin, whose Twitter account follows Schwarzenegger’s, to stop the war in Ukraine.
But the former governor also rejected the increasingly commonplace American condemnation of all things Russian. Instead, his message also embraced the country and its people. He used his incredibly rich and varied life story – Arnold may have met more people than anyone except perhaps the Dalai Lama – to talk about his visits to the country and his relationship with his friends there.
This approach, along with Russian subtitles and distribution on Telegram, the messaging app popular with Russians, gave Schwarzenegger an opening to try to penetrate disinformation and propaganda. He spoke bluntly about what is really going on in Ukraine, speaking directly to Russian soldiers there and noting that they themselves have been victims of their government’s lies. The most powerful and heartbreaking moment in the video came when Schwarzenegger spoke to these soldiers about a subject he used to avoid: the wartime story of his father, an Austrian policeman who fought with the Nazis in World War II.
“The Russian government lied not only to its citizens but also to its soldiers. When my father arrived in Leningrad, he was excited by the lies of his government. When he left Leningrad he was broken, physically and mentally. He lived the rest of his life in pain – the pain of a broken back, the pain of the shrapnel that always reminded him of those terrible years, and the pain of the guilt he felt.
“To the Russian soldiers listening to this broadcast: you already know a lot of the truth that I am telling. You have seen it with your own eyes. I don’t want you to be broken like my father.
As Schwarzenegger shoots at the heart, Brown, concerned about the growing conflict between China and the West, hammers over the heads.
In a remarkable essay published this month in The New York Book ReviewBrown took aim at calls by the US government – from both sides – to promote greater conflict with China.
He did so by describing the past 20 years as a time of war and human suffering, triggered by US actions after 9/11. U.S. actions overseas, he wrote, “have killed more than 900,000 people, displaced at least 38 million people, and cost the United States about $8 trillion.” The country could have spent those dollars, he noted, on education, research, infrastructure and other services.
But do our country and our leaders even realize what we have done? “One would assume that such disastrous results, and the ignominious end to the war in Afghanistan last year, would lead to a period of reflection and introspection,” Brown wrote. “Yet no such investigation has taken place – at least not one that fully addresses the shocking self-deception, pervasive misinterpretation of events and powerful groupthink that led to the longest war in American history.”
Brown cites books and articles written by “think tank experts and Defense Department insiders”, such as The strategy of denial by Elbridge Colby, for continuing to promote this groupthink. These decision makers are now advocating provocative actions that increase the risks of a catastrophic war. These include increased military competition, “selective nuclear proliferation” (in Colby’s formulation) towards friendly countries and alliances that could turn a Chinese invasion of Taiwan into a wider conflict with Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines.
The former governor, who leads the California-China Climate Institute, a UC Berkeley think tank, is lucid about the Chinese government’s dangerous and provocative behavior, from its treatment of Uyghurs to its crackdown on Chinese immigrants overseas. But Brown argues forcefully that war and conflict will only make things worse.
“Presenting the Chinese threat as irredeemably antagonistic, as many ‘political realists’ currently do, misses the reality that the two countries – to prosper and even to survive – must cooperate as much as compete,” he said. writing. In the room, and in a recent interview with Politicshe warned of a “Manichean mood” in America, “a philosophy of ‘The world is sharply divided between good and evil, and we’re good, and they’re bad.’
Brown instead argued for vigorous U.S. engagement with China, emphasizing disaster prevention. He calls this strategy “planetary realism”. It is “an informed realism that confronts the unprecedented global dangers caused by carbon emissions, nuclear weapons, viruses and disruptive new technologies, all of which cannot be addressed by one country”.
This is a powerful and convincing argument. And that should have added weight coming from someone who has spent four terms governing California, a state that produces more than its fair share of disasters and disasters.
The world needs Brown and Schwarzenegger to continue advising us all. This is a role that past presidents used to fill. But that was before Bill Clinton was actually pushed aside by the lack of transparency of its foundationbefore George W. Bush became a painter before Barack Obama continues a bizarre narcissistic bender with Bruce Springsteenand before Donald Trump attempted a coup.
So maybe it’s time for our last two governors to team up. They complement each other, the Philosopher-Nerd and the Muscleman-Movie Star. And their logos, pathos and wise interventions just might save the world from itself.
This article was originally published on Zocalo.