Former U.K. prime minister talks Russia, China, Great Recession at USC

two men speaking beside a table
Center of the Political Future Director Bob Shrum (left) and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown (right) in discussion at the Davidson Conference Center Thursday. (Kristy Plaza | Center for the Political Future)

Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown gave a talk on the politics of globalization Thursday as part of the National Week of Conversation, where he discussed Russia, China and his experience in office. In the meantime, he’s been teaching MDA 325: Case Studies in Modern Leadership, a unique two-week course for undergraduate students to explore international policy with the leaders who shape the world around us.

Brown is currently the United Nations’ special envoy for global education and the World Health Organization’s ambassador for global health financing, and he previously served as chancellor of the exchequer from 1997 to 2007 — making him the longest serving chancellor in modern U.K. history. He is widely credited with preventing a second Great Depression through his stewardship of the 2009 London Group of 20 summit as during his tenure as prime minister.

Brown used his talk on Thursday to share the ideas discussed in his class, including how he had a different take about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than many politicians and commentators in the United States, who have largely focused on the achievements of the coordinated NATO response. 

“You’ve got this situation where you’ve got Western unity, global disunity,” Brown said. 

Brown expressed concern with the number of countries who have not punished Russia for the invasion, which is in flagrant violation of international law. Ninety-nine out of the 193 UN countries have not condemned Russia, and only 40 have imposed sanctions on the aggressor state. 

“Why?” Brown said. “It’s not for the love of Russia. African, Asian and Latin American countries are not supporting us because they feel that we have let them down in other areas. They feel there are double standards, and [we’ve failed to provide coronavirus] vaccines, and we know that [they’ve] got energy and food crises and we’re not helping with famine.” 

Speaking candidly about Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Brown has met on multiple occasions, the former prime minister was happy to entertain students with humorous anecdotes. 

Online, Brown said, sources will tell readers that Putin is “5-foot-7, but when you actually meet him, it’s clear he’s a lot smaller than that.” 

Furthermore, he said, Putin takes meetings from an elevated chair so he can physically look down on his guests and reads aloud from note cards about the guests, a tactic from the president’s KGB days that intends to make guests feel as though he knows more about them than they do. 

One particularly strange moment Brown witnessed was when Putin hosted U.S. business leaders at the Kremlin, including Robert Kraft, the CEO of the New England Patriots.

“Kraft was wearing one of those rings from the Super Bowl,” Brown said. “And Putin said, ‘That’s an amazing ring,’ so Robert Kraft, quite rightly, sort of takes it off and shows it [to Putin, who] looks at the ring, puts it in his pocket, and moves on. That’s the definition of a kleptocracy!”

Moving back to more serious matters, Brown shared his views on China and their recent rise to global economic and social power. He reiterated that the modern world is multipolar, not unipolar, and the U.S. and U.K. must learn to persuade, not force, nations like China to support their causes. 

“I personally don’t think that China will invade Taiwan in the next few years,” Brown said, in contrast to widespread sentiment in the U.S. government. “China is obsessed with its economic development, and clearly if they invaded Taiwan … they would prejudice their whole economic policy” by way of similar U.S. sanctions, he said, adding that “[China’s] economic agenda is the test of the success of the [Chinese] Communist Party.”

Brown also discussed the Great Recession of 2008 and the different advice and responses from global economic leaders at the time. The U.S., for example, responded by developing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, wherein the federal government purchased assets that had significantly lost their value from struggling banks. 

“The heart of the problem in 2008 was that capitalism was being run without capital,” Brown said. “If you put it simply, the banks were completely over leveraged without the capital to sustain themselves.” 

Using a different strategy than the U.S., the U.K. nationalized several of their banks and invested federal funds so that the banks could ensure capital adequacy. Meanwhile, the U.S. was “still talking about troubled assets,” Brown said. 

American financial advisors thought that “if you could only get the assets out of the bank, then they’d be fine,” Brown said. “And I kept saying to George Bush and others, ‘No, the problem is capital.’” 

Brown convinced the G20 nations to come together in April 2009 for a summit to find common ground for resolving the financial crisis. Brown was successful, but not before he was almost thwarted by Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France, who “decided that he was going to ensure that one of the central problems in the world economy was tax havens!” 

To the students in Brown’s class, the chance to hear every day from a world leader is an unparalleled opportunity. For Aneri Shah, a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and economics, once she heard about the class, there was no question if she would enroll or not. 

“To talk to someone of that caliber is something that most people would die for,” Shah said. “He’s obviously not a professor by career, but I think teaching is natural to him [and he] cares for students. We usually have at least 45 minutes to ask him questions about his lecture at the end of each class. And I know it’s class every day from 4 to 6 [p.m.], so normally, I’d want to go home and eat dinner, but frankly, I’m just excited.”

Zain Khan, a sophomore majoring in international relations and journalism, said the chance to hear about other politicians firsthand from a former prime minister was incredibly interesting. 

“Another cool thing we’ve learned was the different stories he tells us with his interaction with world leaders: the current president of the U.S., the prime minister of India or President Putin,” Khan said. “He’s trying to teach us through his personal experience and interactions, which I think is really cool. [As students] we imagine [these leaders], but he’s been there and done that.”