Return to Transcripts main page


ISIS Claims Easter Sunday Bombings in Sri Lanka; Alaina Teplitz, Mass Funeral in Sri Lanka; U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, is Interviewed About Bombings in Sri Lanka; Washington's Corridor of Power; Gerard Araud, Former French Ambassador to the U.S., is Interviewed About ISIS. Aired 1-2p ET

Aired April 23, 2019 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:00] CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here's what's coming up.

Mass burials and a day of national mourning in Sri Lanka. ISIS claimed it was behind the Easter Sunday bombings. I discuss that with the U.S.

ambassador to Sri Lanka.

Then, one of the straight-talking diplomats on the international stage. The outgoing French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, gives me

his blunt assessment on the state of play in Washington.

Plus --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why do you seek wealth and power and every comfort but refuse to ask what your life and the world around you might actually mean?


AMANPOUR: What does it really mean to live in a democracy? It is the focus of a new play "Socrates" taking center stage at the Onassis Festival

in New York.

Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

In Sri Lanka, the prime minister warns there are people on the run with explosives after the bomb attacks on Easter Sunday which have now claimed

at least 321 lives and injured hundreds more. The country is holding a day of mourning and it remains under a state of emergency. A mass funeral took

place at St. Sebastian's church in Negombo, that's one of three places of worship that were targeted. And a source tells us that nine people have

appeared in court, suspected of providing some of the materials used make the explosives.

The country's defense minister says the attacks may have been in retaliation for the mosque massacre in New Zealand last month. ISIS has

now claimed responsibility although it's offered no direct evidence of any involvement. The Sri Lankan prime minister says there are suspicions that

terrorist group was involved.


RANIL WICKREMESINGHE, SRI LANKAN PRIME MINISTER: We certainly the security apparatus, are of the view, that there are foreign links, and some of the

evidence points to that. So, when the ISIS claimed it, we'll be following up on this claim. There were suspicions that there were links with the



AMANPOUR: Investigations are under way and the U.S. has sent in the FBI to help with them. While the Sri Lankan authorities are engaged in a blame

game now, one former police official calling it criminally negligent, not to have acted on upon what he called rare and specific warnings. Thirty-

four foreign nationals were among the hundreds killed and wounded, including 4 American citizens. And I've been speaking to the U.S.

ambassador, Alaina Teplitz, from the capital Colombo.

Ambassador Teplitz, welcome to the program.

ALAINA TEPLITZ, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SRI LANKA: Thank you very much for having me on, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: It must be a very emotional day, mass funerals, a day of mourning, Americans have been killed along with so many Sri Lankans and

nationals from other countries. Give me a sense of the emotion, of the feeling in Sri Lanka right now.

TEPLITZ: Well, my team and I have been working with families, American families who were impacted by this attack. We visited people in hospitals.

We've visited morgues, been trying to help them address the aftermath. Not only is there just deep sadness, I think, across the island, but as a wave

of funerals began, I think the human toll of this is really coming home.

AMANPOUR: You've had a chance to meet with the Americans affected. What have you been able to say? What have they said to you? Describe to me

some of the content of your meetings.

TEPLITZ: Yes. My team and I have spent a great deal of time with Americans that are affected. We've been in touch with their families in

the United States. It's really a grim moment. Nobody wants to face a circumstance when they're either the victim of this kind of thing or worse

still lose their loved ones in an event like this.

It's been tough, I think, for the families, also, because it was so sudden and so unexpected. This is the kind of thing that I think that we're here

to help do, which is work with American citizens to help them address the challenges that are brought by this kind of event. But it's also a really

sad moment. You can't help but be impacted by the grief that is on display. You can't help but be impacted by the loss that you know people


And of course, we're seeing that not just in the American community but also broadly, so many families in Sri Lanka lost loved ones. Funerals

began today. It's just a terrible moment, and our condolences and our hearts go out.

AMANPOUR: The president, President Trump, spoke [13:05:00] to the prime minister yesterday. What help is the U.S. offering? Is the FBI going?

How will the U.S. be able to help in whatever needs to be done in the aftermath?

TEPLITZ: Yes, the president has promised his support and of course, resources of the U.S. government to proceed with this investigation. We

are supporting the government of Sri Lanka's efforts to get to the bottom of this and that includes support from the FBI.

AMANPOUR: And everybody's trying to figure out why and who and what, and the prime minister held a press conference today and there are claims by

ISIS for this string of Easter Sunday bombings. There's no apparent hard evidence that it is ISIS. What do you believe? What does the U.S.

government believe in terms of this claim and who might have been ultimately responsible?

TEPLITZ: Well, I've certainly heard the reports that ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack. The investigation is ongoing and I think

it's probably too soon to tell exactly what the linkages are. We certainly hope the investigation bears fruit.

AMANPOUR: And Ambassador, one of the Sri Lankan ministers also laid the blame at the local group that they call the National Thowheed Jamath,

basically saying that it was retaliation for the alleged White supremacist attack in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Does that tally with what you are picking up as well? Do you think it was a revenge attack and how much of the local group, this group that I

mentioned, was involved?

TEPLITZ: Yes. I've also heard the reports of a claim of some linkages. Again, the investigation is ongoing. Clearly with an attack of this scale

and scope, you know, these are things that are going to have to be reviewed, evidence found of any connections and hopefully, we'll gain some

understanding of the motives that would cause somebody to do something so senseless.

AMANPOUR: And are you concerned -- the prime minister mentioned that perhaps there are members of a group still at large, still with explosives.

I mean, he was sure that they would be apprehended. But are you concerned that no more of this can happen in the immediate circumstance?

TEPLITZ: Yes. I think his caution is appropriate. This isn't over, that there are likely still plotters out there. We are doing everything we can

to support the government of Sri Lanka's efforts to find all of the culprits and the collaborators in this.

We may never, you know, be free from worry or free from risk, but I don't think this particular episode is going to be finished until we know that

the immediate danger has passed.

AMANPOUR: I guess one of the most difficult things to wrap our heads around is that the government admits that some 10 days before this terrible

Easter Sunday attack, there was a memo sent around within Sri Lankan government circles, almost chapter and verse of what was planned to the

extent that it was hotels and churches.

And yesterday on this program, the Sri Lankan minister of Economic Reform told us it was the United States and India, their intelligence, your

intelligence, which had warned Sri Lanka. Can you confirm that that is the case, that your country was amongst those that warned Sri Lanka that this

could happen?

TEPLITZ: Christiane, we had no prior knowledge of these attacks. The Sri Lankan government has admitted lapses in their intelligence gathering and

information sharing. At this point, we are really focused on the investigation, hoping it will allow us to, you know, wrap up the cell that

was responsible for this activity and, you know, find all the connections that might exist elsewhere.

AMANPOUR: So, Ambassador, let me just get it straight. Foreign intelligence did not sort of pick anything up and alert the Sri Lankan

government? I'm not suggesting you knew what, where and when, but they're telling us that they had tipoffs and that there were internal memos that

were sent from police to defense and back to police. Are you telling me that's not the case?

TEPLITZ: Well, I can't speak for others. I don't know what other sources of information the government of Sri Lanka might have had. I can just tell

you that we had no prior knowledge.

AMANPOUR: And just a quick question. You know, everybody worries about social media and how it might exacerbate any kind of situation. We saw

what happened in Christchurch with live streaming and the prime minister has said that social media was cut off in the immediate aftermath of this

and that [13:10:00] they're looking at a time to put it back on. What is your view? What is the U.S. view of that action, of cutting social media

in a situation such as this one?

TEPLITZ: Well, I know the government felt they had good reasons for wanting to cut off social media access. They have had experiences with

social media as a violence accelerator. Last year, there were riots against the Muslim community in Kandy, a city in Central Sri Lanka. That

violence was fueled in part by social media and false rumors that were being spread. A lot of work has been done to ensure that that doesn't

happen again.

I think the government here acted out of an abundance of caution. It's always a two-edged sword, of course. People want to use social media to

communicate with family and friends in the wake of something like this. People want to get out true and real information. I sure -- I'm sure the

government felt that they had a balance to achieve and landed on the side of caution.

AMANPOUR: And I guess just finally, the sort of so-called interagency system clearly collapsed, according to the prime minister, according to

other ministers, as an investigation, there's going to happen inside Sri Lanka about the lack of response and the unawareness and the fact that

there was no extra security at these places.

What is your comment on that? Are you surprised that the correct, I guess, authorities didn't get this message, were warned, and didn't raise security

at churches and hotels that were potentially at risk?

TEPLITZ: Well, the government has admitted these intelligence lapses. I think that's probably a first step towards addressing the problem,

rectifying it. The president has promised an investigation and some reorganization in the security services. They're obviously best equipped

to know how to make a more effective apparatus, security apparatus to, you know, better respond to these threats. We want to, of course, be working

with a capable partner. We're ready to assist if that would be of help.

AMANPOUR: All right, Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us from Colombo.

TEPLITZ: Thank you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: And my next guest is a former ambassador to the United States from a country that has also suffered severe terrorist attacks over recent

years, and that is France. Gerard Araud is a career diplomat known for speaking his mind and not pulling any punches.

Over his 37-year diplomatic career he's worked in the Middle East and the last 10 years in the United States, during two administrations with very

different styles and approaches to international affairs. Of course, that's the Obama and the Trump administrations.

Now, that he's retiring at the age of 66, he's not fading into the night. Making some frank observations about Washington's corridors of power and

he's joining me now live from Paris.

Ambassador Araud, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: We've talked, you know, several times over the years, and sadly, including at times when your own country has been the victim of this kind

of terrible terrorism. Who can forgot the coordinated attacks in 2015, the Bataclan and other areas of Paris. Just give me your observations on what

happened in Sri Lanka and the fact that ISIS seems to still be active, if that's accurate.

ARAUD: Well, I think the first element when you are facing such an attack is, of course, to feel the compassion, the friendship of the other

countries and also the collaboration. The second element is there is always a lapse in the security. You know, something has always been wrong

and it's totally normal that the authorities, the local authorities, afterwards, you know, are looking at correcting what was wrong. And third

element, we have always been convinced that even if we defeat ISIS on the territory, if we deprive ISIS of its base, actually ISIS will be still

active. It's maybe only one of several attacks that we are going to face in the coming months and years.

AMANPOUR: So, let's pull back a little bit now to discuss this and other issues that you have had to deal with as ambassador, let's say, for the

last 10 years in the United States. First, you were ambassador to the United Nations and you ended your career as ambassador to Washington. What

-- give me -- walk me through the fight against ISIS in Syria and the fact that the president, you know, often tweeted that ISIS is defeated, and at

the same time talked about pulling back U.S. forces. Describe how that happens and whether that's the right move at this time, to pull out of


ARAUD: No, the first remark that we have to do -- to make [13:15:00] is actually that on Syria, the foreign policy followed by Obama and by Trump

were not that -- were not that different. Both of them had concluded that Syria was not a vital interest of the U.S. and they have limited -- they

carefully limited their intervention to defeating ISIS. I think that's a very important point, because a lot of people are trying to make Trump and

Obama maybe more different than actually they were, especially in foreign policy.

As for the decision to withdraw the American forces, it was done in a sort of typically Trump way. It was on December 19, 2018, and the neither the

managing director of the CIA, nor the secretary of state, nor the secretary of defense and of course, nor the allies were informed.

And as usual, in this case, after that, the administration is trying to alleviate the negative consequences of a decision actually it was not

supporting. So, what we have seen in a very typical manner for the last three, four months is the administration trying to convince the president

that, yes, we are going to withdraw but actually we are going to keep some soldiers on the ground.

AMANPOUR: And do you have any clarity? Does the French government have any clarity about how many soldiers, how long? In other words, what's the

mission now?

ARAUD: Actually, the planning has been ongoing, you know, now for some months. And there are very, very intense contacts between the French and

the American military authorities and I guess also with the British. But so far, our American counterparts have not been able to tell us how many

American soldiers actually will remain, which is critical, of course, to our -- to make our own decision.

AMANPOUR: So in other words, until you know what the Americans are going to do, you can't share the burden, so to speak?

ARAUD: Well, it's egg and chicken. You know, basically, we are ready to decide how many soldiers we are going to send if we know how many Americans

will be on the ground. And in a sense, the Americans are saying, "Oh, will be able to tell you if you tell us how many soldiers."

I think the specific point here is that they want to be able to come to President Trump and to say, "You see, the French and the British have

increased their presence, you were right." But on our side, of course, we need to have more precisions on the mission, and also on the American


AMANPOUR: So, before I get into other specific policy areas, I want to ask you a general question about what it's like being an ambassador in Trump's

America, in Trump's Washington. I guess the roots are through your counterparts. I guess, as a foreign ambassador, you talk to the State

Department and to the Defense Department and you report back to your own foreign office and I guess that goes up to your own president. Is that how

it works? Is that how it worked for you or is it much more president to president?

ARAUD: It's much more president to president, because this president contrary for instance to president Obama, you know, is not committed by

what the bureaucracy is doing or is thinking. Very often, and we saw it, for instance, when the Americans withdrew from the Iran deal or when,

actually, President Trump decided to withdraw from Syria.

Very often, the administration doesn't know what the president is going to decide the day after. And when the president has taken the decision, the

administration doesn't know what it really does mean in practical terms because basically the intelligence process is broken.

AMANPOUR: And so --

ARAUD: It means that very often, I --

AMANPOUR: Go ahead.

ARAUD: Yes? No, I was saying that very often I was asked questions from Paris and I was obliged to answer by saying, you know, it's better than

President Macron calls President Trump because President Trump is the only person able to answer to this question.

AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you, because we were just seeing pictures of Jared Kushner along with President Trump. Obviously, Jared Kushner, his

son-in-law and the adviser who's been entrusted with Middle East peace plan, among many other portfolios that he's been given.

You, as I mentioned in the introduction, were also deployed in the Middle East. You have a lot of experience with the area there. [13:20:00] So, can

you tell us what you know about the Kushner peace plan for the Israeli- Palestinian situation?

ARAUD: No, I think the first tribute that you have to pay to Jared Kushner is that he has kept his cards very close to his chest. I don't know

anybody today who can pretend that he knows the peace plan but maybe Jason Greenblatt, the envoy (ph) and the American ambassador, Friedman,

ambassador to Jerusalem. But he has been very private and he has not revealed the details.

What I understand is basically that his assessment is that the Israelis are the strong party and the Palestinians are the weak party, so you have to

make a proposal which is acceptable by the strong party and in a sense, afterwards to tell the weak party, basically, you don't have any choice.

That's it or nothing. And if you accept it, by the way, there will be a massive and very generous financial aid.

AMANPOUR: Given your deep involvement in international diplomacy, do you think that's going to play with the Palestinians? What evidence do we have

that the Palestinians will accept that they're the weak party and they will have to take it or leave it?

ARAUD: I think that, you know, I want to be the devil's advocate, you know, in favor of the American approach for a second. I think that the

Palestinian people themselves, we know that they feel it's more or less five minutes to midnight, which means that midnight being the moment where

there won't be any settlement possible because of the current colonization.

So, maybe that we have reached a moment where some Palestinians, hearing Palestinians will say, "It's better than nothing because actually the

alternative is that or nothing." But to be frank, my own assessment is, and I think that's something that maybe Jared Kushner is very rational,

which is equality, it may be also a shortcoming. And if you ask the Palestinians your choice is surrendering or committing suicide, I'm not

sure that actually the Palestinians will not choose the latter.

AMANPOUR: Choose suicide in this sort of diplomatic version of it, in other words, not to go for it?

ARAUD: Exactly. Of course. Exactly.

AMANPOUR: What has President Macron gleaned from President Trump over this issue? Because clearly, he must have spoken to the president about the

president doing things that no other countries have done and in some violation of international consensus, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, but

also agreeing with the annexation of the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.

And of course, now, the Palestinians are concerned that the next move will be to approve the annexation of all or parts of the West Bank. What is --

what does your president know from President Trump on this?

ARAUD: As far as I know, for the moment, I should say nothing on the specifics of the peace plan. The Americans have promised when they will be

close to presenting the peace plan, they will inform their main allies. But as really right now or last week, I was last week in Washington, D.C.,

there was -- we have not been informed of the specifics.

AMANPOUR: But President Trump prides himself on being a negotiator and does he hope that all that he's given Benjamin Netanyahu will -- he'll get

something back for it?

ARAUD: Actually, President Trump has said it openly. Everything is transactional with this president. And obviously, he expects that Prime

Minister Netanyahu will reciprocate when the plan will be presented.

AMANPOUR: And do you think he will? And what will he reciprocate?

ARAUD: You know, there will -- I don't know, you know. Really, it will depend how much will be requested from the prime minister. So, maybe.

AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you about your own president and the U.S. president, because what we saw was an example of your young president going

to meet [13:25:00] the 72-year-old U.S. president who was very clear in his policies of America first, which may have -- many have said is America

alone, and we all saw the state visit and we're watching right now, pictures of the -- you know, a lot of sort of bromance as it was at the

time. And your president was hoping at that time that he could persuade through flattery and, I don't know, and camaraderie, President Trump not to

pull out of the Iran deal.

So, couple of days after your president left this White House, the president of the United States pulled out of the Iran deal. Tell me about

what happened behind closed doors.

ARAUD: Well, first, I think this idea of bromance was -- didn't make any sense. Simply, President Macron being elected as any French president, you

know, wanted to have a good relationship with the most powerful man on earth, which means the American president. And so, it was totally normal.

The fact here is that the men disagree on most of the issues so they have defined what I would call gentleman's disagreements. With the example of

the Iran deal, when, in April, when President Macron was in Washington, D.C., President Trump told him, "I am going to withdraw from the Iran

deal." And President Macron, of course, tried to -- not to convince him not to withdraw from the Iran deal, because there is something very quickly

that you understand that when President Trump has made a decision, it's lost time to try to change his mind.

So, basically, what President Macron tried to do was to say, "Let's open a global negotiation with Iran on all the issues which are on the table, not

only the nuclear issue but also missiles, terrorist activities, regional activities of Iran." President Trump said, "Yes, why not," but nothing

came out of that.

AMANPOUR: And do you think there was a possibility? I mean, what was your assessment of whether you could have had your cake and eaten it too rather

than pulling out of the nuclear deal?

ARAUD: First, I was full of admiration for the energy and the creativity of my president, but I knew also that for domestic reasons and also because

President Trump has said it repeatedly during the electoral campaign that he will withdraw from the nuclear deal and that he will impose very

stringent sanctions on Iran.

So, eventually, as I told the president, the French president, when we left the room, I didn't believe that actually President Trump will change his


AMANPOUR: And what do you think Iran will do? And clearly, what do you think now, from all your conversations that the Americans want out of Iran?

Is it regime change? Is it surrender?

ARAUD: Well, basically, the Americans have set their conditions which you could say, why not. But if the Iranians accept all these conditions,

basically it's the surrendering of the regime and Iran becomes a new Switzerland in the Middle East. So, you can argue that it's very unlikely.

So, when you have set condition afterwards you have some diplomatic engineering, which means that you are sequencing your demands. You are

also saying, quid pro quo, what are we going to give you if you do that, and that's what is tragically missing in the American approach. There is

no diplomacy, there is only this ultimatum. You have to surrender. And we have to impose sanctions so that you are (INAUDIBLE) you will suffer so

much that you are going to beg us. And frankly, it's something I don't think that it will happen.

And of course, in some circles of the administrations, and not only the administration, in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, there is the strong

temptation of regime change. But even if you consider regime change, because after all, we are not in love with the (INAUDIBLE) republic, the

question is what is next. And that, the American administration either doesn't care or doesn't know. And it could be very dangerous. So, in all

the options that you are considering, you can be extremely worried.

ARAUD: Look, you're describing a fairly worrying sort of pyramid at the top of world power, America first, America alone, I know you say and it did

to an extent start under the Obama administration, the idea of America being the policeman of the world was perhaps an old idea. But you have

also described President Trump as slightly whimsical, ill informed, lacking in historical knowledge, what do you really think?

ARAUD: What I really think in which terms, no, first I am convinced that beyond the person, the character of Trump and I say that because I consider

that in a sense Washington, D.C. and maybe the press is too much obsessed by the person and it's not looking at the phenomenon.

I'm convinced that at the end of the Trump mandate or mandates things are not going to go back to business as usual. I think that Obama and Trump

with a very different methods, very different personalities, I felt that there is a fatigue in the American public opinion versus international

intervention. No, the U.S. is not anymore the policeman of the world and I'm convinced that it won't be after the mandates or mandate of Donald


AMANPOUR: Just in terms of texture, how different is President Trump to President Obama from your perspective, from an ambassador's perspective?

You've described President Obama as somebody who studied up quite a lot and the difference with President Trump and you described ministries that are

empty of the top ranks and just a lot of acting officials, what is the most difficult operational difference for you?

ARAUD: I think I can summarize by saying that this administration is totally dysfunctional because a lot of offices are still empty, two years

after the inauguration of President Trump or people are appointed and they leave after one year or if there are people are in the office as I said

before, they don't know what the President will decide the day after.

So in a sense it's dysfunctional, but you have also people who are saying that it's the logic of a populist leader. When you have a populist leader

like Donald Trump. When he takes the power and if he wants to be a populist leader he's facing a bureaucracy which basically is tied to him

because Republican or Democrat they are going to set traditional options for policy, and he doesn't want to follow traditional options for policy.

So in a sense you can argue that any populist leader and again, Trump is one of them, is obliged to break China, is obliged to move forward in a

sort of unusual, chaotic and dysfunctional way.

AMANPOUR: You mentioned breaking China. Let's talk about China, the country. I think you believe that Trump is right on the issue of basically

trying to be tougher with China and particularly on trade.

ARAUD: Well, what was striking I found the speech of Vice President Pence really which was in a sense a sort of declaration of war, a peaceful war,

if I may say, against China. What to was striking in Washington, D.C. was the consensus.

Really, I met people of the Obama administration and everybody was saying, "We should have done it earlier." So I think in the U.S. there is a sort

of a general consensus about the need to face China, after that you can have discussion about the methods. But everybody agrees that there is a

Chinese problem. And on the European side, under the French side when President Macron was in Washington, D.C. in April, he told President Trump,

"You're right about intellectual property, about market access, about public procurement, the Chinese are cheating, but we should work together

really against China."

And the problem is that President Trump has refused to work with the Europeans, but the Europeans are sharing a lot of the misgivings expressed

by President Trump.

[13:34:58] AMANPOUR: And let me just finally ask you about what you've described as escalation dominance, referring to President Trump. You fully

understood his - I think you've called it a genius use of social media and Trump and - I did call it a bromance, and it's slightly breaking down the

bromance between Macron and Trump and we've seen some tweets by Trump against Macron.

What was your advice to the President or his people about how to respond to presidential tweets?

ARAUD: Actually, President Macron was not the first foreign leader to be the target of the presidential tweets. Really Chancellor Merkel and Prime

Minister May went through the same period. The advice I received myself from the entourage of President Trump and that I transmitted to various was

simply don't answer. Don't answer because Trump will always double down and that's what I called escalation dominance and it could become very

quickly not very dignified.

And so my advice to the President Macron after the first tweet, critical tweets of President Trump was simply don't answer.

AMANPOUR: And very, very finally you did tweet yourself on the on the eve of President Trump's election when he just was elected, you tweeted - you

took it immediately down that we're watching the end of a liberal world order, and you said vertigo, and then you talked about Brexit and the Trump

election, and you took it down. Do you still believe that though?

ARAUD: Of course, I was right. I was totally right but it was, I should say, unfortunately I sent my tweets at 2:00 am Washington time and it was

Paris time - 8:00 am Paris time so it was on all of the TVs, all of the French radio and people took it as a criticism of Trump. Actually it was

for me, the expression that after Brexit, after Trump, suddenly I realized that the populist wave was much more serious, much more grave that we were

thinking before and, of course, I was thinking of what could happen in France in May 2017. So yes I was right, but I was wrong to send this


AMANPOUR: And in May 2017, let's just remind everybody, that President Macron won and not the populist candidate, Marine Le Pen. Ambassador

Araud, thank you so much for joining us with all that perspective, really fascinating.

So now we're going all the way back to 400 BC, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates changed the way we look at the world forever, making

us question what is right and wrong, what's good and bad. The key existential questions that we still wrestle with, of course, today.

Now, his infamous trial for being a disruptor within Greek society is onstage at The Public Theater in New York in collaboration with the Onassis

Foundation. It's written by actor, director and playwright Tim Blake Nelson, who you may remember from the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where

Art Thou?

Above all, Socrates is about democracy and what we take for granted in an open and free society. Our Hari Sreenivasan sits down with Tim Blake

Nelson and with Afroditi Panagiotakou of the Onassis Foundation.

HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN ANCHOR: Afroditi Panagiotakou, Tim Blake Nelson, thank you both for joining us. I want to start with a clip from Socrates.


SOCRATES: The worthwhile person must consider only this, do I act rightly or wrongly? Am I a good man or bad? And were you to say to me right now,

"Socrates, we will let you go free but you must stop philosophizing or face death." I would answer that I will not stop but will keep pursuing,

questioning everyone I meet saying, "You, Athenian, why do you seek wealth and power and every comfort but refuse to ask what your life and the world

around you might actually mean?" What is true and what is not true in this blessed life?

By doing so means to you that I corrupt our youth or I'm an atheist or worship the wrong gods, so be it. As long as I live freely, I shall do

just as I have done no matter the mendacious accusations accusations you affix to it.


SREENIVASAN: Tim Blake Nelson, what is Socrates doing right there?

[13:39:56] TIM BLAKE NELSON, Actor, "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs": He's representing himself at his own trial before 501 diecasts who are deciding

whether he's guilty as charged by the archon for having corrupted the youth of Athens for having practiced atheism, and for having worshiped

unsanctioned gods. And he's finished describing what it is, in terms of his own perception, that he has done in Athens in terms of wandering the

city, questioning anyone he meets and how that has been misconstrued and contorted into these charges that will mean life or death for him.

SREENIVASAN: So here he is facing a life or death situation and talking to the people that could decide to kill him and that's his attitude. That's

his tone.

NELSON: As I imagine it, yes, from what I've read. It certainly his tone in the play that wrote and this production, but I will say it's very

heavily researched.

SREENIVASAN: This is not a play that you wrote, in reaction to our reality today.

NELSON: Correct.

SREENIVASAN: When did you start working on it?

NELSON: Well, I really wanted to write this play 30 years ago when I was in drama school and I was very captivated by Socrates as not only a

historical figure but as a character. And then also between the - I was also captivated by the tension that exists between the historical figure of

Socrates and then the Socrates and Plato, and they're very different people and I tried to write the play then, and I just didn't have the cleverness

to try and take it on.

And it took really three decades of helping others to tell stories and sometimes telling my own, and also living in a democracy or I'd rather call

what we live in here in America, a public. And also being a parent and a husband to restore the hubris that I had when I was in my 20s that maybe I

could try and tell this story again.

And so it was in the summer of 2015 that I started writing this, but I don't know, I guess like anyone who tries to create stuff and I think that

there are no exceptions to this. Anybody who tries to create has to have their antenna in the air and maybe I was picking up some stuff just like

any creative person does. And suddenly a lot of what I was writing about started to happen around me in the present reality of the United States and

I just kept writing.

SREENIVASAN: Afroditi, this is part of a three-week festival called Democracy Is Coming. It's a collaboration between the Onassis Foundation

and The Public Theater. You've had several different themes to your festivals over the years, why democracy now?

AFRODITI PANAGIOTAKOU, DIRECTOR OF CULTURE, ONASSIS FOUNDATION: Well, even when it comes to the rest of the themes of our festivals democracy was

always there. For us at the Onassis Foundation it's health, education and culture when it comes to our pillars. But all of these three pillars are

just vehicles in order to talk about the major issues like social justice and democracy and human rights. So in that sense, we try to be characters

of the citizens of Athens or of the world, the same way that Socrates did in a way.

So we want to pose the questions, and we want to bring people together and we try to collaborate with people who actually share the same adjectives

that we do. So these adjectives or nouns or words are definitely words like democracy and, of course, democracy is always coming. It never


SREENIVASAN: Greece is the place that helped create this idea. Does Greece have it?

PANAGIOTAKOU: Yes, it does. First of all, if you are in a country where you can actually say that this is not democracy, that means there is. And

there are other countries where they call themselves democracy, but do not go on Google. And if you say something against the president, you go to

prison. So I guess that it's good when a foundation like the Onassis foundation. And I need to stress here that yes, it is called a foundation

but we're never sponsors.

So we are producers of content and we act as a platform for artists and thinkers and scientists. And we provide this content to as many people as

possible. I think it's important that we raise this kind of questions because the problem is actually when we sleep, and we take everything for


SREENIVASAN: What's the role of the arts in creating that public conversation about ideas like democracy?

[13:44:51] PANAGIOTAKOU: Culture is not just the arts and arts is only part of culture. So I would say that the arts, yes, can do something.

They can change your mind if they actually are a part of life, of culture, of general education, of the society itself.

So I think that our job when it comes to the Onassis Foundation, again, is actually to be disruptors. Otherwise, we will think that everything is OK.

Everything is safe and in Greece, in particular, in Europe, but always, and forever and everywhere in the world certainties just die at some point and

I think that this is what has happened in the U.S. This is what has happened in Europe. This is what Greece went through lately. So I think

that through the arts, you can talk about the permanent possibility of the loss of certainties.

SREENIVASAN: What are the death of certainty do to Greece in the recent past?

PANAGIOTAKOU: Well, we realized that things like a job cannot be taken for granted. The fact that your pension cannot be taken for granted. The fact

that you're a public servant doesn't mean anything. The fact that you lived in your country until the age of 40 doesn't mean that you will be

living in your country when you're 45.

Did that make us wiser? Wisdom doesn't last. But I think it really, really changed us. You need a tragedy, unfortunately, to understand life.

And when it comes to ancient Greek tragedy, let's just bear in mind that the protagonist, whether that is Antigone or whoever that is because we're

going to see Antigone as part of the festival, are never the solution to the problem. They are the problem.

The problematic figures in any ancient Greek tragedy are the heroes, which is something completely different from Hollywood movies. So in order to be

a hero, in order to be a protagonist, in a Greek tragedy, you have to cause problems, and you have to be full of trouble which is much closer to life.

SREENIVASAN: Yes, there's one more clip I want to show. This is kind of encapsulating some of the wisdom that Socrates says that he has.


SOCRATES: What doesn't he understand?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know what you think he doesn't understand that only by seeing this through will your life have meaning. You're 70, but Athens

feared you enough to condemn you already proves your life has meaning.

SOCRATES: One thing I've learned in 70 years is that man is well suited for tyranny, but especially when that tyranny is disguised as democracy.


SOCRATES: This is no longer about me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought you weren't political.

SOCRATES: Of course, I'm political.


SREENIVASAN: What are you trying to say about democracy then versus now?

NELSON: With the line about disguising tyranny is democracy, I think that's happening all over the world. And there's another moment in the

play where he says, "Anybody can use the word democracy and if, of course, there's democracy in the title of the country of North Korea.

It's a misused, misapplied word. I think that ancient Greece was far more of a democracy than what the United States of America is and we are now

considered or we consider ourselves the great democracy of the world. But we're really more of a republic, something of an oligarchy because you have

to have a lot of money, and you have to be connected to a lot of money and you have to have a certain level of education.

That's very expensive, for the most part, to get elected to high office. And so they're just institutionally preventative measures that the

government takes in being very selective about who ends up getting promoted to rule. And that wasn't the case in Athens, where they drew names from

urns, people were put into office through a lottery system. There were plebiscites pretty much on every major issue faced by the city state.

And we don't do that, we have experts whom we vote. There are almost platonic experts who've come up and they've been educated either as a -

sometimes as autodidacts but usually through law school or very fancy educations in other topics. But they've been trained and schooled to lead

in much more of a platonic sense. And we give them our vote. We don't use plebiscites.

So in a sense, we're less democratic than Athens was. One of the questions the play asks is, "Is that necessary a bad thing?" Why do we choose our

leaders? How do we choose the best possible leaders? Why have we ended up with the leaders we do have right now? And these were questions being

asked, in particular by Plato, back in the 4th century.

[13:50:24] SREENIVASAN: Afroditi, one of the things that he points out is that democracy seems to be backsliding in several parts of the world. How

do you see it evolving across Europe, for example?

PANAGIOTAKOU: Well, I would say that things are quite different in Europe but very scary. I think that we would never think that fascism would be

that strong again. And I'm going back to this idea regarding that we shouldn't be taken for granted things.

We thought that after two wars, two World Wars fascism wouldn't be there as a term in our everyday discussions and now it is. So I would say that I'm

very worried, I'm glad that is not just me, obviously. I'm glad that people are starting getting worried, whether we have like opportunities or

non-opportunities like Brexit or Brexit in order to talk about it.

And people also understand that voting is not enough if you want to fight for democracy, if you want to fight for human rights. I can see that

there's a new form of activism all around Europe, so it's no longer some eccentric hippies that are demonstrating in the streets. And I just go

back to the ancient times not because of my fetishes or any of that. And in Greece we're actually fighting not to be referring to our cultural

heritage all of the time in order to prove that there's something really interesting happening in our country.

So contemporary culture is something that we really care about, but the person who only cares about what was going on in his own private space back

in ancient Greece was called idiotes from which the word idiot comes from. So the idiots according to ancient Greek is the person who only cares about

his own private space.

So I think that is a matter of responsibility and not just some kind of, "We have the right to vote." No, it's our responsibility to vote. It's

our responsibility to be politically aware. Otherwise, I'm just a being but not a human being, so I think that since we were given this

catastrophic intellect, well, we have to do something with it, so let's not go after the dream of happiness. I think that we should go after the

responsibility of awareness and then we will appreciate happiness in a different way anyway.

SREENIVASAN: You've been an actor, a director, screenwriter, how does this stack up? How hard was this?

NELSON: It's taken a long time to get to the point where I could write this. But it wasn't hard to write although it was thousands and thousands

of pages of research, and then delving in almost forensically into Plato's dialogues to try to find the real Socrates in there. Because, of course,

most of what Socrates says in Plato, Socrates never said. It's Plato putting his own ideas into the mouth of this figure whom he so admired for

the approach he had to thinking.

It was a lot of time, but it was quite joyous. I mean, I really get excited about this stuff and excited about the ideas. When Socrates and

the pre-Socratic thinkers and also Plato and to a degree, Aristotle, were writing, the philosophers were really interested in the basics stuff; who

are we, why do we do what we do, what's good, what's evil, what's true, what's false, how do you live what's called a eudaemon life.

And that stuff really turns me on and so I have a religious fervor about the ancient thinkers. And so the more I can read of them and about them,

the happier I am, so it was a great process.

SREENIVASAN: Tim Blake Nelson, Afroditi Panagiotakou, thank you both.

PANAGIOTAKOU: Thank you so much for having us.

[13:54:35] AMANPOUR: And Socrates is on at The Public Theater in New York until May 26. And we want to finish our program tonight with a thought for

our colleagues in Myanmar. The country's Supreme Court has just rejected the appeal of two Reuters journalists to have their convictions and seven

year prison sentences overturned. Both journalists just won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the country's Rohingya crisis and their

imprisonment seriously damages even the pretense of Myanmar's transition to democracy. It is widely considered, they have been imprisoned on trumped

up charges.

And that's it for now. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at and follow me on Instagram and Twitter. Thanks

for watching and goodnight from London.