Why was the Dalai Lama hanging out with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute?
What was the Dalai Lama doing for two days among free-marketeers and capitalist-roaders at a fabled conservative think tank?

Patrick G. Ryan

Article Highlights

  • Arthur Brooks has been trying to develop what George W. Bush once termed “compassionate conservatism.”

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  • Conservatives, Brooks says, need to be able to go to bed each night knowing they did something that day to help the poor.

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  • Dalai Lama: "I have many friends among both parties ... The most important thing is oneness of humanity."

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For a moment, when I read Danielle Pletka’s e-mail, I wondered if it might be a joke. Pletka, vice president of the conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, was writing to inquire whether “Vanity Fair would like to spend some quality time with His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. He, she went on, was going to be at A.E.I. for two days as its guest. He would be speaking there at a conference on “happiness, free enterprise, and human flourishing” at a private lunch and at several invitation-only discussion panels. I would be welcome to attend all of it, and could also expect an exclusive interview with him.

I had first met Pletka 12 years ago, when A.E.I., seen then as the intellectual command post of the neoconservative campaign for regime change in Iraq, welcomed another visitor from the East: Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, the purveyor of “intelligence” about Saddam Hussein that would later turn out to be bogus. The shift in emphasis seemed marked. It was always apparent that fulfilling Chalabi’s ambitions was likely to require a war. The maroon robes of His Holiness, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader and a lifelong advocate of nonviolence, are cut from very different cloth.

However, perhaps the most surprising thing about the Dalai Lama’s sojourn at the A.E.I., which took place at its downtown 17th Street headquarters on February 19 and 20, was that the relationship between spiritual leader and think tank began at his behest, not A.E.I.’s. In the very days last autumn, as Congressional Republicans were charging down the political blind alley of the government shutdown, Pletka and A.E.I.’s president, Arthur Brooks, were meditating with His Holiness at his base in Dharmsala, India, in the Himalayas. They were there at his invitation, which had been conveyed through mutual contacts at Radio Free Asia, the U.S.-government-funded broadcaster.

There was something, it seemed, about the A.E.I.’s message under Brooks’s leadership that had prompted the Dalai Lama to reach out. Part of it, I later learned, was Brooks’s assertion that the ultimate goal of public policy should be to maximize human happiness, not material wealth. Indeed, the title of one of Brooks’s books, published in 2008, is Gross National Happiness—a phrase that is also employed as the official metric of prosperity espoused by the rulers of the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.

Meanwhile, Brooks has been spending a lot of time trying to develop what George W. Bush once termed “compassionate conservatism.” Brooks believes that the only way the American right can regain both moral stature and political energy is to prove itself more effective at eliminating poverty than the left has been. Conservatives, he says, need to be able to go to bed each night knowing they did something that day to help the poor.

It need hardly be said that compassion has always been the human quality preached most insistently by His Holiness. It extends even to the people of China, which has occupied his country, often brutally, since 1951. To illustrate the point, he likes to recall a conversation he had with a monk who had been a political prisoner in a Chinese labor camp for 18 years, and told how this had exposed him to danger—not physical peril, but “the danger of losing my compassion for the Chinese.”

“Strictly speaking, I am socialist,” he told me in our interview, “so I am leftist. Some people say, this organization [the A.E.I.], is more rightist.” But that did not preclude a dialogue: “I have a very good impression [of Brooks], so therefore I accept his invitation. I felt, rightist also human being . . . Their main purpose is how to build happy society. So it doesn’t matter.”

Nor did he plan to try to convert A.E.I. and its wealthy business donors—some of whom were attending the A.E.I. event—to socialism: “No, no, no. They have own way of thinking. Their own way of belief. The important thing is, I am Buddhist, but I should never restrict my talking to Buddhists: totally wrong. So you have your own view, your own way of thinking: O.K., then that way you make a contribution.

“I have many friends among both parties, from Republicans and from Democrats . . . The most important thing is oneness of humanity. America is [the] leading nation of free world. American principles, democracy, liberty: right now these things [are] very important.”

*****

The Dalai Lama is fond of saying, “I am a simple Buddhist monk,” and though he travels with a substantial entourage, including a security detail, he still relies on what is put into his begging bowl for food—for that reason, he says, he sometimes eats meat, though ideally, according to Buddhist teachings, he would rather not: it would be wrong not to consume what a well-wisher puts in the bowl.

But if his life is materially ascetic, that regime seems to be doing well by him. At the age of 78, his eyes twinkle brightly, and most of his sentences—expressed in an English that involves both complex, abstract concepts and an idiosyncratic syntax—end with a smile or a deep, throaty chuckle. When we sat down for our interview in his hotel suite, he several times reached out and held my hand: his grip was firm, his skin smooth. He said his knees give him trouble, but he walks swiftly, with no sign of stiffness. And on his first day at A.E.I., he talked with palpable intensity for hour after hour. He did not appear fatigued.

Most unexpected was his impeccable comic timing. A roomful of people listening to the Dalai Lama will soon be a room filled with laughter. “So far as social economic theory is concerned, I am a Marxist,” he said in answer to a question at one of the panels, beaming at an audience which, for this session, was composed of about 300 young conservative activists. (Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense, sat in the front row.) His Holiness paused for half a beat. “Heh, heh, heh!” he said—and the room dissolved. “Some Chinese hard-liners describe me as a demon,” he observed a little later, his palms spread in a gesture of faux amazement. “You tell them if you meet them that Dalai Lama, he is not [a] demon, but an ordinary human being!”

In the past, the Dalai Lama has declared capitalism to be a system that leads to inequality and exploitation. Yet when he talks about his own prescription for improving humanity’s lot, it sometimes sounds a lot like classical liberal, Victorian self-help, with a large dollop of philanthropy: a philosophy not so very different from A.E.I.’s: “The physically fit, who can work, they have a moral duty [to do so],” he said at one of the panels. “People have prayed for thousands of years, and God’s compassion is infinite. But God can’t bless people. We should not put the responsibility on God’s shoulders. Human action is important. Education, health: these are the real source of blessing.” Listening to that, and nodding enthusiastically, was A.E.I. fellow Charles Murray, libertarian philosopher and scourge of welfare dependency. What His Holiness was really doing, he told me later, was articulating what people like he and Arthur Brooks had been saying for years.

In our interview, the Dalai Lama told me he “really appreciated” Marxism’s emphasis on “equal distribution,” but in practice, it had not worked out: “They say they are concerned with equal distribution, but everyone remain[s] poor: that is wrong. I think the Marxist economics is right. But gradually Lenin, [though he was] supposed to apply that concept, he sacrificed individual rights, individual freedom. One time not long after collapse of Soviet Union, I had [the] opportunity to visit Moscow. I asked Gorbachev: As the former general secretary of the Communist party, do you make distinction between [the] collapse of totalitarianism and collapse of Marxism? I make that distinction: collapse of Soviet Union is collapse of totalitarianism, not collapse of Marxism. I asked him. He didn’t answer.”

It should, he said, be possible to create “capitalism with a human face . . . If you [are] only concerned about money, this gap—rich and poor—increases, and also the corruption . . . This is the capital of the richest nation in the world, with the highest level of consumption. But surrounding Washington are some very poor people . . . India is [also] facing that [problem]. And then there is China: supposedly a socialist country, with [a] huge gap between rich and poor, totally due to lack of moral principle and lack of balance.”

Nevertheless, greed could be good: “Without a certain level of greed, without that, no progress. Take care of yourself, take care of your own community. That’s the basic principle of survival.” He developed the thought at one of the panels: “We are selfish. It’s important for our survival. But because things are interdependent, it’s in your own interest to take care of others. It should be wise selfish, not foolish selfish. If you take care of others, you get more benefit.”

*****

As the exiled leader of a weak and victimized people, the Dalai Lama has nothing to lose by making friends in Washington, whatever their political hue: years ago, he disappointed liberals by his seemingly warm association with the then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, North Carolina’s “Senator No,” who fought everything seen as socially progressive from equal voting rights to legal gay sex. Much more interesting is the evident enthusiasm with which Brooks and A.E.I. welcomed and embraced His Holiness. “This is such a good day!” said Brooks, introducing his eminent guest at one point. As he spoke, he looked as if he was finding it difficult to walk, as opposed to skipping, across the stage.

To be sure, nabbing the Dalai Lama for his first-ever appearance at a think tank was a huge and symbolic coup. In Pletka’s words: “It’s a really big deal for us. It underscores the fact that the right needs a new vibe.” Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more dramatic way of trying to get across the notion that conservatism, at least as envisioned by A.E.I., has changed. On the other hand, for Brooks, this was no stunt. “Why invite the Dalai Lama to a place like A.E.I.?” he asked me over breakfast in his office. “To me, it’s obvious. We are trying to remake the debate, and we’re going to win. It’s not a question of if, but when.”

Engagement with Tibetan Buddhism is not the only unusual thing about Brooks, who was appointed to head A.E.I. in 2008. He spent his 20s as a professional French horn player with the Barcelona symphony orchestra, before going back to school to take his Ph.D. A practicing Catholic – his confessor was a guest at the lunch – he began our conversation by suggesting that the Dalai Lama’s formula for human happiness was very similar to that set down by St Thomas Aquinas: “Use things, love people.” This, he went on, was opposite to the view of some American conservatives: “Use people, love things.”

The Dalai Lama will not be the last religious leader to attend an event at A.E.I. Already scheduled to appear this year is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the Indian guru and founder of the Art of Living Foundation. (“He’s wonderful, completely wonderful,” Brooks told me.) Perhaps more ambitiously, A.E.I. has also reached out to the Pope. On the first night of the Dalai Lama’s visit, Brooks had a copy of a lengthy article he recently wrote in Commentary magazine, setting out his political outlook, sent to the Vatican (translated into Italian). At only a slightly less exalted level, another guest will be Bill Gates.

However, the principal focus of the mission Brooks has set himself is secular: nothing less than the complete ideological remodeling of the American right. In his view, it has become trapped by its own negativity: “It’s easy to say what it’s against, much more difficult what it’s for.” According to Brooks, the answer needs to be a “free-enterprise movement” that steals the clothes of the left, by demonstrating that free markets offer a much more effective and empowering way to tackle social problems than the state: “We’re moral warriors for people who can’t fight for themselves. What I really want is for the free-enterprise movement to become like the civil rights movement: something that transcends politics.”

Its inherent radicalism is described in his Commentary piece—entitled “Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers.” It states: “The American conservative’s reluctance to articulate a social-justice agenda of his own only feeds the perception that the right simply doesn’t care about the less fortunate . . . Conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right. It must be tangible, practical, and effective . . . What, then, do poor people say they truly need to lead prosperous and satisfying lives? The real answer is both simple and profound. They need transformation, relief, and opportunity—in that order. On these three pillars, conservatives and advocates for free enterprise can build the basics of the social-justice agenda that America deserves.”

Already, Brooks believes, this “new right” is gathering the necessary momentum to crowd out the wedge issues that have tended to determine the selection of Republican candidates for a generation: “It’s only when we don’t feel that Republicans stand for something good and true and moral that they get defined by what they’re against—gun control, abortion, immigration. We have to deny oxygen to those marginal issues.”

*****

The obvious comparison that Brooks’s project brings to mind is the reconfiguring of conservatism led by figures such as William F. Buckley Jr., that preceded the administration of Ronald Reagan. The task, in any event, looks every bit as great. Can Brooks, with a little help from his spiritual friends, pull it off?

After the lunch with His Holiness, I put the question to Wolfowitz. The nadir, as he saw it, of conservatism’s moral decline came with the video of Mitt Romney’s remark that 47 percent of the population didn’t matter, because they were dependent on the welfare state and would never vote Republican anyway: “That hurt him with 90 percent of the population, not just 47 percent. It’s easy to romanticize the 1970s [the Buckley era]. But I do think there’s a craving for more harmony and participation, and people do care about more than just their own personal economic welfare. Just speaking for myself, if you can’t make a moral case for economic policies, you’ve got the wrong policies.” The Dalai Lama’s political means for expressing compassion was somewhat different from Brooks’s, he conceded. “But symbols are important.”

Brooks accepts that his is a long game: “The real question is what’s happening in 2024. Will we look back and say, this was the moment, the beginning, the Dalai Lama’s visit to A.E.I.? It’s like with rock bands. They make it big and people say they ‘burst on the scene’. They didn’t burst on the scene. They were playing at Holiday Inns for 15 years.”

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