Why It Matters

Council on Foreign Relations

Each episode of Why It Matters breaks down an issue that is shaping our world's future. Join host Gabrielle Sierra as she speaks with the leaders and thinkers who are facing these questions head on. Fueled by the minds at the Council on Foreign Relations, Why It Matters brings some of the world's most compelling stories home to you.

Season Four Trailer
Trailer 2 min 3 sec

All Episodes

Last summer, China tested a hypersonic missile that traveled through orbit. The test shocked many observers and led to widespread concern about the potential for nuclear-armed missiles that can evade detection and defense systems. The technology is not as new as it might seem, but this latest test highlights an underlying threat that the world has been living with for decades.   Featured Guests:  Laura Grego (Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)  Adam Mount (Senior Fellow and Director, Federation of American Scientists)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at: https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/hyperventilating-over-hypersonics

Nov 12

27 min 20 sec

Nuclear energy is critical for decarbonization in the fight against climate change. But high-profile accidents, substantial costs, and concerns about waste management have kneecapped its expansion. As the climate crisis intensifies, the world is rethinking how to use nuclear energy to tackle ambitious climate targets.   Featured Guests:  Leslie Dewan  (CEO, RadiantNano)  Shirley Ann Jackson (President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at:  https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/the-climate-for-nuclear-energy

Oct 29

36 min 58 sec

Experts argue that Mexico affects daily life in the United States more than any other country. For years, U.S. and Mexican officials have attempted to tackle immigration, trade, and security challenges, and their success has depended on cooperation. With so much at stake, Why It Matters investigates the complex relationship and the factors that threaten it.   Featured Guests:  Shannon K. O’Neil (Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations)  Mariana Campero (Senior Associate, Non-resident, Americas Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/mexico

Oct 15

31 min 58 sec

Female service members are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow service member than shot by an enemy combatant at war. As the reports increase, the controversial military justice system remains intact. The current policy gives commanders authority over the prosecution, often allowing perpetrators to evade accountability. The consequences are dire for survivors and the armed services at large, as the status quo undermines military readiness.    Featured Guests:  Don Christenson (Colonel, U.S. Air Force, Ret., President, Protect Our Defenders)  Meghann Myers (Pentagon Bureau Chief, Military Times)  Heather Sexton (Captain, Missouri Army National Guard, Ret.)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/sexual-assault-in-the-us-military

Sep 30

36 min 10 sec

Why It Matters is pleased to present an episode from its sister podcast, The President’s Inbox. Today, U.S. national security is dependent on international nuclear agreements. How does the world regulate nuclear weapons as countries continue to advance their arsenals?   Featured Guests:  James M. Lindsey (Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations)   Rose Gottemoeller (Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer, Stanford University Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Center for International Security and Cooperation)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/podcast-takeover-nuclear-security-presidents-inbox

Sep 16

33 min 18 sec

The glamour and thrill of espionage, brought to life on screen by characters such as James Bond, have long captivated imaginations. But this profession is deeply misunderstood, and it is always changing. Today, spycraft hangs in the balance as new technologies emerge and societies change.    Featured Guests:  Edward Lucas (Senior Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis)  Emily Harding (Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/spying-101

Sep 2

33 min 32 sec

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country, has prompted a moment of national debate about the war’s cost and legacy. Many are asking what went wrong and what the conflict accomplished.  For insight, Why It Matters turned to CFR President Richard N. Haass, who has spent four decades studying and advising on Afghanistan. As head of policy planning for the State Department under U.S. President George W. Bush, and later as U.S. coordinator for the future of Afghanistan, Haass was in the room when many of the earliest and most important decisions about the war were shaped. In this episode, he offers his critique of how the war unfolded and raises potential lessons the United States should consider as it turns its eyes to future challenges.   Featured Guest:  Richard N. Haass (CFR President) For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/perspective-afghanistan-richard-n-haass

Aug 19

29 min 56 sec

Hosting the Olympics is a monumental undertaking that often leaves behind rusted stadiums and financial losses. So why do nations compete to do it? This episode examines the political history of the games, and the soft power that countries hope to gain by hosting them.   Featured Guests:  Jules Boykoff (Professor of Political Science, Pacific University)  Katharine Moon (Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/hey-remember-olympics

Aug 4

37 min 45 sec

The United States’ alliance with Japan is the centerpiece of U.S. security in Asia, but new demographic challenges from within Japan raise concerns about the future of the region.   Featured Guests:  Zach Cooper, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)  Motoko Rich, Tokyo Bureau Chief, New York Times  Sheila A. Smith, John E. Merow Senior Fellow for Asia Pacific Studies   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/japans-population-problem

Jul 22

29 min 52 sec

Fresh water is more than just a resource, it is the source of all life. But in many arid regions of the world, water supplies are under pressure from climate change, and outdated rules and infrastructure are making the problem worse. What does the world need to know about water consumption, and how can societies build better systems for a dryer future?   Featured Guests:  Mark Giordano (Professor of Geography and Cinco Hermanos Chair in Environment and International Affairs, Georgetown University)  Sandra Postel (Founder and Director, Global Water Policy Project)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/water-scarcity

Jul 8

36 min 49 sec

Silicon chips are in almost all electronics, and access to them can make or break a country’s economic future. Their production relies on complex supply chains, and during the pandemic, the world learned just how fragile these supply chains are. Many countries, including the United States and China, are investing billions of dollars to develop the capacity to produce chips domestically, and some analysts see chip-related conflict on the horizon.   Featured Guests:  Don Clark (Freelance Contributor, New York Times) Rebecca Heilweil (Reporter, Vox) Ajit Manocha (President and CEO, SEMI) David Sacks (Research Fellow)   For a transcript and show notes, visit us at https://www.cfr.org/podcasts/when-microchips-are-down

Jun 23

30 min 30 sec

Will the world have enough water to survive in the era of climate change? Could a shortage of silicon chips eventually lead to war? Do human spies matter in the era of cyber espionage? Why It Matters is back for its fourth season, unpacking new problems and speaking with a host of new guests.   For more about Why It Matters, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/why-it-matters

Jun 16

2 min 3 sec

Industrial overfishing and other man-made factors have pushed one-third of the world’s fish stocks to be threatened with extinction, and many other species are not far behind. The problem represents a serious risk to ocean biodiversity, and to large human populations that rely on fish for day-to-day survival. What can be done?   Featured Guests:  Manuel Barange (Director, Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division, Food and Agriculture Organization)  Michele Kuruc (Vice President, Ocean Policy, World Wildlife Fund)  Stewart M. Patrick (James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/gone-fishing

Mar 19

35 min 10 sec

Successful vaccine rollouts in the United States and other wealthy nations have made many people hopeful that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight. But the majority of the world’s population does not yet have access to these vaccines. Without a strong global effort to immunize everyone, new variants could tighten the pandemic’s grip on rich and poor countries alike.   Featured Guests:  Anthony S. Fauci (Director, U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)  Richard N. Haass (President, Council on Foreign Relations)  Tidjane Thiam (Special Envoy for COVID-19 Response, African Union)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/global-shot-arm-dr-fauci

Mar 4

26 min 4 sec

The dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency, accounting for $6.7 trillion in foreign reserves. This has given the United States what some have called “an exorbitant privilege,” allowing it to borrow easily and to levy painful sanctions. But could it lose this status?   Featured Guests:  Roger Ferguson (President and Chief Executive Officer, TIAA)  Sebastian Mallaby (Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/dollar-privilege

Feb 18

35 min 42 sec

For years, security experts have warned that white nationalist and white supremacist extremism represent the most significant domestic terrorism threat to the United States. Now, in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the country seems to be gaining clarity about the seriousness of the situation for the first time. How did we get here, and what can be done?   Featured Guests:  Bruce Hoffman (Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security)  Cynthia Miller-Idriss (Professor, School of Public Affairs and School of Education, American University)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/most-persistent-and-lethal-threat

Feb 4

34 min 10 sec

There is no country quite like Russia. Despite having a relatively small economy, it has been able to maintain global influence through a range of unconventional tactics. How has Vladimir Putin played his country’s weak hand so effectively? And what is his goal?   Featured Guests:  Jill Dougherty (Global Fellow, Kennan Institute, Wilson Center)  Stephen Sestanovich (George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations)  Angela Stent (Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/russia

Jan 21

36 min 46 sec

What does it take to make a Hollywood blockbuster? Movie stars? A great script? How about approval from the Chinese government? In this episode, two guests explore the surprising role of Chinese censorship and oversight in the production of U.S. films and ask what’s at stake as their presence increases.   Featured Guests:  Aynne Kokas (Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia)  James Tager (Deputy Director, Free Expression Research and Policy, PEN America)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/chinas-starring-role-hollywood

Jan 6

37 min 13 sec

The U.S. president can launch a first-strike nuclear attack at any time, and there’s no law mandating they seek advice first. Some experts think that’s too much power to put in one person’s hands.   Episode Page and Show Notes   Featured Guests:  Richard K. Betts (Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Studies) Alexandra Bell (Senior Policy Director, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation) Abigail Stowe-Thurston (Program Coordinator, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation)

Dec 2020

27 min 43 sec

Projections show that by 2050, Africa’s population will double. By 2100, one in three people on Earth will be African. This means that, by the end of the century, sub-Saharan Africa—which already has an extraordinarily young population—will be home to almost half of the young people in the world. In this episode, two experts examine whether Africa’s youth boom will be a blessing or a curse.   Featured Guests:  Michelle Gavin (Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations)  John Githongo (Inuka Kenya Trust, CEO and publisher of The Elephant)

Dec 2020

33 min 9 sec

The Brazilian Amazon is burning, threatening the world’s largest repository of biodiversity. If the fires are not controlled soon, they could release a “climate bomb” of stored carbon that would accelerate climate change.   Featured Guests:  Monica de Bolle (Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics)  Stewart M. Patrick (James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, Council on Foreign Relations)  Thomas Lovejoy (President, Amazon Biodiversity Center)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/climate-bomb-amazon

Nov 2020

37 min 39 sec

Fifty-five percent of the global population lacks access to safe sanitation, a deadly global health disparity that rarely finds its way into the spotlight. In this episode, we examine the scope of the problem, and the cultural challenges that have made it surprisingly difficult to fix.   Featured Guests:  Tom Slaymaker (Senior Statistics and Monitoring Specialist, WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH))  Sangita Vyas (Associate Director, Research Institute for Compassionate Economics)  Brooke Yamakoshi (WASH Specialist, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF))   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/lets-talk-about-toilets

Nov 2020

29 min 53 sec

The United States trails far behind most advanced democracies when it comes to voter turnout, with just 55 percent of eligible voters participating in the 2016 election. What are other countries doing right, and what is the United States doing wrong?   Featured Guests:  David Becker (Executive Director, Center for Election Innovation & Research)  Kristen Clarke (President and Executive Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law)  Rosalind Dixon (Professor of Law, University of New South Wales)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/make-america-vote-again

Oct 2020

41 min 50 sec

What happens when the world runs out of fish? Does TikTok actually present a national security risk? Will Africa's population boom change the world as we know it? In season three, Why It Matters explores a new series of challenges that are gathering on the horizon.   For more information on our first two seasons, be sure to visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/why-it-matters

Oct 2020

2 min 1 sec

As climate change accelerates, some scientists are researching ways to alter our climate to slow down warming. But the method, called solar geoengineering, comes with some serious risks.   Featured Guests:  David Keith (Harvard University)  Shuchi Talati (Union of Concerned Scientists)  Gernot Wagner (New York University)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/dimming-sky

Sep 2020

25 min 2 sec

Works of art and cultural heritage sites are common casualties in war. In many cases, the sale of plundered treasures has helped finance ongoing conflict. In this episode, two experts examine the history of conflict-driven looting. Along the way, they trace the opaque, unregulated international art market that allows irreplaceable treasures to travel from strife-torn regions to the catalogues of prestigious auction houses.   Featured Guests:  Amr Al Azm (Professor of History and Anthropology, Shawnee State University)  Tess Davis (Executive Director, Antiquities Coalition)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/treasures-looted-war

Aug 2020

31 min 50 sec

For decades international students enjoyed bipartisan support in the U.S., with strong consensus that they fueled American innovation, job creation and competitiveness. But in recent years the pipeline of international students has come under threat, and other nations are seizing the opportunity to take in the world’s brightest students.   Featured Guests:  Esther D. Brimmer (Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA)  Edward Alden (Senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University)   For an episode transcript and show notes, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/why-we-need-international-students

Aug 2020

31 min 7 sec

As the effects of climate change move from scientific predictions to daily headlines, some investors have begun sounding the alarm about impending dangers to financial markets. In this episode, experts break down the intersection of climate change and the economy, and examine whether the persuasive power of the dollar can be leveraged in the fight for climate action.   Featured Guests:  Kate Mackenzie (Green Columnist, Bloomberg)  Michael Greenstone (Professor of Economics, University of Chicago)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/pricing-our-climate

Jul 2020

33 min 59 sec

Hosting the Olympics is a monumental undertaking that often leaves behind rusted stadiums and financial losses. So why do nations compete to do it? This episode examines the political history of the games, and the soft power that countries hope to gain by hosting them.   Featured Guests:  Jules Boykoff (Professor of Political Science, Pacific University)  Katharine Moon (Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/hey-remember-olympics

Jul 2020

35 min 50 sec

Whether you think we are making history or repeating it, it’s safe to say we are living in a historic time. In this episode, Why It Matters asks three historians to weigh in on how to use the past to examine the present and make better choices for the future.   Featured Guests:  Richard N. Haass (President, Council on Foreign Relations)  Margaret MacMillan (Professor of History, University of Toronto)  Annette Gordon-Reed (Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/living-history  

Jul 2020

35 min 13 sec

The killing of George Floyd, the anti-racist protest movement that followed, and the administration’s response have shaken America, and reverberations can be felt across the globe. It is unclear what type of reform will follow the U.S. protests, but it is undeniable that the world is watching what happens closely.   Featured Guests:  Chika Oduah (Independent Multimedia Journalist)  Keith Richburg (Director, Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/world-watching-us

Jun 2020

28 min 42 sec

It is estimated that twenty to forty million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. Of these, the majority are trafficked for labor, and many of them are exploited in the United States.   Featured Guests:  Susy Andole (Voices of Hope, Anti-Trafficking Program, Safe Horizon)  Mark P. Lagon (Chief Policy Officer, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria)  Anita Teekah (Senior Director, Anti-Trafficking Program, Safe Horizon)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/human-cost-labor-trafficking

Jun 2020

33 min 23 sec

China is undertaking massive infrastructure projects across the world and loaning billions of dollars to developing nations. On paper, the objective is to build a vast trade network, but is China also exporting authoritarianism?   Featured Guests:  Jessica Chen Weiss (Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University)  Elizabeth C. Economy (C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/exporting-authoritarianism

May 2020

31 min 42 sec

Roughly four hundred million people in India use the encrypted messaging platform WhatsApp. Now, the country’s ruling party is trying to force WhatsApp to let the government trace and censor messages. The outcome could change digital freedoms in the world’s largest democracy, and could have strong implications for the future of privacy everywhere.   Featured Guests:  Seema Mody (Global Markets Reporter, CNBC)  Vindu Goel (Technology and Business Reporter, New York Times)  Chinmayi Arun (Resident Fellow, Yale University)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/whatsapp-india

May 2020

27 min 47 sec

What’s the true cost of cheap clothes? Fast fashion has become a multibillion-dollar industry in recent decades, reshaping the world’s shopping habits. But the industry’s low prices disguise a staggering environmental cost.   Featured Guests:  Elizabeth Segran (Senior Staff Writer, Fast Company)  Linda Greer (Senior Global Fellow, Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs Beijing China)  Amber Valletta (Activist, and founder, Master & Muse)   For more information on this episode, visit us at cfr.org/podcasts/wearing-world-out

Apr 2020

26 min 38 sec

Is the coronavirus a zero-sum game in which we must choose between saving lives and saving the economy? In this episode, we sit down with two experts to find out.

Apr 2020

25 min 48 sec

Now more than ever, it’s clear that global problems can become local in a flash. In season two, Why It Matters dives into a new set of challenges that will shape our lives in the years to come.

Mar 2020

2 min

The worldwide spread of the new coronavirus has pulled back the curtain on the vulnerabilities of our interconnected world. Now we are left asking some basic questions. What lessons have we learned so far?  Guests:  Sylvia Burwell, former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services  Tom Frieden, former Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  Rana Foroohar, Global Business Columnist and Associate Editor, Financial Times  Shannon O’Neil, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations    

Mar 2020

34 min 23 sec

You’re making the rounds at a party when someone asks you about NATO. Is it still important? The alliance is credited with preventing a third world war, but a lot of us don’t know what it is or how it works. This episode takes a look at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from the ground up, paired best with a cold drink.

Feb 2020

21 min 32 sec

As climate change accelerates, some scientists are researching ways to alter our climate to slow down warming. But the method, called solar geoengineering, comes with some serious risks.    Guests  David Keith (Harvard University) Shuchi Talati (Union of Concerned Scientists) Gernot Wagner (New York University)   Show Notes

Feb 2020

23 min 48 sec

The aftershocks of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election are still being felt today. Is the United States ready for 2020?

Jan 2020

22 min 46 sec

Militaries around the world are designing artificial intelligence–powered weapons that could one day make their own decisions about who to target. The technology could change warfare, but at what cost?

Jan 2020

26 min 20 sec

At the start of the new year, the Why It Matters team takes a look at some of the best interview segments that didn’t make it into the episodes.

Jan 2020

22 min 33 sec

Antibiotics have saved untold millions of lives, but bacteria are learning to outsmart them at alarming rates. Projections show that by 2050, ten million people could die each year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Dec 2019

23 min 31 sec

Space is getting crowded. The biggest challenge is space junk—the debris that results when satellites break up or get shot down. If we aren’t careful, space junk, and space conflict, could cause a lot of problems down here on Earth.

Dec 2019

23 min 12 sec

Women and girls are excluded from career paths in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This gender gap is causing the world to lose out on “the genius of half the population,” according to former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.

Nov 2019

24 min 21 sec

For years, China processed more than half of the world’s recycling. Then, in 2018, it stopped. Things have gotten messy since then.

Nov 2019

20 min 52 sec

The U.S. president can launch a first-strike nuclear attack at any time, and there’s no law mandating they seek advice first. Some experts think that’s too much power to put in one person’s hands. 

Oct 2019

26 min 42 sec

We all worry about not understanding the problems that are shaping our world. Why It Matters is a story-driven podcast that gives you the tools you need to understand where things are headed. Fueled by the minds at the Council on Foreign Relations, and hosted by a journalist who is learning alongside you, the podcast weaves together conversations with the leaders and thinkers who are facing these problems head on.

Oct 2019

1 min 50 sec