Post #126: How Trump Deals

The revelation from a New York Times investigation that Donald Trump’s chief campaign adviser, Paul Manafort, was on the take with the former pro-Russian Ukraine president should come as no surprise (www.nytimes.com/2016/08/15/us/politics/paul-manafort-ukraine-donald-trump.html).  Even before the Times report, we knew that Manafort was a well-paid economic adviser to President Viktor Yanukovych on election strategy and foreign investments.  What we now know is that he was among a substantial number of individuals who may have received millions of dollars in illegal, under-the-table payments or gifts from a Ukraine administration that was up to its neck in corrupt practices.  Whether or not Manafort actually received the $12.7 million designated for him by Yanukovych’s party, the fact is he profited from a close association with a pro-Russian government—an association that surely helps account for the pro-Russian views of Trump himself.

But the real story here is the insight it provides into how a Trump administration would conduct foreign policy.  In a nutshell, it’s “the art of the deal.”  Regardless of who might be on the other side of the table—Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, or Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico—Trump’s guideline would be that business interests are central to the national interest.  Anyone unfriendly to the US dollar would be an enemy, subject to sanctions. After all, the art of the deal is to win, and for Trump “winning is everything. I can only say: my whole life has been about winning” (interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, https://washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/04/02).

Neither US strategic priorities nor “idealist” concerns such as human rights and civil society would be allowed to interfere with cutting a deal.  As another of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, said, “ironically, Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress [with Moscow] through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/trump-advisers-public-comments-ties-to-moscow-stir-unease-in-both-parties/2016/08/05/2e8722fa-5815-11e6-9aee-8075993d73a2_story.html).  Thus, if Mexico balked at paying for the Trump Wall, Trump would have no qualms about punishing Mexico economically.  If China pushed back at the US navy in the South China Sea, Trump might erect barriers to Chinese imports.  As for Russia, where Trump, Page, Manafort, and other advisers already have business ties, investments are perceived as the key to moderating US-Russia relations and thus “solving” disputes over Crimea and Ukraine.

In Trump’s world, everyone has a price.  He has often told the story of how his view of China is mainly shaped by the sale of a Trump Tower apartment to a Chinese banker. (See my Post #110, Trump and China.)  Despite that profitable venture, Trump’s larger picture of China is that the Chinese are fleecing the US, they are “our enemies,” and only by threatening to disrupt trade with them can the US earn Beijing’s respect (http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/20/the-situation-room-with-wolf-blitzer-donald-trump-on-china-these-are-not-our-friends-these-are-our-enemies/). If the US wants to reverse China’s policy on exchange rates, the trade deficit, and even the South China Sea, all Washington has to do is hurt its economy.  Trump has no doubt—he is immune to doubt—that China will cave under such pressure.

Donald Trump and his inner circle have no interest in seeing the world through the eyes of others.  The world is reduced to markets, and diplomacy to The Deal.  The other forces that motivate nations—nationalism, insecurity, underdevelopment, historical grievances—don’t seem to be worth understanding or acknowledging.  That’s a major reason why Trump and Manafort are most comfortable dealing with—and admiring—dictators.  Dictators run a tight ship; their word is law; no one else need be consulted or persuaded.  Cutting a deal with them is so much easier than contending with democratic leaders, messy legislative processes, and outside influences such as unions and NGOs.

Fortunately, such a dangerously narrow view of world affairs is not going to win in November.  But it won’t go away, if for no other reason than that as US influence in the world declines, as US ability to end terrorism, climate disruptions, and other large-scale threats becomes ever more problematic, and as social and economic inequality persists at home, politicians preaching simplistic solutions and promising to put “America first” will reemerge.  Trump may go on vacation after the election, as he has promised; but Trumpism will survive.

 

Post #125: Our Deteriorating Environment: Is Anybody Listening?

Since beginning my blog in January 2014, I have written several pieces on the urgency of dealing with climate change and other large-scale environmental challenges—challenges that I have argued constitute the number-one global security issue of our time.  As the months pass, more and more evidence accumulates to justify this assessment.  But while the scientists have been doing their job in calling attention to the multiple ways in which environmental decline threatens the planet, we hear less and less from political leaders.  Their focus is on the here-and-now—terrorism, jobs, immigration—and not on commitments to the future.  Last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change (see Post #101) seems like a distant memory.

Here is some of the latest scientific evidence, which points not only to the magnitude and immediacy of the problem, but also to the interdependence of its parts:

  • To the now familiar melting of the Arctic ice packs—which the most recent study shows is likely to cause a sea level rise of “at least several meters” (atmos-phys-chem.net/16/3761/2016)– should be added the equally if not more dangerous thawing of the permafrost, which means increasing emissions of methane and carbon dioxide (http://wapo.st/1xXHKvy). “Indeed,” Chris Mooney reports, “scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.” (Methane, by the way, seems to be the unsung villain: all the attention to carbon dioxide, Bill McKibben tells us [“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry,” The Nation, April 11-18, 2016], detracts from methane’s equally potent heat trapping.  Increased use of natural gas, plus fracking, are significantly increasing methane emissions in the US.)
  • The world’s largest forest “carbon sink,” the Amazon basin, is losing its ability to soak up excess carbon dioxide, a British study reports (http://nyti.ms/1G6DLhr). In a nutshell, growth—i.e., conversion of forest land to agriculture—is outpacing forest sustainability.
  • New studies of flooding confirm that rising sea levels as the result of global warming are occurring at a faster rate than ever before. The coastal flooding witnessed in recent years in Miami, Charleston, and Norfolk is likely to be more frequent and prolonged in the future.  Ocean levels may rise up three to four feet by 2100 (nytimes.com/2016/02/23/science/sea-level-rise-global-warming-climate-change.html).
  • China, while promising to draw 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, is in fact continuing to construct coal-fired plants—on average, one plant a week until 2020, according to the latest Greenpeace report (nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/13/world/asia/China-Coal-Power.html). The extraordinary fact about this new construction is that it creates huge excess capacity, the result not of central government dictates but rather of permits for investment in coal-fired plants by leaders in distant provinces.  Unless this trend stops, as much as $200 billion will be wasted and water availability will dramatically decline.

Two pieces of good news: nuclear power is in trouble everywhere, and the ozone “hole” over the Antarctic is starting to heal.  The latest World Nuclear Industry Status Report (www.worldnuclearreport.org/) details the numerous nuclear power plants that have been or in a short time will be shut down.  Financing problems, aging plants, and technical breakdowns are a big part of the reason; but competition from renewable energy sources is becoming the most important factor.  The future energy picture is captured is this notation:  “Globally, wind power output grew by 17%, solar by 33%, nuclear by 1.3%” in the past year, and “Brazil, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands now all generate more electricity from wind turbines alone than from nuclear power plants.” Meantime, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone layer is growing back—a sign that international agreements backed by a coalition of scientists does work (www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/06/30/the-antarctic-ozone-hole-has-finally-started-to-heal-scientists-report).

Public opinion trails behind scientific findings on climate change, according to Pew Research Center polls.  The urgency of climate change is felt more strongly in Europe and Latin America than in the US and China: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/18/what-the-world-thinks-about-climate-change-in-7-charts/.  That fact is worrisome: Americans and Chinese, who live in the biggest carbon producing societies, should be the most concerned about climate change. On the other hand, Americans’ concern is rising again: the percentage of Americans polled by Gallup in 2016 who believe climate change is a worrisome problem stands at 64 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, only 10 percent of US adults now discount global warming as a major problem (www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/18/what-the-world-thinks-about-climate-change-in-7-charts/).  But before we celebrate, we need to remind ourselves that expressions of concern don’t equate to what people are willing to do to combat the problem, even at the polls.  And if many of them are inclined to “let the politicians figure it out,” or hide behind “I’m not a scientist” disclaimers, we’re in great trouble.

Sadly, climate change is barely on the election-year agenda.  That’s hardly surprising in the case of Donald Trump, a climate change denier.  His come-uppance will be when his prize Florida hotel, Mar-a-Lago, goes under water in perhaps thirty years (www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/06/donald-trump-climate-change-florida-resort), along with many other coastal properties as mentioned above.  Beaches and streets are already flooding in Miami.  (Trump should talk with high-end Miami realtors, two-thirds of whom are very worried about climate change. But of course, he won’t; he doesn’t need advice from anyone.)  As for Hillary Clinton, she has mentioned global warming of course, but it’s clearly not a high priority in her campaign.  Whether or not that changes in her presidency remains to be seen, but (if you’ll excuse the expression) don’t hold your breath.

A final thought, which comes from an opinion piece by William Gail, former president of the American Meteorological Society (www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/opinion/a-new-dark-age-looms.html): Future generations may have to start from scratch in grappling with the “new dark age” of climate-altering changes.  Their learning process will have been disrupted.  Models, technologies, and other resources used to identify patterns, and predict and act on Earth’s dramatic changes, will be largely useless.  Our children and grandchildren have no idea what they are inheriting.

 

Post #124: Break-in: The Kremlin-Trump Connection

Richard Nixon had “The Plumbers.”  Donald Trump, it seems, has the Russians—either the FSB (Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB), the GRU (military intelligence), or some pro-Moscow outside group.  Nixon had to resort to a physical break-in of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex; the Russians simply hacked their way in.  Their act of cyberwarfare is another step in an escalation of US-Russia tensions that has lately included assaults and intimidation of US diplomats in Moscow.

To my mind, the cyber-hacking was ordered at the highest level in the Kremlin (as many cyber experts are saying) with the motive of influencing the US elections (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/clinton-campaign-%2Dand-some-cyber-experts-%2Dsay-russia-is-behind-email-release/2016/07/24/5b5428e6-51a8-11e6-bbf5-957ad17b4385_story.html).  The Russians hope not merely to embarrass the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign by leaking tens of thousands of private emails, but also to elevate the candidacy of their new friend in the Trump Tower.  None of these assessments will probably ever be provable, but the coincidence of the hacking and turnover of materials to Wikileaks just days before the Democratic convention was to begin defy a different interpretation. Unfortunately, whereas Nixon’s attempt to cover up the covert operation failed and he paid dearly for ordering it, Vladimir Putin probably will be able to hide his role forever.

Some may excuse the Russians by arguing either that US administrations, after all, have a history of meddling in other countries’ elections, even those of allies (e.g., the Australians long ago); or that the hacking is payback for the US-engineered release of the Panama Papers in part to spotlight corruption at the highest levels of the Russian government.  The current situation is different: It amounts to information warfare.  Unlike the cyberwarfare now apparently going on between China and the US, which is “normal” intelligence gathering, Russia’s venture might be considered a serious breach of US national security.  (See David Sanger’s article: www.nytimes.com/2016/07/25/us/politics/donald-trump-russia-emails.html.)

While the full impact of the hacking incident on US-Russia relations may not be apparent for awhile, it will be immediate on the presidential race.  The Russians have already scored two successes—causing the resignation of the DNC national chair and forcing Hillary Clinton to have to deal again with Bernie Sanders, whose accusations during the campaign of DNC bias against him have now been borne out by the released emails.  But their third target—helping Trump’s candidacy—is bound to fail miserably.  For one thing, nobody anywhere likes foreigners to meddle in their politics.  The result is usually blowback.  And in the present case, Donald Trump’s open affection for Putin (along with other autocrats), his belief he can work with Moscow (much like George W. Bush’s claim he could look into Putin’s “soul” and see good), and his discrediting of the NATO alliance will not go down easily with the electorate.

If these were the Cold War years, Trump’s friendliness toward Moscow would guarantee his defeat.  But now that the Cold War with the Russians is reviving, the Clinton campaign has a golden opportunity to benefit from the connection between Russian hacking and Trump’s campaign.  We can count on blowback, and Trump may rue the day he befriended Putin.

 

 

Post #123: Donald Trump—A “Unique and Present Danger”

“There can be no prosperity without law and order.”  If you saw Donald Trump delivering those words—he repeated “law and order” three more times—you had every reason to think you were watching another tin pot dictator in action.  (If you can bear it, the full text is at www.vox.com/2016/7/21/12253426/donald-trump-acceptance-speech-transcript-republican-nomination-transcript.)  He stood before Republican delegates as the great leader, the one who would singlehandedly lead America out of the darkness. “I am your voice,” he declared.  It was, in all, a frightening spectacle.

Like many other observers, including plenty of prominent Republicans, I believe Donald Trump is a dangerous man.  Not merely for his ideas, which run the gamut from empty to unconstitutional to outlandish, but for his character and values: megalomania, disregard for other viewpoints, racism, sexism, and demagoguery, just to cite a few.  People like Trump come along once in a lifetime in American politics—the person who truly believes he has been anointed to save his people and the world.  See Charlie Chaplin’s “The Dictator” to reacquaint yourselves with this aberrant behavior pattern.

Progressives may be disappointed in the Democratic Party’s ticket.  But when we consider what the US might become under a Trump-Pence administration, it seems to me that we must do everything we can to ensure a Clinton-Kaine victory—including not supporting a third party, which might take precious votes away from the Democrats.  We thought electing Ronald Reagan would be a calamity and McCain-Palin even worse.  But a President Trump would be “a unique and present danger” to our democracy.

Those words come at the end of a superb July 22 Washington Post editorial that brings together the many disturbing facets of Trumpism and captures the key reasons why he must be defeated.  I can’t do any better, and so reproduce below the full editorial.  You might want to do the same for your friends and colleagues.

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DONALD J. TRUMP, until now a Republican problem, this week became a challenge the nation must confront and overcome. The real estate tycoon is uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament. He is mounting a campaign of snarl and sneer, not substance. To the extent he has views, they are wrong in their diagnosis of America’s problems and dangerous in their proposed solutions. Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.

Any one of these characteristics would be disqualifying; together, they make Mr. Trump a peril. We recognize that this is not the usual moment to make such a statement. In an ordinary election year, we would acknowledge the Republican nominee, move on to the Democratic convention and spend the following months, like other voters, evaluating the candidates’ performance in debates, on the stump and in position papers. This year we will follow the campaign as always, offering honest views on all the candidates. But we cannot salute the Republican nominee or pretend that we might endorse him this fall. A Trump presidency would be dangerous for the nation and the world.

Why are we so sure? Start with experience. It has been 64 years since a major party nominated anyone for president who did not have electoral experience. That experiment turned out pretty well — but Mr. Trump, to put it mildly, is no Dwight David Eisenhower. Leading the Allied campaign to liberate Europe from the Nazis required strategic and political skills of the first order, and Eisenhower — though he liked to emphasize his common touch as he faced the intellectual Democrat Adlai Stevenson — was shrewd, diligent, humble and thoughtful.

In contrast, there is nothing on Mr. Trump’s résumé to suggest he could function successfully in Washington. He was staked in the family business by a well-to-do father and has pursued a career marked by some real estate successes, some failures and repeated episodes of saving his own hide while harming people who trusted him. Given his continuing refusal to release his tax returns, breaking with a long bipartisan tradition, it is only reasonable to assume there are aspects of his record even more discreditable than what we know.

The lack of experience might be overcome if Mr. Trump saw it as a handicap worth overcoming. But he displays no curiosity, reads no books and appears to believe he needs no advice. In fact, what makes Mr. Trump so unusual is his combination of extreme neediness and unbridled arrogance. He is desperate for affirmation but contemptuous of other views. He also is contemptuous of fact. Throughout the campaign, he has unspooled one lie after another — that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated after 9/11, that his tax-cut plan would not worsen the deficit, that he opposed the Iraq War before it started — and when confronted with contrary evidence, he simply repeats the lie. It is impossible to know whether he convinces himself of his own untruths or knows that he is wrong and does not care. It is also difficult to know which trait would be more frightening in a commander in chief.

Given his ignorance, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Trump offers no coherence when it comes to policy. In years past, he supportedimmigration reformgun control and legal abortion; as candidate, he became a hard-line opponent of all three. Even in the course of the campaign, he has flip-flopped on issues such as whether Muslims should be banned from entering the United States and whether women who have abortions should be punished . Worse than the flip-flops is the absence of any substance in his agenda. Existing trade deals are “stupid,” but Mr. Trump does not say how they could be improved. The Islamic State must be destroyed, but the candidate offers no strategy for doing so. Eleven million undocumented immigrants must be deported, but Mr. Trump does not tell us how he would accomplish this legally or practically.

What the candidate does offer is a series of prejudices and gut feelings, most of them erroneous. Allies are taking advantage of the United States. Immigrants are committing crimes and stealing jobs. Muslims hate America. In fact, Japan and South Korea are major contributors to an alliance that has preserved a peace of enormous benefit to Americans. Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans and take jobs that no one else will. Muslims are the primary victims of Islamist terrorism, and Muslim Americans, including thousands who have served in the military, are as patriotic as anyone else.

The Trump litany of victimization has resonated with many Americans whose economic prospects have stagnated. They deserve a serious champion, and the challenges of inequality and slow wage growth deserve a serious response. But Mr. Trump has nothing positive to offer, only scapegoats and dark conspiracy theories. He launched his campaign by accusing Mexico of sending rapists across the border, and similar hatefulness has surfaced numerous times in the year since.

In a dangerous world, Mr. Trump speaks blithely of abandoning NATO, encouraging more nations to obtain nuclear weapons and cozying up to dictators who in fact wish the United States nothing but harm. For eight years, Republicans have criticized President Obama for “apologizing” for America and for weakening alliances. Now they put forward a candidate who mimics the vilest propaganda of authoritarian adversaries about how terrible the United States is and how unfit it is to lecture others. He has made clear that he would drop allies without a second thought. The consequences to global security could be disastrous.

Most alarming is Mr. Trump’s contempt for the Constitution and the unwritten democratic norms upon which our system depends. He doesn’t know what is in the nation’s founding document. When asked by a member of Congress about Article I, which enumerates congressional powers, the candidate responded, “I am going to abide by the Constitution whether it’s number 1, number 2, number 12, number 9.” The charter has seven articles.

Worse, he doesn’t seem to care about its limitations on executive power. He has threatened that those who criticize him will suffer when he is president. He has vowed to torture suspected terrorists and bomb their innocent relatives, no matter the illegality of either act. He has vowed toconstrict the independent press. He went after a judge whose rulings angered him, exacerbating his contempt for the independence of the judiciary by insisting that the judge should be disqualified because of his Mexican heritage. Mr. Trump has encouraged and celebrated violence at his rallies. The U.S. democratic system is strong and has proved resilient when it has been tested before. We have faith in it. But to elect Mr. Trump would be to knowingly subject it to threat.

Mr. Trump campaigns by insult and denigration, insinuation and wild accusation: Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Hillary Clinton may be guilty of murder; Mr. Obama is a traitor who wants Muslims to attack. The Republican Party has moved the lunatic fringe onto center stage, with discourse that renders impossible the kind of substantive debate upon which any civil democracy depends.

Most responsible Republican leaders know all this to be true; that is why Mr. Trump had to rely so heavily on testimonials by relatives and employees during this week’s Republican convention. With one exception (Bob Dole), the living Republican presidents and presidential nominees of the past three decades all stayed away. But most current officeholders, even those who declared Mr. Trump to be an unthinkable choice only months ago, have lost the courage to speak out.

The party’s failure of judgment leaves the nation’s future where it belongs, in the hands of voters. Many Americans do not like either candidate this year . We have criticized the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the past and will do so again when warranted. But we do not believe that she (or the Libertarian and Green party candidates, for that matter) represents a threat to the Constitution. Mr. Trump is a unique and present danger.

 

Post #122: China’s Bad Day in Court

As had been widely expected, the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled on July 12 in favor of the Philippines’ suit to declare Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) illegal.*  On every particular, the court found that China’s claims—defined by the so-called “nine-dash line”— to an expansive maritime zone and its undersea resources are illegal, and therefore that its land reclamation and construction projects in the islands encroach on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.  Though the ruling did not extend to the issue of sovereignty over the SCS islands, it clarified the boundary dispute.  The ruling also found China guilty of harming the marine environment by building artificial islands, of illegally interfering with Filipinos’ fishing  and oil exploration, and “aggravating” the dispute with the Philippines by its construction activities.  (Text of the ruling is at https://www.scribd.com/document/318075282/Permanent-Court-of-Arbitration-PCA-on-the-West-Philippine-Sea-Arbitration#download).

China had determined its response many months ago.  The foreign ministry declared the arbitration court’s decision “null and void and without binding force.”  The statement repeated China’s sovereignty claims over the SCS islands.  It asserted that China’s stance is consistent with international law, a view that hardly squares with its denial of the arbitration court’s jurisdiction, much less its decision.  China is committed to direct negotiations with the interested parties and to peaceful settlement of disputes, the statement says; but “regarding territorial issues and maritime delimitation disputes, China does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China” (Xinhua, July 12, 2016, “Full Statement.”)

In all, it was a bad day in court for the People’s Republic.  Though it promises not to abide by the ruling, meaning China will continue to militarize the disputed islands and defend its “core interests” there—its navy held its first live-fire exercises in the SCS the day before the court’s decision—the spotlight is on China’s claim to be a “responsible great power.”  President Xi Jinping had indicated in 2014 that China needed to have “its own great-power foreign policy with special characteristics,” which he called “six persistents” (liuge jianchi).  These principles supposedly would create a “new type of international relations,” and included ideas such as “cooperation and win-win,” a major voice for developing countries, and defense of international justice.  But the six persistents also included “never abandoning our legitimate rights and interests” (zhengdang quanyi), which all too often is pretext for acting in ways directly opposed to international responsibility.  (See http://world.people.com.cn/n/2014/1201/c1002-26128130.html.)

China’s leaders surely expected that signing and ratifying the UNCLOS would be advantageous to the country.  It would demonstrate China’s commitment to international agreements, show China’s respect for the maritime rights of others (especially its Southeast Asia neighbors) as well as legitimize its own rights, and facilitate undersea exploration for resources.  But agreements don’t always turn out as expected.  Now that the law has turned against it, the Chinese suddenly seek to disqualify the UNCLOS court and reinterpret the convention’s intent.  Not many governments are likely to support such backsliding.

The US, though having always supported the Philippines’ position, has nothing to cheer about here.  First, the US has neither signed nor ratified the UNCLOS, and thus is in a weak position to argue on its behalf or appeal to international law and a “rules-based system’ when governments violate either (such as Russia’s seizure of Crimea).  Second, like China, the US has always taken a dim view of international law when “national interests” are at stake.  Whether with regard to the International Court of Justice or any other international court, the US has never accepted the idea of compulsory jurisdiction, and in fact has often behaved as though it is exempt from laws and rules.  Thus, also like China, US responsibility as a great power does not consistently embrace respect for and adherence to international treaties and conventions, international legal bodies (such as the International Criminal Court), or international legal norms (such as those regarding nonintervention, genocide, and torture).  (See www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/05/america-and-international-law.)  Both the US and China, in a word, talk the talk but don’t walk the walk—unless law serves its policy.

And that is the real lesson here—the irresponsibility of great powers, their self-serving approach to international law, and the limited capacity of legal institutions to constrain their behavior.  Perhaps in the SCS case China and the Philippines, now under a new president, will find their way back to the negotiating table and work out a deal that skirts the always-difficult sovereignty issue.  (See my last post on the subject: https://mgurtov.wordpress.com/2016/06/11/post-119-too-close-for-comfort-the-dangerous-us-china-maritime-dispute/.)  That would be fine; but it would not address the fundamental problem of how law-abiding behavior can be promoted and enforced in an often anarchic world.

*The court, whose work on the SCS case began in 2013, is composed of justices from Ghana, Poland, Netherlands, France, and Germany.

 

 

 

 

Post #121: Unintended Consequences and the Warfare State

“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences.”  So wrote Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush in 2002, as Bush prepared to invade Iraq (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/06/full-text-annotated-tony-blairs-2002-iraq-memo-to-george-bush).  Blair’s unstinting support of US policy, notwithstanding numerous unknowns and acknowledged large-scale obstacles, is more than a case of over-optimism or misplaced friendship.  For as the Chilcot Commission has just concluded after a seven-year long investigation of British policy, bad judgment was multiplied by hubris, a deeply flawed decision-making process, and an unquestioned faith in the ability of military power to resolve political and economic problems.

The essential message from the Chilcot Report goes well beyond British policy in Iraq, or even beyond US policy under Bush, which suffered from the same problems.  The report, to my mind, is a commentary on certain diseases that infect foreign policy decision-making processes everywhere.  Decision-making groups are always subject to misjudgments, blunders, and misperceptions; but the bigger picture has to do with what Sen. J.W. Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.”  Powerful likeminded members of a leader’s inner circle (far more often men than women), meeting in secret, with enormous destructive power at their disposal, and believing their country is invincible and their arguments infallible, make for a dangerous combination.

In 2002-2003, we know for a fact that Bush and Blair were determined to go ahead with invading Iraq regardless of any evidence or argument to the contrary.  The decision for war, far from having been due to an intelligence failure, was predetermined.  War was the answer to “getting” Saddam Hussein, the first and last resort, and the job of both governments’ leaders was to sell the war, in large part by massaging intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction and outright lying to the public.  Opposition to war—in legislatures, in public opinion, in the UN, in domestic and international law, among allies and other friendly governments—was simply a problem to be overcome.  This was the Vietnam story for thirty years.  It is likely to be the Afghanistan story (if the US ever gets out of there), China’s South China Sea story, and Russia’s Crimea story—if we ever gain access to the relevant documents.

The Chilcot Report points up another policymaking failure that is fairly universal when it comes to questions of war and peace: an unwillingness to consider alternatives to the use of force.  The inner circle of decision makers simply never goes there.  Peace is unthinkable, at least not until victory has been achieved.  That means avoiding planning for negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding.  It’s a time for warriors, not diplomats.  Officials who argue against aggressive policies thus find themselves sidelined; they are “soft,” hence no longer useful members of “the team.”

At least one writer, Trevor Timm in The Guardian, has already called for a Chilcot-style report on George W.’s Iraq policy (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/06/us-george-bush-needs-chilcot-report-iraq-war).  But we all know that such an investigation is not going to happen, even under a Democratic leadership.  As Barack Obama has made clear in not pursuing criminal charges against CIA and other torturers, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the lot are free to enjoy their retirement. After all, Iraq is history, and besides, we must always value social stability over punishment when the criminal behavior of state leaders is concerned.  The International Criminal Court is for others.

The Chilcot Report provides a public service by reminding us that there will always be “unintended consequences,” and that those consequences may prove considerably greater than the policy problem everyone had originally addressed. One look at the Middle East today compared with 2002 makes that assessment plain enough.  Failing to stop the war train long enough to consider what those unintended consequences might be, and whether they might be formidable enough to keep the train in the station, is the Achilles heel of great powers.  How to overcome that dilemma requires much more than tinkering with the decision-making system, for at bottom the arrogance of power is the enemy, and the Chilcot Report provides no antidote for it.

 

 

Post #120: Is Brexit the End of the World?

To judge from a New York Times front-page article that appeared two days after the British vote to withdraw from the EU, the entire post-World War II global financial and political structure that the United States led into existence is now imperiled (www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/world/europe/britain-rattles-postwar-order-and-its-place-as-pillar-of-stability.html).  Western democracy, financial institutions, liberal trade and immigration policies, and alliances are all under challenge now.  Right-wing populism is pushing forces opposed to all these arrangements, especially when they are presided over by a supranational structure such as the European Union (EU) that may impinge on national interests.  In short, the article contends, Brexit will not only dramatically reduce Great Britain’s influence, economic growth, and even size (if Scotland gains independence); it will turn the world as we know it upside down.  I think it is much too early to sound the alarm bell.

To be sure, the impact on the United Kingdom is bound to be severe and long-term.  It will now be “on the other side of the negotiating table” from the EU, as one observer said.  That means prolonged and potentially painful new trade, travel, and work arrangements that will end up costing British consumers and firms dearly. Both the Conservative and Labour parties will be in turmoil for some time, their leaders blamed for failure at the polls and new leaders struggling to find a way out of a huge mess.  Social conflict may escalate, particularly anti-immigrant violence.

But will Britain’s pain extend to others?  The EU may well be weakened as it loses a major international player, particularly when it comes to dealing with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, China over human rights and trade, and large-scale economic assistance to troubled economies such as Greece’s.  Even more fundamentally, Brexit may be imitated, as nationalist parties in France, Netherlands, and Sweden gain followings for closing their doors to refugees and pulling out of the EU.  In the worst case, we might see the renewal of autarky and the emergence of dominant right-wing, neo-fascist parties (look at the recent vote in Austria and Marine Le Pen’s rising popularity in France)—echoes of prewar Europe.

It is far too early, however, to indulge in worst-case thinking.  At the least, it remains to be seen whether Britain and other countries embrace trade protectionism or liberalization.  It remains to be seen whether the UK becomes “Little Britain,” a bit player on international political and economic issues, or continues to be a strong voice in NATO, the World Bank, and other multilateral organizations.  It remains to be seen whether Britain’s economy shrinks badly or, as the chancellor of the exchequer maintains, has in place the tools to weather the coming storm and sustain a strong economy.  It remains to be seen if the EU can close ranks, demonstrate the value of integration, and continue to be a prominent international voice on climate change and human rights.  It remains to be seen whether the imitation effect of Brexit actually comes about elsewhere in Europe, not to mention in the UK itself.  Le Pen may appear to have a clear road to the prime ministership in France, for instance, but she, like Trump, may face strong reactions against the National Front’s thinly disguised racism, France-first sloganeering, and promises to overturn the ideals of multiculturalism and community.

And if you want to think about worst cases, consider the possibility—slight now, but perhaps much greater in coming months—that Brexit causes so much pain for the British people that populism turns against it.  According to the Washington Post, 3 million Brits (and climbing steadily) want another referendum on leaving the EU. That’s very unlikely at the moment, but if negotiations with the EU result in a further dramatic fall of the pound, sliding middle-class income, high unemployment, and other developments that put the British economy in the tank, might not the next British PM have to call for new elections and another referendum?

(Key figures in the “leave” EU campaign are already walking back some advertised promises, such as that the approximately £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU would be used to fund the national health system, or that immigration to Britain would actually go down (www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/26/brexit-leaders-are-walking-back-some-of-their-biggest-promises/).  An intriguing comment in the Guardian under the name “Teebs” raises another possibility: that David Cameron, having resigned without giving official notice of British withdrawal under Article 50 of the EU treaty, has left his successor with the option of treating the Brexit vote as a nonbinding referendum which Parliament, dominated by “remain” members, can ignore (www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/26/an-astute-online-comment-has-many-wondering-whether-brexit-may-ever-happen/).  Well, who knows?  Even Boris Johnson, a vociferous Brexit supporter and likely Cameron successor, has said there’s no need to hurry about invoking Article 50.  Maybe he wants to see if his optimism about Brexit during the leave-or-remain campaign was actually warranted!)

What about the impact of Brexit on the US?  Yes, there will be an impact: the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be dead whoever wins the presidential election, since Hillary Clinton had long since promised to renegotiate it and now must contend with Bernie Sanders’ pressure to abandon the TPP altogether.  US exports are likely to suffer some (though Britain is not among the top US markets), the US trade deficit will widen some, and Tea Party-ers may feel a surge of energy.  But most observers I’ve read do not see a major threat to the US economy from Brexit; and people who believe that Donald Trump’s “America First” message will get a great boost from Brexit are going to be sorely disappointed, since virtually every day he says something that reminds us of just how un-American his message is.

We also ought to consider Brexit’s potential silver linings for the US, at least “silver” from a human-interest point of view. One is that Britain will probably substantially reduce its concrete support of US policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  Such a shift, though disputed by some leaders of the “leave” campaign, would be desirable, since it might prod the next US president to reassess commitments to endless war in the Middle East.  On the US domestic side, ditching TPP and reassessing the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be welcome news for US workers, unions, and many workers abroad, as well as for the environment (see Post #76).  A refocusing of the globalization debate on social and economic justice in the US is sorely needed.  Thanks to Brexit, not to mention Bernie Sanders and many progressive nongovernmental organizations, that debate may finally get somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.

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