Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Making America Unsafe Again

Donald Trump is all about boundaries. At a personal level, he doesn’t like touching strangers for fear of infection. Politically, he makes no long-lasting close alliances. And geopolitically, he obsesses over strong borders: big walls, more stringent immigration requirements, tariffs on foreign imports.

But Trump is nothing if not a walking contradiction. For a guy who shies away from shaking hands with strangers, he has no problem putting his hands all over women who recoil from his touch. And for someone who talks so much about keeping America safe, he has undermined many of the traditional mechanisms that have protected the country from foreign interference.

So, for instance, while the president diverts money from the Pentagon to block people coming from the south to do jobs Americans don’t want to do, he is simultaneously ignoring the Russian trolls and hackers who have targeted the U.S. electoral system. Meanwhile, Trump gutted the government infrastructure for dealing with pandemics, leaving the United States especially vulnerable during the current coronavirus outbreak.

The administration might as well put up a big sign, “We welcome viruses of all kinds!”

Then there’s the increased economic and environmental vulnerability. The Trump administration’s deregulation of the extraction industry in particular has benefited multinational corporations that have swept in to gobble up windfalls from the federal government. And the administration’s cavalier approach to corruption has meant that foreigners have waltzed into Washington to peddle influence more effectively than they ever did in the pre-Trump swamp.

Forget about tight borders, sovereign rights, and America first. That rhetoric only applies to the poor people who are willing to risk their lives crossing the border to build our houses, mow our lawns, and pick tomatoes for our salads.

In reality, the Trump administration is selling out America every chance it gets.

Russia Redux

No one relishes telling Donald Trump something he doesn’t want to hear. He flies into a fury. He abuses the messenger. And the bearers of bad news usually get nothing in return for their candor except a one-way ticket out of the administration.

That’s what happened to Joseph McGuire, the acting director of national intelligence, when he briefed Trump about Russia’s continued efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. The next day, McGuire was out on his ear. His replacement, the ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, is not only supremely unqualified for the job but basically served as Russia’s manservant in Europe by promoting the interests of Euroskeptics and far right-wing parties.

Trump doesn’t want to hear about Russian interference. He believes that such “fake news” somehow delegitimizes his 2016 electoral victory. The story of Russian interference is so distressing to Trump that he will go to any length to support the rival story that Ukraine interfered in the elections on behalf of the Democrats, a narrative without a shred of supporting evidence.

The administration moved quickly to call into question the latest intelligence assessment. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien dismissed the charges that the Russians were interfering on behalf of Trump and suggested instead that they were backing Bernie Sanders. The president’s attack dogs have argued that Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led the impeachment inquiry in the House and chairs the House Intelligence Committee, is the real Russian asset because he has consistently raised the alarm about Russian interference (logic is not the forte of the president’s defenders).

Whether the Russians are actively working to reelect Trump or are simply pursuing their core objective of sowing discord in the U.S. election is largely immaterial. Let the intelligence community debate the finer nuances of this question.

The real issue is that the Trump administration is not doing anything to block Russian interference. “The current administration has gone from neglect to denying the problem exists at all,” cybersecurity expert John Pescatore recently told The Washington Post.

Last year, scholars at Stanford University produced a report with dozens of suggestions on how to protect the integrity of U.S. elections. As The New York Times editorialized in July:

Some three years after Vladimir Putin’s government planted trolls and bots on social media sites to propagandize for Donald Trump, hacked into the emails of officials on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and probed election infrastructure for vulnerabilities, the president’s team has not pursued a single one of them. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to block even the consideration of stand-alone legislation that would bolster election security.

That huge wall along the border with Mexico? Talk about the wrong policy in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Russians are laughing all the way to the elections.

Unprepared for Pandemic

You’d think that a germophobe like Trump would do everything he could to keep infectious diseases out of the United States. What applies to Trump’s body, however, doesn’t apply to the body politic.

In July 2018, Trump disbanded the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Directorate within the National Security Council and dismantled the unit within Homeland Security devoted to transnational threats of this nature. He sought huge cuts in the Pandemic Preparedness account and in assistance to other countries to respond to pandemics.

“Funding will also dry up this year for a tiered epidemic response within the US,” reports Julian Borger in The Guardian. “The system was set up in the aftermath of the Ebola scare, and involved identifying patients infected by ‘special pathogens’ in frontline hospitals and their transfer up a chain of specially equipped regional hospitals where they could be safely treated.”

Under Trump, the United States has contracted a peculiar auto-immune disease. The government is attacking its own ability to fend off disease.

“The government has intentionally rendered itself incapable,” writes Laurie Garrett in a devastating piece in Foreign Policy about the Trump administration’s self-defeating approach to pandemics. “The Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion.”

Distressed confusion – that about sums up the Trump administration’s approach to just about every global problem. By removing knowledgeable people from the top ranks of government, the administration has thrown open the country to every invasive species known to politics: charlatans, incompetents, and just plain idiots.

Selling the Family Silver

Trump promised to go into overdrive to dig up coal, pump up oil, and frack shale for natural gas. He has invited the extraction industry onto federal lands to dig up whatever they want. He has gutted the environmental regulations that at least attempted to keep the damage to a minimum.

Okay, you might say: it’s stupid to soil our own nest but at least we’re doing it to ourselves.

But that’s not the case. Consider the case of valuable minerals. The Trump administration has made it much easier for corporations to mine uranium, gold, and other resources on public lands. As a recent Center for American Progress report points out, the vast majority of uranium-mining concerns are foreign while the majority of gold producers are also foreign.

Even nationalists should be up in arms about this pillage of America’s birthright.

Then there’s the swamp that Trump promised to drain. In fact, he has invited all manner of lobbyists and corporate influence peddlers to ply their trade in DC. Many of these swamp dwellers come from overseas.

Trump’s own organization has sought out business with such countries as Indonesia and China, obviously trading on Trump’s name and status and raising obvious conflicts of interest. Or consider the corruption that permeates Jared Kushner’s family business, which has also had dealings with China and Qatar, despite Kushner’s prominent foreign policy role. And some of the corruption benefits Trump’s cronies, for instance when a Japanese casino provides a license for Trump donor Sheldon Adelson or Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao helps drum up more Chinese business for her shipping magnate of a father.

Whether it’s Russian hackers, deadly viruses, or unscrupulous investors, the Trump administration has made it much easier for some foreign agents to destabilize the United States – politically, economically, and epidemiologically. Let’s face it: hard-working Mexicans and Muslims have made this country great. It’s time to focus U.S. energies on safeguarding the country from the real threats, the ones that Donald Trump either ignores or considers his best friends.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 25, 2020

Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Putin Proposes, Trump Disposes

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is proposing a new constitution. Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump is disposing of the old constitution.

The first is a demonstration of power meant to showcase the unity of the Russian political system behind a strong leader. The second is an act of desperation that reveals the deep division of the American political system and the ultimate weakness of the president.

Putin will remain president until 2024 and, with this latest move, is possibly preparing the ground for an extension. Trump wants to be reelected to another term that would keep him in the Oval Office until 2024, but he has “joked” six times about becoming president for life. The fates of the United States and Russia are inextricably linked to the authoritarian narcissism of these two figures.

But these men are also part of a much longer historical development. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have experienced an unexpected reversal in fortune.

Looking Ahead to the New Millennium 

Imagine sitting down in front of your computer in 1999 to try to predict the future of the United States and Russia. The trajectories seemed clear enough. The Soviet Union was dead already for eight years, the Berlin Wall was a decade gone, and the United States was the undisputed winner of the Cold War.

If the 20th century was the American century, surely the 21st would be so as well.

Certainly, the largest Soviet successor state, Russia, no longer seemed to be in the running. Its GDP was only a little more than half of what it had been in 1989. Inflation was raging at 36 percent. Billions of dollars had been siphoned out of the country during its putative “transition” to capitalism. Although life expectancy in 1988 was nearly 70 years, it dropped to below 65 years by 1994 — an unprecedented decline for a modern industrialized country not experiencing a major war.

Russia’s nascent democracy, too, was in peril. President Boris Yeltsin — frequently drunk, consistently incompetent, and battling several impeachment threats — resigned on the last day of the millennium and handed power to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin. This little-known apparatchik, an alumnus of the Soviet security system, didn’t face much of a challenge.

A generation of pro-democracy advocates had been compromised by their support for the economic changes that had so clearly impoverished the vast majority of Russians. The country was edging in the direction of a failed state. With secessionist turmoil again roiling Chechnya, the very integrity of the Russian Federation hung in the balance.

Contrast conditions in Russia in 1999 with those in the United States. At that time, America was the world’s sole superpower enjoying its extended unipolar moment.

The U.S. economy was, in the 1990s, in the longest extended economic boom in its history to that point. This expansion, plus a tax increase for the wealthy and a very modest set of cuts in military spending, allowed the administration of Bill Clinton to eliminate the budget deficit by 1998. In 1999, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.1 percent, the lowest in 30 years.

It wasn’t exactly a progressive economic agenda, not with Clinton’s punitive welfare reform and corporate-friendly NAFTA. But it was an economic paradise compared to Russia.

The Clinton administration was also edging in the direction of greater multilateralism. It signed the Rome statutes for the International Criminal Court, though it didn’t submit the treaty to the Senate for approval (the George W. Bush administration withdrew the U.S. signature in 2002). Similarly, Clinton signed the Law of the Seas agreement, which the Senate refused to ratify. He also pushed for the United States to pay its unpaid dues to the United Nations. It was a compromised multilateralism — what Clinton called “a la carte” — but it was a step up from the unilateralism of the Reagan era.

On the political front, Clinton too faced impeachment and a trial. Since the Senate couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority for either count (lying under oath, obstruction of justice), Clinton remained in office. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” — the Koch brothers, the neocons, the progenitors of the alt-right — howled from the margins, but without much effect.

In 1999, at least, American democracy seemed to be in reasonably good shape, at least in comparison to what happened later: the scandalous Supreme Court judgment in the 2000 election, the transformations wrought by the Bush administration after 9/11, and the Citizens United decision on money in politics, to mention just three.

So, if you were sitting at your computer in 1999, you probably weren’t thinking much about Russia, its prospects of returning to superpower status, or any ruinous clash between Moscow and Washington. If you were worried about anything, it was Y2K followed by, maybe, China, which was finishing a decade of dramatic economic growth. Russia was becoming more insular, more illiberal, more nationalist. The United States was flexing its power, economically and militarily, but also moving toward greater diplomatic engagement with the world.

History, it seemed, had made its decision. The United States had benefited enormously from the end of the Cold War; Russia had not.

Case closed.

Twenty Years Later



By 2019, the United States had traded places with Russia in many respects.

Consider, for instance, U.S. leadership. Donald Trump isn’t a drunk like Yeltsin but you might think he was, considering the incoherence of his unscripted remarks. The American president is manifestly incompetent, which even the Pentagon acknowledges (as the new book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker details). And now he is facing impeachment as well.

Were he to resign, as Yeltsin did, Trump would be replaced by someone very much like Vladimir Putin. Mike Pence is a quiet, ruthless, illiberal company man who would continue the Trumpian agenda more competently and thus more effectively. (First prize in the impeachment sweepstakes: Trump stays in office. Second prize: Trump resigns and Pence takes over. Booby prize: Trump is impeached and Pence uses his incumbent status to win the 2020 election).

Trump’s political rise has coincided with a deepening of divisions in the United States. To achieve power and push his agenda, the president has exploited those divisions on practically every issue.

Trump is not a Russian puppet. He’s not even an errand boy, as Yeltsin was for the United States. Trump likes Putin because he is drawn to strong, illiberal leaders who carefully construct their public images. Though he isn’t taking his orders from the Kremlin, Trump is nevertheless doing precisely what Putin would want from an American leader: paralyze America politically, remove any role for human rights in U.S. foreign policy, sow discord in NATO, and get out of Russia’s way along its borders and in the Middle East.

At the level of economic indicators, the American economy couldn’t be more different from Russia circa 1999. Unemployment and inflation are both low; Wall Street is booming. But in other respects, the U.S. economy resembles the go-go days of Russia in the 1990s. The rich are making huge profits and spiriting them away to tax havens overseas. Wealthy oligarchs await the latest government handout — a lease to dig in public lands, an enormous military contract. The government is piling up enormous amounts of debt, as are consumers. A reckoning is on the horizon.

Russia, meanwhile, has recovered from the ravages of the 1990s. Between 1999 and 2008, Russia’s GDP increased by 94 percent and its per capita GDP doubled. More recently, economic growth in 2018 hit a six-year high. The official unemployment rate is currently 4.9 percent (though it’s likely higher). While U.S. life expectancy has declined for three straight years, Russia’s has recovered to 72 years. In nominal terms, the Russian economy is eleventh in the world, behind Canada and Brazil. In terms of purchasing power, however, Russia ranks sixth.

Of course, this is a far cry from the heyday of Soviet power. Moreover, economic growth has been rather anemic over the last year, the number of people living in poverty has been increasing, and the country remains dangerously dependent on its energy exports.

Still, in a country where 70 percent of the population believes that Stalin played a positive role in Russian history, Vladimir Putin’s iron-fist policies have guaranteed him popularity ratings that also hover around 70 percent.

It’s not just a stabilized economy. It’s also Putin’s naked militarism. Over his 20-year reign, the Russian leader has brutally suppressed the Chechens, waged war in Georgia and Ukraine, deployed huge armies on the border of the Baltic nations, rebuilt the Russian military, supplied all comers with weaponry, and indiscriminately bombed large swathes of Syria. In the eyes of many Russians, Putin has indeed made his country great again.

Putin didn’t start out as a nationalist. But particularly after the Russian military campaign on behalf of secessionists in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s appeals began to take on a nationalist tone. A subtle shift in vocabulary tells it all. There are two words in Russian that can be used to describe Russians: russky and rossisky. The first denotes ethnic Russians; the second encompasses all people who live in Russia, regardless of ethnicity. In his speeches, Putin has begun to use the former over the latter.

In perhaps the most dramatic change in Russian foreign policy, Putin has largely abandoned engagement with the United States. He has emphasized the importance of Russian sovereignty above all and has pushed back against NATO encroachment on his borders.

For the most part he has backed a containment policy that permits negotiations, for instance, on arms control. But he has not hesitated to pursue a policy of rollback as well.

This rollback approach has three prongs. The first involves widening the gulf between Europe and the United States and within Europe between illiberal and liberal governments (for example, Hungary and Germany). This strategy involves funding and supporting the European far right and any other Euroskeptical forces. The second prong is to push the United States out of nearby regions — Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq — through key alliances and strategic military campaigns.

Finally, Putin is bringing the battle to the United States itself. By updating Soviet-era disinformation campaigns in an era of social media, Putin has done more to weaken the United States than anything the Communist Party ever dared to consider.

The Russian campaigns might not have gotten Trump elected in 2016 — it’s hard to know what combination of factors pushed a total of 80,000 voters in three swing states to support the Republican candidate — but they certainly contributed to undermining U.S. faith in democratic institutions. All indications suggest that Russia is gearing up for an encore performance in 2020.

Victory of Illiberalism


(Photo: Mike Maguire / Flickr)

The liberal age, with the United States presiding over it, is over. Illiberal leaders are now in charge of the United States, Brazil, India, China, Russia. The far right is upending electoral calculations in Europe. The expansion of liberal democracy that was presented as an inevitable trajectory in the 1990s now seems as laughable as a world of Betamax and dial-up Internet.

Russia represents the new political norm: guided democracy with authoritarian tendencies. China, in the wake of the Tiananmen crisis of 1989, deliberately eschewed the Gorbachev model of modest democratization. Going forward, however, Beijing may well decide that Putin’s model, with its illusion of democracy, is the future. According to a new convergence theory, China’s market Leninism would gradually approach Russia’s illiberal democracy to create the worst kind of hybrid political economy.

Putin, despite his Soviet background and friendships with putative socialist leaders in Cuba and Venezuela, is a thoroughly right-wing leader. He is pro-religion and anti-LGBT. He embraces a corporate (and corporatist) agenda. He is a militarist. He cares nothing about human rights or democracy. With respect to his foreign policy, perhaps it’s more accurate to describe Putin simply as illiberal. It explains why he supports both right-wing extremists in Europe and left-wingers in Latin America.

One thing Putin is not, however, is a populist. He does not inveigh against a domestic elite, as Trump does. After all, Putin has carefully cultivated a domestic elite from the corporate sector (the oligarchs) and the security sector (the siloviki). Nor does he criticize globalists, as Trump does. Putin desperately wants a seat at the global table, for instance to rejoin the G7.

After 20 years of rule, Putin shows few signs of walking away from power. His current term of office runs until 2024. According to the current constitution, he won’t be able to run again.

But recently Putin announced plans for a new constitution. On the face of it, Russia’s new constitution would prevent the president from serving more than two terms, period. Putin has also touted the new powers the constitution will accord the parliament, such as naming the prime minister.

But the president would retain the authority to dismiss ministers and judges. And the new constitution would institutionalize the State Council, an advisory body chaired by the president. One scenario would be for Putin to step down as president but take up residence at the newly empowered State Council to continue to preside over the Russian government.

Or, Putin might just call another referendum in 2024 to change the constitution again so that he could run once more.

No wonder Donald Trump loves this guy. Putin can restructure government seemingly at will, all in service of his own power. Trump has tried to make the same argument in the U.S. context by essentially saying that he can’t be impeached. Senate Republicans, alas, will probably zombie-walk behind the president, their brains having been eaten at some point in the past.

Post-impeachment, Trump will likely act in an even more unshackled (and unhinged) manner. He will do everything he can to stay in office until 2024. Perhaps, like his pal in Moscow, Trump might call a referendum to change the U.S. constitution so that he can run a third time.

By that time, at the end of Trump’s second term, America’s economic bubble will have burst. Poverty and corruption will be endemic, and the democratic guardrails will have been carted off for scrap. That’s when the reversal of fortunes will be complete, Americans will have a true taste of post-imperial decline, and Russia will emerge the victor of the post-Cold War era.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 22, 2020

Featured Russia and Eastern Europe Uncategorized

Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall Produce Trump?

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago. It was one of the few unambiguously joyous moments in modern history. This popular, nonviolent explosion of dissent effectively toppled East Germany’s despotic regime. And it signaled, if only symbolically, the end of the Cold War that had divided Europe for nearly half a century.

Thirty years later, a united Germany remains far and away the largest economy in Europe (and the fourth largest in the world). Most of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact are members of the European Union, and their populations have seen dramatic improvements in living standards. After the horrendous bloodletting that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the threat of war in Europe has again receded.

Who can argue with such success?

It turns out: a lot of people. At some point, something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the transition from communism to liberalism to the end of history.

A new version of the Berlin Wall runs through Ukraine to divide east once again from west. Actual walls have been built throughout the Balkans to block desperate refugees and migrants from heading northward. Right-wing authoritarian leaders are challenging democracy in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and elsewhere in the region.

Frozen conflicts and kleptocracies prevail all over the former Soviet Union. Virulently racist movements have been consistently gaining political power throughout Europe, with Vox most recently becoming the third largest party in the Spanish parliament. The United Kingdom is involved in a slow-motion secession from the European Union.

And Donald Trump presides over the unraveling of the international order like some imp of the perverse.

I recently attended a conference at the University of Pennsylvania on the lessons of the “transition.” Two dozen scholars provided a variety of ground-level and big-picture analyses from the disciplines of economics, political science, and anthropology. Their goal: to reconcile these two pictures of the last 30 years.

On the one hand, there’s the purported triumph of liberalism. On the other, there’s the widely held view in the region that liberalism is the “god that failed,” as I’ve recounted in my book Aftershock: A Journey Through Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams.

Economists and political scientists, looking at the numbers, have declared the transition over because the countries of Eastern Europe have become more or less “normal.” Anthropologists, looking at people’s lived experience, have argued that the transition, in the sense of a continued legacy of the Communist period and a painful adjustment to life in a larger Europe, is still very much a flawed work in progress.

After two days of bifocal analysis — of scrutinizing the fine print and gazing into the distance, of trying to determine whether the glass is half full or half empty — I was convinced of one thing above all. The “transition” is not unique to Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. The entire world, to one degree or another, has been undergoing a comparable transformation. That’s why Hungarians are suffering under Viktor Orban just as Americans are enduring Donald Trump.

In a circuitous, contradictory, and confounding way, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reactions to it have produced both of these morbid symptoms.

The Short End of the Stick


Poverty in Bucharest (Shutterstock)

Comparatively speaking, East Europeans got a raw deal after 1989.

For one thing, they didn’t get a Marshall Plan, a huge influx of capital to repair their ravaged countries. After World War II, an enormous helping hand from the West contributed to producing the Wirtschaftswunder — the economic miracle — that put West Germany on top of the European economic order only a decade after the war.

After 1989, some assistance flowed into Eastern Europe — and less into the former Soviet Union — but nothing on the order of a Marshall Plan. Instead, the West assumed that the invisible hand of the market would do the trick.

Nor did East European countries, as they entered the European Union, get the same kind of deal that earlier incoming members received. Tens of billions of dollars in EU structural funds helped Ireland, a primarily agricultural country, close the gap with the rest of the EU within a single generation.

By the time that Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and the Baltic countries joined in 2004, the EU no longer had the funds or the collective commitment to bringing new members up to the community average. For Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007, the gap was larger and the resources even scarcer.

Having shucked off their old Communist identities, the new populations of Eastern Europe expected to live like their counterparts in Austria or France or Sweden within five or ten years (or so they told me when I interviewed a couple hundred folks throughout the region in 1990 and again nearly 25 years later). That expectation gave meaning to their sacrifices when the new democratic governments pushed through “shock therapy” economic reforms that turned their lives upside down. They’d experience the pain of adjustment, but it would be worth it in the end.

Thirty years later, however, even the best performing countries in Eastern Europe haven’t closed the gap with the West. Slovenia’s per-capita GDP ($36,747) — adjusted for cost-of-living differences — is about three-quarters that of Austria ($52,137). Bulgaria ($23,156) is not even halfway there.

But even these figures are deceptive. After all, the metropolitan centers of Eastern Europe — Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia — have attracted the lion’s share of foreign investment and closed the gap more quickly with their western counterparts. So, that means that smaller towns and the countryside in Eastern Europe are really far behind the West.

Poland B: that’s what Poles call the areas that have by and large not benefited from the economic transition. The “losers of transition” include pensioners, minority populations like the Roma, farmers who can’t compete with Western imports, and workers in industries with no future. You can find this “B team” throughout the region.

Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee has chronicled the rise and fall of Madan, a predominantly Muslim city in southern Bulgaria. Once a mining town with a population of over 100,000 people, Madan has dwindled to a scant 6,000 or so. The mines closed during the economic transformations of the 1990s and virtually everyone of working age left for the larger cities or to go abroad, leaving behind pensioners and children sent to live with their grandparents.

With many of the buildings in the town in ruins, Madan looks as if it were hit by war or natural disaster. There are many towns and cities like it in Bulgaria, where the population decline has been catastrophic: around 9 million in 1989, Bulgaria’s population is down to around 7 million today. It’s part of a region-wide demographic crisis.

For a lot of people in the region, then, it’s not a question of a glass half full versus a glass half empty. That metaphor implies a balanced scoresheet from the last 30 years and divergent perceptions of that scoresheet. But this image is misleading. Instead, the glass overfloweth for a handful of super-wealthy, who made out like bandits during the economic upheaval, and the glass is practically empty for many others.

The political parties that pushed through the economic reforms, with the encouragement of international financial institutions and their advisers, also ended up as the losers of transition, as voters took revenge on them at the polls. Liberal parties disappeared or drifted into irrelevance. Former Communist parties, which returned to power in the initial backlash against the economic reforms, by and large instituted the same austerity measures and were relegated to the political margins as well.

With both liberals and leftists discredited, a new kind of party emerged: nationalist, culturally conservative, and anti-liberal in its economic and political orientation. These populist parties have consolidated control in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Even more reactionary movements — like Pegida in eastern Germany, the Our Homeland Movement in Hungary, and Ataka in Bulgaria — lurk in the wings.

Sound familiar?

Transition, Western Style


Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Shutterstock)

Consider the economic transformations that took place in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s as a transition not to the market per se, but to the global economy more generally. After all, a number of Eastern European countries had experimented with market reforms prior to 1989 (like goulash communism in Hungary). But other than a few loans from and some anemic trade with the West, they all remained disconnected from global capitalism.

That would change after 1989. But instead of a gradual accommodation to the global economy, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union jumped off the high board into the deep end. The huge splash of chlorinated water has stung the eyes of all concerned, even the onlookers.

It turns out, however, that a lot of other countries preceded the Eastern bloc into the pool.

In the 1980s, conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the United States pushed a similar agenda of economic adjustment: cutting government spending (except on the military), reducing barriers to trade, promoting the financialization of the economy.

As in Eastern Europe a decade later, it wasn’t just conservative politicians who felt compelled to push this agenda. Socialist Francois Mitterrand pursued something similar in France. Then, in the 1990s, it was the turn of Third Way liberals — Bill Clinton in the U.S. and Tony Blair in the U.S., but also the Labor parties in Australia and New Zealand and the Swedish Social Democratic Party — to move toward the neoliberal center.

Whether a project of market-oriented conservatives or liberals, this neoliberal accommodation to economic globalization has produced a similarly skewed pattern of benefits: Planet B if you will. It has increased the gap between rich and poor nations — with a few notable exceptions like the Asian tigers — as well as the wealth divide within nations. Planet B contains some of the same communities left behind during the Eastern European transition: workers in sunset industries, minorities, pensioners.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 only exacerbated the problem. In the United States, the government bailed out the big losers — like banks — and those in the top income brackets actually improved their position. Everyone else took a hit, with economic inequality widening.

In Europe, the EU failed to protect its member states from the crisis. In fact, the countries in the Eurozone had fewer government levers at their disposal — such as significant deficit spending — to pull themselves out of the crisis. The EU was beginning to look like part of the problem, not part of the solution.

After 2008, as Sheri Berman writes in a study of Why the Left Loses, “the center-left lacked a convincing message for dealing with the crisis, or a more general vision of how to promote growth while protecting citizens from the harsher aspects of free markets. Instead, it kept on trying to defend outdated policies or proposed watered-down versions of neoliberalism that barely differentiated it from the center-right.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the democratic world experienced the same political reaction as Eastern Europe after its particular economic disruption. The benefits of economic globalization were unevenly distributed; so, too, was the pain of the financial crisis of 2008-209. Politics as usual was beginning to look inadequate to the task.

Unintended Consequences


Neo-Nazis stand off with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. (Photo: Evan Nesterak / Flickr)

Donald Trump and his populist coevals are not only the result of a revolt of the have-nots or a political backlash against the parties that supported undiluted economic globalization (and its industrial-strength version in Eastern Europe). They have taken advantage of another facet of globalization: migration.

There were two major sources for the major uptick in refugee flows in the last three decades.

The first is war, particularly wars launched by the United States. Those wars initially mobilized a wide range of support from both conservative and liberal governments (with some notable exceptions). As the wars dragged on and produced an increasing flow of refugees, support waned, providing an opening for a populist like Donald Trump to claim opposition to America’s “endless wars.”

The migrants themselves, even if they served the economic needs of the receiving countries by taking jobs that the native-born didn’t want, became a rallying point for xenophobes of various political hues. Right-wing populists giddily seized on the Afghans, Syrians, Libyans, and others fleeing war zones as yet another malign side effect of globalization, for was it not “globalists” in the EU elite who were welcoming these outsiders into Europe?

In the United States, meanwhile, Trump was railing against the influx of people from Mexico and points south and repeating the canard that his opponent Hillary Clinton, another “globalist,” supported “open borders.”

War, free trade, “open borders”: these became associated with a national elite supposedly addicted to all manner of malign activities beyond their national borders. Even populists who’d supported various military operations and benefited personally from economic globalization — like Trump — saw advantages in championing the opposite: a nationalist fixation on sovereignty, strong borders, and government-sanctioned xenophobia. Even populists who’d once championed fast-track transition, like Viktor Orban, switched sides at the first whiff of political opportunity.

A second source of migration was connected to the policies of the European Union. As part of the “four freedoms,” citizens of member countries have the right to work in any other member state. There have been exceptions. The Roma, for instance, discovered that they weren’t welcome when they left their homes in Eastern Europe and went to Italy or France. A state could invoke concerns about “public safety” or “public health” to keep people out. Established member states were also granted phase-in periods to block workers from the new states that joined in the 2000s.

But in general, EU accession created an enormous outflow of East European workers to the west. Roughly 750,000 Poles, for instance, went to Great Britain after accession, turning Polish into the second language in England after English. Because of this influx, a sufficient number of Brits soured on the European project to give Brexit its thin margin of victory in the 2016 referendum.

Internal migration after the accession of the 1990s has likewise boosted Euroskepticism and nativism throughout the continent. One of the great virtues of the EU has turned out to be, thanks to a poorly thought-out accession process, an Achilles’ heel.

Rethinking the Transition


(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

It’s not a direct line from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Donald Trump or Brexit.

Rather, it’s the way Eastern Europe handled the transition — or had the transition handled for them — that has ultimately given rise to today’s populism. Moreover, the same factors in play in Western Europe and in the United States, namely a “transition” to an economically and politically polarizing global economy, has produced a similar crop of political figures.

Yes, of course, other factors produced Trump, Brexit, and the like: feckless opposition, the impact of social media, outright fraud and misrepresentation. But such idiocies could never have gotten within whispering distance of success without these underlying economic “adjustments” and the backlash to them.

Many East Europeans expected a kinder, gentler transition. When that didn’t happen, they either voted out the parties that orchestrated the shock-therapy adjustments or they voted with their feet. The disgruntled of Western Europe and the United States have focused their revenge on the polls.

Could it have happened differently 30 years ago?

Theoretically, yes. There could have been a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe. The EU could have helped create a giant social safety net for its newest members. But resources were tight in the early 1990s because of an economic downturn that lasted from 1990 to 1994. And austerity, not largesse, was the watchword of that era.

Also, you could legitimately ask: why just Eastern Europe? Shouldn’t the former Soviet Union be included among the recipients? And why not South Africa after apartheid? Or, to backtrack just a couple years, the Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos? Were the people in these countries somehow less deserving?

Finally, Eastern European countries were not in a position to buck the status quo. Neither the United States nor Western Europe was interested in delaying the region’s entrance into the global economy. There were choice properties in the region to acquire and lower-wage workers to exploit. But the even more salient point is that the West was engaged in a similar process of transition, though it had started earlier and could therefore attenuate the negative effects.

This larger transition is still ongoing. Economic globalization is now encountering two significant backlashes.

The first comes from the right-wing populists, who basically want to redirect the economic benefits accruing from their control of the state into their own pockets and those of their loyal clients. The second comes from environmentalists, who recognize that an ever-expanding global economy has pumped a dangerously high amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Perhaps the notion of a largely unregulated market spreading into every nook and cranny of the earth will one day seem like a very quaint notion, like the spread of a single religion across the map or a single country’s domination of the globe. As the waters continue to rise, let’s hope that there will still be economists, political scientists, and anthropologists who will debate the costs and benefits of this great transition.

But that will depend a great deal on whether the world embarks on a more sustainable transition to replace the one that has brought us all to this perilous crossroads.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 13, 2019

Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Fantasy Ukraine

In fantasy sports, participants draft their own dream teams out of the rosters of existing players. That’s what Donald Trump has done with Ukraine.

He and his advisors have created a fantasy team involving a number of key players, including the Ukrainian president, the former U.S. ambassador, and the former vice president’s son. Then they’ve created a fictitious narrative that brings these players together in what amounts to the president’s own geopolitical game.

And the president continues to bet that his fantasy narrative — a misreading of Ukrainian politics that lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry — will ultimately win the jackpot. He’s still banking on acquittal in the Senate, reelection in 2020, and all the economic rewards that come to a president unshackled by constitutional restraints.

But the real Ukraine — as opposed to Trump’s fantasy version — may well lead to the unmaking of the president. Revelations from the real Ukraine, also known by the quaint shorthand phrase “facts on the ground,” have already produced a jail term for Trump’s former campaign manager and are threatening to bring down his personal lawyer.

The real Ukraine unseats corrupt autocrats. And Trump may well be next in line.

Trump as Marionette

Trump didn’t come to office with any particular view of Ukraine. He knew Russia to a certain extent, and he liked Russia because Russians invested in his properties and he dreamed of building a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Ukraine, however, was a mystery to him. The Trump Organization contemplated building a hotel and golf course in Kyiv and a resort in the coastal city of Yalta, and Trump’s children (Ivanka, Trump Jr.) visited the country in the 2000s to push these deals forward. But politically Ukraine didn’t register on Trump’s radar as anything other than Russia’s poorer stepbrother.

Take a look at this video of George Stephanopoulos interviewing Trump in July 2016 on the Republican Party’s position on military aid to Ukraine. First, Stephanopoulos had to remind the candidate about the relevant portion of the party platform:

STEPHANOPOULOS: They took away the part of the platform calling for the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves. Why is that a good idea?

TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?

TRUMP: OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there. 

It’s quite clear from the interview that Trump didn’t have his own ideas. He had no ideas at all other than the ridiculous notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “not going into Ukraine” even though the Kremlin had already incorporated Crimea and provided support on the ground for secessionists in the eastern flank of the country. With only a tenuous grasp of what was going on in Ukraine, Trump soon lapsed into utter incoherence.

But as president, Trump quickly developed a view of Ukraine that was built on a number of fanciful tales fed to him by advisors at home and abroad. Trump thinks of himself as an unconventional actor on the world stage, someone who listens to his own gut.

When it comes to Ukraine, however, he has been manipulated as deftly as a mindless marionette.

The Charge of Corruption

Ukraine is one of the few countries that Donald Trump routinely calls corrupt.

He has never called out Russia, for instance, on corruption, though it routinely ranks as a more corrupt country. But the president doesn’t care about corruption in general in Ukraine. He is only obsessed with how Ukraine’s corruption intersects with his own political ambitions. Thus, he has focused on two false narratives: how Hunter Biden’s involvement in a Ukrainian energy company influenced U.S. policy during the Obama administration and how Ukraine tried to undercut the Republican Party in the 2016 campaign.

There’s no question that Ukraine has been very corrupt since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Partly, this corruption has been a legacy of the Soviet system and the highly irregular transition from communism to crony capitalism. The privatization of state resources — and the privileged position of canny insiders — produced the same kind of economic oligarchy that prevails in neighboring Russia.

The concentration of economic wealth and its myriad connections to political power inspired two social uprisings in Ukraine. Both were centered around the Maidan Nezaleznosti (Independence Square) in the capital of Kyiv and the various malfeasances of the very Trump-like figure, Viktor Yanukovych.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution targeted Yanukovych’s electoral fraud and managed to force a revote that went in favor of Yanukovych’s opponent. The second uprising in 2013, the Euromaidan, protested the deal that Yanukovych, having become president in the interim, made with Russia at the expense of closer association with the European Union. At the heart of this second uprising, however, was Yanukovych’s rampant corruption, which he even boasted about to other heads of state. During his mafia-like rule, criminal activities spirited as much as $100 billion out of the country.

But this isn’t the corruption that Trump and his allies have fretted about. In fact, they’ve been all too cozy with precisely that set of corrupt actors.

Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, for instance, helped remake Yanukovych in the wake of his electoral loss in 2004 and helped him win the presidency in 2010, earning tens of millions of dollars in fees. Manafort would eventually be convicted of corruption himself — bank and tax fraud — as a result of the Mueller investigation.

Beginning in 2016, Manafort also began pushing the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Writes Michelle Goldberg, “Manafort seems to have picked up that narrative from his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian intelligence officer who, according to federal prosecutors, ‘has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.’”

After Trump’s election, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani made his own connections to Ukraine, signing on to help improve the image of the city of Kharkiv in 2018. But Giuliani has had links to shady operators in the region for some time, people like Ukrainian real-estate develop Pavel Fuks, who was part of the effort to try to build Trump Towers in Moscow.

Also in 2018, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both Soviet-born American citizens, hired Giuliani to construct a shadow Ukraine policy designed to promote Trump’s interests over the national interests of both countries. The trio visited Ukraine at different points to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponents and pressured the president to remove U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was devoted to cleaning up Ukrainian corruption.

Giuliani also took advantage of former President Petro Poroshenko’s desperate desire to curry favor with Trump, which basically put prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko at Giuliani’s disposal. Lutsenko, a thoroughly unsavory character, very conveniently blocked investigations connected to Mueller’s inquiry and moved forward on investigations into Joe Biden and family.

Both Parnas and Fruman have been arrested and charged with campaign finance irregularities. When Trump denied knowing Parnas, who’d been an obsequious devotee of the president, the businessman reversed himself and decided to cooperate with the impeachment investigation.

Why the campaign to remove Yovanovitch? She was knowledgeable and clearly unwilling to be a Trumpian brownnose. She’d alienated Lutsenko by putting pressure on him to clean up his act. But the precipitating factor was the embassy’s decision, on her watch, to block Viktor Shokin, another Ukrainian prosecutor general, from visiting the United States. According to The Washington Post:

Consular staffers at the embassy blocked the application because of Shokin’s “known corrupt activities,” Yovanovitch testified. “And the next thing we knew, Mayor Giuliani was calling the White House” to inform Trump loyalists that Yovanovitch was denying entry to a Ukrainian who could provide Trump “information about corruption at the embassy, including my corruption.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Not only was Giuliani working with corrupt forces in Ukraine, he wanted the Trump administration to focus on an entirely different hotbed of corruption: the American embassy.

Trump, in other words, has never been concerned about the real corruption going on in Ukraine. As the impeachment inquiry has revealed, corruption had nothing to do with Trump’s holding up of military assistance to the country.

Trump has only ever been concerned about the imaginary corruption that Giuliani, Manafort, and others had manufactured to fit the president’s conspiratorial worldview: by a government that didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections (non-spoiler alert: it was Russia), by a vice-presidential son who didn’t affect U.S. policy (Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of Burisma was stupid and nepotistic but there’s no evidence of wrongdoing), and by an American ambassador who was trying to help clean up corruption in the country (she deserved a commendation, not expulsion).

Foreign Entanglement

It’s bad enough that Trump was misled by his corruption cronies, one who’s in prison and another who, if there’s any justice in this world, will soon join him there. The president’s view of Ukraine was also being influenced by two leaders who have had designs on that country.

The first is the most obvious: Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has wanted to keep Ukraine as weak as possible and disrupt any potential military deals between Washington and Kyiv so as to consolidate dubious territorial claims on the country. Toward that end, he has emphasized that Ukraine is a “den of corruption,” according to a former U.S. official familiar with the phone calls between Putin and Trump.

Like Giuliani and Manafort, Putin was not referring to the corruption of Yanukovych, whom he counted on as an ally. He had more contemporary targets, including Volodymyr Zelensky, who’d been elected president in 2019 on a wave of anti-corruption fervor. The Washington Post reports:

Trump turned to Putin for guidance on the new leader of Ukraine within days of Zelensky’s election. In a May 3 call, Trump asked Putin about his impressions of Zelensky, according to a Western official familiar with the conversation. Putin said that he had not yet spoken with Zelensky but derided him as a comedian with ties to an oligarch despised by the Kremlin.

Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, shares Putin’s worldview on many issues, including Ukraine. Added to that is Orban’s not-so-hidden desire to expand his influence over the trans-Carpathian section of Ukraine that was part of Hungary prior to World War I. On May 13, over the objections of National Security Advisor John Bolton and the National Security Council’s Fiona Hill, Trump invited Orban to the White House for a meeting. Orban, who has steered Hungary away from democracy and many European Union norms, had been persona non grata in Washington until Trump took office.

Orban has not been enthusiastic about Zelensky and the faction within Ukraine eager to repair its relations with Europe. Following Putin, he prefers those in the country who lean toward Russia. To that end, the Orban government has referred to Ukraine as “semi-fascist” to make it as undesirable as possible to European sensibilities.

This narrative pushed by Putin and Orban, that Ukraine is a semi-fascist den of corruption, is worth examining more closely.

Ukraine Today

Corruption has been rampant in Ukraine. The country ranks 120 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International list, which puts it behind Pakistan and Moldova. A number of journalists have been attacked and killed for covering the corruption beat.

But even before the current president took over, there were signs that the government was getting a handle on the problem. As Karl Volokh wrote in The National Interest in March:

Reforms now in place in Ukraine have reduced national corruption by a staggering $6 billion per year — a figure equivalent to nearly six percent of the country’s official GDP. These reforms, and the increased effectiveness of state tax and revenue authorities have also helped to significantly reduce the size of the country’s once-formidable shadow economy.

And instead of encouraging corruption in Ukraine, the Obama administration (including Biden) did the opposite. “Back in 2015, we relied on the solidarity of our U.S. and European allies to push our elites to take the right steps — steps that would make Ukraine less corrupt and strengthen the rule of law,” writes Maksym Eristavi in Foreign Affairs. One of those steps was firing Viktor Shokin, which Trump has repeatedly pointed to as exhibit number one in his case that Biden, who wanted Shokin out, is the corrupt politician, not him.

Zelensky, despite his anti-corruption exhortations, has faced charges of being too close to a corrupt oligarch, in this case Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV station that aired Servant of the People, the show that brought the president-cum-comedian to worldwide notice. The station was a big supporter of Zelensky’s campaign. Kolomoisky himself left Ukraine in the wake of embezzlement charges connected to the bank he owned, PrivatBank, and took up residence in Switzerland and then Israel.

In what looked a lot like a quid pro quo, Kolomoisky returned to Ukraine just before Zelensky’s inauguration. A district court in Kyiv, meanwhile, ruled that the government’s nationalization of Privatbank was illegal, which means that Kolomoisky might be able to regain control of it.

So, when it comes to corruption, Ukraine is in a better place now than a few years ago, but it’s not out of the woods.

The assertion that Ukraine is semi-fascist is more problematic. True, in the wake of the Euromaidan protests and Russian intervention, far-right and neo-Nazi formations became more powerful. In the government, the Svoboda party controlled three ministries; in the military realm, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion acquired battle-hardened credibility.

Nationalists have meanwhile attempted to enforce Ukrainian language laws and resurrect far right figures from history. Right-wing paramilitary formations still launch pogroms against Roma and try to terrorize the LGBTQ population. The far-right National Militia served as official monitors in the 2019 elections.

But fascism has little popular appeal in the country. Svoboda, though it created an electoral alliance with several other parties for the 2019 elections, couldn’t get anywhere near the electoral threshold of 5 percent to get into parliament (though it did win a single constituency seat). As a result, the infamous head of the Azov Battalion, Andriy Biletsky, lost his seat in parliament.

The government, meanwhile, has shed any connections to the far right. The current president and previous prime minister are both Jewish (though non-practicing). The president is also, primarily, a Russian speaker, and is not happy with the language law crafted by his predecessor that makes Ukrainian mandatory for public servants.

Ukraine has 99 problems, but a fascist state ain’t one. The organizing of the radical right remains a major problem in the country, as it is throughout Europe and in the United States. But in Ukraine, the radical right has virtually no political power.

So, to recap, a group of self-serving statesmen and craven consultants created a fantasy Ukraine that fed into Trump’s primary preoccupations: the supposed crimes of his political predecessors, the embarrassment of his loss of the popular vote in 2016, and his ruthless determination to win a second term.

That fictitious narrative prompted Trump to break the law. And now he is scrambling to prove that he didn’t do anything wrong and that his understanding of Ukraine is correct. If this were a real fantasy league, Donald Trump’s team would be in last place.

When ousted by popular demand in 2014, Viktor Yanukovych had few places to turn. He ended up in exile in Russia. Booted from office by impeachment or popular vote and hounded by investigations into his myriad financial improprieties, Trump may discover that he, too, might need Putin’s protection. Nancy Pelosi’s challenge to Trump that “all roads lead to Putin” may turn out to be prophetic.

The real Ukraine of anti-corruption advocates will have had its revenge once again.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 6, 2019

Articles China Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency

Trump’s public appeal to China last week to help with uncovering dirt on the Biden family was both a brazen flouting of the law and (it pains me to say) an astute political tactic.

“China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump announced to reporters only moments after saying, about trade talks with Beijing, that “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”

Trump’s move coincides with two other critical revelations in the impeachment scandal.

The first is the release of texts that provide the proverbial smoking gun: the Trump administration was indeed promising a quid pro quo of a White House visit and/or the unfreezing of military aid for Ukraine’s assistance in digging up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Then came the announcement of a second whistleblower with direct knowledge of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Taken together — the appeal to China, the damning text messages, the second whistleblower — these developments add up to what I’d previously written was missing: a slam dunk in the impeachment of the president. He broke the law. He has tried to cover up the breaking of the law. He continues to break the law — and is defying the constitution by refusing to cooperate with Congress on its investigations.

But Trump, the Republican Party, and their captive media occupy a different reality, where the president is up against a vast conspiracy of corrupt officials, do-nothing Democrats, and biased mainstream journalists. This part of their story is obvious: it’s reiterated over and over in Trump’s tweets, Republican talking points, and Rush Limbaugh rants.

What’s not so obvious is that this conspiracy extends to the rule of law. According to this skewed version of reality, corruption has penetrated the bedrock institutions of American society: the political sphere, the intelligence agencies, the mainstream media. Corruption has transformed the very fabric of politics, culture, and law.

To root out corruption, then, it’s necessary to step outside the rule of law. Donald Trump hasn’t declared a state of emergency. But he is acting as if he has (which, in case you’re wondering, is illegal). His decision not to cooperate with congressional inquiries, including the most recent impeachment inquiry, is also part of this unstated state of emergency.

The phone call with Zelensky was “perfect” not because it conformed with the conventional understanding of presidential conduct, but because it corresponded to Trump’s unstated state of emergency. His appeal to China was equally an attempt to normalize his acts according to this deep state of emergency.

Trump has tipped over the political chessboard because he believes that it’s warped. He is continuing to play nonetheless, but on his own board, with his own pieces, and according to his own rules.

What makes Trump’s move so fiendishly clever is that his paranoid style of governance has a grain of truth to it. The chessboard is warped.

A rule of law that permits a vice president’s son to benefit so blatantly from his father’s position, maintains a revolving door that transforms “corruption” into business as usual, and creates a state patronage system (the military-industrial complex) of astonishing size and influence is something of a contradiction in terms.

The rules are determined by law — except when they’re determined by power. American politicians have long traded on their government connections with foreign leaders for private gain. That they did so only after leaving office, in accordance with the dictates of the rule of law, only gives the corruption a veneer of respectability.

Trump, of course, doesn’t even respect this veneer. His violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution indicate that he is so impatient to use his office for personal gain that he isn’t waiting to leave the White House to start his influence-peddling. Trump’s chessboard, in other words, is even more warped than the conventional one.

The astute reader might ask how Trump can simultaneously challenge and benefit from the corruptions of the status quo. You could have asked the same question of Nicolae Ceausescu, the leader of Romania, who purported to lead an egalitarian workers’ state but lived in unbelievable opulence. Leaders who operate according to unstated states of emergency can get away with such contradictions through outright repression or extraordinary lies. Trump, so far, has relied on the latter.

Such a state doesn’t last forever. On December 21, 1989, Ceausescu was giving what he believed to be a routine speech in Bucharest. This time, however, behind the first row of supporters, the crowd began to boo. The look on the leader’s face when he understood what was happening was priceless. It was his last public appearance. The next day, he and his wife fled the city by helicopter. They didn’t get far. They were tried and executed on Christmas Day.

At what point will Trump have his Ceausescu moment, when he realizes that the base he’d always counted on has turned its back on him?

China Syndrome

Donald Trump has alleged that Hunter Biden made $1.5 billion in payoffs from Chinese businesses. As with pretty much everything that comes out Trump’s mouth, this allegation is false. Biden’s son served in an unpaid capacity on the board of a U.S.-China joint venture, BHR Partners. In October 2017, Hunter Biden invested somewhere around $420,000 to acquire a 10 percent stake in the company and reportedly hasn’t received any compensation from his involvement in BHR.

There was no kickback. There was no collusion (Joe Biden wasn’t in government in October 2017). So, it’s a non-story.

But again, it’s a non-story according to the finer points of the law. Let’s face it: Biden’s son was following in the time-honored tradition of trading on his political influence. Indeed, it’s what Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer all have done with China as well – receiving most-favored-person status from the country after paterfamilias Donald Trump had already taken office.

In other words, the public is primed to believe that if you lie down with the Chinese, you wake up with pay-offs. To quote only the most salient example, Henry Kissinger, who helped negotiate détente with Beijing in the 1970s, went on to make tens of millions of dollars in consulting fees from parlaying his contacts once he left government.

Even if Hunter Biden wasn’t making out like a bandit in China, there’s the huge monthly salary he was pulling down as a board member of the Ukrainian energy company. As David von Drehle points out in The Washington Post, sober working people making $50,000 a year may be skeptical of a system in which a vice president’s addicted son reportedly collected that sum every month.” It’s not corruption by the conventional definition, but it’s unseemly.

Corruption: that’s the word that Trump is trumpeting, over and over. It’s a tricky strategy. Trump knows corruption when he sees it because, well, he’s soaking in it. But as long as his base continues to view him as an anti-corruption fighter, a drainer of the swamp instead of a denizen of it, the president will continue to hold his party captive and fend off impeachment charges.

Perhaps, however, Trump has overreached this time. The latest polling suggests that nearly 20 percent of registered Republicans now want the House to vote to remove the president from office.

Meanwhile, Trump is upsetting his party in other ways.

Phony Phone Calls

The phone calls that Trump has with foreign leaders read like something out of an absurdist play: Trump Ubu.

He congratulates Vladimir Putin on his election victory even though his advisors pleaded with him beforehand not to. He promises to help Saudi Arabia join the Group of Seven. He praises Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug policy. In his quest for a Nobel Peace Prize, he tries to enlist the help of Japan’s Shinzo Abe. He drones on about chocolate cake with China’s Xi Jinping.

But his most recent phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has generated some bipartisan criticism — and all because Trump is defying the Pentagon and trying to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” Trump tweeted.

The problem is that Trump is also giving Turkey a green light to strike against the Kurds in northern Syria. Trump’s critics, including those in the Republican Party, are worried that the Islamic State will re-emerge and the abandonment of a steadfast Kurdish ally will make others around the world think twice about siding with a fickle United States. Trump’s close pal in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), called the president’s move “a disaster in the making.”

It’s not clear if Trump will actually go ahead with this plan any more than he followed through on his earlier declaration of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. But all it takes is one phony phone call for Republicans to realize that the commander-in-chief does whatever he wants without any consideration of the party’s stated goals.

The Republican Party is not going to get bent out of shape about Trump breaking the law. Or Trump’s involvement in corruption. Or even his obstruction of justice. He has been engaged in these activities since day one. Republicans will continue to blather on about how his peccadillos don’t rise to the level of the “high crimes” required for impeachment.

But the president, in his “great and unmatched wisdom,” may yet piss off his party on some other foreign policy issue. He might, for instance, make a deal with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or some other disreputable rival autocrat that the Republicans just can’t stomach. Perhaps he’ll impulsively pull the United States out of NATO. Or maybe he’ll start savaging a critical mass of Republican lawmakers out of sheer pique.

Then Republicans will be forced to acknowledge that Trump’s unstated state of emergency is an authentic emergency that requires — for the sake of the Constitution, democracy, and rule of law — the removal of the perpetrator. They won’t do so out of principle. They will do so only out of expediency: to save their party and their own skins in the next elections and maybe the courtroom as well.

That’s when Trump will appear in front of the crowds to give a speech — perhaps during the impeachment process, perhaps at the height of the 2020 election campaign — and hear nothing but crickets from Graham, Fox News, and his previously rock-solid base. Maybe there will be even some boos. That’s when Trump will have his Ceausescu moment. And that will be the last moment of his inglorious political career.

Trump Force One — and a growing majority of the country — awaits this moment.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 9, 2019

Articles China Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The New Age of Protest

Led by young people, climate strikers blocked traffic on two mornings at the end of last month in Washington, DC. On the first day, protestors chained themselves to a boat three blocks from the White House, and 32 activists were arrested. On the second day, activists targeted the EPA and Trump International Hotel. It was a not-so-subtle suggestion to commuters stuck in their cars on those mornings to think more favorably about public transportation or telecommuting. It was also a potent reminder, as Congress remains polarized on so many issues, that some paralysis is healthy in the nation’s capital.

The DC protests were part of a global climate strike that involved an estimated 6.6 million people. In New Zealand, 3.5 percent of the population participated. Melbourne, Berlin, and London each had rallies of 100,000 people. In Seattle, over a thousand workers walked out of Amazon headquarters, demanding that the company reduce its carbon emissions to zero.

It wasn’t just the children of the privileged in the industrialized world who were out on the streets. Protests took place in 125 countries and 1,600 cities, including 15 cities in the Philippines, throughout India, and all over Africa.

The global climate strike is just the latest mass protest this year. Demonstrations have roiled Hong Kong since the beginning of the summer. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in Moscow through the fall to protest restrictions on local elections. Thousands of Brazilians thronged major cities to condemn their president’s handling of the Amazon fires, and the same outrage prompted people to gather with placards in front of Brazilian embassies all over the world. Protests against Venezuela’s leadership that broke out on January 1 have recently dwindled even as demonstrations to remove Haiti’s president have heated up and security forces have cracked down on Iraqis protesting the corruption and inefficiency of their government.

Anti-government rallies in Serbia became some of the longest running protests in Europe this summer. Elsewhere in Europe, the yellow vests continued to target the government of Emmanuel Macron into 2019. In the UK, thousands gathered to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament in September.

Protestors marched last month in South Africa to decry rising violence against women. At the beginning of the year, the Women’s March 2019 again focused anger at Donald Trump and his administration’s record on women’s issues, while gun control supporters held “recess rallies” around the United States in August to push for stricter limits on firearms. After massive protests helped oust the previous prime minister in 2016, candlelight protests again returned to South Korea this last weekend as 800,000 people gathered to support an embattled justice minister and his reform agenda.

Analysts almost daily bemoan the erosion in democratic values that has accompanied the rise of autocratic politicians. And indeed, recourse to the streets can be a sign that people no longer believe that the ordinary mechanisms of democracy are working.

Viewed another way, however, the sheer number of protests and their geographic spread prove that 2019 was a banner year for engagement, for participation, for democracy. As protestors like to chant, this is what democracy looks like.

Ahead to the Past?

Fifty years ago, young people also declared that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. In Warsaw in 1968, Polish students demonstrated in defense of free speech and against police brutality. It was part of a larger rebellion in the Soviet bloc, led by Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” reforms in Czechoslovakia. Students in Germany contacted their rebellious counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain as part of their own campus actions. In Paris, meanwhile, French students took over the streets with slogans like “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

It was a worldwide phenomenon. Students mobilized in Mexico, Pakistan, and Japan. The first protests against the military dictatorship began in Brazil. And, of course, huge anti-Vietnam War demonstrations convulsed the United States.

Then as now, young people were upset with government repression, grievous policies of war and environmental destruction, and systemic sclerosis. They were critical of an imposed political consensus – by military juntas, communist governments, and the joint efforts of liberal and conservative politicians in the democratic world.

But there was also hope. Young people believed in 1968 that they could create new societies – at the micro-level in communes, in newly radicalized city councils, and even at a national level like Dubcek’s experiment in Czechoslovakia. “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” French students wrote on the walls of Paris that year.

Alas, many of the protests of 1968 ended in tragedy. The Polish government threw the students in jail. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and ended Dubcek’s experiment. The Mexican government killed untold number of students. Richard Nixon was reelected in the United States, and the Vietnam War dragged on for another seven years.

Today, young people are operating under a sky full of ominous clouds. They aren’t filling the streets to create a new world so much as to save the old, imperfect one. If 1968 was a year of utopian protest, 2019 has been one long effort to prevent a dystopian future.

The Clampdown

The protests of 2019, so far at least, have not produced much change. In some countries, the pushback has been terrifying.

During a summer of escalating protests, Russian authorities detained 2,000 people, most of them young. The vast majority of the detainees were subsequently released. But several were convicted of various offenses, including inciting a riot, and sentenced to several years in prison. “I can say with certainty that Russia is striving inevitably towards freedom,” 21-year-old protestor Egor Zhukov said at his trial. “I don’t know whether I will be freed, but Russia certainly will be.” He is currently under house arrest and has been put on a government blacklist of terrorists. This week, 25,000 people returned to the streets in Moscow to demand the release of all those arrested over the summer.

As China celebrated its seventieth year of Communist rule, protestors in Hong Kong tried to upstage the proceedings. For the first time, police fired live ammunition at the crowds. One high school student was hit in the shoulder. Of the 51 people who went to the hospital, two are in critical condition. The protests, which have been going on for over 100 days, have not been entirely nonviolent. Protestors have thrown gasoline bombs and beaten police with metal pipes. The policy, too, have been increasingly aggressive. An air of desperation is settling over the scene.

In the United States, a few scattered protests have taken place in support of the impeachment of Donald Trump. The president’s wrath, meanwhile, has been focused closer to home. Trump has lashed out at the person who blew the whistle on his conduct with foreign leaders, which precipitated the Democratic Party’s decision to press ahead with an impeachment inquiry. Trump called the CIA whistleblower “close to a spy” – well, duh, the person does work for the CIA – and a “traitor.” Trump publicly lamented that the United States no longer treats traitors the way it once did (presumably by imposing the death penalty). Given his willingness to put his own interests – and occasionally the interests of other countries – above the national interest, Trump may one day soon be relieved that the United States has changed its policy toward traitors.

Even worse, Trump has retweeted pastor Robert Jeffress’ contention that the United States could descend into a “civil war” if the president is impeached. This is the closest that a president has come to a call to arms within the country since the 1850s. It’s one thing for an autocrat like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to use the apparatus of the state to suppress protests. It’s quite another for a democratically elected leader to threaten to call on his well-armed supporters to rise up against the state itself.

As in 1968, the protestors can’t expect immediate results. It took twenty more years before the student protestors in Poland and Czechoslovakia would oust the governments that suppressed them. Mexico is no longer a one-party state, and Pakistan is more or less a democracy. Despite Jair Bolsonaro’s best efforts, Brazil has not returned to the days of military dictatorship.

Patience, however, is not the best strategy when it comes to climate change. The ice continues to melt. The temperatures continue to rise. Extreme weather events continue to happen. As the old advertising jingle used to go, you can’t fool Mother Nature. The #FridaysforFuture movement isn’t really a bunch of rebellious students. If they had one unified message last month, it was: please, for the sake of the planet, listen to your Mother!

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 2, 2019

Articles Featured Human Rights Russia and Eastern Europe

Democracy Desperately Need a Reboot

If you’re a supporter of Donald Trump — or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Matteo Salvini in Italy — you probably think that democracy has never been in better health.

Recent elections in these countries didn’t just serve to rotate the elite from the conventional parties. Voters went to the polls and elected outsiders who promised to transform their political systems. That demonstrates that the system, that democracy itself, is not rigged in favor of the “deep state” or the Bilderberg global elite — or the plain vanilla leaders of the center left and center right.

Moreover, from the perspective of this populist voter, these outsiders have continued to play by the democratic rules. They are pushing for specific pieces of legislation. They are making all manner of political and judicial appointments. They are trying to nudge the economy one way or another. They are standing up to outside forces who threaten to undermine sovereignty, the bedrock of any democratic system.

Sure, these outsiders might make intemperate statements. They might lie. They might indulge in a bit of demagoguery. But politicians have always sinned in this way. Democracy carries on regardless.

You don’t have to be a supporter of right-wing populists to believe that democracy is in fine fettle. The European Union just held elections to the European Parliament. The turnout was over 50 percent, the highest in two decades.

True, right-wing populists increased their share from one-fifth to one-fourth of the chamber, with Marine Le Pen’s party coming out on top in France, Salvini’s Liga taking first place in Italy, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party winning in the UK. But on the other side of the spectrum, the Greens came in second in Germany and expanded their stake of the European parliament from 7 to 9 percent. And for the first time, two pan-European parties ran candidates. The multi-issue progressive Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 25) received more than 1.4 million votes (but failed to win any seats).

Or maybe you’re an activist fighting for democracy in an authoritarian state. In some countries, you have reason to celebrate. You just succeeded in forcing out the long-serving leader of long-suffering Sudan. You just booted the old, sick, corrupt head of Algeria. You’ve seen some important steps forward in terms of greater political pluralism in Ethiopia, in Malaysia, in Mexico.

You can cherry-pick such examples and perspectives to build a case that the world is continuing to march, albeit two steps forward and one step back, towards a more democratic future.

But you’d be wrong. Democracy faces a global crisis. And this crisis couldn’t be coming at a worse time.

Democracy’s Fourth Wave

In 1991, political scientist Samuel Huntington published his much-cited book, The Third Wave. After a first wave of democratization in the nineteenth century and a second wave after World War II, Huntington argued, a third wave began to sweep through the world with the overthrow of dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and leading all the way up to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.

It was at this time, too, that Francis Fukuyama and others were talking about the inevitable spread of democracy — hand in hand with the market — to every corner of the globe. Democratic politics appeared to be an indispensable element of modernity. As countries hit a certain economic, social, and technological threshold, a more educated and economically successful population demands greater political participation as a matter of course.

Of course, democracy doesn’t just arrive like a prize when a country achieves a certain level of GDP. Movements of civil society, often assisted by reformers in government, push for free and fair elections, greater government transparency, equal rights for minorities, and so on.

Sometimes, too, outside actors play a role — providing trainings or financing for those movements of civil society. Sometimes democratic nations sanction undemocratic governments for their violations of human rights. Sometimes more aggressive actors, like U.S. neoconservatives in the 2000s, push for military intervention in support of a regime change (ostensibly to democracy), as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

However, the modernization thesis generates too many exceptions to remain credible. Both China and Saudi Arabia function at a high economic level without democracy. Russia and Turkey, both modern countries, have backslid into illiberal states. Of the countries that experienced Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, only Tunisia has managed to maintain a democracy — as civil war overtook Libya, a military coup displaced a democratically elected government in Egypt, Bashar al-Assad beat back various challenges in Syria, and the Gulf States repressed one mass demonstration after another.

More recently, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the military in Sudan is using violence to resist the demands of democracy activists to turn over government to civilian hands. In Algeria, the military hasn’t resorted to violence, but it also hasn’t stepped out of the way.

Move back a few steps to get the bigger picture and the retreat of democracy looks like a global rout. Here, for instance, is Nic Cheeseman’s and Jeffrey Smith’s take on Africa in Foreign Affairs:

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has clamped down on the opposition and censored the media. His Zambian counterpart, President Edgar Lungu, recently arrested the main opposition leader on trumped-up charges of treason and is seeking to extend his stay in power to a third term. This reflects a broader trend. According to Freedom House, a think tank, just 11 percent of the continent is politically “free,” and the average level of democracy, understood as respect for political rights and civil liberties, fell in each of the last 14 years.

Or let’s take a look at Southeast Asia, courtesy of Josh Kurlantzick:

Cambodia’s government transformed from an autocratic regime where there was still some (minimal) space for opposition parties into a fully one-party regime. Thailand’s junta continued to repress the population, attempting to control the run-up to elections still planned in February 2019. The Myanmar government continued to stonewall a real investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity in Rakhine State, despite significant international pressure to allow an investigation. And even in Indonesia, one of the freest states in the region, the Jokowi government has given off worrying signs of increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

Or how about this assessment of Latin America from The Washington Post last year (before the Brazilian election):

Brazil is not the only Latin American country with troubled politics. Democracy has collapsed in Nicaragua and Venezuela and is in serious trouble in countries such as Bolivia and Honduras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, just as in Brazil, criminal organizations rule the poorer parts of many cities, weakening democracy and undermining the rule of law.

Waves, of course, go both ways. And the fourth democratic tide definitely seems to be going in the wrong direction.

The 2019 Freedom House report, entitled “Democracy in Retreat,” chronicles 13 years of decline. The V-Dem Institute in Sweden, in its 2019 report on the state of global democracy, identifies a “third wave of autocratization” affecting 24 countries (including the United States). The Economist Intelligence Unit is somewhat more optimistic, arguing that “the retreat of global democracy ended in 2018.”

But all the threats itemized in the Unit’s actual report are a reminder that this optimism stems from the fact that the terrible state of democracy didn’t get demonstrably worse last year. And, the report concludes, the decline must just have paused last year before continuing on its dismal trajectory.

Democracy’s Dial-Up Dilemma

I’ve written extensively about how Donald Trump has undermined U.S. democracy with his rhetoric, his appointments, his attacks on the press, his executive actions, his self-serving financial decisions, and so on. I’ve connected the attacks on democracy in the United States to trends toward autocracy in East-Central Europe from the 1990s onward. I’ve compared Trump’s politics to the majoritarian aspirations of Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Maybe it’s a positive sign that an outsider won the 2016 elections (putting aside Russian interference for the moment). If Donald Trump can do it, so perhaps can Bernie Sanders or the Green Party. Another politics is indeed possible. But everything else about Trump is profoundly anti-democratic.

Worse, he’s part of a more general trend.

Democracy’s troubles do not simply result from generals seizing power (as in Thailand or Egypt), undemocratic rulers consolidating power (like Xi Jinping in China), or illiberal leaders weakening the institutions of democratic governance (like Victor Orban in Hungary, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines).

In other words, democracy’s discontents are not solely external to democracy itself. There’s a deeper vein of popular dissatisfaction. According to Pew research from 2018, a majority of people (out of 27 at least formally democratic countries polled) are dissatisfied with democracy. And for good reason. They are disgusted with the corruption of elected leaders. They are unhappy with economic policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They are fed up with politicians for not responding with sufficient urgency to global problems like climate change or refugees.

Here’s an equally disturbing possibility. Even in the so-called advanced democracies, the political software has become outdated, full of bugs, susceptible to hacking. Put simply, democracy requires a thorough update to deal with the tasks at hand.

So, for instance, democratic institutions have failed to get a handle on the flow of capital, licit and illicit, that forms the circulatory system of the global economy. The corruption outlined in the Panama Papers, the Russian laundromat, and the Odebrecht scandal, among others, reveal just how weak the checks and balances of democracy have been. Watchdog institutions — media, inter-governmental authorities — have been playing catch up as the financial world devises new instruments to “create” wealth and criminals come up with new scams to steal wealth.

The Internet and social media have been hailed as great opportunities for democracy. States can use electronic referenda to encourage greater civic participation. Democracy activists can use Twitter to organize protests at the drop of a hashtag. But the speed of new technologies also establishes certain expectations in the electorate. Citizens expect lightning fast responses from their email, texts, web searches, and streaming services. But government seems stuck in the dial-up age. It takes forever to get legislation passed. The lines at social service centers are long and frustrating.

In some cases, the slowness of government response is more than just irritating.

The last IPCC report suggests that the world has only a dozen years to deal with climate change before it’s too late. All of the patient diplomacy of states leading up to the Paris climate deal, which itself was an insufficient response to the crisis, was then undone by the results of… American democracy.

It’s no surprise, then, that voters have gravitated toward right-wing politicians who promise fast results and easy solutions, however illusory those might be. In other words, these leaders have the opposite appeal of democracy, which is so often slow and messy. Right-wing populists are disruptive technologies that destroy existing structures. That’s why I’ve called populist leaders “disruptors in chief.”

There are no instruction manuals on how to fix hardware and software simultaneously, on how to address climate change at the same time as fixing the political systems that have hitherto failed to tackle the problem. But democracy definitely needs a reboot. Right-wing populists have offered their illiberal fix. Despite the hype, those “solutions” aren’t working, not on climate change, not on refugees, not on trade, not on international disputes with Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela.

So, now it’s time for the rest of us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 12, 2019

Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Russia and the Future of Europe

Europe is gearing up for much-anticipated elections this week to the European parliament. Austria, however, now has to deal with a very unexpected snap election — thanks to a drunk politician, a Russian honeypot, and a leaked video. This scandal currently rocking Austria may ultimately play a decisive role in the European elections as well.

Heinz-Christian Strache was once the ambitious, successful leader of the Freedom Party in Austria. In 2017, on the heels of a strong third-place showing in the legislative elections, he led his far-right-wing populist party, which had been founded by former Nazis, into a coalition government with the more conventionally right-wing People’s Party. Sebastian Kurz, the young leader of the People’s Party, became chancellor. Strache became the vice-chancellor.

On Sunday, Strache stepped down after a seven-hour video went public of his discussions with a young Russian woman in which he promised government contracts in exchange for campaign funding. The meeting took place two years ago, before the elections that elevated Strache and his party, and it was apparently a sting operation. The woman wasn’t who she said she was (the niece of a Russian oligarch), and cameras in the villa in Ibiza where the meeting took place captured all the action.

The Austrian government is now in shambles. On Monday, Austria’s president fired one of Strache’s fellow party members, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. The defense minister and the rest of the Freedom Party cabinet members resigned in protest.

The timing of the video’s release is curious. If it had come out before the Austrian elections two years ago, it would have nipped the Freedom Party’s electoral chances in the bud. Now it has emerged just on the eve of the European Parliament elections, which could damage the prospects of Europe’s populist right.

No one has come forward to claim authorship of the video. It was reportedly offered to several German media outlets over the last few months, but no one bought it. The set-up has all the hallmarks of Russian kompromat — the beautiful woman, the vodka, the video proof. It might make sense for the Russians to arrange and record such a meeting — in order to have something to hold over a future Austrian politician. But it makes no sense for them to turn around and release it right now.

After all, Strache has been reliably pro-Russian. Before the 2017 election, he went to Moscow to broker a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. The Freedom Party pledged to mediate an arrangement with newly elected U.S. president Donald Trump to ease economic sanctions against Russia.

Since 2017, Russia has made considerable headway in improving ties with Austria. The most visible symbol of this new relationship was Vladimir Putin dancing with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at her wedding last summer. The bride bowed at the end of the dance, as if to a visiting king. Unlike many other EU countries, Austria didn’t expel any Russian diplomats after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in March 2018. The two countries have signed energy deals, and Kurz promised to pursue a “step by step” reduction of sanctions against Russia when Austria occupied the EU’s rotating presidency last fall.

But not everything was hunky-dory between the two countries. In November, Austria outed a retired senior military officer as a Russian spy, prompting Kniessl to cancel a planned trip to Moscow. And neither Austria nor the EU has altered its stance on sanctions. In fact, in mid-March, the EU – along with the United States and Canada – imposed yet more sanctions on Russia connected to its “continued aggression in Ukraine.”

Russian officials have denied any connection to the video, falling back on their usual excuse: it was a provocation. But if the sting operators were indeed Russians, rather than some European intelligence outfit, perhaps the Kremlin was sending a warning to its allies in Europe that friendship comes with benefits — or else.

Russia’s European Friends

The Freedom Party is not the only European far-right movement to cultivate ties with the Kremlin, or the only one to get into trouble over those ties. Italy’s right-wing League negotiated a deal with United Russia similar to the one that Strache inked, which should have been scandalous enough.

But then, in February, an Italian magazine published allegations that Russia offered the party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Mario Salvini — who was on a trip to Moscow last year — a kickback arrangement involving sales of Russian diesel and funds diverted into the League’s election coffers. Salvini is a big Putin admirer — once, at the European parliament, he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face — and he wants sanctions against Russia eliminated. However, he has denied the allegations.

But Strache and Salvini are pikers when compared to Putin’s friend in Budapest. It might seem like a losing political strategy for a Hungarian to align with the Kremlin, given the country’s experience as a Soviet satellite during the Cold War and the Soviet invasion of 1956. But Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imported Putin’s version of “illiberal democracy” and put a distinctly Hungarian spin on it with his control of the media and his confrontations with Brussels.

Orban has bent over backwards to help Putin. He awarded Russia a no-bid contract to modernize Hungary’s nuclear power plant (only two words are necessary to show why that was a bad idea: corruption and Chernobyl). He has criticized the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia. He has welcomed Russian individuals with high-level ties to live in Hungary and even permitted a Russian bank of shadowy provenance to set up in Budapest.

Hungarian law enforcement worked with the United States to nab two suspected Russian arms dealers only for Orban to decide to extradite the suspects — not to the United States, but back to Russia!

Then there’s Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic. Like Orban, Zeman is virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Islam. Like Orban, he has managed to erase some part of the stigma once attached to Moscow, in this case for its suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Like Orban, he wants to make sure that his country benefits from Russia’s energy supplies. But there are other, more subterranean economic reasons for his tilt toward Moscow, like the business interests of top advisors like Martin Nejedly.

Not all far-right parties in Europe are enamored of Putin. Poland’s Law and Justice Party has stayed out of any potential pro-Russian alliances because of the country’s long-standing suspicion of Russian motives. The Estonian far right is equally wary, and some of their compatriots further to the west share these concerns. “We are very concerned about Russian aggression,” says Anders Vistisen, of the Danish People’s party. “A wounded bear is dangerous.”

As with the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the Kremlin knows that a little money and disinformation can go a long way. The point of its electoral interventions in Europe is not necessarily to put any one person or party into office. Rather, it is to undermine confidence in the liberal elite and liberal institutions.

Most importantly, Putin wants to weaken the European Union. The Kremlin would prefer not to deal with a European bloc, which is more economically and militarily powerful than Russia, and instead negotiate bilaterally with European countries. The EU supports sanctions against Russia. It broadcasts a siren song to states like Ukraine on Russia’s borders. It embodies precisely the kind of free-thinking liberalism that Putin abhors.

But the Kremlin will go even further than social media trolling and opaque financial dealings to influence European politics. It even will go as far as regime change.

The Case of Montenegro

Earlier this month, a court in Montenegro handed down guilty verdicts for 14 people involved in a coup attempt back in 2016. Two of the 14 are alleged Russian intelligence officers. According to The Washington Post:

The verdict said the group planned to take over the parliament in Montenegro on election day — Oct. 16, 2016 — assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in the Adriatic Sea nation.

The Russians were tried in absentia. They’d helped coordinate the coup from their perch in Serbia. The Serbian government, also closely aligned with Moscow, allowed the two to return to Russia before law enforcement could catch up with them. One of the convicted Russians, Eduard Shishmakov, had been the deputy military attache in Warsaw before being kicked out of the country for spying.

Montenegro went ahead and joined NATO in 2017, which was also part of its bid to enhance its chances of joining the European Union. Djukanovic remains prime minister. He’s the fellow that Trump nearly elbowed in the face in an awkward group gathering at the 2018 NATO summit. The president also went out of his way to disparage Montenegro when, in response to a Tucker Carlson question, he called the Montenegrins “very aggressive people.” He added, “They may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” It’s instructive to reinterpret Trump’s words and actions in light of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.

Montenegro is only one of the points of entry for Russia in its attempts to influence the course of events in the Balkans. The Kremlin also tried to upend the deal between Macedonia and Greece that finally, after several decades of acrimony, ended the dispute over what to name the former Yugoslav republic. Now known as North Macedonia, the country will become a member of NATO by year’s end.

In a more traditional bid for geopolitical influence, Putin has strengthened ties with Serbia’s authoritarian leader Aleksandar Vucic and ramped up Russian efforts as the mediator of last resort in the longstanding dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. This conflict is a win-win for Putin. A continued standoff over Kosovo’s independence makes the EU look impotent and binds Belgrade and Moscow even closer. But the Kremlin can also use any deal that provides Kosovo with international legitimacy as a precedent for its own efforts to gain recognition for Russian-aligned breakaway regions in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The Problem of Russian Interference

After he was inaugurated as president, Trump told Bill O’Reilly — in response to a question about Putin being a “killer” — “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

It’s true that the United States has been involved in numerous coups around the world, both successful (Iran) and unsuccessful (Cuba). It’s also true that the United States has attempted to sway innumerable elections through both covert and open means. Trump, who knows so very well about the lack of innocence, is quite right about U.S. complicity in various international crimes.

Progressives should, of course, condemn these U.S. actions over the years. And I’m certainly no fan of an expanding NATO.

But we should also call out Russia as well. And not just because Russia attempted to interfere in U.S. elections, as detailed in the Mueller report. That’s not the worst of it, considering the number of political assassinations that the Kremlin has orchestrated on foreign soil, its involvement in the attempted coup in Montenegro, and its efforts to sway multiple European politicians.

The bottom line is that the Kremlin has backed some of the most noxious reactionaries now operating on the world scene: Viktor Orban, Mario Salvini, Heinz-Christian Strache, Marine Le Pen. Oh, yes, and Trump too.

Russian actions in its near abroad (Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics) have revived NATO from what should have been its deathbed. And if Russia succeeds with its political vision for Europe, say goodbye to the European Union and its bold effort to apply progressive social policies across borders. (Yes, the EU’s economic program has veered off in a neoliberal direction, but that’s something to fight about within the EU framework rather than discarding the framework altogether.)

Putin’s divide-and-conquer strategy has attracted a dyspeptic band of right-wing populists, Euroskeptics, and neo-Nazis, who will likely capture a much larger share in the European parliament elections this week despite the Austrian scandal. But they don’t represent any real alternative to NATO and neo-liberalism. Follow Russia and the path leads back to 1914. Europeans deserve a brighter future, not a catastrophic rewind.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 22, 2019

Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Mueller, RussiaGate, and the 2020 Elections

In horror movies, the monster can usually be dispatched in only one way. A werewolf requires a silver bullet. A vampire will only stay dead with a stake through the heart. The Blob shrivels in contact with the icy cold.

For many opponents of Donald Trump, the report by special counsel Robert Mueller was supposed to be the magic method of taking down the president.

After all, like a movie monster, Trump seemed to be impervious to all other weapons. Charges of sexual harassment, of adultery, of outrageously sexist comments — these didn’t destroy his political career. Accusations of racism only seemed to solidify his base. He has faced any number of allegations of economic malfeasance, from money laundering to tax evasion, but these have only seemed to burnish his reputation for breaking the rules and getting away with it.

Tying the president to the Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential elections, on the other hand, promised to push the president beyond the pale. Collusion with a foreign government to subvert American democracy? Even the Donald couldn’t survive such a blow. Impeachment would be the least of his worries. He would be looking at spending the rest of his days in prison.

In this respect, Mueller has not delivered. In the report he delivered at the end of last week, the special counsel concluded that there was no proof that the Trump election team colluded with the Russians to hijack the elections. Attorney General William Barr’s summary includes this direct quote from the report: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

The president has declared, unsurprisingly, that he has been cleared of all charges. His congressional lapdog Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has also concluded that “the cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed.” The Democrats have stopped talking about impeachment.

The summary of the report also indicates that Mueller will not issue any more indictments, nor are there any sealed indictments that will be later revealed to the public. The full report, if it’s ever made public, might include some interesting details. But it appears that Mueller will not be sending anyone else to jail, including the president, as a result of his investigations.

In Other News

This news coincides with some rather sobering political forecasting. Despite anemic favorability ratings, Trump has a very good chance of getting reelected. And by a large margin.

According to a report in Politico that came out just before the Mueller report dropped, if elections were held today, Trump would…

likely ride to a second term in a huge landslide, according to multiple economic models with strong track records of picking presidential winners and losses. Credit a strong U.S. economy featuring low unemployment, rising wages and low gas prices — along with the historic advantage held by incumbent presidents.

Even if the economy is only doing fairly well, rather than gangbusters, Trump could still coast to a 54 percent to 46 percent win in the popular vote. This according to Yale economist Ray Fair, who also predicted Trump’s 2016 win.

Of course, the economy could go south, and then all bets are off.

But as all horror movie fans know, the first attempt to get rid of the monster always fails. Otherwise there’s no opportunity to deliver on the story’s true theme — the ingenuity and resilience of the resistance.

So, let’s take another look at the Mueller magic bullet to see if it can be repurposed.

Revisiting Mueller

The Mueller investigation concluded that there was no collusion between the Trump team and Russia.

However, the summary reinforces the central elements of the Russiagate narrative: Russia interfered in the 2016 elections in two principle ways. It did so through social media operations such as its targeted Facebook ad purchases. Also, the “Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons associated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks.”

First of all, let’s restate the seemingly obvious for all those who believe that Russiagate is some the liberal version of 9-11 Truthers or the Bush administration’s WMD claims about Iraq. Russia attempted to swing the 2016 election in favor of Trump. Full stop.

Second, although the Mueller report couldn’t substantiate claims that the Trump team colluded with the Russian government, collusion may still have happened. Mueller just didn’t turn up any proof of it. Collusion is a difficult charge to pin on a group of actors, particularly if they conduct their business in backroom meetings and the top dog threatens underlings with massive retaliation if they squeal. Also, Mueller might have gathered evidence that Trump colluded with Russian non-state actors around election interference. A lesser charge, perhaps, but still damning.

The key link, meanwhile, between the Russian hack, Wikileaks, and the Trump campaign was Roger Stone. He has denied being an intermediary. But Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen has testified that he was present at a meeting in July 2016 when…

Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Stone’s trial won’t take place until November. So, this strand of the narrative may take some time to unravel.

The other Russia-related question is obstruction of justice. Bear in mind that what’s currently available is not Mueller’s report but William Barr’s short summary of it. And its Barr’s assessment in the summary (along with his deputy Rod Rosenstein) that there is no evidence of obstruction of justice. Three weeks earlier, Mueller had informed the FBI that he wasn’t going to conclude one way or the other on this issue, so Barr had plenty of time to come up with his own interpretation.

But he probably didn’t even need that head’s up. Last year, Barr had already determined that Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey did not constitute obstruction of justice. So, he’s not exactly assessing the evidence without prejudice.

The Trump administration itself seems like one huge obstruction of justice. Surely this is still a profitable seam to mine. The question, of course, is whether Trump can be accused of obstructing an inquiry that didn’t turn up the key piece of incriminating evidence. But, then, there are other obstructions and injustices that could fit the bill.

Let a Thousand Investigations Bloom

Trump is not, of course, in the clear after the Mueller report. But he probably believes that his presidency can survive the other criminal investigations.

In the Southern District of New York, for instance, prosecutors will be looking into whether Michael Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels constituted a violation of campaign finance laws as well as various irregularities — wire fraud, money laundering — connected to Trump’s inaugural committee. Investigators will have greater leeway than Mueller did to pursue all sorts of interesting leads and expose Trump’s enormous walk-in closet of dirty linen. But even if these charge stick, they might not be enough to sink his reelection prospects.

Perhaps critics like Matthew Yglesias are right when they conclude that Congress, no longer constrained by the Mueller investigation and Republican control of both chambers, can focus on the dirt-digging that matters. Here’s how Russell Berman lays out the possible trajectories for congressional investigation in The Atlantic:

The president promotes his corporate brands regularly and in plain sight, while a hotel he owns mere blocks from the White House rakes in profits from patrons, including foreign leaders, with business before the federal government. Cabinet secretaries reportedly violate ethical guidelines and conflict-of-interest rules left and right by spending lavishly on office furniture and official travel, or by failing to properly divest their business holdings. The president’s son-in-law obtains a security clearance over the objections of senior officials, and then — along with other top White House aides — conducts official government business using personal, unsecured devices and accounts. The president himself refuses to relinquish his personal cellphone, raising concerns that he is having conversations vulnerable to interception by hackers or foreign governments.

The first item on the list, the violations of the emoluments clause of the constitution, is worth a thorough congressional vetting. Last year, a federal district court allowed a suit brought by the attorneys general of DC and Maryland to proceed, over the Justice Department’s objections, with a case against Trump for personally profiting from his presidency. To say the least, Trump and his lawyers are not happy about this suit moving forward.

Delving into Trump’s tax records, untangling his banking relationship with Deutsche Bank (which was also fined for Russian money-laundering), investigating his business dealings with Russia and Azerbaijan and China: all of this will be enormously illuminating.

But will it be enough to dent Trump’s reelection chances, absent a downturn in the economy?

Trump and Treason

It’s one thing for Trump to act in his own pecuniary interests. It’s what his supporters expect of him. They love his displays of ostentatious wealth. They seem unfazed by all the reports that he inherited over $400 million from his father, that he built his fortune in corrupt ways, that he systematically lied about his financial assets. Trump is a larger-than-life outlaw figure — think Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde — that somehow captures the imagination of (some) Americans.

Further investigations into the president’s self-serving ways are welcome but they may do little to keep his supporters away from the polls. Furthermore, these investigations will probably stretch out for many months and not have the kind of electoral impact that the anti-Trump crowd so desperately wants.

Treason, on the other hand, is a game-changer. Trump has put America first, he hugs the flag, he has practically established himself as the brand image for the country. If it can be proved that he worked on behalf of other countries to undermine fundamental American institutions, this is a stigma that can’t easily be washed off.

Trump, in fact, understands this fact all too well. That’s why he has turned the tables and promised to retaliate against his enemies for having done “evil” and “treasonous” things. Needless to say, Trump has defined treason rather loosely to include, for instance, Democrats who didn’t clap for him during the State of the Union address.

To be precise, treason as defined by the U.S. constitution only happens during wartime and consists of providing “aid and comfort” to an enemy. So, unless Trump were found to have funneled secrets to the Taliban or the Islamic State, there’s technically no chance of a treason charge sticking to the president.

But if it can be proved that Trump acted “treasonously” — a lower bar than the “treason” designation — it could seriously jeopardize his political career. That would include Trump simply knowing that Russia was interfering in the 2016 elections to help him (which falls short of actual collusion). It would include some of his further interactions with Russia (such as that famous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki). It might include evidence that the economic interests of the Trump family dictated the president’s policies toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Putting Trump first doesn’t seem to harm the president’s political fortunes. Putting America last, however, might.

The Mueller report has been the dominant story of the first act of Trump’s tragic presidency. The special counsel has taken down a number of shady characters, like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. But this magic bullet turned out to be only half-magical.

As we enter the second act of this horror story, it’s going to take a lot more to stop Trump — and, more importantly, Trumpism. Investigations will help. A compelling charge of “acting treasonously” could do the trick. But ultimately the only true magic bullet in this case is the collective determination of all Americans who still believe in decency and democracy.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 20, 2019

Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe US Foreign Policy

It’s a Borderful World

Nation-states: what a quaint notion.

As a means of organizing territory, they seem to be a brief transition period between large empires and an even larger, borderless world. Sure, nation-states might live on in the form of anthems and flags and independence days, but the idea of fixed borders just doesn’t make sense in a world of cell phones, the Internet, and global assembly lines. Borders just seem like a twentieth-century contrivance that slows everything down, like those paper forms you still have to fill out at the doctor’s office.

But just when you think you’ve progressed to the next level, along comes a reminder that the past is nipping at your heels, eager to bring you down.

This Sunday, Donald Trump temporarily closed the border crossing at San Ysidro in San Diego, across from Tijuana, Mexico. In response to a surge in migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America, the president has threatened to close the entire border permanently and even shut down the U.S. government if Congress doesn’t fund his border wall.

Also this Sunday, the European Union approved British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposal. If the British parliament gives its okay, Britain will begin its formal withdrawal from the transnational pact at the end of March. Parliamentary approval, however, is far from certain, which leaves the border between the EU and its second most economically powerful member still very much up in the air.

Finally, in the Azov Sea this Sunday, Russian border patrol boats opened fire on three Ukrainian vessels and then took them into custody. Russia is currently holding 24 Ukrainian sailors. Both Russia and Ukraine border the Sea of Azov, as does the disputed territory of Crimea. It’s only the latest in a long series of clashes over the border between the two most populous successor states of the Soviet Union.

The border disputes this Sunday were by no means the only ones. Tensions continue over who controls what islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Israel and Palestine continue to clash around the Gaza border and over the West Bank. Syria remains an internally divided country, as is Libya and, frankly, Iraq as well.

Borders are back in fashion. Whether they’re trying to keep out immigrants, confront neighbors, or just reassert sovereignty in an increasingly intrusive world, the latest batch of nationalist and authoritarian leaders are challenging the notion that history is heading in an ever more frictionless direction.

Actually, these leaders are all about friction, especially at the borders, because that’s precisely where worldviews rub up against each other and create dangerous sparks.

The Break

The decision by a narrow majority of Britons, in a 2016 referendum, to leave the EU was impulsive, uninformed, and splenetic. It was, ultimately, a crime of passion. And now, unless someone issues a last-minute reprieve, the authorities are going to execute the judgment.

I can’t resist another metaphor. There is no good Brexit, just as there is no good broken kneecap. They are both ruptures that require careful surgery and a long period of rehabilitation. In this case, there’s not just one fracture. Other border issues have included Gibraltar (resolved at the last minute), Northern Ireland (still unclear), and Scotland (it might vote for independence in order to negotiate its own EU membership).

The “soft” Brexit deal to which May and the EU have agreed would keep the UK in the trade area, for a transition period, but also force it to comply with many of the EU regulations that prompted the “leave” campaign to begin with. That’s why a number of May’s cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, resigned in mid-November. They wanted a “hard” Brexit that represents a clean break with the EU regulatory system – a deal that the EU was not likely to approve.

If the British parliament rejects May’s proposal, however, the prime minister might be forced to negotiate a divorce without any deal at all, the hardest of hard Brexits. At the moment, the parliament seems to be gearing up to do just that, though May will use the threat of impending chaos to force the wary to line up behind her.

There are other possibilities, such as an even softer “Norway-plus” arrangement. Also, the European Court of Justice is now considering whether an interpretation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – which covers withdrawal from the EU – could permit Britain to revoke its Brexit declaration unilaterally. If that’s the case, then, the British could go ahead with a second referendum to see if the people, now apprised of the consequences of their actions, are willing to change their minds. It’s a rewind button that those who commit crimes of passion and break their kneecaps are not given. Back in March, the people building a new anti-Brexit campaign, with the help of donors like George Soros, gave the prospects of a second referendum at 50/50. With the May government increasingly rickety, the EU standing firm, and virtually everyone predicting economic decline under any Brexit scenario, those odds have gone up.

Still, as Andrew Rawnsley points out in The Guardian, preaching to the Remainers may not be enough to secure a win the second time around.

It is one thing to hold Boris Johnson and his gang to account for the mendacities they peddled in 2016. It is another thing to say that the millions of voters who bought into the bogus Brexit prospectus were idiots and suckers. It is never a smart idea to tell voters that they have been fools. Even, perhaps especially, when they have been. The anti-Brexit campaign has to show respect for Leave voters and for the reasons that they voted Leave. They may be willing to change their minds but they won’t hear the arguments for doing so unless they are convinced that they have been listened to as well.

Sound familiar? The Democrats will face the same choice in two years when it comes time to address the buyer’s remorse of the American people for shelling out good money for a lemon president.

The Wall

It’s no surprise that Donald Trump has declared his first war against a group of civilians, many of them women and children. In a Cabinet memo on November 20, the president authorized U.S. soldiers to use lethal force against asylum-seekers at the Mexican border. Pentagon chief Jim Mattis has tried to indicate that calmer heads will prevail at the border. But impatient protesters threw some rocks on Sunday at the San Ysidro border crossing, and Customs and Border Protection officers sprayed the crowd with tear gas. It was bad enough for the protesters. The visuals also reinforced the message that the Trump administration will do whatever it takes to break national and international law that requires processing the claims of asylum-seekers fairly and expeditiously.

Tear gas is only the latest indignity visited upon the people waiting in Mexico for safe passage out of the horror that had become their lives. In an episode from mid-September, This American Life recounted all the different ways that the Trump administration has made life even more difficult for asylum-seekers.

Over the last six months, Customs and Border Protection officers have been stopping asylum seekers from even walking up to federal facilities at the border. This has been filmed by crews from CBS, NBC, Fox, and many others. They stop people in the middle of bridges that cross from Mexico into the United States at El Paso and Brownsville, and turn them away before they can even get to the official ports of entry on the other side to apply for asylum.

These were people freely exercising their right – not folks jumping over walls or swimming across rivers. Before the latest caravan arrived, a thousand people were basically waiting in line in Mexico for the few opportunities to make their case for asylum. By November 10, the administration closed down that option as well with its asylum ban, which a federal judge blocked 10 days later (which set up the testy exchange between the president and Chief Justice Roberts about “Obama” judges).

Asylum-seekers: can you think of a more ragtag “enemy” to target? Trump has tried to beef up his purported adversary by claiming that gang members and Middle Eastern terrorists have infiltrated their ranks. No one except perhaps the lunatic Ann Coulter, who has urged an invasion of Mexico, believes that particular claim. But a few thousand civilians with no more than rocks for weapons, are just the straw man he needs. The president doesn’t want to go up against an opponent that has any chance of winning. Ronald Reagan, when dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam War syndrome, went to war against the tiny island nation of Grenada. Trump, dealing with the Iraq War syndrome, has chosen an even weaker target.

But what motivates the president’s attack on immigrants and the caravan more specifically is the opportunity to weaponize America’s borders. Right-wing populists in Europe used the immigration issue for the same purpose. Viktor Orban built his own wall to keep the desperate out of Hungary. More importantly, Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Czech Republic’s Milos Zeman discovered that nothing defines a nation’s sovereignty better than a full-scale effort to keep people out of the country. Moreover, in so doing, they can challenge a key principle of European integration, the free movement of people, in a way to reinforce their Euroskeptical agenda.

Trump doesn’t have to deal with Brussels. But he is sandwiched between a liberal in Canada and a socialist in Mexico. He has insulted the former and twisted the arm of the latter to line up behind a new (sort of) regional trade deal. They are stand-ins for what Trump considers an invasive species: globalists. Trump has challenged international institutions, imposed tariffs on allies and adversaries alike, and ridiculed global principles like human rights. And like many so-called conservatives, he has benefited enormously from the system he lambastes (the immigrants he’s hired, the global assembly line that has produced his namesake goods).

But again, Trump prefers wars that have favorable odds. He wants to win. Globalization’s ardent supporters, like politicians and financiers, are powerful people. They cross borders with ease. Much easier to pick on the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world.

The War

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has largely disappeared from the headlines. The Crimean Peninsula remains in Russian hands, the status of eastern Ukraine is still up in the air, and Russia continues to manipulate matters behind the scenes to weaken Ukraine as a whole and battle Western influence in the region. People are still dying every day in the conflict. The separatist ranks in the Donbass have been thinned by assassination and exile. And corruption in eastern Ukraine is rampant. But Europe has too many other crises to manage in-house and not a lot of spare resources to focus on Ukraine.

It’s hard not to see the latest naval clash in the Azov Sea as a convenient provocation by Kiev. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been trying to persuade his parliament to grant him state-of-emergency powers. They balked and balked. But on Monday, after Russia seized the Ukrainian vessels, Poroshenko got what he wanted, for the next month at least. Plus, the most recent crisis strengthens the case for an extension of sanctions against Moscow.

Ukraine says that the boats sought permission to enter the sea when the Russian crafts suddenly attacked. It also complains that Russia has been trying to turn the Azov Sea into a Russian lake. Moscow controls the narrow access of the Kerch strait, particularly after it built a low bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland – which has slowed Ukraine’s access to its Azov ports. A 2003 agreement gives both countries access to this body of water, but Russia no longer seems to adhere to it.

It all sounds like a plot line out of Occupied, the TV series about the Russian occupation of Norway. In that series, the Russians and Free Norway rebels both escalate situations in order to improve their strategic positions. It’s often hard to know who has provoked whom.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, has a very clear agenda. He needs to keep his public opinion ratings high (they’ve been dropping). He’d like to widen the split between Washington and Brussels and perhaps was thinking that Trump would overlook a naval spat much as he has apparently let Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman off the hook for planning the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And he’d like to strengthen the wall that divides the EU from all areas to the east.

In a recent interview with Putin, a Russian journalist complains about the EU. “They are working on Belarus, Kazakhstan and now they are very active in Armenia. We can see how they drip poison into their ears. We should do something about it. Our allies are leaving us.” Putin responds with a verbal threat that has all too much resonance in light of Russian conduct.

“The poisoners dripping poison into someone’s ears will sooner or later swallow it and get poisoned,” Putin says.

After this latest clash in the Sea of Azov, Russian allies and adversaries will think twice about sidling up to the bear. Putin would like to reinforce the border between Russia and the West in order to maintain greater influence over Russia’s “near abroad.” For that same reason, however, the Russian president prefers that the borders closer to home are more fluid, which enables him to meddle more easily in the affairs of his neighbors.

Against Fluidity

It might seem ironic that countries are getting so hung up over borders just when so many people around the world are challenging borders in their everyday lives. Gender fluidity asserts a spectrum of options rather than a rigid binary. Greater racial diversity pushes everyone to think beyond black and white. Workplaces have been revolutionized by telecommuting and automation and the sharing economy. Race, class, and gender are no longer such clearly delineated categories.

Trump is against many things: immigrants, Europeans, strong women, cosmopolitans, policy wonks, whiny democrats, anyone who crosses him. But in his references to an imagined past when America was great and prosperous and commanded global respect – claims that require just the kind of asterisks that Trump hates – the president is also channeling the anxiety of many people for a time of certainties: when men were men and never changed their minds about it, when men married women and never had second thoughts, when a job was a lifetime appointment, and when nation-states were like billiard balls that clashed or kissed but never interpenetrated one another.

Trump’s message is so appealing to the older generation, evangelicals, and traditional conservatives that they’re willing to overlook the fluidities in the president’s own life (divorce, adultery, political perambulations). Trump’s supporters cling to his false certainties because they’re preferable to true uncertainties.

Such delusions can last only so long.

After all, countries will rise and fall. Regional pacts may crumble. Rates of migration will fluctuate according to national and international policy, the vicissitudes of war and peace, and the hazards of climate change.

But however much the Trumps and Putins and Euroskeptics of the world beef up the borders, fluidity is here to stay.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 28, 2018