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The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

Donald Trump would dearly like to add his face to Mt. Rushmore as the fifth presidential musketeer. His fireworks-and-fury extravaganza on July 3 was the next best thing. Trump’s dystopian speech was almost beside the point. Much more important was the photo op of his smirking face next to Abraham Lincoln’s.

More fitting, however, would be to carve Trump’s face into a different Rushmore altogether. This one would be located in a more appropriate badlands, like Mt. Hermon in Syria near the border with Israel. There, Donald Trump’s visage would join those of his fellow autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. To honor the illiberal locals, the stony countenances of Bashar al-Assad and Benjamin Netanyahu would make it a cozy quintet.

Let’s be frank: Jefferson and Washington are not the company that Trump keeps, despite his America First pretensions. His ideological compatriots are to be found in other countries: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and so on. Alas, this global Rushmore of autocrats is becoming as crowded as a football team pressed together for a selfie.

But Putin and Xi stand out from the rest. They get pride of place because of their long records of authoritarian policies and the sheer brazenness of their recent power grabs. By comparison, Trump is the arrogant newcomer who may well not last the season, an impulsive sprinter in the marathon of geopolitics. If things go badly for Team Trump in November, America will suddenly be busy air-brushing 45 out of history and gratefully chiseling his face out of the global Rushmore.

Putin and Xi, however, are in it for the long haul.

Leader for Life

At the end of June, Russia held a referendum on a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed earlier in the year. In front of Russian voters were over 200 proposed amendments. No wonder the authorities gave Russians a full week to vote. They should have provided mandatory seminars on constitutional law as well.

Of course, the Russian government wasn’t looking to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion of governance. The Russian parliament had already approved the changes. Putin simply wanted Russian voters to rubber-stamp his nationalist-conservative remaking of his country.

At the same time, a poor turnout would not have been a good look. To guarantee what the Kremlin’s spokesman described as a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Putin, workplaces pressured their employees to vote, and the government distributed lottery prizes. Some people managed to vote more than once. On top of that, widespread fraud was necessary to achieve the preordained positive outcome.

Instead of voting on each of the amendments, Russians had to approve or disapprove the whole package. Among the constitutional changes were declarations that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that Russians believe in God, and that the Russian constitution takes precedence over international law.

Several measures increased executive power over the ministries and the judiciary. A few sops were thrown to Putin’s core constituencies, like pensioners.

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

But the jewel in the crown was the amendment that allows Putin to run for the presidency two more times. Given his systematic suppression of the opposition, up to and including assassination, Putin will likely be in office until he’s 84 years old. That gives him plenty of time to, depending on your perspective, make Russia great again or make Russia into Putin, Inc.

The Russian president does not dream of world domination. He has regional ambitions at best. Yet these ambitions have brought Russia into conflict with the United States over Ukraine, Syria, even outer space. And then there’s the perennial friction over Afghanistan.

Much has been made in the U.S. press about Putin offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. and coalition soldiers. It’s ugly stuff, but no uglier than what the United States was doing back in the 1980s.

Did you think that all the U.S. money going to the mujahideen was to cultivate opium poppies, run madrasas, and plan someday to bite the hand that fed them? The U.S. government was giving the Afghan “freedom fighters” guns and funds to kill Soviet soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom died over the course of the war. The Russians have been far less effective. At most, the Taliban have killed 18 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of 2019, with perhaps a couple tied to the bounty program.

Still, it is expected that a U.S. president would protest such a direct targeting of U.S. soldiers even if he has no intention to retaliate. Instead, Donald Trump has claimed that Putin’s bounty program is a hoax. “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

Knowing how sensitive the U.S. president and the U.S. public is to the death of U.S. soldiers overseas, Putin couldn’t resist raising the stakes in Afghanistan and making U.S. withdrawal that much more certain. Taking the United States out of the equation — reducing the transatlantic alliance, edging U.S. troops out of the Middle East, applauding Washington’s exit from various international organizations — provides Russia with greater maneuvering room to consolidate power in the Eurasian space.

Trump has dismissed pretty much every unsavory Kremlin act as a hoax, from U.S. election interference to assassinations of critics overseas. Trump cares little about Ukraine, has been lukewarm if not hostile toward U.S. sanctions against Moscow, and has consistently attempted to bring Russia back into the G8. Yet he has also undermined the most important mechanism of engagement with Russia, namely arms control treaties.

Trump’s servile approach to Putin and disengaged approach to Russia is the exact opposite of the kind of principled engagement policy that Washington should be constructing. The United States should be identifying common interests with Russia over nuclear weapons, climate, regional ceasefires, reviving the Iran nuclear deal — and at the same time criticizing Russian conduct that violates international norms.

Territory Grab

Xi Jinping has already made himself leader for life, and he didn’t need to go to the pretense of a referendum on constitutional changes. In 2018, the National People’s Congress simply removed the two-term limit on the presidency and boom: Xi can be on top ‘til he drops.

Forget about collective leadership within the Party. And certainly forget about some kind of evolution toward democracy. Under Xi, China has returned to the one-man rule of the Mao period.

So, while Putin was busy securing his future this past weekend, Xi focused instead on securing China’s future as an integrated, politically homogeneous entity. In other words, Xi moved on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong once had great economic value for Beijing as a gateway to the global economy. Now that China has all the access to the global economy that it needs and then some, Hong Kong has only symbolic value, as a former colonial territory returned to the Chinese nation in 1997. To the extent that Hong Kong remains an enclave of free-thinkers who take potshots at the Communist Party, Beijing will step by step deprive it of democracy.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effort in Hong Kong. “The new law names four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” Matt Ho writes in the South China Morning Post. “It also laid out new law enforcement powers and established government agencies responsible for national security. Conviction under the law includes sentences of life in prison.”

The protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the past many months, from Beijing’s point of view, violate the national security law in all four categories. So, violators may now face very long prison sentences indeed, and police have already arrested a number of people accused of violating the new law. The new law extends to virtually all aspects of society, including the schools, which now must “harmonize” their teaching with the party line in Beijing.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, however, is still a dilute version of the crackdown taking place on the Mainland. This week, the authorities in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and prominent critic of Xi Jinping. He joins other detainees, like real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who was linked to an article calling Xi a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor” and Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province amounts to collective punishment: more than a million consigned to “reeducation camps,” children separated from their families, forced sterilization. Uyghur exiles have charged China with genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Like Putin, Xi has aligned himself with a conservative nationalism that appeals to a large portion of the population. Unlike Putin, the Chinese leader doesn’t have to worry about approval ratings or periodic elections. He is also sitting on a far larger economy, much greater foreign currency reserves, and the means to construct an illiberal internationalism to replace the Washington consensus that has prevailed for several decades.

Moreover, there are no political alternatives on the horizon in China that could challenge Xi or his particular fusion of capitalism and nationalism.

Trump has pursued the same kind of unprincipled engagement with China as he has with Russia: flattery of the king, indifference toward human rights, and a focus on profit. Again, principled engagement requires working with China on points of common concern while pushing back against its human rights violations.

Of course, that’s not going to happen under the human rights violation that currently occupies the White House.

And Trump Makes Three

Donald Trump aspires to become leader for life like his buddies Putin and Xi, as he has “joked” on numerous occasions. He has similarly attacked the mainstays of a democratic society — the free press, independent judges, inspectors general. He has embraced the same nationalist-conservative cultural policies.

And he has branded his opponents enemies of the people. In his Rushmore speech on July 3, Trump lashed out against…

“a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

He went on to describe his crackdown on protesters, his opposition to “liberal Democrats,” his efforts to root out opposition in schools, newsrooms and “even our corporate boardrooms.” Like Putin, he sang the praises of the American family and religious values. He described an American people that stood with him and the Rushmore Four and against all those who have exercised their constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

You’d never know from the president’s diatribe that protesters were trying to overthrow not the American Revolution but the remnants of the Confederacy.

Trump’s supporters have taken to heart the president’s attacks on America’s “enemies.”

Since the protests around George Floyd’s killing began in May, there have been at least 50 cases of cars ramming into demonstrators, a favorite tactic used by white supremacists. There have been over 400 reports of press freedom violations. T. Greg Doucette, a “Never Trump” conservative lawyer, has collected over 700 videos of police misconduct, usually violent, toward peaceful demonstrators.

As I’ve written, there is no left-wing “cultural revolution” sweeping the United States. It is Donald Trump who is hoping to unleash a cultural revolution carried out by a mob of violent backlashers who revere the Confederate flag, white supremacy, and the Mussolini-like president who looks out upon all the American carnage from his perch on the global Rushmore of autocrats.

FPIF, July 8, 2020

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Articles Featured Korea

North Korea’s Momentous Transition

North Korea belongs to a dwindling category of countries known as “totalitarian.” Compared to their authoritarian cousins, totalitarian regimes aspire to control all aspects of society. As Italian fascist Benito Mussolini once put it: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” In such countries, there is no autonomous business sector or civil society of any sort. Churches and other religious institutions are purely ornamental. Indeed, such countries lack even a handful of independent intellectuals. Totalitarian governments aspire to eliminate all individualism in their construction of a state that is all-powerful and a society that behaves like a single organism.

North Korea came into existence after the end of World War II when the United States and Soviet Union arbitrarily divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. There have been only three leaders of the country, all part of the same bloodline. Kim Il Sung, the founding head of state, established the pattern of North Korean politics by fusing Soviet-style communism with older feudal and Confucian traditions. He ruthlessly eliminated all potential opposition to his rule as well as any factionalism within the Workers’ Party. He created a personality cult that could channel the religious devotion that had been widespread in northern Korea prior to World War II. He subordinated all social life to the Party, established a prison camp system for those who fell afoul of the Party’s dictums, and carefully restricted the flow of information into the country. Although charting an independent course between Moscow and Beijing, the new country would nevertheless benefit from the economic subsidies and political patronage of both China and the Soviet Union.

North Korea has also survived innumerable challenges. It eked out a stalemate in the Korean War only thanks to a million Chinese “volunteers” who entered the war several months after it began in 1950. The country didn’t collapse when Eastern European communism went under in 1989, or when the Soviet Union passed away two years later. It survived the death of its first leader in 1994, and a subsequent famine that killed as much as 10 percent of the population. And even though its current leader, Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un, was a mere 24 years old when he took over in 2014, North Korea has made it through its third leadership transition.

Despite its reputation for stasis, North Korea has in fact changed a great deal over the years in order to survive these myriad challenges. Perhaps the most critical transformation has involved the market. Even before the famine hit in the mid-1990s, the government established the free-trade zone of Rajin-Sonbong in order to interact more effectively with global capitalism. When the official economy collapsed during the famine years, the government permitted local markets to expand and become an indispensable source of food and income for the population. When the economic crisis subsided in the 2000s, outside experts provided the government with the technical know-how to create the legal framework to support foreign capital investment.

Since the 1990s, an entrepreneurial class has emerged in North Korea. Some members of this class accumulated capital from running import-export businesses with China. Others used their state connections to start up quasi-independent enterprises and non-state services such as the informal “service cars” that operate like private taxis. New semi-private restaurants and cafes have appeared in the major cities. There is even a secondary market in apartments.

This new moneyed elite is known as donju, or “masters of money.” They can exist only through some accommodation with the state – chiefly through bribery. In her new book on Kim Jong Un, Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield describes one such sleigh-of-hand:

“A master of money might buy mining and mineral rights from the central government authorities and then take over mines that have been abandoned because of a lack of electricity and the equipment needed to bring out the minerals. They invest in the mine to get it up and running again. They hire workers who, unlike when working for the state, will receive a decent wage. They pay off ministry officials and buy protection from local party cadres and officials in the prosecutor’s office. Then they take in the cash and pay a share of their profits – about 30 percent – to the regime as ‘loyalty funds.’”

Until recently, North Korea attempted to incorporate elements of capitalism into its totalitarian model. This uneasy marriage produced periodic crackdowns as the state attempted to re-exert control over the economic sphere. The police would break up informal markets. Successful entrepreneurs risked imprisonment. At the end of 2009, the government revalued the currency, limiting the amount of old money that citizens could trade for new. The move wiped out the savings of many small-scale entrepreneurs.

Kim Jong Un, however, has adopted a different approach. As long as the members of this new economic elite grease the right palms, they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. They can even flaunt their new wealth at expensive stores and cafes in Pyongyang. In this way, North Korea has followed the Chinese economic reform path that Deng Xiaoping famously described as: “to get rich is glorious.”

The shift in approach is potentially momentous. A government that previously aspired to totalitarian control of the population is shifting to mere authoritarianism. The state has not dismantled any of its surveillance mechanisms. It still maintains its robust propaganda machinery as well as a personality cult for its young leader. It continues to show zero tolerance for dissent of any kind. But, like more ordinary autocratic states, it is permitting a somewhat more independent economic class to emerge.

These masters of money are still dependent on the state. Indeed, it could be argued that Kim Jong Un has encouraged the growth of this class as a way to build a new base of support for his leadership.

But the transition from totalitarian to authoritarian is not merely terminological. A new space has opened up in North Korean society that is free of absolute government control. In the short term, the allegiance of the new class will not shift away from the government. But over time, particularly as this class grows in numbers and strength, it may well seek political power commensurate with its economic power (as the classic texts on the sources of revolution predict).

In addition, this new class is more cosmopolitan in perspective. Its members wear Chinese fashions, are knowledgeable about South Korean culture, and are even familiar with some trends in Europe and America. The influence of this new cosmopolitanism is difficult to calculate, but it could help pave the way for North Korea to join the global economy with greater ease. This class can serve as the hyphen that connects North Korea to the world.

An authoritarian North Korea is, so far, just as brutal as the totalitarian one. The human rights situation in the country hasn’t improved appreciably. But there is a possibility, particularly if Washington and Seoul succeed in engaging more substantively with Pyongyang, that the country will open up by degrees. In this way, authoritarianism will prove to be a transitional stage between totalitarianism and a more open society.

Shuddhashar, August 1, 2019

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Will Trump Rule by Decree

The Republican Party, since its takeover by Reaganauts in the 1980s, has long favored shrinking the federal government to the point at which it can be “drowned in the bathtub,” to use Grover Norquist’s colorful phrase.

Tax cuts reduce the federal budget. Budget cuts weaken social programs. Even cutting remarks have their effect. Reagan got plenty of laughs when he said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.’”

With the partial shutdown of the federal government entering its third week, Americans are learning that the nine most truly terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m the president and I’m here to help…myself.”

Trump isn’t content to use the executive office to enrich himself and his circle. He’s warping national policy to serve his own interests as well. Trump believes via Fox News that his presidency is doomed (and his second term nipped in the bud) if he doesn’t fulfil his signature promise of building a wall. The government shutdown is all about Trump and his self-serving impulses.

To that end, Trump has threatened to extend the shutdown as long as it takes in order to squeeze funding out of Congress for his cherished wall. And why wouldn’t he? He’s got the bathtub ready and a funeral oration already written.

Shutting down government won’t lose any votes from furloughed federal workers (the vast majority of whom already despise him). Yes, the shutdown is unpopular, but the president’s base of support is delighted to see even a partial draining of the swamp. And shutdowns, as FiveThirtyEight concludes from an admittedly small sample, don’t seem to have long-term impact on public opinion.

But the truly frightening part of this standoff between Trump and the rest of government is his threat to invoke a state of emergency so he can direct the U.S. military to build his wall.

The president admires autocrats who can just get the job done. Rule by decree is the first stepping stone to transforming democracy into dictatorship. Declaring a state of emergency would be Trump’s desperate attempt to hold on to and ultimately expand the power that is slipping through his fingers in the aftermath of the midterm elections.

Channeling the Fascists

Rule by decree has an undistinguished, undemocratic parentage. In the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and 1930s, the German constitution contained the controversial article 48, which granted the president the right to rule by decree in the case of a national emergency. German leaders invoked this right several times between 1930 and 1933.

But the most momentous decree came in the wake of the Reichstag fire, six days before German elections in 1933. Hitler, already appointed chancellor at that point, persuaded German President Paul von Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree. No doubt inspired by Benito Mussolini and his use of emergency powers to establish fascism in Italy in the 1920s, the Nazis then took full advantage the authority granted them by Hindenburg’s decree to remake Germany into a dictatorship.

Modern democracies retain a certain echo of this tradition of decrees. In the United States, for instance, presidents can issue executive orders without having to declare a state of emergency.

Trump has already shown a marked preference for this style of governance. During his first two years in office, he issued 91 executive orders — 55 in 2017 and 36 in 2018. By contrast, Obama issued an average of 35 per year, George W. Bush 36. Many of Trump’s executive orders — such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accord, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — place Trump in opposition to international and national consensus.

Trump has also used his executive privilege to take bold stands in foreign policy that diverge, in some cases sharply, from the consensus of the policymaking community. He defied the advice of his advisors to sit down one-on-one with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Most recently, he announced U.S. military withdrawal from Syria, generating considerable pushback from the foreign policy mandarin class. Like a stopped clock, an erratic commander-in-chief can be right once in a while.

These steps are authoritative but not authoritarian. Executive orders aren’t out-and-out decrees — the courts can say no, as they’ve done several times in the Trump era. Trump’s freewheeling foreign policy moves also face certain constraints. A deal with North Korea would require congressional consent. His decision to remove troops from Syria has already been modified by members of his own administration, with National Security Advisor John Bolton stipulating certain conditions that will delay or even nullify withdrawal.

But Trump’s threat to declare a state of emergency at the border would up the ante considerably. True, presidents frequently declare states of emergency under the National Emergencies Act. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama declared a dozen or so each (most of them still in effect). But these declarations pertained almost exclusively to war or terrorism.

Trump’s attempt to circumvent the congressional standoff over his wall is a different matter altogether.

Can He Do It?

As Bruce Ackerman points out in The New York Times, the president can’t use the military to execute his plan. In the wake of the Katrina disaster, Congress created an exemption to the general rule prohibiting the military from enforcing domestic laws. The Obama administration then rolled back that particular exemption.

Ackerman further predicts that if Trump attempts to go forward with his plan anyway, Congress would block him. Indeed, as Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) has said. “If Harry Truman couldn’t nationalize the steel industry during wartime, this president doesn’t have the power to declare an emergency and build a multibillion-dollar wall on the border.”

Moreover, Trump’s “wall” doesn’t qualify as an urgent response to a crisis. There is no state of emergency at the border. There have been a few protests, on each side of the border, most recently around the closing of a shelter in Tijuana. But that hardly qualifies as a clear and present danger. The number of illegal border crossings fell to a historic low in 2017, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Nor did the situation change in 2018.

The Trump administration has claimed that 4,000 known or suspected terrorists were stopped at the border in 2018. Not true: The vast majority of those people on the list of suspected terrorists were stopped at airports around the world. In the first half of 2018, only six non-Americans on the list were stopped at the southern border.

Trump will no doubt repeat some of these lies this week in his first televised Oval Office speech. This is another privilege of his position: to speak directly to the American people. And the networks, despite some misgivings about the president’s indifference to the truth, will air the speech. Trump has already delegitimized the mainstream media as “fake news,” and he is now artfully playing them for his own purposes.

For those who believe that the American system of checks and balances will prevent Trump from getting his way, think again. As Elizabeth Goitien explains in The Atlantic, the American system has its own equivalent of Article 48 of the Weimar constitution:

Unknown to most Americans, a parallel legal regime allows the president to sidestep many of the constraints that normally apply. The moment the president declares a “national emergency” — a decision that is entirely within his discretion — more than 100 special provisions become available to him. While many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining power. For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts.

Goitien worries that Trump could also use the Insurrection Act to deploy U.S. troops on the streets of American cities. So, imagine that protests spring up around the country against Trump’s declaration of a national emergency. That could in turn serve as the justification for Trump sending in troops to suppress a “threat to the public order.”

In this way, the United States could go from a state of emergency at the border to martial law throughout the country.

Trump’s public support remains low and his political influence is on the decline. He’s surrounded almost exclusively now by advisors who favor his most autocratic impulses. It’s not inconceivable that Trump will use his standoff with Congress over the border wall as his Reichstag moment.

Over a decade ago, in another political era altogether, the Los Angeles Times charged in an editorial that ruling by decree was not democratic. This would seem to be a no-brainer. But one prominent reader disagreed. He wrote, “This is not the mark of dictatorial rule but rather a new way of envisioning popular participation and democracy.”

The writer was the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, trying to defend his boss, Hugo Chavez, from the charge that he was governing like a dictator. This is the playbook that Trump is reading. This is the company that Trump keeps. This is the clear and present danger that America now faces.

Foreign Policy In Focus, January 8, 2019

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Bernie Sanders and a Progressive International

In his recent speeches and articles, Bernie Sanders has been talking about forming a Progressive International.

It’s about time.

The alt-right, thanks in part to Steve Bannon, has formed an international network centered in Europe on the National Front in France and the Northern League in Italy. Authoritarian leaders from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel have formed an informal illiberal axis. Donald Trump is a useful idiot for these overlapping networks.

Progressives, who have long prided themselves on their internationalism, seem suddenly parochial. The end of the Cold War has marginalized inter-governmental networks, like the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77. The World Social Forum continues to take place among representatives of civil society, but its political impact has diminished.

Other networks exist on an issue-by-issue basis — climate change, refugees, LGBT — and they do great work. But a multi-issue global effort focused on an overall progressive agenda that can answer the populist right and serve as a conveyor belt between the grassroots and the left-wing policy arena? You’d have a better chance of finding a yeti.

If urgency were the mother of invention, then a Progressive International would already be up and running. Progressive ideals like civil liberties and multiculturalism are under attack the world over. Worse, right-wing populists have stolen some of the left’s arguments — about the unfairness of international trade, the machinations of foreign corporations, and the corruptions of the political elite — and dressed them up in nationalist clothing.

Also, progressives aren’t fielding the strongest team at the moment. Some of the most charismatic leaders are no longer around. Brazil’s Lula is in jail on corruption charges. Chile’s Michele Bachelet is working at the UN (as high commissioner for human rights). The Scandinavian countries have veered rightward. The great swath of Eurasia from Hungary to China has nary a progressive in sight. The same applies to the Asian littoral from China to Pakistan. Africa hasn’t had progressive leadership since the death of Nelson Mandela.

True, the victories of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico, Moon Jae-in in South Korea, and Jacinda Adern in New Zealand are inspiring. Syriza hangs on in Greece. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor Party have a shot at leading the UK. But these are, for the time being, isolated examples. They don’t represent a movement. There’s no pink wave. There’s no green wave. The only waves out there are neo-fascist or the result of climate change.

So, what will it take to turn the vision of Bernie Sanders into reality?

The Fulton Speech

Last year, Sanders had his Churchillian moment. Standing where the iconic British politician warned of an “Iron Curtain” dividing Europe — Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri — Sanders laid out his foreign policy vision.

It was remarkable to hear an almost-mainstream American politician, one who came quite close to becoming the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2016, challenge so much of the received wisdom that passes for foreign policy expertise in Washington. It’s better even than what Sanders himself said during the elections, which tended to hew closer to the Democratic Party platform on national security issues.

Sanders spoke of the importance of a people-centered foreign policy, not one that relies exclusively on governments (which may or may not represent its citizens). He continued to insist on the importance of addressing gross economic inequality and the skewed budget priorities that continue to polarize wealth at home and abroad. But he also rightly identified climate change as “a real threat to every country on earth.” He spoke of the importance of human rights, of diplomacy, of strengthening international institutions.

Sanders listed many of the mistakes the United States has made in its foreign policy in the past, from the Vietnam War and destabilization of Iran and Chile to the Iraq War and the current support for Saudi Arabia’s pummeling of Yemen. He also identified other bad actors in the global arena, notably Russian President Vladimir Putin. Finally, he devoted some time to what the United States has gotten right, from the Marshall Plan to the Iran nuclear agreement.

What was missing from this speech — and from others like a more recent address at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins — were bold new proposals. Sanders is full of fighting spirit, but his stance has been largely defensive: against Trump, Putin, the Saudis, and so on. He hasn’t offered any new global strategies: no new Global Economic Compact or Green Marshall Plan, nothing comparable in international relations to his proposal to make college tuition free.

Of course, neither he nor the Democrats are in a position to implement anything at the moment. But the problem runs deeper.

Sanders has a Eurocentric bias. His speech in Fulton didn’t mention Africa, and he barely talked about Latin America or Asia. And when he did discuss Asia, his analysis of the North Korea situation was neither bold nor original, just warmed-over Obama administration policy: chastising Pyongyang for not negotiating in good faith and falling back on the default position: more sanctions. In later speeches, he could have called out the Trump administration for failing to support such inter-Korean efforts as economic cooperation and a no-fly zone over the border.

Sanders is by no means alone in making this error. In their eagerness to dump on Trump, the Democrats have presented themselves as more hawkish than the president on North Korea.

But the mistake reveals a more significant hole in Sanders’s approach. He’s called for a Progressive International without really sitting down with progressives like South Korean President Moon Jae-in to work out what an agenda might look like for peace and security in Asia. His discussion of migration and trade issues might be similarly altered by a discussion with Mexico’s AMLO.

It’s just within the realm of possibility to imagine Bernie Sanders, or someone with comparable foreign-policy views, becoming president of the United States. But it’s truly difficult to see how America, even if led by such a president, could play an instrumental role in a Progressive International.

No wonder that Sanders has emphasized people rather than governments. Progressive states are thin on the ground, and the United States is far from joining those ranks.

So, Then, What?

Sander barely mentions China in his speeches.

The country doesn’t quite fit into his framework of progressive people versus right-wing authoritarians. China’s a communist state that often behaves autocratically toward its own citizens, belligerently toward neighbors like Taiwan, and with little regard for human rights in its dealings in distant lands.

At the same time, it takes climate change and renewable energy seriously. And it offers a well-funded alternative to what had once been the American way of doing global business through its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its Belt and Road Initiative, and its attempts to coordinate non-Western alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

So, would Sanders invite China into his Progressive International or rail against its authoritarian policies?

Obviously, Sanders hasn’t quite adjusted to the new geopolitical reality that power is distributed differently today. Any foreign policy, including a progressive one, has to grapple with large powers like China: negotiating where there are common interests (like climate change) and pushing back where interests diverge (human rights). It has to reckon with the relative decline of U.S. power globally. And it has to come to terms with sometimes unpleasant trade-offs — like negotiating a nuclear deal with North Korea despite its egregious human rights record.

Sanders echoes the Popular Front appeals of the 1940s: the need to link arms with as many people as possible against a dire threat: Trump, global authoritarianism, climate change. The left needs the passion and intelligence of Sanders, particularly at big-tent moments like these when progressives have to woo back many of those attracted to the fantasies of right-wing populists.

But to really win people over, progressives also have to look beyond the immediate threats to offer ambitious global visions and strategies.

China has offered its proposal: state-centered, infrastructure-heavy, often opaque. The neoliberals continue to recommend slashing the state and deregulating markets. The nationalists are bent on capturing the state and redistributing the assets to their cronies all the while invoking their trump card of sovereignty to defy international conventions and rule of law.

What have progressives put on the table?

Sanders has aptly diagnosed the illness. He has identified some of the usual alternatives, like sustainable energy and sensible budget priorities. So, who is out there, hiding like a yeti, but now ready to step forward and marshal the people power to make it a reality — not just locally, not just nationally, but on a truly global scale?

Foreign Policy In Focus, October 24, 2018

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Articles Asia Featured Human Rights Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Majoritarian Dream

Washington and New Dehli are having a mutual lovefest these days.

Donald Trump is popular in India — where only 17 percent of the population considers the president “intolerant,” compared to a global average of 65 percent — and he has warmly welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House. Both leaders are eager to bump up bilateral security cooperation to the next level.

Even Donald Trump, Jr. is getting in on the act. He’s visiting India this week as part of the Trump organization’s myriad economic connections to the subcontinent. Indians, treating the president’s son as a representative of the White House, are paying a lot of rupees to gain access to his ear.

Who can blame them? It’s virtually impossible to disaggregate the different components of the Trump megaplex.

The U.S.-India love connection, which predates Trump, is based on mutual economic interest and similar concerns about Pakistan and China. But Trump and Modi bring something else to the equation. Both leaders share a personalistic, business-friendly governing style best captured by Modi’s phrase “minimum government, maximum governance.”

But there’s another, underlying similarity. Trump is borrowing a page from Modi’s book on how to advance majoritarian politics in a multiethnic country.

“Majoritarianism insists on different tiers of citizenship,” writes Mukul Kesavan in The New York Review of Books. “Members of the majority faith and culture are viewed as the nation’s true citizens. The rest are courtesy citizens, guests of the majority, expected to behave well and deferentially.”

This kind of majoritarianism is most prominently on display these days in Myanmar — where the government considers the Rohingya minority to be foreigners, not citizens at all, and thus has no problem expelling them (or, in some cases, killing them). Majoritarianism has also been a major feature of political life in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

In India, meanwhile, Modi heads a right-wing nationalist party that believes that the country is essentially Hindu with no particular obligation to guarantee minority rights. Indeed, several disturbing examples of mob rule have taken place during Modi’s tenure, and the government has both explicitly and through various dog whistles appealed to Hindus over (and against) Muslims.

As Kesavan points out, majoritarianism is not simply Islamophobia — in India or Myanmar or anywhere else.

Majoritarian politics results from the patiently constructed self-image of an aggrieved, besieged majority that believes itself to be long-suffering and refuses to suffer in silence anymore. The cultivation of this sense of injury is the necessary precondition for the lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing that invariably follow.

The besieged majority: What better way of capturing the appeal of Trumpism in the United States? In the looking-glass world of 2018, Donald Trump, too, has a dream: to make white people, regardless of the contents of their character, once again supreme.

Of course, majoritarianism looks a little different in the United States than in South Asia. But this malign philosophy helps explain not only some political dynamics in America, but also the pattern of friendships that Trump has developed around the world.

Deplorables vs. Dreamers?

The underlying message of “Make America Great Again” is to return the country to an age of majoritarian politics, when white people controlled everything on behalf of white people and when everyone else was accorded second-class citizenship.

After the victories of the civil rights movement and other social movements, some white people have acquired the mentality of a besieged majority: They fear that they will lose their remaining privileges, like members of an elite frequent flyer program forced to sit back in economy class. Perhaps only a minority of white people — mostly white men — feel like a besieged majority. But for the next decade or so, before demographics decisively downgrade white status, this group will continue to flex its political muscle.

Trump’s appeals to this group follow in a sordid American tradition of racist and anti-immigrant movements such as the Know-Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan. The conflicts that swept through the United States in the 19th and early 20th century resembled, avant la lettre, the communal strife that accompanied the consolidation of modern nations in South Asia. America narrowly avoided partition in the 1860s, but not the “lynchings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing” of majoritarian politics that followed. Even the mass population transfers that took place between India and Pakistan could be detected in the Great Migration of African Africans to the North beginning in the Jim Crow period.

Today, Trump has cleverly given the “besieged majority” a platform on immigration, economic policy, and the “history” question. On the economy, Trump promised to revive sunset industries that have traditionally been white bastions, such as coal in Appalachia and manufacturing in the Midwest. On history, Trump has argued that by removing the statues of Confederate heroes, “they’re trying to take away our culture.” The “our” is a telling touch, since it could refer equally to the U.S. or to white people.

The immigration question in particular continues to bedevil the administration and Congress. To get a deal that would allow the Dreamers — young people brought to the United States as children who remain undocumented — liberals have even been willing to approve funding for Trump’s famous wall along the border with Mexico. Basically, the Democratic Party was poised to pay a ransom of almost $14,000 a head to save the Dreamers (that’s $25 billion for the wall in exchange for 1.8 million Dreamers staying in the United States).

Trump, however, said no, despite all sorts of assurances that he cares very deeply about the Dreamers. You’d think that the president would be concerned about the public opinion polls that show a large majority of Americans — around 70 percent — in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

But that’s the problem with a president who has such low favorability ratings. He doesn’t need to compromise to maintain his base of support because that base is so narrow in the first place. Only 18 percent of Americans support Trump unconditionally, according to a recent CBS poll, and another 23 percent do so only when he delivers what they want.

Here, then, is the most dangerous consequence of a president embracing majoritarian views held by only a minority of the majority. Trump sees no reason to reach beyond his base. As The Washington Post put it:

The president, along with Mr. McConnell, is intent on a blame game, not a solution. He suggested no compromises and engaged in no negotiations, preferring to stick with maximalist demands. Despite barely mentioning it as a candidate, Mr. Trump has not budged from insisting on a plan to reduce annual legal immigrants to the United States by hundreds of thousands, to the lowest level in decades.

The last line contains the kicker — the population transfer that Trump yearns to orchestrate.

In addition to deporting the Dreamers, the undocumented, and those with temporary protected status like Salvadorans and Haitians, Trump wants to keep out as many folks from “shithole” countries as he can. If he gets his way, the administration is looking to “transfer” several million people out of the country, nearly comparable to the population transfer out of India at the time of partition in 1947. Going the other way in Trump’s dream world would be a trickle of Norwegians and other racially acceptable immigrants.

trump-saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-salman

White House / Flickr

Majoritarians of a Feather

Trump and Modi are only two of the new global leaders who have come to the forefront championing the interests of the “besieged majority.”

Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia by going after the Chechens, whom he blamed for a series of suspicious apartment building bombings. Putin has since taken aim at all manner of minorities, from the LGBTQ community to the liberals that oppose his concentration of power. He’s emphasized that traditional values serve as a bulwark against what he’s called “aggressive minorities.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has driven Israel into a corner by rejecting Palestinian (and international) demands for a two-state solution. The Jewish majority is fast on its way to becoming a minority within Israel. Once constituting 87 percent of the population in 1950, Jews are now close to parity with Arabs if you count everyone in the Occupied Territories and Gaza (6.1 million Jews and 5.8 million Arabs). Yet Netanyahu continues to advocate on behalf of the “besieged majority” by supporting illegal settlements, rejoicing in the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and kowtowing to the country’s religious right.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni majority country, is also home to a large Shiite minority of about 10 percent of the population. Riyadh has systematically discriminated against this minority — in part because of fears of its links to Iran. The Saudi government has imprisoned and executedleading members of the community and has even effectively waged war against Shi’ites in the city of Awamiya.

I’ve chosen these three countries because Donald Trump has formed strong bonds with Putin, Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But there’s no shortage of other leaders that fall into this category — Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. They all aspire to follow the South Asian example.

Majoritarianism has morphed into one of the 21st century’s greatest threats. The “tyranny of the majority” that America’s founding fathers warned about has become a reality thanks to the failure of left liberalism to sell multiculturalism more effectively.

Majoritarianism has evolved into a knee-jerk response to what globalization offers, for better or worse — from increased trade and greater flows of immigrants and refugees to the freer exchange of information behind both rapid technological transformation and the demands of transnational human rights movements. Nationalism, a disguise that the majority dons to make their demands somehow more palatable, is a bunker that a country can crawl into to survive the high winds of change.

The institutions that stand against the majoritarians are old and in need of some serious overhaul.

The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of World War II. The European Union and other regional organizations were in part responses to the Cold War. The international financial institutions were likewise forged in a different era. Meanwhile, the institutions that form the nervous system of our brave new world, like Facebook and Twitter and Google and Amazon, view multiculturalism as a way to maximize profit, like those old “United Colors of Benetton” ads that featured a multicultural array of models that made the clothes seem chic and edgy. At least Benetton was willing to ruffle some feathers with its campaign.

Combatting majoritarianism requires a new campaign and new institutions. That’s my dream: a world that recognizes that multiculturalism isn’t just cool but essential to democratic politics, strong economies, and healthy societies that don’t tear themselves apart from the inside.

Where, oh where has this internationalism gone?

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 21, 2018

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump’s New Blame Game

As a candidate, Donald Trump rallied voters against a variety of enemies. He vilified Mexicans. He stereotyped Muslims. And he went after the Chinese for “raping” the United States.

President Trump still wants to build that wall along the border with Mexico. He’s still trying to keep out Muslim immigrants.

As for China, all signs have pointed to more conflict.

The trade gap between the United States and China during the first nine months of Trump’s term is even larger than it was before he took office: $273 billion at the end of September in favor of China compared to $257 billion a year ago at the same time.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping finished up a Communist Party congress in October with a nearly four-hour speech that stressed his country’s great power status and his plan to boost military preparedness. Although Beijing has pledged to help reel back North Korea’s nuclear program — and supported sanctions toward that end — Pyongyang has shown no sign of budging from its position. And China recently negotiated a deal with South Korea that scrapped its economic pressure tactics in exchange for Seoul scaling back on its participation in U.S. plans for regional missile defense.

Indeed, on the eve of Trump’s recent 12-day trip to Asia, pundits were predicting a strong anti-China swerve in administration policy.

But touching down in Beijing, Donald Trump was all smiles when he met with Xi Jinping. His arrival was greeted with all the pomp of a visiting king. And the American president reciprocated by speaking of a special economic relationship with China.

Actually Trump went much further. He was positively 18th century in the way he took a knee in Beijing (I’m talking kowtow, not Colin Kaepernick). Writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post:

Trump was bizarrely deferential to President Xi Jinping, with the American president lavishing personal — and unreciprocated — praise upon his counterpart. It was a remarkable approach for a president who has so frequently talked tough on China, as well as a contrast to Trump’s condescending treatment of [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe, the ally whom Trump belittled a number of times during his time in Japan.

Trump’s performance in Beijing went beyond even the man-crush he seems to develop with any autocrat who exercises the free rein of power that the president so desperately craves.

Instead of pretending that China had not gotten the best of the trade deal with the United States, Trump decided to compliment his hosts for outfoxing his predecessors. China, in other words, was not to blame for working hard to make China great again at America’s expense. “I give China great credit,” Trump said. The blame, instead, fell squarely on past presidents.

The implication: Only Trump works on behalf of America’s interests. All other American leaders are dupes — or, worse, traitors.

Trump’s Tactics

As Trump toured Asia over the last two weeks, he put on a show of alpha male behavior not seen in an American president since Mr. Bully Pulpit himself, Teddy Roosevelt.

In Japan, for instance, Trump treated the deferential Shinzo Abe as a servant of American power. He made sure to emphasize that Japan would always be number two, a reality that previous American leaders have always taken pains to obscure. Writes David Nakamura in The Washington Post,

“The Japanese people are thriving, your cities are vibrant, and you’ve built one of the world’s most powerful economies,” Trump said, before looking up from his prepared remarks. Turning his head to face Abe next to him, Trump ad-libbed: “I don’t know if it’s as good as ours. I think not, okay?” He emphasized the “okay” by drawing it out leadingly as a parent might with a child.

It would have been instructive to put Trump on an Amtrak train and then on the Washington metro before whisking him over to Japan to ride a Shinkansen high-speed train and then the Tokyo metro. Then perhaps he wouldn’t have been so condescending about Japan’s “second-class” economy. (On my trip to Japan last month, I took the Shinkansen between Fukuoka and Kyoto, a 400-mile trip that took a little less than three hours. That’s the equivalent of the distance between DC and Boston, which can take two to three times as long on Amtrak — and the trains run as frequently as the DC metro on the weekend.)

In the Philippines, Trump made no effort to diminish President Rodrigo Duterte. Maybe that’s because Duterte has boasted of the ultimate alpha male activity — personally killing people. Duterte also stands accused of ordering the murder of a journalist (take that, fake news). And the Philippine leader has disparaged former President Obama in even more graphic terms than Trump has himself.

Trump almost seemed a little cowed before Duterte, like a capo before the boss. If Trump raised any human rights concerns about Duterte’s record of extrajudicial killings, as his press spokesperson claimed, he did it so briefly and quietly that it never even registered with the Philippine president.

In Vietnam, because he wanted something, Trump did more wheedling than posturing. As elsewhere, the president tried to get foreign leaders to agree to buy U.S. weapons. But in Hanoi, he revealed his desperation. He told people in the room that he needed quick wins because he would soon be running for office again. Trump didn’t need to say that his standing in the polls is the lowest ever of any president in their first year.

But it was with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Trump really crouched down and waited for his ears to be scratched. Back home, the Russiagate investigations are heating up. Putin, however, denied any interference in the U.S. elections. That was good enough for Trump. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters.

Former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, whom Trump has derided as “political hacks,” both expressed outrage that Trump would take the word of Putin over the analysis of U.S. intelligence agencies.

From Tokyo to Beijing, Trump excelled at punching down and toadying up. He is America’s number one alpha male, beating his chest and roaring — except when he encounters another male more alpha than he is. Welcome to the World Wrestling Federation version of international relations.

The Enemy Within

On this Asian road trip, Trump also revealed his own one-track mind.

On Trump’s watch, multilateralism has died, strangled that first week in office when the new president withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership. Pointedly, on the sidelines of the same APEC meeting that Trump attended, the remaining signatories declared that the agreement will rise from the ashes without U.S. participation. Although his trip was extended so that he could attend the East Asia Summit, Trump decided to bow out early. It was an important symbol that Trump doesn’t play with groups. He’s a one-on-one kind of guy. He just doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle more than that.

China traditionally favored bilateral relations over multilateral ones because it could use its size to advantage in negotiating better deals with smaller Asian countries. But now the United States and China have traded places. Trump is suspicious of any grouping larger than two (a boxing ring can’t accommodate more than that). And China has seized the opportunity to present itself as the country that cares about the world and not just what it can gain in any set of bilateral negotiations.

Trump’s flip-flop on China doesn’t mean that he’s gone soft on America’s adversaries. In his UN speech, Trump singled out four countries for censure — Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea. Other countries have also fallen into that category as well. Trump has tried to dictate to Mexico how it should spend its money. He approved of Saudi Arabia’s embargo of Qatar and its war in Yemen. He routinely uses drones to intervene in the affairs of other countries such as Pakistan and Somalia.

But what Trump said to Xi Jinping was quite extraordinary. He recognized that a previously “bad” country was simply acting in its own interests and extracting the best deal it could from the United States. The bottom line: Trump needs China. What he doesn’t need, however, are all his domestic adversaries, beginning with Barack Obama. Trump knows that he can rouse his base more effectively by going after the enemy within than the enemy abroad.

In this way, the president is beginning to shift the narrative. In coming months leading up to the mid-term elections, Trump will sharpen his criticism of liberal judges, an ineffectual Congress, and traitorous members of America’s civil society (ACLU, Sierra Club, etc.).

It’s not that the world is arrayed against Donald Trump. As he has pointed out repeatedly, he gets along with everybody, even Angela Merkel.

No, the problem isn’t them. It’s us — anyone who dares to oppose the president’s brazen attempt to shift all wealth to the wealthy and all power into his own grasping hands. That’s why the Trump administration is conducting its purge of federal institutions. That’s why Trump blasts the media and Hollywood. Even Republicans who dare to resist, including outright conservatives like John McCain and Bob Corker, have been raked over the coals.

An alpha male needs a whole mess of betas to reinforce his status. Now that he’s back from his imaginary victory lap in Asia, Trump is preparing to go after the so-called traitors on the home front. In 1934, Germany endured its Night of Long Knives when the Nazis purged their own ranks along with establishment conservatives and anti-Nazis.

Brace yourself for three more years of long knives.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 15

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Articles Europe Featured

When Trump’s Push Comes to Shove in Europe

It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the reality show of Donald Trump in the Oval Office and the Saturday Night Live parody of the president.

Was it Donald Trump — or Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump — who shouldered aside the prime minister of Montenegro to gain a better position at the NATO photo shoot last week? Or maybe Donald Trump was imitating Alec Baldwin, the boorish TV exec on 30 Rock. Or, and this isn’t an Onion article, Trump didn’t shove the Montenegrin prime minister but simply patted himon the back as one might a rugby buddy in a scrum.

The video shows quite clearly that “shove” is the more apt word than “pat.” Nevertheless, the prime minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, didn’t seem to mind much. “It is quite simply a harmless situation,” he told reporters. Markovic has good reasons to be deferential. His country is tiny, it’s not a member of the EU, and it’s not even quite a member of NATO (Montenegro doesn’t officially join until June 5).

The shove has become emblematic of Trump’s new foreign policy. At the most basic level, it reveals the new president’s personality. He is so desperate for the limelight that he will trample all those in his way, fully aware that the whole escapade will be caught on video.

That is the sign of the truly powerful: They feel that they don’t have to conceal the exercise of their power. Indeed, to display power is to exercise power. Trump is confident that his core supporters will thrill to see their man put America First into practice in the most physical way.

The shove also typified Trump’s approach to Europe. During his remarks at the NATO summit, Trump “shoved” NATO members to spend more on their military. He refused to endorse NATO’s raison d’etre, the commitment to come to the defense of a member in trouble (effectively saying that when push comes to shove, the United States won’t be there for you). Meeting with EU leadership, he singled out Germany for its trade policies, calling the country either “very, very bad” or “very, very evil.”

In so many words, the president was telling Europe to shove off. Perhaps most egregiously, Trump shoved Europe aside in favor of… Saudi Arabia.

Not even Saturday Night Live could have imagined such a farcical reversal of foreign policy priorities. An American president bowed down before a fanatical, human-rights-abusing dictatorship — and promised to supply it with an additional $110 billion in weaponry — and then lectured his European allies on their budget priorities. Perhaps if John Belushi or Chris Farley were still alive, they could have played such a grotesque president on SNL. But Donald Trump has set the bar so low that the current troupe can’t crawl beneath it.

In the end, however, the media coverage of Trump’s embarrassing trip to Europe missed an essential and equally unbelievable point: Not all of Europe was unhappy with Trump’s performance.

Europe Alone?

Europe is by no means unified in its rejection of Donald Trump. Sure, Angela Merkel took exception to Trump’s clumsy criticisms and declared that Europe will increasingly have to go it alone. Emmanuel Macron, in an effort to display resolve, tried to squeeze Trump’s hand as hard as he could in their white-knuckled handshake. Five Nordic prime ministers posed for a photo putting their hands on a soccer ball, clearly mocking the rather sinister picture of Trump placing his hands on a glowing orb alongside the authoritarian leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

But Trump wasn’t the only one to jostle for position at the NATO summit. Croatia’s center-right Prime Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic executed a deft maneuver to get as close to Trumpfor both photo ops and cozy chitchat. British Prime Minister Theresa May has been buttering up the Donald in an attempt to get the best post-Brexit trade deal from the United States. Hungary’s Viktor Orban was one of the first foreign leaders to endorse Trump for president. The leaders of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic all stand with Trump against refugees.

In dividing Europe, Trump might simply be rewarding his loyalists and punishing his critics. But something else is at work, a more sophisticated strategy that is mostly likely beyond the ken of someone like Trump — and represents instead the divide-and-conquer tactics of someone like Steve Bannon.

The president’s broadsides against immigrants, his cozying up to Russia, his skepticism toward “globalists” and globalization: All of this is designed to drive a further wedge between the Europe of the populist right and the Europe of the bureaucrats in Brussels. It’s reminiscent of the “old Europe” and “new Europe” distinction that Donald Rumsfeld used to line up the coalition of the willing in the war against Iraq.

Trump wants European countries to pony up more for the war against the Islamic State. Perhaps as well, in the back of his mind or the minds of his advisors, he has begun to corral a coalition of the willing to fight against Iran. The EU, however, seems more interested in preserving the nuclear agreement with Iran and sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Drawing European countries into the larger intra-Islamic fight on the side of Trump and the Saudis will then require the disaggregation of the EU.

The dividing of Europe is also a cultural project. Trump wants to resurrect a different “old Europe” that is Christian, conservative, and Caucasian to replace the modern overlay of the “new Europe” that is liberal and multicultural. The same “deconstruction of the administrative state” that Steve Bannon is pushing in the United States — and which is so well represented in the administration’s proposed budget — has its parallel in the deconstruction of the European social democratic state. These welfare states depend, in part, on relatively low outlays for defense.

Ultimately that’s the Trump plan. The increase in European armaments would prove negligible in any serious global conflict. But they would destroy the European consensus on political economy and usher in a new era for Europe — an era that, in its ugly nationalism, would harken back to an earlier period.

Return of Fascism?

Fascism has graduated to the status of epithet and has thus lost its definitional specificity. But if you combine all the elements of Trump’s policies, fascism is the inescapable conclusion.

The president favors a permanent war economy. He uses xenophobic nationalism to bind together disparate groups of supporters and makes dog-whistle asides to anti-Semites and white-power extremists. He makes appeals to the “working man” and decries the “globalists” even as he lines the pockets of his plutocratic friends. He has an authoritarian political style and has cultivated a personality-cult devotion among his followers. He doesn’t just lie, he bullshits — an important distinction that Matthew Yglesias makes in Vox to underscore the importance of loyalty in Trump’s worldview.

Even the efforts to defend Trump from the label of “fascism” only seem to underscore the ideological similarities. “As a political movement, fascism in Europe had distinct characteristics — expansionist nationalism, extreme militarism, a conception of the National Socialist as a ‘new man’ for whom politics is above all a spiritual struggle,” writes John Daniel Davidson in The Federalist in an effort to disprove that Trump is a fascist. “They took the trappings of militarism seriously, to the point that fascist leaders would typically dress in military uniforms, as would their rank and file.”

True, Trump himself is too shallow a narcissist to have a clearly thought-out ideology. But his team supports just such forms of nationalism and militarism. Many of them dress in military uniforms because, after all, they are military. Even the quest for a “new man” finds its parallel in the efforts of Trump’s evangelical supporters to destroy the distinctions between church and state, banish secularism from public life, and create a “new man” for whom politics is indeed a spiritual struggle to reassert the power of the church.

Still, aside from a hard core of extremists, Trump supporters are not fascists. They are not part of a mass movement. They might don a “Make America Great Again” hat, but they’re not about to join a paramilitary to help destroy the administrative state. Not yet, at least.

Perhaps it’s true that Trump is “post-fascist,” that his combination of populist economics, authoritarian politics, nationalist culture, and militarized foreign policy is a wholly new hybrid for our world of social media and parody uber alles. But I prefer to think of Trump as pre-fascist, like Benito Mussolini as he was transitioning from socialism to nationalism at the end of World War I.

And that’s ultimately what the shove is all about. Trump’s act at the NATO summit might seem like a trivial matter. But it’s of a piece with Corey Lewandowski grabbing a reporter at a Trump rally in March 2016, all the violence committed by Trump supporters during the presidential race (including Trump’s own comment about a protester: “I’d like to punch him in the face”), and Montana Republican candidate Greg Gianforte’s more recent body-slamming of a Guardian journalist. It encourages acts like those by Jeremy Joseph Christian, who shouted Islamophobic slurs at two women in Portland over the weekend and then killed two of the men who came to their aid.

The shove is like a cue to the alt-right that political violence is acceptable in much the same way that Trump’s reassurances to Middle East autocrats encouraged them — in Egypt, in Bahrain — to crack down on their own oppositions. The shove is a way of rousing the base and accustoming the public at large to a president throwing his weight around and a country muscling its way back to the top.

“If you want a vision of the future,” George Orwell wrote in his novel 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” If you want a vision of Trump’s future, imagine a small hand shoving against a human shoulder — forever.

The boot comes next.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 31, 2017

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Bartleby the American

In my senior year of college, my Russian teacher pulled me aside. He told me that the CIA was recruiting on campus. I should consider applying for a job.

It was 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev had taken the helm of the Soviet Union, but the Cold War was still very much in place.

“The CIA?” I said. “Really?”

“I know your politics,” my professor said. “But don’t you think it’s better for the CIA to have analysts who are smart and speak Russian well? Don’t you think that will better serve the cause of peace?”

However flattered I was by his assessment, I was not tempted. I didn’t like what the CIA was doing around the world, and I was under no illusions about what one person could do to change such an institution from within.

“I would prefer not to,” I told him.

I was echoing the character of Bartleby the scrivener who, in the Melville short story of the same name, initially works hard at his Wall Street job and then, mysteriously, refuses to do anything at all. After my polite refusal to consider CIA employment, I embarked on a path that would take me ever further away from government service.

Today, all of America faces the Bartleby challenge. A small number of hard-right conservatives — Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon — made the decision to side with Donald Trump during the election campaign. They expressed no reservations about Trump’s disqualifications, worked hard on his behalf, and will soon reap the benefits of their opportunism.

Most Democrats — and a sizable number of #NeverTrump Republicans — never imagined that the billionaire would ever get near the White House. Now they have to decide: Will they engage with the Trump administration, or will they prefer not to?

Within this anti-Trump camp, two factions have emerged.

The exceptionalists believe that American democracy is strong enough to withstand the gale force winds of Hurricane Donald, so it’s better to get behind the levees to help with the sandbags. Perhaps they can moderate the fury of his attacks; perhaps they can find common ground on some popular economic projects.

The rejectionists counter that the new president is an autocrat who doesn’t believe in democracy, so it’s better to resist Trump at every step. Work with the devil, and you’re doing the devil’s work.

Each faction has a compelling argument to make. Columnist Dana Milbank, for instance, was one of the strongest voices in The Washington Post against Trump’s candidacy. In his first column after the election, a letter to his daughter, Milbank issued the following appeal:

First, we must try to help Trump succeed. I urge Republicans of conscience to join his administration, to temper his worst instincts, as I hope Vice President-elect Mike Pence will. Six years ago, the top Republican in the Senate said his top political goal should be defeating President Obama. I hope Democrats don’t act that way. If Trump drops the crazy talk of the campaign, he could easily find compromises on the economy and immigration. Trump reinvented himself for this campaign. He’s capable of remaking himself again into a practical leader.

Many politicians (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama) and many prominent Trump critics (Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman) have shared this approach. Call it the Bartleby A position: the scrivener as a diligent and responsible worker.

Contrast that perspective with Masha Gessen, writing in The New York Review of Books. She speaks from her experience growing up in the Soviet Union and navigating the politics of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Institutions, she warns, will not save America from Trump the autocrat:

Democrats in Congress will begin to make the case for cooperation, for the sake of getting anything done — or at least, they will say, minimizing the damage. Nongovernmental organizations, many of which are reeling at the moment, faced with a transition period in which there is no opening for their input, will grasp at chances to work with the new administration. This will be fruitless — damage cannot be minimized, much less reversed, when mobilization is the goal — but worse, it will be soul-destroying. In an autocracy, politics as the art of the possible is in fact utterly amoral. 

This is a classic restatement of the “anti-politics” position of dissidents living in the former Soviet bloc. It was, as history turned out, the right position. Non-cooperation with the Communist regimes gradually undermined their legitimacy, and they collapsed. Call this position Bartleby B, when the scrivener was in his “I would prefer not to” mode.

It will probably be no surprise to learn that I lean in Masha Gessen’s direction. Here’s why.

Negotiating with Evil

“We don’t negotiate with evil,” former Vice President Dick Cheney infamously said in 2003. “We defeat it.”

Cheney was referring to North Korea. The George W. Bush administration was trying to figure out what to do with the government in Pyongyang: negotiate with it or try to initiate regime change. For the first six years, the Bush team tried the latter strategy. The regime didn’t budge. For the last couple years, however, the Bush administration attempted to negotiate through both bilateral and multilateral means. Dick Cheney was not happy.

I supported diplomatic engagement with North Korea. So why on earth would I favor negotiating with an undemocratic, tyrannical, human-rights-abusing regime and recommend resistance to the Trump administration, which won power through democratic means?

It’s quite simple. I believe that engagement with North Korea is the best way of changing the system there through trade, cultural exchange, and political contact. Isolation has only further hardened the system — and there are no viable alternatives within the country that can replace the Kim dynasty (except for the military, which isn’t likely to be any better).

Americans, however, live in a democracy (for the time being). We have strong, democratic alternatives. We can organize to blunt Trump’s power two years from now. We can mobilize to defeat Trump four years from now. And, more importantly, we can do whatever we can outside the voting booth to throw sand into the gears of the Trump juggernaut.

But what if Trump implements policies that I support? He’s no fan of free trade agreements. He wants to avoid a war with Russia. On the domestic side, he favors investments in infrastructure and other job-creation efforts.

Yes, and Hitler built the Autobahn, Mussolini made the trains run on time (actually he didn’t), and Stalin dragged the Soviet economy kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

Conservatives like to say that soft-hearted liberals and cultural relativists don’t believe in evil. Well, all three of those fellows were evil. And so is Donald Trump (and some conservatives, I’m heartened to see, agree). And when Trump is too inconsistent or distracted by his Twitter account to be truly evil, a cohort of super-villains that he has assembled — alt-right nutcases like Bannon, law-and-order fanatics like Giuliani, and aspiring world-destroyers like Bolton — will fit the bill nicely.

I won’t try to stop policies that I think are good for the country or the world during the Trump era. Rather, I’ll devote my energies to blocking all of the malign effects of the new administration — on immigration, climate change, military spending, and the like.

How to translate “I prefer not to” into concrete action?

Here’s one great initiative that recently arrived in my inbox. If Donald Trump requires Muslims to register in the United States, I too will register as a Muslim. You can do the same here. “Sanctuary cities” like Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and DC have all pledged to refuse to cooperate with federal authorities in deporting immigrants. In a courageous Facebook statement, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that New York State will provide safe haven for anyone who “feels that they are under attack.”

Soon we may be called upon to stand with all embattled minorities. And thus we become an emboldened majority.

On Non-Cooperation

It’s easy enough for me to say “I would prefer not to” when it comes to the Trump administration. I’m about as far away from the corridors of power as one can be and still live in the DC area. It’s not like the Trump team is going to knock on my door and offer me a position. If there’s going to be any knocks on the door from the president’s men, it will probably be after midnight and for a more ominous reason.

Indeed, my first impulse after reading the results of the election was to return to my bed and pull the covers back over my head — I preferred not to acknowledge reality. The prospect of reading the newspapers over the next four years, with Trump’s face front and center, sickened me. The idea of writing about foreign policy issues during the Trump era struck me as little more than fiddling while Rome burns. And I’m not looking forward to living and working in DC when Trump’s henchmen arrive in their limousines.

Closing my eyes to Trump, however satisfying in an infantile way, won’t make him go away. Nor is “strategic patience” — the Obama approach to dealing with the North Korean regime — going to suffice for Trump. In fact, even the “I prefer not to” position of Bartleby B is not good enough.

In Melville’s story, Bartleby ends up starving to death in prison, never having explained his passive resistance. That scenario doesn’t appeal to me. So, let’s consider Bartleby C, in which we all borrow the battle cry of the pro-Trump crowd: We’re fed up, and we’re not going to take it any more.

Let the next four years of antipolitics begin.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 16, 2016

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Articles Featured Human Rights Russia and Eastern Europe

Authoritarian Symps

In the bad old days of the Cold War, the left and the right used to play a nasty game called “Who’s Your Favorite Dictator?”

Right-wing ideologues supported authoritarian leaders like Augusto Pinochet of Chile while left-wing ideologues rhapsodized over Communist leaders like Fidel Castro of Cuba. One side embraced the shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines as “our bastards” and the other side stood up for Brezhnev or Mao or Mugabe as “men of the people.”

Many people on both sides of the political spectrum refused to play this game, particularly those who prioritized human rights over what passed for realpolitik. And it wasn’t exactly a balanced tug-of-war, since the right frequently had the U.S. government pulling from the rear. But the game continued nonetheless, with both sides tying themselves into knots trying to square their support of dictators with other professed values such as democracy, self-determination, and the like.

Even when the Cold War ended and scrambled the political spectrum, this game endured.

For instance, many right wingers are delighted with the royal family in Bahrain or the House of Saud, for these are key U.S. allies in the Middle East (though some neoconservative outliers would like to see U.S. democracy promotion efforts sweep away these sheikhdoms). And if you dig hard enough, you’ll find some dinosaurs on the left who dream of Stalin’s return or continue to champion the anti-colonial credentials of an aging African revolutionary-turned-despot.

But the terms of the game have changed. The players could once be identified by their systemic ideologies — a preference for the unfettered market, for instance, or an embrace of some form of collectivism. But the free market is now everywhere, and Communism is basically nowhere (not even in China or Cuba).

So, when someone sticks up for Vladimir Putin or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Bashar al-Assad, they use a different set of arguments. Authoritarian symps on the right worry that their favorite autocrats will be replaced by anti-Western zealots. Those on the left, meanwhile, reach for the last arrow in their quiver: anti-imperialism.

What’s truly remarkable about the post-Cold War version of the old game, however, is that sometimes authoritarian symps on the left and the right end up supporting the same dictator.

Talk about crossover appeal.

Assad’s Supporters

Outside of a core band of supporters inside Syria and some instrumental support from Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad has a pretty weak fan base. He’s a colorless dictator with no particular ideology beyond regime maintenance and personal survival. Like many of his ilk, he’s orchestrated elections to give his presidency a democratic veneer.

He has only one argument that convinces people both inside and outside his country of his worthiness: après moi, le deluge. This deluge, the waters of which have already spread across parts of the country, could come in different forms: al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the newly formed Army of Conquest, etc.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that Assad has the support of Iran (fearful of Sunni militancy), Russia (fearful of Islamic militancy), and some Kissinger acolytes (fearful of any militancy but also chaos more generally) in the United States.

Assad also comes out of a particular political milieu — the Baathist tradition — that has more than a tinge of fascism to its makeup. It’s no surprise then that neo-fascists in Europe and the United States — the National Front in France, the British National Party, Golden Dawn and Black Lily in Greece, David Duke in the United States — support the man. They think Assad is standing up to the unholy trinity of Zionists, radical Islam, and the United States.

What is surprising, however, are the leftists who are attracted to Assad. And they support Assad for basically the same reasons: his willingness to stand up to the United States and other world powers. As one commenter on my last World Beat column argued, “Thank God, Syria has a young, intelligent and dynamic leader. Without him, the country and its institutions would have collapse [sic] under the compounded attacks from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel and the underhanded USA.”

The argument could be made that Syria is only on the verge of collapse because of Assad and his refusal to make a deal with his initially non-violent opposition. But I’m more interested in the anti-imperial argument.

Assad is not interested in standing up to the United States — or to Israel, for that matter. He’d make an accommodation with both countries if it meant that he could remain in power — just as his father made deals with both Israel and the United States, such as the 1974 disengagement agreement. Syria’s current leader would welcome an all-in fight against the Islamic State.

Because his anti-imperial allegiances are so flimsy, Assad hasn’t attracted huge enthusiasm on the left. Not so for Russia’s Putin, who has a much more visible fan club.

In Praise of Putinism

When the Nazis pressed Stalin’s back against the wall of the Kremlin in World War II, the Soviet leader fought back with a famous speech on November 7. It was the 24th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, so Stalin made the requisite references to the “banner of Lenin.” But he knew that the revolutionary fervor of Russians was by that point weak at best. He relied on a more tried-and-true tactic: an appeal to defend the Motherland and a lineage of imperial leaders like Alexander Nevsky and Dmitry Donskoi. With German soldiers at the very gates of the city, Stalin fell back on Russian nationalism.

Vladimir Putin is no Stalin, but he’s resorted to a similar ploy.

Putin is a product of the Soviet system, a KGB operative from long back who was stationed in East Germany in 1989 and helped destroy Soviet intelligence material to keep it out of the hands of demonstrators. Putin has carefully risen through the new post-Soviet system, cultivating elite contacts in politics and the business world. His appeal inside Russia stems from the long-standing attraction many Russians have for “iron fist” politics, the lucky circumstance that his political rise coincided with a spike in oil and gas prices, and a popular and legitimate grievance that the international community has treated Russia as a loser.

When Putin argues in favor of incorporating Crimea or the creation of Novorossiya encompassing parts of eastern Ukraine, he doesn’t talk about a resurrected Soviet Union. He couches his phrases in traditional Russian nationalism: the glories of Russian history, the importance of Russian language and culture. He’s set his sights lower, nationalist rather than internationalist. The Soviet era, meanwhile, becomes only one part of the grand historical procession from tsars to commissars to TV stars, culminating in Putin himself.

Putin has deeply conservative instincts. The European far right supports him for the same reason they approve of Assad. He is a bulwark against Islam. On top of that, he has no enthusiasm for the European Union. Little in his project should appeal to the left. And yet, because of a misconception that Putin is somehow balancing American hegemony, some elements of the left have rallied around him.

But Putin is miscast as an anti-imperialist. He doesn’t care about the extension of U.S. power in the world except where it constrains his own ambitions, which are limited to the Russian near abroad and a few locations beyond (such as a military base in Syria).

“For the American left, of course for them only American imperialism exists, yes? I can’t understand it,” left-wing Russian activist Ilya Budraitkis complained to Charles Davis in Salon. “In Russia, there are a lot of leftists who also believe that Russia is the main evil in the world, it’s a reactionary empire, and it should be destroyed. Or, at the same time, you have a lot of leftists who believe somehow Russia is resisting American imperialism [and] who support these ‘republics’ in the East of Ukraine.”

As Budraitkis points out, imperialism can come in a variety of flavors, not just American vanilla.

An Axis of Illiberalism

In a recent piece at TomDispatch, I argue that a new kind of political hybrid has emerged as the dominant player in the global arena: market authoritarianism.

It’s what I call “despotism with a corporate face and cosmetic democracy,” and you can find it in Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Orban’s Hungary, Erdogan’s Turkey, and al-Sisi’s Egypt, among other places. “A new axis of illiberalism might one day connect Beijing to Moscow, Hungary, and possibly beyond like a new trans-Siberian express,” I write.

Aligned with this unharmonic convergence toward illiberalism, the authoritarian symps and their assorted fellow travelers welcome how virile and decisive the new despots are: Putin without a shirt, Xi creating a new global financial infrastructure seemingly ex nihilo, Assad crushing Islamic State insurgents (along with so many others). No messy democracy for them or the niceties of human rights observance. They too secretly pine for the “iron fist” even if it what they explicitly denounce is the iron fist of others (Obama, Netanyahu, Petro Poroshenko, and so on). The authoritarian symps desperately crave a “bastard” of their own.

In the decades following the end of the Cold War, many of those who advocated for U.S. military intervention overseas couched their justifications in the language of human rights. This became the “humanitarian intervention” school. After the failures of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, and others — which became and continue to be humanitarian disasters — this school has lost most of its disciples (for instance, see David Rieff’s cogent critique).

We should be equally wary of the flip side: the non-humanitarian non-interventionists. These are the authoritarian symps, the ones who avert their eyes from human rights and humanitarian disasters on the assumption that the West (United States, Europe) is impossibly compromised by its past (colonialism, war, empire). By all means we should critique the politics, past and present, of the Western powers. And we should praise efforts to avoid wars and end historic animosities with Iran, Cuba, Russia, and other countries. But that doesn’t absolve Putin, Castro, Khamenei, Assad, and others from their violation of international norms.

Above all, we should beware the siren songs of the authoritarian symps of both the right and the left — especially when they are singing in unison.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 27, 2015

 

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Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

Regime Change in Hungary

There’s something about white horses and strong leaders. A nation is in crisis, and no one knows what to do. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a man appears astride a white horse. He takes the reins of the nation, just as he controls his horse, and leads the country to the promised land. The myth of the “man on the white horse,” which stretches from the Book of Revelations to the latest Lone Ranger movie, has had a profound influence on Western culture.

Most leaders associated with white horses — George Washington, for instance, or Napoleon — never actually rode them. But Admiral Miklos Horthy, the famous authoritarian leader of Hungary, made a point of riding his white horse at the head of the army that swept through Hungary in 1919 until it finally entered Budapest and put an end to the country’s brief experiment with a Soviet government. After presiding over a counter-revolutionary White Terror, Horthy established what has been called a “directed democracy” that grew less and less democratic as it moved closer to the Axis powers and policies supporting the Holocaust.

Horthy is enjoying a renaissance in Hungary today. Statues and plaques are going up to commemorate his life and rule. The current Hungarian government of Viktor Orban and FIDESZ has been careful to tread a fine line between supporting and condemning the new cult of Horthy, though some members of the ruling party are more open in their admiration for the admiral. Still, Orban definitely styles himself as a strong leader who has arrived on a white horse to save Hungary from the Left. And he too favors a directed democracy that veers in an authoritarian direction.

As Hungary expert Charles Gati points out, the Orban government has promoted not simply a particular agenda but an entire system change. “There isn’t any one thing that concerns me,” Gati told me in an interview in his office at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC in March. “This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.”

What is perhaps most intriguing about Orban is the distance he has travelled since the late 1980s when he identified as a liberal and mixed comfortably with civil society organizations. FIDESZ, Gati points out, was “a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician—and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then… that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.”

We talked about the geopolitical implications of Hungary’s turn to the Right and to the East, the other authoritarian tendencies in the region, and the outreach by FIDESZ to the Hungarian diaspora in an effort to win support.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I very clearly remember. I was in New York when it happened. By then I wasn’t as surprised as everybody else because I had followed the developments very closely. For a few days actually I had meetings in Moscow. It was much more interesting how they responded to it there. But I was not really surprised because I knew two or three things. One was that East Germany was beginning to boil, particularly at the level of the elite. Honecker’s leadership was weakening when Gorbachev in effect dismissed him, informing him that he could not count on Soviet tanks to defend the German Democratic Republic. And I knew secondly that East German “tourists” were in Hungary, and the Hungarian government decided to open up the border to Austria and let them go if they wanted to go. Hungary was being flooded by East Germans wanting to go to West Germany via Austria. You cannot sustain that sort of thing. So Berlin had to also open up. I was obviously very much moved by what I witnessed, but it was not a great surprise.

 

Now to shift to Hungary. There, of course, was tremendous—at the beginning—response from the United States and the European Union toward the perceived power grab by FIDESZ and Viktor Orban. Over the last year it has somewhat faded. Do you think it was an overreaction to what Orban was doing? Or do you think the EU and the United States had justifiable concerns about what was taking place in Hungary?

 

I’m not sure that I really even agree with what you said. There was a reaction by parts of the EU—not all of the EU. One faction, the largest faction in the EU of the conservative parties and peoples’ parties, decided not to be very critical publicly, although supposedly some of those parties—like the German one—expressed displeasure at some of Orban’s policies behind the scenes. Yes, there were some expressions by the United States too. But last year Orban made some concessions, or seeming concessions on relatively small matters, but he did make them and I think that quieted Western criticism. On the other hand, when it recently turned out that Orban’s concessions were phony, and that in point of fact he is revising the constitution for the fourth time in one year, the pressure has again built up. Just yesterday, the State Department issued a criticism supporting the EU’s criticism. The Financial Times went so far as to suggest that some of the so-called cohesion funds that Hungary expects should be suspended.

You are right in saying there was a bit of silence, but it was just waiting for what Orban would do. Now it turns out that these so-called concessions were no concessions, and he wants to go ahead. We’ll find out if the Hungarian parliament for the fourth time in one year will alter the constitution. Given its two-thirds majority, FIDESZ can do that. If they do, the concessions of last year will turn out to be nothing. And I would think that continued expressions of concern would continue. [editors’ note: on March 11, the Hungarian did pass the constitutional amendments]

 

And of these, what concerns you most? I mean, there’s government control of university, there’s—

 

There isn’t any one thing that concerns me. This is a mistake to break it down to one thing. You have a general confrontation against pluralist, Western-style democracy in which the distribution of power is sacred. This is the essence. Or if you want to focus on any one thing, it is the lack of checks and balances. This is the key. Using the two-thirds majority as a justification for uprooting Western-style democracy.

 

Now, of course, there was pushback by the constitutional court and the ombudsman as well, demonstrating that despite these efforts, there was some strong pluralism remaining in Hungary.

 

This is exactly what the two-thirds majority in parliament now wants to counter, and the issue is whether Orban goes ahead or not with the amendment that would nullify the constitutional court’s authority on a variety of issues—not just the economy, which in itself is outrageous, but on a variety of other issues on which it did assert itself, as you correctly point out. I have the feeling that he is going to go ahead, but we’ll see. He may delay or postpone, or find some ways to water down the new amendments to the constitution, or “basic laws” as it is called.

 

And have there been any important fissures within FIDESZ to suggest that parliament is not entirely on Orban’s side?

 

The answer is no. I’ve been looking at that and anticipating some internal struggle. It is very clear that some members, even a few in the government, are pro-Western. And there are little leaks here and there of their less-than-enthusiastic support for either domestic or foreign policy moves by Orban. But they cave eventually. For example, the foreign minister is still in place, even though it’s very clear that he is a pro-Atlanticist and likes Western-style pluralism. The same with the deputy prime minister who was here, and unlike the others, looked me up. We had a long conversation—obviously, off the record. These people have some interest in maintaining Western support.

It’s not only domestic politics I’d like to emphasize to you. The issue is the so-called “Eastern opening,” the friendship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia, the plan to put some of Hungary’s reserves in the ruble, which is not even a fully convertibly currency, as opposed to the U.S. dollar and the Euro. Orban made a trip to Moscow, and now so did several of his most loyal supporters—not the foreign minister, however, who didn’t even accompany him on the trip. So there is a turn away from the West. Orban has said many times: “We will not be a Western colony.” He has turned against Western banks. He constantly attacks the EU. All in all, we have here a leader that in his foreign policy no longer wants Hungary to be a loyal member of the Western community.

 

And you don’t think that this is just hedging? I’m remembering back to the campaign FIDESZ conducted in 1990. One of the most prominent posters was of course the kiss between the two Communist leaders of Hungary and the Soviet Union contrasted with the kiss of two young Hungarians. The notion that Orban would genuinely seek out Russian patronage…

 

I don’t know how genuine it is. It doesn’t much matter how genuine it is. Obviously, the main purpose here is economic cooperation, more trade, so that the Russians can purchase Hungarian products that won’t sell in the West. But there is a price for this, and the price is siding with the Russians, for instance, on energy issues. When he was in opposition, Orban and FIDESZ strongly opposed this so-called South Stream energy pipeline that would bring Russian energy to Europe, and favored the Nabucco, the Western alternative pipeline idea. Now he has dropped support for the Nabucco and supports the Russian plan.

I can give you several illustrations of where the initial interest in trade has already led to cooperation. The Russian ambassador in Budapest has yet to visit the leaders of the opposition. Something is cooking there. Obviously a game is being played. It’s not that Orban wants to be a satellite of Russia, far from it. But he thinks he can outwit Putin and get the trade agreements and the economic benefits, so that he will not have to rely on the EU as much. This is very strange, because Hungary’s trade is overwhelmingly with the EU, and with Germany in particular, and it’s not going to lead to good results.

 

It’s a similar game to what other leaders in Serbia or Bulgaria have played in the past.

 

Correct.

 

For countries and economies that are of that size to imagine that they can outwit Putin seems unlikely. Regardless of Putin’s characteristics as a political leader, it’s a question of the size of the Soviet economy.

 

It’s very difficult for these countries to follow the examples of those who have already adopted the Euro — Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, and next year I believe Latvia and Lithuania. So five of the 10 countries by next year will have embraced the Euro. The Bulgarian currency is tied to the Euro. What’s left is Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. Of these four, Poland just announced that it will make the necessary changes—and those are very difficult changes to make—to enter the Eurozone, because it doesn’t want to be a second-rate member of the EU. Hungary is not following suit. So there is a substantial difference here. This is not simply Euro-skepticism. This is a strategic realignment.

 

When I was in Slovakia, people talked about the response to Vladimir Meciar and the reinvigoration of the civic movement. In fact, Slovaks said that basically they felt that it was really only in 1998—not in 1989 or 1993—that they came into their own as civic actors. Are you seeing something similar take place in Hungary? There have been declarations by intellectuals, there have been marches, but are you seeing a substantial reawakening of the civil sector in Hungary?

 

No. On the contrary, I see the opposite: the oppression of civil society. Intimidation is there as well as the absence of financial support. For example, in the old days—well, five years ago—government advertisements in the press were divided in the following way: approximately 70% went to government press, 30% to opposition press. Today it’s 100% government. That gives you an illustration of how harsh this new regime is, how it moved away from the values of pluralism towards authoritarianism.

 

Do you think that FIDESZ has had this tendency from its beginning? When I was there in 1990 there was tension between the Orban half and the more social democratic side of FIDESZ. But I don’t think anybody anticipated when I was there that it had an authoritarian tendency beyond Orban himself.

 

Nobody did. I knew Mr. Orban very very well. FIDESZ had a publishing house established in 1988, and I was among the first authors. They translated two of my books. Mr. Orban edited the translation of one of my books, and Mr. Laszlo Kover, who is the speaker of the house in parliament and maybe the most explicitly right-wing leader within the FIDESZ circle today, edited the other. I knew them very well. We used to go out to have a beer. My wife met Orban’s wife when he was in New York in 1992. He was hanging out at my apartment on the Upper West Side, so I can say that I knew him well. He wanted me, even in 1994,to accompany him to his village for his election campaign. Only he and I were in the car, he was driving and I was the passenger. When he was prime minister for the first time in 1998 or 1999, he came here to Washington, and, obviously with his concurrence, I introduced him at a breakfast meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. Our relationship by then was a little tense, but still reasonably good.

So the answer to your question is: no, you were not wrong. You saw a liberal party that was a member of the so-called Liberal International, together with the Free Democrats, but they were more dynamic, more energetic. Orban was a dynamo of a leader, and I understood even then that he had ambitions. He was a real politician—and I say that in the best sense of the word. Little did I anticipate then, as I guess you didn’t either, that he would turn out to be a nationalist demagogue.

 

And this evolution in Orban himself and in the party, do you think it is strategic, or do you think it reflects a deeper trend? When I say “strategic,” I mean a political decision based on a reading of the temperament of the electorate.

 

Since the key to their new approach has to do with the use and manipulation of nationalist symbols and nationalist rhetoric, I would have to say that this is a strategic realignment. In the mid-1990s—when the change began, though it was a gradual evolution—they came to understand that the country needed a nationalist, centrist-oriented, right-of-center kind of party. There was space there on the political spectrum, because on the other side there was the Free Democrats, which was liberal, city-oriented, very strongly Western-oriented, and there were the Socialists, who in West-European terminology should be called Social Democrats because they now embrace capitalism as much as or more than anybody else, certainly anybody on the right side. So FIDESZ found space there. Since then, they have moved from right-of-center to clearly right wing. Their symbolism, their economic policies — never mind their authoritarian trends — all put them on the right wing of the political spectrum. Did they understand what they were doing? Yes, I think so. And almost everybody—not everybody because some people left the party in 1993 or so—understood where they were going, and Orban’s persuasion and the promise of power prompted them to stay with him.

 

In many of the countries that I’ve been to there has been polling to demonstrate that people, generally speaking, discount whatever advantages they’ve acquired over the last 20 years and have become increasingly nostalgic for the pre-1989 period. Is that also the case in Hungary?

 

Yes, there is nostalgia. There is nostalgia for Ceausescu’s Romania, which boggles the mind. I can’t understand it at all. How could they? But I have to say that, contrary to your expectation and mine in 1989, Western-style democracy has not fallen on fertile soil in every country and among all parts of the population. By and large, in the cities you do have some continued interest, whether it is Prague or Warsaw or Budapest, in the Western ways. Elsewhere, it’s old-fashioned tradition that prevails.

It’s not necessarily nostalgia for communism at all. In fact, it’s not for that. It is for the mediocrity, the seeming equality, the meager benefits of the welfare state. And above all, I think, it is against the imperative of working hard that capitalism imposes on you. So there’s an element of laziness, an element of nostalgia for the welfare state—the two-week vacation guaranteed to everybody, a year off for maternity leave, and full employment.

I tell this story to my students. Because I have lots of kids and grandchildren too, I always wanted to buy toys in these countries as I traveled. Before 1989, you would go into a store in Warsaw or East Berlin, a little store that here would be a Mom and Pop store, but there it would be nine people “working.” And they would be standing there smoking their cigarettes, and they didn’t pay any attention to me whatsoever. They didn’t have any interest in doing so. They could not lose their job. They barely made any money, but it was an okay life for most of them, though not everybody. So I think we have vastly overestimated the appeal of Western-style democracy and capitalism when we visited these countries in 1989.

 

And that overestimation, do you think it led to specific policy decisions that, if they had been taken in a different direction in terms of economic reform, might have forestalled the rise, or the push, of FIDESZ to the right or the rise of populism? Or was this an inevitable pendulum swing given the political dynamics in the region?

 

This is very hard to answer. I do have, as you can tell, opinions about most everything. But I don’t know the answer to this one. All I know is that authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian, or different anti-Western types have shown up everywhere in the region. There was Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia: look how popular he was for a long period of time. There were the brothers in Poland, the Kaczynskis. Jaroslaw Kaczynski continues to be quite appealing and quite popular. The paranoid fantasies that he presents about different groups of people or countries, or others working against Poland, absolutely boggle the mind. They are not based on realities. These conspiracies exist only in the minds of people who follow them.

Then in the Czech Republic, which we normally used to think would be the best of the lot, the just-retiring president Vaclav Klaus also had these fantasies of conspiracy and turned against the EU big time. It went way beyond the kind of skepticism one associates with West European countries, where it’s good politics to talk against the Brussels bureaucrats. Klaus was far worse than that. His successor Milos Zeman is pro-EU, but we will see how that situation develops. And then of course in Hungary you have the right-wing reaction. I could go on with Bulgaria and so on. The interesting thing for you perhaps to consider is that there are four countries in the region—and maybe Slovenia too—that feel mistreated by Russia: the three Baltic states and Poland. And in different ways and to different extents, I believe that these are the countries that have had their detours but are on the Western track. I am not sure about the others.

 

What do you think will push back against this populism? I mean, what will it take? Are there things that the European Union can do?

 

Yes, there are things it could do. But it can’t do them. It could suspend this week the cohesion fund deliveries to Hungary, and it would create an economic mess. The Financial Times advocated that approach this week. I am not necessarily advocating that because it would have colossal consequences, and it’s a bit heartless. But if you care deeply about pluralism and democracy, then you have to break eggs to make that omelet, and there is no easy way to do that. Will that lead then to Orban’s demise? Possibly, in the next election. But he already has manipulated the electoral law in such a way that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to create a coalition prior to the election, to bring all these different ambitious people together to defeat him. Just keep in mind: Vladimir Meciar was an amateur compared to Mr. Orban. FIDESZ and Orban are the real professionals of this authoritarian trend.

 

Do you see anything on the horizon in Hungary that could possibly challenge that?

 

Yes, I do. I think that the Socialist Party of Attila Mesterhazy is competent. They have come back from horrendous scandals, and I think they were down in some polls—don’t quote me because I don’t remember—to 9%. Different polls show different things. They have moved up, but not enough. And then there’s the former prime minister, Mr. Bajnai, who will form a political party next week, and he appeals to center and even center-right voters, or tries to. On his own he cannot beat Orban either. The question is whether Mesterhazy and Bajnai will be able to get together, and at this time it’s just too early for me to tell.

 

You said that the EU could do something like suspending the cohesion fund deliveries. Is there any thing Washington could do at this point?

 

I think it would be useful for Washington to speak out at higher levels. Yesterday, for example, the press spokeswoman issued a three-sentence statement. It was very strong. It supported the EU’s concerns about next week’s vote concerning the fourth scheduled change in the constitution. It was helpful, and the Hungarian press agency did issue it — somewhat to my surprise because they have a near-monopoly now on Washington news. What else could the United States do? That’s a very difficult question. This is why most officials don’t even want to know much more, because there is so little that they could do. But I think they could support the EU on a higher level and, above all, try to persuade Chancellor Merkel to get off her ass and publicly criticize Orban. It is true that she made Orban wait for more than a year before seeing him, and it is true that Orban would like to come here and meet the president. I am told that he was turned down again last week, which is very important.

We could do lots of small things. We can send ambassadors there who are competent, which we have not done: different ambassadors who have open eyes and who don’t fall for “Hungarian charm.” There’s not that much the United States can do, but I am very encouraged by the president’s policy in the State of the Union to strengthen trans-Atlantic ties with a significant commercial deal that will have great significance, even for Hungary and for all the others.

I am floored by Poland’s unwillingness to go public in its criticism. Orban does not feel sufficiently isolated, and I would isolate the Hungarian government politically. I see no reason why it should be invited to any bilateral summit. But these are private hopes on my part, and they are not going to happen.

 

I want to ask you about the issue of minorities. Previously there had been some tensions with Slovakia and Romania. Will that play a significant role, as well as the issue of violence against Roma within Hungary?

 

As far as the neighboring countries and minorities are concerned, there’s relative calm now. A year ago they did some wild things in Romania, in Transylvania, which was really absurd. It’s not a big issue now, and politically of course Orban holds the cards, because few Americans understand the real significance of the Treaty of Trianon, after World War I, whereby Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and population. We kind of laugh at it: “That was almost a century ago, what the hell?” This is wrong, because it’s a wound that continues to hurt, and to the extent that Orban can appeal to the sense of pain felt by most Hungarians about autonomy for ethnic Hungarians and so on he’s going to gain strength and validation. Orban does not want to understand that the EU is the answer to the question. FIDESZ is not going to change borders, but there are some in the party who do want to do this.

The Slovak relationship is reasonably good now. I think Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico found a way with Orban and calmed things down for the time being. But it can explode at any moment. Next year’s elections could be a problem, because ethnic Hungarians can vote, including in the United States. They’re sending somebody to New York with $15 million—$15 million!—for something called the Friends of Hungary Foundation. While they say this is all about strengthening “cultural affinity with the homeland,” that’s bullshit. They want to get their votes.

 

The diaspora, generally speaking, is more conservative?

 

Very conservative. Very nationalist, curiously enough. So they will vote for FIDESZ, or they will even vote for Jobbik. It’s a very small group that will not vote. I’m not even a Hungarian citizen, because I gave it up in the 1960s, so I can’t vote. I don’t know how many others are like that. Their secret hope is 200,000 votes, but I don’t think they’re going to get anything like it. But they are spending state funds to campaign in the United States.

In terms of the domestic situation, the Roma issue is huge. There are no easy solutions. But FIDESZ is exacerbating the problem. I wouldn’t know what the solution is, but certainly what they are doing is not right because they are not protecting the Roma. They don’t speak out. For example, they are allowing one of Orban’s closest friends, a founder of FIDESZ and columnist by the name of Zsolt Bayer, to call the Roma “animals” in a column. They did not condemn him for this, which is truly outrageous.

And you have a real issue of anti-Semitism, which is popular and widespread. I think there are problems with the methodology of the Anti-Defamation League, but among ten European countries in their 2012 survey, Hungary moved up to become the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. But more than that, the trend of anti-Semitic sentiment moved from 47% to 63%. American Jews are concerned, but they  don’t know how to deal with Orban.

 

Are Hungarian Jews leaving as a result of this?

 

I don’t know if Jews are specifically leaving. Probably, because city folks and young people are leaving. They finish university, and reportedly 50% want to leave the country. We’re talking about a huge number.

 

This is the reason why the government is trying to prevent students from leaving if they have scholarships.

 

Precisely. They want to make scholarships contingent on a commitment to stay in Hungary.

 

Washington, DC, March 8, 2013