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Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. It is threatening an all-out pamphlet war in response to defectors sending anti-regime propaganda to the north. South Korea’s unification minister has stepped down after failing to meet with his North Korean counterparts during his 14-month tenure.

Pyongyang is not happy about the balloons launched by defectors carrying leaflets and dollar bills. But the real problem is that North Korea remains heavily sanctioned and South Korea has been unable or unwilling to alleviate that situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea is being pressured from the other side. The Trump administration has pushed hard for Seoul to pay more for the maintenance of U.S. bases and troops in the country: a preposterous increase from $900 million to $5 billion. South Korea countered with a 13 percent increase that Washington rejected. Only 4 percent of South Koreans believe that their country should accept the U.S. demand.

On top of that, the United States has refused to provide much if any wiggle room for South Korea to pursue economic projects with North Korea. Even as Trump attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States maintained strict sanctions on the country.

It is very frustrating to be the object of geopolitics rather than the subject. South Korea is a weak geopolitical actor because other countries, primarily the United States and North Korea, are determining the conditions within which Seoul is operating.

President Moon Jae-in has tried to turn lemons into lemonade by presenting himself as the great conciliator. He pulled off three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018, two at the DMZ and one in Pyongyang, and breathed new life into inter-Korean relations. He managed to preserve a working relationship with Donald Trump, largely through flattery. Early on, he mended fences with China over the THAAD dispute. Moon did a brilliant job given the circumstances.

Much of that strategy now lies in tatters, blown up like the liaison office in Kaesong.

Some in Seoul are no doubt advising Moon to adopt a posture of “strategic patience” toward the United States. In November, American voters may well remove Trump from office, and then South Korea can negotiate with the more pragmatic and predictable Joe Biden.

But Biden’s predictability will pose an equally frustrating challenge. A Biden administration will probably accept Seoul’s offer of a modest increase in host nation support. But Biden will not likely offer a new approach to North Korea. Expect yet another strategic review of U.S. policy, followed by a continuation of the status quo: maximum pressure on Pyongyang, short of war, until it adopts a more conciliatory negotiating position. South Korea’s role as a passive actor in this drama will not change.

Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States.

From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North.

The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.

A cost-benefit analysis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance suggests that it no longer serves Seoul’s interests as it once might have.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in its own assessment of the benefits of that relationship. Under Trump, the United States has called into question virtually all of its military alliances. The burden-sharing that Trump is attempting to force on NATO, on Japan, and on South Korea is only an extreme version of what the foreign policy elite in Washington has demanded for years.

Biden is expected to take a more supportive position toward these military alliances. But the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus as well as the longer-term erosion of U.S. geopolitical influence mean that the United States will likely continue Trump’s cost-cutting approach but in more polite terms and according to a different timeline.

Instead of passively watching this process unfold, South Korea should get ahead of the curve. It should begin asserting its independence from the United States. It should prepare for the time when the two countries have a normal relationship rather than a “special” relationship.

It has been 70 years since the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. Overcoming that division, ultimately, will require altering South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The question that remains: will it be South Korea or the United States that takes the lead in changing the relationship?

By respectfully taking the initiative, South Korea can become a full-fledged actor in geopolitics. It can thank the United States for all of the help provided over the years (and hold its tongue about the unsavory aspects of the alliance like the prostitution around military bases). It can hold a party for the departing U.S. troops. And it can then set about re-imagining the North East Asian region with a unified peninsula at its heart.

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Why Bolton Matters

Unreliable narrators are a staple of literature. Consider the delusional, self-serving narrator of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or the way Humbert Humbert used his cultured references and gorgeous prose to dress up his crimes in Nabokov’s Lolita.

Now along comes John Bolton and his account of time served in the Trump administration as national security advisor.

Bolton’s latest book has been attacked as fiction by the president, members of his administration, and even members of the administrations of other countries (like South Korea). Bolton is a thoroughly unpleasant hatchet man who has opposed arms control treaties, diplomacy in most forms, and international institutions of all varieties. He is reliably paleoconservative. But does that make him a reliable narrator of his own story as well?

The picture Bolton paints of the Trump administration is a familiar one. We’ve been treated to a succession of tell-all accounts of the horror that has been Donald Trump’s tenure as president: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s A Very Stable Genius, even A Warning by Anonymous. Each one has added a little more paint to the Hieronymus Bosch picture of the presidency: monsters, unspeakable acts, darkness, and chaos.

Other than a morbid, rubbernecking fascination with atrocity, why is yet another account necessary, and from such a potentially unreliable narrator as John Bolton to boot?

The critics of Bolton’s trustworthiness have a point. But Bolton’s unreliability resides not so much in his ideology as his opportunism.

As a “kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy,” he’ll do whatever it takes to attain power. He has a terminal case of Washingtonitis: he thinks he’s the smartest man in the room and he reeks of entitlement. He entered the Trump administration not as a true believer in Trump, only a true believer in himself. His book not surprisingly portrays John Bolton as the only person in the Trump administration with any sense at all.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Bolton’s so-called revelations.

Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Taking China Off the Table

Foreign policy will not likely be the tipping point for the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s base generally doesn’t care what happens beyond America’s borders (except to keep it beyond America’s borders). And the anti-Trump camp just wants to get rid of the president, regardless of what he has done in the international arena.

Still, Trump is running on his foreign policy record. For instance, he has been busy trying to portray his opponent, Joe Biden, as somehow pro-China. “China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly,” Trump tweeted back in April. “They want all of those billions of dollars that they have been paying to the U.S. back, and much more. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!”

Then came the ad campaign that portrayed “Beijing Biden” as “China’s puppet” who favors engagement with Beijing without caveats and Biden’s son as the beneficiary of sweetheart deals with the Chinese. The Trump ads slam China for its handling of the coronavirus and suggest that Biden would have fumbled the U.S. response out of deference to Beijing (uh, sound familiar?).

The inconvenient truth, however, is that Trump, to quote Nicholas Kristof, “has been China’s stooge, a sycophantic flatterer and enabler of President Xi Jinping.”

In fact, Beijing would prefer four more years of Trump, not so much because of this sycophancy, but because Trump has been busy upending U.S. alliances that have constrained Chinese geopolitical influence. The trade disputes are an irritant, but China can’t expect Joe Biden to be any easier to deal with on that score. Four more years of Trump, on the other hand, would mean four more years of the ebbing of U.S. engagement in world affairs.

As Trump and Biden escalate their China-bashing, along comes Bolton. No friend of Beijing, the national security advisor is appalled at Trump’s exchanges with Xi Jinping. In one such conversation, Trump effectively signs up the Chinese leader as an in-kind contributor to his reelection campaign. Bolton had to excise Trump’s actual words from his book, but Vanity Fair has filled in the blanks:

According to an unredacted passage shown to Vanity Fair by a source, Trump’s ask is even more crudely shocking when you read Trump’s specific language. “Make sure I win,” Trump allegedly told Xi during a dinner at the G20 conference in Osaka, Japan last summer. “I will probably win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms.… Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.

Trump was, of course, impeached for attempting the same strategy with Ukraine.

The other shocking revelation from Bolton’s book is Trump’s response to China’s construction of “re-education” camps for the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. It’s not simply that Trump ignored China’s action, as he contends, to ensure that trade negotiations moved forward. According to Bolton, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

An American president encouraged another country to engage in a massive human rights violation?

True, American presidents have given the green light to such things in the past: Sukarno’s slaughter of suspected Communists in Indonesia in 1965, Pinochet’s coup and subsequent crackdown on Allende supporters in Chile in 1973, the Salvadoran government’s widespread human rights violations in the 1980s. Horrifying as these atrocities were, American conservatives could rationalize U.S. support for these dictatorships because they were U.S. allies.

But China? That’s going to be a difficult sell for an electorate that’s already been primed, by the Trump administration itself, to demonize Beijing.

So, in effect, the Bolton book has removed China from the 2020 election campaign. Trump will think twice about accusing Biden of cozy ties with Beijing when the Democrats can literally throw the book (Bolton’s, that is) at the president.

Impeachment: Not Dead Yet

Trump loves to play the role of a cornered badger that emerges triumphant in the end. Impeachment would have given an ordinary politician pause. Trump simply held up the Senate’s failure to convict as exoneration, despite all the damning evidence produced by the whistleblower and the subsequent Mueller investigation.

The Democrats wanted Bolton to testify during the hearings. He refused to do so voluntarily. Later, he said that he would testify before the Senate if it issued a subpoena. The Republicans, with the exception of Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), voted against calling additional witnesses.

Bolton argues in his book that the Democrats made a mess of the impeachment inquiry. Yet, he could have corroborated the charge of collusion with Ukraine and provided evidence of impeachable offenses in other realms of foreign policy. He didn’t do so.

Now, of course, some Republicans are saying that it would have been better for Bolton to have testified before Congress rather than save his revelations for now. “One of the things about making allegations in a book for $29.95 — certainly it’s going to be a best-seller I’m sure — the problem is that when you’re selling it in a book, you’re not putting yourself in a position to be cross-examined,” Tim Scott (R-SC) recently said.

If Scott and one other Republican had simply voted for additional witnesses, they could have made that happen. And they could have saved themselves the cost of buying Bolton’s book.

In the end, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the final votes on impeachment. Except for Romney, the Republicans were unwilling to break with the president.

Bolton’s book, however, is disinterring all the issues surrounding impeachment and in a light unfavorable to the president. Bolton confirms the infamous quid pro quo — military assistance in exchange for an investigation into the Ukraine dealings of Biden’s son — that Trump discussed in a phone call with the Ukrainian president and that was flagged by a whistleblower. “Nor, at the time, did I think Trump’s comments in the call reflected any major change in direction; the linkage of the military assistance with the Giuliani fantasies was already baked in. The call was not the keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall,” Bolton writes.

Before you shell out $29.95 for the book (actually $32.50 list price), you might wait to see if Congress drags Bolton back to tell his story. This week, Adam Schiff (D-CA) hinted that he might depose the former national security advisor before the House Intelligence Committee.

Who knows? Trump might have to reckon with a second impeachment hearing as he heads into November.

The Benefits of Being Bolton

Bolton predictably criticizes Trump for not being sufficiently hawkish. The president wanted to withdraw troops from the Middle East. He wanted to make nice with North Korea. He had the gall to prioritize trade with China.

From a progressive point of view, that makes Bolton an unreliable narrator. Maybe he was tweaking the facts to make himself look stalwart and wise at the expense of a slow-witted, insufficiently martial president.

But here’s the thing: Bolton hasn’t written anything in his book that contradicts other accounts of the presidency. There was plenty of evidence of the quid pro quo with Ukraine. Trump did not hide his admiration for Xi Jinping. The president is obsessed with getting re-elected, not because he particularly likes his job but because he must prove that he is a winner.

What makes Bolton’s observations most valuable is not their novelty or their acuity but his credentials as a hawk’s hawk. His book isn’t going to make any Democrats or independents or moderate Republicans change their minds about Trump. But it will introduce some doubts into hardcore conservative supporters. They might not publicly renounce the president. Like Bolton himself, they might not even pull the lever for the Democratic candidate.

But they might decide, because of Bolton, to stay home on November 3, just like so many Republicans decided not to attend Trump’s rally in Tulsa this last weekend.

And that, ultimately, is what really puts the fear of Bolton into the Trump reelection campaign.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 24, 2020

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Coronavirus: Cooperation vs. Quarantine

Pathogens don’t know anything about borders. They don’t care about history or ethnicity. They are interested in just one thing: reproduction.  They are constantly in search of places where they can be fruitful and multiply.

Trade and war have been the great facilitators of the plagues that have periodically decimated the human race. Soldiers and merchants, by traveling from place to place, helped spread the Black Death in the fourteenth century and the Spanish flu in the twentieth century, both of which killed about 50 million people.

The latest pandemic, the coronavirus, is no different. People traveling on business in and out of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and the epicenter of the outbreak in China, gave the pathogen new hosts to infect. The commerce of tourism also helped out, as the coronavirus has taken advantage of close quarters on cruise ships and airplanes to jump from body to body.

More than 100,000 people around the world so far have been infected. That includes tens of thousands of people in China, thousands of people in South Korea, and hundreds of people in Japan.

One immediate response to the latest epidemic has been to shut down sites of infection. To start off, the Chinese government locked down Hubei, a province of nearly 60 million people. Traffic in and out of the province has effectively ended, and residents are still confined to their homes. The rate of infection in Hubei and throughout China has dropped considerably as a result.

The Italian government has followed suit. It began by imposing a travel ban on its northern provinces.

Some medical professionals have praised this quarantine approach, arguing that the Chinese government slowed the spread of the disease and gave other countries more time to prepare for the inevitable. But epidemiologists are also skeptical whether such an approach is ultimately effective since another outbreak could take place once travel resumes and infected people reintroduce the virus to areas that had (temporarily) eradicated the disease.

Also, it’s not easy for quarantines to work in democratic countries. The quarantine in Italy is not as tight as the one in Hubei. People fled Milan and other places in the northern regions as soon as the new measures were announced, and many residents were still going out into public even as the government pleaded with them to stay home. The Italian government has subsequently imposed the ban on the entire country, severely restricting movement around the country and closing schools as well.

In this age of rekindled nationalism, leaders have called for tougher border controls – this time not just against immigrants but against anyone traveling from countries with high infection rates, like Italy and Iran. The Trump administration, for instance, implemented a 30-day travel ban on anyone coming from continental Europe, creating chaos for Americans caught there for business or on vacation.

Japan, meanwhile, has pledged to put anyone coming from South Korea or China into a two-week quarantine. It’s one of dozens of countries that have imposed such restrictions. Mongolia and Turkey, for instance, won’t even allow in people who have recently been in or transited through South Korea. But the South Korean government has singled out the Abe government for criticism and also eliminated visa waivers for Japanese visitors.

Shutting down cities and closing borders seem to be plausible responses to a crisis that is amplified by travelers and border crossers. But ultimately such measures provide a false sense of security, particularly when it comes to a pathogen like the coronavirus.

First of all, it looks as though the coronavirus is turning out to be only a little more lethal than a bad influenza virus. The large majority of those infected experience only mild symptoms. And some victims of the disease pass on the infection when they’re still asymptomatic. That means that the coronavirus spreads far more easily than more lethal diseases like Ebola, where there’s no evidence that the asymptomatic infect other people.

With diseases like the coronavirus, unless it is contained immediately at its source, the best that can be hoped for is mitigation. That means ensuring that at-risk populations – the elderly, those with underlying conditions – avoid contact with the general population. It means more aggressive screening, as South Korea has instituted, and aggressive isolation of those infected. It means targeting resources at those hospitalized with more severe symptoms.

It also means that increasing cross-border cooperation, rather than shutting it down, is the key to addressing the problem. In the absence of a robust, global response to pandemics – and such a response is unlikely given opposition from leaders like Trump – countries must push for regional coordination.

The coronavirus is a test run for this kind of cooperation. The next pandemic might be more lethal, might spread more quickly, and might be able to mutate into something even deadlier.

Japan, South Korea, China, and North Korea have myriad disagreements about borders, history, trade, and security. The coronavirus couldn’t care less. It has created its own regional alliance that speaks only one language: the language of infection.

The countries of Northeast Asia should take this opportunity to create a regional scientific consortium, a regional transportation authority, a regional medical response team, and a regional fund to help less affluent areas deal with disease.

Such cooperation, ideally, would extend to other pressing matters: climate change, sustainable energy, and arms control. But let’s start with something basic, like pooling knowledge about the coronavirus, its effects, and its weaknesses.

Regional cooperation requires a common enemy. Such an enemy mobilized its troops in Wuhan and has now invaded every country in the region. It’s time for South Korea, Japan, North Korea, and China to put aside their historical and territorial differences and fight this enemy together.

Hankyoreh, March 15, 2020

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Articles China Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Trump is upsetting his party in other ways.

Phony Phone Calls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Articles China Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The New Age of Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahead to the Past?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clampdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Articles Asia Featured

The Collapse of the East Asian Order

The United States is losing its status as a Pacific power. It can no longer control developments in East Asia. It still maintains a large military footprint in the region. But that military presence no longer translates into an ability to achieve the outcomes that Washington wants.

For better or worse, the post-World War II order in East Asia is coming to an end.

China has become the dominant economic player in East Asia, and it’s acquiring a military commensurate with its economic strength. Japan has been breaking out of the restraints of its “peace constitution” to build up its own military power. South Korea recently canceled its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, a cornerstone of the trilateral cooperation that Washington has urged on its two East Asian allies.

In a last-ditch effort, the Obama administration tried with its much-hyped Pacific pivot to reinsert the United States into the economic and security environment of East Asia. But the pivot didn’t happen. The U.S. military remained enmeshed in the conflicts of the greater Middle East. And the Trump administration immediately canceled U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that was supposed to hitch the United States to the powerful economies of the east.

Donald Trump has further hastened the end of the post-war order with his pursuit of three primary goals in East Asia. He initiated a trade war with China to force the country to accede to U.S. demands regarding market access and other features of the Chinese economy. Beijing has not backed down.

Trump’s second imperative is to press U.S. allies to pay more for hosting U.S. troops. In early 2019, the United States and South Korea signed a one-year agreement – rather than the usual five-year agreement – in which Seoul agreed to raise its contribution by around 8 percent.  Last month, a new round of negotiations began. On his visit to Korea in August, National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly demanded that Korea up its contributions to an astonishing $5 billion a year, a quintupling of the current amount.

Meanwhile, Trump is pushing the Abe government to increase military spending, in part to pay more for U.S. troops at bases in Japan but also for Tokyo to buy even more high-priced U.S. weapons.

Finally, Trump wants a deal with North Korea. But such a deal is not connected to any larger East Asian purpose. Trump simply wants to demonstrate that he can achieve something that his predecessors couldn’t.

None of these goals – confronting China, more allied burdensharing, a deal with North Korea – is new. All three policies have roots that go back to the 1990s. But Trump is taking more risks to achieve these goals. He is also paying little attention to the potentially high price of his actions.

The economic relationship between Beijing and Washington, for instance, may not recover, as China looks for other sources of key imports like soybeans and other markets for its exports. South Korea is not happy about the increased monetary demands from the United States. One recent sign of that unhappiness was the Blue House’s desire to expedite the return of 26 U.S. military bases to Korea.

And Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to North Korea has also complicated relations between Washington and Seoul. The cancellation of joint exercises has reduced military cooperation while the lack of sanctions relief for Pyongyang has blocked greater economic cooperation between north and south.

The United States always billed itself as a stabilizing influence in East Asia. In a region beset by longstanding rivalries, the United States intended to contain Japan by restricting it to a largely defensive military posture. Washington also worked hard to align the policies of Japan and South Korea, despite the unresolved territorial and historical disputes between the two countries. The U.S. military presence in the region was designed to prevent the rise of another hegemon.

The U.S. military remains in the region, but it no longer fulfills those goals. So, for instance, a

full-blown arms race is taking place in the region. Xi Jinping, determined to build a world-class military, will increase Chinese military spending by 7.5 percent next year. Combined with close trade relationships with the region, this improved military capacity means that China has emerged as precisely the hegemonic power that U.S. policy was intended to prevent.

Meanwhile, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea is now the tenth biggest military spender in the world, with Japan at number nine and China number two. Under Moon Jae-in, an otherwise progressive leader, South Korea increased its military budget by 8.2 percent in 2019, the largest increase since 2008, and plans increases of over 7 percent for 2020-2024.

Under Shinzo Abe, Japanese military spending has increased by 13 percent since 2013. With the military budget likely to set a new record next year, Japan is devoting a huge chunk of expenditures on U.S. weapons systems, like six new F35b, which each costs more than $130 million.

The United States, too, is increasing its military budget. But Trump seems determined to draw down U.S. forces overseas. The current burdensharing disputes may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan and South Korea.

True, the East Asian order that the United States helped build after World War II was not peaceful. It was founded on two wars – the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It relied on hundreds of military bases that increased the amount of violence in the host communities. It maintained a Cold War divide that is still strong and still justifies enormous outlays on the military.

But this order, for all of its obvious flaws, managed to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalism (just as the internationalist Communist order attempted to do the same on the other side of the Cold War divide).

The waning of U.S. influence in the region coincides with a powerful resurgence in nationalism. The most obvious example is Japan, where what had once been extremist views on Japan’s wartime conduct are now, thanks to Shinzo Abe, in the very mainstream. China, too, has become a much more explicitly nationalist country under Xi Jinping. South Korean nationalism has largely been subsumed under the project of reunification. A case in point is Moon Jae-in’s assertion last month that a united North and South Korean economy could leapfrog over Japan in “one burst.”

Donald Trump’s “America first” policies are perhaps the most explicitly nationalistic of them all. There wasn’t much any president could do to prevent the loss of U.S. power in the Pacific. But Trump’s approach has kindled nationalism and accelerated the arms race in the region.

As with Europe, U.S. withdrawal from Asia could have been accompanied by a strengthening of regional institutions of peace and cooperation. Instead, the collapse of the East Asian order has generated increased rivalry and conflict. Europe has largely transcended its twentieth-century history of war. Thanks in part to the short-sighted policies of the United States, East Asia is on the verge of repeating some very unfortunate history.

Hankyoreh, September 15, 2019

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Articles China Featured

Hong Kong and the Future of China

Something didn’t quite add up.

This past weekend, protestors were rallying outside the American embassy in Hong Kong. They were waving American flags. They were singing The Star-Spangled Banner. One 24-year-old protester wore a red Make America Great Again hat. Some signs at the protest read “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong.”

“The Chinese government is breaking their promises to give freedom and human rights to Hong Kong,” the MAGA cap-wearer said. “We want to use the U.S. to push China to do what they promised over 20 years ago.”

First of all, the Trump administration cares not a whit about human rights. It’s not about to “liberate” Hong Kong any more than it was going to “liberate” the Rohingyas, the Venezuelans, the Iranians, or the Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province for that matter. With John Bolton now banished from the White House, the prospect of any kind of U.S. intervention has become even more remote.

Trump has called the protests “riots,” echoing Beijing’s rhetoric. He’s worried publicly that they are distracting from trade negotiations. MAGA hat aside, the U.S. president probably sees in the demonstrations a reflection of anti-Trump protests throughout the United States (and the world). Also, despite the trade war with Beijing, Trump has a fondness for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He has even praised Xi’s handling of the crisis (though he has also suggested the Xi meet the protestors to resolve the crisis).

The protesters have a better chance of appealing to the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are currently considering the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would allow Washington to impose sanctions on Mainland and Hong Kong officials who violate human rights and undermine the territory’s sovereignty. Even if it survives a Trump veto, however, the bill would not prevent Beijing from doing what it considers necessary.

Which brings us to the other half of the protester’s claim: that China promised freedom and human rights to Hong Kong in 1997 when it took control of the entrepot from the British. Actually, Beijing promised “one country, two systems.” It promised “a high degree of autonomy.” As for freedom and human rights, that was up to the residents of Hong Kong to secure for themselves.

Which, of course, is what the protesters have been doing.

Two versions of the future have been on display in Hong Kong over the summer. In one version, the people of Hong Kong not only preserve their autonomy but expand their limited democracy into true, one-person-one-vote representation — and this political system inexorably spreads to the rest of China. In the other version, the Mainland and its Hong Kong representatives suppress the protests as China consolidates territorial control: over Xinjiang and Tibet, over Hong Kong, and eventually over Taiwan and the waters of the South China Sea.

The United States, under Donald Trump or his successor, will have less and less to say or do about which of these versions become a reality. And it has nothing at all to offer in terms of a more viable third option that might emerge from the current crisis.

Origins of the Protest

The latest round of protests in Hong Kong began in March, when thousands took to the streets to protest amendments to an extradition law. Hong Kong residents have been concerned that, accused of some arbitrary crime, they might find themselves whisked away to the Mainland and its misrule of law.

This is not an abstract concern. Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller who sold texts critical of leaders in Beijing, was abducted in 2015, charged with “operating a bookstore illegally,” and detained for almost eight months in Mainland China. He was released back to Hong Kong with the understanding that he return to face trial.

Instead, Lam recently decamped to Taiwan, fearful of Hong Kong’s new extradition provisions. Canadian-Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua was abducted from Hong Kong in 2017 and is reportedly still awaiting trial. A wealthy Hong Kong media titan has spoken of successfully resisting a Beijing-orchestrated kidnap attempt earlier this year.

An extradition law would effectively legalize these abductions. It would also apply to the 85,000 American citizens currently working in Hong Kong.

Protests over the extradition law grew larger and larger at the outset of summer until 1 million people thronged the streets on June 9, followed by 2 million a week later. Protesters took over the legislative building. They shut down the Hong Kong airport. They disrupted traffic on roadways. Fearful of surveillance, they have donned masks and even torn down “smart lampposts” designed to monitor traffic (but perhaps other things as well).

More confrontational protesters have set fires, vandalized metro stations and government buildings, and thrown petrol bombs at police. For their part, the police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Masked thugs have attacked protesters. More than 1,000 people have been arrested, including pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.

Although Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the amended law, the protests have continued. Protesters have four principal demands: an investigation into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested during the protest, a retraction of the designation of the June 12 protest as a “riot,” and Lam’s resignation followed by a free and fair election for her replacement. The last item is a revival of the platform of the Umbrella Movement of 2014, a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to achieve universal suffrage in the territory.

Lam is in a tough position, as she herself acknowledged in a leaked audio recording of a closed-door meeting of business leaders. Caught between Beijing and the protestors, she confessed that her maneuvering room is “very, very, very limited.”

Response from the Mainland

So far, Beijing has expected the Hong Kong authorities to deal with the challenge, though it has made various ominous statements about acts of terrorism, the involvement of the United States, and the unacceptability of the protesters’ demands.

Beijing has several options at this point. Chinese leader Xi Jinping could negotiate with the protesters, though this is unlikely. Xi wouldn’t want to show any weakness, particularly with the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding coming up on October 1. He could send in the army, a la Tiananmen Square 1989, and impose martial law in their territory. But that, too, is unlikely as long as the protestors don’t manage to seize the government and declare independence.

The leadership in Beijing may well be annoyed at what’s happening in Hong Kong. But this isn’t a Tiananmen Square situation. Protests are not popping up throughout the country in support of the actions in Hong Kong. Solidarity events have taken place in the United States, Germany, Britain, France, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. But on the Mainland, all is quiet, except for a few brave souls who have attempted to elude the censors to post information about what’s going on in Hong Kong.

It’s not possible to know how nearly 1.4 billion people think about anything, including a highly controversial topic like pro-democracy protests. However, given a steady diet of state-run media, the vast majority of Chinese likely view the protests in Hong Kong as simply disruptive. The events there have the flavor not of Tiananmen 1989 but rather the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960s, when young people took to the streets and turned the world upside down, resulting in enormous pain and suffering.

As former New York Times reporter Karoline Kan has written:

To many mainlanders who believe the China model has benefited their economic development and their private lives, Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy and freedom is not so attractive any more. They believe the mainland government is not perfect, but a messed-up government is worse. They fear political turbulence, poverty, foreign invasion — but not an authoritarian government. What’s worse, many believe the existing freedom Hong Kong enjoys is a “special treatment” that spoils the city. They believe the mainland has helped Hong Kong, but the city is ungrateful and constantly making trouble for China.

Since 1989, public opinion on the Mainland has moved inexorably in the direction of nationalism. The Chinese public tends to be rather hawkish in its orientation, with the younger generation more hardline than their parents. Few dissidents have stuck their necks out for protestors in Xinjiang or Tibet. Hong Kong, with its privileged status and myriad links to the West, has gotten even less sympathy.

The Polish Example

Carrie Lam faces much the same dilemma that bedeviled Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland in the 1980s. Jaruzelski was also an unelected leader caught between popular unrest at home and a much larger sponsor breathing down his neck. The Polish leader’s “solution” was to use the threat of a Soviet invasion to declare martial law in 1981 to suppress the rebellious Solidarity trade union.

Out of that experience, Polish protesters came up with a different strategy. Rather than push Jaruzelski up against the wall again, they developed (or, in fact, revived) the notion of a “self-limiting revolution.” Solidarity would continue to organize, quietly and persistently, but it wouldn’t make a direct bid for power. Later, when the opportunity arose, it would negotiate with the Communist government and come up with a compromise solution for the country’s first semi-free elections.

The date of those elections? June 4, 1989.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Chinese government, having failed to reach a similar modus operandi with the Tiananmen Square protesters, violently suppressed the pro-democracy movement.

The Hong Kong protesters could take a few important lessons from the Polish experience. They should acknowledge the possibility, however remote, of a military intervention by Beijing. They should realize that no one in such a scenario — not the people on the Mainland or the U.S. government — is going to come to their aid (except rhetorically). And they should look for opportunities to compromise with the Hong Kong authorities, securing incremental victories that shore up the territory’s autonomy and its semi-democratic structures.

In this way, the Hong Kong protesters must be willing to play the long game. Solidarity came up against the wall of Soviet intransigence in 1980. By 1989, however, Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge in Moscow and the compromise strategy became spectacularly successful.

Xi Jinping is no Mikhail Gorbachev. And he has declared himself leader for life. So, the movement in Hong Kong has to be even more patient, even more strategic, and even more determined than their Polish counterparts. Their time will come. When it does, they need to be ready not only to democratize Hong Kong but also contribute to reshaping the model on the Mainland as well.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 11

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Afghanistan: Out of the Graveyard and into the Pyre?

Afghanistan has long been touted as the “graveyard of empires.” The British and the Soviets certainly discovered that lesson to their great regret. Perhaps future historians will judge the failure of the United States to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan over a two-decade period as a critical factor in the loss of American hegemony as well. If so, these historians will no doubt chuckle at the irony of Mr. Make America Great Again throwing the last shovelful of dirt on the grave.

After all, the Trump administration is working hard to negotiate a deal to end America’s longest military engagement. If the two sides can agree, Washington will withdraw nearly half of the contingent of 14,000 U.S. troops as long as the Taliban renounces al-Qaeda and similar groups, adheres to a ceasefire, and sits down with the Afghan government to discuss power-sharing.

So what if Trump wants a troop drawdown only so that he can tell voters that he is ending America’s “forever wars” before the 2020 election? Ending a war is ending a war.

As with the North Korea negotiations, however, U.S. critics are worried that Trump will make one-sided concessions in his eagerness to achieve the semblance of a foreign-policy win. In their worst-case scenario, the Taliban will use any ceasefire to press its advantages – on the ground and then politically – to overrun the country and reestablish their medieval rule.

Those concerns are premature, to say the least. The current deal doesn’t look anything like the end of the Vietnam War, for instance, when helicopters evacuated U.S. personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong prepared to take over. If the preliminary details hold true, the United States would still keep 8,000-9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is more or less the number of soldiers deployed there when Trump took office. So, “withdrawal” is something of a misnomer. Also, the U.S. military would likely continue to operate out of several bases, including Bagram, Kandahar, and several in and around Kabul, in order to preserve U.S. air power.

The United States continues to conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan. Indeed, a recent UN report indicates that these aerial attacks are largely responsible for the significant uptick in civilian casualties so far this year. The Trump administration no doubt wants to preserve its capacity to conduct such strikes so that, if the president changes his mind about seeking an end to the war, it can turn around and pound the Taliban from the air just like it did to the Islamic State.

Remember: Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional ordnance – in Afghanistan back in 2017. The president has a fondness for “fire and fury.” Trump said this week: “We could win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted. But I’m not looking to kill 10 million people.” He didn’t specify how many people he might be willing to kill in order to “win” in Afghanistan.

If Trump does follow through on his determination to at least reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, he would be attempting to put out one fire even as he stokes several more. In fact, the president is pushing ahead with provocative moves on both the nuclear weapons and trade fronts that may have implications far greater than any deal currently on the table with the Taliban.

The China Quagmire

In a column this week in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman compares the Trump administration’s trade conflicts to a classic quagmire, no different from the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Trump’s trade war is looking more and more like a classic policy quagmire. It’s not working — that is, it isn’t at all delivering the results Trump wants. But he’s even less willing than the average politician to admit to a mistake, so he keeps doing even more of what’s not working. And if you extrapolate based on that insight, the implications for the U.S. and world economies are starting to get pretty scary.

This week, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States worth approximately $300 billion. It also declared China to be a currency manipulator. The announcements led to a significant drop in the stock market, as investors worry that a trade war between Washington and Beijing could precipitate a global economic downturn.

Although investors were reportedly “blindsided” by Trump’s move, they shouldn’t have been. The president has been threatening to impose these additional tariffs for some months. And late in July, the administration upped the pressure on the World Trade Organization to remove China’s “developing nation” status. Meanwhile, as I explained in a cover story for The Nation a couple months back, the consensus of opinion among China experts in the United States now favors a more aggressive response to Beijing, which provides Trump with elite cover for his moves.

While Wall Street worries, Main Street braces for the impact of the new policies. U.S. farmers will suffer in particular, and none more so than the soybean growers who have relied on Chinese purchases for over $11 billion in revenues annually. Last year, Chinese soybean purchases dropped by an astonishing 75 percent. The Trump administration has promised billions of dollars more in bailouts to keep American farmers afloat (more to the point: to secure the farm vote for the 2020 elections). But temporary government subsidies are not going to cut it if the trade war becomes semi-permanent as China switches to other suppliers for its agricultural and manufacturing needs.

It’s not just farmers and manufacturers who pay. Ordinary consumers will have to pony up more at the checkout counter. This is, in effect, a hidden tax on Americans that they’ll invariably blame on China and other countries rather than on the Trump administration.

China is not the Taliban. It won’t be cowed by Trump’s rhetoric or his aggressive trade moves. Beijing allowed its currency to plummet in order to make its exports more competitive, which will squeeze U.S. products out of foreign markets. It’s digging in for the long haul, and it has the resources to do so. The Chinese government has many more levers at its disposal to adjust monetary and fiscal policy to weather this storm. And unlike Trump, Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be voted out of office.

As Krugman explains, the tariffs are not even accomplishing Trump’s goals. The trade deficit is growing larger, and U.S. exports are actually shrinking. Tariffs are probably the worst possible tactic for boosting U.S. trade and addressing ongoing disagreements with Beijing. Not only are they ineffective in the short term, they have the potential to drag the global economy into a depression much deeper than the financial crisis of 2008.

More Nuclear Escalation?

The Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. It pushed through the New START treaty with Russia in 2010 (though, to get the treaty through the Senate, the administration had to commit to an expensive and entirely unnecessary modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal). And Obama was the first president to embrace the goal of complete nuclear disarmament (as opposed to mere arms control).

Trump, by contrast, seems to have fallen in love with nuclear weapons. He has pushed for an increasein the nuclear weapons budget that will mean an additional $100 billion over the next 10 years over and above what the Obama administration had planned. He plans to test some new nuclear-capable missiles, including a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile.

But the most dangerous development is the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty, which the administration finalized last week. I described this projected development a couple months ago, but I probably underestimated the potential negative consequences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that his country is prepared to go head-to-head with the United States in a new nuclear arms race. Now that the INF restrictions have disappeared, Putin has pledged to build short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles to match anything Trump develops.

At the same time, the U.S. insistence on missile defense has pushed Russia and China in particular to develop measures to bypass this so-called shield in order to preserve their deterrent capabilities. As Alex Wellerstein writes in Quartz:

The US military is well-aware of these foreign developments and is somewhat giddy at the prospect of funding its own projects to “keep up” with them, even though they’re the cause for race in the first place. But it’s not just about legit defense: The tit-for-tat nature of this kind of technological development means new toys, more tax-payer money, and—importantly—more prestige.

As part of this escalation, the Trump administration is committed to developing more “usable” nuclear weapons – which of course increases the risk of a conventional conflict turning into a devastating nuclear exchange.

Addicted to War

The Trump administration favors a war of all against all. That’s obvious from its response to the mass shootings in the United States. Rather than support gun control measures, the administration has backed the NRA line: more guns for teachers in schools, more guns for the average person to take out the “bad guys” on the street, more military-grade firepower for local police.

Similarly, the Trump administration has come out shooting in trade relations, most disastrously with China but also with allies like Canada and Mexico. And it has reopened an arms race around nuclear weapons that should have been shut down once and for all at the end of the Cold War. These policies threaten to drag the United States and the world backward: to the heyday of U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the first case and to the days of tariff escalation of the 1920s in the second. If only one of these happens, it will be a disaster. If both happen, it will be a catastrophe.

Ending the war in Afghanistan is indeed a noble goal. But even if does happen, it would qualify as only a minor accomplishment in comparison to the escalating trade war and the new nuclear arms race. It would be like putting out a little brushfire in your backyard when a massive forest fire approaches from the other direction. And given the terms of the latest deal on the table, the brushfire will continue to burn, though perhaps at a less dangerous level.

Meanwhile, even if you can’t actually see the forest fire approaching, you can at least smell the smoke and hear the distant crackle of flames. It’s an entirely avoidable conflagration. The president who claims to be saving the United States is out there patrolling the firebreak, but with lighter fluid in hand.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 7, 2019

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Articles China Featured

How to Decide the Fate of the Planet

At its best, the Earth was once likened to a spaceship that sails through the heavens with a crew working together for the common good. Thanks to climate change, this metaphor no longer works. Our planet is now more like a lifeboat that’s sprung a major leak. People onboard are beginning to panic and the clock is ticking.

It is, however, the perfect environment to test out the best way to deal with life-and-death situations.

For such a test, imagine not one but two lifeboats of survivors bobbing in an endless, empty sea. Both contain the same number of people and a limited amount of food. Based on some educated guesses by one knowledgeable crewmember, the boats are at least five days from land, if everyone rows together and they don’t veer off course.

In the first boat, the survivors debate the problem: Should they stay in place and conserve their energy or strike off in search of land? They divide into three committees to address the different aspects of the problem and present their findings, making sure everyone has input. They debate for hours, growing weaker and weaker until they no longer have the energy to do anything and the issue decides itself.

In the second boat, one person takes control, believing he alone has the skill and knowledge to steer the lifeboat toward land. Not everyone agrees, but dissenters are silenced. The others agree that there’s no time for more discussion. The new leader imposes rules on who rows and who eats. When someone falls deathly ill, he orders the incapacitated man thrown overboard.

The second lifeboat is moving at a good pace — but is it going in the right direction?

On Lifeboat Earth, time and resources are similarly limited. According to most climate scientists, the window of opportunity to prevent irrevocable climate change is about a dozen years. Opinion is divided, however, on how to address this problem with the urgency it requires.

The international community has tried, in a roughly democratic fashion, to avoid the apocalypse. In 2015, the countries of the world came together in Paris and negotiated a non-binding climate accord that was a victory for compromise but a failure for shrinking the planet’s actual carbon footprint. In a number of countries around the world, democratic elections subsequently brought climate-change deniers like Donald Trump to power, further compromising that accord.

In this way, the planet risks following the first lifeboat scenario: talking ourselves to death.

The second lifeboat option — think of it as eco-authoritarianism — seems to better fit the temper of the times. The current climate emergency coincides with a profound disillusionment with the liberal world order. Authoritarianism has become significantly more popular these days, even in otherwise democratic societies like India, Brazil, and the United States.

Droves of voters have abandoned mainstream parties across the planet, disillusioned by the way they’ve supported a version of economic globalization that has wildly enriched the already rich, challenged the middle class, and left the poor at the bottom of thebarrel. Those voters have increasingly turned to right-wing populists who disparage “globalists” and promise swift action on a range of issues from immigration to crime.

Such authoritarians couldn’t, of course, be less “eco.” Most of them deny that climate change is even a problem and some, like Donald Trump, are working with the giant energy companies to heat the planet faster. They’ve commandeered the lifeboats, only to steer them ever further from possible rescue.

Feckless democrats or reckless authoritarians: Lifeboat Earth doesn’t stand much of a chance with such options.

It’s no wonder that China has emerged as a last hope for those frustrated by the torpor of the international community and the delusions of the axis of denial. Hasn’t that country, after all, redirected enormous streams of funding into sustainable energy? Wasn’t that state’s coercive one-child policy a critical way to address overpopulation and, by extension, the consumption of resources? Hasn’t China stepped ever more firmly into the international leadership void created by Trump’s nationalist retreat? As in the second lifeboat scenario, however, China may not be heading in the right direction.

So there we are: 12 years, leaky lifeboats, and no safe haven in sight.

The Ongoing Tragedy of the Commons

In the early 1970s, after the world’s first Earth Day, the lifeboat problem seemed to be on everyone’s mind. When an oil crisis hit in 1973, energy suddenly no longer seemed like an inexhaustible resource. Overpopulation was threatening to outstrip food production. Pollution darkened the skies over major cities and industrial effluents befouled the waters. Environmentalists were having a field day exposing the ruthless exploitation of resources at the heart of both the capitalist and the communist systems.

Almost half a century ago, some visionary thinkers were already worrying about climate change. In An Inquiry into the Human Prospect in 1973, political scientist Robert Heilbroner delineated the various environmental challenges facing the world, including “global thermal pollution,” before concluding that only a combination of military discipline and religious faith could transform the social order.

Fellow political scientist William Ophuls, writing in 1973, posed the problem even more starkly as “Leviathan or oblivion.” Either humanity would opt for a “government with major coercive powers” to preserve the environment or it might as well give up. Several years later, he applied his argument to international relations as well, writing, “The already strong rationale for a world government with enough coercive power over fractious nation states to achieve what reasonable men would regard as the planetary common interest has become overwhelming.”

No such world government, of course, ensued. The international authorities that did exist at the time proved to have neither the coercive power nor the will necessary for the task. In 1979, however, scientists from 50 nations did gather in Geneva for the first World Climate Conference to issue a call for action on global warming. Later that year, the leaders of the seven richest countries on the planet actually agreed on the need to reduce carbon emissions (something long forgotten in the twenty-first century). Those 1979 meetings began what Nathaniel Rich describes in his article (and now book) Losing Earth as the decade of missed opportunities in the fight against climate change. In 1989, diplomats from 60 countries finally gathered to pass a binding treaty on the subject. “Among scientists and world leaders, the sentiment was unanimous,” Rich writes. “Action had to be taken and the United States would need to lead. It didn’t.”

Here was a vivid early display of that first lifeboat scenario: much talk, no action.

Those early efforts to grapple with climate change were all a response, in different ways, to what ecologist Garrett Hardin had called the “tragedy of the commons.” In a famous 1968 essay, he described an age-old problem: herders let their few cattle graze in a common pasture without thinking much about the future; there comes a time, however, when the livestock multiply or more farmers are attracted to the pasture by the rumor of free fodder and, sooner or later, all the grass is eaten, the topsoil blows away, and the field falls into ruin.

To prevent such a scenario, an intervention is obviously necessary. According to enthusiasts for laissez-faire capitalism, the invisible hand of the market should solve the problem, with the field being sold to the highest bidder. Fans of Soviet-style communism argued that nationalizing the property would ultimately protect it. As it turned out, neither capitalism nor communism had much of a track record when it came to protecting that commons. The invisible hand proved not to have a green thumb and neither did the all-too-visible hand of state planning.

Still, in the 1970s, it was commonplace to assume that the two systems would sooner or later converge at some social democratic point on the far horizon. On the environment, in other words, two wrongs would somehow make a right. In their 1974 book Ark II, Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich proposed adding a “planning branch” to the U.S. government that could address systemic problems like the environmental crisis by developing not only five-year plans, as in the Soviet Union, but 10-year or even 50-year plans as well.

Instead, Americans — and the rest of the world — ran screaming in the opposite direction. The debate in the 1970s about the possible use of state power to deal with pressing environmental concerns gave way in the 1980s and 1990s to the mania of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for an unfettered capitalism in which state planning would be a no-no (outside the Pentagon). Meanwhile, increased yields from industrial agriculture, modest environmental reforms by the major powers, and the technological advances that made globalization possible all seemed to diminish the urgency of the environmental crisis (except among environmentalists). Long lines at gas stations were a thing of the past and the air above most cities became clearer, while the world community dodged the bullet of ozone depletion through a rare instance of global cooperation. Spaceship Earth seemed to be motoring along quite well enough, thank you very much.

But there was one niggling detail that even eco-optimists could no longer ignore. Global temperatures were continuing to rise in a dramatic fashion, a problem impermeable to modest policy adjustments, free-market solutions, or even, it seemed, global agreements. Talking about climate change didn’t make climate change go away.

And so Leviathan has returned.

“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being,” scientist James Lovelock said in 2010. “I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war.” A slew of books in recent years have addressed the question of whether democracy can handle climate change. In Climate Leviathan, political theorists Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright suspected that William Ophuls was prophetic, that a powerful hegemon would “seize command, declare an emergency, and bring order to Earth, all in the name of saving life.” In The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith identified the possible solution as a Singaporean one: rule by an enlightened class of technocratic mandarins.

Not everyone, however, was so quick to give up on democracy. Libertarians, liberals, and radicals all rejected the eco-authoritarian option. Libertarians worried about limitations on individual rights. Liberals pointed out that only democracies can hold their leaders accountable for the direction they take, while “real existing authoritarianism” generally can’t. Radicals like environmentalist Naomi Klein urged not less but more democracy as climate activists, through pipeline blockades and fracking protests, challenged the nexus of transnational corporations and corrupt governments.

As in the 1970s, however, the international community has continued to prove far too weak to enforce anything, while the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather, stunning heat waves, increasing inundations, and expanding wildfire seasons make themselves ever more evident.

Meanwhile, the United States, particularly under Donald Trump, is utterly uninterested in leading the way on reducing carbon emissions. So, there’s really only one viable candidate for a Climate Leviathan today.

China and Climate Change

Two weeks after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, 30 top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party gathered to endorse the government’s violent response to protestors. Previously, there had been profound disagreements in the Party over how to deal with the protest movement — and with the reform process more generally. After the tragedy of June 4th, a new consensus emerged among that country’s powerbrokers: China needed one strong leader, a “great helmsman” in the tradition of Mao Zedong who could eliminate factionalism.

Prescribing a solution to China’s leadership problems was one thing, filling that prescription something else entirely. The country’s post-Tiananmen leaders — Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — were not exactly helmsman material. Within years, China was adrift, without a grand strategy or strong coordination from above.

Then, in 2012, along came Xi Jinping. In the years that followed, on the domestic side, he would promote a “Chinese dream” of economic prosperity and national dignity restored, a kind of Make China Great Again program. In foreign policy, he would unveil a Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure by land and sea to grow the economies of China’s neighbors, while making Beijing ever more central to markets ever farther afield.

Here was a Leviathan in the making: a strong, centralized state no longer hobbled by intra-party disputes, no longer paralyzed by contending public interests or movements in the streets demanding their rights. As the country’s president, Xi showed no hesitation about seizing control of the helm of state. After consolidating his power through anticorruption purges, he declared himself leader for life in 2018.

Meanwhile, he continued to redirect vast sums into renewable energy. By 2017, the government was planning to devote $360 billion to it through 2020, creating 13 million new jobs in that sector. China has in these years installed more solar panels and wind power generators than any other country on Earth, approximately three times those of second-place America. It leads in the production and export of most of the key components of a clean-energy future, from wind turbines to electric vehicles. Even more telling is how many renewable energy patents China has registered: 150,000. Number two again is the United States with around 100,000.

So, China has emerged as a seemingly capable Leviathan, combining state planning with a fervent embrace of market forces to fulfill the dreams of the convergence theorists of the 1970s, while creating a strong set of domestic incentives in favor of renewable energy.

Unfortunately, however, the Chinese solution looks like anything but a successful eco-authoritarian way to go, in part because Beijing is using its Belt and Road Initiative to maintain an unsustainable environmental status quo on an increasingly planetary scale. It matters little that Xi Jinping has labeled the massive project green and sustainable. The record so far suggests quite another story. For instance, China is now building or planning to build 300 coal-fired plants abroad as part of its global infrastructure push, even as it cuts down modestly on state contracts for similar plants at home. Beijing, it turns out, also has to deal with its equivalent of the West Virginia coal industry and is rewarding it with international contracts galore.

But coal plants are only the most obvious part of the problem. All the roads that China is building will be filled with motorists and truckers. All its new and refurbished ports will host huge gas-guzzling ships. Some of its projects threaten carbon-absorbing forests and other delicate ecosystems. And then there’s China’s not-so-hidden desire to use all of this future infrastructure to gain access to raw materials. In Africa alone, China is now investing more than $100 billion a year to get critical minerals. “The effort to secure these resources has spawned its own infrastructure boom that typically involves building large-scale roads, railways, and other infrastructure to transport commodities from interior areas to coastal ports for export,” writes journalist Basten Gokkon.

It’s not too late, of course, to green that Belt and Road project. Outfits like the Global Green Growth Initiative are working to shrink China’s overseas carbon footprint. A couple of years ago, China even issued its own $2.15 billion Green Climate Bond to finance renewables and energy efficiency.

But here’s the irony. When it comes to that Belt and Road Initiative, China is actually not Leviathan enough. Although the Party centralized authority in Xi Jinping’s hands, those infrastructure projects come from a variety of sourcesin China, including different government agencies, provinces competing with each other, and the business sector. It’s hard enough for the Chinese state, even with a new and more powerful Ministry of Ecology and Environment and a cadre of environmental police officers, to impose stringent standards within the country. More to the point, China has shown little interest or capacity when it comes to imposing them outside its borders.

Mutual Coercion

China is not actually auditioning for the job of eco-authoritarian Climate Leviathan — not yet, at least — while the rest of the authoritarians coming to the fore, like Donald Trump or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, all seem fiercely focused on boosting carbon emissions, not limiting them. Meanwhile, it doesn’t look like patient negotiations at U.N. conferences are likely to come up with the necessary solutions, much less implement them, before the window of opportunity closes. No wonder Nathaniel Rich and others lament that humanity must now contemplate not just mitigation and adaptation in the face of the global warming crisis but outright failure.

On the horizon, however, is one potentially quite different kind of Climate Leviathan: the Green New Deal, or GND. As of now, it remains more a slogan than a worked-out plan, but it’s gaining currency within a Democratic Party competing for power in 2020 and interest in it is growing internationally as well. It might only be a couple of elections — in a few key countries — away from political viability.

To achieve the GND’s global goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the United States would have to lead the way with its own eco-version of a Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure development project that would involve high-speed rail, the energy retrofitting of buildings, and huge investments in renewable energy (as well as the creation of staggering numbers of jobs). And it would have to do all this without compensating polluting industries with export contracts, as China has done.

Think of it as a potential future Apollo 11-style green moonshot: a focused mobilization of investment, construction, and administrative resolve to achieve what has hitherto been considered impossible.

That last element — administrative resolve — could prove the most challenging. The present crew of global right-wing populists are not just climate-change skeptics. Most are also committed to what Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile guru, has called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In other words, they want to reduce the power of government in favor of the power of corporations (and the rich). They want to remove the government’s capacity to administer large-scale projects domestically and negotiate international accords that impinge on the sovereignty of the nation-state.

Ultimately, they want to eliminate what Garrett Hardin identified as the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons: “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” To push through a Green New Deal in the United States, for instance, a distinctly non-Republican Congress would have to coerce a range of powerful interests (coal companies, oil and gas corporations, auto manufacturers, the Pentagon, and so on) to fall into line. And for any global pact that implements something similar, an international authority like the U.N. would have to coerce recalcitrant or non-compliant countries to do the same.

Something as transformative as the Green New Deal — a democratically achieved Climate Leviathan — will not come about because the Democratic Party or Xi Jinping or the U.N. secretary general suddenly realizes that radical change is necessary, nor simply through ordinary parliamentary and congressional procedure. Major change of this sort could only come from a far more basic form of democracy: people in the streets engaged in actions like school strikes and coal mine blockades. This is the kind of pressure that progressive legislators could then use to push through a mutually agreed-upon Green New Deal capable of building a powerful administrative force that might convince or coerce everyone into preserving the global commons.

Coercion: it’s not exactly a sexy campaign slogan. But if democracies don’t embrace moonshots like the Green New Deal — along with the administrative apparatus to force powerful interests to comply — then the increasing political and economic chaos of climate change will usher in yet more authoritarian regimes that offer an entirely different coercive agenda.

The Green New Deal isn’t just an important policy initiative. It may be the last democratic method of guiding Lifeboat Earth to a safe harbor.

TomDispatch, July 30, 2019

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The Misadventures of Tariff Man

Trump has two tools at his disposal as president. The first is his mouth: the insults and threats that he issues verbally or by Twitter.

The second is the tariff. Trump has imposed trade restrictions left and right, on allies and adversaries, for economic and political reasons, as part of a long-term offensive and out of short-term pique.

If Trump could use tariffs even more indiscriminately, no doubt he would. He would delight in slapping trade penalties on the Democratic Party, on Robert Mueller, on the mainstream media, on all the women who have accused him of harassment, even on the First Lady for slapping away his hand at the airport in Tel Aviv.

Trump the man favored the legal suit as his attack of first resort; Trump the president has discovered the tariff.

With his penchant for naming names, Trump calls himself “Tariff Man,” as if boasting of a new superhero power. It’s all-too-reminiscent of the cult film Mystery Men where the superpowers are either invisible or risible (Ben Stiller’s character, Mr. Furious, for instance, gets really really angry).

Trump uses tariffs like a bad cook uses salt. It covers up his lack of preparation, the poor quality of his ingredients, the blandness of his imagination. It’s the only spice in his spice rack.

The latest over-salted dish to come out of the White House kitchen is the president’s threat to impose a 5 percent tariff on all Mexican goods on June 10. The threat has nothing to do with what Mexico has done economically (that’s a different set of threatened tariffs). Rather, it’s all about immigration. This time, Trump will keep inflating the cost of Mexican goods “until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.” The tariffs will, supposedly, rise 5 percent every month until they reach 25 percent in October.

Trump promised as a candidate that Mexico would pay for the wall he wanted to construct along the southern border. Now, it seems, Mexico will pay for the lack of a wall as well.

The escalation is quite clear. What Mexico has to do to avoid these tariffs is not.

“So, there’s no specific target, there’s no specific percent, but things have to get better,” Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News Sunday. “They have to get dramatically better and they have to get better quickly.”

Such is the usual Sunday morning quarterbacking that happens with White House officials as they scramble to explain the inexplicable to a baffled news media.

Although they remain in the dark about what’s expected of them, Mexican leaders have warned that they will apply counter-tariffs if necessary and that the United States will suffer economically from such a tariff war.

These are not idle threats. Mexico is the third largest U.S. trading partner. Even congressional Republicans, desperate to avoid this spat, are talking about trying to block the tariffs. Trump has called them“foolish” to do so. He plans to move forward anyway.

Full Spectrum Offensive

Mexico is only the latest country to feel the wrath of Tariff Man.

In 2018, Trump used Section 201 of the Trade Act to impose tariffs on solar cells and washing machines, targeting primarily East Asian countries. Shortly thereafter, he upped his game by assessing a 25 percent tariff on all steel imports, with Canada, Mexico, and the EU getting hit the hardest.

China, however, has borne the brunt of Trump’s animosity. In early May, the Trump administration announced a surge in tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. He has also threatened to apply tariffs to the remaining $325 billion worth of Chinese goods entering the country.

The escalation tactics don’t seem to have done much to improve the prospects of a trade deal between the two countries. China has naturally countered with its own tariffs.

When Trump lashed out against countries competing against the U.S. steel industry, one of the major exceptions was Australia. That probably won’t last long. Just before his Mexico decision, the president was planning on imposing a tariff on Australian aluminum as well. His advisors managed to dissuade him, at least temporarily.

Canada and Mexico, meanwhile, continue to get a pass on the steel tariffs as long as the two countries sign a replacement deal for NAFTA. But Trump’s latest move against Mexico may throw that pending agreement into jeopardy.

Push Back

The threat and even the reality of retaliatory tariffs seem to have little effect on Trump. He likes such geopolitical games of chicken. Congressional opposition only whets his appetite for more confrontation, for he holds even his Republican allies in contempt.

He disregards the more level-headed advice of economic mandarins — as well as seven former ambassadors to Mexico — because he relishes flouting conventional wisdom in favor of his own unconventional stupidity. If farmers in swing states protest that the markets for their soybeans have dried up, Trump will just authorize another massive government purchase of their product — and suddenly prisoners all over America will be surprised by tofu and edamame on their cafeteria menus.

Republican voters overwhelmingly support Trump’s trade policies — and the president really doesn’t care a fig about anyone else.

The only pushback that might have some influence with Trump might be the business community. The auto sector is forecasting billions of dollars in costs associated with the Mexico tariffs. The Chamber of Commerce, which has come up with a more precise annual price tag for U.S. consumers of $17.3 billion for a tariff level of 5 percent, is considering a legal challenge.

If the stock market goes into bearish hibernation, then the president is out of luck. Tweeted Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, “he’s going to have to blink on tariffs, because the market can’t live with this level of crazy.”

Shepherdson is wrong. The market has lived with this kind of crazy for more than two years. And there are plenty of people who see profit in precisely the kind of volatility that Trump has brought to financial markets.

When Trump went on a fundraising tour of New York recently, some big-name financiers leapt at the opportunity to fete the president. Howard Lutnick, the head of Cantor Fitzgerald, predicted in 2017 that Trump would provide a big bump for the world of finance (and, therefore, his own bottom line). Last month, as a reward for that bump, Lutnick invited Trump to his triplex penthouse in Manhattan and raised over $5 million toward his reelection.

That’s the kind of crazy that the market is entirely comfortable with.

Misunderstanding Trade

Tariffs make sense for certain countries.

For instance, East Asian countries used tariffs very successfully to protect their infant industries — steel, shipbuilding, information technology — against the overwhelming market advantages of more advanced economies. Those tariffs raised the price of imports and encouraged consumers to buy domestic. Tariffs can be part of a smart industrial policy of picking potential economic winners.

Tariffs can also protect a way of life — Japanese rice culture, Mexican tortilla makers, Vermont dairy farmers. Without some kind of trade protection, cheaper goods from outside will completely overwhelm domestic producers and destroy long-standing traditions. Of course, there are other methods of preserving such traditions, from government price supports to geographical designations (think: champagne).

Trump’s tariffs have nothing to do with either of these aims. U.S. steel is not an infant industry in need of protection. Trump doesn’t care about protecting traditional lifestyles. He has neither a progressive industrial policy of picking winners and losers in the economy nor a conservative approach to ensuring the integrity of communities.

For Donald Trump, tariffs are a substitute for diplomacy, just as harassment in his personal life is a substitute for normal human interaction. Tariff Man can think of only one way of dealing with other countries: grabbing them by their trade policies until they squeal.

He believes, mistakenly, that trade is zero-sum (if they lose, American wins). He also labors under the misconception that the U.S. Treasury somehow grows fat with the proceeds of tariffs (it doesn’t). He is as ignorant of the relations among nations as he is of the relations among people.

Tariff Man’s superpower is even more ridiculous than that of Mr. Furious. It’s worse than impotent. It’s self-defeating. Let’s hope that principle applies ultimately to the 2020 elections as well.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 5, 2019