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Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

The Next Pandemic

Congress is already thinking about how to prevent the next pandemic.

See how quickly Cory Booker (D-NJ) has teamed up with Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to write a letter calling for a global ban on “wet markets.” The current pandemic is reputed to have originated in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. So, having identified what they believe to be the root of the problem, these politicians want to eliminate it.

In an era of political polarization, even modest bipartisan action is noteworthy — and cause for suspicion.

Booker and Graham could have benefited humanity by reaching across the aisle to do pretty much anything other than co-writing that letter. If they’d done just a little homework, they would have discovered that a “wet market” is any place that sells perishable goods like meat and produce — as opposed to a “dry market” where you can get appliances.

Wet markets are a vital part of life in most of the world. Only some sell the kind of wildlife, dead or alive, that can generate zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. Your local farmers market, for instance, qualifies as a wet market. “Calling for a ban on all wet markets based on the Wuhan wet market, which purportedly sold live wildlife, is like banning all pet ownership based on what goes down in Tiger King,” writes Martha Cheng in The Atlantic.

It also might seem strange for Congress to focus attention on the next pandemic when it has done such a lousy job dealing with the current pandemic. Instead of dictating policies to other countries, the senators should be doing more to ensure that state authorities have testing kits, hospitals have critical supplies, and citizens have the economic wherewithal to survive the ongoing economic downturn.

Instead of going far afield to find blame, Booker and Graham could have found a worthier target right down the block. The Trump administration, through its overwhelming incompetence, has turned the United States into an enormous Petri dish of infection. By threatening to restart the economy without either squashing the curve or ensuring that enough testing kits and a tracing system are in place, Trump is threatening to offer up thousands of new hosts for this novel coronavirus.

And by canceling U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization this week, President The-Buck-Stops-Anywhere-But-Here is kneecapping the one global institution that can help save us from the next pandemic. “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said by way of explanation.

According to that logic, I can cancel my federal tax payments this year.

When I was preparing to write this column about the next pandemic, I discovered that I’d already done so: in an article for the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh.

In 2014.

So, before I return to what the world is doing now to prevent the next COVID-19 outbreak, let’s step back for a moment to September 2014, when the world was confronting the specter of Ebola. That episode contains some important lessons for today.

Back in 2014

In the South Korean movie The Host, the American military pours formaldehyde into the Han River and inadvertently creates a monster. This freak of nature not only goes on a murderous rampage but also is the host of a deadly virus. The movie, inspired by a real-life incident of contamination, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of tampering with the environment.

At first glance, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa would seem to have nothing to do with such ecological issues. The plague, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, most likely came from an infected fruit bat that bit a toddler in a remote area of eastern Guinea in December 2013. The disease spread quickly from there to urban locations and then across borders. Beginning this summer, it has dominated the headlines. In August, it very nearly overshadowed the summit of African leaders that took place in Washington, DC.

Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever. It has a very high mortality rate. There are no known vaccines, though several experimental drugs are currently being tested. Several outbreaks of Ebola have taken place in the past, but mostly in remote areas. Since it first appeared in the Congo region in 1976, Ebola has claimed around 3,000 lives.

For all the media attention surrounding the current outbreak, Ebola is not the most pressing medical issue facing Africa today. Every day, 2,000 African children die from diarrhea. Every minute, an African child dies of malaria. In 2011 alone, 1.2 million Africans died of HIV/AIDS. The Ebola epidemic would have to increase several hundred-fold to match these numbers.

What makes these diseases so tragic in their effects is that effective treatments exist that could bring the mortality rate down to near zero. In the case of diarrhea, that means clean water and sanitation; for malaria, that means mosquito nets and prescription drugs; for HIV/AIDS that means antiretroviral treatments. So far, the money has not been available in sufficient quantities to address these problems.

Diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS no longer threaten lives at an epidemic level in industrialized countries. Ebola threatens to be something quite different, since it has resisted treatment. The media has covered the Ebola outbreak so extensively in part because of fears that the disease could spread beyond Africa. Books like The Hot Zone and movies like Contagion have primed people to expect the next major pandemic to emerge any day. But because of the way it spreads — through direct contact with infected bodily fluids — Ebola is not likely to become the next pandemic.

Another reason the media loves to write about Ebola is because it fits comfortably into a neo-colonial view of Africa as a place of barbaric customs such as eating “bush meat.” The consumption of infected chimpanzee or bat meat has been linked in the past to Ebola outbreaks. In this case, however, the outbreak had nothing to do with eating anything. And plenty of people in America eat “bush meat,” which we simply call “game” — venison, boar, and squirrels — and few people consider that to be barbaric.

Of course, Ebola is worrisome because of the speed with which it has spread. One of the reasons that Ebola has spread so quickly is that medical personnel in Africa are already stretched thin dealing with these other diseases.

But the other reason for Ebola’s spread is environmental. The current outbreak of Ebola differs from all previous ones because it spread from a remote area to urban centers. And that happened in part because of deforestation.

The area where this strain of Ebola first appeared — the Western Guinean Lowland Forests — have been cut down by loggers or to make way for farmers. West Africa as a whole has been losing more forests annually — nearly a million hectares — than any other place in the world. Humans are venturing into places that were hitherto largely untouched.

In other words, residents in the region are now more likely than ever to have contact with carriers of Ebola. And they will also have more contact with one another, creating more opportunities for the spread of the disease.

The environmental destruction of Africa’s forests may well produce more outbreaks of the disease. And it might spread to areas with inadequate medical infrastructure. But if we’re going to worry about the next global epidemic, it will more likely come from the flu or SARS, not Ebola.

Still, we should be concerned about how our changing environment affects the spread of disease. Rising temperatures connected to human activity — global warming — has been linked to the spread of malaria and the greater incidence of flu epidemics. We simply don’t know what alteration of the environment will trigger a calamitous pandemic.

At the end of The Host, the monster dies. And eventually the current Ebola outbreak will burn out. But if we continue to treat our environment as a place to dump our garbage, the garbage will eventually come back and haunt us. It won’t take the form of a science fiction monster. But Ebola, malaria, and SARS can be just as lethal as anything the movies have dreamed up for us.

Lessons Moving Forward

That outbreak of Ebola would last for two-and-a-half years and claim over 11,000 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In 2018, meanwhile, 405,000 people died of malaria, 94 percent of them in Africa. Also that year, 770,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses. And diarrheal diseases like rotavirus, cholera, and shigella kill more people than homicide, suicide, military conflict, and terrorism combined: nearly 1.6 million people in 2017 versus 1.35 million deaths from those other causes.

So far, COVID-19 has killed about 128,000 people. In the United States, 26,000 people have died, and the latest predictions are that about 69,000 will perish here by the time the pandemic fades. If that rate of increase holds across the globe — with lower rates in some countries and higher rates in others — then COVID-19 will be responsible for about 340,000 deaths.

That’s a lot of people. And it could be a lot more if this coronavirus becomes entrenched in countries with little medical infrastructure, in overcrowded refugee camps, or in places without water for hand-washing. But this estimate of around 340,000 fatalities doesn’t approach the annual death tolls of the other diseases.

Of course, this projected death toll for COVID-19 already takes into account significant countermeasures (social distancing, economic lockdown) to avoid the kind of horrific death tolls associated with past pandemics, like the Spanish flu of 1918 that left as many as 50 million dead.

But why hasn’t the industrialized world funded similar efforts to radically reduce malaria deaths? Could it be because the disease isn’t infectious and doesn’t threaten the Global North?

Nor has the global response to COVID-19 addressed the root causes of the pandemic. Wet markets, as with bush meat and Ebola, are not the ultimate precipitating factors. UN Environmental Program head Inger Anderson is looking at the same data as Booker and Graham about the source of zoonotic diseases and has come to very different conclusions. “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she told the Guardian. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”

It’s not just deforestation. Climate change plays a role too. “As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat,” explains Aaron Bernstein of Harvard’s Center of Climate, Health and the Global Environment. “That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”

The scientific community, funded by governments and private foundations, is focused on preventing the next pandemic. The search is on for an antiviral drug that can either mess with the way this coronavirus reproduces or, as Matthew Hutson explains in The New Yorker, alter the cellular mechanisms of the human host to address a suite of viruses. The Pentagon’s R & D arm DARPA, meanwhile, is researching how to stop a pandemic even further back in the chain of infection by identifying and vaccinating the animal hosts. The idea is to prevent the leap of infectious disease from animal to human in the first place.

These scientific efforts are admirable and necessary. But even stopping pandemics before they make the leap to humans is intervening too late in the process. We will always play catch-up with these wily viruses if we continue our all-out war on the environment.

Yes, we need a coronavirus truce in the various military conflicts around the world. More fundamentally, we need a truce in our assault on the planet.

If we don’t pay substantial reparations to make good our relationship with Mother Earth, she will continue to send us these little viral messages: stop being selfish and arrogant, pay attention to the important things in life, and for crying out loud start listening to your mother.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 15, 2020

Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess

The next presidential election will not likely hinge on foreign policy.

Americans will go to the polls in November to express their fervent support, or disgust, for Donald Trump. The candidates’ positions on the issues — on any issues — matter only to a dwindling number of voters who have somehow managed, over the last three years, to remain undecided about the current president’s fitness for higher office.

Of course, people are still responding to the pollsters when asked what they care about going into the election. Health care ranks number one in recent Gallup and Harris polls. The economy remains at the top of the Pew surveys, with the environment climbing to the number two position. National security, particularly terrorism, hovers somewhere near the top of the rankings.

But how many Americans will actually make up their minds in November based on these issues?  According to The New York Times, only about 9 percent of the electorate is “truly persuadable.” Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight arrives at a similar number — somewhere between 7 and 9 percent.

Even this number overstates the size of this sliver of the electorate. The last election was decided in the Electoral College by a relatively small number of voters in three swing states. So, the “truly persuadables” of California or Oklahoma will be indistinguishable in the blue or red wave. Only the undecided voters in places like Florida and Wisconsin will matter.

These undecided swing-state supervoters, who hold the fate of the nation in their hands, might not care about anything except, ultimately, the personality of the candidates. The issues that matter to them will likely be domestic: health care or the state of the economy. Unless Trump starts a war between now and November — which is not impossible, given his impulsiveness — foreign policy will not decide this election.

Still, it’s important to look at how the candidates consider the U.S. role in the world to understand what will happen after November. I’ve spent the last three years evaluating Trump’s erratic foreign policy: his militarism, his irrational trade policy, his war on migrants. If he gets reelected, expect four more years of nonstop aggression. It’s a terrifying prospect.

If Trump gets booted in November, he will leave behind considerable wreckage. How do the Dems propose to clean up this mess?

Status Quo Ante?



The Democrats offer such a wide range of options when it comes to foreign policy that they really represent three distinct parties. Dismayed by how far to the right the party of Trump has gone, you can back a moderate Republican in the person of Mike Bloomberg. With Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, you can opt for a Democratic version of “the Blob,” Washington’s foreign policy consensus. Or you could veer to the left and embrace Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Of course, with Trump as the reference point, all the Democrats share a family resemblance when it comes to foreign policy. They all acknowledge the threat of climate change, want to revive U.S. diplomacy, and promise to smooth over relations with allies. Any one of them would repair some of the damage of the Trump years.

But the damage goes deeper than what Trump has wrought. So, a return to the “good old days” of the Obama years — with its expanded drone attacks, failed negotiations with North Korea, and corporate-friendly trade deals — won’t be sufficient. With that in mind, let’s look at the Democratic line-up, beginning with the man who is closest to Trump in temperament and views: Mike Bloomberg.

As a billionaire, a former Republican, and a fiscal conservative, Bloomberg is the textbook middle-of-the-road option. In some ways, President Bloomberg would not alter Trump’s foreign policy. He’s a fierce defender of Saudi Arabia, for instance, and continues to believe that its leader Mohammad bin Salman is the face of reform. Bloomberg is also a big booster of Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. Like Trump, the media mogul has a fondness for Xi Jinping and doesn’t consider him a dictator.

Despite his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Bloomberg wouldn’t cut the military budget, which reflects his innate hawkishness. And he has no problem increasing surveillance of Americans and non-Americans alike.

On the other hand, Bloomberg supports rejoining the Iran nuclear deal without preconditions. He has poured a tremendous amount of his own money into battling the fossil fuel industry and promoting clean energy alternatives. He also wants to boost, not cut, immigration rates. He wouldn’t wage costly trade wars with China or America’s allies.

In other words, Bloomberg represents what the Republican Party might have looked like if it had evolved from the Yankee conservatism of George H.W. Bush instead of going off on the ruthless trajectory of the neoconservatives in the 2000s and the neopopulists under Trump. Bloomberg offers a version of Nixonian realpolitik with a green coating. He’s the kind of telegenic authoritarian that the chattering classes criticize but ultimately tolerate.

Pete Buttigieg has positioned himself as the most cosmopolitan of the candidates, the one who has studied abroad, served in the military overseas, and speaks a smattering of languages. Like Bill Clinton, he can code-switch between small-town American boyishness and Oxbridge sophistication.

In his first major foreign policy speech in July, Buttigieg offered five pretty good proposals: rejoin the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, repeal and replace the Authorization for Use of Military Force, block assistance to Israel if it annexes the West Bank, and invest in renewable energy. In general, Buttigieg is firmly pro-Israel, but he at least is willing to break with the AIPAC line when it comes to saying yes to everything Benjamin Netanyahu wants.

Ultimately, however, Buttigieg is a younger, hipper version of the Blob. As Michael Brenes explains in The New Republic:

On close examination, Buttigieg’s foreign policy departs very little from the suburban-friendly centrism of his domestic plans. His ideas are of a piece with those of previous Democratic presidential candidates who have sought to project military strength and entrusted U.S. strategy to an inherently hawkish establishment of national security experts. Despite the salutary rhetoric, plenty of evidence suggests a Buttigieg presidency would likely extend the forever war rather than terminate it. 

Amy Klobuchar falls into roughly the same category as Buttigieg, both of them trying to navigate a centrist position among the crowded field of candidates. She wants to get tough with China on economic relations and human rights, but also end the current trade war. She says she supports the Green New Deal, but also favors nuclear energy. She has supported an expansion of drone strikes but says she wants more transparency. She supports the Iran nuclear deal but calls Iran one of the two biggest threats to the United States.

In other words, she’s an ace triangulator. But she’s also perhaps the least experienced candidate on foreign policy, as her failure to name Mexico’s president in a recent interview reveals.

The Biden Alternative


(Photo: Munich Security Conference / Flickr)

It’s instructive to examine Joe Biden’s current Foreign Affairs piece in light of what the more popular Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar are offering. Biden is an unexciting candidate in many ways, and he has suffered recent setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire. A poor showing in South Carolina — indeed, anything except an outright victory there — will probably put the nomination beyond his grasp.

Still, Biden has presented himself as the most experienced foreign policy candidate and remains a key party insider, so his views will be influential even if he falls far back in the pack.

His Foreign Affairs essay is entitled “Why America Must Lead Again,” which suggests the usual American exceptionalism. However, Biden leads not with military strength but with defense of democracy, rolling back Trump’s egregious immigration policies, and rooting out corruption.

“Democracies — paralyzed by hyperpartisanship, hobbled by corruption, weighed down by extreme inequality — are having a harder time delivering for their people,” he writes. He pledges to pull together a Summit for Democracy in his first year focused on “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” That’s a good idea that all the candidates should endorse.

Biden recasts trade policy as a “foreign policy for the middle class,” which translates into trade deals with labor and environmental provisions along with strong enforcement mechanisms. And he emphasizes diplomacy, not military force — ending the “forever wars,” ending U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, negotiating deals with adversaries, going back to the table on climate change.

In fact, with its emphases on democracy, fair trade, and military restraint, Biden’s article is virtually indistinguishable from Elizabeth Warren’s own Foreign Affairs essay from one year earlier.

This reflects two things: a progressive shift in the mainstream of the Democratic Party and an inherited frustration with the Blob. Biden’s essay would have made a fine Nobel Prize speech instead of what Obama actually delivered, which was a measured defense of just war.

However, Biden is largely interested in restoring U.S. foreign policy to what existed prior to Trump, but with a certain naivete about the influence of the Blob. As such, it’s what Biden doesn’t say that’s perhaps more telling than what he does. For instance, he has little to say about the use of military force beyond the usual bromides about maintaining U.S. military superiority and resorting to the Pentagon only as a final option.

And that brings us to the progressive alternatives.

Moving Forward, Not Backward



Rewinding U.S. foreign policy to December 2016 would be an enormous step forward. Ending Trump’s racist immigration policies, putting the nuclear button (and all other military buttons) as far from his fingers as possible, restoring a modicum of predictability to U.S. relations with allies, and rejoining key international agreements: that’s all worth supporting.

But Trump’s 2016 victory is also a reminder that the status quo is much more fragile than anyone ever expected. In office, Trump has skewered several important foreign policy certainties: that you just can’t meet with someone like Kim Jong Un, that you can’t walk away from a multilateral trade agreement, that you can’t reassign Pentagon funds to some other mission.

Democrats would do well to remember that the Blob has a Wizard of Oz quality. It speaks with the deep voice of authority, but it has no real public legitimacy. The average American is much more willing to consider radical changes in U.S. global posture than the Blob would countenance.

So, when progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren talk about significant reductions in military spending — something that Bloomberg rejects and Biden sidesteps — it’s not so unfeasible as many pundits claim.

Let’s start with Sanders. If you look at the key points of his foreign policy, they’re not that different from Biden’s. His commitment to democracy and human rights even leads a centrist commentator like Jackson Diehl to give Sanders a cautious thumb’s up on foreign policy (which is, in turn, a corrective to the Washington Post article claiming that Sanders would “upend America’s global role”).

Sanders is not an isolationist. He is simply (and rightly) skeptical of U.S. military interventions. He doesn’t just talk about the military as a last resort but wants to adjust U.S. spending priorities to ensure that the Pentagon no longer has a disproportionate effect on U.S. foreign policy. How much is he willing to cut? Perhaps wisely, he hasn’t talked about a specific figure, preferring to focus on misplaced budget priorities:

The time is long overdue for us to take a hard look at military spending, including the “war on terror,” and whether it makes sense to spend trillions more on endless wars, wars that often cause more problems than they solve. Call me a radical, but maybe before funding a new space force, we should make sure no American goes bankrupt because of a medical bill or dies because they can’t afford to go to a doctor on time.

Elizabeth Warren has been more specific about Pentagon budget cuts, and that has made her a more convenient target. In her detailed health care plan, she proposed cutting $800 billion from the military budget over 10 years. That might sound like a lot, and as a result, Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen called her a more terrifying choice than Trump.

But a reduction of $80 billion a year wouldn’t even restore the Pentagon to Obama-era levels. In 2015, military spending was $586 billion. By 2019, it had grown to $716 billion, and Trump now wants to push it to $740 billion. So, just returning to Obama-level spending, not taking into consideration the rate of inflation, would require something much closer to a $150 billion cut, nearly twice what Warren proposes.

Neither Sanders nor Warren has offered anything truly transformational akin to a Global Green New Deal (as opposed to the domestic GND that Sanders touts), a new set of institutions to govern the global economy (a New Bretton Woods), or some fundamentally different way of engaging China and Russia. Although Warren’s catchphrase has been “I have a plan for that,” it hasn’t applied to foreign policy. As for Sanders, his Eurocentrism has prevented him from offering anything truly global in scope.

Looking Elsewhere



Fortunately, other progressives are making bold proposals that the eventual Democratic presidential candidate can raise up. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) recently laid out a package of seven bills that would truly restore the United States to a leadership position in the world — through ethical action rather than stirring rhetoric or (worse) military/economic hegemony.

Two of Omar’s proposals are simple, imperative, and yet impossible without the Democrats winning a commanding margin in the Senate: ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the United States is the only country that hasn’t signed it) and re-signing and ratifying participation in the International Criminal Court.

A third bill, which would prohibit any security assistance to human-rights-abusing countries, is well worth considering. But it would encounter considerable resistance since the top recipients, Israel and Egypt, would face immediate scrutiny and their U.S. supporters would balk.

Three other proposals could attract bipartisan support. One would provide congressional oversight of any economic sanctions the executive branch wants to impose. A second would push the United States to take leadership on a global migration pact at the UN. A third would internationalize the YouthBuild program, which helps disadvantaged youth get the education and job training they need.

The final bill in the series, the Global Peacebuilding Act, is particularly visionary. Instead of diverting $5 billion from the Pentagon to build the Wall, this legislation would transfer $5 billion from the Pentagon’s fund for fighting overseas wars into a multilateral Global Peacebuilding Fund. Such an elegant use of Trump’s own stratagem could attract support from many Democrats and even some Republicans.

Will any of this make a difference in November?

It’s likely that anyone who would spend the time and energy to parse the foreign policy differences among all the candidates has already made up their mind about Trump. Moreover, what will win the presidential election is power, not policy: power of rhetoric, but more importantly power on the ground.

And there’s one more element. Particularly with his foreign policy, Trump has gradually whittled his base of support down to the nativists, those who despise “shithole” countries, who want nothing but larger walls, who want to quarantine the United States from foreign influences of all sorts. Trump’s rivals, by offering a more inclusive global vision, could motivate a larger turnout among the foreign born and the larger diaspora communities.

Perhaps in this way, at least, foreign policy can play a pivotal role in the election where it counts: getting out the vote.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 19, 2020

Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

A Global Green New Deal Could Defeat the Far Right—And Save the Planet

The best way to fight the rising far right is to go green. That’s what dozens of academics, researchers, and activists told me over the course of 80 interviews this year.

Over the last decade, the radical right has come to power in the United States, Brazil, India, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. It has joined forces with autocrats in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Thailand to create a new illiberal ecosystem. Together, they are challenging the rule of law, democratic governance, and the gains made by social movements that have expanded the rights of women and minorities.

The radical right has appealed to all those who feel threatened by the more rapid movement of capital and people across borders. The center parties that have pushed this project of globalization have lost at the polls, while the left has failed to articulate a clear alternative.

Yet despite its political successes, the radical right has an Achilles’ heel. It has no credible response to the most urgent threat facing the planet: the current climate crisis.

For the last couple years, radical right leaders like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have ignored climate change and boosted support for extractive industries like oil and coal. Thanks to Trump, the United States is the only country to pull out of the Paris climate deal. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, reneged on Brazil’s offer to host this year’s climate confab, which is has just wrapped up in Madrid instead.

Despite these ostrich moves by Trump and Bolsonaro, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

According to the most recent UN report, the world has utterly failed to restrain carbon emissions despite dire warnings from the scientific community. The two biggest offenders, the United States and China, actually increased their carbon emissions last year. The scientific consensus is that the world must execute a much faster pivot away from fossil fuels.

The radical right doesn’t have a plan to reduce carbon emissions. One wing of the movement continues to deny that there even is a crisis. The other wing is focused on dealing with only the demographic effects of the climate crisis—by proposing higher walls to keep out a future wave of climate refugees.

By comparison, the various Green New Deals on the table offer a comprehensive response that addresses the scale of the problem.

The U.S. version offered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA) proposes significant investments in making America’s infrastructure and transportation carbon-neutral. The Europeans and Canadians are pushing similar plans in parallel. The government in New Zealand, meanwhile, unveiled a “wellbeing budget” this year that also combines a reduction in carbon emissions with improving the livelihoods of those left behind by globalization.

A massive transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy is not only sensible from an environmental point of view. It also addresses the insecurity so many people feel about their economic future in an era of automation and downsizing. The Green New Deal—like its earlier World War II-era cousin, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dea —promises to be a major job creation program.

And not just for the Global North.

A major transfusion of money into the Green Climate Fund would help the Global South leapfrog over existing dirty technologies. By providing jobs in countries currently experiencing economic crisis throughout the Global South, these GNDs would also reduce the massive displacement of people who would otherwise be forced to migrate to find new opportunities—or more habitable land—abroad.

The current global economic system is clearly broken, which has opened the way for a global far-right reaction. By contrast, the Green New Deal offers a set of principles of sustainability that can help restructure the global economy so that it helps people and the planet—while undermining the far right’s appeal.

The radical right has won elections by ramping up fear: of others, of the future, of do-nothing government. It’s time to turn that around and revive a politics of hope.

The 80 people I talked to pointed to the student climate strikes as the most promising movement at the moment. But as those students understand better than their elders, there’s no politics without a planet. A Global Green New Deal is perhaps out last best hope to save that planet.

Newsweek, December 17, 2019

Articles Featured Human Rights

Inside the Battle for Another World

A succession of social upheavals over the last decade has radically realigned political power throughout the world.

As a result of these tectonic shifts, what had once been on the furthest fringes of the right has now moved toward the center while the left has been pushed to the margins. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” poet William Yeats wrote at a time of similar political churn in 1919. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Today, 100 years after the publication of Yeats’s poem, those who are full of passionate intensity now rule over considerably more than half the world’s population. Many of these leaders — Donald Trump (United States), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Narendra Modi (India), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) — have come to power democratically but are determined to undermine democratic institutions.

Their political rise has often been supported by more conventional conservative parties. They have aligned themselves on an ad hoc basis with other authoritarian leaders who owe their positions to military coups, one-party deliberations, or dynastic succession. Further to their right, a set of avowedly racist organizations and networks provide ideas, messaging, and sometimes muscle for these leaders of the new right.

This is not a normal oscillation in electoral power. The new right has set about reordering the political landscape. Mainstream parties have lost credibility. Politics have become even more polarized. Not just liberalism but democracy itself is under attack.

Nor will the guardrails of democratic governance necessarily contain the ambitions of these new right-wing leaders. They have challenged constitutional, legislative, and judicial restraints. They have attacked the cornerstones of civil society, including the press and other watchdog institutions. They aspire to become leaders for life (like Vladimir Putin, in charge since 1999) or to establish parties that govern with little opposition for decades on end (like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, in power almost continuously since 1955).

Rhetorically, the new right is focused on securing borders, protecting sovereignty, and challenging global elites. These leaders use the language of nationalism and particularism. They speak in the name of imagined majorities that are racially or religiously homogeneous.

Despite this obsession with strengthening the nation-state, this new right has increasingly been active across borders. States and parties have created alliances, with transnational activists like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon aspiring to build a kind of Nationalist International. Extremist civil society organizations have promoted a climate of intolerance that nurtures the political ambitions of right-wing populist leaders. White nationalists in particular have created alternative digital platforms to spread their messages and recruit new members across the globe.

Progressives have organized locally and nationally to respond to the new right. But ironically, given their historic internationalism, progressives have been slow to work across borders — in a sustained, coordinated manner — in response to the new transnational assault on democracy. This dilute internationalism coincides with both the new right’s attacks on global institutions and an intensification of various global threats such as climate change, pandemics, widening economic inequality, and weapons proliferation.

“Internationalism is now a problem for the left,” observes Gadi Algazi of Tel Aviv University, “and a reality for the right.”

In a new report, The Battle for Another World, I synthesize my conversations with more than 80 activists, analysts, and academics around the world. The report analyzes the rise of the new right, its connections to other far-right actors, and its new global aspirations. It surveys the current state of transnational progressive organizing. It outlines the challenges to that organizing and identify both lessons learned and best practices. And it concludes with a discussion of what’s missing from a robust, multi-issue, progressive transnationalism and how to fill those gaps.

Key conclusions from this report include:

  • An international reaction to economic globalization has been key to the right’s success. Unlike the internationalist left, the new right has been more effective at channeling discontent into political success at a national level.
  • Key to the new right’s success has been a story that can be applied effectively across borders: the “great replacement.” The argument that minorities, with help from “globalists,” will usurp the privileges of the dominant group has proven appealing to both an extremist fringe and more mainstream conservatives.
  • The new right has achieved political success with its attacks on globalization in a way the left failed to do. But the new right has a key failing: It has nothing to say about an ever-worsening climate crisis.
  • The 80 international experts overwhelmingly identified the school climate strikes as the present moment’s most promising international action and the Green New Deal as a framework that could defeat the right’s global narrative.
  • A Global Green New Deal wouldn’t just address the environmental crisis. By creating enormous numbers of well-paying jobs, it would also speak to those left behind by economic globalization. Such a narrative would undermine the new right’s anti-globalist appeals while offering up a positive vision to rally around within and across borders.

As the twenty-first century began, progressives famously proclaimed that “another world is possible.” They imagined a world beyond rote democracy and the rapacious market.

With the longstanding liberal-conservative status quo now crumbling, the new right has not only taken up this call, it is putting it into practice. This construction of “another world” — an intolerant, anti-democratic, unsustainable world — can be stopped before it is too late. But it requires that the best of us regain the conviction that Yeats described — not just to counter the new right, but to save the planet from ruin.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 4, 2019

Featured Russia and Eastern Europe Uncategorized

Did the Fall of the Berlin Wall Produce Trump?

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

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

Who can argue with such success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Short End of the Stick


Poverty in Bucharest (Shutterstock)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

Transition, Western Style


Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (Shutterstock)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintended Consequences


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking the Transition


(Photo: Garry Knight / Flickr)

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

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

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

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

Could it have happened differently 30 years ago?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles Europe Featured Islamophobia

The Far Right’s War on Culture

The far right is on a roll. Just a few years ago, liberals and conservatives would have considered its recent political victories a nightmare scenario. Right-wing extremists have won elections in the United States, Brazil, Hungary, India, and Poland. They pushed through the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In the most recent European Parliament elections, far-right parties captured the most votes in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Hungary.

Sure, Trump is being impeached, Brexit is a mess, and the far right in Austria and Italy have suffered recent setbacks. Still, looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to conclude that such extremists have acquired the sort of mainstream legitimacy across the planet that they haven’t enjoyed in nearly a century.

What’s worse, those electoral victories obscure an even deeper, potentially far more influential success — in the world of storytelling. The radical right has developed a global narrative that, by uniting virulent racists and commonplace conservatives, mass shooters and populist politicians, is already injecting fringe ideas into mainstream culture.

Admittedly, it’s not a story that has either universal appeal or will win any literary awards. Still, by telling it over and over again in different languages to a growing number of listeners, the far right is having a profound impact on global culture. In many places, it may already be winning the crucial battle for hearts and minds.

The radical right’s story is rooted in the most basic plot of all: us versus them. Its main nemesis is determined, so the tale goes, to storm the battlements of the “civilized world” and, in what’s called a “great replacement,” oust its innocent inhabitants. Since this isn’t the Middle Ages, the evil adversary isn’t deploying siege engines or an army of pillagers. Its tactics are more insidious: taking over institutions from the inside, infiltrating culture, and worst of all birthing lots of babies.

But who exactly are the pronouns in this story? The idea of “the great replacement” is based on the fantasy that “they” (especially migrants and Muslims) are intent on replacing “us” (whites, Christians). Some versions of the narrative have an anti-Semitic slant as well, with Jews lurking in the shadows of this fiendish plot. For racists, the Others, of course, have darker complexions. For Islamophobes, the outsiders practice the wrong religion.

If you’re not a member of the far right, if you don’t subscribe to its YouTube channels or follow its burgeoning Twitter accounts, you might have only scant acquaintance with this story. But once you start looking for it, the great replacement turns out to be omnipresent.

Between 2012 and 2019, for instance, 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and German referenced it. You could hear an echo of the phrase at the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” But the phrase really broke into the headlines in March 2019 when a mass shooter who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, titled the online manifesto he prepared for the occasion, “The Great Replacement.”

By now, it’s become alarmingly clear that an increasing number of people are taking this bizarre, historically deficient, and thoroughly warped story to heart.

Once Upon a Time

At first glance, the man who came up with the idea of the “great replacement” might not seem like your usual suspect. Renaud Camus was a radical student demonstrator in Paris in 1968 and in 1981 voted for socialist Francois Mitterrand for president of France. A noted poet and novelist, he published books on his gay identity that attracted accolades from the likes of intellectual Roland Barthes and poet Allen Ginsberg. By the early 2000s, however, Camus had begun to outline a new philosophy that distinguished between “faux” or false French (immigrants or their children) and real French (those who had lived in the country for many generations). In 2010, he published a book entitled Le Grand Remplacement bemoaning the prospects of a France and a Europe transformed by immigration.

Camus’s work became the foundational text for a growing movement called Generation Identity, a modernized version of white nationalism that has influenced the alt-right in the United States, gained momentum on the Internet, and become a global phenomenon. The “identitarians” embraced Renaud Camus and spread his ideas in a virtual echo chamber all their own. “The playing field is not level,” points out Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The far right now has a striking “advantage in terms of algorithms of social media favorable for spreading conspiracy theories and potentially harmful and inciting content.”

And keep in mind that it’s not just explicit racists and Islamophobes who are pushing this meme. A softer version, embraced by mainstream conservatives, transposes the racial anxiety at the heart of the Great Replacement into a cultural key. “Our civilization,” it claims, is now at risk. French culture must be preserved. European civilization is being undermined. The American way of life is endangered. “Africa wants to kick down our door and Brussels is not defending us,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2018. “Europe is under invasion already and they are watching with their hands in the air.”

This isn’t a new story. It was so prevalent in the 1920s that F. Scott Fitzgerald lampooned the idea in his famed novel The Great Gatsby when he put such arguments in the mouth of one of his characters. “If we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged,” Tom Buchanan says over dinner in the first chapter. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

Buchanan was then echoing arguments in well-known books like The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). Such arguments would take firm root in Europe as well. Adolf Hitler, for instance, called Grant’s book “my bible.” The Nazis, of course, didn’t just impose immigration controls to ensure the supremacy of the white race. They took Gatsby, Grant, and Stoddard to their logical, genocidal conclusion.

In the wake of the defeat of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese racism in World War II, a global consensus emerged, shared by capitalists and communists alike, that the extreme version of the replacement story had been consigned to the trash bin of history. In the West, the political center would eventually sign on to some variant of multiculturalism in which immigration became an integral part of civilization, not antithetical to it.

The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to this consensus. Communism was effectively over and union membership declining. Liberal parties attracted to the Third Way politics of President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were abandoning their working-class base. In the industrialized world, economic globalization was creating greater insecurity among the middle class and the working poor. In this context, multiculturalism and immigrants became easy targets for a rising white nationalism. In the 1990s, the growing popularity of previously fringe politicians like Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia paved the way for future parties and movements that would far more vigorously break the anti-fascist taboos of the past.

In the 1920s, the far right had found an effective way to attract adherents by blaming all the ills of the nation on “degenerate races.” This story of racial eugenics united both conservatives like President Calvin Coolidge and conspiracy theorists like Grant and Stoddard. “The demographic replacement is a similar master frame that can unite both clear extremists and conservatives who might be worried about demographic change,” warns Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. “Once you add those two together you have potential majorities in many countries. They’ve found a winning formula. There’s nothing that I’ve seen that comes remotely close to countering that formula.”

Same Old Story

When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it was the first time that bloodletting on that scale had taken place in Europe since the end of World War II. The subsequent fragmentation of the country would also prove a giant step backward for the project of European integration. Here was a multicultural state, the first in line among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe for membership in the European Community (later, the European Union or EU), that a set of Balkan politicians would tear apart thanks to political expediency, nationalist ideology, and economic arrogance.

At the time, the widespread ethnic cleansing that took place during the Yugoslav wars was generally seen as either a throwback to an earlier era of genocide (ancient hatreds) or a final bout of violence accompanying the end of the Cold War (temporary antagonisms). It was, in either of these scenarios, entirely backward looking.

By now, the Yugoslav successor states have indeed put those wars behind them, with Slovenia and Croatia even joining the EU. But the desire for ethnic purity has not disappeared, not in the Balkans or in Europe as a whole. Only recently, for instance, new walls have appeared in the Balkans — between North Macedonia and Greece, Slovenia and Croatia, Hungary and Serbia — this time to maintain greater homogeneity by keeping out migrants and refugees from the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the EU is paying Turkey billions of dollars to stop more desperate Syrian refugees from heading for Europe, while investing resources in Libya aimed at preventing migrants and refugees from making their way across the Mediterranean. Fleeing war and poverty, those migrants and refugees have only grown in number as European sentiment against them has reached new heights.

The European far right has risen in the slipstream of such xenophobia. Buoyed by its electoral success, the far right now wants to take a further giant step that might indeed return Europe to the days of ethnic cleansing — not just keeping out immigrants but expelling ones already there. This policy of “remigration” is the active corollary of the great replacement.

For decades, the European right rejected multiculturalism, insisting on the full assimilation of all immigrants. Now, it has given up on assimilation entirely. The platform of the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance, reads: “Germany and Europe must put in place remigration programs on the largest possible scale.” Already the biggest opposition party in the German Bundestag, or parliament, the AfD similarly increased its representation in the European Parliament in 2019 and also surged dramatically in the states of the former East Germany in recent local elections. The AfD’s position on immigrants is particularly disturbing given that the Nazis, before they embarked on the Final Solution, promoted their own version of remigration by proposing to send Jews en masse to Madagascar.

Ideas like the great replacement and remigration, having percolated in the identitarian movement for close to two decades, have now circulated back to the states of the former Yugoslavia. The far right has found fertile ground in Serbia and in the Serbian regions of Bosnia. And mass murderers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand have drawn a straight line between their brutal acts and the ethnic cleansing supported by war criminals like Serbian politician Radovan Karadzic during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In this way, the proponents of the great replacement are keeping alive the spirit of the worst war Europe has experienced on its soil since World War II.

Tell Me Something Else

The obvious response to the far right’s great-replacement story, here and in Europe, is to promote more humane immigration and refugee policies and a more inclusive vision of society. But that story — along with celebrations of multiculturalism, nods to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”), and the endless repetition of the EU’s official motto of “unity in diversity” — has not proven sufficiently compelling to those around the world anxious about their own slipping status in society.

A better story is needed: a story that somehow captures the same “us” versus “them” dynamic.

How about this: believe it or not, the great replacement is indeed actually happening, just not the way the far right imagines. We are about to be replaced by a desperate set of adversaries. This foe is crafty and able to get through nearly all our careful democratic defenses.

The difference with the far right’s narrative boils down to pronouns. The “us” in the counter-story I imagine is not a marginalized group of people. The us is all of us on a fast-heating planet.

As for the “them,” it’s tempting to follow the example of that other Camus — Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus — when he equated fascists with rats in his novel The Plague. The far right and its mainstream collaborators, along with the energy extraction industry, the finance sector, and corrupt oligarchs, are certainly a form of pestilence, a “them” that needs to be countered. Since 1965, just 20 of the major fossil-fuel companies have produced a third of the greenhouse gas emissions sent into the atmosphere. And now they’re aided by Donald Trump and his top environmental and energy officials, intent as they are on heating the planet to the boiling point for their own profits, as well as similar figures around the world.

But here’s the thing, we don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the adversaries they’re letting loose on all of us because they aren’t human at all.

The list of “them” would, for instance, begin with a buzzing mosquito. After all, as a result of rising global temperatures, disease-bearing mosquitos are now spreading far beyond their normal range. That would include the mosquitos responsible for transmitting the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. Dengue fever, present in only 10 countries in the 1970s, can now be found in 120 of them. And there is no question that, as the planet heats, malaria-bearing mosquitos will return to the United States after having been eradicated nearly 70 years ago. Climate change may also produce new types of mosquitos that could be even more effective in transmitting disease.

Lest you think that the mosquito is hardly worth losing sleep over unless it’s buzzing around your tent at night, remember that this tiny creature may well be the deadliest adversary humankind has ever faced. In his new book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, Timothy Winegard argues that, as a result of the illnesses they’ve transmitted, mosquitos have killed 52 billion people, about half of everyone who has ever lived on the planet. This tiny creature, in other words, has proven a truly genocidal force.

It’s not just mosquitos, of course. The “them” that we’re going to find ourselves up against will include disease-bearing ticks, rats, and a range of crop-devouring insects. Such creatures are all, in essence, standing on the sidelines and cheering climate change on. Their gain, our loss: it’s no more complicated than that.

We don’t need an evil space invader to unite the planet in a common fight. The adversary is just above our heads and right beneath our feet. In combatting a pestilence that affects everyone, we can tell an inclusive story that can appeal even to former supporters of Donald Trump, Hungarian ruler Viktor Orbán, and others. The far right is all about drawing borders and excluding “undesirables.” They will always win at that game.

It’s time to flip the script. We are indeed in the fight of our lives. When it comes to the climate crisis, a great replacement does loom on the horizon. Humans and the civilization that goes with us may, it turns out, be all too replaceable. It’s time for everyone — and I mean everyone — to pull together, forget our superficial differences, and win this epic battle of us versus them.

TomDispatch, October 20, 2019

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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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Burning Down the House

Doesn’t idiocy ever take a vacation?

As August wound down, the populist troika of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Jair Bolsonaro proved once again that the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil would be better off with no leaders rather than the dubious characters that currently pretend to govern these countries.

In all three cases, these leaders escalated their nationally destructive policies this summer in ways that have alienated even their erstwhile supporters. Once again, they have demonstrated that they have no interest in making America, Great Britain, or Brazil great again. They are only interested in doing as much damage as they can before they are ultimately dragged out of office.

Johnson Tries a Coup

Boris Johnson is a bumbling blowhard with but one current obsession: Brexit. He has promised to sever the UK’s relationship with the European Union by October 31 even if it means doing so without a deal that would mitigate the pain of separation.

The Halloween deadline is grimly appropriate. A No-Deal Brexit would make for a blood-curdling horror film. Just slap a Ghostface mask on the British prime minister, give him a knife to cut the umbilicus with Europe, and voila: Scream 5.

Johnson’s latest tactic to get what he wants is to suspend Parliament for five weeks this fall to limit debate on alternatives to his doomsday option. He hopes to make it impossible for parliament to pass even emergency legislation banning a no-deal Brexit. Believe it or not, the British system allows for such maneuvers – so Queen Elizabeth had to give her blessing to the suspension.

When Trump engages in anti-democratic activities, the Republican Party by and large indulges him. Not so in the UK, where even conservatives are up in arms over Johnson’s silent coup. After the prime minister’s announcement of the suspension, the government’s whip in the House of Lords resigned, as did the head of the Scottish Conservative Party. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, meanwhile, has pilloried Johnson and joined a legal challenge to the suspension.

This week, Johnson lost his one-vote majority in parliament when Conservative member Philip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats even as the prime minister was addressing the chamber.

Most parliamentary members, including quite a few Conservatives, oppose a no-deal exit. No matter: Johnson is following Trump’s script by remaking the Conservative Party in his own image, threatening to purge anyone who doesn’t follow his hard line. After losing a vote that will allow parliament to introduce legislation to delay Brexit, Johnson expelled 21 dissidents, including a number of former ministers and one grandson of Winston Churchill.

Now Johnson is talking about holding a snap election in mid-October. The Conservatives are comfortably outpolling Labor, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens. However, if all the Remain forces unite against Johnson, they could eke out a victory. But Johnson could also promise an election for October 14 and then, surprise, postpone it until after Halloween, making Brexit a fait accompli.

Johnson once said, “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a titanic success of it.” Determined to do the wrong thing even though he knows it’s wrong, Johnson is steering the United Kingdom straight into an iceberg. Nigel Farage is his chief navigator, and the rest of the country is clustered on the bow, bracing for impact.

With a second referendum, wiser heads could wrest control of the helm and prevent disaster, but Johnson is doing everything he can to fast-track Brexit on the principle that it doesn’t matter where you’re going as long as you get there fast.

Bolsonaro Fans the Flames

Idiocy loves company.

Jair Bolsonaro styles himself the Trump of the tropics. The comparison is apt. Some future poet, in describing the inferno of the present, will stuff Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson feet first into the mouth of Satan in the ninth circle. Having stoked the fires of climate change, Bolsonaro will richly deserve such an afterlife.

As The Economist points out, Bolsonaro as a candidate…

promised to end fines for violations of environmental law, shrink the protected areas that account for half of the Brazilian Amazon and fight NGOs, for which he has a visceral hatred. In office, his government has gutted the environment ministry and Ibama, the quasi-autonomous environmental agency. Six of the ten senior posts in the ministry’s department of forests and sustainable development are vacant, according to its website. The government talks of “monetizing” the Amazon but sabotaged a $1.3bn European fund that aims to give value to the standing forest.

As a result of Bolsonaro’s hands-off policy, deforestation in the Amazon has been out of control this year. Emboldened by their president’s actions, Brazilian farmers organized a “fire day” to clear land for planting. “We need to show the president that we want to work and the only way is to knock (the forest) down. And to form and clean our pastures, it is with fire,” said one of the organizers of the Fire Day. The number of fires in the Amazon nearly doubled this year over the same period last year.

It’s not as if the world wasn’t warned. Time magazine put the burning Amazon on its cover exactly 30 years ago!

The impact this time around is straight-forward. The Amazon is a huge carbon sink. Burn it up and global warming will accelerate. There will also be irreversible loss of biodiversity. And the upside? More soybeans, which Brazil can sell to China because the latter is no longer buying the harvests of U.S. farmers.

Oh, and more profits into the pockets of Bolsonaro’s friends in the industries that are paving the paradise of the Amazon and putting up a parking lot.

Trump Trashes the Planet

Donald Trump is a moth that can’t stop itself from flying directly at the flame of fame (or, more accurately, the inferno of infamy). He could stay off Twitter, but instead his tweets piss off one group of voters after another. He could stay away from the press, but his lies, gaffes, and personal attacks are amplified throughout the media universe. Arguably, this is a strategy to solidify the base and reinforce Trump’s reputation as an anti-establishment gadfly.

But there’s no political strategy behind his trade war with China and his impulsive threats last month to further escalate tariffs on Chinese goods. The sectoral damage to his base worries his political advisors: say goodbye to the farm vote, a good chunk of blue-collar voters thrown out of work, and a bunch of average consumers angry at shelling out more money for their holiday gifts.

Worse would be a more general economic recession brought on by this needless trade war, which would doom the president’s reelection chances. Yes, the U.S. economy is due for a “correction,” particularly because of Trump’s tax cuts and over-the-top spending. But if Trump played it safe, he could have probably postponed the recession until after the 2020 election. Instead, he’s doing everything he can to ensure that it makes landfall smack dab during the presidential race.

Trump isn’t just self-destructive. He continued over the last couple weeks to destroy U.S. alliances, most recently by expressing interest in buying Greenland from Denmark. The land wasn’t on the market, as the Danish government reminded the president, which prompted Trump to cancel his trip to the country.

Greenland? Really?! Perhaps Trump was making an indirect acknowledgement of the effects of climate change, attempting a land grab up north to secure a spot for Ivanka and Jared’s summer palace.

Meanwhile, Trump is powering full speed ahead toward climate apocalypse. The administration’s latest move is to remove restrictions on methane emissions, a more potent contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide. The effort is designed to reduce costs for oil and gas companies. But guess what? Even some of the top energy companies are opposed to Trump’s move.

“Last year we announced our support for the direct regulation of methane emissions for new and existing oil and gas facilities,” Exxon Mobil spokesperson Scott Silvestri said. “That hasn’t changed. We will continue to urge the EPA to retain the main features of the existing methane rule.” After all, Exxon, BP, and others are trying to position natural gas as part of the solution to climate change, and the Trump administration is busy undermining this argument.

The methane restrictions that Trump is trying to unravel date back to the Obama administration. But the current administration wants to tear up much older agreements as well. The Clinton administration protected Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from logging and mining. But Trump wants to open up this 16.7 million-acre sanctuary to the usual suspects in the extractive industries. This is no small land parcel. It represents half the world’s temperate rainforest.

Bolsonaro, at least, is only interested in trashing a rainforest (albeit a large one). Boris Johnson is content to trash a country (albeit a rich one). Donald Trump, with that ego of his, aspires to trash an entire planet. Yes, all three will eventually flame out. But not before they’ve scorched the earth clean.

An environmentalist told journalist Alan Weisman before the 2016 elections that she was considering voting for Trump. “The way I see it,” she said, “it’s either four more years on life support with Hillary, or letting this maniac tear the house down. Maybe then we can pick up the pieces and finally start rebuilding.”

The philosophy of “things have to get worse before they get better” has sometimes worked out in the past. But that’s the past.

Unless we stop him, we’ll be rooting around in the post-Trump ashes in vain for the pieces. The house will be gone. And there will be nothing we can salvage to rebuild it.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 4, 2019

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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