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The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

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

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

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

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

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

Leader for Life

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

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

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

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

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

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Territory Grab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Trump Makes Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FPIF, July 8, 2020

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Articles Featured Islamophobia

New Zealand: David Confronts Two Goliaths

After the election of Donald Trump, New Zealand became the go-to option for terrified Americans fantasizing about emigration. Three years later, New Zealand has burnished its reputation as a credible refuge by successfully confronting two epidemics that continue to plague the United States—one political, the other medical.

New Zealand’s most recent success has been its handling of the coronavirus. After seven weeks of an extraordinarily stringent lockdown—closed borders, suspended in-country travel, no takeout—the government has managed to keep Covid-19 infections at 1,500, with only 21 deaths. That’s 4.3 deaths per million, compared to 246 per million in the United States. Thanks to rigorous testing and an updated contact tracing system, New Zealand has brought its active caseload to below 100 (as of this writing).

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced further steps to open the economy so that Kiwis can once again visit restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms. The borders remain effectively closed, and Ardern promises to reimpose strict controls if cases spike. But few other democratic countries can claim this kind of success with so few casualties.

New Zealand has a couple of advantages over other countries. It’s a relatively small, isolated island nation with a very low population density. It has a strong social welfare system that even its conservatives support.

Perhaps most importantly, the government and the people were tested a year ago by a different kind of outbreak. New Zealand’s effective handling of the coronavirus was prefigured by its dramatic response to a right-wing murder spree in the country’s second-largest city.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist originally from New South Wales in Australia opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51 people and injuring 49. The shooter advertised his far-right credentials by titling his manifesto “The Great Replacement,” which linked him to other anti-immigration extremists, including shooters in El Paso in 2019 and Pittsburgh in 2018, who believe that foreigners and immigrants are plotting to “replace” predominantly white majorities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This ideology is integral to the epidemic of far-right violence that has gathered force worldwide over the last decade.

The Christchurch attacks were a surprise to many inside and outside of New Zealand. “This is an incredibly tolerant, multicultural country,” notes Paul Spoonley of Massey University in Auckland. “In an international value study, the proportion of New Zealanders who see immigrants as contributing positively to the country is probably two to four times higher that in countries in mainland Europe. To be anti-immigrant or against a particular religion is politically damaging.”

New Zealand’s current reputation for tolerance belies its history of discrimination against immigrants and the indigenous Maori. The country has also been home to a small but globally connected far-right community, which was implicated in several murders and more than 100 incidents of racist violence between 2005 and 2013.

Prior to 2019, the Muslim community repeatedly complained that the New Zealand authorities weren’t properly addressing Islamophobic threats. “It was taken quite lightly because we always believed that New Zealand was the safest place on earth, that things like that happen somewhere else,” observes Ikhlaq Kashkari, the president of the Muslim Association of New Zealand. “We were living with a false sense of security, even though we were getting more news every day from around the world about the promotion of Islamophobia.”

Christchurch itself was not immune to these trends. “When Christchurch emerged as having a problem, the defenses went up and local representatives said, ‘We’re not a racist city,’” says Rawiri Taonui, New Zealand’s first professor of indigenous studies. “There have been more racist incidents in Christchurch than pretty much anywhere in the country.”

Despite rising Islamophobia and a history of far-right organizing, the New Zealand authorities were not primed to look for a white man like the Christchurch shooter. “After 9/11, a number of people here suddenly labeled all the Muslim people of New Zealand who were living peacefully in the country as terrorists,” points out Meng Foon, New Zealand’s commissioner of race relations. “The New Zealand secret service targeted them more and, unfortunately, missed the shooter last year in Christchurch. They dropped the ball in terms of monitoring white supremacists.”

Such failures were on par with the performance of other countries. But New Zealand’s response after March 15 was something altogether different. Squarely addressing its failures, the Ardern government immediately and unequivocally responded to the Christchurch killings with an unusual combination of empathy for the victims and zero tolerance for the culture that nurtured the perpetrator’s hatred, all the while recognizing the need for cross-border coordination. As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of policy approach that paid off a year later when the coronavirus hit.

After March 15, Prime Minister Ardern demonstrated what leadership looks like. Following the example of the mayor of Christchurch, Ardern swiftly called the massacre “terrorism.” She donned a hijab and reached out to the Muslim community, refused to speak the name of the perpetrator, and introduced sweeping gun-control measures. She even went to the island of Fiji to console family members of those killed on March 15.

Ardern enjoyed broad support for these moves. Unlike in the United States, where repeated mass shootings have not led to substantial gun control, New Zealand outlawed automatic weapons “with widespread public support and universal parliamentary support (119 out of 120 MPs voted in favor),” Paul Spoonley notes. “There was some grumbling among those who go hunting that the ban had gone too far or was actioned too rapidly. Also, illegal weapons are not subject to registration and restrictions on sales. But we’re light years away from the United States.”

The government moved more forcefully to preempt right-wing violence, launching dozens of investigations into extremist groups and individuals, jailing a neo-Nazi who shared a video of the Christchurch killings, and arresting a Defense Force soldier with links to the far right. It has also pushed forward with a new effort to amend existing laws to outlaw hate speech. “If all the New Zealand government does is extend the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act, it will safely avoid curtailing free speech,” concludes Martin Cocker of Netsafe. Although such prohibitions against hate speech set New Zealand apart from countries like the United States, the state has to be careful not to simply ban unpopular opinions. “It’s very difficult to combat the kind of things we’re seeing online without creating measures that could very easily impinge on free speech,” Cocker notes.

Perhaps Ardern’s most ambitious project has been the Christchurch Call, “a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.” Only two months after the shootings, New Zealand joined France in pushing for change at the international level. “They knew that they were unlikely to drive global change on social media as a country of 5 million people far away from the main political centers in the US and Europe,” observes Matthew Feldman of the Centre for the Analysis of the Right Wing. “They put white nationalism very squarely on the UN General Assembly agenda.”

The big players—Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Amazon—all signed on to the Call, committing to develop algorithms and AI tools to quickly identify and remove hateful content from their platforms. Any Kiwi who views extremist content online is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups. The Call also inspired Australia to pass a law that criminalizes social media companies that don’t expeditiously remove “abhorrent violent material.” That’s all to the good, but it hasn’t yet detoxified the Internet. The Call, which is nonbinding, has been limited in its impact given the “lack of alignment among countries and a lack of consistent pressure on multinationals,” Martin Cocker adds. “If the Christchurch Call moved to the point of achieving consistency among countries in terms of what they demand from industry, it could continue to have some influence.”

When the Christchurch shooter pleaded guilty in late March, New Zealand was saved from the spectacle of a very public trial. “His guilty plea will likely reduce the priority of efforts to curb the far right,” Matt Nipert of The New Zealand Herald says. “My concern is that New Zealand still views him as a lone wolf, as one deranged individual, that it’s not our problem, that an Australian came here to do it. That’s true, but the problem is global. These groups operate across borders and see themselves as a brotherhood, not as citizens of a country. Someone did an analysis of who logs on to 8chan. You can’t see their identities, but you can see where they log on from, and New Zealand was very highly ranked.”

New Zealand was blindsided by the Christchurch killings last year and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic this year, even though there was indeed some advance warning in both instances. Nevertheless, the Ardern government moved quickly to break the chain of infection through well-calculated, radical interventions. It showed zero tolerance by jailing right-wing extremists after March 15 and, during the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, demoting the health minister who blithely visited a beach. The government knows the battle, in both cases, is not over. It is continuing to monitor the coronavirus and right-wing extremism, because it understands that epidemics can recur.

Although the Covid-19 response has been more top-down, both efforts received overwhelming domestic support. Ardern’s approval rating rose to 51 percent a month after the Christchurch killings and has soared to 65 percent during the coronavirus crisis.

In both cases, too, New Zealand has recognized that it can’t fight these problems alone. It issued the Christchurch Call to spur international action against the spread of far-right ideology, and it has been cooperating regionally and internationally to address the coronavirus.

According to Meng Foon, the New Zealand government also learned from its initial mistake of ignoring the threat of white extremism. It was determined to make sure that its response to the coronavirus was fully inclusive. As a result, the virus has not had the kind of disproportionate impact on people of color so evident in the United States.

“I don’t think any person of color has died of Covid-19,” he notes. “Only about 4 percent of the total of those who contracted Covid-19 are Maori and Pacific Islander.”

For Ikhlaq Kashkari, the key commonality has been the quality of the social response. He chokes up when he remembers how many people came out to support mosques in the days after the Christchurch shootings. “People have gone out of their way to help each other as they did on March 15,” he says. “Our slogan here is: Stay home, stay safe, and be kind. Those three things explain it all.”

The Nation, May 25, 2020

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Articles Europe Featured

Goodbye to All That: The UK after Brexit

If I were the European Union, I’d be wiping my hands, sighing in relief, and slamming the door after the United Kingdom’s long-delayed departure.

Britain had been a noisy, pushy houseguest for 47 years, and it was only growing ruder. It spent the last three years hanging out in the foyer, braying and temporizing. Even as it steps out the door it’s trying to negotiate the most generous visitation terms: all rights with no responsibilities.

Good riddance to guests who overstay their welcome.

The UK was always demanding special exceptions to the rules. It was always attempting to smuggle its ridiculous laissez-faire ideas into continental practices. It was always boasting of its extramarital affairs with America. And, mon dieu, could it drone on at dinner about the “good old days” when the sun never set on its imperialist expanse. John Bull, indeed!

There’s no better example of this British bull than Nigel Farage, the man who practically engineered Brexit. What do you suppose he was doing for a living for the last two decades? Managing a Union Jack flag factory? Running a fish-and-chips shop in London? Growing turnips somewhere in the British countryside?

No, the man who made a career of hating the EU served in the European Parliament non-stop since 1999.

He was pulling down 100,000 pounds a year for doing the work of a termite, eating away the foundations of the house into which he’d been invited. Part of his time was also spent misspending funds, which forced the EU to dock his pay. At least when he complained of EU corruption, he could present one indisputable case to prove his point.

Farage’s departure from the European Parliament was of a piece with his undistinguished tenure as parliamentarian. “I’m hoping this begins the end of this project,” he crowed on his last day in the body as he waved his little Union Jack. “It’s a bad project, it isn’t just undemocratic, it’s anti-democratic.”

Seems to me that the European Parliament was overly democratic by letting someone so obnoxious bite the hand that had fed him, year after year, for two decades.

As for the speechifying and flag-waving, the parliament’s vice president, Mairead McGuinness, , was having none of it. “If you disobey the rules, you get cut off,” she said to the misbehaving Farage.  “Please sit down, resume your seats, put your flags away — you’re leaving — and take them with you.”

It’s too bad no one ever said something like that to Boris Johnson, the erstwhile prime minister of what will soon be the incredibly shrinking United Kingdom. Johnson joined Farage in misleading the British public into cutting off their own noses to spite the EU’s face. Johnson is wittier than Farage, more willing to make fun of himself and his pomposities. But he’s still a prat. In the end, the pair have turned out to be the glycerol and nitric acid of Brexit — harmless by themselves but recklessly explosive in combination.

The nitroglycerin blast won’t reach across the Channel. The European Union will survive Brexit, thank you very much.

No, Brexit will turn out to be a suicide attack on the UK itself.

Goodbye Scotland?

The hardy people of Scotland didn’t want to leave the European Union. By a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, they voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. It was unanimous across all 32 council areas.

In the last UK election in December, meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (SNP) practically swept the results, gaining 13 more seats to hold a commanding 48 of 59 Scottish seats in the British parliament (it currently holds a majority in the Scottish parliament as well). Labor, having failed to clearly support Remain, dropped to a single seat.

The head of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, is angling to hold another referendum on Scottish independence. The Johnson government is saying no, that the 2014 referendum, which supported remaining in the UK by a margin of 55 to 45 percent, was a “once in a generation” opportunity. Sturgeon could very well retort that, because of Brexit, the UK has aged a generation in the last three years.

Support for independence today in Scotland is as close as Brexit was in 2016. The latest polls put it at around 51 percent. But that will likely increase as the economic impact of Brexit begins to hit.

Of course, Scottish independence would also be a step toward rejoining the European Union. According to outgoing president of the European Council Donald Tusk, there’s enthusiasm in the EU about an independent Scotland applying for admission.

The enthusiasm goes both ways, since the Scottish economy depends a great deal on Europe. In 2018, Scottish exports to the EU grew by 4.5 percent to reach 16 billion pounds. That’s less than a third of what goes to the rest of the UK, but it’s still a significant amount. Moreover, because of a growing labor deficit, Scotland has relied on EU nationals to staff the tourism and service sectors.

As a sign of their Europhilia, the Scots voted last week to keep the EU flag flying outside their devolved parliament in Edinburgh. Take that, Nigel Farage!

Goodbye Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland also wanted to stay in the EU, not quite so much as Scotland, but still by a significant margin of 56 percent to 44 percent in the 2016 referendum.

Brexit could have the most calamitous impact on the peace that has held between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement that effectively ended the war between these two communities also softened the border between the two parts of Ireland through demilitarization and increased cross-border exchanges.

Ever since, it’s been a delicate balance between the north and the south and between Northern Ireland and the UK. But at least everyone was part of the EU. Not anymore.

Since the Republic of Ireland remains part of the EU, a special arrangement has been made to keep Northern Ireland part of Europe’s customs union. But that will push the boundary between the UK and Ireland into the sea and also require all sorts of paperwork for the trade that passes between the two.

The unionists are upset that their link to the UK has been weakened. The republicans are angry that they’re no longer part of the EU alongside the Republic of Ireland. The various paramilitaries associated with these communities are still around, though it’s unlikely that Brexit by itself will reignite the conflict.

But the long-held dream of republicans in Northern Ireland — unification with the south — is now back on the table. And that might push the unionists up against the wall. Many are furious at Boris Johnson’s betrayal of Northern Ireland at the EU negotiating table and might probably view unification with the south as a detour back into the EU. But other unionists might be willing to go to any length to prevent that scenario.

As Nick Laird writes in The New York Review of Books:

The old binary national and religious distinctions would be complicated with economic questions, and questions about whether the Northern Irish want to be yoked to insular self-defeating Little Englanders who couldn’t care less about them, or to the largest single market in the world, which, for whatever its faults, was founded on the postwar ideals of peace and fraternity and prosperity.

Of course, the longer Northern Ireland debates this question, the more the question might answer itself. “The demographics of Northern Ireland have been steadily shifting,” writes James Angelos in The New York Times. “Within the decade, a majority of its people will be Catholic, making the prospect of a united Ireland seem almost inevitable.”

Goodbye Prosperity?

First off, even though the UK is now officially out of the EU as of January 31, no one knows what the economic impact will be — because of the one-year grace period before any of the consequences of withdrawal begin to kick in.

The UK has dodged the bullet of a “no deal” exit, which would have been truly catastrophic. But during this transition period, it now faces a second bullet. Johnson is threatening a “no free trade” exit as part of his negotiations with the EU, refusing to accept European rules and regulations in exchange for privileged access to the EU market.

Even if the two sides narrow their differences, the UK will be hard hit by losing the benefits of membership. The Brexiteers have been counting on a trade deal with the United States to take up the slack. Given how vindictive and unpredictable Donald Trump can be on trade issues, that’s an especially poor horse to bet on.

According to economists at the London School of Economics, Britons can expect a drop of 6.4 percent in per capita income. Whatever the UK saves in its payments to the EU — about 9 billion pounds overall in 2018 — will be more than offset by the cost of divorce, which will be 33 billion pounds.

The UK will lose out not only on the import and export side. UK businesses won’t be able to bid on public contracts in EU member states. The UK will have to forgo R & D resources from Brussels. Young Britons won’t be able to find work so easily on the continent.

Brexit optimists point to a couple strong indicators in the current British economy, such as low unemployment, low inflation, and accelerated wage growth. See, they say, the gloom-and-doomers are wrong.

But this last year has been the worst non-recession growth year in the UK since World War II.

The economic shock delivered by the initial Brexit vote in 2016 already took 1,600 pounds out of the British pockets that they might have ordinarily had if the vote had gone in the Remain direction. Financial services and other businesses have already moved a trillion dollars in assets to other European cities. Foreign investors who might have set up factories in England as a way to access the European market, like Honda and Nissan, are looking elsewhere. Last year, the rate of investment into the UK dropped to the lowest in six years.

Johnson is hoping that he can remake England into a low-wage, low-regulation alternative to the European Union, a “Singapore on the Thames.

Singapore? Hah, the UK should be so lucky. It will be more like Louisiana, which has also pursued a “low road” approach to competing for investment. Despite being a haven for oil and chemical companies, Louisiana is one of the two poorest states in the country and comes in dead last in the rankings of most environmentally friendly states.

The Holy Grail

The Holy Grail of the Brexiteers is not just leaving the EU but also destroying the institution, as Farage so indelicately put it. Even here, though Brexit has proven self-defeating.

The British experience of withdrawal has served as smelling salts to the rest of Europe. No other exits are on the horizon. Brexit has revealed just how beneficial EU membership is — and also the exorbitant cost of divorce.

The far right remains Euroskeptical. It has also grown more powerful politically since 2016 and has more representation in the European Parliament. This access, however, has changed the political calculus. Now the Euroskeptics are looking at how to change the EU from within, which is frankly a more dangerous prospect.

But that’s a European debate, which no longer will include the British. The UK is pursuing a different Holy Grail: success outside the European Union. And how likely is that prospect?

To understand the UK’s current predicament, let’s go back to the scene involving the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The Black Knight stands before a bridge to block King Arthur from crossing. Undeterred, Arthur promptly cuts off the Black Knight’s left arm.

“’Tis but a scratch,” the Black Knight says, brandishing the sword with his other arm.

Arthur promptly cuts off this arm as well.

“It’s just a flesh wound,” says the Black Knight.

Arthur cuts off first one leg and then the other.

“All right,” says what remains of the Black Knight, “let’s call it a draw.”

That’s England, limbless after its battle with the EU. Goodbye Scotland, Northern Ireland, and general prosperity. Brexit has left the UK with barely a leg to stand on.

Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson might call that a victory. Other Brexiteers might gamely declare it a draw.

Everyone else will see it much more clearly: as a veritable rout.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 5, 2020

Categories
Articles Europe Featured

Will 2020 Be Another Victory Year for Trump and Brexit?

with Valerio Alfonso Bruno 

In early 2017, Europe’s far-right parliamentary bloc met in Koblenz, Germany, to plot its political future. The meeting of the bloc’s leaders — which included Marine le Pen from France, Matteo Salvini from Italy and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands — took place shortly after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. The group was optimistic about its prospects. “Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, tomorrow a new Europe,” declared an excited Wilders.

Today, the far right faces a watershed year. After the 2019 European Parliament elections, the European far-right bloc has doubled in size, and Boris Johnson has finally extricated the UK from the European Union — a dream of the far right for some time. On the other hand, Trump heads into an election year amid his own impeachment trial.

The success of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s long-shot presidential bid in 2016 signaled a global turn to the right. Will 2020 deliver a different verdict?

Responding to Impeachment

The news of Donald Trump’s impeachment spread across the world in the hours after the historic House vote in mid-December in favor of impeachment. However, world leaders and high-profile politicians generally reserved judgment on the event. “World reaction muted to nonexistent” was the headline in USA Today. Some responses were general, as when China’s The Global Times took the opportunity of the impeachment to point out the growing “flaws of Western-style democracy.”

Two major exceptions to the lack of reaction from politicians worldwide were Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italy’s leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini. Both expressed strong support for Trump, predicting that he would not only survive the proceedings, but even benefit from the impeachment in terms of electoral support. Both Putin and Salvini condemned the Democratic Party for trying to reverse the will of the people outside the ballot box. The Russian president, during his annual press conference, stated that the Democrats were simply trying to reverse their 2016 loss by “other means.”

Salvini’s League is leading the polls with 31% support. He not only expressed support for Trump, but empathized with him. Indeed, Salvini may also face legal proceedings in 2020 for having blocked a refugee transport from docking at an Italian harbor last year. As with Trump’s impeachment, the Italian senate will decide whether the proceedings will take place or not

Other Trump allies around the world have been notably quiet. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overwhelmed by his own corruption scandal, was careful to put distance between Israel and the United States over Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, hit by the threat of US trade sanctions, has also not come out strongly in support of Trump in this hour of need. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined Trump at the White House in November and appeared before journalists just as the impeachment hearings were getting started in the House. It was a sign of support for Trump, certainly, but otherwise Erdogan has been quiet about the political challenges the US president faces.

With the exception of Israel and the Philippines, where he remains popular, Trump has very low favorability ratings around the world. Based on Pew polling conducted in 32 countries last year, only 29% of people have confidence in the US president. Even in countries with right-wing leadership, like the UK and Hungary, Trump’s numbers are in the low 30s. No doubt that helps explain why Boris Johnson took pains to ask Trump not to “interfere” in the UK elections at the end of last year.

Trump’s erratic policies, his tendency to slap trade sanctions even on close allies, and his mercurial temperament also help explain why the coterie of right-wing and populist leaders around the world are adopting a wait-and-see approach to Trump’s political future.

Brexit and the European Far Right

In Europe, the reactions of far-right parties to Brexit were similarly low-key and revolved around two messages: respect the popular vote and avoid painful negotiations. In particular, Marine Le PenMatteo Salvini and Vox’s Santiago Abascal all agreed on the necessity to respect the “will of the people” and also warned the European Union not to use painful Brexit negotiations to punish the UK and deter other member states from contemplating withdrawal.

Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), expressed similar sentiments. However, the AfD has called for a possible “exit” of Germany from the EU, the first major German party to adopt such a policy. Indeed, the major far-right parties in Europe, with the exception of AfD and a few others, are very cautious about threatening a possible withdrawal from the European Union. Even Spain’s Vox, which captured around 15% of the vote in last year’s election, is not enthusiastic about a “Spaxit,” even though an EU court ruling in favor of parliamentary immunity for jailed Catalan separatist leaders has put pressure on the party to support EU withdrawal in response.

The euroskepticism of the 2010s that produced calls for a withdrawal from the EU has largely given way to a different far-right strategy: to gain influence within European structures and use them to advance its agenda.

Partly this about-face reflects the interests of the electorate. The National Rally has stepped back from the idea of “Frexit” and leaving the euro bloc because “The French people have shown that they remain attached to the single currency,” according to a party document. Or, as Salvini has said, “We don’t want to leave anything; we want to change the rules of the EU from the inside.” The country where sentiment to leave the EU is highest is the Czech Republic, and it only hits 34%.

The other part of the story is the growing far-right representation in the European Parliament, the coordination of far-right parties in the European space, and the influence of far-right NGOs like CitizenGo. The UK has always been something of an outlier in the European Union — joining late and negotiating multiple exceptions to EU rules. It looks as if Brexit will be an outlier as well.

What’s Next?

In 2017, given the victories of Trump and Brexit the year before, Geert Wilder was justified in his optimism about the future of the far right. In the next few years, he could point to other reasons to be cheerful: the win for Bolsonaro in Brazil, the reelection of Narendra Modi in India, the success of the far right in the Hungarian and Polish parliamentary elections, the electoral surges of Vox in Spain and AfD in Germany.

The situation in 2020 is not so clear. Scandals have overwhelmed key leaders like Netanyahu, Bolsonaro and Trump himself. The far right’s participation in the Austrian coalition government came to an end as a result of another corruption scandal. Despite much media exposure, the efforts of Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological adviser, to build a “Nationalist International” have not borne fruit.

Much depends on two factors: the results of the Brexit negotiations and the outcome of the 2020 US election. If Britain suffers economically as a result of withdrawal from the EU, the backlash against Johnson and his populist politics will be significant. And if Donald Trump loses in November — in the Electoral College as well as in the popular vote — it will send a strong message that his brand of illiberal, xenophobic populism lacks enduring appeal.

The triumphalism of the far right and its claims of an inevitable march away from liberalism will suffer a major blow. However, the cautious approach by far-right parties worldwide to Trump’s impeachment and Brexit may well signal that those political actors are now adopting long-term strategies to gain power. Their long-term strategy is shifting to a slower infiltration of democratic institutions both at the national that supranational level.

Fair Observer, February 3, 2020

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Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Putin Proposes, Trump Disposes

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to the New Millennium 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case closed.

Twenty Years Later

donald-trump-wars-foreign-policy

Shutterstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory of Illiberalism

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(Photo: Mike Maguire / Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

Categories
Articles Featured Human Rights Russia and Eastern Europe

Democracy Desperately Need a Reboot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy’s Fourth Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy’s Dial-Up Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Russia and the Future of Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia’s European Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Montenegro

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Russian Interference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Ayatollah Trump

If Donald Trump goes to church regularly, he’s kept it a pretty good secret.

He and his wife have made sure to alert the press on the few times he does attend services, for instance on Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day. Otherwise, the president seems to worship regularly only at the Church of the Hole in One. Since inauguration, he has made 165 visits (and counting) to golf courses, often on Sundays.

Trump is like a secular Elmer Gantry, the hot-blooded preacher of Sinclair Lewis’s eponymous 1927 bestseller. Gantry preaches on Sundays about the heavenly virtues even as he drinks, commits adultery, and breaks one commandment after another on every other day of the week. Trump, meanwhile, has acted irreligiously all his life and only recently made any pretense to churchgoing piety. He confines his preaching to the political realm. In both cases, however, loyal congregations gather around these hypocrites, convinced that they are true representatives of God.

Trump a representative of God? During the 2016 presidential campaign, evangelical Christians voted in large numbers for Trump not because of his religious convictions but despite his lack of them. They viewed Trump as an imperfect vehicle for God’s will, which was presumably expressing itself about the composition of the Supreme Court, government funding for abortion, and the eroding wall between church and state.

Give us a virtuous president, the evangelicals trumpeted in true Augustinian fashion, but not yet. In the meantime, they would overlook the Republican candidate’s biblical illiteracy (“Two Corinthians”!) on top of his very public indiscretions with women, money, and gambling.

But in the two years since inauguration, Trump hasn’t just golfed. Even if he hasn’t been attending church regularly, he has invoked God more frequently. He has assiduously courted the evangelical vote by hammering away at abortion and supporting Bible literacy classes in public schools. He has signed bibles for the faithful. He now sounds much more like Elmer Gantry (on Sunday) rather than just acting like him (during the rest of the week).

Oh, but Trump has much greater aspirations in the religious realm. In the last two years, the president has achieved a kind of apotheosis, an elevation to divine status, and this transformation has important foreign policy implications.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

On his recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Donald Trump the possible savior of the Jewish people. Pompeo was responding to a prompt from the Christian Broadcasting Network, which compared the president to Esther, in the Old Testament, who persuaded the Persian king to spare the Jews.

Pompeo would have been on firmer ground if he had said that Trump was the possible savior of some Jews or, even more precisely, one Jew.

After all, Trump has gone all out to save the tuchis of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump has gifted Bibi with the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council to protest its allegedly anti-Israel bias, and various repudiations of Palestinian authority (closing the PLO’s DC office, suspending U.S. contributions to a UN agency helping Palestinian refugees).

Most recently, Trump recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, a truly gratuitous gesture designed to boost Netanyahu’s stature before next week’s elections in Israel.

Pompeo isn’t the only one who’s declared Trump the anointed one. On election day, evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress proclaimed, “God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States.” It’s extraordinary that God, who intervenes rather infrequently in human history, decided to do so on that day in November 2016 and, despite Jeffress’ assertion, did so not to side with the people or the pollsters but with the Electoral College, an institution so complicated that perhaps only divinities can understand its workings.

More recently, press secretary Sarah Sanders announced: “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.” A quarter of the country agrees with Sanders. (These folks might consider staying away from the polls in 2020 to test their faith since God, more politically active all of the sudden, can presumably compensate for lower voter turnout if that’s what it takes.)

Trump, of course, doesn’t need other people’s praise to bolster his sense of self-worth. He’s long had an exaggerated understanding of his mission in life.

But these more recent claims of Trump’s role in the world, which have inflated to monstrous size, help explain the president’s growing fanaticism. He presides over the American political system like an extra-constitutional force. Indeed, he is becoming more like an ayatollah than an elected figure: a sign of divine will not civic choice.

This tearing down of the barrier between church and state, which Trump vowed to do as a candidate, has disturbing implications for the United States. As Susan Jacoby has written, “Trump administration officials have used fundamentalist biblical interpretations to support everything from environmental deregulation to tax cuts.” It has equally unsettling ramifications for foreign policy, as Trump’s lockstep support of Netanyahu demonstrates.

But the truly worrisome development is how Trump fits into a growing pattern worldwide: an informal axis of Christian fanatics determined to create their very own clash of civilizations.

Axis of Ayatollahs

Vladimir Putin, as a career former Communist, was never a particularly religious man. But as Russian president, Putin has cannily solicited the support of the Orthodox Church. He has stressed the importance of “family,” banned gay “propaganda,” and targeted the activities of religions other than the Orthodox Church.

More critically, he’s positioned Russia as a defender of traditional values against both liberals and adherents of other religions. This has made Russia a beacon of the Christian far right in Europe and the United States. Putin’s sheer opportunism forms the basis of his bond with that other great flip-flopper, Trump.

One of Putin’s greatest admirers in Europe is Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary. On top of his preference for Putin’s brand of illiberalism, Orban speaks of the European imperative to defend against immigrants. He has presided over a change in the country’s constitution that makes it a fundamental duty of the state to protect Hungary’s Christian culture. This seventh amendment to the country’s Fundamental Law also stipulates that no foreigner from outside Europe can resettle in the country. And it bans homelessness to boot.

Wow, talk about Christian charity! Orban was also a prominent liberal 25 years ago. Beware the fervor of the convert.

The axis of ayatollahs — Christian extremists in positions of political power — extends from the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland to Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy’s far-right Northern League. In France, the National Rally party — the re-named National Front — hopes to take advantage of Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s dismal popularity ratings to gain a larger foothold in the upcoming European Parliament elections and then bring their brand of far-right Catholicism to power in Paris.

It’s not just Europe. In Brazil, for instance, Jair Bolsonaro said on the campaign trail: “God above everything. There is no such thing as a secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change, if they can. The minorities will have to adapt to the position of the majority.” As president, Bolsonaro brought an evangelical minister to head the Ministry of Human Rights, Family, and Women and, on day one, shut down the government’s LGBT office. The leaders of Nicaragua and Colombia also wear their conservative Catholicism on their sleeves.

Fanaticism isn’t confined to Christianity. As if he weren’t already intolerant enough, Netanyahu has cultivated a political alliance with a party of Jewish extremism called Otzma Yehudit. You can find Hindu fanaticism in India and Buddhist fanaticism in Myanmar. Oh yes, and there’s also plenty of Islamic fundamentalism, the only form of religious extremism that merits regular media coverage.

Religious extremists tend to have an apocalyptic view of the world. They are fighting against evil. They are preparing for some new dispensation. Their fanaticism provides a rationale for committing sins otherwise proscribed by their religions: killing people, separating children from their families, imprisoning the supposedly impious. Their fanaticism allows them to interpret scripture in just such a way to justify their extreme acts. Most critically, fanatics are always girding their loins for an epic battle, for the stakes must rival the pretensions in scale.

Trump, too, has an apocalyptic view of the world: American carnage, international chaos. Only the president, in his infinite narcissism, can save the fallen world. But Trump is also a god of vengeance prepared to rain “fire and fury” down upon the unbelievers. His advisors clamor on behalf of a range of targets: Iran, North Korea, China.

In the last stage of its transformation from republic to empire, Rome witnessed the apotheosis of its emperor. Augustus declared Julius Caesar a god upon his death and in turn was declared one upon his own death as well.

As he presides over the deconstruction of American democracy, Trump is following a similar trajectory. He’s not content to be the (self-proclaimed) best president of all time. He doesn’t just want to be leader for life like China’s Xi Jinping.

Trump wants to be more than just a star on Hollywood Boulevard. He wants to be a star in the firmament. The crimes he commits on his way to achieving this heavenly goal will be of biblical proportions.

World Beat, Foreign Policy in Focus, April 3, 2019