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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 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

trump-putin-russia-hacking

(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

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Whose Coups

Coups have been one of the greatest threats to democracy. The people elect a daring leader willing to take on the status quo. And then, as in Iran in 1953 or Chile in 1973, the military pushes the leader aside to take control. Sometimes the generals remain in power; sometimes they restore a royal to the throne. Often some external force – a foreign intelligence agency, a cabal of corporate interests – plays a key role in denying the people their democratic choice.

Such coups still take place around the world – in Thailand in 2014, in Egypt in 2013, in Honduras in 2009. These more recent coups all give off the rank odor of desperation, as the old order resorts to extreme measures to stave off the demands of a democratic age.

Or maybe not.

A new era has dawned in the world of politics. Like nationalism, authoritarianism did not fade away in the dimming light of the twentieth century. And those who shout “coup” in a crowded political theater are now as likely to be the authoritarians themselves. They present themselves as various iterations of St. George fighting the dragon of the “deep state” on behalf of all the good people back in the village.

It’s nonsense, of course. But such nonsense can translate into the winning margin in a close election.

Impeachment as Coup

The prime example of this relatively new phenomenon is Donald Trump. The president has emphasized one message above all during the impeachment proceedings. As he has tweeted:

As I learn more and more each day, I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People.

An ad released by his campaign called the impeachment process “nothing short of a coup and it must be stopped.” The final image is of Trump himself with two thumbs up, as though he has personally stopped the coup with nothing other than a glowing review of his own performance in office. Fox News has dutifully followed this script by repeating Trump’s language throughout its line-up of putative pundits.

While all the sober citizens of NPRLand watch the Democrats play by the rules in the congressional hearings, the rest of the country is primed to view the proceedings as a circus, a witch hunt, a clown show. They are being led to believe that the very procedure designed to ensure the rule of law is in fact a profound violation of that law.

This is what makes Trump the consummate populist. According to his own self-serving narrative, the elites have always been out to get him, particularly now that he has clawed his way to the top. He should have won the popular vote in 2016 – if it weren’t for the (imaginary) meddling of Ukraine. He should have implemented his flagship projects (like the Wall) – if it weren’t for the machinations of the (imaginary) “deep state.” His party should have won the 2018 mid-term elections – if it weren’t for (imaginary) voter fraud. In the dog-whistle symphony of Republican Party politics, Trump’s supporters substitute their own imaginary villains: Jews, women, African Americans, Muslims, the undocumented.

Trump implicitly argues that all of these “non-People” – check out the telling visuals in the aforementioned campaign ad – are teaming up under the rubric of the Democratic Party to “steal” back the election from the People. The president must fabricate “the People” in this way because of what should be obvious to everyone: the majority of voters didn’t want him to be president, find his policies repugnant, and communicated that disgust very clearly in the 2018 elections.

The truly remarkable part of the “impeachment equals coup” argument is that it’s coming from the same people who love to carry around pocket Constitutions. Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate back in January 2011:

Members of the Tea Party are really into the Constitution. We know this because on Thursday, House Republicans propose to read the document from start to finish on the House floor, and they also propose to pass a rule requiring that every piece of new legislation identify the source of its constitutional authority.

If they’d read the Constitution from front to finish, they’d know that the document explicitly identifies impeachment as a legal way of removing a president. It’s the law of the land. The Democrats have been scrupulous in observing the letter of this law even when it has been counterproductive to do so.

The way Trump talks about impeachment, it sounds as if Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez would suddenly sit in the Oval Office if the president were removed from office. Actually, it would be Vice President Mike Pence. It’s a very strange coup indeed that removes a member of one party and replaces him with someone equally noxious from the very same party.

It would be a different matter if the U.S. military were plotting to unseat Trump and replace him with a four-star general. That would indeed be a coup. But the Pentagon has remained loyal to its commander-in-chief, even as he has intervened in several military court proceedings, ignored the sage advice of military advisors (as in Syria), and disparaged key military allies (like South Korea).

The only threat of a coup is, of course, from Trump himself. He has “joked” about serving indefinitely as president. He has attempted to circumvent all the democratic mechanisms designed to constrain his executive power. He seems to delight in flouting the Constitution. Given an inch of executive power, he won’t be satisfied until he gets the whole nine yards.

Revolution as Coup

No one would confuse the French revolution for a coup. It was a popular uprising against the monarchy. No one would label the American revolution a coup. It was an anti-colonial struggle for independence. The Haitian revolution, the Russian revolution of February 1918, the Iranian revolution: these were all popular transformations of the existing order.

But today, a number of popular revolts have been labelled coups. The Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014, for instance, was a protest started by students upset over Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to backtrack on a promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union. When the riot police attacked the students, a million people showed up on the streets in Kyiv and protests broke out around the country. Women, and feminist organizations in particular, played a key role, as did other social movements. Nationalist and far right-wing organizations like Svoboda were also present. But a transpartisan consensus emerged over the illegitimacy of the Yanukovych government, his corruption and violations of human rights. This consensus eventually brought enough pressure to bear on the Ukrainian parliament to vote overwhelmingly to impeach Yanukovych – who’d already fled Kyiv – and announce early elections.

Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that what took place in Ukraine was a coup sponsored by the United States. Incredibly, some U.S. voices on the left and even the center have echoed this argument, despite the clearly popular nature of the uprising. Certainly some key U.S. figures, like the State Department’s Victoria Nuland, supported the protestors. And plenty of U.S. moves – like the attempted expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep – raised tensions in the region. But direct U.S. involvement in the Euromaidan, beyond Nuland’s distribution of pastries to the protestors (and the riot police), was minimal.

Most critically, the Ukrainian military did not play a role in ousting the Yanukovych regime. Did the subsequent government in Ukraine make mistakes? Of course. But that doesn’t somehow make the Euromaidan events retroactively a coup.

From Protest to Coup

The protests against Evo Morales in Bolivia bore a superficial resemblance to the Euromaidan events of 2014. Responding to charges of election fraud in the October election, Bolivians of various political backgrounds, including some trade unionists, feminists, and members of indigenous communities, began to protest. The dissatisfaction with Morales had begun with his earlier refusal to accept the results of a referendum that failed to abolish term limits. Morales argued before the constitutional court that term limits violated his human rights, eventually gaining the “right” to run for his fourth term.

But that’s where the similarities end.  Morales was a genuinely popular leader, which Yanukovych was not. Morales had brought about many important social reforms, reducing the poverty rate from 60 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2017. “His first act as president was to form a constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution that radically extended political and social rights — such as equal access to water, work, health, education and housing — to historically marginalized groups, while offering indigenous autonomy and land rights,” writes Natasha Bennett in The Washington Post.

Morales was very likely to win this year’s presidential election. The only question was the margin and whether he’d win in the first round. In the face of protests over the election results, he even promised to hold another election.

That’s when the military “suggested” that Morales resign. The military’s intervention was perhaps not as heavy-handed as in the “post-modern coup” in Turkey in 1997, which led to the resignation of then-president Necmettin Erbakan, but it produced a similar result when Morales stepped down.

And that’s when the true takeover occurred, as second vice president of the Bolivian Senate Jeanine Añez Chavez assumed power. Her crackdown on protests have led to at least 30 deaths. She has exempted the military from prosecution for its use of force, has aligned herself with the Christian far right, and consolidated her political control despite the strength of Morales’s party Mas. The Trump administration, not surprisingly, has embraced Añez.

An agreement with Mas mandates elections within 120 days. If Añez respects the agreement, if the elections are free and fair, if the military returns to its barracks, then the Bolivian coup might turn out to be limited in scope. But those are a lot of ifs. And it remains a significant step backward for all the marginalized groups that benefited during the Morales era.

The Parliamentary Coup?

When Dilma Rousseff was impeached in Brazil in 2016, she declared the process a “parliamentary coup.” Rather than a perpetrator of corruption, she has argued that she was the victim of it: a corrupt elite had her removed to protect itself from investigations.

Rousseff’s charge seems to resemble Trump’s. Impeachment is as much a part of the Brazilian constitution as the U.S. constitution. She wasn’t impeached over major misconduct but rather the narrow charge of concealing a budget deficit. On the other hand, a majority of Brazilians supported impeachment hearings and Rousseff’s approval rating was in the low teens.

The impeachment may well have been unfair, but it’s hard to call it a coup. Rather, it reflects the deeply divided nature of Brazilian politics and the pervasiveness of corruption such that all sides can weaponize accusations of influence-peddling. In addition to the persistence of caudillo-like leaders in the region – like Brazil’s current leader Jair Bolsonaro or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro – the region still struggles with unmanageable violence, a culture of impunity, deep economic inequality, and fragile political institutions.

But Latin America is not unique in this regard. The debate over whether an impeachment is a “coup” – in Brazil, in Ukraine, in the United States – speaks to the giant step backward that democracy has taken over the last decade. For better or worse, there is no longer a consensus around “normal” democratic practice. The polarization of the electorate now allows for two entirely different concepts of democracy to co-exist – one determined by the rule of law and the other determined by the powerful.

Yes, yes, I know: the rule of law reflects the interests of the powerful. That principle was certainly on display in Brazil. But the rule of law also protects the weak against the predations of the strong. And in this brave new world that Trump presides over, this latter understanding of the rule of law is under siege. It can be seen in how the Trumps of the world are attacking the courts, attempting to roll back the gains of social movements in the area of human rights, and undermining a range of watchdog institutions.

If Trump wins in the Senate and then at the polls in 2020, he won’t just beat the impeachment rap. Like Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and (so far) Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, he’ll have successfully destroyed the mechanisms that stand in the way of his absolutism.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 11, 2019

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Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Fantasy Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

Trump as Marionette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Charge of Corruption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign Entanglement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Afghanistan: Out of the Graveyard and into the Pyre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The China Quagmire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Nuclear Escalation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addicted to War

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump’s Send-Them-Back Doctrine

During the height of Stalin’s purges, the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase near the door of his apartment.

The Black Marias, the vehicle of choice for the secret police, would traditionally arrive in the middle of the night to ferry “undesirables” to interrogation cells. Shostakovich wanted to be ready at any moment for possible exile to Siberia. He was a much-celebrated figure in the Soviet Union, but Stalin had taken a dislike to his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. The Soviet dictator was like that: unpredictable.

The Soviets executed more than a half a million people in 1937-1938, while about 18 million peoplewere imprisoned in the gulags from 1929 to 1953. Shostakovich had good reason to be fearful. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a significant portion of the population lived in fear of arrest, then execution or internal exile.

Today, in the United States, a vast population of the undocumented live in constant fear of arrest and exile, not to some far-flung area of the United States but back to their countries of birth.

Some of them, like Shostakovich, have packed their bags in advance. In East Tennessee, Alberto Librado’s 11-year-old daughter has two suitcases always ready so that she can accompany her father back to Mexico, even though she, born in the United States, could legally stay behind. The Librados and so many other families await the Black Marias of ICE.

In contrast to those who feared Stalin’s wrath, the undocumented won’t be interrogated and forced to sign incriminating confessions. Nor will they be executed. But many left their countries because of a well-justified fear of persecution or harm. Their deportation may indeed be a death sentence.

The overwhelming majority of those who died during Stalin’s reign served the Communist state faithfully. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of the undocumented have labored hard here in the United States, usually at jobs that the native-born simply don’t want — in the sweltering fields of Florida or the frigid slaughterhouses of the South and Midwest. At a time of low unemployment, their labor is needed more than ever. The state’s push to deport them seems irrational and self-defeating, just like the Soviet Communist Party’s decision to persecute its own loyal members.

The deportations that Trump has threatened did not begin with him. The Clinton administration deported more than 12 million people, the George W. Bush administration more than 10 million, and the Obama administration more than 5 million. But there was a difference. “During Obama, the overwhelming majority of enforcement actions targeted criminal aliens,” John Cohen, former acting under secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, told The New York Times. Trump’s “operation apparently specifically targets families who for the most part present no risk.”

Moreover, the Trump administration has demonized the undocumented like never before. “They aren’t people,” Trump has said, “they are animals.” The administration has revived the practice of workplace raids. It has tried to roll back protection for the “dreamers,” young people who came to America as minors. It has removed “temporary protective status” for over 300,000 people from six countries.

And this week the administration announced that it will end most asylum-seeking at the border by blocking anyone who has passed through a third country — mostly Mexico — to the U.S. border. That means a big cold shoulder to anyone fleeing violence and persecution from Central America.

The latest round of ICE raids was supposed to begin this weekend but they were scaled back because targeted communities had advanced notice thanks to media reports. But Trump will be keeping this issue in the news until Election Day 2020. The immigration issue is a sure-fire method of firing up his base.

It also fits into his larger framing of the issue, which is a profound and malignant redefinition of “we the people.”

Forget about Minorities

Before the last G-20 meeting last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an interview to the Financial Times. His description of liberalism as “obsolete” received a lot of media coverage. But it was his itemization of liberalism’s defects that deserves greater attention.

For Putin, liberalism’s greatest failing is its emphasis on minority protections, which conflict with “the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Those minority protections include LGBT rights, which Putin sees in conflict with “the culture, traditions, and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”

Right-wing populists, because they so often represent minority constituencies like the rich or the outwardly racist, have to reconceive the “people” in order to demonstrate that they reflect the majority. Populists speak on behalf of this imagined majority when they suppress the rights of minorities, as Putin as done. They also do their best to dismantle the democratic institutions of the state that protect the interests of minorities, going after one group after another in a game of divide and rule.

The most disturbing example of this marshalling of an imagined majority against a beleaguered minority is the attack on migrants and refugees. Putin zeroes in on liberalism’s approach to non-citizens, particularly Germany’s embrace of a million desperate souls from the wars convulsing the Middle East.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done,” Putin argues. “That migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

That’s of course absurd. Migrants, like everyone else, are subject to the rule of law in Germany or the United States. It’s the height of hypocrisy for Putin to make this assertion, given that he kills and plunders with impunity. But that’s what distinguishes liberalism from the Russian president’s self-proclaimed illiberalism, which puts himself above the law.

Here the symmetry between Putin and Trump becomes all too clear. Trump is not Putin’s spy. He is Putin’s student. Together they attribute all social evils to the outsider — so as to preserve an illusion that the “core population” (including, of course, themselves) is blameless.

Trump has gone even further than Putin in his understanding of who constitutes a migrant. The president’s recent tweets that certain progressive Democrats — obviously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — should “go back” to the “places from which they came” are an extraordinary elevation of street insult to state-sanctioned racism. All four politicians are American citizens, and three of them were born in this country.

And the response from Trump’s Republican supporters? “They are American citizens,” Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said. “They won an election. Take on their policies. The bottom line here is this is a diverse country. Mr. President, you’re right about their policies. You’re right about where they will take the country. Just aim higher.”

And how does Graham characterize their policies? “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists,” Graham said. “They hate Israel, they hate our own country.”

Graham, a fervent supporter of gun rights, knows all about “aiming higher.” He’s not talking about elevating the discourse. He’s talking about shooting to kill (politically) by using some tried-and-true bullets (anti-Communism, anti-Semitism).

All of which is to say that the Republican Party has various ways of demonizing minorities and distinguishing them from a red-blooded American majority. Putin is right: liberalism has become obsolete, at least for much of the ruling elite in the United States.

They’re Real People

One reason that Trump and the Republican right have gotten away with their anti-immigrant sentiment is that “average Americans” don’t have much contact with the undocumented. Direct contact, that is. So much of the conveniences of modern life depend on the labor provided by the undocumented: tomatoes, chicken wings, manicured lawns, clean office spaces.

What separates the documented and the undocumented is a wall of language, of economic stratification, of cultural segregation. This is the real wall that Trump is reinforcing every day.

But sometimes that wall is breached.

Consider the following story from a recent This American Life episode, about an ICE raid on a slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tennessee — where Alberto Librado worked before he was detained — and the reaction of Trump supporter Krista Etter.

Etter had to go to a local vigil for the parents that ICE rounded up in order to take pictures of it for the local paper. And she started to listen to the children talking at the microphone.

There was a young man. He was a teenager, 14, 15 years old, that said, he just wanted his mom to come home. He didn’t have anybody else. He just wanted his mom to come home. It just really, just shook my soul. It was — it was almost overwhelming, because there were so many children speaking. And — and, I actually kind of had to get out of there. Because I was like, it’s getting hot. And I have health issues. And I was like, I need to — I have to remove myself, you know, walk out to my car, get a breath.

You can almost hear how this new information begins to transform Etter’s thinking:

Because when I heard crack down on illegal immigration, I interpreted it as a crackdown on illegal immigrants that were criminals. If there was a drug situation, you know, violent criminals, pedophile, any kind of situation of that nature. That’s what I expected.

And I really believe I’m not the only one who did that. I don’t think anybody ever really stopped to think that they were going to go after the family man working at the meatpacking plant. That’s not what I had in mind.

I’m still a President Trump supporter. I guess, I have to hold out hope that maybe he didn’t understand he was going after the guy in the meatpacking plant. I mean, I guess he probably does.

It wasn’t just Etter whose mind was changing. The mayor of Morristown, where many of the Bean Station workers lived, calls himself a “lifelong Republican of the Reagan variety.” Gary Chesney is not the kind of mayor interested in setting up a sanctuary city. “We’ve been following the rules and guidelines here,” he told The New Yorker. “But the innocent victims were the kids whose parents were picked up. I was also proud that our locals took care of the innocent folks.”

The mayor’s thinking is still evolving — note his distinction between the “innocent” children and the presumably “guilty” parents who have been working so hard at the nearby slaughterhouse. Still, the mayor admits: “We all get a little bit smarter as the issue gets more personal.”

The issue has never gotten personal for Trump, even though he has employed plenty of undocumented folks at his enterprises going all the way back to the start of his career. Undocumented Polish workers who built Trump Tower later sued Trump. They reported “nightmare memories of backbreaking 12-hour shifts and of being cheated with 200 other undocumented Polish immigrants out of meager wages and fringe benefits.”

The issue has never gotten personal for Trump, even though his wife’s parents obtained American citizenship by using the same method of “chain migration” that the president has declared “must end now.”

The issue has never gotten person for Trump because he has not gotten even “a little bit smarter” about immigration. He used the undocumented to build his buildings, to construct his brand, to win the White House. It was despicable then on a local level, and it’s despicable now at a global level.

He will stop only when enough Krista Etters see through the canard.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 17, 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

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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