Hi everybody, and welcome to another miscellany of European sense and nonsense. I’m focusing this week on how POTUS*’s various foreign policy initiatives are being perceived, and the verdicts are decidely mixed.
As is becoming usual, Patrick Cockburn has words of wisdom.
Donald Trump is often compared to Vladimir Putin by the media which detects ominous parallels between the two men as populist nationalist leaders. The message is that Trump with his furious attacks on the media would like to emulate Putin’s authoritarianism. There is some truth in this, but when it comes to the effect on US status and power in the world, the similarities are greater between Trump and Yeltsin than between Trump and Putin.
Trump does not drink alcohol, but his incoherent verbal onslaughts on Australia, Mexico and Sweden since he became President are strongly reminiscent of Yeltsin’s embarrassing antics. Both men won power as demagogic anti-establishment leaders who won elections by promising to reform and clear out corruption in the existing system. The result in Russia was calamitous national decline and the same thing could now happen in America.
It will be difficult for the US to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of “Fake News” simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.
This cannot go on very long without sizeably diminishing American global influence as its judgement and actions become so unpredictable. Over the last three quarters of a century, countries of all political hues – dictatorships and democracies, republics and monarchies – have wanted to be an ally of the US because it was the most powerful player in world affairs.
The election of Trump brings with it another negative but less tangible outcome that is already eating away at American primacy: the US will be not only divided but unable to focus on for the foreseeable future on anything other than the consequences of Trumpism. When US politicians, officials and media look at Russia, China, Ukraine, Iran, Israel or anywhere else in the world from Sweden to Australia, they will view them through a prism distorted by his preconceptions and fantasies.
Once it was smaller European countries like Ireland and Poland that were derided for an exaggerated and unhealthy preoccupation with their own problems. A Polish joke from the 1920s relates how an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Pole competed to write the best essay on the elephant. The Englishman described “elephant hunting in India”, the French wrote about “the elephant in love” and the Pole produced a lengthy paper on “the elephant and the Polish Question”. These days the Englishman would undoubtedly write about “the elephant and Brexit” and an American, if he was allowed to enter the competition, would write interminably about “the elephant and Donald Trump”.
In Switzerland’s NZZ, Eric Gujer considers how Trump’s confusing rhetoric about foreign affairs may run into difficulty because America’s long-term strategic interests don’t actually change all that much whover is in the White House:
The new American government considers NATO to be a useful thing, it keeps its distance from Russia, and it conforms to the status quo in Asia. While the administration is pursuing an ideologically impregnated agenda in domestic policy, it appears to have less fixed views on diplomatic and military matters. This gives the ministerial bureaucracy the opportunity to play out their experience and to continue proven traditions.
The presidential advisors to the Interior are on a crusade that has just begun. The foreign policy team consists of pragmatists who think in the pathways of Orthodox politics.
The attraction of election campaigns is that everyone can demand everything. Once in the government offices, the actors then quickly notice that some wishes are mutually exclusive. Someone who supports aggression towards Iran will find a deep friendship with Russia difficult. After all, Moscow and Tehran are allied combatants in Syria, and the Iranian military would like to intensify this cooperation, for example, through armaments deals.
Anyone who perceives North Korea and its missile tests as a threat cannot be completely aggressive with Beijing. After all, the Chinese are the only ones who can influence the Korean regime. And someone wanting to form an alliance with the Arab-Sunni states against the Islamic state does not do itself many favors by being Netanyahu’s poodle in the Palestine issue.
The new government has not yet formulated its priorities. Surprises can not be ruled out. But the expectation seems justified, that many answers will be rather conventional. Especially since an apparatus which is constantly busy dealing with its boss’s mental flashes develops only little impact.
Having no idea is not a sufficient prerequisite for a successful foreign policy. And even those who have an idea, still have to implement it. The Obama administration developed the concept of a turn to Asia with a lot of noise, but it remained largely at the level of announcements. There are enough pitfalls for ambitious strategists. Therefore, the probability of Trump’s team changing very little is not small. In foreign policy this would be an orderly result.
Not everyone thinks that would be a good idea. Giampaolo Rossi thinks that would just show how the military-industrial complex runs everything anyway. (Warning: this is a very odd piece.)
When politics (ie the Government and Parliament) is strong, legitimate and sovereign, the Deep State is kept at bay, under control and may even have a positive function of stability…
When politics is weak, the Deep State prevails over it, the conditions and blackmails becoming a sort of “shadow government” .. and it may even happen that the Deep State becomes itself the government.
When we complain of why governments change but never change anything in a country, it is because we do not perceive the immense power of the Deep State.
The Michael Flynn political elimination, the man that Donald Trump had put in charge of the National Security Council the right to reshape American foreign policy, is proof of the violent offensive that the Deep State is mounting against the US President.
The Deep State is the true Donald Trump enemy; the axis of the corrupt media system and the Soros-funded activist violence to scare the public, keeps America in the hands of ruthless elite.
We’ll see if Donald Trump will be able to resist the offensive that the Deep State has unleashed against him and against American democracy or whether he capitulates. If he can go down in history as a President or will become a mere puppet in the hands of the War Party as was Obama and Clinton would have been. Whether thanks to him America will again be a model of democracy for the world or the nation will remain the hostage of a criminal elite that in these nine years has produced humanitarian chaos and wars all over the Middle East to feed the geopolitical games and financial economic interests of Washington lobbies.
Gabriel Elefteriu thinks that the new National Security Adviser will have a significant effect:
Towards the end of his speech, the General also mentioned the need to “think in competitive terms again”, citing a recent essay by Nadia Schadlow that warned of the “serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance”. This may turn out to be the most significant indicator of the change in American grand strategy which is likely to follow. A wider problem with Western strategic thinking has been at play: put simply, after the Cold War we stopped thinking about our adversaries in competitive terms, and switched to a “risk” or “threat-based” model; they did not.
Great power competition never stopped. We just chose to ignore it as the “unipolar moment” dawned and as the West – America especially – basked in its “peerless” status. We mothballed the sophisticated ability we had acquired during the Cold War for calculating military balances – or, as the Soviets called it, the “correlation of forces” – and for understanding the true “power” of our adversaries, in all its manifestations.
In conjunction with other fallacies of the kind enumerated by General McMaster, this has proven highly detrimental to America and the West’s strategic “performance” over the past fifteen years. Any risk-based formula is by definition un-strategic: among other drawbacks, such neat categories of risk oversimplify a complex landscape; it takes a passive, short-term approach rather than dealing with underlying causes; and it struggles to consider threats in their full context. It is not difficult to see why such a way of looking at the world would blind Western strategists to the emergence of things like: “hybrid warfare”; the resurgence of Russian conventional military capability; or the expansion of Iran’s military footprint across the Middle East.
Most importantly, a risk-based approach makes it difficult to see the whole picture of an integrated enemy strategy which uses propaganda campaigns, proxies and other forms of power alongside conventional forces. It is therefore of limited use in proposing effective counter-measures or preventing unwelcome surprises.
Dan O’Brien in the Irish Independent worries a lot about trade:
With the solitary exception of a period around the Iraq invasion, when elements within the first George W Bush administration contemplated a divide-and-conquer strategy vis-a-vis Europe, the US has encouraged European integration since its inceptions. It has done so because it believed a strong, coherent Europe was in its best interests – whether as a bulwark against the Soviets in the past or as a natural supporter of most US positions in global affairs today.
Trump is very different. His ‘America First’ vision of relations with other countries is based on one-to-one dealing, rather than on messier multilateral arrangements. His logic appears to be that because the US is more powerful than any other country, conducting relations bilaterally will mean he always has the upper hand. There is certainly a logic to this, but most scholars of international relations argue that exclusive bilateralism, even for a superpower, won’t work in a world as complex and interconnected as ours.
That Donald Tusk, the pro-American Pole who is president of the European Council, has publicly listed the Trump administration as a threat to Europe as great as Russia and terrorism speaks volumes about the concerns that exist. But it is not just multilateral-type structures that Trump has railed against. In speeches and tweets, he has aggressively lashed out against how the international economy functions, despite the US being one of the greatest beneficiaries of it over decades. Rather than believing that freely flowing trade and investment can result in gains for all, he takes a zero-sum game view of economic relations – what one country gains another must necessarily lose.
The longer term damage to the rules-based global trading system could be even more serious. For those who believe that the world needs global institutions and global governance structures to deal with global issues, the World Trade Organisation is pivotal. Unlike many other toothless international organisations, the WTO has a full-scale court structure whose rulings members accept. That includes the US, which is a regular litigant and complainant at the WTO in Geneva.
If the US were to reject an adverse finding by the WTO against a border tax or signal early in the process that it did not accept the jurisdiction of the body (Trump last summer described it as a “disaster”), then the linchpin of the entire international trading system would be in question.
One month into the Trump presidency, there is almost as much reason to believe that Ireland, Europe and the rest of the world will suffer negative consequences as there was on the day of his election. Hopes of a Trump-lite presidency have all but evaporated. Tumultuous times are ahead.
We are led to believe that Trump’s foreign policy is largely driven by the exciting Steve Bannon, so this piece from the Frankfurter Allgemeine by James Kirchick is particularly interesting. Helpfully, it’s in English already:
The defining ideological battle of our present moment can best be understood as a competition between two individuals: White House Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The fate of the Western world as we know it may very well depend on whose worldview succeeds.
Bannon, President Donald Trump’s most influential and powerful advisor, sees Western civilization locked in an eternal struggle with Islam. “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” he told a conference of conservative religious leaders assembled at the Vatican in 2014. “If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing.” Bannon is obsessed with war; references to battle a constant refrain of nearly every speech he’s delivered and interview he’s granted. “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said in 2014, “we’re in a war of immense proportions,” a “global war against Islamic fascism.”
Unlike Bannon, who casually conflates the religion of 1.7 billion practicing Muslims with a radical variety of that faith bent on violence and subjugation, Merkel believes that Islam is compatible with Western democracy. In 2015, at the height of protests organized by the Dresden-based People Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), the Chancellor expressed her conviction that “Islam belongs to Germany” and that those joining the weekly demonstrations had “hatred in their hearts.” Later that year, in a move that would earn her the undying enmity of Bannon and the right-wing nationalist website he used to run, Breitbart.com, Merkel opened Germany’s doors to some 1 million mostly Muslim migrants. Whatever one thinks of that decision (and for what it’s worth, I believe it was misguided), it sprung from the best of intentions, namely, a belief that the democratic West has a duty to help those in need regardless of their religious affiliation.
Ironically, many Europeans would find much to like in Bannon’s economic philosophy, characterized as it is by a reverence for “enlightened capitalism” over “crony capitalism.” In his Vatican address, Bannon criticized the “state-sponsored capitalism” of Russia and China as well as the “Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism”, both of which, he argued, have enriched “the party of Davos” while leaving the majority of “working men and women” behind. Though his protectionism is anathema to devotees of the world’s greatest free trade zone, the European Union, Bannon otherwise advocates the sort of system embraced by the broad consensus of German politicians, business leaders, and regular citizens, the “social market economy”.
If Bannon is basically a Christian (or Social) Democrat on economics and an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist like Frank Gaffney on the question of Islam, he’s a Pat Buchanan-esque paleoconservative when it comes to national identity.
In the wake of Trump’s election, much has been said and written about how Germany in general, and Merkel in particular, are now the last remaining guardians of the liberal world order, a sentiment that Senator John McCain appeared to endorse over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference when he praised “the absolutely vital role that Germany and its honorable Chancellor, Chancellor Merkel, are playing in defense of the idea and the conscience of the West” and not so subtly chastised his own president for “flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.” Talk of Merkel being “leader of the free world” is rather simplistic and self-flattering; Germany does not possess anything near the military means necessary to assume such responsibility and the scandalous prosecution of a comedian for insulting Turkey’s authoritarian president undermines its commitment to free speech. But in the emerging confrontation between Bannonism and Merkelism that characterizes the struggle for the soul and direction of the Western world, there can be no question of which Weltanschauung must prevail.
And that’s all I’ve got about POTUS*. I’ve been much more interested in the two by-elections in Britain this week, in which the main opposition party lost a seat to the governing party — the first time that has happened since 1982 — and Labour held off the challenge from UKIP in the constituency said to have voted most heavily for Brexit, the UKIP candidate being the newish leader of the party Paul Nuttall.
Both by-elections are held, amongst the commentariat at least, to have been catastrophic for the parties coming second. Labour losing Copeland means that Corbyn’s got to go, and UKIP failing to gain Stoke shows that they are completely irrelevant now that we’ve had the referendum (and of course Corbyn and the Corbynistas regard their holding the seat as evidence that Corbyn should stay).
My take is that Corbyn may be completely useless, but that ditching him won’t do Labour much good because they have no idea what to do. British politics is now Brexit, Brexit, Brexit and fuck all else. Big city Labour were Remainers, small town and rural Labour Leavers. Big city Labour is pro-immigration, small town and rural Labour massively anti. Labour face annihilation outside the big cities, and there aren’t enough seats in big cities for them to get anywhere near a majority. In fact, there aren’t enough seats in big cities for them to maintain even their present position. Prime Minister May keeps making speeches about the awfulness of corporate fat cats and how the economy has to be made to work a lot better for the people who make just about enough to get along: one may doubt the sincerity (although, actually, I don’t), but the problem there is that Brexit is so all-consuming that the government haven’t got time to actually do anything about her rhetoric. But while she is saying that sort of thing, what do the Labour Party say which isn’t the same, given that in order to reconnect with voters, they need to offer proposals which make the economy work better for the people who are just about getting along?
Which is also UKIP’s problem. They’ve achieved the Brexit vote they wanted, but since that was the only thing uniting them in the first place, they have no idea at all. And repellent though Farage is, he at least has a personality. Without him, UKIP are a pretty uninteresting bunch. Such policy as they have on non-Brexit matters is a ragbag of unconnected proposals on a range of issues: one can easily imagine that it was drawn up by a conference at which various obsessives each got up and talked convincingly about their one issue and nobody else knew enough to argue against them and so that’s what they all went along with. So they want rainbows but not unicorns (which give you cancer anyway) and to cut welfare spending overall but spend more on each component of welfare spending.
The Lib Dems are virtuous Remoaners and are getting no traction, and the SNP are psyching themselves up to fight another independence referendum on the interesting argument that because Scotland’s major trading partner is about to leave the EU, it will benefit the Scottish economy to join the EU and put up tariff barriers with England and Wales, and leave the sterling area for the eurozone, when the euro is still a weaker currency than the pound.
Which means there’s no coherent opposition to the Conservative government, which is waking up to the horrible realities of how incredibly difficult Brexit is going to be and the fact that if you divert half the Civil Service to sorting Brexit out, that leaves half the government’s other work not getting done.
And pics of Mother Theresa holding Donald’s tiny hand because he’s afraid of stairs aren’t really a substitute.