Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?


September 28, 2017

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?

by Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng*

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sdgs-global-cooperation-trump-un-speech-by-andrew-sheng-and-xiao-geng-2017-09

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably.

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US President Donald Trump’s recent speech at the United Nations has gotten a lot of attention for its bizarre and bellicose rhetoric, including threats to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and “totally destroy” North Korea. Underlying his declarations was a clear message: the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives. This does not bode well for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Adopted by the UN just a year before Trump’s election, the SDGs will require that countries cooperate on crucial global targets related to climate change, poverty, public health, and much else. In an age of contempt for international cooperation, not to mention entrenched climate-change denial in the Trump administration, is achieving the SDGs wishful thinking?

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably. Simply put, populations are losing faith that the global development orthodoxy of good governance (including monetary and fiscal discipline) and free markets can benefit them.

With all of the advanced countries confronting serious fiscal constraints, and emerging markets weakened by lower commodity prices, paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing. Budget cuts – together with accountability issues and new technological challenges – are also hurting those tasked with delivering good governance. And markets increasingly seem to be captured by vested interests.

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Economic outcomes often have their origins in politics. Harvard Law School’s Roberto Unger has argued that overcoming the challenges of knowledge-based development will demand “inclusive vanguardism.” The democratization of the market economy, he says, is possible only with “a corresponding deepening of democratic politics,” which implies “the institutional reconstruction of the market itself.”

Yet, in the US, the political system seems unlikely to produce such a reconstruction. Harvard Business School Professors Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter argue that America’s two-party system “has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge” facing the country.

Political leaders, Gehl and Porter continue, “compete on ideology and unrealistic promises, not on action and results,” and “divide voters and serve special interests” – all while facing little accountability. A forthcoming book by University of San Francisco Professor Shalendra Sharma corroborates this view. Comparing economic inequality in China, India, and the US, Sharma argues that both democratic and authoritarian governance have failed to promote equitable development.

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There are four potential combinations of outcomes for countries: (1) good governance and good economic policies; (2) good politics and bad economics; (3) bad politics and good economics; and (4) bad politics and bad economics. Other things being equal, there is only a one-in-four chance of arriving at a win-win situation of good governance and strong economic performance. That chance is diminished further by other disruptions, from natural disasters to external interference.

There are those who believe that technology will help to overcome such disruptions, by spurring enough growth to generate the resources needed to mitigate their impact. But while technology is consumer-friendly, it produces its own considerable costs.

Technology kills jobs in the short term and demands re-skilling of the labor force. Moreover, knowledge-intensive technology has a winner-take-all network effect, whereby hubs seize access to knowledge and power, leaving less-privileged groups, classes, sectors, and regions struggling to compete.

Thanks to social media, the resulting discontent now spreads faster than ever, leading to destructive politics. This can invite geopolitical interference, which quickly deteriorates into a lose-lose scenario, like that already apparent in water-stressed and conflict-affected countries, where governments are fragile or failing.

The combination of bad politics and economics in one country can easily produce contagion, as rising migration spreads political stress and instability to other countries. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there were 65 million refugees last year, compared to just 1.6 million in 1960. Given the endurance of geopolitical conflict, not to mention the rapidly growing impact of climate change, migration levels are not expected to decline anytime soon.

The SDGs aim to relieve these pressures, by protecting the environment and improving the lives of people within their home countries. But achieving them will require far more responsible politics and a much stronger social consensus. And that will require a fundamental shift in mindset, from one of competition to one that emphasizes cooperation.

Just as we have no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods, we have no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace. That is why multilateral institutions need to be upgraded and restructured, with effective decision-making and implementation mechanisms for managing global development challenges such as infrastructure gaps, migration, climate change, and financial instability. Such a system would go a long way toward supporting progress toward the SDGs.

Unger argues that all of today’s democracies “are flawed, low-energy democracies,” in which “no trauma” – in the form of economic ruin or military conflict – means “no transformation.” He is right. In this environment, reflected in Trump’s embrace of the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states, achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible.

*Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the UNEP Advisory Council on Sustainable Finance, is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His latest book is From Asian to Global Financial Crisis.

*Xiao Geng, President of the Hong Kong Institution for International Finance, is a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Technology–The Liberator and Great Equalizer, says Dr. Bakri Musa


September 19, 2017

Technology–The Liberator and Great Equalizer

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

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The challenge for Malays and non-Malays in this global era is to cultivate an open mind because the alternative means depriving yourself of new opportunities.–Dr. M Bakri Musa

Modern technology, specifically digital, brings us to the outside world, and it to us. Today what happens in the isolated caves high in the mountains of Kabul can be recorded on a cell phone and then posted on the Web for the whole world to see. Even a repressive regime like China could not control the dissemination of images of its tanks bulldozing innocent citizens back at Tiananmen Square in 1989, though not for lack of trying.

The success of the Arab Jasmine Revolution owes much to this digital revolution. Through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, ordinary citizens communicated with each other in real time to organize massive demonstrations that brought down powerful leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

I assert that the digital technology is a much more powerful and consequential instrument of liberation than the AK47, hitherto (still is) the favorite with not-so-bright revolutionaries worldwide.

Eygpt’s Hosni Mubarak was derailed not by a gunman, like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, but by a social revolution made possible by the online social network. If there were to be a leader of that movement, it would be Google executive Wael Ghonim. Unlike earlier Arab revolutionaries who were military officers, this guy was, for lack of better word, a geek. What an incredible achievement what he had done! No one could have predicted that Hosni Mubarak, who only a few months previously was the most powerful man in the Arab world, would face charges of premeditated murder for the deaths of those protestors.

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Digital technology is not the only modern agent of liberation. Modern transportation has reduced if not removed the barrier of geography. Today I can fly from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur in less time than it took my sister to get from Kuala Pilah to Teachers’ College in Kota Baru via Malayan Railway back in the 1950s.

Travel, in so far as it affords one the opportunity to experience different cultures and realities, can be liberating. While the digital revolution might afford a virtual reality on the convenience and safety of your sofa, travel lets you experience reality in its raw, unfiltered physical form.

The liberating effect of travel works both on the traveler as well as the host. This liberating result, however, is not guaranteed. Seeing how the rest of the world operates may not necessarily open up minds; in some it would result in the exact opposite.

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The Chinese Emperor of the 15th Century sent out explorers out to the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans. Far from opening up Chinese minds, those exotics foreign expeditions merely reaffirmed their smug superiority that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians outside, a manifestation of a collective “confirmation bias” at the societal level.

The Chinese were so confident of their superiority that they eschewed the need for further foreign explorations. They went further. They ordered the dismantling of their advanced and massive maritime infrastructures and banned the building of boats, declaring that to be frivolous and resource-wasting exercises.

Meanwhile the Europeans continued with theirs. The scale was considerably much less, their ships pale imitations of the Chinese. The length of Columbus’s flagship Santa Maria was less than half the width of Cheng Ho’s.

Unlike the ancient Chinese, the medieval Europeans had no pretensions of grandeur; they explored the world with an open mind. They had no delusions about their ways being the best; instead they observed in those foreign lands things they could take home, like tea and spices. It did not take them long to recognize the enormous potential in trading those commodities by introducing new culinary experiences to European palates. The Europeans also soon discovered that the Chinese had a voracious appetite for opium, which the Brits could secure with ease from India. Lucrative commercial domination soon led to the political variety, and thus colonialism was born.

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Why one culture reacted a certain way and another, the very opposite, is intriguing. In the final analysis, it boils down to a culture’s openness to new ideas and experiences, its collective open mindedness. The ancient Chinese had closed minds; the medieval Europeans, open.

Today some foreigners arrive in a new country, and on encountering an alien culture would retreat, fearing it would “contaminate” their pristine values. They would close ranks and congregate in their own little ghettoes, refusing to integrate with the native majority. We see this in America as well as Malaysia.

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“…the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Technology and Digitization) is empowering the empowering the economically disadvantaged by giving them access to digital networks, increasing the efficiency of organisations, improving medical care with personalised drugs and providing a technological solution to climate change”.–Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, President, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.

 

Others view their new experiences as open opportunities and endless learning. Some are simply grateful to be given a new lease on life after escaping the wretchedness of their native land. Eastern Europeans who came to America early in the last century were grateful and thus more than eager to join the American mainstream. They readily gave up their old ways to integrate as quickly as possible into their new society. They learned English quickly and changed their names to make them sound more Anglo-Saxon, with Pawlinsky morphing into the less jaw-breaking Paul.

Even when they were actively discriminated against, and the early Jews, Irish and Italians in America definitely were, they continued to adopt American ways. They did not rush to build Italian or Jewish schools; instead they built their own English schools so their children would not be handicapped in integrating into mainstream American society. They did not consider such actions as repudiating or denigrating their own culture. Far from it! They realized that their own culture and ways of life would more likely survive if were to thrive and be successful in their adopted land.

Today St. Patrick Day and Octoberfest are celebrated more exuberantly in Chicago and Milwaukee respectively than in Dublin or Berlin.

It is tempting to attribute the contrasting reactions of early immigrants to America from Europe to later ones from Asia and Latin America to the differences in circumstances that prompted them to emigrate. The Europeans were forcibly thrown out of their native lands through pogroms or wars. In contrast, recent Asian and Latin American immigrants cross the border voluntarily, for the most part (the South Vietnamese being the most recent notable exception). The Europeans did not ever want to return to their homelands. By contrast, many recent Hispanics consider their stay in America temporary, remaining just long enough to accumulate some money so they could return and live comfortably back in their native land. As such, they do not feel compelled to learn English or in any way integrate into American society.

A similar “temporary abode” mentality occurred with immigrants from China and India into Malaysia early last century. Brought in by the colonials to work the tin mines and rubber plantations, their mindset was to work hard, accumulate enough savings, and then balik Tongsan (return to their motherland, China). Hence there was little need to learn the local language or adapt to local culture. They remained insular, xenophobic, and closed-minded.

They were completely different from the Chinese men and women who much earlier voluntarily settled in the Straits Settlement, the Peranakan. They absorbed many of the elements of Malay culture, including the language and attire. They were not obsessed with balik Tongsan. When the British were in charge, those Chinese learned English; in independent Malaysia, they worked with the majority Malays.

The challenge for Malays and non-Malays in this global era is to cultivate an open mind because the alternative means depriving yourself of new opportunities.

Surviving America’s Political Meltdown


August 17, 2017

Surviving America’s Political Meltdown

by Jeffrey D. Sachs*

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*Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His books include The End of Poverty, Common Wealth, The Age of Sustainable Development, and, most recently, Building the New American Economy.

The US is in the midst of a political meltdown, unable to manage a domestic economic agenda or a coherent foreign policy. The White House is in turmoil; Congress is paralyzed; and the world is looking on in astonishment and dread. If we are to survive and overcome this collapse, we must understand its sources.

There are two power centers in Washington, DC: the White House and the Capitol. Both are in disarray, but for different reasons.

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The White House–Calm and Dignified from the Outside and Messy and Toxic Inside

The dysfunctionality of the White House is largely a matter of President Donald Trump’s personality. To many experts, Trump’s behavior – grandiose self-regard, pathological lying, lack of remorse or guilt, expressive shallowness, parasitic lifestyle, impulsiveness, failure to accept responsibility for his own actions, and short-term marital relationships – are symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.

The consequences could be dire. Pathological narcissists have a tendency to indulge in violent conflicts and wars (think of Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam or of Andrew Jackson and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans). At a minimum, Trump lacks the psychological characteristics needed for constructive governance: honesty, dignity, competence, empathy, relevant experience, and the capacity to plan. According to some observers, Trump also shows signs of diminished mental capacity.

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The hope in Washington is that “adults in the room” will keep Trump’s dangerous tendencies in check. But the “adults” in Trump’s administration are increasingly military figures rather than civilians, including three generals (John Kelly, the new White House Chief of Staff, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis). Wise civilian leaders are the key to peace, especially given that America’s vast war machine is always revving. Recall John F. Kennedy’s military advisers, who advocated war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or consider Mattis’s anti-Iran belligerence.

There are two other escape valves: the 25th Amendment, which charts a course for removing a president who is unable to discharge the responsibilities of office, and impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Both measures are extreme in the US constitutional order, and both would depend on the agreement of Republican leaders. Nonetheless, one or the other may prove necessary and even urgent in the event that Trump’s psychological instability or political weakness leads him to launch a war.

The political meltdown in Congress is less dramatic, but serious nonetheless. There, the cause is not a personality disorder; it’s money. The legislative branch has been deeply corrupted by corporate lobbying and campaign contributions. Two brothers, the industrialists David and Charles Koch, worth a combined $100 billion, virtually own the votes, and voices, of Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The result is politically perverse. Ryan and McConnell relentlessly push legislation favored by the Koch Brothers rather than the American people. The attempted repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health-care legislation, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) had nothing to do with voters’ views or interests; it was simply what the Koch brothers (and other Republican mega-donors) wanted.

That’s why the repeal legislation was kept secret until the last moment and was never subjected to expert testimony or analysis – or even considered by a Congressional committee. The legislation could pass only if it was hidden from view and voted on in the middle of the night. In the end, three Republican senators jumped ship, siding with the American people rather than with the Kochs.

Between Trump’s narcissism and the Koch brothers’ money, the US government has become a shambles. Washington is still filled with many smart and talented people of both parties, but America’s political institutions and formal processes are diminished. The federal government is hemorrhaging scientific expertise, as researchers leave or are purged, and as agency budgets are targeted for deep cuts. Seasoned diplomats are flooding out of the State Department. Lobbyists, meanwhile, are installing cronies and hacks throughout the government.

Through the din, new drumbeats of war can be heard, most ominously against Iran and North Korea. Is it posturing or real? Nobody knows. Trump’s foreign and military policies are now announced in early-morning tweets, without the foreknowledge of the White House staff or senior officials. The situation is dangerous and deteriorating.

I suggest three immediate steps, and a fourth longer-term step.

The first step is to take Trump off Twitter. The US – and the world – needs public policy by consultation and deliberation, not one man’s worsening pathology. The American people, by a large margin, concur that Trump’s tweets are hurting national security and the presidency.

Second, congressional leaders should agree, on a bipartisan basis, to constrain Trump’s belligerent proclivities. Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution vests the authority to declare war with Congress, and Congress needs to reassert that authority now, before it’s too late.

Third, the world’s major powers – most urgently, America’s NATO allies, China, and Russia – should make clear that any unilateral US attack on Iran or North Korea would constitute a grave and illegal violation of the peace, and that matters of war and peace must be agreed within the UN Security Council. If the US had heeded the UN Security Council’s collective wisdom in the recent past, it would have avoided several ongoing disasters, including the chaos in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and saved trillions of  dollars and many hundreds of thousands of lives.

The fourth, longer-term step is constitutional reform to move away the US away from its volatile presidential system to a parliamentary system, or at least to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, as in France. The power of the president – and therefore the danger of a runaway presidency – is far too great.

Much more needs to be done to restore democratic legitimacy in the US, including introduction of stricter limits on campaign financing and lobbying. First and foremost, however, we must survive the dangerous Trump presidency by preserving the peace.

Trump and the Truth About Climate Change


July 22, 2017

Trump and the Truth About Climate Change

by Joseph E. Stiglitz

http://www.project-syndicate.com

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Under President Donald Trump’s leadership, the United States took another major step toward establishing itself as a rogue state on June 1, when it withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. For years, Trump has indulged the strange conspiracy theory that, as he put it in 2012, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” But this was not the reason Trump advanced for withdrawing the US from the Paris accord. Rather, the agreement, he alleged, was bad for the US and implicitly unfair to it.

While fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, Trump’s claim is difficult to justify. On the contrary, the Paris accord is very good for America, and it is the US that continues to impose an unfair burden on others.

Historically, the US has added disproportionately to the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and among large countries it remains the biggest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide by far – more than twice China’s rate and nearly 2.5 times more than Europe in 2013 (the latest year for which the World Bank has reported complete data). With its high income, the US is in a far better position to adapt to the challenges of climate change than poor countries like India and China, let alone a low-income country in Africa.

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After 6 months in office, Trump has shown that he is incapable of getting his agenda going. He cannot get at the issues which require his leadership.

In fact, the major flaw in Trump’s reasoning is that combating climate change would strengthen the US, not weaken it. Trump is looking toward the past – a past that, ironically, was not that great. His promise to restore coal-mining jobs (which now number 51,000, less than 0.04% of the country’s non-farm employment) overlooks the harsh conditions and health risks endemic in that industry, not to mention the technological advances that would continue to reduce employment in the industry even if coal production were revived.

In fact, far more jobs are being created in solar panel installation than are being lost in coal. More generally, moving to a green economy would increase US income today and economic growth in the future. In this, as in so many things, Trump is hopelessly mired in the past.

Just a few weeks before Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, the global High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, which I co-chaired with Nicholas Stern, highlighted the potential of a green transition. The Commission’s report, released at the end of May, argues that reducing CO2 emissions could result in an even stronger economy.

The logic is straightforward. A key problem holding back the global economy today is deficient aggregate demand. At the same time, many countries’ governments face revenue shortfalls. But we can address both issues simultaneously and reduce emissions by imposing a charge (a tax) for CO2 emissions.

It is always better to tax bad things than good things. By taxing CO2, firms and households would have an incentive to retrofit for the world of the future. The tax would also provide firms with incentives to innovate in ways that reduce energy usage and emissions – giving them a dynamic competitive advantage.

The Commission analyzed the level of carbon price that would be required to achieve the goals set forth in the Paris climate agreement – a far higher price than in most of Europe today, but still manageable. The commissioners pointed out that the appropriate price may differ across countries. In particular, they noted, a better regulatory system – one that restrains coal-fired power generation, for example – reduces the burden that must be placed on the tax system.

Interestingly, one of the world’s best-performing economies, Sweden, has already adopted a carbon tax at a rate substantially higher than that discussed in our report. And the Swedes have simultaneously sustained their strong growth without US-level emissions.

America under Trump has gone from being a world leader to an object of derision. In the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris accord, a large sign was hung over Rome’s city hall: “The Planet First.” Likewise, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, poked fun at Trump’s campaign slogan, declaring “Make Our Planet Great Again.”

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But the consequences of Trump’s actions are no laughing matter. If the US continues to emit as it has, it will continue to impose enormous costs on the rest of the world, including on much poorer countries. Those who are being harmed by America’s recklessness are justifiably angry.

Fortunately, large parts of the US, including the most economically dynamic regions, have shown that Trump is, if not irrelevant, at least less relevant than he would like to believe. Large numbers of states and corporations have announced that they will proceed with their commitments – and perhaps go even further, offsetting the failures of other parts of the US.

In the meantime, the world must protect itself against rogue states. Climate change poses an existential threat to the planet that is no less dire than that posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In both cases, the world cannot escape the inevitable question: what is to be done about countries that refuse to do their part in preserving our planet?

Trump Family Values and America’s Diminished Global Leadership


July 18, 2017

Trump Family Values and America’s Diminished Global Leadership

Amid revelations of Donald, Jr.,’s misguided meeting with two Russians, the President shows once again where his only loyalties lie.

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In the September 11, 1989, issue of The New Yorker, a twenty-eight-year-old writer named Bill McKibben published a lengthy article titled “The End of Nature.” The previous year had been especially hot––the country suffered one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl, Yellowstone was ablaze for weeks––and some Americans, including McKibben, had taken note of the ominous testimony that James Hansen, a NASA climatologist, gave before a Senate committee, warning that, owing to greenhouse gases, the planet was heating up inexorably. McKibben responded with a deeply researched jeremiad, in which he set out to popularize the alarming and still largely unfamiliar facts about climate change and to sharpen awareness of what they implied for the future of the planet and humankind:

Changes in our world which can affect us can happen in our lifetime—not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. Without recognizing it, we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change. I believe that we are at the end of nature.

By this I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall, and the sun will still shine. When I say “nature,” I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it. But the death of these ideas begins with concrete changes in the reality around us, changes that scientists can measure. More and more frequently these changes will clash with our perceptions, until our sense of nature as eternal and separate is finally washed away and we see all too clearly what we have done.

Last week, a hunk of Antarctica the size of Delaware, weighing a trillion metric tons, hived off from the Larsen C ice shelf and into the warming seas. Such events now seem almost ordinary—and harbingers of far worse. It is quite possible, the environmental writer Fen Montaigne wrote recently, in the Times, that, should the much larger West Antarctic Ice Sheet thaw and slip into the ocean, sea levels across the globe could rise as much as seventeen feet. This would have devastating implications for hundreds of millions of people, disrupting food chains, swamping coastal cities, spawning illnesses, sparking mass migrations, and undermining national economies in ways that are impossible to anticipate fully.

Around the time that this event was taking place, Donald Trump, who has lately detached the United States from the Paris climate accord and gone about neutering the Environmental Protection Agency, was prowling the West Wing of the White House, raging Lear-like not about the fate of the Earth, or about the fate of the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was dying in captivity, but about the fate of the Trump family enterprise. In particular, he decried the awful injustice visited upon him and his son Donald, Jr., who had, in a series of e-mails last June, giddily advertised his willingness to meet with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, to receive kompromat intended to undermine the reputation and the campaign of Hillary Clinton. He did not mention another participant in the meeting: Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-born lobbyist, who admitted to the A.P. that he had served in the Soviet Army, but denied reports that he was ever a trained spy.

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Natalia Veselnitskaya (L) and Donald Trump Jr.

The President argued that his son, “a high-quality person,” had been “open, transparent, and innocent.” This was a statement as true as many, if not most, of the President’s statements. It was false. Donald, Jr., had concealed the meeting until he could do so no longer. Social-media wags delighted in reviving the Trump-as-Corleone family meme and compared Donald, Jr., to Fredo, the most hapless of the Corleone progeny. This was unfair to Fredo. On Twitter, Donald, Jr., had spoken in support of cockeyed conspiracy theories and once posted a photograph of a bowl of Skittles, writing, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem. . . . Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.”

Still, the President, loyal to nothing and no one but his family, argued that “a lot of people” would have taken that meeting. Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community did not whistle their agreement. They were quick to say that such a meeting was, at best, phenomenally stupid and, at worst, showed a willingness to collude with Moscow to tilt the election. Michael Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., told the Cipher Brief, a Web site that covers national-security issues, that Trump, Jr.,’s e-mails are “huge” and indicate that the President’s inner circle knew as early as last June that “the Russians were working on behalf of Trump.” In the same article, James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, said that the e-mails were probably “only one anecdote in a much larger story,” adding, “I can’t believe that this one exchange represents all there is, either involving the President’s son or others associated with the campaign.” Intelligence officials speculated that the tradecraft employed in setting up such a meeting was possibly a way to gauge how receptive the Trump campaign was to even deeper forms of coöperation. In any case, the proper thing to have done would have been to call the F.B.I. Now the country is headed toward a “constitutional crisis,” Clapper said, and the question has to be asked: “When will the Republicans collectively say ‘enough’?”

Good question. Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, business leaders such as Stephen Schwarzman and Carl Icahn, and a raft of White House advisers, including the bulk of the National Security Council, cannot fail to see the chaos, the incompetence, and the potential illegality in their midst, and yet they go on supporting, excusing, and deflecting attention from the President’s behavior in order to protect their own ambitions and fortunes. They realize that Trump’s base is still the core of the G.O.P. electorate, and they dare not antagonize it. The Republicans, the self-proclaimed party of family values, remain squarely behind a family and a Presidency whose most salient features are amorality, greed, demagoguery, deception, vulgarity, race-baiting, misogyny, and, potentially—only time and further investigation will tell—a murky relationship with a hostile foreign government.

In the near term, if any wrongdoing is found, the Trump family member who stands to lose the most is the son-in-law and consigliere, Jared Kushner, who accompanied Donald, Jr., to the meeting with Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin. Kushner seems to see himself and his wife, Ivanka, as lonely voices of probity and moderation in an otherwise unhinged West Wing. Why they would believe this when their conflicts of interest are on an epic scale is a mystery. But such is their self-regard. It is said by those close to Kushner that, if he fears anything, it is to repeat the experience of his father, Charles, who, in 2005, pleaded guilty to charges of making illegal campaign contributions and hiring a prostitute to entrap his brother-in-law, and spent fourteen months in an Alabama penitentiary.

Meanwhile, as the Trump family consumes the nation’s attention with its colossal self-absorption and ethical delinquencies, the temperature keeps rising. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the July 24, 2017, issue, with the headline “Things Fall Apart.”

 

DJT is Making America a G-20 Pariah


July 11, 2017

Wake Up: DJT is Making America a G-20 Pariah

by John Cassidy

Australian journalist Chris Uhlmann demolishes Trump after G20: ‘biggest threat to the west’

Mr Trump is a man who craves power because it burnishes his celebrity. To be constantly talking and talked about is all that really matters. And there is no value placed on the meaning of words. So what is said one day can be discarded the next.

So what have we learned?

We learned Mr Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the US as a global leader. He managed to diminish his nation and to confuse and alienate his allies.He will cede that power to China and Russia — two authoritarian states that will forge a very different set of rules for the 21st century. Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it is gone. And that is the biggest threat to the values of the West which he claims to hold so dear.– Chris Uhlmann

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Just when you think you’ve seen it all, out comes another Donald Trump tweet, or tweetstorm, to prove you wrong. On Sunday morning, America’s forty-fifth President, having just returned to Washington from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, pronounced his trip “a great success for the United States.”

It says something about Trump’s grip on reality that he could reach such a conclusion after a summit in which he and the rest of the U.S. delegation were utterly isolated on major issues such as climate change and international trade. In fact, the only way that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s diplomatic sherpas were able to cobble together a communiqué that everyone could sign onto was to include a section that noted America’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but which added, “Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible.” The symbolism here was powerful: in a global forum that the U.S. government, especially the Treasury Department, helped to create during the late nineteen-nineties, Trump’s America stood alone.

Of course, the G-20 is far from perfect: the protesters assembled outside the Messehallen Convention Center, most of whom were peaceful, were right about that. The organization’s membership is arbitrary—Italy is a member, Spain isn’t; South Africa is in, Nigeria is out—and its pronouncements can reflect the sometimes hidebound thinking of finance ministers and central bankers. But the G-20 is also one of the few political forums for tackling global economic problems, such as financial contagion, tax evasion, and climate change (which is ultimately a market failure). And, until Trump’s election, U.S. leadership was widely recognized as an integral part of any G-20 get-together.

The message of Hamburg was that Trump’s “America First” rhetoric—and his inability to see international agreements as anything other than zero-sum deals—have changed that situation, at least temporarily. The rest of the world hasn’t turned its back on the U.S.; the country is still far too big and powerful for that to happen. And, in any case, many foreign leaders harbor respect for the values that the U.S. espouses and the global order that it has helped maintain for seven decades. At the moment, however, they are looking for ways to work around Washington and its rogue President.

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Outplayed by Valdimir Putin of Russia?

Judging by his Twitter comments on Sunday, Trump is proud of having turned the U.S. into a G-20 pariah. But even more revealing, and disturbing, was the readout he delivered on his meeting last Friday with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Here it is, not quite in its entirety (as, since we’ve heard Trump criticize Barack Obama and the “fake news” media many times before, I’ve left out those bits):

I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election, He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion. . . . We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia! Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded . . . and safe. Questions were asked about why the CIA & FBI had to ask the DNC 13 times for their SERVER, and were rejected, still don’t . . . have it. . . . Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!

In the spirit of generosity, it should be acknowledged that the final sentence here was a welcome one. And Moscow’s many critics in Congress will surely remind Trump of it if he decides, during the coming months, to relax the restrictions that the Obama Administration imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

But the rest of what the President wrote on Sunday was a mess of confusions and contradictions. Trump didn’t out-and-out confirm the claim made by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, that he had accepted Putin’s denials of any Russian involvement in hacking during the election. But Trump made perfectly clear that he still rejects the view of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was responsible for hacking and that, for policy purposes, he considers the matter to be closed. Any effort to get to the bottom of what happened—much less impose some real punishment on Moscow—will be subjugated to the imperative of “working constructively with Russia.”

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington have criticised the Trump-Putin proposal to create a joint “Cyber Security unit” to safeguard future elections.

That brings us to the nuttiest part of the tweetstorm, perhaps the nuttiest thing an American President has said in decades: the proposal to create a joint “Cyber Security unit” with Moscow to safeguard future elections. Whether Trump himself came up with this ingenious proposal, or whether it was Putin’s idea, the Tweeter-in-Chief didn’t say. But it drew instant ridicule from both sides of the political divide.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close,” the Republican senator Lindsey Graham told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN, “If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow.”

What was Trump thinking? As ever, we have to consider the possibility that he wasn’t thinking at all, and what he says doesn’t mean anything—not even when he is reporting on his dealings with the leader of a rival nuclear power. “Donald Trump is a man who craves power because it burnishes his celebrity: to be constantly talking and talked about is all that really matters,” Chris Uhlmann, the political editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said, in remarks about the G-20 summit that went viral. “And there is no value placed on the meaning of words, so what’s said one day can be discarded the next.”

The other reading is a darker one, and it involves taking Trump at his word. For whatever reason, he still appears to see Putin as a potential partner—maybe even one who can be trusted with some of America’s most sensitive secrets, such as the workings of its voting systems. If this is indeed the case, it matters little whether Trump is a Russian dupe or a Russian stooge: he needs to be stopped.

On Sunday night, Trump disavowed part of what he had said earlier in the day, writing in another tweet, “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can,& did!” This message illustrated Uhlmann’s point about the half-life of Trump’s utterances, and also confirmed the truth of the Australian journalist’s over-all conclusion about the President’s trip to the G-20 meeting: “So what did we learn? We learned that Donald Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader.”