US Foreign Policy: Donald Trump’s humiliation in Helsinki

July 23, 2018

US Foreign Policy: Donald Trump’s humiliation in Helsinki

How to interpret a shameful press conference with Vladimir Putin

“Perhaps, as some suspect, Mr Putin really does have material compromising Mr Trump. Either way, where America once aspired to be a beacon, relativism rules. That leaves all democracies more vulnerable.”- The Economist

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How to make America Great? By Making Russia Great Again. That was what the POTUS did in Helsinki, Finland. He made Putin smell roses.

DONALD TRUMP likes to boast that he does things differently from his predecessors. That was certainly true of his trip to Europe. In Brussels he chided Germany for a gas deal that left it “totally controlled by Russia”. In England he humiliated his host, Theresa May, blasting her Brexit plan before holding her hand and hailing “the highest level of special” relationship. From his Scottish golf resort he called the European Union a “foe” on trade. And in Helsinki, asked whether Russia had attacked America’s democracy, he treated President Vladimir Putin as someone he trusts more than his own intelligence agencies. It was a rotten result for America and the world.

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Americans were more than usually outraged. At the post-summit press conference in Helsinki, with the world watching and the American flag behind him, their head of state had appeared weak. He was unwilling to stand up for America in the face of an assault that had been graphically described three days earlier by Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing election meddling, in his indictment of 12 Russian military-intelligence officers . Republicans were among Mr Trump’s fiercest critics. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” wrote Senator John McCain. Even Newt Gingrich, normally a staunch defender, decried “the most serious mistake of his presidency”. The reaction forced Mr Trump into a convoluted series of climbdowns, which did little to repair the damage.

Yet, for all his hostility towards allies and cosiness with Mr. Putin, the trip could have been an even bigger disaster. Fears that Mr Trump might torpedo the NATO summit, as he had the G7 one, proved overblown. He put his name to a communiqué reaffirming the allies’ commitment to mutual defence and their tough stance against Russia. Worries that with Mr Putin he might promise to roll back sanctions or recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea proved groundless—as far as we can tell (the presidents met with only their interpreters present).

Mr Trump even did some useful things. He was right to press NATO allies to spend more on defence, even if his claim to have raised “vast amounts of money” is an exaggeration. And talking to his Russian counterpart makes sense. To be sure, Mr Trump’s hopes for a tremendous relationship with Mr Putin may end in a familiar disappointment: George W. Bush looked into Mr Putin’s eyes and detected a soul, and Russia invaded Georgia; Barack Obama pressed a “reset” button, and Russia invaded Ukraine. But America and Russia have a lot to discuss, not least on nuclear-arms control.

America worst

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However, these gains come at too high a price. Mr Trump’s behaviour, a quixotic mix of poison and flattery, has further undermined Europeans’ trust in America. When asked about the Mueller probe and the decline in relations with Russia, Mr Trump said feebly that he holds “both countries responsible”. Perhaps his vanity does not allow him to treat seriously a Russian attack that he fears could tarnish his own election triumph. Perhaps, as some suspect, Mr Putin really does have material compromising Mr Trump. Either way, where America once aspired to be a beacon, relativism rules. That leaves all democracies more vulnerable.

Mr Putin, fresh from a successful World Cup, thus emerges as the winner in Helsinki. True, he may have scored an own goal in admitting that, yes, he had wanted Mr Trump to win the election. But a self-doubting West, damaged democracy and the spectacle of America’s president deferring to him on the world stage count as a hat-trick at the other end. In Helsinki Mr Putin looked smug. Mr Trump looked, at best, a mug.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Humiliation in Helsinki”



Malaysian MP calls on his government to take stand on Cambodian elections

July 23, 2018


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My advice to this Malaysian MP is that he should deal with the internal problems of his own party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and sort out Malaysia’s mess before interfering in Cambodia’s internal affairs. So far our relations with the Kingdom have been close and fraternal, despite the fact our previous Ambassador Hassan Malek was a bit of an embarrassment, to put it mildly.

Respect Cambodia’s sovereignty and let the Cambodian people choose the government they want. MP Wong should learn more about the politics of Cambodia, its history and culture, and its progress since 1998. To its credit, the Cambodian Government did not comment on Malaysia’s GE-14, but it did congratulate Dr. Mahathir Mohamad when new Malaysia Government took over Putrajaya on May 9, 2018.

MP Wong Chen, come to Phnom Penh and I will be happy to educate you. For starters, you should know that Cambodia is an open country. Unlike Malaysia, it does not discriminate its citizens on the basis of colour, creed, race or religion. How about fixing that in stead of being bloody minded.–Din Merican

Another comment from Murray Hunter in Bangkok, Thailand: “Maybe Mr Wong is better served getting a foreign affairs parliamentary committee working for issues intra-ASEAN and international. Shooting from the hip outside the Foreign Minister of his Government within the ASEAN understanding may not be the most wise thing to do. Anyway knowing the political climate in Kuala Lumpur at the moment, it is a story that will be forgotten tomorrow.”

Malaysian MP calls on his government to take stand on Cambodian elections

A Malaysian parliamentarian raised concerns in his country on Wednesday about Cambodia’s July 29 national elections and urged his government to clarify its position on the subject, the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said on Thursday.

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Wong Chen (pic above), a member of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) which is part of Malaysia’s ruling coalition, said: “I urge the Malaysian government to take a more proactive stance on Cambodia in the same way we took a proactive stance against the Myanmar government on the Rohingya refugee issue under the Najib administration,” he said.

But the Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan brushed off the comments, saying that as Malaysia is just a small country, it can’t wade into the internal affairs of Cambodia.

“I believe that we, as a new government, owe a duty not only to reform our own election laws to safeguard justice and uphold democracy but that we go further and promote and safeguard free and fair elections in the Asean region,” Chen, who is also a member of APHR, said.

Siphan countered, saying: “He is just a Malaysian parliamentarian. Malaysia is a full-rights member of ASEAN which will not interfere in the internal affairs of another member state.”

Adding that Chen is of no interest to the Royal Government of Cambodia, Siphan said he is just a representative of a small country, not ASEAN. “[Malaysia] is not America or France, it is just a small country,” he stressed.

In the lead-up to this month’s elections, the international community has expressed concern about Cambodia’s democratic development.

And while China and Japan continue to help fund the National Election Committee (NEC), the US and the European Union (EU) have withdrawn funds.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Chen’s letter will have little impact because ASEAN governments are bound by the bloc’s policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

“As it has done before, the Cambodian government would use this principle to ward off what it would call interference in the current election, which is very much the country’s internal affair,” he said.

Foreign Policy: Russia might have been lost

July 23, 2018

Foreign Policy: Russia might have been lost

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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“So yes, the West might have missed an opportunity to transform Russia in the early ’90s. We will never know whether it would have been successful. But what we do know is that there were darker forces growing in Russia from the beginning, that those forces took over the country almost two decades ago and that Russia has chosen to become the principal foe of America and the American-created world order.”–Fareed Zakaria

President Trump’s news conference Monday in Helsinki was the most embarrassing performance by an American President I can think of. And his preposterous efforts to talk his way out of his troubles made him seem even more absurd. But what has been obscured by this disastrous and humiliating display is the other strain in Trump’s Russia narrative. As he recently tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity.” This notion is now firmly lodged in Trump’s mind and informs his view of Russia and Putin. And it is an issue worth taking seriously.

The idea that Washington “lost” Russia has been around since the mid-1990s. I know because I was one of the people who made that case. In a New York Times Magazine article in 1998, I argued that “central to any transformation of the post-Cold-War world was the transformation of Russia. As with Germany and Japan in 1945, an enduring peace required that Moscow be integrated into the Western world. Otherwise a politically and economically troubled great power . . . would remain bitter and resentful about the post-Cold-War order.”

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The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on July 16 boosted the Russian president’s international standing – mainly because he managed to pull Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu over to his court. While Putin basks in the afterglow of the summit and the successful World Cup, both Trump and Netanyahu must face the music at home.–

This never happened, I argued, because Washington was not ambitious enough in the aid it offered. Nor was it understanding enough of Russia’s security concerns — in the Balkans, for example, where the United States launched military interventions that ran roughshod over Russian sensibilities.

I continue to believe Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton missed an opportunity to attempt a fundamental reset with Russia. But it has also become clear that there were many powerful reasons U.S.-Russian relations might have been destined to deteriorate.

Russia in the early 1990s was in a period of unusual weakness. It had lost not just its Soviet-era sphere of influence but also its 300-year-old czarist empire. Its economy was in free fall; its society was collapsing. In this context, it watched as the United States expanded NATO, intervened against Russia’s allies in the Balkans and criticized its efforts to stop Chechnya from seceding.

From America’s vantage point, locking in the security of the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe was an urgent matter. Washington worried that war in Yugoslavia was destabilizing Europe and producing a humanitarian nightmare. And the United States could not condone Russia’s brutal wars in Chechnya, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed and much of the region was destroyed. The United States and Russia were simply on opposite sides of these issues.

In addition, by the late 1990s, Russia was moving away from a democratic path. Even under President Boris Yeltsin, the bypassing of democratic institutions and rule by presidential decree became common. Democratic forces in the country were always weak. Scholar Daniel Treisman has shown that by the mid-’90s, the combined tally for all liberal democratic reformers in Russia’s Duma elections never went above 20 percent. The “extreme opposition” forces, by contrast — communist, hypernationalist — received on average about 35 percent. And once Putin came to power, the move toward illiberal democracy and then outright authoritarianism became unstoppable. Putin has never faced a serious liberal opposition.

An authoritarian Russia had even more areas of contention with the United States. It panicked over the “color revolutions,” in which countries such as Georgia and Ukraine became more democratic. It looked with consternation at the establishment of democracy in Iraq. These forces, by contrast, were being cheered on by the United States. And to Putin, President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” might have seemed designed to dislodge his regime.

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The New Russian Tsar–Vladimir Putin

Perhaps most crucially, by the mid-2000s, steadily rising oil prices had resulted in a doubling of Russia’s per capita gross domestic product, and cash was flowing into the Kremlin’s coffers. A newly enriched Russia looked at its region with a much more assertive and ambitious gaze. And Putin, sitting atop the “vertical of power” he had created, began a serious effort to restore Russian influence and undermine the West and its democratic values. What has followed — the interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, the alliance with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the cyber attacks against Western countries — has all been in service of that strategy.

So yes, the West might have missed an opportunity to transform Russia in the early ’90s. We will never know whether it would have been successful. But what we do know is that there were darker forces growing in Russia from the beginning, that those forces took over the country almost two decades ago and that Russia has chosen to become the principal foe of America and the American-created world order.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Summitry can be overdone and self defeating

June 22, 2018

Summitry can be overdone and self defeating

by Bunn

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Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit: Football Diplomacy

TOP meetings of political leaders are supposed to mean something important and special. However, such meetings of leaders at their respective peaks, or summits, tend to be overdone by many countries for their perceived glamour value.

Even the supposed chutzpah and gravitas that summitry participants believe they would acquire seem to be wearing thin.Most summits appear to be no more than glorified photo-opportunities, a thriving cottage industry and something of a jet-setting racket.

Nonetheless, while routine summits between the leaders of Togo and Nauru may not seem likely, much less determine global events, a rare summit of major world powers is always significant.

Such an event can defuse tensions, build mutual confidence and goodwill, and improve bilateral relations generally. The benefits are also likely to be felt by smaller nations within strategic range.

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President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong

When US President Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1972, the occasion deservedly made world headlines. Not only did they meet as the Cold War raged, but a conservative US President and leader of the “free world” had deigned to travel to China to confer with communist leaders there.

Washington found it worthwhile even if the Nixon-Kissinger team was seen to have journeyed far to “pay tribute” to the Great Helmsman. To US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, it was clearly more than just a diplomatic trip or even a state visit. No less important than improving US-China relations, the event developed an implicit US-China pact against the Soviet Union.

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Nixon-Kissinger drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow to deepen the Sino-Soviet split of the Khrushchev years. Kissinger had also negotiated separately with Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev.

The instrumental nature of the Beijing summit could not escape Chinese and US realities. It served only to formalise bilateral ties, and it would take another seven years before their relations could be normalised.

One decade-plus after Beijing, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva. The 1985 summit was the first of several.

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President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev

Again, these had to do with more than improving bilateral relations. Formally they concerned arms limitation and common ties, but more broadly Reagan was also encouraging a reformist Gorbachev to open up his country.

Within three months of the initial summit, Gorbachev introduced restructuring (perestroika) in early 1986. The following year Reagan, in a visit to Berlin, rhetorically called on Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall.

In 1988 Gorbachev introduced a new openness and freedoms in the Soviet Union (glasnost). The Cold War was formally coming to an end – and on Boxing Day 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed.

A summit with the US President, particularly if it is one-on-one, is more than just a White House visit. It is a carefully staged, highly publicised event that is supposed to carry considerable weight and prestige.

Senior US officials therefore guard it jealously and grant it sparingly or not at all. Sometimes this means rejecting the prospect of a summit even when it can do some good.

When Senator Barack Obama was asked in mid-2007 if he would agree to unconditional talks with the leaders of Cuba, Iran or North Korea, he said he would.

An immediate backlash erupted, particularly from Hillary Clinton, Obama’s main rival as party nominee for the presidential campaign. She condemned his readiness to negotiate as “irresponsible” and “naïve”.

Ironically, just months before, Hillary voiced support for the US President talking with his global adversaries. She even claimed to have advised George W. Bush to proceed with such talks.

As usual, politics gets in the way of judicious perceptions of meaningful summits. The purpose and value of summits are diminished as a result.

The two inter-Korean summits in April and May this year signaled the opening of North Korea and its readiness to negotiate away its nuclear arms stockpile.

Both summits were preceded, and followed, by summits in China between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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The Singapore Trump-Kim Sentosa Summit on June 12, 2018 reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

All these summits with Kim were merely the build-up to the grand prize – the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore of June 12.

This was a first, and a summit to be held without preconditions.

North Korean leaders had wanted a summit with a US President for decades. And, until Trump, US Presidents had snubbed all such previous prospects.

Most US officials have hitherto regarded such a summit as a “reward” for an autocratic North Korean leader, oblivious to the goodwill and confidence-building it can generate. Still, the Singapore summit was generally regarded positively. Both leaders smiled pleasantly to the cameras and to each other, projecting cordiality without mishap.

Whatever the US Establishment might have thought then, or since, the international community welcomed the summit as a timely occasion heralding better times on the Korean peninsula and in Asia.

Warming to summit mode, Trump’s presence at the NATO summit in Brussels this month saw him in his trademark brusque transactional style.

There was no diplomatic incident only because there was nothing diplomatic about it. Trump reportedly rattled alliance presumptions and insisted that NATO allies pay more for their own defence.

This came just weeks after Trump alienated trade partners in Europe and Asia with tariffs. The NATO summit in turn left the security alliance feeling less than secure.

From Brussels Trump moved on to Helsinki, where he sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a four-eyes summit. The US media had no summit agenda and promptly speculated on what was discussed.

Inevitably a main item for the media was the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Did Trump succeed or fail in accusing Putin of such meddling to his face?

Such distractions divert from the actual content of the summit. When news broke about the summit covering a referendum for eastern Ukraine, some news reports focused on that but the alleged “meddling” issues remained. A summit-friendly Trump remains persona non grata to the US military-industrial complex despite his show of force in Syria, so the US deep state still wants to see him go. Even as his Presidency moves towards the mid-term, hopes of impeachment still linger.

Multiple investigations into supposed collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign continue to pile on the pressure. But no sooner had Trump admitted that he “misspoke” to Putin at the summit, than he announces his invitation to Putin to visit the White House in the coming months.

This “return summit” is where Trump would now say the right things, or at least not say the wrong things. By now the US mainstream media, having thoroughly demonised Putin, relished a grand opportunity to take down Trump by association.

Trump may be getting the hang of summits, in stages, and possibly even enjoying summitry. However the knack of outpointing him by fair means or foul at such events remains with the US mainstream media.

The setup is not usually advantageous to a sitting President, especially when it is President Trump. He could reign supreme in his businesses, and his reality television shows. But the Presidency is a different kind of “business” altogether. Unlike other businesses where he may be the boss, a democracy rightly makes everyone else the boss of the leader.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

2018 Cambodian Elections: What Lies Ahead

July 22, 2018

2018 Cambodian Elections: What Lies Ahead

by  Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

“Speaking the truth, acknowledging facts and seeking holistic solutions are key values that the CPP must embrace in order to strengthen public trust in the government. The ingrained culture of sycophancy that has protected leaders and stifled fresh ideas will need to be changed. Transformative leadership and institutional innovation are critical for the future of the CPP.”– Vannarith Chheang,


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Cambodia’s upcoming general election on 29 July looks set to be its most controversial since its first national election in 1993. In late 2017, the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved and 118 of its senior members were banned from politics based on what the ruling government deemed to be threats to peace and stability.

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In response, the outlawed CNRP has called for a boycott of the election. And some local civil society groups, such as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, have opted not to observe the upcoming election.  In addition, the United States and the European Union have withdrawn their support from the Cambodian National Election Committee, while Japan remains supportive of electoral reforms (though there are some pressures from the supporters of the opposition movement and civil society groups calling on Japan to withdraw its electoral support).

With the absence of the main opposition party, it is a foregone conclusion that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled the country for more than three decades, will win a landslide victory. The key question for the future of Cambodia now is how the upcoming election will shape the policy direction of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration.

The CPP policy platform stresses three immediate deliverables: raising incomes, reducing electricity prices and strengthening the social safety net. But it falls short of showing strong political will to reform state institutions — particularly in terms of corruption, which is believed to be the root cause of many social and economic issues in Cambodia. And voters expect to see genuine political will and concrete measures in building clean and efficient state institutions.

The CPP is also facing foreign policy challenges. Its human rights situation is under tight scrutiny from the United States and the European Union, which are the two main export markets for Cambodian products.

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In May 2018, the US Congress introduced the Cambodia Democracy Act to put targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for undermining democracy in Cambodia. And in June 2018, the Chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, Hing Bun Heang, was sanctioned under Global Magnitsky Designations. The Cambodian authority has rejected the accusations and called the sanctions a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

In July 2018, the European Union sent officials to conduct a fact finding mission before it decides on whether or not Cambodia still deserves preferential tariffs under the Everything But Arms scheme. Following the mission, the European Commission issued a press release stating that ‘removing Cambodia from the trade scheme is a measure of last resort, if all our other efforts have failed to address these concerns’.

In an attempt to convince the international community that Cambodia is committed to democracy and human rights, the CPP announced its renewed focus on a social market economy, democratic values and putting people at the centre of the party’s political platform and development agenda, although details for this revised political doctrine are still scarce. Building its political identity based on ‘centrist democracy’, the CPP aims to address emerging issues such as income inequality and social injustice.

These changes sit among broader shifts in the CPP’s governance. The CPP is in the process of reforming its political ideology and identity to reflect the current realities in Cambodia. Historically rooted in communist ideology, the CPP (originally the Kampuchean People’s Revolution Party) reformed in the 1990s and shed its official commitment to liberal democracy. But institutional reforms within the CPP have been much slower due to factional tensions between conservatives and reformists.

Another challenge for the CPP-led government is its international image as a ‘client state’ of China. The CPP has acknowledged this and taken some concrete measures diversify its strategic and economic partnerships, particularly in strengthening strategic partnership with Japan. But Cambodia still lacks a nuanced foreign policy strategy. In particular, Cambodia needs to develop a strategy to convince other countries that its deep strategic partnership with China is not at the expense of good relations with other countries.

Speaking the truth, acknowledging facts and seeking holistic solutions are key values that the CPP must embrace in order to strengthen public trust in the government. The ingrained culture of sycophancy that has protected leaders and stifled fresh ideas will need to be changed. Transformative leadership and institutional innovation are critical for the future of the CPP.

The prospects for reform in Cambodia depend on two defining factors. First, young and competent leaders must be brought into the CPP’s senior ranks. Second, state institutions must be strengthened, made more efficient and more effective by prioritising meritocracy and empowering technocrats and bureaucrats.

Looking forward, only robust reforms and transformative leadership can help the CPP-led government earn trust and respect from the people and strengthen its legitimacy. The leadership deficit needs to be overcome by giving more opportunities to young leaders and implementing meritocracy. And the government has to address structural issues such as corruption, income inequality and social injustice. Most importantly, the CPP should genuinely respect democracy and human rights.

Dr. Vannarith Chheang is Associate Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.


American Fascism: Reading the signs of the times

July 21, 2018

American Fascism: Reading the signs of the times

“…freedoms must be defended, which is possible only when the threats are seen clearly. The moment people stop believing that the demagogues can be prevented from doing their worst is the moment we can be sure that it is already too late.–Ian Buruma
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Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018