The Trump-Putin Summit and the Death of American Foreign Policy


July 21, 2018

The Trump-Putin Summit and the Death of American Foreign Policy

by Susan Glasser

https://www.newyorker.com

Days after Helsinki, the Russians claim big “agreements” were reached, and Washington is silent.Photograph by Win McNamee / Getty

 

In the days since the Monday meeting in Helsinki, there’s been an understandable frenzy over President Trump’s post-summit press conference, given that he sided with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, over his own intelligence agencies on the subject of Russia’s 2016 election interference, ranted about his Electoral College victory, blamed the United States for bad relations with Russia, and called the special prosecutor investigating his alleged collusion a “disgrace to our country” as a smirking Putin looked on. But the real scandal of Helsinki may be only just emerging.

On Thursday, Putin gave a public address to Russian diplomats in which he claimed that specific “useful agreements” were reached with Trump in their one-on-one meeting at the summit, a private meeting that Trump himself insisted on. Putin’s announcement came a day after his Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said that Trump had made “important verbal agreements” with Putin on arms control and other matters. The Russians, Antonov said, were ready to get moving on implementing them. The White House, meanwhile, has said nothing about what the two men may have agreed to in private, although Trump tweeted Thursday morning that he and Putin had discussed everything from nuclear proliferation to Syria, Ukraine, and trade, and that he looked forward to a second meeting with the Russian President soon, to follow up. On Thursday afternoon, the White House confirmed that Trump plans to invite Putin to Washington in the fall for another summit.

Days after the Helsinki summit, Trump’s advisers have offered no information—literally zero—about any such agreements. His own government apparently remains unaware of any deals that Trump made with Putin, or any plans for a second meeting, and public briefings from the State Department and Pentagon have offered no elaboration except to make clear that they are embarrassingly uninformed days after the summit.

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America’s Embarrassment–State Department is kept out of the loop of  Trump-Putin private discussions in Helsinki

Unlike Putin, Trump did not brief his own diplomats on the Helsinki meeting. The American Secretary of State, national-security adviser, and Ambassador to Moscow, who attended the lunch after Trump and Putin’s private session, have been publicly silent on the substance of the meetings, leaving it to the Russians, for now, to make claims about what was actually said and done behind closed doors between the two Presidents. Even as Putin was publicly talking of “agreements” in Moscow on Thursday, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, gave a radio interview to the conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. The bulk of their conversation concerned a meeting that Pompeo is hosting next week to promote “religious freedom” internationally.

The Secretary of State was neither asked about nor chose to elaborate on what happened in Helsinki, and the only question about Russia concerned whether Pompeo had been alerted, before the Helsinki summit, to the Justice Department indictments of a dozen Russian military-intelligence officers in connection with the 2016 Russian hacking on Trump’s behalf. “I can’t talk about that, Hugh,” Pompeo said.

The information provided to America’s top diplomats, those whose job it is to deal with Russia, was just as sparse and potentially incomplete. The Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Russia, Wess Mitchell, on Tuesday briefed the State Department group that has been pulled together to discuss Russia policy before and after the summit. There was no mention of any agreements. “There is no word on agreements,” a senior U.S. official told me. “There is no information on the U.S. side about any agreements.” So was Putin lying? Was Trump? Was it possible there was a misunderstanding, and that Trump thinks he made no commitments and Putin thinks he did? “It is terribly disturbing,” the senior official said. “The point is that we don’t know.”

A U.S. Ambassador in Europe, who has extensive experience dealing with Russia, told me that he and other State Department officials who would need to know have received no post-summit briefings, or even talking points about what happened, both of which would be standard practice after such an important encounter. “Nothing,” he told me. “We are completely in the dark. Completely.”

At the same time, the fragmentary evidence that has emerged, from the Russian comments and Trump’s various interviews, suggests there is reason for serious concern. In an interview on Fox, Trump questioned America’s commitment to the NATO alliance’s Article 5 mutual-defense provision, disparaging the new NATO member Montenegro as an “aggressive” little country that just might provoke us into “World War Three.” The criticism seemed to parrot Putin’s thinking on NATO and Montenegro—where Russia mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt last year in an effort to block the country’s NATO accession. The exchange left observers justifiably wondering if this was part of the agenda in the private Trump-Putin talks.

Trump has also, in his tweets and other interviews, alluded to substantive discussions with Putin on issues such as Syria, where Trump is already on record as saying he wants to withdraw U.S. troops. If Trump, in fact, struck a secret deal with Putin in Helsinki to pull back U.S. troops from Syria, or otherwise limit the American presence, that would prove deeply controversial among many in his own party.

While Trump’s comments gave cause for concern, another public uproar emerged over Trump’s suggestion that he was taking seriously Putin’s demand to interrogate the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and a number of congressional staffers. McFaul and the staffers were involved in imposing sanctions on corrupt Russian officials after successful lobbying by the U.S.-born businessman Bill Browder, who has emerged as one of Putin’s chief international foes. Was the handing over of a former American Ambassador to Moscow and congressional staffers to Russian officials also discussed—or even agreed to by Trump—in the private session? The White House said it was “considering” Putin’s proposal, while the State Department called demands on McFaul and others “absurd” and a non-starter. Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the White House said Trump “disagrees” with the proposal, which, it nonetheless insisted, had been made by Putin “in sincerity.”

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The bewildered White House  Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has a tough job defending her POTUS

I spoke with McFaul a few minutes after the White House statement from the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was released. “This is hardly a defense of us,” McFaul told me, pointing out that neither he nor the other ten current and former U.S. government officials apparently sought by Putin had anything to do with Browder, and yet were somehow accused of being implicated in a spurious Russian criminal case against the businessman. “The disturbing thing is, this is just one part of the private conversation we know about, and think about how cockamamie it was,” McFaul added. “So that’s the one thing we know about the private talks, and it has this incredibly bad consequence for the American interest. So why wouldn’t we assume the rest of the conversation was like that as well?”

 

We are witnessing nothing less than the breakdown of American foreign policy. This week’s extraordinary confusion over even the basic details of the Helsinki summit shows that all too clearly. We may not yet know what exactly Trump agreed to with Putin, or even if they agreed to anything at all; perhaps, it will turn out, Putin and his advisers have sprung another clever disinformation trap on Trump, misleading the world about their private meeting because a novice American President gave them an opening to do so. But, even if we don’t know the full extent of what was said and done behind closed doors in Helsinki, here’s what we already do know as a result of the summit: America’s government is divided from its President on Russia; its process for orderly decision-making, or even basic communication, has disintegrated; and its ability to lead an alliance in Europe whose main mission in recent years has been to counter and contain renewed Russian aggression has been seriously called into question.

On Thursday, not long after Putin’s remarks, I spoke with a former senior National Security Council official who has remained in close contact with Trump’s Russia advisers. The official described a bleak scene: the utter lack of process; the failure of the U.S. government to clarify what was even discussed, never mind agreed to, at the meeting; the deep concerns of NATO allies who had spent the previous week believing they had secured Trump’s commitment to their shared agenda of pushing back against Russian aggression. It all seemed almost incomprehensible to anyone with the vaguest sense of how the United States has conducted its foreign policy for generations. “This is no way to run a superpower,” he told me. It’s hard to imagine anyone, Republican or Democrat, who could seriously disagree.

 

  • Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington.

Foreign Policy: Asia after the liberal international order


July 20, 2018

Foreign Policy: Asia after the liberal international order

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by Amitav Acharya, American University, Washington DC

With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the West suddenly woke up with an acute anxiety about the fate of the US-led liberal international order. Until then, the liberal establishment in the United States had assumed that Hillary Clinton would succeed Barack Obama as President and ensure continuity in the liberal order. They ignored or dismissed warnings about the order’s crisis and decline. The belief in the resilience of the liberal order changed dramatically on 6 November 2016.

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 What is the liberal order? It is an international system created and managed by the United States after World War II to promote capitalism and democracy through building alliances and multilateral institutions. Its supporters portray the liberal order as an open, rules-based and multilateral system that operates through consent rather than coercion.

This is a fundamentally self-serving and distorted view. In reality, the liberal order is a club of the West. To other countries, its benefits—such as market access, aid and investment, and the provision of a security umbrella—were offered selectively and conditionally. Leading nations of the developing world, including China and India, were either outside of the system or connected at the margins. Some developing countries were summarily excluded.

The order often operated more through coercion than consent. It was hardly ‘orderly’ for the Third World, where local conflicts were magnified by capricious great power intervention, including by the United States and its Western allies.

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China’s Xi Jinping’s is Asia’s Big Brother

Trump’s rise proves that the challenge to the liberal order is as much from within the United States as from outside. Trump is not the cause of the crisis of the liberal order, but rather its consequence. The liberal order had begun to fray and fragment well before the Trump presidency due to irreversible structural changes in the global economy, especially the rise of China and other non-Western powers. Growth in world trade had slowed and the World Trade Organization had been moribund for some time. A sizable section of the US electorate was already disillusioned with free markets and free trade. While Trump was able to stoke and exploit these sentiments, their origins predate his political rise.

Trump’s policies are pushing the liberal order closer to the precipice. He is severely weakening the US commitment to free trade and multilateralism, and his elevation to US Pesidency is encouraging populist and authoritarian rulers around the world. Trump shows more interest in engaging Putin and  North Korea’s Kim than Merkel and May.

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Trump is all over Moon

Asia was a grey zone of the liberal order for much of the post-World War II period. Some countries of the region, especially the so-called ‘East Asian tigers’, benefited from export-led growth strategies and access to the US market that the liberal order facilitated. But East Asian capitalism was mediated by the strong hand of the state. Democracy in the region was scarce and illiberal, marked by one-party rule, sham elections and scant provision of civil liberties.

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Trump grimaces through ASEAN handshake in Manila, Philippines, this may be the most awkward presidential handshake ever. The US President does not take ASEAN seriously. He has deliberately discouraged the development of regional multilateral institutions in Asia in favour of a hub-and-spoke system of bilateral alliances. 

The United States discouraged the development of regional multilateral institutions in Asia in favour of a hub-and-spoke system of bilateral alliances. ASEAN—the most successful regional multilateral institution in Asia—was established with no help from the US. It came about despite the liberal order, rather than because of it.

 Trump’s effect on the liberal order might not be known for some time. At this point, we do not know how long his Presidency might last, whether he will face impeachment or seek re-election—and if he does, whether he would win a second term.

His approach to foreign policy is so inconsistent (such as his reversals on the Trans-Pacific Partnership), that one must exercise extreme caution in making any predictions about how his Presidency might eventually affect the world order.

The vagaries of the Trump Presidency notwithstanding, the liberal order is facing an existential challenge. Elements of the liberal order will survive but it will not enjoy the dominance it once claimed for itself. The era of liberal hegemony is past. The rise of the rest is real.

Asia has come a long way since the Cold War. China and India, the region’s leading powers, have embraced economic openness. There is now a range of multilateral institutions in the region, centered around ASEAN. But the great powers of Asia will not be the saviors of the liberal order, as some hope.

While China has pledged to support the liberal order, this is likely only in reference to some of its economic and institutional aspects, especially the flow of trade and investment. China will not support the political foundations of the liberal order, such as democracy and human rights. Even in the economic arena, China’s policies—such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative—will alter global trade, investment and development patterns even if they are only partially successful. In the longer term, they will create a Chinese-led international order over Eurasia and beyond.

Instead of helping the West to resurrect the liberal order, Asia will lead the transition to a different type of world order. The remnants of the liberal order will have to come to terms with a Chinese-led order and other regional orders around the world in what I call a decentered and post-hegemonic ‘multiplex world’.

Such a world will not be free of conflict. But conflict will be tempered by both older and newer forms of interdependence and institutions across regional orders, including those responding to shared transnational challenges such as climate change, pandemics and terrorism. This outlook is more plausible than the doomsday scenarios of disarray and collapse that many liberal pundits in the West have imagined as a result of the end of the US-led order. They were wrong before and are likely to be wrong again.

Amitav Acharya is Distinguished Professor of International Relations, American University, Washington, DC. This article is based on ideas from his book, The End of American World Order, 2nd edition, Polity Press, 2018. Follow him on Twitter: @AmitavAcharya.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Trade wars and Asia’.

Jho Low And The China Issue


July 19, 2018

Jho Low And The China Issue

by Sarawak Report

http://www.sarawakreport.org/2018/07/jho-low-and-the-china-issue/

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They seek him here and they seek him there, but best bets are back on China.  Indeed, earlier today, a Hong Kong radio station reported that Jho Low had most recently fled back from Hong Kong into China, where it claimed he has now been detained pending Dr Mahathir’s visit next month.

Certainly, Malaysia’s newly reinstated veteran leader has made clear he is champing at the bit to get to see the Chinese President, since there are plenty of highly pertinent issues he wishes to discuss, albeit embarrassing to China.

 

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Xi Met Mahathir during his visit in 2013,

 

These, of course, relate to a series of multi-billion dollar mega-projects that Chinese state controlled companies signed up to with the previous premier, Najib Razak, star patron of the man on the run, Jho Low.

All of them have been frozen by the new government, which has been issuing toe-curling statements confirming everyone’s suspicions that the contracts were prime examples of super-corruption, which the Chinese had been prepared to pander to in return for digging its economic tentacles into Malaysia and cementing a strategic control over the region.

They include two pipe-line deals in East Malaysia with the China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau (CPPB), which the Finance Ministry recently disclosed had already received 88% of the agreed payment two years early and when only 13% of the work had been completed.

The Finance Minister and his team have not minced their words when indicating their firm suspicion that the reason for this outrageous outlay was that the project were being used as a front to channel money to repay billions of dollars of debts owed by Najib’s notorious multi-billion dollar slush fund 1MDB.

Likewise, the grossly inflated East Coast Railway, contracted by Najib to China’s unfortunately named China Communications Construction Corporation – or CCCC (C4 was the explosive used to murder a young woman in a particularly murky case linked to Najib and the has become synonymous with cover-up and corruption in Malaysia).

It was Sarawak Report which exclusively revealed leaked documents back in 2016 that showed how this C4 contract also was inflated by 100% at the last moment, following negotiations with Najib to again write of debts and liabilities connected to 1MDB and Jho Low.  The exact repayment details over the next decade were written into a secret annex to the contract, which on the surface had provided merely broad brush calculations to justify the increased expenditure.

Throughout the period when these contracts were being drawn up the already fugitive Jho Low was based in Shanghai, and it is generally agreed that he was acting as Najib’s agent to use the Chinese to get the prime minister off the hook financially and politically after the United States Department of Justice published the exact details of the 1MDB theft in July 2016.

In other words, to save his own skin Najib proved willing to tie up his country in a mountain of debt and obligation to its neighbouring predatory super-power.Image result for forest city johor

Numerous other Chinese funded projects were likewise put underway, in particular the evironmentally catastrophic Forest City, deemed to provide a helpful financial boon to the Sultan of Johore.  Not only was the development a perfect conduit for Chinese wishing to export cash, the project envisaged providing citizenship to a million new immigrants.

READ ON:  https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2018/05/375032/embracing-common-future

Mahathir and his reformist allies in the new Harapan government are naturally furious at all these thefts and deceptions and are demanding a re-negotiation with China, should these projects go ahead at all.  However, the entire episode represents a humiliating debacle for China, which like the rest of the world had mistakenly placed its bets on the politial survival of the unmasked kleptocrat Najib.

President Xi Jinping will hardly relish the prospect of the extent of his country’s bad behaviour and complicity in corruption being paraded on the world stage and it makes Malaysia’s top wanted man into a useful bargaining chip to help save face in the up-coming diplomatic wranglings and renegotiations.

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The Long Arm of the Law will get at him shoot.

It remains to be seen if China will hang on to Malaysia’s wanted man, who can tell all over Najib’s kleptocratic dealings (and China’s own involvement) or bargain a deal that includes the renegotiation of key projects in Malaysia’s favour, in return for a polite silence over the more embarrassing aspects of China’s corrupt part in propping up Najib?

Malaysia has its strong advocate in the trenchant Mahathir, but it appears China has a valuable hostage in its hands.

Rediscovering the Art of Diplomacy With Vladimir Putin


July 11, 2018

Rediscovering the Art of Diplomacy With Vladimir Putin

Trump has the opportunity for his greatest foreign policy accomplishment yet.

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Putin practises tough guy diplomacy with great effect

The United States has enjoyed many advantages over the decades because of its superpower status. As the principal architect of the post-World War II liberal international order, Washington has secured disproportionate security and economic benefits for itself. America’s overwhelming military capabilities have magnified that clout in global affairs. Allies and adversaries alike might grumble at Washington’s preeminence, but they have been prudent enough to avoid direct challenges whenever possible. Even the Soviet Union confined itself (with the notable exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis) to probes in marginal, mostly Third World, arenas.

However, Washington’s dominant position has also led to some foreign policy bad habits. Because U.S. leaders have not had to deal with serious peer competitors in a long time, they appear to have lost the art of skillful, nuanced diplomacy. Even before the arrival of the Trump administration, U.S. policy exhibited a growing arrogance and lack of realism about diplomatic objectives. The upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin affords an opportunity to relearn the requirements of effective diplomacy. If handled poorly, though, it will underscore the adverse consequences of Washington’s rigid approach to world affairs.

 

Too many American politicians, pundits, and foreign policy operatives seem to believe that when dealing with an adversary, diplomacy should consist of issuing a laundry list of demands, including manifestly unrealistic ones, without offering even a hint of meaningful concessions. Critics of Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un epitomized that attitude. Some of them excoriated the president just for his willingness to accord Kim implicit equal status by approving a bilateral meeting. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi groused that President Trump “elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo.”

Others grudgingly conceded that the summit theoretically might have been an appropriate move, but argued that Washington should have demanded major substantive and irreversible North Korean steps toward denuclearization in exchange for such a prestigious meeting. In other words, they wanted North Korea’s capitulation on the central issue before Trump even agreed to a summit. Critics were furious that such a capitulation was not at least enshrined in the joint statement emerging from the meeting. And if that hardline stance was not enough, they insisted that Trump should have made North Korea’s human rights record a feature of the negotiations. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asserted that “our wrongful indifference to human rights in the past should not be used as an excuse to justify apologias for dictatorships in our time.”

The lack of realism such positions exhibit is breathtaking. If the hardliners had prevailed, no summit would have taken place. Their demands were multiple poison pills to any feasible negotiations. And the consequences flowing from the course they favored would have been the perpetuation, if not escalation, of alarming tensions on the Korean Peninsula. By spurning their advice, Trump secured a worthwhile change in the dynamics of the U.S.-North Korean relationship. The rapprochement may yet falter, since there are still extremely serious disagreements between the two countries, but the summit was a beneficial reset that has reduced the danger of a catastrophic military confrontation. Because he focused on the achievable, Trump secured a modest, but constructive, gain both for the United States and the East Asian region.

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President Donald  Trump–Diplomacy via The Art of The Deal

The President has an opportunity for an even more important success in his upcoming summit with Putin. But even more than he did with North Korea, he needs to make major changes in current U.S. policy toward Russia and reject the advice and demands that Russophobic hardliners are pushing. Once again, the president must distinguish between achievable and unachievable goals. And he must be willing to make meaningful concessions to the Russian leader to secure the former.

Some of Washington’s existing demands are manifestly unrealistic. Russia is not going to reverse its annexation of Crimea and return that territory to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s move was at least partly a response to the clumsy and provocative actions that the United States and key European Union powers took to support demonstrators who unseated Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, before the expiration of his term. Moscow was not about to accept that Western power play and watch the region containing Russia’s main naval base come under the control of a manifestly hostile Ukrainian regime. Given the stakes involved, Russia is no more likely to withdraw from Crimea than Israel is likely to return the Golan Heights to Syria or Turkey return occupied northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus. Persisting in an utterly unattainable demand regarding Crimea before U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia will be lifted is pointless.

Inducing the Kremlin to reduce and phase out its support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is more achievable. Indeed, despite the hysterical allegations that appear periodically in the Western press, Russia’s backing of the insurgents has been quite limited and is far less than constituting an “invasion.” Putin shows little stomach for making Ukraine an arena for a full-fledged confrontation with the West.

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A similar situation exists with respect to Syria. The Kremlin clearly wishes to see Bashar al-Assad remain in power, and given the extreme Islamist orientation of many of Assad’s opponents, that is not an outrageous position. Nevertheless, Putin has avoided establishing a large-scale Russian military, especially ground force, presence in that country. He apparently wishes to confine Moscow’s role to protecting its naval base at Tartus and assisting Assad’s military efforts with Russian air power. There appears to be an opportunity for Washington to gain assurances from the Kremlin that its involvement in Syria will not escalate and might even recede gradually.

To secure such goals, though, the U.S. would need to offer some appealing concessions to Putin. In exchange for ending Russian support of Ukrainian secessionists and confirming Moscow’s toleration of the anti-Russian regime in Kiev, Trump should be willing to sign an agreement pledging that the United States will neither propose not endorse NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia. NATO’s previous waves of enlargement right up to Russia’s border were a key factor in the deterioration of the West’s relations with Moscow. It is time to end that provocation. In addition to that concession, Trump should pledge that NATO military exercises (war games) in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea will come to an end. In exchange, the United States ought to insist that Russian forces end their provocative deployments in Kaliningrad and along Russia’s frontier with NATO members.

With regard to Syria, Trump should inform Putin that the United States is ceasing its efforts to unseat Assad—a venture that has been a disaster, in any case. To reinforce that pledge, the United States should offer to withdraw all of its forces over the next year. Those moves would tacitly accept Russia as the leading foreign power in terms of influence in Syria. Such a concession is a simple recognition of reality. Syria is barely 600 miles from Russia’s border; it is 6,000 miles from the American homeland. Moscow’s interests are understandably more central than America’s, given that geographic factor alone.

In conducting serious negotiations with Putin, President Trump has an opportunity for a diplomatic (and public relations) success that would exceed his achievement with the Kim summit. To do so, however, he must make a major course correction in how the United States handles delicate and dangerous situations with adversaries. Indeed, he must take an important step in America’s willingness to relearn the techniques of achievable diplomacy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.

The Obama-Trump Grand Strategy


July 4, 2018

New York Times

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The Fourth of July 2018–Happy Birthday America, Stay Cool

One of the paradoxes of Donald Trump’s election was that it seemed like a dramatic repudiation of Barack Obama — after the first black president, a birther; after a cool liberal academic, a roaring populist; after a multicultural “world man,” an American nationalist — and yet it happened at a time when Obama was quite popular. Ben Rhodes, the bright young salesman for Obama’s foreign policy, offered this explanation for the paradox in his recent book: “When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.”

This is a reasonable general explanation for the strange phenomenon of the Obama-Trump voter. But watching the Trump-Kim reality television show play out this week in Singapore, it’s worth noting a more specific continuity between the two presidencies — between Obama’s foreign policy strategy and what Trump promised on his way to the Republican nomination and the White House.

Of course the foreign policy differences between the two presidencies are obvious — just look at the Iran deal, or the Paris climate change accords, or their differing attitudes toward Israel or Saudi Arabia, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

But there is also a mirror-image quality to their gambits and ambitions. Trump is trying to make a deal with North Korea, a last Cold War holdout, much as Obama did with Cuba. Trump is angering a traditional set of allies (the Europeans and now Canada) while pining for a détente with an authoritarian rival (Russia); Obama had a similar approach to realignment in the Middle East, angering the Israelis and Saudis while seeking an accommodation with Iran.

Meanwhile, there is a clear overlap in the two presidents’ approach to the global war on terrorism they inherited from George W. Bush: Both are willing to be aggressive with drones and bombs and special forces, both claim expansive executive authority to determine battlefields and targets, but both are wary of wider wars and ready to feud with their own advisers about anything that involves ground troops.

In all things Trump is cruder than Obama, more willing to make subtext into text, less (or not even remotely) detail-oriented, more careless of diplomatic norms and dismissive of humanitarian concerns. But if the two men use different rhetoric and often favor different alliances, they have both pursued the same kind of bigger-picture strategy — seeking to extricate the United States from some of its multiplying commitments, to shift our post-Cold War position away from a Pax Americana model of peace-through-hegemony and toward an “offshore balancing” approach that makes deals with erstwhile enemies and makes more demands of longtime friends. “America First” and “leading from behind” may sound very different, but they can reflect similar impulses and produce similar results.

This shared vision tends to be unpopular with the expert class in Washington — what Rhodes famously called the foreign policy “blob,” and what Trump would no doubt describe more pungently — but more popular with domestic constituencies. (Obama’s Iran deal always polled reasonably well, and Trump’s summit with Kim is by far the most popular thing he’s done in his presidency.) And the fact that the pursuit of offshore balancing has been sustained across two quite different administrations suggests that in some form it’s here to stay, and that the expert class should recognize its merits.

That recognition doesn’t mean shrugging off the Pax Americana. But it means acknowledging that neither the “pay any price, bear any burden” Cold War model of American leadership nor the “unipolar moment” model from the late 1990s and 2000s fits current realities very well. It means recognizing that hawkish politicians of the center-left and center-right — a Hillary Clinton, a Jeb Bush, a Marco Rubio — tend to foster an unrealistic view of what the United States can accomplish through idealistic pronouncements and military might. And it means acknowledging that both Obama and Trump triumphed politically in part because they seemed more sensible than Clinton and her Republican counterparts about the need to make strategic choices, to cut losses and to cut deals.

At the same time, the Trump partisans and apolitical normies who like the North Korea summit need to recognize that the problems that beset Obama’s attempt at “offshore balancing” could beset Trump’s efforts as well. Hegemony’s burdens are considerable, but often when the hegemon pulls back the new equilibrium turns ugly enough to pull us right back in.

That’s what happened in the Middle East in Obama’s second term, where dealing with Iraq from “offshore” led to the rise of the Islamic State and the Iranian nuclear deal may have stoked conflict in Yemen and Syria. It could easily happen under Trump in northern Asia as well, depending on how his approach looks from Pyongyang and Beijing.

As Tyler Cowen writes in one of the more optimistic takes on the summit, the wooing of Kim represents a gamble that the North Koreans really want to change their posture, to reap the possible benefits of normalization, even to enter America’s orbit instead of Beijing’s. (If Kim’s regime became merely authoritarian rather than totalitarian, imitating the House of Saud instead of Stalin, the last scenario isn’t entirely fanciful.)

But we simply don’t know whether Kim’s regime still envisions an endgame in which America retreats and South Korea submits — in which case the idea of permanent détente would be a fantasy. We also don’t know how the Chinese (and their potential allies of convenience in Moscow) would react to North Korea swinging into our orbit; there are ways in which peninsular stabilization could lead to regional destabilization. And given that Trump is a longtime huckster who’s feeling his way entirely by instinct, there should be a lot of skepticism about how well this is likely to turn out.

That skepticism, though, needs more sophistication than the “Can you imagine how the right would react if Obama cozied up to a murderous dictator like this?”/“Well, the left used to love it when Obama cozied up to murderous dictators!” argument that’s being carried on by Trump’s liberal and conservative critics on Twitter.

The reason that this “mirror, mirror” argument is possible is that Trump and Obama, for all their differences, are dealing with the same brute facts: American power is limited, America’s grand strategy is outdated or nonexistent, and being a superpower in the 2010s requires making harder choices and more unpleasant bargains than it did circa 1999.

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Trump’s Korean bargain may be a bad one, or it may evaporate. But what Trump and Obama have in common — a skepticism about received foreign policy wisdom, a recognition that some burdens need to shift and some alliances need to change, an accurate read on what domestic public opinion will bear — is something the statesmen who succeed them need to share.

If an esteemed historian like PJ Thum can be fooled by fake news, what hope is there for us?


July 4, 2018

If historian PJ Thum can be misled by fakes…

TL;DR – But if you take some effort to google, actually, you can avoid embarrassing yourself.

Singaporean Historian PJ Thum became famous after he was grilled by Minister Shanmugam at the hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods for six hours. Back then, he had made the audacious claim that the politicians of the PAP were the “clear source of fake news”. He based that claim on his work as a historian.

And PJ Thum appeared to be a historian with glowing credentials. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelors in East Asian Studies. He then went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and got a second degree in Modern History and Politics. He returned to Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship to get his Doctor of Philosophy. Since 2014, PJ has been a Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; a Fellow of Green Templeton College, and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia, an initiative of the University of Oxford to expand its range of scholarly expertise on Southeast Asia. In 2015, PJ was elected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Sounds impressive, right? A historian with such sterling credentials must be a really smart person. Someone who won’t be easily fooled by fake news. Someone who would think critically of the things he reads, cross-references multiple sources to ensure that he comes to the right conclusions. Right?

Well… not quite. At least not in this particular instance.

PJ Thum posted this on Facebook recently:

Just in case it gets taken down, it’s a post with this cartoon:

 

Two versions of the same event. What is the truth?

Accompanying the cartoon, PJ Thum had the following remarks:

“Another from the archives:

“At the end of (Lee’s speech to the joint session of the US Congress), there was a sustained standing ovation… Even before he started his speech, there was a standing ovation – such is the Prime Minister’s reputation.” – Straits Times, 10 October 1985.

“(Lee) was addressing a sparsely attended joint session and drew polite applause.” – International Herald Tribune, 10 October 1985.

Hmmm… now I’m wondering just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY’s vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, in the days when there were no alternative news sources?”

PJ Thum questioned whether the media, controlled by the Singapore government, had manufactured Mr, Lee Kuan Yew’s “vaunted global reputation”.

Is he once again insinuating that the Singapore government is a source of fake news?

Thankfully, there’s a video of the speech

Someone added this video in the comments to PJ Thum’s post, and the video proved PJ Thum wrong.

It’s a video of Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a Joint Session of the US Congress taken off C-SPAN.

And at the 3:13 mark, and also 4:09 mark the video shows people applauding in a packed room.

At the 9:47 mark, the video shows Mr Lee Kuan Yew receiving a standing ovation when he wrapped up his speech.

Now we can’t possibly know from the video alone if the Congressmen really respected Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but the fact was that the Joint Session was well attended, and that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had received a standing ovation.

Those are facts.

Captured on video.

Facts which directly contradict what PJ Thum had insinuated. Facts which can be found if Thum had taken a little bit care and effort to verify and check.

Which unfortunately makes PJ Thum look rather bad

This could mean one of two things.

The first possibility is PJ Thum is a sloppy historian who doesn’t dig deeper and look for more sources of information so that he can come to a proper (and accurate) conclusion.

Or the second possibility is that he had deliberately put up the post and asked a question in such a way that would induce people to conclude that the Singapore government is a source of fake news.

Of course, we don’t know which is the truth. We don’t believe that PJ Thum is that malicious as to deliberately spread fake news. But we also don’t think PJ Thum is stupid. So… It’s hard to say. Having said that, if PJ Thum can be so wrong on this incident, what else could he or we have gotten wrong?

Whatever the case is, this incident has again demonstrated that we should all learn to google. And don’t automatically accept anything we read or what we’re told to be true.

ALWAYS check and look for more sources of information. Otherwise, we might end up looking like fools for believing that some piece of fake news is true.