Strengthening Cambodia’s Foreign Policy via institutional reforms


January 19, 2019

Strengthening Cambodia’s Foreign Policy via institutional reforms

By Dr. Chheang Vannarith, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Amid shifting global power dynamics and intense pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy in the coming years will aim to diversify its external relations, with a focus on South and East Asian countries. But in practice Cambodia still struggles to implement an effective foreign policy, stymied by institutional weaknesses.

 By Dr. Chheang Vannarith, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

http://www.eastasiaforum.org.

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Amid shifting global power dynamics and intense pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy strategy in the coming years will aim to diversify its external relations, with a focus on South and East Asian countries. But in practice Cambodia still struggles to implement an effective foreign policy, stymied by institutional weaknesses. Without much-needed reform, Cambodia’s weak international presence may persist.

 

The rumour that China is eyeing a naval base in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province is stirring public debate both inside and outside the country. US Vice President Mike Pence has raised concerns directly with Prime Minister Hun Sen on the issue.

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The Cambodian government has repeatedly stressed that it does not intend to align with any major power, nor will it ever allow any foreign military base on its soil, because it adheres to a foreign policy stance of permanent neutrality and non-alignment. Despite these assurances, international media and observers still tend to portray Cambodia as a client state of China.

Such perceptions, which do not reflect the entirety of Cambodia’s foreign policy dynamics, damage the country’s international image and role. The tough measures taken by the European Union and the United States on Cambodia’s perceived ‘democratic backsliding’ partly reflect their own strategic interest in ensuring that Cambodia does not align itself too closely with China.

Facing unprecedented pressure from the West, Cambodia’s foreign policy options are constrained. There is a shared belief among Cambodia’s ruling elites that the European Union and the United States have double standards and treat Cambodia unfairly. They question why the European Union and the United States target Cambodia while Vietnam and Thailand still enjoy good relations with the West. And they question why Cambodia is attacked for forging close ties with China when other Southeast Asian countries are doing the same.

Such external circumstances force Cambodia to invest heavily in foreign policy. During the 41st Party Congress of the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party in December 2018, foreign policy was highlighted as an area requiring more attention.

Cambodia’s foreign policy outlook is shaped by the unfolding power shifts in the Asia -Pacific region and the implications of major power rivalry. As the world becomes a multi-polar one, Cambodia is adjusting its foreign policy objectives and strategies accordingly. In this new world order, Cambodia’s ruling elites believe that the country’s foreign policy direction cannot be detached from that of the Asian powers.

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Phnom Penh has signed only two strategic partnerships so far: one with China in 2010 and another with Japan in 2013. Cambodia views China and Japan as among its most important strategic partners, and ones that can be relied on to help Cambodia realise its vision of becoming a higher middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country by 2050.

 

Cambodia also gives strategic importance to ASEAN as crucial to furthering regional integration and helping Southeast Asian countries cushion against foreign intervention.

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Diversifying strategic and economic partners has occupied Cambodian foreign policymakers for years. A lack of coordination among the relevant ministries — such as the Ministry of Foreign and International Cooperation (MOFAIC), Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Ministry of National Defence and Council for the Development of Cambodia — remains a significant issue preventing Cambodia from achieving its diversification strategy. These ministries need to work together to implement a more robust foreign policy.

There is strong political will on the part of MOFAIC to develop and implement a more robust foreign economic policy but other government agencies do not seem prepared to come onboard. MOFAIC has taken a leadership role in negotiating the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) initiative with the European Union, for instance, but this should ideally be done by the Ministry of Commerce.

Cambodia’s ruling elites are aware of the risks emanating from over-reliance on a single or few countries for their survival. Hedging and diversification are recognised as important strategies, but implementation remains an issue. It will take a few more years for Cambodia to develop a concrete action plan, build institutional and leadership capacity, and strengthen institutional coordination and synergies between ministries.

The United States and the European Union should demonstrate more flexibility towards Cambodia to avoid the perception of unfair treatment. They should provide Cambodia with more options instead of forcing it to compromise its sovereignty. Multi-layered, multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder engagement should be encouraged. As a small country, Cambodia needs expanded strategic space to manoeuvre.

Chheang Vannarith is Senior Fellow and Member of the Board at Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2018 in review and the year ahead.

 

 

 

The Year of Trump?


January 10,2019

trump

The Year of Trump?

If Trump’s iconoclastic style was merely a breach of traditional presidential etiquette, one might argue that his critics were being too fastidious, or were trapped in old-fashioned views of diplomacy. But crudeness can have consequences.

 

BEIJING – Time magazine did not choose Donald Trump as its Person of the Year in 2018, but it may do so this year. Trump ended 2018 facing criticisms for announcing troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan without consulting allies (resulting in the resignation of his respected defense secretary, General James Mattis) and partially shutting down the government over a Mexican border wall. In 2019, with Democrats having taken over the House of Representatives, he will face increasing criticism of his foreign policy.

Administration supporters shrug off the critics. Foreign policy experts, diplomats, and allies are aghast at Trump’s iconoclastic style, but Trump’s base voted for change and welcomes the disruption. In addition, some experts argue that the disruption will be justified if the consequences prove beneficial for American interests, such as a more benign regime in Iran, denuclearization of North Korea, a change of Chinese economic policies, and a more evenly balanced international trade regime.

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Niall Ferguson

Of course, assessing the long-term consequences of Trump’s foreign policy now is like predicting the final score in the middle of a game. Stanford historian Niall Ferguson has argued that “the key to Trump’s presidency is that it is probably the last opportunity America has to stop or at least slow China’s ascendency. And while it may not be intellectually very satisfying, Trump’s approach to the problem, which is to assert US power in unpredictable and disruptive ways, may in fact be the only viable option left.”

Trump’s critics respond that even if his iconoclasm produces some successes, one must assess them as part of a balance sheet that includes costs as well as benefits. They argue that the price will be too high in terms of the damage done to international institutions and trust among allies. In the competition with China, for example, the United States has dozens of allies and few disputes with neighbors, while China has few allies and a number of territorial disputes. In addition, while rules and institutions can be restraining, the US has a preponderant role in their formulation and is a major beneficiary of them.

This debate raises larger questions about the relevance of personal style in judging presidents’ foreign policy. In August 2016, 50 primarily Republican former national security officials argued that Trump’s personal temperament would make him unfit to be president. Most of the signatories were excluded from the administration, but were they correct?

As a leader, Trump may or may not be smart, but his temperament ranks low on the scales of emotional and contextual intelligence that made Franklin D. Roosevelt or George H.W. Bush successful presidents. Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, notes that “Trump’s sense of self-worth is forever at risk. When he feels aggrieved, he reacts impulsively and defensively, constructing a self-justifying story that doesn’t depend on facts and always directs the blame to others.”

Schwartz attributes this to Trump’s defense against domination by a father who was “relentlessly demanding, difficult, and driven…You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it – as he thought his elder brother had.” As a result, he “simply didn’t traffic in emotions or interest in others,” and “facts are whatever Trump deems them to be on any given day.”

Whether Schwartz is correct or not about the causes, Trump’s ego and emotional needs often seem to color his relations with other leaders and his interpretation of world events. The image of toughness is more important than truth. Journalist Bob Woodward reports that Trump told a friend who acknowledged bad behavior toward women that “real power is fear…You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”

Trump’s temperament limits his contextual intelligence. He lacked experience, and has done little to fill the gaps in his knowledge. He is described by close observers as reading little, insisting that briefing memos be very short, and relying heavily on television news. He is reported to have paid scant attention to staff preparations before summits with experienced autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. If Trump’s iconoclastic style was merely a breach of traditional presidential etiquette, one might argue that his critics were being too fastidious, or were trapped in old-fashioned views of diplomacy.

But crudeness can have consequences. While pressing for change, he has disrupted institutions and alliances, only grudgingly admitting their importance. Trump’s rhetoric has downplayed democracy and human rights, as his weak reaction to the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated. Although Trump has echoed President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about the US being a city on the hill whose beacon shines to others, his domestic behavior toward the press, the judiciary, and minorities has weakened the clarity of America’s democratic appeal. International polls show a decline in America’s soft power since he took office.

While critics and defenders debate the attractiveness of the values embodied by Trump’s “America First” approach, an impartial analyst cannot excuse the ways in which his personal emotional needs have skewed the implementation of his goals – for example in his summit meetings with Putin and Kim. As for prudence, Trump’s non-interventionism protected him from some sins of commission, but one can question whether his mental maps and contextual intelligence are adequate to understand the risks posed to the US by the diffusion of power in this century. As tensions grow, reckoning with Trump may well become unavoidable in 2019.

US Foreign Policy:The Perils of trusting America: A Reminder for Asian All Allies


January 3, 20l9

US Foreign Policy: The Perils of trusting America: A Reminder for Asian All Allies

https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/the-perils-of-trusting-america-a-reminder-for-asian-allies

Before its betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, the US had in the 1970s abandoned the trusting Cambodians and Vietnamese to their fate.

 

President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to pull all American troops out of Syria is yet another chilling reminder that those who believe in pledges and assurances made by the United States do so at their grave peril.

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While his generals and European allies may fret over the geopolitical implications of his capricious move, it is the US-backed Kurdish forces, fighting on America’s behalf against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group in north-eastern Syria, who will bear the brunt of the repercussions.

It is almost certain that Turkey, which has long labelled them as terrorists inciting its Kurdish minority to secede, will carry out its threat to move in and crush them.

Deserted by the Americans who have been funding, training and arming them, the Kurds will pay for Mr Trump’s perfidy with blood. He may have made good on his campaign promise to pull out US troops but, to the Kurds, he has just stabbed them in the back. And they say this openly, in so many words, to the world’s media.

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan must be watching this development – which is nothing short of a breach of faith – with great trepidation. So should other economies in the Asia-Pacific region which the US has been courting in its thinly-disguised attempt to contain the rise of China.

Seoul and Tokyo, especially, could not have forgotten that soon after President Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, he called off a long-scheduled military exercise between South Korean and US forces – just like that, without any prior notice to Seoul.

Or that he has signaled more than once his aversion to keeping American troops in South Korea. No one can be sure now that he would not, in a moment of impetuosity, announce a US pullout from there as well, via Twitter at 3 o’clock in the morning.

With America’s reliability as an ally being brought into serious question, it is little wonder that Seoul and Tokyo will want to hedge their bets. Hence South Korea’s quickened pace in reaching out to the North, and Tokyo’s signals to Beijing that it is seeking a thaw in their frosty relations.

Meanwhile, thinking Taiwanese are no doubt put on notice of the dangers that await them should they allow themselves to be used as pawns by the US in its bid for strategic dominance over China. How the Trump administration ditched its friends in Syria is a wake-up call like no other.

 

Indeed, when it comes to honouring its promises and assurances, the US has a history it cannot be very proud of – from failing to return islands in the South China Sea seized by Japan from China, as agreed at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, to leaving Hungarians to their fate when Soviet troops moved in to crush their 1956 uprising which the Americans had encouraged.

Vietnam, which Washington has wooed assiduously as a bulwark against Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea, should also remember vividly how the US deserted its allies as the Indochina wars wound to a stop in 1975.

No doubt many who have lived through those years will recall seeing television footage of the last US Marine helicopter evacuating Americans from the rooftop of their embassy in Saigon on April 29, 1975, amid pandemonium all around them. But a more poignant and shameful debacle had taken place in Phnom Penh three weeks before that.

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In early April, the US, having instigated General Lon Nol in March 1970 to oust Prince Norodom Sihanouk in a coup, decided five years later to abandon Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge forces closing in on the capital, a “bug-out” as then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called it.

 

Then US Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean had earlier pleaded with his superiors in Washington not to do so but to no avail. He and all Americans were ordered to evacuate on April 12, which he later described as one of the most tragic days in his life, the day “the US abandoned Cambodia and handed it to the butchers”.

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Prince Sirik Matak

 

 

“We had accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise,” he said in an interview in Paris years later. “That’s the worst thing a country can do. And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”

What happened was that after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, it drove two million of its inhabitants into the countryside at gunpoint. In the end, nearly all of them died from executions, starvation or torture.

But a more stinging indictment of the US action came from Prince Sirik Matak , then Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia.  Ambassador Dean, out of honour and decency, had offered him a ride on the evacuating convoy and, thereafter, asylum. Prime Minister Lon Nol had already fled to Hawaii.

Prince Sirik Matak replied in writing:

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“Dear Excellency and friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.

“As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.

“But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”

This reply, reportedly circulated and read shamefacedly in the corridors of power in Washington, has gone into permanent record.  Its author was later captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers and killed – some reports said he was shot in the stomach and left to die over three painful days, while another had it that he was beheaded.

It is highly doubtful Mr Trump read the letter before he ordered the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Or that he would care to.

• Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times.

 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2018,  with the headline ‘The perils of trusting America: A reminder for Asian allies’

Trump vs. the Economy


 

Trump vs. the Economy

December 30, 2018  by

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-behavior-causes-stock-market-drop-by-nouriel-roubini-2018-12

Between publicly chastising US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and escalating his trade war with China, US President Donald Trump has finally rattled the markets. While investors were happy to look the other way during the first half of Trump’s term, the dangerous spectacle unfolding in the White House can no longer be ignored.

NEW YORK – Financial markets have finally awoken to the fact that Donald Trump is US president. Given that the world has endured two years of reckless tweets and public statements by the world’s most powerful man, the obvious question is, What took so long?

For one thing, until now, investors had bought into the argument that Trump is all bark and no bite. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as he pursued tax cuts, deregulation, and other policies beneficial to the corporate sector and shareholders. And many trusted that, at the end of the day, the “adults in the room” would restrain Trump and ensure that the administration’s policies didn’t jump the guardrails of orthodoxy.

These assumptions were more or less vindicated during Trump’s first year in office, when economic growth and an expected increase in corporate profits – owing to forthcoming tax cuts and deregulation – resulted in strong stock-market performance. In 2017, US stock indices rose more than 20%.

But things changed radically in 2018, and especially in the last few months. Despite corporate earnings growing by over 20% (thanks to the tax cuts), US equity markets moved sideways for most of the year, and have now taken a sharp turn south. At this point, broad indices are in correction territory (meaning a 10% drop from the recent peak), and indices of tech stocks, such as the Nasdaq, are in bear-market territory (a drop of 20% or more).

Though financial markets’ higher volatility reflects concerns about China, Italy and other eurozone economies, and key emerging economies, most of the recent turmoil is due to Trump. The year started with the enactment of a reckless tax cut that pushed up long-term interest rates and created a sugar high in an economy already close to full employment. As early as February, growing concerns about inflation rising above the US Federal Reserve’s 2% target led to the year’s first risk-off.

Then came Trump’s trade wars with China and other key US trade partners. Market worries about the administration’s protectionist policies have waxed and waned throughout the year, but they are now reaching a new peak. The latest US actions against China seem to augur a broader trade, economic, and geopolitical cold war.

An additional worry is that Trump’s other policies will have stagflationary effects (reduced growth alongside higher inflation). After all, Trump is planning to limit inward foreign direct investment, and has already implemented broad restrictions on immigration, which will reduce labor-supply growth at a time when workforce aging and skills mismatches are already a growing problem.

Moreover, the administration has yet to propose an infrastructure plan to spur private-sector productivity or hasten the transition to a green economy. And on Twitter and elsewhere, Trump has continued to bash corporations for their hiring, production, investment, and pricing practices, singling out tech firms just when they are already facing a wider backlash and increased competition from their Chinese counterparts.

Emerging markets have also been shaken by US policies. Fiscal stimulus and monetary-policy tightening have pushed up short- and long-term interest rates and strengthened the US dollar. As a result, emerging economies have experienced capital flight and rising dollar-denominated debt. Those that rely heavily on exports have suffered the effects of lower commodity prices, and all that trade even indirectly with China have felt the effects of the trade war.

Even Trump’s oil policies have created volatility. After the resumption of US sanctions against Iran pushed up oil prices, the administration’s efforts to carve out exemptions and bully Saudi Arabia into increasing its own production led to a sharp price drop. Though US consumers benefit from lower oil prices, US energy firms’ stock prices do not. Besides, excessive oil-price volatility is bad for producers and consumers alike, because it hinders sensible investment and consumption decisions.

Making matters worse, it is now clear that the benefits of last year’s tax cuts have accrued almost entirely to the corporate sector, rather than to households in the form of higher real (inflation-adjusted) wages. That means household consumption could soon slow down, further undercutting the economy.

More than anything else, though, the sharp fall in US and global equities during the last quarter is a response to Trump’s own utterances and actions. Even worse than the heightened risk of a full-scale trade war with China (despite the recent “” agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping) are Trump’s public attacks on the Fed, which began as early as the spring of 2018, when the US economy was growing at more than 4%.

Given these earlier attacks, markets were spooked this month when the Fed correctly decided to hike interest rates while also signaling a more gradual pace of rate increases in 2019. Most likely, the Fed’s relative hawkishness is a reaction to Trump’s threats against it. In the face of hostile presidential tweets, Fed Chair Jerome Powell needed to signal that the central bank remains politically independent.

But then came Trump’s decision to shut down large segments of the federal government over Congress’s refusal to fund his useless Mexican border wall. That sent markets into a near-panic, and the government shutdown was soon followed by reports that Trump wants to fire Powell – a move that could turn a correction into a crash. Just before the Christmas holiday, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin was forced to issue a public statement to placate the markets. He announced that Trump was not planning to fire Powell after all, and that US banks’ finances are sound, effectively highlighting the question of whether they really are.

Recent changes within the administration that do not necessarily affect economic policy making are also rattling the markets. The impending departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will leave the room devoid of adults. The coterie of economic nationalists and foreign-policy hawks who remain will cater to Trump’s every whim.

As matters stand, the risk of a full-scale geopolitical conflagration with China cannot be ruled out. A new cold war would effectively lead to de-globalization, disrupting supply chains everywhere, but particularly in the tech sector, as the recent ZTE and Huawei cases signal. At the same time, Trump seems to be hell-bent on undermining the cohesion of the European Union and NATO at a time when Europe is economically and politically fragile. And Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s 2016 election campaign’s ties to Russia hangs like a Sword of Damocles over his presidency.

Trump is now the Dr. Strangelove of financial markets. Like the paranoid madman in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, he is flirting with mutually assured economic destruction. Now that markets see the danger, the risk of a financial crisis and global recession has grown.

Nouriel Roubini, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and CEO of Roubini Macro Associates, was Senior Economist for International Affairs in the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank.

 

 

Is the West’s future really so gloomy?


December 23, 2018

Is the West’s future really so gloomy?

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/12/20/is-the-wests-future-really-so-gloomy

Emmanuel Macron has been the great hope for those who worry that global politics is being dominated by populism, nationalism and racism. In his presidential campaign last year, Macron was able to rally France around a message of reform and multi-lateralism, staying firmly wedded to the European Union and other international alliances and institutions. Last month, he brought together 65 world leaders for a major gathering dedicated to global governance.

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Now Macron has been humbled by the “yellow vest” street protests. He was forced to backtrack on some of his reforms and adopt new budget-busting subsidies in an attempt to mollify the mob. And there is the mess in Britain as it keeps trying (and failing) to Brexit; Italy’s budgetary woes; and the embrace of illiberal democracy in Hungary and Poland. It all adds up to a depressing picture of Europe and the West.

But are things really so gloomy? As Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig points out, support for the E.U. is at its highest level in decades. And on closer examination, while the forces of populism continue to surge in some places, the story of the past few months has mostly been one of pushback. Consider Poland and Hungary, in many ways the poster children for the populist-nationalist movement. In Poland, efforts to reshape the country’s Supreme Court ignited massive national protests, and Europe’s high court ordered that the move be reversed. On Monday, Warsaw complied.

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Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary

 

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s latest authoritarian steps — changing labor law and judicial authority — have also triggered widespread protests, uniting the nation’s opposition forces as never before. The street rebellion has the feel of a generalized opposition to the ruling party, which has predictably used tear gas on the mostly peaceful protesters, decried them as anti-Christian and accused George Soros of organizing the whole affair.

In France, news of Macron’s demise is premature. Yes, his poll numbers are way down, but voters still prefer him to the far-right Marine Le Pen by a wide margin. He has a five-year term, his party controls the legislature, and most analysts agree that his reforms are inevitable if France is to compete for investment and generate growth. He may end up a one-term president, but he will still have spearheaded the most important changes in France in a generation.

In Italy, the new coalition government had introduced a populist budget that promised a universal basic income and early retirement, only to meet the steely opposition of the E.U. And it was the populists who blinked. This week, Rome retreated from those measures and announced a budget conforming to the guidelines set by Brussels. It feels like a flashback to 2015, when Greek populists were compelled to enact the very program they campaigned against.

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Britain’s May Prime Minister is caught in a political maelstrom

“Proponents of Brexit sold the country a fantasy that it could get the benefits of access to the European Union’s market without the costs of having to obey its rules. As time passes, more and more Britons are coming to realize that they cannot have their cake and eat it, too.”–Fareed Zakaria.

Britain remains more complicated, but the basic story is that every time the country comes close to actual Brexit, it pulls back, appalled by the costs. Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to do a soft Brexit, and while the compromise has earned her the scorn of the hard-line Brexiteers, they cannot topple her. Perhaps they don’t want to because then they would be saddled with May’s impossible task. Proponents of Brexit sold the country a fantasy that it could get the benefits of access to the European Union’s market without the costs of having to obey its rules. As time passes, more and more Britons are coming to realize that they cannot have their cake and eat it, too.

And finally, look at the United States, where a president who proudly embraces populism and nationalism reigns. In November, the Democratic Party had its strongest gains in the House of Representatives since the Watergate wave of 1974. President Trump has faced additional resignations from important members of his administration — some under ethical clouds, others tired of the chaos. Most significant, there are now 17 separate investigations into Trump and his associates, some of which have already produced indictments. And that does not include the series of congressional inquiries certain to begin once the Democrats take control of key committees in the House. For two years, Republicans have ruled Washington, giving them control over all information from government sources and all powers of subpoena and oversight. That ends Jan. 3.

I don’t mean to minimize the populist wave that is still coursing through the West and other parts of the world. But concern should not give way to despair. There are many people in every country who oppose the politics of anger and identity. They are also strong. They need to run fast but not run scared.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

 

Good Riddance to 2018


December 23, 2018

Good Riddance to 2018

Those who oppose democracy, the rule of law, and multilateralism have had a good year. But there have also been signs suggesting that those who uphold these principles have not lost the will to fight back.

MADRID – Sadly, 2018 will not be remembered as a year of political and diplomatic success. Though the international order had already begun to erode in 2017, the global political environment became downright chaotic, combustible, and hostile this year. That is no coincidence, as these are perhaps the three adjectives that best describe the United States under President Donald Trump.

Since January 2018, when the Trump administration announced tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, the year has been marked by an escalating “trade war,” waged primarily – but not exclusively – by the US against China. The ongoing tariff disputes have seriously undermined the World Trade Organization and deepened mutual distrust in Sino-American relations.

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For its part, China this year eliminated presidential term limits, raising fears that President Xi Jinping’s so-called new era will end the period of collective leadership ushered in by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, which were themselves a corrective to Mao’s cult of personality. This move could also herald a further deviation from Deng’s trademark foreign-policy restraint.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin was reelected in March, to no one’s surprise. Under Putin, Russia has been re-emerging as a geopolitical force. And yet, its economy is essentially stagnant, owing in part to its excessive dependence on hydrocarbons. In the absence of growth, Putin has relied on foreign policy to shore up his domestic popularity.

For example, Putin’s campaign press secretary welcomed the British government’s response to the nerve-agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, because it may have mobilized Putin’s supporters in the run-up to the presidential election. And the Kremlin’s recent decision to blockade Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov may also have been designed to boost Putin’s domestic approval rating, among other goals. The danger now is that both the US and Russia will cease to implement the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, posing a new and acute threat to Europe in particular.

 

Meanwhile, the Middle East has continued to serve as a battlefield for some of the world’s most violent conflicts. Though the Islamic State (ISIS) has continued to lose ground, it is far from defeated – contrary to what Trump has claimed – and the death toll in Syria’s civil war continues to climb. Likewise, the humanitarian calamity in Yemen has deepened, though negotiations that ran aground in 2016 have at least resumed and made some progress. In Afghanistan, what is widely regarded as the longest-running war in US history continues, and it is estimated that the Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since their government was overthrown in 2001.

Despite some recent developments in the aforementioned conflicts, the underpinnings of the Trump administration’s general strategy in the Middle East remained intact in 2018. The US has reaffirmed its support for the axis of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which it regards as a bulwark against Iran. In May, the Trump administration moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That same month, it abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and announced an abusive re-imposition of extraterritorial sanctions, which reflects the increasing .

Moreover, by siding with the Saudi government over his own intelligence agencies in the of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, Trump has made clear that opposing Iran and purchasing US arms is one of the quickest ways to his heart. The result of his broad approach to the Middle East has been to empower military hardliners throughout the region. In fact, Israel and Iran this year engaged in their first-ever direct military encounter.

 

Trump has also contributed, in one way or another, to the advance of populism around the world in 2018. In Latin America, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro have shown that “populism” can encompass diverse ideologies. While both claim to speak for “the people” against “the elites,” the leftist AMLO was elected partly as a rebuke to Trump, whereas Bolsonaro embraces a Trump-like brand of right-wing nationalism, and enjoys the support of many Brazilian elites.

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Trump has also contributed, in one way or another, to the advance of populism around the world in 2018. In Latin America, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro have shown that “populism” can encompass diverse ideologies. While both claim to speak for “the people” against “the elites,” the leftist AMLO was elected partly as a rebuke to Trump, whereas Bolsonaro embraces a Trump-like brand of right-wing nationalism, and enjoys the support of many Brazilian elites.

The Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, often regarded as one of the Kremlin’s main ideologues, argues that “populism should unite right-wing values with socialism, social justice, and anti-capitalism.” This “integral populism,” he believes, is perfectly illustrated by Italy’s current governing coalition, which comprises the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the nationalist League party.

In October, Italy’s government instigated a conflict with the European Union (which has fortunately subsided) by proposing a budget that defied EU fiscal rules. Italy’s leaders justified their policies in the name of an outdated interpretation of “sovereignty,” one similar to that of the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers, whose haphazardness has left the UK’s future shrouded in uncertainty.

There were a few positive developments in 2018. Certainly, the easing of tensions between the US and North Korea, and the even deeper rapprochement between North and South Korea, should be welcomed. Much credit belongs to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who used the occasion of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to reach out to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump’s subsequent turn toward diplomacy – which led to his historic summit with Kim – should also be applauded, though his administration has yet to achieve anything more than symbolic progress toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

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The result of the US midterm elections was also good news. Democratic control of the House of Representatives means that, from January 2019, there will be more checks on Trump’s policies. And there have been welcome developments in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a recent resolution condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Khashoggi, and another to end US support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, passed with bipartisan support.

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In Europe, the prospects for 2019 will depend primarily on three factors: Brexit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for EU reform, and the European Parliament election in May. In each case, one hopes that the supporters of democracy, the rule of law, European integration, and multilateralism will prevail.

Those who oppose these principles have had a rather good year. But they would be mistaken to think that those who uphold them have lost the will – and the ability – to cultivate a spirit of cooperation and harmony.

*Javier Solana was EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain. He is currently President of the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics, Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Europe.