America’s “Chaos President” makes Iran’s Hardliners Right, says Dr. Fareed Zakaria


May 14, 2018

America’s “Chaos President” makes Iran’s Hardliners Right, says Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/5/10/trump-has-proved-irans-hardliners-right

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Jeb Bush said Donald Trump would be a “chaos president.” And this week, President Trump lived up to the billing, choosing to defy virtually the entire world, including America’s closest European allies, and raising tensions in the most unstable part of the globe, the Middle East.

It is hard to understand the rationale behind Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. If Iran is as dangerous and malign an actor as he says, surely it is best to have its nuclear program frozen at a pre-military level and monitored 24/7. The chances of getting Tehran to agree to more stringent terms are close to zero. If the terms of the Iran deal were applied to North Korea, it would require Pyongyang to destroy its nuclear weapons — the fruits of a decades-long effort — and agree to invasive inspections and foreign surveillance in a country so closed it is known as the Hermit Kingdom.

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If there is a strategy behind Trump’s move, it is probably regime change. His closest advisers have long championed regime change and have argued that the best approach toward Iran is a combination of sanctions, support for opposition groups and military intervention. As a congressman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized the Obama administration for negotiating with Tehran and instead suggested that the United States launch close to 2,000 bombing sorties against Iran. National security adviser John Bolton has been even more forceful in pushing for regime change, advocating much greater support for the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant opposition group with a checkered past and little support within Iran. Both Bolton and Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani have given paid speeches for the MEK, and in Paris last July, Bolton declared that the United States should pursue regime change in Iran so that the Islamic republic would not celebrate its 40th birthday (which would be in 2019). Thus, three of Trump’s closest advisers have views on Iran that are so extreme that it is hard to think of anyone outside of Saudi Arabia or Israel who shares them.

 

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John, Mike and Gina

Iran is a repressive and anti-American regime that has spread its influence in the Middle East, often to America’s detriment. But it is also an ancient civilization, with centuries of power and influence in the region. The notion that the United States could solve all of its problems with Tehran by toppling the regime is fanciful. It has withstood U.S. pressure and sanctions for nearly four decades. And even if it were somehow possible to topple it, look around. The lesson of the past two decades in the Middle East is surely that regime change leads to chaos, war, refugee flows, sectarian strife and more. It opens a Pandora’s box in a land already rife with woes.

Look beyond the Middle East at the record of regime change. Whether it was an unfriendly ruler such as Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz or a friendly one such as South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, regime change was followed by greater instability. Look at Iran itself, where a British-American-sponsored coup dislodged the elected government, which was one of the factors that led to and still legitimizes the Islamic republic. Consider also America’s heavy-handed intervention in the Cuban liberation movement at the turn of the 20th century, which left a legacy of anti-Americanism that the Cuban Communists exploit to this day. Misjudging and mishandling nationalism may be the central error in American foreign policy.

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By contrast, when the United States has helped open countries to capitalism, commerce and contact, these acids of modernity have almost always eaten away at the nastiest elements of dictatorships. For all its problems, China today is a much better and more responsible country than it was under Mao Zedong. People often point to President Ronald Reagan’s campaign against the Soviet Union as one in which pressure against an evil empire helped produce regime change. But they remember only half the story. Reagan did pressure the Soviets. But as soon as he found a reformer, in Mikhail Gorbachev, he embraced him, supported him and made concessions to him. So much so that he drew furious opposition from conservatives in the United States who called him “a useful idiot” who was helping the Soviet Union win the Cold War.

Iran is a complicated country with a complicated regime. But it does have moderate elements within it that were clearly hoping the nuclear deal would be a path to integration and normalization with the world. Those forces do not have the dominant hand, but they do have power, not least because President Hassan Rouhani has popular backing. But Iran has always had a strong hard-line element that believed that America could never be trusted, that the Saudis were mortal foes, and that self-reliance, autarky and the spread of Shiite ideology was their only strategy for self-preservation. Trump has just proved them right.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

 

Trump Destroys the Iran Deal—and a Lot More


May 10, 2018

Trump Destroys the Iran Deal—and a Lot More

After months of threatening, President Trump withdrew from the historic Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, unraveling the Obama Administration’s signature foreign-policy achievement and putting the United States on a collision course with allies, as well as with Tehran. “This was a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” the President said. “It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.” Trump also announced that the United States is re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran and, over time, on companies in other countries that do business with the Islamic Republic.

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President Donald Trump announced on May 08 that the US will withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and reinstate economic sanctions against Tehran. “We will be instituting at the highest level of economic sanction; any country that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be strongly sanctioned by the United States,” Trump said.

 

Trump said that he was prepared to negotiate a new deal, but it would have to cover several issues beyond Iran’s controversial nuclear program—including Tehran’s ballistic-missile program, its support for extremist groups, and other “malign” activities in the wider Middle East. In a rebuke to Trump, however, the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany expressed “regret” over Trump’s decision and vowed to remain in the pact, which also includes Russia and China. “We urge all sides to remain committed to its full implementation and to act in a spirit of responsibility,” they said. China also indicated that it would adhere to the accord.

In an initial reaction, Iran also appeared to reject new negotiations—and indicated that it might even stick to the original agreement, which curtails significant aspects of its nuclear program. President Hassan Rouhani said that his government would review the prospects of continuing to collaborate with the other five signatories of the pact, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A.

“If, at end of this short period of time, if we come to the conclusion that with the collaboration of five countries it is feasible to attain what the Iranian people wish, despite the views of the U.S. and Zionist regime and also the impolite remarks by Trump, we should see whether it is possible to just keep up with J.C.P.O.A. and also take steps in line with regional peace and tranquility,” he said. (Iran refers to Israel as “the Zionist regime.”) But Rouhani—who won office in 2013, on a platform of negotiating a nuclear deal with the United States and getting a reprieve from economic sanctions in return—also suggested that Tehran was prepared for “subsequent measures, if needed,” including “starting industrial enrichment without limitations.”

Trump’s decision means that, technically, the United States is the first nation to violate the accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has issued ten reports that Tehran is in full compliance with its obligations. Iran is under the toughest inspections and verification-inspections regime ever imposed in an arms-control deal. In a rare public comment on Trump’s foreign policy, former President Barack Obama noted that the right to inspections disappears if the agreement ends.

“Every aspect of Iranian behavior that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear program is unconstrained,” Obama said. “Our ability to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior—and to sustain a unity of purpose with our allies—is strengthened with the J.C.P.O.A., and weakened without it.”

Critics were scathing about the U.S. withdrawal. James Dobbins, a former U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., who negotiated with Iran after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and now works at the RAND Corporation, said that the decision “isolates the United States, frees Iran, reneges on an American commitment, adds to the risk of a trade war with America’s allies and to a hot war with Iran and diminishes the prospects of a durable and truly verifiable agreement to eliminate the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.”

Trump’s decision is likely to have far-reaching impact. The premise of diplomatic outreach was to create conditions for eventual coöperation with Iran on other flashpoints in the world’s most volatile region. Instead, danger looms for deepening tensions in hot spots such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen—countries where the United States and Iran have rival interests. “By forfeiting American leadership in the one successful multilateral deal in the volatile Middle East, Trump could possibly make a bad situation worse,” Wendy Chamberlin, a former career diplomat who is now the president of the Middle East Institute, in Washington, told me.

Tensions between Israel and Iran have increased recently over Syria, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have established footholds in three dozen military facilities during its seven-year civil war. Israel has launched more than a hundred air strikes on Syria, the majority on Iranian and Hezbollah targets. “Israel and Iran are headed toward a dangerous confrontation,” Chamberlin said.

The withdrawal from the agreement comes days before the U.S. moves its Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another controversial decision that has inflamed anti-American passions. “Trump is pouring gasoline on a Middle East in flames already, with his Iran and Jerusalem decisions,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., White House, and Pentagon staffer who is now at the Brookings Institution, told me.

Trump’s decision also undermines the transatlantic alliance, crafted after the Second World War, between the United States and Europe. The President defied a determined last-ditch pitch by America’s three most important European allies, made during visits by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

Trump’s decision to nix rather than fix the deal fits his “America First” agenda. “Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—alongside withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Accord [on climate]—completes Trump’s reneging on U.S. commitments and undermining of U.S. credibility,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former Ambassador to Israel and Egypt now at Princeton University, told me. “The United States used to be the leader, the convener, and the engine of international diplomacy. Trump’s actions have turned us into an untrustworthy and erratic diplomatic outlier.”

The Europeans are clearly hoping that the deal—the crowning achievement of the E.U.’s diplomacy as a continental body—will survive without the United States.

Re-imposing sanctions on Iran will create the greatest division between Europe and the U.S. since the Iraq War, Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies office in Washington, told me. “Only this time it will be worse, since not a single European state sides with the U.S. on this matter.” Beyond Europe, American credibility worldwide “will go down the tubes,” he said. “Who will ever want to strike a deal with a country that, without cause, pulls out of a deal that everyone else knows has been working well? America will be seen as stupid, arrogant, and bullying. Pity the poor U.S. diplomats who have to explain this illogical decision to their host countries.”

Trump’s decision even benefits America’s adversaries, including Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. “We’re playing into Putin’s hand,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, now at Stanford University, said on CNN. “For Putin, it means that the U.S. is on the outside—and Putin is still on the inside. Why are we isolating ourselves when we need other countries to coöperate with on issues like North Korea?”

The U.S. decision will have fallout both economically and politically inside Iran, where foreboding about Trump’s long-threatened decision has already had a psychological impact. The value of Iran’s currency has plummeted by a third since December. The timing intersects with systemic change—and uncertainty—in Iran over dramatic demographic changes, aging leadership, and long-standing structural deficiencies. “The post-revolutionary baby boom is inching toward middle age, with nearly universal access to information and communications technology and after decades of thwarted hopes for economic improvements,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy-planning staffer now at the Brookings Institution, told me.

“I don’t see a revolution on the horizon, but I think we are witnessing the slow-motion metastasis of the revolutionary system that is echoing through the economy and the establishment,” she said. “I don’t think this is solely or even primarily provoked by the collapse of the deal but, rather, the culmination of a range of internal forces: long-simmering frustrations, the stalemate of two decades of gradualism, demographic pressures, communications technology, and the anticipated imminence of leadership succession.”

As dramatic as Trump’s curt announcement was, the repercussions of his decision—one of the most important of his sixteen months in office—may take months to play out in Iran, among allies, and even among adversaries. At a White House briefing, the new national-security adviser, John Bolton, said that the Administration will continue to talk with allies, starting on Wednesday, about ways forward. But the prospect of healing the policy divide with the world’s other five major powers—much less getting Iran to agree to a new deal—seems remote, at best.

 

Fareed Zakaria on Macron’s State Visit to Washington DC


April 29, 2018

Fareed Zakaria on Macron’s State Visit to Washington DC

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

ttps://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/4/27/macron-is-trying-to-save-the-west

Emmanuel Macron came, saw and conquered Washington this week. But the French President is trying to do something much harder than generate buzz and goodwill. He is trying to stop President Trump from dividing the Western alliance and disrupting the (already turbulent) Middle East. Watching him at work — flattering Trump, then politely disagreeing with him, all while proposing compromise solutions — is like watching a skilled dancer execute a complex set of moves. It remains to be seen whether Macron can pull it off, but thank goodness he is trying.

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“Emmanuel Macron came, saw and conquered Washington this week. But the French President is trying to do something much harder than generate buzz and goodwill. He is trying to stop President Trump from dividing the Western alliance and disrupting the (already turbulent) Middle East. Watching him at work — flattering Trump, then politely disagreeing with him, all while proposing compromise solutions — is like watching a skilled dancer execute a complex set of moves.”–Dr. Fareed Zakaria

 

Macron thinks that “Donald Trump will get rid of the Iran deal for domestic reasons,” he told me and a small group of journalists on Wednesday. What will ensue, he predicted, is “a period of tension.” That might be an understatement. Tehran has signaled that if Trump pulls out of the deal on May 12 — when he faces a deadline on whether to restore sanctions on Iran — the most likely result is that Tehran would also withdraw. And as Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me on Monday, “Once we withdraw, all the restrictions on our nuclear program end.”

Zarif said that, in the accord, Iran made a much stronger pledge than most realize. “President Trump does not seem to have read the agreement. The third line of it states: ‘Iran commits to never developing nuclear weapons.’ There is no time restriction on that. The word we use is ‘never.’ The time restrictions relate to voluntary limits on our nuclear energy program that we have undertaken to give the international community confidence that we are sincere in our intentions.”

Macron is not so sure that Iran would withdraw from the deal. “If Iran pulls out as well, the U.S. might put very tough sanctions on it and things would spiral downwards,” he said. He plans to urge President Hassan Rouhani to temper the Iranian reaction and agree to find a new way forward.

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Macron has pushed Trump privately and publicly to keep the Iran deal. “It sets a terrible precedent for the world’s leading power to renege on an agreement that it spearheaded and signed,” he said. And Macron sees it as part of a dismaying pattern from an administration that has decided to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, weakened its commitment to the World Trade Organization and now seems determined to scuttle the pact with Iran.

But Macron is also critical of Iran. “Since the agreement was signed, Iran has made some decisions. It expanded its regional interventions [in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria]. It has strengthened its ballistic missile arsenal. It appears to have used the proceeds from sanctions relief to fund its militias and external operations more than provide relief to its population. All these decisions have consequences,” he said.

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French President Emmanuel Macron answers a question from student in the audience during a town hall meeting at George Washington University in Washington, April 25, 2018.

In any event, Macron is determined not to wring his hands, but rather to find a way forward. Hence his artful proposal for a new nuclear deal. While this may sound like Trump, Macron is actually suggesting something quite different. The first pillar of his new approach is adherence to the existing nuclear deal, unamended and unabridged. But he proposes three additional pillars that would address Iran’s ballistic missile program, counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, and extend the commitments Iran has made beyond various timelines in the current deal (which range from eight to 25 years).

In other words, were Iran to agree to start discussing these topics, the current deal would stay intact. It’s not clear that the Iranian government would accept this demand. And it’s not clear that Trump would agree to a framework in which the agreement that he has branded “the worst deal ever negotiated” would remain in place. Both sides would have to climb down from their positions.

One Iranian who is well-versed in the issues made an interesting observation about why the nuclear deal has had so many critics in both Washington and Tehran. For 40 years, the United States and Iran have settled into a pattern of behavior. The United States sees its role as applying pressure and threats to Iran, while Iran thinks its role is to bravely resist. The nuclear deal was an effort to break with the past and create a new dynamic of dialogue. But it generated a backlash in both countries.

Macron is trying to forge a new path for dialogue and diplomacy. If he fails, it will be because too many in Washington, and even in Tehran, have gotten comfortable with the old pattern. By mindlessly sticking to it, they seem to be leading us down a path of tension, conflict and, perhaps, even war.

c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

 

The de-dollarization in China


April 10, 2018

The de-dollarization in China

 

The US dollar is so important in today’s economy for three main reasons: the huge amount of petrodollars; the use of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the decision taken by US President Nixon in 1971 to end the dollar convertibility into gold.

The US currency is still a large part of the Special Drawing Rights (SDR), the IMF’s “paper money”. A share ranging between 41% and 46% depending on the periods.

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Petrodollars emerged when Henry Kissinger dealt with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, after “Black September” in Jordan.

The agreement was simple. Saudi Arabia had to accept only dollars as payments for the oil it sold, but was forced to invest that huge amount of US currency only in the US financial channels while, in return, the United States placed Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC neighbouring countries under its own military protection.

Hence the turning of the dollar into a world currency, considering the importance and extent of the oil market. Not to mention that this large amount of dollars circulating in the world definitely marginalized gold and later convinced the FED that the demand for dollars in the world was huge and unstoppable.

An unlimited amount of liquidity that kept various US industrial sectors alive but, above all, guaranteed huge financial markets such as the derivatives – markets based on the structural surplus of US liquidity.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States always thought about world’s hegemony and, above all, imagined to oppose the already active Eurasian union between China, Iran and Russia – the worst nightmare for US decision-makers – both at military and financial levels.

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As early as those years, following Brzezinsky’s policy line, the US analysts warned against the unification of Eurasia – to be absolutely prevented – and against the subsequent reunification of Eurasia with the Eurasian peninsula, to be avoided even with a war.

At that time, the three aforementioned States still conducted their business in dollars: China wanted to keep on becoming the “world factory”; Russia had run out of steam and was near breaking point; Iran had to inevitably adapt to the rest of Sunni OPEC.

With Putin’s rise to power, Russia’s de-dollarization began immediately. The share of dollar reserves declined year after year, while Putin proposed new oil contracts. Since last year, for example, dollars cannot be used in ports.

In the case of Iran, the sanction regime – in particular – has favoured the discovery of means other than the dollar for international settlements. The operations and signs of the de-dollarization continued.

The war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein was also a fight against the Rais who wanted to start selling his oil barrels in euros, while the war in Afghanistan was viewed by China as part of the ongoing overall encirclement of its territory.

Hence the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative. Also the war in Afghanistan was an attempt to stop the Eurasian project of economic and commercial (as well as political) union between Russia, Iran and China.

As further sanction, the United States has removed Iran from the SWIFT network, the well-known world interbank transfer system, which is also a private company.

Iran, however, has immediately joined the Chinese CIPS, a recent network, similar to SWIFT, with which it is already fully connected.

Basically China’s idea is to create an international currency based on the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights and freely expendable on world markets, in lieu of the US dollar, so as to avoid “the dangerous fluctuations stemming from the US currency and the uncertainties on its real value “- just to quote the Governor of the Chinese central bank, Zhou Xiao Chuan, who will soon be replaced by Yi Gang.

In the meantime, Russia and China are acquiring significant amounts of gold. In recent years China has bought gold to the tune of at least 1842.6 tons, but the international index could be distorted, as many transactions on the Shanghai Gold Exchange are Over the Counter (OTC) and hence are not reported.

Again according to official data, so far Russia is supposed to have reached 1857.7 tons. Both countries have so far bought 10% of the gold available in the world.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has already accepted payments in yuan for the oil sold to China, which is its largest customer. This is a turning point. If Saudi Arabia gives in, sooner or later all OPEC countries will follow suit.

In many cases, India and Russia have already traded with Iran by accepting oil in exchange for primary goods and commodities.

China has also opened a credit line with Iran amounting to as many as 10 billion euros, with a view to getting around sanctions. It is also assumed that North Korea uses cryptocurrencies to buy oil from China.

As devastated as its economy is, Venezuela no longer sells its oil in dollars – and it is worth recalling it can boast the largest world reserves known to date.

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Furthermore, China will buy gas and oil from Russia in yuan, with Russia being able to convert yuan into gold directly on the Shanghai International Energy Exchange.

Keynes’ “tribal residue” takes its revenge. So far the agreements for trade in their respective currencies were signed between China and Kazakhstan (on December 14, 2014),between China and South Africa (on April 10, 2015) and between Russia and India (on May 26, 2015) while, at the end of November 2015, the Russian central bank included the yuan into the list of currencies that can be accepted as reserves.

On November 3, 2016 an agreement was signed between Turkey and Russia for the exchange of their currencies and in October 2017 a similar agreement was reached between Turkey and Iran.

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For financial institutions, the de-dollarization continued with the establishment of the BRICS Fund worth 100 billion dollars (on July 16, 2014) and with the establishment – on January 16, 2016 – of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), made up of 57 member countries, including Italy, which automatically caused the US anger.

In May 2015 the Russian-Chinese Investment Bank was created, followed in July 2015 by the opening of the new bank for the development of BRICS, based in Shanghai. In November 2015, however, Iran approved the establishment of a bank together with Russia.

It is worth underlining that in April 2015 the Russian national credit card system was opened, dealing also with small currency transfers.

It is also worth recalling the Duma law on de-offshorization of November 18, 2014, i.e. the legislation obliging the Russian companies resident abroad to pay taxes directly to the Russian Treasury.

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The above mentioned Chinese CIPS started operating in October 2015, while in March 2017 Russia implemented a system similar to SWIFT (interacting with the Chinese one).

The issue is complex because with fracking, the United States has become the first oil producer – hence there is less need to keep the huge amount of petrodollars. This happens while a natural oil and gas shale deposit has just been discovered, off the coast of Bahrain, with reserves of 80 billion oil barrels and 4 trillion cubic meters of gas.

The United States does no longer buy oil and gas because it does not need them, but China is increasingly the best global buyer.

Apart from the stability of gas and oil prices, which should be guaranteed in the coming years, China and its allies should be ever more able to select between the supply and, certainly, between the countries which accept the non-oil bilateral exchange with China and payments in yuan or gold.

Still today, the US GDP accounts for 22% of world’s GDP, while 80% of international payments are made in dollars.

Hence the United States receives goods from abroad always at comparatively very low prices, while the massive demand for dollars from the rest of the world allows to refinance the US public debt at very low costs. This is the economic and political core of the issue.

In fact, the Russian government held a specific meeting on de-dollarization in spring 2014.

This is another fact to be highlighted. It is a political operation that appears to be a financial one, often in contrast with the “volatility” of current markets, but its core is strategic and geopolitical.

In theory, the de-dollarization regards three specific issues: payments, the real economy issue and ultimately the financial issue, namely the financial contracts denominated in dollars.

In the first case, China will tend to eliminate every transaction denominated in US dollars by third countries and to remove settlement mechanisms involving the dollar and operating in its neighbouring areas.

In the second case, the dollar transactions will be – and are already – largely prohibited for individuals.

In the third case, the share of foreign contracts denominated in yuan is now equal to 40% and strong acceleration will be recorded in 2018.

The oil futures denominated in yuan are now booming. The first attempt was made in 1993, when China opened its stock exchanges in Beijing and Shanghai.

China itself closed operations two years later, due to market instability and to the yuan weakness. Two other things have changed since then: in 2016 the yuan was admitted as a currency making up the IMF Special Drawing Rights and in 2017 China overtook the United States as the world’s largest oil importer.

Hence, thanks to the oil futures denominated in yuan, China is reducing its dependence on the dollar and, in the meantime, it is supporting its oil imports, as well as promoting the use of the yuan globally and expanding its presence in the world. Russia has done the same.

Therefore the United States is about to be ousted as world’s currency due to its continuous series of wars and military failures (former President Cossiga always told me: “The United States is always on the warpath and up in arms, but then it is not able to get out of it”) and, like everyone else, it shall pay for its public debt, which is huge and will be ever more its problem, not ours.

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Here it is worth recalling what the US Treasury Secretary, John Connally, said to his European counterparts during a meeting in 1971: “The dollar is our currency, but your problem”.

Obviously, in relation to all these issues which also concern primarily the euro, the European Union is silent and sleepy.

Trump’s Unconventional Foreign Policy–An Asset?


April 2, 2015

Trump’s Unconventional Foreign Policy–An Asset?

By Dr.Fareed Zakaria
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America has built up its credibility and political capital over the past century. The Trump administration is raiding that trust fund for short-term political advantage, in ways that will permanently deplete it.–Fareed Zakaria

 

By way of explanation for some of President Trump’s bizarre foreign policy moves, we are often told that he is “unconventional” and that this could well be an asset. It’s certainly true that he doesn’t follow standard operating procedure on almost anything, from getting daily intelligence briefings to staffing the State Department. But his most striking departure from previous Presidents has been in his rhetoric. American Presidents have tended to weigh their words carefully, believing that they must preserve the credibility of the world’s leading power.

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And then there is Trump, for whom words are weightless. During the campaign, he excoriated Saudi Arabia as a country that “want[s] women as slaves and to kill gays,” only to make his first presidential trip abroad to the kingdom and warmly embrace its rulers. He said NATO was obsolete and then affirmed the opposite. China was a currency manipulator that was “raping” the United States, until it wasn’t.

The loose rhetoric and idle threats have often backfired. After Trump was elected, he threatened China by musing about recognizing Taiwan. The Chinese government called his bluff and froze relations with Washington. Trump had to call President Xi Jinping and eat his words.

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But there are situations in which such “flexibility” might work. On North Korea, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the country, only to now welcome a meeting with its leader. Trump’s supporters say that this kind of maneuvering could well produce a deal that has eluded more conventional approaches to the problem.

We should all hope that it will. But so far, it’s worth noting that the circus-like atmosphere of Trump’s alternating threats and embraces has obscured a key point: It’s Trump, not Kim Jong Un, who made the concession. The U.S. position has long been that until North Korea took some concrete steps toward denuclearization, there would be no presidential talks. Until recently, the Trump administration itself insisted that it would not reward the nuclear buildup with negotiations.

There is a good argument for being flexible on this procedural issue. But we should be aware that Kim seems to be executing a smart strategy brilliantly. He embarked on a fast-track buildup, creating a genuine nuclear arsenal with missiles that can deliver weapons around the world, risking tensions and even his relations with China. With the arsenal built, he is now mending relations with China, reaching out to South Korea and offering to negotiate with Washington.

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Little Rocket Man–Hell and Fury for you, Dude

Trump’s skill here might well be his willingness to totally abandon a past position and endorse a new one. The United States will have to accept something less than its long-declared goal — complete denuclearization — and maybe Trump will be able to find a way to sell it.

There is, however, a different kind of tough talk that is more worrying. The administration pushes hard on an issue — trade with South Korea, for example — and then announces a deal, claiming to have won significant concessions. In fact, these have been mostly symbolic concessions made by allies to allow the administration to save face. South Korea agreed to raise the number of cars that each American auto manufacturer can sell in the country from 25,000 to 50,000. It’s an easy concession to make. No U.S. company sold more than 11,000 cars there last year.

The United States remains a superpower. Its allies search for ways to accommodate it. The Trump administration can keep making outlandish demands, and it will obtain some concessions because no one wants an open breach with the United States. If Trump says the Europeans have to come up with some changes to the Iran deal, they will try to find a way to do so, because they don’t want to see the deal collapse and the West fall into disarray.

This is not a sign of power but rather the abuse of it. When the George W. Bush administration forced a series of countries to support the Iraq War, this did not signal American strength — it actually sapped that strength. This is a style that goes beyond the Presidency. In recent years, the United States has grown accustomed to all kinds of special treatment. For example, New York state has used the power of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency to force foreign banks to pay fines and make settlements. It works, but it creates enormous resentment and leads countries such as China to search for ways to work outside the system because they think the existing one grants too much license to the United States.

America has built up its credibility and political capital over the past century. The Trump administration is raiding that trust fund for short-term political advantage, in ways that will permanently deplete it.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group