January 3, 20l9
September 20, 2018
Bachelet vs. Neo- Con Bolton
The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (pic above), arrives on the job at a time when the office she leads is coming under attack – and not only from the usual suspects. In fact, it is US National Security Adviser John Bolton, a longtime adversary of the UN, who poses the biggest threat.
NEW YORK – On September 1, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, took office as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her long record of success in Chilean politics has prepared her well for this assignment, which could easily become one of the toughest of her career.
The office she leads is under attack, and not only from thuggish authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Hungary, the Philippines, and Russia. American officials – and in particular, National Security Adviser John Bolton – are also working hard to undermine the office’s effectiveness. Among Bachelet’s top challenges will be persuading the US Congress to block efforts by the Trump administration to withhold funds from her agency in violation of US treaty obligations.
That message may be a hard sell, but her experience makes her uniquely qualified to deliver it. In 1975, Bachelet and her mother were imprisoned and tortured by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. For several weeks, Bachelet was blindfolded and strapped to a chair in the Villa Grimaldi detention center in Santiago as her captors threatened to kill her mother. They were eventually released and allowed to go into exile in Australia, and then to East Germany.
Bachelet’s father, an Air Force general, died of a heart attack from the torture he suffered during his imprisonment for opposing the military coup that brought Pinochet to power. And Bachelet’s then-partner, a leader of the country’s Socialist Party, was detained and disappeared during the dictatorship.
After Bachelet returned home in 1979, she became a doctor and later studied military science in Chile and the United States. When democracy was restored in 1990, she served as health minister and defense minister, before twice being elected president. In the interim, she led UN Women, the UN’s office for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Distinguished Jordanian Diplomat Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
As the UN’s human rights commissioner, Bachelet is succeeding another distinguished administrator, Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Zeid was an outspoken critic of rights abusers, and his public statements were always well informed, perceptive, and fair. During his four-year tenure, no government or group received special treatment for political or geopolitical reasons. Although Zeid did not seek a second term because of what he called pressure to curb his candor, the standards he set strengthened the UN’s reputation as a global defender of human rights. But Zeid’s approach also put a bull’s-eye on the office and its work.
Presidents Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, and Vladimir Putin of Russia, along with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, frequently accused the agency and its boss of bias. In the US, Bolton is using similar language as he leads efforts to slash the office’s annual budget. This is the breach into which Bachelet steps.
Like Zeid, Bachelet will not take direction from the UN Human Rights Council. While high commissioners carry out the Council’s work, they essentially function as free agents, able to air their opinions freely. That is a good thing. The work of the Council – an intergovernmental body of 47 UN states that operates with rotating membership – has long been influenced by national interests. For example, in June, the Trump administration cut America’s ties to the Council, citing its frequent criticism of Israel. And, because membership can include rights violators themselves, its agenda is susceptible to politicization.
Still, the quality of the Council’s output has been improving. A recent report on Myanmar, for example, pulled no punches and directly accused the country’s military leadership of committing genocide against the Rohingya. Other recent contributions that earn high marks include inquiries on Syria and North Korea.
Bolton has sought to undermine the effectiveness of the UN ever since 2005, when President George W. Bush installed him as US ambassador to the organization. The US Senate’s eventual refusal to confirm the recess appointment limited the damage that Bolton might have done.
But, today, Bolton has even more power; it will once again be up to Congress to ensure that his destructive influence is kept in check. If Bolton gets his way in damaging the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (as well as the International Criminal Court, at which he took aim on September 10), Bachelet’s stellar resume will not be enough to keep human rights atop the UN agenda.
July 9, 2018
Arrivals and departures in ‘New Malaysia’
by Dr. Bridget Welsh@www.malaysiakini.com
Change, however, is not just a matter of priorities and press statements but will require a crucial remoulding within the system itself. There are persistent practices inside the government – paying for meetings with ministers, using position for personal wealth and prioritising loyalty over merit – that need to be changed as well.–Dr. Bridget Welsh
COMMENT | Today marks two months since the May elections, coming after a dramatic week of appointments, an arrest, and a nauseating court gag order.
These headlines mark the arrival of important changes taking place in Malaysia, in governance and in the adoption of new political positions. Key is whether actors in their new roles are genuinely willing to engage in departures from the past.
In looking at two important developments this week – the new cabinet and the first major response of UMNO as a political opposition – Malaysia’s past offers important insights to the development ahead.
Malaysia’s new cabinet makes history not only for the fact that it is comprised of new faces from a new coalition, but it is made up of a record number of professionals and non-scandal tainted individuals.
This combination of talent and fresh eyes offers great promise, and over the past week since the new ministers and deputy ministers took up their appointments, there has been a variety of positive messages sent from open tender to much-needed reviews of contracts.
The appointees are taking their tasks seriously, and while there are steep learning curves ahead, the resolve shown reinforces the sense of confidence of voters last May.
Change, however, is not just a matter of priorities and press statements but will require a crucial remoulding within the system itself. There are persistent practices inside the government – paying for meetings with ministers, using position for personal wealth and prioritising loyalty over merit – that need to be changed as well.
Ministers can set examples in pushing for reform in everyday governance, as the bureaucracy should not be seen as a bastion for patronage and a centre of corruption.
One of the most important and welcome shifts of the early years of the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was the refocus of the civil service on serving the public. This same administration also offers another lesson, as it was during this period that corruption became more entrenched within the civil service itself. This was primarily a product of an inadequate oversight of bureaucrats and poor management.
Civil servants need strong reminders that they are there to serve the public, not themselves or their political bosses. Good governance practices need to be incentivised from the onset.
The ongoing necessary removal of senior leadership within the bureaucracy and restructuring/consolidation of departments is positive, but it is stronger if accompanied by more fundamental and decisive shifts in norms and practices.
One important reframing of governance is to stop seeing the ministers as representing one ethnic community, party or state.
Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world where the dominant counting is based on race. The cabinet selection process has been largely one of political accommodation, rather than focused on the leadership needed to resolve the problems that ordinary Malaysians face.
Political parties have been seen to narrowly focused on their numbers within the cabinet, with the usual petty grouses. This sends the message that the position is about themselves, their respective power, rather than serving the public. It is not a surprise that there has been public outrage with the position complainers.
The challenge ahead is to move beyond numbers, to move from nominal to substantive representation, a situation where a minister is seen to be representing people not for who she/he is, but for what he/she does; for an Indian Malaysian minister to be seen as equally representing all communities be they in Sabah, Johor or Kelantan, for an Islamic education minister to be seen as advocating and improving the education of all Malaysians irrespective of faith, and for racial and sectarian politics to be given the back seat to promoting the nation.
The Merdeka era of the early 1960s offers important lessons here. It was a time when talent was prioritised in appointees, both within and outside of government. The sincere goal of building Malaysia overshadowed narrow interests. There was a willingness to bring in appointees from the outside based on skills. Malaysia’s bureaucracy urgently needs to strengthen its implementation capacity.
In this time of transformation, there is an opportunity to harness the goodwill and strong underlying national commitment to public service by bringing in more technocratic expertise.
That sense of public service was, however, not on show with the events around this week’s arrest of the former prime minister. The drama shows clearly that the de facto new leader of the opposition is none other than Najib himself. He overshadows Umno’s new President, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as Najib’s leadership continues to haunt the party.
Stop lamenting and worry not, when the time comes, you will have plenty to do.
Once again, Najib has rallied the party faithful to his defence. The thuggish elements in the party have returned as the dominant public face of UMNO, adopting a narrative of racial confrontation. Najib’s battle for himself reveals what has long been clear – that his own personal future is more important than that of his party or the future of the country.
There are important lessons from his years in office that also merit recalling. Najib’s administration excelled in using the system to his advantage, particularly using the rule by law to stay in power. His approach was one focused on division and polarising Malaysia, rather than bringing the country together. All tactics, no matter how ruthless, were fair game.
A common practice was to obfuscate, to warp realities using slick storytellers. Najib’s administration set new lows in standards of dirty politics, seen to be fueled by cash payments. These trends have the potential to continue to dominate Malaysia’s political opposition narratives ahead, in what will be a long-drawn-out drama and in an opposition politics that is not focused on making Malaysia stronger.
Najib mistakenly believed that Malaysians could be fooled. May 9 showed him how wrong he was. He should have opted for a graceful departure. Instead, we have seen the arrival of a new battle for Najib’s survival, one in which the Malaysian public will face a repeat of the hubris and guile of his recent past.
BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
July 5, 2018
The End of Global Britain
In the two years since the Brexit referendum, the United Kingdom’s global influence has been significantly diminished. A country that once punched above its weight in international affairs now only punches down, and Brexiteers’ aspiration to lead the vast “Anglosphere” into a brave new world has become a comical delusion.
by Mark Malloch-Brown
LONDON – Nowadays, Britain’s words and actions on the world stage are so at odds with its values that one must wonder what has happened to the country. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, British foreign policy seems to have all but collapsed – and even to have disowned its past and its governing ideas.
Worse, this has coincided with the emergence of US President Donald Trump’s erratic administration, which is pursuing goals that are completely detached from those of Britain – and of Europe generally. Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, combined with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasing belligerence and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s growing ambitions, indicates that the world is entering an ever-more confrontational and dangerous phase.
Trump’s evident lack of personal chemistry with British Prime Minister Theresa May – and the Anglophobia of his new national security adviser, John Bolton – ensured that this was never going to be the best of times for the United Kingdom. But it also doesn’t help that generations of British foreign-policy hands have regarded themselves as ancient Greeks to America’s Rome. To a Brit like myself, this analogy always seemed too confident. Having lived in America, I suspected that US leaders did not heed the advice of British diplomats nearly as much as those diplomats liked to think.
Still, if ever there was a moment for Britain to sprinkle some of its characteristic calm and resolve over world affairs, that moment is now. And yet, the UK appears to have checked out. Since World War II, Britain’s close relationships with continental Europe and the US have served as the two anchors of its foreign policy. But now, both lines have essentially been severed.
At the same time, the British government’s all-consuming preoccupation with untying the Gordian knot of Brexit has blinded it to what is happening in the rest of the world. And its blinkered view seems certain to persist. Negotiating the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is likely to take years, and the outcome will inevitably have implications for the country’s unity, given the intractable issue of the Northern Irish border. Even if that issue can be sorted out, a campaign in Scotland to link it to the EU rather than to London will continue to command the attention of the government and civil service for the foreseeable future.
At any rate, the promise of a “global Britain” freed from the chains of the EU was never more than idle talk and sloganeering. At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, business and political leaders from Commonwealth countries around the world heard plenty of Brexiteer bluster, but little concrete talk of future trade deals.
A country like India could potentially be a major UK trade partner after Brexit. The problem is that Indians see Britain and Europe as one market. To them, Britain’s quest to adopt its own rules and standards amounts to a frivolous inconvenience. Before expanding trade and investment with Britain, India will most likely pursue a deeper relationship with the EU. Indeed, India never saw Britain as a particular champion of its interests inside the EU.
The collapse of British foreign policy has come at a time of deepening uncertainty. The global re-balancing between the US and China is a generational challenge that will outlast Trump and even Xi, who is now unbound by term limits. In an increasingly off-kilter world, the duty will fall to Europe to serve as ballast. But a Europe without Britain’s traditional leadership, judgment, and diplomacy will be a lesser Europe. And Britain, by its own hand, risks being reduced to a footnote.–
Likewise, most of those outside of the “Leave” camp regard the Brexiteers’ aspiration for Britain to lead the vast “Anglosphere” into a brave new world as a comical delusion. To be sure, the show of US and European support after the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England, might suggest that Britain is still punching above its weight. The coordinated expulsion of Russian spies from the EU and the United States was a victory for British diplomacy; and suspicions that the Russians were exploiting Britain’s increasing isolation seem to have mobilized NATO. But the larger truth is that the Russians are right: Britain is now Western Europe’s weak link.
Thus, it is only a matter of time before Russian President Vladimir Putin probes British weakness again. And, as if the old sin of turning a blind eye to Russian oligarchs laundering money through the UK were not problematic enough, the suicidal act of quitting the EU leaves Britain with fewer tools to combat Russian meddling in its affairs. Britain is losing its influence over EU cybersecurity and energy policies just as cyber warfare and energy geopolitics are becoming key fronts for hostile state and non-state actors.
Worse, at the same time that Britain is giving up its seat at the EU table, it also seems to be giving up its liberal-democratic values. During the Brexit referendum campaign, the Leave camp openly stoked hostility toward outsiders. And the recent “Windrush” scandal over the government’s poor treatment of Caribbean-born legal residents has reprised the illiberal legacy of May’s previous tenure at the Home Office.
But equally insidious has been the government’s embrace of “Britain First” mercantilism, under which arms sales to Saudi Arabia are not a matter for caution, but rather an opportunity for profit. When the UK joins the Trump administration in putting trade and investment before human rights and good governance, it is journalists, opposition politicians, and human-rights activists around the world who bear the costs. By retreating from liberal norms, the May government has become, like the Trump administration, an enabler of authoritarian behaviors around the world.
The collapse of British foreign policy has come at a time of deepening uncertainty. The global re-balancing between the US and China is a generational challenge that will outlast Trump and even Xi, who is now unbound by term limits. In an increasingly off-kilter world, the duty will fall to Europe to serve as ballast. But a Europe without Britain’s traditional leadership, judgment, and diplomacy will be a lesser Europe. And Britain, by its own hand, risks being reduced to a footnote.
June 25, 2018
Foreign Policy: The Singapore Summit’s Uncertainty
by Richard N. Haass
Donald Trump’s depiction of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a great success that solved the nuclear problem could make it tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure Kim. Weakening the prospect of achieving one’s goals is not the mark of a strong negotiator.
NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump returned from his short summit meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an exultant mood. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump tweeted. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He subsequently told reporters, “I have solved that problem.”
There is only one catch: what Trump claimed was untrue. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea remains undiminished. The joint statement issued by the two leaders was as brief – just 391 words – as it was vague.
The statement was far more about aspirations than accomplishments. North Korea committed only “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Missing was any definition of what denuclearization might entail, a timeline for implementation, or a reference to how any actions would be verified. Other issues related to nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles, were not even mentioned. Thus far, at least, the agreement with North Korea compares unfavorably to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump denounced – and then renounced a month before meeting Kim.
This is not to argue that the Singapore summit had no value. At least for now, bilateral relations are in a better place than they were a year ago, when North Korea was conducting nuclear and missile tests, and observers (including me) were busy calculating the chances that the two countries would be making war rather than peace. And, looking forward, there is, in principle, the possibility that the United States and North Korea will be able to reach agreement on the many relevant issues and details that the Singapore summit statement left out.
But turning this possibility into reality will be extraordinarily difficult. There are many reasons to doubt whether North Korea will ever give up weaponry that, more than anything else, explains America’s willingness to take it seriously and treat it as something of an equal. In addition, the experience of Ukraine, a country that gave up its nuclear weapons, only to see the world do nothing when Russia annexed Crimea, hardly provides a reason for Kim Jong-un to follow suit. Much the same could be said of Libya, given Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fate.
There is also good reason to doubt that North Korea, arguably the world’s most closed and secretive country, would ever permit the sort of intrusive international inspections that would be required to verify that it had complied with undertakings spelled out in some future pact.
Trump seems to think that Kim can be swayed not simply by threats and pressure, but by flattery and promises as well. The White House released a four-minute video that showcased Kim as someone who could be a great historical figure if only he would fundamentally change. The video also went to great lengths to show what North Korea could gain economically were it to meet US demands. The president even spoke of the North’s potential as a venue for real-estate development and tourism.
What seems not to have occurred to Trump is that such a future holds more peril than promise to someone whose family has ruled with an iron grip for three generations. A North Korea open to Western businessmen might soon find itself penetrated by Western ideas. Popular unrest would be sure to follow.
Trump emphasizes the importance of personal relationships, and he claimed to have developed one with Kim in a matter of hours. More than once, he spoke of the trust he had for a leader with a record of killing off those (including an uncle and a brother) he deemed his enemies. All of this turned Ronald Reagan’s maxim – “trust, but verify” – on its head, to something like “Don’t verify, but trust.”
In fact, some of Trump’s post-summit remarks have actually weakened the prospect of achieving his goals. His depiction of the summit as a great success that solved the nuclear problem will make it that much tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure North Korea. Trump also did himself no favor by unilaterally announcing that the US would no longer conduct what he described as “provocative” war games, also known as military exercises meant to ensure readiness and enhance deterrence. In so doing, he not only alarmed several US allies, but also gave away what he could have traded for something from North Korea.
The danger, of course, is that subsequent negotiations will fail, for all these reasons, to bring about the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea that the US has said must happen soon. Trump would likely then accuse Kim of betraying his trust.
In that case, the US would have three options. It could accept less than full denuclearization, an outcome that Trump and his top aides have said they would reject. It could impose even stricter sanctions, to which China and Russia are unlikely to sign up. Or it could reintroduce the threat of military force, which South Korea, in particular, would resist.
But if Trump concludes that diplomacy has failed, he could nonetheless opt for military action, a course John Bolton suggested just before becoming national security adviser. This would hardly be the legacy that Trump intended for the Singapore summit, but it remains more possible than his optimistic tweets would lead one to believe.
June 1, 2018
Foreign Policy: Madmen in Authority
by Harold James
With concerns about Italy’s public debt growing, Italian populists have taken a page from US President Donald Trump’s playbook and threatened to blow up the eurozone if they don’t get their way. The European Union must resist the temptation to engage in a dangerous game of chicken.
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes famously worried that, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
Yet even without prescriptive theories, feigning “frenzy” or madness can also be a plausible, powerful, and rather contagious negotiating strategy. In the early 1970s, US President Richard Nixon adopted the tactic to convince the North Vietnamese that he had his finger on the “nuclear button,” and that they had better negotiate a deal to end the war – or else. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik and surprised him by proposing that the United States and the Soviet Union both destroy all of their nuclear weapons.
Whether a crisis is escalating or de-escalating, the madman strategy’s effectiveness seems to depend on the extent to which a political leader’s “insanity” is ambiguous – so much so that even historians won’t know where to draw the line between sincerity and artifice.
Donald Trump’s “crazy guy” strategy is like Nixon’s madman theory, but dumber. The President and his staff are spreading the story that he is a “crazy guy,” as a way to browbeat North Korea and other nations in negotiations.
With President Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again approach to a nuclear summit with North Korea, along with his bluster over new sanctions against Iran, the madman strategy seems to have made a dramatic comeback. It is now being adopted by many other leaders, and quickly spilling over into new domains, including debates about reforming the European monetary and political system.
Recently, the eurozone debt crisis, dormant since 2012, has looked as though it could erupt again. With interest rates so low, the Italian government’s massive public debt has appeared sustainable. But with financial markets increasingly jittery over political developments in Italy, it is easy to imagine a world in which interest rates rise and remain elevated, in which case the Italian debt could pose a serious threat to the eurozone, and even to the global economy.
Luigi Di Maio, the Italian Five Star Movement leader
Investors’ fear of another eurozone debt crisis have been spiking since the populist Five Star Movement and right-wing League party failed to form a government after months of post-election gridlock. The M5S/League coalition, which won a combined parliamentary majority in the March 4 election, have clearly taken a page out of the Trump playbook, hoping to use Italy’s debt to extract concessions from the EU.
Will it work? The first, and most basic, component of the madman strategy is an ability to introduce a level of uncertainty that is damaging to other countries. This is why the strategy doesn’t really work for smaller countries, as Greece’s new government in 2015 quickly learned after dabbling in brinkmanship with its European creditors.
Assuming a country is big enough to rattle global markets (as Italy clearly is), three other factors determine the success of a madman strategy. For starters, its government must be able to convince everyone else that it is being driven toward “insane” acts by voters. The idea is that it is actually irrational for a democratically elected government to act prudently if doing so means inviting punishment from voters who are committed to myopic but deeply felt positions. In the case of Italy, populists capitalized on voters’ disenchantment with a center-left party whose pro-European stance had failed to deliver results.
There must also be a visible division between “hawks” and “doves” within the madman government. In any negotiation, the other parties will offer concessions to strengthen the doves, knowing full well that a failure to do so will enrage the hawks, who will then move forward with their doomsday plans. With Trump, this dynamic exists within a single personality that is prone to violent, unpredictable swings between openness and anger. But it also exists within Trump’s cabinet, with John Bolton, the hardline national security adviser, playing the role of the hawk.
In the case of the M5S/League coalition, a hawk was needed as a counterweight to Italy’s pro-EU president, Sergio Mattarella. That is why the populists’ choice for Minister of Economy and Finance was Paolo Savona, an 81-year-old economist whom the former Italian economy minister Vincenzo Visco has described as “radically and suicidally anti-German.” When Mattarella rejected the nomination, the M5S/League quit the talks, precipitating the current crisis.
Finally, to succeed, a madman government needs to have a plausible war plan for causing a general disruption. For example, the M5S/League coalition suggested that it might issue a parallel currency, which lent further credibility to its threat of pursuing fiscal expansion in defiance of EU rules.
As more governments, parties, and leaders come to imitate the madman strategy, the scope for agreement in any negotiation will narrow, and will become more likely. In fact, hardline German economists have already responded to Italy’s political crisis by circulating petitions to block any eurozone reform that could be regarded as a concession.
But exposing the dangers of the madman strategy will not be enough to defeat it. Voters also must be convinced that better alternatives are available, and that European integration can still safeguard their interests. In the months before Italy’s next election and the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019, EU leaders will have some – but not much – time to show that European integration is about more than political paralysis and economic stagnation.
Otherwise, we might soon be reacquainted with the madman strategy’s grim side. Before his abdication in 1918, German Kaiser Wilhelm II did not need to pretend to be unstable; he really was. With a penchant for saber-rattling speeches and outrageous newspaper interviews, he had something in common with America’s Tweeter-in-Chief.
In another disturbing historical parallel, he often boasted about his ability to reach agreements with the Russian and British monarchs, to whom he was related. In the event, as the crisis of diplomacy was escalating in July 1914, he suddenly announced a grand new peace initiative. But it was too late. The game of chicken had spread, and the world’s leading powers hurtled together toward catastrophe.
*Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of the new book The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, and Making the European Monetary Union