Picking Up the Pieces After Hanoi


March 19, 2019

Picking Up the Pieces After Hanoi

by Richard N. Haass

The collapse of last month’s summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was perhaps the inevitable result of a process in which the two leaders dominated, optimistic about their personal relationship and confident in their abilities. The question is what to do now.

 

NEW YORK – When last month’s summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without a deal, the result was not surprising. One or both countries came to Hanoi with a misunderstanding of what was possible.

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The United States maintained that North Korea wanted nearly all international sanctions lifted upfront and was not prepared to give up enough of its nuclear facilities to warrant doing so. North Korean officials explained that they were prepared to dismantle the country’s main facility, the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, “permanently and completely,” but only in exchange for a considerable reduction in existing sanctions.

The anticlimax in Hanoi was perhaps the inevitable result of a process in which the two leaders dominated, optimistic about their personal relationship and confident in their abilities. Senior officials and other staff members, who normally devote weeks and months to preparing for such summits, had but a limited role.

The question is what to do now. One option is to try to negotiate a compromise: either more dismantling of nuclear infrastructure in exchange for more sanctions relief, or less dismantling in exchange for less relief.

Although one of these approaches may prove possible, either outcome would be less than ideal. Simply agreeing to give up individual nuclear facilities is not the same as denuclearization. Indeed, it does not necessarily even get us closer to denuclearization, because facilities could be built or expanded as others are being dismantled. Precisely this currently seems to be occurring. Meanwhile, lifting sanctions removes the pressure on North Korea to take meaningful steps toward denuclearization.

So what are the alternatives? Using even limited military force risks escalation, a costly war from which no one would benefit, and a crisis in relations between the US and South Korea. And, given North Korea’s demonstrated resilience, existing or even additional sanctions alone are highly unlikely to be enough to coerce its leaders into abandoning their nuclear program.

Moreover, no matter how much pressure is brought to bear on North Korea, China and Russia will likely do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival, given their strategic interest in avoiding a reunified Korean Peninsula aligned with the US. Hopes that North Korea will collapse under its own weight are thus unrealistic.

Trump seems to harbor the equally unrealistic notion that North Korea will voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in order to become the next Asian economic tiger. But while Kim wants sanctions relief, fundamental economic reform would threaten his tight grip on power, and giving up his nuclear weapons and missiles would make North Korea and himself vulnerable. He has taken note of what happened to Ukraine, which voluntarily relinquished its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in the early 1990s, as well as to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The status quo, however, is no solution. The current testing moratorium could end; indeed, North Korea is threatening to resume tests and there is evidence it is reconstituting its principal missile-testing site. This may be a bid to encourage the US to show more flexibility, or the North may actually be preparing to restart testing – a step that would likely lead the US to resume large-scale military exercises with South Korea and push for new sanctions. Talks would likely be suspended; we would be back to where we were two years ago but with an overlay of recrimination and mistrust.

Even absent such developments, drift is not desirable. North Korea could use the passage of time to increase the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal and make some improvements to its warheads and delivery systems without overt testing. There is a big difference between a North Korea armed with a handful of inefficient warheads and inaccurate missiles and one with dozens of advanced weapons that could be mounted on accurate long-range missile systems capable of reaching the US.

At this point, any realistic policy must begin with accepting the reality that complete and fully verifiable denuclearization is not a realistic prospect any time soon. It need not and should not be abandoned as a long-term goal, but it cannot dominate near-term policy. An all-or-nothing policy toward North Korea will result in nothing.

So it makes sense to explore a phased approach. In an initial phase, North Korea would agree to freeze not just the testing of its systems, but also the production of nuclear material, nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles. This would require the North Korean authorities to provide a detailed accounting (a so-called declaration) of the relevant facilities and agree to verification by international inspectors.

In exchange, North Korea would receive the sort of substantial sanctions relief it sought in Hanoi. There could also be an end to the state of war that has existed for the past seven decades, and liaison offices could be opened in Washington, DC, and Pyongyang. But full sanctions relief and diplomatic normalization would come only with full denuclearization.

This might well be too much for North Korea, arguably the world’s most closed society. If so, the bulk of the sanctions need to remain in place; they would be lifted only in proportion to any dismantling – and only so long as the world could be confident that North Korea was not developing new capabilities to replace those it was abandoning. The US could specify which sites, in addition to Yongbyon, need to be dismantled.

Even this less ambitious approach would likely prove extraordinarily difficult. But, given the high stakes and unattractive alternatives in dealing with North Korea, any viable route to a settlement that ensures long-term stability is worth pursuing.

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Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

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.

 

 

We once trusted too much in inevitable progress. We got World War I.


November 11, 2018

We once trusted too much in inevitable progress. We got World War I.

by Fareed Zakaria

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth attends the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.

 

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and senior members of the royal family attended a Festival of Remembrance on Saturday to commemorate all those who lost their lives in conflict, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.

When confronting bad news these days, many tend to assume that it’s just a bump on the road and that things will work out. President Barack Obama was fond of invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Yet could we be wrong in assuming that, despite some backsliding here and there, forward movement is inexorable?

On Sunday — at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the largest and bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. World War I marked a turning point in human history — the end of four massive European empires, the rise of Soviet communism and the entry of the United States into global-power politics. But perhaps its most significant intellectual legacy was the end of the idea of inevitable progress.

In 1914, before the war began, people had lived through a world much like ours, defined by heady economic growth, technological revolutions and increasing globalization. The result was that it was widely believed that ugly trend lines, when they appeared, were temporary, to be overwhelmed by the onward march of progress. In 1909, Norman Angell wrote a book explaining that war between the major powers was so costly as to be unimaginable. “The Great Illusion” became an international bestseller, and Angell became a cult celebrity (and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize). Just a few years after the book was published, a generation of Europeans was destroyed in the carnage of war.

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https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/03/world-war-i-american-isolationism-turned-intervention-1917/

Could we be similarly complacent today? There are serious statesmen who believe so. During a recent interview, French President Emmanuel Macron explained, “In a Europe that is divided by fears, nationalist assertion and the consequences of the economic crisis, we see almost methodically the rearticulation of everything that dominated the life of Europe from post-World War I to the 1929 [economic] crisis.” And, during an address earlier this year to the European Parliament, Macron said, “I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past.” As historian Christopher Clark wrote in his book “The Sleepwalkers,” the statesmen of 1914 stumbled into a gruesome world war without ever realizing the magnitude or dangers of their isolated, incremental decisions — or non-decisions. Macron is not simply talking; he has organized a Paris Peace Forum of more than 60 world leaders, set to begin this Sunday, to try to combat the dangers of rising nationalism and eroding global cooperation. Continue reading

Growing Disaster of Trump’s Foreign Policy


October 15, 2018

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Growing Disaster of  Trump’s Foreign Policy

by: Philip Bowring

https://www.asiasentinel.com

The developing world is being slow to wake up to the potentially devastating consequences of a key aspect of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policies, particularly now that that John Bolton and his strident “f… the world” views have become so important.

News almost everywhere is dominated by the display of politics and hypocrisy accompanying the appointment of a member of the US Supreme Court, a supposed judicial appointment marred by tawdry performance on all sides. One needs to ask why this display should concern a world simultaneously confronting three frighteningly serious economic issues.

The first is the long-needed rise in interest rates which is necessary but unsettling after so long a period of cheap money, which has boosted asset prices more than economies. The second is Trump’s trade war. Its scope has narrowed with deals with Mexico, Canada and Korea that change the trade picture very little but provide the president with necessary political cover. But the war against China is ever more intense, with unpredictable consequences for world trade generally and Asian trade in particular.

The third however could prove as important as the other two. That is the US attempt to shut down Iran’s sales of oil. The mind boggles at how self-defeating this policy is to US global interests. The main beneficiary is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is not only reaping billions of dollars but becoming an even more influential player in the global oil market. Meanwhile US relations are growing poisonous with Europe, which refuses to go along with Trump’s agenda and is sticking with its nuclear deal with Iran. Then there is India, whose friendship the US badly needs if it is not to cede supremacy in Asia to China. It not only needs Iranian oil but has long seen Iran as an informal ally for influence in the Indian ocean, and countering China’s influence via its huge investments in Pakistan roads and ports.

Trump’s Iran threats have added US$15-20 a barrel to the price of oil, and a further rise to US$100 a barrel is widely forecast. The strains this is placing on the trade balances of the likes of India, the Philippines and Indonesia, not to mention an already troubled Turkey and countries in Latin America, has already shown up in steep falls in currencies and stock markets throughout the developing world, and has had an outsized impact on interest rates. As of now it seems unlikely to spark a major crisis, but if oil hits US$100 plus, there is no knowing the consequences.

 

As it is, the price increase is already limiting the room for the major east Asian importers China, Japan, South Korea, to spur domestic demand to offset weakness from the trade wars.

Trump has been complaining about the oil price rise, which is also hitting consumers, but he has only himself to blame for a policy towards Iran which has only two beneficiaries apart from Russia: Israel and Saudi Arabia. The former has had nuclear weapons for decades without being sanctioned by anyone.

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Now Trump is adding to support for a state which is not only self-evidently expansionist but is now overtly racist by law as well as practice. Thanks to US protection 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are under Israel’s iron fist, which also treats the 1.7 million Arabs in Israel as second-class citizens.

The other beneficiary is Saudi Arabia whose vicious war in Yemen is causing as many casualties as in Syria. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has stirred up the Gulf while his promises of modernizing the country are largely for overseas consumption. A desert empire built by warrior King Ibn Saud is unlikely to last long if the price of oil falls back to US$40 and stays there. Such are the few friends of Trump’s America. No wonder the world laughs as well as cries and treats the US claim to be defender of liberty and democracy as a sham.

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It is reminder too of how childish the US can be – hardly the sign of a superpower with staying power. It took it 20 years to get over its loss of the Vietnam war. Its view of Iran is still driven by the need for revenge nearly 40 years after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the humiliation of the failure of its Tehran hostage mission. It is also a US view which conveniently forgets the CIA-organized coup against the elected secular nationalist Dr Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, which enabled the Shah to impose a royal rule which became increasingly unpopular, leading to the 1979 revolution.

And it forgets US behind-the-scenes encouragement of the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein (later to become evil incarnate) which solidified the rule of the clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Longer term, the biggest damage to the US from its Iran fixation will be to drive others away from using the US dollar. Dependence on that currency for trading and settlement has enabled the US to make it difficult for countries to buy Iranian oil without incurring US reprisals. US policies are already beginning to push countries to use other currencies such as the euro and yuan, but for now the mechanisms are poorly developed and oil majors also fear US reprisals in other ways.

But the more the wider world loathes US arrogance, the more it will seek alternatives to allying with a country which is untrustworthy as well as arrogant. Meanwhile those with smart ways around the sanctions will make a lot of money.

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In Asia, there one country which is benefiting from Trump’s Iran policy: Malaysia. He cannot like the thought, but luckily for retreaded Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for the time being revenues from the oil price are partly offsetting the coalition’s rash promise to voters to abolish the Goods and Services Tax and bring in the narrower-based Sales and Services tax. Revenue from this source has been cut in half. As the Asian Development Bank in its mid-year update of the Asian Development Outlook points out, Malaysia’s goal of reducing reliance on commodity prices for revenue has “received a major setback,” endangering fiscal health unless new sources of revenue can be found.

Democracy: American Leadership in Crisis


August 9, 2018

Democracy: American Leadership in Crisis: Fix IT

by Simon Tisdall@The Guardian

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Dark money, unchecked presidential power and a politicised supreme court are wrecking the world’s flagship democracy.

Nineteen months into the Trump presidency, US democracy is running into serious trouble – but it is not all, or even mostly, Donald Trump’s fault. This crisis of governance has been building for decades. It is only now, as Trump’s iconoclastic assaults on established beliefs, laws, institutions and values test the system to destruction, that the true scale of pre-existing weaknesses and faultlines is becoming apparent.

This deep crisis of confidence, bordering on national meltdown, comes as the US hurtles towards midterm elections in November – a familiar American ritual now rendered strangely unpredictable by fears of foreign manipulation and an FBI investigation that could, by some estimates, lead ultimately to Trump’s impeachment. The process of degradation affects US citizens and all those around the world who hold up the US democratic system as a paradigm worthy of emulation. Friends worry that the country’s ability to sustain its traditional global leadership role – moral and practical – is being undermined. Enemies, principally anti-democratic, authoritarian competitor regimes in Russia and China, hope this is so.

Take a case in point, with global implications: Trump has repeatedly bragged about his willingness to use nuclear weapons. As commander-in-chief, he oversees the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Last year he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, a nation of 25 million people. He has also threatened Iran. Such lunatic recklessness appals many Americans. But it transpires there is little they could do to stop Trump should he decide, on a whim, to press the “nuclear button”.

“Mounting evidence of Russian influence-peddling and meddling has added to the sense of a gathering crisis of democracy. Yet while Trump’s minimising of the issue and his attempts to shut down the Mueller probe are plainly self-interested, these problems cannot all be laid at his door. Russians have been seeking to undermine US democracy since 1945. The difference now is they’re getting better at it – as are other foreign states.”–Simon Tisdall

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Trump dumps Democracy but he is not alone; the US Congress is also at fault for being “overly beholden to corporations, wealthy donors and special interests”.

Checks do exist. There is a chain of command that cannot be bypassed. But security experts say nobody, not even the secretaries of state and defence or the chairman of the joint chiefs, has legal power to block a presidential launch order. What could be less democratic? Yet this dilemma was not created by Trump. It has existed for many years. Congress is now belatedly reviewing it.

Trump’s frequent use of “executive orders” has provided another wake-up call. Most infamous was his travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, but others – concerning his Mexican border wall, his unilateral imposition of steel tariffs, and his reversal of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act – were also highly contentious. Yet, once issued, such orders are rarely overturned. After numerous legal challenges, the supreme court upheld the travel ban.

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Senator Rand Paul–A Model Senator in the Trump Era

Many were shocked to discover that a US president could issue diktats and fatwas like the worst kind of unelected despot or ayatollah. But the use of such orders, avoiding public scrutiny, is long-established. Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor by this means. Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation ending slavery was an executive order. In exercising this arbitrary power, Trump is following precedent, however undemocratic. The expanding powers of what the Vietnam-era historian Arthur Schlesinger dubbed the “imperial presidency” is a long-recognised phenomenon and one that Congress, America’s primary constitutional pillar, has signally failed to curb over the years. This may be one reason why Americans, according to polling going back decades, exhibit a consistently low opinion of Congress. But there are many others. The dominant two-party system, virulent partisanship and out-of-touch politicians are blamed for chronic failures of governance. The advantages conferred by incumbency are overwhelming; most members are repeatedly re-elected, reducing democratic choice. In terms of the presidency – the second constitutional pillar – systemic problems produce even greater anomalies. Trump was the fifth president to win office despite losing the popular vote, thanks to the archaic, unaccountably unreformed electoral college process.

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Members of Congress are widely viewed as overly beholden to corporations, wealthy donors and special interests. In other words, they are seen as corrupt. The sums involved in greasing the wheels of US democracy are indeed eye-watering. According to the campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets, an overall $6.5bn (£5bn) was spent by presidential and congressional candidates in 2016 – enough to give every teacher in the country a $2,000 pay rise.

The average cost of winning a Senate seat was $19.4m. Winning a House of Representatives seat in the midterm elections will cost an average $1.5m, at least. The need for such huge war chests effectively excludes many would-be candidates from the democratic process and places others in hock to their financial backers.

Again, worries over excessive, non-transparent or illegal campaign financing long precede Trump. Despite many reform efforts, a growing proportion of funding comes from anonymous sources. According to a recent USA Today investigation, 40% of all television ads for political candidates are financed by secret donors with private political or commercial agendas. Then there is untraceable money emanating from foreign governments or individuals, via agents and lobbyists – an issue of heightened concern in the context of the Mueller inquiry into Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Mounting evidence of Russian influence-peddling and meddling has added to the sense of a gathering crisis of democracy. Yet while Trump’s minimising of the issue and his attempts to shut down the Mueller probe are plainly self-interested, these problems cannot all be laid at his door. Russians have been seeking to undermine US democracy since 1945. The difference now is they’re getting better at it – as are other foreign states.

US intelligence chiefs agree. “Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said last week. “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek … to sow discord and undermine our way of life.” Yet what if Trump really were to be proven guilty of conspiring with a foreign power? How would he react? This is unknown, scary territory.

Can the judicial branch and, in particular, the supreme court – the third constitutional pillar and proud symbol of the founding fathers’ doctrine of the separation of powers – save US democracy? It seems unlikely. In nominating a prominent conservative, Brett Kavanaugh, for the latest court vacancy, Trump followed recent practice in shaping the court to suit his political outlook. It has not always worked this way. As the author David Greenberg has pointed out, supreme court nominations used to be mostly apolitical. This is not the constitution envisaged when they wrote the rules in Philadelphia in 1787.

Trump’s maverick behaviour highlights these entrenched structural problems. Yet, that aside, his rogue presidency is uniquely corrosive, right now, of democracy everywhere. His encouragement of ultranationalist, racist and neo-fascist forces from Warsaw to Charlottesville, divisive demagoguery, relentless vilification of independent journalism, contempt for the western European democracies, coddling of dictators and rejection of the established, rules-based international order all reinforce perceptions that the global role of the US as shining democratic beacon is dimming rapidly. Trump did this all by himself.

So what is to be done? The most urgent task is to recognise what is happening. Decades of complacent assumptions about America’s unending, unquestioning adherence to the democratic model have left it vulnerable to subversion within and without. Radical, inclusive political reform is urgently required. There needs to be a national conversation – and a revisiting of basic democratic principles. Maybe it’s time, 231 years on, for a follow-up constitutional convention in Philadelphia?

  • Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator

Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else


August 7, 2018

Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else

 

The second I finished watching President Trump fawning over Vladimir Putin in Helsinki — refusing to defend the conclusions of his own intelligence services about Russia’s interference in our 2016 elections — I knew I was seeing something I’d never seen before. It took a few days to figure it out, but now it’s obvious: I was seeing a U.S. president put Russia first, not America first.

On each key question — how much Russian agents were involved in trying to tip our elections, how that issue should be further investigated, and Putin’s behavior on the world stage generally (like his government’s involvement in the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, the murder of Russian journalists and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K.) — Trump embraced Putin’s explanations and excuses over the judgments of his own spy agencies, Justice Department, European allies and bedrock American values.

I like what Arnold Schwarzenegger said to Trump afterward: “You’re the president of the United States. You shouldn’t do that. What’s the matter with you?”

What’s the matter with you? I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I know that it will be an increasing problem as we enter Phase 3 of the Trump presidency.

Phase 1 saw Trump unhinged but bound — bound by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Economic Adviser Gary Cohn. In Phase 1 Trump said and did plenty of crazy stuff, but these key aides limited the damage.

Phase 2 has seen Trump unhinged and unbound. Trump has neutered Kelly, distanced himself from Mattis and sacked Tillerson, McMaster and Cohn. He replaced the last three with men so hungry for their jobs that they were ready to step over the bodies of their predecessors, who, they knew, were pushed out for standing up to Trump on policies and principles.

Watching longtime anti-Russia hawks — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — shucking off everything they’ve said over the years and ignoring Trump’s coddling of Putin and his trashing of the F.B.I. in order to grab jobs they’d long coveted is witnessing careerism, sycophancy and cynicism on an industrial scale.

But that sets up Trump Phase 3: unhinged and unbound and unintended.

What are the unintended consequences of a U.S. president simultaneously starting trade wars with China, the European Union and Canada, putting Russia first over America first, preferring Putin and other autocrats over our traditional democratic allies, slashing corporate taxes and supercharging the national debt — without any compensating tax increases or spending cuts, thereby putting pressure on interest rates and the trade deficit — ignoring climate change and eliminating all restraints on the exploitation of fossil fuels, breaking the Iran nuclear deal and now threatening war with Iran, limiting immigration into our already tight labor markets, steadily eroding Obamacare and violating so many norms of how a president should behave toward his staff, allies and Americans not from his own party?

What are the unintended consequences of all of these at once — none of which have been the product of traditional interagency analyses or expert hearings in Congress, but simply the crude fulfillment of campaign promises that emerged from Trump’s gut?

Who knows? Maybe there will be some good consequences — maybe China and Iran will cave to Trump’s demands; maybe the economy and stock market will continue to surge; maybe the early promising signs from Trump’s impulsive outreach to North Korea will bear fruit.

What I know for sure, though, is that no U.S. president can break so many longstanding relationships, ignore so much basic science and economics and violate so many norms of presidential behavior without unintended consequences. But they will take time to play out.

For instance, as Nader Mousavizadeh, co-founder of Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical consulting firm based in London, put it to me: “What America’s allies in Europe learned from Trump’s recent visit is that the United States, at his direction, is acting more like predator than partner. They are concluding that Trump is not looking for a better deal with the European Union. He’s looking to destroy the European Union. And even though they understand the difference between the president and the government he leads, they know the West may never be the same again.”

So, with the G.O.P. having completely folded and with the few Trump advisers with spine neutered or fired, is there any restraint left around him?

There is one critical defense line left — that formed by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. By coincidence, two days after Helsinki, all four spoke at the Aspen Security Forum, which I attended.

Wray, Coats and Rosenstein all rose to the occasion. They knew Helsinki was a test of their institutions and themselves, and they passed it with flying colors — always putting America first and not Trump first when it really mattered.

 

Wray was unflinching. Asked about Putin’s denials in Helsinki of involvement in our election, Wray said: “He’s got his view. He’s expressed his view. I can tell you what my view is. The intelligence community’s assessment has not changed, my view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”

Wray also let lawmakers and other critics know that their conspiracy theories about the F.B.I. and Justice Department’s Russia investigations were not intimidating him: “I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll leave it at that.”

Coats had already demonstrated his steel and integrity before coming to the conference. Immediately after Trump’s performance in Helsinki impugning the conclusions of the intelligence agencies, Coats put out a statement defending them. He gave the White House a heads-up that it was coming — but did not ask, “Captain, may I?”

Coats said: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

Rosenstein backed up Coats 100 percent, declaring: “As Director Coats made clear, these [Russian] actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.”

Unfortunately, the secretary of homeland security showed no such spine. Asked if the Russians had intervened to favor Trump, Nielsen said with a straight face: “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party. I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides.”

That was the sound of a senior national security official putting Trump first, not America first. Nielsen proved to be a shameful coward. I sure hope we do not have a homeland security crisis on her watch.

Image result for Tom Friedman: On Trump, Helsinki, Russia, Republican Party and What Else

Which brings me back to Schwarzenegger’s question — “What’s the matter with you?” It applies not just to the president but also all the people enabling him. Why do they so freely sacrifice their own reputations and their own integrity to defend a man with no integrity, a man who would sell each and every one of them down the river the second he decided it was in his interest? It is inexplicable to me.

At least Stormy Daniels got paid.

 

Correction: 

 

An earlier version of this column misstated the name of a former economic adviser to President Trump. He is Gary Cohn; not Cohen.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: America First or Trump First?.