Hagiography instead of history


July 31, 2017

Hagiography instead of history

by Krishnan Srinivasan

http://www.thestatesman.com/books-education/hagiography-instead-of-history-1501369837.html

Image result for the great game in afghanistan General Zia, Rajib

Kallol Bhattacherjee’s book is a specimen of breathless modern history told by someone who thinks he is scooping the world. His heroes are obvious — former US ambassador to India John Gunther Dean, Rajiv Gandhi, and former Indian ambassador Ranendra Sen to whom he invariably refers by his nickname, “Ronen”.

Through his contacts with Dean and to a far less extent, Sen, Bhattacherjee unfolds his version of Gandhi’s initiatives to stabilise the postconflict Afghan situation after the Soviet withdrawal, which never in fact added up to much and eventually collapsed.

The same narrative could be portrayed as another example of Gandhi’s naiveté as a novice in international diplomacy. It is unwise to rewrite history on the basis of hero-worship. The records used to justify Bhattacherjee’s thesis are from the US and Dean’s personal collection and as usual not from Indian archives, whose unnecessary closure defy efforts to arrive at an authentic version of India’s position.

The author posits Sen in the role of intelligence-cum-diplomatic vizier to Gandhi — though it is unlikely that Sen himself subscribes to this view —and astonishingly never cites any contact with MK Narayanan, who then occupied the key intelligence role, or MS Aiyyar, who was privy to Gandhi’s thinking on world affairs.

The closeness of Sen, Narayanan and Aiyyar to Sonia Gandhi as a result of their work with her husband brought them later appointments under successive Congress governments but that is another story.

The core argument is that Gandhi “connected all sides (USSR, US, Pakistan, the Aghan leadership) creating the contours of a political consensus” namely a non-aligned broad-based Afghan administration guaranteed by the major interested powers.

Despite the flaunted friendship between Gandhi and Reagan and Bush, the US let Gandhi down on the “bargain that they had made” on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s nuclear status, which meant that the “peace effort” was doomed.

The fall of Najibullah was another failure of Gandhi’s making. Rajiv Gandhi’s other diplomatic initiatives — disarmament, environment, third world economic cooperation —like his Afghan proposals came to nothing because they did not take into account that the world was changing to a US-dominated sphere.

What the author regards as Gandhi’s “talent for diplomacy” was in reality negligible. India was in no position politically or economically to play in the big league and being consulted by the US did not imply dining at the high table. It is fanciful to think that the US and USSR needed a go-between or “secret Indian channel” between the White House and Kremlin, and such claims suggest that the author’s informants sought to magnify their role.

The quid pro quo of India’s help to resolve the Afghan issue was the US reducing its arms supply to Pakistan, which has been a naïve Indian assumption of Indo-US amity ever since the 1950s.

As could have been foreseen, US arms to Pakistan continued even as the Soviet pullout was imminent, making Indian assumptions ridiculous. The author sadly concludes the “mujahideen were not willing to play by the rules” and the Americans “preferred the Pakistani leaders to India’s.” Bhattacherjee gives too much importance to backstairs intrigues and off the record talks and indulges in gross exaggerations.

He describes Sen and Dean “often coordinating on issues of interest on a daily basis” which is ridiculous to anyone who has worked at high levels in the government. He writes that Pakistan president Zia’s death/murder in an air crash could spark a nuclear war between India and Pakistan —more than a decade before India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. He is fond of the word paranoia, used thrice on the same page.

He claims “it was obvious to Rajiv and his team that the USSR was not going to last long”, which would be news to everyone including the US and Gorbachev. The text is not free of absurdities; “As an ex-intelligence officer, he knew that news is often the best tool for private investigation.”

The author writes that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stopped over for an hour at Bombay airport in 1984 due to the murder of the UK top diplomat in that city, and the Maharashtra home secretary was “surprised” she did not mention the matter — which he regarded as sinister. Senator Charles Percy was Gandhi’s “secret lobbyist in Washington DC.” At another place, it is said that Zia “wanted to delay history.”

The editors at HarperCollins are generous with cli-chés, including the Great Game of the title and eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. They also do not know the difference between “defuse” and “diffuse”. In sum, this is an unconvincing book and a waste of considerable research that should have been put to better use. Also about Pakistan/Afghanistan but of a very different nature is Nate Rabe’s racy, fast paced novel,The Shah of Chicago, about a shambolic effort to enter the illegal narcotics trade.

The anti hero is an unattractive jive-talking American junkie of Pakistani origin who returns to his country of birth to get rich quickly. He is a criminal ex-convict murderer but a lover of ghazal and Bollywood.

While his narcotics enterprise bombs, a totally improbable love life with a high-society Pakistani woman flowers.

This whole text is so full of outlandish stereotypes that it strains credibility, as indeed does the strange name of the author. But it makes for easy reading as a spoof compared to Bhattacherjee’s distorted presentation of the Great Game.

(The reviewer is India’s former foreign secretary)

 

The Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy


July 27, 2017

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The Brilliant Incoherence of Trump’s Foreign Policy

by Stephen Sestanovich*

*Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.

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https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/05/the-brilliant-incoherence-of-trumps-foreign-policy/521430/

The United States periodically debates whether to do more or less abroad. Trump won by promising both. But he can’t possibly deliver.

 

Every 20 years or so—the regularity is a little astonishing—Americans hold a serious debate about their place in the world. What, they ask, is going wrong? And how can it be fixed? The discussion, moreover, almost always starts the same way. Having extricated itself with some success from a costly war, the United States then embraces a scaled-down foreign policy, the better to avoid overcommitment. But when unexpected challenges arise, people start asking whether the new, more limited strategy is robust enough. Politicians and policy makers, scholars and experts, journalists and pundits, the public at large, even representatives of other governments (both friendly and less friendly) all take part in the back-and-forth. They want to know whether America, despite its decision to do less, should go back to doing more—and whether it can.

The reasons for doubt are remarkably similar from one period of discussion to the next. Some argue that the U.S. economy is no longer big enough to sustain a global role of the old kind, or that domestic problems should take priority. Others ask whether the public is ready for new exertions. The foreign-policy establishment may seem too divided, and a viable consensus too hard to reestablish. Many insist that big international problems no longer lend themselves to Washington’s solutions, least of all to military ones. American “leadership,” it is said, won’t work so well in our brave new world.

With minor variations, this is the foreign-policy debate that the country conducted in the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. And it’s the same one that we have been having for the past few years. The rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and China’s muscle-flexing in East Asia jolted the discussion back to life in 2014. Presidential debates in 2015 and 2016 added issues (from Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal to his Asian trade pact) and sharpened the controversy.

Those of us in the foreign-policy business are always glad to have our concerns get this kind of prominence. Down the decades, these debates have tended to produce a consensus in favor of renewed American activism. Yet each version unfolds in its own way. The global turmoil of 2016 meant that nobody could be completely sure how this one was going to turn out.

We still don’t know. The advent of Donald Trump—his candidacy, his election, and the start of his presidency—has given our once-every-two-decades conversation extra drama and significance. Some commentators claim that Trump wants to cast aside the entire post–Cold War order. To others, he is repudiating everything that America has tried to achieve since 1945. Still others say he represents a break with all we have stood for since 1776 (or maybe even since 1630, when John Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony “a city upon a hill”).

That we talk this way is but one measure of the shock Trump’s victory has administered. The new president is raising questions about the foreign policy of the United States—about its external purposes, its internal cohesion, and its chances of success—that may not be fully answered for years. Yet to understand a moment as strange as this, we need to untangle what has happened. In this cycle, America has actually had two rounds of debate about its global role. The first one was driven by the 2016 campaign, and Trump won it. The second round has gone differently. Since taking office, the new president has made one wrong move after another. Though it’s too soon to say that he has lost this round, he is certainly losing control of it. In each case, we need to understand the dynamics of the discussion better than we do.

Like its predecessors, the 2016 debate began with a negative premise: America wasn’t doing well enough in the world. In the ’50s, and again in the ’70s, the worry was that the United States had ceded the strategic initiative to the Soviet Union. By the mid-’90s, the U.S.S.R. was no more, but Americans came to feel that they needed a better way of coping with the conflicts of the post–Cold War world. Existing policy did not seem good enough.

Last year was no different. Of the 20-odd Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, none fully embraced the Obama administration’s version of retrenchment. As always, the critiques varied. Some urged doing more; others, less. Among the Republicans, the more-to-less spectrum ran from Marco Rubio to Rand Paul (with upwards of a dozen contenders in between). Among the Democrats, it went from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders (with others in between whom no one can remember). Candidates of both parties seemed more open than they had been in years to the idea of rethinking what America stands for—and should be trying to do.

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Trump dominated by proposing a more hopped-up foreign-policy activism—and a fuller kind of disengagement.

Eager as they always are in election years to shape the candidates’ views, scholars, experts, and former officials produced a flood of books and articles. Their common theme: the growing obstacles America faced in getting its way abroad. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other post-9/11 military campaigns had shown the costs and risks of overreliance on force as an instrument of foreign policy. The greater assertiveness of competitors like Russia and China, the slowing of the global economy, the seeming intractability of problems like terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change—these realities made U.S. goals still harder to achieve.

But a shared diagnosis hardly meant shared prescriptions. While experts lined up along the same more-to-less spectrum as the candidates, predicting who stood where was not as easy as you might think. Among analysts within the academy, a do-less faction was strong, as always. Veterans of previous Republican administrations stressed that their do-more views did not mean support for “boots on the ground.” Within the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, eight years of Barack Obama had opened up divisions over trade, the use of force, and human rights. Some who had worked for Obama argued that his downsizing strategy had gotten most things right; others argued that he had let U.S. influence shrink. For them, a world of fraying order made a large American role more necessary than ever.

And the public? Polls suggested that it, too, was open to new approaches—but unsure how to choose among them. In May 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 70 percent of voters wanted the next president to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy. In the same poll, Pew found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favored policies that would keep the United States “the only military superpower.” Not for the first time, it seemed that Americans wanted to have it all.

And the public? Polls suggested that it, too, was open to new approaches—but unsure how to choose among them. In May 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 70 percent of voters wanted the next president to focus on domestic affairs rather than foreign policy. In the same poll, Pew found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents favored policies that would keep the United States “the only military superpower.” Not for the first time, it seemed that Americans wanted to have it all.

So how did candidate Donald Trump fit into—even hijack—this right-on-schedule foreign-policy debate? His anti-immigrant talk, angry denunciation of free-trade agreements, and embrace of the pre–World War II slogan “America First” led many to treat him as the campaign’s extreme outlier—an old-fashioned isolationist. But this was never the right label. It failed to capture the novel mix of positions Trump had settled on—and it grossly underestimated his ability to dominate the discussion.

Trump rode to victory as the candidate who promised to do both more and less than Obama. He offered the voters a resolute call to arms and relief from the burdens of global leadership. The problem with American foreign policy, he suggested, was not a simple case of too-costly over-commitment. It was the result of something more ominous: the ill will of friends and foes, and the moral culpability of our own leaders. Sinister forces—especially religious ideologues—threatened our safety. Intellectual confusion—the dreaded “political correctness”—made it hard to name our enemy. Allies and trading partners cheated us at every turn. Waves of foreigners were taking our jobs. Futile wars had left the military “depleted.” In its weakened state, the United States no longer commanded respect.

It’s hard to think of an American political figure who has ever put forward such a dark view of the world—or such a despairing picture of policy paralysis. To fix matters, Trump did not offer a conventional “Come Home, America”–style program of isolationism. Instead, he promised kick-ass confrontation. We had been “losing” for too long. The right response, the way to start and keep “winning,” was not to get out of the game but to play it better—smarter, harder, tougher. Trump was the candidate who, claiming to know more about ISIS than the generals, would “bomb the shit” out of it. (With no inhibitions, either: What, he reportedly asked expert briefers, was wrong with using nuclear weapons against terrorists?) He had more experience negotiating business deals than the trade lawyers did, and knew how to cultivate the kind of personal relationships with the world’s high rollers that professional diplomats could only dream of.

Trump sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion.

Trump dominated the election-year debate by proposing a more hopped-up version of foreign-policy activism than the usual advocates of activism, and a fuller kind of disengagement than those who wanted to scale down. The combination—radicalism at both ends of the spectrum—seemed the essence of his appeal. Sure, other do-more candidates wanted to increase spending on defense, but they cluttered their message with commitments to help others—friends, allies, and those who “shared our values.” And do-less candidates wanted to pull out of trade agreements, but not to cut foreign aid. For Trump, American policy was supposed to serve only American interests.

Best of all, Trump suggested, his entire approach would be free. The famous boast that Mexico would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall echoed many of his other pronouncements. Seizing Iraq’s oil—the “spoils” of war, in his term—would help defeat terrorism. Allies would finally be made to “pay their bills.” The Pentagon budget increases that Trump promised would be funded, he claimed, by “ending the theft of American jobs.” Yes, we could be “great again”—and on the cheap.

Such a blend of much more and much less could easily have seemed incoherent, or crazy. But the two halves of Trump’s formula worked together better than critics appreciated. He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will. Trump embraced Bernie Sanders’s economics without George McGovern’s geopolitics. Of self-identified conservative Republicans, 70 percent told Pew last year that they wanted the U.S. to retain its global military dominance. “Make America Great Again” was a slogan aimed right at them.

Trump’s more-and-less strategy also helped him with those who wanted a bristly, muscular America but did not want endless military involvements. Rejecting “nation building” abroad so as to focus on the home front was Trump’s way of assuring voters that he knew how to avoid imperial overstretch. He offered supporters the glow of a Ronald Reagan experience—without the George W. Bush tab.

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton. She offered up her own version of a mix-and-match foreign policy. To neutralize Sanders’s challenge from the left, Clinton backed away from her previous endorsement of the Obama administration’s East Asian trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To attract Republicans and independents who felt Obama had been too passive internationally, she promised “safe zones” in Syria that would protect civilians and adversaries of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like nafta and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

Clinton was doubtless trying to dispel suspicion that she was the continuity candidate in the race—that she wouldn’t change Obama’s foreign policy all that much. But in competing for voters who hated the status quo, she had little chance against Trump. Clinton had the more thoughtful, balanced policy, and Trump almost surely had no real grasp of how his own international strategy fit together. Even so, he got people out of their seats.

Trump’s perverse admiration for Putin preserved his purity as the candidate who did not agree with Obama on a single thing.

In both the primary campaign and the general election, Trump showered all his rivals, Republicans and Democrats, with schoolyard taunts. Yet he always treated Barack Obama as his true opponent. On issue after issue—immigration, trade, alliance commitments, nuclear weapons, China, Syria, isis, Iran, Israel—Trump positioned himself, with greater consistency than any other Republican candidate, as the anti-Obama. He disagreed with every element of the president’s foreign policy.

This pattern may even hint at an explanation of Trump’s odd stance on Russia. By 2016, Obama’s relationship with Vladimir Putin had long since unraveled. The sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine, beefed-up U.S. troop deployments in eastern Europe, opposition to Russia’s intervention in Syria—all of these policies were a problem for most Republicans. Could they really prove that they were tougher on Putin than Obama was? Trump had his own, ingenious solution to the puzzle. His perverse admiration for Putin—the claim that the two of them would “get along very well”—preserved Trump’s purity as the candidate who did not agree with Barack Obama on a single thing.

Had Donald Trump run for President in 2012, the entire case he made about America’s desperate position in the world probably would have flopped. In that campaign, foreign policy was widely considered one of Obama’s strengths, and he coasted to reelection—just as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, two past presidents brought in to clean up unsuccessful wars, had done.

As Obama’s second term wore on, however, the global landscape changed. A series of new problems made his policies look more ragged than commanding. Americans’ personal regard for their president was up, but they felt his international standing was down. (In 2012, 55 percent of respondents told Gallup that they thought Obama was respected abroad; by 2015, that number was just 37 percent.) In this new environment, Trump was able to make his critique more compelling than anyone else’s. Though his views—and his way of presenting them—were shocking, there was a kind of brilliance in the way he seized the moment.

Elections often settle our cyclical foreign-policy debates. Not in this case. The discussion has now gone into overtime, and Trump is faring far worse than he did in the campaign. His crude and contradictory ideas have proved hard to implement—and hard to sell to audiences more skeptical than his campaign-rally crowds. His opponents have the rhetorical advantage and seem likely to hold it.

Trump’s problems go far beyond the familiar idea that politicians campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose. He has had to confront the enormous difficulty of advancing a platform that promised simultaneously to do more and less. Writing in his diary, Richard Nixon, who had tried a similar strategy himself, recalled Churchill’s views of its challenges: “One can have a policy of audacity or one can follow a policy of caution, but it is disastrous to try to follow a policy of audacity and caution at the same time. It must be one or the other.”

In this spirit, many analysts found it hard to believe that Trump would stick to his more outlandish policy ideas and impulses once he took office. Weren’t they just a little too nutty to survive in the real world? A Saturday Night Live skit soon after the election gave this forecast a wide audience. As the rattled president-elect, Alec Baldwin reversed one ambitious campaign promise after another. Mass deportation of immigrants? “Let’s not do it. Scrap it.” Obamacare? “No change.”

The hope that Trump would yield to reason gained further strength from his selection of sober-minded Cabinet secretaries—General James Mattis to run the Pentagon and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State—and the choice of H. R. McMaster to replace Michael Flynn as national-security adviser. As administration spokespeople backed away from Trump’s statements on many issues—China, NATO, mass deportations, the Iran nuclear deal, a two-state formula for Israeli–Palestinian peace, and others—the voices of good sense seemed to be carrying the day.

Trump is not the first president to have assembled a divided team of advisers, or to face the near-united opposition of senior Cabinet officers. (Lyndon Johnson would have stories to tell Trump about how he handled such problems.) What makes the new administration’s predicament unique is the apparent commitment—still very much in place—to pursue a more activist foreign policy while reducing the costs and risks of America’s global leadership role. To start “winning” again at last.

The tension between the two halves of Trump’s policy is not merely one of logic, but one of institutions. Activist policies are necessarily inclusive—to work, they depend on the resources, technical expertise, coordinated implementation, and support of the national-security bureaucracy. By contrast, downsizing requires central control of policy—fewer hands on the tiller, careful steering, quiet diplomacy, and conceptual discipline.

A president trying to change policy can hurt himself if he misunderstands America’s power—and if he is misled by his own rhetoric.

Yet in the administration’s early going, Trump and his advisers have gotten things exactly backwards. The initial version of their “Muslim ban” was precisely the kind of activist measure that called for the laying-on of hands by multiple agencies. Instead, it was hatched virtually in the dark by a few brand-new White House aides. As for rapprochement with Russia—whether it makes sense or not—the entire idea calls for confidential talks out of the usual channels, in which each side’s flexibility and interest can be carefully explored. Despite Trump’s clear personal interest in outreach to Putin, he may have already lost the chance to make the initiative work. He has let so many of his own officials criticize it—and allowed so much congressional opposition to build up—that his options are drastically narrowed.

No President with any knowledge of government at all would have bungled these matters the way Trump has. Even inexperienced presidents have adjusted more adeptly to the exercise of power. The Obama administration’s first-year fulfillment of a campaign promise—the controversial 2009 decision to add troops in Afghanistan—was almost a textbook case of good process compared with Trump’s. Obama got bureaucratic buy-in where he needed it: His advisers came together in backing the decision for a “surge.” At the same time, he maintained personal oversight of the issue he cared about most—a tight timetable for the withdrawal of the extra troops, which most of his team hated but no one openly opposed. Obama’s early decisions helped him gain control of policy. Trump’s have helped him lose it.

A President trying to change policy can also hurt himself if he misunderstands America’s power position—and is misled by his own rhetoric. When the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 finally obliged Jimmy Carter to toughen his strategy toward Moscow, his administration quickly came forward with a raft of additional measures: a new “doctrine” for Persian Gulf security, outreach to China, suspension of strategic arms control, and more. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security adviser, even appeared at the Khyber Pass with a dagger and a machine gun. With tensions (and tempers) running high, my old boss Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged the president and his advisers to recognize that they had badly misjudged the balance of power—and could not know for sure how the Soviets would respond to their show of strength. It was crucial, he said, to make no false moves. Nothing would be worse than to pick a new fight and lose it.

President Trump probably needs to learn the opposite lesson: Don’t pick fights that the U.S. has already won. Trump painted a picture of extreme American weakness convincing enough to win him the White House. But he will keep making mistakes if he believes his own assessment. With net migration from Mexico at its lowest levels since the 1940s, and with not a single person since at least 1975 (and maybe ever) having been killed in terrorist acts on U.S. soil by nationals of the countries on the administration’s “Muslim ban” list, Trump has the freedom to decide which problems he most wants to solve. His actions have to be broadly consistent with the message that got him elected, but he has nothing to gain from urgent and disruptive measures to address vulnerabilities that do not exist. Such moves will not reverse the decline Trump fears; they will accelerate it.

Ronald Reagan, Trump might recall, defeated Carter by pointing to the danger of Soviet military advances. In office, however, Reagan was acutely conscious of the communist system’s flaws and sought to exploit them carefully. He wanted a big military buildup, not a war. Advisers who didn’t understand this fell out of favor. Secretary of State Alexander Haig confided to Reagan early on that it would be easy to turn Cuba into “a fucking parking lot.” The President ignored him.

There may be no more important indicator of how isolated Trump has become in the post-election round of foreign-policy debate than the routine way in which critics berate him for undermining what they see as America’s supreme foreign-policy achievement—an international order variously described as “open,” “liberal,” and “rules based.” Whatever the value of these labels, the critics are right that, after World War II, the U.S. repudiated beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies and every-man-for-himself security policies. They’re also right that Trump seems strangely attracted to such approaches. Despite the stupendous results of American strategy since 1945—victory in the Cold War, spreading global prosperity, an era of sustained (if uneasy) peace among major states—the president is clearly convinced that the United States has paid for almost everything and gotten almost nothing in return. In order to shift the cost-benefit analysis back in our favor, he seems determined to challenge the policies and practices that have cemented America’s vast power and influence in the 20th and 21st centuries.

In doing so, Trump has unified people who disagree about many elements of U.S. foreign policy and who recognize the many shortcomings of the so-called liberal international order. Experts, scholars, and former policy makers do not have a single view of the institutions that embody this order. NATO enjoys strong support in most quarters; the European Union, considerably less support; the United Nations, far less than that—and even supporters disagree about how the United States should make use of these forums in the future. Whether they lean Democrat or Republican, or reject both parties, the best experts and analysts take for granted the need to rethink, and to do better. It’s good that they disagree about the big choices America faces—about globalization, terrorism, military spending, foreign assistance, democracy promotion, nuclear proliferation, cyber-security, climate change, the rise of China, the future of Iran, Putinism, and much more. Trump, unfortunately, has gotten the very people who should be leading our debate to put their differences aside.

This unity comes at a cost. A once-every-two-decades debate is an opportunity to measure American policy against all the ways in which the world is changing—and the ways in which U.S. responses have fallen short. It’s a chance to come to grips with the vulnerabilities of the liberal order. To do so means thinking about narrow practical questions and broad conceptual ones. Can America’s leaders manage, explain, and defend this order better in the next decade than they did in the last? At a time when the power of the U.S. is, in relative terms at least, slowly declining, will rules that have long depended on that power continue to matter? Americans have never much liked applying the rules to themselves. What will happen when others feel strong enough to evade them too?

These are, in one form or another, the questions that the candidates, experts, and voters were supposed to wrestle with in last year’s campaign. Because of Trump—and the very necessary push back against him—serious discussion of America’s role in the world has been virtually suspended, and no one can say when or how it will start up again. One thing is for certain, though. We can’t wait another 20 years to resume the debate.

 

 

 

Donald Trump Jr. and The Russian Connection


July 14, 2017– The Bastille Day

Donald Trump Jr. and The Russian Connection

by Jelani Cobb

http://www.newyorker.com

The tangled explanations offered for why Donald Trump, Jr., agreed to a meeting last June with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya have observers reciting once again the political truism that it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup—except when it’s actually the crime. It’s not clear whether any laws were broken with regard to that meeting, which was also attended by Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, and at which Trump, Jr., hoped to receive politically damaging information about Hillary Clinton from a person who he had been told had ties to the Kremlin. But plenty of other questions remain to be answered.

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When Trump, Jr., released his e-mails about that meeting—after he was told that the Times was going to publish their contents—President Trump said that his son is a “high-quality person,” and thanked him for his “transparency.” Given the President’s usual hyperbolic lexicon, “high-quality” sounds like faint praise, but “transparency” is precisely the issue. Setting aside the fact that the Trump team seemed fine with accepting sensitive information from a Russian source, it’s worth considering why Donald Trump, Jr., was chosen to be the recipient of it.

His blithe defense—that nothing about the meeting matters because it turned out that there was no intel to share—is only more damning. Veselnitskaya does not seem to have any formal connection to the Russian government, but, if she had, as Trump, Jr., apparently believed, then the overture should have been seen as a feint, a head-fake to gauge the level of sophistication of the Trump team, and possibly to compromise the son of a potential future President in order to extract concessions at a later date—the kinds of machinations that would’ve been instantly recognized during the Cold War.

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The implications of this level of ineptitude on Trump’s team have been alarming ever since Trumpism became a viable political force, but it also points to a lack of understanding of what Russia may be seeking to achieve with the Trump Presidency. In the fall of 2015, after Trump defended Putin against accusations of murdering journalists, and praised his leadership, it was easy to draw superficial comparisons between them: two image-conscious men hostile to independent institutions and fixated on restoring their respective nations to what they perceived as their former greatness. Since then, the differences between them have become more apparent. Russian resurrection is Putin’s raison d’être, an objective that explains his various military interventions.

It is an agenda that resonates deeply in a nation that remains both bitterly aware that it lost the Cold War and sensitive to the subsequent decline of its significance in world affairs. A few years ago, on a fellowship in Russia, I was discussing the work of Hunter S. Thompson with a student on a Moscow trolley, when an older man watching us began shouting angrily. The student translated his complaint: “There was a time when Americans knew better than to come to Russia and dare to speak English loudly in public.”

Trump, too, speaks the language of national grievance. He persuaded his followers that they had been suckered globally, and, in the most alarmingly messianic of his statements at the Republican National Convention, warned that he alone could save the nation. He has dissed long-standing allies, sabre-rattled our enemies, and made a show of wrangling job concessions out of American manufacturers—but none of that reflects a coherent world view beyond the will to power that has driven him since he appeared on the New York real-estate scene more than forty years ago.

The grimiest business practices might approve cementing a lucrative international deal with a corrupt foreign regime, but nations, at least in theory, operate on a broader set of principles. Were Trump’s nationalism anything more than self-serving theatrics, his associates would have rejected any suggestion of foreign assistance in the election on the principle that, hated or not, Hillary Clinton represented someone to whom they were bound by ties of citizenship.

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The Games these Guys Play as the world watches

Putin seems to have recognized these contradictions and weaknesses from the outset. His interest in Trump’s candidacy appears driven not simply by transactional concerns, such as the removal of sanctions in exchange for reauthorizing the adoption of Russian orphans, or the prospect of a hands-off foreign policy that will ignore Russian human-rights violations. Trump may see himself as an American Putin, but Putin likely sees Trump as an American Boris Yeltsin—floundering in the complexities that surround him. Before Trump was pressured into raising the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election with Putin at last week’s G-20 summit in Hamburg, he had continued to downplay it. This was despite the fact that his own Justice Department is prosecuting Reality Leigh Winner, a twenty-five-year-old intelligence contractor, for leaking a National Security Agency report on attempts by Russian military intelligence to hack local election officials and voter-registration software.

All this points to problems that extend far beyond the June meeting to the nature of this Administration and its inability to understand the world that it is supposed to be leading. My colleague John Cassidy has pointed out that Trump, Jr., increasingly looks like a fall guy for a White House whose senior officials are increasingly compromised. When Richard Nixon saw that the resignations of his aides John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman had done nothing to diminish the inquiry into Watergate, he told Henry Kissinger, “I cut off two arms and then they went after the body.” Even if Trump, Jr., does take the fall, Trump, like Nixon, may soon realize that it will be insufficient to stop the Russia investigation.

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

DJT is Making America a G-20 Pariah


July 11, 2017

Wake Up: DJT is Making America a G-20 Pariah

by John Cassidy

Australian journalist Chris Uhlmann demolishes Trump after G20: ‘biggest threat to the west’

Mr Trump is a man who craves power because it burnishes his celebrity. To be constantly talking and talked about is all that really matters. And there is no value placed on the meaning of words. So what is said one day can be discarded the next.

So what have we learned?

We learned Mr Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the US as a global leader. He managed to diminish his nation and to confuse and alienate his allies.He will cede that power to China and Russia — two authoritarian states that will forge a very different set of rules for the 21st century. Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it is gone. And that is the biggest threat to the values of the West which he claims to hold so dear.– Chris Uhlmann

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Just when you think you’ve seen it all, out comes another Donald Trump tweet, or tweetstorm, to prove you wrong. On Sunday morning, America’s forty-fifth President, having just returned to Washington from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, pronounced his trip “a great success for the United States.”

It says something about Trump’s grip on reality that he could reach such a conclusion after a summit in which he and the rest of the U.S. delegation were utterly isolated on major issues such as climate change and international trade. In fact, the only way that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s diplomatic sherpas were able to cobble together a communiqué that everyone could sign onto was to include a section that noted America’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but which added, “Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible.” The symbolism here was powerful: in a global forum that the U.S. government, especially the Treasury Department, helped to create during the late nineteen-nineties, Trump’s America stood alone.

Of course, the G-20 is far from perfect: the protesters assembled outside the Messehallen Convention Center, most of whom were peaceful, were right about that. The organization’s membership is arbitrary—Italy is a member, Spain isn’t; South Africa is in, Nigeria is out—and its pronouncements can reflect the sometimes hidebound thinking of finance ministers and central bankers. But the G-20 is also one of the few political forums for tackling global economic problems, such as financial contagion, tax evasion, and climate change (which is ultimately a market failure). And, until Trump’s election, U.S. leadership was widely recognized as an integral part of any G-20 get-together.

The message of Hamburg was that Trump’s “America First” rhetoric—and his inability to see international agreements as anything other than zero-sum deals—have changed that situation, at least temporarily. The rest of the world hasn’t turned its back on the U.S.; the country is still far too big and powerful for that to happen. And, in any case, many foreign leaders harbor respect for the values that the U.S. espouses and the global order that it has helped maintain for seven decades. At the moment, however, they are looking for ways to work around Washington and its rogue President.

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Outplayed by Valdimir Putin of Russia?

Judging by his Twitter comments on Sunday, Trump is proud of having turned the U.S. into a G-20 pariah. But even more revealing, and disturbing, was the readout he delivered on his meeting last Friday with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Here it is, not quite in its entirety (as, since we’ve heard Trump criticize Barack Obama and the “fake news” media many times before, I’ve left out those bits):

I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election, He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion. . . . We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia! Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded . . . and safe. Questions were asked about why the CIA & FBI had to ask the DNC 13 times for their SERVER, and were rejected, still don’t . . . have it. . . . Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!

In the spirit of generosity, it should be acknowledged that the final sentence here was a welcome one. And Moscow’s many critics in Congress will surely remind Trump of it if he decides, during the coming months, to relax the restrictions that the Obama Administration imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

But the rest of what the President wrote on Sunday was a mess of confusions and contradictions. Trump didn’t out-and-out confirm the claim made by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, that he had accepted Putin’s denials of any Russian involvement in hacking during the election. But Trump made perfectly clear that he still rejects the view of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was responsible for hacking and that, for policy purposes, he considers the matter to be closed. Any effort to get to the bottom of what happened—much less impose some real punishment on Moscow—will be subjugated to the imperative of “working constructively with Russia.”

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington have criticised the Trump-Putin proposal to create a joint “Cyber Security unit” to safeguard future elections.

That brings us to the nuttiest part of the tweetstorm, perhaps the nuttiest thing an American President has said in decades: the proposal to create a joint “Cyber Security unit” with Moscow to safeguard future elections. Whether Trump himself came up with this ingenious proposal, or whether it was Putin’s idea, the Tweeter-in-Chief didn’t say. But it drew instant ridicule from both sides of the political divide.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close,” the Republican senator Lindsey Graham told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN, “If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow.”

What was Trump thinking? As ever, we have to consider the possibility that he wasn’t thinking at all, and what he says doesn’t mean anything—not even when he is reporting on his dealings with the leader of a rival nuclear power. “Donald Trump is a man who craves power because it burnishes his celebrity: to be constantly talking and talked about is all that really matters,” Chris Uhlmann, the political editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said, in remarks about the G-20 summit that went viral. “And there is no value placed on the meaning of words, so what’s said one day can be discarded the next.”

The other reading is a darker one, and it involves taking Trump at his word. For whatever reason, he still appears to see Putin as a potential partner—maybe even one who can be trusted with some of America’s most sensitive secrets, such as the workings of its voting systems. If this is indeed the case, it matters little whether Trump is a Russian dupe or a Russian stooge: he needs to be stopped.

On Sunday night, Trump disavowed part of what he had said earlier in the day, writing in another tweet, “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t-but a ceasefire can,& did!” This message illustrated Uhlmann’s point about the half-life of Trump’s utterances, and also confirmed the truth of the Australian journalist’s over-all conclusion about the President’s trip to the G-20 meeting: “So what did we learn? We learned that Donald Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader.”

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America


May 17, 2017

What China’s Belt and Road has to learn from 1920s America

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to resurrect the Silk Road must heed the lessons of a bygone era

By  Sourabh Gupta

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Perceptive China-watchers have observed that President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has modelled his political mission on Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) – even if his methods bear a whiff of Maoism.

Deng put an end to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and engineered China’s transformation towards socialist modernisation. Xi’s sweeping reforms and anti-corruption crackdown aim to engineer an analogous transformation that will deliver China to the cusp of a “moderately prosperous” society by the time of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial founding in 2021.

In one notable respect though, Xi has broken with the Paramount Leader. Deng had counseled a 24-character strategy on his countrymen: “observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” By contrast, Xi has not been shy to employ assertive diplomacy in support of an ambitious, long-term and strategic foreign policy.

No single political project personifies this more than the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to resurrect the ancient Silk Road through infrastructure projects that will link Eurasian economies into a China-centred trading network. When two dozen or so heads of state assemble in Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit on Sunday and Monday, the magnitude of the imposing soft-power dimension of this “win-win” project that aspires to embed Xi’s “China Dream” within a “neighbourhood community of common destiny” will be on ample display. The BRICS Summit in Xiamen (廈門) this September will be a sideshow by comparison.

A variety of malignant motives, mainly economic, have been ascribed to the Belt and Road plan. It aims to channel Beijing’s allegedly manipulated reserve surpluses abroad, prop up the internationalisation of the yuan, unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours, ensnare the recipient country in a cycle of debt, exploit the host country’s strategic resources and purchase their political affiliation along the way.

Steel pipes are loaded for export at Lianyungang port, Jiangsu province, China. Some critics see the Belt and Road as a way to unload China’s industrial overcapacity on neighbours. Photo: Reuters

While these claims contain merit, the redeeming arguments are more compelling. China’s hard currency reserves are better put to use in hard infrastructure projects in developing countries than deposited passively in New York’s financial market. At a time of volatility in liquidity provision in the international monetary system, yuan internationalisation and the rise of another issuer of safe, short-term and liquid instruments is to be welcomed. Moreover, the bilateral yuan swap lines and dedicated trade payments and securities settlement infrastructure that Beijing has rolled out over the past half-decade will enable recipient countries to denominate their borrowings in local currency, thereby limiting costs and exposures.

Transferring industrial capacity, improving infrastructure and reducing transaction costs on the other hand will enable developing countries to jump-start a dynamic upward spiral of growth and development in sectors where they enjoy latent comparative advantages – on lines similar to China’s own industrial jump-start in the 1980s. A comparison of China’s and the US’ Eximbank (Export-Import bank) loans to Africa, meanwhile, belie the oft-repeated claim that the former is directed solely at natural resources. China Eximbank has contributed to almost all 54 countries in Africa – resource rich or poor – and displays no perceptible pattern of favoured client state lending. US Eximbank loans, by contrast, are concentrated in energy and mining and confined to a favoured few.

Finally, with developing and emerging economies forecast to account for 59 per cent of world GDP in 2018 (neatly reversing the average 59 per cent accounted for by advanced economies from 1980 to 2007), as per the IMF, the rise of an alternate model of development financing that is leaner, cheaper, quicker and more flexibly attuned to host country systems and requirements should be welcomed, not stigmatised.

Development economics aside, the most consequential effects of the Belt and Road will be in international relations.

The Belt and Road’s storied predecessor, the Silk Road, two thousand years ago ushered in an age of commerce and civilizational exchange and afforded a set of loose principles of order and self-restraint. The Belt and Road’s ‘open regionalism’, likewise, will showcase Xi’s determination to practice a “new type of international relations” that binds China’s extended periphery as far out as Africa in a win-win embrace. Purposeful translation of his optimistic assessment for peace and development will realise the long-delayed promise of south-south cooperation in the post-colonial age. With luck, it will also confine the fascination with Great Power transition ‘traps’ – particularly the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (in which an established power’s fear of a rising power leads them into a vicious cycle of competition and eventually war) – to the armchairs of zero-sum-minded historians and think tank specialists.

Banners advertise the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo: AP

China’s re-emergence at the turn of, and the first few decades of, the 21st century bears remarkable parallels to America’s rise a century ago. Between 1890 and the early-1900s, the proportion of US manufacturers engaged in exports rose from less than a quarter to more than two-thirds, as the burgeoning surpluses of farms and factories were absorbed overseas. By the late-1910s and through the 1920s, the US became a prodigious exporter of capital as more than US$1 billion a year in loans surged out of New York. Nearly one-third as many foreign bonds floated on Wall Street as bonds of US companies.

As the Belt and Road becomes a conduit for the export of Chinese capital on as prodigious a scale as the US a century ago, its design and roll-out must also be informed by the cautionary lessons of that era. When boom had periodically turned to bust in the US economy and subjected many of her poorer hemispheric trade partners and raw material suppliers to simultaneous capital and commodity market shocks, Washington failed to provide the public goods (international development financing; recycling of capital flight; inter-governmental institutionalisation, and stabilisation loans, and so on) that could have placed a floor under the crash – and misery – overseas. China’s capital exports must avoid such boom-bust patterns and instead marry hard physical capital with soft technical know-how, managerial skills and local project ownership with purpose and patience.

During the next decade, China will replace the US as the world’s largest economic power. As it grows richer, it must assume the mantle of collaborative leadership and provider of global public goods. The Belt and Road is an appetising start but the proof of the pudding will be in its eating, as well as its ability to draw sceptical bystanders in the West and in Asia to the banquet

America first, geo-economic logic last


April 27, 2017

America first, geo-economic logic last

by Gary Hawke, Victoria University of Wellington

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for tomahawk over syriaTrumponomics–Military Power over Geo-Economics

The Trump Administration has introduced a new set of challenges to the international economy. It has profoundly changed the role of the United States in international economic diplomacy, ceasing to be a champion of multilateralism.

Within the first 100 days of the Trump administration, reality has overwhelmed a good deal of campaign rhetoric, and individuals experienced and skilled in conventional public management have prevailed over some who epitomised revolt against elites. But ideas that challenge longstanding US positions on the world economy and international integration remain at the core of the Trump administration.

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Get the Message, Theresa May?

Bilateral trade balances have long been known to be an inappropriate policy objective. Yet the Trump administration is pursuing this without any sound argument. Its belief is that only bilaterally balanced trade (or an excess of US exports) is ‘fair trade’. This nonsense is reinforced by concentrating on trade in goods, ignoring surpluses on services trade. And the capital account is ignored entirely.

Trump expands the idea of bilateral balance to the trading relationship with every other country. He insists on what Gary Hufbauer has called ‘mirror-image reciprocity’. Every component of a deal, every individual tariff rate, any provision about rules of origin for specific products, and any condition for foreign investment must be no less favourable for US exporters than the corresponding rule applied to the United States. This is misplaced concreteness has gone mad.

The idea of a win-win overall deal is rejected. The very idea of complementarities between economies is ignored. That this is endorsed by the chair of the newly established National Trade Council Peter Navarro, who holds a Harvard PhD in economics, is a conclusive argument for an enquiry into Harvard standards.

Two of Trump’s executive orders on trade deficits and trade laws would both fail the most elementary of economics examinations.

Under the Trump Administration, history is no more respected than economics. It has been argued that the WTO and its predecessor GATT were intended to apply only to developed economies. Those who were at the Havana conference in the 1940s and those who negotiated with developing economies in the Uruguay Round saw no such belief among their US colleagues.

This is a thin disguise for wishing to continue using subterfuge rather than economic logic in consideration of so-called ‘countervailing duties’ and ‘anti-dumping penalties’ against China. The idea that there is an indisputable definition of a ‘market economy’ is absurd, but then so is the underlying idea of dumping. Artificial lowering of prices with the intention of raising them after forcing a competitor out of business should be countered — if it were ever properly detected.

Even more absurd is the notion that ‘over capacity’ is something that requires government intervention. Consumers gain from cheap products. When producers cannot sustain output levels at such low prices, the appropriate response is for the least efficient producers to exit. In the case of steel, ‘least efficient’ is probably not the same as ‘Chinese’.

Most concerning is an attack on the WTO dispute resolution system. US opposition to it predated the Trump administration. The Obama administration vetoed the reappointment of a judge to the Appellate Body for the little-disguised reason that his decisions were uncongenial.

US resistance to the dispute resolution system has never been far from the surface. It is often rationalised by a constitutional principle that only the US Congress can create laws which bind US citizens. Some US judges can nevertheless make positive use of international reasoning, and previous administrations have recognised that membership of international institutions could require them to persuade Congress to amend US law or to compensate a foreign party.

The language in the final statement of the WTO dispute resolution system is in no way an exemption of the United States from the dispute resolution system. The words of the dispute settlement understanding that a ruling can’t ‘add to or diminish the rights or obligations’ of a member country — relate to member countries’ commitments, not US law, and their interpretation is not a US prerogative.

Rhetoric about a ‘rules-based international order’ or the ‘modern liberal international order’ is now entirely empty when set beside the declared intentions of the Trump administration. Again, the problem is deeper than Trump. No country can be an effective advocate of the rule of law when its partisan politics dominates the choice of its most senior judges. Fundamentally, the United States has to adjust to no longer being able to dominate global affairs.

Economic integration now has to be led by countries other than the United States. But successful integration elsewhere will cause responses within the United States as businesses miss profitable opportunities and as voters see that they are missing out on consumption and employment gains.

Gary Hawke is retired Head of the School of Government and Professor of Economic History, Victoria University of Wellington.