John Feffer – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 18 Apr 2021 05:58:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Social Media and the Spread of Global Hate Sat, 17 Apr 2021 04:01:46 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter helped right-wing populists take power. Can they now help rein them in? By | April 14, 2021

One insidious way to torture the detainees at Guantanamo was to blast music at them at all hours. The mixtape, which included everything from Metallica to the Meow Mix jingle, was intended to disorient the captives and impress upon them the futility of resistance. It worked: this soundtrack from hell did indeed break several inmates.

For four years, Americans had to deal with a similar sonic blast, namely the “music” of Donald Trump. His voice was everywhere: on TV and radio, screaming from the headlines of newspapers, pumped out nonstop on social media. MAGAmen and women danced to the repetitive beat of his lies and distortions. Everyone else experienced the nonstop assault of Trump’s instantly recognizable accent and intonations as nails on a blackboard. After the 2016 election, psychologists observed a significant uptick in the fears Americans had about the future. One clinician even dubbed the phenomenon “Trump anxiety disorder.”

The volume of Trump’s assault on the senses has decreased considerably since January. Obviously, he no longer has the bully pulpit of the Oval Office to broadcast his views. The mainstream media no longer covers his every utterance.

Most importantly, the major social media platforms have banned him. In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Twitter suspended Trump permanently under its Glorification of Violence policy. Facebook made the same decision, though its oversight board is now revisiting the former president’s deplatforming.

It’s not only Trump. The Proud Boys, QAnon, the militia movements: the social media footprint of the far right has decreased a great deal in 2021, with a parallel decline in the amount of misinformation available on the Web.

And it’s not just a problem of misinformation and hate speech. According to a new CSIS report on domestic terrorism, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots and 91 fatalities since 2015, with the number of incidents rising in 2020 to a height unseen in a quarter of a century. A large number of the perpetrators are loners who have formed their beliefs from social media. As one counterterrorism official put it, “Social media has afforded absolutely everything that’s bad out there in the world the ability to come inside your home.”

So, why did the tech giants provide Trump, his extremist followers, and their global counterparts unlimited access to a growing audience over those four long years?

Facebook Helps Trump

In a new report from the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE), Heidi Beirich and Wendy Via write, “For years, Trump violated the community standards of several platforms with relative impunity. Tech leaders had made the affirmative decision to allow exceptions for the politically powerful, usually with the excuse of ‘newsworthiness’ or under the guise of ‘political commentary’ that the public supposedly needed to see.”

Even before Trump became president, Facebook was cutting him a break. In 2015, he was using the social media platform to promote a Muslim travel ban, which generated considerable controversy, particularly within Facebook itself. The Washington Post reports:

Outrage over the video led to a companywide town hall, in which employees decried the video as hate speech, in violation of the company’s policies. And in meetings about the issue, senior leaders and policy experts overwhelmingly said they felt that the video was hate speech, according to three former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg expressed in meetings that he was personally disgusted by it and wanted it removed, the people said.

But the company’s most prominent Republican, Vice President of Global Policy Joel Kaplan, persuaded Zuckerberg to change his position. In spring 2016, when Zuckerberg wanted to condemn Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico, he was again persuaded to step back for fear of seeming too partisan.

Facebook went on to play a critical role in getting Trump elected. It wasn’t simply the Russian campaign to create fake accounts, fake messaging, and even fake events using Facebook, or the theft of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica. More important was the role played by Facebook staff in helping Trump’s digital outreach team maximize its use of social media. The Trump campaign spent $70 million on Facebook ads and raised much of its $250 million in online fundraising through Facebook as well.

Trump established a new paradigm through brute force and money. As he turned himself into clickbait, the social media giants applied the same “exceptionalism” to other rancid politicians. More ominously, the protection accorded politicians extended to extremists. According to an account of a discussion at a Twitter staff meeting, one employee explained that “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material. Banning politicians wouldn’t be accepted by society as a trade-off for flagging all of the white supremacist propaganda.”

Of course, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, social media organizations decided that society could indeed accept the banning of politicians, at least when it came to some politicians in the United States.

The Real Fake News

In the Philippines, an extraordinary 97 percent of the population has accounts with Facebook, up from 40 percent in 2018 (by comparison, about 67 percent of Americans have Facebook accounts). Increasingly, Filipinos get their news from social media. That’s bad news for the mainstream media in the Philippines. And that’s particularly bad news for journalists like Maria Ressa, who runs an on-line news site called Rappler.

At a press conference for the GPAHE report, Maria Ressa described how the government of Rodrigo Duterte, with an assist from Facebook, has made her life a living hell. Like Trump, Duterte came to power on a populist platform spread through Facebook. Because of her critical reporting on government affairs, Ressa felt the ire of the Duterte fan club, which generated half a million hate posts that, according to one study, consisted of 60 percent attacks on her credibility and 40 percent sexist and misogynist slurs. This onslaught created a bandwagon effect that equated journalists like her with criminals.

This noxious equation on social media turned into a real case when the Philippine authorities arrested Ressa and convicted her of the dubious charge of “cyberlibel.” She faces a sentence of as much as 100 years in prison.

“Our dystopian present is your dystopian future,” she observed. What happened in the Philippines in that first year of Duterte became the reality in the United States under Trump. It was the same life cycle of hate in which misinformation is introduced in social media, then imported into the mainstream media, and supported from the top down by opportunistic politicians.

The Philippines faces another presidential election next year, and Duterte is barred from running again by term limits. Duterte’s daughter, who is currently the mayor of Davao City just like her father had been, tops the early polls, though she hasn’t thrown her hat in the ring and her father has declared that women shouldn’t run for president. This time around, however, Facebook disrupted the misinformation campaign tied to the Dutertes when it took down fake accounts coming from China that supported the daughter’s potential bid for the presidency.

President Duterte was furious. “Facebook, listen to me,” he said. “We allow you to operate here hoping that you could help us. Now, if government cannot espouse or advocate something which is for the good of the people, then what is your purpose here in my country? What would be the point of allowing you to continue if you can’t help us?”

Duterte had been led to believe, based on his previous experience, that Facebook was his lapdog. Other authoritarian regimes had come to expect the same treatment.

In India, according to the GPAHE report, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP,

was Facebook India’s biggest advertising spender in 2020. Ties between the company and the Indian government run even deeper, as the company has multiple commercial ties, including partnerships with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the Ministry of Women and the Board of Education. Both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have met personally with Modi, who is the most popular world leader on Facebook. Before Modi became prime minister, Zuckerberg even introduced his parents to him.

Facebook has also cozied up to the right-wing government in Poland, helped get Jair Bolsonaro elected in Brazil, and served as a vehicle for the Islamophobic content that contributed to the rise of the far right in the Netherlands.

But the decision to ban Trump has set in motion a backlash. In Poland, for instance, the Law and Justice Party has proposed a law to fine Facebook and others for removing content if it doesn’t break Polish law, and a journalist has attempted to establish a pro-government alternative to Facebook called Albicla.

Back in the USA

Similarly, in the United States, the far right has suddenly become a big booster of free speech now that social media platforms have begun to deplatform high-profile users like Trump and take down posts for their questionable veracity and hate content. In the second quarter of 2020 alone, Facebook removed 22.5 million posts.

Facebook has tried to get ahead of this story by establishing an oversight board that includes members like Jamal Greene (a law professor at Columbia University), Julie Owono (executive director, Internet Sans Frontiere) and Nighat Dad (founder of the Digital Rights Foundation). Now Facebook users can also petition the board to remove content.

With Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others now removing a lot of extremist content, the far right has migrated to other platforms, such as Gab, Telegram, and MeWe. They continue to spread conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine misinformation, and pro-Trump propaganda on these alternative platforms. Meanwhile, the MAGA crowd awaits the second coming of Trump in the form of a new social media platform that he plans to launch in a couple months to remobilize his followers.

Even without such an alternative alt-right platform—Trumpbook? TrumpSpace? Trumper?— the life cycle of hate is still alive and well in the United States. Consider the “great replacement theory,” according to which immigrants and denizens of the non-white world are determined to “replace” white populations in Europe, America, and elsewhere. Since its inception in France in 2010, this extremist conspiracy theory has spread far and wide on social media. It has been picked up by white nationalists and mass shooters. Now, in the second stage of the life cycle, it has landed in the mainstream media thanks to right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson, who recently opined, “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate of the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”

Pressure is mounting on Fox to fire Carlson, though the network is resisting. Carlson and his supporters decry the campaign as yet another example of “cancel culture.” They insist on their First Amendment right to express unpopular opinions. But a privately owned media company is under no obligation to air all views, and the definition of acceptability is constantly evolving.

Also, a deplatformed Carlson would still be able to air his crank views on the street corner or in emails to his followers. No doubt when Trumpbook debuts at some point in the future, Carlson’s biggest fan will also give him a digital megaphone to spread lies and hate all around the world. These talking heads will continue talking no matter what. The challenge is to progressively shrink the size of their global platform.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

AP: Reporters without Borders sues Facebook for dissemination of Hate Speech

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Lifting Trump’s sanctions on the Int’l Criminal Court doesn’t go Far Enough: The US must uphold International Law Thu, 08 Apr 2021 04:01:59 +0000

The Biden administration lifted sanctions against the International Criminal Court. It’s not enough.

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – When the loony right gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference back in February, the theme of the Trump-heavy gathering was “America Uncanceled.” Speaker after speaker railed against “political correctness” in American culture, from “woke mobs” to “censorship” in the mainstream news media. Incredibly, they tried to transform so-called cancel culture into the single greatest problem facing a United States still reeling from COVID-19 and its economic sucker punch.

And yet, time and again, it has been the loony right that has been so eager to hit the delete button.

These supposed defenders of everyone’s right to voice opinions attempted to cancel an entire presidential election because it failed to produce their preferred result. They’ve spent decades trying to cancel voting rights (not to mention a wide variety of other rights). They’ve directed huge amounts of time and money to canceling social benefits for the least fortunate Americans. Throughout history, they’ve mounted campaigns to cancel specific individuals from Colin Kaepernick and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) to the black lists of the McCarthy era. They’re also not above canceling entire groups of people, from the transgender community all the way back to the original sin of this country, namely the mass cancelation of Native Americans.

Then there’s foreign policy. The Trump administration never met an international agreement or institution—the Paris Climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization—that it didn’t want to cover with “cancel” stamps.

One institution that has elicited particular ire from the far right has been the International Criminal Court. Last week, the Biden administration took a step toward mending the rift between the United States and the ICC.

It didn’t go far enough.

Blocking the Court

In 2000, the Clinton administration signed the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, which has focused on bringing to international justice the perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and (beginning in 2017) crimes of aggression. In 2002, the Bush administration effectively unsigned the agreement, and Congress pushed to shield all U.S. military personnel from ICC prosecution. Although the Obama administration cooperated with the Court, it was still worried about possible investigations into the U.S. “war on terrorism.”

Ambivalence turned to outright hostility during the Trump years. National Security Advisor John Bolton made it his special mission to attack the ICC as “ineffective, unaccountable, and indeed, outright dangerous.” Among Bolton’s many spurious arguments about the Court, he claimed that the body constitutes an assault on U.S. sovereignty and the constitution in particular, a favorite hobbyhorse of the loony right. But the “supremacy clause” of the U.S. constitution (Article VI, clause 2) already establishes the primacy of federal law over treaty obligations. So, can someone please get those supposed legal scholars to actually read the pocket constitutions they carry around so reverently?

Bolton’s off-base analysis came with a threat. “We will respond against the ICC and its personnel to the extent permitted by U.S. law,” he warned. “We will ban its judges and prosecutors from entering the United States. We will sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system, and, we will prosecute them in the U.S. criminal system. We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans.”

In 2020, the Trump administration began to implement Bolton’s attack plan by imposing sanctions against ICC officials. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and senior prosecution official Phakiso Mochochoko were placed under travel restrictions and an asset freeze because they were investigating possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. This blacklisting of ICC investigators sent a chilling signal that the United States would attempt, much like a rogue authoritarian country, to obstruct justice at an international level.

An equally vexing issue involves a war crimes investigation in the occupied Palestinian territories. Although the ICC investigators looked at atrocities committed by Israelis and Palestinians, both Israel and the United States condemned the investigation, arguing that Israel isn’t an ICC member and so the international body lacks jurisdiction. The United States has made the same argument about the investigation into the conduct of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, since the United States is not a party to the ICC.

But the ICC’s jurisdiction is quite clear: it extends to crimes “committed by a State Party national, or in the territory of a State Party, or in a State that has accepted the jurisdiction of the Court.” Palestine, an ICC member since 2015, requested the investigation. And Afghanistan is also an ICC member.

Biden’s Response

Last week, Biden lifted the Trump administration’s sanctions. European allies in particular were enthusiastic about this additional sign that the United States is rejoining the international community. “This important step underlines the US’s commitment to the international rules-based system,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

But the administration’s move comes with an important caveat. In his statement on the lifting of the sanctions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that “we continue to disagree strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations. We maintain our longstanding objection to the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-States Parties such as the United States and Israel.”

When it comes to the ICC, then, a disturbing bipartisan consensus has emerged on its supposed encroachment upon U.S. sovereignty. It’s okay for the ICC to prosecute the actions of countries in the Global South, but hand’s off the big boys, a status the United States generously extends to Israel. In the Senate, Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rob Portman (R-OH) put out a letter last month criticizing the ICC’s investigation in Palestine, which attracted the support of 55 of their colleagues (down from 67 for a similar letter last year). Together with Israel, the United States continues to abide by an exceptionalism when it comes to international law that it shares with several dozen states, including quite a few that the United States generally doesn’t like to be associated with, such as North Korea, Myanmar, Russia, China, Egypt, Belarus, and Nicaragua.

Of course, it hasn’t just been John Bolton and a few outlaw states that have criticized the ICC. African countries in particular have accused the institution of bias. The Court has indeed opened investigations in a disproportionate number of African states: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Libya, and Uganda. Preliminary investigations also took place in Gabon, Guinea, and Nigeria and were slated to start in Burundi. All of the 46 individuals facing charges before the Court are African.

In response to this perceived bias, the African Union in 2017 called for a mass withdrawal of its members from the ICC. Burundi left the Court that year, the first country in the world to do so (other countries, like the United States and Russia, “withdrew” but hadn’t actually ratified the treaty in the first place). Two other countries that seemed on the verge of withdrawal, South Africa and The Gambia, ultimately changed their minds.

Bias or Backbone?

The ICC was supposed to put an end to the era of imperial justice by which the winners determine who is guilty of war crimes, a bias that pervaded the Nuremburg trials. It has appointed judges and investigators from the Global South: Fatou Bensouda is Gambian, for instance, while Phakiso Mochochoko is from Lesotho.

Still, the preponderance of investigations in Africa should give pause. The ICC has obviously had some difficulty making a transition to this new era.

But let’s point out some obvious counter-arguments.

First, the ICC doesn’t have an anti-African bias. It discriminates against African dictators and warlords. If anything, the Court has a pro-African bias by standing up for the victims of violence in Africa. Other continents should be so lucky to have the ICC looking out for them.

Second, the ICC has more recently begun to challenge major powers, including Russia for its actions in Georgia and Ukraine. It has also investigated the actions of Israel and the United States. These moves come with considerable risks, as the Trump sanctions painfully revealed.

Third, the ICC has considerable jurisdictional restrictions. It can’t investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea since the latter isn’t a member. The same applies to China and its actions in Xinjiang.

Instead of complaining about the ICC’s blind spots and shortcomings, the United States should get on board and put pressure on other countries to do likewise. Americans can’t pretend to support the rule of law, to loudly promote it around the world, and then turn around and say, “Oh, well, it doesn’t apply to us.” If the American justice system can prosecute perpetrators in blue like Derek Chauvin, the United States can permit an international justice system to prosecute perpetrators in khaki who have killed civilians on a larger scale.

So, Biden deserves praise for reversing the Trump administration’s brazen and embarrassing attack on the ICC. But that doesn’t constitute actual support for international law. It’s time for the United States to uncancel the International Criminal Court.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

France 24 English: “Biden lifts US sanctions on ICC officials imposed by Trump”

The US lost the Afghanistan War and is finally Leaving, but can Biden win the Peace? Thu, 01 Apr 2021 04:02:49 +0000

Withdrawing several thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan is just the tip of the iceberg.

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – In October 1944, with the end of World War II in sight, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin passed a note back and forth to each other at a conference in Moscow. On the piece of paper, Churchill had assigned percentages to several Eastern European countries. Stalin amended the numbers, and Churchill agreed. The deal remained secret for nearly a decade.

The percentages on the piece of paper referred to the amount of influence that the Soviet Union and the West would wield in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece, with the first three countries falling in the Soviet sphere, control divided evenly in Yugoslavia, and Greece staying in the Western camp. It was the first major articulation of the geopolitical “spheres of influence” that would characterize the Cold War era.

During the first post-war elections in Eastern Europe, Communist and non-Communist parties vied for power, eventually cobbling together different versions of coalition governments. Ultimately, however, the Communist parties seized control, except in Greece, where the West intervened in a civil war to help defeat leftist insurgents. By 1948, the region looked very much like the agreement that Churchill and Stalin had drawn up.

Today, the end of a much longer war appears to be approaching. The fighting in Afghanistan has lasted nearly two decades, the most protracted conflict the United States has ever endured. This war is in turn part of a much larger battle that has been variously described as “America’s endless wars,” the “war on terror,” or simply the “long war” that began in the wake of the attacks of September 11, though earlier skirmishes took place during the 1990s.

The Biden administration is currently trying to negotiate a spheres-of-influence arrangement in Afghanistan that resembles what Churchill laid out in 1944. The American-backed government in Kabul, according to this proposal, would share power with the insurgent Taliban forces as an interim step until elections can be held under a new constitution.

Such a deal would make it easier for the United States to withdraw all of its 3,500 soldiers from Afghanistan by May 1, as laid out in a peace deal signed in 2020. Even if that withdrawal goes through, however, the institutional apparatus of the larger “long war” will still be operational. U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Syria, and the Pentagon eyes the civil war in Libya with concern. In all, after drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in the greater Middle East, with 7,000 mostly naval personnel in Bahrain, 13,000 soldiers in Kuwait and a roughly equal number in Qatar, 5,000 in the UAE, and several thousand in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Special Forces are also scattered across Africa, while the United States is still conducting air operations throughout the region.

But, as in 1944, the preliminary discussion of a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan suggests that the active phase of the “long war” is coming to an end. The specific U.S. adversaries—al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various smaller global actors—have more or less been defeated. Local groups that have battled U.S. forces, like the Taliban, remain powerful, as do adversarial governments like Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, but they don’t pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. Larger geopolitical rivalries, with Russia and Iran in particular, continue to shape the conflicts in the region, but the United States has already established an uneven pattern of engagement and containment with these actors.

If history is to be replayed, the United States will wind down direct combat in favor of a tense cold war and intermittent “out-of-area” operations. The end of this “long war” against the architects of the September 11 attacks and their supporters is long overdue. The Biden administration is eager to focus on “building back better” at home, enjoy a post-war economic expansion, and beef up the U.S. capacity to challenge China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The administration is reassessing its military capabilities to reflect these priorities.

All of this begs the question: will it be possible to avoid repeating the 1945 scenario by ending the “long war” and not replacing it with a cold war?

Exiting Afghanistan

After promising to end the forever wars during the 2020 election campaign, Joe Biden is eager to enjoy his own “mission accomplished” moment in Afghanistan. But that pledge comes with a couple asterisks.

For one, Biden would like to maintain a “counter-terrorism” force in Afghanistan with the permission of the Taliban. Such an agreement would parallel the arrangement in Iraq, where the government allows around 2,500 U.S. troops to focus on suppressing any remnants of the Islamic State (as well as reining in Iran-backed paramilitaries). Second, Biden has in the past broached the possibility of moving U.S. military bases from Afghanistan to Pakistan where they would continue to serve their counter-terrorism function. It’s not at all clear whether the Taliban or Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan would be enthusiastic about these options.

At the moment, the United States is paying a relatively low price for its continued presence in Afghanistan. After last year’s peace deal, there haven’t been any U.S. combat deaths in the country, which means that Afghanistan is basically absent from the hearts and minds of Americans. The U.S. foreign policy community would like to preserve that status quo as long as possible, particularly given the post-withdrawal prospects of “ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country,” as Madiha Afzal and Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings have written. Similar arguments were made around the proposed withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. troops from Iraq, and yet those worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass.

In recent days, the warnings about Afghanistan have increased. According to The Washington Post,

American intelligence agencies have told the Biden administration that if U.S. troops leave before a power-sharing settlement is reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the country could fall largely under the control of the Taliban within two or three years after the withdrawal of international forces. That could potentially open the door for Al Qaeda to rebuild its strength within the country, according to American officials.

It doesn’t take an intelligence agency to predict that the Taliban will play a major role in any future Afghanistan, with or without a power-sharing settlement. The Taliban controls about 20 percent of the country with as much as 85,000 full-time soldiers (though the areas under Taliban control are relatively underpopulated). At the same time, the insurgents are active over a much larger stretch—as much as 70 percent of the country—and are putting pressure on a number of key cities including Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.

In other words, there’s a good possibility that regardless of power-sharing arrangements, the Taliban will simply take over the country, much as the Communists did throughout Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. Given the record of the Taliban’s last sojourn in power, the prospect of a reestablishment of their rule is very sobering.

But the United States has failed in two decades to defeat the Taliban with the full force of its military. Keeping a few thousand soldiers in the country is not going to change the balance of power on the ground. “The hawks argue that to leave Afghanistan is simply unthinkable until someday when they have finished winning the war,” writes Scott Horton in his new book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism. “But they lost the war more than a decade ago, and no one who protested against Trump’s drawdown had a single coherent thing to say about how staying there is supposed to somehow change the reality of Taliban power in that country.”

Won’t Afghanistan again become a safe haven for international terrorists once the U.S. troops withdraw along with their NATO partners? For all their immersion in Islamic religion and culture, the Taliban are Pashtun nationalists interested above all in kicking out the foreigners. They’re not big fans of the Islamic State, but they do maintain a close relationship at the moment with the 200-250 al-Qaeda militants in the country. Take NATO out of the equation, however, and that relationship will likely fray at the seams, particularly if international recognition, access to the global economy, and the support of powerful neighbors like Russia and Iran depend on a verifiable divorce.

When he proposed the two spheres of influence, Churchill was not relying on the good will of the Soviet state. The British leader hated Stalin and Communism. He was taking a clear-eyed look at the balance of power at the time and striking what he thought was the best deal he could, even if that meant “losing” most of Eastern Europe. A power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban that “loses” Afghanistan is comparably pragmatic.

But will it be accompanied by other, equally pragmatic policies to bring the long war to an end?

The Rest of the War

The “endless wars” are obviously not just being fought by the 3,500 troops in Afghanistan and 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. As the Bush administration transitioned to the Obama era and war fatigue began to set in, the United States shifted its focus from ground operations to an air war.

In Afghanistan for instance, as the number of troops declined from a high of 100,000 in 2011, the number of airstrikes steadily increased, with a peak in terms of bombs dropped in 2018 and 2019 and a consequent rise in casualties. “The number of civilians killed by international airstrikes increased about 330 percent from 2016, the last full year of the Obama Administration, to 2019, the most recent year for which there is complete data from the United Nations,” reports Neta Crawford of the Costs of War project.

Throughout the greater Middle East, the United States has launched in excess of 14,000 drone strikes, which have killed as many as 16,000 people, including several hundred children.

Since taking office, as I note in my recent study of Biden’s take on multilateralism, the Biden administration has launched two airstrikes, one against Iranian targets in Syria on February 25 and the other in Iraq on February 9 against the Islamic State. The Syrian attack in particular has prompted a bipartisan effort in Congress to repeal the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (passed in 1991 and 2002) in order to narrow the presidential ability to launch future airstrikes.

Meanwhile, the administration has yet to report any drone strikes. This is in marked contrast to the strikes that Obama and Trump ordered almost immediately upon taking office as well as the escalation in attacks that took place in Trump’s final months. In one of its first orders, the administration issued a temporary halt to any drone strikes outside of combat areas such as Afghanistan and Syria. As Charli Carpenter, an expert in the laws of war, points out:

Essentially what Biden is doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders. What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.

In addition to initiating a review of drone strikes, the administration has launched a probe into Special Forces operations to ascertain whether they have adhered to the Pentagon’s “law of war” requirements.

In effect, the Biden administration is applying greater oversight across the range of military operations to bring them into closer compliance with international rules and regulations. Such oversight, however, does not imply the end of the endless wars.

For that to happen, the United States would have to dramatically shrink its global military footprint, the constellation of U.S. bases around the world that serve as the launching pad for myriad operations. About 220,000 military and civilian personnel operate in more than 150 countries and over 800 overseas military bases. A significant chunk of the Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget goes toward maintaining this immense archipelago of force.

In early February, the Biden administration also announced a Global Posture Review to assess the U.S. footprint. Such a review is much needed.

After all, did this massive apparatus save a single one of the more than half a million Americans who have died from COVID-19? Is the Pentagon protecting the United States from climate change (or merely contributing to the problem with its own carbon emissions and its protection of overseas fossil fuel production and distribution)? And all that “forward-based defense” has done absolutely nothing to safeguard U.S. infrastructure from cyberattacks like the SolarWinds hack (that, by the way, gained access to the emails of Trump’s cybersecurity team at the Department of Homeland Security!).

For the time being, the architects of the Global Posture Review are thinking primarily of refocusing “strategic capabilities” against China in the Far East and Russia in the Arctic. But that just replaces one set of threats with another, which will adjust the footprint without actually reducing it.

So, let’s remember that the 3,500 American troops in Afghanistan are just the tip of the iceberg. For the United States to avoid the fate of the Titanic—also famous at one time for being immense and impregnable—it had better address the rest of the icy hazard of war.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Biden says ‘tough’ to meet May 1 Afghanistan withdrawal deadline”

]]> Biden wants the US Carbon Neutral by 2050, but Can he Paint the Whole World Green? Thu, 11 Mar 2021 05:01:46 +0000

How committed is the Biden administration to reshaping U.S. foreign policy to save the planet?

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – Once upon a time, a rich hypochondriac was complaining about pains in his head and stomach. He consulted a wise man who pointed out that the root of the problem lay somewhere else: in the man’s eyes. To resolve the persistent headache and stomachache, the sage suggested focusing on just one color in the surrounding environment – green – and ignoring all others.

The rich man promptly hired workers to cover everything in sight in green paint so that he could easily follow the peculiar prescription. Ten days later, when the wise man returned in his saffron robe, a worker hurried over to douse him in green paint as well.

“You have wasted so much money through your monumental stupidity,” the paint-splattered sage upbraided the rich man. “If only you had purchased a pair of green spectacles, worth perhaps four rupees, you could have saved these walls and trees and pots and pans and chairs and sofas and also a pretty large share of your fortune.”

The sage drew himself up to his full height to deliver his final message: “You cannot paint the world green!”

The moral of this Hindi tale is simple. You cannot change the world. You can only change the way you look at the world. Perception is everything.

This cautionary tale is particularly ill-suited for these modern times. With the climate crisis pressing down upon the planet, humanity must change the world or face extinction. Figuratively speaking, we must indeed paint the world green—and ignore the so-called wise men who tell us just to put on green-colored glasses.

In the real world, this choice boils down to either shrinking the global carbon footprint or succumbing to a form of “greenwashing” that offers only an illusory environmental protection.

The Biden administration faces this same choice. Will it spend a lot of money to help paint the world green or just hand out tinted lenses, whether green or rose, to make us all think that the planet has been saved?

How Green Is His Policy?

The first task for the incoming Biden administration has been to clean up the toxic waste dump of the previous presidency. That has meant rejoining the Paris climate deal, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, and restoring the many environmental regulations that Donald Trump gutted. The new administration has put a pause on new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. It has reversed Trump’s effort to weaken the Clean Air Act. It has supported an international agreement to end the use of hydrofluorocarbons. In all, the administration is looking to roll back around 100 of Trump’s attempts to favor business over the environment.

These moves will bring the United States back to the status quo ante. The administration, however, has more ambitious plans.

In its January 27 executive order on “tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad,” Biden laid out a detailed list of initiatives that runs over 7,500 words. The very fact that the order addresses the “climate crisis” and not just “climate change” is an important signal of the seriousness with which the administration takes this issue.

The order begins with these words:

We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents. Domestic action must go hand in hand with United States international leadership, aimed at significantly enhancing global action. Together, we must listen to science and meet the moment.

To this end, the administration has declared that the United States will become carbon-neutral by 2050, which will require steep cuts in emissions. “We need to increase tree cover five times faster than we are,” says John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate. “We need to ramp up renewable energy six times faster. And the transition to electric vehicles needs to take place at a rate 22 times faster.”

But like its initial promise to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days, the administration is already being pushed to do better. Other countries are competing to become carbon-neutral faster: Sweden has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2045, Austria and Iceland have more informally set 2040 as their goal, Finland is looking at 2035, and both Norway and Uruguay expect to achieve the mark by 2030. Apple, Microsoft, and General Electric have all committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 as well. General Motors announced at the end of January that it would sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

A key component of the U.S. race to carbon neutrality is the Biden administration’s version of a Green New Deal. This “clean energy revolution” calls for investing $400 billion over 10 years into transforming the U.S. economy along sustainable lines, creating 10 million good-paying jobs in the clean energy sector and putting environmental justice at the center of these efforts.

But the administration can do just so much with executive orders and through federal agencies like the Department of Energy. At some point, Congress must decide whether the next four years will be world-transforming or just greenwashing.

But Congress—especially the Senate—is a problem. It’s going to be difficult to persuade Republicans as well as Democrats like Joe Manchin, who represents the coal-mining state of West Virginia, to sign on to anything truly transformative. But tax credits for wind power and solar energy were included in the December 2020 stimulus package, which Republicans backed. And Manchin is already co-sponsoring the American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act, which provides tax incentives to businesses that switch over to clean energy products. Also in the works is a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled on a similar New Deal-era initiative, that would enlist the unemployed and underemployed to help with such tasks as reforestation and protecting biodiversity.

It will be hard to move Congress on this domestic agenda. The international component may be an even tougher sell.

Going Green Internationally

At least on paper, the Biden administration intends to make the climate crisis a way of reshaping much of U.S. foreign policy. The January 27 order reads: “It will be a United States priority to press for enhanced climate ambition and integration of climate considerations across a wide range of international fora, including the Group of Seven (G7), the Group of Twenty (G20), and fora that address clean energy, aviation, shipping, the Arctic, the ocean, sustainable development, migration, and other relevant topics.”

The first challenge for the new administration will be to put its money where its mouth is, and one example of that is its contributions to the Green Climate Fund. Established in 2010 to assist poorer countries transition away from fossil fuels, the Fund raised about $7 billion out of the $10 billion initially pledged. A major reason for the shortfall was the United States, which promised $3 billion but delivered only $1 billion. At the end of 2019, the Fund put out another call to replenish its coffers and received pledges of another $9.8 billion.

Kerry has already announced that the United States will make good on its previous commitment by sending $2 billion to the Fund. But he has made no mention of U.S. support for the additional replenishment. Climate campaigners have called on the administration to double its original commitment, as a number of European countries plus South Korea and New Zealand have done, and top up its contributions to $9 billion total. Such a firm action by the United States might not only persuade other countries to achieve this higher standard but also pressure outliers like Russia and Australia to join the effort in the first place.

The more immediate problem, however, will be the rising levels of debt, particularly in the Global South, that the pandemic has turned into an acute crisis. A number of countries—Zambia, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Brazil—have either defaulted on their loans or are close to it. Meanwhile, the fiscal crisis of poorer countries has pushed several to consider abandoning climate- and environment-friendly restrictions on such harmful sectors as industrial mining in order to make financial ends meet. International financial institutions have suspended debt repayments for the world’s poorest nations and are considering various remedies, including the provision of more Special Drawing Rights (SDR) to the worst-off countries through the International Monetary Fund.

It’s unclear where Biden stands on debt relief or cancellation. But the January 27 executive order on the climate crisis includes the following provision: “develop a strategy for how the voice and vote of the United States can be used in international financial institutions, including the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, to promote financing programs, economic stimulus packages, and debt relief initiatives that are aligned with and support the goals of the Paris Agreement.” It’s possible that the administration will, instead of debt cancellation, promote some form of debt-for-nature or debt-for-climate swaps, preferably in versions that include a greater range of stakeholders including indigenous groups, or perhaps back the issuance of bonds linked to performance on green indicators.

The climate crisis will also affect how the United States negotiates trade agreements. Biden’s appointments to key trade positions suggest that he will be putting labor and environmental concerns at the center of U.S. policy. As a presidential candidate, Biden urged making future trade deals contingent on countries meeting their commitments under the Paris agreement, and members of Congress are already pushing the new president to change the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal to reflect this condition. Another potential option is a fossil fuel export ban, for which Biden has expressed some support.

The new president is planning to hold a Global Climate Summit on Earth Day next month, though it’s unclear how such a meeting would differ from the one held in December 2020 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement. Climate campaigners are urging the administration to use this opportunity to focus on “super pollutants” such as methane, black carbon, and HFCs, which contribute disproportionately to global warming.

In the meantime, preparations for COP26 are beginning for November in Glasgow. The hostility of the Trump administration and the divided attention span of the Biden team—not to mention the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—may compromise the efficacy of the UN meeting. The Paris agreement came together because of 18 months of intensive preliminary negotiations. A similar effort to forge a pre-meeting consensus for COP26 has been slow to emerge.

The Biden administration has made commitments on other environmental issues. It has endorsed a “30 by 30” initiative: protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and coastal areas by 2030. This effort would require setting aside 440 million more acres of land for conservation. This pledge, part of a global campaign to preserve biodiversity, would require a significant scaling back of extraction activities on federal lands.

Cooperation between the United States and China is critical for any global environmental effort to move forward. China is currently the leading emitter of carbon in the world, with nearly twice the annual rate of the United States at number two (though the United States still leads in terms of cumulative output over time and per-capita carbon footprint). During the Obama years, the two countries created the Clean Energy Research Consortium (CERC), a public-private initiative that spurs research and development in several energy-related sectors. Renewing CERC would be a first step in boosting U.S.-China cooperation.

Greening national security can and should go well beyond superpower cooperation. The United States currently spends $81 billion a year to protect global oil supplies, according to one estimate. The bulk of that money should instead go toward ending reliance on fossil fuels. If access to oil becomes less dependable, that would be an even greater incentive for U.S. allies to accelerate their own transitions to renewable energy.

An Administration in Search of a Doctrine

Presidential doctrines have always presented different ways of preserving U.S. global power. The Nixon doctrine was about protecting allies. Carter vowed to defend U.S. national interests in the Persian Gulf. Reagan promised to push back against the Soviet Union worldwide. George W. Bush emphasized unilateral U.S. military action. Trump went on and on about “making America great again.”

Joe Biden has an opportunity to adopt an entirely different kind of doctrine. He should make explicit what is now implicit in his executive orders, that environmental sustainability will hereafter be the major litmus test for American foreign policy. If this happens, it will be the first time that a presidential doctrine focuses on the good of the planet and not just the good of the United States.

I’m sure that plenty of foot-draggers in Congress, industry, and the media are just waiting for Biden to have his “sweater moment,” an updated version of the televised address when Jimmy Carter famously tried to elevate the energy crisis of the late 1970s into a larger discussion of morality and malaise. They will want to paint Biden as a green opponent of the working stiff, a clueless globalist, an America-laster. So, perhaps it’s best for Biden to avoid grand statements of doctrine for the moment and focus instead on painting U.S. foreign policy green, issue by issue.

The fate of the United States has never been more linked -— virally, environmentally, economically, and existentially -— to the fate of the rest of the world. As such, there hasn’t been a better moment for an American president not just to look at the planet differently but to join hands with other countries to make it greener.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

John Kerry on the US fight against climate change – BBC Newsnight

The Claudius Presidency Thu, 25 Feb 2021 05:01:58 +0000

After four years of an American Caligula, will Joe Biden bring the United States back into the international community?

(Foreign Policy in Focus ) – Caligula was by all accounts a nasty piece of work.

During the nearly four years that he ruled over the Roman empire in the first century CE, Caligula was notorious for sexual predation and extravagant spending. Never one to sell himself short, he proclaimed early on that he was a god. He held the Senate in such contempt that he forced its high-ranking members to run alongside his chariot for miles dressed in their togas. He dismissed Virgil as a hack writer and Livy as a dispenser of fake history, and he dreamed of making his favorite horse a consul.

He was also inordinately fond of killing people, sometimes only to seize their assets. Or because he was bored, like the time at a gladiatorial contest when there were no criminals to execute during the intermission. Thinking fast, the despot ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the audience into the arena to be devoured by wild animals.

The world’s most powerful empire suffered four years of unbounded narcissism from a man with a reputation for sexual assaults and a fondness for cruelty who disparaged everyone in sight.

Sound familiar?

The one member of his close circle whose life Caligula spared was his uncle Claudius, primarily to make fun of the older man, who was lame and stammered. But “Sleepy Claudius,” particularly as depicted in the two historical novels of Robert Graves and portrayed by Derek Jacobi in the hit BBC series, was a crafty fellow who knew how to survive the deadly game of Roman imperial politics. When the Praetorian Guard finally had enough of Caligula and assassinated him – with the support of the political elite – Claudius was found hiding behind the curtains in the palace and proclaimed the new emperor.

Claudius went on to rule for 13 years. Despite being absent-minded and scatter-brained, he proved to be far more capable than most Romans anticipated. The new emperor restored the rule of law throughout the empire. He stabilized the economy, embarked on an ambitious plan to improve the infrastructure of the realm, and even expanded its reach in the Balkans, North Africa, and far-off Britain.

Joe Biden, similarly underestimated because of his stammer and meandering speeches, has channeled Claudius in his first month in office. With a flurry of executive orders, the new president has quickly reversed some of the most damaging policies of his deranged predecessor. Facing both a pandemic and an economic crisis, he is restoring confidence in government with a rapid vaccination rollout and a large-scale stimulus package. He has plans for big policy initiatives around infrastructure, energy, and immigration.

But, of course, not everyone was thrilled with Emperor Claudius, particularly those on the Roman periphery. The British, for instance, chafed under imperial rule. Their escalating anger culminated in the bloody but ultimately unsuccessful revolt of Queen Boudica in 60 CE. Not surprisingly, Biden too has faced his share of criticism, particularly among those on the receiving end of American power or those who’ve bristled at the fickleness of American leadership.

America’s Caligula is still around, perhaps even harboring hopes of a return to power in 2024. In the meantime, what are we to make of America’s Claudius and his effort to bring stability to the American empire?

Biden Makes Nice with the World

The Biden administration has gone into overdrive in its efforts to rejoin the international community as a member in good standing.

On Friday, the United States officially reentered the Paris climate agreement while Special Envoy John Kerry has pledged to restore the $2 billion for the Green Climate Fund that the United States promised under Obama but never delivered. The administration has rejoined the World Health Organization, signed up for the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program, and promised to disburse the $4 billion that Congress appropriated for COVAX at the end of 2020. The new president reversed some of Trump’s most noxious immigration policies, shutting down construction of the wall on the southern border, ending the “Muslim travel ban,” and beginning to bring the country back into compliance with international norms around refugees and asylum-seekers.

The Biden administration has also pledged more cooperative relations with NATO allies, Pacific partners, and democratic countries more generally. It rejoined the UN Human Rights Council as an observer and restored funding for the UN Population Fund. It began the process of reviving the Iran nuclear deal, restarted relations with Palestinian organizations, embarked tentatively on restoring better relations with Cuba, extended New START with Russia, and stopped funding the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Not bad for one month’s work.

Biden’s moves have encountered inevitable challenges, both domestic and foreign. The Senate, as I explained in last week’s column, has been perhaps the major check in American politics on an authentic internationalism. Not surprisingly, some Republicans in the Senate are already trying to undermine U.S. involvement in the Paris climate agreement, and they’re sharpening their knives to attack renewed engagement with Iran and with Cuba.

Some allies, too, are not fully on board with Biden’s Great Reset. France would prefer to invest more in an independent European security system and rely less on NATO. Germany is not interested in a full-court press on Russia and hopes to strike a compromise with the Biden administration that would allow it to stay on schedule with its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline deal with the Kremlin. Japan and South Korea are squeamish about the trilateral coordination that the United States is (again) promoting, relations with Turkey are tense, and Israel is unhappy with Biden’s restoring U.S. ties with Palestine.

But the real problem with Biden’s new approach to the world lies not in the resistance it has engendered at home or the ambivalence it has fostered abroad. It lies with the very nature of Biden’s foreign policy.

The Stick

The amount of damage that Trump did to the world was limited to a certain extent by his incompetence. He could have blundered into another war if his advisors had let the presidential id run wild. If he’d had a Stephen Miller to do to foreign policy what this savvy operator did to immigration, Trump might well have permanently damaged the global system.

Biden, meanwhile, has assembled a thoroughly competent team of professionals from Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to climate czar John Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. That competence is a godsend when it comes to navigating the intricacies of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate negotiations.

But when it comes to the less pleasant aspects of U.S. foreign policy, that competence might prove deadly. Claudius, it turned out, was not a feeble dotard. He knew exactly how to deploy Rome’s imperial might to finish the job Caligula had started in conquering Mauritania and to extend the empire’s dominion to the westernmost reaches of Europe. If the Biden administration decides to ramp up confrontation with China in the South China Sea, for instance, his team might very competently – and disastrously – marshal U.S. allies in the region to implement the plan.

Pax Romana was largely an enforced peace rather than a negotiated one, and Pax Americana has always relied on the overwhelming predominance of U.S. military power. Already the Biden team has stated its desire to focus on great power rivalry with China and Russia rather than losing propositions like the war in Afghanistan. That preference will translate into a continuation of bloated military budgets, large arms deals with allies and sort-of allies on the periphery of China and Russia, and the deployment of various economic strategies like sanctions to influence the behavior of these perennial competitors.

In his early days in office, Biden has been quick to emphasize the role of diplomacy, promising that force will be the “tool of last resort.” A dramatic example of that approach has been the absence of any drone strikes during the first month of the administration. This is in marked contrast to the strikes that Obama and Trump ordered almost immediately upon taking office as well as the escalation in attacks that took place in Trump’s final months. Only one air strike has been reported, in Iraq on February 9 against the Islamic State. In addition to initiating a review of drone strikes, the administration has launched a probe into Special Forces operations to ascertain whether they have adhered to the Pentagon’s “law of war” requirements.

This is all very promising. But will it last?

Claudius was content to be successful within the Roman imperial framework. Guilty of his own excesses of violence, he never tried to turn the empire back into a republic or negotiate a new set of relations with Rome’s far-flung possessions. He knew only to expand.

Biden, too, operates within the existing system of American dominance. It remains to be seen whether he will dramatically reduce the U.S. military footprint and work with other major powers to redefine international relations at a time of multiple global crises.

If he doesn’t, America will risk the same fate that befell Rome after the death of Claudius. In 54 CE, a new emperor took power who made Caligula look like a cub scout. This latest Caesar made sure that the good that Claudius did during his 13-year reign was indeed interred with his bones.

“Nero practiced every kind of obscenity,” writes the gossipy chronicler Suetonius, adding that the new emperor “annulled many of Claudius’ decrees and edicts, on the grounds that he’d been a doddering old idiot.”

The trick, then, is not just to reverse the evils of one’s predecessor but to make those reversals stick. That, in turn, will require not just quick fixes but turning the United States into a truly cooperative world power.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

Featured Image: Bust of Caligula, h/t wikimedia.

‘An Obstructive Body’ and ‘menace to liberties’: How the U.S. Senate is a Global Problem Thu, 18 Feb 2021 05:02:58 +0000 ( Foreign Policy in Focus) – The acquittal of Trump was bad, but the Senate’s approach to foreign affairs over the years has been even worse. By | February 17, 2021

Watching the Senate conduct the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump brought back a flood of memories from high school.

I distinctly remember an earlier incarnation of those Trump-friendly Republican senators taking up their positions at the back of class to snicker, yawn ostentatiously, and otherwise disrupt the serious, well-researched presentations of their fellow students. Then, when it was their turn to present, the back-row rowdies were so embarrassingly unprepared that it was hard not to laugh in return.

The slavish devotion of the Senate miscreants to their imperiled leader and their casual dismissal of the January 6 violence, meanwhile, was like a modern-day replay of that grade-school classic The Lord of the Flies. In the Senate version, Trump played the part of the pig’s head, Josh Hawley was the pathological Jack, and Mitt Romney was the hopelessly conflicted Ralph who escaped the violence of the mob only thanks to the timely intervention of Officer Eugene Goodman, who stepped in at the last moment just like the British naval officer at the novel’s conclusion.

Finally, the acquittal of the former president was like the slap on the hand administered to one of my school’s handsome star athletes for one of his many transgressions. Boys will be boys, Trump will be Trump, and, alas, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be perpetually “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack.”

The display of juvenile behavior during the Senate trial was nauseating, and the verdict was an embarrassment. But the Senate poses a much more serious problem than even this impeachment circus suggests.

When it comes to global issues, the Senate has been an enormous impediment to achieving peace, justice, and environmental sustainability. More so even than the U.S. president, the Senate has been the chief engine of American exceptionalism. It’s grimly fitting, then, that it has struck out twice in its duty to convict the supreme avatar of exceptionalism in modern American politics, a president who believed himself above democracy, above morality, and above the law.

Senate Power

Senators love to call their chamber the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” It’s where the most seasoned politicians, partially protected from the insane election cycle that their House counterparts must face, can mull over the most important issues of the days.

It’s also a glaring example of the inequities of U.S. democracy, with the two senators from Wyoming (population: 578,000) wielding the same power as the two senators from California (population: 39 million). Senate elections have tilted U.S. politics in favor of rural, predominantly white, and increasingly conservative voters by a factor of two or three over urban voters. Like the Electoral College, the Senate makes a mockery of the “one person one vote” principle by effectively giving some voters much greater power than others.

But the Senate is a far bigger problem because of its oversized role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Presidents have considerable leeway in conducting foreign policy, as the rollout of executive orders over the last years has made plain. Presidents can pull the country in and out of international bodies and multilateral agreements. They can slap tariffs on countries and sanctions on foreign individuals. Despite the limitations of the War Powers Act, they can still wage war for a full two months without any congressional interference.

But the Constitution gives the Senate the sole power to approve, by a two-thirds majority, any treaties that the United States might be considering. As with the filibuster, however, this treaty power has as much influence in its threatened use as in its actual deployment.

Consider the example of the Paris climate accords. The reason why all the national commitments to reduce carbon emissions are voluntary rather than mandatory is…the U.S. Senate. Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. negotiator in Paris, insisted on voluntary commitments because he knew that any mandatory requirements would need Senate approval. And the climate deniers in the Senate were sure to nix any such agreement.

The Iran nuclear deal is, similarly, an agreement, not a treaty. This distinction allowed the Obama administration to secure congressional support short of the two-thirds majority required for a treaty. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) relies on various verification protocols to ensure compliance, not the signatures of the participating parties.

These workarounds are more the rule than the exception. According to one academic study, presidents negotiated nearly 4,000 executive agreements between 1977 and 1996 but only 300 treaties. Whether you consider these maneuvers to be an unacceptable short-circuiting of checks and balances or a reasonable method of overcoming the American exceptionalism of the Senate has largely depended on which side of the aisle you sit.

The Graveyard of International Cooperation

The Senate is where international treaties go to die. Currently awaiting the “advice and consent” of the body are 37 treaties, beginning with an International Labor Organization convention protecting the right to organize trade unions, which has been hanging out in the Senate for more than 70 years.

Or consider the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which has been ratified by 162 countries. The United States participated in the international conferences in the 1970s that produced this critical document that covers all aspects of maritime borders, navigation, and commerce. U.S. negotiators under three successive administrations – Nixon, Ford, Carter – were instrumental in crafting the language of the working text. After the Reagan administration balked at some of the provisions, negotiators even amended the final version to reflect some of the U.S. concerns. But the Reagan administration still wouldn’t sign the agreement.

It would take the collapse of the Soviet Union, certain changes on the ground (actually, on the seabed), and a new administration (Clinton) to bring UNCLOS to the Senate. The late and decidedly not great Jessie Helms (R-NC) said no for he held fast to his position that no foreign entity should impinge on U.S. sovereignty. Lest you think this was a partisan issue, the George W. Bush administration subsequently pushed hard for the Senate to ratify the convention with the support of all living former legal advisers of the State Department. This time, despite the efforts of then-Senator Joe Biden, a different minority of hard-line Republicans including Jeff Sessions thwarted the bipartisan campaign.

The United States generally abides by this important convention, so what’s the big deal? As a non-signatory, however, the United States can’t participate in key commissions, such as the one on the limits of the continental shelf, where it could otherwise advance its interests or push a conservation agenda. If that irritates you, don’t send your letters of complaint to the United Nations. Send them to the Senate.

The Senate has been a crowded graveyard for arms control initiatives. There you can find gravestones for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), various nuclear-weapon-free zones, and the Arms Trade Treaty (which Trump dramatically unsigned in 2019). The CTBT has been signed by 185 countries but it won’t go into effect until eight specific nations ratify it (including the United States). The Arms Trade Treaty has entered into force, so it is only dead to the United States, which is problematic since America is the leading arms exporter in the world by a large margin. Resurrection of these treaties, is, of course, possible, but only if the composition of the Senate were to change dramatically.

The Senate also stands in the way of the United States participating in the strengthening of international law and the prosecuting of war criminals – by blocking ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The Senate stands in the way of preserving what remains of the world’s precious biodiversity – by blocking ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Senate stands in the way of upholding the human rights of large swathes of the global population – by blocking treaties on disability rights, on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and on a variety of labor rights.

The Senate is also not above exercising its power on seemingly trivial matters. It has refused, for instance, to support a treaty that protects albatrosses and petrels. Jeez, hasn’t anyone in the Senate read The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner?

Of course, the Senate has displayed its remarkable intransigence in ways that go well beyond its advice-and-consent function on treaties. During the previous administration, among the 250 bills that the House passed and that Mitch McConnell blocked in the Senate were several immigration bills (the Dream Act, a measure to protect Venezuelans from deportation), several environmental bills (blocking drilling in the Arctic National Refuge, banning offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico), and a measure to provide visas to Kurds who supported U.S. forces in Syria.

Reform the Senate?

Those who hope to reform the Senate have focused on changes to the rules. With the exception of certain bills, the threat of filibuster has made the Senate even less reflective of popular will by turning a simple majority into a 60-vote wall into which the Democrats are likely to crash into repeatedly over the next 2-4 years.

“Dear centrist Democrats, you couldn’t even get 10 GOP votes to convict the guy who sent a mob to kill you all. You think you can get them to vote on issues like immigration/climate? Come on,” immigrant rights activist Erika Andiola has tweeted. “You have to end the filibuster and use every tool at your disposal to get things done.”

It’s a good point, but why not think big? What about eliminating the Senate altogether?

Roughly half of the world’s sovereign nations have only one legislative body. Plenty of these unicameral systems are democratic including Costa Rica, Denmark, Greece, South Korea, New Zealand, and Norway.

Yes, I know, the smaller U.S. states would put up even more resistance to the elimination of the Senate than they have to the proposed elimination of the Electoral College. Such an upending of the finely balanced compromises of the Founding Fathers would generate yowls of protest from constitutional literalists. Who could ever contemplate such a radical amendment?

Victor Berger, that’s who.

In 1911, the Wisconsin congressman introduced a resolution in the House to abolish the Senate. Berger was also the first socialist elected to Congress, so he was accustomed to taking contrarian positions. His proposed amendment to the Constitution began thus:

Whereas the Senate in particular has become an obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth; a body, many of the Members of which are representatives neither of a State nor of its people, but solely of certain predatory combinations, and a body which, by reason of the corruption often attending the election of its Members, has furnished the gravest public scandals in the history of the nation…

Those public scandals have continued all the way up to last weekend’s acquittal of a rogue president. Oh, Victor Berger, who will take up your mantle today?

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

London CND: “What Now? Foreign Policy Under Biden – Phyllis Bennis”

Not just a US Domestic Threat: Beating Back the Far Right Globally Thu, 11 Feb 2021 05:03:01 +0000 It’s time to resurrect a global anti-fascist consensus to name, shame, and throw these guys out of the game.

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – After four years of shock, confusion, and paralysis, the United States is finally taking action against the far right.

Perhaps most dramatic has been the deplatforming of Donald Trump: the suspension of his Twitter and Facebook accounts and the targeting of his prominent followers across social media platforms. Even a few months ago, such a radically sensible action would have been inconceivable. Kick a president off of social media?

But such are the indignities visited upon sore losers. Not surprisingly, these moves have significantly decreased the amount of misinformation in the public sphere and made it that much more difficult for white nationalists to organize actions.

The events of January 6 have also led to Trump’s second impeachment. The Senate trial, which began this week, may not result in a conviction, but it will force the Republican Party to choose between upholding the Constitution and supporting a president who tried to overthrow democracy.

The penalties for remaining the party of Trump are slowly beginning to mount.

The corporate world has moved against the ex-president by canceling events at his resorts and hotels and suspending financial services with his company. Several high-profile donors have abandoned the most vocal congressional adherents of the phony election fraud narrative, like Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). Not only has Simon & Schuster canceled Hawley’s book contract but the chief promoter of MAGA texts at Hachette—who published screeds by Donald Trump, Jr., Corey Lewandowski, and Jeanine Pirro—was recently fired.

Some politicians have faced steeper penalties. For their participation in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, West Virginia State Delegate Derrick Evans was pushed to resign and Jorge Riley was forced out of his position in the California Republican Assembly. At the federal level, House Democrats and 11 of their Republican colleagues recently voted to strip Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments. That seems like a mere slap on the wrist for someone who has promoted the assassination of her political opponents. But it’s something.

A defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, Sidney Powell, and Rudy Giuliani, all of whom spread conspiracy theories about the company’s voting machines used in the 2020 election, has already claimed one success. Fox cancelled Lou Dobbs, one of its many factually compromised show hosts. Dominion is readying another round of suits against as many as 150 targets including Newsmax, One America News Network, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

The Justice Department has opened up “domestic terrorism” cases against a number of the participants in the January 6 insurrection. Congress is beginning to consider new legislation on federal penalties for domestic terrorism.

The campaign against the far right isn’t exactly a full court press. Marjorie Taylor Greene continues to push Trump-like pronouncements on Twitter, and all the attention she’s gotten in the last weeks has only enlarged her platform. Corporate boycotts are not affecting the bottom lines of politicians like Hawley, who depends more on individual donors (he actually saw a big increase in donations after January 6). Trump retains his hold over much of the Republican Party, especially at the state level as the censures of Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Doug Ducey in Arizona indicate.

In other words, the far right is down but not out. The much-feared round of violence at the state level in the wake of January 6 did not happen. Rallies and marches in support of MAGA or Trump or QAnon have not materialized. When Twitter suspended Trump’s account, a demonstration outside the company’s San Francisco office brought out dozens of police officers and exactly one protestor. But neither the Proud Boys nor the white activist militias have disbanded. And according to a poll at the end of January, 64 percent of Republicans would join any party that Donald Trump sets up.

Even as the U.S. establishment begins its tentative detox of the public sphere, the handwringing has also begun. The deplatforming of Trump has raised concerns over the tyranny of unregulated social media giants. The campaigns to limit the platforms of Hawley and Greene have generated a fear that the silencing of minority opinions will be applied to radical voices on the left as well. Critics worry that the labelling of the January 6 insurrectionists as “domestic terrorists” will inevitably be used against communities of color and others protesting racial inequities.

The threat of white nationalist movements is not hypothetical. Four years of Trump have provided ample evidence of what can happen when these movements gain mainstream legitimation. But the anxieties over how “cancel culture” can be applied to the left and communities of color are also legitimate, as erstwhile football star Colin Kaepernick can readily confirm.

The Biden administration has already begun its de-Trumpification of the U.S. government by reversing the previous administration’s policies, removing Trump appointees, and cutting off high-level access for right-wing crazies like Giuliani, Steve Bannon, and members of the MAGA media.

But the banishing of the far right back to the fringes of American society is going to require a different set of strategies. And here, the United States could learn a few lessons from other countries.

Quarantining Politicians and Parties

Although several European countries ban Nazi or neo-Nazi parties, a more effective tactic to reduce the political influence of extremist parties that fall just short of fascist has been to quarantine them. In Belgium, for instance, the major parties have an informal agreement not to partner with Vlaams Belang, a far-right Flemish nationalist party. This agreement became increasingly difficult when Vlaams Belang received the second most votes in the last parliamentary election in 2019. Austria abided by a similar “cordon sanitaire” until 2000, when the conservative People’s Party invited the far-right Freedom Party into government. The European Parliament has nevertheless borrowed the cordon sanitaire strategy to prevent members of the far-right Identity and Democracy bloc from holding any key posts such as the presidency of committees.

In Germany, the major parties have similarly avoided any coalition arrangements with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). But the German government, presided over by the conservative Christian Democrats, has deployed another interesting tactic against the AfD. Last spring, the country’s domestic intelligence agency declared one wing of the AfD “extremist” and placed its leaders under surveillance. “But many saw in Thursday’s announcement a step toward broader measures targeting the entire Alternative for Germany party, setting the stage for a battle between the state and a party whose influence has steadily grown even as it has radicalized,” writes Katrin Bennhold in The New York Times.

In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn grew to become the third largest party in the parliament. The government successfully pursued a legal strategy to criminalize the organization, charging it with murder, racketeering, illegal possession of firearms, and attacks on migrants. In the end, 37 members of the party, including 17 MPs, were convicted of crimes and imprisoned. By the 2019 election, the party couldn’t get enough votes to have even one representative in parliament.

If Donald Trump ends up creating a new political party, a public pressure campaign could be mounted on the Democrats and Republicans to follow a strict policy of no talks, no committee assignments, and no joint actions with any entity that Trump touches. Whether the disgraced ex-president follows through on his threat, a similar approach should be applied to all Republicans who continue to embrace a “stop the steal” agenda. Biden should make clear that his efforts at bipartisanship should exclude those who believe his administration to be illegitimate.

Purging the Far Right from Security Forces

When the National Guard was called in to secure the Capitol for Inauguration Day, two members were removed from duty because of possible ties to right-wing extremist movements. This additional vetting was deemed necessary because nearly one in five participants in the January 6 insurrection had links to the military. As a first step in addressing the longstanding problem of far-right proselytizing, the new head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, has already notified the armed forces to conduct a one-day stand down to address extremism in the ranks.

The United States could learn from the example of Germany where the country’s special forces, Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), had become a veritable haven of far-right sympathizers. The working group investigating the KSK discovered “soldiers who expounded unconstitutional views, a ‘toxic leadership culture’ among superiors, and the unexplained disappearance of 62 kilograms of explosives and large quantities of ordnance from KSK depots.” As a result of the investigation, the German government disbanded one entire company of the KSK and reorganized the remaining units. It has also tightened its screening process.

In the United States, only thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts to bring accountability to policing did the FBI begin collecting data in 2018 on the use of force in law enforcement. The next step is to purge police ranks of racist extremists, jurisdiction by jurisdiction.

Hate Speech and Digital Controls

Because of First Amendment protections, the United States does not have any hate speech laws. However, such provisions can be found in the private sector, such as universities.

Other countries, however, have sought to penalize hate speech in a number of different ways. Germany has outlawed “incitement to hate” or Volksverhetzung, which applies to verbal attacks on national, racial, religious, or ethnic groups but also, according to a 2020 ruling, the denigration of women. Denmark, too, has recently expanded its hate speech law to include extremist language directed at gender identity and gender expression. Since the 1970s, New Zealand has had a law on the books criminalizing the incitement of “racial disharmony,” and the government has been considering additional measures following the Christchurch killings in 2019.

But legislating against hate is notoriously tricky. Canada repealed a hate speech law that tried to balance a commitment to free expression with equally strong commitments to multiculturalism and equality (but has more recently explored reviving it). France passed an online hate speech law last spring only for the country’s constitutional court to strike down large portions of it.

Dealing with hate speech became even more urgent when the far right discovered how to use social media to recruit, organize, and inject its messages into the conservative mainstream. In the United States, the home of the largest social media platforms, there has been no move to legislate against extremist content on-line as long as it isn’t criminal (like libel, threats to kill, or child pornography).

Rather, in typically American fashion, policing has been left to the private sector, which determines who to “deplatform” and what posts to take down. Initially, the mainstream social media platforms only suspended the accounts of those on the lunatic fringe, like Alex Jones of InfoWars infamy or Milo Yiannopoulos formerly of Breitbart News. Facebook and Twitter were reluctant to take a more proactive approach to white nationalists not only for fear of being labelled “censors” but because it would also have meant banning Republican politicians who voiced similar sentiments.

By 2020, however, Facebook and Twitter reversed themselves because politicians like Trump were openly challenging American democracy. Well, actually, Trump and his cohort had been doing so from day one, thanks to an indirect assist from the social media giants. But after the November elections, Twitter and Facebook could rationalize their moves because Trump had become a lame-duck president.

Deplatforming demonstrably works, whether measured by the bankrupting of Milo Yiannopoulos, the reduction of audience for groups like ISIS and QAnon, or the virtual disappearance of Donald Trump from public discourse. It doesn’t qualify as censorship, since Twitter and Facebook are not public spaces. They are corporate spaces, and the corporation decides who speaks there, just like The New York Times decides who to publish.

But this raises two problems – to whom are Twitter and Facebook accountable? And why aren’t there rules governing the Internet more generally, since the Web is certainly a public commons?

Facebook instituted an oversight board last year that looks at decisions with an eye toward possibly overturning them. Three of the first six cases have involved hate speech. Here’s one of them:

A user posted two screenshots of tweets by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which said “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” Facebook removed the post for hate speech violations, but the user’s appeal indicates they wanted to spread awareness of the prime minister’s “horrible words.”

Perhaps more consequentially, the oversight board will soon make the call on whether to restore Trump’s Facebook account.

As for generating rules for the Web more generally, that’s a tougher challenge, given the anarchic, libertarian spirit that has presided over the enterprise since its inception. But here’s one interesting “fix” that New Zealand has instituted: any Kiwi who views extremist content on-line is now automatically directed to websites that help people leave hate groups.

Going After Terrorists

For two decades, the United States has conducted a “war on terror” largely against “radical Islam” in countries like Afghanistan and Syria. It has ignored state supporters of such groups, like Saudi Arabia, when they’re allies, while going after governments like Saddam Hussein’s that were mistakenly identified as al-Qaeda boosters.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government largely ignored home-grown right-wing extremists who organized with near-impunity particularly during the Trump era.

So, why are some people unhappy about calling the right-wing extremists who overran the Capitol on January 6 “terrorists”?

“The use of these words only elevates a harmful counterterrorism framework that has historically been used to target Arab, Muslim, and Black communities,” writes Rania Batrice in The Boston Globe. “Call them white supremacists. Call them a violent, murderous mob. Call them insurrectionists. Call them fascists. Call them traitors or treasonous. But please remember that the words used have an impact on broader, already oppressed communities.”

I am sympathetic to this argument. But is it not problematic that the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list does not include any far-right extremist groups? A number of these outfits – the Proud Boys, the Atomwaffen Division, the Base – have an international presence. Canada just labelled all of them terrorist outfits. An FTO designation would permit greater international cooperation to disrupt the global networking of the far right.

Yes, I’d like to see the United States criminalize white supremacy and fascism. But the terrorism designation, for all its problematic history, focuses not so much on words but on actions. And in the United States, it has historically been easier to go after the far right for what it does not for what it says.

Whatever language we use, however, it’s critically important to keep up the pressure to delegitimize the far right. Extremists are trying to maintain a toehold in power via Hawley, Greene, and others in the hopes that Trump will run again or some equally malign candidate will emerge in 2024. It’s time to resurrect a global anti-fascist consensus to name, shame, and throw these guys out of the game.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Inside the global network of Neo-Nazis recruiting in the UK @BBC Stories​ – BBC

America, the Fickle Superpower: World Welcomes Biden, but fears more Trumps Mon, 08 Feb 2021 05:01:39 +0000 ( ) – The nightmare is over. The vanquished beast has crawled back to Mar-a-Lago to lick his wounds. The heroes are hard at work repairing the damage. As America returns to the international stage, the world heaves a collective sigh of relief.

That, at least, is the story the incoming Biden administration is telling. “America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back,” as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the administration’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, put it shortly after the election. According to this narrative of redemption, the globe’s Atlas shrugged off its burden during the four years of Donald Trump’s tenure but is now ready to reassume its global leadership responsibilities.

Don’t believe it, though. Much of the rest of the world seems visibly queasy at the prospect of sitting on America’s shoulders, since who’s to say that Atlas won’t shrug again?

And perhaps Atlas wasn’t such a responsible fellow in the first place.

Over the last several decades, the United States has displayed all the hallmarks of a country suffering from a serious personality disorder characterized by mood swings of gargantuan proportions. From the compromised multilateralism of the Bill Clinton years, the United States pivoted to the aggressive armed unilateralism of George W. Bush. Then, after boomeranging back to the centrist (if still over-armed) internationalism of Barack Obama, it took the wildest of detours into MAGA-land with Donald Trump. In the latest case of foreign-policy whiplash, Joe Biden is now preparing to return the country to a “new and improved” version of Obama’s global liberalism (with a dash of anti-Chinese fervor thrown in).

Americans are by now remarkably familiar with such side effects of twenty-first-century democracy. We’ve skimmed the fine print on the label more than once and become reasonably inured to the adverse consequences of our civic religion.

Much of the world, however, is not accustomed to such volatility. The Kim family has ruled North Korea from day one, while Paul Biya has run Cameroon since 1982. Over the last 30 years, China has settled into its predictable version of market Leninism. Putatively democratic countries like Russia and Turkey have had the same leadership for two decades, while a genuinely democratic country like Germany has had the same chancellor for 15 years. The rest of Western Europe has seen numerous changes in those who hold the reins of power, but oscillations in governance have generally stayed within a relatively narrow political spectrum. European Union policies have similarly remained on a remarkably even keel, despite disruptions like Brexit.

These days, however, democrats and dictators alike are unsure, from one day to the next, whether the United States will be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

On the surface, the international community has generally provided a warm welcome to the incoming administration, if only out of profound relief at seeing the backside of Donald Trump. True, it took Vladimir Putin a while to get around to acknowledging Joe Biden’s victory, while Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil grumbled about the departure of his American BFF, as did Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and a number of other right-wing populists.

But Biden was a clear international favorite in the recent presidential election. According to an Ipsos poll of people in 24 countries, Biden had an edge of 48% to 17% over Trump, with only the Russians as outliers. And postelection, the favorability of the United States has only risen (except perhaps in Russia and China).

Beneath the surface, however, the world is hesitant, like an oft-jilted lover. Country after country has been burned too many times to throw itself back into such a relationship without reservations, if not a full-blown prenuptial agreement. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it with characteristic understatement, “There is a need to rebuild trust between Europe and the United States.” Indeed, just about every member of the U.N. General Assembly would undoubtedly have agreed.

Such an erosion of trust defines what it means to be an unreliable superpower. Even as the Biden administration works to “build back better,” allies and adversaries alike are busy hedging their bets, concerned that the United States is simply too unpredictable a place to park political capital. And where it remains all-too-predictable — as in its preposterous levels of military spending or its obdurate sense of exceptionalism — Washington no longer looks to many like a reliable global actor from the perspective of peace or prosperity.

The Biden administration seems remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to the hesitancy of the international community to repeat past mistakes. “We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world,” Biden insisted in his Inaugural Address. “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

With its talk of regaining global leadership, the Biden administration seems as committed to the notion that the United States is still “the indispensable power” as it was when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright uttered that phrase in 1998. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America,” Albright told Matt Lauer back then on The Today Show. “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

Particularly in the wake of the travesties of the Trump era, the global stature of this indispensable land has shrunk immeasurably. In their responses to crises like Covid-19 and a warming planet, other countries now stand taller and see further into the future. More ominously, the danger they do see increasingly has the stars and stripes plastered all over it.

Reversing the Reverses

Donald Trump didn’t even have to wait for a new administration to reverse his policies. He was perfectly capable of reversing them himself — multiple times.

No wonder NATO head Stoltenberg has been preoccupied with the issue of trust. As a candidate, Trump swore NATO was “obsolete,” only to change his mind within months of taking office. Yet, a year later, he was talking about pulling the United States out of the alliance completely. By 2020, on the other hand, he was suggesting incorporating Middle Eastern countries into it.

And Trump wasn’t just fickle when it came to NATO. In 2017, he threatened North Korea with the “fire and fury” of nuclear destruction only to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un two years later. He went back and forth about Chinese leader Xi Jinping, too, claiming in 2018 that “Xi and I will always be friends,” only to call him an “enemy” a year later. He then reversed himself with his early 2020 avowal that “we love each other,” before turning hostile yet again in the COVID-19 era. What Trump diehards argued was crafty bargaining looked a whole lot more like beginner’s incoherence.

Joe Biden has already taken a more consistent approach to reversing Trump’s policies than The Donald did to his own policies. In his first executive orders, the new president brought the United States back into the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accords. He reversed Trump’s policies on immigration, cancelled the Muslim travel ban, and ended funding for the largely unbuilt wall on the border with Mexico. He quickly hit rewind on those environmental deregulations of the Trump administration and the previous president’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Buy the Book

In addition, the Biden team soon hopes to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, revive arms control negotiations with Russia, and at least mitigate the impact of the trade sanctions against China.

That’s all to the good. But who’s to say that the next occupant of the Oval Office won’t reverse Biden’s reversal of Trump’s reversal of Obama’s initiatives?

In addition, once the sugar rush of Biden’s executive orders fades, an immediate threat lurks: Congress. The Democratic Party controls both houses — but just barely. The lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is likely to be a significant obstacle to any lasting transformation of key aspects of foreign policy in a more peaceful and cooperative direction, even if the Biden administration were committed to such a goal.

Republicans are already hoping to delay the U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, complicate Washington’s involvement in global efforts to address the climate crisis, and keep the pressure on both China and Russia. Trying to ratify a treaty to ban all nuclear tests or make the United States a member of the International Criminal Court, which would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, will prove even longer shots.

What Americans interpret as an insider game of partisanship, the rest of the world sees as a hamstrung country incapable of acting decisively on international problems. And such a deadlock might turn into something even worse. Trump’s MAGA crew are, after all, alive and well in Congress and throughout the red states. Should things go badly economically or pandemically for the Biden White House, they could regain control of one or both chambers in the midterm elections of 2022.

Even more troubling is the extremist wildcard. The events of January 6th shocked the world into realizing that America’s lunatic fringe is no longer content just to lurk on the margins of politics as Internet trolls and barstool conspiracy theorists. It’s one thing to take into account the logjams produced by Republican Party obstructionism. It’s quite another to worry that the United States will tip into a second civil war.

Smart money avoids such risks.

How the United States is Reliably Unreliable

Even when this country is predictable, it’s still an unreliable global partner.

Take the issue of Covid-19. The Biden administration has made a splash by instantly rejoining the WHO and resuming its financial obligations to it. In the last stimulus package, Congress anticipated this trend by including $4 billion in funding for GAVI, a global vaccine alliance, with Democrats acknowledging that “we are not truly safe until the whole world is safe from the coronavirus.”

But when the rubber hits the road — and the needles hit the arms — the United States has promptly fallen back on its usual exceptionalism. In the chaos of the immediate post-Trumpian moment, the Biden administration has been pushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible without significant regard for anyone else. Along with other rich countries, Washington has exercised purchase options that could more or less corner the market on vaccines, securing enough doses, in the end, to inoculate Americans nearly five times over.

The global effort to vaccinate lower-income countries, also known by the acronym COVAX, is several billion dollars short of what it needs even to begin seriously implementing its plan. And keep in mind that the plan itself is woefully insufficient, since it aims to vaccinate only 20% of the inhabitants of participating nations by the end of 2021.

Not every country is practicing vaccine nationalism though. Even as it rushes to inoculate its 1.3 billion citizens, India is helping out its neighbors, providing two million doses free of charge to Bangladesh, aiding Nepal and Myanmar, and even sending its vaccines to Brazil and Morocco. Both China and Russia are also engaging in vaccine diplomacy, reaching out to the Global South with their lower-cost versions of Covid-19 drugs.

Putting America first extends to other aspects of geopolitics as well. The United States can, for instance, be counted upon to remain the world’s top arms exporter in the Biden years. In 2020, it signed agreements for more than $175 billion in sales of military hardware to other countries, far above what runner-up Russia manages to push out. Of course, such exports, in turn, fuel armed conflicts overseas, while inflating military budgets all over the world.

America is also number one when it comes to overseas military bases, with hundreds of facilities around the world, which militarize communities and serve as launching pads for U.S. operations. In comparison, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom together maintain a total of 30 such bases. And add in one more thing: aside from Australia, a few island nations, and tiny Gulf states, the United States has the highest per-capita carbon footprint on the planet. In its rush to use the planet’s resources, our country is making it more likely that the planet will soon be uninhabitable for much of humanity.

With a reliably unreliable friend like that, who needs enemies?

The World Hedges Its Bets

Russia was one of the few places on Earth, from its government to its citizenry, that showed little excitement for recent political developments in Washington.

“From Russia’s perspective, the political situation in the United States has not fundamentally changed as a result of the election,” said Dmitry Suslov of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “The intense political polarization that we have witnessed over the past four years is not going away anywhere, so obviously Biden will not have a broad mandate to govern.” Because of this political deadlock, Suslov added, Russia would avoid any direct conflict with the United States and instead improve relations with China and other powers like India.

Russia is a little late to the game. China was hedging its bets long before the November election. Its trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure development in Eurasia (and northeastern Africa), launched in 2013 to refocus key global financial and economic relations on Beijing, was also meant to be an enormous insurance policy against any downturn in economic relations with the United States. Beijing’s creation of separate global financial institutions — like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established in 2015 — and trade pacts like the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of 15 Asia-Pacific nations (but not the United States) were also efforts meant to shield China from American missteps and inaction that could drag down the global economy.

U.S. allies, too, have been taking precautions. Europe has been slowly building up an independent military capacity just in case Washington does eventually decide that NATO is obsolete. What the Europeans have come to call “strategic autonomy” represents not just a next step for European integration but protection against the increasing unreliability of Washington. The European Defense Fund, set up in 2017, received a healthy chunk of capital in its latest budget — about eight billion Euro — and that’s just a down payment on what France would like to see and Germany is grudgingly coming around to envisioning: the folding up of the U.S. security umbrella.

South Korea, one of this country’s most trusted security partners, has been working on developing its own strategic autonomy for some time. Despite the budgetary pressures of a Covid-19-related economic downturn, strenuous efforts to improve ties with North Korea, and a generally friendlier relationship with China, the South Korean government pushed through a 5.4% increase in military spending for 2021. Seoul is similarly concerned about the possibility that Washington will, sooner or later, reduce its Pacific presence.

The United States continues to maintain by far the most powerful and heavily funded military on the planet. Its economy is either the world’s largest or just behind China’s, depending on what yardstick you care to use. Like former basketball star Michael Jordan contemplating one last NBA championship, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is reluctant to give up on the adrenaline rush of being top dog on Planet Earth. But a pattern of erratic behavior can gradually undermine the trust necessary to maintain the extensive military alliances and trade relationships that sustain superpower status. The United States might just be too tired, too divided, or too crazy to stay number one much longer.

A History of Volatility

When Joe Biden says that this country “will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example,” it’s not entirely clear what example he means.

Does he mean American economic innovation — iPhones and electric cars — or the astonishing economic inequality of a country with the most billionaires on Earth in which one in eight citizens go hungry? Does he mean the country that puts itself forward as a seasoned mediator of conflicts or the one that spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined? Does he mean the land with a Statue of Liberty that welcomes the “homeless” and the “tempest-tost,” or the one that has routinely divided families through mass deportations?

The shift in tone from the Trump administration to the new Biden era is certainly extreme, leading many allies to hope that the November election provided the necessary dose of electroshock therapy to restore the United States to sanity. Plenty of Americans — and overseas friends of America — would like to believe that the Trump years were a bizarre deviation from the norm. But there’s also a sneaking suspicion that extremism is becoming the new normal here and that events like the January 6th insurrection will only further fry what remains of the country’s synapses.

That insurrection may have destroyed Donald Trump’s chances of reelection in 2024, while possibly undermining the ambitions of his diehard champions in Congress like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz as well. It might even drive a fatal wedge through the Republican Party, whether or not Trump actually creates a third party as he’s threatened to do.

But volatility has long been a fixture of American politics, from fist fights on the floor of Congress in the nineteenth century to the Barry Goldwaters and Newt Gingriches of the twentieth century. In our time, the resistance of the Tea Party, white nationalist militias, and QAnon to the United States becoming a truly multicultural country has kept American extremism alive. This paranoid style may have reached only an intermediate peak with the presidency of Donald Trump.

If such forces once again gain power or even mobilize enough strength to derail the modest ambitions of the Biden administration, the U.S. “example” will be one the world will want to avoid at any cost. Political instability will be the next compelling reason, after the Covid-19 pandemic fades, to quarantine this country. As for America’s unreliability as a global partner, it could prove to be an early sign of inevitable superpower decline into dissension, decay, and madness.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.


Maybe now the U.S. should stop talking down to the World about “Democracy Promotion” Sat, 23 Jan 2021 05:04:32 +0000 Because of the events of the last weeks, months and years, should “democracy promotion” be permanently removed from the U.S. foreign policy lexicon?

( Foreign Policy in Focus) – On Inauguration Day 2021, the nation’s capital looks like it has just experienced a coup, not successfully survived one.

Streets are blocked off, barricades are up, and armed police and National Guard are everywhere. The inauguration itself is taking place in front of a deliberately minimal crowd, as if the authorities are somehow pulling off an inside job.

These precautions are eminently sensible, given the threat of right-wing violence. And the last thing the new administration wants on its first day of office is to hold a very visible super-spreader event in the nation’s capital.

But it’s not a good look for American democracy when the peaceful handover of power has the appearance of a banana republic installing a tinpot dictator—or resembles the America of 1861, for that matter, when a huge security presence at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration presaged the outbreak of civil war.

The brain turns the images it receives from the eyes upside down so that we can ultimately perceive the world right side up. Our brains must now perform the task when looking at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Washington, DC might look like a city besieged, but this day is in fact the culmination of a vigorous and successful defense of democracy. Voters have removed an autocrat from office by way of an election. The courts and state officials have prevented his attempt to perpetrate electoral fraud. Those who broke into the Capitol on January 6 are belatedly being subjected to the rule of law. And the dictator wannabe is slinking out of town with the smallest and least triumphant farewell parties imaginable.

Not only did a coup not happen on January 6 to keep Trump in power but a coup wasn’t necessary to remove Trump from power. Two cheers for democracy!

The Biden administration has promised to repair the political damage that Trump has caused. The proposals on the domestic side, such as undoing some of the Republican Party’s voter suppression efforts, are no-brainers from a progressive standpoint. But the foreign-policy recommendations around democracy promotion are not so contention-free. A promise to bring together a global Summit of Democracies, for instance, has met with considerable skepticism.

The events of January 6 have prompted many observers, in the United States and abroad, to declare an end to U.S. pretensions to democracy promotion. As Emma Ashford writes in Foreign Policy:

How can anyone expect—as Joe Biden’s campaign promised—to “restore responsible American leadership on the world stage” if Americans cannot even govern themselves at home? How can the United States spread democracy or act as an example for others if it barely has a functioning democracy at home? Washington’s foreign-policy elites remain committed to the preservation of a three-decade foreign policy aimed at reshaping the world in America’s image. They are far too blasé about what that image has become in 2020.

There is no question that American democracy has been tarnished – not only by the events of January 6 but by the entire four years of the Trump administration. As I wrote right after the 2020 election, “The democracy that Donald Trump dropped on the floor suffered a great deal from the experience. It’s going to take more than an election to put it right.”

Of course, U.S. democracy has always been a cracked vessel, from the limitations on the franchise that accompanied the country’s birth and the near-constant eruptions of mob violence to the deformations of executive power by practically every president.

So, when Roger Cohen writes in The New York Times that the “images of the overrun Capitol will be there, for those who want to use them, to make the point that America would be best advised to avoid giving lessons in the exercise of freedom,” the natural retort would be: there have always been such images.

From its inception, the United States has continually needed to put its own house in order. When it comes to democracy, America has always been a work in progress. Actually, over the last four years, it was a work in regress, but the point still holds. Democracy in America is not perfect.

But does that mean that America’s recent slide away from democracy has disqualified it from engaging in democracy promotion?

Exports and Brands

Countries are always promoting something. The French want you to buy their wines. Russia hawks its oil and natural gas. South Korea lobbies on behalf of its boy bands, Saudi Arabia its Wahhabist version of Islam, India its Bollywood movies, Israel its security forces, and so on.

Democracy might seem like just another export. And, indeed, some American promoters treat their work as if it were an extension of the U.S. brand. They are promoting not democracy in general but American-style democracy. Consultants in Europe, for instance, have evangelized about increasing the role of private fundraising in elections, an American innovation that hitherto has not been so prominent on the continent. In other cases, the promotion of democracy has been just a cover for the projection of U.S. power and influence, as in Iraq after the 2003 invasion or Ukraine after the Maidan revolution of 2014.

In other words, “democracy promotion” either boils down to the promotion of the U.S. version of democracy or the promotion of U.S. interests, actual democracy be damned. Either way, the phrase and the program have acquired a poor reputation, particularly in their linkage to the political agenda of neoconservatives throughout the Reagan years and again under George W. Bush in the 2000s.

As with the support of other exports like soybeans and soda pop, there’s a lot of money in democracy promotion. USAID, for instance, has a budget of a couple billion dollars for “democracy, human rights, and governance,” which includes Elections and Political Processes, the Human Rights Grants Program, the Global Labor Program, the Disability Rights and Inclusive Development Program, and so on. Various foundations and civil society organizations also put a lot of money into the global promotion of democracy and human rights.

All of this has been put at acute risk by what Trump and his followers have unleashed upon the United States, much as a sour batch of wine can send an entire wine industry down the drain.

“Repairing the substantial damage to U.S. image in the world and regaining credibility on democracy issues will be tough and take a long time, even under the best scenario,” observes Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based study group, told the Los Angeles Times. “The problem is not so much Trump himself, but rather his enablers and those who have remained silent and been complicit in his patently antidemocratic rhetoric and behavior.”

Promoting Progressive Values Overseas

Progressives have long pressed the United States to support labor rights overseas. If another country is throwing labor leaders into jail merely for organizing strikes, the United States should protest. If corporations are employing slave labor or child workers, the United States should sanction them. If a country is abusing its migrant laborers, Washington should say something.

And the United States should do that even though its own record on labor rights is inconsistent at best. Sometimes U.S. failings are connected to a lack of enforcement of rules on the books. Sometimes the rules on the books are lousy. And sometimes, as was the case in particular during the Trump years, administrations have gone out of their way to depress wages, ignore or actively worsen miserable working conditions, and otherwise engage in a veritable war on labor.

But none of that means that progressives should urge the incoming Biden administration to keep quiet about labor rights abuses overseas until it compiles a perfect record at home. Foreign and domestic policy ideally should go hand in hand. In this way, the United States can demonstrate how to repair an imperfect labor record even as it urges other countries to do the same.

The same applies to other elements of the progressive agenda: access to reproductive health care, LGBTQ rights, environmental regulations. The United States has an imperfect record on every issue on the progressive agenda.

The way out of the apparent contradiction between what the United States says for export and what it does domestically is relatively simple. Don’t do as we say; do as the world says. Focus, in other words, on international standards. All countries, including the United States, should adhere to these standards on labor, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, environmental regulations, and the like.

So, does democracy fall into the same category as these other planks in the progressive platform?

To the extent that democracy consists of protections for human rights and political rights such as freedom of speech and a free media, progressives can comfortably insist that all countries, including the United States, adhere to international standards. Let’s call this embrace of the component parts of democracy the “Let a thousand trees bloom” approach, with each tree a different human right.

The challenge comes with the “Let’s plant a forest” approach. Democracy as a category can be tricky because of widely varying definitions of what the forest is exactly. Viktor Orbán insists that Hungary is a democracy, albeit an illiberal one, and so far the European Union reluctantly agrees. Brussels might grumble about certain Hungarian actions, but it hasn’t expelled the country from the EU. Plenty of Hungarian activists, however, argue that Orbán has undermined the country’s democratic institutions by compromising the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the media, to name just two violations. So, does Hungary qualify to participate in Biden’s planned Summit of Democracies?

Although there might be an international consensus around certain aspects of democracy, as enshrined in various UN human rights conventions, there is no such agreement over democracy as a whole. Plenty of non-democratic countries have signed UN human rights agreements, for instance, but they would never presume to be invited to a Summit of Democracies.

It’s not so much that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Many progressives have reservations about the forest and prefer to focus on the trees.

One of those reservations concerns regime change. Neoconservatives, in particular, used “democracy promotion” as a cover for pursuing the collapse of governments they didn’t like. In the case of North Korea, for instance, they viewed U.S. pressure on Pyongyang as necessary to eliminate not simply the country’s nuclear weapons but its entire political system.

Ditto Iraq, Iran, Libya, Venezuela, and Cuba.

Such a version of democracy promotion should be off the table. It is up to the people of a country to determine their own political future. And they should be protected in their efforts to do so by international pressure to ensure that the country abides by global human rights standards.

Over the next four years, let’s by all means work to protect all of those fragile trees at home and abroad. But let’s also take some time to define what we mean by the forest, and let’s make sure to include #BlackLivesMatter, Extinction Rebellion, the Occupy struggles, and all the other powerful examples of grassroots democracy. The trees, after all, are part of a larger ecosystem, and they can’t prosper if the overall environment deteriorates.

Once we have defined what we mean by democracy, American progressives should absolutely support its promotion—even as we work to improve our own political ecosystem. After all, at some point in the future, we may need to call upon the international community to help us save our democracy as well.

Via Foreign Policy in Focus

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Source This file was derived from: BlankMap-World6.svg:

•Derivative work made by Hx7

•Original world map made by CanuckGuy