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[l] at 4/9/20 1:53pm

Vladimir Putin

With the coronavirus already infecting over a million people and severely impacting the global economy, there is a new recognition of a need to reduce global tensions, what the UN secretary general has called a coronavirus truce. The situation is particularly stressful for Russia which only initiated a lockdown the end of March and is probably just at the beginning of an infection curve. This coincides with an oil price war with Saudi Arabia, badly impacting a Russian economy heavily dependent on oil. President Trump spoke with both leaders, threatening to impose tariffs if there is no resolution. But with significantly reduced demand due to the coronavirus, prices will certainly remain low.

This stressful period also coincides with an effort by Vladimir Putin to extend his presidency. Parliament has already approved necessary constitutional changes; a required referendum, originally scheduled for April, has been postponed and is already attracting significant political opposition.

Overall, Russia already faces opposition over inadequate coronavirus measures, a major drop in oil revenue and a looming political crisis. Together these provide a significant opportunity for re-engagement with the United States.

Erosion in U.S.-Russian Relations

Putin consolidated his position by blaming the West for Russian economic problems, skillfully appealing to traditional Russian ambivalence. Stressing the need to counter NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, he rejuvenated the army, a source of pride for the average Russian. Putin has announced a major increase in defense spending, boasting of powerful new weapons that could make American defenses obsolete. His belligerent military emphasis is fundamentally a show for the Russian people. He needs a visible enemy to distract public attention from his plutocratic elite, from internal repression, and from actions undermining Russia’s professed democratic ideals. His central fear is not some Western intrusion, but internal unrest. This is the basic reason he reacted so strongly to the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the Orange Revolution the following year that removed pro-Russian governments in Georgia and Ukraine. His central objective is retaining power, while provoking the West is a means to that end.

Putin’s broadly confrontational stance, which emphasizes Russia’s rightful position as a world leader, has gained domestic support. But there have also been negative consequences beyond Russia’s borders. By supporting breakaway provinces in Moldavia and Georgia as well as annexing the Crimea and backing up an occupation of eastern Ukraine, Russia has undermined democratic movements on Russia’s periphery. Strong Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resulted in thousands of deaths and major refugee flows into Europe. As the United States pulled out of northern Syria, abandoning its Kurdish allies, Russia surged in as the new powerbroker. Closer relations with an increasingly autocratic Turkey deteriorated as the two militaries clashed. Across the globe, Russian support has allowed Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro to remain in power. This effort is particularly sensitive to the oil market; one of Russia’s major oil companies, Rosneft, is just recently exiting its investments there.

Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections reached well over 100 million Americans with false, misleading, and inflammatory postings on Facebook, messages on Twitter, and over 1,000 videos on YouTube. Although America is vulnerable to such deceptive postings, Russia is vulnerable to truthful ones. Russian meddling may well have been retaliation for the Panama Papers, the release of thousands of documents from a Panamanian law firm that exposed corrupt financial ties of several prominent Russians. A furious Putin attributed the leak of the papers to Western intelligence. This allowed him to depict the revelations as simply Western propaganda but also demonstrated his sensitivity to exposure of corruption.

The United States has a considerable advantage in open broadcasting. For almost 80 years, Radio Liberty has been a major challenge to Russia, becoming the most listened-to Western radio station in the country. In 2014, Radio Liberty launched a new Russian-language TV news program, Current Time, which has reported on such sensitive topics as Russian intervention in Syria, the poisoning of a Soviet refugee in London, and the Panama Papers. In 2018, its website had over 90 million visits, its Facebook page had some 600,000 followers, and it was active on YouTube, Twitter, and other social networks.

Democratic ideals have strong resonance in Russia. The more difficult everyday economic situations become, the more the government has to suppress unrest over low living standards. Independent candidates have made electoral politics increasingly competitive, and the government reacts with voter suppression. Over 1,000 people recently protested in Moscow over barring opposition candidates from the city ballot.  Open broadcasts have a significant potential to influence developments in Russia. A current wave of arrests against journalists vividly illustrates the Kremlin’s concern about popular protests, while thousands recently marched to mark five years since the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. It is understandable that the Russian populace wholeheartedly embraced a strong leader who brought stability and pride back to Russia. But discontent over corruption and economic conditions have been growing. Health and demographic issues and a reliance on raw material sales downgrade the potential for economic development.

Presidents Trump and Putin have had a longstanding personal rapport, but the White House has carefully controlled details of their phone calls. During their most recent conversation on March 30, 2020, the two leaders agreed that the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia did not suit either of them. Russia expressed willingness to reduce oil output. There was also discussion on Venezuela and the need for an eventual democratic transition. And they agreed to work together on addressing the coronavirus. Two days later, a Russian military plane with needed medical supplies landed in New York. “We can provide emergency equipment needed to save Americans,” a Russian spokesman said. “We are sure that the U.S., if necessary, will also assist us and we will gladly accept the aid.”

This is clearly an ideal time for the two sides to re-engage.

Steps Forward

The West should now do what it should have done 30 years ago: integrate Russia into the industrialized world. Western open broadcasting can make Russian corruption and repression as transparent as possible, exposing the underlying reason for low economic levels and the total fiction of a Western threat. NATO current focus on Russia as an enemy only supports Putin’s threat narrative, while some misstep could actually result in armed conflict. It also drains huge amounts of resources from positive uses (including disaster preparations) to supporting interminable wars.

NATO should issue a strong statement de-emphasizing military operations and focusing on Russian political, social, and economic integration into the industrialized world. By demonstrating that it is not a threat, NATO can emphasize instead economic collaboration.

Russian ambivalence toward the West has been a driving force for centuries. A real move to integration could have strong appeal to a Russian public increasingly dissatisfied with the internal situation. Russian protestors want democracy, but have nothing to rally around. The United States should give them something, actively inviting Russia to join in development efforts. Programs that promote real development and provide Russia its own position on the world stage can have a strong appeal to the Russian people.

Overall, it is economic pressures, opportunities and incentives that could most effectively move Russia toward a more democratic and cooperative posture. A NATO outreach policy needs to be supported by significant actions. The coronavirus will certainly pressure NATO to modify its standard of 2 percent of GDP supporting defense expenditures. A small portion, perhaps initially 2 percent of NATO’s budget, could be dedicated to a new Russian Partnership Fund to improve Russia’s internal economy and increase collaboration. The fund could work with Russian representatives to identify projects that could have maximum impact for minimal cost while simultaneously demonstrating project transparency and accountability.

The United States and Russia already have an existing partnership in joint operations on space exploration as well as continuing cooperation on securing nuclear materials and knowledge. This approach can be expanded to include assistance with infrastructure issues, medical issues, educational exchanges, environmental issues, and other scientific matters. Russia, for example, has a totally inadequate highway system while the United States has deep experience building a nation-wide transportation network. Investment projects outside the oil industry are badly needed, but that has been a main focus for Russia for years. And, of course, the coronavirus is also making medical shortcomings in both countries increasingly visible. Diplomatically, collaboration with Russia could help resolve confrontations in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine, and Syria.

Rather than promote a new Cold War, now is the time to definitively end the last one.

The post Re-Engaging Russia appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Ed Corcoran is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He was a strategic analyst at the U.S. Army War College, where he chaired studies for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Operations.

[Category: War & Peace, coronavirus, Donald Trump, military spending, NATO, Russia, Vladimir Putin]

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[l] at 4/8/20 12:00pm

Social distancing advisories in Washington, DC (Shutterstock)

Between 1978 and 2018, American presidents declared 58 national emergencies.

Their targets ranged from “Transactions with Terrorists Who Threaten to Disrupt the Middle East Peace Process” and “Transactions with Significant Narcotics Traffickers” to “the Anchorage and Movement of Vessels with Respect to Cuba” and “Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Zimbabwe.”

By the time President Trump declared a national emergency to divert federal money toward border wall construction in February 2019, 31 of these earlier emergencies were still active. Supporters of the president were eager to highlight this fact, and — even though the border wall emergency remained constitutionally dubious — they weren’t wrong in highlighting how Trump was only making use of a tool that the executive branch of government had normalized over time.

Still, a crude tally of executive decrees fails to truly capture the U.S. government’s long-term shift toward a permanent, war-like posture.

We have a generously funded and legally unencumbered national security bureaucracy, embodied in the ever-expanding Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We have a sprawling global intelligence apparatus, spread across seventeen federal agencies and armed with far-reaching powers of surveillance and policing. We retain what is grandly labelled a “National Security Council” — an assortment of the best and brightest minds serving at the sole behest of the president since the Second World War. We have had a Congress willing, in some shape or form, to create and sustain all these institutions for most of the past six decades.

Critics have asked: Does the most powerful nation on earth — which has only substantially been attacked three times in its entire history — need to be governed like this? What about all that stuff from the “founding fathers,” who trembled under their powdered wigs at the prospect of Old World militarism? Might an enormous bureaucratic juggernaut dedicated to the vague idea of security create some problems for civil liberties?

The response to these queries has been simple: We must prepare for the worst. Since September 11, 2001, this argument has resonated with large portions of the American public, not to mention politicians.

But our immovable commitment to “Homeland Security” encompasses much more than terrorism. An incomplete list of threats identified by the American national security state in recent years would also have to include climate change, drug trafficking, Russian trolls, piracy, cybercrime, mass-marketing fraud, “criminal aliens,” and — of course —  pandemics.

How, after devoting so much of our resources and energy toward constant crisis management, did we mismanage the mother-of-all-crises so badly?

Perhaps the most obvious answer centers on the current occupant of the White House.

It turns out that relentless, tacky showmanship, spectacular inattention to detail, and wild inconsistency aren’t ideal leadership qualities when the plague looms. From President Trump’s abject failure to create a national testing program to his dissolving of the National Security Council’s pandemic unit in 2018, the commander-in-chief has rightly earned from many Americans a score rather lower than the 10 out of 10 he has given himself for COVID-19 management.

It is difficult to refute the argument that this catastrophe is, at bottom, the president’s fault. The evidence is strong, and the logic is straightforward.

Nevertheless, there are features of this nation-wide fiasco that cannot be blamed entirely on Donald Trump: the tragi-comically inadequate congressional relief efforts, the deadly shortages produced by a parasitic, profiteering health care market, the hero-worship of moderately competent governors who provide no more than token support to the masses of poor, working people most threatened by the virus.

Of course, a better president could have alleviated these problems by acting early, trusting scientists, and fully utilizing key powers like those granted by the Defense Production Act.

But even the most detailed and well-executed plan — produced by the National Security Council specialists who we now wish could rescue us — wouldn’t fix the health care racket, wouldn’t relieve the economic pain, and wouldn’t guarantee anything for essential workers. When operating at maximum efficiency, America’s permanent emergency government is overwhelmingly geared towards other things — things that make better television.

We’re ready to fight two big damn wars at once and to station men, women, and robots all over the world just in case some pipsqueak chooses to mess with us. We’re ready for Iranian sneak attacks and Cuban microwave weapons; one-eyed terrorists and underpants bombers.

Personal protective equipment? Hospital beds? Emergency rent moratoriums? Emergency income support? Not part of the plan — or, at least, the plan backed by all the money and all the important people.

No doubt, political scientists — once they exhaust themselves from a greater than usual outpouring of anger against Donald Trump — will highlight numerous other causes of the American government’s COVID-19 disaster. Federalism could work better. Congress could have a half-decent plan for working remotely. Expertise could be better integrated into policymaking.

Yes, yes, and yes. But for years we have poured incalculable cash and personnel into preparation for the worst. Something close to the worst came, and we botched it badly. When the nation finally conducts an autopsy into this horrendous mess, the system that was supposed to guard against it — the national security state, or whatever we choose to call it — cannot emerge unscathed.

The post Why Did Our Permanent Emergency Government Fail to Face the Emergency? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Harry Blain is a PhD student in political science at the Graduate Center, CUNY (City University of New York).

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, civil liberties, coronavirus, covid-19, Donald Trump, national emergency, national security state, pandemic, Public Health]

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[l] at 4/8/20 11:35am


The rapid spread of the coronavirus is, for good reason, causing a global panic. Almost every region of the world is affected, with the disease rapidly spreading to new areas.

Fear is justifiable. Directing it against people who have nothing to do with the crisis is reprehensible.

Donald Trump, for instance, has been referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus.”

Pandemics can start anywhere — the coronavirus says nothing more about China than the “Spanish” flu of 1918 says about Kansas, where it originated. Yet Trump continues to use this racist labeling even after being warned about rising hate crimes against people of East Asian descent.

Similarly, Trump is using the pandemic to justify his border wall, claiming this pet project will keep Americans safe from the virus. Scientists from his own government say it will do no such thing, but of course Trump is known for his disdain for science.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic spreads, U.S. immigration agencies continue their raids, detentions, and deportations. This is extraordinarily cruel on multiple levels.

It separates families when people need their families more than ever. It wastes resources that could be directed to urgent public health needs. Most of all, it swells the overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention system, putting immigrants and the entire public at risk.

These makeshift detention centers that warehouse entire families — including infants — are breeding grounds for pandemics. Even before covid-19, 700 detainees were reported to have contracted mumps, and at least three children have died from the flu.

The government will even not administer flu shots in these prisons, or allow others to do so. How can it possibly prepare for coronavirus?

It takes a truly depraved level of disregard for life to hold human beings in these conditions. That disregard extends to the countries these immigrants are deported to.

As of March 23, World Health Organization data reported 32,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S., with the predominant mechanism for spread being “local transmission.” In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — three key countries where migrants are deported to — the respective numbers were 18, 26, and 1, with substantially all of the confirmed cases being imported.

Far from the xenophobic rhetoric of foreigners bringing illnesses to the United States, then, it’s the U.S. government that is potentially exporting a pandemic to less wealthy countries.

It’s worth remembering that so many refugee families were forced to flee their homes as a result of our misguided trade policies, our bloody wars, coups and fraudulent elections we’ve backed, and the climate effects of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only are we closing our borders to people suffering these impacts now, but we’re warehousing them in disease incubators and then deporting them to the countries least able to grapple with the resulting pandemic.

If conditions are this cruel now, imagine what it will be like as climate change accelerates. The number of people displaced by climate disruption is expected to grow to more than 140 million in the coming decades.

The ugliness we already see on display — of a health crisis being used to harden borders and spread hate speech — could be but a small taste of things to come. That’s why we need to act now — not only to control this pandemic and reverse the damage of climate change, but to stop the cancer of hatred before it metastasizes any further.

The post Cruel Immigration Policies Make the Pandemic Worse appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

[Category: Health, Human Rights, CBP, coronavirus, covid-19, deportations, ice, immigrants, immigration, pandemic, Public Health, xenophobia]

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[l] at 4/8/20 11:31am


The most insidious tactic of COVID-19 is to get a person’s body to attack itself. In the worst cases, the body’s autoimmune system essentially goes haywire as it tries to fight off infection. This “cytokine storm” can lead to serious inflammation in the lungs and ultimately to major organ failure.

COVID-19 seems to have had a similar effect on the international system. Instead of working together, the global community started to attack itself. The mechanisms designed to facilitate international cooperation — borders, trade — began to work against this cooperation. In the worst cases, countries began to fight over the very medical supplies that, shared equitably,  could save the largest number of people.

This geopolitical cytokine storm will have long-lasting consequences. One of its casualties may ultimately be the European Union.

The Failure of Regional Responses

In an ideal world, the outbreak of COVID-19 in China would have precipitated a uniform international response.

Every country would have implemented the same protocols the World Health Organization developed after the SARS epidemic, and a global team of experts would have helped China contain the crisis. Then perhaps the world could have dodged the latest pandemic threat and avoided going into the current health and economic tailspin.

Absent a coordinated global response, different regions of the world could still have banded together to fight the infectious disease.

In Asia, each country approached the challenge its own way, virtually all of them better than the U.S. response. Taiwan, despite its proximity to mainland China, has kept the number of infections in the triple digits. South Korea has deployed a sophisticated technological response to flatten the curve after an initial outbreak. What Asian countries didn’t do, however, was pull together as a region. Even putative allies Japan and South Korea took the opportunity to amplify their longstanding feud by trading accusations and imposing mutual travel restrictions. Only recently have China, Japan, and South Korea begun to coordinate their pandemic response.

Latin America, riven by numerous ideological splits, has had wildly divergent responses to COVID-19, from the denialism of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to a strict quarantine in Peru.

Having beaten back several outbreaks of Ebola, African countries have shown a bit more of a cooperative spirit, thanks to institutions like the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement project.

Given Donald Trump’s erratic behavior during this crisis, forget about a coordinated North American strategy. In fact, there hasn’t even been a coordinated U.S. strategy coming out of Washington.

Europe should have been different. For decades, the European Union has built up institutional cooperation across economy, politics, and culture. Surely, it would take on an external threat like the coronavirus in a unified manner.

It didn’t.

The Case of Italy

Italy was the first hotspot to emerge in the European Union. Within a few days of its first reported case of infection in Lombardy on February 20, COVID-19 was putting an enormous strain on the hospitals of northern Italy. The EU’s response was largely bureaucratic — more consultations. When it came to concrete assistance, the EU had little to offer Italy.

On March 10, only a couple weeks after the appearance of its first case, Italy’s permanent representative to the European Union Maurizio Massari wrote in no uncertain terms in Politico:

Italy has already asked to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection. But, unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call. Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.

Worse, a number of European countries like France and Germany actually imposed export limits on critical medical supplies for fear that they would need them in the coming days.

The eventual intervention of the European Commission to impose region-wide export restrictions in exchange for EU members rescinding their national bans might have alleviated some shortages within the bloc but at the expense of poorer countries outside of it. In early April, Italy is still nowhere near securing the 90 million masks it needs.

For many Italians, the failure of European solidarity was nothing new. Writes Luigi Scazzeri at the Centre for European Reform:

Over the past decade, Italy has gone from being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of greater European integration to one of the most eurosceptic member-states. Many Italians felt that Italy did not receive much European solidarity during the eurozone crisis, and that the Union served as an enforcer of damaging austerity policies. The damage to Italians’ view of the EU was then compounded by the bloc’s response to the migration crisis. Italy took in 650,000 migrants between 2014 and 2018, and efforts to distribute these among other EU countries were largely symbolic… 

Okay, so the EU screwed up its response to COVID-19. It certainly isn’t alone in misjudging the extent of the crisis and failing to act in the best interests of all.

It now has a second chance to make good as a bloc in addressing the economic crisis developing in the wake of COVID-19. Yet it seems on the verge of repeating an earlier set of mistakes.

Corona Bonds?

When Europe was in the depths of its sovereign debt crisis a decade ago, some countries called for Euro Bonds. This common debt instrument, floated by the Eurozone as a whole, could have provided access to cheaper credit for all members, but especially those hardest hit by the financial crisis. The most indebted nations like Greece and Italy supported the idea. The Germans and the Dutch, worried about subsidizing what they considered bad economic behavior, nixed the idea.

Virtually the same argument has reemerged today as Euro Bonds have become Corona Bonds, with the same countries in favor and the same countries against. Infuriated at the opposition to such Corona Bonds, Bloomberg reported, some Italian politicians paid for a full-page ad in a German newspaper “accusing the Dutch of ‘a lack of ethics and solidarity,’ and unsubtly reminding the Germans of the solidarity Europe showed them after [World War II], when Germany’s debts were forgiven or restructured at a conference in 1953.”

The EU has taken some dramatic measures in response to the economic shock of the shutdowns.

It has relaxed the rules on government spending to permit large-scale stimulus packages. The European Central Bank has made $820 billion available to buy up European bonds, which will reduce the cost of borrowing for the worst hit countries. The Eurozone has its European Stability Mechanism, designed to help countries in trouble with 400 billion euros at its disposal. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also announced last week that the EU “will allocate up to 100 billion euros ($110 billion) to the hardest hit countries, starting from Italy, to compensate for the reduction in the wages of those working on shorter hours.”

There are other proposals including a Europe-wide stimulus package, which would come on top of the bailouts that each of the national governments has enacted, and a European Guarantee Fund that could reach 200 billion euros.

That’s a lot of money available to members of the club. Perhaps it’s enough money to buy — er, guarantee — the loyalty of even the most Euroskeptical.

So, why are Italy, Spain, and other countries still pushing for Corona Bonds? They want debt mutualized — i.e., shared — rather than dumped on the shoulders of the most adversely affected. And they’re worried that the other deals come with strings attached that will resemble what was required of them during the last financial crisis.

What the Germans and Dutch prefer, which would indeed include some conditionality, might seem to make economic sense. But it also might deepen the fissures already present in the EU and push the Eurozone if not the larger bloc to the breaking point.

Europe’s Pre-Existing Conditions

Before the coronavirus struck, it looked as if Europe was spinning off in many different directions.

The United Kingdom was on its way out. Hungary and several other East European countries were heading in a distinctly authoritarian direction. Italy was flirting with right-wing populism. On the economic front, Germany remained a powerhouse, Greece had not made up for all the ground it lost in the 2009 crisis, and the countries of Eastern Europe had not yet closed the gap with the western half of the continent.

The far right, which was gaining strength in the European Parliament, had decided not to follow the example of Brexit but instead work within the system to transform the EU. The coronavirus could very well be their best ally in this struggle to devolve power from Brussels to the individual member states.

First came the reimposition of national border checkpoints within the Schengen Area, with Germany the last to follow suit on March 16. Ten days later, Europe was supposed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Schengen’s abolition of border controls. Instead there are new gates and road barriers where not long before travelers could pass between countries without even knowing it. It’s not clear when these intra-European travel restrictions will be lifted.

Then came the more restrictive policies toward migrants still desperate to get into Europe.

On March 17, the EU closed its borders to non-nationals. Greece had already sent troops to its border with Turkey to stop refugees from crossing over by land. But people are still attempting to reach Europe by sea. Of the 800 who left Libya in March, 43 made it to Italy and 155 landed in Malta. The Libyan coast guard gathered up the rest and returned them to Libya. Now that the first cases of infection are appearing in refugee camps in Greece, the containment efforts are turning inward.

By contrast, Portugal has boldly given all migrants and asylum-seekers full citizenship rights on a temporary basis so that they can access health care during the pandemic.

Throughout Europe, national policies are trumping region-wide rules and regulations. The most extreme case is Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has declared a state of emergency that gives him nearly unlimited power for an unknown period of time. Other states like Spain and the UK have declared states of emergency but without comparable flouting of the rule of law. And some countries, like Romania, Estonia, and Latvia, have invoked Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights that permits states of emergency “in times of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”

Hungary’s authoritarianism, Portugal’s generosity, Italy’s call for solidarity, Germany’s tightfistedness: European responses to the current crisis are literally all over the map. This does not bode well for the future of the European Union. As Nathalie Tocci, a former adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, told The Guardian: “This is definitely a make-it-or-break-it moment for the European project. If it goes badly this really risks being the end of the union. It fuels all the nationalist-populism.”

Right now, Europe is in the midst of a cytokine storm. The doctors are hooking the patient up to the ventilators of economic bailout. It’s uncertain whether this strategy will save the patient or just prolong the agony. For sure, however, if the EU survives its intubation, it will emerge on the other side a different and possibly much weaker survivor.

The post Will the EU Survive the Coronavirus? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Labor, Trade, & Finance, austerity, coronavirus, covid-19, financial crisis, great recession, Public Health, recession, Refugees, Schengen Area, stimulus, Viktor Orban]

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[l] at 4/6/20 8:51am

Riot police pepper spray nonviolent demonstrators at the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests. (Photo: Steve Kaiser / Flickr)

When future students of North-South relations look back to the history of the last 35 years or so, among the key figures they will most likely mark as one of the most decisive in shaping the course of events is one who did not owe his power to a position in government or business.

Martin Khor, who passed away recently in Penang, Malaysia, at the age of 68, was present in almost every area of North-South confrontation, from intellectual property rights to the role of multilateral institutions, trade, biodiversity, finance, and climate change. He represented the reemergence in the late 1980s of an actor that had last been seen during the glory days of the Communist International in the 1920s: the borderless activist.

Reacting to his passing, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said, “Almost every peak memory I have of each battlefront of fighting corporate-rigged globalization during the last 30 years includes Martin, because he was central to each fight.”

Globalization’s Antithesis

Martin the phenomenon was, in a very real sense, produced by globalization, and he emerged as the antithesis to it.

His rise to prominence began in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when transnational capital moved its focus from restructuring domestic economies along neoliberal lines through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to reshaping the rules of international trade via the World Trade Organization. Martin caught the drift of events early on and realized that opposing corporate-driven globalization would necessitate a resistance that also needed to be global.

Martin began his work from his twin organizational bases in Penang, the Consumer Association of Penang and the Third World Network (TWN). I first met him, in fact, when he invited me to attend several of the gatherings the TWN hosted in the late 1980s, meetings that tackled issues ranging from the monopolistic practices of the pharmaceutical monopoly to “structural adjustment” of developing country economies by the World Bank to the ravaging of tropical forests.

These meetings, which saw intellectual exchange result in concrete agreements to work together, became the means by which an informal global network was created that brought together intellectuals, activists, and sympathetic government officials from both the global North and the global South. Even before thinkers like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri theorized the decentralized, non-hierarchical network as the response to global capital, Martin was putting its elements in place. Of course, it was not only him that was building international networks during this period, but he was a vital nodal point of this activity.


Martin Khor (Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr)

Striking at the Enemy’s Weak Points

Martin was clear about the enemy, and this was corporate-driven globalization. He was also clear about his fundamental goal: to ensure that the developing world, or global South, was protected from the corporate assault.

“Martin consistently brought the Third World perspective to all global issues, from trade to climate,” observes Vandana Shiva, the Indian ecofeminist and recipient of the Right Livelihood Award. The aim of his strategy of networking was to create a defense in depth linking developing country governments to international civil society while striking at the weak points of the enemy.

These points of vulnerability were the multilateral institutions — the World Bank, IMF, and WTO — that served as the political canopy of global capital. These institutions were tasked with rewriting international economic rules in favor of capital and obtaining the global “consensus,” to use Gramsci’s term, to make them legitimate and effective. The niche that he forged for himself was to bring the pressure of international civil society and developing country governments to bear on multilateral institutions and feed information on what these agencies were concocting to the former.

This pivotal position showed its value in the struggle against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the late nineties. The MAI was a corporate attempt via the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), also known as the “club of rich countries,” to knock down restrictions to investment not only among its members but also in developing countries they had relations with.

Shortly before news of the secret agreement leaked out, Martin, along with a number of other prominent activists — among them the anti-capitalist author Jerry Mander, Right Livelihood Award recipient Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, indigenous leader Victoria Tauli Corpuz, and Chilean environmentalist Sara Larrain — had formed the International Forum on Globalization (IFG). It was in this transnational formation that Martin revealed the drastic implications of the secret accord for the global South and, acting on his urgent warning, the IFG led what became a global campaign to sink the MAI.

The global mobilization stunned technocrats in the North and killed the agreement. The surprising victory, which generated wind in the sails of the rising anti-globalization movement, “would not have happened but for Martin’s early warning, constant guidance, and relentless direct advocacy,” says Public Citizen’s Wallach.


The fight over the MAI turned out, in fact, to be a dress rehearsal for a bigger battle, one provoked by the push of the powerful countries behind the World Trade Organization, which was formed in 1995, to expand its powers to control areas beyond trade like investment and competition policy and override environmental and labor laws in the name of free trade.

Developing country governments gasped at the ambition of the TNC-controlled trade body since they had barely begun implementing the changes in their trade laws mandated by the “Uruguay Round” of Trade Negotiations that had set up the WTO. The Third Ministerial Meeting of the WTO in Seattle in late November 1999 turned out to be the perfect storm bringing together the disparate sectors negatively impacted on by the corporate push for a new trade round, and at the center of that storm was Martin.

It was in Seattle that Martin perfected the so-called “inside-outside” strategy, which involved him and others participating in the official discussions to help block pro-corporate initiatives while also assisting in the mobilization of activists outside the convention center by holding teach-ins to inform people about what was at stake.

In a 20-minute speech at an IFG teach-in attended by hundreds that was laced with humor and interrupted by frequent applause, he stripped neutrally worded issues such as” trade-related intellectual property rights,” “trade related investment measures,” and “special and differential treatment” to their essence. He damned the lack of transparency and democratic decision-making in the official negotiations, saying, “The kind of transparency and participation which is being offered are, more information and more symposiums, but no real participation not only for us. Not only that the parliamentarians are not really invited, but even the ministers and the senior officials themselves — the majority of them — are not invited to the real negotiations.”

Then, with an uncanny sense of what was emerging as a possibility, he told his audience:

“So we have before us, in the next few days, a historic event. Either they will cook up a consensus in four days…Or, there really will be no new round and turnaround. We the citizens may have some influence on that. It depends on the messages we are going to put forward when we go on the streets and when we talk to the media. A lot of it will depend on what happens inside there irrespective of us… But let us spend the next four or five days exchanging information and analysis among ourselves, trying to influence as much as possible, showing the world that we care and because we care we are protesting. And then spend the next few years really fighting. Either fighting the WTO or for a better WTO if that is possible.”

The Seattle Ministerial collapsed owing to the synergy between the mass mobilization of some 50,000 people in the streets and the resistance to further liberalization of their economies by the delegates from developing countries in the negotiations, and Martin was central to making that synergy happen.

The debacle was one from which the WTO never really recovered.

Leadership Style

Martin’s leadership style would merit a study by itself.

Leadership via influence and informal authority, not formally acquired and exercised power, was his currency, and it was informal authority that was accumulated through his unique combination of analytical acuity and detailed mastery of the issues, an ability to translate superficially complex texts into understandable terms, a style of gently encouraging people to deliver their best — and, at all times, not taking one’s eyes away from the ball.

As his speech at the IFG Seattle teach-in demonstrated, Martin had a unique ability to fire up a crowd. His IFG colleague Victor Menotti recalled how at the organization’s teach-in before the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, “he had folks from the townships in a call-and-response cadence within twelve seconds of starting his short speech… I actually clocked it.”

Developing country officials and negotiators meeting him, according to Aileen Kwa, a colleague at the South Center, were “not always the easiest audiences to sway, yet without fail, he was able to win them over” with his technical command of the issues, his ability to break them down into simple terms, and his congenial personality.

Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute observed, “He had this ability to make you feel special — so you were ready to take on the world, like him.”

One of Martin’s strengths, according to Pablo Solon, former ambassador of Bolivia to the United Nations, was not only his ability to “ferret out the devil that was in the detail of climate, trade, and finance texts that were being discussed in the UN,” but his grasp of what Michel Foucault called the power of discourse — that is, that discourse is structured by power relations and structures power relations.

The more technical and technocratic the language, the more it veiled power relations. Martin saw as his task deconstructing the text of multilateral agreements and unveiling the real relations they concealed. This made people like Pascal Lamy of France and Mike Moore of New Zealand, two former directors general of the WTO, extremely uneasy in face to face combat with him. While they droned on loftily about the need for rules to create “an even playing field” for developed and developing countries, Martin would bring them back to earth with his witty repartee, “Yes, you want an even playing field where you have a basketball team of six footers playing against one of four footers.”

Climate Politics

The climate became Martin’s principal battlefront after the WTO became an increasingly unworkable instrument for global trade liberalization in the mid-2000s owing to civil society and developing country resistance. In this area, his influence was just as great as in trade.

One of Martin’s contributions to the climate debate was to popularize what came to be called “negative emissions.”

“He personally turned climate politics on its head at the 2007 Bali COP (Conference of Parties),” IFG’s Menotti recounts. Developing countries…

“were almost ready to accept developed nations’ commitment to cut emissions by only 80 percent. It still sounds like a lot but he explained to everyone from campaigners to ministers that this was not nearly enough when historical emissions and other often-ignored factors were included. The world now thinks in terms of the North having to do ‘negative emissions,’ and that’s only part of how he helped to align everyone’s thinking on environment and development agendas, which was also a pretty painful process for some people especially in the North.” 

Martin moved his base of operations from Penang to Geneva in 2009, when he accepted an offer to head up the South Centre, an intergovernmental organization of developing countries focusing on North-South trade and development issues, especially as they related to multilateral negotiations. While he led in expanding the Centre’s engagements in multiple fronts, his primary concern was making sure the global South was not short-changed in the climate negotiations that increasingly dominated North-South relations.

According to his Geneva-based colleagues Yilmaz Akyuz and Richard Kozul-Wright, “Martin was a strong critic of tighter intellectual property rights, particularly through trade agreements, that restricted the transfer of the technologies developing countries needed to help in the fight against rising global temperatures and to mitigate the climate damage they were already experiencing.”

His voice was also an important one in discrediting “a naïve belief in market-friendly solutions to the climate challenge.” Another former colleague at the Centre, Vice Yu, added that Martin stood for “a development and environmental equity-oriented approach to the climate change problematique,” and that he fought to have as much of this as possible reflected in the historic 2015 Paris Climate Declaration.

Tensions among Friends

As with all activists with strong convictions, Martin was not without disagreements with some of his allies. Climate strategy was one area of tension. His perspective on how to approach the climate crisis was summed up by Institute for Policy Studies director John Cavanagh: “The Global South, Martin argued, should have space to ‘develop’ using more emissions as the world overall cut back on emissions, while the North should adopt more rapid measures to end emissions.”

While his intent was most likely different, to many climate activists in the North as well as to some in the South, this came across as a plea for leniency for some notorious developing country climate polluters, namely India and China. Also, there were those who thought he invested great importance on supporting developing country governments while paying insufficient attention to conflicts between these governments and their citizens.

These were, however, differences among comrades. As Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South, put it in her eulogy to Martin, “Martin may not have seen eye to eye with some of his allies on some tactical issues, but there was never any doubt in the minds of the latter that their strategic objectives were the same and they appreciated his role as a pivotal leader in this common struggle.”

Broader Vision

While defense of developing country interests on various fronts was Martin’s abiding objective, what was his vision for a better world and how was one to get there?

IPS’s Cavanagh discerned Martin operating with two paradigms:

“The first paradigm involves the choice to work in the system of globalization in which we feel we are trapped. If we do work within that system, we begin by asking: ‘Are the rules of the game fair?’ In this paradigm, we ‘fight for the reform of the rules of the game.’ But, Martin argued, we need to simultaneously fight for a second paradigm ‘because in 20 to 30 years the whole system will blow up anyway. So, in the second paradigm, we work for Gandhian-style, community-based, self-reliant family units of production, trading mainly with the community and the region and only making occasional exchanges with the rest of the world.’” 

At the peak of his influence from his vantage point at the South Centre, Martin was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015. The next few years, according to his partner and comrade in arms Meena Raman of Friends of the Earth International, were marked by ups and downs as he went from one seemingly successful surgery to another.

He did not cease working until 2018, when he was too ill to continue to direct the South Centre and moved from Geneva to his original activist base in Penang. There the global activist par excellence passed away peacefully on April 1.

With the current global havoc wreaked by COVID-19, Martin’s prediction of the global system blowing up was remarkably prescient. But the pandemic also underlines what it lost with the passing of Martin.

As Rob Davies, former Trade Minister of South Africa put it, “As the world grapples to find a better future after COVID-19, we need more of the likes of Martin Khor.”

The post Martin Khor: The Making of a Global Activist appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello is senior analyst at the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and the International Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton. A former member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives, he is the author or co-author of 25 books, the latest of which are Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right and Paper Dragons: China and the Next Crash. He received the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, in 2003.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Energy, Environment, Health, Human Rights, Labor, Trade, & Finance, climate change, climate negotiations, development, globalization, IMF, intellectual property, martin khor, Seattle, trade deals, world trade organization]

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[l] at 4/1/20 12:34pm


The spread of coronavirus should be a reminder that the most pressing crises of our times know no borders.

But while the death toll continues to climb in the United States, political leaders, including Donald Trump, are taking advantage of this moment of crisis to heighten xenophobia and racism. Meanwhile his administration helps funnel billions of dollars towards a corporate slush fund with the new stimulus package, all while frontline healthcare workers are left without necessary protective equipment.

Addressing all the various crises exposed by the coronavirus pandemic — from austerity-driven cuts to healthcare to ramped up racism and xenophobia to economic inequality — requires a holistic response dependent on international cooperation. Justice is Global, a project of the grassroots organizing network People’s Action, convened a digital gathering to plot out a progressive internationalist response to the global pandemic.

Andrea Chu, an organizer with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, pointed out how highly impacted the Asian American community has been by coronavirus, which includes many of the frontline workers hit hardest by public health concerns. “A lot of us are fighting COVID-19 along with the rampant hate that Trump has fueling with his anti-China rhetoric.”

Xenophobia has continued to rise as coronavirus spreads. Asian Americans reported more than 650 racist attacks over the course of a single week in mid-March. A House resolution sponsored by Rep. Grace Meng calls on all congressional representatives to condemn anti-Asian sentiment.

“We know anti-Asian racism doesn’t help us during this crisis,” Chu went on to say, “but global cooperation does.”

Deborah Burger of National Nurses United stressed the same.“This virus knows no borders, and it recognizes no nationality, no race, no ethnicity, and certainly no immigration status or economic status,” Burger said.

National Nurses United helped lead the formation of Global Nurses United seven years ago, bringing together global healthcare worker unions on all continents to talk about shared issues — attacks on public health, austerity, privatization, and the climate crisis. Now, COVID-19 has united them more than ever before. Through a webinar, nurses from around the world told stories from the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, shared advice from successful campaigns, and came together to demand higher standards for protective gear from the World Health Organization.

But despite advance warning, the United States was far from prepared to meet those standards. “The COVID-19 response team from the Trump administration and our corporate healthcare employers has been an utter disaster,” Burger announced, pointing out that the U.S. had three months to prepare for the pandemic.

“It is incredibly frustrating that we as a nation can make beanie babies, and we can make fidget toys, and we can make pet rocks overnight. Yet we can’t get masks that we need for our healthcare workers.” Burger said. “That is criminal and war profiteering.”

As OxFam’s Ana Avendano noted, a true internationalist response must also take into account the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live without any legal or practical protections during this crisis. The situation is especially concerning for those caged in detention centers under conditions that were horrifying long before the spread of the virus. Rather than being freed, the only morally acceptable response, people detained at centers run by private prison giant GEO Group have been pepper sprayed simply for asking questions and expressing their fears about the pandemic, Avendano added.

Private prison operators tear-gassing asylum seekers is only one example of continued aggressive U.S. militarism, even amidst crisis, as Khury Petersen-Smith of the Institute for Policy Studies shared. Many celebrated as the Navy sent a hospital ship to New York Just days before, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, ramping up hostilities with Iran as that country manages its own crushing coronavirus outbreak.

Right-wing figures are also using the virus to ramp up hostility towards China — a bipartisan maneuver, Petersen-Smith noted, with historic roots that include the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. “As Trump and the right wing, and some Democrats in power, pursue anti-Chinese hostility, they’re really drawing on a deep well of hostility and racism. And the results are disastrous.”

“If we’re going to survive this,” Petersen-Smith said, “we really are all in this together and we need international cooperation, rather than hostility and racism and competition.”

Justice is Global’s Tobita Chow echoed the call for cooperation. Some countries have stepped up to share masks, medical staff, and other resources across borders. Within the United States, Chinese-American associations collected supplies to send to China when the country was hardest hit by the crisis. That flow of resources has now reversed. International cooperation is built from the ground up, including through programs like sister city relationships as well as unions like National Nurses United, Chow noted.

“I think this moment of global pandemic is showing us very clearly that all human life is interrelated, which means that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.”

To get involved, check out the Justice is Global call to action.

The post International Solidarity in a Time of Crisis appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-editor of Inequality.org.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Human Rights, coronavirus, covid-19, immigrants, internationalism, Public Health, racism]

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[l] at 4/1/20 12:25pm


During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas.

It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German soldiers participated. They exchanged smokes, sang together, and even, on at least one occasion that has since been widely mythologized, played a game of soccer.

Imagine how different the world would look today if that truce had held, if it had turned into a lasting ceasefire, if Europe had not burned itself to the ground in a fit of nationalist pique. There might not have been a global flu epidemic spread by soldiers in 1918. The Nazis might not have seized power and precipitated the Holocaust. World War II might never have happened and nuclear weapons never used.

At the very least, nearly 20 million people would not have perished in that first world war.

We are now in the early stages of another world war, call it World War III, this time against the common enemy of pandemic. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week called on all countries to observe a global ceasefire to focus all resources on beating back the coronavirus. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, eight countries that have been suffering under economic sanctions — China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela — have appealed for an end to the economic sanctions that are hampering their efforts to battle the disease.

And a number of civil organizations are pressing for the release of political prisoners, jailed journalists, and as many nonviolent offenders as possible to reduce the crowding that makes prisons a potential killing ground for the coronavirus.

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback to the idea of even temporarily ending these three expressions of state power: military conflict, war by economic means, and mass incarceration. But this pandemic, for all of its ongoing horrors, can serve as a jolt of smelling salts. International cooperation needs to take priority right now, and countries must stop their wars against one another and against their own populations.

Bombs, sanctions, and prisons are not effective tools in the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, by aiding and abetting the enemy, they will only make the war worse.

Silencing the Guns?

There has been much talk of repurposing the U.S. military to fight the coronavirus. Two Army field hospitals have been sent to New York and Seattle. Some soldiers have already been deployed, the National Guard has been activated in three states, and the Pentagon has been authorized to call up former soldiers to help in the fight. But the military is, to use an apt simile, like a large battleship that is not easily turned. The Pentagon hasn’t even allowed immigrant doctors in its ranks to help against the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to pursue its prime directive: planning war and killing people. On March 12, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to attacks that killed two U.S. service personnel. It was billed as a “proportional” response. Yet the Pentagon has been pushing a far more ambitious plan to go to war against Iranian proxies and, ultimately, Iran itself.

“Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country,” write Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

In nearby Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal at the end of February. But any end to the war in Afghanistan will require a truce among the factions within the country, indeed within the government itself. After a disputed presidential election that once again pitted President Ashraf Ghani against chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, even the threat of reduced U.S. aid didn’t persuade the two sides to unify.

The fighting continues on the ground, with air strikes against the Taliban most recently on March 24 as well a series of Taliban attacks in the last week against Afghan soldiers and policemen. In the leadup to the signing of the peace agreement, the United States conducted the second highest number of air attacks for the month of February since 2009. And last year, Afghanistan sustained the most U.S. aerial attacks since 2006.

Wars grind on in other parts of the world, pandemic be damned. All sides declared a truce in Syria in early March, but Turkey exchanged attacks with “radical groups” in Idlib province on March 19. This week, Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian military base near Homs. And the Islamic State has indicated that it sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up attacks — like a recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Kabul — because the last thing the “crusaders” want is “to send additional soldiers to regions where there is a chance for a spread of the disease.” However, COVID-19 will most harm Syrian refugees, particularly the recent wave of nearly a million people who fled Idlib and Aleppo in December.

In Libya, both sides of the civil war agreed to a humanitarian truce that evaporated after only a day and now the fighting there has even intensified. Whoever wins Tripoli will take over a capital with an already ravaged infrastructure and a collapsed economy. The Pyrrhic victor will then have to address a mounting health emergency with ever diminishing resources.

Meanwhile in Yemen, which is on track to becoming the poorest country in the world because of its five-year-long war, the combatants agreed to a truce last week. As in Libya, it hasn’t lasted long. The Houthis have since launched some easily intercepted ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by once again bombing Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

Conflicts throughout Africa — in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali — also continue despite pleas for a truce. Neither has al-Shabaab stopped its suicide bombings nor the United States ceased its drone attacks in Somalia.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s no pandemic pause for a series of equally deadly cold wars.

Weaponizing Sanctions

For years, the United States has tried to shut down North Korea’s economic relations with the outside world as a way to force the government to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program. North Korea devised a variety of methods to get around U.S. and UN sanctions, including illicit transfers of oil from foreign ships to North Korean vessels in the middle of the ocean.

But the most lucrative source of goods and revenues continued to be China, which has been responsible for upwards of 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Washington has intermittently put pressure on Beijing to shut down this trade to pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. It hasn’t worked.

Then the coronavirus hit. By the end of January, North Korea had shut its borders with China to minimize the risk of infection. It even issued a directive to guard posts to put a stop to flourishing smuggling operations. What sanctions couldn’t accomplish in years, the virus managed to achieve in weeks.

Despite these precautionary measures, the coronavirus has no doubt reached North Korea. There have been reports of probable coronavirus-related deaths in the North Korean military. Thousands of people have been quarantined. Even as the North Korean government insists that the country remains pandemic-free, it has quietly appealed to other governments for assistance in addressing the disease.

The United States has so far held firm. Even though sanctions are holding up the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, Washington has refused to reconsider sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo continues to talk as if a pandemic isn’t raging outside: “The G-7 and all nations must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Pompeo has been even more ruthless toward Iran, an early pandemic hotspot. Tehran initially fumbled its response to a disease, which was quickly spreading through the populace as well as the political and religious leadership. As Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed, U.S. economic sanctions have only made a bad situation worse.

Yes, the U.S. government formally permits humanitarian aid to the country. But its sanctions regime — which includes the threat of secondary sanctions against entities that engage Tehran — ensures that banks and companies steer clear of Iran. Pompeo’s take: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That’s also pretty much the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela, which is in an even more vulnerable position. Though it only has a little more than 130 confirmed cases, COVID-19 will likely ravage the weakened country. “Only a quarter of Venezuela’s doctors have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without soap, gloves or masks,” reports The Guardian. “There are 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.”

This week, the Trump administration conditioned any reduction in sanctions on a political deal that requires President Nicolas Maduro to step down in favor of a transitional council that includes the political opposition. The current government has rejected this regime-change option.

These maximum pressure tactics toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others recently led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who is no softy on foreign affairs, to conclude that Pompeo’s “pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever” secretaries of state.

Emptying the Prisons

Egypt freed 15 prominent oppositionists on March 21. A few days earlier, Bahrain let go nearly 1,500 detainees, but no prominent human rights activists or political oppositionists. Iran has released 85,000 prisoners, but only temporarily. Turkey is planning to release 90,000 prisoners, but none of them political.

Prisons are the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus: poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, minimal medical facilities. Many countries, including the United States, are looking into ways of reducing the population behind bars.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is mobilizing support to pressure governments to release the 250 journalists who are currently in prison worldwide. UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to reduce the numbers of people in detention, with a special emphasis on political prisoners. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she said last week.

Those behind bars are frequently the victims of various government campaigns: against a free press, against political dissent, against drugs. But when a major war threatens the homeland, prisoners are sometimes drafted into military service. That happened during the French colonial period and by different sides in World War II.

In World War III, we need everyone on our side. If countries don’t significantly empty out their prisons during this COVID-19 crisis, the inmates as well as the guards will likely be drafted by the enemy. This foe only gets stronger as our petty conflicts continue and the stiffest sanctions remain in place.

It’s time for a truce on all fronts — or else we will surely lose the larger war.

The post We Need a Coronavirus Truce appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Human Rights, War & Peace, coronavirus, covid-19, Iran Sanctions, pandemic, political prisoners, Public Health, Regime Change, sanctions, venezuela coup, venezuela sanctions]

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[l] at 3/31/20 12:18pm

PAS China via Flickr

One of the unavoidable consequences of political analysis is an out-of-the-blue event that upends apparent trends. For both the United States and China, that event is the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged as both governments were celebrating a trade deal and yet also clashing on other issues. The response to the pandemic in both capitals has been similar, framed by autocratic governing styles and serious mistakes in judgment that have undermined public trust. Sino-U.S. relations have also suffered at a time when a global humanitarian crisis might be one vehicle to revitalize engagement.

Both the Chinese and U.S. governments were initially unwilling to face scientific facts, were late in responding to people’s needs, and tended to blame others. Narrow political considerations dictated their initial blindness to reality and a cover-up of vital information.  Neither system is a model of preemptive action in a pandemic.

But there are at least four important differences between Donald Trump’s leadership and Xi Jinping’s. First, whereas Xi recognized the scope of the crisis within a month and took radical steps to lock down the Wuhan area, Trump, during January and February, failed to act on reports from health experts and intelligence officials, including ignoring a pandemic “playbook” put together by Obama’s emergency preparedness team. Trump’s focus has been on the economy—falling production, unemployment, and a stock market crash—and not on public health, as suggested by his comment that coronavirus fatalities were small compared with those caused by the flu and auto accidents. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted on March 22—the unacceptable “cure” being shutting the country down to prevent out-of-control infections. By the end of March, infections surpassed 120,000, and Trump’s top two advisers on COVID-19 estimated that there would eventually be between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths.

Second, Trump didn’t use all the tools at his disposal to contain the virus. He took far too long to activate National Guard units and the Army Corps of Engineers. He initially resisted pressure to use his power under the 1950 Defense Production Act to order industries to produce critical equipment, such as ventilators, leaving it to states to work out deals with private industry while also competing with each other. His appointees in the bureaucracies responsible for public health were slow to grasp the enormity of the virus and gird for mass testing.

Third, some Chinese media and officials hold the United States responsible for the coronavirus, but not Xi (at least publicly). But Trump, some of his top advisers, and the right-wing media scapegoat China, employing racist language to boot. Trump has wondered aloud why China took “three or four months” to let the United States know about the virus, when in fact China identified the problem late in December 2019 and then shared the genetic code with U.S. scientists. He is among those who insist on calling the virus “Chinese” or “Wuhan”—a characterization that legitimizes growing anti-Chinese resentment around the United States.

Fourth, China has become the leading international donor of supplies and expertise to countries where the COVID-19 infection rate is especially high, including Italy, German, Spain, the United States. Of course, these donations have propaganda value and are meant in part to mask the mistakes at Wuhan. But China has emerged from the virus and is providing foreign aid to fight it, in comparison to the United States, which has shortages of essential equipment and no national strategy for obtaining it. This contrast speaks volumes about how world leadership is changing.

Unfortunately, one other leadership difference is that China is using the COVID-19 crisis to increase surveillance. To better identify carriers of the virus, all Chinese must register by cell phone for an app that separates the healthiest from the most vulnerable. But the data also gives police authorities another tool to locate and monitor individuals. This is occurring as large numbers of Internet police, who belong to a little-known cybersecurity force within the public security bureau, are searching for dissidents. Some prominent human rights advocates who have criticized Xi’s handling of the virus have been jailed, including law professor Xu Zhangrun, book publisher Gui Minhai, legal activist Xu Zhiyong, and real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang.

The Backward Drift of Relations

Until the onset of COVID-19, the U.S. view of China had been dictated by trade talks.  Widespread violations of human rights norms in China—the mass incarceration of Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the attempts to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and the jailing of regime critics—got only mild and inconsistent notice from the Trump administration. When the virus hit Wuhan, Trump was advised by cabinet members and public health experts to ban travelers from China. He hesitated out of concern about a ban’s impact on trade talks and the U.S. economy. The ban went into effect at the end of January 2020, but Trump praised Xi’s handling of the virus on several occasions. He said at that time, for example, that China was “working very hard” to stop it and, throughout February, that China was showing “great discipline” under Xi’s “extremely capable” leadership. These remarks were made at the very time that Trump was ignoring warnings from within the administration of an impending pandemic.

Now the talk in Washington is about economic and technological decoupling with China. But the decoupling is not over human rights issues, which have never interested the Trump administration. Cybersecurity and a pandemic, however, are of great interest, since both affect U.S. industry and trade, and Trump’s chances of reelection. Casting China as a security threat is an easy way to garner support on Capitol Hill these days. A new bipartisan consensus on China has emerged, with some liberals joining with conservatives to argue the need to confront China’s across-the-board efforts to influence American opinion.

COVID-19 has created a unique opportunity for cooperation that is being squandered by xenophobic outbursts. At a time of an international public health crisis, we need more, not less, interaction with China. Cutting back people-to-people and other exchanges, closing down Confucius Institutes, imposing immigration and visa restrictions, limiting technology transfers, reclassifying Chinese media offices in the United States as foreign operations, and putting Chinese nationals and Americans of Chinese heritage who work in U.S. laboratories and universities automatically under suspicion is nothing less than a new Red Scare. Yes, China has engaged in cyber hacking, stolen technical secrets, and spied on sensitive US installations. Yes, in a few cases Confucius Institutes on American campuses have been kept from putting on programs on Taiwan and Tibet. And yes, some American scientists have accepted research positions in China that are more attractive, in money and equipment, than anything available at their home universities. But there is no evidence that these events are part of some Chinese master plan to compromise U.S. national security. They should not become a pretext for making unfounded accusations or threatening universities with loss of federal funds.

Is China really “the central threat of our times,” as Pompeo said in London in January 2020? The Trump administration evidently thinks so. But politically motivated sanctions that hold up China as an enemy foreclose opportunities for cooperation and encourage retaliation, which Beijing has conducted against the United States and other foreign journalists and NGOs since the trade war began. Sanctions and other negative incentives also fail to project the best of American society and democratic values—not to mention doing nothing to alleviate China’s repressive policies. Policy-specific criticism of and competition with China, on the other hand, are certainly in order—for  instance, on human rights violations, Asia-Pacific trade and investments, and technology advances such as 5G networks. Also appropriate are actions against unfair Chinese practices, such as harassing journalists, receiving low-interest World Bank loans, and ignoring foreign investors’ intellectual property rights. But “reciprocity” and fairness should not be confused with containment.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement last year – that Beijing poses “a new kind of challenge; an authoritarian regime that’s integrated economically into the West in ways that the Soviet Union never was” – ignores the fond wish of U.S. leaders for many years that China embrace globalization. Also forgotten is that competition is supposed to be the American way—until now, when China is outcompeting the United States. Vice President Mike Pence has twice given major speeches on China policy, each time sounding like a cold warrior disappointed in China for failing to liberalize and determined that China’s “provocations” will be answered forcefully. “So far,” said Pence, “it appears the Chinese Communist Party continues to resist a true opening or a convergence with global norms,” by which he clearly meant compliance with U.S. policy preferences. Neither he nor Pompeo had anything to say about how U.S. policies, notably the trade war, have contributed not only to tensions with China but also to developments elsewhere contrary to US interests, such as deteriorating U.S. relations with South Korea and increased Russia-China military cooperation.

Competitive Coexistence

Positive relations with China are of far greater importance to U.S. national interests than are relations with Russia. That doesn’t mean that Washington should neglect opportunities for engaging Moscow. Rather, finding common ground with China is essential to maintaining a peaceful international order on such issues as disease control, terrorism, climate change, the international economy, energy, maritime rules of the road, nuclear and conventional weapons proliferation, and aid to developing countries. These are areas where U.S.-China cooperation is crucial to Asia’s and the world’s well-being. Red scares only make the friction worse. Evan Osnos writes that “uneasy coexistence” is the likely future of US-China relations. In policy terms, U.S. relations with China ought to rest on competitive coexistence.

There are at least two fundamental obstacles to finding common ground. The first is how to bridge the great divide between a newly empowered China and a United States used to being number one. The challenge here comes down to different notions about the international order—what is its essential aspect, who should define it, and how should it be maintained. For the United States, the international order is rules-based, it is defined by the post-World War II institutions that the United States led in creating, and it should be led first and foremost by Washington.  China’s role should be that of “responsible stakeholder,” as Robert Zoellick famously said in 2005. For China, on the other hand, the international order is multipolar, demanding creation of a “new kind of great power relationship” in which China’s role is that of a “responsible great power.” These differences over global responsibility and rule-making will persist for some time. Although they need not inhibit finding common ground, they will be a constant source of friction unless directly addressed.

The second challenge in U.S.-China engagement is that both leaderships share a dangerous insecurity. They both operate out of fear. China worries about popular demands for democratic reforms, social protest, an independent media, and economic downturns that create instability. The Trump administration fears democracy, avoids accountability, is contemptuous of the rule of law, and is plagued by corruption and constant internal friction. It faces a population deeply divided over national priorities, culture, race relations, and even the coronavirus, with Democrats far more fearful than Republicans about its effects on health. Both leaderships fear the foreigner, whether that takes the form of reducing immigration or weeding out non-native influences.

Significant portions of both the Chinese and American populations are angry and lacking confidence in their leaders. Political leaderships thus confronted, and convinced of their righteousness, may lash out in a variety of directions. Trade wars, tit-for-tat responses in diplomatic disputes, and military confrontations are all possible. Promoting conspiracy theories and demonizing the other are to be expected. The times call for mutual restraint, recognizing that the latest pandemic, like climate change and mass migrations, can only be effectively dealt with through international collaboration.

The post The Coronavirus and China-U.S. Relations appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and Senior Editor of Asian Perspective.  His most recent books are Engaging Adversaries: Peacemaking and Diplomacy in the Human Interest (Roman & Littlefield, 2018) and America in Retreat: Foreign Policy Under Donald Trump (Roman & Littlefield, forthcoming in 2020). He blogs at https://melgurtov.com.

[Category: Health, China, coronavirus, covid-19, Donald Trump, human rights, mike pence, Mike Pompeo, trade, xi jinping]

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[l] at 3/26/20 2:26pm


Late last year, President Trump provoked a furor when he declared his intent to withdraw some 1,400 US troops from West Africa, where he claimed they had quelled the terrorist threat. He sparked a similar firestorm when he announced that the U.S. would (eventually) pull 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, where they were engaged in an 18-year conflict against other violent extremists.

Critics included congressional Democrats, Republican stalwarts, and members of the U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic establishments, as well mainstream media pundits, international allies, and even some political progressives.

Establishment figures claimed that the battle against violent extremism was far from over and that U.S. military leadership was critical to victory. They pointed to ongoing insurgencies in the African countries of Mali and Nigeria in the Western Sahel and Somalia and Sudan in the Horn. Other progressives countered that U.S. policies have been ill-conceived and counterproductive — and that foreign military intervention has exacerbated the crises.

The establishment debate misses the point. Mainstream critics haggle over how many troops are needed, which nations should supply them, and where they should be deployed. The real question is whether present counterterrorism strategies are effective — and if not, what policies should be implemented instead.

Evidence from Africa makes it clear that military solutions do not work, and prescriptions imposed from above and outside often fail. Local initiatives that address underlying grievances have been more effective. But their impact will be limited without fundamental social, economic, and political change. To effectively counter violent extremism, the U.S. must withdraw support for the corrupt and repressive governments that foster discontent and assist local endeavors that address the people’s needs.

The disagreement between mainstream and progressive critics in the U.S. is rooted in fundamentally different visions of the role of the United States in the world community. Most establishment intellectuals embrace the notion of American exceptionalism, arguing that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, and to fulfill its mission, it must maintain its position at the helm of the global order.

Proponents of this view ordinarily promote military solutions, as well as economic development and (sometimes) democracy. Progressives, in contrast, reject this sanguine characterization of U.S. actions and denounce the policies that have led to endless war. To resolve the current crisis, the United States and its partners must fundamentally shift their perspective and alter their approach. Continuing on the present path will only result in greater mayhem.

Current U.S. Africa policy, developed during the Cold War, was conceived by leaders and proponents of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Marked by militarism and misunderstanding, it has failed to identify the factors that undermine human security and offered wrong-headed solutions that often exacerbate the problem. The post-9/11 war on terror has led to particularly grievous results.

Military Solutions Don’t Work

Contrary to common misconceptions, religion and ethnicity are not the root causes of African conflicts.

Rather, the sources are deep structural inequalities — poverty, underdevelopment, and political repression — and the devastating impact of climate change. Governmental neglect and the drying up of Lake Chad ignited the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria; the expanding desert in western Sudan has pitted herders against farmers in the struggle for water and usable land; and the destruction of the fishing industry by foreign trawlers led to piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Where do we start? First, we need to determine what does not work.

Counterterrorism operations, whether conducted by the U.S. or its allies, have been catastrophic. Intervention in the Sahel exemplifies the problem. In Mali and Nigeria, government actions in insurgent areas, and externally directed drone and missile strikes, have killed countless unarmed civilians. Such actions have increased local support for insurgent forces. Military successes have generally been short-lived, as violent extremists have regrouped and shifted their focus to unprotected civilians.

Local governments backed by the United States and its allies rarely address the structural problems that triggered the conflicts. As a result, local populations, neglected by their governments, have turned to extremist groups for income, basic services, and protection. Peace agreements, imposed from above and outside, fail to give voice to affected populations and jihadi organizations have been denied a seat at the table, even though they are critical parties to the conflicts. Not surprisingly, most of the accords have collapsed.

Foreign intervention in the Horn of Africa has had similar results. In Somalia, the intensification of US airstrikes has stimulated increased extremist activity and a corresponding refocus on civilian targets. Abuses by unaccountable regimes and foreign troops have generated a popular backlash, and externally brokered peace accords that excluded local voices have resulted in a succession of failed governments.

What have we learned? There will be no peace if underlying grievances are not addressed, domestic and foreign militaries continue to victimize local populations, and dysfunctional states fail to provide basic services.

Shifting the Focus

If the question is not how many troops and where should they be, what should we ask?

First, we must question our current framing of U.S. national security interests. Like Trump’s America firsters, establishment liberals tend to view U.S. national security primarily in military terms that focuses on the defense of national borders against external military threats.

Instead, we need to embrace a more expansive concept of “human security” that focuses on people rather than territory and includes health, education, employment, environment, and respect for human rights and civil liberties as factors critical to human well-being. The safeguarding of both U.S. and global security requires a multidimensional approach that addresses the root causes of problems that threaten the world today.

Second, we need to acknowledge that we do not have the answers and seek out those who do. We will learn that grassroots endeavors — organized by African-led agricultural cooperatives, trade unions, and women’s and youth groups — are already addressing the grievances that spring from poverty and inequality and the conflicts that result. They have lived the experience and have developed the best solutions. They must guide our policy choices.

Third, the U.S. and its allies should support local peace initiatives that include all affected parties. Key actors should not be sidelined at their discretion.

Finally, we should withdraw our support for corrupt, repressive regimes and instead advance US and multilateral initiatives that promote democracy, human rights, and economic, environmental, and climate justice. The only path to greater U.S. security is greater human security worldwide. Although fundamental political, economic, and social transformations will take decades, they are the only solution to crises in Africa and the global south.

The post Lessons from Africa: Military Intervention Fails to Counter Terrorism appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Elizabeth Schmidt is professor emeritus of history at Loyola University Maryland and the author of six books about Africa. Her most recent book, available for free download, is Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the War on Terror.

[Category: Environment, Human Rights, War & Peace, AFRICOM, boko haram, Civilian Casualties, climate justice, Corruption, Islamists, Mali intervention, poverty, Terrorism, U.S. military intervention]

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[l] at 3/26/20 12:59pm


This article builds on a multipart essay series entitled Beyond Eurocentrism and U.S. Exceptionalism.

The COVID-19 pandemic is global, but national responses have spanned a wide spectrum. After initial denial, China mobilized massively and appears to be winning its battle against the virus. Several close neighbors of China — Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea — reacted quickly and decisively, taking advantage of systems set up to counter earlier epidemics.

But Italy and other European countries, as well as Iran, were slow to respond, and the United States is even more laggard, making all these countries vulnerable to exponential rates of infection.

African countries, with the help of the World Health Organization, responded quickly, and the case count at this writing still mainly consists of imported cases from Europe. But the rapid growth that is almost inevitable in Africa could quickly overwhelm poorly resourced health systems. And social distancing is impossible for the majority of Africa’s population.

On March 23, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown intended to curb the virus, with plans to mobilize national resources to protect South African formal and informal workers as well as businesses. His speech, available on YouTube and as a transcript, was detailed and determined. But implementation will be extraordinarily difficult.

Much of Latin America and South Asia is in a similar situation, along with many countries in other regions. And, as in the United States, investments in public health institutions have been eroded by austerity policies in countries around the world.

The Trigger, Not The Cause

At national and global levels, the pandemic has already led to drastic economic consequences, for the stock market and for the real economy. But the disease is the trigger rather than the only cause of these problems, notes Marxist economist Michael Roberts in an extended blog post. “That’s because,” he explains, “the profitability of capital is low and global profits are static at best, even before COVID-19 erupted. Global trade and investment have been falling, not rising.”

Households and government institutions at all levels face challenges that are coming fast, and a fast learning curve is imperative if we are to survive. At an individual level, we are learning rapidly that social distancing, which is really physical distancing, is essential. Along with reaching out to our families and personal networks, we know we must mobilize support for essential health workers, grocery workers, and others who are required to work on the frontlines despite personal risks. One among many such creative efforts is a project in New York City that organizes unemployed gig drivers to deliver meals to vulnerable seniors.

At national level, the pandemic is revealing the failures of our institutions and testing their capacity to adapt. Policy debates show sharp contrasts between those who would use the crisis to blame others and accentuate inequalities and those who are questioning entrenched assumptions about the role of government in defending common interests.

Resistance to learning lessons is most firmly entrenched in the Trump administration and the Republican Party. But the pressure to bail out the rich and neglect the most vulnerable is widespread, despite calls for a different course, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren´s conditions for corporate bailouts, or this proposal to follow Denmark’s ambitious stimulus example.

At the global level, it is past time both for mutual learning and for solidarity. And on both counts, the United States is behind the curve.

Global Learning

Within specialized scientific communities, scientists from China, the United States, and other countries are in contact regularly to share research about the virus. “Preprint” articles appear daily on sites such as medRxiv. Although these articles have not been formally peer reviewed or published, they are an important means of airing new ideas and receiving scientific feedback. When one such article in early February sparked the viral spread of a conspiracy theory on Twitter, pushback was immediate, and the faulty article was withdrawn within days of its release.

At the policy level, however, ingrained institutional and cultural biases block rapid learning. This is particularly true in the United States, with its longstanding hubris and belief in U.S. exceptionalism.

Mainstream commentators, such as foreign policy veteran Dennis Ross, are already lamenting the U.S. failure to provide global leadership. But their emphasis is on how the United States is “losing” geopolitical ground to China rather than on the missed opportunity to learn from other countries´ experiences, including South Korea as well as China. Such learning is happening, but the pace is still limited by assumptions of U.S. exceptionalism and the lack of established bilateral channels at the level of governmental institutions.

There is also the need for more fundamental questioning of the models of industrial agriculture that analysts say have fueled the rise of zoonotic diseases, as natural habitats are invaded by human populations. According to a new report from the African Centre for Biodiversity:

“Most pandemics in fact, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more, have their roots in environmental change and ecosystem disturbances. These infectious zoonotic diseases originate from animals, wild and domesticated. These diseases are magnified through the erosion of ecosystem health, deforestation, biodiversity loss, ecosystem destruction and the removal of essential, natural, protective barriers.”

The point is also developed in a recent interview with Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu. Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Walden Bello argues that both Western and Chinese models of capitalism share this extractivist orientation.

Global Solidarity

With the United States struggling to confront the coronavirus at home, the country’s capacity to provide solidarity to other countries is very limited. Help will have to come from elsewhere when, as expected, the global pandemic and its economic impact land with full force on Africa and other vulnerable regions. If the United States wanted to help efficiently, it could immediately provide additional financial support to multilateral agencies such as the World Health OrganizationUNICEF, as well as a UN special fund being launched.

The UN Secretary General on March 19 eloquently called for global solidarity:

“We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations — one that is spreading human suffering, infecting the global economy and upending people’s lives. A global recession — perhaps of record dimensions — is a near certainty.”

Saudi Arabia, the current chair of the G-20 group of major economic powers, has called a virtual summit for this week at the urging of India. Although the potential for agreement on common action is uncertain, it is very likely that China will play a major role, and that the United States will be irrelevant at best.

Already China is taking the lead, not only in dealing with the virus at home, but also in providing supplies and expertise to other countries. Initiatives are coming both from the Chinese government and from the Chinese private sector. Billionaire Jack Ma, for example, has provided 500,000 test kits and 1 million masks to the United States. He has also shipped 1.1 million testing kits and 6 million masks to Ethiopia to be distributed by Ethiopian Airlines around the African continent.

Cuba is not a member of the G-20, but it has continued its decades-long tradition of medical solidarity. When a British cruise ship in the Caribbean was denied entry by the United States and other countries, Cuba accepted the almost 1,000 passengers, including 50 with symptoms of coronavirus, and provided secure transport to meet chartered planes to fly them back to Britain. And last week, Cuba sent more than 50 doctors to northern Italy to join the battle there against coronavirus. A Facebook video of their arrival on March 22 gained almost 4 million viewers within 24 hours.

Like the climate crisis and economic inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic may not at first glance seem to be a “foreign policy” issue. But it powerfully points up the need to forge a global perspective — and global alliances — without delay. Progressives must lead the way, and the coronavirus is an immediate opportunity to change the way we think to always recognize domestic and global realities as intertwined. Both self-interest and moral values make this imperative.

The post Can Coronavirus Be a Catalyst for Thinking Globally? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality. William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin.

[Category: Health, Labor, Trade, & Finance, agriculture, climate change, farming, pandemic, Public Health, science]

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[l] at 3/25/20 1:08pm

Donald Trump meets Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. (Photo: Israel FMA / Flickr / creative commons)

The far right thrives on fear. It’s no surprise, then, that it would use the latest pandemic, which has generated widespread panic, to bolster its own agenda.

All of the hallmarks of the far right are in play during the current crisis. It has pushed to close borders. It has demonized foreigners and particularly border-crossers. It has spread a variety of conspiracy theories. And where it is in power — Hungary, Israel — it has moved to increase that power through emergency measures.

On the other hand, the incompetent response of some right-wing leaders — Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — may well set back the far right in certain countries. Moreover, the scale of the threat has put on the table the kind of large-scale transformative policies that hitherto circulated only on the margins.

So, which way will COVID-19 ultimately push the political pendulum?

From Denial to Weaponization

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were in the White House today.

The far right, led by the head of the anti-Hillary forces, Donald Trump, would have immediately used the “China virus” to demand that the Clinton administration close all borders and ban all immigrants and refugees. Under ordinary conditions, in other words, the far right would have had a field day in the United States using the coronavirus threat to advance its xenophobic agenda in the face of a liberal, cautious Washington consensus.

But with Trump in the Oval Office rather than sitting on the sidelines lobbing the pundit’s equivalent of Molotov cocktails, the far right started out in denial. When the pandemic began in China at the end of December, after all, it was far away and it was not infecting Americans. Even when the pathogen was detected for the first time in the United States on January 21 — in a young man returning to Washington state from China — right-wing pundits continued to downplay the risk for weeks on end.

On February 24, for instance, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience that “the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

He would say on another occasion that the greater threat to the country was Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party more generally. Just as becoming president didn’t make Trump more presidential in conduct, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom clearly didn’t make Limbaugh any more professional in conduct.

The breakdown of concern among Americans has followed the political contours of the country. Writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic this week:

A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.

As the Trump administration finally switched into its own incompetent version of engagement, some sections of the far right zoomed well past the denial phase. Those of a survivalist and apocalyptic bent are already halfway to their bunkers, with Alex Jones of Infowars infamy trying to profit off the panic by raising the prices on his prepper products. It’s part of a more general wave of profiteering that encompasses Amazon price-gougers and traffickers of inside information like Richard Burr (R-NC) in the Senate.

Neo-Nazis and sovereignists, meanwhile, are rejoicing at the failures of the federal state to handle the crisis. They are anticipating the realization of their cherished dream: the collapse of the liberal order. Still other extremists in the QAnon camp believe that Trump will use the virus as a pretext to arrest members of a global liberal pedophile ring (like Trump, they simply double down when their assertions are proven wrong, as in the Comet Pizza debacle).

Then there’s the blame game. Jerry Falwell fingered North Korea as the culprit behind the coronavirus. California Republican Joanne Wright, like many of her tribe, has asserted that China manufactured the disease but added the twist that Bill Gates financed the plot. And it wouldn’t be a wacky right-wing conspiracy if George Soros somehow weren’t implicated as well.

Chinese and Asians more generally have faced a terrifying uptick in attacks and discrimination. With the appearance of each new hotspot — Iran, Italy — targeted xenophobia has been sure to follow. Soon, thanks to Trump, it will be Americans in the crosshairs.

As far as the American far right’s anti-immigrant agenda, the Trump administration is already carrying that water. Trump closed the border with Mexico. He announced that all undocumented trying to get into this country will be summarily turned back.

Even the migrant workers who are seasonally granted H2-A visas to work on American farms are finding it difficult to cross the border. Farm owners pushed back against a ban, forcing the administration to accept workers previously granted such visas. But the absence of new workers will still leave U.S. agriculture dangerously understaffed.

Borderline Issue

For decades, Europe has been at war with itself over borders — both its internal borders and its borders with the rest of the world. The coronavirus has taken that war to a new level.

The overwhelming obsession of the far right in Europe has been to reduce or eliminate immigration from points east and south. Some political parties, like Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland, even support “remigration”: namely, forcing established immigrants to leave the country.

The coronavirus offers the far right yet another arrow in its quiver. “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. “There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, far-right leader Matteo Salvini has used the pandemic to push his “closed ports” policy. In February, even as the outbreak was gathering steam in his country, Salvini declared that “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there was only one reported case on the whole continent, in Egypt.

In Germany, the identitarian movement hung banners proclaiming “Defend Our Borders” on the Brandenburg Gate, once a potent symbol of the erased border between east and west Germany. Throughout Europe, far-right parties were retooling their “great replacement” narrative — that immigrants are poised to overwhelm majority populations — to incorporate the coronavirus. The threat that outsiders supposedly pose to the health of nations has long been a singular obsession of fascists.

It wasn’t just the threat from outside Europe.

In 1995, seven European nations created the Schengen Area, which abolished their internal border controls and visa requirements. Eventually becoming subject to European Union law, the area expanded to include 26 states. Practically from the beginning, the far right has taken aim at Schengen as an unacceptable abridgement of sovereignty. It has argued that Schengen makes control of immigrants more difficult (as with the influx of Tunisians into Italy in 2011) and compromised anti-terrorist policing (in the wake of a terrorism suspect’s flight from Germany to Italy in 2016). Still, Schengen survived.

What the far right wasn’t able to do, the coronavirus managed in a matter of weeks. Some members reestablished internal border controls without notifying the EU Commission, as required by the Schengen Border Code. These moves prompted the EU to declare last week that all internal borders will be closed for 30 days. The next step for the far right, and its more mainstream conservative allies, is to try to make this temporary change permanent.

Separating the Competent…

For some illiberal leaders, the coronavirus is like a golden ticket. It allows them to sweep away what remains of the rule of law in their countries.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary moves to hang onto power. Up until recently, things weren’t looking so good for Bibi. He was supposed to go on trial this week for corruption. The last election provided a narrow victory to his opposition, and the head of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, was given first shot at forming a government.

But the coronavirus, a death sentence for so many people, has been a lifeline for Netanyahu.

As part of a more general lockdown, the prime minister froze the judiciary. And that just happened to put his own trial on hold. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Knesset, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned this week and closed down parliament rather than allow a vote to elect his successor, who would likely have been from the Blue and White alliance.

Because of new rules that limit public gathering, it’s impossible for people to come out on the streets to protest any of this. It goes further, as Gershon Gorenberg explains in The Washington Post. Even as the government was freezing the justice system…

Netanyahu himself announced that the government would use electronic means to track the locations of citizens in an effort to enforce self-isolation. That quickly turned out to mean giving the Shin Bet security service the power to locate people via their cellphones. That measure, an extreme infringement on civil rights, should be vetted by a Knesset committee. Instead, Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.

Think of it as a stealth coup. Plus the transformation of Israel into a police state. Or, put another way, Israelis are now going to understand a little more of what Palestinians have known for a long time.

Viktor Orban has done something similar in Hungary. He has put a new law in front of parliament that would give his government extraordinary power to detain pretty much anyone, as Kim Lane Scheppele points out in Hungarian Spectrum.

Anyone who publicizes false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public — or that alarm or agitate that public — could be punished by up to five years in prison. And anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result.

The first set of controls is aimed at what remains of an independent press in Hungary. The second could incarcerate anyone who objects to anything the Orban government does.

As if that’s not enough, the prime minister could, according to the proposal, “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” These would be permanent changes in Hungarian law.

Many sectors of Hungarian civil society have vehemently opposed this proposed “enabling act.” And parliament failed to pass the bill on the first attempt this week. But it’s likely that Orban will try again next week, relying on his party’s comfortable majority in parliament to get it through.

…From the Incompetent

Donald Trump’s dangerously ill-informed response to the coronavirus — including such basic failures as providing test kits and other basic resources to hospitals — has incredibly not spelled his political demise.

According to a recent Monmouth poll, 50 percent of Americans think he’s done a good job versus only 45 percent who give him poor marks. His approval rating has even increased a couple points. That might change as the casualties rise, particularly if the president attempts to end the policies of social isolation early, as he has threatened to do. Or it might not, if the virus disproportionately affects blue urban areas.

For all his incompetence, Trump hasn’t been so stupid as to miss the political opportunity to push through parts of his cherished economic agenda, like further tax cuts. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is asking Congress for new emergency powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. The Trump administration is clearly looking to Israel and Hungary as examples.

Other incompetent leaders, however, may not survive politically.

Jair Bolsonaro has largely followed the same script as Trump by downplaying the risk of the pandemic. On March 15, despite having been in close contact with several members of his administration who’d already contracted the disease, Bolsanaro joined a demonstration of his supporters where he touched a reported 272 people. The president has claimed that his tests have come back negative. He also continues to argue that the crisis is little more than a media conspiracy.

Millions of people appeared last week at their windows in the big cities to bang pots and pans in a demand for Bolsonaro to step down. Even some of his conservative backers are outraged and have turned against him. After declaring in a December column in the conservative Estado de São Paulo that Bolsonaro is “unbeatable” in the next election, political commentator Eliane Cantanhêde argued more recently, “I think he’s fatally wounded for the election [in 2022] … If the election was held today there is a big chance Bolsonaro would be defeated.”

COVID-19 affects people differently depending on their underlying conditions. The same holds true for politicians. The most fit will survive while the politically weak will be weeded out.

Time for Transformation

Nuclear apocalypse is hypothetical. The worst effects of climate change are in the future. Neither nuclear disarmament nor radical cuts in carbon emissions have been on table because of the unfortunate tendency of politicians to minimize the risks and ignore the already considerable short-term impacts.

The coronavirus crisis is not abstract. It’s happening right now. Country after country has imposed quarantines, dramatically changing how people live, work, and interact. Governments are considering massive bailouts to save the economy and bolster medical systems. But those are just quick fixes.

“We changed the way we live, work and travel to counter this pandemic, why can we not do the same to counter the climate emergency?” asks Lorenzo Marsili in Al Jazeera. “Why should we go back to a deadly status quo now that we know it is within our power to transform the way we live and organise our economy and society?”

When the quarantines end, as they inevitably will, the world will experience the same kind of rebound in carbon emissions that happened after the end of the 2009 financial crisis. So, the economic response to this pandemic must incorporate features of the Green New Deal or we will be jumping out of a frying pan and into a literal fire.

COVID-19 is a near-death experience for the human race. Just as individuals often react to such experiences by transforming their lives, the current crisis should force a reevaluation of the status quo.

Anything less will be just a temporary stay of execution.

The post The Politics of the Coronavirus appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Labor, Trade, & Finance, Benjamin Netanyahu, coronavirus, covid-19, Donald Trump, immigration, israel elections, Jair Bolsonaro, matteo salvini, pandemic, Public Health, Schengen Area, Viktor Orban]

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[l] at 3/25/20 9:18am

An empty street in quarantined Turin, Italy (Shutterstock)

As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.


Italy has the fourth largest economy in the European Union, and in terms of health care, it is certainly in a better place than the United States. Per capita, Italy has more hospital beds — so-called “surge capacity” — and more doctors and more ventilators. Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention British, French, Germans, Swedes, and Finns. The virus has had an especially fatal impact on northern Italy, the country’s richest region.

There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, right-wing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Aging Out

Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. It did not get that way by accident.

Right-wing parties have long targeted immigrants, even though Italy’s immigrant population — a little over 600,000 — is not large by international standards. Calling immigrants a “threat to European values” has been the rallying cry for the right in France, Germany, Hungry, Poland, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain as well.

In the last Italian election, the League and its then ally, the Five Star Movement, built their campaigns around resisting immigration. Anti-immigrant parties also did well in Spain, and certainly played a major role in pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.

Resistance to immigration plays a major role in “graying” the population. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, surpassing only Japan. The demographic effects of this are “an apocalypse,” according to former Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years,” she continued, “we have lost more than 66,000 births” per year — more than the population of the city of Siena. “If we link this to this increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

According to the World Health Organization, the ideal birth-death replacement ratio in advanced countries is 2.1. Italy’s is 1.32., which means not only an older population, but also fewer working age people to pay the taxes that fund the social infrastructure, including health care.

As long as there is no major health crisis, countries muddle though. But when something like the coronavirus arrives, it exposes the underlying weaknesses of the system.

Some 60 percent of Italians are over 40, and 23 percent are over 65. It is demographics like these that make Covid-19 so lethal.

From age 10 to 39, the virus has a death rate of 0.2 percent, more deadly than influenza, but not overly so. But starting at age 40, the death rate starts to rise, reaching 8 percent for adults aged 70 to 79, and then jumping to 14.8 percent over 80. The average age of coronavirus deaths in Italy is 81.


In addition to its graying population, today Italy is being haunted by the years of austerity that followed the global recession a decade ago.

When the economic meltdown hit Europe in 2008, the European Union responded by instituting painful austerity measures that targeted things like health care. Over the past 10 years, Italy has cut some 37 billion euros from its health system. The infrastructure that could have dealt with a health crisis like Covid-19 was hollowed out, so that when the disease hit, there simply weren’t enough resources to resist it.

Add to that the age of Italians, and the outcome was almost foreordained.

The issues in Italy’s 2018 election were pretty straightforward: slow growth, high youth unemployment, a starving education system, and a deteriorating infrastructure — Rome was almost literally drowning in garbage. But instead of the failed austerity strategy of the EU, the main election theme became immigration, a subject that had nothing to do with Italy’s economic crisis, troubled banking sector, or burdensome national debt.

Berlusconi, leader of the right-wing Forza Italia Party, said “All these immigrants live off of trickery and crime.” Forza made common cause with the fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader, Giorgia Meloni, called for halting immigrants with a “naval blockade.”

The main voice of the xenophobic campaign, however, was Salvini and the League. Immigrants, he said, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape, and violence,” and pose a threat to the “white race.”

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Mario joined the immigrant bashing, if not with quite the vitriol of Berlusconi, Salvini, and Meloni. The center-left Democratic Party ducked the issue, leaving the field to the right.

The outcome was predictable: the Democratic Party was routed and the Five Star Movement and League swept into power. Salvini took the post of Interior Minister and actually instituted a naval blockade, a violation of international law and the 1982 Law of the Sea.

Eventually the League and Five Star had a falling out, and Salvini was ousted from his post, but the damage was done. The desperately needed repairs to infrastructure and investments in health care were shelved. When Covid-19 stuck, Italy was unprepared.

Italy’s Not Alone

Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, where more than a decade of austerity policies have weakened health care systems all over the continent.

Nor is Italy facing a demographic catastrophe alone. The EU-wide replacement ratio is a tepid 1.58, with only France and Ireland approaching — but not reaching — 2.1.

If Germany does not increase the number of migrants it takes, the population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, reducing the workforce to 54 percent of the population — not enough to keep up with current levels of social spending. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that Germany will need 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at current levels.

Spain — which saw the right-wing anti-immigration party do well in the last election — is bleeding population, particularly in small towns, some 1,500 of which have been abandoned. Spain has weathered a decade and a half of austerity, which damaged the country’s health care infrastructure. After Italy, Spain is the European country hardest hit by Covid-19.

As populations age, immigrants become a necessity. Not only is new blood needed to fill in the work needs of economies, broadening the tax base that pays for infrastructure, but, old people also need caretaking, as the Japanese have found out. After centuries of xenophobic policies that made immigration to Japan almost impossible, the Japanese have been forced to accept large numbers of migrants to staff senior facilities.

The United States will face a similar crisis if the Trump administration is successful in choking off immigration. While the U.S. replacement ratio is higher than the EU’s, it still falls under 2.1, and that will have serious demographic consequences in the long run.

It may be that a for-profit health system like the U.S. model simply can’t cope with a pandemic because it finds maintaining adequate surge capacity in hospital beds, ventilators, and staff reduces stockholders’ dividends. And public health care systems in Europe — which have better outcomes than the American system’s — only work if they are well funded.

To the biblical four horsemen — war, famine, wild beasts, and plague — we can add two more: profits and austerity.

The post How Austerity and Anti-Immigrant Politics Left Italy Exposed appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Conn Hallinan can be read at www.dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.worpress.com and www.middleempireseries.wordpress.com. 

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Labor, Trade, & Finance, austerity, birth rate, coronavirus, covid-19, health care, immigration, Public Health, social safety net]

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[l] at 3/25/20 7:14am


From treating the crisis like a “hoax” to botching the rollout of tests, the federal government has already made a series of decisions that are worsening the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s announcement that the United States will bar asylum seekers at the border is yet another that will guarantee more death and suffering as the infection unfolds. That is why ending the detention of immigrants and allowing people stuck at the border entry is not only the humane thing to do: It is also what will best serve public health.

This may come as a surprise. Isn’t the best approach right now to limit movement? Shouldn’t people stay where they are? Why then would the United States open its borders to large numbers of people seeking entry?

To answer these questions, we have to look at the situation that the policies have already caused.

We all remember the past two years’ worth of horrific photos and videos of children and adults packed into animal cages in detention centers, suffering obvious neglect. Or people detained under bridges in Texas when their numbers exceeded the capacity of the Border Patrol to hold them indoors.

There is an unfolding conversation about the fact that prisons, jails and other carceral facilities pose a special threat to public health in light of the coronavirus outbreak. The basic recommendations from the CDC, such as regularly washing hands and keeping a distance between people, are impossible to follow in the dirty, overcrowded conditions behind bars.

As Homer Venter, a physician formerly employed at Rikers Island, has said, “Jails and prisons may actually drive this epidemic curve up. These are places that can serve as reservoirs or accelerators of an outbreak.”

This is true for immigrant detention too. And yet, the drive to detain more—particularly the crackdown that Trump promised targeting migrants in sanctuary cities—continues. ICE agents are carrying out raids in California with respiratory masks.

At the same time as the attack on immigrants has produced dangerous and inhumane conditions in U.S. detention facilities, it has also created a parallel crisis and public health timebomb at the border.

A combination of policies, from the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program) that forces asylum seekers awaiting legal proceedings to wait south of the border, to so-called “metering”—allowing a tiny number of people to apply for asylum at the border each day—has produced a bottleneck for people seeking entry to the country. Predictably, makeshift camps of thousands have emerged in cities on the Mexican side of the border, such as Tijuana, Matamoros and Juarez as people patiently await entry.

One does not need to be an epidemiologist to understand why forcing large numbers of families into squalid camps, exposed to the elements, with no running water and minimal access to medical attention makes them vulnerable to countless health threats—especially a highly contagious infection spread by sneezing and coughing.

The well-being of these people should be enough to pursue a humane approach rather than abandoning them. But leaving them susceptible to certain infection, without the possibility of treatment, not only threatens those stuck in the camps. It threatens the health of the public at large.

If there is one biology lesson that the whole world is learning, it is that infectious disease travels. By keeping asylum seekers out of the country and effectively forcing them into informal encampments to survive, the U.S. government has put them in tremendous danger. It has also stoked the fuel for wildfires of infection that will easily spread and be difficult to put out. The impact will inevitably go beyond the camps and affect others in the U.S. and Mexico.

What can be done?

This is actually a problem all over the world. Many governments have pursued policies similar to Trump’s, and aid agencies are bracing for what happens when coronavirus hits the world’s refugee camps.

The promise of the Trump administration—and of other governments around the world that are closing their borders—that this will defend the nation from infection is a false one.

It is important to say, given incredible racism and xenophobia infusing the right wing’s language about the crisis (e.g. Trump calling coronavirus “the Chinese Virus”), that migrants at the border, or anywhere else, should not be seen as vectors for disease. They are human beings who have been put in a situation where infection was unavoidable. But just as government policies created those circumstances, new ones can end them.

And it is urgent that they be ended. What can be done?

First, as RAICES, the Detention Watch Network and hundreds of other organizations have called for, all immigration raids should immediately be suspended, and those detained should be released. Rather than add more people to U.S. detention facilities, they should be emptied.

And regarding its policies at the border, the United States needs to completely reverse course. As the Washington Office on Latin America and more than 150 other organizations recently demanded, the “Migrant Protection Protocols” should be ended. The United States should allow asylum seekers to enter the U.S. quickly and efficiently, and pursue due process in safety on this side of the border, which is their right under both international and U.S. law.

How could the U.S. government handle large numbers of people who no doubt have compromised health and very likely have been exposed to coronavirus? It can start by providing to them what everyone who has been potentially exposed to the virus deserves: testing, and treatment for those who test positive.

The government should also take responsibility for the safety of asylum seekers and refugees. Many of those trapped at the border have family and friends they are hoping to reunite with in cities and towns across the United States. It should be up to public health experts and medical professionals to decide if it makes sense for people to travel to these destinations. If so, the government should transport them safely and efficiently.

If the proposal that the government ferry immigrants seems strange or unreasonable, consider the fact that it already invests resources in transporting them—out of the country. The U.S. government uses commercial aircraft all the time to deport immigrants. Could it not use them, in an emergency, to transport people to their U.S. destinations instead? With a steep decline in air travel, there are plenty of grounded planes available.

Perhaps it makes more sense to direct people to particular locations, such as the border region or elsewhere, for now as the crisis unfolds—another question for public health and immigration policy experts. And no doubt there are people at the border who do not yet have homes in the United States to come to.

We have the capacity to house these people, as we do homeless people on this side of the border. As research from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has shown, millions of vacant housing units exist across the country. Organizations like People’s Action have been arguing that housing a right for all since before the outbreak.

Referring to the wealth that the United States invests year after year in militarism, race and housing scholar Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor argues that “we can divert billions of dollars toward the construction of low-rise apartment housing throughout cities.” This is true for everybody in this country, regardless of where they happened to be born.

Solidarity, not fear

In other words, the pandemic rippling through the world should force us to transform our society in ways that we should have before this crisis.

There is nothing to celebrate about the doom unfolding, and this will be a time with much darkness and pain. But it is also one that extends us an opportunity to reimagine what kind of society we want. It can be one that takes care of the most vulnerable as part of building a better world for all.

At the moment, we are headed in the opposite direction—a further entrenchment of the violence and inequality that made so many so vulnerable to COVID 19 and other dangers. Trump’s latest attacks on asylum seekers deepen the injustice and endanger us all. We have a choice. Release detainees, welcome asylum seekers, and give them the care that they need.

Solidarity, not fear, will allow us all to survive this outbreak.

This article was produced in partnership with InTheseTimes.com.

The post Open the Borders. Open the Prison Gates. Don’t Sacrifice a Single Person to This Virus. appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Human Rights, CBP, coronavirus, covid-19, ice, immigration, immigration detention, pandemic, Public Health, Refugees, remain in mexico, Solidarity, Trump administration]

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[l] at 3/24/20 9:47am

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at Arlington National Cemetery (U.S. Army photo by Rachel Larue via Wikimedia Commons)

With the number of coronavirus infections and disease-related deaths rising rapidly in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte addressed the nation on March 16. “In the coming period, a large proportion of the Dutch population will become infected with this virus,” he said. “As we wait for a vaccine or treatment to be developed, we can delay the spread of the virus and at the same time build up population immunity in a controlled manner.”

The phrase “group immunity” provoked a very heated discussion. Far-right party leader Geert Wilders accused Rutte of conducting “an experiment with people” that could be “catastrophic.” Jaap van Dissel, a senior expert at the Dutch health agency RIVM and adviser to the Cabinet, said that too much meaning was being given to the phrase, saying it was not the goal of the current measures but a consequence of them.

This controversy takes place against the backdrop of the overall Dutch response to the crisis, which had until recently been notably less stringent than that of other European countries. During parliamentary debate on March 17, which lasted more than seven hours, Health Minister Bruno Bruins collapsed from exhaustion and had to be escorted out of the chamber. Wilders called for a full lockdown, which was supported by another far-right leader, Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy.

“Most politicians try to avoid panic and radiate unity. But Wilders and Baudet do the exact opposite,” observes Rob de Wijk, professor of international relations and security at Leiden University and founder of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS).

It is shocking that these politicians are only interested in the political gain that the crisis can bring. Arguing now, in high tones, for more measures that will inevitably come, but for which the time is apparently not yet ripe, makes it possible to say the day after tomorrow that this should have happened long ago, that these measures have been taken thanks to them …. Can’t Rutte make mistakes? That will have to be seen in the evaluation that will ones appear. Perhaps the Dutch approach was excellent, perhaps it was disastrous. We do not know. What I do know is that now is not the time for political games.

Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst predicted last Wednesday that the Netherlands would likely soon change its approach. “They still have under 50 dead, but they’re getting close — 100 dead and this policy is changing,” he said. “And at that moment it is going to be too late, or very late, to take the same measures as Belgium is taking now.”

Until recently,  tourists from Belgium and Germany were taking advantage of the less stringent controls in the Netherlands to cross the border to do some shopping and visit a pub or two.

On March 23, however, the Dutch government issued new regulations banning all public gatherings until June 1 and urging citizens to stay at home.

For his part, King Willem-Alexander addressed the nation on March 20. The monarch, who is perceived as a symbol of unity but has limited political power, provided little more than rhetoric. So, I felt compelled to criticize him. But then again, there is no doubt that his words were sincere. And surely people have a need for reassurance.

In his address, the king urged people to find it in their hearts to be as compassionate and assertive as possible during the coronavirus pandemic. He also offered his gratitude and praise for many of the hardest working people in the country. He didn’t speculate or take part in the discussion on the Cabinet’s measures. He doesn’t claim to know whether they should be more or less restrictive. He simply calls them “drastic but necessary.”

The words and meanings most pronounced in this speech were: compassion, solidarity, alertness, kindness, respect, and gratitude. “The efforts being made in many fields are exceptional,” he noted. “That of course includes our doctors and nurses… Thousands of former healthcare professionals and other volunteers are coming forward to offer their help. That’s fantastic.”

Besides medical personnel, he cited employees of the other vital sectors as well. “We realise all too well how essential the people are who are helping to prevent our society from coming to a complete standstill,” he continued. “Those working in logistics, supermarkets, the cleaning sector, ICT, education, childcare, public transport, the police and many other fields. You are carrying us through this extremely difficult time. Without you, we simply could not manage. Thank you so much.”

It should be the task of politicians in power to reinforce this gratitude and not only by verbal means. It is incumbent on everybody else to behave with humility toward those who cannot work from home and who are usually less well compensated for their labor.

The king’s speech didn’t offer any news of miraculous vaccines. But his words nevertheless can have a curative effect:

The Netherlands wouldn’t be the Netherlands if people didn’t spontaneously offer their help. People willing to lend a hand in nearby care homes. People volunteering to work for a helpline. Students offering to babysit for parents in key professions. The Coronavirus has unleashed an incredible amount of positive energy, creativity and public-spiritedness…These are the qualities we will be needing not only for the time being, but certainly also later on should things get even more challenging. Alertness, solidarity and kindness: as long as we can sustain these qualities, we will be able to tackle this crisis together, even if it lasts for some time. 2020 will be a year to remember. Everyone will experience it differently. But I hope and believe that feelings of solidarity and pride will prevail and bring us all closer, as we get through this most difficult of times together.

The post The King’s Speech appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Mira Oklobdzija is an independent researcher, activist, sociologist and anthropologist. For the last 12 years, she was a researcher on the team of experts working for the office of the Prosecutor at the UN ICTY. Her books include Revolution between Freedom and Dictatorship and, with Slobodan Drakulic and Claudio Venza, Urban Guerilla in Italy, as well as a number of articles dealing with human rights, political violence, war crimes, reconciliation, migrations, human nature, xenophobia, marginal groups, and outsiders. She lives in The Hague, Netherlands.

[Category: Health, coronavirus, covid-19, geert wilders, King Willem-Alexander, Mark Rutte, netherlands]

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[l] at 3/22/20 2:32pm


The Covid 19 pandemic is the second major crisis of globalization in a decade. The first was the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, from which the global economy took years to reach a semblance of recovery. We did not learn our lessons from the first, and this is perhaps why the impact of the second has been even more massive.

Trillions of dollars of paper wealth went up in smoke during the 2008 crisis, but few cried for the out-of-control financial players who had triggered the crisis. More serious were the impacts on the real economy.

Tens of millions of people lost their jobs, with 25 million in China alone in the second half of 2008. Air cargo plunged 20 percent in one year. Global supply chains, many of whose links were in China, were severely disrupted.

The Economist lamented that the “integration of the world economy is in retreat on almost every front,” adding that “some critics of capitalism seem happy about it—like Walden Bello, a Philippine economist, who can perhaps claim to have coined the word [deglobalization] with his book, Deglobalization: Ideas for a New World Economy.”

Challenging Globalization

What was this “deglobalization” the Economist was so wary about?

It was, among other things, about making the domestic market again the center of gravity of the economy rather than the global market. And to do this, it not only proposed using tariffs and quotas to preserve local industry and agriculture from being overrun by the products of transnational corporations, but also putting into effect an activist trade policy to build up the capacity to support the national economy in a sustainable way.

But it was not simply specific policy proposals that the partisans of globalization feared but its fundamental perspective, which questioned the very basis of social relations under capitalism.

Deglobalization, we wrote, “is, at its core, an ethical perspective. It prioritizes values above interests, cooperation above competition, and community above ‘efficiency.’”

This perspective translates into “effective economics, which strengthens social solidarity by subordinating the operations of the market to the values of equity, justice, and community…To use the language of the great Hungarian thinker Karl Polanyi, deglobalization is about ‘reembedding’ the economy and the marker in society, instead of having society driven by the economy and the market.”

Globalization Recovers

Deglobalization was not the only alternative way of organizing economic life that emerged during this period of crisis. But contrary to the Economist’s fears, and to our dismay, all were brushed aside and, after the depths of the recession in 2009, there was a return to business as usual. Though the world entered what orthodox economists called a phase of “secular stagnation,” or low growth with continuing high unemployment, export-oriented production via global supply chains and world trade resumed their forward march.

In China, most of the $585 billion stimulus earmarked for social spending by the government amidst the crisis was hijacked by the dominant export lobby, which channeled the funds to the enterprises and local governments of the eastern and southeastern coasts of the country that had become the center of a global “Sino-centric” division of labor in manufacturing industries.

Carbon emissions had decelerated in the depths of the crisis, but they now resumed their upward trend. Air cargo traffic rebounded and air travel grew even more spectacularly. After declining by 1.2 percent in 2009, air travel grew annually by an average of 6.5 percent between 2010 and 2019.

“Connectivity” in transport, particularly air transport, was supposed to be key to successful globalization. As the director general of the powerful International Air Transport Association put it, “Dampening demand for air connectivity risks high quality jobs, and economic activity dependent on global mobility… Governments must understand that globalization has made our world more socially and economically prosperous. Inhibiting globalization with protectionism will see opportunities lost.”

Aside from the desire to speed up the flow of commodities through global supply chains, the demand for air connectivity was fueled by the desire of the global airline industry to cash in on the explosion of outbound Chinese tourism. In 2018, Chinese made 149 million overseas trips, a figure that exceeded those of other countries, including the United States.

Not only the airlines but large parts of the service sector of many countries became dependent on the massive influx of Chinese tourists, who spent over $130 billion overseas in 2018. In Thailand, the country most visited by Chinese tourists, over 11 million of whom came in 2019, tourism accounted for a whopping 11 percent of GDP.

The Extreme Right Hijacks Deglobalization

In the global North, center right and center left governments focused on saving financial institutions at the expense of people, with much of Europe, especially in the South, marked by economies in recession and high unemployment, and with the United States still having more people unemployed by 2015 than at the beginning of the financial crisis.

While the established elites remained unquestioning in their adherence to globalization, radical right-wing personalities and parties saw a golden opportunity in the bitterness of workers at continuing unemployment and their widespread concern that they were losing their jobs as corporations continued to move their operations to China or consigned them to Chinese subcontractors, like Apple did with Foxxcon, which was notorious for its exploitative labor practices.

Formerly identified with neoliberal economic proposals, many extreme right-wing parties opportunistically hijacked parts of the anti-globalization critique that had been espoused by the non-establishment left, like calls for protection of workers’ livelihoods and bringing back industries, but giving them a racist or anti-migrant twist.

Workers’ defection from the Democratic Party or their sitting out the 2016 presidential elections in key Midwestern states resulted in Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections in 2016. And in office, Trump delivered on his promise to labor that he would dump President Obama’s pet project, the borderless Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Even more radical was his administration’s labeling China an “economic aggressor” and rooting the U.S. predicament not in failed neoliberal policies but in a conspiracy allegedly fomented by China, transnational corporations, and out-of-touch establishment elites. “Death by China,” screamed the title of the influential book of Trump’s key economic adviser, Peter Navarro.

China Champions Globalization and Connectivity

China, meanwhile, took advantage of the U.S. retreat into economic nationalism by promoting itself as the new champion of globalization.

At Davos in January 2017, President Xi Jin Ping said that “the global economy is the big ocean you cannot escape from,” and in which China had “learned to swim.” He called on world political and corporate leaders to “adapt to and guide globalization, cushion its negative impacts, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations.”

More than this, Xi offered to back up his words with a trillion dollar mega-program: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that evoked the fabled “silk routes” through which trade between China and Europe was carried out in early modern times.

This ambitious program consisting of dam-building, road and rail construction, setting up coal plants, and extractive ventures was geared to promote what Beijing called “global connectivity.” Originally meant to “link” Asia to Europe, BRI was opened up to every country on earth in 2015, so that there was no longer one belt and one road but multiple routes, including a “polar silk route.”

While the pro-globalization claque clapped, others were more skeptical.

Some saw the whole thing as simply a way to export the surplus capacity problem dogging Chinese heavy industry by lassoing countries with loans into massive capital intensive projects. Focus on the Global South described it as “an anachronistic transference to the 21st century of the technocratic capitalist, state socialist, and developmentalist mindset that produced the Hoover Dam in the U.S., the massive construction projects in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Three Gorges Dam in China, the Narmada Dam in India, and the Nam Theun 2 Dam in Laos. These are all testaments to what Arundhati Roy has called modernity’s ‘disease of gigantism.”

In 2019, despite a worsening trade war between China and the United States, globalization not only seemed to have recovered from the financial crisis ten years earlier but was having fresh wind in its sails. Despite rising production costs, China was chugging along, the undisputed workshop of the world owing to greater connectivity with the rest of the world.

More and more countries were buying into BRI’s promise of connectivity. Air travel was booming, with corporate executives, government officials, NGO top brass brought closer together by connectivity, which also brought exponentially increasing Chinese tourists to all parts of the world, making local destinations happy and asking for more.

Corona Connectivity

Then the virus.

Air connectivity becomes the medium for the transmission of a virus that seems to move at internet speed. The global economy grinds to a halt not only because of lockdowns to stop the virus, but also because China’s production lines stop, exposing the folly of having supply chains based on the principle of locating them where the unit costs of production are lowest, which is the raison d’etre of globalization.

The costs of subcontracting so much production to China are painfully revealed in the lack of essential medical equipment like Covid 19 test kits, syringes, and even simple face masks in the United States and Europe, not to say the rest of the pandemic-stricken world.

Yet, if there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it is perhaps that it has happened today rather than later, when the BRI might well have even more fatal consequences. As Sonia Shah recently pointed out in The Nation, viruses leaping from their animal hosts, to whom they bring no harm, to humans, to whom they do, has become increasingly frequent because humans are invading the habitats of wildlife by cutting down forests.

Sixty percent of microbial pathogens that have emerged over the last few decades come from animals, and two thirds of these come from wildlife. The World Wildlife Federation points out that the BRI will negatively impact some 1,700 biodiversity hotspots and about 265 species that are already at risk. Among the animals that face possible extinction or habitat destabilization from BRI are the rare Tanapuli orangutan, Sumatra tiger, Sunda pangolin, white winged flying fox, slender-tailed cloud rat, rare civet cats, Philippine eagle, and Philippine deer.

Many of these animals serve as hosts to species-leaping viruses like the Novel Coronavirus.


What is often overlooked is the “revenge” of wildlife to the disruption of their living quarters. Viruses leaping from their hosts to humans is one of the forms of blowback. There are others.

According to one study published in Current Biology, BRI’s network of roads, railways, and pipelines could introduce more than 800 alien invasive species — including 98 amphibians, 177 reptiles, 391 birds, and 150 mammals — into several countries along its many routes and developments, destabilizing their ecosystems.

As shown innumerable times, nature has a way of punishing those that disrupt living arrangements that have existed for aeons — and the irony is that humans, through processes like globalization and connectivity, help facilitate this blowback.

Should it continue, the blowback from BRI could well be more severe than Covid 19.

The 2008 financial crisis failed to put an end to globalization. Instead, a new phase of globalization, “connectivity,” emerged, with China providing the political leadership and economic clout. Covid 19 has killed connectivity, and globalization, hopefully for good.

But the big question is, what will replace globalization as the new “paradigm?”

The extreme right has staked out a nationalist version of deglobalization bent on keeping migrants out and minorities down. Liberals and social democrats are exhausted and have nothing inspiring to offer. Progressives have a wealth of ideas, among them ecosocialism, degrowth, deglobalization, food sovereignty, “Buen Vivir” or Living Well, and emancipatory models influenced by neo-Marxism and feminism.

There are exciting synergies among these perspectives. The challenge is creating the base that will make them a material force.

The post Coronavirus and the Death of ‘Connectivity’ appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Walden Bello is the author of Deglobalization: Ideas for a New World Economy (London: Zed, 2000) and many other books. He is also the Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and senior analyst at the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South.   

[Category: Uncategorized, air travel, Belt and Road Initiative, coronavirus, covid-19, deglobalization, far right, globalization, manufacturing, Nationalism, neoliberalization, offshoring, outsourcing, Pollution, xi jinping]

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[l] at 3/18/20 8:07am


A crisis, according to self-help and leadership books, reveals much about a person’s character. The same can be said of a nation’s character.

Since the latest pandemic began to spread out of China in 2020, countries responded in very different ways to the challenge. There was ingenuity, inflexibility, incomprehension, and sheer incompetence.

Diversity can be a beautiful thing. But not when it comes to battling a pandemic.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There was supposed to have been greater uniformity in response.

After the 2003 SARS epidemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with new guidelines for responding to such outbreaks. These regulations are legally binding, and 196 countries signed the framework agreement. Unfortunately, as Selam Gebrekidan reports in The New York Times:

[D]ozens of countries are flouting the international regulations and snubbing their obligations. Some have failed to report outbreaks to the organization, as required. Others have instituted international travel restrictions, against the advice of the WHO, and without notifying global health officials.

Let’s take a look at a few countries — China, South Korea, Italy, and the United States — to see how the diversity of responses to the current coronavirus crisis showcases the best and the worst that these political systems have to offer.

The Pandemic Begins

China has treated the coronavirus as if it were an outbreak of political dissidence.

It has deployed the power of the state to stamp out the infection. It has censored dissenting voices. And, as is often the case with blunt-force approaches, it has achieved some success. While the virus is multiplying rapidly around the world, it seems to have been contained in China.

But there have been some disturbing side effects.

After some initial confusion, to put it charitably, the government moved quickly to shut down the epicenter of infection in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. The first case was reported on December 31 of last year, the new disease was identified as a coronavirus on January 7, the first death occurred in China on January 9, and Wuhan was under quarantine by January 23.

That two-week period between the first death and the announcement of the quarantine might seem like a long time. But on January 24, the government was still reporting only 830 infections. And, in some quarters, China was criticized for overreacting by shutting everything down, from schools to factories. One week later, however, the number of infections had climbed to nearly 10,000.

The quarantine methods wouldn’t show much effect until mid-February, when new infections began to level off. On February 18, Beijing reported around 72,000 infections. A month later, it had only reached around 81,000.

The government had the centralized authority to enforce the quarantine. It shut down internal transportation, canceled Lunar New Year celebrations, and shuttered Shanghai Disneyland. It deployed drones to warn groups of people gathering in public to disperse and go home. It placed millions of uninfected people in what amounts to house arrest, allowing only one member of a family household to go out every two days.

The government also attempted to censor the first reports of the new disease. Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, posted on social media on December 30 the first warnings about the coronavirus. The police brought him in for questioning and forced him to sign a statement that he had made “false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” He later died of the disease.

The quarantine methods produced their own casualties. As Human Rights Watch notes:

A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one took care of him after his father was taken to be quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being turned away by several hospitals because of concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately pleaded to the police to let her leukemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge to get chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his apartment balcony after he couldn’t get access to health facilities for dialysis. And at least 10 people died after a hotel being used as a quarantine facility collapsed. 

Citizens and journalists who have been trying to tell the full story of China’s war on the coronavirus still face censorship and harassment.

The Chinese government’s actions were not arbitrarily autocratic. “China’s leaders did fumble at the very start, yet in short order they acted far more decisively than many democratically elected leaders have to date,” Ian Johnson writes in The New York Times. “Authoritarian or not, they also want the public’s approval. Chinese leaders may not face voters, but they, too, care about legitimacy, and that hinges on performance for them as well.” And it’s not as if the democratic countries that eventually followed China’s example put their decisions to a vote.

Meanwhile, the success of China’s approach owes as much to the public’s sense of responsibility as it does to the government’s autocratic methods. Writes Tony Perman, who was quarantined in Shanghai, “Certainly the reality of authoritarian control, the subservience of the individual to the state or the collective, and the pressure to conform made widespread habit change both more feasible and acceptable, even if due to fear of retribution. But there was a palpable ‘all for one and one for all’ ethos.”

The South Korean Way

Even before South Korea experienced its first coronavirus case, the Korean firm Kogene Biotech was getting its test kits ready for production. Soon thereafter, the South Korean government gave regulatory approval for their use in the country.

The first cases in South Korea originated from China, which reawakened significant anti-Chinese sentiment that had been dormant since the resolution of the last trade dispute in November 2017. By the middle of February, however, a much more significant outbreak of the disease could be traced to one of the many cult-like religious sects in the country, and infections quickly rose into the thousands.

Soon enough, the South Korean government switched to testing overdrive. On February 26, the country began drive-through testing. By March 9, nearly 200,000 people had been tested for the disease. The government is also, more controversially, using a phone app that relies on GPS to track those in quarantine and make sure that they maintain their self-separation. A rigorous triage has sent all but the most serious 10 percent of the infected to recover at home, lessening the strain on the medical system.

As with China, there were some initial missteps, such as when the Moon Jae-in prematurely declared the virus contained in mid-February. But the hyper-connected country has been able to practice social distancing with relative ease as people went online to work remotely, order groceries, and maintain contact with friends.

The South Korean approach also seems to have worked. The rate of infection has leveled off, and the death rate remains very low at less than 1 percent. Instead of the draconian quarantining that China implemented, South Korea has relied on technology, a rapid response aided by ppali-ppali (fast-fast) culture, lots of testing and follow-up, and a general spirit of compliance.

Italian Fiasco

European countries have responded in quite different ways to the virus.

Several countries, including a number that had earlier been so hostile to immigrants, quickly moved to close their borders. Germany has been characteristically blunt about the situation, with Chancellor Angela Merkel warning that 60-70 percent of the population will likely be infected before the outbreak is over. The Finns started preparing for the worst back in January, even taking steps to allow people to get communicable disease insurance in the event of quarantine.

The hardest hit country, however, has been Italy. As soon as two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive at the end of January, Italy declared a state of emergency and stopped flights from China. When the virus appeared again, just outside the northern city of Milan, the patient was originally thought to have been infected by a colleague returning from China. But the colleague tested negative. The virus, in this case, more likely came from Germany.

The real problem was neither China nor Germany. It was the Italian hospital that grossly mishandled that initial case. The sufferer, according to The Washington Post, “sought medical attention multiple times, starting on February 14, but he wasn’t diagnosed until February 21 (after he infected his wife, hospital staff, several patients and others).”

Two other factors have aggravated the crisis in Italy. There’s the scofflaw tradition whereby many Italians flouted the initial lockdown declared in the northern region to crowd the rail stations and flee town by any means. One woman even paid over $1,300 to take a taxi from Milan to Rome.

Also, Italy has the second highest proportion of seniors in the world: 23 percent of the population is over 65. Only Japan has an older population. That helps to explain the high mortality rate of the disease in the Mediterranean country. In China, the mortality rate is 3.8 percent. In Italy, it’s nearly double at 7.3 percent.

In a head-to-head comparison between South Korea’s widespread test-and-track approach versus Italy’s attempted lockdown approach, the former appears to be far more effective.

American Exceptionalism

Donald Trump has been an exceptional leader when it comes to addressing the coronavirus: exceptionally incompetent. He has exemplified the proud tradition of American exceptionalism, by which Americans believe that they are an exception to the rules that apply to the rest of humanity.

There have been five stages of American exceptionalism when it comes to the coronavirus.

Stage One: It won’t happen here.

Stage Two: It’s happening here, but it’s the fault of foreigners.

Stage Three: It’s happening here, but it won’t be as bad as elsewhere so we don’t need to take the necessary precautions.

Stage Four: It’s happening here, and it might turn out to be a problem, but it’s best to address the developing crisis haphazardly rather than at a coordinated federal level.

Stage Five: Uh-oh.

Trump has been the leader of the pack at all five stages. On January 22, just as the Chinese government was preparing to quarantine Wuhan, Trump said about the prospects of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States, “we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

After initially praising Xi Jinping’s hardline response to the crisis, Trump and his allies reversed course and started to blame China when the infections began to mount domestically.

Instead of following the South Korean example and making sure that testing kits were available, the Trump administration squandered the window of opportunity, By the time test kits were sent out, it was late in the game and those first kits were, in any case, faulty.

Writes David Leonhardt in The New York Times, “The Trump administration could have begun to use a functioning test from the World Health Organization, but didn’t. It could have removed regulations that prevented private hospitals and labs from quickly developing their own tests, but didn’t. The inaction meant that the United States fell behind South Korea, Singapore and China in fighting the virus.”

Trump has finally awoke to the severity of the problem, no doubt as a result of having close brushes with infected people at the Conservative Political Action Conference and with a delegation from Brazil that visited him at Mar-a-Lago. But he has acted erratically and dangerously. His European travel ban was done without consultation with allies and put Americans hastily returning from Europe at the mercy of unprepared airport security.

But perhaps the most unsettling failure has been the lack of federal coordination, with different messages coming from different parts of government and states left to manage things as best they can. Governors have clashed with the president; mayors have clashed with governors.

In his most recent punt, Trump told governors not to wait for federal assistance when it comes to acquiring necessary ventilators, but “try getting it yourselves.”

Get it yourselves. That kind of message is grimly appropriate in a country without national health care. With a message like that coming from the top, it’s no wonder that Americans are stocking up on rice and toilet paper, like people around the world — but more pointedly, guns and body armor as well. If it’s “all for one and one for all” in other countries, in Trump’s America, it’s “all against all.”

This is what happens when you run on a platform devoted to the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon put it so colorfully. First you get deconstruction when Trump takes office. Then you get destruction, when Trump’s minions go to work.

Finally, when all the competent people have been escorted out of government, you get uh-oh. In this sense, the coronavirus is nothing new. Americans have been living in the uh-oh stage ever since November 8, 2016.

The post What the Coronavirus Says about Us appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Health, Labor, Trade, & Finance, coronavirus, covid-19, Donald Trump, health care, Public Health, wuhan]

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[l] at 3/16/20 7:50am

U.S. Department of State via Flickr

For all the coverage of heads of state and high-ranking diplomats, the perceptions generated by the media have the greater impact on the course of international relations. The panic over the coronavirus and the profoundly contradictory reports issued to the public by the media without any effort to introduce a scientific analysis have turned a medical challenge that could have been an opportunity to promote global cooperation into a disruption to the global economy that has brought airports to a standstill and sent stock markets crashing.

Moreover, the dominance of the United States as a producer of journalism standards for the world has meant that the nation’s greatest weaknesses have become the world’s weaknesses. , Decades of deregulation in the United States have produced a radical concentration in  media sources under the control of massive corporations and killed off local newspapers and independent stations. Newspapers and magazines have shed staff for decades and requirements for public service in reporting have disappeared. The evisceration of any tradition of government regulation during the Reagan era has spread to virtually the entire world.

It is now accepted opinion in many countries that media is a source of profits not a means of educating the public.

The COVID-19 outbreak and the round-the-clock reporting of its impact have brought the critical power of the media in international relations into focus. The failure of the media to hold President Trump accountable could be seen in the coverage of the president’s press conference in which his declaration of a national state of emergency over the coronavirus concealed a push for the comprehensive privatization of medicine in the United States, including a proposal to replace doctors replaced by Internet “telecare” and to no longer require hospitals to adhere to regulations for a maximum number of patients.

The implications for human security at home and abroad of this breakdown in the debate on governance are serious. The media is not challenging at all Trump’s effort to overturn regulations on medical practice in the name of a national emergency.

But the failure of journalism does not stop there. The constant reporting of every person to die from the disease – while leaving out those who die from gun violence, suicide or many other diseases – is aimed at exciting panic more than to stimulate a rational debate among citizens on policy appropriate to a democracy. There was little reporting on what specific steps the individual can take to keep healthy and protect himself or herself from disease (of which COVID-19 is just one).

For example, the average citizen should not be cowering in fear at home, afraid to go out, but rather building up a strong immune system. That means eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, getting lots of sleep, and reducing stress in one’s life while making sure to get sufficient exercise.

The administration would have made a bigger contribution to health by banning processed foods with high sodium and high sugar contents from convenience stores and fast food chains than cancelling flights to China and whipping up such a fear of the foreign that Asians have been assaulted and Chinese restaurants have been driven out of business. But this irrational policy decision had coldly rational reasons. The companies that sell sugary drinks and sodium-laden processed foods are precisely the clients who support the commercial media. Banning processed foods and providing all citizens access to fresh vegetables and fruits might make sense from the vantage point of science, but not from the perspective of profit.

During this crisis, the media has also turned a blind eye on the ongoing destruction of public medical facilities in the United States and the general privatization of medicine and insurance, all of which have compromised the national response to diseases of all kinds. Also, the critical problem of providing nutrition and healthcare for the homeless and the working poor was passed over in silence.

Rather, the media has replicated the virus’s strategy of transmission by passing around the world sensationalist reports, terrifying discussions, and myopic analyses that do not inform the public about the fundamental science of virology. Rather, the media has presented daily updates on the number of cases as if they were the scores of a baseball game.

The constant coverage of coronavirus has pushed other reporting to the margins. The far greater danger of climate change, which is killing millions and will kill far more, has been shortchanged in reporting. So has been the mounting threat of nuclear war as the United States pulls out unilaterally from arms control agreements and spends close to a trillion dollars on the upgrading of nuclear weapons systems. For that matter, the radical concentration of wealth around the world has been virtually ignored by the mainstream media. The decision of the Federal Reserve, without any form of democratic consultation, to inject $1.5 trillion into the stock market was buried under COVID-19 reporting.

Actual scientific reporting on what exactly the coronavirus is and how it functions has been relatively rare. Media is not by nature educational these days, but rather aimed at sensationalism and marketing. Few true experts appear on television to explain the process an outbreak goes through or to provide meaningful comparisons between the number of deaths from COVID-19 and other deadly contagious diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis B, or pneumonia.

The concern about public gatherings had a real basis in science, but the decision to shut down numerous schools around the world, was unprecedented in history. The long-term risk of leaving citizens isolated and uninformed trumps the short-term risk of possible transmission of a disease.

Many of these policy decisions were made by politicians without consulting experts and often against the advice of the World Health Organization. In the case of the United States, the Trump administration blocked medical experts from meetings concerning COVID-19 policy because they lacked the proper security clearance. In most cases, the decision-making process that lay behind sudden policy shifts, undertaken in many cases without the passage of laws or debate by congressional committees, were not described in the media. The most important issue, the process by which policy is made and implemented, was completely obscured from the public.

In other words, a media devoted to informing the public about matters of life and death is needed now more than ever. Without properly funded investigative journalism and public-interest media, the United States, and with it the world, is flying blind.

The post The Global Media and COVID-19 appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Emanuel Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute (asia-institute.org) and a senior scholar at FPIF.

[Category: Health, China, coronavirus, covid-19, Democracy, Governance, health care, journalism, media, medicine]

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[l] at 3/13/20 2:18pm


The COVID-19, or coronavirus, pandemic is far from the first proof of how intertwined we are as a global community. The climate crisis and the refugee crisis have long been glaring examples that the wars or CO2 emissions on one continent risk the lives and well-being of people on another continent. 

What coronavirus is providing, however, is a unique opportunity to look specifically at how the intentional damage caused to one country’s healthcare system can make it harder for the entire world to address a pandemic.

The coronavirus started in China in December 2019, and President Trump immediately brushed it off as something limited to China. At the end of January 2020, he banned entry to the United States of people from China, but still insisted that the Americans need not worry . It will have “a very good ending for us,” he said , insisting that his administration had the situation “very well under control.” 

Despite Trump’s insistence that the medical pandemics can be contained via travel bans and closed borders, the coronavirus knows no borders. By January 20 , Japan, South Korea, and Thailand had all reported cases. On January 21, the U.S. confirmed the infection of a 30-year-old Washington State man who had just returned from Wuhan, China. 

On February 19, Iran announced two cases of the coronavirus, reporting within hours that both patients had died. By March 13, at the time of this writing, the total number of coronavirus infections in Iran is at least 11,362, and at least 514 people in the country have died. Per capita, it is currently the most heavily infected country in the Middle East and third in the world , after Italy and South Korea. 

In the Middle East, coronavirus cases have now been identified in Israel-Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, and Egypt. If Iran is not able to stem the crisis, the virus will continue to spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.

“Overbroad and Burdensome” Sanctions

By the time the coronavirus hit Iran on February 19, the country’s economy, including its health care system, had already been devastated by U.S. sanctions. 

Under the Obama administration, the Iranian economy was given a boost wh en the Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2015 and the nuclear-related sanctions were lifted. By February 2016, Iran was shipping oil to Europe for the first time in three years. In 2017, foreign direct investment increased by nearly 50 percent, and Iran’s imports expanded by nearly 40 percent over 2015-2017. 

But the re-imposition of sanctions after t he Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018 has had a devastating impact on the economy and on the lives of ordinary Iranians. The Iranian currency , the rial, lost 80 percent of its value. Food prices doubled , rents soared, and so did unemployme nt. 

The decimation of Iran’s economy, reducing the sale of oil from a high of 2.5 million barrels a day in early 2018 to about 250,000 barrels today, has left the government with scant resources to cover the enormous costs of dealing with direct medical treatment for patients suffering from the coronavirus, as well as supporting workers who are losing their jobs and helping businesses going bankrupt.

Humanitarian aid — food and medicine — was supposed to be exempt from sanctions. But that hasn’t been the case. Shipping and insurance companies have been unwilling  to risk doing business with Iran, and banks have not been able or willing to process payments. This is especially true after September 2019, when the Trump administration sanctioned Iran’s Central Bank, severely restricting the last remaining Iranian financial institution that could engage in foreign exchange transactions involving humanitarian imports. 

Even before Iran was unable to procure enough testing kits, respiratory machines, antiviral medicines and other supplies to slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, Iranians were having a hard time getting access to life-saving medications. In October 2019, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report citing that “the overbroad and burdensome nature of the U.S. sanctions [on Iran] has led banks and companies around the world to pull back from humanitarian trade with Iran, leaving Iranians who have rare or complicated diseases unable to get the medicine and treatment they require.” 

Among those in Iran who have been unable to get critical medications have been patients with leukemia, epidermolysis bullosa, epilepsy, and chronic eye injuries from exposure to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war. Now coronavirus is added to that list.

On February 27, 2020, with over 100 people in Iran having been infected and with a reported 16 percent mortality rate , the Treasury Department announced that it would waive sanctions for certain humanitarian supplies to go through Iran’s central bank . But it was far too little, far too late, as the spread of coronavirus is yet to slow in Iran.

The Iranian government is not without blame. It grossly mishandled the beginning of the outbreak, downplaying the danger, putting out false information, and even arresting individuals who raised alarms. China had acted similarly at the start of the virus there. The same can be said for President Trump, as he initially blamed the virus on Democrats, told people not to practice social distancing, and refused to accept tests offered by the World Health Organization. 

Today, there are still nowhere near enough tests in the U.S., Trump is refusing to have himself tested despite having been in contact with infected individuals, and he continues to label this a “foreign virus.” Neither China nor the U.S., however, have the compounding problems of sanctions that prevent them from obtaining the necessary medicines, equipment, and other resources to address the crisis. 

Time to Come Together

It isn’t just Iran that is sanctioned. The U.S. imposes some form of sanctions against 39 countries, affecting over one-third of the world’s population. In addition to Iran, Venezuela is one of the countries most hard hit by U.S. sanctions, including new measures just imposed on March 12

According to President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela does not yet have any coronavirus cases. However, sanctions have contributed to making Venezuela one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. Its healthcare system is in such shambles that many public hospitals often do not have water, electricity, or basic medical supplies and many households have only limited access to basic cleaning supplies such as water and soap. 

“As of today, it has not reached Venezuela,” Maduro said on March 12. “But we have to get ready. This is a time for President Donald Trump to lift the sanctions so Venezuela can buy what it needs to face the virus.” Likewise, the Iranian government, which is now asking the International Monetary Fund for $5 billion in emergency funding to fight the pandemic, has penned a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for U.S. sanctions to be lifted.

There are sweeping changes President Trump needs to make to seriously address the coronavirus pandemic at home and abroad. He must stop minimizing the crisis and insisting that people do not need to exercise social distancing. He must stop falsely claiming that testing is available. He must stop catering to the greedy, profit-based health care industry. 

In addition, and no less important, the Trump administration must lift the sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, and other countries where ordinary people are suffering. This is not a time to squeeze countries economically because we don’t like their governments. It’s a time to come together, as a global community, to share resources and best practices.

If coronavirus is teaching us anything, it’s that we will only defeat this terrible pandemic by working together. 

The post To Help Stem Coronavirus, Lift the Sanctions on Iran  appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Ariel Gold is national co-director of CODEPINK for Peace.

[Category: Health, Human Rights, Labor, Trade, & Finance, coronavirus, covid-19, Iran Sanctions, Public Health, venezuela sanctions]

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[l] at 3/13/20 1:49pm


This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and InTheseTimes.com.

Back in 2009, I was in Strasbourg for a “No to NATO” protest. Running from tear gas and being escorted out of a French military base by German soldiers, I spent some time with Malalai Joya—then the youngest member, and one of the few women, in the Afghan parliament.

It was eight years into the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, and President Obama, after sending 17,000 additional troops, was publicly debating whether to launch another new troop surge there.

As a woman in parliament, Malalai faced death threats and attacks. She’d been forced into hiding and could not appear in public in her own country. If the United States pulled out, I asked, what would happen to people like her?

She told me then, and the words stuck.

“We in civil society,” she said, “face three enemies in my country: the Taliban, the warlords disguised as a government, and the U.S. occupation. If you in the U.S. can mobilize to get the U.S. and NATO troops out of my country, we’d only have two.” (Four years later, she repeated that view in The Nation.)

A weak, unclear agreement

And now, Washington has signed a deal with the Taliban that may at least begin the process of pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

In return for Taliban promises to break ties with al Qaeda and ISIS, and to begin negotiations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the United States agreed to withdraw all troops within 14 months—4,000 or so in the next four and a half months, and the rest, “with the commitment and action” by the Taliban, within another nine months.

Little is clear about the agreement. What we do know is that this is not a peace deal. It does not promise even a long-term ceasefire or an end to war in Afghanistan, let alone guarantee peace, security, and human rights for the people of that war-devastated country. Already, U.S. airstrikes and numerous Taliban attacks have occurred in the wake of the deal’s announcement.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who cast the only dissenting vote against the war when Congress authorized it immediately after the 9/11 attacks, recognized the insufficiency of the agreement, signed in Doha on February 29. It “leaves thousands of [U.S.] troops in Afghanistan and lacks the critical investments in peacebuilding, human-centered development, or governance reform needed to rebuild Afghan society,” she said.

She’s right. Washington owes the people of Afghanistan an enormous debt to help rebuild their country—though there’s little political will in Washington for it, and there are serious doubts about whether the corrupt Afghan government could handle it. This deal appears to address only troop levels, leaving those thornier but crucial issues untouched.

And yet it’s also true that this agreement, if implemented, would represent a critical first step—a profoundly insufficient but necessary step—towards security in the country. As Malalai Joya recognized, withdrawing foreign troops would eliminate one of the three enemies of the Afghans struggling to survive these decades of war. Even if the withdrawal is only partial, it would still reduce the attacks, bombings and drone strikes of at least one of those armed forces.

Nonetheless, the agreement is filled with weaknesses.

The U.S.-backed Afghan government, long known for unceasing corruption, as well as for harboring warlords responsible for the same kind of attacks on civilians as the Taliban, was not included in the negotiations. Complicating matters, two rival candidates—incumbent president Ashraf Ghani and challenger Abdullah Abdullah—have now both claimed victory in Afghanistan’s recent presidential election, so choosing a negotiating team is delayed. Nothing is certain.

Longer term, the lack of representation of Afghan society in the process—including women, youth, unions and other civil society organizations—also undermines the deal’s credibility. That denial of a place at the table for women, non-military actors and others, however, is all too standard in negotiations to end wars. It’s one of the factors that makes transitions from short-term ceasefire to long-term peace so difficult.

Rights never realized

Whatever else happens, a U.S. pullout will not leave Afghanistan at peace. Fighting on some level will almost certainly continue. The Taliban, which now controls or contests more than half the country but has less influence in cities, will probably become more influential.

What would this mean for Afghan women?

First, it’s important to remember that the writ of the post-2001 Afghan government, installed and kept in power by the United States and a NATO-led alliance, barely reaches beyond the city limits of Kabul, Kandahar and a few other cities. And only about 25% of Afghans live in cities—the vast majority are in small towns and tiny villages.

For some city residents, certainly, the formal gains for women’s rights in the Afghan constitution—the right to work, to vote, a place in the parliament—were life-changing. But those rights have remained out of reach for many even in the cities, with a government largely opposed to or reluctant to enforce women’s rights. And most Afghan women live in the countryside, where the new constitution, with its official guarantees of rights for women, never had much impact.

Make no mistake: Life under Taliban rule was terrible, especially for women and children. The problem is that years of U.S. occupation changed far too little. Today, according to the CIA, Afghanistan still ranks first in the world in infant mortality.

There is no guarantee that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will create conditions for new cultural, social and political struggles inside Afghanistan. But we do know that perpetuating the current levels of fighting, in which civilians continue to suffer the highest levels of death and injury, pretty much guarantees that those struggles, which could result in real change in the lives of far more Afghan women and indeed all Afghans, will never take hold.

Trump’s motives

Another thing is certain: Donald Trump deserves no kudos for agreeing to the deal.

There is no question his motives are self-serving and political, not humanitarian or even strategic. After high-profile foreign policy failures regarding Iran, North Korea, and Israel-Palestine, and with the stock market still reeling from the coronavirus catastrophe, Trump’s election slogans of prosperity and peace don’t look so good. So redirecting away from prosperity, to the false claim that he is ending our endless wars, may be his newest ploy.

For all his talk about “ending” the Middle East wars, Trump has actually sent thousands more troops to that region in the three years he has been in office. He is escalating, not ending the global war on terror, and that remains true even if he withdraws troops from Afghanistan. Trump has made clear his inclination to keep Special Forces operators in Afghanistan, regardless of what the agreement says.

As Barbara Lee reminds us, “there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.”

So while the U.S.-Taliban deal will not itself bring peace—and while there is no reason to trust Trump’s motives or commitment to the deal—the fact remains that withdrawing even some of the U.S. troops, planes, drones and bombers from Afghanistan will reduce the killing of Afghans by U.S. forces.

After 18 years of killing, there’s a lot more work ahead. But this move, which could reduce the number of victims, is worth supporting as a first step.

The post The U.S.-Taliban Deal Won’t Bring Real Peace, But It Could Reduce the Bloodshed appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

[Category: Human Rights, War & Peace, Afghan War, Air Strikes, Civilian Casualties, diplomacy, drone strikes, NATO, taliban]

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[l] at 3/10/20 9:09am

Donald Trump at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Aug. 21, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Dale Greer)

Donald Trump filed his paperwork to run for reelection only hours after his inauguration in January 2017, setting a presidential record, the first of his many dubious achievements. For a man who relished the adulation and bombast of campaigning, it should have surprised no one that he charged out of the starting gate so quickly for 2020 as well. After all, he’d already spent much of the December before his inauguration on a ”thank you” tour of the swing states that had unexpectedly supported him on Election Day — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — and visited Florida for a rally only a couple of weeks after he took the oath of office. In much the same way that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once embraced “permanent revolution,” Donald Trump embarked on a “permanent campaign.”

But The Donald was fixated on 2020 even before he pulled off the upset of the century on November 8, 2016. After all, no one seems to have been more surprised by his victory that day than Trump himself.

According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and his personal attorney Michael Cohen, even on election night 2016, the billionaire tycoon didn’t think he’d win his first presidential bid. His wife, Melania, assured by her husband that he’d lose, reportedly wept as the news came in that she would indeed be heading for the White House. Before his surprise victory, Trump described the election many times as “rigged” and seemed poised to declare the vote illegitimate as soon as the final returns rolled in. The attacks he’d launched on Hillary Clinton during the campaign — on her health, her integrity, her email account — were not only designed to savage an opponent but also to undermine in advance the person that everyone expected to be the next president.

In other words, Trump was already gearing up to go after her in 2020. And this wasn’t even a commitment to run again for president. Although he reveled in all the media attention during the 2016 campaign, he was far more focused on the economic benefits to his cohort, his businesses, his family, and above all himself. He understood that attacking Clinton had real potential to become a post-election profession.

Before Election Day, for instance, Trump was already exploring the possibility of establishing his own TV network to cater to the anti-Clinton base he’d mobilized. The relentless stigmatizing of the Democratic standard bearer — the threats of legal action, the “lock her up” chants, the hints at dark conspiracies — could easily have morphed into a new “birther” movement led by Trump himself. With Clinton in the White House, he could have continued in quasi-campaign mode as a kind of shadow president, without all the onerous tasks of an actual commander-in-chief.

Thanks to 77,744 voters in three key states on November 8, 2016, the Electoral College not only catapulted a bemused Trump into the White House but eliminated his chief electoral rival. Hillary Clinton’s political career was effectively over and Donald Trump suddenly found himself alone in the boxing ring, his very identity as a boxer at risk.

As president, however, he soon discovered that a ruthless and amoral executive could wield almost unlimited power in the Oval Office. Ever since, he’s used that power to harvest a bumper crop of carrots: windfall profits at his hotels, international contracts for his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family business, not to speak of fat consulting gigs and other goodies for his cronies. Trump is a carrot-lover from way back. But ever vengeful, he loves sticks even more. He’s used those sticks to punish his enemies, real or imagined, in the media, in business, and most saliently in politics. His tenuous sense of self requires such enemies.

Even as president, Trump thrives as an underdog, beset on all sides. Over the last three years, he turned the world of politics into a target-rich environment. He’s attacked one international leader after another — though not the autocrats — for failing to show sufficient fealty. At home, he’s blasted the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives with a special focus on Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He’s lashed out against “deep state” opponents within the government, particularly those with the temerity to speak honestly during the impeachment hearings. He typically took time at a rally in Mississippi to besmirch the reputation of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court aspirant Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. He’s even regularly gone after members of his inner circle, from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, blaming them for his own policy failures.

Those relentless attacks constitute the ambient noise of the Trump era. But a clear signal has emerged from this background chatter. Since committing to run for a second term, he’s mounted one campaign of political assassination after another against any would-be successor to Hillary Clinton. Just as he ran a unique campaign in 2016 and has governed in an unprecedented manner, Donald Trump is launching what will be a one-of-a-kind reelection effort. This is no normal primary season to be followed by run-of-the-mill party conventions and a general election like every other.

Trump isn’t just determined to destroy politics as usual with his incendiary rhetoric, his Twitter end runs around the media, or his authoritarian governing style. He wants to destroy politics itself, full stop.

Last Man Standing

Over the course of 40 seasons, the American reality show Survivor has been filmed at many different locations and in a variety of formats. Still, the basic rules have remained the same. Contestants are divided into different “tribes” that must survive in adverse conditions and face extraordinary challenges. A series of votes in Tribal Councils then determine who can stay on the island. Sometimes, tribes or individuals win temporary immunity from expulsion. As the numbers dwindle, the tribes merge and individuals begin to compete more directly against one another. A Final Tribal Council determines the winner among the two or three remaining contestants.

What makes Survivor different from typical game shows — and arguably explains its enduring success — is that contestants don’t win simply by besting their adversaries in head-to-head battles as in Jeopardy or American Idol. Instead, they have to avoid getting voted off the island by fellow contestants. You win, in other words, through persuasion, negotiation, and manipulation.

The first season’s victor, Richard Hatch, “was not the most physically able of the contestants,” psychologist Vivian Zayas once explained. “In fact, out of the twelve individual Challenges, he only won one. Richard was also not the most liked. He was perceived as arrogant and overly confident, and even picked by some to be one of the first to get voted off the island.” Ultimately, what made Hatch successful was his ability to form alliances.

To put it in Trumpian terms, you win Survivor by being best at the art of the deal. At times, this requires ruthlessness, wheedling, and outright lies. It makes perfect sense that Trump would revive his stagnant career by translating Survivor into the business world in his show, The Apprentice. Less predictable perhaps was his application of this strategy to electoral politics.

The 2020 election resembles nothing less than a political version of the Survivor franchise. Donald Trump fully intends to be the last man standing. To do so, however, he must contrive to get everyone else voted off the island. The first to go was the tribe of Republican rivals he defeated in the 2016 primary and who no longer pose a political threat. Next to exit, in the general election, was the leader of the rival tribe of Democrats, Hillary Clinton.

In 2020, having won the equivalent of Survivor’s immunity prize, Trump has earned a pass to the final round in November. He faces no significant challenge within the Republican Party. In fact, nine states — Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, South Carolina and Wisconsin — have scrapped their primaries altogether and pledged their delegates to him. In the remaining primaries, he’s racking up the kinds of results that only totalitarian leaders typically enjoy like the 97% of caucus delegates he captured in Iowa, the 97% of primary voters in Arkansas, and his 86% margin of victory in New Hampshire.

As befits a political survivor, Trump has excelled at forging alliances. An irreligious and profane man, he still managed to win over the evangelical community. Despite his previously liberal record on social issues, he successfully courted the anti-abortion vote. A draft dodger, he’s effectively pandered to veterans and active-duty soldiers. And though he’s a billionaire given to grossly conspicuous consumption, he even managed to woo the disenfranchised in the Rust Belt and elsewhere. After capturing the Republican Party in this way, he then purged it of just about anyone without the requisite level of sycophancy to the commander-in-chief. In 2016, he also fashioned informal alliances with disgruntled Democrats and independent voters. Since then, he’s tried to make further inroads in the Democratic Party by persuading a few politicians like New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew to switch parties. His pardon of corrupt Democratic pol Rod Blagojevich might even win him some additional crossover votes in Illinois.

Trump hopes, of course, that the 2016 alliances he forged among Democratic and independent voters in key swing states will produce the same results in 2020. Indeed, those voters may well pull the lever for him again, even if they supported Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. It’s not just his politically incorrect personality that has won them over. During his presidency, he’s used the power of the state to direct significant resources toward such constituencies.

To compensate, for instance, for losses incurred in his trade war with China, he’s provided $28 billion in farm subsidies over the last two years. Even with the first part of a Sino-American trade deal in place, the president has promised critical rural voters yet more handouts in this election year. Although his tax cuts have certainly put plenty of extra money in the pockets of his wealthy supporters and affluent suburbanites, there’s evidence that those cuts have also advantaged red states over blue ones, just as job growth has favored such states, in part because of the help his administration has given to specific economic sectors like the oil, coal, and chemical industries.

All of this, however, could mean little if Donald Trump faces a popular Democrat in November. So the president has gone into overdrive to ensure that those he considers his strongest potential rivals are voted off the island before the ultimate contest begins.

Going After Biden

Joe Biden formally threw his hat into the presidential ring on April 25, 2019. But Donald Trump’s anxiety about running against him had begun much earlier. In July 2018, according to campaign advisers, the president was already fretting Biden might win back some white, working-class voters in swing states like Pennsylvania. However, the president promptly began to insist that Biden would be a “dream candidate,” resorting to his common and often effective strategy of saying the opposite of what he really thought.

That summer, Trump was well aware that, in election 2020 polls, he was seven points behind his possible future Democratic opponent. So he began to go after “sleepy Joe” (as he nicknamed him) on Twitter. He insulted Biden’s age, intelligence, and political record, but a true hatchet job required a sharper hatchet.

Trump had long sought a lawyer who could do some of his hatchet work for him, a figure akin to Roy Cohn, the anti-Communist huckster who assisted Senator Joe McCarthy and later served as The Donald’s mentor. Several people aspired to play that very role, including Michael Cohen, who became the president’s personal lawyer. But like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the end, he proved insufficiently loyal in the president’s eyes.

Rudy Giuliani has emerged as the latest in this line of fixers. He endorsed Trump in 2016 and then entered his administration as an adviser on cybersecurity. In April 2018, after the FBI raided Michael Cohen’s office, Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team. He immediately went to work exploiting his past connections in Ukraine as part of an effort to shift blame to that country for Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections. At some point in the fall of 2018, hooking up with two shady operators, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, he began to investigate Biden, his son Hunter, and the latter’s links to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. When Volodymyr Zelensky became that country’s president in April 2019, Trump felt emboldened, thanks to Giuliani, to press the new leader to relaunch an investigation into the Biden family even though the previous effort had produced nothing.

It was an extraordinarily risky move, coming just after Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in his long-awaited report, had described Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s attempts to cover up its Kremlin connections. But that’s how much Trump worried about the man he then expected to be his foremost political rival in 2020. For reelection, Giuliani and Trump knew that nothing illicit actually had to be nailed down when it came to Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian activities. They simply had to damage his father’s reputation through insinuation.

Trump was furious at the impeachment inquiry that followed his “perfect” phone call with Zelensky on July 25, 2019. In the end, however, even though the House investigation exonerated Biden and implicated Trump, it was the Democrat’s reputation that suffered the greater hit.

As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic:

By keeping Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine in the news, they have turned them into a rough analogue to Hillary Clinton’s missing emails in 2016 — a pseudo-scandal that undermines a leading Democratic candidate’s reputation for honesty. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee last fall launched a $10 million advertising blitz aimed at convincing Americans that Joe Biden’s behavior toward Ukraine was corrupt.

Biden’s national poll numbers didn’t actually suffer much during the impeachment investigation, but his leads in the early state primaries did. Beginning with an ad campaign in Iowa, the president seemed determined to kneecap Biden in those very primaries. True, the Democratic candidate did himself no favors with lackluster debate performances and his usual verbal gaffes. Trump’s strategy, however, helped ensure that the residents of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada nearly voted the competing tribe’s leading candidate off the island before the big Tribal Council on Super Tuesday. Only a resounding victory in South Carolina kept Biden in the race, propelling him to a surprising comeback on Super Tuesday.

Targeting the Rest

Trump deployed his traditional strategy of attack to minimize the other Democratic candidates for 2020 as well. He ridiculed Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” made fun of Mike Bloomberg’s height, and intentionally garbled Pete Buttigieg’s last name. But the candidate Trump seemed most worried about replacing Biden as the party’s nominee was Bernie Sanders.

After all, Sanders has some of the very strengths that made Trump such an attractive candidate in 2016. The Vermont independent is a political outsider who can credibly distance himself from the failings of both major parties. He has an authentically populist agenda that targets the very corporate fat cats who are Trump’s closest friends, allies, and supporters. He can potentially appeal to voters who didn’t go to the polls in 2016, those who voted for Trump but haven’t been able to stomach his performance in the White House, and young people who otherwise might not bother to turn out at all.

This profile has, for instance, attracted the endorsement of popular libertarian podcaster Joe Rogan. Former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who voted for Trump in 2016 before challenging the president for the party’s nomination this year, has already pledged to vote for Sanders if he becomes the nominee. Even far-right pundit Ann Coulter, once an ardent Trump supporter, declared last year that she’d consider voting for Sanders if he took a harder stance on immigration. “I don’t care about the rest of the socialist stuff,” she told PBS. “Just: can we do something for ordinary Americans?”

Trump himself has expressed concerns about taking on Sanders. “Frankly, I would rather run against Bloomberg than Bernie Sanders,” Trump told reporters last month. “Because Sanders has real followers, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not — I happen to think it’s terrible what he says — but he has followers.”

A significant number of those followers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania switched parties to vote for Trump in 2016. If they were to go back to Sanders in 2020 — and if the Democrats who voted for Clinton generally maintained their party loyalty — the Vermont independent could win those three states and probably the election in November.

Of course, in his worrying about Sanders, Trump could well be using his simplistic version of reverse psychology. The president could be pretending to be scared of Sanders when he really wants to run against a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” next fall. Citing Republican Party sources, for instance, the New York Times concluded in January that “President Trump’s advisers see Senator Bernie Sanders as their ideal Democratic opponent in November and have been doing what they can to elevate his profile and bolster his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses.” These advisers are well aware that, according to a November poll by NPR/PBS and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last March, only 20%-25% of Americans are enthusiastic about a “socialist” candidate. For these reasons, Trump urged South Carolina Republicans to cross the aisle to back Sanders in the Democratic primary in order to shut down Biden once and for all.

To play it safe, however, the president has also begun to focus a portion of his considerable ire on Sanders. He’s already mounted vigorous attacks on his approach to health-care reform, his opposition to the assassination of the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, his supposed hypocrisy as a “wealthy, fossil fuel-guzzling millionaire,” and above all that socialism of his. It’s just a taste of what’s to come. According to someone who saw the opposition research the Republicans compiled on Sanders in 2016, it “was so massive it had to be transported on a cart.”

And that’s before Trump blows all this material out of proportion through outright lies and misrepresentation.

And the Winner Is…

At the end of August, Donald Trump heads into the Republican Party’s nominating convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with some advantages he didn’t have four years ago.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton had raised nearly twice as much money as he did. This time, the president has already collected more than $100 million. (Barack Obama had $82 million at this point in 2012.) A war chest like that supports a large ground operation eager to flip some blue states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, and even New Mexico. Trump has the authority of incumbency, plus a reputation for invincibility that’s been enhanced by his surviving both the Mueller investigation and impeachment by the House. As long as a coronavirus pandemic doesn’t truly shut down the global economy, he will continue to claim, misleadingly, that low unemployment figures and modest growth are his personal achievements.

In a normal political contest, Trump would have to deal with a raft of negatives, including his relative unpopularity, his many policy failures, his embarrassments on the global stage, and of course, the cuts his administration has made in funds to prepare for a possible pandemic. Election 2020, however, is anything but a normal political contest. Trump has been busy gaming the system, focusing virtually all his efforts on Electoral College swing states, while Republicans do their damnedest to purge voter rolls, suppress turnout, and ignore warnings from the U.S. intelligence community of coming Russian election interference.

Donald Trump has also been hard at work stripping politics of its content, a longer-term trend for which he’s anything but the sole culprit. Still, more than any other candidate in memory, he’s boiled elections down to pissing contests and personality clashes. In addition, his nonstop barrage of lies has thoroughly confused voters about what his administration has and hasn’t done. In the process, he’s delegitimized the mainstream media, placed himself above the law, and reduced American politics to a litmus test of loyalty.

It’s not yet possible to predict the winner of the 2020 election, but the loser is already clear: the American public. Trump has sabotaged in a significant way the normal give-and-take, compromise, and negotiation once at the heart of everyday politics. He believes only in power, the more naked the better. He long ago gave up on elite opinion. Now, he doesn’t want to take any chances on the vagaries of popular choice either.

Trump believes that he already owns the island, that he’s now the survivor-in-chief. To maintain that illusion, he’ll do anything in his power to ensure that he’s never voted off the island, certainly not by something beyond his control like actual democracy.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, 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.

The post The President as Political Hit Man appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.

[Category: Democracy & Governance, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Survivor, U.s. Elections, Ukraine]

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[l] at 3/9/20 2:00pm


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest gamble in Syria’s civil war appears to have come up snake eyes.

Instead of halting the Damascus government’s siege of the last rebel held province, Idlib, Turkey has backed off, and Erdogan’s newest Syrian misadventure is fueling growing domestic resistance to the powerful autocrat.

The crisis began on February 25, when anti-government rebels, openly backed by Turkish troops, artillery, and armor, attacked the Syrian army at the strategic town of Saraqeb, the junction of Highways 4 and 5 linking Aleppo to Damascus and the Mediterranean. The same day, Russian warplanes in southern Idlib were fired upon by MANPADS (man portable air-defense systems), anti-aircraft weapons from Turkish military outposts. The Russian air base at Khmeimim was also attacked by MANPADS and armed Turkish drones.

What happened next is still murky. According to Ankara, a column of Turkish troops on its way to bring supplies to Turkish observer outposts in Idlib were attacked by Syrian war planes and artillery, killing some 34 soldiers and wounding more than 70. Some sources report much higher causalities.

But according to Al Monitor, a generally reliable online publication, the column was a mechanized infantry battalion of some 400 soldiers, and it wasn’t Syrian warplanes that did the damage, but Russian Su-34s packing KAB-1500Ls, bunker busting laser guided bombs with 2400 lb. warheads. Syrian Su-22 fighters were involved, but apparently only to spook the soldiers into taking cover in several large buildings. Then the Su-34s moved in and brought the buildings down on the Turks.

The Russians deny their planes were involved, and the Turks blamed it all on Damascus. But when it comes to Syria, the old saying that truth is the first casualty of war is pretty much a truism.

Erdogan initially blustered and threatened to launch an invasion of Idlib — which, in any case, was already underway. But then, after initially remaining silent, Russian Rear Admiral Oleg Zhuravlev said that Russia “cannot guarantee the safety of flights for Turkish aircraft over Syria” in the event of a full-blown conflict between the parties.

The Turkish president is a hardhead, but he is not stupid. Troops, armor, and artillery without air cover would be sitting ducks. So the Turks pulled back, the Syrians moved in, and now Russian military police are occupying Saraqeb. Russia has also deployed two cruise missile armed frigates off  the Syrian coast.

The War at Home

But for Erdogan, the home front is heating up.

Even before the current crisis, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been demanding that Erdogan brief the parliament about the situation in Idlib, but the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted down the request. The right-wing, nationalist Good Party — a CHP ally — made similar demands, which have also been sidelined.

All the opposition parties have called for direct negotiations with the Assad government.

The worry is that Turkey is drifting toward a war with Syria without any input from the Parliament. On February 12, Erdogan met with AKP deputies and told them that if Turkish soldiers suffered any more casualties — at the time the death toll was 14 dead, 45 wounded — then Turkey would “hit anywhere” in Syria. To the opposition that sounded awfully like a threat to declare war.

Engin Altay, the CHP’s deputy chair, said “The president has to brief the parliament. Idlib is not an internal matter for the AKP.” Altay has also challenged Erdogan’s pledge to separate Turkey from extremist rebels like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. “Is this even possible?” he asked, “There is no way to distinguish these from each other.”

Turkey made an agreement with Russia in 2018 to allow Turkey to set up observation posts in Idlib if it pledged not to support extremists like Tahrir al-Sham , but Ankara has facilitated the entry of such groups into Syria from the beginning of the war, giving them free passage and supplying them with massive amounts of fertilizer for bombs. In any case, the extremists eliminated any so-called “moderate” opposition groups years ago.

“Turkey said it would disassociate moderate elements from radicals,” says Ahmet Kamil Erozan of the Good Party, “but it couldn’t do that.”

The Kurdish-based progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarian Necdet Ipekyuz charged that “Idlib has become a nest for all jihadists. It has turned into a trouble spot for Turkey and the world. And who is protecting these jihadists? Who is safeguarding them?”

Erdogan has jailed many of the HDP’s members of parliament and AKP appointees have replaced the party’s city mayors. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands more dismissed from their jobs. The media has largely been silenced through outright repression — Turkey has jailed more journalists than any country in the world — or ownership by pro-Erdogan businessmen.

But body bags are beginning to come home from a war that looks to a lot of Turks like a quagmire. The war is costly at a time of serious economic trouble for the Turkish economy. Unemployment is stubbornly high, and the lira continues to fall in value.

Polls show that a majority of Turks — 57 percent — are more concerned with the economy than with terrorism. While Turks have rallied around the soldiers, before the recent incident more than half the population opposed any escalation of the war.

Trouble with the Neighbors

Meanwhile Turkey seems increasingly isolated. Erdogan called an emergency session of NATO on February 28, but got little more than “moral” support. NATO wants nothing to do with Syria and certainly doesn’t want a confrontation with Russia, especially because many of the alliance’s members are not comfortable with Turkey’s intervention in Syria. In any case, Turkey is not under attack. Only its soldiers, who are occupying parts of Syria in violation of international law, are vulnerable.

The Americans also ruled out setting up a no-fly zone over Idlib.

Erdogan is not only being pressed by the opposition, but from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) within his own ruling coalition. The MHP, or the “Gray Wolves,” have long represented Turkey’s extreme right. “The Turkish nation must walk into Damascus along with the Turkish army,” says Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP.

Erdogan has no intention of marching on Syria’s capital, even if he could pull it off. The president wants Turkey to be a regional player, and occupying parts of Syria keeps Ankara on the board. But that line of reasoning is now under siege.

Turkey’s allies in the Syrian civil war are ineffective unless led by and supported by the Turkish army. But without air cover, the Turkish army is severely limited in what it can do, and the Russians are losing patience. Moscow would like the Syria war to end and to bring some of its military home, and Erdogan is making that difficult.

Moscow can be difficult as well, as Turkey may soon find out. The two countries are closely tied on energy, and, with U.S. sanctions blocking Iranian oil and gas, Ankara is more and more dependent on Russian energy sources. Russia just built the new TurkStream gas pipeline across the Black sea and is building a nuclear power plant for Turkey. Erdogan can only go so far in alienating Russia.

Stymied in Syria and pressured at home, Erdogan’s choices are increasingly limited. He may try to escalate Turkish involvement in Syria, but the risks for that are high. He has unleashed the refugees on Europe, but not many are going, and Europe is brutally blocking them. He may move to call early elections before his domestic support erodes any further, but he might just lose those elections, particularly since the AKP has split into two parties. A recent poll found that 50 percent of Turks say they will not vote for Erdogan.

Or he could return to his successful policies of a decade ago of “no problems with the neighbors.”

The post Erdogan’s Failed Gamble in Syria appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com.

[Category: War & Peace, AKP, idlib, Military Intervention, NATO, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, syrian civil war, Syrian rebels]

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