Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, March 15, 2020

COVID-19 and International Politics


Image result for pictures of people with covid 19 masks
Photo: Kim Kyung-hoon/Reuters 

It’s now been a few months since COVID-19 first appeared and began to spread around the world. The health fallout continues to mount. As of this writing, per the WHO, there are over 150,000 confirmed cases, some 5,700 deaths, and 146 countries/territories have been hit by the virus. Health care facilities and systems worldwide are being stretched to their limits, people are stressed and panicked, and everyday life has been massively disrupted. And making matters worse, the virus doesn’t show any signs of abating anytime soon.

While I am not a medical doctor or professional, which means I can’t credibly address the health and medical side of COVID-19, I am an expert in international politics, and I can reasonably sort through some of the global political implications of the coronavirus. What I’ll do here is focus on one main international political implication: the weakness and failure of international institutions and the liberal order more generally.  

Sounding the alarm about the sorry state of the liberal order has been en vogue for several years now, and these concerns have been voiced and articulated even more loudly and frequently during the Trump era. Unfortunately, COVID-19 just might be the death knell of the existing liberal international order as we know it. Oh, the order might limp on, but any belief that it’s a functioning, effective order is for the deluded and hopelessly Pollyanna.

The liberal order consists primarily of the rules and structures that undergird international relations. These rules and structures often take the form of international institutions, laws, norms, and they are supposed to provide order, stability, and enhanced cooperation in the world, even and at times especially during tumultuous periods. They are designed to fill in the gaps in global problem solving left in the wake of narrow and often selfish behavior and relationships exhibited by states historically. 

Well, right now certainly qualifies as a tumultuous moment, one that’s desperately crying out for global collective action and problem solving. After all, the coronavirus is spreading, people are sick and dying, markets are tanking, and countries are isolating, locking down, and quarantining themselves. According to liberal (international relations) logic, these institutions should be actively responding to the current crisis, addressing the real world health pandemic. They should be greasing the wheels of inter-state crisis coordination, dampening hysteria, and helping distressed people get the care and resources they need.

So is this the case? Is someone/thing leading the effort to coordinate a collective response from the international community? Are international public goods being provided? Regrettably, theory doesn’t always match reality, and this happens to be one of those cases. Indeed, COVID-19 is a glaring example of the failure of current institutions to meet the challenges of today.

Since the end of WWII, the US has acted as a global first responder and public goods provider—in part to expand its influence, and in part because institutions like the UN have shown to be troublingly ineffectual. Arguably, America’s self-appointed role as a first responder and public goods provider has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, it led to meddling in the politics of foreign nations and protracted inter-state wars. On the other hand, US efforts have done some good. During the cold war, the US worked to prop up the nascent world order and stabilize and strengthen the economies, defenses, politics, and overall quality of life of states around the globe, particularly those within its sphere of influence; and as that happened, the US also secured tangible gains as well—a big boost in trade, allies, influence, respect and prestige.

Even so, these globally beneficial actions by the US papered over the weakness and fecklessness of international institutions and allowed them to fly under the radar. Liberal scholars and policymakers deceived themselves into thinking that the global order was strong, popular, effective, and durable. But this order was always overrated. From 1945 until the early days of the post-cold war era, it was a mostly regional democratic order, with democracies in the Americas and Europe as the foundation of it. And when the US attempted to expand this order in the mid-1990s, thereby consolidating its spoils from winning the cold war, it did so through a mixture of diplomatic and coercive tools and policies, which in the end proved to be costly, violent, and deeply counterproductive. 

Donald Trump came into office in January 2017 on a mission to correct these foreign policy excesses. And true to this word, Trump decided to reorient US foreign policy, scrapping old strategic doctrines like liberal hegemony and primacy in favor of a transactional, nationalist approach to the world. A consequence of this new foreign policy has been America’s new tendency to eschew leadership globally—on issues, in institutions, in other multilateral forums, etc. Demonstrating leadership globally, especially on non-security issues, runs counter to Trump's instincts and worldview as well as Trump's nationalist America First strategic doctrine.

While there has been some inconsistency in the application of Trump’s America First, there is clear evidence of it impacting America’s relations with Iran, Europe, Canada, and Mexico, its position on issues like climate change, and its commitment to institutions like NATO, the WTO, the EU, among others. And on COVID-19, we’re seeing more of the same.

Trump’s approach to COVID-19 has been slow, slapdash, and more concerned about scoring domestic political points. Most disturbingly, Trump and his spokespersons spent weeks questioning whether the coronavirus was a hoax, rather than implementing protective health measures, which has played a role in helping the virus to spread in the US. The Trump administration also spent an inordinate amount of time and effort scapegoating China (the “Wuhan virus”) and the Democrats so as to deflect any political blame for the burgeoning health crisis inside the US. And on policies designed to alleviate the burdens of the virus, Trump has relied on nationalist tools, like stopping travel from certain nations. Neither Trump nor his staff has made any effort to spearhead a wider, collective international response to COVID-19. And I am highly skeptical the Trump administration will do so anytime soon, not only for the reasons I discussed above, but also because the domestic political heat is getting hotter for Trump. Americans are now acutely feeling the implications of the virus; there is a health crisis and corresponding health scare, of course, but also deep simultaneous deep economic, cultural, and social disruptions. They want authorities, particularly Trump, to address these problems now. As a result, Trump, an unpopular president in an election year, is further disincentivized to seek collaborative rather than national responses and solutions to the pandemic.

What about China, the world’s number two great power? China is not ready to act as a de facto world government on COVID-19. Much like the US. It began slowly and secretively, drawing widespread criticism domestically and globally, but China eventually got its act together. It has implemented lockdowns, quarantines, and a major economic stimulus. Yes, China’s response has been harsh, rigorously controlling the movement of local goods and millions of people, but the country is now finally healing as new patients are slowing to almost zero daily.

But now that China seems to have the virus under control, it is now seeking to opportunistically take advantage of America's dithering. It’s dabbled in the authoritarian playbook of blame-shifting by claiming the virus was the product and thereby the fault of America’s military. China is also playing up its global efforts, which include aiding Iran, Italy, and Serbia, so as to enhance its soft power and global standing. Of course, these moves display quite a bit of chutzpah, right? The virus originated in China, and Beiing did little in the beginning stages of the outbreak there, which allowed COVID-19 to become a massively huge global problem that everyone now has to deal with. 

Well, what about the world’s relevant international institutions, like United Nations or the World Health Organization or any of the various global economic institutions? Surely they are stepping up to the table to fill in the lack of attention and coordinated action by the international community, right? The UN did recently set up a rapid reaction fund for COVID-19, and Secretary-General Guterres has been an effective communicator. And “the IMF announced last week it would make $50 billion in financing available to bolster health care systems and emergency responses in low-income and emerging countries suffering from the virus.” Similarly, the World Bank "approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19." These are helpful overtures, to be sure. And these institutions are very good at disseminating information, stimulating public awareness, and generating debate and discussion. But they are hardly panaceas for this global health pandemic. 

In terms of organizing and galvanizing widespread international action, the international system’s institutions are woefully inadequate to deal with challenges of COVID-19. The strength and power of international institutions comes from the extent to which states, especially the great powers, agree to equip, fund, and work through them; they don’t have magical, autonomous abilities to transform international relations. And because the world’s powers have preferred unilateral rather than multilateral and collective responses to COVID-19, these institutions have been mostly relegated to the sidelines, bit players in a massively traumatic global event.

The IMF and World Bank funds are not nearly enough to help burdened economies. The UN and affiliated bodies aren’t acting as a rallying point around which states and non-state actors can link up to work together. Frankly, it is precisely because of this that states are tackling the coronavirus individually, on their own. And that has led to a patchwork of state health policies and initiatives across the world, making the virus even harder to contain than it already is. Ultimately, the problem is that the coronavirus is a transnational disease that cannot be contained or stopped by the actions of states working alone. Nevertheless, the best way to deal with COVID-19 hasn’t been through multilateral or international action but via lessons learned from discrete cases worldwide.

South Korea has been one much-lauded example. Consider this:

Korean officials enacted a key reform, allowing the government to give near-instantaneous approval to testing systems in an emergency. Within weeks of the current outbreak in Wuhan, China, four Korean companies had manufactured tests from a World Health Organization recipe and, as a result, the country quickly had a system that could assess 10,000 people a day.

Korea set up drive-through test stations, an approach only now being launched in the United States. Health officials initially focused their efforts on members of a secretive megachurch in Daegu with a branch in Wuhan, but they then broadened their reach to Seoul and other major cities. As of Saturday, South Korea had tested more than 248,000 people and identified 8,086 cases.

Countries are now trying to mimic all or parts of the Korean example. And in hard-hit states where the Korean case isn’t being copied adequately, like the US, there has been a big push from the media, journalists, scholars, and analysts to get authorities to follow Korea’s lead.

All of this points to what the risk analyst Ian Bremmer has called a "geopolitical recession," which is a product of a leaderless or G-Zero world. He writes, "The challenge we face today is the unwinding of the American-led world order, and the absence of global leadership to step in and take its place. We live in a G-Zero world… and the geopolitical recession is its effect. In a geopolitical recession, fracturing global politics fuels global risks instead of helping solve them." The failure of the world to form a working coalition to tackle the coronavirus is the latest in a string of examples of significant global issues going unaddressed, or addressed in a half-hearted manner: Climate change, North Korea, Russian aggression, cybersecurity, big data/privacy issues, disinformation campaigns—the list goes on. While COVID-19 is a health issue, addressing this problem, at least in a macro sense, is a matter of politics at the local, state, and international levels. The lack of cooperation, the bottlenecks, the refusal to share information, resource shortages, and so on are a function of underperforming political systems across the world.

For now, let’s hope that political authorities worldwide, working in tandem with health professionals, do enough, act quickly enough, to care for those afflicted with the virus and to slow and reduce the transmission of it. But once we get through this, there needs to be a fresh, renewed debate on many parts of the international system, including the role and purpose of international institutions, how the international community can better respond collectively to global crises, and who/what will act as a global public goods provider to states/groups/people in need. It’s time.  

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Trump/Kushner Middle East Peace Plan


Image result for jared kushner peace in the middle east

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on the recently unveiled US plan to resolve the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. This plan has been the pet project of President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been charged by Trump to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It largely deals with political and security matters and is the second document released by Kushner and his team. The first document, released in June 2019, concentrated on improving economic conditions in the region, with specific attention to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.

BN: All right, Yohanes, what are your thoughts on the Trump/Kushner plan? I think it's safe to say that the Israelis certainly love the plan. After all, the plan is a pro-Israeli one. It neuters a potential Palestinian state. And the Israelis get all of the concessions, including formal recognition of their settlements in the West Bank (which were previously seen as illegal by the US). The somewhat surprising thing is that there has been little blowback to the plan throughout the broader Middle East. No protests, no violence, etc. Ian Bremmer claims that the ME has moved on from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that looks to be spot on. And behind the scenes some of the Arab states are recommending the Palestinians negotiate with the plan.

At this point, the Israelis, are in a good spot. They are the dominant power in the relationship with the Palestinians, and the mood in the region (at least at the governmental level) is increasingly supportive of the Israelis, with Arab states actually wanting to work with them (on technology, intelligence sharing, containing Iran, etc.). The Trump/Kushner plan reflects, and also instititionalizes, these facts.

YS: The Trump plan shows the realities that nobody—especially the Palestinians—is going to accept. But at the same time, the silence in reaction to the plan is deafening. There are no major anti-US or anti-Israeli demonstrations. It is very different from back in 2000s. While you have the usual suspects (e.g., Palestinians, Turkey, and Iran) against this plan, the rest of the region is very diplomatic. This shows the reality now that Israel is no longer seen as a threat, it’s a status quo power, and in fact the biggest threat in the Middle East is Iran.

After the Arab Spring, the Arab autocrats really fear massive social movements. Not to mention, they see Hamas as Iranian proxy, thus they are less sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, though they do have to maintain the illusion and pay lip service to the Palestinians. So yes, in the larger geostrategic view, the Palestinian issue is no longer a cause for those Arab autocrats, who are secure in their legitimacy and wealth. They no longer want to rock the boat.  For Turkey and Iranians, who aspire for regional leadership, the Palestinian issue remains potent.

BN: Yeah, I agree that worries about internal stability probably are factoring into how regional autocrats have responded to the Trump/Kushner plan. But additionally, the regional environment—of which the Arab Spring is connected to and has shaped—is much different than 10, 15, 20 years ago. It's more violent, conflictual, unstable, and chaotic. And as a result, there are many more things on the radar of the region's despots. The rise of Iran. Yemen. Iraq. Syria. Terrorism. Libya. The Palestinian cause has slipped behind most if not all of these traumatic issues. Also, it doesn't help the Palestinian cause that the biggest issue to the Sunni states—the rise of Iran—has caused them to warm up to Israel and not want to jeopardize relations with Israel. As you mentioned, it's probably up to Iran and Turkey to go to bat for the Palestinians. But those two states, especially Iran, are the worst states to take up the Palestinians' cause, because the US and Israel won't listen or negotiate with them on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

YS: An overlooked factor is the generational change at work in the Middle East. The median age of Middle East people is 26.8 years, meaning more than half of the population was born after 1990 and came of age in the mid-2000s, far removed from the struggle of the Palestinians, the Arab-Israeli wars, etc. When you add in the fact that the economies of many Middle East states are in decline, such that even Saudi Arabia has to engage in economic reforms (e.g., selling part of ARAMCO, the family jewel), I'd hazard to guess that the unending Palestinian struggle no longer significantly registers among young people. 

BN: So where does the moribund peace process go from here? Does the can get kicked down the road once again? Or do you foresee any effort—by either the Israeli or Palestinian side—to engage with the Trump/Kushner plan?

YS: Basically for Trump, it is "my way or the highway." As long as Trump is in the White House, this will basically freeze the status quo. The Palestinians won't negotiate under that proposal anyway, and that gives Israelis the excuse of not doing anything to advance the peace process. In any case, I think the peace process has been long dead, and this is just the final nail in the coffin. Like it or not, the regional security situation has changed drastically and the only group still stuck in the 1970s (unfortunately) are the Palestinians. Like you mentioned, the rest of the region has moved on.

BN: For precisely those reasons, I do wonder if it's in the Palestinians' best interests to engage with the plan and earnestly work toward a final resolution to the hostilities. The power dynamics are tilting greatly toward Israel's advantage and nobody in the region is interested in defending or saving the Palestinians.

Frankly, these facts are what Kushner is hoping will prod the Palestinians to the table. His interviews lately (with Bremmer and Fareed Zakaria, in particular) have argued that the Palestinians can negotiate now, receive aid and other help from the global community, work toward internal political stability, and get their state in a few years; or they can avoid the plan, let the situation on the ground, like in the Gaza Strip, further deteriorate, and face the situation later when the Israelis are in further control of Palestinian lands. If they try to negotiate later, so goes the logic, the Palestinians will do so with far reduced leverage. It's another way of saying to the Palestinians: "You might not like this plan, but you definitely won't like any plan in the future, and in fact you'll probably hate any future settlement, so save yourself the trouble and work with us now."

The US and Israelis are engaging in coercive bargaining with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians know it and are trying to resist it, because they don't want the terms of any deal dictated to them. They feel cornered. Unfortunately for them, they are holding out for more, for a better deal, but that deal will probably never arrive.

YS: It will require much better leaders in both Israel and Palestine to restart talks. The only reason why Arafat agreed to Oslo was because Palestine was totally isolated internationally. He had nowhere to go. Abbas is held hostage by the extremists (e.g. Hamas and Islamic Jihad factions).  In the end, he cannot make any compromise even if he wants to, else he will be deposed.

On the Israelis’ side, the Netanyahu's government is beholden to its political allies on the right, who are very unlikely to give up anything in negotiations with the Palestinians. And with the corruption scandal looming, Netanyahu has to keep appeasing them with hawkish policy positions.

In essence, internationally, the situation is very unfavorable to Palestine, and, domestically, it will be political suicide for both the Israeli and Palestinian governments to compromise. The only viable option right now is to do nothing.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Assassination of General Soleimani

The remains of a vehicle hit by missiles outside the Baghdad airport. The commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, was killed.

The aftermath of missile strikes at Baghdad Airport. Iraqi Press Office, via AP.


On Friday, January 3, 2020, the United States assassinated General Qasen Soleimani at Baghdad Airport. Much has already been discussed in the media about this issue. The main point is that as the head of Iran's The Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and as basically the coordinator of Iran's clients in the Middle East (Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad, and the Houthis) -- or as Andrew Exum called "the adult supervision in the room"-- his killing could open a can of worms and cause even more instability in the Middle East. 

The question, however, is how much pain Iran is willing to inflict on the United States in order to avenge General Soleimani? Is Iran willing to escalate the situation by launching more attacks on Saudi's oil installations, or even hitting Israel?

In order to answer that question, first we need to identify what Iran's interests are. Iran's goal is to maintain its security by establishing and maintaining client states and organizations, notably Lebanon's Hezbollah, Syria's Assad, Yemen's Houthis, and Hamas in Palestine. And in order to control its clients, Iran has to make sure that it is seen as capable of defending those clients.

So far Iran manages to do so by propping up Assad, maintaining Hezbollah's supremacy in Lebanon, supporting Hamas' control over Gaza Strip, assisting the Houthis, and working as the key player behind the scene in Iraq. Iran, in turn, was rewarded by receiving loyalty from those clients. And in some cases, it is willing to assist its clients in causing pain to their opponents, such as by hitting Saudi refineries and, lately, by attacking the American military bases and even an American embassy through its proxies. Iran gambled that as long as it did not escalate things too much, it could increase its prestige at the expense of both the US and the Saudis.

The problem is that the attack on the embassy in Iraq rattled the United States, and was basically was seen by Trump as an attack on his credibility. Keep in mind that Trump was fond of using "Benghazi," an attack on the US consulate in Libya and the murder of the US ambassador there during Obama and Hillary's watch, as a rallying cry to show how weak US credibility was under both Obama and Clinton. The attack on the US Embassy in Iraq  could have been a major embarrassment for Trump. With that in mind,Trump chose to escalate things drastically by assassinating General Soleimani, essentially warning Iran that none of its top leaders would be off limits should push come to shove.

At this point, Iran's choices are unpalatable. It could escalate things further, such as by attacking US military bases, but it would lead to a war that Iran does not want and cannot not afford. Its economy is in shambles, and the recent demonstrations showed that the regime is so deeply unpopular that it had to act violently to maintain order in the country. Embarking on a war with the US would basically decimate the regime. Moreover, it is very doubtful that both Russia and China will be willing to go to the mat against the US for the sake of defending Iran.

At the same time, Iran cannot simply stay silent, as it would risk its credibility among its clients. It would also risk its prestige. After all, what kind of signal does it send if Iran cannot do anything to avenge the killing of its top commander? Furthermore, what if Trump or Netanyahu becomes bold enough to assassinate Iran's important clients such as Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah? 

I suspect Iran could retaliate by escalating low intensity attacks (e.g. using Hezbollah or the Houthis to attack US clients in the region, such as Saudi Arabia). It might hijack oil tankers belonging to Western nations, like what happened a few months ago, or even cause problems with oil shipping in the Gulf. America's lack of response to Iran's attack on Saudi's oil installations basically showed Iran that the US would not retaliate if it could keep the damage low enough. At bottom, Iran will try to make America's life difficult, but its moves will be far short of declaration of war, or even a major attack on US global interests.   

Sunday, December 22, 2019

India's Rough and Tumble 2019


Protesters participate in a mass rally against the Indian government's Citizenship Amendment Act in Kolkata on Dec. 16.
Protesters participate in a mass rally against the Indian government's Citizenship Amendment Act in Kolkata on Dec. 16. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


In 2019, Western news has focused on several themes, many of which, not surprisingly, are connected to US President Donald Trump and his policies, such as Trump's impeachment, US-China (trade and technology) relations, the viability and future of NATO, the continued presence of anti-democratic populist leaders, the spike in white nationalism and white nationalist violence, Brexit, and so on. The intense focus on Trump has squeezed out almost any room for several very important but overlooked events and issues in 2019. Here, in this blog post, there's one specific case I'd like to focus on, one that's in need of more attention by a wider audience. In short, in my mind, the country to watch in 2019—and arguably, in 2020, as well—has been India. 

India has been roiled by turmoil and violence this past year. In February, India engaged in a dangerous tit-for-tat military exchange with nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan over a terrorist bombing in India-administered Kashmir. India went on the offensive and attacked a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Pakistan, Pakistan responded with an air strike across the Line of Control, and the subcontinent looked as if it was on the precipice of a catastrophic war. Indeed, as Paul Staniland points out, "With an Indian pilot in Pakistani hands, the crisis looked as though it might escalate, and there are credible reports that India threatened missile strikes against Pakistan, amidst efforts at crisis management by third parties. Pakistan soon returned the captured pilot to India and the crisis abated." 

In August, under the guise of building a more cohesive Indian state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Home Minister Amit Shah, begun deeply tightening its control over Jammu and Kashmir. The government removed article 370 of the constitution, thereby stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special autonomous status, and relegated the region to the status of "union territory." At the same time, the government cracked down on political dissidents and opponents and enacted an Internet and phone blackout in these two areas. It's a combustible situation that has yet to be fully resolved, as political opponents and human rights activists attest. 

More recently, on December 11, the BJP government passed "The Citizenship Amendment Bill," which "would give many citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh the opportunity to apply for Indian citizenship based on their beliefs alone. But the Bill stipulates they must be Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Parsi or Buddhist; Muslims are not listed." This, in turn, has triggered waves of protests and demonstrations throughout India, home to roughly two hundred million Muslims who are feeling targeted and repressed by the BJP. But it’s not only Muslims who are on edge, it’s local student and activists and advocates who fear that India is backsliding away from its longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights and moving toward an ethno-religious authoritarian state.

In the end, the bill has predictably turned up the political heat in India, triggering violence, bloodshed, and a heavy-handed crackdown led by the state. According to the Washington Post, “In an effort to try to quell the protests, the Indian government has detained thousands and turned off Internet access in several cities. Those actions appear to have only further incited the protesters and prompted more violence. Friday marked a particularly bloody day for cities in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, as 15 protesters in several cities lost their lives, according to state police officials. Internet in 15 cities remained suspended in the state Saturday. Despite these curbs, the protests show no signs of abating, and at least four demonstrations took place across Delhi, the capital region.”

What's going on here? What's explains India's behavior in 2019? The oft-told story about India nowadays is that the government is helmed by ardent Hindu nationalists who seek to remake the state and society in line with their ethno-politico preferences and interests. According to this narrative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP are a bunch of hardcore Hindu nationalists, and once they captured power in 2014, they were then in a position to act on their ethno-political dreams. And since coming into office, Modi, through word and legislation and other forms of political action, has operationalized Hindu nationalism as both a political means and a political end to be achieved. Yes, it’s an end, because a Hindu state is the ultimate goal for the BJP.

But it’s also a useful means to various ends, because pro-Hindu policies are popular among the BJP’s base of support and they strengthen the party’s hold onto power, both of which fuel the government’s ability to get its way on politics and policy. Modi himself has wielded Hindu nationalism as a magic wand for his and his party’s advantage. Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer nicely captures this point. Bremmer argues that electoral pressures—specifically, the spring 2019 parliamentary elections—and a weakening economy directly led Modi to double down on Hindu nationalism. He writes: “India’s economy began to slow, a product of the external global market environment, continued structural challenges on the domestic front and short-sighted government policies. Modi opted to turn to Hindu nationalism to bolster his poll numbers, a decision that helped him perform better than expected in national elections in spring 2019. And after securing reelection, Modi continued leaning his shoulder into Hindu nationalism, while neglecting issues like land reform or reducing trade barriers.”

The other crucial element here—one that has received far less attention—is that we’re witnessing some of the fits and spurts associated with a power rising on the world stage. History tells us that it can be very disruptive when rising powers, which are usually revisionist to some degree in nature, seek a larger place in the world: the rising power, pushing outward and placing stress on the extant regional and world orders, wants more influence and power; status quo powers, meantime, are reluctant to grant such things, fearing a diminution of their status regionally and globally. We’re now seeing the early stages of this process playing out in India’s rise. India is clearly a rising power and sees itself as such, wants to be recognized as a global power, and it is becoming far less inclined to compromise on what it perceives as its core national interests. Under Modi, India is no longer interested in punching below its weight on global affairs; it seeks a place at the table of great powers, whether they like it or not. Admittedly, while India’s foreign policy isn’t nearly as expansionist or aggressive as China’s is these days, it’s evident that Delhi is flaring its elbows a bit in search of influence and prestige commensurate with its growing material power. This is causing India to butt heads with Pakistan, of course, but also potentially with China, the US, and Russia.

Finally, let’s touch on the implications of all of this. In particular, what is the global impact of all of India’s moves in 2019? And what kind of blowback might India face? There are lots of ways to answer this question. For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my remarks to three central points.

First, India’s overt Hindu nationalist play risks degrading the nation’s soft power. According to Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson center, “These protests have hurt the government’s image....Global perceptions are shifting-and that’s no small matter for a nation that has long enjoyed a relatively positive image abroad and considerable soft power.” While this is probably true for the short-run, especially as images of violence leak out to the world, it’s less clear that it will hold over the long-term. Ultimately, the global fallout of the domestic turmoil depends on how Modi and his BJP deal with India’s festering social and political divisions. Do they attempt damage control, reaching out and protecting the rights of distressed citizens and inhabitants of India and resisting the siren song of Hindu tyranny—perhaps by limiting the implementation of the proposed National Registry? If they do, foreign countries that value human rights, especially the Western powers consumed with China’s dominance, will be more than happy to forgive and forget India’s rough and tumble 2019.

Second, 2019 has definitively raised the stakes in South Asia. For roughly the past 20 years, Pakistan counted on a level of restraint from India in response to regional events—terror attacks, Kashmir, missile tests, etc.—which has allowed it to poke and prod and undermine Indian interests. It would no longer be wise for Pakistan to assume India will exhibit such restraint going forward, even in its relations with Pakistan. Moreover, it should not assume that nuclear deterrence will necessarily, automatically hold each side at bay. Highly nationalist India and Pakistan are demonstrating a greater willingness to defend and protect their interests, take chances and embrace reckless foreign policies, and accept costs along the way. This is an alarming situation, particularly considering the subcontinent’s history of inter-state rivalry and ethnic divides, stockpiles of nuclear arms, and presence of terror groups.

Third, there is a chance that relations with the US could be adversely impacted. Frankly, at this point, the Trump administration doesn’t seek to pick a fight with India over its domestic policies—which makes sense, given Trump’s policy of mostly staying out of the business of other countries’ internal politics. If Trump turns up the heat on India anytime soon, it will be because of its trade and broader economic policy. Moreover, Trump and his acolytes value India’s role as a potential local counterbalancer to China’s movement and expansion in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. After all, the reason the US government has changed the name of its Asia policy from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” is to highlight India’s growing importance in US foreign policy.

The bigger problem for India are America’s democrats.  Just last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar canceled a meeting a US Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee because of the presence of Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal, who, along with the so-called Squad, has been openly critical of the Modi government, its human rights policy, and its cozy relationship with Donald Trump. Indeed, “Jayapal has introduced a bi-partisan resolution in the House calling for an end to the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir and for the Government of India to respect international human rights law.” This, as should be expected, has triggered the ire of the BJP.

In general, as long as the Trump White House continues to downplay human rights and the state of global democracy in its foreign policymaking, Congressional Democrats will harp on these issues, as they try to make the case that they, not Trump or his Republican Party, are the only ones in the US capable of formulating and implementing an ethical, moral policy platform. And if a Democrat takes the White House in the November 2020 election, she or he will face pressure from the liberal base to depart from Trump’s convention of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and democratic backsliding worldwide. My guess is that a Democratic foreign policy will primarily critique and pressure China, North Korea, and Russia, among other nations, though India probably won’t get a free pass from America’s left. That, in turn, will create friction in Delhi-Washington ties, thereby requiring deft diplomacy to ensure relations don’t suffer a severe setback from the previous decade of bilateral progress and momentum.     

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Impact of the Death of al-Baghdadi


Image result for al baghdadi
Photo: AP.

Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was conducted via email over the last week. 

Brad Nelson: There are a lot of things happening in Syria lately. Basically, it's been non-stop Syria news for the last few weeks or so. Here, in this exchange, let’s focus on much-discussed, much-hyped event: the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS. What do you make of it? And what kind of impact will it have on ISIS?

Yohanes Sulaiman: While the death of al Baghdadi is significant in terms of PR for Trump and a blow to the ego of the ISIS, in a larger strategic picture, this does not have that much of an impact. ISIS has been in decline for the past few years. ISIS managed to get big because the conditions were right: Syria was in disarray while Iraq's government has lacking in legitimacy, providing fertile grounds for ISIS to grow and to gain a significant chuck of territory. Due to its brutality, though, ISIS ended up being hated and hounded by everyone. And its opponents have gotten wiser in dealing with it—e.g. attacking its internet propaganda infrastructure, establishing improving deradicalization programs, etc. While ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks remain a problem, it is not that significant of a threat.

What next for ISIS? I think a collaboration with al Qaeda (AQ) probably its best option. Based on the fact that al Baghdadi was found in a stronghold of AQ in Syria, the two groups probably reached an accommodation of some sort.

BN: I see al-Baghdadi's death as simply accelerating trends that are already in motion. It pushes the group further toward decentralization. As the caliphate crumbled and its fighters have gone underground, ISIS has less sway over its affiliates and franchises. And without a credible leader right now, that's even more so the case. And then there's the prospect that al-Baghdadi's successor will likely lack his military, religious, and organizational credentials. If the next ISIS leader is a step back from al-Baghdadi in terms of respect and prestige, there's the chance that its affiliates will try to take advantage of the situation by broadening and deepening their autonomy from ISIS HQ and a few might even defect, sliding toward AQ. 

There is already lots of talk of ISIS lashing out now--as it seeks to avenge al-Baghdadi's death, remain relevant, and forestall any defections. Sure, we might see an uptick in ISIS-related violence.  However, keep in mind that ISIS was already very violent, wielding violence almost indiscriminantly, so I really don't anticipate too much change there. 

Bruce Hoffman has argued that an AQ-ISIS merger (or really a re-merger) could well happen. I'm a little more skeptical, at least for now. Yes, collaboration is something ISIS could opt for, but it would probably be unwise at the moment. AQ knows that ISIS is in flux (having lost its leader and recently promoted a possible neophyte), and as a result, al-Zawahiri is likely to see ISIS as weakened and desperate. AQ has the bargaining leverage. If ISIS wants to work with AQ, then AQ would be smart to demand it happening on AQ's terms. Would ISIS go for that? It’s unknown at this point, especially since we don't know much about al-Hashemi thus far.

My expectation is this: Rather than working with ISIS, I expect AQ to try to drive the stake in ISIS's heart by attempting to sow further divisions within ISIS and even press ISIS affiliates to switch teams. Why fold (in its competition with ISIS) when AQ has an opportunity to win the game, so to speak?

YS: Keep in mind that ISIS and its ilk can only be successful under narrow main conditions: first is the weaknesses of the states where they operate, and second, when states are simply unprepared to deal with these groups. So, I don't think we will see an emergence of a third group or reemergence of both AQ and ISIS as a global jihadist network at this point. Syria and Iraq are still in a mess, but they are stabilizing, and the populace are totally alienated due to ISIS brutality. Afghanistan remains a weak state, but the Taliban is more of a local phenomenon than an international movement. Same thing with Somalia and Nigeria. Terrorists there are really a product of local movements that tried to link themselves to a global jihadist movement. And nowadays states are far more prepared to deal with the reemergence of the new al-Qaeda or ISIS. Granted, this does not rule out any lone wolf attacks, but as John Mueller notes, especially in the US, the risk of a terrorist attack is very low, and in Europe, the police are much wiser to deal with the threats. And financing, especially from the Gulf States, is drying up. While terrorists may be able to work with local jihadist groups or criminal groups for financing, it seems to me that ISIS might find it harder than al Qaeda due to its extremism.

BN: Iraq and Syria are among the most chaotic, unstable, and violent states in the world. There are ample opportunities for AQ and ISIS to re-emerge there if the metaphorical foot is taken off their throats. Plus, ISIS still has anywhere from 14-18,000 foot soldiers, so that group still has a deep bench, with arms, and millions of dollars the group has squirreled away.

Regarding AQ: AQ is still very strong in Iraq and Syria. Research from Colin Clarke and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, among others, on the political dynamics in Syria says that AQ has embedded itself in local structures and populations in Syria, and it's going to be hard to remove the group. And AQ has had a longstanding presence in Sunni Iraqis areas since shortly after the US invasion in 2003.

All of this, in combination with some of the things I've already said in this exchange, leads me to believe that both groups are still formidable, though ISIS is the more dangerous global terrorist group. It's a desperate, decentralized group looking to remain relevant and important globally. It's very likely seeking quick "wins" right now. AQ is playing a different game. It doesn't have the same short-term, narrow perspective. There is also accumulating evidence that AQ has learned the lessons of its past, learned from the mistakes of ISIS, and learned from the "successes" of groups like Hezbollah. As a result, AQ is biding its time, regrouping and establishing momentum in the broader Middle East. And for those reasons, AQ isn't quite the global threat that ISIS is, in my view. 

BN: The one last point I’d like to make concerns the organizational literature’s thoughts on the death of al-Baghdadi. Jacob Shapiro, Jenna Jordan, and others others, have written on how mature, bureaucratized, layered terrorist organizations that have targeted wellsprings of support can withstand the loss of key leaders. These groups have built-in rules and processes that allow militants to get promoted up the ranks as needed; they also have the requisite base of support to replenish the ranks as militants either get promoted, killed, or simply defect from the organization.

This, of course, doesn’t describe all terror groups. Many groups are young, fragile, and very reliant on a leader. By contrast, ISIS is a classic example of a bureaucratized group with a strong base of support—both locally, regionally, and internationally. ISIS has the infrastructure to move into a post-Baghdadi era. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But for those expecting ISIS to fade away, well, that’s unlikely. 

The good part, though, is that the group isn't nearly the global menace it was in 2015, it's unlikely to recapture its past glory and power, and it has been plagued by what Max Abrahms calls "stupid" leadership

In short, ISIS faces a dilemma. It can go underground, rest and recover, but risk getting eclipsed once again by AQ. This is the safe choice. Or it can continue to act as an impulsive, ultra-violent organization, in order to retain global brand visibility and attention. This is the risky and arguably dumbest choice. Because in remaining violent, killing everyone and everything in its path, ISIS will remain the subject of a harsh counterterrorism measures by states around the world. And those counterterrorism efforts will make life very difficult for the group and its members. They degrade ISIS's capabilities, create a brain drain through attrition, and effectively hem in the group. My guess is that ISIS will chose the second option. This will keep the group in the news and as a global threat to security, but also ensure that it is constantly hounded and on the run.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Curfewed Nights: An Assessment of the Crisis in Kashmir and Its Implications for Domestic and International Security

Author interview in Srinagar, 2011.
Photo: Cornelia-Adriana Baciu

Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir, the memoir on the conflict in Kashmir by the Indian journalist Basharat Peer which won the Crossword Prize for Non-Fiction and was chosen among the Books of the Year by The Economist and The New Yorker, is the first thing to come into my mind when I think about Kashmir.

“It is human to feel fatigued. But worse than fatigue was the brutal state repression which ended previous uprisings,” were the words of one respondent from Kashmir in relation to the 2016-2017 uprising in Kashmir, in which more than 100 protesters were killed and 150,000 injured by Indian military and para-military forces, during my field research on both sides of Kashmir, in India and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011. I visited the Kashmir Valley for the first time just after the end of the riots, in November 2010, during my exchange semester at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and I experienced the curfews for the first time.

Kashmir has a long history of unrest, and each time “central government forces have entered and ransacked homes and beaten up residents irrespective of age and gender. This kind of brutal suppression is done with a sole objective to quell the uprising,” reported one respondent, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Previous unrests have not achieved “Azaadi” (in Kashmiri, peace), but they highlighted the Kashmir conflict globally and dismantled the Indian projection that Kashmiris are happy with the Indian rule.

Art 370. as Peace Dividend in Kashmir

One key finding of my research in Kashmir, when I conducted interviews with leaders of the Kashmiri movement on both sides (India and Pakistan) – including people like Syed Ali Gillani (who was under house arrest at the time of the interview) and Yasin Malik, the leader of the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) – was related to Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has subtly scrapped on 05 August 2019, only ten days before Indian National Day and 73 years since the independence from British colonial rulers and established of a free Indian state. The move was done amid the imposition of a state of total curfew and lockdown in Kashmir. Demilitarisation of the Kashmir Valley and implementation of Art. 370, which has been gradually eroded over time, emerged as one of the most feasible solutions to stabilise trust relations between Delhi and Srinagar.

“The demilitarisation of Kashmir or reduction of the number of security forces could bring a sense of freedom among the local population and could lay a stable basis for the consolidation of trust relations between Srinagar and Delhi,” stated one respondent. Ultimately, non-lethal crowd-control measures would better fit to a democracy like India. “India cannot claim to be the largest democracy and at the same time enact brutal oppression against Kashmiri citizens. Its human rights record in Kashmir is going to mar its reputation globally and can also become a stumbling block in the pursuit of covetous membership in Nuclear Suppliers Group and UN Security Council,” related another respondent.

The re-establishment of the conditions of semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, which was guaranteed under Art. 370 of the Indian Constitution, was believed by the majority of the respondents in the analysed sample to contribute to reduce anti-India resentments. This measure would have had the potential to increase the role of local population in the decision-making process, reassembling the meaning of self-determination and the essential aspiration of Azaadi.

The righteous and judicious implementation of Art. 370 could have constituted a feasible peace model in the region, even more sustainable than the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 47 of 1948, which, while can be claimed to be still valid (UN decisions are valid until they are invalidated by the organ which took it), probably from a legal perspective is in a state of desuetude. Moreover, the UN resolution had little relevance in the self-determination endeavour of the Kashmiri people, as it only offered two options, either accession to India or to Pakistan (UNSC Resolution 47, S/726, para. 7); there was no option of ‘Azaadi’.

Internal autonomy guaranteed under Art. 370 was a pre-condition for the (formerly princely state Jammu and Kashmir) accession to India at the time of Partition in 1947. Art. 370, corroborated with constitutional provisions 35a, guaranteed the Kashmiris internal autonomy, with their own parliament, government and even flag, and rights of property acquisition in the region to Kashmiris only. Although initially a temporary provision, Art. 370 was rendered permanent by India’s Supreme Court in 1957.

The chances of a revocation of the BJP government decision and re-institution of Art. 370 seem very thin, as an appeal at the Supreme Court can be made only by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly but this is currently dissolved, and it is not clear whether the Governor can pursue such procedures.

Implications for Domestic and International Security

The BJP decision to politically align Jammu and Kashmir with the other Indian states was accompanied by a series of measures by the federal government, such as a total lockdown in the Kashmir, house arrest of previous chief ministers Omar Abdullah (National Congress) and Mehbooba Mufti (Peoples Democratic Party), and the activation of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure prohibiting gatherings of more than four people. These oppressive measures are likely to increase the sense of frustration and thus the possibility of violent unrest in Kashmir, which is boiling.

One possibility to overcome the current impasse would be international mediation, and a commission consisting of representatives of the European Union, United States, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and China, could assist in reconciling the issue. However, such a scenario seems rather unlikely, considering that India has explicitly asked international actors and allies not to intervene in what is considered a matter of internal affairs.

International mediation on the Kashmir issue can be a challenge for the global community, considering the Shimla Agreement of 1972, signed and ratified by India and Pakistan in 1972. According to Art. 4.II of the agreement, “[n]either side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations.” But this provision shall not whatsoever become the shield for oppression and human rights violations. The Shimla Agreement also pledges in Art. I. that “the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations shall govern the relations between the two countries [India and Pakistan].” The international community shall keep a close eye on the development in the region and not remain silent in case of violation of such fundamental principles like the UN Charter, as this will weaken its credibility.

While a potential international mediation might ameliorate the immense tensions, it would probably be illusory to believe that it could solve the decades-long dispute between India and Pakistan. Muslims in South Asia began to fear for their identity since the end of the Mughal Empire, and until a model which guarantees Muslim rights, as Art. 370 did, is found, political uprising and violent confrontation remain an extreme risk. In case of a new unrest in Kashmir, a new crisis between the two nuclear states, as it was the case during the Kargil War in 1999, cannot be completely ruled out, as Pakistan has already pledged its support for the Kashmir cause – with Prime Minister Imran Khan holding an historical speech in Azad Kashmir on 14 August, which coincided with Pakistan Independence Day.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

What to Make of the Attacks in El Paso and Dayton?


Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Last Friday, August 3rd, two horrific shooting attacks occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Combined, 32 people were killed, and dozens more were hurt and wounded.

The El Paso attack, ostensibly, was motivated by anti-Hispanic sentiment. The manifesto posted by the gunman before the shooting indicated his worry about Hispanics “invading" the US, “replacing” white people over time, especially in Texas, leading to a single-party dictatorship in the US. These are standard racist tropes used by white power groups to demonize and justify violence against non-white populations, whether Hispanics/Latinos, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, etc. The motive for the Dayton shooting is less clear. That shooter has expressed left-wing sympathies, though with no note or manifesto or any other corroboration, it’s unfair to directly tie his politics to the murders he committed.

These attacks have roiled the US, and, as you might expect given the current political climate in America, the political fallout has been particularly dramatic.

Republicans—the party of gun rights—and their supporters have been on the defensive. They’ve blamed mental health issues, violent video games, and the lack of God in people’s lives as prime factors in the attacks—traditional conservative arguments that the right trots out to explain away gun violence. They’ve also attempted to score points by linking the Dayton shooter to left-wing causes and ideologies. Trump himself stated, “The Dayton situation, he was a fan of Antifa, he was a fan of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, nothing to do with Trump, but nobody ever mentions that.”

As expected, Democrats of all stripes have renewed with vigor their calls for stricter gun control. They’ve also come out strongly against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for blocking various gun bills in Congress. In fact, Ohio Congressman (and long shot for the Democratic nomination for president) Tim Ryan announced plans to lead a caravan to Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, to raise awareness of existing gun bills on the table and to put pressure on McConnell to take action. Additionally, Democrats have intensely criticized president Trump for his incendiary rhetoric (both on the campaign trail and while in office). Presidential contenders Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have taken the gloves off, labeling Trump a white supremacist who deserves some of the blame for the violence.

Quite a bit of left-wing commentary has argued that Trump is directly connected to the recent spate of right-wing violence and attacks. Which begs a good question: Is this true? Is Trump to blame for these attacks? I’m sure for many Americans, including some conservatives, it sure feels like Trump has something to do with the spike in right-wing violence. After all, trump has routinely lampooned and launched verbal attacks against Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, women, Democrats, the media, among many others. But does all this mean that Trump’s to blame or responsible for last weekend’s violence? What do we make of Trump’s role? Let’s take a clear-eyed look at this issue.

Well, to begin, white power attacks and violence long pre-date Trump. The US has a sordid and violent history of race relations—with minorities receiving the brunt of the very negative economic, political, security consequences. The slavery era, reconstruction, internment camps, the rise of the Klan, the backlash against civil rights legislation, the prominence of extremist militia groups, deportations—all of these things span from before the founding of the US republic and run right through to today. The virus of white power and supremacy—and the attendant demonization of and violence against the so-called non-white “other” in society—hasn’t been removed from the US body politic and it in fact still thrives in dark corners of American life. And while Americans—both citizens and politicians—became preoccupied with Islamic terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, the white power movement, forgotten and overlooked, continued to gather steam. Indeed, the leading cause of violent mass extremist attacks on American soil since 9/11 have been committed by white power individuals and groups. So this is something that’s been on the rise well before Trump arrived on the political scene.

And even when we look at the specifics of recent individual violent hate crimes and attacks, especially those committed during the Trump era, it’s difficult to clearly and definitively attribute causal force to Trump—even though many want to do so. For starters, it’s hard enough to discern motives and intentions, especially without any kind of manifesto or public statement. And even in cases in which such a document is present, that’s no guarantee we can identify a clear motive. Mass murderers, like people more generally, often lie and dissemble and exaggerate for their own purposes. Plus, the white power movement presents its own difficulties. Even though the El Paso killer seemed to use language about minorities that’s consistent with what Trump has used in the past, it’s also language that’s often and easily found in white power circles—circles that aren’t only American, but are increasingly transnational. The “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which the El Paso shooter discussed at length in his manifesto, actually originates from a French writer, Renuad Camus, and has been picked by other infamous white power types, like the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter.

To be clear, all of the above is not meant to absolve Trump of any and all responsibility. Instead, it’s meant to say that Trump is not a singular direct cause of the white power violence in the US. In my view, it’s better to view the Trump-white power connection as a complex set of forces.

In Trump, white racists have found an once-in-a-lifetime president who publicly espouses views and policies, particularly on race relations, trade, and immigration, that fit with their political preferences. At the same time, pockets of white Americans have become disaffected and angry and fearful, because of globalization, automation, US wars, 9/11, and the drug crisis, among other factors. In Trump, the disaffected and angry, desperate for any politician to relieve their burdens and crises, have found someone who proclaimed to championed their cause and felt their pain. And a booming economy, conservative Supreme Court justices, along with biased and fake news disseminated by Russian trolls, mainstream news sources, social media, and POTUS himself, have kept them loyal to Trump. This is the context in which not only white racists but also the disaffected and angry have opted for Trump and continue to support him.

Trump, in turn, seeing these white voters as his core base of support—one that’s indispensable to his reelection—has gone out of his way to appease them and keep them activated by telling them what they want to hear, regardless of whether his statements bear any resemblance to truth or decency, and implementing policies, such as the Muslim ban, the wall, and family separations, they favor. Overall, Trump’s goal has been to create continual domestic chaos, which keeps his core base ginned up and willing to go to bat for him—online, at public rallies, and at the polls. One salient way he’s done this is by making race/ethnicity a key animating feature of us politics and policymaking. This is the gamble he’s made. Of course, he might be wrong, in that the chaos and coarseness could turn off just enough independents and fringe members of the core to turn the election to the Democrats in 2020.

In the meantime, though, all of this has led to a very combustible political environment. In short, Trump has fostered a political climate in white power extremism and violence can flourish. And white racists and their sympathizers are more prominent than they’ve been in decades. Certainly, since 2015, they’ve been mainstreamed. And with someone they see as one of their own in the White House, and with the overwhelming majority of the GOP (which is in control of the Senate) indefatigable in its defense and support of Trump and his views and policies, they’re now politically ascendant. They have representation in both the executive and legislative branches of the US government. Moreover, it’s evident they feel free to say what they want and to organize publicly. The fierce confrontation in Charlottesville in 2017 is one of many sad contemporary examples. 

Or look at Trump’s political rallies. They’ve been marred by fist fights against anti-MAGA folks, chants of “lock her up” and “send her back,” and even a reference by a crowd member to shooting “invading” Hispanics—which generated applause and laughter from both the crowd and Trump. To which Trump responded, “That’s only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

It’s a troubling situation. What if Trump is reelected in 2020? Maybe he moderates a bit on racial/ethnic issues, just because he doesn’t have to worry about another political campaign and can focus on burnishing his legacy as president. Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps what we’ve seen and heard from Trump isn’t a political act, but a roughly accurate representation of his worldview. And if he’s not re-elected? That doesn’t necessarily portend better news, frankly. The fires Trump has lit won’t burn out once he leaves office, whenever that is. The US will deal with the political, social, and cultural ramifications of Trump’s rule well after he leaves the presidency. Healing the nation will take up considerable time for the next few presidents, much like it took the US years to recover from the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Moreover, there’s another issue. There are kids, likely living in MAGA households, who parrot Trump’s heated rhetoric in schools. These kids will probably grow up to be MAGA adults. What then? These are rough times with no easy answers.