Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Has Trump Permanently Altered US Foriegn Policy?

Last month, Foreign Affairs posed an interesting question to a panel of experts: Has Trump permanently altered US foreign policy? If you have a chance to read it—it’s behind a paywall—we encourage you to do so. You’ll see a wide range of views from a host of scholars and analysts.

Below Drs. Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson offer their thoughts on the same question posed by Foreign Affairs.


Yohanes Sulaiman: Neutral, confidence level 5.

On the one hand, Trump escalated America’s dispute with China, which accelerated a downward trend in the relationship between the US and China. His so-called foreign policy disasters are not as big and widespread as many people argue, however. Moreover, keep in mind that the rest of the world still needs the US to maintain order. So despite the world’s distaste of Trump, they stuck with the US and continue to stick with the US as the lesser of two evils. You can see it in the ISEAS “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report,” that despite declining trust in the US, Southeast Asia still relies the US for leadership: 48.3% trust the US, compared to China's 16.5%. And if ASEAN has to pick sides, the majority of the organization’s members will still pick the US.

In essence, systemic effects matter. Threats, particularly local threats, matter. Despite Trump, states still pick the US because the alternatives, like China or Russia, are likely worse.  


Brad Nelson: Agree, Confidence level 5.

Yes, it's true that there are some Trump-era policies and strategies that Biden can reverse. In fact, he's already started this process. Biden has cozied up to Europe, placed the US back into the Paris Accords, promised to contribute money to COVAX, extended the New Start nuclear deal, reduced support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and overturned the terrorist label on the Houthis, and so on. For those who like liberal internationalism, this is a good start.

However, there are some policies and initiatives that Trump has embraced that will be difficult to change or counter. Three immediately come to mind. First, the "no new wars" crowd has been for years a fringe element of US politics. Not anymore. Trump added the weight of his presidency to a "no new wars" position, bringing supporters of this (on the left and right) out from the cold, and created a growing expectation among Americans that the US is done with fighting wars that aren't of self-defense. Sure, 20 years of war has played a role in turning Americans off to more war. But it's also importantly to note that Trump mainstreamed this view and effectively made it a new policy status quo, thereby making it harder than usual to break down the line. Just look at Biden’s recent air strikes on Iranian proxies in Syria. He’s received significant blowback from folks, including Democratic Congresspersons and supporters, who fear that the US is sleepwalking into a war with Iran.  

Second, we can argue about whether Trump's specific statements and policies on China were the right ones. But what isn't arguable is that there's a widespread belief, on the right and left, that his strategic approach to directly confront China was the right one, and one that's been long overdue. Going back to a more mealy-mouthed, squishy engagement policy is effectively ruled out for the foreseeable future.

And third, the literal idea of America First—that US foreign policy should first and foremost benefit the US and Americans—is here to stay. The Washington establishment's desire to work on pet foreign projects—an en vogue part of US foreign policy for most of the post-cold war era, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s—isn't feasible anymore. Trump has forced Americans to ask whether the policies the US pursues serve the national interest. Frankly, this is already playing out in the Biden era. It's why his foreign policy promises to connect US foreign policy to US domestic politics and economics and to the overall welfare of Americans.

Monday, January 25, 2021

What We're Watching in 2021

                                                               USA Today

Last week, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman discussed which global issues they have their eye on in 2021. Below is a lightly editied version of that conversation.  

Brad Nelson: Well, we made it. 2021 is here. Before we get too far into this relatively new year, I thought we'd take a quick look ahead. What do you have your eye on this year? What are you following? Any predictions for 2021?

Yohanes Sulaiman: First, let me just focus on one thing that the world will be watching for sure: Biden. 2021 will be a difficult year for Biden. There are very high expectations for Biden both domestically and internationally to overturn many of Trump's policies. I won't delve into America’s domestic affairs, but let me list several international issues that Biden will face. At some point soon, he will have to focus on re-engaging with international institutions (e.g. Paris Accord, WHO); reembracing Europe; reassuring Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, India, and Taiwan that he will be as accommodative to them as Trump was; dealing with North Korea; the Iran nuclear deal; handling Erdogan and Putin; troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia; the repercussions of Pompeo's declaration that China committed genocide; the trade war with China; and figuring out where and how Southeast Asia and Australia fits in his policy. And that's off the top of my head. 

BN: I'm also watching the incoming Biden administration, especially on domestic matters. How will he deal with the GOP? How will he handle the leftists in his party? What's his approach to domestic extremists and terrorists? Which signature domestic policies will Biden look to push first?

And on Biden foreign policy, as you mentioned, there is much to monitor. The big issue, of course, is Biden's strategy toward China. Will he hang tough? Go soft? Try to find a middle ground with Xi? Second, I'll be tracking Biden's proposed effort to place alliances at the center of US foreign policy. Will this boost US foreign policy, as establishment thinkers and academics have argued over the last four years? Or will it turn out to be a bust?

Additionally, I'm closely watching North Korea. Reports indicate that North Korea might be readying a submarine-launched missile test fairly soon. No surprise, given Kim's propensity to turn up the pressure on new governments in rival/enemy powers. But Kim's in a particularly tricky situation. There are conflicting accounts on how much Covid has ravaged North Korea. North Korea's economy has shrunk even further as the country self-isolates for fear of the virus entering from China and South Korea. Kim is apparently frustrated and angry with the US, ticked off that his summit diplomacy with Trump didn't yield more tangible benefits for him. And Kim knows that Biden is highly unlikely to give Kim even a fraction of the time and attention that Trump gave him. So, with all of that in mind, is Kim in an especially sour mood, ready to lash out? If so, how does Biden respond? How do the major regional players, like South Korea, Japan, and China, react?

YS: Domestically, if Biden stays in the center, that would strengthen his position. I think a lot of people are tired of the hyper-partisanship of the last four years, and if Biden manages to work together with the moderate GOP, he can cruise to reelection in 2024. I don't think Trump will remain influential in the next four years despite all the din, unless the Democrats want to make him a martyr. If I were Biden, I would pardon Trump, showing him and the rest of the US that I was the better man and smothering the crazies on the right. Of course, it won't be popular among the left, but that basically would end Trump. What would be more despicable for him than to be pardoned by the person he derides? If he refuses the pardon, he would be entangled with all the legal fights for the rest of his life. If he accepts the pardon, then it would be a total humiliation and would end his status as a martyr.

If Biden listens to the far left, however, then I could see him getting shellacked both in the midterms in 2022 and then in 2024. 

Covid will be around for one or two more years. It is interesting how the politicization of Covid all over the world essentially makes it very difficult to control the epidemic. Many people don't trust that vaccines will work thanks to a daily dose of politicized discussion on the efficacy of the vaccine. The impact of Covid internationally may not be as big as we thought, aside from intensifying competition between the US and China. And I doubt that Biden will suddenly try to appease China—that would look terrible optically. 

BN: I think Biden should wait before even considering to offer a pardon to Trump. Let's see if Trump is in legal trouble federally. If Trump is, then Biden should consider a pardon, though I'm not sure he should go ahead with one. Of course, Biden would get serious push-back from the far left in his party. And any federal pardon won't absolve Trump from any state crimes, and New York state is coming after him. That said, I'm fully in support of the thrust of your point. There's no need to act vengefully with respect to Trump; instead, focus on healing from the Trump years and uniting the country. I do think Biden gets that. The unity angle is Biden's is not only his mantra but an integral part of his political persona. Biden admitted that Trump wrote him a "generous" note (but didn't want to reveal the note's content's until speaking with Trump), which was nice to hear, and Biden's inaugural address emphasized similar themes in both tone and substance. 

I'm glad you mentioned Covid. That's the other major issue I'm watching in 2021. Given the case load and death toll, Covid has almost become a US rather than a global virus. So what Biden's does on Covid is important. The US health care system has been stretched to its limits. Thousands of Americans are still getting sick and dying every day, and countless Americans are worried about getting sick. At the same time, many Americans are tired of being cooped up and having their way of life impacted—even those who fully understand the severity of the virus, not just the MAGA contingent. If Biden can work out the kinks in the vaccine distribution, get more money into the hands of Americans, offer businesses, especially small businesses, vital support, 2021 will be a better year—for the US and for US partners and allies. 

Because Covid isn't solely an American thing, it'll also be useful to observe how the rest of the world copes with the pandemic. Europe is having major trouble at the moment, as are Mexico, India, and Brazil, among others. Many of the world's developing countries might not even gain access to a vaccine for another year or two. The global powers, the WHO, and other interested parties have to work to ensure that as many people as people, as fast as possible, no matter where they live, get access to a vaccine and state-of-the-art medicines and therapeutics to help sick people recover effectively and in a timely manner. That's the only way the world can quickly put Covid in its collective rearview mirror.   

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Attack On the Capitol Building


Wednesday, January 6 (2021) will be remembered as a seminal catastrophic moment in American politics, much like how history views 9/11 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The foundations of US democracy—both symbolically and literally—were invaded and attacked. Hundreds of crazed Trump supporters, stirred up by President Trump and other elected Republican officials and aggrieved by Trump’s election defeat, attacked the Capitol building—the very seat of America’s legislature, and arguably the most iconic building in the US—in the most destructive attack on the Capitol in roughly two hundred years. Windows were smashed, offices were vandalized and ransacked, and fights and gun battles erupted, resulting in the deaths of five people, including US Capitol officer Brian Sicknick, and more than 50 injured. At this point, almost 100 attackers have been arrested and more will surely suffer the same fate in the coming days.

Presumably, Trump’s goons believed that by storming the Capitol, they could unleash a series of moves that would prevent Joe Biden’s electoral win from becoming official and enable Trump to retain the presidency. The Trump putsch failed, of course, as police, after a few hours, were able to clear and secure the Capitol and push the mob of people away from the building. Still, US democracy suffered a near-fatal blow, and it’s no overstatement to say that it could take generations for Americans to fully reckon with and recover from the Trump years and Wednesday’s attack in particular.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised by the course of events. Back in late September, on this blog, I described the decrepit state of US democracy, US politics, and the potential for post-election violence. “What will Trump do on Election Day and beyond? My guess is that he will declare victory, no matter if he's in the lead or not election night. He'll gin up his base, working them up into a frenzy in his speeches on his Twitter page. He’ll use all sorts of vague and coded language, encouraging his supporters to “stay vigilant” and “not let the Democrats steal the election,” and so on. Then he'll try to get a GOP-leaning Supreme Court, assuming Amy Coney Barrett takes a seat before November, to toss out thousands of ballots in battleground states, with the hopes of overturning the election. I mean, it's crystal clear what he intends to do. During the debate, he admitted he sees the Supreme Court playing a role in adjudicating the election. If the courts rule against him, trouble could still loom. All of the people Trump ginned up will seek an outlet to release their pent up frustrations and anger. And at that point, there’s the very real prospect of armed pro-Trump groups taking to the streets.” It was easy to forecast the coming catastrophe, as Trump himself signaled his intentions to hold on to power through any means necessary, even if that meant bending the rule of law to his whim and inciting his followers to commit heinous acts. And that’s exactly what happened.

Surely, Trump deserves his share of blame. And he’s deservingly getting it—from the mainstream media, academics and policy wonks, some Republicans, and Democrats, who plan on bringing forth a second round of impeachment charges very soon. For years, dating back to the start of his political campaign in 2015, Trump has mainstreamed far-right political extremism by peddling xenophobic, racist, violent, and lawless rhetoric. And he’s cozied up to white nationalists and Neo-Nazis, refused to distance himself from QAnon and other conspiracy theorists, and embraced a wide swath of homegrown and international political fanatics—exactly the types of people who attacked the Capitol. Over the years, Trump’s supporters have responded accordingly by engaging in or threatening to carry out various hate crimes, terror plots, and assassinations in his name. In short, then, it’s not as if the Capitol building attack is something out of the blue for the extremist, fringe element of Trump’s base.

The proximate cause for Wednesday’s mayhem traces back to Trump’s November election loss. He has recklessly claimed the election was rigged and stolen from him, buttressing his claims with a steady stream of lies and conspiracy theories. On Twitter, in public statements, and at campaign rallies since Election Day, Trump has encouraged his supporters to resist the election results and prevent the election from being stolen from him. And on Wednesday, at the “Save America Rally,” spoke for an hour, instigating the crowd “to stand strong,” “to fight,” “to get tougher,” and “telling supporters to ‘stop the steal’ of the election, urging them to head to the Capitol to demonstrate against Congress certifying President-elect Joe Biden's victory.” Many believe these words incited the mob, only minutes after Trump spoke, to storm the Capitol.  

But Trump isn’t the only one to blame for the attacks. The extremists and insurrectionists who carried out Wednesday’s putsch clearly also share blame. These are the people who’ve been radicalized—by Trump, by other radicals, by radical media outlets—to attack the Capitol, fantastically believing that this would save America’s democracy. And for the past four years, they have slavishly and cultishly devoted themselves to Trump and his pet causes—hanging on his every word, turning out in droves to his political rallies, buying Trump hats and memorabilia, serving as an Internet troll army, and causing death and destruction in Charlottesville, among other things. In the end, they were duped by Trump to serve his personal ends and left with little more than red hats, lots of anger, and a raging pandemic.   

The Republican Party also shares some blame. Almost across the board—except for Mitt Romney and Justin Amash (who later left the Republican Party)—the GOP has failed to provide effective guardrails on Trump. Instead, they’ve been perfectly fine with coasting on Trump’s political coattails, drafting on his popularity within the party, to gain and hold political power. The GOP’s coddling of Trump has aided and abetted his repeated efforts to subvert America’s democracy, the spike in white nationalist violence, and the radicalization of the political right in the US.   

Lastly, the far right-wing echo chamber of television, radio, and social media has played an important role in stirring up trouble in the US. While Fox News and Fox News personalities, like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, still dominate the right-wing and far right political discourse, they are no longer the hegemon, as OANN, Newsmax, Gab, Parler, and other radical Internet sites and message boards have grown in popularity. All too frequently these actors serve as veritable mouthpieces for Trump and his administration, parroting his views, his conspiracy theories, and his outright lies. Moreover, at times, they independently act to advance Trump’s cause, creating their own narratives and storylines—sometimes based in fact, but frequently not—to bolster Trump’s agenda and undermine the Democrats’ policies and political power. The far right wing mediasphere, much like Trump, plays a pivotal role in radicalizing Americans, telling them what they want to hear, creating fictitious enemies, glorifying Trump and the GOP, and ginning them up to be perpetually angry and aggrieved. In fact, the far right-wing media has helped to foster a cult-like atmosphere in which Trump is treated as a savior, heaven-sent to solve America’s problems and to beat back the Democrats and other undesirables. And that, in turn, has spawned the deification and considerable iconography of Trump (hats, t-shirts, flags, etc.).

Now, the insurrection is terrible, and the roles the aforementioned players played in causing or provoking the Capitol attack is also terrible. But as bad as those things are, there’s an even bigger problem. Trump, the GOP, and the far right-wing mediasphere have created a monster they can no longer control. The Capitol attackers were not simply lawbreakers, they were an incredibly violent group. They possessed materials for napalm, assault weapons, bombs, nooses, zip-ties, and so on. This wasn’t a situation in which peaceful protesters showed up to Washington, DC, on Wednesday to voice their political views and things suddenly and accidentally got out of control. No, this was a pre-planned event, according to online chatter, and the attackers were well-prepared to use violent tools if necessary. We’re lucky the attack only resulted in five deaths, as it easily could’ve resulted in a very bloody mass-casualty event.  

Additionally, the Trump mob is angrier than ever, seeking revenge not only against Democrats but against any Republican who, in their view, has turned on Trump. For instance, according to a report, members of the crazed mob were looking for Vice President Mike Pence, hoping to find him and execute him for his “crimes” of recording the Electoral College results. Despite years of yeoman’s work of supporting Trump, Lindsey Graham’s recent declaration to “count him out” has made him, like Pence, an enemy of hardcore Trumpers. I expect the enemies list to grow as more Republicans actively denounce Trump and distance themselves from him in the waning days of his tenure.

Furthermore, just because the violent attackers have now went home, and some have been arrested, that doesn’t mean they’re done. They’re riding a major high right now. The Trump mob believes they scored a victory. They managed to breach Capitol security and get into the building, scared the hell out of Congress, received days of free media time, and create political chaos. As a result, the MAGA insurrectionists are emboldened; they are all-in in their continued fight to defend Trump, dethrone the Democrats, and cause further bedlam.

Attempts to cope with the fallout and implications of the Capitol attack cannot come only from the political left in the US. Both parties, in a united front, must attack the ongoing scourge on US democracy. America cannot leave far right violent mobs any political space and freedom to operate. While a comprehensive plan to deal with the ongoing political extremism and strife is beyond the scope of this post, I can offer a brief list of items that politicians on the right and left should consider. In particular, bipartisan efforts should made to: tone down the political rhetoric; condemn violent, seditious political acts; discourage violent, seditious acts; make it abundantly clear that the rules, norms, and laws apply equally to far left radicals; work with social media companies, helping them to create sensible and transparent--rather than ad hoc and reactive--policies that effectively balance free speech protections and the safety of Americans; and ostracize and punish Congresspersons who endorse/are complicit with extremist language and political acts.

Finally, I also think Congress—and politicians in general, at the state and local levels—needs to up the fight against Covid-19. Covid is a separate but related issue to the political struggles America now faces. The fact that so many Americans are sick, have died, and are out of work has raised the political temperature by several degrees in the US over the last 12 months. The faster the Biden administration can make major in-roads in beating back the virus, the quicker Americans can return to their normal work, school, religious and entertainment environments. And that will help in dialing down the rage of people who despise being confined and the restrictions on their personal freedoms.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Winners and Losers of a Biden Presidency


Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on the global winners and losers of the incoming Biden administration. It was conducted via email over the last week. 

Brad Nelson: Now that the dust has settled on the recent US presidential election, it's time to take stock of the possible impact of a Biden administration. In short, who wins and who loses with Biden in the White House? Let's start with the “winners.” Many scholars and analysts argue that EU and NATO members will get a big boost with Biden in office. Do you see it that way? And do you see any other winners from a Biden presidency?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Biden is a traditional type of leader, surrounded by the usual "blob" that has the same strategic outlook of pushing for multilateralism, cooperating together to get the best result. And NATO/EU are basically traditional US partners in multilateralism. Unlike Trump, who doesn't give a darn about getting everyone on board, Biden will make concessions, cajole, etc. Thus NATO/EU will be a big winner.

ASEAN will get more respect and attention from the US. Like Obama, Biden will push for more engagement between the US and ASEAN, but the problem is that ASEAN is not likely to get closer to the US, fearing antagonizing China. So, I suspect the US will push for more engagement, but ASEAN probably won’t reciprocate. 

BN: Yes, I agree with your choices and I agree with your rationale. To your discussion on institutionalism and multilateralism, I'd add the UN. The UN is also poised to benefit from a Biden administration. Biden is already making promises to beef up its cooperation with the UN on things like covid-19 and climate change. The UN won't be as hindered and hemmed in by the US for the next four years. And I've read reports that suggest UN Secretary-General Guterres--who clearly preferred Biden over Trump--wants to take advantage of this potential opportunity by embracing a more ambitious agenda going forward. In addition, it’s likely that the WTO, the WHO, and other global organizations pilloried and pushed aside by Trump will get a breather and possibly more from a Biden presidency.

There are two other things to keep in mind. First, Biden is pro-alliances. Biden and his incoming administration (particularly Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken) view the Trump White House as weakening and undermining many of America's traditional alliances, because of his insistence on treating them as transactional tools and protection rackets. Biden is going to restore the relationship with its partners, or that's his plan anyway. So, yes, EU and NATO members will get a boost in time and attention from a Biden presidency. So will Japan and South Korea and Australia. 

Second, it looks like Biden's going to make a big push for an enhanced role for shared democratic values and ideas in US foreign policy. That's not very surprising, given the Trump administration's record. His White House has reduced the role of political reform, human rights, and democracy promotion in US policy, and Trump himself has arguably treated America's democratic allies in Europe very roughly and harshly--both of which has generated widespread criticism of that on the left. The democratic push is part of Biden's plan to "restore" normalcy in US foreign policy. Biden plans on convening a major conference with the world's major democracies fairly early in his administration. I'd also expect Biden to keep the Quad and even build off it. We may even see a return to democracy promotion efforts, albeit in a far less militarized fashion. I also anticipate Biden and his administration to openly critique the human rights records of countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and so on--something the Trump WH rarely did. Given all of this, I'd say the winners here are, once again, America's democratic allies, but also countries like India and Indonesia, human rights and political reform organizations and activists, and the foreign policy establishment in the US.

YS: The problem with “human rights” is that many states, including Indonesia, see this less than the US upholding values than a carte blanche to get involved with other states' internal affairs. Thus Indonesia is largely silent about China's mistreatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, fearing that it could create a precedent that can be used against Indonesia in places like West Papua. A Biden administration with human rights' guns blazing from the start will cause fear that Biden will become another American crusader. And it will actually be detrimental to America’s interest in facing China's threat in South China Sea.

On Climate Change: I think the US will go back and rejoin the Paris agreement. The question, however, is whether the US will go all in on a climate change agenda or simply kick the can down the road as most US presidents do, especially considering that China's economy keeps growing.

BN: Let's turn to the potential “losers” of a Biden presidency. As I see it, there will be many. To begin, Biden's likely emphasis on alliances, institutions, and renewed US engagement in the world means that the neo-isolationists, America Firsters, and pro-unilateralists in the US--a group that cuts across the left and right--will be pretty unhappy. This could also ruffle some feathers in Russia and China. After all, governments in both nations will probably face a more sustained, collective push back from the US and its allies after four years of American diplomatic retrenchment under Trump. 

Biden's move back into the Iran nuclear deal will surely tick off Iran hawks in the US (of which there are many), Israel, and the Sunni powers. 

There is no way Biden will give Kim Jong Un a private audience or even hint at granting him any kind of meaningful concessions. Biden's probable policy of strategic patience, which harkens back to the Obama days, won't respond to every North Korean outburst, will deemphasize America's public attention to NK (unless Kim makes an olive branch opening), and will treat the North Koreans as a nuisance. Kim's window of opportunity to strike a deal with the US is over for the foreseeable future, and Kim is accordingly going to be very frustrated by this situation. 

The world's dictators will find a much more skeptical and highly critical America under Biden. I expect Saudi Arabia to find life much more difficult with Biden in the White House, particularly compared to the esteemed status it held in US foreign policy during the Trump years. Besides reviving the Iran deal, the US will end support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, criticize the Saudis on their human rights record, try to rein in MBS's reckless foreign policy, and aim to distance itself from Riyadh and the Middle East more generally as it ramps up its efforts to deal with China.

YS: Good points, but at the same time, I wonder how much Biden is going to wreck what Trump has done. If he is restarting the nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump shredded, the risk is that Iran would demand more compensations, which may hurt Biden's standings both domestically and in the Middle East. If he alienates the Saudis, both Israel and Saudi may look at other "patrons" -- not that they are going to align themselves with Russia or China as they are too deeply embedded to the US security alliance (e.g. US military bases & weaponry), but they will be much open cooperating with Russia/China and that will hurt the US national interest. And as we see with Turkey, even though Turkey is a member of NATO and has a close security relationship with the US, Erdogan can still make life difficult for the US, though you can argue it is due to Trump's indifference/naiveté towards Erdogan.

In Kim Jong Un's case, I don't see life will be that different for him with Biden office compared to Trump as president. Keep in mind that despite meeting Trump twice, and everyone screaming that Trump was going to be played like a fiddle, giving up everything to Kim, so far the US hasn't given any major concessions to North Korea. Biden may want to resurrect the Six-Party Talks, but with both Russia and China's relationship currently in deep freeze with the US, I doubt it would be successful. In fact, Biden could be seen as more likely to give concessions, like the Obama administration (of which he was a member) did to Iran, leading North Korea to raise tensions to eleven to gain concessions. 

I think Biden will find that after Trump, people will think him as either pushover or as too willing to push for human rights, and that could make major headaches for his foreign policy.  

BN: Biden is inclined to keep more of Trump's Middle East policy than any other of his regional policies. So the idea of Biden "wrecking" Trump's Middle East gains is probably a bit hyperbolic. He's not going to move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. He's going to continue the push for regional normalization with Israel. I wouldn't be surprised if he continued Trump's draw down from the Middle East. I suspect Biden is going to be somewhat sensitive to what the Saudis and Israelis think of the Iran deal. In part, to undercut and diffuse their opposition, at least a bit, and in part because Biden knows there are going to be other divisive issues that will come up in the coming years. Getting off on a very wrong foot immediately on the Iran deal--Biden's going to rejoin the deal early on--will make life more difficult for him then and later on. That won't stop Biden from trying to resuscitate it, but he won't run over the Saudis and Israelis in the way that they perceived Obama as doing. 

Not sure that Biden will be seen as a pushover--either in a vacuum or in comparison to Trump. Maybe, but maybe not. Look, Trump has largely been seen as someone who's desperately looking to withdraw the US from the world. He's made decisions to cut and run (Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia) or withdraw (Paris Accords, TPP, various UN agencies, like the WHO, Iran deal, etc.) without getting much of anything in return. To me, that sounds like a pushover, and I suspect many in the world look at Trump similarly. Conceivably, a more engaged and assertive US under Biden could correct some of these weaknesses in US foreign policy. 

However, if the world thinks the US public is more aligned with Trump on foreign policy and that the Democrats--especially the progressive wing of the party--don't have the stomach for global re-engagement, then Biden's intentions and policies--no matter how good or thoughtful--will founder and struggle to produce the kind of results he's looking for. 

YS: Well, I am saying Biden will be seen as a pushover if he bends backward to get a nuclear deal with Iran. And no, Trump's withdrawal from the various accords like Paris Accords, TPP, etc., was not seen as a sign of a pushover, it is more a sign of irrationality--that the US has squandering its global leadership. But by the end of the day, states adapted to Trump, including Japan. And it will depend on what kind of assertiveness/engagement that Biden will do to bring American leadership back to the international arena. A return to the discussion on TPP, climate change, and the WHO will be appreciated, for sure. But the question from everyone will be: What kind of public goods Biden is going to supply to the world? And as you noted, does the progressive wing of the Democratic Party have the stomach for global re-engagement?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Rotting Corpse of American Democracy

Arguably, the most disturbing global trend is the slow death of American democracy. I suspect many observers of Tuesday's alarming presidential debate--both here in the US and abroad--noticed the stark decaying of democratic norms and etiquette. I resisted writing on this subject for a while now, hoping that things in the US would get better. They haven’t, and the political situation has now reached a fateful moment. It’s debatable whether the US is a fully functioning democratic state. (Right now, I think not. The US is more liberal than democratic.) It’s likely that a large portion of US citizens will view the November election as rigged and illegitimate. Furthermore, the prospect of post-election court battles, protests, and violence are high.

America’s dying democracy is the product of many events over many years, the result of a series of factors that pre-date Donald Trump. The essential role of big money in politics, the centralization of power in the presidency, the wide and deep political polarization, the rise of radical political groups, gerrymandering, and the rise of disinformation tools, among many other things, have corrupted, weakened, and hijacked America's democratic institutions, procedures, and norms. The aforementioned factors have disparate causal roots and have impacted US democracy in different ways. Most of them stretch back years and years, though they really became political wrecking balls in the 1990s. No doubt, the US has episodically endured political turmoil and upheaval throughout its history, from the Civil War to McCarthyism to Watergate. But it is during the 1990s that America began to experience the political paralysis and polarization that we see in full-bloom today. 

The 1990s are often viewed, particularly by the political left, as the halcyon days of American politics. The US was on top of the world. It had won the cold war and was about to embark on creating a "new world order," by expanding its influence in a globally unprecedented way. The US was led by a supposedly hip young president. Its economy was booming, aided by the tech sector. And hopes of lasting world peace seemed to be in reach. Unfortunately, this era of good feelings was brief and masked a darker side of international relations and US politics. For at the same time as all of those good things were happening, we also saw genocide in the Balkans, war in Iraq, genocide and violence in parts of Africa, the crash and burn of Russia's stillborn democracy, the rise of al-Qaeda as a global terror group, and so on. Domestically, ominous signs were also emerging. The right, aided in part by talk radio and the newly created Fox News network, lurched farther to the right, doubling down on faux Christian conservatism. Political hostilities ratcheted up as Bill Clinton was impeached and faced continuous political investigations that, in the end, went nowhere. Right-wing militant groups came out of the woodwork, almost literally, doing battle against the US government and launching a deadly attack in Oklahoma City. Clinton posed as a sympathetic figure, an honest leader hounded by the right, but he wasn't completely innocent. His numerous infidelities and possible assaults, as well as his appointment of his wife Hillary to reform health care, roiled his administration and later gave the GOP cover to support a reprobate like Trump and his nepotistic rule. 

Over the last 20 plus years, things have only gotten worse. Internal divisions have grown, with bouts of violence and rioting pockmarking US politics and society more generally. Extremists and radicals on both sides of the political aisle are dominating the political landscape and even celebrated in some corners of the internet. Political parties are often extensions of the loudest cranks and no-nothings in their ranks. And if that isn't bad enough, Democrats and Republicans are rarely able to cooperate, and meaningful legislation is just a fantasy. The courts have allowed US politics to become a corporate playground of dark money, which has further reduced the role and influence of citizens and civic groups in American political life. 

This polarized and dysfunctional political system described above is the environment that spawned Donald Trump, and it is the political environment he's operated in as president. In that sense, then, Trump is a product of his time. But as president, he has agency. He has the ability to mold and alter American politics in myriad ways. This isn't automatically a bad thing, as long as Trump is an agent of positive, benign change. Alas, he is not. 

Let’s take a quick look at Trump’s record. Below is a brief sampling—not an exhaustive list; that is beyond the scope of this post—of the array of anti-democratic anti-liberal statements, actions, and policies of Trump. Consider the list a greatest hits of Trump’s ethno-nationalist authoritarian politics and governing style.

Trump has repeatedly cozied up to far right radicals. He has defended them and refused to condemn them, even when given the opportunity to do so. The Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, The Oath Keepers, QAnon, and white supremacists and far right lunatics more generally have benefited from Trump’s presidency. Just as importantly, take a look at the chatter among far right extremists online. They believe Trump is on their side, they feel ascendant and buoyant. Trump’s message last night, during the debate, to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” was immediately and proudly used by the group on their social media pages. White supremacists firmly believe that Trump wants them to counter vigorously, even with force, various protest groups. On his watch, hate crimes have skyrocketed and domestic terrorism has become the number one security threat to the US. I don’t know if Trump is a racist, or if he’s simply content to align with racists for political expediency, but his administration has created a dangerous, toxic domestic environment. Between his failures on Covid-19 and his winks and nods to white supremacists, Trump has been a national security nightmare. He is unwilling to do what it takes to keep Americans safe and secure.

And that’s just the start. Trump refuses to commit to peaceful elections. He constantly lies, distorts information, and spouts conspiracy theories. He governs only his base, particularly areas of the country that lean “red.” Blue states are the opposition, states to be tolerated at best, little better foreign opponents. And big blue cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are characterized by Trump as enemy compounds. Trump has made statements and put forward policies that can be reasonably viewed as anti-minority, xenophobic, and just plain tyrannical. We see evidence of this in his Muslim Ban, his border policy (with kids in cages), his comment that African nations are “shithole countries,” and his overt targeting of Black Lives Matter and Antifa (two nebulous groups whose members are not exclusively people of color, though people of color play a strong and central role in each). His latest attack, that a Biden electoral win in November will mean the end of suburbia, is meant to disparage people of color and frighten white homeowners. Trump routinely demonizes and portrays as enemies the FBI, the Democratic Party, the press, among many others. And behind the scenes, he criticizes and lampoons members of the military, people who make the ultimate sacrifice for America, calling them losers and suckers. Trump uses his Twitter page to call out individuals he detests, which leaves them vulnerable to his unmoored and loony troll army. He views the court system as his personal and political tools, existing only to do his bidding. His campaign, in the run up to the 2016 election, sought election help from a foreign power. Is he or his campaign doing it again? And of course, Trump is stoking widespread panic over fears the upcoming election could be rigged.

And just as problematic, Trump’s Republican Party refuses to try to keep him in line and doesn’t criticize or punish him for his various anti-democratic, anti-liberal words and policies. The GOP is an enabler, put simply, complicit in Trump taking a scythe to US traditional and longstanding democratic norms, values, and rules.

Going forward, there are three things to watch. First, what will Trump do on Election Day and beyond? My guess is that he will declare victory, no matter if he's in the lead or not election night. He'll gin up his base, working them up into a frenzy in his speeches on his Twitter page. He’ll use all sorts of vague and coded language, encouraging his supporters to “stay vigilant” and “not let the Democrats steal the election,” and so on. Then he'll try to get a GOP-leaning Supreme Court, assuming Amy Coney Barrett takes a seat before November, to toss out thousands of ballots in battleground states, with the hopes of overturning the election. I mean, it's crystal clear what he intends to do. During the debate, he admitted he sees the Supreme Court playing a role in adjudicating the election. If the courts rule against him, trouble could still loom. All of the people Trump ginned up will seek an outlet to release their pent up frustrations and anger. And at that point, there’s the very real prospect of armed pro-Trump groups taking to the streets.  

Second, how do leftists groups respond to a Trump victory? At a minimum, I expect millions to protest a Trump win. If it’s widely perceived that Trump stole the election via the courts, then the game changes. At that point, the chances for violence sharply rise. Unlike Trump, Biden will attempt to calm his backers, and that will help. But I worry that reassuring words won’t be enough to mollify the far left.

Third, even if Biden wins in a relatively smooth contest, that doesn't mean all is well for American democracy. In part that's because some of America’s political problems are deep-seated, but it’s also because of the extent of the destruction of the Trump years. Do not underestimate the trauma that Trump has inflicted on the American political system and on many Americans themselves. It will take years to come to grip with the Trump era. In order for a full reckoning to take place, a number of questions will need to asked and answered by American citizens, scholars, policy experts, and politicians. For instance, how did Trump’s rise happen? How did he capture the GOP? How should we understand and process the behavior of Congressional Republicans who've given Trump political cover? What’s the extent of the political damage of Trump’s tenure? How can the political system better cope with the next Trump that comes along? How can the government restore the trust that Americans no longer have in it? And all of those questions are solely domestic issues. Keep in mind that there are many international issues—like America’s tarnished image, its badly damaged global credibility, and its ruptured ties with Europe—that have been impacted by the rot of American democracy and the Trump era. Those too need to be addressed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Evaluating Trump's Foreign Policy

Over the last week via email, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman discussed US foreign policy during the Trump era. Below is that conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brad Nelson: We're nearly at the end of Trump's (1st? only?) term in office, and so it's a good time to look back at his 3 plus years in office. Given our areas of expertise and interest, let's focus on Trump’s foreign policy. How would you evaluate his administration's foreign policy?

Yohanes Sulaiman: It is a mixed bag. As many have argued, his foreign policy is oftentimes impulsive, chaotic, and lacks coherence, as he is all over the place, pushing for unilateral solutions first before trying to cobble a patchwork of coalition after things have gone wrong. Such as his tiff with Iran. His disputes with Japan and South Korea is, I think, overblown, but is also a bad move, at least optically. And his so-called "great deal" with North Korea is just a balloon full of hot air, although I am sure that other US presidents won't do better. 

In short, he has made a lot of unnecessary complications and enemies. 

On the other hand, it seems to me that some of what he has been doing is working. Yes, a stopped clock will be correct twice a day, and his motives may not be admirable, but it is hard to argue that he is wrong on China. America’s policy towards China has been too accommodative and it led to problems not only within the US (e.g. Rust Belt) but also in South and Southeast Asia. And in an area where Trump doesn't pay much attention, Southeast Asia, everything is still running okay, though I would attribute that to the professionalism of the US bureaucracy. Of course, the lack of the president's attention hurts America's interest—people here have unfavorably contrasted Trump with previous US Presidents, including George W. Bush. Bush understood and acknowledged the importance of Southeast Asia.

And I consider Trump’s hit-job on Iranian General Soleimani a good call, though Trump got lucky in the end, since Iran was dumb enough to shoot its own passenger plane, which helped Trump avoid the messy aftermath of assassinating a high level foreign official. 

So, yes, in terms of foreign policy, Trump is not doing very well, but it is not a complete disaster either.

BN: I'll start first with the one major area of the world you didn't mention, and that's Europe. Arguably, Trump's Europe policy has probably been the worst part of his administration's foreign policy. When it comes to Russia, Washington doesn't speak in one voice. Congress and parts of the government bureaucracy, like Defense and the CIA, want a very tough Russia policy. And to an extent, they've gotten their way: Sanctions are still in place and the US has upped its arms to Ukraine. But Trump himself has been extremely deferential to Putin. It’s one thing for Trump to want good relations with Russia—something I agree with—it's quite another to take Russia's side on a host of important issues, like election tampering, intelligence matters, the relevance of NATO, and so on. And Trump is so loath to criticize Putin. Whether this disjointed stance toward Russia is a good cop/bad cop strategy, a product of a conspiracy, or something else, who knows? Admittedly, I don't. In any case, it's all so bizarre. My guess is that, with Trump at the helm, Putin feels like he doesn't have to worry much about the US, because he faces little earnest resistance from Trump, which is in marked contrast to the Obama years. Putin has a free hand in his backyard, can challenge the US in the periphery, and continue his monkey business in US politics and elections.  

Just as problematic is Trump's policy toward Western Europe. Trump has openly questioned the importance of NATO, refused to commit to upholding NATO's Article V, said that the EU is a "foe," engaged in trade wars with Europe, and constantly criticized various European leaders. US relations with Europe are as bad as they've been in decades, possible since the interwar years. At the beginning of Trump's tenure, Europe took a patient approach, hoping to avoid his ire and preferring to wait him out until the next US president takes office. But that's changed a bit, as Europe—worried about a second Trump term and concerned that Trump isn't a political aberration in the US—has begun thinking about life without the US. Europe has started discussions on providing for more of its own defense and carved out policy positions on various issues, like China and climate change and health/disease prevention, independent of the US. At bottom, Trump's Europe policy has badly damaged American credibility in the eyes of Europeans, and any solution to the problem won't be quick and easy. 

I think his Middle East policies are quite shaky. Yeah, Trump can take credit for the Israel-UAE peace deal and demolishing the Islamic State caliphate. But the peace deal doesn't change much in the ME. And the caliphate would've been smashed with or without Trump; Trump's ISIS campaign was just a continuation of the Obama years. His close hugs of Netanyahu and MBS and al-Sisi were very risky, given that all three have tons of baggage. His moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was unnecessary. His moving troops around Syria and abandoning the Kurds was shameful. His and Jared's Middle East Plan was dead on arrival. And pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal was spectacularly ill-advised, as it only encouraged Iran to up its nuclear activities, and done solely to fulfill a campaign pledge. Indeed, many of Trump's Middle East moves have been driven largely by US domestic politics rather than US national interests. But in the end, despite a host of questionable American decisions, the Middle East isn't any worse off. Trump is lucky that ISIS is dumb, US allies hate Iran, and most of the region no longer cares all that much about the Palestinians. 

Trump's Asia policy is also on unstable grounds. He's unnecessarily riled up South Korea and Japan over things like trade and troop basing. Turns out that US friends in Asia don't like Washington treating alliances as a protection racket. And not only that, they're worried the US, under a capricious Trump, will leave them high and dry to face all the serious local security problems on their own. His North Korea overtures, despite the great hype, have led to nowhere. Actually, North Korea is still building nukes and disarmament is a pipe dream.

Trump's China policy is somewhat understandable, for the reasons you mention. But I don't get the sense that Trump or his staff (especially Peter Navarro, Mike Pompeo, and Robert O'Brien) have any idea what they realistically can get from confronting China. It seems like they're confronting China just to confront China. I'm sure domestic politics is also rearing its head here. The Trump administration has constantly scapegoated China as the big bad enemy that's the source of all of America's ills, from getting sick to losing jobs. No surprise, I guess, given that this is an election year and Trump is fighting for his political life. But where has this gotten the US? The end result of the heated rhetoric, trade war, and the COVID blame-game, among other things, is terrible relations with China, the worst they've been since both sides normalized the relationship in 1979. This might not have been so problematic 15 years ago, but it is now. Trump is paradoxically helping to foment the kind of cold war with China that he wanted to squash from the beginning. 

BN: Is there any foreign policy achievement, or series of achievements, that Trump's accomplished as president? And do those achievements outweigh, in your view, the bad in Trump's foreign policies?

YS: Well, sometimes "achievements" can be achieved when your opponents are pushing a bad policy, making your policy look better as a result. China's overly nationalistic foreign policy generates a lot of dislike and distrust in South and Southeast Asia for instance, even though the governments still grit their teeth and act friendly towards China due to economic benefits. Or Iran as another example. Iran’s excesses in the Middle East have caused a rapprochement between the Arab World and Israel, leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations between UAE and Israel. 

Are there any foreign policy successes based on Trump's own personal intervention? I have been thinking about this for a while, but probably not. His overture to North Korea generated lots of buzz, sure. While I was wary of whether Trump was going to concede too much, in the end, the diplomatic flurry ended with a whimper. As I discussed in my article in Global Asia, there's no way North Korea is going to give up its nukes because it would end the Kim's dynasty. Kim only met Trump because he expected to get lots of money, and Trump of course only wanted to meet KJU because it showed him as a "dealmaker." In retrospect, Trump got the better out of it, but I would not call it a foreign policy success as it maintained the status quo. 

Trump's China policy's only success is in showing the world that you need to be tough with China to get things done. And even then, as we can see, without Covid, it seemed that Trump had conceded too much. Probably the only benefit of Covid is that it made states take off their gloves and start yelling at Beiing. 

BN: I think Trump's willingness to buck the hawks' wishes for more war is an achievement, honestly. The US has been at war for nearly every year of the post-cold war period, and every year since 2001, so no new wars—to me, as a realist in favor of a more sensible and restrained US foreign policy—is something laudable. As we know, the hawks and the war lobby are formidable forces inside the US. And they are constantly on high alert, always looking for the next war to fight. During Trump’s term, hawks have been pressing for regime change in Iran and Venezuela and North Korea, and wanted the US to deepen its involvement in Syria. Yet, Trump didn't fall for the siren song of war, even though he did have domestic political incentives to engage in various diversionary conflicts. He does deserve credit for that. 

The IS caliphate was destroyed on Trump's watch. While his approach to ISIS was Obama's, only with more bombings, Trump deserves credit for completing the destruction of ISIS's turf in Iraq and Syria. However, I do worry that Trump's adopted George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" attitude on ISIS and is too eager to wipe his hands of anything ISIS. After all, ISIS isn't completely defeated, and the group has made in-roads in Asia and Africa.

Lastly, I think Israel is in a better position today than in 2016, something Trump’s base is happy about. Now, is this because of Trump? To an extent, yes. Improved US-Israeli bilateral ties are directly attributable to Trump. And the Trump administration played a role in brokering the Israel-UAE deal. But in other ways, Israel's improved situation doesn't have anything to do with Trump, but instead with, as you said, Iran's overreach, the popularity hit Hezbollah has suffered in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, the sharply declining salience of the Palestinian issue, and the winding down of the Syrian civil war. 

BN: What are Trump's biggest foreign policy mistake(s)--sins of either commission or omission?

YS: Number 1: Not maintaining the level of engagement with allies/friendly countries. For example, Trump's failure to visit SE Asia tells the region that the US is not paying attention to them.

Number 2: Picking fights with fellow allies. Yes, the US may be paying too much to the Europeans/Japanese/Koreans. But Trump could have evened the playing field without pissing off the majority of his allies. His desire for a "win" vis-à-vis these nations ended up hurting America’s interests in other aspects, such as the absence of a coalition to deal with China/Russia.

To be fair, I am not going to say that his impact is as bad as what his critics have claimed. The US still has significant influence, but Trump is causing avoidable self-inflicted wounds. 

BN: Yeah, I agree with you. Trump's failure to understand the importance of peacetime alliances is his biggest foreign policy flaw. As you said, it's unnecessarily aggravated US relations with its longtime friends. Perhaps relations with those nations can be easily repaired by Trump's successor, but that's pure speculation. If Trump is re-elected, that only ups the burden on his successor. His successor will have to prove that Trump's the aberration in US foreign policy, something that will be hard to do if he gets eight years in office. At that point, after two terms of Trump, America's allies will wonder if, going forward, Trump's successor is the aberration, not Trump. 

Trump's alliance problem has certainly cracked open a window of opportunity for troublemakers in Europe and China who see the US as confused and indifferent to what happens outside of its borders. And while Russia really hasn't seized the moment, China arguably has, given its crackdown on Hong Kong. Again, I fear what a second term Trump administration might bring. If Trump is re-elected, he will be unbound, free to act on his craziest and wildest ambitions. He will likely interpret a second term as validation of everything he's done in his first term; plus, because he won't have any worries about re-election, he will feel few constraints on his foreign policy prerogatives, a domain in which US presidents already have a fairly free hand. There are rumblings that Trump will pull the US out of NATO if he gets a second term. What other alliances might he wreck? What other friendships and partnerships will he pollute? And how will China and Russia react? As a second term Trump administration winds down, might China, in the belief it'll never get a golden opportunity again, make moves to strangle Taiwan's sovereignty if not outright conquer Taiwan? Frankly, it's possible. 

A secondary problem is Trump's tendency to pull the US out of agreements, or threaten to do so, without any alternative plans. So, if the US distances itself from, or, God forbid, leaves NATO, what's the next step? Is the US going it alone in Europe? Is the US ceding Europe to Russia? Will the US pursue a mini-alliance, whether formal or informal, with nations Trump believes he can trust and are worthy of protection? My fear is that Trump will act and then think about the consequences afterward, when it's too late. We can apply this same logic to America's role in the WTO, the WHO, New START, and so on, and so on. The end result will be more room for Russia and China to maneuver on the world stage, to fill in the power vacuums created by the dearth of America's leadership and its reluctance to fulfill its commitments. 

In the end, I concur that Trump's foreign policy isn't quite as bad as his critics suggest. Honestly, my biggest concerns involve his domestic policies and political governing, both of which are fast eroding US democracy and polarizing America in ways that haven't been seen since the civil war. But that's another issue for another day. My main worry about Trump's foreign policy is that what we've seen in his first term portends something more ominous and dangerous should he get re-elected: continued American decline, a further slide in US standing and prestige, a leaderless international system, and a host of US rivals and foes emboldened by America's full-on retreat from the world. In short, American foreign policy was able to survive four years of Trump, I'm not so sure that it can withstand another four years without major ramifications for US and global security.

YS: I don't think Trump will suddenly be "liberated" after his second term. Take a look at the second term of previous US presidents: there's no significant changes in their foreign policy. Remember Obama's conversation with Medvedev that he would have more flexibility after the election. At the end of the day, Obama's second term was not that different from his first term. 

I even argue that Trump's second term might see him pushing for rapprochement with the EU, because now he has an enemy: China. In the first term, he was doing a scattershot, shooting at everything with the hopes of hitting a bullseye that would show him as a master "deal maker." If he sticks with China as his target, his foreign policy will have a focus.

Domestically, though, methinks you worry too much. From outside the US, the debate is like whether you should eat the egg from the small side or from the big side. Plus, polarization is like a tango: you can't have one without the other, and I think it is disingenuous to completely blame him without considering how the media plays a major role in causing this to happen (see Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan).   

BN: I hope you are right, but fear that you won’t be.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

America Is Coming Apart at the Seams

                                            Protesters demonstrate as a store burns in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

We are seeing dark and scary times in the US. 100,000 plus are dead from the coronavirus. There are now than 40 million unemployed Americans and the unemployment rate hovers around 15%. And Americans are rioting and cities are burning.

The coronavirus has shut down the US for roughly two months, and only this week are most states opening back up. The virus, with its grim death toll, has been headline news for weeks now. And orders by authorities, such as “shelter-in-place” and wearing masks, and so on, have been subjects of political fighting between the right and left. With the Americans stuck indoors, economic life has ground to a halt, with dramatic consequences. Millions of people are out of work or furloughed, seeking unemployment, and desperate for life to return to normal. While the majority of Americans have taken the virus and its effects mostly in stride, understanding the severity of the health crisis and the need to stay indoors and maintain social distancing, there’s a pocket of citizens who are angry. Angry at medical professionals. Angry at politicians. Angry at the WHO. Angry at the virus.

On top of all of that, we now have another prominent case of police brutality against a person of color. On May 25th, an African-American man from Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd, apparently, attempted to make a purchase at a deli using a counterfeit $20 bill. (It’s still unclear whether he even knew he possessed fake money, or whether he deliberately tried to swindle the deli). The deli called the police in response. But the four officers who were dispatched to the scene made a minor situation far worse. An unarmed Floyd was handcuffed and showed little resistance, though the police pushed a shoved him around. Eventually, three of the officers were on top of Floyd (while the other officer stood guard), subduing an already subdued guy, and one of them grinded his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine full minutes. As this happened, Floyd clearly suffered, claiming he couldn’t breathe. The police showed little interest in Floyd’s struggles, and he died on the street, in the exact spot where he was savagely detained. In response, the four cops were fired. Additionally, the officer who killed Floyd was charged on three counts, including 2nd degree murder, while the three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting 2nd degree murder.

People of color and their white allies are justifiably angry and frustrated about the Floyd killing, specifically, but also by the years and years of police brutality and rampant political, economic and social discrimination against non-whites. Additionally, please keep in mind there is also a larger recent context to these developments. The number of hate crimes are way up. The presence and activities (in the streets and online) of white nationalists are an increasing domestic threat in the US. On several occasions, President Trump has aided and abetted, even given cover to, violent white racists. Furthermore, the Floyd murder is only the latest in a string of recent killings of African Americans (Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, etc.) by police and/or white Americans. Viewed in context, then, racial tensions have been simmering, and the Floyd murder catalyzed people into action.  

Protests and violence first broke out in Minneapolis, and have spread across the entire US. Since May 26th, protests, violence, and mayhem have hit the US. Heavily militarized police are on the streets. Unmarked security forces--secret police?--are on patrol in Washington, DC. Protesters and police have fought; police have even used gas against protesters. Buildings and cars have burned. Stores have been damaged and looted. Cities are in complete turmoil. And the political, economic, and social effects will reverberate through the US for years to come.

Most of the protesters have been peaceful and have good intentions, it seems. They’re protesting injustice and taking to the streets to vent their agony. A small contingent of protesters are looking to start or participate in illegal activities, like looting damaged stores. More ominously, according to reports, the protesters have been infiltrated by white nationalists seeking to hijack the moment and cause problems in their name. The infamous "Boogaloo Bois" have appeared at dozens of protests, looking to menace and threaten protesters. And similarly, unaffiliated armed white dudes have shown up in Philadelphia (baseball bats and hammers) and Indiana (guns). Three white extremists in Las Vegas were arrested on terrorism charges, including "conspiring to carry out a plan that began in April in conjunction with protests to reopen businesses closed because of the coronavirus and later sought to capitalize on protests over George Floyd." And we know white supremacist social media platforms are actively encouraging members to use violence in the hopes of starting a race war--an idea known as "acclerationism" and is popular among white supremacists.

It’s easy to take a narrow view and look at all the health and economic problems as unrelated from the protests and racial issues in the US. After all, the former two issues (health crisis and the economic fallout) and the latter one (protests) have different proximate causes—the coronavirus with respect to the first two, the killing of an unarmed black man regarding the last one. Moreover, racism, police brutality, and violence against people of color have a long and distinct history in the US. But are they really different from each other?  

I think if we zoom out, we see something different. I do, at least. I see the internal crises in the US—health, race, political, economic crises—the result of a profound leadership problem. Simply put, the ongoing chaos in the US is the impact of bipartisan national leadership failures. Americans are sharply polarized, increasingly indifferent to the plight of others on the opposite side of aisle, can’t agree on facts, and can’t even agree on who or what America is. Why? Because national Democrats and Republicans have prioritized power above all else, and have engaged in a protracted power struggle, politicizing everything while failing to stand up for national unity, America’s democracy, and moral decency and rectitude. I’m willing to place more blame on the GOP, but the Democrats aren’t blameless here.   

Let’s look at the culprits in brief detail.

1. Trump is a massive failure. He’s grossly incompetent. He’s a narcissist. He’s a habitual liar. He routinely engages in race baiting. He spouts conspiracy theories. He’s an authoritarian. And he clearly has little to no moral backbone. His modus operandi right now is to get re-elected in November. If that means he has to figuratively or even literally burn down the US in the process, then so be it.

His performance on COVID is embarrassing. For weeks, he downplayed, ignored, and failed to act on guidance given to him by his own government. His delayed response cost roughly 36,000-54,000 Americans their lives, according to research from Columbia University. He’s recommended a host of downright ridiculous and dangerous home remedies to combat COVID, against the advice of medical professionals. He’s repeatedly patted himself on the back that ONLY 100,000 Americans have perished from the coronavirus. At this point, Trump’s more interested in deflecting blame, with China increasingly feeling Trump’s ire.

Trump has a long and troubled past with respect to racial issues. In 2017, I wrote: “Well before he was a political figure and had to make political calculations about his words and actions, Trump had a checkered past with various identity groups. He (along with his dad and Trump Management) was sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination, played a part in spreading false statements and riling up New Yorkers in the Central Park Five case, and aroused suspicions of bigotry during his Apprentice days. And of course, what helped Trump rise to political prominence, even before his formal participation in US politics, was his 'Birther' antics, a xenophobic and racially-tinged campaign against former President Barack Obama.”

And in his time as president, Trump has fared little better. Trump’s support for white nationalists in Charlottesville in 2017 is but one in a string of examples of his taking the side of violent white Americans. Earlier this year, when armed protesters stormed the capital and threatened Michigan politicians, Trump begged the state to take easy on them. He even stoked the fires of radicalism and violence in April, when he Tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Of course, this is a marked and intentional contrast to his latest Archie Bunkerisms. In this recent Tweet from Trump, during an extraordinarily tumultuous time, Trump wrote: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” His dog whistle here isn’t very subtle. His answer to the protests supporting the rights of people of color, ostensibly, is to threaten American citizens with violence—a far cry from his position on white protesters. Furthermore, the use of the word “thugs,” in the context in which he used the word, is commonly interpreted nowadays as a racial slur—akin to the N-word—against African Americans.

Frankly, I’m not so sure that Trump is all that bothered by the protests and violence. The ongoing chaos in cities across the US allows him to use tough rhetoric and get a photo-op. Moroever, it enables Trump to play the “law and order” card—used by Nixon and other right-wing politicians over the years—that he’s very comfortable with. Indeed, Trump recently tweeted, “Law & Order!” The instability allows him to play the tough-guy, using and abusing police and military forces for political purposes, and then take credit for cleaning up the mess in the streets once everything has calmed down. The good part is that some prominent military officials, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, are now speaking out, condemning Trump's politicization of the military and his divisive rule. The downside is that Trump is no longer flirting with authoritarianism, but overtly leaning on the tools and strategies of illiberal dictators, which poses a direct and immediate existential threat to America's democracy. How serious is this political and institutional crisis? Esteemed policy wonk Robin Wright, today in The New Yorker, wonders if America is becoming a Banana Republic.

2. Congressional Republicans have failed, too. The GOP has silently abetted and sometimes vocally supported and assisted Trump in whatever he’s said and done during his presidency. How many Republicans have challenged Trump? Overall, Mitt Romney has done a decent job. But who else? The Republican party is now the party of Trump, and so just about every Congressional Republican is worried about running afoul from the party line, which adheres to strict conformity with and praise of Trump. The risk of drifting from the party line, mind you, is that deviant Republicans—those who dare to critique Trump—could get primaried by even “Trumpier” candidates. All of this has degraded and perverted a formerly esteemed political party, transforming it into decoration and puppetry. In exchange for degrading their personal and political reputations and integrity, Republicans (both in and out of Congress) try to take solace in knowing they've gotten their tax cuts and two new conservative members of the Supreme Court. But in consumating that deal with the devil, they've unleashed a political virus that's wreaking havoc on conservatism, the Republican Party, and the US. 

3. Congressional Democrats have also failed. Yeah, Democrats only control the House of Representatives, but they are stakeholders here as well. They can’t just blame Trump and the GOP; they bear some responsibility. And not only that, national Democrats have consistently allowed Trump to dominate them. Of course, he has the bully pulpit and tens of millions of Twitter followers. But if the Democrats were serious—really serious—they could be far more creative in pressing the case for the policies and values they supposedly believe in, and communicate clearly and repeatedly those views to the public. Making television appearances on CNN and MSNBC isn’t enough. Democrats could hold daily press conferences at symbolic sites; plan and coordinate peaceful national protests; commit to formulating a comprehensive domestic policy and governing strategy with meaningful and constant input and buy-in from a cross-section of American society; engage more frequently with and be much more responsive to the interests and concerns of local communities—don’t just hold photo-ops; and so on. This is just a small list of ideas. I’m sure more creative and innovative folks can think of other, better ideas the Democrats could implement.

If there is any ray of sunshine at the moment, it’s the role of some local and state politicians, who are having to clean up the failures of national, federal officials and politicians. This is evident in the case of COVID, as it is in the Floyd case and the ongoing protests/riots. I’m thinking specifically, just off the top of my head, of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. (There are others, and I’m sure some of you might have your favorite. Apologies for overlooking anyone.) They’ve tried to display calm, sensible leadership. But even the mayors and governors, even the good ones, have been overwhelmed by the severity of these crises and haven’t been perfect in their decisions. Governors and mayors of all political stripes have been slow to react to the growing violence and looting. My guess is that they believed that adding beefed up, militarized police to a powder keg situation would only exacerbate tensions. Unfortunately, in the absence of strong policing, swaths of the US, extending from cities into suburban areas, have erupted in anarchy.  

The US is at its lowest point in 50 plus years. It’s not hyperbole to say that America is coming apart at the seams. Americans are out of work, sick, angry, and frightened. And political authorities are largely indifferent, feckless, craven, and incompetent. And the worst of the politicians are actively cheering on the chaos. The answer to the ills of America won’t be found in new leaders or policies. The solution, I suspect, will require a more fundamental reassessment and restructuring of American society. We need to rethink the role of the state, relations between the state and society, and relations between American citizens. Anything less than that will simply paper over the existing deep-seated problems in 21st century America. 

*Note: this post was updated on June 4th.